Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Day 25: Brussels -> Paris

Day 25 marked the final day before our interrail pass expired. Or, in slightly more specific terms, the day at which we had to end up in Paris before midnight, or else pay a small fortune to get our final train there. Travelling from Brugge to Paris required us to go through Brussels, and we figured that while we were passing through we might as well stop off and see the city. We were going to be spending five nights in Paris anyway, so we figured we might as well arrive fairly late in the day.

Arriving mid-to-late morning, we didn't bother to see any museums or galleries or suchlike in Brussels (though the guide book seemed to suggest there wasn't much anyway), and instead just wandered around to see the sights.

First off was the city's cathedral. It's huge, and whilst the décor inside is fairly plain, it does feature some pretty badass stained-glass windows.

From the cathedral, a small wander into the Grand Place, which features an absolutely humongous town hall - so big that it's actually awkward as hell to get a decent picture with the whole thing in one spot. The facade is really nice though.

From there, more wandering around, including the palace, and very randomly bumping into Sarah Crowther and her [Belgian] boyfriend. We stopped off and had lunch at a Quick (because there are seemingly no McDonalds in town centres in Belgium, and also because we were poor).

I'll go off on a slight tangent here, because this was the first and last time I'd eaten at a Quick restaurant, and the only two things of note were that drinks were refillable, and that you had to pay to use the toilet. Even as a customer.

It's a fairly British thing (or at least a Northern thing) to make a deal about having to pay for toilets in London. "You know you're in London when you have to pay to go for a piss" is almost a stock phrase. For large portions of Europe, it seems that you have to pay when you go for a piss absolutely sodding everywhere. Free public toilets were pretty much gold dust on our trip.

To perhaps divulge a bit too much information, I am not blessed with a bladder of steel. I drink fluids, and then I need to go to the toilet. And around most of Europe I had to pay for the privilege of not just urinating out in the street. I reckon I must have spent easily €5 purely on toilets over the four week trip. You can't even just nip into McDonalds and go for a McPiss because most of the fast-food restaurant chains are prepared, and the doors are either locked with a code you get on your receipt, or, even more ridiculously, require you to pay to use the toilet. Or in Paris they seemingly employ security to stop you using the toilet if you're not a customer.

Anyway, having seen pretty much everything we felt that there was immediately to see in Brussels, we made our move to Paris. This was far less straightforward than we'd anticipated, because the only trains that run from Brussels to Paris directly are either Thalys or TGV, both high-speed private rail companies that interrail passes aren't valid on. These trains would have gotten us to Paris very quickly, but they also would have cost us a small fortune.

Instead we were forced to faff around on the regional trains, following a route we'd been given at the information desk, which required us to use four different trains. It did successfully deliver us to Gare du Nord, from which we took the Métro to our hotel in Montmartre. It was reasonably late at this point, so we wandered the area trying to find somewhere to eat (eventually settling on quite a nice and well-priced Italian), before heading to the Sacré-Coeur, which gives some fairly spectacular views across the city at night. It's also rammed with street traders trying to sell tat or cold beers, so fairly standard for that sort of scene.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Days 23-24: Brugge

In my general life I typically regard train journeys as being a somewhat boring necessity. If I need to go somewhere I take the train, and I accept that I'll be sat in a seat for an hour or two without much useful or entertaining to do. I'm sure that the majority of people feel pretty much the same way.

By the fourth week of travelling you get to the point where the train journeys are actually pretty welcome. After burning through cities you have a forced few hours where you sit and listen to music or watch TV on netbooks and you can take a break without feeling like you're missing out on anything.

My first real impression of Brugge (or Bruges or Brügge depending on the language you speak) is that it is astonishingly pretty. The buildings and cobbled streets feel old without being particularly dilapidated or crumbly (probably because a lot of them actually aren't that old), and the whole town is clean and relatively unindustrialised. The place felt remarkably like Cambridge, only clearly continental, and without the narrow, claustrophobic streets. It's also, like Cambridge, not a particularly big city, and it doesn't take long to walk from one side to the other.

We had tourist maps from the hostel, and spent the afternoon wandering around and seeing the many sights of Brugge.

(for once this is the building that's wonky, not my photo)

My other main memory for Brugge is that the restaurants are bloody expensive. Even fairly simple stuff like Spag Bol and Margheritas pizza broke well over the €10 mark, and eating out was easily more expensive than anywhere we'd been so far.

On the other hand, drinking was somewhat cheaper than the surrounding countries, and we found a pretty small pub called The Crash, which was pretty well-priced and had a pretty good rock-based playlist on the speakers.

Our first stop the next day was the Groeningemuseum, a gallery consisting mostly of fairly old Flemish paintings. Generally I don't have a particularly great appreciation for any art that's pre-1850, and I find most of it fairly boring. I can appreciate the skill on the part of the artists in recreating the likeness of stuff, but in terms of the paintings themselves as a spectacle it doesn't really do much for me. That said, the gallery was only €1 for students, and there was some more modern stuff in there as well that I quite liked.

From there we headed east, where there were windmills.

From there we ventured back into the centre of the city, and to the belfry in the main square. The view from the top is pretty spectacular, as expected, but there's also a really cool carillon at the centre of the tower, with a huge rotating drum (like the ones in self-playing pianos) connected by wires to about fifty bells above. I happened to be up there at one of the quarters of the hour, when it springs into life and rings out quite a complex melody on the bells.

