Wrote this on the bus from La Spezia to Venice via La Garda and Verona, outside temperature 35 degrees. I think I did pretty well, considering! It’s a longie but a goodie, if I do say so myself. Don’t want to push the hotel internet too far so will attempt to add the remaining photos tomorrow.
Vienna was probably the worst day of the whole tour, as it was absolutely pissing down. We started with a quick stop at Schönbrunn palace, the summer residence of the Hapsburgs. The rain let up a wee bit and we had a poke around the gardens, although some people just hid in the stop. We then had a driving tour around the city and saw most of the main sights, however this consisted of photos through rainy bus windows – not fab. The piece de resistance though was the lunch stop. It was absolutely bucketing down by this point, and as it was a public holiday with most places shut most of us decided to be sheep and follow our tour leader to a ‘nearby’ McDonalds. Well this turned out to be about a 20 minute walk, so by the time we waited for our food we had about 10 minutes to scarf it down before we had to race back to the bus (by this point absolutely soaked).
Our next stop was the Schnapps museum, which most of us were over before we even got there as we just wanted to get to the hotel and dry off, but it was actually really good. The business had been in the family for about five generations, with three still alive, and we had the youngest one showing us around. He was absolutely hilarious, with a complete command of English, and as we were his last group of the day was not averse to ‘getting merry’ with our group with the free shots at the end. He explained how Austrian schnapps is not the same as ‘schnapps’ elsewhere (being usually 50, up to 80% alcohol), the difference between liqueurs from syrups or real fruit, etc.
From there we headed to the hotel and could FINALLY dry off. A shower has never been so good! I even got into my merinos which was just bliss (even if it was partly to justify having them in my suitcase). I had to get changed again soon though as we were heading off to a fancy opera concert and dinner at the Kursalon. Dinner was (naturally) three courses, with asparagus soup as the entrée, veal with mashed potato for the main and some kind of creamy mousse dessert. I had a bit of a mishap with the main, as it turned out the ‘cheese’ on the mashed potato was in fact horseradish. Won’t make that mistake again. The concert itself wasn’t what most of us were expecting – in a rectangular room with an ‘assembled’ stage at the front (not…an opera). There were about 10 musicians (piano/strings/woodwind/brass), and every couple of songs they had ballet dancers or opera singers. The tenor was a very good performer but the others were a bit…meh. I recognised three tunes in total, I think.
The next day we were up early to drive to Prague, via Mauthausen. Mauthausen is a concentration camp that was largely used for political prisoners so it has particularly good records of who was there. All concentration camps have been preserved and German children have to visit them twice during their schooling, once when they’re about 8 then again at 18, to ensure that it can’t happen again. Ton the way we watched a documentary about it so we knew what we’d be seeing. The weather was still horrible and we only had an hour there which wasn’t long enough to look around the camp and also at the exhibition, which was a shame – it felt like we weren’t doing it justice. I didn’t take any photos as I didn’t feel it was appropriate.
After that we went onwards to Prague, where we arrived in the early evening. We went on a walking tour to learn about the history of the city, particularly in Wenceslas Square which was the site of both the velvet Revolution and divorce, and self-immolating students on two occasions. We then had dinner at a local brewery which involved free beer (yay…); an entrée of pigs in blankets which were delicious; a main of two slices of beef swimming in a very sweet ‘gravy’ with bread dumpling, which was underwhelming, and apple strudel for dessert. We then continued the walking tour through the old town, to the Charles Bridge with a great view of the castle on the hill. It was really nice to see the city lit up at night and the rain thankfully held off.
The next morning I was up and at ‘em early with the exploring crew. We started off with the castle, where we got the ticket to see everything. Unfortunately, the church was closed and there were too many people we couldn’t be bothered fighting through to see the main part of the palace. We did see the painting collection, military uniforms, weapons collection and history of the castle exhibit. We then headed down the hill into town and crossed the Charles Bridge.
After walking round the Jewish ghetto (preserved by Hitler to be a ‘museum’ of the lost race) we eventually found some lunch in the square. I got ribs to make up for missing out in Vienna, as the alternative to the concert was a ribs night organised by our bus driver Ronnie. They were smoked and not very saucy, so a bit different to what I’m used to. Most of the guys got the ‘old Prague feast’ which involved approximately half a duck and five other animals. From there we climbed the tower which gave us great views of the fog, and I took the opportunity to add to my ever-growing collection of rainy city panorama photos.
