Tag Archives: travel

Wanderlust Part 9: Amsterdam to London

Don’t miss any part of my Wanderlust recap!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna
Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow
Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague
Wanderlust Part 8: Berlin and Amsterdam

Day 26: January 19th, Amsterdam

Marijuana use is tolerated in Amsterdam. We were warned about the side effects and cautioned to be very careful, but in my mind there’s no point in going to any of the cafes, because you can practically get high by breathing in this place.
I have some special plans for today, which I worked out last night. I’m going to visit the Ten Boom Museum in Holland. It won’t be easy, but it seems doable, so I’m going to give it my best shot.
I catch the tram to Amsterdam Central, and get on a train down to Holland, about 45 minutes out of Amsterdam. The train is absolutely gorgeous, with WiFi and plush seats that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie theatre.
Once I’m in Holland, I stop into Starbucks for breakfast, and follow the excellent signage to the Ten Boom Museum. And I’m in time for the only English tour that day!
The Hiding Place is one of my favourite books, and to actually stand in the secret room where eight people hid from the Nazis (and were never found) is surreal. It was definitely worth the trip down here. I’ve lived a piece of history today.

Once I make my way back to Amsterdam, I can’t resist heading into a cheese store since we missed out yesterday. I end up choosing regular gouda and pesto gouda. They’re vacuum sealed so they’ll keep and I can get them through customs as well.

It’s the final night of the Winter Spirit tour, and it ends with another dinner cruise on the river. Afterwards we walk through the city as a group, snapping pictures and admiring the figure skaters. My phone falls into a puddle, but it’s miraculously undamaged.

Tomorrow, a lot of people won’t be joining us to head back to London. Some are staying in Amsterdam for a while, others are going to other countries, and some are simply going home. But not me. I’m seeing this trip through, right to the end.

Day 27: January 20th, Amsterdam to London

The morning comes, and there’s a lot of goodbyes in the dining room. The few of us who are going back to London climb onto the coach for the final time. We started with about fifty on December 28th. People have arrived and left, and now there’s about twenty. And I’m one of the only ones from the original group who did the entire trip. I don’t know if that’s actually an accomplishment, but still. One of the last few standing.

Everyone on the coach is tired. Not me so much, but I’m definitely ready to travel on my own. As we drive, Morgan gets everyone to come up to the microphone and share their favourite place from the trip. I also take the opportunity to use up the rest of my WiFi allowance, since I’ve used it very sparingly.
Before we get to the boat terminal as Calais, the coach is stopped and everyone is told if they have any marijuana from Amsterdam, get rid of it NOW before the sniffer dogs are brought on. A hilarious number of people sheepishly get off the coach and retrieve their bags from underneath.
Finally, we have to go through customs. One of the boys doesn’t have an arrival stamp from Heathrow (because customs somehow forgot) and he’s given the third degree. Some others are practically interrogated about their travel plans. I’m quaking in my boots but my border agent glances at my passport. “We’ve had a lot of Australians coming through here. Don’t melt when you get home to that heat,” And just like that, I’m through without a hitch.
We miss the ferry we were aiming for, so there’s a long wait before we get on the boat. A few hours on the water, watching the French coastline disappearing, and we’re back in Dover. It’s getting dark. A final video is made of everybody waving goodbye just before we get back to Wombats, where this all began. We gather our bags and exchange some last goodbyes. Many are going home tomorrow. Some leave for other hotels, some are leaving on other Topdeck or Contiki tours the next day. I seem to be the only one who plans to stay only in London for the next week before home. I check back into the hostel again, and plan to get some sleep. 24 days, so many adventures. And more on the way.

Topdeck is done, but I still have to tackle London before I go home.

Day 28: January 21st, London

I finally have the luxury of sleeping a bit later today. A whole week in this glorious city, and no early morning starts.
Unfortunately, there’s an issue in my female-only dorm. The lights aren’t working so I have to shower in the dark, which is an experience to say the least. I go down to do some laundry, then take care of the bird’s nest I call my hair, and at around 2pm my extended family show up. I haven’t seen them in a long time, and we go to the Tower of London, which is right near my hostel.
The tower is massive, and we walk around the entire thing. It’s here that I learn I am possibly the worst person to visit a historical site with because every five seconds it’s “Knew that…knew that….they missed that detail out….didn’t know that….knew that but here’s the entire story in minute detail….”

The day cuts short because Rachel and Chris have to get home, and in true London style, it starts to rain. Hard.

And the lights in the dorm still aren’t working.

NEXT TIME: Part 10/10 The Final Chapter

 

Wanderlust Part 8: Berlin and Amsterdam

Missed any part of my WANDERLUST series? Catch up here!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna
Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow
Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague

Day 23: January 16th Prague to Berlin, Germany via Dresden

Some people joined in Budapest and left in Prague. Some have joined us for the final week. There are fewer than ever on the coach, and just two more destinations before the Winter Spirit trip ends.
We leave Prague early in the morning. After the usual morning stop at the service station for snacks, our lunch break will take place in the German town of Dresden. In WWII. 4000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on Dresden over two days, obliterating the city. But you’d never know, because it’s been rebuilt and is absolutely beautiful.
While walking around, I get to know Hannah, a 19 year old from Queensland who’s one of the most recent additions for this last week.We have a nice lunch at a fun little place. She’s studying occupational therapy and she’s never seen snow.

We arrive in Berlin that evening and get a driving tour of the city by a local guide. I sign up to do the Third Reich walking tour the next day, and as dinner is served that night, I have my first ever shot. For the record, it was a vodka sunshine, and it’s all captured on video.

