5th July: Montecchio-Munich
In the immediate aftermath of a two-week stint working in the Italian village of Porlezza, I found myself in the even more remote Montecchio, my increasingly mobile way of living about to enter its most mobile phase yet. Having spent the night with my host family from the previous summer, the plan was to catch an afternoon train from nearby Verona, thus removing me from a country for which I already have so much affection and bringing me into rather more unfamiliar territory.
The plan only just worked, as after a delicious barbecue lunch my former hosts compensated for their rather relaxed attitude to leaving on time by driving at quite a high speed (a typically Italian solution to a typically Italian problem). And so my European adventure began with a rush to the platform and a round of farewell embraces before I ended up sitting on the steps beside the train door, all the seats seemingly taken until a kind Indian lady came and told me there was a vacancy beside her.
My interrail ticket having passed its first test, I arrived in Munich about five hours later. My hostel was directly across the road from the train station, the benefits of which cannot be underestimated for someone carrying a suitcase so heavy that anyone would swear he had moved out of his flat and brought everything with him as he travelled around Europe (which was indeed the case).
An unremarkable but much-needed kebab later I was sitting in the hostel bar, unsure whether I was using the chance to drink a beer as an excuse to avail of the Wi-Fi connection or vice versa. If we go with the former, there must have been a lot of activity on Facebook that evening because I decided to buy a bit more time in the Wi-Fi-equipped bar once my first glass had been drained. Somewhere in the middle of my second helping of a local brew somewhat curiously named ‘Hell’ I ceased to falsely interact with people’s online profiles and began to actually converse with a fellow solo backpacker on the adjacent bar stool. Once it turned out he was also a guitarist the conversation gathered some momentum, and before too long a sizeable group containing various nationalities had formed. The beer-assisted conversation continued long into the night and included topics such as jazz, Tolkien novels, football and hatred of nightclubs, all of which are close to my heart.
6th July: Munich
My first bout of aimless meandering took me to the top of the Olympic tower, from where the view is spectacular even if the Rock Music Museum is quite underwhelming. A short walk from there lies the BMW museum, which despite never having been a car fanatic filled me with a desire to cruise around town in one of their shiny convertibles. (I resisted the temptation to do so, not wanting to empty my bank account or get on the wrong side of the German police.) The collection of engines was very impressive, and took me back to the days of my aeroplane-obsessed father trying to explain the difference between two-stroke and four-stroke engines and me failing to grasp it.
However, this was nothing compared to the Deutsches Museum. They call it a museum, but it seems to be a collection of sizeable museums, all devoted to completely distinct topics and all of which somehow fit into what must be an enormous building. Having explored the boats section I then spent a substantial period in the aeronautics department observing planes from many different eras in the history of aviation. There were even some genuine Messerschmidts which survived the 1940s and have a much easier life now, although the dreaded swastikas have now been wiped off their fins.
The evening’s destination was the opera house to see a performance of Richard Strauss’ Arabella. Strauss’ music has a reputation for being quite shocking at times, but the biggest shock I got was when I arrived at my seat and realised I couldn’t see the stage. With viewers who had purchased standing tickets positioned directly in front of me, I was reduced to kneeling and peering over the railing in various places, being aggressively scolded by angry Germans any time I moved. I eventually gave up and relented to sit and listen whilst having slight regrets about the money I had spent. And as if to ensure I kept my feet on the ground and didn’t become too engrossed in high culture, by the time Arabella had reached its conclusion and all involved had taken their bows, the only place still open in which dinner could be purchased was the inescapable, authenticity-destroying Maccy D’s. No local cuisine on my first stop then.
7th July: Munich-Salzburg
After a leisurely stroll around the centre of Munich, there was time for a quick swim before boarding a train across the Austrian border. No, that´s not a misprint. Munich, as well as having several impressive churches, a fantastic park known as Englischer Garten and a multitude of biergartens, does not let its extreme level of inlandedness prevent it from having a beach. Swimming in all kinds of natural water being one of my many strange obsessions, I simply couldn’t leave without having a dip in the Isar River, where the water is clean but the strong current can make the experience feel like struggling in a naturally-produced aqua-treadmill.
Compared to the chaotic rush to a crowded train in Verona, travelling from Munich to Salzburg was a rather simple affair. As was walking around the comfortably-sized latter, which looks simply glorious in the sunshine. The view from atop the old fortress is particularly special, although I imagine I wasn’t a very pretty sight myself after climbing up there in the intense heat to attend a classical concert. Very rarely have I sat in a concert venue with sweat pouring from my forehead, but my unkempt state didn’t prevent me from enjoying a programme of Beethoven, Haydn, Dvořák and of course, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik from the local boy.
