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The hills are alive…

Hello from the train again! It’s Friday morning, and the first day we’ve been able to see our own breaths. I write this from the train back to Munich, though it’s slower blogging than usual as blue skies and frosty fields are demanding my attention. The skies have finally cleared enough to show us the imposing mountains which surround Salzburg. They’re beautiful, of course, I’ve yet to see a view of the Alps that isn’t! We’ve been so lucky with scenery on this trip. 

The plan for today was to travel by train to Stuttgart, then onto Paris and back down the west of France to Bordeaux. A total journey time of 13 hours. Unfortunately it would appear there’s been rather a rush on train tickets in the general France area as absolutely everything was sold out….for my ticket, and all others. Perhaps trying to travel in/out of the capital on a Friday afternoon wasn’t the best plan I ever had. But you don’t tend to think about real world things like commuters when you’re travelling. Anyway, all this means I’m off to Munich airport instead, for a far more civilised two hour Volotea (anyone heard of them?) flight to Bordeaux. Will mean I get in for around 5pm, and DG and I can spend the evening together before tomorrow’s wedding. 

Anyway, I’ve skipped ahead! Yesterday was the final day of my adventures with Jen, and we’d saved the best till last as the Sound of Music tour lay ahead of us. It was so lovely to get up and ready and not have to think about packing, moving every day can be a bit of a mission, so we made the most of having a hotel for two nights. The tour (run by Panama) left from Meribel Platz at 9am, where a very smiley and chatty Peter greeted us with a ‘are you our singers for the day? We’re missing two’…’sure!’ We said, and we were off.

Peter, now, he was a tough one to work out…an American Austrian, born around here but grew up along the east coast of the US finally ending up in Florida. None of these facts explain quite where he became the king of sarcasm! He seemed to flip between someone who was full of fun and jollity, singing and dancing along…and someone who truly detested the Sound of Music and would rather be anywhere else. Perhaps he was a super fan, perhaps he thought we were all nuts…I really couldn’t tell you! We liked him though, he had an easy smile and peppered the film facts with interesting tales about Salzburg and pointing out various sights. My favourite was the executioners house “see that cottage all on its own over there? That was the executioners house, no one wanted to live by him!!” Brilliant. 

^^ the executioners house

The Panama tour is a bus tour, with a few short stops here and there so you can take a photo by the lake which almost drowned Gretel….

The famous gazebo….

And the little town of Sankt Gilgen where they caught the train up the mountain for Do Re Mi. Unfortunately it would have taken over an hour to get up to the hills where those scenes were filmed so we didn’t make it to there. I’d say though that if you’re in Salzburg for a few days you should really catch a train out to some of the neighbouring towns where cable cars are waiting to take you high up into the hills. The views must be spectacular. These are the sorts of things I wish I’d known before I got here as I think I’d have tried to extend the stay in Salzburg to give us the chance to go up. Perhaps we’ll come back! I’d say this ‘lakes and mountains’ part was the best part of the tour, Peter told us how the smaller lakes freeze enough in the summer to allow for ice skating and kite skating which sounds very fun! In the summer these hills are famed for paragliding, and hot air balloon rides which to low enough for you to skim your feet into the lake before rising back up again, can you imagine?! 

^^singing along to the soundtrack. Yup, there was singing! 

Many notable scenes from the film were places which had to be simply pointed out from the bus as we went by…the Von Trapp house for example is closed to the public, the avenue of trees where the children climb in their drape dresses is for pedestrians and bikes only with no way to get close in a bus, the abbey is not open to visitors. We learned the main reason for this is that as a rule the people of Salzburg are not SoM fans. Firstly because the movie wasn’t available in German until 1997, and secondly because the plot is nothing like the much loved German original, or the true story, and people are cross! Apparently Hollywood tried to buy the rights to the original plot but were repeatedly denied, so they made up their own version. In reality the family were not chased by the Nazis, there was no Rolf for example, and if you were really to walk to Switzerland it’s a 500km trek! Wowsers. So I suppose you can see why they’re not fans, and wonder why scores of tourists from around the world travel to their city every year (the number of annual tourists is double the population of the city) to try and break into a gazebo and prance around a fountain.

Our final stop was the church where the wedding scene was filmed. The real Maria and Baron were married at the abbey in Salzburg, but as the cast weren’t given permission to film there this stunning place was used instead. I’d said it would be nice to perhaps do a church or two on this trip, and this one didn’t disappoint. From there we had around 90 minutes of free time to explore Mondsee, pretty huh? 

