Sunday, July 20, 2014

Train to Transylvania: Part One

After the epic crazy of my 36 day Topdeck tour to most of the major places in Europe, I decided early on that I would go back for another tour to see some of what I missed at a slightly slower pace. Which is why I got myself one of those handy Eurail passes and have been train-hopping ever since the beginning of the month when I left Morocco.

Now, it's not all been roses and sunshine, and I don't mean because it's been surprisingly cold for summer (I live in Australia, 20 degrees is a cold day in summer). There have been so many ups and downs already that at half way I almost feel like I've run a bit of a marathon and I've started to feel myself suffering from the fatigue. 

This being my first time on a rail pass, it took a bit of getting used to; the first few days trying to not only figure that out but a plan for the entire month as well saw me in somewhat of a cornucopia of stress. What the hell did I do? How did the pass work when I didn't need a reservation? Why if I couldn't get on a train? What if I ran out of euros? All sorts of situations ran through my mind and more than once I was so worried that it wasn't even fun anymore. It was different, scary and felt like a much bigger task than it should have been to catch a couple of trains. 

Of course that was only the first couple of days, and one I caught my first train, figured out a semblance of a plan and got on the road (well, tracks) everything seemed to calm down quite a lot. My stress misted out the window just like Dracula.

My original concept back in January after trying to frantically reconfigure what to do since my 5 year plan had been thrown off, was to work my way backwards from Russia towards the UK. When I threw Topdeck into the mix along with a bunch of other things like Morocco, there suddenly wasn't time or energy left to jumping through the 50 hoops that would have let me into the once-Imperial empire, and that idea was soon disbanded in favour of another: something closer to this one. And just as well it would seem considering how the Russians have been carrying on lately.

So fresh off of the plane from Marrakech, the first leg of my 11-part train journey to Transylvania began once I'd touched down in one of the most amazing places I'd ever been:

Lisbon, Portugal 

When I tell you that all I knew about Portugal and it's culture was peri-peri (sadly, not even a thing) I'm not lying. I knew they were once a big aquatic power like the Dutch, they settled Brazil, and that they were a sea-based culture. All true, of course, but that's surface level stuff - what did I really know? 

As it turned out: nothing. 

I won't beat you over the head with everything that I learnt, but one of the biggest things that struck me was how completely different it was from Spain. I know they're different cultures, but with Portugal geographically within Spain's pocket I had thought that they were far more similar in style than they actually were. Contrary to what I had thought, the countries actually had very little similarities at all - not even their languages were similar. This threw me, made me think how obtuse I was to not realise before. 

After I got over that, though, Lisbon was amazing. It was beautiful and polished, with a very different history to what I imagined and made up effectively of a very classy sea-side culture. There was plenty of sea food and grilled chicken, beautiful scenery, and for some reason an odd obsession with pirates that they shared with Croatia. Made sense, of course given their history, but was still pretty awesome. Their traditional music, Fado, is also based around sailors.

Another thing I wasn't expecting but ultimately liked was portugal's rich export of cork. Like wine bottle cork, the way things used to be. There's certainly something so cool about that much cork, especially when they love it so much they turned it into things like bags and phone covers as well. 

Lastly, there was Sintra: a beautiful mountain-too micro-universe filled with lavish manors, palaces, bakeries and all the colours of the rainbow. There was even one manor abandoned and slowly falling to ruin because everyone was so terrified of what may be in there that no one would work, buy or stay there. They were convinced it was haunted. It was definately my kind of place to be. 

In the end I didn't have nearly enough time in Portugal to see everything I wanted, but at least I know more about it and that I definitely want to go back for more.

Madrid, Spain

My second taste of Spain was debate-ably (Google spell did not let me have that word) better than my first, and I attribute this mostly to the fact that I spent more time in Madrid than I got to in Barcelona - not that I prefer Madrid. However, after my stressful first couple of hours after hopping off the overnight train from Lisbon, I met a bunch of people on the Sandeman's walking tour, learnt a lot about Spain I didn't already know and really relaxed right into the city. It was actually quite marvellous.

