Slow Times in Vienna

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Viennese Parliament

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.

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The Naschtmarkt

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.

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Adventures in Prague

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Astronomical clock

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.

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Prague

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.

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Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora

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.

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Inside the Hradek 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 Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities. To many Amsterdam is known for two things, marijuana and prostitutes; to me it is a warm and welcoming city with friendly people and beautiful infrastructure. I have been to Amsterdam twice before with my dad and loved every time I visited. This visit was my first without my dad and Gavin’s first visit ever.

When we arrived in Amsterdam like most places we have visited we really didn’t know what to do or where to begin. Since we were in the city for six days we decided to use our arrival day as a day to relax. The next day we planned on doing a free tour at 11am. Unfortunately it was pouring rain so we declined the tour but waited to do the 1pm tour. Unfortunately, Gavin and I were boneheads and tried to find the meeting place without a map and failed to find the location. We spent our first full day wandering the streets. Our second day in Amsterdam we were determined to finally go on our tour.

Our free tour was given by a peppy British girl named Stephanie. Stephanie was very informative and showed us the former headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, the infamous Red Light District, hidden Catholic Churches, the worlds first stock exchange, Multatuli’s giant head, Anne Frank’s House and the Jewish Quarter. We also saw the widest bridge and skinniest house. At the end of the tour we were invited to enjoy some local Dutch cuisine, Stampot, which is a sausage on top of mashed potatoes with cheese and carrot and gravy mixed in. From here we signed up for the Red Light District and bike tour. Gavin signed up for the Coffee shop tour.

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With Our Tour Guide Lee

Later that day we went on our red light district tour. We were particularly interested in the tour because we wanted to learn the history of Amsterdam’s most controversial neighbourhood. Our tour guide Lee was amazing. The best tour guide we had in a long time. Lee lived in the Red Light District and knew a lot about the people and what was going on, so she was able to answer any and every question we had. As many of you know prostitution is legal in Amsterdam and treated as a freelancing business but is kept strictly in the red light district. The sex workers are able to work legally and have protection from police officers making the roles of pimps and drugs almost nonexistant.The strangest thing was that the main concept of the area was for the workers and their patrons to maintain a sort of anonymity yet the workers stood in windows under red lights posing in underwear. The most interesting thing about the area was that the European Union wanted the space to be gentrified so the Dutch government was paying up to €5 million Euros for a single building to display fashionable clothing in the window instead. It was educational to see such a controversial space especially with such an amazing guide. I think the best thing about Lee was that she took us to a pub and didn’t ditch us after she got commission like every other tour guide we had from Sandemans. We hung out with a couple of cool Australians and had a pretty good night.

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Bike Tour

The next day we went on a bike tour with Lee. I really wanted to do a bike tour in Amsterdam because the Dutch are such avid bike riders. The bikes they ride in Amsterdam are generally heavy land cruisers which are much different from the light mountain bikes we ride at home. When Gavin and I got our bikes we wobbled a lot because we hadn’t ridden bikes in a long time and also because we were not used to the heavy cruising bikes.

The bike tour took us across the many canals and to parts of Amsterdam tourists don’t usually see. We rode our bikes through Amsterdam’s Central Park, Oosterpark, past the last windmill in the city, De Gooyer Windmill, the Amsterdam Zoo ( where we saw giraffes and zebras), the Rijksmuseum, and the Heineken Brewery. At the Rijksmuseum we wanted to take a picture in front of the famous “I AMsterdam” letters, but the sign had been moved apart during a royal celebration. After the bike tour we met up with our Australian friend from the night before and her friend Neil from Scotland and we had a double date.

On our last full day in Amsterdam we wanted to accomplish every tourist thing on our list. First we went to Reypenaer, a family owned cheese store, and did a wine and cheese tour. We sat at desks and learned about how cheese was aged, how different aged cheeses taste, and then we were able to try each of the five cheeses they aged. We discovered so much about different cheese it was tasty and awesome! My favourite was the Chèvre which is like goat cheese.

Gavin then got a straight edge shave from a barber down the road from the cheese place. After the shave Gavin went on to do the “coffee shop” tour and I went shopping.

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Amsterdam

After Gavin’s tour we met up and did a one hour canal tour on a long boat. The tour was comfortable and informative with a prerecorded tape describing all of the sites supplemented by the driver giving us local details about the surroundings. We finished the canal tour in front of Anne Frank’s House, the last tourist stop we wanted to see. I had been to Anne Frank’s house before and every time it fills you with so much emotion. I haven’t read the book in 15 years but her hopes and dreams quickly rushed back as we walked through the house she went into hiding in. When we finished the tour our last night in Amsterdam came to an end.

