Stop 21: Amsterdam

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It wasn’t actually our 21st stop, it was our 11th city on the trip. No, it was a time of celebration to welcome in my 21st year. Now, I’m going to try and not make this blog post all about me but I did have the best birthday EVER.

We arrived in Amsterdam at around 15:30. We split from Kieran as he was meeting a few friends from home who had flown out to meet him for the weekend. We were staying at the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel (names can be deceiving, it’s still a hostel) on Kerkstraat. The instructions said told us to take a tram. By now we considered ourselves to be experts at map reading and able to distinguish between a long walk with our heavy backpacks or a short walk. We made it to Kerkstraat within 10 minutes. We felt proud of ourselves. Now all we had to do was follow the numbers until we reach 136-138. We were at number 670. Oh my was it a long walk. An hour later we made it.

We had booked the hostel back in England because we had been told that last minute in Amsterdam is unlikely and expensive. The Hans Brinker doesn’t have a kitchen but it does serve breakfast in the morning (included in the price of the room) and meals at dinner time. Granted, they’re not Michelin standard but at around €6 a meal it’s pretty good grub. The rooms are small with a small en suite shower and toilet. This makes it stuffy and horrible to move around in. However, it’s clean and perfect for a few nights stay. There is even a club in the Hans Brinker basement.

Our bodies knew that Amsterdam was our last stop and all we could think about was sleep. So we did. That is when our two roomies arrived. They were a very sweet Argentinian couple but meeting them properly would have to wait a few hours. We were out for the count.

Prepping for the evening’s activities (we were going out to welcome in my birthday) I hopped in to the shower. Upon exiting said bathroom I was greeted with a cake and a face full of balloons, accompanied by Uncle Bryn style shouting “SURPRISE! SURPRISE! SURPRISE!” (For those of you who are not avid Gavin & Stacey fans, click here to see what I mean.)

Now, I’m going to try and explain the evening’s events and still maintain that it was my best birthday ever, but you’re not going to believe me. I think it was a night where you had to be there in order to understand the hilarity of it.

We met up with the boyf and his four friends who had flown to Amsterdam for a lad’s holiday and overlapped for my birthday. They had been here for two nights already so we followed them. They were taking us to ‘the best club in Amsterdam’, Club Air. It had better be the best club at €16 per person for entry! It wasn’t. It was pure House music (that’s the kind of music that pumps your ears, has no lyrics and you have to dance by sort of punching the air). I guess for some people it’s great, but we were seeking Katy Perry, Tom Odell and Carley-Rae Jepson. After about 20 minutes we left. We weren’t upset/gutted/angry at all. Our night was to continue. We then walked the age back to the Hans Brinker to resume drinking in the club there. After a while we decided to go for another walk to seek another club and so on. It doesn’t sound epic, if anything it sounds like it an absolute ball ache (excuse my Dutch), but we had a laugh.

I would like to say that the following day, 1st September, we explored Amsterdam, but we didn’t. We climbed into bed around 5am and didn’t stir until 12. What we did do however, was hit up one of Amsterdam’s most famous attributes: it’s Coffee Shops. Needless to say that that night we slept well.

The 2nd September was our final day of the entire trip. As we had to check out of the Hans Brinker by 10am and we weren’t due to leave until 21:30, today was our day for sightseeing.

Amsterdam is stunning. By now I would have though we would have seen it all but no, Amsterdam is something else. The canals cannot be compared to Venice of course, but they are still beautiful. The houses are tall and thin and some of them even appear to be falling forward. I thought those buildings were dangerous to walk past, let alone live in. However, Architect Emily informed us that “it is possible to rebuild a building but keep the original facade.” So that’s what we presumed was the case.

I found visiting Anne Frank’s house very moving. Although it is not furnished (in respect of Otto Frank’s wishes) it is still has the same impact as if they had been mocked up. At €9 per adult visiting, I found it fascinating walking around the rooms in which I had read about in the diaries. The original book shelf hiding the doorway to the annex remains. Videos of interviews documenting the lives of the inhabitants by surviving friends are scattered throughout. There isn’t too much reading required so you are free to absorb the information at your own pace.

We did take a trip into the Red Light District. It’s insane! Men, women and men dressed as women are just flaunting their junk in a window the size of a shop. If the curtains are pulled it means the prostitute is occupied. It is such a foreign concept to us. We did leave shortly after we were hollered at. “Do you girls work here? No of course not, you’re too sexy.” Er, no thank you.

What better way to finish our Amsterdam trip than with a visit to the infamous ‘I Amsterdam sign’. We thought we were hilarious having our photographs taken whilst we were sitting on the ‘T-E-R-D’ section. We thought that was the most hilarious thing until Rebec tried to get down from the top of the ‘E’. Rather than describe it, I have included the video below.

I would like to say that come 21:30 we would be boarding a flight to Gatwick and that we would be home before midnight. Alas, no. You must remember we are still students and we took the second option. We took the 11 hour Megabus that would drive through Brussels in Belgium, to Calais, take us on to a ferry for an hour and a half, arrive at Dover only to drive past our junction on the M25 for another hour to take us safety in to London Victoria for 7am. But for £1 it was worth it. By now we had learnt to sleep on public transport and we were such a close-knit group who shared so many hilarious memories, we didn’t care.

I thought Amsterdam was our last city stop, but I awoke as we were crossing Lambeth Bridge, where the rising sun set the Houses of Parliament alight. No, this was our last city. London: a stone’s throw away from home.