Back at the hostel some beers were consumed in the company of some Canadians I had met in the hostel in Munich, providing further proof that travelling solo is not such a solitary activity as those who have never tried it might believe.
8th July: Salzburg
Having stayed away from me for quite a while, the rain decided to pay Salzburg a visit. Luckily the city has enough indoor sightseeing attractions to keep one amused for the day, with the Residenz palace proving to be well worth a visit and the Salzburg museum containing a fascinating display of musical instruments as well as an exhibition giving a balanced and compassionate account of the suffering endured a century ago by those living through World War I.
One must visit Salzburg in person in order to truly realise just how big a deal the local tourism industry makes of the fact that a well-known composer was born there about two-and-a-half centuries ago. As well as a bridge named Mozartsteg and a square called Mozartplatz containing a statue of the Maestro himself, there is also a brand of chocolates bearing the label Mozartkugeln, a flavour of ice cream known as ‘Amadeus Dream’ and – according to one of my new Canadian friends – a ‘Mozart kebab’.
However, the composer’s two houses – the one in which he was born and the one in which he lived for a few years – are the attractions which music fans will want to visit. Not simply because one of the greats lived in them, but because they are now both museums detailing his life, career and family background.
Salzburg having no shortage of classical concerts, a piano quartet performance was enjoyed that evening in the charming Schloss Mirabell palace. The programme again dominated by eighteenth-century composers, it struck me as incredible that such events take place on a daily basis here.
9th July: Salzburg-Vienna
After a brief visit to the Haus Der Natur – an interesting combination of science museum, national history museum and mini-zoo, it’s time to follow in Mozart’s footsteps and move onto the bigger and more extravagant city of Vienna. First impressions are of a city so blatantly adapted to tourism that authenticity must be hard to find, but a walk around such stunning buildings as the Imperial Palace and the Rathaus will make the sightseeing traveller satisfied with their choice of destination.
Live music was easy to find in Salzburg, but it was nearly impossible to avoid in Vienna. The area around Stephensplatz is plagued with salespeople dressed in rather ridiculous-looking eighteenth-century clothes, and as soon as I stepped outside of the metro station I had one on top of me with a concert programme and the details of ticket prices. Having escaped his clutches with the excuse of needing to get money I was soon accosted by two more before I made a purchase which prompted my first tormentor to indignantly cry ‘Sir! I thought you had no money!’
The hostel may not have had the same sociable atmosphere as the previous two, but it did have a kitchen, thus allowing me to not only cook some filling chicken curries for myself, but also to somewhat lighten the load in my backpack by using up the two jars of curry sauce which had spent nearly a month in my bag since I moved out of my flat in Spain all that time ago. However, I am not sure if I will ever truly forget the anger I felt the following day when I discovered that my chicken had mysteriously disappeared from the communal fridge, forcing me to make do with vegetable curry instead (for a meat-lover like me, it just isn´t the same…).
That evening’s concert was of the crowd-pleasing variety, with short excerpts from some of Mozart’s best known operas followed by some Johann Strauss party pieces, finishing with an exuberant clap-along to the Radetzky March. It bordered on the irritating at times but was entertaining nonetheless and was performed by an excellent orchestra.
10th July: Vienna
Choosing the pick of Vienna’s many sights and attractions is no easy task, but the Jewish museum is well worth a visit. Giving the details of Vienna’s Jewish community from its beginnings, through the acquirement of wealth which provoked anti-Semitism towards the close of the nineteenth century and the immeasurable horrors of the ´Shoah’ to the ethnic diversity of today’s Jewish Viennese, it certainly told this visitor a lot that he didn’t already know.
The next stop was the music museum, which told me a lot of things which I did already know to some extent but which I very rarely get sick of hearing about. With one floor dedicated to the renowned Wiener Philarmoniker orchestra, another to the many great composers who have lived and worked in the city and another to the scientific aspects of music, this well-laid-out building is another highlight of this extraordinarily brightly-lit Austrian capital.
Stephansdom cathedral was the location for that evening’s performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by a solo violinist with string quartet, after which I ventured towards the river and into a crowded underground jazz club. Once I eventually managed to squeeze a seat in somewhere from where I could see the four-piece band – fronted by a black American singer and containing a sublime pianist – I was absorbed in every note they played. During a break between sets I also befriended a German with whom I enjoyed some music-related discussions, making it a highly productive evening in many ways.