From the copious amounts of Sangria (again) to the tapas and flamenco, Madrid was a pretty cool city. It was hotter than hell (and not just because the Gay Pride parade was on) and it really felt like the saucy, sultry kind of place I always imagined it to be. It gave me a real itching to watch the Mask of Zorro (I know that's set in California, but they're Spanish) and the film version of Carmen (which I did, but all in Spanish). I got to eat lots of good food, drink lots of fruity wine punch, learn how to pour special Spanish cider and even got to salsa at some club we went to on the Pub Crawl. It was all very much the part of Spain I wanted to see - at least to begin with.

The second day was just as good and for a totally different reason: we simply walked around lazily, probably a bit hungover, and just discovered the city. We stumbled across some cute little flea market, people watched the oddest looking family from Starbuck's and did you know that someone reconstructed an Ancient Egyptian temple in the middle of Madrid? Well, we saw that, too, along with the Plaza Mayor, the Basilica and plenty other sites around the city. Madrid really is much more fun than I thought it would be and I have the sultry city to thank for that as much as the amazing people that I met along the way. I was sad to leave for France, even if I didn't speak a word of Spanish past 'de nada'. 




Limoges, France

Oddly I could only reserve a first class ticket on the train to France (such a shame), so the day went really quickly. Although by the time I finally made it, 3 trains later, to Limoges and to my (likely) haunted hotel, it was well after 12 hours of travel. Since I got in so late, I barely had enough time to explore the city of Limoges at all and that's one thing that was a bit of a shame; despite staying in one of France's medieval cities for two nights - I actually didn't see much of it past the train station.

The real reason I was there, was because of the proximity of the city to the much smaller city of Montingac - if by another 2 hour train ride and a 20 euro taxi you can consider it close. But for the purpose I needed it, Limoges served pretty well as a base point for the day trip I took to see the mortally amazing Grotte du Lascaux. Believe me when I say that years of studying and imagining what the place would actually be like was so below par that I'm ashamed; Lascaux was hundreds of times better than what I imagined it would be, and standing in the cave (albeit a replica) it was so hard to not be completely awestruck by the atmosphere and significance of the site. For those of you not in the know, Lascaux is a Palaeolithic cave sight, attributed to one of the most visually stunning and oldest artworks in human history. Archaeologists have so far dated it to approximately 27,000BP and there are numerous different interpretations of what the significance of the paintings actually is. One archaeologist even referred to Lascaux as the 'Sistine Chapel' of the Palaeolithic, and personally I found it hard to not be swept away by that idea; I had never spent so spiritual in my entire life as I did inside that cave, and I have been inside all of the most famous churches and cathedrals in Europe. It was complete magic, I don't even know how better to describe it.

Montignac itself was a bit of a hidden gem I wasn't expecting. Alongside Lascaux, there was the nearby Neanderthal burial site of Regoudou that the owner had turned into a tourist attraction and simultaneously attempt to reintroduce bears back into south-west France. Of course he tried this with 3 bears and it didn't work, but the park still had live bears inside (which was fun to see), and from an archaeological point of view it was interesting to read the information supplied about the 'Clan of the Cave Bear' phenomenon brought on by the cave bear bones found beside the grave. Not to mention highly romanticised in the famous book series by Auel. For the record, however, it's not a hugely accepted idea in the archaeological record for the time. It's rather controversial. On the other hand, apart from the bear site, the little town was just generally really a pretty place to wander through. There were traditional French patisseries and boulangeries everywhere, and it felt a little like a real taste of country France - so very different to the bustle of Paris!


Zurich, Switzerland


It was a lovely summer day in Zurich, and with the single day I had I managed to do a loop right around the city on the tourist walking travel, visit the museum, and hunt down some quality Swiss chocolate. Not to mention see some finer Swiss architecture and be wow'd by just how damn prompt every thing is. And expensive.

Having only been to Lauterbrunnen, a small Swiss village, it was an interesting comparison to visit Zurich, one of the small county's main cities and find out what urban Switzerland was like. It wasn't a hugely entertaining city - there wasn't a big list of things to see and do already set - but it was certainly a nice one to just explore. Since I only had the one day I felt that it was sufficient, and were I to go back perhaps I'd discover more to the city that you can't really touch on the surface. But it was just lovely all the same.