Rebec trying to get down from the ‘e’

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Berlin, the Cultural Capital

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I underestimated the German capital by about 500 percent. We had previously booked ourselves on to a tour around the Reichstag (German parliament) on the 28th at 10:30 am which was the only slot available. This meant we would have to arrive in Berlin on the 27th, giving us four nights in the city, making it our longest stay yet. If I’m honest, I wasn’t that impressed with the idea of four nights in Berlin; I was more keen to redistribute our days elsewhere. Like the accidental night in Venice, I am so glad it worked out that way. I was gutted we had to leave.

We walked drearily out of Berlin Hbf at around 22:00 and without warning, we came alive. I can’t really explain the feeling but the city is buzzing with people and music and culture and history, and it smacks you in the face the moment you confront it. It’s the kind of abuse that cuts through the tiredness of travelling and sets the adrenaline running through your veins and I was excited to emerge myself in the city.

We were staying in Industriepalast Hostel on Warchauer Strasse which is situated right opposite Matrix club (which turned out to be a very handy situation because it made taking one of us home in a drunken stupor easy). We were down the road from 24 hour supermarkets, the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn and it is around the corner from the Eastside Gallery. The hostel is divided into sort of living quarters where your shared room has access to private bathrooms. Our room was a shared dorm of eight and we had access to two immaculate bathrooms. We ended up sharing our room with two brilliant Israeli lads. I’m not going to insult either of them by attempting to write their names but I’ll go with what they asked us to call them – Uvi and Liron. They were travelling Europe in their break from uni and Israeli National Service. They were a great laugh.

Okay, so here is my advice for when visiting the Reichstag: as you’re looking at the Reichstag, the mobile building to the right is where you need to go to show your tickets for the tour you’ve booked on to. The door on the front is where you need to go if you’re touring the whole of the building. The door round to the right is where you show them your booking confirmation for a tour around just the dome. DO NOT under any circumstance stand at the wrong door for 15 minutes only for the woman to tell you you’re queuing in the wrong place and so by the time you go to the right door you have missed your tour. Don’t do it because that would be stupid and incredibly annoying.

Because they took pity on us poor English girls, luckily we were allowed on a tour of the dome. It’s free and I would say worth a visit, despite the fact that you are required to wear an audio tour pack which is synced to different sections of the dome. For instance, one of the favourite phrases mentioned is “let’s walk further up the dome”. Or at least that’s what I was told was said because I kept walking too fast. I would accidentally walk past another check point and consequently the voice would stop mid sentence and begin something else. The skyline here is brilliant. There is a clear view of the ex-Soviet Eastside, the ex-Allied Westside and where the Berlin Wall used to run. On the clear sunny day that we went we could see the whole of Berlin. It was modern, historical and simply buzzing.

After picnicking in the Reichstag grounds we went off to visit the memorials. First on our way was a memorial garden for all the gypsies who were murdered during the Holocaust. It is a very peaceful spot. My only objection was that right outside the memorial were a family of gypsies conning tourists out of money, claiming they were deaf. This may have well been the case, that an entire family had been struck by the misfortune of lack of hearing, but when we saw them whispering to each other we had our doubts.

The Jewish Memorial consists of 2711 concrete blocks set in a sloping ground. Every single block is the same length and width but differ drastically in height. The idea behind it is that an uneasy atmosphere haunts the person walking through it and is representative of an ordered system that has distorted flaws, like the Nazi regime. When we returned a few days later, our tour guide told us a theory that if you walk in, you’ll meet someone and then turn around and they’re gone, but you know that when you leave the maze of concrete coffins you’ll see them again. Much like the Jewish population during WWII. Should you choose to visit, go to the free Ort der Information (Place of Information). There is a lot to take in, but you can read the names and stories of the victims of the Holocaust.

That night we decided to do another pub crawl. As we were there for three more nights, we figured we could go to the pub crawl to meet people and then go out again on our own. We drunk with our Israeli roomies and then walked to the first meeting point. Well it was no Prague, but still good fun. At first though, it was what we call a ‘sausage fest’, whereby Rebec, Em, Clo and myself were the only girls. We met some lovely lads from the army. Initially, I accidentally insulted them by asking if they were builders. However, having struck up a conversation with them, I began to feel less guilty about the insult. “We’re in the British army,” one of them announced. “No we’re not, we’re in the English army!” another shouted. I left them to decipher their issues. I then went on to invite a group of Australian lads to invade the UK for an easy victory. Kieran was less impressed with the lack of chicas. Again, I would love to tell you how many places we went to but my memory is a little fragile about this night. We ended up in the Matrix club. It’s an underground club with several different rooms. A different room is open every night, hence the name Matrix. Although it was good fun, I wouldn’t really recommend a pub crawl in Berlin because you don’t really need to. Alcohol is dirt cheap, meeting people is easy and there is nightlife everywhere you go. Despite having a good night, we all wished we had saved our money and done it ourselves. Our plans to do just that the following night were foiled due to the fact we were all hanging beyond belief.

The following day we visited the Eastside Gallery. It is a brilliant place to go. The vibrant colours and epic murals are enough to get the creative juices flowing. Around a mile long, each painting is completely different to the previous one. It made me wonder what it would have been like as a youth in 1989 when the wall came down. My belly bubbled with anger, excitement and revolution.

As it turns out, Berlin is a good place for tattoo artists… I’ll be brief, but three of us got inked. We figured if its rubbish we’ll just be able to blame it on the travelling bug. I actually quite like mine, but ask me again in a year’s time….

Aside from tattoos, our final day in Berlin consisted of a walking tour. By now we’ve found that the free tours are the best ones to do. Because the tour guides work on tips, they try really hard to be informative and funny without going overboard. It was perfect because we were taken around the places we wanted to see (we were mainly fascinated with the WWII stuff) but places we hadn’t really thought about, like the Humboldt University where Einstein taught and holds 22 Nobel Prizes.