Pretty much the instant I got down from the tower, the heavens opened, and we spent the rest of the afternoon cooped up inside the hostel with a pretty epic thunderstorm raging outside. It caused complete havoc at a nearby festival, so I didn't feel too bad about not staying outside to see more stuff.

We managed to save some money on the evening's dinner by eating at a pasta place opposite the hostel. I've never seen them in the UK, but they're fairly common in the area, and basically sell take-out pasta boxes which are reasonably cheap. Probably still a tad pricey for how easy it actually is to make pasta and a pesto sauce, but we didn't really have the option to cook ourselves, and it was good enough for a meal.

I really liked Brugge, and I reckon it's a place I'll probably go back to at some point. I don't feel like there was a huge amount that we didn't see, but it was still really nice, and I'd especially love to have a cycle around the city and the surrounding area.

Next stop, Paris (via Brussels).

Friday, 26 August 2011

Days 21-22: Amsterdam

I'm back home as I write these now, with a stable internet connection and a decent laptop. I'll hopefully burn through the rest of the trip entries in the next couple of days.

Amsterdam is a city I've technically been to a few times before. I say "technically" because I've generally flown to Schiphol Airport and then instantly gotten the train somewhere else, and I've yet to actually see any of the city.

Our hostel was a fair way out from the city centre itself, near the Amsterdam Muiderpoort station. This wasn't so much of an issue because trains were pretty frequent, and our interrail passes covered the five-minute journey.

For the most part, we just wandered around Amsterdam and took the place in. This would have been a far more enjoyable experience than it actually was if the streets weren't an absolute clusterfuck of pedestrians, bikes and cars. There are cyclists absolutely everywhere, and there is no clear indication whatsoever of where bikes should be and where pedestrians should be, which basically leads to a crazy free-for-all where as a pedestrian you have to spend your whole sodding time looking over your shoulder to make sure you're not about to be mown down by a cyclist. Or a car. Pavements are a good invention.

The other issue I had with Amsterdam is that a huge amount of the city looks identical. To make a really old nerdy reference that very few people will get, there were times I felt like I was in the Wind Fish egg in LoZ: Link's Awakening. You walk to the next block and come to a place that looks exactly the same to where you just were. Venice has a similar effect, but its network of narrow streets, bridges and canals are very random, and while the whole place looks pretty much the same, the individual locations are distinct. On the other hand, Amsterdam's road and canal layout is very structured and regular, and as a result places really do just look exactly the same, and it's really fricking easy to lose your sense of distance inside the city and get lost. I'd know roughly what direction the station was in, but I'd have no idea how far away I was.

We looked around, ate, and had a drink at a bar. Another point of note is that continental Europe is really pricey for beer and alcohol in general. Once you get over to Eastern Europe things cheapen up a bit, but in general the Eurozone will set you back around €5 per pint of beer. The UK has its cheap alcohol for binge drinking and hugely expensive cigarettes, and mainland Europe seems to prefer cheap cancer-sticks and instead charges fucktons for beer.

Anyway, at this bar we got approached by a street magician. It's not something that will particularly translate well into the written word, so I will simply go with the statement that he was absolutely fantastic. Proper mouth opening "how the hell did he do that?" street magic. Generally I'm fairly stingy with money for these sorts of things, and I especially hate people who approach you for money or basically grab you to give you something and want money in return, but I was totally happy to give this guy money. We all were. He was that good.

From there we wandered around the Red Light District, which I have to say is a bit surreal. It's so strange that something like that is a tourist attraction. Obviously there are groups of lads like ourselves wandering around for jokes, but you see middle-aged couples wandering around as well as tourists (or maybe they do actually purchase something?) and it just feels a bit weird.

We initially had plans for the second day to see various museums and galleries, but this got hugely cut back when we discovered that these places were €14 each, which just felt totally extortionate. We did go to one place, the FOAM gallery, which was considerably cheaper and was a really interesting photographic gallery. There was a particularly good exhibition by Anton Corbijn, including a photo of Lance Armstrong I particularly liked.

From there, we wandered to the museum quarter, a really nice open space with the various expensive-as-hell museums surrounding it.

Just south of there is a promenade with various sculptures from some pretty well known artists (including Dalí and Míro) which we had a wander around. It's a reasonably pleasant walk, and some of the sculptures are really interesting. And because I had limited camera battery there are no pictures, so apologies for that.

We chilled out in the Vondelpark for most of the afternoon, before we headed back to the hostel and met up with John and Ingeborg, who are both in the year above me and Nick at Downing (and who Nick knows pretty well through frisbee).

We did a fair amount of drinking in the hostel bar, because it was cheap, before getting the last train into Amsterdam Centraal for a night out that basically ended up with us all pretty much instantly crashing at Inge's place in the city centre. John had missed his last train home to Den Haag, and Nick was too drunk to make it back to the hostel, so they slept there. I'd had less to drink, and was adamant that I wanted to have a shower and breakfast at the hostel the next morning without having to get up early for a train, so I walked back.