Personally, I preferred Lauterbrunnen and the cutesy, picturesque atmosphere of it, but Zurich just felt like a bigger version of that with added buildings, less cows with bells, and a castle or two. I'll let you decide on that one for yourself, but I did enjoy it.


Brussels, Belgium


I felt that Brussels really had to grow on me. When I got in from Zurich I was a bit disappointed - it was so ugly! The subway looked like I had walked into the 70's and when I first went into town everything I saw looked run down and miserable - and not in a charming way. Of course, Belgium is famous for its beer and so my solution to the problem was to go on a beer tour, get a bit drunk, meet some awesome people, join the pub crawl and end up (shamefully) back at McDonald's. Funnily enough, the city started to charm me by then .

And it only continued over the next two days: the history of the city was courageous and endearing, I didn't realise that the EU headquarters were there so that was cool, and the city centre itself was actually kind of beautiful when you saw it from the right angle. I did the Sandeman's walking tour again (I will do these in every city they're available for), met some more cool people, and went to the comic book museum. My dad, when he was younger, was a fan of Asterix and Obelisk so I went as a salute to him even if I was a little disappointed to learn that there was hardly anything about them there. A little on Tin Tin, but not all that much. So, via frites and Belgian waffles, I ended up back at the pub crawl for round two.

The last day was the best in the plucky little city, and I started off with a visit to the chocolate museum where I not only got to watch and learn how praline was made but I got plenty of free samples. I was also a little excited to note, from a historic point of view, the mentions of the Aztecs and the abominable Hernando Cortes. Google it - it's an interesting but sad and gory story. No trip to Belgium would be complete without chocolate. But since I prefer Swiss chocolate, the best thing that I loved about Brussels was Mini Europe: a little theme-park dedicated to all the countries of the EU, the history of the EU and the hope for the future. It was sort of like 'It's a Small World' at Disneyland but night in ride form, or with a theme song. It was totally awesome though, and each country had various models to represent different parts of the country, buttons to push that played the national anthem, and all sorts of information about the country from populations to capital city to the year that they joined the EU. It was fun and educational - and trust me when I saw I had a ridiculously fun time on that one posing with giant clogs, next to a pint-sized Big Ben and as a Viking. I definitely recommend it to anyone heading to Brussels because it's good for an afternoon of uncomplicated fun - plus you really might learn something.

Anyway, plucky little Belgium really grew on me even if Brussels was a total ugly duckling at first glance. I got to have some chocolate, have a lot of laughs, meet some more amazing people and learn plenty I didn't know about beer. I really think I appreciate beer so much more now.

I'll be back soon with part deux of my rail adventures real soon!

Only a week left to go before Transylvania!


Sam xox


Thursday, July 17, 2014

What a Girl Wants

Some of you may remember my post from last August (holy crap, almost a year ago!) about the wonderful romantic-comedy that I read, courtesy of the amazing Lindsey Kelk, entitled About A Girl. You can find my review of that here.


Now, I knew from the second I finished that book that (thank god) there was going to be a sequel, and as it got closer and closer to the time that What A Girl Wants would come out I grew progressively anxious. Dammit, but I needed to know who Tess was going to choose of the adorable but completely frustrating best friend, Charlie Wilder, and the uber sexy and amazing journalist, Nick Miller. I was Team Nick all the way. 

Believe me when I tell you that in all my years of being a book, specifically of the romantic kind, connoisseur, I have never had such a hard-on to get my hands on a book before. So much so that I re-read About a Girl just this morning and couldn't even wait until I get back to London in two weeks to buy a paperback copy like I'd planned. No, standing at the platform and waiting for my train I decided 'screw it' and downloaded the book straight to my iPhone. I hate digital copies – usually I buy the hard copy then bootleg the digital copy to my Kobo for easier travelling since I spend so much time on the road (and love it). But I was so desperate for this book it wasn't even funny. Plus I was still hurting a bit that I was going to be 3 days late back in London to meet the wonderful Lindsey at her book signing. Woe was I, and I needed the balm. So, successfully acquiring a copy of the book that only just came out today before hopping on the train, I stuck straight into it. 