At six o’clock in the morning of the 31st August, we walked to the train station with sleep in our eyes, ink on our skin and bags ladened with cheap alcohol. I found leaving Berlin a hard one because it was such an unexpected gem, but I know full well I’ll be back. I feel we saw so much but Berlin has so much more to offer. After all, Berlin is a city home to the worst parts of history, but also gave birth to some of the best.

Auf Wiedersehen Berlin! Aber nicht für lange!

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East Side Gallery

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Jewish Memorial

What we saw in Warsaw

The train journey from Kraków to Warsaw is direct, short and sweet. The only challenge was the walk to the hostel. All the hostels we tried to book into we’re fully booked so we ended up staying in another university halls that were recommended to us by Atlantis in Kraków.

Well I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. And if these were my uni halls I’d definitely commute from home. With three people to a room, we were split across two (this was not a problem). But it said it had a fully equipped kitchen but it doesn’t and it’s very far out from anywhere. Clo and myself shared a room with a bloke who we called Handy Andy, because he was neither handy, nor called Andy.

Warsaw is an interesting city. It’s still a building site. If you look at it without taking it’s history into account, it’s a lot less impressive. During World War II, Warsaw was practically destroyed. The Warsaw uprising in 1944 led to a retaliation by the Nazi’s who bombed the city within an inch of it’s life. Thousands were killed and the majority of the buildings destroyed.

We went to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at 12 o’clock on Sunday. Well, they’ve only gone and surrounded it by a building site haven’t they? We had to stand on flower pots to see over the industrial fencing and watch it from behind. It was still interesting, still very ceremonial but annoying that we couldn’t watch it properly.

Upon visiting the Old Town, I really began to appreciate the efforts by the Varsovians. They have completely rebuilt it in the style that it was before. It’s odd because the design doesn’t suit the age of the buildings. They seem too intact.

On our way to the Old Town we stumbled across a mini festival – I can’t work out what it was, despite looking everywhere – where there was food, trinkets and dancing. We decided to spend our time looking around and taking it slow here. We purchased some travelling flags for our respective uni rooms and the biggest waffles you have ever seen. They were covered in so much cream and chocolate and fruit and nuts. They were beautiful. We then decided to go for a bit of a walk to burn off the calories. We weren’t at all annoyed when we unintentionally ended up in a roof garden overlooking the river and city. It wasn’t such a bad accident.

The following day we began by going to the local supermarket and stocking up on our vodka. I’m talking practically buying out the shop. We were determined to purchase as many flavours as possible. The thing is, 350ml of vodka was about 17 Polish zlote, which is the equivalent of £3.50. It is a student’s heaven.

Later that day we decided to walk to the Jewish Quarters to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum where it is free entry. We discovered why these cities have trams everywhere. It was so far away! With full bladders and aching legs, we didn’t really appreciate our surroundings.

If you ever find yourself in Warsaw, visit the museum. It is very atmospheric with cobbled floors, bullet holed bricks and air raid sound effects. It is simply crammed full of information; photos, relics and videos. The videos don’t hold back mind. Some of them are very graphic when it comes to the disposal of starving corpses in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. I left the museum feeling very cultural.

Faced with a long walk back, coupled with our new found knowledge, we appreciated the buildings a lot more. Amongst the recently built glass skyscrapers, there are surviving 1940’s buildings, in the middle of building sites, or in the middle of a block simply shut off from the world. When you’re looking for them, they are obvious: grey, dirty and unkept. Behind the gateways lie a labyrinth of old Warsaw. However, unless you are looking for them, wartime Warsaw remains unnoticed.

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Warsaw Skyline

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Some of the old buildings can still be seen in the Jewish Quarters

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These are postcards of the city after it was bombed and how it looks now

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We saw the shape of these ice creams and we couldn’t resist… (Rebec, Chloë, me and Em)

Kraków and Auschwitz

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(Images copyright of Hollie Borland)

We arrived in Kraków in Poland around 23:45. The instructions we had been given by the hostel was that we were to take tram 19. Well, the main crossroads in Kraków is busy and full of tram stops. After looking at a few we decided to ask two tram drivers who were having a smoke. They turned their backs on us and continued their conversation. We persisted.

“19? No.” Well that was helpful. And rude. That was all we got from them. They finished their conversation and walked away to their respective vehicles. At midnight it becomes tram central. They all move at once. After walking around a bit more we found a stop for tram 19, only the number had a cross through it. So our tram wasn’t running. As we were getting a little desperate, one of the funniest things happened.

An approaching tram was playing loud music and had flashing disco lights. As it passed us, we were greeted with drunken cheers, thumbs ups, waves and even a woman’s behind pressed up against the window. It was one of the infamous party trams we had heard of. It’s passing by was enough to restore our faith in Kraków and we walked to the hostel.

Atlantis Hostel has a decent kitchen, comfortable communal area, clean bathrooms and wifi throughout the hostel. And for around €6 a night in a dorm of 10, it was well worth the money. Upon arrival we were greeted with a complimentary shot “to help you sleep”. Between us we tried apple, cranberry, pineapple, toffee and nut flavoured vodka. In addition, they helped us book on to a tour to Auschwitz for the next day that picked us up right outside the hostel.

Auschwitz

During the months of May and October it is only possible to visit Auschwitz on an organised tour. These tours include transport to the camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which are about 70 minutes away by coach. Our tour operators were See Kraków, who charged us 105 Polish Zloty (about £22) for a three and a half hour tour in English around the two camps, including our transport to, from and between the camps, picking us up and dropping us off outside our hostel.

