Saward Abroad

"I shall always be haunted by thoughts of a sundrenched elsewhere." Isabelle Eberhardt

Trouble in Toronto

We’re barrelling down the I-95 North to catch a flight to Toronto when I feel the car swerve under us. Half an hour until check in closes, 45 minutes driving left and the back right tire is gone. Max, my host in Rhode Island is frantically making phone calls and I’m left in the passenger seat wondering why my father, a mechanic in the British Army for over 30 years, never taught me to change a tire. I’m pretty sure a jack and a tire iron are involved somehow? I can rewire a plug, skin a rabbit and gut a fish but weirdly tires have me stumped. Triple A tell us that they can’t get anyone to us in time for me to make the flight so we sit, in a parking lot somewhere in Providence and watch the minutes tick past.

“There’s no way we would have made it anyway.”

Max scowls at me. He’s feeling guilty that he made me miss my flight.

“I mean really it’s my fault because I got the time wrong.”

A disgruntled huff from the driver’s seat.

“I mean, I do have number dyslexia so honestly, I shouldn’t be trusted to read numbers unsupervised.”

That at least gets a laugh out of him. Thankfully my phone data plan works in the US and within a few minutes I’ve got myself on a later flight to Toronto covered by my travel insurance (pro tip guys: invest in decent insurance). It takes hours for the tire to get fixed. We have to wait for Triple A to come and switch out the busted one for the spare, then carefully drive to a garage and wait for someone to put a new one on. I’m tempted to ring my Dad and ask him to walk me through changing a tire over FaceTime but given the time difference, I’d doubt he’d appreciate it.

Skip forward 8 hours and I’m in another car, trying to explain where my Air BnB is to an overworked Indian taxi driver who doesn’t understand my accent. We spend a solid 20 minutes driving the wrong way up Dundas St West because he misheard what number I said. Once again numbers screw me over. He’s very sweet about the whole thing and gets very excited when he finds out I’m an ESL teacher back home. We have a good discussion about the difference between British, Canadian and Indian English. He tells me that he’s been in Canada for 10 years and he still finds the accent hard to understand. Everyone here talks too fast. He misses home. He misses his brothers and sisters and is sad that his daughters don’t want to go back and visit more. Our taxi drive turns into quite the heart to heart. When we finally find my Air BnB he looks dubious. I don’t think he believes that the dark warehouse is a good place to drop a young woman off by herself. He waits until my hosts answer the door and he’s had a good look at them before getting back in his cab.

I am not good at being alone. Even now, when I’m trying to get job applications and blogs and the next chapter of my novel done, I’m sat at my SO’s, just for the company. I’m the kind of person that needs another human around most of the time, just for the reassuring presence. I don’t need to talk to them, or interact other than sporadically. It’s why I travel so much alone. I’m very much of the face your fears persuasion. Afraid of flying? Go to Australia alone. Afraid of driving long distances in case your car spontaneously blows up? Drive to Cornwall single handedly. Afraid of being alone? Visit new, exciting places, make new friends, discover new distractions. And usually it works like a dream.

In Toronto, however, I feel awful. I don’t know what it was. But something about the city, where I’m staying, the weather makes me tip over into a depression fog. I can’t tell you much about where I stayed or what I got up to. I can’t remember much of it. I’m staying on Dundas Street West and the AirBnB is lovely, a tiny basement studio with an ensuite. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I spend my first morning curled in bed reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. It’s reassuring, to know I’m not alone in feeling crap. Come the afternoon though I have somewhere to be. I have to get on a bus to Niagara Falls.

The subway isn’t difficult in Toronto. There’s 3 lines and one of them is on the end of another. But somehow I manage to cock up buying a ticket, end up on the wrong platform and go to the wrong place. I end up wandering around a shopping mall trying to find the bus station. It is not in the shopping mall. I miss my bus and have to wait 2 hours for the next one. This is one of the things I never expected about depression. It fogs your brain and makes you so exhausted that simple things become almost impossible. People tell you this. But until it actually happens, it doesn’t really sink in. Me writing this now, it might not explain to you just how jarring this is. If you’ve read my other blogs, I’m fairly competent usually. I managed to get around Seoul alone, where I couldn’t even guess the alphabet but now I’m lost in Toronto.

The bus to Niagara Falls is one of my favourite parts of my trip. It’s peaceful, driving around Lake Ontario, watching the city get further and further north of us. It looks beautiful across the water, skyscrapers reflected in the lake. The skyscrapers still throw me. Nothing in England is like this. Seoul was similar but there were old buildings too, palaces and houses and museums cutting through the modernity. Toronto is my first big city, on a northern American scale. Seeing it from this distance makes the buildings even more awe inspiring. The CN Tower, which until last night I’d only seen on the cover of a Drake album, is colossal. I’m twisted in my seat, watching it disappear behind us as we travel further along Lake Ontario.

Niagara Falls is not like Toronto. There’s very few skyscrapers here. When we pull into the bus station it’s jarringly empty. Easter isn’t peak tourist time I feel. There’s a few backpackers loitering and we mill around, trying to figure out how to get down to the waterfalls. A small bus arrives and it’s completely packed. That’s where all the tourists are apparently. There’s no space for me on it so a guy who works for the Niagara Falls Parks Service gives me a lift in his minibus. He buys me a coffee too. So far Canadians seem to be living up to national stereotypes of being friendly. The coffee’s not great, slightly burnt and bitter but it’s warm and Canada has surprised me with its April climate. We talk about the UK and Canada and the weather because that’s what British people do when stuck in small talk. Apparently it’s quite warm for this time of year. Snuggling into my jumper and coat, I don’t really believe him.

We get to downtown Niagara and I can hear the falls before I leave the mini bus. It’s a world famous sound and can be infuriating for the locals. In fact, Robert Land who was one of the first Europeans to settle in the region, fled after 3 years because of the noise. I like it though. It’s loud enough to block out the city and makes me feel weirdly isolated while walking down the street, even though there’s hundreds of tourists here jostling against me. I’ve got a boat tour booked, which means finding yet another form of transport. I manage it this time and get a gorgeous red poncho ready for my ride under the falls.

I realise quickly, there’s a time and a place for wearing a full face of make-up. Going on a boat near where four million cubic feet of water falls is not it. We go past the American Falls and the combination of the noise and the water pounding into my face gets into my head. I’m here. Still foggy but I don’t feel like I’m behind a weird screen anymore. It’s gorgeous. The writer in me is left speechless because how in hell do you describe something as incredible as this. If a friend were here with me, I’d just be screaming, ‘Nature is so fucking cool’ at them over and over. So that’s what you’re going to get here. Nature is so fucking cool guys. We may have built bridges and boats and hydroelectric dams and power stations and zip wires around the Falls but at the heart of it, the draw of Niagara Falls is the sheer power of all that water.