And devoured the entire thing between Hamburg and Munich.

Thank god I managed to get a comfy chair instead of having to sit in the hallway again, but to be honest I probably wouldn't even have noticed if my butt went numb on the floor. 

Just like it's predecessor, What A Girl Wants had me in a tangle of emotions and so completely engrossed that I really don't know how long it took me to get to Munich this afternoon. I laughed, I cried, I anxiously munched carrot sticks, and I very nearly squealed out loud more than once. Everything that I loved about the first book was back in spades from the loveable Kekipi, the annoyingly adorable Charlie, the hotter than hell Nick and the hilarious Tess and Amy. From the second it even started I was short of breath, savouring every word and swishing from page to page like a madwoman obsessed with my iPhone. Insert a giggle, a gasp or a tear every now and then and the other people on the Dbahn probably thought I was mental. But I didn't care.

We left Tess last time she was fresh off the plane from Hawaii, suddenly homeless because her roommate is a psycho, caught a proposal from Charlie, an offer to work in Milan as a photographer, and an email from Nick that simply said 'Call me'. What A Girl Wants starts right where we left off with Tess struggling to decide what she wants from life and love. Of course she goes to Milan like I wanted her too, in a different way then I imagined, and that's just where the fun starts. From the prologue we know she'd about to land herself in Italian jail right next to crazy Amy, and hell if I didn't enjoy reading all about the misadventures along the way that resulted in her being there. 

The love triangle was stressful; there were moments when I wondered what the actual hell was going to happen next, and legitimately could not deal when the climax finally came. Not to mention all the breathless moments I had when Nick so much as walked onto the stage. Seriously, I have got to get me a Nick Miller – he'd melt the knickers off of even the most innocent of us. Charlie, on the other hand, landed himself a bit of a soft spot in my heart and I battled my own decision right alongside Tess over who to choose. But even if the story didn't leave Tess and the gang in any way, shape or form that I could anticipate – and was a shock away from screaming when I flicked to the acknowledgements page instead of another chapter – I was so damn happy with the book I don't even know how better to describe it.

Lindsey did it again and that is why she is one of my personal heroes. Every book of hers that I read just makes her even more so. From the first time I picked up the first of her dreamy I Heart series, right up until today, nothing short of bliss gets me when I finish one of her books. Its that fuzzy, warm feeling that I get every time I watch Ever After or Confessions of a Shopaholic. It's a drug and I need it. Please don't stop writing, Lindsey! I think I might actually die.

In all honesty though, What A Girl Wants really was a good read and more than lived up to the first book's high standard (which was just as awesome the second time around). I couldn't pick any faults with the writing itself, especially since I've become such a snob about that kind of thing, and there wasn't much time at all when I felt the story lull. I was generally very impressed – in fact, the only thing that did bother me was the plentiful use of the word 'vagina'. I'm just weird, but there's something about the word that bothers me. I'm definitely not a prude. So far from being a prude. It's just a weird thing. Anyway, there's not much else I can say about the overall construction of the novel – I was just highly satisfied.

Before I start to get too over excited and carried away, spitting out spoilers left right and centre, let me just say that What A Girl Wants is definitely one that I recommend; I loved it even if the ending left me a once satisfied, shocked and sputtering in near outrage. But only because I needed more, and I didn't realise it was going to end so suddenly thereby leaving me hanging like a mewling kitten on a washing line: out of breath, scared and needing solid ground. Of course once I calmed down I couldn't stop smiling for ages afterwards.

So you're forgiven, Lindsey, but on one condition: there had better be a third book. I need to know.

Plus I need me some more Nick Miller time.

What? A girl's got to get her kicks when she can.

Sam xox



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Morocco

What can I say about this magical place that left me in awe and oh so sad to leave?