We began our tour at Auschwitz I, which is made up of the old brick army barracks. We passed through the infamous gates that bears the sign ‘Arbeit macht frei‘, which translates as ‘Work makes freedom’. In all honesty, they do look like ordinary barracks. They look too new to be involved in such a large part of history. Some of the blocks have been converted into museums, displaying photos, documents and personal belongings that were confiscated and remained at the camp. The exhibition includes a huge display of surviving human hair, forcefully shaved from the heads of prisoners. The hair was sold to make carpets and socks for soldiers, but a large amount of packaged yet unsold hair remained at the liberation of the camp. Children’s plaited pigtails are at the top of the pile.

The museum is heaving at this time of year. We followed another group in front of us and were closely followed by another group behind us. Ironically, at times I felt like cattle being moved from one room to another. I wasn’t able to ponder at the exhibition but that is because they want to keep the traffic of tourists flowing. It did feel a little commercialised. But then we were shown around a gas chamber. We walked in silence in respect of the dead. The rooms were real, dried and stained with death. That hit home.

Visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau was what was needed to force the realisation upon myself that I was where around three million people had been exterminated. We stood where the soldiers would herd the thousands of prisoners from across Europe off of the cattle carts, sort them into groups: men, women, children, the weak. This was the centre of the Holocaust.

To stand on the spot where some many people died is a very powerful thing and can only be understood through experiencing the feeling yourself.

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Birkenau (copyright of Hollie Borland)

Czech us out, we made it to Prague!

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Arriving in Prague was easy enough and the walk to our hostel was straightforward. We were staying in the Chili Hostel, which if I’m honest, isn’t that great. It is massive and has a kitchen available to use, but it’s small in comparison to the number of people staying there. And because the hostel is so big, there’s a lot of free roaming and I didn’t really trust the other people staying there, which is a shame because everywhere else I’ve felt safe. We were on the fifth floor. There are no lifts here so we had to walk up ten flights of stairs. TEN FLIGHTS. Once we came down for something there was no way we were going back up until sleep time.

The first night in Prague we decided to catch up on sleep. None of us seemed to have the energy to do anything. So with home cooked bangers and mash in our bellies we called it a night. There was only one other person in our dorm and he was Spanish I think. He didn’t really speak to us and didn’t introduce himself. So naturally we dubbed him José.

The following morning we met at 11 o’clock in the Old Town Square to go on a free guided tour around the city. I would recommend this option to anyone. Because it’s free, they do ask for tips. Around 100 Czech Koruna (about £3.30) is plenty. Our guide was called Australian Ashley and, dare I say it, he was more amazing than Australian James from Rome. I had no idea about the history of the Czech Republic but Ashley made it so interesting. He told us about the success under Charles V and the decline under the King Wenceslas. He took us through the Old Town and told us about how the Astronomical Clock was voted the second most disappointing attraction. He talked us through how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards funded the lights that light up the castle. He walked us through the Jewish Quarters where the ground was raised by three metres because the land was prone to terrible flooding from the river. We loved Ashley.

In the afternoon we visited the Pinkas Synagogue. Inside, the names of the 22,000 Hungarian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust are scribed on the walls: the names, date of birth and the date of death are all grouped in families, according to where they live. The first room was daunting enough, but there are four more rooms the same. Inside, there is also an exhibition of artwork produced by the Jewish children of Hungry during the Holocaust. The story behind their survival is as follows.

The Jewish population of Hungary were forced to migrate into the Terezín ghetto outside of Prague, under the Nazi regime. The living conditions here were terrible; there were more Jews forced to live there than the area could sustain, they were given curfews and their use of public transport was restricted. Life was depressing. In order to help the children of the ghetto cope with a lifestyle their friends and families did not choose, an artist named Friedl Dicker-Brandeisová held art therapy classes. The children aged between 10 and 18 were encourage to draw memories of home, dreams and happier times. For these lessons to take place, there was a lot of smuggling of art materials into the ghetto, under the noses of the Nazi’s. Eventually, Friedl was transported to Auschwitz. However, before she left she buried suitcases full of the children’s work and told a friend of their location. After the war ended, the suitcases were recovered and the drawings displayed.

The optimism portrayed in the drawings is heart wrenching, especially as the fate of each child artist is displayed adjacent to their artwork. Only a few survived the Holocaust. The colours of the drawings are surprisingly bright and clear; a constant reminder that this slab of history was only around seventy years ago. The exhibition has provided the opportunity for permanent recognition of the names of Jewish children who would have otherwise been forgotten.

Prague, the party capital

Well, it certainly lived up to it’s reputation. After another home cooked meal, we ‘got ready’ for a night out. I put that in apostrophes because I assure you I would never go out at home in what I wore. All four of us girls put on some denim shorts and donned our Prague pub crawl t-shirts. For €20 we were greeted by reps who showed us where the bars were. We had an hour of free wine, beer, vodka and absinth shots in the first bar. Needless to say it tasted vile, but hey it was free and we are students so we take what we can get.

We attended three bars and a club. I would simply love to tell you the names of the places we went to but you have to let your hair down once in a while don’t you? These bar crawls are often slated by seasoned travellers, but I think it’s a great way to meet people. We spent the night with travellers from Brazil, France, Canada and Australia. We even met a bloke from our neighbouring village back in England! What are the chances? All continents united under reciting the theme tunes to The Sleepover Club and Coronation Street.

The club at the end was a five storey beast, playing the best of all genres of music, including an aptly named cheese floor. The night ended with a drunken detour to the famous Charles Bridge, where we were much less appreciative of the gothic statues which lined either side, or the fantastic view of the Castle Grounds (lit up thanks to the Rolling Stones) than we should have been.