I'm actually somewhat amazed I managed to get back as easily as I could. I had a map, but I was also drunk and on my own at 2am in a city I'd never been to before. The two mile walk went pretty much completely without a hitch and I got back to the hostel and to bed without any troubles.

I did have an interesting encounter on my walk back though. At one point some guy started circling in front of me on a bike making slightly weird noises.

"You want a bike?" he said.
"I'm fine, thanks"

This was actually a lie. I was tired and had a good mile and a half left to go. I would have totally killed for a bike at that point in time. But I figured that it was probably stolen and I doubted I had enough euros on me for it anyway.

"You sure you don't want a bike?"
"Nah, I'm OK"

This seemed to content him, and he cycled away a bit, before coming back after a few seconds.

" want some crack?"

This wasn't the first time I've been offered drugs, but it was definitely not what I was expecting. I mean, I'd at least expect him to go with something a bit softer and build up to the crack. To my knowledge, bicycles aren't some sort of banned substance in Amsterdam (if they are, the police are certainly shit at keeping it under control). I'd expect there to at least be a bit of a progression instead of leaping straight from offering me a bike to offering me cocaine.

Anyway, I politely told him again that I was OK as I was, and declined his offer (again, not sure I'd have had the money on me anyway) and made it back to the hostel and went to sleep. We got up the next morning, taking advantage of our free breakfast at the hostel before getting a fairly early train to Brugge.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Days 19-20: Berlin

The train from Prague to Berlin is around four hours, so we caught the earliest train we could (8:30am) to arrive in Berlin for a reasonable time. We didn't have reservations, meaning we had a bit of a scramble to find seats and had to split up, but I was fairly grateful for the downtime after the marathon amount of walking in Prague.

Berlin also marks the start of what is sort of the final third of the trip, with us being back inside the Eurozone, and quite pleasantly also being back inside countries where I can read the language. My knowledge of German is, in itself, quite poor, but it's close enough to English and I apparently have enough of a grasp of it that I can usually fill in gaps well enough to read signs and notices. Plus I know how to pronounce German when I see it written, so I don't have to worry when reading from menus that I'm saying it completely wrong because I have no sodding clue how diacritics work when they're on a 'c'.

We got into the massive Berlin Hauptbanhof station, had around a mile and a bit walk to our hostel, which was just off Friedrichstrasse, and then straight off headed towards the Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg gate.

The Under der Linden is to a large extent Berlin's equivalent of the Champs Elysees. It's a fairly wide road completely lined with expensive shops, and in particular car showrooms for companies like Mercedes and Bugatti (actually Volkswagen, but nobody really cares about those cars). At the end of the Linden sits the Brandenburg gate (arguably Berlin's answer to the Arc de Triomphe, but not quite so much).

We pootled around the Brandenburg a bit before making a move to the Reichstag. I was in Berlin a couple of years ago with my parents (and as a result I'd already seen pretty much everything we visted in Berlin, and had a decent enough memory of the layout of the city to serve as our tour guide for the weekend) and the Reichstag was one of the more memorable parts. When I last went, and when Nick last went, the system was that you queued for a fair while outside (about half an hour), entry was free, and you got a reasonably good audio tour along with a great view of the Berlin skyline.

Unfortunately, times have changed, and whilst it's still free, entry to the Reichstag now requires you to book three days in advance. The first we'd heard of this was when we tried to go in, so we hadn't booked, and given we were only going to be in Berlin for around 48 hours we didn't really have the option to book either. Definitely something to be noted for anyone heading to Berlin.

From the Reichstag (which is at least reasonably impressive from the outside) we headed to the Holocaust memorial. The memorial itself is striking enough - a series of concrete blocks arranged out across an undulating floor. The idea is that it's meant to leave you disorientated and unsettled, and it does a reasonable job. What I didn't remember from last time was the museum underneath the memorial (free), though we didn't spend too long in there on account of already being fairly holocaust'd out from Auschwitz.

That said, we apparently hadn't had too much of the horrors of the Nazi regime, as our next stop was the Topography of Terrors, which is a partly-outdoors museum (also free), with the outdoor part essentially being a timeline of the Nazi regime, and the indoor part being quite a detailed exhibition on the SS and Gestapo (last time I went this was still being built and everything was outdoors). We spent a while there, but it really has an absolutely huge amount of information to read, and we didn't really have the stamina for it. You could easily spend a good three or four hours there if you wanted to read everything.

From the Topography of Terrors we headed back to the hostel via Checkpoint Charlie, again more outdoor reading, although this time about the Berlin wall, so at least post WWII.

The next day started with the Berlin Guggenheim gallery. Tickets are €3 for students, but they were running some sort of two-for-one scheme so it was half price each. This was less of a conventional art gallery, with the exhibition consisting entirely of videos. Some were good, others less so, but for the price it was hard to really put it down.

Our next main target was the East Side Gallery, which meant either a huge walk or an S-Bahn, so we headed for the S-Bahn station at Alexanderplatz, seeing the various sights on the way of the Humbolt University, the book-burning square, and the Berlin Dom. The square itself is pretty nice too, and contains the massive TV tower.

The train to the East Side Gallery was something I remembered fairly well from the last time I was in Berlin. The gallery is a huge series of artwork all painted out on a section of remaining Berlin wall which is just over a kilometre long.