Well, the experience is definitely different for everyone and I just happened to be one of the luckier ones that loved the place. From the moment I made it into the organised chaos of the old town medina in Marrakech it was an odd love at first sight even when I managed to get pretty lost trying to find my accommodation. But that's the wonderful thing about where I chose to stay, and I'll name it this one because I very much recommend it, at the Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge. When I finally made it, helped along by some fellow tourists, I was immediately sat down and handed a full teapot and a plate of biscuits. Since it was so hot outside, and I was more than a little flustered from the plane and the gauntlet through the medina, some mint tea was so needed you have no idea. Ultimately, that set the scene for the entirety of the time that I spent in Morocco – everyone was helpful (obviously some more than others), kind and happy to tell me all about their country. I learnt a lot about Moroccan and Berber cultures, partook in local customs and met some of the best people you could imagine from Australians, to Canadians, English, Peruvian, Brazilian, and that doesn't even brush the surface. I bustled through the souks and bargained for prices, rode a camel into the red sands of the Sahara desert, camped out under the stars, climbed a sand dune over 150m high, chilled out amongst some brightly coloured and lavish pillows, ate tajines and kebabs in the night markets, and most importantly I drank so much mint tea I would have done the mint industry proud.

I definitely enjoyed everything about my time in Morocco and found that all the horror stories I'd heard about the place were either exaggerated or I just sailed too far under the radar that they didn't affect me. I dressed appropriately, didn't wander around on my own (even though that normally wouldn't be a problem), and didn't take any notice of negative attention. Plus it was kind of fun to not give much of a damn about my hair or makeup for a week, since it was so damn hot anyway, and even more exciting to were some funky Aladdin pants – just like the street rat himself. And in case you're wondering, yes, I definitely sang Arabian Nights riding along on the camel, I dueted with a friend to A Whole New World and I totally hummed Prince Ali walking through the market places by the palace.

Being in Marrakech was kind of like a dream, and so I fully recommend it to anyone who'd keen to check out a mixture of the old Arabian world and a new kind of exotic French desert. If you're into tea: you'll love it. If you like shisha: you'll love it. If you're into camels, bargaining, adventure holidays or even the kind when you can laze around amidst pillows or by the beach then you'll love it, too. But what I'm trying to say is even if Morocco has some aspects of its reputation that means it might sound a bit scary to the wary traveller, and I know this as a woman travelling alone, give it a chance to change your mind. If you don't like it then you can leave, just don't miss out on the chance of seeing this amazing place because you've heard some stories. After all – who would ever go anywhere in the world if that was the case?

If you do get to Marrakech, then be sure to check out the Riad Marrakech Rouge in the old Medina; Ali and the gang will take good care of you for sure. Just tell them Samara sent you – they'll go straight for the kettle.

Sam xox

East to West and Home

Well it's been a long time, again, and this time I won't even attempt excuses. It's been a whirlwind of adventure.

When I last left you I was in Greece over 3 weeks ago, and let me tell you it's been a long time since then; we made it through Eastern Europe (Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Hungary) back into Western Europe (Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium) and back home to London to touch base before continuing. 

More or less there wasn't a place that I definitely did not enjoy, even though I for sure had my favourites in Budapest and Prague with Vienna and Amsterdam not too far behind. In fact the only place we went to that I didn't fancy in effect was probably Berlin and that wasn't the city's fault entirely. There was more wrong with my disposition that day than just the fact that the city was a bit miserable. 

Things were relatively of the same sort of aspect, with minor dramas, hurt feelings and issues cropping up no matter who we were. The strain of travelling for so long with the same people without a break isn't easy, even if you still love your friends. Even travelling with people you already knew, as I did back in 2011 with Al and C, can be hard without enough time split up to refresh and recuperate. If you can spend more than 30 days at once in the company of the same people without wanting to kill at least one of them at least once, then you're some kind of superhero that man-kind is going to want to capture and test like some sort of mutant x-man that's DNA will save the world. Case in point, it's not easy.

But by no means does that mean that I would trade the time that I spent with my amazing new friends for anything in the world. Life isn't perfect, and contrary to popular belief travelling is still life so it's not meant to be like floating through some dream on a cloud or whatever. You get your fair share of moments that make you angry, frustrated or just plain miserable.