We decided that a twenty-past one in the afternoon train to Kraków, Poland, would suit our hangover timetable just fine. Emily, Chloë and Kieran went to the shop to get food and would meet Rebec and myself at the train station. Rebec and myself left 40 minutes for a walk that should have taken us only 20 minutes. Well, we get lost. And stressed. The others were waiting for us the station and I had the details of the train. I phoned them and told them the train was at 13:19, what was the platform? 6. Okay, we had seven minutes, we could make that. Ladened with our backpacks and day bags, Rebec and myself could see the station, but could not see a way in. We were walking on a very busy road and the pavement was diminishing. We took a risk and turned right off a slip road into a car park which luckily took us straight onto platform 1. Having bypassed the entrance, we called the others to meet us on the platform. We made it with four minutes to spare. I double checked the train details, just to make sure. Our train wasn’t the 13:19 but the 13:16. Massive booboo on my behalf. Our train was departing from platform 4. As we ran on to the platform, we watched our train leave the station.

No, I thought. We are not changing our plans for a mistake I made. “Stay here,” I said, throwing my big bag down on the platform with the others. I marched to the ticket office to find out what our options are. There was a train leaving in 6 minutes which got us into Kraków at the planned time, or one at 16:30 that arrived at 6:00 in the morning. This was not an option. 6 minutes it was then. I called the others to tell them to get to platform 1. You have 5 minutes. I still had to pay for our reservations. The woman at the desk understood my panic and worked as quickly as possible.

“You have 2 minutes. Turn right out of here, then left, then up the escalator and then the first left up the second escalator.” How far? Now I like to think at this moment in time, Jesse Owens’s spirit helped me out or something, because I ran so fast, shoving people out the way (well, I was still very British about it because I did say ‘excuse me please’ before elbowing them). We clambered on to the train together. We’d made it.

As the train pulled out of the station, we looked around at each other to make sure we’d made it. With adrenaline still pumping through our veins, we began to laugh. I looked as if I was about to be sick and Em looked like the Hulk. She was wearing her big back on her back and mine on her front, whilst Clo was clutching Em’s day bag. As it turned out, we still made the connecting trains that we had originally booked on to, so we would arrive in Poland according to schedule. It was funny because it worked out. Thank God.

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Ashley the tour guide

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The Astronomical Clock

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Statue at Prague’s main train station. A reminder of all the Jews who were transported from Prague to the ghetto Terezín and the to Auschwitz

Bathing in Budapest

The train journey from Ljubljana to Budapest (Sunday 18th August) is about 10 hours long, despite it only taking around five hours to drive there. Although it was a direct train, as in we didn’t have to get off and change, the journey began by heading south into Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, before going back up north to Budapest. We always knew it was going to be long, but it was delayed for a further 70 minutes. The train was hot and stuffy with temperamental air conditioning. Needless to say the cabin fever had seriously set in. The man I mentioned in my previous post made a few more appearances, emerald green speedos aglow.

We hopped onto the metro (we were not foolish enough to test the public transport system for a free ride) which is now becoming second nature. The walk from the metro station to the hostel really wasn’t far, but Budapest smells a bit funky and there are a lot of homeless people. One man was obviously on something (we’ll call him ‘Ponytail’ for the sake of the story) and walked towards us and followed us once we had passed him. However, we felt less threatened when he was distracted by a squirrel or something and turned to follow that instead.

Like in the Hunger Games, Budapest (Buda is the surrounding hills, Pest is the city) is split into 23 districts and our hostel was situated in the Bohemian district, District VIII. Hostel Minoo House is easily the best hostel we have stayed in. It’s a converted house set back in a square, owned by four travellers who have drawn on their own experiences to create a place to stay that caters to every traveller’s needs. Instead of boring bunk beds, the rooms were made up of single and double beds set in the wooden beams. The showers were lovely and the toilets clean. The highlight of Minoo House was the kitchen. It contains everything with a hearty, chunky wooden table in the centre of the room. It was our cheapest hostel yet.

We dumped our bags and headed out to find a supermarket to buy supplies for dinner. Em made a fantastic take on bacon and vegetable risotto. The quality home cooked meal tasted like a slice of heaven. We then got ready, bought some drink and socialised with the other travellers. We really wanted to have a night out, go for a bit of a boogie but we were also shattered. We went for a drink with some other travellers: two Swedes, an Argentinian, a Brazilian, two English girls from London and an English boy from Birmingham called John.

We were drunk on the alcohol and tiredness but it was such a laugh. As we didn’t leave the hostel to go to the bar until just before 1am we had to keep drinking to stay awake. We went to a bar which was half inside and half outside with a voodoo-esque theme. The alcohol is cheap and we whipped out the cocktail that was recommended to us called Happy People, which was sweet with a tequila kick. At about three am, they moved to a club, but as it was a Sunday night it was a little quiet. The girls (Em, Rebec, Clo and myself) were drunk and cream crackered and decided to walk back. It was a hilarious walk home involving Emily walking face first into a pole whilst trying to read a map. We crawled into bed about four in the morning and we did not rise until about 11 the following day.

On Monday after our late start, the girls headed out to the Széchenyi Roman Baths. I found this a bizarre experience. The temperature outside was about 36 degrees Celsius and I was desperate to cool down. I set down my towel and jumped into the closet outside pool. I rapidly clambered out. The water temperature was 38 degrees Celsius – hotter than it was outside. I managed to find another that was 20 dc which did cool me down. Outside are three pools at various temperatures and inside there are about 10 baths all at different temperatures. After testing them all, I concluded that 34 dc was my optimum temperature. Having successfully made the transition from human to prune, I sunbathed to dry off. We chilled there until about 6 o’clock when our stomachs dictated we must find food.

