Like many places we have visited, we went to Vienna with no idea what to expect. We had heard that it was beautiful, and that drinking coffee in a cafe was a must. While Vienna was one of the most beautiful cities we had been to it was definitely the most uninteresting.
We booked our stay at Wombats Naschmarkt. We chose the Naschmarkt location because the Naschmarkt is a huge foreign street market and we love tasting foreign foods.
When we arrived at our hostel, the guy checking us in couldn’t find our reservation. He asked if we booked at one of the other Wombats locations. We were exhausted from a 5 hour train ride from Prague and using two underground train lines to find the hostel. If we had shown up at the wrong hostel we were not excited to get back on the trains and start again. After awkwardly watching the front desk guy fumble for 20 minutes, trying to explain that our reservation was lost and that unfortunately the hostel was full and he wasn’t sure what he could do for us….his manager showed up and told him he was looking at the booking from one of the other two locations and our reservation popped right up. The front desk guy apologized profusely and gave us four free drinks at the bar and two free breakfast vouchers. We expressed no hard feelings and happily checked into our room.
The hostel itself was the nicest one we had ever been to. It was built in the last year and reminded us of living in the dorms in university. Our room was clean and huge. There were two bunk beds in the large space. Most hostels would have tried to fit at least three bunk beds in the room. We also had an ensuite bathroom which is a luxury when you are backpacking.
We decided to go to dinner and try some authentic on current customers – probably hard to find officially Schnitzel. We went to a restaurant and were left waiting in our seats for 15 minutes before even getting a menu. In Europe customer service is not as highly prized as in North America, while in most places we visited customer service was adequate, a lot of times we would sit in a restaurant and wait up to 20 minutes for anyone to even acknowledge us. After reading the menu, Gavin ordered classic Vienner schnitzel and I ordered a Cordon Bleu Schnitzel. Despite the wait and the warm soda, the Vienner Schnitzel was amazing, the best I had ever had. My Cordon Bleu was delicious ( although the ham was a bit salty).
After our meal we casually strolled to the local grocery store. There were three grocery stores right next to our Hostel. Our Hostel had a nice kitchen so we wanted to pick up some food for the following day. To our surprise all three stores were closed at 7pm. We thought nothing of the early closure and hung out in our hostel. We looked into possible free tours that we could do but shockingly there was none in Vienna. Our hostel offered free tours, but only on Monday Wednesday Friday and Saturday. We had unfortunately arrived late on Saturday so we couldn’t do the tour until Monday.
The next day we woke up bright and early to go to the grocery store. The strange thing was all three grocery stores were closed. We discovered that Vienna had very strict laws stating that no stores be open on Sundays, only restaurants. Gavin and I were dumbfounded. No tour, no stores, was there anything to do in Vienna on a Sunday other than go to a coffee shop and eat? It’s safe to say that we had an in day.
The following day we woke up bright and early to do our free tour! The best tour we had ever done was with Ozzy in Munich. Ozzy worked exclusively for Wombats so we expected good things from this tour. The tour started at ten but we weren’t too concerned about time because every tour we had ever done started ten minutes later than they said it would. So at 10:02 when we noticed our tour group was gone, once again we were dumbfounded. We managed to catch up to the tour guide a quarter of a block away.
Our tour guide was elderly and did not relate to the travellers she was guiding. She spoke softly and stopped at a really inconvenient corners where there was a lot of traffic. She never waited for her group to completely gather before speaking and among other things, lacked the charisma, vibrance, and excitement that a tour guide should have. Within minutes we knew that this was the absolute worst tour we had ever been on. This was confirmed by a few people in our group who quickly lost interest when our guide spoke. Gavin and I took this as our cue to leave. We had never been so dissatisfied with a tour before and found ourselves bored and unsure of what to do.