The boat takes us right up close to all three falls, the American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil. The Horseshoe Falls are possibly the most famous, mainly because of the amount of people who’ve tried to go over them and survive. Annie Edson Taylor became the first person in 1901 to go over the Falls in a barrel and survive. She was 63 at the time. 63 years old and she decided to go over a huge waterfall in a wooden barrel. At the bottom when she was fished out all she had is a few cuts. No such luck for Bobby Leach in 1911 who broke both knee caps and his jaw. People are still throwing themselves off the top of Niagara, both those who hope to survive it and those who don’t. In April 2017 Kirk Jones became the latest victim to the Falls, attempting to go over them in an inflatable ball. His body was recovered almost a month later.

I’m looking up at all that water. No matter how bad I get, or how reckless I feel, I’m never going to think that going down it in a barrel is a good idea. Salmon regularly make it down alive and one guy a few years back got hit in the face by one as it was flung out of the Bridal Veil. I don’t like my chances though.

Back in Toronto that evening I make plans to meet up with a Tinder date who drags me out and says that I can’t spend an evening inside in a new city. He drives me around for hours, showing me the different districts and we talk about what it is that draws people to travelling. Is it the discovery, meeting new people, running away from your problems back home? It gets me thinking. I think I travel to confront myself. Back home it’s all too easy to surround myself with friends, keep myself busy, always find a new distraction. But when you’re somewhere alone, you have to keep yourself company. You can’t just ring someone to come and pull you out of yourself. Even this situation, meeting a guy off Tinder, that requires a lot of putting yourself out there. Travel makes me push right up against my comfort zones and find out what and where they are. Which is pretty cool. If an expensive way to do it. And kind of pretentious.

I grew up on an army base where there were dozens of kids my age. I then moved to a boarding school where you’re with your friends constantly. Then university halls, where locking yourself in your room is frowned on – I was in a shared room there as well so it wasn’t like I had that option. Student housing for another two years. Come graduating and taking a job at a boarding school I realised that I was alone for probably the first time in my life. And it sucked. I cried a lot. And that’s when I started travelling solo.

It’s not a revelation really that we need to learn to be alone. As a product of the Internet Age, when we have friends and services and instant connection at our finger tips, millennials are used to having whoever and whatever we want, when we want it. Which isn’t really how the world works. It’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. I’m still not there. I still find myself staring at my phone screen or pacing my kitchen waiting for someone to distract me from my thoughts. But I’m getting better. And Toronto helped with that.

 

This is the latest in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘. 

Milkshakes in the Ocean State

Cabinets taste pretty good

What does the word cabinet put you in mind of? Wooden cupboards, fancy carving, dusty bottles of forgotten spirits that your parents got for Christmas 15 years ago? Milkshakes? Yeah, me neither. In Rhode Island, however, that’s what milkshakes are called. Apparently. This might all be a big joke on me. Maybe the folks in the Ocean State got together and decided to pull an epic prank on me. Whether it’s true or not, cabinets were a revelation to me, a flavour sensation. I tried my first one in Brickley’s Ice Cream on Boston Neck Road in Narragansett. It was so thick I couldn’t drink it through a straw and had to scoop it out of the Styrofoam cup drop by delicious peppermint drop. I’d expected it to be green, taste like cheap mint choc chip ice cream, all synthetic flavours and food colouring. Brickley’s have got cabinets right though. Their peppermint stick one is more like the inside of an after eight – slightly grainy, creamy and refreshing.

The basis for a good cabinet seems to be homemade ice cream. Rhode Island has a thing for this. In my week there, we drove past dozens of creameries, all selling their own versions of cabinets, milkshakes, thick shakes and a whole heap of other names. There’s Brickley’s, Nana’s, Moo Moos – and that’s just in Narragansett. Head out of town and you’ll find the Newport Creamery, home of the Awful Awful, so named because they’re awfully awfully good. With a promise like that, they were just begging to be compared to Brickley’s cabinets. For fairness, I went with another peppermint one. Awfully sweet and awfully good, it was impossible to choose between the two.

Awfully good milkshakes, awfully bad lighting

Why am I waxing lyrical about milkshakes? Is it the weird names which appeal so much to the English scholar in me? Or is it that I’m getting free ice cream for life in return for reviewing them? Neither (though free ice cream would be pretty rad). When I think back to my trip to Rhode Island, it’s the milkshakes that stick in my mind.

I’d ended up here after a chance meeting in a kebab shop in Berlin last summer. The friend I was travelling with at the time was ordering doner kebabs for us, a staple for any visit to Berlin, and offered to help the baffled looking American standing next to us in line. We weren’t in a particularly touristy area and the guy running the shop was insistent that we all practised our German with him. Not an issue for my friend and I but when you speak absolutely none of the language, it can sound quite intimidating. After successfully ordering for him, we discovered that we were all staying in the same hostel down the street. It was one of those friendships that only really happen when you’re travelling – a chance meeting with someone who you end up schlepping from hostel to hostel with for the foreseeable future. Max was 19, long haired, tattooed and at the end of his first year of college. He’d never left the US before and had just arrived in Berlin with no plan other than when he had to be on a plane home. That evening in the hostel over a few beers we compared tattoos, crazy stories about tattoos (he easily beats my nerd ones with the symbol for the rap group he and his friends formed while frying clam cakes) and managed to cram our life stories into a few hours. By the end of the night, we’d persuaded him to abandon his plans to go to Frankfurt and come to Prague with us the next day.

Another day, another beverage, yet another selfie

Fast forward to December 2016 and my depression and SAD reaching a new low. Max and I had continued talking after parting ways in Prague and he offered for me to come and stay with him to get away from work. The idea of travelling to destress isn’t revolutionary. People travel for various reasons: escape, adventure, romance. When I’m at my lowest, I book trips to keep me alive. Knowing that I’ve got a tangible, concrete event coming up, where I can get away from things, one where I have made a significant financial and temporal commitment that I can’t flake out of, that’s what keeps me going.

Rhode Island had never been on the top of destinations list. To be perfectly honest before I left I knew next to nothing about it. The limit of my knowledge was the one of the characters in Miss Congeniality was representing RI. When I arrived though, I instantly fell in love. I’m a water baby. I love any kind of water. Fountains, buckets, the ocean, rivers, puddles, anything wet, you name it, as a kid my parents had to pull me out of it. But we have oceans and beaches here. We’re an island. Go far enough in any direction and you’ll end up soggy. The difference is that the beaches in Rhode Island are gorgeous. There’s a distinct lack of rocks, pebbles, used condoms, hypodermic needles or used car parts. I mean, I’m sure that Rhode Island has its own delightful beach flora and fauna. But, not for nothing is Rhode Island called the Ocean State. 14% of its total area is made up of bays and inlets. That’s a lot of beach for this water baby to explore.