Day 24: January 17th Berlin, Germany

When I booked my trip to Europe, one of the things I was most excited about was the amount of history on the continent. Especially war history, which is fascinating to me. I’m very keen to see how Germany handles WWII memorials, for obvious reasons.
Our guide is Spanish, and has lived in Germany for a few years. The tour starts at the Reichstag building, where we learn about Hitler’s rise to power, followed by the Brandenburg Gate. It starts snowing at this point, and you can definitely tell who the Australians are in this group because we all start squealing like kids in a candy store. And yes, there is still that one guy who ALWAYS wears shorts.
I take some hauntingly beautiful pictures of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the snow, and then we’re invited to walk through the stone maze.
We stop at a cafe for a quick break, then it’s onto the site of Hitler’s bunker and we finish at what’s left of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie where we hear about a few very creative escapes.

People scatter after the tour, and again, I decide to go off on my own. I’m much happier this way. I wander into a nearby store and get a beautiful new pair of gloves to replace the ones I’m currently wearing. They’ve been saturated by the snowfall outside. I walk along the Berlin Wall to the war museum, entry is free, and spend some time looking around. But to be honest, a lot of the information is stuff I already know from a lifetime of loving history.
The snow is getting very heavy, and it’s soaking through my coat. I head into a giant shopping centre to dry off a bit. The fashions in Berlin are lovely, and I want to take this chance to revamp my wardrobe.
Because I have ten days til I head back to Australia, and the sweltering heat, I’m conscious of the fact that I haven’t got any summer clothing to change into on the flight home. There’s a sale on, and I get a new pair of denim shorts for 10 euros. And a new winter hat. I’m sure everyone in the store thought I was crazy getting shorts in the dead of winter. If only they knew.

Outside, it’s snowing harder than ever and I’m wet to the skin, boots and all. I hate to admit it, but it’s time to throw in the towel and head back to the hostel if I want to get dry. I decide to walk back and see as much of the city as I can. On the way I find an adorable cupcake shop, and get a couple to take with me.
Back at the hostel, I strip off all my wet clothes and hang them up to dry. The heating system will soon take care of that for me. My boots go under the heater on the wall, and I take a hot shower to defrost.

This is my first experience with real, heavy snowfall. And I’m quite happy to make it my last.

Day 25: January 18th Berlin to Amsterdam, Netherlands

It’s time for the last drive day, and onto our final destination. Amsterdam.

This is the only day where literally nothing eventful happens. It’s a 12 hour drive day, and bad weather (which even makes the news in Australia) means we have to miss the cheese and clogs factory demonstration we were meant to do today. It sucks. Guess that just goes to show, traffic and weather is a global issue. At least the coach is relatively comfortable and very well heated.

The only noteworthy experience is arriving in Amsterdam, and being warned in no uncertain terms to not step into the bike lanes. “You WILL get knocked over and they WILL yell at you,”
As soon as I have access to WiFi, I send a desperate message home. I fear I may not make it out alive after seeing these bike riders in action. If I don’t, avenge my death.

Next time: Part 9/10 Amsterdam, London

Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague

Catch up on my Wanderlust journey! Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow

Day 20: January 13th Krakow, Poland

Never in my life have I ever experienced cold like in Poland. From the moment I step outside the hostel door, the chill is unbelievable. Even layered up with thermals, merino wool, snow boots and my down coat, I’m highly aware of my exposed face. Tiny flakes of snow are falling from the sky during the short walk to the largest medieval square in Europe. The mercury is definitely below zero, but I don’t mind. There’s a small Christmas market still open, and I’m in time to hear St Mary’s Trumpet Call.

A number of people are going to explore the Jewish Quarter, and others are braving the terrors of Lost Souls Alley. I’d like to go to the Jewish Quarter, but Schindler’s Factory is number one on my list, and there’s something else very special I want to do as well. First, I need to eat. On a recommendation, I head to a nearby cafe for a hot chocolate and a croissant. With melted chocolate.

As lovely as the cafe is, I soon have to brave the chill and walk several metres to the nearby tourist information office. I book a tour, that afternoon, for the Wieliczka Salt mine. First though, I ask for directions to Schindler’s Factory so I can visit before the mines. This is where my saga begins. To be perfectly honest, Krakow doesn’t have the best signage and the map…could be better. It takes me a while to find the tram stop, since the factory is bit outside of the town. I get my ticket from a woman who can’t speak a real lot of English, but that isn’t a problem. She points me in the direction of the tram I’m meant to get. Or so I think.

After about ten minutes on the tram it dawns on me that I’m not going the right way. None of the signs are in English, so I get off the tram and catch one in the direction I came from, until I recognise the city. After managing to connect to WiFi at a Starbucks, working out the right tram from another tourist information centre, and a rather spectacular fall over my own feet, I’m on my way to Schindler’s Factory but I’m conscious of the time and seriously doubting whether I’ll make the Salt Mine tour at this point. I get off near some historical site where Jewish people were rounded up during the Holocaust. It’s an icy walk to the factory and my face is getting so numb from the cold that I’m wrapping my cashmere scarf around it. Schindler’s Factory is…not what I expect. I’m actually stunned at how it’s not about Schindler himself. It’s 99% about the Nazi ocuppation of Poland. Needless to say, I already know most of the history on display. Schindler is only featured in the very last room, and I whip through the entire factory in about an hour. I get the correct tram back to the main square and, big shock, I’m the first to arrive for the Salt Mine tour. Also the only Australian on board. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is absolutely glorious. Over 40 years it was dug out by hand in the 13th century.  The tour begins with 350 steps down into the Danilowicz Shaft, and we are actively encouraged to lick the walls (“1kg of salt is included in the ticket price!” jokes the guide). The mine is peppered with animatronics and statues showing what the workers looked like hundreds of years ago. We see lakes, the magnificent Chapel of St. King full of hand carved salt murals and salt chandeliers that’s booked for weddings (“It’s such a long way down ladies, plenty of time to change your mind!”), the Saltdiggers Horn, the treatment centre further down, and the gift shop halfway through where I get some salt scrub. Three hours of beauty and coloured salt that defies description. I’m in awe. And the tour ends with a ride back to the surface in a tiny mine elevator.