11th July: Vienna
My second day in Austria’s capital wasn’t the most action packed, with visits to Joseph Haydn’s old house and the aquarium proving to be interesting but not especially remarkable, although the latter’s location inside a small tower allows for a stunning view over the city. A walk by the Danube was a pleasant experience, even if the water looks more green than blue in spite of Johann Strauss’ claims.
Some would celebrate their last night in Vienna with a lavish party, I celebrated mine with a musical funeral mass. Karlskirche was a beautiful setting for Mozart’s Requiem, exquisitely performed by a full ensemble who could just about fit onto the altar. No enthusiastic hand-clapping here, no flamboyant crowd gestures from the conductor, no laughter mid-movements; just an intense, solemn listening experience. At the conclusion of the final movement the conductor waited some moments before turning to take his bow – the audience’s cue to applaud – ensuring a total silence that we very rarely hear in modern times of traffic, machinery and phone ringtones. And as was then reaffirmed by the strength of the applause which did ensue, there was no better way to prove how captivated the audience had been by the performance.
Over three consecutive nights Vienna had won me over as one of the world’s musical hotspots, even if one could hear the Radetzky March a few times too many. Many of the greats have lived there, and their music still does, making it an ideal destination for keen listeners despite the necessity to load their pockets in preparation for their visit.
12th July: Vienna-Budapest
After spending nearly five days in the same country it was time to cross another border and visit Hungary’s once-Danube-divided capital. With the hostel being a bit further from the station on this occasion, the weight of my suitcase really took its toll, leaving me severely weakened upon arrival. This wasn’t in any way helped by elongating the walk as a consequence of going in the incorrect direction from the station, but these things happen when you travel.
With a shower and some lunch restoring me from a dishevelled wretch to a relatively respectable member of humanity, I took a walk past Heroes Square – a typically Hungarian patriotic display of statues – to the thermal baths. There are many thermal baths in Budapest, the one I went to is considered to be the most famous and has a name I can neither spell nor pronounce. (The extent to which Hungarian differs from any language with which I’m familiar is quite striking, and reminds me quite strongly of how culturally disconnected we were from that side of Europe for such a long time.)
As for the bathing itself, it was both a surreal and fantastic experience. With a sizeable array of both indoor and outdoor pools ranging from what I would inexpertly describe as ‘roasting’ to ‘like a f***ing ice bath’ and including everything in between such as ‘fairly hot’ and ‘a good bit warmer than a normal pool’, it was an experience like no other. The pools did of course have more specific temperatures, displayed in degrees Celsius on signs on the walls, but I find my own assessments easier to remember.
Having largely kept to myself in Vienna, I released the sociable side of my personality once back at the hostel, resurrecting my long-forgotten knowledge of card games in order to join two English sisters in some competitive banter, discussing music with a Hungarian and becoming engrossed in a discussion of Ukraine’s political situation with two guests from the nearby but somewhat cut-off nation.
13th July: Budapest
Solo travelling involves a lot of aimless walks, an activity to which Budapest is well suited. Having seen the brightly-lit Parliament in all its night-time glory the previous evening, the morning’s meandering took me across the river from the flat Pest into the rather hillier Buda. From the imposing independence statue (statues are a common sight in this city), I satisfied my everlasting desire to climb hills by walking to the old Citadella and adding to my growing collection of aerial view photos. From there it was back downhill and along the river before another curiosity-driven ascent through the gardens of the staggeringly impressive Royal Palace.
When you travel as much as I do you can end up having friends in some seemingly unlikely places. So it was that a friend from Derry, whom I had met the previous summer whilst working in Italy and who had since spent a year living in Prague coincidentally happened to be visiting Budapest at the same time as me. A very pleasant evening was then spent wandering from bar to bar, discussing our past years in the Czech Republic and Spain respectively and our travel plans for the immediate future.
My return to the hostel was followed by further conversations with the previous night’s newly-made acquaintances, before the Hungarian challenged me to a game of table tennis. Well, it was more of an invitation to rally than a challenge but once I’d got my eye in (I´d been out of practice for years ever since my cousin ceased to have a table in his garden) the competitive instinct returned. Hammering my fellow guest three times gave me a feeling of great satisfaction, albeit accompanied with a slight sense of shame at being so ruthlessly satisfied.
Stumbling to my room in a glorious daze from a few beers and my ping-pong triumph, one of the more awkward moments of the holiday occurred when I opened the door. Catching a glimpse of my French room-mate and a pretty blonde lady in the process of removing each other’s garments, I attempted to discreetly close the door. As I stood in the corridor wondering what to do next she sheepishly walked out, and my room-mate casually dismissed my apologies, assuring me that there was no problem as he would ‘see her tomorrow anyway’. I never found out if he did or not.
