Monday, April 7, 2014

Day 144-148: Theatre in London

London. I can never get enough of that city. The energy, the vibrancy, the diversity, the Britishness... Just stepping off the plane put a smile on my face.

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square
This time, I went to London to spend the weekend with Hannah and her friend Molly. We stayed at Molly's great aunt's, and I'd say it was the nicest place I stayed at on my whole trip. We had a guest flat in a large, modern glass building, in Chelsea (the posh part of London) right overlooking the Thames. It was a tad inconvenient to get to the tube (the nearest station was half an hour walk away) but a helpful bus ran right by the flat and into central London. 

At the Canadian Embassy- One foot in Canada, the other in Britain! :)
The point of being in London, as I wrote about here, was to get tickets to Coriolanus and Richard II, starring Tom Hiddleston and David Tennant, respectively. As I mentioned, we were only half successful, but I enjoyed the theatre experience nonetheless.

The stage at the start of Richard II
Firstly, Richard II was fantastic. Tragic, funny (the scene where they keep throwing down the gauntlet was flippin' hilarious), well-acted and directed, with beautiful musical additions... It was everything I had hoped it would be. Even without David Tennant, I would have loved the show. With him, it was basically the best first live Shakespeare experience I could have hoped for (odd, isn't it, that I hadn't see Shakespeare live before? What kind of English Major am I?)

The stage at the end of Richard II
Since Hannah and Molly were disappointed about not seeing Coriolanus, they had scoured the West End to find another show for us to watch that evening. Eventually they bought tickets for Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap,' which is the world's longest running play, going for 62 years and 25,498 performances. I really enjoyed the show, it was dramatic and funny and clever, and watching it definitely took the sting off of not seeing Coriolanus. We were just a tad depressed when we walked out and noticed that the Donmar Warehouse was right across the road. So near, yet so far...

St. Martin's theatre, playing the Mousetrap
Sunday was supposed to be an exciting day: morning church service at Hillsong, afternoon tea at Molly's aunt's, and evening service at Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, I managed to get dreadfully ill with a fever/flu/cold, so I spent the entire day lying in bed, too knackered to even watch TV. By the evening I was feeling a bit better (probably because Hannah made me take a pill, helped down by a spoonful of Nutella) so I called my family and talked to them for about three hours before my iPad decided to quit. 

These lovely ladies dressed up for The Mousetrap;
I was still in a hoody and messy makeup after queuing at 6:50 for Richard II! 
On Monday, I took the four o'clock train back up to St. Andrews. It's really convenient how they have a train service directly from London up to Aberdeen, running past St. Andrews, so it only took me 5.5 hours to get back.

The Albert Bridge in Chelsea, where I went for a walk Monday morning
And that concludes my adventures. Forty days, eleven cities, countless friends and relatives and acquaintances... It was quite a time. I'm never going to forget this Europe trip.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Day 141-143: Prague

I had no expectations for Prague.  Everyone I talked to said they loved it, but I didn't really know what was there that I'd be interested in seeing.

Some brightly coloured buildings in the main square.
Kayla and I arrived mid monday afternoon and checked into our hostel, which was insanely cheap at just €2.70 a night. We were in a dorm with about twenty other girls and there were no kitchen facilities to speak of, but for that price we couldn't complain.

"Up..up...up the stairs we go, until we come to... the tunnel..."
(this tunnel led through a hill up to a museum, not Shelob's lair, thankfully...)
The first night we basically struggled to find food. Without a kitchen, the supermarket had absolutely nothing we could eat for supper, so we ended up at KFC. This was rather helpful, though, since we took the plastic forks and the cardboard boxes and used those for eating cereal and spreading Nutella on bread for the rest of our stay. Necessity is the mother of invention...

The roofs of Prague. I love how I got an aerial view of nearly ever city we visited!
The next morning, we started out trip in Prague with a walking tour. This one wasn't quite as interesting as the tours in other cities but we got a decent sense of Prague and got to meet a number of other people from our hostel. We went out for hot wine afterwards (we had so much hot wine on this trip, since the weather was chilly, and wine was cheaper than coffee!) in a pub where Kafka wrote, and then Kayla and I took a self-guided walking tour around the eastern edge of Prague. 