We wandered around the Naschmarkt for a bit before we used our guide map to find the museum quarter. The museum quarter had five huge museums in former palaces. While the museums would have been interesting to visit we were not too interested in having to spend hours listening to an audio guide because everything was in German. After walking around the museum quarter we walked around to some beautiful local parks. The parks all had really beautiful fountains with tons of benches and chairs. We walked towards the canal and walked through the main shopping district. During our walk we went by the Viennese Parliament and noticed a bizarre protest. The protest had about 7 people with a pre-recorded tape poorly playing their chant on a loop. After a long day of walking we went back to the Naschmarkt and bought some Turkish Delight. Unfortunately the Turkish Delights were terrible and we realized that unless you are in Turkey don’t ever buy Turkish Delights. We ate at another local restaurant and enjoyed more delicious Vienner Schnitzel.
Vienna was very beautiful, so much incredible architecture, museums, music, operas, and more parks and green space than we had ever seen in a city centre. I’m sure that if there was an opera or a musical to see we would have truly enjoyed ourselves. However as it stands, we did not enjoy our time in Vienna and found it difficult to immerse ourselves in the city and culture due to a lack of tour guides and anything to do.
A recurring theme in our adventure is our desire to go to cities we’ve heard of, but as soon as we arrive we have no idea what to do once we are there. The only thing we knew about Prague was that everyone says ‘it’s so beautiful’. We checked into our hostel, Hostel One Prague, we stayed with the Hostel One group in Barcelona. Our room was fantastic. We had a full kitchen and a loft with two extra beds, we had so much space to ourselves and it was a welcomed change from the usual hostel rooms we’ve stayed in.
Our first night we decided we would have some local Czech cuisine and went to a local restaurant. We had some roast beef medallions topped with some berried jam, with gravy and bread dumplings. The meal was amazing and super cheap, about 100 Czech Crowns which is 5 dollars Canadian. We went back to our hostel and thought to ourselves, ‘how could we stay in such an amazing room with such cheap food for only three nights’? We immediately changed our booking to stay an extra night and changed our next booking in Vienna.
The next day we took the tram to the old square to do our free tour. On the tour we saw the Astronomical Clock (the third most disappointing tourist attraction in Europe), The Charles Bridge (a beautiful large bridge lined with statues), the Old Jewish Quarter with the Jewish Cemetery, and many facts about the city and its history. The Old Jewish Cemetery was very interesting because we had just seen the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. When looking at the cemetery you could see the influence it had on the memorial. The cemetery was one and a half stories high with so many headstones jammed into one space. It looked so cluttered and depressing. The reason for the cluttering and the height was because back in the 15th to 18th Century the Jewish people in Prague could only bury their loved ones in one space, and when they ran out of space they added soil to the existing graves, removed the tombstones and placed the tombstones on top of the new layer of soil resulting in 12 layers of graves with over 12,000 tomb stones visible.
Midway through our tour our tour guide took a 30 minute break. Gavin and I wandered over to the Old Square to get some street meat. Gavin had been excited to go to the Czech Republic because they were historically linked to Bavaria, the land of Pork Knuckle. We found some ham and potato salad at a wooden stall. The potato salad was sold by weight, 30 crowns per 100 grams. But when the woman put it into the bowl it was definitely more than 100 grams. When we were given a huge hunk of ham (which was mostly fat), the price came to 880 Crowns. At first we didn’t completely get the conversion until we sat and thought about it. One Canadian dollar is 20 Crowns, which meant for a hunk of ham and some potato salad we paid 44 Canadian dollars!!!!
Following the tour we did a beer tour with our tour guide Bara. She was really smart and knew a lot about beer. We first went to a beer museum with over 30 different kinds of beer. Gavin ordered a beer taster of a stout, a chocolate, a cherry, and a couple of dark ales. The chocolate beer was very strong and not great tasting. We went to a few more places followed a place where Gavin and I ordered a Czech specialty of half a duck and some potato dumplings with red cabbage. It was very delicious. The last place Bara took us to was an old communist bar called Vodka Bar. The bar was covered in communist propaganda posters and had specialty flavoured Vodka like Honey Thyme, Jalapeño, Mars Bar, Green Tea, Coffee, and Saffron. We had a single beer and quickly left the bar after our tour guide had left. The majority of the people on our tour followed.