Goal #5 Accomplished

This goal may seem a bit silly in relation to my other goals but this has truly been a dream of mine. I have always wanted to eat French macarons at the place where they originated: Laduree. Laduree is a French Pastry store that originated the French macaron that is popularly eaten around the world. Not to be confused with the American coconut macaroons, French macarons are two delicate pastry shells combined with a delicious ganache. They are very difficult to find in Vancouver but very well made. After eating a Laduree macaron, I have to say they were amazing and the vanilla ones are to die for.

 

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Paris! J’taime

In all honesty I was afraid of arriving in Paris. So many anxieties were circulating in my mind: would Paris be as wonderful as I remember? Would it be devastatingly expensive? Would Gavin have a meltdown at how expensive everything was and want to stay in our hotel room all day?

We took a regional train from Lyon to Paris which took 5 hours instead of the 2 via high speed train. We didn’t take the high speed train because there was only reservations in first class available and it would cost €110. When we arrived in Paris we took a look at the metro line and were immediately overwhelmed. There were so many stations we could not even begin to guess where our hostel was. We eventually found our destination and headed off to the Perfect Hostel…to our surprise we had a private room! Our room was simple, two beds and a sink. I kind of hated how we shared a single toilette with our entire floor, but there was no sweaty smelly guys so I gladly accepted the sacrifice. We fell asleep to an Italian couple fighting next door.

Gavin woke up at 7:30 for breakfast. Since I still had a cold I slept in a little until we left for the Eiffel Tower. We unfortunately were unable to to go the very top due to over crowding so we declined going up the tower for the day. We did a walking tour of downtown Paris which was pretty good. We saw Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, The Louvre, Palais Royal and Musee d’Orsay. We even came across the lovers bridge where couples put a lock with their name on a bridge then throw away the key. As expected the tour guide was not as good as Ozzy ( our tour guide in Munich) but we enjoyed ourselves enough to sign up for the Montmartre tour later that day and the tour of the gardens of Versailles for the following day.

Following the tour, our tour guide invited us for some authentic French food, we thought he invited us to eat with him like Ozzy did. We were sadly mistaken, and paid a lot of money to eat alone. Despite this, Gavin and I enjoyed our authentic French cuisine. He ordered Escargots and I ate French Onion Soup. My French onion soup had a nice base and was so cheesy I choked on the cheese! Gavin’s Escargots were overpriced and required too much work to get at the tiny snail shells.

After our meal we went to Ladurée, the famous macaron patisserie in Paris. I waited in line and bought 16 flavourful macarons. Anyone who knows me knows I love the delicate French pastry and that it has been one of my goals to eat macarons from there!

Following our macaron date we ventured off to meet our tour guide for our Montmartre tour. The tour started in front of Moulin Rouge. Gavin and I had wanted to see Moulin Rouge but due to a strict dress code we were afraid to buy tickets online then get kicked out. The dress code called for no runners ( all Gavin had) and no jeans (all I had). Since we had some time before our tour we stopped by the reservation desk to ask about the dress code. We told them that since we are backpacking we didn’t have anything nice to wear but really wanted to see the show. The man at reception was so kind and told us that our “Jeans and runners would be fine at the late show, and that a lady looks marvellous no matter what she is wearing”. We promptly made a reservation for the 11:30pm show.

After booking our reservation ( which was awesome because if we got kicked out for not dressing well we didn’t have to pay anything) we ran across the street to meet our tour group. Our tour guide showed us where Amelie was filmed ( Cafe des 2 Moulins), Sacré Coeur basilica, the highest point in Paris, the last windmills in Paris, Van Gogh’s house, and Picasso’s studio. By the end of the tour, night had fallen and we made our way back o our hostel which to our surprise was a 15 minute walk from Moulin Rouge.

The next day I woke up feeling great, just in time for our Garden’s of Versailles tour. The tour was particularly pricy, €27 each plus €7 each for a musical fountain show which had every garden open. When we arrived at Versailles it started raining so we bought some cheap (by cheap I mean poor quality) umbrellas for €16.