The pub where Kafka wrote and we enjoyed our first hot wine.
Prague has some nice pubs and caf├ęs. Our first night we went to the Globe, which is also an English language bookstore, and enjoyed some happy hour cocktails while catching up on journaling. The next night we went out with some people from the walking tour, starting out in our hostel bar, moving on to a jazz bar, and concluding in an underground club. Drinks weren't as cheap here as Budapest but definitely better than the UK. It was nice to be able to go out without breaking the bank!

The river through Prague (the Vltava, not the Danube)
On my last day we went to Prague castle and spent the entire day there. At 10am they had the changing of the guard, which seemed to be a mini version of the buckingham palace ceremony. We then bought long-stay tickets, which cost only about $10 and allowed us into pretty much every part of the castle, from the great hall to the dungeon to the cathedral to the tower. It was a fascinating place, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to because I was just so cold and there was really nowhere to warm up.

Changing of the guard at Prague Castle
The next morning Kayla and I went for a quick walk up a hill through some gardens before I had to leave. My flight left at 2:30, but I was at the airport far ahead of time for safety's sake. As it turned out the plane was delayed for de-icing (we actually got about an inch of snow in Prague, which is the most I've seen all winter) but I still arrived in London Luton in time to catch my bus to the city centre.

The John Lennon wall
And that was Prague: pretty, a tad run down, but with far more culture and history than I expected. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Day 138-140: Vienna

Parliament (I think...)

Vienna isn't the place for the disorganized traveller on a budget. The most expensive place on our Eastern Europe trip (probably because Austria really doesn't qualify as Eastern Europe), staying under budget requires a bit of planning. For instance, there are quite a few museums in Vienna, but we weren't too eager to shell out €10 to see some exhibits that weren't even as good as the (free!) British museum. 

Children playing outside the palace.

The first day, after checking into our hostel around 1pm, we walked into the city centre. This was the biggest mistake. It was a good forty minutes walk into the touristy part of the city and we passed through some dingy areas. Not the nicest first impression of Vienna. We then wandered around downtown for a bit, unsure where anything was, and ended up at the National Library. We were more than a little tired and cold by the end of the day, but the library was absolutely gorgeous-- nicer, if anything, than Trinity College in Dublin. Definitely a Vienna highlight!

The Library
The next day we were a bit more organized and we took the metro right into the city centre. This gave us the time and energy to watch the Spanish horses perform their morning exercises (interesting, but not worth the €10 ticket), visit three small museums (on Esperanto, globes, and papyrus), as well as tour a long street market and conclude the evening with €3 standing tickets to the opera (Don Giovanni).

Curtain call at the opera
(they did so many curtain calls that the auditorium was nearly empty by the last one!)
On Sunday I went to a nearby baptist church in the morning, where I was warmly welcomed and got to meet a couple who had been missionaries in Romania (such a helpful contact, for reasons I'll reveal soon...) Then, Kayla and I got metro passes and spent the afternoon exploring the city, taking the metro out to the far corners of the city centre and then riding back in, stopping at nearly ever station to see the sights. We concluded at the Stephansdon, where Kayla met some other Canadian exchange students for supper and I headed back to the hostel for some much needed downtime.

Spanish Riding
All in all, I think I would have loved Vienna if I had had more time and money. With a week or two, and a much larger budget, I would have been able to enjoy all the museums, visit some more musical sites (like Mozart and Beethoven's houses) and enjoy a few more musical performances. As is, I thought Vienna was beautiful and cultured, but I really didn't have the chance to take advantage of it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Day 137: Bratislava

We only stayed in Bratislava for one day, which it think is pretty much the ideal length of time to enjoy this fairly small capital of Slovakia. With only 400,000 people, it's quite small for a capital city and so we managed to see pretty much everything in one afternoon.

For a small city, Bratislava can look pretty modern. Visitors can go up this tower on the bridge. 
We arrived at our hostel around one o'clock, where we discovered that, despite having booked two beds in a large dormitory, the hostel had upgraded us to a private room. Definitely a big point in favour of Patio Hostel!

The roofs of Bratislava

The first thing we did was walk up to the castle, which also gave us a lovely view over the town. While we didn't go into the castle (everyone said it wasn't worth the €4 entry fee) we walked around the grounds and enjoyed the architecture. I also had my picture taken with a couple Asian women... not sure if they thought I was a Slav, or if they thought my uber-pale skin was interesting!

One of the central squares- much less grand than Budapest!

