From Ashford to Athens
|Alpine adventure (Days 1-4)
Viennese whirl (Days 5-9)
Slovenian theatre (Days 10-12)
Bombing it through Belgrade (Day 13)
Litohoro lazing (Days 14-16)
Olympic ideas (Days 17-19)
We are sailing (Days 20-21)
Assisi amblings (Days 22-23)
Breton brouhaha (Days 24-26)
Encore en Foix (Days 27-28)
Barcelona and back (Days 29-31)
All the way to Milan just to buy a pizza? That's how it turned out anyway...
15:10 I'M ON THE TRAIN!!! Today is what Richard and Andy euphemistically call a 'travelling day'. As usual this meant a horribly early start, no time for a shower, the tent wet and muddy and heavier than ever.
We arrived at the station five minutes before our train was due to leave, and I spent several nerve-wracking minutes waiting in the queue while some painfully slow customers negotiated with the only cashier (A ticket to Interlaken ... via Aberdeen ... next year ... paid for in South African rand ...) Finally the tickets were bought and we got on the train [OK, OK, we could have caught the train half an hour later, but that would have made it seem less exciting.]
My diary got soaked by my water bottle as you can probably see [Well, probably not since you're reading this on the Internet. Imagine the computer screen being very soggy.]
From there the journey proceeded smoothly, the scenery turning more and more Italian as we headed further southwards.
21:15 I'M ON THE TRAIN!!! Ah, Italy, home of the stereotype! In our few brief hours in Milan we encountered the expected manic drivers, hopeless inefficiency at the station and of course delicious pizza.
The best night trains out of Milan were to Barcelona and Vienna, but just as in Bern, the train to Barcelona was full (what's this European sudden obsession with Barcelona?)
So Fate pointed us in the direction of Austria and there was barely time to stock up at Milan Central's "Free Shop" (which sadly didn't live up to its name) before setting off once more.
22:20 I'M ON THE TRAIN!!! (in fair Verona where we lay our scene.) As the train rumbles on through Italy and with my 'light' reading stock already exhausted, it's a choice between a huge tome by Dostoevsky or the excitement of "Optima Salute" magazine (discovered under my seat). The contents page is not encouraging: both people featured have their heads in their hands.
My Italian is a little rusty but articles about "il tasso di colestro" and "la dermatite" suggest I've found a health magazine. Except there's an article about ducks on page 16.
I'm bored senseless if you hadn't guessed. Postscript The last train of the day, from Mestre to Vienna was surprisingly comfortable (if you're 5'8" like me) Richard and Andy were less impressed...
CITIES!!! I love them. I love the way you can ring up a youth hostel to book and turn up an hour later with a bed waiting for you. I love being able to jump on an S-bahn, a U-bahn or a tram rather than having to slog it on foot. I love the hustle, the bustle, the noise, the buskers, the Internet access, the newspapers, my Bratw�rst mit Brot for lunch, my stodgy plum pudding and beer for dinner. However I am not a great fan of human statues. Tossers. Who do they think they are, standing around annoying the hell out of everyone and demanding money for it. At least Richard does that for free.
Vienna was full of beautiful architecture, impressive statues and men in dodgy Mozart wigs.
After depositing our bags at the Youth Hostel, I went for a wander in town to get my bearings and check my email.
Later I went with Andy to take a look at the Vienna Film Festival and ate my plum pudding, a heaped plateful of pure stodge (more on that tomorrow).
Later we went to Prater and had a look around the fairground before returning to Stephensplatz hotly pursued by a swarm of mosquitoes seeking out Andy.
Tip of the day: melon and cappuccino ice-cream don't mix.
After a great night's sleep (due to those amazing inventions, sheets and quilts!) I awoke fresh and early at 7am. I'll repeat that, 7am. For someone who thinks 9 is an early start, this was quite an achievement.
After my free Youth Hostel breakfast, I headed out into the deserted streets. First stop Hundertwasserhaus, which was an ordinary block of flats until the obviously mad Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser was let loose on it.
After a quick trip to a Konditorei, I headed for the MAK museum of modern and creative arts, the highlight of which was a brilliant parody 'museum within a museum'.
(Time for another trip to a Konditorei)
I had seen a lot of people rising around on 'viennabikes', a system which allowed you to borrow a bike for a €2 deposit. To my delight I finally discovered one in a rack and was soon off on my wobbly way (oops, RIGHT-hand side) towards the (AAAAARGH!!! a tram!!!) MuseumQuartier, just next to our hostel.