I’d picked totally the wrong time of year to visit, just when it’s sunny enough for the water to look inviting but nowhere near warm enough to swim. Max took me to Narragansett Beach, Point Judith and its lighthouse, Matunuck Beach and Hazard Rock. Every morning we’d head to Coffee Connection, local haunt of URI students, grab bagels and coffee and head off to drive along the coast.

I’m not a visual person. I struggle to remember people’s faces, places I’ve been to, clothes I own. It’s why I take so many photos, to help me out. Travelling for me, therefore, centres heavily around food – you just have to look at previous blog posts to know that. It’s what I remember most clearly. The first time I ate Dutch pannenkoeken was on a boat in Amsterdam. Now when I’m on a boat I can taste the apples that were baked into the pancakes, the cinnamon mixed into the batter, smell the burnt coffee of that trip. On this trip, it was a lot simpler. Milkshakes, coffee and bagels. The bitterness of filter coffee, the elastic chewiness of a good bagel with whatever the weirdest cream cheese I could see on the menu that morning, the sickly sweet cabinet or awful awful. Those are the taste of Rhode Island to me. Not a clam cake or bowl of chowder in sight.

The trip itself was a chance to pull my brain together, bring myself out of the fog that depression lays thick and dark over everything. Sometimes that requires a big adventure, like my trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2016. And sometimes all it takes is a little sunshine, some salt air and a cabinet or two.

This is the second in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto‘. 

Catch flights, not feelings: Is that really the way to go?

People often ask me how I can afford to travel. It’s a common question, I think, for anyone who takes more than the occasional holiday. Usually I pass it off with a shrug and a ludicrous reason (bank robbing and black market organ donations being my favourites). But somehow, as I’m sat here flying over the Atlantic coast of Canada and the US, it feels disingenuous. I’m incredibly privileged. This time last year I was staring in awe at the red dirt of Australia, trying to follow the traceries of roads and rivers. Now I’m watching snow and craggy coast lines pass under us and wondering how the hell anyone made it over this landscape before cars and planes. Being able to travel is a luxury that I never have, and hope never will, taken for granted.

Time to be honest though. I am not a bank robber. As far as I know I still have all my organs. I don’t have to scrimp and save for my trips. All this travelling, as with so many things in my life (learning to drive, my 1st car, my postgraduate studies) are all thanks to my mother.

Louise Dorothy Adams was a complicated woman. My mother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, she had a wicked sense of humour and was well known for laughing so hard she’d collapse on the floor. She used to buy me pomegranates and make me eat it with a darning needle to make it last longer. When I was a baby she would put Marmite on my dummy to keep me quiet. If she couldn’t sleep she’d watch horror movies because they made her realise everything could be a lot worse. When she was doing good, she was a riot, wickedly funny, smart and sarcastic.

But bi-polar is a bitch. It sneaks up on you and grabs you by the ankles and pulls, knocking you on your arse. Coupled with alcoholism, the lows get lower until you’re trapped inside your own head. Mum would disappear into herself for days and weeks until eventually she didn’t come back. She killed herself in 2013, just as I’d finished my first year of university. The bottom of my world dropped out. I could go through the cliches here but I think Lemony Snicket says it best with: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”

A few months after she died, we discovered she’d some money saved. Not a lot but enough that with some careful investment and a lot of advice from my family I was able to start travelling. But why am I talking about this now? I guess it’s because I’ve been struggling so much with my own mental health for the past year or so. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2012, with PTSD added along the way. When my mum died, however, I decided to do the British thing and pretend everything was fine. It got me through my degree with a damn good grade too.

After graduation though, I started to unravel. During a particularly low dip, I did what anyone with social anxiety coupled with a helpful fear of being alone would do: book a solo trip to Australia and New Zealand. I bought into the whole ‘catch flights not feelings’ deal. And if it works for you, great. Do what you got to do. But as I was crying my eyes out eight hours into a flight to Malaysia and questioning what the fuck I was doing, it wasn’t working for me. The whole first week of that trip, I learnt a hard and very important lesson. Being alone is difficult.

Don’t get me wrong. Travelling alone gave me such a tremendous sense of self-assurance and power. I’d managed to get myself to the other side of the world without a hitch. Sydney was a wonderful first place to visit on a solo trip. I felt safe getting around on public transport, didn’t feel weird eating alone and I could wander around by myself comfortably. It wasn’t the city. It was me. I’d booked this trip hoping that by leaving the UK I’d magically leave my depression behind. Turns out it had a passport too. There’s one afternoon that sticks out, sitting on the edge of Sydney Harbour for hours, chain smoking and feeling that horrifying, paralysing numbness. Here I was, on the other side of the world, in sunshine, by the water and I couldn’t think of anything. My brain was just fogged out and gone.

I started this talking about how I afford all this travel. Truth is, I kind of wanted to address the whole travel solving all your problems attitude that’s floating around at the moment. I wanted to be honest about my mental health. I love being in new places, getting myself lost in new cities and people and cultures. The prospect of a new trip is sometimes all that keeps me going back home. But mental health is complicated. My mother proved that. I’m proving it right now. I’m in Rhode Island, Ocean State having spent the last few days at the beach. And I feel like crap. Numbed out as I am back home, with a whole new heaping of guilt because why am I not enjoying this fantastic, amazing chance that I’m having.

This has been somewhat rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it is okay to not be on fantastic form when you’re travelling. What with Instagram and other social media platforms, it’s so easy to get caught up in chasing that perfect trip. Let yourself be down. Roll with it. Know your own limitations. Don’t feel that it’s wrong to need friends and travel buddies. Solo travel is great for some of us. Big groups are great for some of us. And sometimes you need to curl up in bed for a few hours. And that’s okay too.

This is the first in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto’.

Berlin The Third

‘You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.’ Written in 1800 by the Austrian composer Franz von Suppé, this quote still rings true now. Berlin has a special place in my heart. We had a rocky few years. I spent Christmas’ there as a child, then returned for the first time in 2014. After this trip I declared it overrated, boring and not for me. Fast forward to the past summer and I fell in love with the city all over again [hyperlink]. So much so that I just had to go back with my SO for Valentine’s Day. I am not one of life’s natural romantics. In fact I cringe at even hugging my partners in public. But if I have to celebrate a holiday based on public displays and declarations of affection, where better to do it than beautiful Berlin.

We stayed in an Air BnB in Prenzlauer Berg, an area to the north east of Berlin. It was right on the edge of East Berlin, with the Berlin Wall running down the western boarder of it. Now it’s become something of a hipster neighbourhood, dealing with the gentrification that Berlin’s become somewhat famous for now. Unusually for East Berlin, it’s lacking in Soviet architecture, still keeping its old townhouses and apartment blocks. Our Air BnB was in one of these, just round the corner from the U Bahn station Eberswalder Straße. It was a studio flat with plenty of space for the two of us and central enough to go exploring. Both my SO and I have been to Berlin before so we skipped the main museums and tourist attractions for the most part.