Once we'd walked the entire stretch of the gallery, we took the S-Bahn from the Ostbanhof station to the entire opposite side of the city to see the Gedächtniskirche. The Gedächtniskirche is a church which was heavily damaged in the bombing of the city in WWII, and has been kept in ruins, making for quite a striking building.

This was again something I remembered fairly well from the last time I was in Berlin, and I got extremely confused when we got to the place I could swear it used to be, and it wasn't there. I reckognised all the buildings in the area, especially an octagonal chapel adjacent to the church, yet the church wasn't there. Instead there was a tall white building where I was expecting the church to be.

It took a good couple of minutes (and getting right up to the base of the building) before I realised that the huge tall white building actually was the church, only covered with what has almost certainly been the most ridiculous display of scaffolding we've seen all trip. The proportion of tourist attractions we've seen which have been draped in scaffolding has been high, but this one made it literally unrecognisable.

(there's a church under that, apparently)

We went inside, because the inside was at least visible. We then made a short walk to the KaDeWe, the second largest department store in Europe (the largest being Harrods). Except it was Sunday, so it wasn't open, giving us a second fail in ten minutes. The trilogy was completed by the fact that the entire Tauentzienstraße was a huge building site, so the nice gardens through the centre, and in particular the Berlin sculpture, which we were somewhat keen on seeing, just wasn't there. So altogether not a particularly successful excursion. On the bright side the Europa Centre was open, so we got to see the huge water-clock in the middle of it (called 'The Clock of Flowing Time')

(this is what the Tauentzienstraße looks like when it isn't a building site)

We sat in the Tiergarten and relaxed for a while, before walking back through the Tiergarten to the hostel - a fairly reasonable walk. It did include an excursion to the Berlin Victory Column, which was definitely bigger than I remember it being, and some of the carvings and decorative pieces on the column itself are really impressive.

Not long after leaving the Victory Column, the heavens opened, and the rest of the walk was through some of the heaviest rain I think I've ever had to be outside in.

Back at the hostel the rain was still unrelenting, and we ended up eating at a Vapiano, because it was close and the menu seemed cheap. We didn't really have any idea what it was, but it works differently to any restaurant I've been in before (and it took us a while to figure out exactly how things worked). You get given little RFID cards, you go up to a kitchen and you order what you want. It's then prepared in front of you, you swipe your card and what you've ordered gets added to it, and then you take your food back to the table. Pizza has an advantage because they give you a little handheld thing that lights up when it's ready, but for pasta you have to stand up and wait.

It was a good amount cheaper than eating anywhere else, and the food was good, but I'd definitely go for pizza next time, because standing up for around fifteen minutes (mostly spent in a queue while other people have their food made) whilst hungry watching food being prepared is definitely not as enjoyable as sitting at a table and waiting for your food to come to you.

From there back to the hostel for a few drinks in the hostel bar, and then bed for an early start for our (six and a half hour) train to Amsterdam the next day.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Days 16-18: Prague

We arrived in Prague super-early off our sleeper train, and headed straight for the hostel. Surprisingly, the hostel was open, and even more surprisingly they had a room available for us to check in. We dropped our bags off and headed pretty much straight back out. The city hall has a pretty impressive astronomical clock on the front, with various decorations that animate on the hour (the skeleton ringing a bell was particularly cool).

We walked along the river and headed into town to the old town square. There was a pretty nice patisserie which we grabbed breakfast from. The town square was fairly typical - some fairly nice and fairly old buildings around the outside, and a statue in the centre.

From there we moved to the fairly impressive Charles Bridge, with large towers at either end and various statues places along it. The bridge is pretty wide, but it's extremely congested to get across on account of the various street artists, tat-sellers and buskers. We stopped on the other side for a cheeky Starbucks (because it was fairly cold and the idea of a coffee and a sit-down was greatly appealing) before making the surprisingly monstrous climb up to St George's Basilica at the top of the hill. It wasn't particularly far, but the gradient on the road going up was mental - I swear it was one-in-five in places at least!

We got to the castle (apparently the largest ancient castle in the world) just in time for the changing of the guard, of which we didn't see a great deal on account of getting there just in time, amongst crowds of people who had clearly made a point of being there a good five or ten minutes early.

Inside the grounds there sits St Vitus' Cathedral which is an absolutely humongous cathedral. The architecture on the outside is fantastic, and walking round it constantly provides something different.

You also get a pretty cracking view of Prague from the top of the hill as well

We walked back down the hill and got lunch at the bottom, before making our way back up the other adjacent hill to the viewing tower on the top. The other guys took the funicular up, but I figured I'd save some money (it turned out to be not very much) and take the short (and knackering) walk up the hill. For what it's worth, I did get to the top first, but it was bloody hard work.

Aside from an observation tower, there's also an observatory and various gardens at the top of the hill, which we had a wander around before heading back down. We didn't bother with the tower itself, because it was fairly pricey, and to be honest the views from the top of the hill were pretty much the same as the ones from the cathedral.

Wandering back through the city to the hostel, we stumbled upon a massive Tesco on the basement floor of a department store, so we stocked up on pizzas for the evening and bread and cheeze for lunch the next day. And obviously the essential beer, crisps and chocolate.