14th July: Budapest
Standing in a slow-moving queue for the ticket office and hearing solemn music from inside whilst seeing visibly upset visitors passing through the exit door is a good early indication of what kind of experience the House of Terror offers. Giving a warts’n’all description of the Nazi and the ensuing Soviet occupation in the building used by both for torture and imprisonment, this unique museum will fill any compassionate visitor with anger and sadness. I also felt a sense of annoyance that those of us from Ireland don’t know more about these things which took place not too far from our doorsteps, the Communist horrors being particularly unknown.
Having spent the afternoon strolling around the scenic mid-river island between Buda and Pest, I found a different type of concert to go to that evening. Hungarian folk music, performed by an ensemble of bowed strings, clarinet and an unusual pitched-percussion instrument somewhat resembling a xylophone, can sound quite dissonant at first to those of us who have grown up accustomed to what we now consider to be conventional harmonies. However, once the ear adapts to its more primitive nature the music becomes a tremendously energising force for listeners. Furthermore, the dancers were so entertaining that I even started to pay them some attention after a while. (It´s still more about the music for me though. It always is.)
Switching from table tennis to table football, I enjoyed another shamefully satisfying victory that night at the hostel, this time over one of the Ukrainians, before settling in for an early night. (Just to clarify, by ‘shamefully satisfying’ I mean that I am slightly ashamed of the satisfaction I take from defeating nice people in what are probably intended as fun, non-competitive games. I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself sometimes.)
15th July: Budapest-Košice
With the only direct train to my next destination departing at 6pm, there was time for a quick look inside a castle containing a museum on Hungarian agriculture before meeting Patricia (my aforementioned friend and fellow globe-trotter from Derry) for another swim in the thermal baths. The museum merits a visit, while the baths are well worth a second session even if it brought me no closer to pronouncing or remembering the place’s name.
After arriving in Košice, a small city in eastern Slovakia, after 10pm, I lost my sandals whilst finding my hostel. I don’t mean that I lost them in the way that one loses an object and cannot find it again. Such a feat would have been almost impossible considering I was wearing them at the time. They were lost in the way that an army loses soldiers who fall in battle. While their owner struggled up a dark quiet road with a heavy backpack and suitcase, the strap of the right sandal snapped, clearly giving up after the intense use they had been put to in recent weeks. I walked in a slightly awkward fashion to my hostel, where the role of my sandals – purchased in a hurry after a similar fate befell my last pair in Madrid the previous summer – in my European journey came to a poignant end.
The hostel receptionist’s lack of any substantial English made me feel strangely happy, as having visited such well-trodden destinations on my first four stops it was nice to stray off the tourist trail for a while.
16th July: Košice
As first impressions suggested, Košice is a small place, removed from the beaten track and free of bustling crowds. Seeing as I had only found out about its existence when looking up train timetables on the interrail website, this didn’t come as a surprise.
It is not without its charms, however, the well-preserved town centre looking resplendent in the July sun. A multi-sectioned museum gives an interesting insight into the town’s Hungarian history (the borders seem to have moved a lot in this part of Europe) as well as an opportunity to explore the old prison. The Technical Museum contains detailed collections of mining, printing, agricultural and various other types of equipment.
A very modern concert hall, apparently built when Košice was Slovak Cultural Capital a few years beforehand, was the venue for not one but two consecutive jazz performances that evening. The jazz in question turned out to be of a modern nature, the first band – a Norwegian quartet fronted by a Czech singer/violinist – incorporating avant-garde tendencies while the following French sextet sounded as though their influences range from twentieth-century classical piano to prog-rock. All in all, it made for a concert that wasn’t the easiest to listen to but well worth the effort of doing so, which prompted an interesting WhatsApp discussion of such matters with Victor, the German who I met in Jazzland in Vienna.
17th July: Košice-Ždiar
Having already departed from the beaten track, it was time to explore some real wilderness. After a relatively short train journey to Poprad-Tatry I took a bus up the High Tatras Mountains to a village called Ždiar, following a recommendation from my sister who had visited a few years previously. In an interesting case of the wheel coming full circle, she had journeyed there after reading what Michael Palin had to say about it in a book which I had bought her as a birthday present.
The weight of my suitcase became a real problem when I mistakenly got off the bus two stops too early. Although I regularly run long distances and had completed a half-marathon a few months beforehand, that one-and-a-bit kilometre uphill really took it out of me.
Of all the hostels I’ve stayed in, none are remotely like the Ginger Monkey. With staff who greet you with handshakes, a balcony looking out onto the mountains and €1 beers which can be taken from the fridge, it feels more like staying in a friend’s house than being a guest in private accommodation.