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Palace of Versailles

We looked at the facade of the palace shamelessly decorated in gold leaf from the palace gates to the window sills, clocks, almost everything! We walked pass the palace to the gardens. Despite the tour lasting 5 hours it did not include the palace. The gardens were the size of 3 foot ball fields, With over 50 fountains, 200,000 trees and a grand canal all of which were in the French style. We took a few steps towards the first garden and suddenly the rain became unruly and unmanageable. Gavin and I tried to ignore the rain but decided to bail on the tour because the rain had turned into a storm. Within minutes Gavin and I were soaked to the bone. The second we left the tour the rain suddenly stopped and we felt sick. We decided to tour the palace and maybe see the gardens on our own. Since we had just seen the Madrid Palace Real,  the inside of Versailles was as expected, another overly extravagant castle with paintings on the ceilings and one more extravagant room after the next. The palace featured a room called the hall of mirrors: the most expensive room in Europe. The most interesting thing about the palace was how after the French Revolution the belongings in the palace were auctioned off and striped away only to be restored a couple hundred years later. The tour was quick, we didn’t see the small chateaus next to the palace (this is where the king ran away to for privacy and Marie Antoinette’s private palace) but we had been exhausted enough already. To our relief (and disappointment) the rain continued, so we didn’t see the garden’s after all. As we left the palace we were thankful to not do the 5 hour tour in the pouring rain.

We took the train back to Paris and noticed that I was sniffling. Gavin wanted to go back to the hostel but I wanted to go shopping on the Champs-Élysées. Gavin relented and we went to Laduree again and got a giant vanilla macaron (which was amazing) and I went shopping for a dress to wear at the Moulin Rouge show. I found a purple dress that would pack well in my backpack and bought some accessories. Afterwards we hurried back to the hotel to nap before our late night show at the Moulin Rouge!

We saw the show Féerie at Moulin Rouge. We were a bit worried because everyone always complained about Moulin Rouge being a tourist trap (which it was) being overpriced (which it is) and the show not being that good anyways (which is a boldfaced lie because the show was fantastic).

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Moulin Rouge

Our ticket came with a full bottle of champagne to enjoy during the show, and our seats were very close to the stage. The inside of the venue was fantastically decorated, with the curtain made entirely of shining sequins that took on whatever colour of light shined upon it. Part of the ceiling was designed to look like the inside of a circus tent, with billowing stripped fabric supported by the columns rising up from the upper balcony. The show was incredible, with 60 dancing girls accompanied by half as many men and dozens of different elaborate costumes, all garnished with abundant feathers, boas and chains of beads. The stage changed as often as the costumes, with one part themed like a gleaming snake temple where one of the dancers was dressed as Medusa. A huge water tank raised up from the floor that she was cast into, containing no less than 6 full sized anacondas that she swam with. The time between costume and set changes was occupied by smaller acts, including a slapstick/tumbler trio, a comedian juggler, and a pair of balancing acrobats.

We really enjoyed the show. We had never seen anything more spectacular. When the show ended we discovered that the metro was closed. If we hadn’t been at the Moulin Rouge the day before we wouldn’t have known that our hostel was a short walking distance away, so we walked through the Paris Red Light District at 1:30 in the morning back to our hostel.

The next morning we had to check out of our hostel and check in to a new hostel across town. We wanted to stay in Paris one more night and our current hostel was all booked up. The new Hostel, Oops! Hostel had a lock out period from 11am to 4pm in which all of the staff, and patrons were kicked out of the hostel. This was kind of weird and extremely inconvenient because I had become really sick and our check out time was at 10am at our current hostel and we had to find something to keep us busy for six hours.

We decided to try and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower again and then go to the Louvre ( it was closed the previous day). We stored our belongings in our hostel then headed over to the Eiffel Tower.  The Eiffel Tower was built when France held the world expo in the late 1800’s. For forty years the tower remained the tallest man made structure in the world. When I visited in 2006 I never went to the top because my friend was too afraid of heights. Since then I had been to the top of the CN Tower  in Toronto and couldn’t live with myself for not going to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

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Top of the Eiffel Tower

We arrived at the tower at 10am, 30 minutes later than we hoped. When we got through the line we were able to buy tickets for the top. We jumped into the lineup to the elevator then took the elevator to the second floor, walked a meter then took a second elevator to the top. The top was very small and full of people taking photos of the scenery around. We got a couple photos then saw a height comparison of the tower with other structures. After about twenty minutes at the top we took an elevator down to the second floor. The second floor had a gift shop and a restaurant. The first floor was even less interesting.