Our second day in Prague was something of a unique day. We've spent the trip so far seeing the standard churches, castles, museums, galleries and various important buildings in the cities, but for the second day in Prague we went to the Zoo. A fairly cheap metro train and bus ride away from where we were staying, the Zoo is both huge and only €4 entry.

Other than "the zoo was really good" there's not a huge amount to write, and there's not a huge amount in pictures either. I figured that if I was to start taking photos then I'd almost certianly just keep going and exhaust the camera battery easily, so I didn't bother. Gerry managed to forget the battery for his camera, so I actually have pretty much nothing in the form of photographic evidence to say we went. I'll take the assumption that most of the people reading this already have a decent idea of what tigers, monkeys, etc and zoos in general look like.

It was reasonably late when we got back from the zoo, and the other guys chilled out in the park next to the hostel. I was a bit restless, so I wandered to a place marked on the tourist map as "Vysehrad", with a picture of quite a large church. It turns out that this church is actually up a fairly large hill to the south, something I only found out when I got to the bottom of said hill and had to start climbing. The church (actually a castle) was quite nice, and gave some pretty good views of Vienna from the opposite side of the river to the hills we'd climbed the day before.

On the way back I found a cheap restaurant next to the hostel that looked pretty good, so we went there to eat. We stocked up on booze at a supermarket (though not Tesco this time), and had a fair amount of drinking in the hostel.

The next day Nick and Gerry were fairly hungover, courtesy of having gone out to find a club after our drinking in the hostel, so we had a reasonably slow day. There was also an element of having mostly ticked off all the main things we wanted to see in the city (except the Muzeum, but it was closed).

Deciding that we should do something extremely cool and manly, we rented pedalos on the river. Unfortunately we weren't quite manly enough to get a swan-shaped one, but it was still decent fun for an hour or so.

From there we wandered around the city a bit, stumbling across some art gallery on the opposite side of the river. We didn't go in, but we wandered around the exhibitions and sculptures outside, which were pretty cool. In particular there were a set of creepy bronze baby statues that looked vaguely familiar.

I couldn't really figure where I'd seen them before, until Gerry mentioned he remembered some picture of them crawling up the side of a building, at which point I suddenly remembered where I'd seen them from: the TV tower. We'd seen the TV tower from the Basilica, and I'd commented at the time at what a really weird building it was, and I could vaguely picture them being all over the side of it from a picture on some weird architecture-art blog that Peter had showed me ages ago.

We had lunch in a McDonalds to exploit the wifi and verify whether they were on the tower or not, and it turned out I was right. There wasn't a particular plan for the afternoon, so while the other guys decided to go to the Kafka museum and wander around the old town again, I decided to venture off to see the TV tower.

It was a fricking long walk across most of the city, but the weather was pleasant and I had music to listen to, so it was fairly nice. The TV tower was both as cool and as extremely weird as I'd expected it would be.

I also stumbled across a pretty cool church along the way, apparently called the "Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus", and designed by Jože Plečnik.

We met up back at the hostel, went to the same restaurant we'd gone to the night before, and then had a fairly quiet, early night to prepare for getting up pretty early the next morning to catch our train to Berlin.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Days 14-15: Krakow

Sleeper trains have the advantage of cutting out the number of daylight hours you waste travelling from place to place. Given you're getting a reasonable night's sleep for a seven or eight hour train journey, you're basically multi-tasking. The disadvantage is that you tend to get to a place feeling pretty filthy and you can't actually check in for a good few hours.

Thankfully the people at our hostel in Krakow let us dump our bags and use the showers even though we couldn't check in for another six hours. We cleaned ourselves up, and headed back to the main train station to catch a bus to Auschwitz.

Without making it sound too much like the whole inter-railing trip was some sort of grim Nazi pilgrimage, Auschwitz was probably one of the focal points of the trip. Quite a few of the cities we were visiting were open to being cut (or added, as was the case for Munich), but Krakow was a fairly permanent fixture because the intent was always to go to Auschwitz.

The place itself is about an hour and a half by bus from Krakow, and while entry is free, we got a guided tour (entry to the Auschwitz I camp during tourist periods is by tour only anyway).

To be honest, there's not a huge amount to write here. Probably the best indicator for the place was the fact that the tour was very understated. There was no dramatization, no overly sensational stuff - there didn't need to be. It's harrowing enough just being shown round the exhibits (the masses of belongings of camp victims, and in particular the mass of stored human hair were particularly unsettling), the pictures, the various sections of the camp.

From Auschwitz I there's a bus and continuation of the tour at Auschwitz II, the much larger section of the camp. Again, a fairly plain description of the living conditions is all that's really required for the horrors of the place to seep through. It's completely staggering at the personalities an ethics of the people involved who could impose such conditions, and how a place like that could have seen the clinical extermination of over a million people in the space of two years.

In total the Auschwitz trip took up pretty much the entire day, and by the time we got back it was early evening. We checked in, went out to eat and ended up back at the hostel.

For the second day in Krakow, the other guys wandered around the city, and I headed out early to go to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I'd never heard of them before, and they only had a fairly fleeting mention in the guide books, but I'd been relayed information by my Dad that they were apparently awesome, and they seemed interesting enough from the leaflet.

