This is the title of my trip to Europe… And well, here’s some aftermath musings about Europe…
Whoever said that life is about journeys as much as destinations much be a very wise man/woman, for certainly, few journeys of mine were without excitement.
- Prague to Vienna: Standing on a platform that writes Vienna as a destination, one would safely assume that the carriage that one was in would be heading towards Vienna. However, as I entered the train, and I noticed a sign on the door saying Praha-Budapest. What happens? The alarm bells in the head start ringing, and of course, this ringing was heeded, when a Thai guy (whose reserved seat I unknowingly occupied) started asking a local where this train was headed towards, only to be told that the train would split at some point. At this point, I joined in a conversation, putting in a request for the nice local to read a footnote, so that I would know which carriages were moving towards Vienna, and of course, I found out in time that I had to move my packs.
- Vienna to Klagenfurt: I was caught with an invalid ticket, and was fined by the conductor. 😦 To add to my misery, I was about to step out of the train, when one of the officials told me that the train was totally out of alignment with the platform, and so I had to wait, all these in the rainy (gloomy) Sunday. (more on Germanic Sundays later) However, a bright side was the scenic rail journey, where I actually saw nice little Austrian villages, and a castle perged atop a mountain!
- Paris to Frankfurt: Leaving the hotel early, I arrived at Paris Nord approximately an hour earlier than the departure time, out of pure kiasuism, which was to serve me well in the series of events that followed. After staring at the screen the umpteenth time, and walking round the station, I simply couldn’t find the train that left for Frankfurt in Paris Nord. That was when my common sense made me refer to my Eurail Timetables guide once again. There, in a little footnote, it said that of ALL trains, only the particular train that I chose departed, not from Paris Nord, but from Paris Ost. However, with 35 mins to go, and just one metro stop away, of course, that seemed possible, and all haste was made, to ‘chase’ the train, so to speak. Arriving at Paris Ost, all was not well. After being directed to the wrong windows twice, I finally arrived at the right ticket window, only to find a long queue. With just 15 mins left, and a pair of boys between me and the train window, I calmed down a little, only to be thrown back into a panic frenzy, when the two boys allowed a lady to cut the queue. And THIS LADY, after cutting the queue, TOOK HER OWN SWEET TIME. And after this lady was done, another elderly gentleman tried to cut my queue as well. But this time round, I politely, but very firmly informed him that this was not possible, as I was about to miss the train. But thankfully, all procedures were settled minutes before the train left, and I was seated on the train, around 3 minutes before the train pulled away from Paris Ost. Thank God!
- Frankfurt to Wurzburg: Arriving at the train station early as usual, and double checking the platform where the train to Wurzburg left, I complacently stepped into the train that was parked at the platform, naturally assuming that that was the designated train that I intended to take- only early. However, at 08 34 (it was supposed to leave at 09 05), the train just pulled away from the station, leaving me stunned, but already on the go! But thankfully, after straining my ears, paying attention to the bullet train speed German of the driver, this train was delivering me to Wurzburg as well. Whew!
- Wurzburg to Augsburg: My first encounter with the Inter-City Express, or ICE in short. This is a really posh train, with lots of leg room, designated places for you to hang your cloaks and place your umbrellas, not to mention, chairs that could recline with the least disturbance to the person sitting behind you. A luxury which I was determined to live up, since I already paid the price with my rail pass.
- Munich to Fussen: The train timetable seems to indicate that the train from Munich goes to Fussen, though the daily board seemed to contradict this, as there’s no indication that the train leaving Munich (or any train leaving Munich for that matter) was going to Fussen. And of course, this discrepancy was explained, when hoards of people just dropped off at Buchloe, along with my jaws. With my herd instinct, I followed them, and YES, they were all heading towards Fussen! Well, thankfully I found out soon enough that I had to CHANGE TRAINS AT BUCHLOE.
- Frankfurt to Brussels: Being poor but yearning for luxury has its price– you get chased away all the time. Not having made reservations on the luxurious ICE, I was threatened once, and chased away a second time from my seat. Threatened first, because the guy who reserved the seat was nice enough to let me continue sitting where I was, simply taking the seat beside me, but chased away the second time, because after the guy left, another bunch of weirdos (yes, they were weird, and I would still say they are weird, even if they didn’t chase me away) boarded the train, and claimed their reservations. Fair enough.