After leaving Greece when I last posted, we started our glory path through some of the major parts of Eastern Europe – without actually facing the scenes that you may assume when you think of things that Eastern Europe is known for like when they go to Bratislava in Euro Trip. Maybe you could say that we didn't go to the truly poor or desolate parts of the East, but then the first stop our our adventure led us to Tirana in Albania.

Tirana, Albania

I'm not sure what I thought Albania was going to be like, but it wasn't really what I encountered. I suppose I did expect something much more miserable, and though it surely was, being there was still just as fun by the people surrounding me. We had lovely big apartments to stay in for the night and I scored a big bed in my own room (sorry Jen and Alex!). We had a memorable night at the hotel, no one was really too keen to venture out into the streets of Tirana for the night, and probably the cheapest, best pizza that I've ever encountered (can you feed 5 people for 15 euros? Tirana can!). Plus one of the most impressive cake-consumption efforts that I've ever seen – and I don't mean by myself, that was all B.

As for my overall impression of Albania, well, I didn't really see much of it to really form too much of an opinion. We sailed on through and Tirana was really not a city that I was left with a longing to explore after our bus tour of the downtown area concluded. I didn't really give Albania much of a chance to entertain me, and rather I just felt so bad for the people for being the poorest country in the world (or was that just in Europe?) that I just let it be.

Dubrovnik, Croatia


We passed out of Albania, through Montenegro for lunch (pretty, very beachy) and finally into Croatia in the afternoon to make it to the medieval city of Dubrovnik. Now, if you're a fan of Game of Thrones – as many people on tour were – then you probably know Dubrovnik as King's Landing and it was kind of fun to think of it as that for a little while until I really started to not care if certain spots were filming locations for certain scenes. Not one of my favourite shows, so after the intial fan moment wore off I wasn't too fussed.

We had a great night out when we got there – partying on in what seemed like a club built inside the dungeon of a castle – and a very relaxed day in the old town. Of course we spent most of the morning outside the city walls at the nearby island because it was so hot it felt like being inside a kiln (walls of concrete, go figure). We wandered around the island, wandered through the markets, bought some pirate candy at one of the stores (Croatia loves pirates it seems) and finally hiked the full way around the city walls when the sun started to drop and take the temperature with it. It was really nice actually, and it was good to have a relatively relaxed time sightseeing as opposed to the usually push to see everything as quickly as possible. That in mind I much preferred the old town at night. It was so much more magical then.

Sarajevo, Bosnia


For a historian and archaeologist, my World War I knowledge is pretty low (ashamedly, I know) because it's never been my preferred area of interest – come on, wars are miserable, I prefer to study Vikings and Aztecs and Greek mythology. So anyway, when we made it to Sarajevo I made the mistake of asking someone what made it so famous only to have them part shocked and part scathingly reply that it was the city that the Austrio-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had been assassinated alongside his wife and thus potentially acting as one of the (many) catalysts that sparked the Great War. I felt bad I didn't know when I realised, and had a sombre moment by the bridge where it happened, but after that the extend of my knowledge about Sarajevo ended only to be enlightened shortly after with even more sombre history about the wars and terrorist attacks much more recently.

Sarajevo was a much more sombre place than I really anticipated overall – but after all the history and sightseeing was done (including a lot of blast areas imortalised with red concrete) things picked up to a happier note and we had a very lovely evening in the city out for dinner. It's actually a beautiful place, the Ottoman influences definitely helping my appreciation of the place. Plus it was the one night in the whole tour where we were treated to a fancy hotel – not that I usually care for that when I'm travelling (unless it's Disneyland) but it was kind of a nice treat. Even if there were some shady characters lurking around at the time.

Belgrade, Serbia


On the way through Serbia to get to Belgrade, we first stopped at the old town of Mostar to check out the famous bridge and watch the famous jump. I recalled the time that Hamish and Andy tried it out, and found that the real thing was actually not nearly as exciting as watching those two comedians do it. I'm sure its impressive, but it actually wasn't so amazing at the time. But the food was good in Mostar, that's a big plus, even if B tricked me into eating liver. Jerk.

