Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Krakow

Of course, I'm not actually in Krakow. I'm sitting in the Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt Airport en route to Edinburgh as I write this. Turns out there are direct KRK - EDI flights, but only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I couldn't really make my schedule work for any day but Tuesday, so here I am, trying to use up a nearly 4 hour layover.

Hotel view of Wawel - so close, so far
But never mind all that. Krakow was cool, and pretty much exactly as I expected it to be. I chose it as my one stop in Poland, because it has more of the stuff I'm interested in -- castle, cathedrals, old history --  rather than the more recent war history that draws people to the rest of the country. I chose my hotel because on the map it was a short distance across the river from the Old Town and other attractions. Unfortunately, it was actually placed right on a highway with limited pedestrian underpasses, 10 minutes walk from the nearest bridge across the river, meaning 20-30 minutes from any of the places I really wanted to go.

When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, I had plenty of time to go out and do some sightseeing, but given that the weather was still terribly hot, I decided to wait and give it my all on much cooler Monday. I did need some provisions, though, so I found a supermarket just behind the hotel and took the very short walk to do some shopping. Google maps automatically pulls up a few reviews for the places I click on my phone, and the ones for this grocer all said things about how slow the service was, and how the miserable employees seemed to hate every second they spent having to do their jobs. I figured it couldn't possibly be that bad, and well... I was wrong. After spending a few minutes picking up snacks and sparkling water* (sodastream at home has ruined me), I went to the cash desk, which had a woman waiting there and no lineup. She proceeded to start cleaning the inside and outside of her checkout lane, very pointedly ignoring my existence. A few minutes later when all had been thoroughly polished, she finally started ringing up my purchase. Then she realised that I didn't speak any Polish, and she didn't speak any English, which just made her exponentially more annoyed by my presence in her store. In the end I paid and headed out the door with a feeling of accomplishment: within my first few hours in Krakow, I'd not only found the city's grumpiest cashier, I'd managed to make her even grumpier!

Per my trusty guidebook, the normally paid places I wanted to see within the Wawel Castle grounds (specifically the Cathedral Museum and the Armoury) are free on Mondays in the summer, but that's partly because it's the day they close early. If you don't get your tickets before noon, no soup for you. So I set my alarm to start the day early Monday morning, and despite oversleeping somewhat, I had made the walk from the hotel and ascended the hill (another damn hill!) to the Wawel ticket office by 11:15... only to find that they'd already given out all their free tickets for the day, and I was stuck just wandering the grounds. It was still a lovely place to wander, and I did get to go inside the Cathedral, but the uber religion nerd in me looking forward to the museum and my Viking genes that love weaponry were a bit disappointed.

After exploring the castle, I walked down the other side of the hill to Old Town, where I found myself surrounded by lovely architecture. And so many churches. SO many churches. I would go to take a photo of one, and check what it was called on the map, but there were so many close together that I couldn't tell one from another. I also saw loads of nuns walking around, probably more than I've ever seen in all my previous travels combined, and was reminded that Pope John Paul II was Polish at every turn. Man, they really love that guy in Krakow.

After a semi-traditional Polish lunch and 6-7 miles of walking, I decided I needed a break and went back to the hotel for the afternoon. Which was where I stayed for the rest of the day, going no further than a brief trip downstairs for dinner, and to bed early enough to deal with my 7am wake up call today.

I've had a great time exploring central Europe, and I do enjoy my solo travels, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't most excited to get to Edinburgh today. Lazing around with Jody for a few days sounds like the best vacation ever. Just a few more hours to wait...


*This reminds me. I've always been a big proponent of drinking good old tapwater, and that's exactly what I fizz up at home, unfiltered. So whenever I travel, if there's no obvious sign saying not to drink out of the tap, well, glug glug glug. Jody, on the other hand is certain that all foreign tapwater is going to kill him somehow -- which I've learned since is a common British belief; they all bring 9 cases worth of products on every holiday because everything non-British will definitely contain poison. I believe nothing of the sort, but because Jody has harassed me about it so much, now I do a quick search on the tapwater for anywhere I visit, and if there's no warnings in the top 3 results, back to the glugging. Which led me to find something interesting about Poland online: a recent study showed that the water is some of the purest in Europe, but none of the locals will drink it because they believe it's polluted. People in the country would rather have muddy well water that only flows 3 days a week, and city folk have at least 9 brands of bottled water to choose from in every corner shop. Apparently it's so bad that the government are now running a campaign called something like clean water, straight from the tap! to convince folks that they can trust their municipal water supply and get them off their environmentally unfriendly bottled water habit. Fascinating.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

One Night in Wien

For most of my Uber ride from the hotel to the Bratislava central station today, the song on the radio was One Night in Bangkok. Which couldn't have been more perfect a theme to send me off for my overnight stay in Vienna.