The first faff was getting there, which is a straightforward journey by train, but I wasn't sure if my inter-rail pass was valid for the train operator. The language barrier proved particularly difficult, as everyone I spoke to seemed to have no idea of what I was actually trying to ask, and the most information I ever seemed to be able to get was the platform my train left from, which I was already well aware of. I got on the train anyway and it turns out that my pass was valid, or at least the ticket inspector seemed to be OK with it. As an aside, there were a few things online saying that getting the train to the mines was a bad idea. I don't know how much the ticket would have cost if I'd had to pay, but the mines are like a five minute walk from the train station in Wieliczka, so I'd recommend the train to anyone with an inter-rail pass.

The mines themselves were pretty spectacular. One of the first World Heritage Sites, they are the oldest salt mines in the world, and they contain around 300km of tunnels (obviously you don't see all of them). The tour guide was really good, spoke extremely good English, and had a pretty good sense of humour. The rock salt the mines are built through is apparently the only rock salt in the world that is edible without purification, as it has such a high purity, and you can taste the walls and ceilings without worry of being ill (it would seem somewhat unhygenic given the number of other people who will have done so beforehand, but the high salt content kills bacteria).

There are various carvings in the salt, and some spectacular caverns. Taking photos in the mines needs a fee of another 10 Zlotti, and given my dwindling amount of Polish money and limited camera battery I didn't bother, though I did sneak a couple in one of the more spectacular caverns.

There are numerous carvings in the wall (one is a copy of Da Vinci's 'Last Supper') and the chandeliers are made from recrystallised salt. It's some cool stuff.

The trains from Wieliczka to Krakow run every hour, and I managed to miss one by about three minutes, so I wandered around the town a bit. Wieliczka is a pretty small town, and it feels properly Eastern European wandering round. The train station is basically just a strip of raised asphalt next to some heavily weed-covered tracks, but walking around the town itself was fairly nice and it killed the time pretty well.

I got to Krakow late afternoon and met up with the guys, who had spent the morning seeing the city and going to the castle (which they didn't particularly rave about). We did a bit more wandering, mostly because I hadn't really seen much of the city at this point, and then, pretty knackered, we sat in the food court of the huge shopping centre next to the train station for a couple of hours until our train to Prague was due.

Overall Krakow was very different to the other places we've been to, in the fact that I barely spent any time in the city itself and just used it as a base between other places. That said, it didn't feel like there actually was much else left to see in the city itself, so I'm not sure whether an extra day would have actually been a huge amount of use. Auschwitz and the Salt Mines were definitely worth the excursions though.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Day 13: Budapest

First stop on our full day in Budapest was the big castle in the Buda part of the city. It's bloody miles away from our hostel, so we took the metro. The metro was pretty cheap, and pretty straightforward to use because it only has three different lines, and they pretty much hardly interweave, though all the train station names are long and in Hungarian.

We took the train as far as the other side of the river, figuring that we'd walk up the hill ourselves. The most notable thing about being on the Buda side of the Danube is that it offers a pretty good view of the spectacular Hungarian houses of parliament.

Up the hill to the castle and the views of the rest of the city are really impressive. The entire "castle" is actually less a castle and more a small fortified city. It's very pretty, and in particular the roofs have very decorative tiling (the same is true of the cathedral in Stefanplatz in Vienna). There's a part of the wall which faces out to the rest of the city and offers some pretty awesome views, and for a few euro's worth of Hungarian money you can pay to go up onto the wall and presumably get almost identical views from being two metres higher up.

Taking a fairly scenic walk down the opposite end of the Buda castle we crossed back over the river and walked to the parliament building. It's been a while since I've been to the houses of parliament in London, but I'd have a hard time saying which one is more impressive. There's some pretty mental and complex architecture, and the front at least is a really brilliant white and surprisingly free of scaffolding (the back not so much though).

We sat and played cards in the sun outside the building for a while, and then ate a fairly late lunch at a pizza place nearby. Finding somewhere to eat was actually a bit difficult, as Hungary falls into the mainland European standard of "everywhere fucking shuts on Sunday". Wandering through the centre we stumbled across a pretty impressive church, which turned out to be St Stephen's Basilica. We were feeling somewhat knackered and walked-out by this point, so we made a final wander up to the park near Heroes' Square, sat in the grass and read for a while, and then wandered to the train station, with an 'Operation use up all the soon-to-be-useless Hungarian money before we leave" at the Tesco Express(z) on the way.

Getting the train to Krakow was a far from trivial affair. For whatever reasons the train we were getting wasn't a single train to Krakow, but a train that actually split, with the various parts going to Berlin, Prague, Warsaw and Krakow. We were booked into a sleeper cabin, number 344, and had the issue that this cabin didn't actually appear to exist on the train. We knew we were only booked from Breclav, not Budapest, but given none of the train guards spoke any English whatsoever, we were left completely guessing. We also weren't allowed on either of the cabins that said they were going to Krakow because they were both sleeper cabins we didn't have reservations for, and the train guard fobbed us off and told us to get on later down the train in one of the seated cabins.