Potsdamer Platz

Our first night, we nipped round the corner to Kreuzburger for some food. It’s good, fast and has a pretty impressive selection of burgers. We were too hungry at this point for me to take photos unfortunately! The next morning we went for a walk around the Tiergarten. We were so lucky with the weather while we were there. There had been snow in the days before but we had beautiful, if cold, sunshine. Founded in 1527 as a hunting area, the Tiergarten is one of the largest urban parks in Germany. It’s the sight of many memorials, including the colossal Soviet monument to the fallen soldiers of the Red Army. Ironically, it was built so quickly after the end of the Second World War that it actually ended up in West Berlin, cut off from Soviet citizens after the construction of the Berlin Wall.

One of the most moving monuments for me, however, is the monument to the Roma and Sinti people of Europe. In the Holocaust, 220,000-500,000 Roma and Sinti were murdered by the Nazis. That amounts to between 25 to 50% of the entire European population. In November 1935, ‘Gypsies’ were defined as “enemies of the race-based state” in a supplementary decree to the Nuremberg Laws, placing the Roma and Sinti in the same category as Jews. The treatment of the Romani was not consistent across Nazi occupied territories. In some areas they were deported to concentration camps such as Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and, from 1942, Auschwitz. In these camps they were made to wear inverted brown triangles to distinguish them from other prisoners. In other areas, namely to the east of Europe, they were rounded up and shot by mobile killing squads. In Auschwitz, Romani children were a particular favourite of Dr Josef Mengele. The monument in the Tiergarten is simple. A circular pool, a triangle in the centre and paving stones around carved with the names of the camps that the Roma and Sinti were deported to. It’s a place of reflection and respect.

After this we headed over to the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) to climb it. The inside of the Dom’s dome is insanely beautiful, intricate and painted with religious iconography. The real beauty of the Cathedral, however, is in the walkway around the top of the dome. It’s a long climb, over 200 steps so not for the faint-hearted. If you’re up to it though, do it. It was one of my favourite moments on this trip, purely because of the view we got over Berlin.

The following day we took a more unusual city tour. Both my SO and my friend who was in Berlin at the same time are both really interested in the Cold War and so we headed underground to tour some atomic fallout shelters. Our tour guide was an amazingly flamboyant Dutchman. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos but I will do my best to paint a picture of the shelters. The first shelter we visited was called Blochplatz, originally a WWII that was turned into a fallout shelter in the early 1980s. Here, 1318 people were supposed to shelter for up to 48 hours. Not a great amount of time to wait out the nuclear apocalypse! After this we took the U-Bahn to Pankstraße station to see a more modern bunker. Here citizens of West Berlin, up to 3339 people, could shelter on the platform and in other purpose built rooms. One of the most interesting things about the shelters for me was how they’d been constructed to diffuse shockwaves from bomb strikes (admittedly not nuclear ones), with walls at right angles to stop the blast from killing everyone instantly. Pretty neat trick.

To finish off the day we visited Juki, a Korean restaurant on Lychener Straβe. In case my posts from my trip to South Korea last summer didn’t make it clear, I adore Korean food. Now I got to share it with my SO! I ate japchae which was my absolutely favourite dish – sweet potato glass noodles with beef and vegetables. After this we visited a local bar called Zu mir oder su dir.  Good beer, suspiciously 60s décor and red lights. It was a chill place to spend an evening.

Modern art IN the Stasi Museum

The next day, SO went off to investigate modern art while I and a friend headed to the Stasi Museum. The Stasi were the secret police that operated within the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) that operated from 8th February 1950 to the 13th January 1990. Using a colossal network of civilian informants they spied on the population of the DDR. Internal intelligence was controlled by Erich Mielke and Markus Wolf predominantly led the foreign intelligence section of the Stasi. Wolf was incredibly successful at infiltrating West German political, governmental and business circles. The Stasi maintained close links with the KGB throughout its time in operation. They employed a total of 274,000 people, with 189,000 of these being informants. That includes IMs (informeller Mitarbeiter), members of society who informed on their friends, families, colleagues and neighbours.

Perhaps the most horrifying thing that the Stasi did was a form of psychological warfare known as Zersetzung. Rather than overtly supressing dissent within the DDR, the role of Zersetzung was the ‘fragmentation, paralysis, disorganization, and isolation of the hostile and negative forces’. What this meant in practise was that the dissenting citizen often found that they’d lost their job, their friends and loved ones, socially and economically isolated. It was an insidious form of state control. The network of informants made it so that it was impossible to trust anyone.

After spending the morning learning about the apparatus of the police state that was the DDR, we thought visiting the remains of the Berlin Wall was only fitting. The East Side Gallery, in Friedrichshain, is the longest section of the Wall left standing and has become a public art gallery. It’s somewhat ironic that it’s now been placed behind a fence in order to protect the murals on it from graffiti.


Our final night in Berlin was spent at Liquidrom. How to describe Liquidrom. It’s sort of a spa and sort of a club and very confusing as a result. You leave unsure of whether to be relaxed or pumped up. There’s a salt pool that plays techno underwater. It’s surreal, you can’t hear it above water and then you put your head under the water and you can hear it so clearly. There’s enough salt in the water that you float and the room is dark so you just drift with your eyes shut. It was incredible. Then things got very German and naked when we went to the sauna. Yup. Public nudity. There were various different saunas at different temperatures and a steam room. I obviously was very British about the whole thing to start and was embarrassed as heck but you can’t stay embarrassed long when you’re surrounded by naked Germans.

No nudity allowed so here’s a nice river photo

Berlin, as always, was delightful. For once I haven’t talked endlessly about the food. There’s still so much of the city that I want to visit and explore. I still haven’t made it into Berghain. Maybe next time. If I’m cool enough.

A cracking trip to Krakow

2016 was an incredible year for me. I had the chance to travel to so many places: Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna and Bratislava. How else to finish it off than by squeezing in yet another trip, this time going back to Krakow in Poland. I visited Krakow for the first time in December 2015 and had a cracking time (I’m not even sorry for the amount of puns that will happen in this post). If you want to visit a Christmas market but don’t want to brave the madness of visiting the bigger German cities, Krakow’s is well worth a visit. But that’s not the only reason to head to this beautiful city.

Wawel Castle

If you’ve come from the British schooling system like me, you probably don’t know that much about Poland’s history beyond the Second World War. Like every European city, Krakow has a fantastic founding story. And it involves dragons. Way back in the mists of time, when it was still the capital of Poland, the city was besieged by a terrible beast. The townsfolk were forced to feed it sheep and cattle in order to stop it attacking the town. When they ran out of these, they turned to their daughters. Because the logical escalation from sheep is virginal women. Gotta be virgins though, dragons uphold the patriarchy through their palates. Once a year, a young woman had to be sacrificed to the creature. Many brave men attempted to fight the dragon but none could defeat it. Eventually the only virgin left in Krakow was the daughter of King Krak, the lovely Wanda.