When I was planning my trip, I wanted to go from Bratislava to Krakow, but you can't fly direct and the trains are all way too long and/or require a stop at some small town in between. I finally determined that a stop in Vienna was the smart way to go, even though I wasn't particularly convinced one way or the other about this city when I visited it last. On visit number two, my impressions are about the same. It's a city. The stuff worth seeing is so overrun with tourists as to be almost a theme park, but DAMN this place is beautiful. Just effing gorgeous everywhere you look.

So early this afternoon, after a brief (but hot, no AC, and the weather continues to emulate the pits of Hell) train ride, I arrived in Vienna and headed out to make something of my short time here. My hotel is right on one corner of the Stadtpark, so I started by taking a walk across it, soaking up a nice dose of nature, and occasional shade, en route to Albertina. On the way, I stopped in briefly at Annakirche, which is nothing much to look at from the outside, but if you step inside, you'll find a very pretty church in active use.

But Albertina was the star of the show. It's an old Habsburg palace turned into a museum of art and Habsburg domestic life, and I loved it. The staterooms featuring how the House of Austria may have lived there were fine, but even with all their ornate gold and crystal, they paled in comparison to the art.  While everyone else was gaping at the Andy Warhols down the hall, I was falling in love with the work of Anselm Kiefer (my favourite of which is at right). It's an awesome collection. If you're a modern art lover and you find yourself in Vienna, GO TO ALBERTINA. Well worth the ticket price.

On the way out, I picked up a pack of note cards featuring works of Henri Matisse from his book Jazz. Because a) how fantastic are those prints?, b) I love stationery even though I don't remember the last time I mailed anyone a damn letter, and c) it was 50% off. Also, he was probably my gateway drug into the world of truly interesting modern art. As a dancer growing up, everyone was always pushing the Degas ballerinas or some kind of soft Monet lily on me, but when I was 14 I got a poster of a Matisse from his cut-out phase and stuck it up on my bedroom wall next to the rock bands. And I had totally forgotten about it until relatively recently when I was in a museum and saw the original in front of me.

But I digress. After my art viewing, I walked outside and realised that the statue out front looked familiar. In fact, it's in one of my photos from the last time I was here, with Jody. As I continued my walk back, I passed a fountain we paused to view, a souvenir shop we failed to buy something in, and even the Strauss statue we both Instagrammed. It was a bit of deja vu, since we were also here in August, it was also meltingly hot, and we stayed just on the opposite corner of the Stadtpark. So as I enjoy the cool of my (city view! check it out!) hotel room tonight, I'm remembering how we spent our evenings last time: escaping the heat indoors, Jody drinking his Almdudler (Austria's favourite soft drink) and teaching me the basics he remembered from German class.

Wo ist Dame Zwei? Österreich! 
(For one night only!)


Friday, August 25, 2017

Bratislava

As my only full day in Bratislava ends, I have a slight sunburn and am overly tired from the heat, but I think I did okay seeing the town.

My first order of business today was to hit the drugstore around the corner and pick up some sunblock, which I forgot to pack, and which has been desperately needed to keep me from completely bursting into flames the last 3 days. Unfortunately, even SPF 50 wasn't enough to last all day in the August heat. The temperature while I was out was 33 C (around 92 F), which is good weather for nothing but being in a climate-controlled building.

Anyway. After applying my newly acquired sunscreen liberally, I took a walk down to the Slovak National Gallery, which houses an interesting collection of random art. Sadly, only 2 floors were open today -- one of the closed ones was an exhibit on Slovak fashion that I really wanted to see -- so I enjoyed the small amount that I saw, but was a bit underwhelmed and didn't spend long wandering through.

After my art viewing, I crossed the road and walked along the Danube for a while, my second visit to its shores this week. I must say, in both cases it has been pretty green, and I have to declare Johann Strauss a liar. One of the bridges across it is the Most SNP, which was built in the 1970s and looks like a concrete Socialist mini-Space Needle. But on a bridge. I read that the prices to go to the viewing deck were ridiculous, though, so I decided against visiting the tower and kept walking.

From there I wandered in the Old Town a bit and stopped at St Martin's Cathedral, which is under renovation, but still had some very picturesque angles. And then I started up the climb to Castle Hill. I don't know what makes me suddenly feel like being a tourist when it's a million degrees out and there are a thousand stairs to climb, but it just keeps happening. So I made my way up to Bratislava Castle, and view did not disappoint. The Castle was okay, but the views over the city are the real reason to endure the climb.

