When I let you last I had a splendid day in Mini Europe and felt practically incandescent. Well, the second half of my train journey down to Transylvania was no less exciting with many more moments to make me want to pinch myself, as well as the odd couple that made me want to hit someone.
The next stop on the way after plucky little Belgium, was Denmark – home of the Danes! More specifically Copenhagen, land of the Viking conquerors. See why I chose to go? At any rate it was a fun trip on the train – even if it involved sitting in the stair wells and spending a decent 5 hours standing in the hallway – because it was the first time I'd ever been on a train that actually goes onto a ferry to cross a body of water. Yes! Because bridges are too mainstream, the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen actually boards a ferry for 45 minutes to cross into Scandinavia from mainland Europe. How's that for awesomely weird?
At any rate, I made it to Copenhagen and it was pretty much more or less everything that I expected: chilly, expensive and pretty damn cool. The Danes sure now how to tempt me, too, with their glorification of their Viking heritage and the utter love that they have for Hans Christian Anderson, author of what would become my favourite movie of all time: The Little Mermaid. They love it so much that the musical has made it there (unfortunately not until after I left, mind you) and they also have that important little statue by the water past the new harbour. It was on my bucket list to see, and even though it was kind of little and most people are disappointed by it I wasn't. There was something just so nice about it.
On the other hand there was just so much else to do that made it wonderful like the National museum, full of significant Bronze and Iron Age pieces like the Trundholm chariot (it's significant to my area of interest, at least), the HCA storybook museum, and the Tivoli gardens, the second oldest theme park in the world. Whilst expensive, the city of Copenhagen was just so nice and so pretty that had I more money I definitely would have liked to stay longer and enjoy all the delights of the New Harbour and seen some more pantomime's at Tivoli. Plus actually venture out into Denmark itself, I didn't get the chance and I've heard that some of the best things lie outside of the city. Roskilde for one.
I don't remember too much about the train to Munich as I was so deeply engrossed in What a Girl Wants by the wonderful Lindsey Kelk that I didn't really notice Germany flying by. Since I'm not Germany's biggest fan (and it wasn't the Black forest) I didn't really care anyway, but all I needed to know was however long it took me to read that wonderful book is exactly how long it took from Hamburg to Munich.
I do have to say though that Munich, and Bavaria in general, really impressed me. Everything that was missing in that awful city of Berlin was back with a vengeance in Munich. The city was just so full of life and colour that I was terribly disappointed to leave as soon as I did, and barely brushed the surface on all the things I would have loved to do in that city.
But some of the things I did do was take in the Bavarian scenery, listen to the crazy clock in Marienplatz, sample some pork knuckle and imbibe a little too much at the Hofbrauhaus in the middle of the day. It was some pretty good fun. Of course I went on yet another amazing walking tour and learnt as much as I could in the 3 short hours I had, including plenty about the unfortunate mishaps that Hitler put the city through during his time as Chancellor and the war. At least one thing I learnt that impressed me was that Munich, knowing it wasn't going to escape from the war unscathed, secretly had architects record, photograph and take extensive notes on the majority of the city. So, that when the city was heavily bombed by the allies the people were able to rebuild the city just as it had been before – with all the beauty that Bavaria is known for. Yet another thing I hated about Berlin – it was so full of shiny new buildings it lost so much of its character.
The real reason I went to Munich, however, was in order to visit the so-called Disney castle of Neuschwanstein. Built in the 19th century by the poor, unfortunate and handsome Lugwig II, it still remains uncompleted to this day since the king's mysterious death over a century ago. Obsessed with fairy tales and religions around the world, the castle really doesn't look like the ones you'd find in the rest of the area let alone much of Europe. It does in fact look like it had been taken from the pages of more than one story, be it Snow White or Cinderella or Rapunzel, and I'm saddened that Lugwig II never got to see his dream realised. Especially when he paid for its construction with his own money and didn't bankrupt his kingdom in the process, unlike some past monarchs I could name (Louis XIV).
It was a super long day, with a two hour train journey each way in order to reach the castle site. But I made a good day of it with some new friends, ate some schnitzel, drank some beer, and sailed around the lake on a peddle-boat just for fun. Even if by the time I got home I was wrecked, I regretted nothing about how amazing a day I'd had.
I do, however, kind of regret the ridiculously long bus ride from Munich to Krakow the following night, in which no one spoke a word of English but for myself, it was super cramped, and it was so hot it was like a circle of hell. Thinking back, I really should have just caught the night train instead.
But when I finally made it, I really enjoyed Poland. Well, at least until a point.
For one thing it was really cheap and not much less beautiful than places like Budapest and Prague, just in its own way. Traditional food was sort of delicious and you could really see that the Polish people, who'd been hit really badly by WWII, were all so lovely, optimistic and nice – not at all the kind of people beat down by circumstance. There was a real sort of dry humour about the place that made it fun to be around and you could tell from the pissing Lenin statue (yes, really) to the carved gnomes in the Salt Mines, that the Polish were a proud people. I really liked the time I spent there. Even if sometimes their stories and history felt a little more like black comedy.