Enter a humble young cobbler named Dratewka. He had a cunning plan. Using his cobbling skills, he made a fake sheep full of sulphur and placed it outside the dragon’s cave. Dragons being notoriously stupid, this one gobbled it up. Then, a great and terrible burning raged through his entire body and he immediately began to regret his life choices. The dragon rushes to the river and drinks and drinks and drinks until you could see the bed of the river Wisla. He drank so much that he exploded spectacularly.

When you visit Krakow, one of its most famous sites is a statue of the dragon, Smok Wawelski, near a cave underneath Wawel Castle. It’s no ordinary statue. It breathes fire. It actually breathes fire. Every 10 minutes, you can stroll past and see old Smok breathing his firey breath by the river.

The castle itself is impressive. It’s not like a British castle, all grey stone and moats. Wawel Castle is red brick, set high on a hill next to the Wisla River. Similar to Prague Castle, there’s a long winding walk up to castle itself that brings you right next to The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill (Wawel Cathedral for short). I just have to include the Polish name in here because as a language geek, the amount of consonants in Polish makes me so happy: królewska bazylika archikatedralna śś. Stanisława i Wacława na Wawelu. Impressive huh? When you first see it, it doesn’t look that impressive. It’s got a huge door but appears small, slightly oppressive. And then you go around the corner. The current cathedral is the 3rd one, having been begun in the 14th century but there’s been a cathedral on the site since the 11th century. It’s been the main coronation and burial site for Polish monarchs for centuries and is suitably grand and gold covered. It has 3 iconic towers, Sigismund Tower, Clock Tower and Silver Bell Tower. There are also some famous Chapels, which have gorgeous golden roofs.

Wawel Cathedral

The complex at Wawel has always been central to Polish life, acting as the formal seat of the Polish monarchy and the residence of the President of Poland. During the Second World War Germany’s General Government occupied it and the Nazi Governor General Hans Frank lived there. At the end of the war it was made into a national museum.

In the centre of the Old Town is Rynek Glowny, the Main Square. It’s one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe and dates back to the 13th century. In December, it’s home to the Christmas markets where you can stuff yourself with pierogi, trdelnik, tea with plum vodka and other Eastern European goodies. If you’re there when the markets are up, it’s perfectly possible to eat entirely from street vendors, starting with obwarzanek krakowski (a speciality Krakow bagel) in the morning and then grazing your way around various stalls throughout the day.

Rynek Glowny, and the Cloth Hall in the centre of it are beautiful enough on their own but my favourite part of the Old Town isn’t even visible. It’s underground. Beneath the Main Square is a museum dedicated to Krakow and Poland’s history. There’s been a market on the site since the 13th century and in Rynek Underground you can see the archaeological layers that these years of occupation have created. There’s even a section where you can see the burnt out timbers from a destroyed market stall. The curation is excellent and it’s a really interactive museum if like me you have the attention span of a hyperactive toddler.


Krakow is a beautiful city, full of history, culture and delicious food. For a European capital, it’s cheap as well. Hostels are inexpensive and even an Air BnB doesn’t set you back too much. For a short break, weekend away or a place to start a longer trip to explore Eastern Europe, I can’t recommend Krakow highly enough.

It was the best of times, it was the Wurst of times. Interrail Stop 4

Vienna is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. I’d like to tell you it’s for high cultural reasons or a keen interest in history but mainly it was for the cake. Sachertorte is legendarily delicious and anyone who’s read my previous posts will know how important food is to me when travelling. Unfortunately I’d pushed myself a little too far over the summer. I’d had tonsillitis the week before I’d flown to Korea and had still been taking antibiotics for it when I’d arrived. Between that trip and interrailing I’d given myself just two days to get over the jetlag. In Vienna it finally caught up with me. I completely lost my voice which meant my friend had to do all the talking for us. Got me out of trying out my rusty German! It meant I couldn’t explore Vienna as fully as I had other cities. There was a lot of sleeping and watching the Olympics in our room while my buddy wandered his way around Austria’s capital.

Oh Vienna

I managed to get up to make my way into the city centre, stopping along the way for copious amounts of good Austrian coffee. Viennese coffee house culture is world famous for their specific atmosphere. There’s a whole load of social practices, rituals and interior design that are unique to Vienna’s café culture. A coffee shop in Vienna is a place of cheap coffee and sitting for hours talking, writing, playing cards and reading newspapers or journals. It’s the kind of place where you can sit without being interrupted and just enjoy the peace and caffeine. The story goes that the reason Vienna is so famous for its coffee is thanks to the Ottoman Empire. When the city was under siege by Ottoman invaders in 1683, the Polish-Habsburg army that liberated it found sacks full of a strange bean. They thought it was camel food and wanted to burn it but fortunately an enterprising army officer decided to brew them up. He experimented, adding sugar and milk before going on to found the first coffee house in Vienna. A cool story to add to the collection of bizarre European trivia you now know.

Coffee is always served with a cold glass of water alongside and topped up if you stay a long time. In the beginning of Viennese coffee culture there were names for specific drinks, with patrons choosing from a colour-shaded chart. We made our way to Café Hofburg by the Spanish Riding School to enjoy some coffee and of Vienna’s finest baked goods. Fortunately they have a wide and varied menu, both in English and German with handy pictures for all the different types of coffee and cake they serve. My friend trusted my judgement enough to let me order him a Maria Theresa which is a double mocha with Cointreau, whipped cream and orange peel. Delicious right? I went for a Weiner Melange which is coffee and hot frothy milk. Nothing like a classic. I also tried their trio of teeny cakes so I could have a bit of everything. There was Mozart torte (chocolate and pistachio cake), Frasier torte (strawberry cake) and of course, Sachertorte. So tasty and so worth the walk even when I was sick.

That afternoon we visited the Kaisergruft. This is where the Habsburg Royal family were buried for centuries. It’s incredible. The tombs are all made from iron and are delicately carved and moulded. It’s underneath a church in the city centre and tickets are fairly cheap. Definitely up there on the list of bizarrely beautiful places I’ve visited. After this we wandered home leisurely, checking out the National Library on the way – what can I say, you can take the English teacher away from work but…


Our hotel was ten minutes walk away from Prater, Vienna’s famous fairground. Fans of The Third Man will recognise the huge ferris wheel there. It’s one of Vienna’s iconic landmarks. There was a fair queue to ride on it but once you’re up the top, it’s totally worth it. At night, when the whole of Vienna is lit up, the view is stunning. You can see clear over the whole of the city on a summer night. Afterwards we rode on some the rides including an insane spinny upsidedown monstrosity that made me feel unbelievably sick. Not my smartest move.

The next day we visited the Natural History Museum. Anyone who’s a fan of shiny rocks, you need to go. Their geology section is insane. It’s huge. It’s organised by location and we had fun trying to find rocks from our hometowns in the UK. Because we’re big old nerds. Their quartz collection is incredible too. But nothing compares to the flowers that were carved out of quartz. Check it out.