So that was the morning, we packed a lot in, but the afternoon was even busier so I think it deserves its own blog. We’ve climbed into the mountains on my little train now, and the world is encased in cloud. There’s a coffee cart on the way though so time for a caffeine fix and my daily German lessons. Till later, Tschüss! 


Roaming around Salzburg in slightly more than a pair of old drapes…

Our time in Munich was short lived, just enough hours for some delicious Turkish food with the beautiful Krissi, a quick tour of her stunning flat and a good nights sleep. Wednesday awoke with a grey grumble as the pair of us took advantage of amazing showers and some peace and quiet. It was a gentle start to the day. After leaving Krissi’s we had to find our way to the bus stop (having received directions in the back of a car whilst it was pitch black and raining outside) then the S-Bahn and finally to the Hauptbahnhof in Munich. We got there with enough time to enjoy the vast array of coffee shops available (England needs to buck up its ideas!) before finding our way to platform 10 and boarding our train. Now, I’m sure I’m not the only one guilty of not really listening to announcements when in public places/on transport…more often than not they’re of absolutely no interest or relevance to you so you learn to just sort of switch off. However, when the announcement ends ‘once again, if your final destination is Salzburg please disembark and board the train up the platform’ you’re very glad your brain decided to switch back into gear!! So pastries went back into paper bags, suitcases came back off of luggage racks and we pelted down the platform to the correct train. Phew! Salzburg here we come!! 
It’s a quick and easy journey from Munich to Salzburg (luckily as I’ll be doing it in reverse on Friday!!) and within 2 hours we were there, quite alive with the sound of music, 16 going on 30 and ready for all our favourite things! Jen had booked us into Hotel Lasserhof, a really lovely place less than 10 minutes walk from the station with super friendly receptionists, cosy rooms and a delicious breakfast. One to remember! Another benefit is it’s also less than 10 minutes walk from the beautiful Meribel gardens which we went to explore after ditching the bags. First Sound of Music location ticked off! This is where they filmed the doe, re, mi scenes skipping around the fountain and up the steps etc. There were quite a few Asian tour groups taking selfies and posing amongst the statues, but no one appeared to be jumping up the stairs or skipping through the gazebos…it was lucky we were there really!! 

Oddly for a Wednesday most of the shops, sights and pretty much anything we walked by seemed to be closed. There were also an unprecedented number of men in uniform around, surrounded by guns, tanks and even boats patrolling the river. Just as we were about to assume there’d been a coup we hadn’t heard about the lady in the (thankfully open) tourist office explained it was a national holiday. Ah ha! Funny how everything makes sense when someone explains it. October 26th is the Austrian day of independence, where they declared future neutrality in all conflicts following the Second World War. Nicely for us this also meant there were lots of people in national dress, displays of music and dancing and also the museums were free admission. Sweet! Neither Jen nor I are huge museum buffs, but if it’s free why not. Firstly we stopped in an extremely Austrian looking restaurant for something traditional to eat. Sadly the waiter didn’t appreciate my attempts to speak German (first time I’ve been told not to try…”please just speak English” he sighed. Long day perhaps.) but he was happy to bring us soup and then dessert so you can’t hate him too much (though still hoping he hadn’t spat in anything!!) We had beef (I know) broth with a cheese dumpling, followed by a sweeter dumpling with rhubarb sauce and apple strudel…yum!!

Energised we ventured into the Salzburg museum and tried to explore as much of it as possible before it closed in 40 minutes. It was largely to do with a history of the town, which has been invaded more times than I’d care to count…goodness knows how the people kept up with which country they were a part of this week, I have trouble remembering Teresa May is PM!! The upper floor was a really amazing ode to music, with all sorts of amazing and intricate instruments on display. It smelled amazingly of scented wood in there, sadly we only found it as the announcements that the museum was closing were ringing out. Ah well! 

From there we got enticed into (I don’t know what’s come over me…first beef, now…) a Christmas shop! The place was filled with incredibly decorated egg shells, in a million colours and styles. Everything from Salzburg ones, Easter, Halloween, dogs, cats, and of course Christmas. I don’t know how you’d choose!! 

Having eaten quite late it seemed too soon to go back to the hotel, but the world around us was growing dark and quiet…what to do what to do…bar? Bar!  A handful of delicious cocktails and too many bowls of free savoury snacks later and it was certainly time for super important paperwork, FaceTiming people at home and then bed. Official Sound of Music tour tomorrow, who’s excited?!