A leisurely two-hour stroll along the river through a ski resort was enough to remind that as much as I love to visit big cities, rural paradises will never lose their appeal either. A night spent eating pizza and drinking beer stimulated many flowing conversations with like-minded backpackers and even culminated in an invitation to join some van-driving Australians on an adventurous hike the following morning.
18th July: Ždiar
I consider myself to be adventurous – and some consider me to be mentally unhinged – for immediately travelling to Italy as soon as I finished my job in Spain in order to work in an English summer camp for three weeks, before spending a further three weeks travelling around Europe on the train. But I am nothing compared to Max and Bevan, two Australian carpenters who flew to Germany and bought a van which would be their home for the entire year as they drove around the continent. Furthermore, two became three as they met a Polish woman named Lydia at a music festival in Croatia and she temporarily joined them in what they call ‘van-life’. So for them, having an Irishman they had only met the previous night in the back of their beloved vehicle as they drove to the start of a nearby hiking trail probably didn’t seem like too big a deal.
I soon learnt that the Aussie duo, carrying raingear in their backpacks, were in fact far more sensible than either myself or Lydia. Starting up the trail in the glorious sunshine for which my shorts and t-shirt seemed perfectly apt, the storm came when we were about halfway up. Amidst rain so heavy it bounced off the hard ground and made streams in the soft, and thunder so deafening we could barely hear each other speak, we struggled onwards to the coveted hut which seemed to spend a long time only being ‘a little bit further on’. When we made it to the aforementioned promised land beside a picturesque green lake, me awkwardly holding Max’s spare waterproof backpack cover over my head (a surprisingly effective means of protection from the elements, even if I did look ‘well-ridiculous bro’ as Bevan put it), we sheltered inside whilst eating our lunch, and for quite a long time after that.
Finally abandoning all hope of the storm subsiding, we began to descend, seeing far more waterfalls than we had on the way up. It eventually did stop when we were about halfway down, meaning that our epic adventure concluded in similarly splendid conditions to those in which it had begun.
The shower, food, beers and sleep were deeply appreciated that night, and for the first time on my trip it occurred to me that I might have stayed somewhere a bit longer had I not booked all of my accommodation in advance. With the experiences I had of the natural surroundings and the sociable atmosphere, the Ginger Monkey may very well not have seen the last of me.
19th July: Ždiar-Prague
After a leisurely breakfast and an all-round exchange of handshakes I was on the bus back down the mountain to Poprad-Tatry. This was followed by what was easily the most unpleasant train journey of the holiday, with seven hours spent between carriages due to all of the seats being booked. With the only available seats being in the restaurant, I attempted to prolong the process of eating my lunch for as long as possible but I eventually had to go back to the uncomfortable corridor before the waiter could extract more money from me.
Whilst sitting on the steps by the door, I finally decided to write a travel diary. So no, this hasn’t been filled in as I go, it’s a bit backdated. The first six days, reaching the middle of my stay in Vienna, were recounted whilst sitting on the floor outside the train’s toilet. I can only hope that this doesn’t destroy the romance of the whole thing.
In Prague I was due to meet another friend from the previous summer’s camp in Italy, but when we arranged to meet at reception it transpired that we had in fact booked two different hostels with similar names. However, we made our way into the Old Town Square, eventually locating each other and enjoying a few pints of beer and long conversations about football, summer work, football, travelling and football. James, a Lancashire native, is a passionate Preston North End fan, and their recent promotion into the same division as my beloved Fulham meant we had a lot to discuss.
20th July: Prague
The morning’s meandering inevitably brought me across the river to Prague Castle, a site so vast and so intact that visiting it almost feels more like walking around a village than entering a monument. With many different sections, and different types of ticket that grant access to different combinations of them, this colossus could easily take up hours of one’s time. The Royal Palace is nothing special, but Golden Lane – with its replications of ancient living quarters – is an interesting place for a frequently-stopping walk.
Back down the hill and across the river, I met James in the rather curiously-named Prague Beer Museum. It’s not actually a museum at all, it’s a pub, but the impressive range of beers on offer is more varied than what your average local will give you. After two laid-back pints in the sunny beergarden we took a temporary respite in our respective hostels.