We walked back via Tesco (I don’t think you understand how excited we were to find a Tesco) and bought ingredients for dinner. Because we had spent the day at the baths, we wanted to see a few sights before the night was up. We went back out again at 10 o’clock, usually pyjama time at home.

In Budapest, the metro runs at certain times, such as every 10 minutes and stops fairly early on at around half past 11. We didn’t realise this until we left, but we were keen to see things before we left on a morning train the following day. We hopped off the metro at Kossuth ter which opens out on to Parliament. From the river bank we saw The Castle and Mathais Church, or as we donned it, Hogwarts. However, the main reason we came here was to see the ‘Shoes on the Danube’. It is a holocaust memorial made up of fifty pairs of iron shoes. The shoes belonged to 50 Jews who were in hiding. When they were caught by the Nazi’s, they were lined up along the Danube (river running through Budapest), asked to remove their shoes and then they were shot. The memorial is harrowing. 100 iron shoes line the river side in a way that look as if they have been hurriedly kicked off and abandoned. The attention to detail on each pair of shoes is so realistic. Like Forest Gump says, you can always tell a person by their shoes. There were cared for shoes, worker boots and shoes that had quite clearly been passed down from child to child, each belonging to a man, woman or a child. We wondered back to the metro station contemplative.

With three minutes to spare to get the last metro home, we were throwing money at the machine to get our tickets. I have never laughed so much whilst running down a steep escalator. Needless to say we missed it. It wasn’t too bad though as we got to see what we came to see and the walk back was only about half an hour. We were more concerned with the fact that we’d wasted a grand and a half in four metro tickets we couldn’t use (around 350 Hungarian Forints is the equivalent to an English pound. So really we only spent about £5 but we were still ‘maring out. (At one point Kieran referred to the currency as ‘magic beans’ because we were seriously finding it hard to grasp an understanding of the money.))

I wish I could have stayed in Budapest another night. I feel like there was more to see but alas we have only 22 days of travelling time. On to the next city!

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The inside baths

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Not an amazing photo but this is what we called Hogwarts

The best of Vienna! (Mostly Mozart)

You will be pleased to know that the journey from Venice to Vienna was a huge success. Although Venice was beautiful, we were all pleased to leave Italy; the sweltering heat, the dodgy metro and the additional charges that seemed to be on everything we bought.

The total duration of the journey was just over 10 hours, including a window of 20 minutes to change. It sounds like being stuck on a train for that long would be a nightmare journey, but it was day four of our trip, and we had had an intense past few days, so it was nice to be able to sit down and chill and write our diaries. On the first train we were in a cabin (is that what you call it?) like we were in Harry Potter (we’re all avid HP fans to Kieran’s dismay). There was a spare seat so we were all (except K) waiting for Professor Lupin to rock up. He didn’t. The second train was a little more posh. On this train I felt a bit skanky. In Italy it was too hot for makeup and fashionable clothes. However, in Austria the weather was overcast with a little rain. Here’s some advice for other travellers: pack a wash bag with a tooth brush, toothpaste, baby wipes and spare pair of underwear. Perhaps a pair of leggings. Pack it so it is easily accessible whilst on a train. It felt amazing to freshen up!

We had access to wifi on the second train, which cut out whilst we popped over the boarder to Germany to take a more direct route to Vienna. However, by the time we made it to Wien West Bahnhoff, cabin fever had set in. We greeted Austria at 23:24 with the choruses of all the Sound of Music Songs we could think of (we only really knew the choruses), accompanied by a little jig to ‘So long, farewell’, which was tricky with all our gear on, but I feel we pulled it off.

Using the U-Bahn to get to the hostel was easy, and we made it to our hostel just after midnight. We were staying in Hostel Hütteldorf. It is more like a hotel than a hostel, with communal toilets and showers, unless you booked into a private twin room where there is an en suite available. It was nice, but again not so communal. And the kitchen area consists of a microwave and no cooking utensils so make sure you bring your own bowl.

We are becoming accustomed to living out of our backpacks and planning ahead. We dumped our bags and immediately began leaning over the map of the city to decide what we wanted to do the following day, not because we felt we had to but because we were buzzing to see what the city had to offer.

We decided we would take our time in Vienna because we didn’t want to keep rushing things or our trip would be over before we knew it. Breakfast was included in the price and serves until 10. We made our way down around 9ish to consume tinned fruit (bleurgh), bread and ham and cheese (this seems to be our staple diet at the moment) and instant coffee (bleurgh). But it was included so we ate it and enjoyed it.

Kieran, having had enough of our girl talk, set out on his own path, so we headed over to the Schönbruun on the U-Bahn. The palace is beautiful and walking through the grounds is free. Again, I would recommend taking an architect with you. For lunch we walked to the Nasch Market, a permanent food market. We each bought a small portion of something and shared it amongst each other. We sampled falafel and mango hummus, followed by carrot curry, sushi and tiramisu covered almonds. They were beautiful. The people here are much friendlier than in Italy and the just love the English. One waiter, around the age of 40, decided that he would set his brother up with Chloë and that if Rebec thought that the tender age of 22 (her age) was old, then what must she think of him?

On the map we found an attraction called ‘Dog Shit Boulevard’, so naturally we set out to find it. Unfortunately it was very disappointing, consisting of an ordinary street and three dog poos. We’re still not entirely sure why it was called that on the map but hey ho, we continued our walk through the city. We also saw the art and natural history museums, and the Hofburg, all within walking distance. We also did the ‘Phoebe (from Friends) run‘, which consists of running and flailing your arms above your head, down the sloping approach of a rather fabulous building. It turns out that was where the Austrian parliament sits. Oops. We had a toilet stop in Museums Quartier where we were required to hand over €0,50 and were shown to our cubical by a very friendly woman. We also finished our day by getting caught up in a protest about refugee rights whilst sitting on deck chairs outside what we thought was St Stephen’s Cathedral. There were some beautiful Austrian policemen escorting the protest, and we would have stayed to admire them, only in her excitement, Rebec threw her right arm straight in the air. For fear of being accused of Nazi-ism we scarpered.