“It’s tough to find a place not to like in Switzerland”

“It’s tough to find a place not to like in Switzerland”

Our train leaves Geneva at 09.42, so we enjoyed a good lie in at Jen’s friends central apartment. With high ceilings and shuttered windows the place had a real European quirkiness about it, and Laura had done an excellent job with the decor. She’s been here for the past 6 years working as a PA, and it was interesting to hear that Geneva suffers from the same sense of transience as Oxford. The walk down to the station took around 15 minutes, and we were soon on our way to Zürich in a corner seat of another double decker train. The views were spectacular, vineyards and mountains, farmlands and lakes which stretched as far as the eye could see, I found it difficult to focus on my book when the world outside was so distracting. I would certainly add Lausanne to my list of places to visit one summer, and a driving holiday in this area is still very much on my list. The journey from Geneva took less than two hours meaning we were soon out in the Swiss sunshine again, finding our way to the Old Town and the City Backpacker hostel where a private room and roof terrace awaited us. Having stayed in dorms earlier in the year I decided I’d had enough of making my own bed and being woken up by everyone during the night, however a private room is altogether more civilised! The beds were made up, we had towels included, and the receptionist even lent us padlocks for our luggage. Excellent. I’m travelling in a new way for me this time, instead of rushing to fit everything in (we could have taken an earlier train, bringing us here in time for breakfast and a walking tour for example) this is a more meandering trip, soaking up the atmosphere and just taking everything slowly. We left our bags at the hostel and headed out to find a restaurant Jen had read about, Titbits. If you’re ever in Zürich I recommend it; its sort of a buffet scenario, where your plate is weighed at the end to determine the price. Everything was vegetarian and deliciously fresh, with a very Indian influence to the spices and flavours. The place was decorated in Moroccan blue, with intricate paper all along one wall, and lots of low square seating. Really quirky, and completely delicious! Ein große hunger frightened off we spent the next two hours walking around the lake enjoying the autumn colours and wildlife, including Lizzie the lizard, who was making a break for it across the path away from the lawnmower. Run Lizzie run! I hope I live by water like this one day, the place must be wonderful in summer; with jettys for swimming, water slides, boat trips and everything else you can imagine. It really encourages an active outdoor lifestyle, not to mention the perfect park for dog walks…bliss!!
We were staying in the middle of the red light district, which led to some interesting shops and window displays scattered about. Prostitution is apparently legal in Switzerland, so that’s something to ponder on. The other shops were mainly independent boutiques and workshops making wares from scratch. Street level windows shone onto benches and machinery obviously creating the products then sold on the shop floor upstairs. Quite a surprise to then sweep your eyes to the next window and see a carrot vibrator dressed up for Halloween…! 

After so much excitement it was time for a recharge. Jen hadn’t slept much the night before so we had a siesta and planned our journey for the next day. If you’re planning to travel around Europe like this I really recommend it cost us around £190 for 5 days of travel (they don’t have to be 5 consecutive days) almost anywhere in Europe. By the time you’ve hired a car, paid for fuel and parking etc that’s much more than £190×2 so this was a good deal for us. You get given a little log which you fill in with the date you’re traveling and the stations you’re travelling from/to, then the conductor stamps it with the date and voila. Apparently if you return your log to the company at the end you get a prize, so that’s intriguing. The ticket also comes with a really handy app (available offline) which shows you all the different route options you have to get between destinations. I was really keen to take the long route to Munich, which involved 5 changes including a 40 minute boat journey. But looking at the weather we opted for the more sensible early train which will get us there directly with no changes. >sigh< sometimes it’s so boring being sensible. 

Tomorrow was another day though and this one wasn’t over yet! With rumbling tummys we ventured out into the night, turned left and walked for around 20 minutes until it became apparent that this led to a residential district with nothing to see and sod all to eat. There was one quirky place which offered tables in old cable cars, but Jen pointed out that once the novelty wore off there probably wasn’t much atmosphere going on. So it was time for an about turn, back the way we came. Decided upon Italian food the first place we came across was called La Pasta…sounds positive! Sadly it’s one of the highest rated restaurants on trip advisor and therefore obviously fully booked. Boo. Round the corner though there was a lovely candlelit place with a good number of free tables and a cheeky waiter. Perfect! How do the Italians make something as simple as pasta with tomato sauce and basil taste so utterly divine? I savoured every mouthful, and in the spirit of our chilled out travelling we stayed there for hours, enjoying three courses at a snails pace with an exquisit bottle of red wine. But, exquisit comes at a price…140euros to be exact. Ouch!! That’s half the budget on one meal…oops! 