When we got to Belgrade I found that I actually preferred it to Sarajevo – I couldn't really pinpoint exactly why, but it was rather just lovely – a lot of cobble stone streets and a big beautiful fortress overlooking the area amidst the main park made for a certain picturesque image of the place that I was loath to resist. Although a lot of the history was almost as miserable of that of Bosnia, there was something a little magical about Belgrade – maybe it was just that Sarajevo had been so beaten down by misfortune that the spark wasn't as strong anymore, or maybe it was just that I felt so much more sombre there. Either way, we enjoyed ourselves more venturing around the city after dark and exploring in a way we didn't do the day before in Sarajevo.

Budapest, Hungary


I loved Budapest. There was something just so completely wonderful about this city that dazzled me from the get go, and I didn't even really sample the nightlife except to almost kill myself with the world's biggest schnitzel. Al finished hers in 2012 and I decided that anyone who can eat that much schnitzel in one sitting just really can't be human. Freak. That first night I got into bed early to agonise through the pain of eating so much (I know, first world problems) and just curled up to watch a movie while I worked on some much needed laundry, but it turned out to be just as well when the next day was probably one of the most regimented tourist days in my recent memory.

As far as major sights go, I'm willing to bet we saw almost everything although in the grand scheme of things we didn't crack the shell of Budapest. We went through the heroes square, past the palace, through the fisherman's wharf (castle?) and halfway up the mountain in Buda before figuring we couldn't be bothered and climbing back down. It was an amazing day; hotter than hell, but filled with so many dirty jokes, hilarious photos, exciting sights and magical looking buildings just ripe for the avid traveller such as myself. Plus we had an altogether sombre and confusing time at the House of Terror when what we did understand about the awful events it memorialised we found sad, and the rest we just found damn befuddling. I still want to know what the significance of the plush Soviet car was if not just dramatic effect and to insinuate that Stalin's men were probably pretty rich. But I'll probably never know unless I learn to speak Hungarian.

Budapest was my favourite city since leaving Venice and Rome behind, enchanting me with it's gorgeous architecture, fairytale ambience and the fact that stuff was so damn cheap including a particularly adorable tea cup I bought near the palace. I'm definitely looking forward to heading back there for another day or so in the next few weeks.




Vienna, Austria

Vienna was beautiful, but then I knew it would it, and every moment of being there felt a little like stepping into a world of grandeur that I gleefully wished I could better afford. Simultaneously it also heralded our return back to Western Europe, the first thing we did on arriving being the visit to the Summer residence of the Hapsbergs – a beautiful yellow palace with vast gardens that they wish was as glorious as Versailles. Having already been to Versailles I couldn't help but to compare it and find it slightly lacking (only in comparison), but when you consider that Louis XIV was kind of an ass and more or less emptied France's treasury to build his amazing overly-gilded home outside of Paris, then the palaces in Vienna are by far much better. But Versailles is still prettier.

Since we only had the second half of the day to really see Vienna before moving on again, it was like a repeat of the day before and our sightseeing fell to a schedule. Of course best laid plans are often broken and I begged to be let into the National History Museum for 15 minutes after discovering that the Venus of Willendorf – something that I studied in detail as part of my honours project was just beyond the walls. For most people that wouldn't be so exciting, but having awed over the 30,000 year old figurine for years coming face to face with the original was so not something I was going to let just pass me by if I could help it.

It didn't kill our schedule and we still had plenty of time to see everything else we wanted to see including settling down at the Hotel Sacher for coffee and torte, and doing a quick bit of shopping before heading to a classical concert to spend a very classy evening. It was glorious – and very much what I enjoyed – but the midnight trip to the amusement park that looked like something out of a Stephen King novel was not my favourite part. At least there weren't any clowns.