From there we did a bit of souvenir shopping then headed back to the hotel, as the rain started getting progressively worse. I wasn’t hungry after that lunch and didn’t want to go outside, and neither did my roommate Lyndall (who hadn’t even eaten), so we both went to bed at 8pm. I decided this was a little bit early to actually sleep, so took the opportunity to finally start the book I’ve been carrying with me since I left for France. Lyndall was asleep at 8:30 and me by 9 which I think is not a bad effort
On the way to Berlin we stopped at Dresden for a quick walking tour before grabbing some lunch. The river Elba was pretty flooded and a sign of things to come with the Danube. Not a lot to say, we weren’t there for long, but in the photos the blackened stones are what remained after the city was heavily bombed in the second world war; the rest is all reconstructed. (= I totally forgot we went here and just added this in)
The next day it was off to Berlin, and our driving tour was slightly less rainy than Vienna. Dinner that night was at the Hofbräuhaus München, a massive beer hall, and we all had pork knuckle which was about as big as our heads. It was actually really nice (I’m not a huge pork fan), although I can’t say the same about the sauerkraut and potato dumpling.
The next morning we did a walking tour with a ‘local’ guide (who was English), and saw the Reichstag, Brandenburg gate, Jewish holocaust memorial, the site of Hitler’s bunker, the two remaining Nazi ministry buildings, and checkpoint Charlie. After that the exploring crew (as I have dubbed us…I really should have tried to come up with something catchier) headed to the topography of terror, a free museum chronicling the events of the Nazi regime, before getting lunch near Potsdamerplatz where I had some kind of German ravioli (I can’t remember what it was called) and Scotty had some kind of banana/beer mix – he maintained it was nice but it looked like vomit…
After lunch we walked through central Berlin through Friedrichstrasse and under der linden, stopping at interesting buildings and memorials until we reached the Berliner Dom, which we climbed. You guessed it, more panoramas! Though not rainy this time. Form there we walked back to our hotel right near the East Side Gallery, the main remaining section of the wall which has been turned into a graffiti gallery. After a quick dinner we headed out o the pub crawl, which, much to our disdain, we had to do with the hostel group which had been following us since Budapest. It went to three bars then a five-story club, but most of us ditched after the bars as we ended up right by our hotel.
The next day was our longest drive day; from Berlin to Amsterdam (703km). it actually went pretty quickly by the time we did all our stops and watched a couple of movies. Once we arrived on the outskirts of the city we visited a little workshop to find out about cheese and clogs. Definitely just for the tourists. First of all we heard about making Gouda and I wracked my brains to try and remember what we did in year 11 science when we made cheese in the labs (that we weren’t allowed t eat because it was contaminated). Then we did get to see how clogs are made. Both guys were crazy Dutchmen, with the second being particularly inappropriate with all his comments.
After we settled at our hotel (not just any hotel but the ‘botel’ (=boat hotel)), we caught a free ferry into the city centre which took about 15 minutes. After a quick walking tour from Centraal station to Dam Square, we split up, with most of the group heading to the red light district for a show. A handful of us decided to be more sophisticated and headed to the Anne Frank house – it was an hour before closing and we just breezed right in, no queuing whatsoever. I haven’t read Anne Frank’s diary but it was nonetheless very interesting, and actually being in the annexe with the blacked out windows made me feel slightly claustrophobic, which was a better ‘connection’ to what went on during the holocaust than any of the other things we’d seen.
The next morning we all went on a bike tour of a city. Amsterdam has a huge bike ‘focus’ with cycle lanes everywhere and over 60 % of all trips being made by bike. I’m pretty sure the cyclists have a bigger command of the road than drivers. It was terrifying! Most of us hadn’t ridden an actual bike in years (gotta be at least 5 for me). I was fine when we were riding, but any time we had to stop, start, or slow down I got wobbly. I was even the victim of cyclist road rage when I evidently took a corner too sharply (trying not to swing out into the intersection…) and ended up apparently on the wrong side of the road, and was duly yelled at by a gruff Dutch woman in English, to get back in my lane. Oops. By the way, none of these hooning cyclists were wearing helmets of course, not even for their kids in little buggy things in front.