Bratislava

I’m aiming for 25 countries before I’m 25. Vienna is only an hour away from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, so we figured why not put our interrail passes to good use and hop over the border. Excellent spontaneous decision. The day we picked was roasting hot and Bratislava is gorgeous in the sunshine. Its architecture is similar to Prague’s with a unique Slovak twist. We only day tripped and I was very out of it with whatever was making me ill but we managed to make it to the famous Blue Church. It’s a Hungarian Church, opened in 1908 and located in the east of Bratislava. I’ve not yet made it over to Budapest and so I’m not familiar with Hungarian architecture but oh gosh was this building pretty. They’re not joking around with the name either. It’s a bright blue church.

We finished the day off visiting the castle. It was a long long long walk on a very hot day up a big old hill. I only made it halfway up and settled down on a wall overlooking the Danube. Apparently the Castle was really cool and my friend is something of a connoisseur, having been dragged to enough National Trust properties as a kid.

Just like that, our interrail trip had come to an end. I know I’ve used words like incredible a lot. But this trip, getting to discover new cities and explore old favourites, was incredible. Doing it all with my best friend was pretty great too. The interrail pass gives you the freedom to be spontaneous, to visit places you hadn’t planned and to travel all across Europe while doing it. Do it. If you get the opportunity, seriously take it. And even if you’re not interrailing, visit Amsterdam, visit Berlin, visit Prague, visit Vienna. Explore Europe. Soak up all the culture and beauty of these cities. You’ll have a blast.

Alchemy in Prague – Interrail Stop 3

I fell in love with Prague as soon as we arrived on my first trip in 2015. It’s always held a special place in my heart. My mum visited when I was young and had told me stories about the Charles Bridge, the Old Town and the Astronomical Clock. I’ve read so many fantasy novels set in the city and so in my mind its streets have such magical potential, so many adventures just waiting for you to stumble into them. Where else to spend my birthday than my favourite city?

One of the things I find so fascinating about Prague is the city’s rich history of alchemy. It’s pretty much down to one guy, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. In 1576 he moved to Prague and brought with him a fascination with alchemy, magic, astrology and science. Edward Kelley and John Dee, noted English mystical types, both lived in Prague. Kelley claimed to be able to summon angels in a mirror, turn lead into gold and have created the Philosopher’s Stone. Bold claims. Sir John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s royal magician which is a title I’m still hoping to claim for myself one day. If you want to hear more about the bizarre and fascinating world of Prague’s alchemists, check out this The History of Alchemy podcast. It’s one of my favourites for obvious reasons.

The alchemy of ink

The alchemy of ink

I’ve wanted to get a tattoo of the alchemical symbols for the four elements for a while now. Someone I’d met in Berlin had just got a tattoo from One Love in Prague and told me to check it out. Within 2 hours of arriving in the city, I was lying in the tattoo studio making awkward small talk with a Czech tattoo artist. If you’re wanting to get inked, I’d 100% recommend them. It’s one of my favourite tattoos now, was reasonably priced and they took me as a walk in. I even got to skip ahead of the queue of German teenagers debating between various pieces of flash work because I came with a design and knew exactly what I wanted. It pays to be obsessed with tattoos sometimes.

We followed up this slightly (definitely) spontaneous decision with dinner at the restaurant next to the Czech Shakespeare theatre. The food was delicious (with lots of potato dumplings) but more importantly they served over 50 kinds of beer. It’s in the city centre near the creepy Don Giovanni Statue. You’ll know it when you see it. Our hostel, Advantage, was only about 15 minutes walk from Old Town. We’d stayed there the year before and weirdly were in the exact same room as before too!

Old Town

Our second day was spent taking a friend of ours on a walking tour of Prague. We started in the Old Town Square under

Astronomical

Astronomical

the Astronomical Clock. Pražský orloj was first installed in 1410 and is the oldest astronomical clock that still works. It’s not only a clock, it also shows the position of the Sun and the Moon in the sky and has a calendar dial with medallions for the months. There’s an hourly clockwork show of moving sculptures that include the Apostles and Death, who’s a skeleton that strikes the time. Like all good historical buildings, this world famous clock has a grisly creation story that I just love. Buckle yourselves in kids. It’s gonna get gory. The legend goes that the Orloj was built by Jan Růže (who is also called Jan Hanuš – there’s a lot of Jans in Czech history). The clock was so beautiful that the leaders of Prague had poor Jan blinded so that he could never create another. I’ve also heard that he had his tongue and hands cut off so he could neither tell another person how to make one, or construct one blind. In revenge, our man Jan throws himself into the mechanism of the Orloj, breaking it beyond repair. It stayed broken for another hundred years, his bones jamming the mechanism in a really long lasting act of vengeance. You’ve got to love insane inventors.

After the Astronomical Clock we took our friend across the town square and through the Old Town. On the walk, I told him the story of Jan Žižka (I told you, a lot of Jans) a 14th-15th century general who fought in the Bohemian Civil Wars. He’s central to another brilliant Czech folk story. Not only was he an incredible military leader and one of the few commanders throughout history who never lost a battle he did most of this with one eye. And then with no eyes. He continued commanding because Žižka was a freaking badass. A badass who died of the plague in October of 1424. And asked for his skin to be made into drums as his dying wish so he could continue to lead his men. Yup. You read that right. Skin into drums.

This story took us to the Spanish Synagogue in the Old Town. It’s an odd sight, an Arabic Moorish style building in the building of all this Czech architecture. But it’s well worth looking at, especially inside as it’s beautiful. The Jewish Quarter itself is packed with fascinating synagogues and you can buy a ticket from the Jewish Museum to access several different ones. The Prague Cemetery is probably the most famous landmark in this part of the city and it is worth a visit. But my personal highlight is the Pinkas Synagogue. It’s been turned into a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from what was Bohemia and Moravia. The walls are covered in their names and there is an audio loop reading them continuously. It is haunting. I can’t explain the impact that this has, it’s something you need to experience for yourself.

Vtlava River and Prague Castle

Vtlava River and Prague Castle

Once we were out of the Jewish Quarter we made our way across Charles Bridge. It was crowded, with tourists, market stalls and performers. As any travel blog or guide will tell you, the best time to go is early in the morning or late at night to avoid this. Once you’re over the bridge you’re in the Old Old Town. Now I know that there’s already an Old Town but this part of town is older. Older than Old. It’s dominated by the Castle. Any history nerd would be jumping at the chance to visit Prague Castle. It’s gorgeous, it’s got a cathedral as part of it, it has beautiful views over the whole city and at night it’s lit up by lights that are rumoured to have been donated by the Rolling Stones. Don’t quote me on that.