When I arrive back in the main square, I take myself out to dinner and then return to the hostel. Some people – and I am not joking – bear minor injuries from Lost Souls Alley, others have been recovering from hangovers (!) but I’m the only one who experienced the glorious salt mines. And I’ll never forget it. But tomorrow, we head to the most harrowing historical site imaginable. Auschwitz.

Day 21: January 14th, Krakow to Prague via Auschwitz-Birkenau

Nothing can really prepare a decent human being for a visit to Auschwitz. And I mean nothing. It’s actually difficult to put the experience into words.

We go through a security check before being met by the guide at the gate, that awful sign looming above. Arbeit macht frei. Work will make you free. “The biggest lie of all,” says the guide. We’d been warned to layer up, but heavens alive, this is a new realm of freezing. It’s about -6°C. The guide tells us this is an unusually warm day. My eyes almost pop out of their sockets. But it’s true. In winter, it can get to -30°C. The wind is like a blunt knife sawing on my exposed skin (which is just my face). For the rest of the day, all anyone says is, “We’re layered up in down coats, thermals, hats, gloves, scarves. The people here just wore thin uniforms. How did ANYONE survive in this cold?” It seems even more shocking when we’re informed the prisoners were given 250-300 calories per day, doing back-breaking labour, and the minimum calories needed to survive is around 2,000. It’s just gut-wrenching. Photos are allowed at most places in Auschwitz. But I only take two. I don’t want to do any more than the barest minimum. Just the entrance is all I can bear. This place has the weight of death all over it. I can’t bring myself to take pictures. I can’t explain it. It just feels…wrong.

We go through many buildings. Some go over the locations of the death camps. Others contain Zyklon B canisters. Rooms full of statistics and photographs of the people who were killed. A building containing the items taken from the Jews before they were murdered in the gas chambers. Tonnes of shaved hair. Prayer shawls. Piles of glasses. Thousands of shoes. Suitcases labelled with names and addresses, promised to be returned. A mass of cooking equipment, face creams, brushes, combs, razors (the guide told us they had recently discovered gold jewellery hidden in a teapot’s secret compartment for 70 years). And most hauntingly (for me): crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs from the disabled victims. “These aren’t the things people bring when they think they’re going to die, are they?” says the guide. But very few of us can speak at this point. There’s photos lining the walls of haunted, tortured faces glaring down from beyond the grave. The execution wall where people were shot. Every step is like a punch of reality. Worst of all is visiting the torture block. There you’ll find sleep-deprivation cells, suffocation cells, starvation cells. Yes, those mean exactly what you think they do. We don’t get inside the building dedicated to the horrendous medical experiments, and I’m somewhat grateful for that.

Birkenau is the second half of the camp, and we have to get back on the coach to get there. Birkenau contains the only gas chamber still standing here. Originally there were five. But as the Allies closed in, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. So there’s just one that we walk through. And disgracefully, the walls are covered in tourist’s carvings. It’s sickening. The barracks where people slept have the same vandalism.

Three hours at Auschwitz that will stay with me forever. In the next 20 years, there will be no Holocaust survivors left. Everybody needs to come visit this place. Everyone.

For the rest of the day, no joke, I’m trying to warm up again and the vibe on the coach is very subdued. We arrive in Prague that night, where the temperature of  2°C feels absolutely pleasant. I’m way too tired to head on the walking tour, and ok, I have to do some laundry as well.

Day 22: January 15th, Prague

My day starts with an attempt to make myself look presentable for a Skype call with my Dad. He advises me to head to the Astronomy clock, and I add it to my list. With my down coat zipped, and my trusty cashmere scarf, I step out into the wind. The temperature is close to zero, but after the virtual blizzard in Auschwitz yesterday, I will never have the right to complain about cold weather ever again.

Prague is the only major city in Europe untouched by war, and that was on Hitler’s orders. There’s a large Jewish Quarter in the city, and Hitler had a sick plan to preserve it as a museum to the Jewish people. When I arrive in the main square, I’m disappointed that the Astronomy Clock, dating back to 1410, is covered in plywood and undergoing restoration! I shake off the momentary annoyance, and resolve to head to the Castle District. It takes me an embarrassingly long time to find the Charles Bridge, but in my defence the streets aren’t exactly in a grid. The bridge gives me some spectacular photo opportunities and I’m absolutely thrilled to see that the Castle District is practically deserted. I get to see the changing of the guard, and I have the run of the place to take all the photos my little heart desires. This place is straight out of a fairytale. It’s just stunning.

On my way back, I stop at a cafe for lunch, where the workers are kind of impressed of how happy I look, and also that I’m traipsing around by myself. Walking back across the Charles Bridge, I get myself another trdelnik. Without cinnamon. I learned my lesson in Budapest. In an upscale shop, I get myself a hand-painted Swedish-made crystal ornament for my room back home. I’m initially concerned about it breaking, but the women in the store have a special padded box to keep it safe. Many of the souvenirs I’ve seen on the trip have been easy to dismiss, but here I decide to indulge a little, like with my puzzle ring in Florence. I honestly haven’t bought much so I have quite a bit more money than I thought, and because I’m flying solo (so to speak), I’ve been able to avoid doing activities I don’t want to do. However, being on your own can have its disadvantages. Such as when I’m about to get a ticket to a museum I really want to visit and the Romeo next to the counter wants to know if I’m married. I say no, (you’d think the lack of a wedding ring would clue him in, but what do I know?) and he responds slyly “Guess I’m lucky then!” I roll my eyes and snap back “In your dreams!” and hightail out of there. No, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in Venice, but still.