The following morning we wandered the city. We ended up making our way to the Prague Castle which was on the other side of the river and up a large hill. This day may not have sounded that exciting but there was a lot of beautiful architecture that we walked by. That night Gavin did a beer tour with our hostel and I stayed behind and read.
The next day we did a day tour to Kutna Hora, a town about an hour outside of Prague. Kutna Hora was historically a town that minted the silver for most of Europe hundreds of years ago. The town was also the home of a bone chapel, The Sedlec Ossuary. Since we missed the Paris Catacombs we really wanted to see the chapel. When we arrived in the town we learned the bus from the train station left every 30 minutes. We decided that instead of waiting 20 minutes for the bus we would walk the kilometre and a half to the bone chapel. The walk was long and hot, but
We figured we would catch the bus from the bone chapel to the town so 20 minutes in the sun was no big deal. When we arrived at the bone chapel the building was so cold and dark. The Ossuary was decorated with the bones of 40,000 to 70,000 people. The human remains took the form of chandeliers (which contains at least one of every bone from the human body), and coats of arms. After the chapel we had just missed the bus into town. We decided that waiting 30 minutes for another one would be silly so we walked the remaining 3.5km into town. It was about 34 degrees and boiling hot. A walk that normally would have been no big deal was suddenly uncomfortable and heat stroke inducing. We both had headaches from lack of water. When we finally reached the town we went to the local museum and signed up for the tour of the silver mine.
The ancient underground silver mine, Hradek dates back to the 1300’s. The tour was all in Czech, but they gave us a pamphlet with english translation so we could understand most of it. They showed us a replica of the old wheelhouses, great machines powered by 6 pairs of horses that would draw up great leather satchels that would hold the ore. Afterwards, they gave us robes that were replicas of what the miners once wore and we descended down a staircase to one of the shallowest tunnels. It was extremely cramped and damp, with low ceilings and suffocatingly narrow corridors. There were other tunnels smaller still that one would have to crawl through in order to get to. We were told some of the tunnels went 600m deep, which seems incredible for the technology of the time. After we emerged into the sunlight again, they had replicas of the forges and coin striking processes the mined silver would undergo after it had been brought up. It was a really neat experience.
Following our tour of the silver mine we promptly walked back to the train station. The walk wasn’t so bad this time ( it wasn’t noon and we had water). We took the train back to Prague. We spent the evening hanging out in the Hostel bar.
The bartenders were very fun and had a great energy. The only draw back was that in Prague you can still smoke in bars, and this bar was in a basement with no ventilation which resulted in our clothing reeking of smoke. Smoke aside we had a great time with this bunch and reluctantly packed our bags for Vienna.
I have never been to Brussels before and neither had Gavin. We had no idea what to expect especially since we knew absolutely nothing about Belgium. When we got off the train we immediately learned something: The official languages of Belgium were French and Dutch. Everything from advertisements to street signs were in both languages.
We stayed in the 2GO4 Hostel, which was close to the downtown core. When we checked in we met Jordin (who is from Vancouver) and Amanda (from Ireland). They had just come back from a day trip to Bruges, a place they urged us to visit. They mentioned how they were going to a brewery tour the next day and we decided to join them.
They next day we woke up and wanted Belgian Waffles. Gavin and I wandered downtown Brussels and found amazing waffles then went back to the hostel so we could leave for our beer tour.
We went to the Cantillon Brewery, a traditional family run brewery of Lambic beer. What is interesting is that in Germany the ingredients and the method of producing beers is protected; whereas in Belgium it is not. This makes it difficult to distinguish the difference between large scale industrial production of Lambic beer and the traditional way produced by the Cantillon brewery.
After paying €6 we were given a detailed handbook of how the beer is brewed. We were given free run of the entire brewery ( which had ended this years production the day before we arrived). After the tour we got to enjoy a sample. Lambic beer is very bitter, and non carbonated, making it more of a cereal wine than a beer. When its allowed to re-ferment it becomes bubbly, called Gaseuz. It is still quite sour, but I tried some fruit beer which was better but still bitter to a non-beer drinker. While we were sampling we learned the brewery also made their own cheese. The cheese was a mixture of milk and beer, and tasted amazing. Later that day after walking around Brussels for a while, the four of us enjoyed more Belgian waffles and beer.