Prague's rooftops

Prague’s rooftops

Birthday in Prague

For my birthday we decided to go classy. We went to a classical music concert up at the Castle. They were playing famous Czech composers so there was a lot of Antonín Dvořák. If classical music is your thing, they have these regularly  – you can find tickets here. Then, because we’d had our fill of high culture, we headed to the Sex Machine Museum. Seriously. Check it out. It’s eye-opening. And eye-watering. I’ll just leave this photo here. Make of it what you will.

naughty-see-saw

We finished up my birthday celebrations in my favourite restaurant in Prague, Krčma on Kostečná, near the Old Town Square. It serves traditional Czech food and amazing beer. Lots of meat, potato dumplings and deliciousness. There was lots more beer to follow back at the hostel ready for a nice early start the next day.

Český Krumlov

See the tiny shed. That's the station.

See the tiny shed. That’s the station.

Our next destination was the city of Český Krumlov in the south of the Czech Republic. A family friend runs the Penzion Onyx and so we headed there to stay on our way to Vienna. The train journey took us through some gorgeous Czech countryside with this beautiful teeny weeny train station. Once we arrived, our hosts had an incredible evening lined up for us. She’d bought us tickets for the famous rotating opera. It’s a really incredible place, with round outdoor seating surrounded by a stage. The seating rotates as the action moves around the stage. We were watching Carmen and thankfully I’d studied the book at university because neither of our French was really up to scratch to follow it.

Walking home through Český Krumlov after the performance, I saw my first ever bear. Odd first to achieve in the Czech Republic but there you go. Apparently it’s tradition to keep a bear in the moat of a castle and Český Krumlov proudly upholds that. After this slightly bizarre evening, we were ready for the final leg of our interrailing adventure: Vienna. Here I intended to drink my body weight in delicious coffee, eat sachertorte until I was sick and generally roll myself back to the airport. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. But you’ll have to find out what they were in the next blog post. Nothing like a cliffhanger to keep you interested.

 

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Brezel in Berlin – Interrail Stop 2

The journey from Amsterdam should be fairly simple. One train, 5 hours, nice and easy. We’d gone for the 9am train thinking that no one else would be up that early. Rookie mistake. Not only were all the seats for this train fully booked but the 7am train from Amsterdam to Berlin had been cancelled so it was absolutely rammed. I’m talking London Underground in rush hour levels of packed. We managed to get some seats but were waiting to be booted out at every stop. Fortunately about an hour out of Amsterdam our train broke down. We were still well in Dutch territory and went set off the stricken train to get another to the border. Once we were there we had to wait for a coach to Hamburg. Ominously while on our way into Germany we were told we were stopping to see if there was ‘anyone in Bad Bentheim’ as if some catastrophe had happened there.

Well deserved beers

Well deserved beers

After an 11 hour journey we finally arrived in Berlin. Our hostel, East Seven in Prenzlaur Berg, was 5 minutes walk from Prater Garten. This is Berlin’s oldest beer garden, having opened in 1837. The beer was cheap, cold and well-deserved after that monster train journey. If you’re staying in Prenzlaur Berg, definitely check it out – I recommend their pretzels too! We headed back to settle into the hostel and to get ready to check out Berlin’s infamous nightlife. While I’m not much of a partier back home, you can’t visit Berlin and not go out.

Deciding there was no hope of getting into Berghain, we instead tried our luck at Suicide Circus. We’d managed to time it so that we went out in the middle of a thunder storm so trying to find the club involved a lot of running and screaming. Turns out Australians, not so great at dealing with wet weather. We’d made the rookie mistake of arriving at midnight which is apparently way too early for Berlin, especially on a Friday night. The pouring rain and lightning didn’t stop the outdoor room from filling up as the night went on. One of my more memorable clubbing experiences!

Potsdam

After a late start that had nothing at all to do with me feeling fragile, we took the S-Bahn out of Berlin to Potsdam. One of the other great benefits of the Interrail Pass, you get free S-Bahn travel in Berlin. Potsdam is a city that directly borders onto Berlin and was the residence of both the Prussian Kings and the Kaiser up until 1918. The Potsdam Conference between the Allies at the end of the Second World War was held here, which is where the division of Germany and notably Berlin into four administrative zones controlled by Britain, the USSR, France and America was agreed upon. The city is home to many beautiful palaces and an absolutely stunning university. Seriously, it’s unbelievably beautiful and I’m still kicking myself that I was too in awe to take photos of it.

Sanssouci Palace

Sanssouci Palace

We wandered around the city centre for a while before visiting the Sanssouci Palace. It was a summer palace built in the 1740s for Frederick the Great of Prussia (ace title). The weather was beautiful when we arrived and so we spent a good hour strolling around in the gardens, pretending to be fancy Prussian aristocrats. There was a lot of restoration work going on but it didn’t detract from the elegance of the design or the slightly confusing terraces that lead up to it. Let me tell you that those stairs, after the night I’d had, were a bit of a challenge! One of my favourite thing about visiting old palaces is the presence of follies. A folly is a building project that serves literally no purpose other than to show off how wealthy you are. In the case of Sanssouci, they were a series of temples and castle ruins dotted around the park that surrounds the palace. Imagine having enough cash that you can just build the ruins of a castle for the look of it.

ramen-burger

Worth the difficulty of eating

That evening back in Berlin we discovered that our hostel was near not one but two Korean restaurants. Anyone who’s read my previous posts should know how excited this made me. Of course I dragged my friend to one of them as soon as I realised. We went to Chilee for Korean style burgers. I had to try their famous ramen burger. A ramen burger I hear you ask? Instead of a bun, you have deep fried noodles. Add a delicious beef patty and kimchee hot enough to make your eyes water and you have the best burger I’ve ever had in my life. I’d go all the way back to Berlin just for that burger.

Bite Berlin

Our 2nd full day in Berlin we decided to check out the DDR museum which tells you all about life in East Berlin under Soviet control. It was interesting but I think more geared towards younger visitors. It was super interactive and split into distinct sections that told about home life, work, school, holidays and the city itself. It was interesting learning about transport – weird I know but hear me out. People have probably heard about the Trabi’s the notoriously unreliable East German car but the subway system was also janky as all heck. People were trusted to pay for their tickets which obviously they did not. People just wanted the chance to screw over the system.

turkish-meze

Meze

It only took about an hour to look around the DDR Museum so we then hit the market in Hackescher Markt. The main event of the day was undoubtedly, however, going on the Bite Berlin food tour. It’s run by Sam Reidie and she takes you around the city sampling all kinds of different foods. We started of with gigantic cheese pretzels from the Brezel Company. Pretzels are such a nostalgic food for me, you can’t get much better than their salty, chewy goodness. This was followed by Turkish mezze and tea at Hasir, which was the first Turkish restaurant in Berlin. We then moved to Lindner for traditional German boulette, a kind of meatball – think frigadelle from Denmark or similar. Delicious! Next up was Vietnamese. Before I’d been to Berlin the first time, I’d never had Vietnamese food and so the two are strongly linked in my mind. At District Mot, we had a bao burger which is in a rice flour bun and almost as tasty as the ramen burger.