Our next stop was the Louvre. Gavin had never been and I recalled enjoying myself when I did. Since we had time to kill we walked from the Eiffel tower to the Louvre. During that walk we got hit up by a bunch of “petitioners”: people who pretend they need the signature of an English speaker for some cause, then rob you blind. We had heard of the ploy in Madrid so we were smart to their scheme. The next set of people we kept meeting would pick up gold rings we did not lose and ask if we had lost them….so they and a partner could rob us blind. We “lost” four gold rings on a single bridge.

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The Louvre

We finally reached the Louvre and decided to use the tricks our tour guide taught us to avoid the line. The first was to use the side door, which was closed. The second was to enter through the carousel shopping centre under the Louvre.  After walking through the very small but decently high end shopping centre we ended up at the line for the Louvre. We noticed that there wasn’t really a line but officials pushing people away. There was a hand written sign saying, ” The Louvre Museum is closed come back tomorrow.” Gavin and I were confused because the Louvre was closed yesterday and was supposed to be open today so why was it closed? We figured maybe there was an incident so we decided to shop around the mall and come back.

Gavin found his perfect Australian Outback hat, a Stetson, at an outdoor/ hippy store. Gavin also found a the best mineral store of his life and stocked up on samples for his mineral collection. We also found a lock for the lovers bridge. We went back to the Louvre and saw that the Museum was still closed. We decided to go to the Lovers Bridge and place our lock then head over to the Musée d’Orsay.

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Our Lock on the Lovers Bridge

The bridge was filled with couples trying to cement their love; sales people selling locks to make a quick buck by selling locks to the couples and pick pockets. The myth was that if the couple wrote both of their names on the locks then locked the lock to the bridge and threw the key into the water that they would be together forever. We put our lock in a careful place and threw the key into the Seine river. Satisfied with our cliche act of love we went to the museum.

The Musée d’Orsay had a huge line ( probably because the Louvre was closed). While the Louvre housed artwork from the beginning of time to 1870’s the Musée d’Orsay was a more contemporary museum with work from 1840 to the present.  We got to see an exhibit called: The Angel of the Odd. Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst. It was a lot of really neat gothic art ranging over a large time period, with paintings romanticizing demons, monsters, satan and witches. There were many paintings inspired by Paradise Lost, and others of the apocalypse. There were also short clips of horror films from early cinema, including Hitchcock.

After the museum we went back to the Perfect Hotel to collect our bags and head over to the Oops! Hostel. The Oops Hostel was very nice and modern but very out of the way. The only thing that rubbed us the wrong way was the mandatory lock out, which really didn’t apply to us because we had a train to catch the next morning before the lock out. While staying at the Hostel we shared a room with two British girls. Since Madrid We had very little social contact because for whatever reason the places we stayed people were not social. So when Jen and Emma were social, spunky and cheery we were thankful. They told us about how they visited the Paris Catacombs and we told them about the Louvre’s mysterious closure. Jen said she had read the british news earlier and that it mentioned the closure. Apparently the Louvre was closed  due to the workers striking. The workers striked because of pickpocketing which had gotten so bad that the workers were fearing for the lives from aggressive pickpockets working in teams of up to 30 people. What was worse was that children who could get into the museum for free were pickpocketing from the staff and patrons. The new information made Gavin and I feel frustrated that the Louvre was closed on our last day in Paris but understanding of how the staff felt.

Paris was way better than I remembered. We were so afraid of everyone being rude to us but oddly everyone was really kind (except Japanese Tourists, they were really rude and pushy). We never ran out of things to keep us entertained and educated. It was expensive….but I can’t wait to visit again.

Magical Madrid

The train ride from Barcelona to Madrid was 3 hours long. The train hit speeds of 300km/h, which was the fastest train we had ever been on. We arrived at our hostel which was at the centre of downtown Madrid, the best location possible. We were at the centre of everything. We wandered around town for a bit before joining our hostel for a tapas tour. The tour took us to three places. The first took us to a place known for the best croquetta’s, deep fried creamy potato ball things. The second tapas place had the best tapas with so many varieties and styles. I had a smoked salmon and gulas (not really sure what gulas is…) Gavin had meat in crispy rolls with egg on top. The last place we went to specialized in seafood tapas. We had a selection of mussels, calamari, octopus, potatoes and Sangria. When the tour was over we went to a nightclub where we paid €10 to have as much sangria or beer as we wanted in an hour. After an hour and a lot of Sangria we went to another bar which was fairly empty. At around 2am we decided to head back to the hostel and get some sleep.