Working in a summer camp in the Bohemian countryside, James had visited Prague earlier in the summer and had wasted no time in familiarising himself with the local pubs. Thus we spent another night similar to the previous one, and no less enjoyable. We also agreed to go on a city tour the following morning, even if I did have some private misgivings about my ability to make it out of bed. But like a lot of dilemmas that occur whilst under the influence of alcohol, there was no need to worry about it there and then. It could wait…
21st July: Prague
Getting out of bed and making it into the centre of Prague for, eh…, midday did indeed turn out to be something of a struggle, but it was well worth it for the walking tour which followed. Lasting nearly three hours and covering a large area of the city, our knowledgeable guide not only showed us Prague’s main sights but gave us some fine historical details about landmarks such as the clock tower, the Jewish district (more intact than most due to Hitler’s sinister plans for a ‘Museum of an Extinct Race’) and the castle (lit up at night by lights paid for by the Rolling Stones). My personal favourite was the amusing story of clueless Nazi soldiers taking the wrong statue down from the roof of the concert hall, mistaking Richard Wagner (Hitler’s musical idol) for Felix Mendelssohn (the Jew they had been assigned to remove).
The tour guide also gave us some good tips on local restaurants, with one of his recommendations followed by myself and James that evening. A post-dinner beer in a nearby pub was the scene of arguably the most surprising chance meeting I’ve had in a while, as a former housemate from my second year as a student in Dublin happened to wander in accompanied by his girlfriend.
The night continued, and we continued to drink beer. And talk about football. And a few other things as well. But mostly football. An attempt to meet up with the Aussies I had met in Ždiar proved unsuccessful, it seems that crowded nightclubs aren’t particularly good for finding people in. But then again, I’ve never really known what crowded nightclubs are good for.
22nd July: Prague-Berlin
Struggling out of bed with my head hurting after three consecutive nights of football conversation (I love it, but it can hurt your head if you have too much. Oh OK then, maybe it was the beer.), I fortunately managed to secure myself a seat on the five-hour train from the Czech capital to the German one. Most of the journey was spent in an unenviable stupor somewhere between asleep, awake and hungover, apart from a visit to the restaurant to dispense with my remaining Czech Kroner.
An unusual highlight of the journey was passing through a town called Elsterwerda shortly before reaching Berlin. It was a highlight for no particular reason other than that its first six letters happen to spell my surname, but when your surname has drawn as many baffled looks and questions about your origins that you don’t know the answer to as mine has it’s nice to see a sign that there might be some other’s out there.
The hostel provided a previously unencountered obstacle: there was no lift. And I was on the fourth floor. Never, in my entire life, have I felt such passionate hatred towards a suitcase as I did when hauling all that monstrous weight up so many flights of stairs.
That evening was a quiet one, consisting of a cheap Chinese meal and a stroll through the pretty gardens of Charlottenburg Palace. Fully aware as I am of Berlin’s reputation as an extravagant party city, I forsook such opportunities for an early night in bed. Partly due to tiredness, but mainly just because I’m not really into that sort of thing.
23rd July: Berlin
Having laid in, and feeling much better for it, I took a wander through the vast city park of Tiergarten. Containing the victory column and a memorial to the gypsies killed during the Nazi regime, this park led all the way to the Brandenburg Gate. A sight so famous that seeing it doesn’t really seem like such a big deal in the end, its historical importance must nonetheless be appreciated. As must the fact that it’s even possible to wander in and out of its arches where multitudes of tourists indulge in selfie-stick binges, something which would have been unthinkable only a few years before I was born.
The German History Museum was a further reminder that, for better or for worse, the entire world has been affected by this place’s political ongoings. Big, detailed, well laid-out and recounting some horrible stories, the museum’s exhibits include agricultural and militaristic equipment from centuries gone by as well as Nazi propaganda posters and graffitied sections of the infamous Wall.
If beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, there wasn’t much beauty in my eyes when I looked upon the Aleksanderplatz. A square containing a tower so ugly one would consider ascending for a view in which said tower doesn’t feature, its main attraction for the many tour groups seemed to be overpriced cafes and souvenir shops.
Live jazz rarely disappoints, and the A-Trane Jazz Club was no exception. A dynamic sextet led by a Puerto-Rican/American singer, they provided one of the finest examples I have ever seen of making things up as they go along and still doing a great job of it.
24th July: Berlin-Amsterdam
Having hauled my suitcase all the way back down the stairs, changing hand after each flight, I got a seat on a crowded seven-hour train to another capital. Pathetic as it may seem, I admit that I did take glances out of the window every now and then to see if the word ‘Elster’ appeared in any more place names, but I was left disappointed. The most notable stop I passed through was Wolfsburg, bringing back glorious memories of Fulham’s victory there in the 2010 Europa League quarter-final (I’m sure everybody there remembers it just as well as I do).