Making our way back to the hostel, we had planned to stop off at the supermarket to grab some dinner, only it was shut. We were reduced to attempting to make our dried packet pasta that we purchased in Venice, in the microwave. Rebec and myself purchased a tomato pasta. Only it wasn’t. It had dried prawn and squid in it. Squid. You should not be able to do that to seafood. Needless to say we forfeit our dinner.

On day six Kieran took to the mountains and we took to the city again. We left the hostel about 12ish and hopped on the U-Bahn. We didn’t bother to buy the €2,10 ticket because there are no barriers and no one checks them. STUPID MISTAKE. Plain clothed officers boarded the train. We had tickets from yesterday which we hadn’t validated but still it was so stupid. We were escorted off at the next platform and were told we had to be fined €100 PER PERSON. We managed to play the innocent foreigner card but were still charged €50 each. It was the most idiotic move we could have done. Completely our fault, but that was the equivalent to three nights in a hostel each. We had to pay it and, rather than dwell on it, be thankful it wasn’t €100 each. I wouldn’t recommend not paying to anyone.

We made it to Karlsplatz where we ate our lunch. We also finally found St Stephen’s Cathedral which isn’t that amazing from the outside but stunning on the inside. We also went on the search for Mozart’s house. After walking round in circles for around 15 minutes, we realised we had already walked passed it many times without realising it. Feeling elated that we found it, we swiftly left when there was nothing to do there that was free. After all, we had been fined €50 earlier that day. We headed back to the hostel where Kieran’s brother and his girlfriend, Ryan and Sían, who are also backpacking had arrived. It was nice to see them and compare our trips so far.

Around 8 o’clock we made our way to the Rat Haus (town hall) where the Vienna Film Festival was being held. We treated ourselves to a meal there (Rebec and Em ate kangaroo. They said it was fabulous) and sat down to watch an opera written my Mozart with a bottle of wine. The scenery was beautiful and the opera wasn’t that bad. We were all alive with the experience.

I write whilst on a direct train to Ljubljana, Slovenia. No I didn’t sit on my keyboard, it’s a real place!

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We ate lunch outside the Karlsplatz

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Vienna Film Festival outside the Rathaus

Rome, pickpockets and passports

Yo yo yo,

We made it to Rome! We had to pay €14 to get from Rome Fiumicino airport to Rome termini station because our interrailing tickets weren’t activated until the 10th.

We met the other three at the Youth Hostel we had prebooked – Hotel Beauty (it wasn’t). Situated around the corner from Roma Termini station and on the second floor, it’s not that bad. We were immediately upgraded to a twin private room. It was nice because we could explode all our stuff, but we were a little secluded from the other travellers. We hung out in the others’ room as they were in a shared room of eight.

As it was our first night of our trip altogether, we treated ourselves to a meal out, and we were accompanied by a cool Australian guy called James who we met at the hostel. It was nice but it was confirmation that Rome was going to hit our pockets hard… We found a fairly decently priced restaurant but we didn’t take into consideration the service charge (which we reckon we might’ve been ripped off for) and not to mention the street sellers. In our meal we were offered music, Psy singing doll (which quite frankly was not even worth a look because it didn’t even dance Gangnam Style) and roses. Kieran made the mistake of buying one when the street seller didn’t leave. He bought one for €1 and then was offered two roses for €3. Anyway, Kieran ended up buying us one each, including James, for €6. It wasn’t the most relaxing meal, but tasted sweet of the success that we’d finally begun our trip.

We ventured through Rome at night, slightly tipsy, to find the Spanish Steps, which were impressive and a nice place to chill. After Kieran and James had performed a few impressive press-ups facing downwards on the steps and we decided against the tequila shots that were going to cost us €5 each and headed over to find the Trevi Fountain.

Rome is beautiful to walk through. You have to be wary of your bag, but Rome is made up of blocks -like America- but the alley ways open up onto squares that are hidden and you wouldn’t know existed. And that’s what happened when we found the Trevi Fountain. It’s in a small square but stunning. A definite must see and I would recommend seeing it at night when it is all lit up. A very romantic sight.

Day two consisted of a rough start. We had to leave our hostel and move across the city to another one as there wasn’t enough room for us to stay another night in Hotel Beauty. With sleep in our eyes and our minds heavy with the alcohol from the night before we set off with our backpacks on our backs and our rucksacks on the front. We had to take the metro. Italy is swelteringly hot normally but underground and donned in all our travelling gear and without breakfast was irritatingly sweaty. The metro is busy and people offering to do anything for you for money. It’s not relaxing. As soon as we entered the metro train, immediately I saw a group of women dart straight for the tourists and begin their swift art of pickpocketing. Rebec, who was wearing her rucksack on her back noticed her bag had been opened and she hit the hand away that was rummaging through her stuff. Slightly spooked and stressed we made it to the next hostel, Happy Days. Once we ventured up the fifteen flights of stairs to the fifth floor we weren’t in best shape.

Happy Days is much livelier than Hotel Beauty and serves free Sangria and Pasta dinner and is cheaper. We were in a room of six, so some poor buggar was left to stay in our room. However, he was a British student from Bristol, who we were convinced was on something. He was later referred to as Stinky Pete. He wasn’t horrible, but lets face it, he was no James.