Having only just recovered from Sunday’s hangover Jen wasn’t overly keen on discovering the bars of Zürich, and having just spent €70 on dinner I was inclined to concur! We headed back to the hostel (turned out to be just around the corner!) and enjoyed the view from the roof before it was time for showers and bed before midnight…what a pair of Cinderella’s. 

Overnight thunder and lightning swept over the city, keeping me awake for a good few hours. I love listening to the rain, but I wasn’t much looking forward to being outside in it!! The bad weather is forecast to last the week though so best to suck it up and get on with it, at least this time I was prepared unlike in Budapest where I had leaky shoes and no hood to my coat! We’d read that the oldest coffee house in Zürich was not far from our hostel, so this seemed like a natural place to head for breakfast. Talk about a grotto! The downstairs is a chocolate shop, filled with pastries, cakes and truffles. Then upstairs a decadent grand cafe awaits you, with plush red seats and a ceiling full of fairy light covered twigs. I felt a bit like I’d entered Professor Trewlawnys tower.  Pèclard was also very much in favour of skipping the spooktacular decorations in favour of more festive ones. Bleugh!! Jen and I settled into the corner, and were once again amazed as a charming waitress who looked about 16 came and translated the menu for us in perfect English before speaking in German with another group and French with another. I couldn’t even remember ein Kaffee mit Milch bitte. For shame! I wouldn’t have had a clue how to order French toast though so I suppose even if I’d remembered the coffee bit I’d have soon fallen at the next hurdle. Our tour guide (we’ll get to him in a bit) later said that even those who speak fluent German struggle with Swiss German, as it’s so different. So, even though I’m sure I’d have reacted exactly the same in Hannover, I’m gonna claim that as my excuse. Swiss German, yeah. Anyway, the food was delicious, the coffee divine and the atmosphere really unique. Get yourself there if ever you’re in the area!

One of my favourite discoveries when travelling has been a free walking tour. They’re often run by students on a tip basis, so it’s a really good way to discover a little history and some recommendations on places to eat and drink. In Zürich the tour leaves at 11am from Paradeplatz behind Fraumünster. Our guide was Luca, a student originally from Italy, near Milan. Tours teach you to see things you’d have otherwise walked right by, like this archway for example which was used to measure ladies skirts back in the day. If your skirt was wider than the door you weren’t allowed to enter Fraumünster, a strictly Protestant church. Who knew?! 

Luca pointed out ruins of the old town which were found when excavating a basement, explained why women are so revered in Zürich (they saved the town from invasion by dressing up as an army whilst all the men were away fighting another war) and also explained a little about the history of Switzerland, and how things like the multitude of languages and boarders work. We explored both sides of the river, climbed up to the best vantage point to see the city and generally felt like we could leave Zürich having learned a little something. One of the best insider tips he gave us though was Äss Bar, a tiny cafe close to our hostel. Äss Bar’s USP is that everything there is ‘fresh from yesterday’. They visit other bakeries and shops, collecting any unused merchandise and then sell it in their shop for a fraction of the price. The result? Cheap food in Zürich (7francs for 2 sandwiches and 2 cakes!!), and you feel like you’re doing your bit to combat waste you probably hadn’t even previously thought about. Not bad.

The bells were tolling 1 o clock so we once again found ourselves on board a train, single decker this time, bound for Munich. It’s really only going to be a sleep stop there for me to catch up with my friend Krissi and finally see her new house! So far the journey from Switzerland to Germany has been far flatter, with more tall pine trees than tall mountains. The perpetual grey and seemingly never ending fields of apples are probably adding to the less inspirational feel compared with yesterday, but still it’s been a good opportunity to catch up with blogs! I hope you think so too! 

Till next time! 

11 years in the making…

It can take a while for the sun to meander its way down to you when you’re nestled in between mountains, so despite the clear blue sky Saturday morning began with icy breath. I was awake a good few hours before the others, but without the code to the door I opted to make the most of the sofa and coffee rather than exploring outside. I spent about an hour practicing german, and the other reading. Still can barely say more than Ich lerne Deutsche. Ugh. Eventually Mel surfaced as she needed to pop home for some forgotten breakfast bits before we could begin the day. It was a good opportunity to see her cosy little flat, complete with colourful sunglasses for every day of the week. The place consisted of a kitchen/lounge, bathroom and bedroom with a double and bunk beds. It was the perfect size for two, so I couldn’t quite believe it when Mel told me that at times it would probably have slept 6. Staff accommodation is very basic, with as many people sharing as possible. Not sure I could hack that really!! By the time we got back everyone was awake, and ready for the croissants, fruit and cereal we had for breakfast. Mel and Laura would both be driving today, rather than the people carrier which picked us up from the airport, and after everything was cleared away we packed ourselves into the cars and headed down the mountain. What a view! The whole world has turned copper and gold, it’s hard to imagine that all these hills will soon be covered in snowy white! 