The day’s most productive activity took place between the covers of my notebook, my writing urge gathering momentum as the long journey progressed. By the time I reached Amsterdam in real time I had reached the end of my last day in Prague in the backdated diary. Perhaps the enthusiasm owes to the fact that I was now sitting on a seat and not on a floor outside the toilet.
The hostel, as well as being a considerable commute from the city centre, turned out to be more of a hotel with some hostel-style shared rooms. Its vast size and its stag group-dominated atmosphere meant that it wasn’t the best place to meet new people, although my room-mates were very easy to become engaged in conversation with.
Too far from anywhere interesting to casually stroll around, that night was another early one. With what would become a rather fateful decision to rent a bike the following morning, I figured I could do with some sleep to give me energy for a day of outdoor exercise. Little did I know just how much energy I would need.
25th July: Amsterdam
There are many sensible options one can take when there is a violent storm raging outside. One such option might be staying in and watching TV, for example. Another would be staying in and idly surfing the internet. Basically, anything goes as long as the first half of the sentence includes the words ‘staying in’. However, attempting to cycle from Amsterdam to Edam will most certainly not be making an appearance on the list.
In my defence, it only looked a little grey when I rented the bike from my hostel and set out in search of a north-east-facing exit from the city. I didn’t have any particular reason for wanting to go to Edam other than that I’ve vaguely heard of it – largely due to the fact that a well-known brand of cheese is manufactured there – and that as far as I’m aware it’s rumoured to be a nice place. Then again, the cheese reference aside, the same could be said about most of the places I visited on this interrail trip.
It started to rain as I finally found my way out of the city, and although it didn’t seem like anything major at first it had become quite strong by the time I reached a village named Monnickendam. Stopping there for lunch, there was only so long I could wait inside for before I had to make my way back, all thoughts of continuing to Edam now firmly banished. A minute or so of trying to cycle through the driving rain before being physically blown off my bike by ferocious winds quashed all thoughts of cycling in any direction, causing me to seek salvation in a nearby bus stop. When a bus marked Amsterdam Centraal arrived it seemed as if an S.O.S. had been miraculously answered, until the driver shouted ‘No! No bikes’ before closing the door in my rain-soaked face and swiftly departing. Several minutes later I argued and pleaded to no avail with another bus driver, eventually consenting to lock my bike there and prioritise getting my drowned rat-resembling self safely back indoors.
Two bus journeys, a metro ride and a desperately needed hot shower later I was stuffing myself with unhealthy food whilst cursing my luck that storms had to strike on the two days of my holiday during which I attempted outdoor, rural activities. My head was simultaneously filled with vengeful thoughts about a country in which it’s perfectly legal to smoke all sorts of drugs in the street and pay for any number of sexual activities, but where strictly upheld rules make it completely impossible to bring a bike on an otherwise empty bus in the midst of a tree-felling storm.
As could be expected it was another quiet night in that night, spent playing cards and chatting with the room-mates, the sort of people with whom one could easily converse for hours without getting bored.
26th July: Amsterdam-Brussels
Having checked out, left my luggage in the hostel’s store room and been promised my €50 deposit back even if the bike was returned a few hours after its 24-hour timeframe had elapsed, I took the metro to the centre followed by a northward-bound bus to Monnickendam. Massively relieved to find the bike in the same place and unharmed by the previous day’s natural atrocities, I was even able to enjoy a brief tour around a village that looks far more pleasant in the sunshine than it does in a horrendous storm (but having said that, most do). The cycle back to the hostel was a much more enjoyable experience than the original debacle had been, the famously flat Dutch countryside shining in all its canal-strewn glory. It must be said though that the landscape does become a bit boringly unchanging after some time.
Arriving back at Amsterdam Centraal Station with all of my baggage just after 2pm, I abandoned all hope of getting to see the centre of Amsterdam and boarded the tenth and final train of the journey. Filling in the last space on the interrail ticket felt like both a relief and an achievement, the former largely owing to the fact that once the three-hour journey came to a close there would be one less thing to worry about losing. The last train ride was also a success in terms of bringing this diary up-to-date for the first time, leaving the final stage (from this entry onwards) to be recounted on the homeward-bound plane.
My first impressions of Brussels were on the underwhelming side, a tram through a dreary part of town taking me to my hostel in an equally dull area of the southern suburbs. The hostel did at least have a microwave, allowing me to finally get rid of a rather disgusting but nonetheless edible container of ready-made spaghetti Bolognese which I had bought in Berlin (without realising that as well as a lift, the hostel there also lacked a microwave).