After the cycling tour the crew headed back to the main square by the galleries and we started with the Rijksmuseum, national gallery of the Netherlands, while we were waiting for our entrance time at the van Gogh museum. I saw a few Vermeer and Mondrian works, but otherwise there wasn’t a lot there that I’d studied, though I’m sure I’ve definitely cited something there in an essay before. After that we headed to the van Gogh museum, which I think is one of my favourite museums to have visited. Not because it was van Gogh, or had a lot of his works, but because there was a lot of variation and interesting information to the exhibit. It was set out in sections to illustrate different ideas such as the use of colour, or figure, etc, with supplementary information and setups like how works are restored or authenticated scientifically, with microscopes to look at paint samples. Fascinating! Even the shop was amazing but alas we did not have a lot of time to look round it.
After grabbing some lunch with the others that I meandered back through the shops, picking up a few things, and got the ferry back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. This was our final night of the tour, and we went to a floating Chinese pagoda restaurant, because ‘we would all be sick of European stodge’ by that point. It was actually really nice, with rice, noodles, veges, sweet and sour chicken, and a ‘cashew’ dish (which mainly tasted of soy sauce). From there we went on a canal cruise for one last hoorah. It lasted a couple of hours, in an open-top barge-y boat think with an open (though very limited) bar. The theme was of course orange and if you look closely you will see my contribution was a shoelace I took out of my shoe and wrapped around my wrist– some may call it stingy, I cal it kiwi ingenuity. It was a really good night to spend with everyone together for the last time!
The final day of the tour was the drive from Amsterdam to Calais, via Bruges for lunch, to get the ferry to Dover then on to our end point in London. We said goodbye to a few people in Amsterdam and again in Bruges, and our fabulous bus driver Ronnie the Glaswegian in Calais. Not a lot to report aside from a really disappointing pommes frites experience in Bruges and a power outage at the immigration office in Calais. Fun fun. The ferry was pretty rough and the drive to London over three hours with no stop, and our fill-in bus driver not very happy about people using the toilet.
After the big goodbye session, I headed from Bayswater to Victoria, where I was lucky enough to be staying bang on Victoria Street with some family friends. By that point I was pretty shattered (given we’d left at 7am and it was about 8pm when I arrived), and went to bed fairly early after catching up and having some dinner.
The next day was the big day – I was off to the Harry Potter studio experience! For anyone not aware, the studios that were used for all the harry potter films have been ‘preserved’ and turned into a sort of museum, with lots of sets, costumes and props on display. It covered everything form the production team, wardrobe, and props, to animal training and graphic design. There was even a greenscreen with broomstick/Ron’s flying car which you could ‘ride’ on and buy photos of for an exorbitant sum…needless to say I did, and it was a very expensive day overall but what can you do. It was meant to take around three hours, but with the added audio/video guide that I paid for with lots of extra stuff I still wasn’t done by nearly five! I had to rush through the last part and, most upsettingly, could barely look at the shop, as I had to get back into town to go to the theatre – to see Helen Mirren, to be more precise. She was in a play called The Audience, which imagined what went on/goes on between the Queen and her Prime Ministers in their weekly, completely confidential, sessions. HM was playing HM, of course. It was unexpectedly funny and generally a lot more ‘lighthearted’ than I thought it was going to be, which wasn’t a bad thing. Afterwards we walked home through Piccadilly Circus and St James’ park.
The following day was a really lazy one, which was perfectly fine by me! Around 4pm we finally left the house, and went for a walk through the three main parks via the new memorial to the bomber squadron and the NZ war memorial. We were also in the right place (at the wrong time) to catch the nudie bike race, fundraising for something, so forged onward and instead caught the Horse Guard parading through marble arch. Not sure exactly what they were doing. It was surprisingly hot, for England! After having a quick dinner (lamb chops = amazing), we went to see the Great Gatsby, which I was very pleased to be able to catch and generally enjoyed. Once we got home, I packed and tried to get a decent sleep before my 7am train to the airport the following morning.
From there I flew to Rome to begin my two week tour of Italy which I’m currently about to wrap up. I guess this means I’m only two weeks behind now – catching up indeed! I’ll be flying again shortly so with any luck more airport time = more blogging.
A la prochaine!