I spent quite some time wandering around, seeing everything on Castle Hill, and then slowly meandered back down to spend a lot more time just shopping and generally checking things out in Old Town. It's clear that it's a very touristy area, but it's also bustling and has a lot of interesting little shops. In general, the buildings in Bratislava remind me of Prague, in that it's a mix of shabby and beautiful, no matter where you go. But also in that it's just a cool city, not too expensive, and has a lot of good stuff to see.

At this point in the day, I was planning to head to a restaurant that had been suggested that I try, but after walking for hours, I was overheated and sweaty, and my feet hurt from wearing my (normally very comfortable for walking) sandals with thin leather soles on the jagged rock paths of Castle Hill. But more importantly, I wasn't hungry. So I decided to head back to the hotel just to clean up and and cool off in the air conditioning, before going out to eat later.

Well, here I am at nearly midnight and I haven't made it any further than the drinks terrace 2 floors below my room. But in my defense, it's so comfy in here. And so air conditioned. I'm okay with missing out on a big Slovak feast for dinner, because I think my day was generally a success.

So my evening may have been lazy, but I didn't miss anything I really wanted to see, I tried yet another delicious local rosé, and ya know what? I haven't sweated or climbed any stairs for hours. So I feel good about it.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Budapest

My visit to Budapest was too short, and went too fast. So fast that I'm just now getting a chance to sit and pull my thoughts together about the city, and I'm no longer there. As I write this, I'm in a nice boutique hotel in Bratislava -- my second stop along the Danube River this trip -- sipping a Slovak wine and listening to old Take That hits. By the way, I had no idea that Hungarian and Slovak wines were a thing I should seek out, but I've tried 3 different local rosés so far, and they've all been lovely. Who knew?

Anyway. Budapest. I'd been meaning to get there for a few years, but had never managed to fit it into the travel schedule. Then when it became clear I wouldn't be able to use my ticket for the Robbie Williams show in Edinburgh this June, the Budapest stop on his tour became a perfect excuse to plan a trip. Of course, I never spend more than a couple of days in any single place when I travel (god / Elvis forbid I actually relax and sit still for 5 minutes), so Budapest was just the first of a few stops on a two week journey.

I arrived at my hotel on the edge of the Józsefváros part of town -- supposedly a rough area at night, but I never saw or felt any indication of that -- at around 8pm on Tuesday, after about 20 hours of travel. It could have been shorter, I'm sure, but I took British Airways through Heathrow because I'm addicted to my gold member perks. But even with perks, I can't sleep on airplanes, so I was too exhausted to do anything but eat, watch some TV, and pass out for the night, with my alarm set nice and early to make the best of Wednesday. Ah, the best laid plans. 


My jet lag and I got out of bed, very well rested, just before noon on Wednesday, leaving only a few hours to sight-see before it was time for Rob and Erasure. Because of that, I got out the old guidebook and found a few places to visit within walking distance. First, I walked across the Liberty Bridge over the Danube, and up to the Cave Church, aka a lot of other things, including the Gellért Hill Cave or Gellérthegyi Barlang. Essentially, it's a chapel carved into the side of the mountain, and the main entrance looks like a cave. Very cool. Then after taking a photo of the statue of St Stephen outside (he's a big deal in Bupapest, apparently), I started ascending the winding paths and stairs up Gellért Hill.

After making a few stops for photos of the views, I determined I was only halfway to the Citadel and Liberation Monument that I could see up top... and that I wasn't going any further. Between the hot day and my bad knees, I'd touristed enough. My trusty, rusty Fitbit indicated that I'd already been up the equivalent of 20 flights of stairs when I gave up, so I officially take issue with the place being called a hill and stand by my decision to quit while I could still use my joints well enough to get back down.

I descended the same way I went up, then took a walk on flat ground, along the front side of the Cave Church and the monastery which accompanied it, down to the other end of the hill (mountain). There I found a gigantic statue of St Gellért himself, above a waterfall, giant crucifix in hand, looming over me as I crossed the Elisabeth Bridge. Back on the other side of the Danube, lunch, a bit of shopping, and a stop at the hotel awaited me before the night's entertainment. 

I won't get into fangirl mode over Robbie here, but I will say that the Groupama Arena is a great stadium, and the show was fantastic. Erasure sounded perfect, and I never knew that they don't bring a band on tour... it's just Vince Clark back there with his electronics and occasionally a guitar. Wow. 