Rebec couldn’t find her passport. It appeared that the pickpocket had found what she was searching for. Accompanied by Kieran, they set off back to Roma Termini to report the missing passport and to find the British Embassy. The Embassy was closed on the weekends but they were told to return on Monday.

Meanwhile, Em, Clo and myself went for a walk through the city. We visited Castel Sant’ Angelo, walked across Pont Sant’ Angelo. After stopping for lunch via Carrefore, we visited the Piazza Novena (pretty but unforgiving in the midday sun as there is no shade.) The Pantheon is also worth a visit, and I would recommend taking an architect with you (Em) because she’s very useful in describing how the dome shaped roof survives with the massive hole in it. (Whilst walking through Rome, at one point Emily did mutter the words “ooh check out those columns”. We don’t judge, it’s whatever works for her I guess).

Whilst there we received a call from the other two. In true Rebecca Harris style, she’d found her passport in her bag… But anyway, with the stress of the missing passport no longer with us, we met the others at the Vatican.

The queue was long but fast moving and you have to have your shoulders and knees covered up, but it is definitely worth seeing. The grandeur is incredible and the decor is almost daunting. We weren’t able to see the Sistine Chapel because we were too late but it is still a good activity and free.

After crashing back at the hostel for a bit, we went back out on the metro at night to see the Colosseum. It is beautiful. I would recommend seeing it at night because of the way it is illuminated. I’m a bit gutted that we weren’t able to go inside, but hey ho, time to move on! Early train to Venice for the day tomorrow and then on to Ljubljana in the evening.

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Trevi Fountain

La Romieu, shoes and au revior

Packing again, but you’ll be pleased to know that it was a lot less traumatic this time round, partly because it was just a case of repacking. Although I did pack all my underwear and spent 10 mins unpacking it all to retrieve a pair to wear today. My bad.

I offer an explanation to the word ‘shoes’ in the heading of this post. Since being here, Chloë and myself have lived by the ethos ‘do we really need to buy this? or is a night in a hostel more worth our money?’ So far, it’s worked out well, until the other day when I sacrificed a night in a hostel for a pair of shoes. They’re the kind of shoes that every girl needs to take travelling: a pair of bright orange wedges. I jest, I’m not actually taking them, but seriously they’re gorgeous. Only I would purchase a pair of massively impractical shoes before I go backpacking.

Another thing I forgot to mention before was the ‘travelling God bracelet’. It’s a wooden bracelet I purchased in Chile in 2010 and Max, Clo and myself have tried to take it to as many interesting places as possible. It’s been to Chile, Swaziland, Lanzarote, Paris, Glastonbury Fest etc. So you might see it in the pictures!

I’ve spent the last 9 days here in the small village I feel like I’ve spent half of my childhood in. I have been coming to Le Camp de Florence since I can remember – 10 years? Maybe a bit more, a bit less – and it’s a place where I grew up. Here, age is regardless, as is nationality. We all just ‘hang out’ in the same ways we did when we were eight years old. Siblings from the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Belgium and the UK come together to form a very sociable group of friends, considering La Romieu is in the middle of nowhere. It’s safe. It’s a second home.

But now it’s time to pack up and leave. We’ve got our backpacks on (after another packing session. My mother has always referred to me as messy. I’ve always believed that my ability to convert a respectable room into my own personal wardrobe is a gift rather than a nuisance. But seriously, I’ve noticed how annoying it is when it comes to rounding up the troops into one backpack. It turns out, I am, as my mother has always said, annoying.)

I write to you from Toulouse airport. It’s the airport I have always flown to or from when journeying from one home to another, to-and-froing from France to England, trying to make use of my opportunities both in the UK and in France. But today I fly to Rome. Today I fly to the unknown.

I am so excited.

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These are the shoes every girl needs to take travelling…

Packing

I find packing one of the most traumatic aspects of going abroad. You may think that is the opinion of a spoilt brat and I totally agree. First world problems eh? This part of the trip requires a high amount of organisational skills which I do not possess, or more accurately, I can’t be bothered to possess. Chloë is the list writer. I’m lazy.

My backpack is filled with summer clothes, but I can’t guarantee I have packed anything useful. My holiday almost always begins with a trip to the local supermarket to purchase some underwear or socks which I inevitably forgot to pack. One year I ended up wearing my uncle’s jeans because it rained the whole holiday and I had only prepared for the sun. I know full well I haven’t packed a cardigan, which I know most of you will understand the usefulness of a cardigan. For instance, a cardigan can be scrunched up and put into a day bag and can be used to protect you from the cold weather at any time. My cardigan wasn’t in front of my face when packing, so I simply struck it from my list.

However, my organisational skills do stretch in other ways where Chloë’s do not. I dealt with the paper work. Here’s a list of important things travellers need to take and prepare for in advance:

. Passport. It’s obvious but photocopy it a couple of times and take the copies with you. If it gets stolen or you loose it you the haven copy to present to the English Embassy
. Print off all boarding passes at home so you don’t get charged for printing it in a cafe or something
. Print all booking references for pre booked hostels
. Change up some of your money before hand in order to avoid cash withdrawal charges abroad
. Budget. You don’t have to know exactly how much money you’ll need for each country, just a rough idea. You don’t want to skimp in cities that you didn’t need to, and vice versa, you don’t want to blow all your money in one place and not afford others
. Even though its sunny, take a scarf or shawl so you can cover up bare skin, like your shoulders, when visiting religious places!

I’m sure there’s plenty of more things to take, so I’ll let you know what important things I’ve forgotten. I’m at Folkestone now about to board the Channel Tunnel, so speak to you on the other side!

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Above is Clo’s packing, the bottom is mine. Make of it as you will…