I chose the MUMOK museum (more for the name than anything else). The special exhibition was on a particularly bizarre art school called Fluxus, typified by artists such as John Cage (4 minutes 33 seconds of silence) and Yoko Ono. All very entertainingly strange and strangely entertaining.
Finding another attractive luminous pink bike, I set off down a cycle path.
Cycling seemed good fun, so I carried on.. and on... and on... About 40 minutes later I had to admit that
Naturally I ended up accosting an unlucky Austrian woman on the street and practicing my poor German and sign language. A 15-minute trek later I made it to a U-bahn station somewhere in the Styx and eventually back to the Youth Hostel for a much needed rest.
Rest??? Ha! Soon we were off again, back to the Vienna Film Festival. There were about 20 stands selling food from all around the world: Spanish, American, Mexican, Hungarian, yesterday's plum pudding and today's Dalmatian chicken dish.
The entertainment proper was a live telecast of Don Carlos from the Vienna State Opera.
The opera was too long (3� hours) and in Italian and it was too cold; but overall it was an entertaining and definitely Viennese experience.
A day trip to Bratislava sounds like a huge undertaking, but the Slovakian capital was only 90 minutes away by train. Much of that was spent at the border station as a succession of Austrian and Slovak (the ones with the big guns) officials came to inspect us. "When crossing a border it pays to look reasonably turned out" claimed the Rough Guide. Hmmm. Anyway, they finally let us in, and I got my first ever passport stamp.
The walk from the station to the town centre was promisingly Eastern European... for a start everything was CHEAP (a major theme of the day). Hotdogs for 15p, ice-creams for 10p, semtex for 50p. We hoped this was just an unfortunately-named drink.
We walked down to the Danube to see the 'Most SNP', a huge bridge built in the Communist era with a giant supporting column supporting a Starship Enterprise-style viewing platform.
Next to the famous Cafe Mayer for a cappucino and Mayertorte (highly recommended not only for the name).
After a stroll round the pretty Old Town we ascended (beamed up?) to the top of the Most SNP for lunch in the panoramic restaurant. One view gave you the castle, cathedral and Danube, while the other was a sweeping vista of tower blocks - the Petrzalka housing estate, home to a third of the city's population.
We had lunch of goulash and pork medallions in the restaurant on top of the tower (an amazingly cheap �4) and there was all afternoon to explore the likeable city including the grand Presidentpalace.
Our sojourn finished on a high note with a visit to ... Tesco! We stocked up for a big dinner with our remaining k200 (�3.50) and still had food left over.
I set off to Prater to join a guided bike tour of the city which was supposed to be commencing at 10am. I arrived at 9.50 and waited in the deserted funfair. Well almost deserted - the mini-rides for children (you know, like the Postman Pat vans you get outside Sainsbury's) were all switched on and provided a surreal soundtrack. "Da-da-la-da-da-da-DAH" piped the Popeye ride. "Hello!!! You vant a riiide???" asked another. "BOING!!! ... BOING!!! Da-da-la-da-da-da-DAH ... BOING!!! Hello!!! You vant a riiide??? BOING!!!" I put up with this for about half an hour before deducing that the bike ride was not going to happen (not before I lost my sanity anyway).
Undeterred I set off on another viennabike to the Parliament, a hugely impressive building on the other side of town.
I had half an hour to kill before the guided tour so I stuck my credit card in a payphone and rang Ljubljana (I love it when you can do that). Aside from marvelling about the ease of international phone calls, I booked our accommodation for tomorrow night.
The Parliament tour was quite fun, as usual you got to hear about the politicians as well as seeing the buildings themselves. The MPs don't seem to get on very well: the parties have separate entrances and "avoid each other as much as possible"!
Recommended by Andy, the Schonbrunn palace was a good place to relax with its huge gardens and fountains. and a particularly exciting toilet... upon flushing, the toilet seat performed a 180� rotation. Well worth €0,30.
On my way back to Stephensplatz a mystery was solved. On the wall of a bank, there were thousands of little photocopied notes in German stuck on with parcel-tape, which people occasionally removed.
I had seen this a couple of days ago and been mystified, but luckily today I spotted a man who was adding new pieces of paper. He explained that the writing was poetry and people were encouraged to take bits that they liked. Here's my poem then (translation appreciated)
Je mehr �ber bestehende Gewalt berichtet wird
Umso mehr gibt es bevorstehende Gewalt
I met up with Richard for dinner and watched some particularly poor buskers, then wandered round Stephansplatz looking for something, anything, to buy that might give me a 1 euro cent coin in change (the only remaining coin to complete my Austrian collection). Finally I spotted a €0,89 cake!
Tomorrow, Ljubljana looms.