Although any lingering irritation with that last encounter is swept away while I walk back to the hostel and witness the most magical sunset of my life with Prague’s castles in the distance. Another experience that’s all mine, and nobody can ever take away from me.

Next time: Part 8/10: Berlin and Amsterdam!

Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow

Catch up on the journey so far!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna

Day 17: January 10th, Vienna to Budapest, via Bratislava

Another travel day, another early start. In the hostel room, my roommates state how envious they are of my packing cubes. Tori, one of the girls, swears by her space-saver bags. But I respectfully disagree.
Topdeck has pretty strict luggage restrictions in theory. But as far as I can see, my bag is among the smallest and lightest of anybody’s (although there was a boy who managed to bring only 7kgs for around 8 weeks of travel. And he also wore shorts. In the snow. There’s always one). While planning my trip, I did extensive research on packing light and managed to get everything I needed into a medium-sized suitcase weighing 9kg. As much as I love the idea of travelling carry-on only, this trip was from Australia to Europe for five weeks in the dead of winter. It just wasn’t going to happen. I’ve packed conservatively, in terms of how much I’ve brought with me, and I’m immensely grateful for the laundry facilities in the hostels, the game changer for me is my packing cubes. They keep my reasonably sized suitcase organised, helped me pack only what I absolutely needed, and made repacking my bag a breeze every time we’ve gone somewhere new, which has been every couple of days. I am never travelling without them again.
After breakfast at the hostel we have to walk to the coach, and at this point in the trip I’m not only glad for packing light, I’m also glad for exercising restraint when it comes to buying pointless souvenirs because some people are getting seriously weighed down.

We leave Vienna and begin the trip to Budapest, Hungary. But first, we have a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia.
I’d like to say this day stop is eventful, but that would be a lie. Because it is pouring with rain. My down coat, for all the warmth it’s given me, is sadly lacking in the waterproof department. I’m getting soaked. My companions and I can’t figure out where to go for lunch with the limited time we have. Eventually, after going back and forth, we simply walk into a McDonalds and thankfully my coat dries with the heat.
As we’re descending into eastern Europe, I can see a distinct difference in architecture. And sadly, reminders of WWII. On the outskirts of Budapest, we drive to the top of the citadel and get an incredible view of the city we’re about to visit. The bridges we drive across were all destroyed in bombings, but rebuilt.
As we arrive in Budapest to the tune of the George Ezra song, we go on a driving tour but it’s obvious this is a very walkable city. Our accomodation is another Plus Hostel, a chain we’re all very fond of. The walls are painted with famous Hungarians. Even walking around is a lesson.
Nearly everyone goes out for a pub crawl. I stay in the hostel and respond to the mountain of acting-related emails I’ve gotten with the glorious access to WiFi.

Day 18: January 11th, Budapest

It’s a free day and I am keen for some exploring, despite the cold. Most people are heading to the Gellert Baths, Budapest’s famous thermal spa. I’m not planning to go because A) New Zealand’s thermal spas have set the standard I will live and die by B) I’d rather explore the city as much as I can and C) I didn’t bring my bikini and there’s a snowflake’s chance in hell I’d want to wear it in this weather anyway. I have an idea of what I want to do, but sadly, my plans have to change slightly. I was dying to visit the House of Terror Museum. Before anyone has a heart attack, the exhibitions deal with WWII, Communism, Fascism, the Iron Curtain etc.
Unfortunately for me the Museum is closed for renovations and the history geek in me is throwing the tantrum of the century. But before I can get too upset, I have to race back to the hostel and film a couple of self test audition videos. Actor life never ends.
Once that’s done, I head back out again. The best way I can describe the city is if New York was clean and not overcompensating for something. I wander around for a while, enjoying the old world charm of Budapest, and then I find myself at the Budapest Eye. There’s no line, and the ticket is 9 euro. I race straight to the front and get on immediately to a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the place.
For the next few hours, I take dozens of photos, indulge in a bit of retail therapy for pretty much the first time this trip and I learn the hard way that getting cinnamon filling in Trdelnik is a horrible idea.

That night, we do one of my favourite activities on the trip. A dinner cruise on the Danube River. If anyone is going to Budapest, this is a must.

Day 19: January 12th, Budapest to Krakow, Poland 

Disaster strikes the next morning. As soon as I’ve packed everything into my suitcase, I go to put one more thing in, only to realise the padlock is jammed. And because I’ve had it for a few years, I can’t exactly reset the code. Drat.
There’s no time to remedy the situation though. It’s another long long drive day ahead, this time to Krakow.
During a phone call to my Dad, I professed that Salzburg was my favourite country, and he responded “Wait til you see Krakow and Prague,” Let’s go for it then.

The trip on the coach is eventful to say the least. I decide to go for the front row seat this time, and a number of people, along with the usual daily hangovers, are getting sick, not unlike I did in Paris. I’m not going through that again, so I’m drenching my hands in santizer every five minutes. And during our first rest station stop, an adorable stray puppy starts chasing the coach. And yes, I get out and cuddle it.
Morgan gives her usual this-is-our-next-country introduction but the one for Poland is incredibly sad, to put it mildly. Poland was the country most affected by WWII. I know most of it already being a history nut, but some of the statistics of just how many Polish people died is horrifying.
Morgan then puts on Schindler’s List, and I watch it even though I’ve seen it several times before. But judging by the gasps and tears from behind, it’s clear a lot of my fellow travellers haven’t.