We got on one to Warsaw, because it listed Breclav as an intermediate stop, so we figured it would probably do us good enough. The train was absolute rammed, and we ended up having to nest in the doorway next to the toilet. For whatever reason, this train had no windows in the section we were sitting in, and it was absolutely boiling in there. What was even more annoying was that the adjacent carriage was a really flashy sleeper cabin destined to Berlin which, unlike our crappy ancient East-European carriage was air-conditioned. Breclav was four hours away, though the trip was made fairly bearable by the fact that whenever we stopped at a station we could open the windows on both sides of the train and get a decent draught through.

At this point we still weren't entirely sure what the fuck was going on. We had two scenarios we thought were reasonably possible. The first one was that the booking system had fucked up and we didn't have a place on the Krakow carriages, which would mean we'd ride the Warsaw cabin to Katowice, which we knew was pretty near to Krakow, and get a connecting train in the morning, after a fairly uncomfortable and smelly train journey. The alternative scenario (which was mine, I would like to add), was that the train was going to split in Breclav and the carriages would rearrange onto a new train, and after they'd done that our mythical carriage 344 would exist.

After a journey that was actually far less uncomfortable than I thought it was going to be in the first ten minutes (helped by the fact it stopped being like 28 degrees Celsius as the night progressed), and we got off in Breclav. This then consisted of mild panic, because though we'd hypothesised this was what we were meant to do, we were still guessing and had zero concrete evidence that this was the right way to go, with the possibility the train would leave without us and we'd be stranded in Breclav for a while. We'd actually only been off the train about ten seconds before Jamie was panickedly insisting that we get back on it and just go to Katowice (something he's been fairly mercilessly ribbed for since). Turns out that our cabin 344 was on the train on the opposite platform, and we got on, and everything was cool.

This was my first time on a sleeper cabin, so I was somewhat looking forward to the new experience. They're pretty cramped and it's awkward to find spaces to put bags, but they're reasonably comfortable. When we first got in there, there was a woman just stood in the cabin. She stood in the corridor while we got into the beds and sorted out stuff, before then coming back into the cabin when we'd settled down. Given the other two beds already had people sleeping in them, we were somewhat puzzled as to what the hell she was doing. After a bit I figured out that the sleeping people were kids, and she was presumably their mother staying with them in their cabin rather than her own.

It probably helped that I was knackered, and the rocking motion of the train tends to send me to sleep even in the middle of the day, but I slept like a baby pretty much the entire way to Poland.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Day 12: Vienna -> Budapest

We started out our second and final day in Vienna by wandering around the centre of town a bit more, and heading to the Freud museum. I thought the museum was reasonably good, but it wasn't what I was expecting. It was in his house, and was filled with a reconstruction of his study and the like, and basically consisted of various items in cabinets on the walls which documented his history and a few of his passions. I quite liked the autobiographical stuff, and some of the stuff on the anti-semetic years (Freud was Jewish) in Austria leading up to his exile before WWII were fairly interesting, but I'd have liked there to be a bit more in the museum about his work as well as just his life.

From the Freud museum we went back to the hostel to pick up our stuff and catch a train to Budapest.

Travelling to Hungary marked the first point in the trip of moving outside the language bubble. Everywhere we'd visited so far was populated by people who on the whole spoke pretty good English. When they didn't, we were decent enough with Italian/German to get by. Budapest is not only a place where English-speakers are much thinner on the ground, but the Hungarian language is also pretty much compeletely unintelligible for the four of us. We could figure out signs written in German or Italian, but when they're in Hungarian it's just entirely out of our range. With so many diacritics and odd combinations of consonants scattered all over the place I don't even have the faintest clue if I can pronounce it right, let alone know what it means.

Hungary is also our first stop that lies outside the Eurozone, meaning that we have to deal with an entirely new set of coins. On the bright side, shit is cheap in Hungary, so said coins do tend to go quite a long way. We weren't helped by the fact that our first cash withdrawal each was given to us in a single 10,000 HUF note (about £30), which meant we had to pay for the hostel in Euros (though they were decent with the exchange rate) because they couldn't give us change.

All of this unfamiliarity was offset by one thing though: Tesco. Apparently Tesco have a fairly good presence in Hungary, and pretty much the first thing we did in Budapest was stumble upon a Tesco Express and stock up on vital foodstuffs (cheap chocolate mostly) and water. We could have possibly found a less recognisable chain of supermarket, but as the saying goes, when in Rome, do as much as you can to do exactly as you do back home. And we absolutely decimated the cashier by each paying for around 1200 HUF of stuff with our 10,000 notes.

(This was actually a different one, in the middle of the city. Note the superfluous "z")

Stocked up on supplies we walked to the Heroes' Square, a pretty impressive monument and square at the top of an absolutely massive straight road up the hill (the Andrássy út, which is about 2.5km long). The monument is also the inital point of the Budapest underground system, which is the second oldest underground train network in the world (the first being the London Underground). The place is also a World Heritage site, as was pretty blatantly marked out in the tourist map we'd been given at the hostel.

There's quite a large garden behind the Heroes' Monument, which we wandered around a bit, before walking the whole length of the Andrássy út into the centre of the town to find somewhere to eat. This took us to the Danube around sunset, which gave us some pretty spectacular views of the city (Buda - the east side of the river being Pest) on the other side of the river.

On our search for somewhere to eat we stumbled across an Irish bar and restaurant called Jack Doyle's (a superb name), which happened to be showing Liverpool v Valencia and therefore naturally became my top preference as a place to eat, but I was shot down and we ended up at a fairly nice-but-reasonably-priced Hungarian restaurant.