After the castle we walked down to the main square, which was the meeting point for our walking tour. That was definitely the best way to spend the afternoon in Bratislava. Our tour guide, a young woman doing her master's degree, was friendly, interesting, and informative, and she really gave us a good sense of Bratislava. She'd show us little things that we never would have noticed, like a chipped spot on the town hall where a plaque used to be marking how high the water rose during a flood. It was also fascinating to learn about Slavic history, especially the relatively recent anti-communist revolts.

Menu at the restaurant we went to- some great student deals!

On the walking tour, there were only two other people, a guy and a girl. Both were exchange students from the US, one studying in Paris, the other in Madrid. After the tour, Kayla and I went out to dinner with them and enjoyed some traditional Slovak food- very carb-heavy and smothered in cheese sauce, but absolutely delicious!

The castle

And that was Bratislava. Short, but sweet. It was neat to visit a country that was so small and had such a turbulent history, but such hope for the future. Its customs could sometimes seem backward (they have a special day where guys throw girls into a river and beat them with willow switches... apparently that does something positive for the girls, but I don't remember what) but it feels like a country that's experiencing a fresh start. I'm excited to see, in the coming decades, how it grows and changes.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Day 134-136: Budapest

Overlooking the Danube (Parliament behind me on the left,
chain bridge and St. Steven's Basilica on the right)
 I had no idea what to expect from Budapest. The name sounds foreign, eastern, even a bit dangerous. My mom told me to be careful; after all, when she was last in the area, the USSR still existed. The quote that kept running through my head was a line from The Avengers, when Hawkeye says to Black Widow: "You and I remember Budapest very differently." Thanks to that, I was expecting some dark place full of intrigue, like in Black Widow's first scene in The Avengers.

Not quite sure what this was... but so fairy-tale-esque!

But, no. I arrived around noon on Monday, January 13th. It was a sunny day, and Budapest seemed dry and dusty, not cold and forbidding. Tripadvisor had warned me that taking public transit into the city was difficult, but I did it anyways and had only a minor problem (I misremembered which metro stop I had to get off at).

The Danube and Parliament at night
Kayla was already in Budapest, having flown in the night before. I met her at the hostel, which at first seemed terribly sketchy. It was small, just a half dozen rooms at the top corner of a large apartment building. The elevator was just a little terrifying- you had to manually shut the doors, and the floor sunk a bit whenever you stepped in. Still, despite initial misgivings, I think the Black Sheep Hostel might have actually been my favourite hostel on our trip, thanks to its friendly atmosphere. It had a full kitchen, so everyone sat around and ate together, especially at the complimentary breakfast. Also, since it was so small, I managed to get to know everyone in the hostel.

The Baths
We started off our time in Budapest by taking a walking tour. Almost every city we went to had free walking tours (tips appreciated) led by local guides, and they were simply invaluable for getting our bearings. In Budapest, the guide took us to a number of places we wouldn't have thought to go, as well as across the river, with some of the most gorgeous views I've ever seen.

One of the ruin bars- such a weird place!

That was the neat thing about Budapest- it's simply beautiful. While a lot of the city is rather run down, it's pretty clean for the most part and there are some majestic buildings down by the river. Their parliament is the 3rd largest in the world (it was the biggest when they built it, but two countries since have surpassed it), and they have some elegant churches, a large palace, and some lovely bridges. It's a very photogenic city, by the river at least, and I took so many photos.

The Danube, seen from the top of the hill
Over our three day stay, Kayla and I took a night riverboat cruise, toured parliament, visited the baths, and went out to the famous Ruin Pubs (old communist warehouses converted into bars) every night. We made new friends, like the boys from Oxford university's hockey team, and met up with some old ones, like another Canadian exchange student who happened to be in Budapest at the same time as us. Our stay in Budapest was busy, but so enjoyable, and I'd definitely recommend it as a sort of 'different' European destination. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Day 130-133: Brussels

Brussels can be summed up by its traffic situation: a little chaotic and disorganized, slightly ornamental, but basically effective.

I spent a weekend in the south-east corner of Brussels staying with Maria, a friend of mine from the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in St. Andrews. Her family has both Greek and Spanish backgrounds, so it was fascinating to hear the blend of languages spoken in their house and enjoy a couple cultural dishes. Everyone was really friendly, going out of their way to make me feel at home and to help me on my journey (like driving me to the train station at 5am.)

