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.

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.

Ich bin ein Berliner!

The train from Amsterdam to Berlin was about 5 hours long. When we arrived in Berlin we found our way to my Uncle Klaus’ apartment. Klaus was letting us stay with him while we were in Berlin. We were really excited because after being in so many hostels for so long it was nice to stay in a home. We were also excited because Klaus drove tour buses and knew all of the best tourist stops away from the downtown tourist districts. Klaus said he would take us out on Sunday so we had all day Saturday to wander on our own.

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Holocaust Memorial

Saturday afternoon we went to the Brandenburg Gate to start our free tour. We were shocked to see our Irish friend Amanda whom we had met in Brussels a week before. It was a complete fluke that we ran into her for the tour. Our tour guide was really cool, but unfortunately due to the large volume of people on our tour ( forty people) we felt we couldn’t really get to know him or his personal insights which was unfortunate. We saw German Parliament which had a giant clear dome that you could watch people walking inside of. The clear dome was supposed to represent the transparency of government after Hitler’s dictatorship. Our next stop was the controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial was almost 5 acres of 2,711 rectangular concrete slabs arranged on a grid. The memorial was based on a Jewish Cemetery ( which we later see in Prague). The concrete slabs ranged from a few centimetres to 2meters in height. The memorial made you feel so many different things depending on your own personal views and interpretations. I felt like I was staring at physical bar graphs of murder while Gavin saw rows of concentration camp barracks. Afterwards we went to a plain parking lot which had a simple information sign telling the reader that it was the location of Hitler’s Bunker. After the bunker we went onto see a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, behind which were the preserved foundations of the former Gestapo headquarters.

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Portion of the Berlin Wall

We were then shown the site of the famous Checkpoint Charlie, where a tank standoff between West and East Berlin came precariously close to heating up the Cold War. It is now jokingly referred to as the Disneyland of Berlin, as an entirely fabricated replica of the checkpoint has been built, along with German actors in American uniforms you can take photos next to. The tour ended at Museum Island, an island in the middle of the city populated with, shockingly, many museums.

At the end of our walking tour, we bought tickets to the pub crawl that night with Amanda, and agreed to meet up later at the beginning of the tour. We took a short break back at Klaus’s place before heading to the club crawl. We went to four pubs and the Matrix nightclub, which was underneath a bridge. We had fun, especially when running into an old friend, but we decided that we had enough evidence to dismiss clubs all over the world as sweaty, expensive and obnoxious places not worth our time. We would rather go to a quiet place for a drink to get to know people than a loud expensive club. That being said we got home at 4am.

The next day, Klaus had time to show us around some of his favorite sites. He drove us to the impressive Olympic Grounds where we climbed up a large tower overlooking the nearby stadium which was hosting a soccer game. There was also an exhibit about the 1936 Olympics and naziism. Next, he showed us a great red clock tower, the Grunewaldtrum, dedicated to Wilheim I. Afterwards we ate lunch at a beer garden in the nice weather. We then toured the grounds of Potsdam, the city of German Kaisers and the home of their most famous palaces. Klaus was an excellent tour guide, and had plenty of amusing local anecdotes.
The next day we returned to where the walking tour had begun and explored some of the sites we had been shown during the tour in greater detail. Upon reaching Museum Island, we visited the Pergamon Museum. The museum had impressive permanent exhibits and collections from Greek and Middle Eastern antiquity, including structures and massive gateways rebuilt within the confines of the building. The most impressive exhibits were the gates of Ishtar and the fully reconstructed Pergamon Altar.
This marked our final day in Berlin. We said goodbye to Klaus, and boarded yet another train towards the city of Prague, which we had heard so much about from our fellow travellers.

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.

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.

Lyon

Gavin and I had never heard of Lyon before but decided to stop there so that we wouldn’t have to make the 12 hour trek from Barcelona to Paris in one day. We also stopped there so we could take a break from all of the constant traveling we were doing (it also didn’t hurt that it was cheaper than Paris) When we made our reservations in Barcelona we had a bit of a problem. We were able to get reservations from Barcelona to Avignon but from Avignon to Lyon we only had 40 minutes to make a reservation for the high speed train when we arrived in Avignon.

Upon our arrival we raced to the ticket counter only to be told that only first class seats were available and that we would have to pay for the reservation as well as the difference between our 2nd class rail pass and the 1st class train ticket: €100. Or we could take a regional train that was three hours longer for free. We took the regional train.

When we boarded the regional train we were greeted with world famous French manners. Every single seat was taken. By taken I mean that one person would sit down then place their luggage on the seat next to them; even though there was plenty of space on the luggage rack above for their belongings.

Gavin and I travelled three train cars trying to find a seat until we gave up. We settled on sitting in two isle seats, one next to a woman who was occupying the seat next to her with her purse and one next to a man who was occupying the seat next to him with a small pack of cigarettes. We sat on the train for three uneventful hours.

When we arrived in Lyon we were bombarded by the busiest train station I had ever seen in my life. There was no place to even stop and think it was all so overwhelming. We needed to figure out where our hotel was but we were too overwhelmed to think. We finally found a place to sit and we used google maps to get instructions on how to get to our hotel. Unfortunately google didn’t have a proper map of the area (that’s something the city must submit apparently) and we knew how to get 90% of the way and we hoped we could figure out where the hotel was upon arrival. We took the local tram to Perrache and got off under a giant overpass that reeked of urine. We didn’t feel particularly safe under the underpass so we quickly ran out and into the sunlight. We walked two streets then looked up and saw our hotel. We didn’t like that it was by the underpass but it was close to transit so we weren’t going to complain.