- Brussels to Antwerp: The time between leaving the train that brought me to Brussels, and boarding the train that would bring me to Antwerp was very short, and add that to my total ignorance of the platform from which the train heading towards Antwerp was to leave, is a perfect recipe for a mad dash. And of course, it doesn’t help that it took a while to even FIND the board with the train schedules! After all the hussle and bustle, I had approximately 4 minutes to get to a train platform that was about 150 m away, and what could I do but RUN WITH MY 12 KG BACKPACK?!
There’s only one small episode involving my first flight on a budget airline. Near the estimated time of arrival, an announcement from the pilot came over the PA system said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it seems that the flaps on the wings are not working. However, I do not think this is a serious problem. This flight will just have to take a longer time, as we try another approach to landing. However, the landing will probably be a rough one.” Well, the detour took almost an extra hour, and when I landed, it was then that I noticed it was as “minor” a problem as the pilot made it out to be– all the fire engines were out and waiting. But, ALLELUJIA, AMEN!
An unfortunate sequel to the previous incident. Arriving in Prague at 9 pm plus, I wasn’t exactly freaked out, as there was still ample ‘day’ light. However, as I finally made my way out of that maze of a train station (with the help of some Chinese backpackers, but not before bumping into quite a number of touts) it was already dark, and hence, I was determined to walk really fast, and hopefully, find my hostel (which described itself as a five minute walk from the train station) soon. However, after some walking, I finally asked two cops whom I saw, only to find out that I was heading in the opposite direction. Well, I turn back, with my 12 kg pack. After another 20 min of walking, I finally stopped once again to ask another group of teenagers for my elusive hostel location, only to find out that I had to trek all the way up the hill, only to go down again. By then, it was 22 30, and I had depleted all my energy, not having eaten a thing since breakfast, and I simply wasn’t ready to trek up a hill with a 12 kg pack, especially in the dark. And hence, I just flagged a cab. If they wanted me to pay a king’s ransom, I would have paid it. I was really quite nastily surprised to find my hostel nestled amongst some rubbish dump area, and on the second floor, but the Bohemia decor persuaded me to stay, instead of abandoning it for some posh hotel that I could have easily paid for, with my card in hand. Wise economic decision.
I swear I won’t ever take long distance coaches again, as they are most literally, a pain in the ass, the most painful of which, was the journey from a sleazy (my own opinion) Antwerp, to London. After going through a check-in process in my London-Paris coach journey, with a waiting lounge with the same coach company, I obviously expected some check-in procedures and a proper bus station in Antwerp. Imagine my horror, which I arrived at the office, only to find it closed, since 15 00 (the coach was to leave at the after dark hour of 23 15), with no hopes of it opening anytime soon. Without a choice, I was forced to seek refuge in a nearby pub, where a drunk guy almost had a brawl with the waitress! And, when I ventured to explore the area round the ‘bus station’ (just a concentration of bus stops actually), to see if there are any reception areas or check-in counters, I was stalked! And well, relief was not to be found with the bus as well. When I boarded the bus that finally came, only TWO seats were left, and I was unfortunate enough to sit in front of a family that chattered non-stop, and had a kid who just wouldn’t stop kicking my chair. And of course, my troubles were not to end just here. At the French customs, though I breezed though the customs, the whole bus was held up for almost half an hour, as four guys were subjected to rigorous questioning. This resulted in the bus missing the ferry. And of course, these troubles with customs officials continued on the side of the British customs. Our coach was singled out for baggage checks, and though I breezed though the customs once again, the bus was once again held up, that after what I estimate to be an hour, the bus driver finally announced that the same four guys have been detained. And well, for some poor backpackers, and for the bus driver as well, the transit at Canterbury was missed, and so, the bus driver had to drive all the way to London, before he got his rest.
The Lowdowns of the Trip:
- In my absolute boredom and itchy-handedness, I deleted my pictures from London and Prague, on the third day of my trip. It was only out of pure decency of the awareness that it was 0800 in the morning, that I did not let out a blood-curling scream at my own stupidity. GRUMBLE!