The next day Jordin and Amanda checked out of our hostel and Gavin and I went on our day trip to Bruges. Our Hostel had these amazing free maps for young people and gave us a map of Bruges to give us an idea of what to do. The maps tell you what the locals do and all the cool places to go without any advertising. It even offered information for self guided walking tours.
Bruges is an old style town with cobbled streets and canals. We wandered past old churches and hospitals dating from the 17th century. Horse drawn carriages would go by us every ten minutes or so, something that really added to the old town feel of Bruges. Gavin and I watched live candy pulling at Zucchero, a homemade candy store filled with amazing lollipops and candied treats. We ate our first Belgian Chocolates, Pralines from Leonidas followed by Belgian Frites, the original French fries. We then took a boat tour ( in the rain) of the canals. When we finished our canal tour we hurried back to Brussels and out of the rain.
The next morning we had a train to catch to Amsterdam but we still wanted to checkout one more site in Brussels: The Atomium ( google it, this thing is weird). We did not know anything about the Atomium, other than it was a model of an iron atom, and we assumed it was no bigger than maybe a couple meters in height. We were so wrong…. At a height of 102 meters weighing in at 2,500,000 kilograms, The Atomium was built for the 1958 Worlds Fair. It has 9 giant orbs (three of which you cannot enter and one for special events). Once inside the Atomium you could view exhibits in four of the spheres then take an elevator to the top sphere viewing deck. The first sphere talked about the 1958 Worlds Fair. The next two spheres were a bit more confusing we weren’t sure if it was talking about fonts on the front of buildings built in the sixties or an old newspaper that folded or the destruction of that newspaper or social housing with the same name. The last sphere had a space for children to have sleep overs in. After our tour of the orbs, we took the elevator to the top viewing deck. It was nothing special (especially since we just saw the viewing deck from the Eiffel Tower). We saw Little Europe, a miniature version of the best known sites in Europe, that is next door to the Atomium. We did not go to Little Europe, as we were too busy exploring Big Europe. I have a feeling the food is better at ours.
After seeing the Atomium we caught our train to Amsterdam!
Gavin went to Disneyland when he was a small child. I went to Disneyland Paris when I was 16. Every year we go to Playland in Vancouver, and sporadically both of us have been to Galaxy Land at the West Edmonton Mall. These experiences did not prepare us for Port Aventura.
Prior to the start of our journey we knew we wanted to go to an amusement park we just didn’t know of any in Europe. Disneyland in Paris was not very good in my opinion and we wanted to go on world record breakers. We looked up the top 50 roller coasters in the world and 3 of them were in Spain at Port Aventura.
When the train slowly rolled up to Port Aventura and we saw the twisted metal that belonged to two of the top the roller coasters in the world our hearts started pumping with anticipation. It was the day after a long weekend and there was not a cloud in sight, today was definitely the day to visit! We had decided to spend a night at the resort because we would get a better deal; one night stay included random suite with two day passes for each of us for €70 euros each. With a day pass going at €50 euros a piece and a stay anywhere else averaging €30 euros a piece, we were saving quite a bit.