We’re in for a shock with Krakow during the walking tour. And by that I mean nobody is prepared for how cold it is. Even with the other countries we’ve been to, this is something else.

My night ends with a very funny experience. When I get up to the hostel room, the lock on my suitcase is still jammed. I’ve brought a spare one with me, so I head down to reception to see if they had WD-40 or something to just get the lock off.
“Do you mind if we break the lock?” the woman at reception asks.
“Nope, you can do what ever you need,” I say.
She disappears into the back and returns with a hacksaw. And the look on my roommates’ faces is priceless as she saws the lock off.

NEXT TIME: Part 7/10 – Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague!

Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna

Get caught up on the journey!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice

Day 14: January 7th, Venice to Salzburg

Another long drive day means another early start. I think I’m the only one not bothered by this. Today on the bus, most people are wearing their new Topdeck hoodies, and others are lamenting over their clothes being ruined by the laundry service. But I have other things on my mind. The next destination holds very special meaning to me.

January 7 is a very important day. It marks eight years since my beloved Grandma, Judy, left this world following a long battle with polio and Multiple Sclerosis. I was seventeen at the time. The last thing she and I did together was watch The Sound of Music. She’d been given a portable DVD player and my Mum had bought the special edition DVD of the movie. She’d seen it a million times, as had I, but her face lit up throughout the running time. With just her and me sitting beside her bed, where she spent the final six months of her life, we watched it together. She held my hand the whole time and told me how much she loved me. It’s a precious memory, because two weeks later she was gone. So much time has passed, but I miss her terribly every single day.
It seems the universe has lined this moment up for me, being in Salzburg where The Sound of Music was filmed on this anniversary. The only thing I intend to do in the city is the tour. And I will do so.
As the coach makes the journey to Salzburg, Morgan attempts to put the film on but the DVD won’t work because it was bought in Australia and the coding or something is different. She resigns herself to the soundtrack and not everyone is happy about this.
Italy may have been quite mild in terms of the weather, but as we cross the border into Austria, the snow becomes deep and heavy. The alps loom high into the sky and it’s clear we’re entering another world.

The hostel is a really nice one, though some people think the rooms are too small (for the record, I don’t). Every night The Sound of Music is played and a number of people plan to watch it. First, we set out into the chilly evening for the walking tour. We see Mozart’s birthplace, and several filming locations from The Sound of Music. Most of us head to Burgermeister for dinner, and a bunch of us get tickets for the tour the next day.

Cameras don’t lie. Salzburg is spectacular.

Day 15: January 8th, Salzburg

My day begins early. I don’t want to waste a moment of my time in the beautiful city. Those of us going on the Sound of Music tour get picked up outside the hostel. It’s a balmy 1 degree Celsius. I’m very grateful for my thermals and fleece lined boots.

Once on the tour bus, the guide wastes no time launching into the history of the beloved film and why people in Salzburg have, for the most part, never seen or heard of it (it’s a long story. Google it). My seatmate introduces herself as Rachel, and her accent immediately identifies her as America, and she’s with her boyfriend Tyler, who’s studying in Europe. They are, quite honestly, two of the coolest people I have ever met.

First stop is Leopoldskron Palace, the exterior of the Von Trapp house. The lake is frozen over, but one light tap from my boot is enough to shatter the delicate crystal. I sure wouldn’t want to fall in like they did in the film.
We drive past Nonnberg Abbey, which was used as the convent exterior. Hellbrun Castle contains one of the three pavilions famously used in Sixteen Going on Seventeen, and was also used as the entrance to the Von Trapp home. The guide points out the path where Julie Andrews sang I Have Confidence and asks if anyone wants to skip down said path singing the song. I don’t need to be asked twice. Tyler very kindly takes what becomes my favourite photo from the entire trip.

On the way to Wedding Church Mondsee via St. Gilgen and Lake Wolfgang, the soundtrack is played and a singalong is actively encouraged. My time to shine. I even get the bus microphone for a spell. In between the Wi-Fi dropping in and out, I manage to send a quick video back home.
Church Mondsee is a shock, since it’s much smaller than the movie would have you believe thanks to a wide-angle lens. I light a candle inside for Grandma.
We have a bit of free time so we go into a few stores. I get a fridge magnet and a bar of Eidelweiss soap, since there’s no way I can bring the flower scenes through Australian customs.
The tour ends with the stunning Mirabelle Gardens, where the famous Do-Re-Mi sequence was shot. Afterwards, Rachel and Tyler are heading to the salt mines, and we make plans to have dinner later that night at Burgermeister.

I find a place called Shakespeare Cafe for lunch. I’m not used to being asked “smoking or non-smoking?” at a restaurant, but the open doors mean that the cigarette smoke leaks in regardless, so my choice hardly matters. I have finally seen how serious my weight loss has become, and I am determined to do something about it. When my lunch arrives, I firmly tell myself that I will not leave until I’ve eaten the lot. And I manage to do it.

After doing my laundry in the hostel, I head to Burgermeister to meet Rachel and Tyler. We have a delightful evening explaining our respective countries’ slang, and laughing about a certain President.
I’m definitely visiting them when I return to the USA in 2019.