- The Klagenfurt Incident: Stupid complacency is a killer. Arriving at Klagenfurt (and yes, tell me, who’s heard of that place) without the slightest inkling of how to get around, and without booked accomodation results in apprehension. The awareness that I was the only backpacker (not to mention CHINESE backpacker) around, with the pathetic fallacy of the howling winds, and the relentless drizzle, and you get a very wet, miserable, and frightened me, not to mention numb toes in sandals. Hence, I was most willing to check into the first hotel that came my way, even though it cost a grand, pocket-hole-enlarging EUR 77. And of course, to add my present misery, was my fear. For the first time, I was all alone in a hotel room. Maybe I wouldn’t have experienced this fear, if I were in a very modernly-furnished room. But, it was here that I first had the “out of place, out of time” feeling. This was a room with tapestries of people in elaborate customes; heavy red curtains; carved wooden wardrobe with a key; a full-length mirror that confronts you the moment you wake up; a small mirror set in gilded bronze, with two candles by the sides. Growing up in a young nation, I never lived in an old building like this in my entire life. This was akin to asking me to spend the night alone in Dracula’s castle– I was totally freaked out. But thankfully, nothing happened, and the good bed allowed me to sleep away my body aches.
The Highpoints of the Trip:
It must be the accidental discoveries: 🙂
- The ‘Secret Garden’ in Prague: I didn’t consult my map, as I headed in the general direction towards Charles Bridge, so that I could return to the old town of Prague. However, as I was walking along a small footpath, I saw an open door. My curiosity drew me towards that door, and I just stepped in. Lo and behold! I ‘discovered’ a well-landscaped garden, complete with statues, fountains, and a gardener with a strawhat! And further in, there was a wall that resembled the facade of Mordor in “Lord of the Rings”, but beside it, a theatre-like structure with beautiful frescos. Of course, throw in the peacocks that roam these gardens!
- Bird’s Eye View: After an exhausting 287 steps on a seemingly never-ending spiral staircase with no handlebars, I was treated to a beautiful view of the whole city of Prague– breath-taking wonder! This feat was not repeated, at the Vatican, which had more than 300 steps though. 😉
- Viennese Splendour: After all the previous days of walking, I finally decided to just buy a tagkarte in order to use the local transport system, and after falling asleep in a few trams here and there, I woke up to a beautiful fountain at the Belvedere, seducing me to drop off and take a walk. Not knowing that I actually entered from a side entrance, I was of course, MOST SURPRISED, when a HUGE and SPLENDID landscaped garden just very much ‘unfurled’ before my as I walked through the gates. Nothing can buy discoveries like these, and my great and cheap hostel, which is my favourite hostel in Europe.
- Klagenfurt: After recovering from my miserable state, I took a little walk around the hotel area. The rain was lightening up, and when the mists cleared, I suddely saw a huge blue mountain right at the back of the street, amazing, eh? I found out that Klagenfurt is actually famous for a lake, Wothersee (Vo-ter-zee).
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow: There’s no rainbow without rain, and just as Elly was complaining about the dreary weather that came with the rain, I looked up, and saw a most beautiful rainbow that was enough to cheer Elly up, and make her brighten into a smile!
- The Quirky Shops of Frankfurt: Has anyone heard of a Nutelleria or a Maggi specialty store? Well, believe it or not, they CAN be found in Frankfurt! The strange stores people set up! (yes, head towards the Nutella shrine, all ye faithful out there)
- My Dream Bookshop: In Oxford, I found the bookshop, that fit my idealised image of how a bookshop ought to be. Going into the basement of a smallish looking Blackwell, suddenly, shelves upon shelves of books presented themselves to me, laid out in a rectangular pattern, on two tiers. Here, I got what I declare to be the bargain of my lifetime– An “Oxford Companion to Archaeology” edited by Brian Fagan just for GBP 12, a massive reduction from the original price of GBP 50. I simply love this place!
- Meeting quirky people like Christine who can tease me about my gluttony after knowing me for only two days! 😉
Klutzy & Funny Business
- Vienna: I walked into the Natural History Museum, even though it was the Museum of Fine Arts that I intended to visit. Well, oh well… And of course, ended up eating almond cake, which I mistook for baked ice-cream.
- Rome: I got lost twice, travelling in my usual style of ‘general’ directions. But of course, getting lost has its perks, especially when you ‘run into’ a marching military procession, or find a piazza with one of those guys posing as an Eygptian mummy in front of a fountain. I also found out that stupidity has its rewards, as I bought a ticket to the Palatine, only to discover afterwards that this ticket is valid for the Colosseum as well, allowing me to cut the colossal queue of the Colosseum! 😉