Port Aventura was like no other amusement park we had been to. There was six separate sections, each themed after a different place: China, Mexico, Far West, Sesame Aventura, Polynesia, and Mediterrania. Each place was immaculately themed with buildings, music, restaurants and stores. All of the sections even had the local plants of the places they were imitating! China had the two biggest attractions Shambhala and Dragon Khan. You could walk along a miniature Great Wall of China to most of the attractions while Chinese music played all around you. The stores sold Chinese style gifts while the restaurants served Chinese styled foods. Mexico had El Diablo, a wooden roller coaster, Serpiente Emplumada, and the Hurakan Condor (the tallest drop tower in Europe). As with China, there was Mexican themed buildings, music and food. The Far West was western themed with American music and gold rush motifs. Strangely it made us think of home, probably because the buildings imitated the historic buildings from Fort Langley and Dawson City. The Far West was home to Stampida, the duelling wooden roller coaster and water rides the Grand Canyon Rapids and Silver River Flume . This section of the park served American food such as hot dogs, steak, ribs and hamburgers. The only music we heard was Bon Jovi’s ” Have a Nice Day” and CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”. It was really interesting to see our culture (or a relatively similar one anyways) commodified and sold back to us. The next section, Sesame Aventura was the kids zone. We did not go there. All I can say is: Elmo, Cookie Monster, Woody Wood Pecker (who seemed to be the park mascot) Grover, Burt and Ernie walked around a lot. Polynesia was cool, it didn’t have many rides outside of Tutiki Splash but it held many shows like Birds of Paradise and the Sea Odyssey 4D Aquaride show. Lastly Mediterrania, this was the entrance to the park with shops, restaurants, and daily parades. Mediterrania featured Furios Baco, the fastest roller coaster in Europe!
After checking in we raced to the two coasters we were dying to try: Dragon Khan and Shambhala. The two roller coasters were located in China, the furthest section in the park. It took us almost thirty minutes to walk there from our hotel. We went in line for Shambhala first. Shambhala was the tallest roller coaster in Europe with downward slope speeds of 135km/h. We waited in line for an hour and watched people with express passes cut the line with jealousy. The ride was not working at full capacity due to harsh winds. Gavin and I didn’t care about wind we wanted to ride Shambhala. When we finally made it to the front of the line we sat down in the ride. The only support on our body was a plastic block that covered our legs like a seatbelt. Our upper bodies Were hanging free as we slowly climbed 80m into the sky. When you reach the top of the coaster there is a quick pause before the quick descent. Unfortunately we were hit by a strong gust of wind as well. The wind made the ride even more terrifying than it needed to be, I could understand why they wanted to shut the ride down. After riding Shambhala I was terrified and did not like the ride, Gavin loved it. I had tears on my face from being so terrified and Gavin screamed so much he lost his breath. When we finished the ride we went to a kiosk where we could see a video of our faces. You could see me pushing myself back against the seat trying to gain some more support, while Gavin looked like he was going to lose his mind from fear or excitement, we can’t be sure.
Immediately after the ride we ran to Dragon Khan. Dragon Khan was considered one of the best roller coasters in the world with 8 inversions (second most in the world). We waited in line for one and a half hours due to poor conditions (it was really windy). Finally we got to the front of the line and sat in our seats. The ride operators were reluctant to start the ride because the wind kept getting crazier. I refused to cut and run because we waited an hour and a half to ride Dragon Khan. Eventually the ride was shut down and I was in a foul mood.
We walked around the park until we saw a giant wooden roller coaster in the Mexico section. We rode El Diablo, unsatisfied that in Vancouver the wooden coaster was much better. We rode a couple small rides like the Chinese Tea Cups and Kontiki (a polynesian pirate ship) because the lines were short. Before long we were able to find out which hotel room we had gotten from the random draw. While at the front desk we discovered that because we were staying at the hotel we got a discount on the gold express passes for the park. Gavin and I had been thinking about the passes all morning but debated whether it was worth the price. But since we got a discount and the pass was good for our entire stay we jumped on it. We had waited almost 3 hours to ride two rides, but with the pass we could skip the lines and enjoy our short time in the park more efficiently.
We threw our luggage into our rooms and quickly ran back to the park to use our pass. Our first stop was Furios Baco. At 135km/h it was the fastest coaster in Europe. We skipped the 30+ minute wait and jumped into our seats. The Ride was so elaborately decorated. It took place above a real vineyard and there was a video about a scientist putting grapes under pressure, something goes wrong and the pressure sends us flying through the park. The force of the ride was so strong it sprained my shoulder. Not to be detoured I immediately wanted to ride more. We had heard that Dragon Khan was now operating so we ran to China. We skipped the line then rode Dragon Khan. It was my new favourite ride! Gavin loved it to but he was sure he preferred Shambhala. Rather than riding the same ride over and over ( we didn’t want the people waiting in line for an hour to notice and get mad because we got priority) we ran to Shambhala. For a while we ran back and forth between Shambhala and Dragon Khan before we went to ride Furios Baco one more time. Since we had the express pass we had time to enjoy the shows in the park so we went and watched the Birds of Paradise. The entire show was in Spanish and we could not understand anything or know where the birds were from but it was interesting to watch.