Day 16: January 9th, Vienna

Another drive day, to Vienna. This is a city I’ve read about for years.
Our first stop is at the Schonbrunn Palace. We wander around the immaculate gardens. There’s nothing like this back home.
It’s sad that we only get one night in Vienna, because it’s gorgeous. The city is too big for a walking tour, but we get driven around the streets. Past the arts university that rejected Hitler 3 times, the Prater, Hofburg Palace, Belvedere, Vienna State Opera…

I don’t go out in the afternoon because I have a bunch of self-test tapes to try and film in the darkened hostel room. But as night falls, I’m in for a real treat. We’ve been booked into seeing the Salonorchester Alt Wien–the Orchestra of Old Vienna. First, we have dinner at a beautiful restaurant and then we walk to the concert hall, Kursalon.
It’s a highlight of the trip for me. The orchestra plays Strauss and Mozart without a conductor, and there are opera singers and stunning ballet duos. Not only is the performance world-class, but the hall and even the chairs are gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it. Sorry Sydney Opera House.

The night reminds me, again, why I chose the arts. And I have fallen head-over-heels in love with Austria. This country is everything beautiful in the world, and for the first time in three months, I’m feeling genuinely happy.

This is the country that gave me any hope that life was going to be ok again.

 

Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice

Have you caught up on the rest of my Wanderlust recap?
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome

DAY 11: January 4th, Vatican City and Rome

Those of us who signed up for the Vatican City tour have to get up early. Because I have my own little cabin the shower is all mine. I call home, and to my delight my Mum is at Grandpa’s, where my aunt and uncle are visiting from Cairns. I get to have a call with four of my family members! I tell them I’m on my way to the Vatican. My staunchly Catholic grandfather tells me to say hi to Pope Francis. If I get the chance, I will.

The weather is so pleasantly mild here in Italy. I don’t even need my thermal leggings. While waiting in line to enter the Vatican, I get to know some of the girls who’ve joined the Winter Spirit tour for the Winter Rhapsody. Jess, Kerrie, Felicia and Rosie are all kinds of awesome.

The Vatican is gigantic, but very secretive and walled off in a lot of ways. It’s the world’s smallest country, with its own embassies, business dealings, post office, you name it. Our guide, Guido, tells us that some areas are so secretive even he’s never been anywhere else except where we’ll be visiting.
There’s many other tours, so each carries a distinct flag. Although I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that we didn’t get the truly badass guide who is literally using a plush Batman toy as his marker. Why didn’t we get that guy?!?

At first, the tour is driving us all crazy. We have to wear earpieces to hear Guido, but for some reason we can’t hear him at all. Therefore, the tour stops so he can change microphones, and finally we can carry on.

The tour takes us through the main attractions of the Vatican, full of statues, paintings and tapestries so delicate you can’t take flash photographs or the colours will fade. Of course, what we really came to see was the Sistine Chapel. Or was that just me? Guido tells us the full history of why Michaelangelo, a sculptor who didn’t care for painting, ended up there. If you don’t know the story, I highly recommend checking it out because Michaelangelo went through absolute agony in the four years he spent painting that damn Chapel, and the least you can do is spend five minutes of your life reading about it.
Photography and cameras of all description are completely banned in the Sistine Chapel. And when I say this is enforced, I am not kidding. Should you so much as pull one out, the guys in black will blow whistles and converge on you like vultures to a corpse. I’m not about to even try that.
All that being said though, no picture could do the beauty of the Sistine Chapel justice. I’d happily stand there for hours gazing up at the masterwork.

The tour ends at the main square, I pick up some holy water for Grandpa and Felicia and Jess ask if I want to get lunch with them. We find a nice restaurant and I finally have my first taste of a real Italian pizza. And this is the moment where pizza is ruined for me forever. It’s that good.
I still can’t get over how crowded Rome is. And this is meant to be the off peak season. I shudder to think of what summer is like.

We meet up with their other travel companions, Rosie and Kerrie. For the rest of the day we explore the Pantheon, the streets, and finally Jess, Felicia and I decide we want to go see the museum of Capuchin monks (and yes, that is where the word cappuccino comes from).

We were told on the tour last night that there were skeletons inside and this was a quirky attraction. I’m not Miss Morbid, but having some bragging rights when I get home sounds good to me.
Oh my, how wrong I am.
I’m all for quirky and a bit of dark humour, but the place is decorated in a fashion that maybe Leatherface would enjoy. And by that I mean there is literally 4000 skeletons, or really, pieces of them, decorating this place. There are literally chandeliers made out of freaking bones, and other skeleton parts lining the walls in patterns and it is BEYOND creepy. Even the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland has more class than this. I hightail it out of there as soon as I can. Sheesh.

Now it’s time for my big test. Can I navigate the Rome Metro and bus all the way back to our campsite? Like the little engine that could, I think I can. And even though I have a bit of trouble going out the right exit at the train station, eventually I’m on the bus and back at the site. A quick stop at the local Coles equivalent store ensures I have snacks for tomorrow’s trip to Venice. And with that, I’m back in my little cabin, ready to have a good night’s sleep.

DAY 12: January 5th, Rome to Venice

Today’s drive has a few differences. For one, a number of people have left and a number have joined us. And we also have a different driver today. Topdeck is really strict on giving the drivers break time. Our driver is also a Venetian native.

Today includes a stop in the city of Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet. The city has its own Colosseum, and you can’t go to Verona without a visit to Juliet’s Balcony. The statue of Juliet has been rubbed smooth by people touching the supposedly lucky breast. Do they not realise she’s mean to be 13?
In the crowded square beneath the balcony, I find a beautiful embroidery shop and have a new bag label made with my name.

It’s a long day on the coach and we arrive at the hotel on the mainland after dark. We have a hotel upgrade tonight, which is cause for momentary celebration until we realise that a few of the rooms only have double beds (Tori and I realise our room has two single beds pushed together). Also, the WiFi sucks.
On a happier note, we have the option to get our clothes professionally laundered tonight (which I don’t do, since the minimum amount is 15kg and I didn’t even pack that much) and our trips shirts, which we all had a hand in designing, are ready.
Dinner is included tonight, but it’s quite a long walk away. We now know to to add at least twenty minutes to whatever time Morgan says.