Our first stop was Beaufort, a sleepy little town surrounded by Heidi land and big brown cows with bells around their necks. We walked up and down cobbled streets peering into closed shop windows, crossed stone bridges over babbling brooks and eventually sat down for croque monsieur and vinos before visiting the factory where the famous Beaufort cheese is made. Unfortunately everything was in French and only French, so none of us (bar Mel) could really understand the journey from cow to cheese, but it was fascinating to watch the workers turn the huge wheels in order to change the muslin cloths and stamp them before hoisting them into the huge stacks. I bet his hands never smell of anything but cheese! The shop attached to the factory was huge, with all manner of cheese and accompaniments to salivate over. But, should you arrive to discover the store is closed panic not! There’s a cheese vending machine outside, for 24/7 purchases. Amazing!!

From Beaufort we continued up the mountain, torn between straining my eyes left right and up in order to take in the spectacular views and the fact that looking any direction other than straight ahead made me feel quite queasy. At the top of the mountain lay a real visual treat, a deep blue green lake, free from boats and other distractions, just sitting there invitingly, although I’m sure it would have been bloody freezing to actually step in. We spent some time admiring the view, reenacting the lion king pride rock scenes, the usual, then piled back in the cars to go up and over the hill (definitely a mountain) to home. Oddly as we climbed the scenery became less of a craggy rock and more undulating hills, with livestock and homes dotted around. The road down the other side was a vertical Lombard street, a mess of hairpin bends and narrowing straights. About halfway down we met some cowherds driving their flower adorned flock up the mountain. Mel and Laura were mesmerised, it was a first for all of us! 

Shortly after this (accompanied by a Disney soundtrack, we’re such good 30 year olds) we stopped at a supermarket to pick up supplies (Prosecco, cheese and chocolate, all the staples) for later. Unfortunately I barely made it in the front door before discovering a new physical side to myself, apparently these days I get car sick. Gone are the journeys where I could happily sit in the back reading despite the route…after hours of undulating up and down Alps (in the front seat!!) my legs pretty much gave out from under me and I had to sit quietly whilst the girls went and collected all sorts of delectables for dinner. No fair body, sort your shiz out!!

The best cure for sickness? Prosecco in a hot tub. Oh ok then, if you insist. A few hours, 5 bottles of fizz, a tub of olives and a sunset later no one wanted to brave the cold and get out, but a Raclette of cheese was waiting. Tough choices. Mel has been such a wonderful hostess to us this weekend, I’m sure we would have eaten eventually were she not in visitor mode, but I for one was very grateful that she was so on the ball and happy to handle everything. Bread, potatoes, meat, pickles and more all got smothered in Beaufort cheese, Swiss Raclette or French Camembert…eating like queens! And all good queens deserve presents, especially when they’re 30! With 3 out of 6 birthdays falling either side of this trip we’d decided to do presents all together, singing in French (pour Mel) and English (Sarah and Steph) as each birthday girl opened her present. We had three very happy faces, each one thinking they had the best deal; a new watch and magnum of Moët for Mel, Sapphire and diamond earnings to match her engagement ring for Pid and a very delicate silver and diamond bracelet for Steph; huzzah!! 

Life seems to happen later in places like this, so we had time for a game of cranium and to enjoy the fire before we were introduced to Mel’s Meribel family; the team in Jacks and Evo. It was such a snug little place, with live music and plentiful cocktails, I can see exactly why she loves it. This place must be so magic in the winter when everything turns white. Espresso martinis, sloe gin fizzes, a traditional local shot made from a flower which only grows at 2000m, then a coffee and rum combo (half an espresso, a shot of rum, then the other half of the espresso)…it’s no wonder we’re all worse for wear today. Luckily there’s a built in sauna and fresh mountain air to see off the worst of it, with the promise of pizza and gelato in Annecy later. Then Jen and I say farewell to the others to begin stage 3 of the adventure…interailing! Something we first planned in 2006, it’s finally here!!!