27th July: Brussels
A walk into the heart of Belgium’s capital made it clear that despite its drearily Ireland-resembling weather, it has a lot more to offer than the view from the no.25 tram might suggest. Grand Place (which is its official name in French, not an Irishman’s appraisal of its value; It’s funny how those two words can sound so much more majestic when pronounced with one kind of accent than another) is deservedly considered a highlight, while there is no shortage of green parks to wander in.
The place name ´Brussels’ has become almost inextricably linked with the acronym ‘E.U.’, and an area of the city is dominated by the union’s headquarters. The Parlamentarium makes for a fascinating visit, as well as being completely free of charge. The first part of the museum deals with how the need for European co-operation grew out of the ashes and rubble of World War II, leading to the organisation that so many of us benefit from today. Another section of this impressive building interactively describes how parliamentary processes are carried out amidst a confusion of cultures and languages.
Parque du Cinquantaine is among the more impressive of Brussels’ green spaces, its curved archway featuring two museums and towering above its surroundings with a Belgian flag flying from its centre. The museum devoted to history of the automobile is interesting if not overly special.
Vicky and Chris, the super-friendly English duo with whom I had shared a room in Amsterdam, arrived in Brussels that day and arrangements were made to enjoy some relaxed drinks. Following a recommendation from a private English student of mine from my year living in Burgos, Spain, I suggested a bar named Delirium Tremens. It turned out to be a great recommendation (thank you Diego!), as we tried out various local brews (some of them fruit-flavoured) whilst casually conversing about travel plans and other aspects of life. As I contentedly walked back to my hostel that night I yet again thought that while I was travelling alone I met some great people along the way.
28th July: Brussels
My last full day on the continental mainland (well, last day for the time being) began with a tram ride to the north of the city in order to see what this much-advertised Atomium thing actually is. What it is is a peculiar-looking metal structure designed to resemble the appearance of interconnected atoms. The lower-positioned metal balls contain a unique museum detailing how this landmark was constructed for the World Fair which took place in Brussels in 1958. The next level of giant atoms contained a temporary exhibit on light while the uppermost spheres – the only slight disappointment in an otherwise worthy attraction – give a panoramic view that doesn’t really merit the lift’s queuing time.
In the nearby Expo building there was an extensive space exhibition, covering the history of space travel with an interesting starting point, suggesting that a lot of it was inspired by sci-fi novels. Displaying many examples of astronaut suits and space-exploring equipment, this was another unmissable and unforgettable experience. Space travel is something that fascinates some curious minds, and some minds will always be curious.
By the time I had walked all the way back into the centre most museums had closed, so after a waffle soaked in white chocolate – two local specialities rolled into one – I returned to the hostel with a cheap packet of pasta for dinner. Later I ventured to the nearest square for a solitary beer – solitary in two senses of the word. I must have been there for the best part of an hour, sipping the Belgian beverage whilst reflecting on what a fantastic experience the entire trip had truly been, how glad I was to have done it and how I would soon see my family and tell them all about it.
29th July: Brussels and the flight to Dublin
With the bags packed and safely locked in the hostel’s storage room, the morning’s first stop was the musical instruments museum. Exhibiting fascinating collections of mechanical instruments, traditional instruments from all over the world and the instruments which dominated the Western Art repertoire, this museum is so well put together that even people who aren’t as obsessed with such matters as I am might enjoy a visit. The audioguide which plays recorded samples of the displayed instruments is a particularly laudable feature.
The city museum, situated in Grand Place, is worth stopping by in, if not going out of one’s way for. Its collection of sculptures and artwork is appealing, and it acquires a quirky side by devoting a section to Mannekin Pis, Brussels’ undeservedly famous statue of a small boy lightening his bladder.
The military museum in Parque de Cinquantaine, is another fantastic spot, its free entrance almost making you feel as if you are being gifted with a treat you don’t deserve. Weaponry, armour, uniforms, tanks, planes… you name it, they’ve got numerous examples of it with details on the history of all of them. All in all, it was a perfect climax to my holiday before collecting my baggage and hauling it all to the airport.
And now, for the first time, the diary is fully up-to-date as I am in fact writing about the current moment. Descending through the clouds to a Dublin runway, in a matter of minutes I will be landing in the country I’ll always be from but which I never felt suited me. Very soon now I will be exchanging embraces with my parents and sister before recounting as much as I can in the duration of a Laois-bound car journey. From the beers in Munich and Prague, through the classical music binge in Austria, the hot baths of Budapest, the disastrous but unforgettable outdoor adventures in Slovakia and The Netherlands, all the museums I visited and all the people I met, there are quite a lot of highlights. Memories were made, new things were learned, and as the coast of Ireland comes into view I know that it won’t be long until my wanderlust has me on the move yet again.