DAY 13: January 6th, Venice

As we leave the mainland for the islands of Venice, one thing is clear: your GPS will not save you. Two people move out of Venice every single day and frankly, it’s not hard to figure out why. It’s almost impossible to get around here.
Venice is made of 118 islands, connected by bridges and the only transport is either gondolas, water taxis or your own two feet. Waterlogged doesn’t even begin to cover it. The buildings are all built on wooden foundations, and every year the city sinks more. Eventually it will be totally submerged.
We get the tour, but sadly there’s a mist over Venice so thick you could hammer a nail into it. St Mark’s Square is of course, full of pigeons and then we’re shown a beautiful lace shop. The delightful ladies inside are…well, hilarious. In between explaining traditional Venetian lace, they’re cracking jokes. “Girls, you marry twice. First time for love, second time for life,”
We all adore the beautiful crafts. I decide to get Mum’s gift in here. She asked for something “beautiful”and here we are.
Mum’s always big on finding things to decorate the table with at Christmas time. They have beautiful Christmas table runners, and I know right away it’s meant for her.

After the lace shop, it’s time for the big bucket list item. The gondola ride. We sail through the canals of Venice and I marvel at the buildings, though what will happen when everything is underwater?

Kerrie, Jess, Felicia, Rosie, Lauren, Kate and I wander around for a while before taking the vaporetto to the island of Burano. It takes well over an hour to get there, but it was well worth the trip. Not only is there a leaning tower here, but the island is covered with cute coloured houses that look even more beautiful in the sunset.

It’s getting dark, so we head back towards the mainland for dinner. And this is where I have the absolute worst experience on my trip.
While the seven of us are trying to figure out where to eat, we’re approached by a friendly local woman outside a nice-looking restaurant. It seems reasonably priced, so we go in.
My six companions are all in their later twenties/thirties, while I carry the mixed blessing of a baby face. I look MUCH younger than my 25 years, even without older-looking company. In short, I’m very obviously the youngest one of us seven. Well, the three delightful waiters don’t even hesitate. They take one look at me and the sleazy remarks start. It’s making me uncomfortable, but sadly it’s not an uncommon occurrence for any woman really, so I try to ignore them.
Then things take a turn for the worse. They continue hounding me with suggestive comments. One asks me my name about five times and gets uncomfortably close, like he’s trying to kiss me. By the time they’re adding extras to our order, which we absolutely did NOT ask for, I’m not a happy girl. For example, in Europe, there’s a charge for table water. We ask for two bottles for our table. They bring seven. And it isn’t over yet.
For the rest of the night, those three morons keep on my back. I can feel them undressing me with their eyes and revelling in my awkwardness. I’m about ready to throw my wine on them. By the time the bill comes, they’ve added enough unwanted extras to bring the total to 193 Euros, when it should have been about eighty altogether. Needless to say, they will not be receiving a tip.
I’m feeling completely humiliated. We’ve been scammed, and we all know it’s not worth even trying to argue. We just want to get out ASAP. And even as we’re leaving, they yell a couple more sexist remarks at me. I may not speak Italian, but I know enough to understand what they’re saying. It’s so degrading.
When we get back to the hotel, I go up to my room and immediately burst into tears. I feel so violated, angry and demeaned. How could I have fallen for such antics? I did all the research on European scams before I came.
Unable to settle down on my own, I call home and talk to my family about what happened. They point out that I’ve gone almost two weeks without getting scammed. These guys were professionals. They knew what they were doing. My mother describes them as “grubs”.
It’s true. There really wasn’t a lot of ways to prevent this. And the fault lies with those creeps, not me.

Tomorrow, we leave Venice. And I am absolutely fine with this.

Next time: Part 5/10 Salzburg and Vienna

Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome

Don’t miss any of the journey!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps

Day 8: January 1st 2018 Swiss Alps to Florence 

In the morning, it’s apparent that I’m about the only one not nursing a hangover. And we’re leaving for Italy at the crack of dawn too.
Nobody is happy to be up so early after such a crazy night. The stories filtering in of the escapades (stripping, projectile vomiting, etc) only confirm to me that I would have been very out of place at the party. I regret nothing.
Still, we all hate the accomodation in Switzerland and the less-than-accomodating, slightly kleptomaniac landlady. We’re keen to go somewhere a bit warmer and not having to traipse through the snow to take a shower you have to pay for.
Outside, the snow and ice has melted, making the ground a dance with death to take your suitcase to the coach. Several people stack it in a spectacular fashion.
Breakfast is a subdued affair, with many eating very little. As for me, I can’t get enough of the still warm, fresh baked bread.
On the coach, sick bags are handed out in bucket loads. They are definitely needed. It’s delightful.
Throughout the day, most people sleep or watch The Hangover. How fitting.
For lunch, I have a hot pita bread sandwich. I think I’m going to love the food in Italy.
At dusk, we reach the town of Pisa, famous for a certain tower. There’s a crowd of people all trying to take the same stupid photo. You know the one I’m talking about.
But it’s not just the Leaning Tower to gawk at here. There’s also a very beautiful church. Sadly photography isn’t allowed. It’s a shame. My grandfather would have loved to see this.
We’re in for a pleasant surprise with the hostel in Florence. The rooms are huge, the WiFi is excellent, there’s a pool, great laundry facilities and ensuites. Dinner is in true Italian style, with massive amounts of bread, cheese, pasta, florentine steak and gelato. After Switzerland this feels like five stars. And best of all, this hostel is part of a chain so we’ll be staying at more locations. I’m cool with that.