The next day was probably one of the best days we’ve had so far in our trip. The previous night we had made a new friend, Grace. We bargained with her to come see the free walking tour with us and we would go to the Palace Real with her. Our day started off with free Churros from our hostel. These Churros were nothing like the ones at home, they didn’t have any sugar and wrapped up into a closed “U” shape. The Churros came with a thick chocolate dipping sauce. Breakfast Churros are a spanish custom, to help nurse a person back to health after a long night out. Grace had unfortunately missed out on some Churros so she disappeared upstairs while Gavin and I cleaned up our breakfast. Meanwhile our tour group had left without us so Gavin and I ran to find Grace and catch up with our tour.

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Sparkles, The Wonderbeast

We raced to the Plaza Mayor and came to an abrupt stop when we noticed a man in sparkly goat costume. It was very bizarre and we had never seen anything like it before. We reached our walking tour and signed up. Somehow we couldn’t stop watching this magical goat thing. We took pictures with it and laughed as it played its little whistled tune and clapped. Every time we were in Plaza Mayor we made sure to stop by and see Sparkles.

Since the last free walking tour Gavin and I did was in Munich with Ozzy, we had high hopes for the Madrid free walking tour. Before long we realized that the tour we received in Munich was beyond exceptional and no other tour would match it. The walking tour of downtown Madrid was informative, but lacked the magic and the local dishes of Oz Tours.

Our tour started off at the Guiness book of world record holder of the oldest restaurant in the world: Restaurante Botìn, which opened in 1775 and has been operating ever since. We learned some history, saw the ugliest Cathedral in Europe (designed by three architects who all wanted glory, it took 100 years to build). We also went by a convent where nuns who aren’t allowed to see people outside of the convent baked sweets and sell them without being in the presence of the customer. They were out of sweets so we didn’t get a chance to see the nuns not see us.

Later we went to a Granville Island like market and I bought the biggest macaron I have ever seen, it was the size of a mini hamburger. It tasted fantastic but I can see why they don’t make them that large.

Gavin, Grace and I shared some Paella at a restaurant across from the Palace Real. Grace noted that he Paella tasted exactly the same as one she had in another restaurant. I noticed that this restaurant had 5 different menus for some reason, and that was when we noticed a trend. At least 75% of restaurants in Madrid sold the exact same Paella, frozen pre-made crap. Apparently the locals don’t even eat Paella. This revelation was disappointing to say the least.

After waiting for about an hour we finally got to go into Palace Real of Madrid. This was the most extravagant palace I had ever seen, we weren’t allowed photos, but everything was bigger and grander than any other palace I had seen. There was an entire room, floor to ceiling, made of porcelain and gold!

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Gavin, Grace and I at Flamenco Show

Later that night we went to a Flamenco show. None of us had seen Flamenco before so we did not know what to expect. We sat down in a dark room and ordered Sangria and Tapas. Suddenly three men standing behind three women in chairs started clapping. Two guitarists started playing classical Spanish guitar. Everyone on stage started belting out loud passionate Spanish and each of the women and one of the men stood up one by one and dancing to the music. After the song was done, each dancer had their own solo, one more passionate and angrier than the last. The quick movement of their feet dazzled us, we had never seen anything like it before.

 

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Catholic Procession

After the show the three of us wandered back to our hostel to find a large sum of about 5 thousand people had gathered in Plaza Del Sol. It was from what we thought a regular Wednesday night before Easter, and we saw a giant Virgin Mary surrounded by lit candles in altar being carried around the plaza with a band playing. We had remembered seeing some partitions near our hostel and realized that the partitions were for the Easter procession. We decided to run ahead of the Virgin Mary procession by taking a side street to our hostel. Instead we found ourselves faced with an equally elaborate Jesus altar being carried followed by an even bigger band. We were a bit bored of the procession until something caught our eye. Several people dressed in what looked purple and white KKK outfits. We had seen this image during other catholic processions in our travel book. It shocked us to see children and infants in these hooded costumes. The white capes and pointed purple hoods were shocking to us but had a different connotation in Spain. The procession was long and moved slowly, it stopped occasionally so the people carrying the altars could rest. It looked like each altar was carried by about 30 people all hidden beneath the altar. After the altars would pass, spectators joined the procession leaving the street sides empty. When the procession had ended the three of us were exhausted from a long day.