Here we go again, again :)

Time for another European adventure! This time the first stop was Geneva, for a catch up with my favourite French-American family. The ever generous (and way too good for me) DF was a gem and offered to drive me to the airport, so a 4am bus became a 5.30 car ride; then a quick hop skip and a jump later and I was watching Tricia steer Tristan’s buggy single handed whilst holding Alex in the other (serious skills) through the crowds at Geneva airport. Always amaZes me how soon you can be somewhere completely different. Alex is getting really big now, but still gazes at me like I have three heads for the first half hour. I wonder if he will always be a bit like Gwyn, slightly cautious at the start of each meeting before the fun can start! Tristan on the other hand was an instant friend, offering a smile within moments. They’re such a cute little family, love that they’re just on the doorstep really rather than the other side of the pond! A stroll through a beautiful autumn park later and we were greeted by a smiling David for some delicious wine and traditional fondue. So. Much. Cheese! 
An hour or so later and David had to run back to the office, so T and I strolled around Geneva for a while before picking up my fave macarons (Thanks T!!) and driving to their house on the hill. The mountains look amazing at the moment, all autumnal and shining. There was a pink sunset too so I felt very lucky! It’s so lovely to have friends with whom you can just sit and chat, or cook, or just do nothing and still have the best of days. Next time I’ll have to come for longer as before we knew it it was gone 10pm and Mel was down in Etaux waiting for me. The UG’s were on their way to Geneva for the real weekend to begin!! 

The journey to and from the airport was quick and uneventful, and in the dark there wasn’t much to see. Mel is a natural at driving on the wrong side of the roads though, and navigating the crazy French/Swiss traffic!! Watching the Alps loom beside us, lit up by a supermoon and a million stars was pretty special though, as we climbed up and up and up past quaint little towns, huge industrial estates and a billion trees until eventually about 2 hours later we were in the alpine town Mel calls home. It’s Pids first ever trip to France (and Switzerland) so that was the cause for many jokes. “I’ve been to Oslo!” She said proudly “Where’s that then Pid?” Asks Jen… “I dunno, isn’t it the capital of Moscow?”…brilliant! Between those gems, and Char’s intimate knowledge of France and French…(“jambon is legs…”, “no it isn’t!”) we had a good trip.

 Our chalet is luxury to say the least, with a spacious kitchen, generous sofa, sauna and hot tub! The rooms were all decorated in the reds, greys and creams I always associate with mountain chalets, with wooden surroundings and carved hearts everywhere. I particularly liked the tobogganers on the lights! Cute!! It was about 2am at this point so everyone claimed a room and we were off to bed.


The last day

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The last day

I can’t believe it’s the last day! After so many months of talking about and planning this trip, all of a sudden it’s over. Bags packed and safely stored we headed out to explore old town Bratislava and the castle which towers over the city before embarking on our last free walking tour at 11am. The castle is a huge square white building which looks like a real life version of a kids sandcastle complete with mound underneath.
When we arrived it was closed, so after pausing briefly to admire the view we meandered back down in search of caffeine and the meeting point.
May 1st is a national holiday in Slovakia, and the centre was filled with men and women in war time clothing…men in smart green uniforms with pressed berets, and elegant women in tailored jackets, skirts and hats sashaying across the cobbles in impressive heels. There were even wartime vehicles and a band of baton twirlers performing in front of the opera. A giant orange sign signalled the start of our tour, and we were soon introduced to Lucia, who really showed us how a walking tour should be done! Lucia is a Bratislavan born and bred, she runs tours on a freelance basis and free tours during her spare time – a real pro. She took us through the old city sharing an eclectic mix of history, politics and personal stories which kept our crowd captivated for the entire 2.5 hours.

The journey started with a quick talk through the differences between Slovaks (people from Slovakia), Slovenes (people from Slovenia) and Slavs (the people who first travelled over from the east to settle in Europe. We learned that Bratislava was previously the Capital city of Austria-Hungary, before Slovakia became its own country, and was the coronation city for the Austria-Hungarian monarchy. When the Ottoman Empire (modern day turkey) invaded, the monarchy were evacuated from Budapest to Bratislava which was viewed as something of a stronghold, and well placed at the boarder of 3 countries. When the Ottomans fell in 1918 Czechoslovakia was created. Feeling educated? We were! 
Facts and figures flew at us from all angles… Bratislava was renamed when communism fell as a way of regaining a feel of control over the city, Brat = brother and slava = glory. Most inhabitants here work in Vienna where the salaries are around 3x higher…and you can fly there in just 9 minutes! 