Day 9: January 2nd, Florence 

It’s official. I love Italy. When I head to the dining room for breakfast, I’ve never seen such a spread. They even have cake. Cake!!!
First on the agenda today is a walking tour of Florence. It’s a beautiful day and about 10 degrees celcius. No thermals needed here. I don’t even have to put on my winter boots.
Our guide is a wonderfully energetic local woman named Eleanor. She carries a flag so we’ll never lose her as she leads us through the streets of this beautiful city.
The cathedrals are gigantic,  the architecture absolutely exquisite. We see the copy of Michelangelo’s David and learn how he secretly bribed officials to study cadavers at night, which was highly illegal, in order to make the statue as realistic as possible.
Eleanor explains the history of each landmark and finally gives some tips on how to get the best gelato (avoid the stores that have the ice cream piled high in mountains. It looks pretty but it’s mainly ice and air). She finishes the tour in the leather district where Morgan is waiting for us.
We enter this beautiful leather and jewellery store to receive a leather demonstration and learn how to tell the real deal. Afterwards, we go around the store and many of the girls are keen to get puzzle rings. Puzzle rings are interlocking rings which fall apart when taken off and there’s only one way to put them back together. Historically they were created to help men catch cheating wives. Ever so slightly sexist, but they’re still pretty and I simply have to have one. I fall in love with the two-tone style, rose gold and silver.
The woman in the store takes one look at my hands. “They don’t make them that small, dear,” she says. “You’ll have to get the smallest one and wear it on another finger,”
A small price to pay for something so unique and lovely. My puzzle ring will live on my middle finger of my right hand. Now I just need to learn how to put it back together.
After this, we’re free to explore Florence and do whatever we like. A group of us are keen for shopping and gelato. I’m fine with this as I want to see as much of this place as I can. Walking is the best way to do so.
We’re all absolutely delighted with where we go for lunch. It’s a giant fresh food market, filled with Italian cheese, herbs, spices, pasta and other goodies. But upstairs is an array of food stalls with everything you can imagine. I select pasta. I’m in Italy after all. For 6 euros, I get a perfect sized serving of freshly cooked pasta and parmesan. It is without doubt the best pasta I have ever eaten. Sorry Mum.
The day ends all too quickly, but I head back to the hostel because there’s something highly important I need to do.
Laundry.

Day 10: January 3rd, Florence to Rome

I’m really going to miss Florence. But Rome is our next destination and I’m more than keen for that.
On the way, we stop in a lovely small town called Orvieto. It’s truly a hidden gem in Italy. Morgan tells us of a huge church that looks like a liquorice all sort and when licked, the stone actually tastes like mint. Well, we get there and after some people try this out, they realise it was a joke. I certainly got a laugh out of it.
We have the option to try a wild boar sandwich for lunch. I can’t do it. Not with the boar heads on the walls. We instead find a nice restaurant.
In Rome, a new group of people will be joining the tour, doing the Winter Rhapsody. And sadly, some will be leaving since the March To Rome ends here. But first, it’s time for a walking tour. Morgan leads us through the streets of Rome, starting at the Spanish Steps.
I’m struck by how much more crowded Rome is. Imagine how much worse it would be in summer.
Rome has gangs of gypsies and there’s pickpockets everywhere. I’m very grateful for my Pacsafe anti-theft bag. It’s one less thing to worry about. Thanks Mum. Although to be fair, if anyone tries my pockets, they’re only going to find tissues.
High above the Spanish Steps, you can see a glimpse of the Vatican, which we can visit tomorrow. Next stop is the sight I really want to see. The famous Trevi Fountain. It’s tucked away in a backstreet. On the way, Morgan buys everyone a gelato. I choose caramello.
Because the Trevi Fountain is so crowded, tour guides are forbidden to talk in front of it. We’re given the history of the fountain in a street next to one of many drinking fountains. They’re all over Italy. Some even dispense sparkling water.
The Trevi Fountain is absolutely stunning at dusk. But the crowds are something else altogether. I’m beginning to think I’ll never get a decent photo, let alone the chance to throw some coins in, when I spot the fence nearby, leading to a more empty spot in the corner.
I slide through the tourists towards the gap. I duck down and swing myself through the bars, jumping to the lowest section. This is one situation where aiming low was definitely the better option. My pictures are more than satisfactory from this angle. And yes, my coins find their way into the water. The equivalent of 3000 euros is thrown into the Trevi Fountain every day. And it’s all given to charity. Yay.
It’s time for dinner and quite honestly, this is where things went kind of wrong. Anybody who knows me is aware that I’m the size of a rake and have the appetite of a sparrow on a diet. It also doesn’t help that prior to Europe, I’ve somehow lost at least six kilos, making me look even worse. The bottom line is, I’m tiny. Very tiny.
Given that I’ve eaten a lot today, I’m really not that hungry so I go for something from the entree menu. Surely I can handle that, right? Wrong. The plate I’m given is the size of the Soviet Union with enough for three of me on it. I do my best, but there’s no way I can finish this all. And unfortunately for me, two of the waiters are VERY unhappy with me for my lack of appetite. They’re visibly annoyed and telling me off. My dinner companions assure me I’ve done nothing wrong but I can’t help feeling a little upset.
After dinner, the tour comtinues with the remnants of ancient Rome. I’m deeply impressed by the Forum, and the remains of an ancient 6 storey shopping centre. Yes, really. Of course, it all pales in comparison to the scale of the Colosseum.
We take the metro back to the coach, which then drives to the campsite where we’ll be staying. And I’ve really lucked out here, because we have odd numbers and I have a whole cabin to myself. Please and thankyou.

Next time: Part 4/10 Rome and Venice