Auschwitz, however, was another story. It is impossible to say that I enjoyed my trip to the standing memorial to one of the most horrific aspects of modern human history, when so much death and terror occurred in the very places I stood. Before Mathausen, I wouldn't have thought I would have been so monumentally affected by a place like that. Not because I think I'm cold, that's certainly not true, but because I had never been anywhere like that before and was not sure how hard it would hit me to be there in the flesh. And it hit me so hard, I almost had to walk out or risk being physically ill. Its so hard to even process the thought that someone could give the orders to liquidate hundreds of thousands of lives let alone actually carry those orders out. There was no excuse for what they had done, and no one will ever accept one.
But despite the human tragedy that has forever tainted the very land that the former concentration camp stood on, it has since become a memorial and warning to the future. In every language of the victims, including Hebrew, we are informed in iron of the events that happened and the hope that this will never, ever be allowed to happen again.
It was a harrowing day, one that needed to be had, and I am glad that it is something I can remember to regain some perspective now and then. People should go to mourn, to cry, to rail against the perpetrators, and to hurt, but most importantly people should go to remember. These people were murdered, mostly left in unmarked graves, but no one deserves to be forgotten. Each victim had a story, and keeping the remnants of the camp open to visitors allows at least a little part of it to be told.
Back in Vienna I was so happy I practically bounced off the walls in incandescent glee. I gave a bit of a run down on the city before, and this was only a day spent again, so this will be brief. But even a single day spent was so nice I spent most of the morning reading over breakfast at a cafe then did some shopping, just having a classy, dignified sort of morning you'd really expect from a city like Vienna.
I thought about it actually and decided that Vienna had all the beauty, class, dignity and baroque that Paris did but without being so pretentious.
And that virtually set the scene for the day. I visited the museum dedicated to the unfortunate Princess Sissi and learnt about her life, I wandered up to the markets, spent more money than I actually intended to and later met a lovely new friend who I was able to eat cordon bleu with.
It was too-short a day in Vienna, but I enjoyed it no less than I had the last time.
Budapest was much the same: a fairytale city that was just as amazing the second time around like Vienna. But of course the days were spent doing things differently to what I had before. For one thing I went to some more markets and saw some amazing and abstract works, and I spent hours lounging in all manner of baths at one of the biggest and most beautiful bath houses in the world from hot, to temperate to medicinal and even a very fast moving whirlpool. And to top off that awesome day I managed to wine my way to a ruin bar with a couple of attractive men and found myself stalking a pub crawl all the way to a kebab shop outside my hostel door.
The second day was a tad more dignified in effect as I visited the great market hall, some museums and highly amused myself by learning about the princes of Transylvania – which for those of you who aren't sure or don't know is not only a real place it used to lie within both Hungary and Romania, but now its just a part of Romania. There was also a lot of information about various phases in Hungarian history and culture including costume through the ages and propaganda from the communist occupations under Stalin. I hadn't realised before then what a varied and epic history that Hungary had had, and I found I was so interested in learning more about it than I already knew. And it wasn't just because of Elizabeth Bathory or the connections to Transylvania.
Like Vienna and Prague, I'll be back to Budapest again. There's just something about those three fairytale cities that made me feel all too at home and like a part of the stories I've always loved.
Romania was a very different kind of fairy story. It reminded me much of Krakow and the people I met had a similar disposition, albeit with a different kind of black humour. Such as, say, positioning a bust of Vlad Tepes across from a steak house and staring blankly when asked about when he died. One tour guide I had said, “What do you mean? He still lives. Sort of.” Romania takes Dracula pretty seriously, and its sort of nice to see them embracing their national icons in the same way that England reveres Sherlock Holmes.
In fact, like the creation of 221B Baker street, Bran Castle was designated as Castle Dracula – even if the Prince of Wallachia barely spent a month there in his life. But I have to say that it was perfectly chosen, completely atmospheric and I could almost see Jonathan Harker hobbling down the steps. Or maybe someone in the streets yelling 'Van Helsing!' I could go on, really. But what was pretty damn cool was that that morning we left Bucharest in sunlight and blue sky, only to make it to Transylvania in the afternoon when it was dark, grey and storming. I know. I even convinced a little boy on our tour that the weather had turned bad because we'd angered Dracula and he needed to apologise. He did.
Vampires are still big in Romania, don't be fooled otherwise.
Peles Castle, the summer home of the royal family, was pretty and architecturally interesting although for me sort of lacked a kind of originality. Compared to Bran Castle and Neuschwanstein it was practically boring. But it was fun to see not in the least because of how cool the surrounding city was – it was pretty much what I thought of when I imagined Romanian towns and culture.
Bucharest itself was nice – not crazy, but nice, and I could have spent longer touring around some of the more interesting museums that I didn't make it to the first time around. Plus my hostel was just so comfortable that I could have stayed for ages. It was a really nice little city that I vastly enjoyed.
Just a quick word too about Romanian desserts. When you go, don't forget to try a little something known as papansi. Its food of the gods.
So, in the end I did make it all the way from Lisbon in Portugal to Bucharest in Romania. It took me 25 days, 15 trains, 11 countries and one very long bus ride to make it, but I did and I loved just about every damn minute of it.