Nowadays Bratislava is carved in two by a giant interstate highway, which was installed during the communist regime, destroying most of the old town and Jewish quarter. We learned that one square was previously home to a synagogue, which is now marked out through a series of reddish pink stones in the floor and both an image and memorial in the square where it once stood. This is all in the shadow of the ceremonial church, topped with a replica of the crown of Hungary. There are lots of stories about this crown, including that it’s the same size as a VW beatle, and large enough for a horse to turn full circle inside it. 

Our next stop was a series of squares surrounded by embassy’s and further statues to celebrate life, art and freedom which were installed after the fall of communism. My favourite was the Friendly Nazi…who was not a nazi, but a well dressed homeless man who for a time personified Bratislava. He would sing and dance in the street dressed in fine clothes with a top hat which had been gifted to him, and was so loved that when he died they erected this statue in his memory. Isn’t that lovely? 

There are also several statues in memory of the soldiers who died during the liberation of Slovakia, despite any celebration of communists being very illegal nowadays. Lucia explained there were no statues to the leaders, only to the regular men who gave their lives to save the country from the nazis. Slovakia was the first country to cease deporting Jews to the concentration camps, with the last leaving in 1941, years before the final solution even reached neighbouring countries. But this fact was not due to uprising, strength or revolution, but because there were none left to deport. The cities thriving Jewish quarter was home to some 90,000 inhabitants before the war. The population now is closer to 4000. It’s unthinkable. 

Another favourite statue was this little fellow, again the subject of many different urban myths and legends. Some say he is the cleaner of Bratislavas underground, others believe it to be a representation of the Slovak attitude to work…and the favourite explanation is that he was placed there in the 60’s around the same time women started to wear mini skirts. Perve. 

The thing which made Lucias tour really special was her mix of personal stories interspersed with all the city and history parts. She paused at St Michaels church to explain about religion in Slovakia, as around 80% of the population would class themselves as religious, and most of those are Roman Catholic. They have their own traditions, which differ greatly from ours. For example, at Easter boys make birch whips and whip their female cousins and friends, in addition to dousing them with cold water. The power of the tree is meant to be transferred to the girl through the whip, and the water is meant to be for health and beauty… So it’s all done in good fun, though of course the boys like it a lot more than the girls, probably even more so as they are given chocolate eggs as a reward for being so generous. In recent years equality has called for girls as well as boys to do the whipping, but for most part it’s traditional. The more gentlemenly men will spray perfume on their ladies instead, and only mime the whipping…but our guides father and brother were not gentlemen, so her and her mother invented their own tradition of booking a cheap flight away for the weekend. My kind of girl! 

Christmas traditions are also fun – they visit the river to catch a carp which then lives in the bathtub for 3 days. This clears the fish of the mud and silt it has been living on at the bottom of the river, making it tastey for Christmas dinner. However it usually means the family has not showered for 3 days before Christmas! Presents are exchanged on the 21st December, marked by the ringing of a small bell (usually hidden below the table) which have been delivered by baby Jesus (there’s no Father Christmas here). Father Frost or St Nicolas visits on 6th December leaving sweets (or garlic if you’re naughty) in children’s shoes. 

This blog is getting far too epic now so I promise to wrap up soon. Our final few stops were at the base of the castle hill (we weren’t climbing again thank goodness!) where we learned the reason for its boxy design. The original castle was far more castle like, and built as a fort against the Mongols in the 13th century…since then it survived the siege of Napoleon and the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, only to be used eventually as a base for Italian soldiers during the war. The soldiers decided to hold a lavish supper with good food and excellent Slovakian wine…and managed to burn down the castle. All those wars and empires survived only to be destroyed by an Italian supper. Oopla!

A few stops later (we saw a very blue church and the square which was the face of the iconic communist invasion) and it was time to bid goodbye to Lucia. She definitely made our time in Bratislava something to remember, and has been one of the best walking tour guides I’ve been lucky enough to meet. We made sure she was well tipped and headed to enjoy some of this famous Slovakian wine we had just learned about. If you haven’t heard of it then I’m afraid you’re showing your ignorance; it isn’t exported out of the country, so is only known by those who attend wine competitions, as it is often featured in the winners list. Delicious!

Ah Bratislava, it was a short but sweet relaxing and fitting end to our little European tour. If you’re in this part of the country I’d recommend it for a day and dinner, but you wouldn’t need more than that to see all the highlights. 

For now though London and home is calling. It’s been such a whirlwind tour, filled with history, beauty, laughter and tears. I think it’s definitely given Luci the bug for future travel, and satisfied my backpacking itch for a few more months. Thank goodness there’s one more day of freedom before normality returns! What will Bank Holiday Monday hold? 