We wandered over to the Far West and found another roller coaster, Stampida. We walked into the line up and saw a confusing sign, “Choose wisely” with the colours red and blue painted. We decided on the red path and saw that there were two coasters to the roller coaster: a red coaster and blue coaster. We loaded the coasters at the same time and were launched at the same time. We watched our coasters move in sync with each other, one occasionally going faster than the other. At one point the coasters went opposing ways before the blue coaster won. Gavin and I were shocked, that coaster was way more amazing than the one at home and it was so fun.
We ended our evening going on Serpiente Emplumada as well as every other ride mentioned countless times until the park closed at 8pm. At 7:30 there was a parade through the park that we had missed followed by a song and dance essentially kicking us out of the park. The park had a series of its own songs playing on the PA saying Buenos Noches see you later etc. We went to our hotel room excited to go to sleep in our own private room and wake up in Port Aventura.
The next morning we woke up and checked our luggage away after we checked out of our room. Today we had a plan on how we were going to do all of the rides, this started with Furios Baco, going to the Far West to ride the Stampida, Mexico to ride Hurukan Condor, China to ride Dragon Khan and Shambhala then back to Furios Baco. We would ride any small rides between if we felt like it but the focus was really on the Hurukan Condor because that was the only ride we had to wait in line for. We also planned to ride the water rides at about noon.
Starting off with Furios Baco was like a kick in the face. We were pretty tired and we didn’t realize we were no longer used to the speed. Furios Baco woke us up better than any cup of coffee could.
While riding the important rides we also rode bumper buffaloes; saw a creepy singing vulture; saw a 4D adventure; and went into the most amazing hall of mirrors I had ever been to. Gavin rode Shambhala a few times on his own, once even at the very front. By the end of the day we had rode every ride at least half a dozen times each and sat in the front of all of the major rides. Before we knew it we had to catch our train out of Port Aventura and go back to real life–I mean, Barcelona.
Our time in Athens had been plagued with longing to escape. We were only in Athens for our Contiki cruise and if the cruise was no good it would have made our stay in Athens fruitless. Luckily the Contiki tour so far is amazing.
Our first night we all went out to this local restaurant to bond. The price of the restaurant made us cringe a bit at €35 each, which roughly translates to $50 dollars canadian each. The restaurant was in a cozy corner up a long flight of stairs that Gavin and I had missed. The area was so pretty with steep steps lined with chairs tables and lights. We walked into the restaurant and sat down.
Our restaurant featured live music and live greek dancing. Our table was filled with so many different greek appetizers from fried zucchini to pita to greek olives. We were served chicken and pork souvlaki. After our amazing night we went back to the hotel.
A couple of the people from our Contiki tour stayed up and hung out in the lounge while everyone else wanted to get an early night for our super early morning.
The next day we got onto our cruise. The cruise was nicer than what I expected and not as extravagant as what Gavin was expecting. The cruise departed and we were on our way to Mykonos. When we arrived to Mykonos unfortunately it was raining and grey. We walked around the island and had some local crepes.
Today we had a 6am wake up call to go on a walking tour of the Ephesus ruins in Turkey. The ruins were astounding and way more intricate than the ruins of the acropolis. We were impressed by how large the city was. We visited the terrace houses, which were the ones of the wealthy in the town. The Terrace houses were recently discovered.
We then went to a Turkish rug store where they showed us how they made Turkish rugs and how I almost got trapped into buying a five thousand dollar diamond ring that was forced onto my finger by the sales person, and would not come off of my finger for a few minutes….
We bought some authentic Turkish delights which are fantastic!
Tonight we look forward to a toga party with our Contiki tour and Rhodes tomorrow.