From there we moved on to a bar near the train station which was massively cheap - with pints of beer being around a quid each, got reasonably merry, and went back to the hostel.

The hostel itself was near to the main Budapest station, which meant it was actually in a pretty shitty area of the town. I'm not too bothered by walking past various establishments called "Sex shop" on the way to the hostel, but there was a definite moment of unease when we were first coming from the station and one of the buildings on the street of the hostel had most of its lower windows smashed through. The hostel itself was on the third floor of a place which had a pretty run-down looking entrance hall and staircase with graffiti all over it, but once we were up in the hostel it was OK and the rooms and bathrooms were fine (though a little old). The guy who actually owned the place didn't speak any English whatsoever, but his son (I think?) did, and he was pretty friendly. Either way, I slept well enough and nothing got damaged or stolen, which is pretty much all I actually care about.

Day 11: Vienna

We didn't have reservations for the train to Vienna from Salzburg, but we managed to get ourselves in a single compartment. There appeared to be things on the doors of the compartment indicating which were reserved, with some having red tickets that clearly said "RESERVED" in German, some having nothing, and ones like the one we ended up in, which had white cards with writing we didn't understand. We figured the worst case scenario would be we'd get somewhere and people with a reservation would kick us out, but that didn't happen. There was quite an alarming point at which a group of three women opened the door of our compartment, showed a police badge and demanded to see our passports, which they then checked onto a laptop or something, and left. Given we'd not crossed a border or anything similar I can only assume they were looking for someone in particular.

We'd booked the hotel on a recommendation from Nick, who had stayed there before, and it was a pretty nice hostel. We had two private twin rooms booked, and they were really spacious, en-suite, and all-in-all extremely nice given the rate we were paying of around €20 a night each. I went for a wander, found a supermarket and bought some food, and we cooked.

My first impression of Vienna was that the place is absolutely frickin huge. It's the first city we've been to where the underground trains have been an absolute necessity instead of merely a convenience, and walking around on the surface and then comparing and seeing just how little ground you've covered on the city map was certainly not something we'd had previously on the other trip.

A note would be that Vienna has a card in the same way Salzburg has, which gives free transport but only fairly poor discounts to places in the city (to the extent where the student discount was frequently larger). It also didn't help that you can only buy a 72 hour card, and we weren't planning on staying that long.

The first tourist attraction we hit was the central attraction of Stephanplatz, with its fairly large, decorative and impressive cathedral. As seems to be a ridiculously common theme for the places we've visited so far, the building is completely caked in scaffolding. I'm not sure if these sorts of buildings are just permanently undergoing some sort of restoration project, but it's like all the main tourist cities in central Europe choose peak summer months to hide all their most attractive old buildings behind scaffolding and contstruction work.

We decided to wander above ground to Museumsquartier, and went via Heldenplatz. Heldenplatz was fairly nice, and somewhat interestingly had some huge excavation in the middle of the square. It was showing the remains of the foundations for some ancient building which had previously been there, which is sort of cool, but it struck me as being a bit bizarre that they would just dig up some central areas in the city for that sort of thing.

The walk to Museumsquartier was really nice, and I'm not sure I've ever been in a place where there's just been so much open space surrounded by such picturesque architechture and fantastic old buildings.

At the Museumsquartier our first sight was the Kunsthalle Wien art gallery, which had two exhibitions. One was on the theme of outer-space, which was extremely surreal and mostly just very strange and a touch unsettling. The other was an exhibition on Salvador Dalí, so again it was surreal and unsettling, but in a way I was far more appreciative of.

We split up at this point, with myself wanting to see the Architechture Museum, and the other guys wanting to see the Leopold Museum. The architechture museum was pretty interesting, with one half being on Viennese architecture and town development since around 1850, and the other being an exhibition on the Russian architecht Alexander Brodsky. The central piece was a darkened room, with various plastic pieces of litter attached to layers of netting over the cieling, and a reflective surface in the centre of the floor, reflecting everything on the ceiling.

There was a notice on the door warning that you shouldn't touch the reflective surface on the floor. The surface itself seemed to have a very bizarre shimmering element to it, so out of curiosity I ignored the sign completely and touched it. It turned out that the reflective "surface" was actually a huge pool of oil in the middle of the floor (which explained why it was roped off), so I ended up with oil all over one of my hands, which was somewhat awkward to try and discreetly wipe off given I didn't have any tissues to hand. Still, the exhibition was pretty cool.

We met back up outside and walked to Karlplatz, which is another walk to some pretty awesome buildings, and awesome some fairly impressive buskers in the middle of the high-street. Vienna being a city famous for music and the fine arts, I guess?

(church in Karlplatz)

There had been a fair amount of walking at this point, so we took an underground train to the side of the Danube and sunbathed for a while. I wouldn't say the Danube was particularly blue, but it definitely looked in a better state than most rivers I've seen that flow through large cities. And still surrounded by some pretty snazzy churches.

It was around 8pm at this time, so we figured we'd head back to the hostel and cook (given we'd spent a fair amount of money during the day on transport and museums/galleries). Pretty knackered from the amount of walking, but also a pretty sight-filled day.