My 29th country!

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My 29th country!

I’m definitely getting too old for hostels. I swear I either used to be able to sleep through more, or function on less sleep, but either way something has definitely changed. Last night we had two girls in our dorm who were on their way to Bosnia with school. They were chatting at the top of their lungs as they prepared for bed at around midnight, which was ok because…at least they were going to bed. But nope, showered, pj’d and teeth brushed they grabbed a bottle of vodka, two cartons of juice and headed out the door. Some hours later they returned – cue more door slamming and loud chatter, then they were up and about at 6 preparing for the next leg of their journey! Luci is far more cool, calm and collected than me, so when she snapped at them to please be quiet you know they were annoying!!
Having learned that Vienna is a mere hop skip and jump from Bratislava, Luci and I made our way to the station and were soon whizzing our way along the Danube towards the Austrian boarder. Hello country 29! I’m on track, woop!! Feeling incredibly cosmopolitan, and incredibly hungry, our first port of call was lunch, soaking up the sun on a bustling city street for a couple of huge pizzas and pressès. 

Central Vienna is far more akin to what I’d expect from a western capital, and markedly different to what we had become accustomed to since leaving Berlin almost two weeks ago. Familiar shops and brand names surrounded us, and I began to switch out of tourist mode and into city – aka, it was shopping time! Anyone who has been to Europe with me will know I have a soft spot for Bijou Brigette. For 4 cities now Luci has calmly put up with me gazing wistfully through shop windows as we walked by to see historical sites and catch tourist groups. But today, finally, we got to go in, yay!! 20 minutes later I came out with a lovely new pair of earrings costing €5…Lucinda came out with 3 necklaces and 3 bracelets at a total of €120. This is why we’re friends 😛

The hours sped by in the sunshine and it was soon time to meet our 3.45 free walking tour of Vienna by the miniature of St Stephens church. The first port of call was the guides collecting a €1 euro registration fee…on a free walking tour? I call shenanigans. No sooner had the last euro been pocketed and last hand stamped the guy who had been collecting disappeared. Really weird. 

The tour was underwhelming to be honest. The group was far too big for one guide (around 60 people) and the woman leading us struggled to make herself heard over the various city noises in the background. To start with I rushed to try and get to the front of the crowd to hear her stories and tales of what we were looking at, but there was little to no personality behind her patter so I soon lost interest. Perhaps with a smaller group this would have travelled better, but with 60 it just didn’t work. 

However, she did lead us around the centre showing us monuments and areas we were unlikely to have found alone, especially without a map as we were, and we saw some stunning architecture. Any stories we did catch focused on Sisi, and Marie Teresa, who we sort of feel like were stalking as they spent most of their time in Budapest, Vienna and Bratislava!! 

Around 2/3rds of the way around the tour we gave up. Too full of energy to be traipsing around standing in the shade and straining to hear we instead elected to treat ourselves to wine and radlers and sit in the sun. 

The tour finished at 6, and we wanted to be on a train by 7. However, rather than coming back the way we came (where’s the fun in that?) we utilised the handy trip advisor app to cross the city back to the main train station. Easy! Problem was, it wasn’t our train station. Ah. Time for a new chapter in the life of Katy and Tig, where we learn that Luci does not like to be a. Wrong or b. Lost and Katy is quite used to both. At 8.20 we completed the ‘should only take 30 minutes’ walk and to our relief there was a train to Bratislava leaving in 20 minutes. Excellent, that’s even time to pop into a shop for snacks! Feeling very pleased with ourselves and munching on salads and falafels we settled in for the journey. Around 10 minutes in Luci wondered out loud what the word which appeared after ‘Bratislava’ on the destination screen could mean…hmm. I tell you what it means Luci, we’re going to the wrong station! Oops! Cue wide eyed panic from Tig, and giggles from me.

 This is more like the travelling I’ve been used to, everything up until now on this trip has been far too smooth and easy. Trying to reassure Luci that it was fine, and we would get home and this really wasn’t that bad we soon worked out that the station we were heading to was in the residential south of the city, some 11km away from our hostel. However, there was a bus and that would only cost €0.70 euro – easy peasy! 

By 10.30 we were back safe, showered, packed and in bed, yet from the thanks and praise I’ve received from Tig you’d think I’d single handedly negotiated a peace treaty between warring nations. All in a days backpacking!

Tomorrow is our final day, so we’re up early to explore Bratislava!