Prague, Czech Republic



On the way to Prague we stopped somewhere really awful in order to better understand the area we'd gotten to: Mathausen concentration camp. Whilst I don't know all too much about WWI, the holocaust is one aspect of history that I could never forget or really come close to understanding – if the little conversation we had about the fun ways we would have made Hitler suffer was any indication, that guy was a total monster. But the visit to the concentration camp, one of the few not totally destroyed by the Nazis when the Russians and Americans came for them, really brought the horror of the situation home for a lot of us – even I succumbed to tears more than once. It was the most solemn morning of my entire life and I whispered silent words to all those that were destroyed by the 20th century's worst tragedy, and thanked my lucky stars that I grew up both without experiencing that horror myself and to not become an insane serial killer.

It took a while for spirits to rise again that afternoon, but by the time the fairytale towers of Prague finally came into view we were generally feeling a lot better and the collective moral had risen. From there Prague very quickly became my favourite city of the entire trip. We spent a whole day wandering around through the streets and it was without a doubt the first time, even despite Budapest, that I felt like I was walking through the world of a princess. Plus, the spires seen from the main square were the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle and when you combine them with the view of the actual palace from across the water what could legitimately look more like a fairytale world? Well, outside the Black Forest anyway, and that's an entirely different kind of fairytale.

Prague also had a very special exhibit on that I, like I seem to do with the best things, stumbled across and was all too chuffed to enjoy: the art and concept design of Tim Burton! If you're not a fan then just skip on ahead to Berlin, but for someone who loves dark comedy and the beauty in things like the Grimm fairytales, the wonderfully bizarre and twisted works of Tim Burton are definitely things that I enjoy. Who doesn't love the Nightmare Before Christmas? And Corpse Bride? I could go on through all the other Tim Burton works I love, but for now those are the main two and considering I spent so much more time admiring the works than I had initially intended I would greatly recommend it to anyone interested and heading to Prague in the next couple of months. I'd say it was the highlight of my day, but I had such a good day it was just one of many.

Berlin, Germany


I'm sorry for all this offends, but I didn't fancy Berlin half as much as other people did. In all honesty I never really thought I would, and whilst the pub crawl was plenty fun the night before – maybe one of the best – it didn't improve my opinion on the city itself. The best part of my day was learning more about the Nazi party I didn't know but a very knowledgeable Irishman that knew so much about folklore I couldn't help but pick his brains during the tour, and then a very sweet time at the Ritter Sport factory making my own blend of chocolate bar. Oh yeah, I did that. And I totally recommend that anyone who goes to check it out tries the gummy bear and biscuit combination (thanks Al!).

There was a lot to see in Berlin from the Reichstag building to the maze-like holocaust memorial and the randomly placed Berlin bears all over the place. It's a pretty place; there's a lot of alternative and artsy sides to the city, not the least of which is the colourful remnants of the Berlin wall in the East Side Gallery, but for whatever reason Berlin just really didn't do it for me.





Amsterdam, Netherlands


This little place, on the other hand, really did. It wasn't just the gorgeous canals, small town appeal, bikes, sex, drugs, and tulips that did it – but all of them combined and mixed with windmills, clogs and another very emotional few minutes in the Anne Frank house. I loved Amsterdam – every little minute of it from thinking I was going to die on my bike tour to freezing in line for the Anne Frank house with a very grumpy B, to getting a marriage proposal from a handsome Dutch man and cringeing at the sex show. Whatever magic was lacking in Berlin came back and hit me tenfold in Amsterdam, leaving me with so much more I wanted to see and do with not enough time to do it in warranting a return trip, hopefully, in the near future.

Back to London

We went home via Bruges, but with only about 45 minutes to run in, grab some waffles and chocolate and run out there isn't too much to say about the city that I'm sure is more than just visibly appealing. Regardless it was a long day busing through Belgium, through France to Calais to catch the ferry to Dover. We got back home late and thus launched into a series of saddened goodbyes to our new friends, promising to stay in touch with those we were the closest to and going our separate ways. I was lucky enough to not have been parted from my favourite people straight away, but the next few days was a chain of saying goodbye to one friend after the next including more than one teary goodbye at a train station and some last suppers until there was just me left.


I made a lot of friends during the month and a bit that I was on tour and I was sad to see them all go, but I had to remind myself that just because one chapter was over did not mean that I shouldn't take a minute to get ready for the next one. And the next one, as I later found out, would be a challenge and a half.

 Sam xox