The next day Grace had travelled on to Barcelona and the two of us hung around for a quiet day. We went and had some more Tapas at that amazing place we went to two nights before, we then stopped by the Chocolateria, this famous Churro place that made the best Churros in Europe and was visited by many celebrities. We then went to the Praggo Museum of Art and saw many local paintings. That night we had decided to stay an extra night in our hostel but unfortunately there was not very much space so we ended up in separate rooms on separate floors. My room was shared with two girls from Austria, Gavin shared a room with 9 other people.

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Aquadect in Segovia

We woke up the next day to do a day trip in Segovia, a town 35 minutes away by high speed train. Segovia was home to an aqueduct that was an international historic civil engineering landmark. It was completed in the first century. It started pouring rain and we decided to get down to business; we walked up hill towards an elaborate Catholic Church. We toured the church to get out of the rain, then we jumped back into the pouring rain and walked to the Alcazar castle.

 

 

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Alcazar Castle in Segovia

The castle was one of the most classic fantasy type fortresses we had ever seen. It is said to be one of the castles that inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, with pointed blue slate towers, a plummeting moat protecting the entrance, and a central rectangular keep accented by at least 8 circular towers along the top. It was all built on the edge of a hillside, with the rear protected by steep cliffs. We were able to tour part of the palace, including the old throne room, dining area, sleeping quarters and grand hall, with numerous balconies. Paying a bit extra allowed us to climb a tight winding stone stair up one of the corner towers to the top of the keep, allowing us to get a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. This fortress served as one of the worlds best artillery academies for about one hundred years from the mid 18th to 19th century, and so also had a museum dedicated to the science and manufacturing of cannons and mortars. It included many preserved weapons, scale models of manufacturing processes, preserved original textbooks and a small mineral collection thanks to the chemistry lab that was dedicated to improving gunpowder.

After touring the castle we caught a train back to Madrid. We spent one last night in Madrid before catching a train back to Barcelona.

Nuremburg!

The day before yesterday my step-dad Joe, Gavin, and I went to Nuremburg. We hopped a commuter train from Ansbach to Nuremburg. Gavin had never taken a train in Germany before so it was pretty exciting yet at the same time uneventful for him.

Twilight Bubble TeaWhen we arrived at the Nuremburg Hauptbahnhof (German for Central Station) we were shocked to see that McDonalds not only sold Bubble Tea but Twilight Bubble Tea!  I sadly did not get to choose between Edward and Jacob Bubble tea’s because we quickly left the Hauptbahnhof to find some breakfast.

On the top floor of a department store my dad found a place for us to eat breakfast. Christkindlemarkt bierGavin and I did not eat anything because we were holding out for the goodies at the Christmas Market. Gavin and my dad shared a special Christkindle Markt bier for breakfast while I drank soda water (which is really popular in Europe, regular water is few and far between).

The Christkindle Markt was really exciting. The Nuremburg Christmas Market is the largest one in the world and the second you walked into it you could tell. Apparently vendors have waited for up to 30 years to be able to sell their products at the market.  For the most part there was a lot of the glockenspielsame things, wool hats, baked goods, hand made toys, and lots of German food.  At noon we watched the Glockenspiel  ( a giant clock in a church) ring with carved characters elaborately dance around the clock.

In the photos below:  1) my step dad is holding Schaschlik, some kind of boiled meat covered in curry and other sauces.  2) Gavin is eating a pickled Sardine Sandwich 3) I am eating a Dutch Heart Shaped Waffle 4) Gavin is drinking Glühwein which is warmed sweetened red wine, a classic christmas drink in Germany.

SchasschlikGavin fishDutch Wafflesgluwine

Later we visited the Castle in Nuremburg, then went to the Albrecht Dürer Museum. The museum was cool enough, i think it was made in the house he lived in while he created his works.  The only thing was the audio guide we listened to was terrible. Nuremburg CastleInstead of describing anything in the carefully maintained home of the artist, we listened to his wife complain about daily life and the people Dürer worked for.  After the Dürer Museum we went to the Nuremburg Trial memorial. Unfortunately the court room where the trials took place was in use. The rest of the memorial was very……heavily  dense with text. Which was all in German. So we had to listen to the entire thing on an audio guide which was very long.  Before we got through the entire exhibit we had to leave to catch our train back to Ansbach. I wish we were able to spend more time at the exhibit and see the court house but I guess that will be for another day.

Our day was very long and very tiring but it was exciting! We look forward to going to Rothenburg tomorrow (AT LAST!!!)

Tschüss!