After we checked into our hotel we were told the strangest thing: whenever we leave the building we have to surrender our key. A hotel has never asked us to surrender a key before it was definitely unusual. We walked into the elevator and we were shocked to see that it was so tiny there was barely enough room for us and our bags! We suffocated our way to the top floor and ran out of the elevator and into our room. The room was the tiniest hotel room I had ever been in. There was space for the bed and that was it. The bathroom was one meter by one meter and was so cramped that when you used the toilette your feet were in the shower. Despite its shortcomings we were happy to have our own space at least.

We travelled to the old town from our hotel (which was very close but forced us to go through that horrid underpass). We ventured for a short time because we we were starving and ended up at a British fish and chips restaurant. We chatted with the owner who knew english very well from living in South Africa. We watched him dip the cod in batter and fry our fish and fries with tears of joy. This was the first time in weeks that food was being made for us from scratch and not cooked from frozen. We grabbed the fish and chips (and a delicious chocolate brownie) and ran to our hotel. After eating we decided to catch up on sleep.

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European Esspresso

The next day I woke up with a sore throat. Thinking nothing of it Gavin and I wandered off to find breakfast. Our hotel was offering a continental breakfast for €7 a person. We politely declined. Gavin bought an apple pastry and I had a giant raspberry macaron (which are apparently the regular size, the small ones are mini macarons, who knew!). We wandered further and found a cafe that gave us a sandwich, drink, desert and tea for €9. I got Quiche Lorraine instead of a sandwich, Orangina, lemon meringue pie and mint tea. Gavin got a sandwich, Orangina, a strawberry tart and French coffee. All of the food was made in house and we enjoyed every bite of it.

Afterwards we went to the train station and booked our reservation to Paris. Once again we found the high speed reservations a bit expensive so instead of two hours on a high speed train we booked the regional train that took 5 hours and left at 3pm.

By the time it was dinner time I had started to get very sick. I couldn’t breathe in smoke or perfume and I could barely speak. We wandered the old town and found a restaurant. Unfortunately in France the restaurants open at 7pm, not earlier so we had to wait 20 minutes before we could sit down and eat. I ordered tagliatelle in cream sauce with roasted tomatoes and bacon and Gavin had a large goat cheese salad.

After eating, my cold had gotten increasingly worse, so we asked the hotel if we could check out later. They extended our check out until 12pm. The next day after we checked out we had to kill 3 hours in Lyon, and I was still very sick. After getting some snacks for our train ride we went to McDonald’s and bought the McBaguette. I was tempted to buy macarons (because you know in European McDonald’s sells macarons). After two hours in McDonald’s we went to the train station and caught our train to Paris!

Barcelona part 3

After a fantastic two days in Port Aventura we begrudgingly went back to Barcelona. Up until this point Barcelona had been a port city for us. In total we probably spent a week in Barcelona but because we had been using it as a port to other places we never spent more than two days in the city at a time. It wasn’t until our third stay that we realized we hadn’t given the city a real chance and that maybe we had done our visit there all wrong.

We arrived at Barcelona Sound Hostel, a nice little place with an eccentric hostel manager. The hostel was located in kind of a red light district part of Barcelona, which was slightly sketchy but had cheap food so we weren’t too disappointed. The next morning we decided to go to Sagrada Familia and from there do a bus tour.

IMG_2315Sagrada Familia was astounding. We knew the building was so incredibly detailed and elaborate that it was taking 200 years to be built but for some reason we thought this detail only applied to the facade and not the inside of the building. The inside made you feel like you were inside a forest, with so many detailed pillars growing towards the high ceilings and branching off. The stained glass was beautiful and in the Gaudi style. Every single thing inside the cathedral was elaborate from the stair cases to the specially made confessionals. It had taken us only 30 minutes to see the completed portion of the cathedral (we didn’t go on the tower tour because the wait was too long). When we were about to leave we noticed a mini Gaudi museum about the church. The museum highlighted Gaudi’s influences from nature and how he re-designed the cathedral several times before he finally settled on its current facade. My favourite part of the museum was seeing the progress of the cathedral from the 1800’s and to see the future time line of the construction. Sagrada Familia was Gaudi’s masterpiece and I think it’s pretty cool that so many people believe in continuing to build his masterpiece for over 100 years after his death.

After the tour we went to the Sagrada Familia Gift shop where I bought a really cool salt and pepper shaker in 2009. My pepper shaker had broken and I wanted to replace it. Unfortunately the store no longer had the shakers so we wandered around the tourist area to find replacements. I didn’t find perfect replacements but they were close enough.

We then hopped on a bus tour to take us to all of the great architecture and see the sights of Barcelona. We were on the bus for 30 minutes when Gavin got over taken from exhaustion from Port Aventura. We went back to the hostel and got some terrible donairs and took a quick nap before going back on the tour bus.

Personally I enjoyed the bus tour because it was the only way to get around the entire city and see so many sites like where the Olympics were, the Agbar Tower, and the various different Gaudi buildings. I also got to learn about the urban development of Barcelona which I loved. Gavin on the other hand hated listening to a deadpan British woman on headphones as we passively sat on a bus in the pouring rain for five hours. It’s safe to say I don’t see us doing anymore bus tours.

After our bus tour we realized we were starving. We decided we would go to a grocery store to get some food. On the way to the store we stopped by a pub to get a €3  mojito. We ordered some Patate Bravas from the pub. Gavin and I joked that in Spain they tend to cook food from frozen and serve it to you. We laughed about how our Brava sauce was probably from the local market and if we were lucky they would add seasoning and pretend it was their own recipe. Sadly we weren’t far from the truth. When our Patate Bravas arrived they were wedges, not Patates. Then there was no brava sauce, which 3 minutes later was brought to us via No name brand bottle that we had to pour ourselves.
It was at this moment that we kind of missed Athens. The food was always amazing and made in house, served with a fantastic salad. By this point we knew it was time to leave Spain.