On Thursday afternoon I took a bus down from Amsterdam (about three hours) and arrived in Brussels mid-afternoon. I then walked half an hour to the Museum of Natural Science (continuing my streak of dragging my poor suitcase ridiculous distances through every city I come to) where I met Maria. She showed me around the museum (paying special attention to the whales!) and when it closed we went out for crepes, which were served with several different types of sugar.

One thing Maria and I weren't very good at was getting to bed on time. Every night we stayed up late talking or watching Sherlock (can't believe the cliffhanger at the end of season 3!) or discussing stories or reading The Hobbit. It was all great fun, but it left me so tired during the day... I actually fell asleep while watching The Hobbit one evening!

On Friday morning I met my friend Thessa, my academic sister from St. Andrew's, and we wandered around Brussels together. Since Thessa doesn't have a great sense of direction, and since Brussels is very confusing, it wasn't a guided tour so much as an exploration. We saw a lot of big buildings, explored a few churches, and  tried Belgian waffles (only €1, and they were delicious!). It was lovely to see Thessa again and to explore her home city with her.

With Maria, I went to the museum of Art and History, which had a lot of interesting statues, ceramics, and mathematical instruments. On Saturday night, her family took me out to a fancy restaurant where I got to try escargot (snails- and they were delicious!).

On Sunday morning I went to church at a Scottish church that I found with Google's help. The pastor was from Glasgow and a lot of British ex-pats attended, so it was neat to talk to English-speakers about their experiences moving to Brussels. Then, in the afternoon, Maria and I went to a Gilbert and Sullivan singalong of the operetta Patience. I had never sung Patience before, but the atmosphere was relaxed and I had a lovely time. It was neat to see how far people had come just for the singalong- one man had driven down from Holland, and another one had flown in from Switzerland.
On Monday morning already it was time to go, and I had to catch a bus at around 5 am to make it to the airport in time for my flight. I was sad to leave Brussels, but Budapest was where the proper adventure would begin... 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Day 127-129: Amsterdam

One of the many canals running through Amsterdam
(and a few of the many bikes!)
Amsterdam was quite something. I really don't know how to describe that city: it's young, it's old, it's beautiful, it's ugly, it's cultured, it's ordinary, it's living and dead, artistic, cultured, busy, laid-back... it's Amsterdam, and there really is no other way to describe it. 
I spent two and a half days there, staying with my mother's cousin's husband's sister and her family. No, I didn't know them before. I had no idea they existed. But they very kindly opened their home to me and were fantastic hosts, giving me travel tips, cooking delicious meals, and taking me to see Catching Fire. It was great to meet them and I may end up staying with them again.

The Rijksmuseum with ice rink and I Amsterdam sign

Amsterdam itself involved a lot of walking and admiring canals. I had no idea that there was so much water in the city! It's basically Venice... I loved all the houses around the canals, so tall, ornate, and pastel-coloured. There were also a lot of hidden gems which took a bit of work to find, like the Begijnhof, which is a semi-hidden courtyard where only unmarried women can live.

The city at night
On my first day I went to the Anne Frank House, which was interesting but a little too touristy to be truly meaningful. I understand that they get a million visitors a year, and it's hard to accommodate that many people, but the house felt more like a reconstruction than the actual house where the Frank family lived for so long. The audio tours and quotes painted on the walls and the many other visitors undermined any sense I might have felt of the place being a "secret annex."

Harbour at Zandaam

Because I am a poor student, I did a lot of the free things in Amsterdam, which mainly involved walking around and taking photos of famous buildings, like the palace. I also took a ferry across the river to the Eye film museum, visited the Albert cypermarkt, and got my photo taken at the famous I Amsterdam sign. 

Each evening, I finished the day off by visiting the main library, which was right next to the train station. It was lovely to sit on the fifth floor of the library, staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows, watching the sun set over the city. There was a lights festival on, so some unusual glowing statues dotted the river. I would just sit on a comfy chair, journaling, waiting until the sun went down and it properly felt like evening. The I would catch a train out of Zandaam, where my hosts lived, and bike back to their house by the harbour. 
View from the top floor of the library

I loved Amsterdam for a holiday, but I wouldn't want to live there. It's too easy-going, to artsy, too free. Everything is celebrated there, whether it's cheese-making or Flemish painters, or the (in)famous red light district. It was a lot of fun for a few days, and I definitely plan to return, but I couldn't move there.