Rob was his usual brilliant showman, but the crowd took a lot of the fun out of it. I'm too old to stand for hours, pressing my way through the standing section to get close enough to see, which means I pay for one of the front seated rows at these stadium gigs. But even so, when Let Me Entertain You blasts from the speakers, we all stand up, and stay there until the last note of Angels. We sing along. We dance. We cheer. And when Rob commands that we put our hands in the air, you can damn well bet that we do as we're told. This has been true in London (both times), Munich, and Barcelona. But not in Budapest. A small portion of the standing crowd played along, but everyone else just kind of listened politely and clapped once in a while. In other cities, Mr Williams will start the crowd singing Angels, and then just sit and listen... and we will sing the whole rest of the song. The Budapest crowd barely finished the lyric in progress when he went quiet. I don't get it. I assume it's a cultural thing. And I wasn't going to stand up and dance around and have a bunch of people shout at me in Hungarian that I was blocking their view. So even though the atmosphere was shite, as Jody might say, I enjoyed myself as always and was buzzing long after I got back to the hotel. 

Which meant that I pretty much just dragged myself out of bed and straight onto the train this morning, no more adventures. But now that I'm in the next city of my journey, well... to be continued...

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Belfast

Three years or so ago, I had a conversation with Jody about our shared desire to visit Dublin. I had always planned that if I were to go to the Republic, that I'd also want to visit Northern Ireland, because the island can't be fully understood without seeing both. It went something like this:

"You are NOT going to Belfast. You'll get blown up."
"Maybe years ago. There's none of that anymore."
"Aye there is! I'll show you the news story from last week..."

So when Jody magically forgot about his unfound worry and asked if I'd like to join him here for a UFC event, I jumped at the chance.

We arrived yesterday at Belfast International Airport, which is well out of town, but got lucky in randomly being picked up by a good-natured taxi driver willing to give us a wee tour and a history lesson on the ride to our hotel.

He drove us through one of the areas most impacted by The Troubles, describing the bombings, the marches, and the police presence that had been there, in both long gone by and recent years. For much of the city, the division is represented by Shankill Road (the Protestant / Unionist portion) and Falls Road (the Catholic / Republican side). These two major streets run parallel and many of the cross streets have large gates in the middle that the police close at night in a symbolic attempt to keep the combatants apart. The incidents our driver described from recent years sounded less like the war waged in earlier times, and more like organised crime: things like coordinated control of businesses and transportation, beatings and intimidation. But while the tactics have shifted, the emotions and reasons behind it have not.

Our drive also took us by a few of the famous murals, beautifully turning events both proud and sad in the bloody sectarian battles to lasting art. Some of the murals near schools are being repainted by the children these days, in an attempt to help the battle lines blur and the hatred to turn to understanding. But of course kids are a product of the adults around them, so within this hope, there's also a resignation to the fact that you can only shrink the problem; it will never really go away.

The lesson ended with our arrival in the city centre, of which our taxi driving friend said, "It's like any city centre; no trouble, people just get on with it." And I've found that to be the case. Belfast is another enjoyable British city, with lovely people, and unwelcoming weather. Because it's been around freezing the whole time we've been here, Jody and I have tended to hole up where it's warm and not go out too much. I skipped the 20 minute walk to the Ulster Museum today, opting to stay nearby and instead visit the Titanic Memorial Garden, the (just opened for the year) Continental Christmas Market at City Hall, and the Victoria Square Shopping Centre... with just a quick break for a pint of Guinness at Fibber Magee's.

Now I'm back in the hotel room, keeping cosy and watching sports all night while Jody's off writing about a bunch of fighting that makes no sense to me. And we're both heading back out of town tomorrow, sadly.

Sure, there are reminders of Belfast's dangerous past here and there -- we can see the Europa Hotel, famously the most bombed hotel in Europe, from our window -- but generally there's a great spirit in this town. I'm glad I made it here, and I hope to get a chance to come back.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Zurich

Zurich makes me happy. Funny how Italy's leisurely culture made me feel angst and irritation, but the stereotypical land of punctuality and seriousness has me totally relaxed and contented.

The train ride here took 4 hours, almost exactly, and had some lovely Alpine mountain and lake scenery out the windows. Unfortunately, every time I got ready to take a photo, we'd pass a building or a bunch of trees, or go into a tunnel, and I'd miss it. A couple of times I just snapped away with my phone at random, and the results look like grim hills with a grey sky. Or a glowing sky because the clouds were so reflective. The one at right auto-adjusted the exposure so dark that it looks like it should be the cover of the next single by Modest Mussorgsky. So I guess I'll have to rely on my memory for the views. At least that way when I think I spotted a couple of glaciers in the distance, and saw some ibex grazing in a valley, there's no evidence to prove me right or wrong... so by default I'm right about what I saw.

Since I arrived in Zurich, I haven't done a whole lot. The downtown area is all easily walkable, so mostly I've just done that. I checked my guidebook when I got settled last night, but it informed me that all the museums are closed on Mondays, and I was too late to get into them before closing time Sunday. So there wasn't much left but to enjoy the city.

And enjoy it I have. It's so refreshing to be in a bustling city, to have busy people, going about their daily lives, doing their jobs, and being happy because this is a good place to live, not a good place to laze around on vacation. It's exactly the kind of place I like. People are in a hurry. The food is good, and made to be taken on the go. And nobody wants to talk to me or sell me anything. They couldn't care less what I'm up to. I love it here.

Today I took a good long walk all around downtown, took some photos along the water -- I don't know exactly which water... all of the water, there's a lot of lake/river/whatever-front in this town -- and then just sat and relaxed. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading a book, feeling the nice cool breeze, listening to the trams go by. And it was fantastic.

I have very little planned for tonight, and then tomorrow it's flights back to Seattle and real life.

I don't have the stamina for solo travel that I used to; I still love it, but I tire of it much more quickly now than I used to. I guess Jody's just made me more homey in general. So I'm glad that just as I was getting worn out with this trip, Zurich managed to recharge me.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

(Too Sexy for) Milan

OK, the title's clearly not true, but the stupid song has been in my head since I got here, and I couldn't resist.

Right before I left Edinburgh, Jody and I watched an episode of The Ricky Gervais Show in which Karl Pilkington said that if he could be any nationality, he'd be Italian, because it's so much more of a laid-back lifestyle. In England everyone's rushing around, but in Italy you can sit outside a café all day and nobody thinks it's at all strange.

Maybe that's why I'm not loving it here. I don't want to sit outside cafés all day. I like rushing around. When I first started travelling, I didn't have a lot of money, so I did it as cheaply as possible. I'd go out and walk around seeing the sights that didn't charge admission, and all my food would come from the supermarket. Or maybe some cheap takeaway, but I'd never spend time sitting around a restaurant, lazing over a meal. And it suited me. It's how I still like to travel. Maybe it's just habit, but I think it's more that it's just how I am. I may stay in nicer hotels now, but I still eat on the cheap, and I'll still only pay for admission to something I really want to see, which isn't much.

So Italy, I'm just not that into you. I don't want to go out to a café for proper coffee, I just want a quick cup of instant in my hotel room, to give me enough caffeine to start the day. I don't want to sit around slowly eating a big meal and sipping wine for hours, I just want to grab something and get on my way. And I want to walk quickly, to get to my destination, not take a leisurely stroll down the road like I've nowhere to be, and no one behind me does either. Also, when I went looking in my guidebook for places to visit in Milan, I immediately noticed that everything costs money. The Last Supper is a must see; it's amazing! It costs 8 Euro and you can only get in by booking in advance or taking an official tour. Nope. Thumbs down. I get why people love taking their vacations here, but it's so not me. My favourite cities in the world are London and New York, and this is pretty much the exact opposite of those places.

Which means that I didn't find much I wanted to see here, and nothing that I felt like paying for. It didn't leave me a whole lot of sightseeing to do.  So with the sad realisation that Italy and I want totally different things from a Saturday, today I slept late, and then took the subway to the Duomo, because it's evidently the main thing to see in Milan. And it was gorgeous. And surrounded by lots of other great photo-worthy stuff. But I could barely move in the square from all the football fans crowded into it.


Fans, fans everywhere
Turns out Milan is hosting the Champions League Final tonight, between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. I love some good football fanaticism, and don't grudge these folk supporting their teams in such a big game. For about 3 minutes it was fun watching them wave flags and sing all their football songs. But then it became less fun. Because I couldn't go anywhere without running into scads of them, blocking the passage ways, taking in bottle after bottle of booze, and constantly increasing the volume of their singing. In every public space. I'm staying right by the Central Station, and needed to catch the subway there... but the square in front of it is hosting a celebration for the big game and swarming with drunk people. The subway cars were all crammed with shouting, laughing, singing dudes in their team tops. The Piazza del Duomo was an official fan zone, packing them in shoulder to shoulder despite the massiveness of the area.

I tried walking a few blocks away from the Duomo where there's a lot of shopping, but there was no let up of the crowds, and I'd had enough of the sun and 29 degree heat. So I made my way back to my nicely air conditioned hotel room, and am now trying to determine what to do with my evening.


If nothing else, the game'll probably be on TV...