The only thing more tied to my childhood than pretzels is currywurst. If you’ve never had them, bear with me because the explanation is a little odd. Imagine a bratwurst, the most delicious of German sausages, covered in ketchup and curry sauce. Don’t knock it until you try it. And try it you must. There’s a good chain in London called Herman ze German that sells it but seriously, head to Germany to check it out. Currywurst was followed by cake, coffee and sparkling white wine. Sam knows so much about the history of Berlin as well as the best spots for delicious food. Also, with all the food you get as part of the price of the tour, you won’t need to eat afterwards!

Currywurst

Currywurst

Our final day was a relaxed one. We had a late breakfast at Impala coffee opposite our hostel before walking up to Mauerpark to browse the flea market there. A lot of German shops are shut on a Sunday, even supermarkets so prepare yourself for that. The fleamarket was a hipster’s dream, selling vintage clothes, handmade jewellery and delicious street food. I came away with enough rings to wear one on each finger. The day was rounded off with a doner kebab, that most German of takeaways.

Mauerpark

Mauerpark

I’d come to Berlin with low expectations. The first time I’d visited I’d hated the city. I’d been disorientated by the lack of old buildings in East Berlin, I’d been overwhelmed by the size of the city and I came home swearing to never ever in a million years return. But I am so glad I did. Berlin is a beautiful, vibrant city and I can’t wait to visit again. There’s so much left to discover and rediscover. I wish we’d stayed longer but we were off to Prague, possibly my favourite city in the world. I hope that I can share some of that magic with you in my next post.

Pancakes in Amsterdam – Interrail Stop 1

Interrailing has almost become a rite of passage for young middle class Europeans. As far as travelling goes it’s a relatively cheap way of making your way around Europe and has the potential to be as free as you want it to be. No rushing to get prebooked flights or feeling like you’ve missed out by having to leave a city on a certain date. If you’re willing to take the risk of not getting a seat on your train, you can fill out the pass on the platform while you’re waiting for it to arrive. I met a lot of people this summer who were totally winging it, deciding on their next destinations dependant on recommendations from fellow travellers. I’m not that chilled out about travelling and so we’d made an itinerary before heading off. Our first stop would be Amsterdam. I’d been there before, on a day trip when I’d stayed in Rotterdam, and wanted to have a chance to explore this infamous city.

Sloterdjik Station

Sloterdjik Station

Neither my travel buddy nor I are massive partiers so we avoided the central hostels and stayed in a Meinenger (a hostel/hotel chain) in Sloterdjik. We got a decent discount as Interrailers and were right next to the local train station. From here it was less than 5 minutes to Centraal and the centre of Amsterdam. As you may have guessed by my previous posts, food is an essential part of travelling for me. So we jumped right in and tried Ossenworst which is ox sausage. It was a lot like salami but richer and meatier – sort of like salami and black pudding had a delicious baby.

Kicking things off

We kicked off our first day by doing a city tour with New Sandeman’s tour company. Our guide was Axel, who was actually from Amsterdam (something of a rarity with tour guides given that they’re usually travellers who never left). Before this started I had to try some Dutch pastry seeing as there’s so many different kinds. I tucked into an Appelflappen (apple flap: sweet pastry folded over and stuffed with apples and cinnamon, covered in sugar) as we headed off to lean about Amsterdam’s history. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a beautiful city. The little streets, narrow houses and the famous canal network come together to make what you’d imagine from a European capital. I’m from Oxford, a famously medieval city full of old buildings and architecture. I honestly feel a little disorientated in newer cities. Rotterdam (which was almost entirely destroyed in WW2) made me feel like this. But I felt right at home in Amsterdam. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the city, as you’d expect from a nature, while also having the worst Dad jokes I’d heard from someone his age.

more-canals

A personal favourite story that we learnt was about Napoleon’s annexation of the Netherlands. Before this, family names were not common in Holland, with Dutch people instead using patronymic names (ie a boy called Pieter whose father was called Jan would be Peiter Janszoon). Napoleon and his fancy French ways meant people had to register one family name and stick to it, passing this down to their children. The story goes that outraged by this the Dutch registered protest names that were rude or complete nonsense. Zondervan meaning ‘without surname’ is a favourite. Unfortunately when France lost control of Holland, turned out people thought this whole given name system was a good ‘un. And so some families were stuck with their protest names, even to this day. How true this is, I don’t know but it’s a great story.

We finished our tour in the neighbourhood of Jordaan where we had lunch at Café Sonneveld (Egelantiersgracht 72-74) as recommended by Axel. I had a traditional Dutch dish, stamppot with sausage. Stamppot is (like all good Northern European dishes) based on potatoes and is solid and warming. Not great food for the end of July but still delicious!

Bloemenmarkt and Pannenkoekenboot

The next morning my friend and I woke up early to head to Amsterdam’s Flower Market, the Bloemenmarkt. The friend I was travelling with is a biochemist whose special interest is plant genetics so he was in his element. There was a beautiful assortment of flowers in colour combinations I’d never seen before. Tulips were obviously a big feature but you could also buy all different kinds of bulbs and seeds. I think if we’d been at the end of our trip rather than the beginning our bags would have been full! You weren’t allowed to take photos of the actual flowers but there was a gorgeous selection of wooden tulips to choose from.

Wooden tulips at The Bloemenmarkt

Wooden tulips at The Bloemenmarkt

The Amsterdam Museum

The Amsterdam Museum

From here we wandered over to the Amsterdam Museum. We’d been meaning to go to the Rijksmuseum but we’d heard it was super crowded during the summer months. I’m really glad we went to the smaller one. It focused on the history of the city as a whole, tracing its origins as a small fishing village, through its history at the centre of a trading superpower, to the vibrant city it is today. The curation was excellent, leading you chronologically through Amsterdam’s timeline. Each room had a short video explaining the section of time that was the room’s focus. There was also a running side exhibition throughout the museum detailing the LGBT history of Amsterdam. I’d definitely recommend checking it out next time you’re in the city.

For me, however, the highlight of the trip was the Pannenkoekenboot. Yup, that’s right: the Pancake Boat. You pay €17 and get an hour and a half on a boat out in the port to eat as many pancakes as you can manage. They had three kinds: plain, apple and bacon. You could also ask for gluten free ones. Then there was a massive buffet full of toppings. We’re talking chocolate sprinkles, cheese, peaches, strawberries, a huge choice. I managed a respectable five. My father would have been proud.

Bacon and banana, a classic combination

Bacon and banana, a classic combination

That afternoon, full of pancakes, we headed into the Red Light District to explore. There’s a museum in a former brothel called Red Light Secrets that tells you a little about the history of prostitution in the city. It’s in an old narrow house and so can get a little crowded at busy times. But it’s an interesting set up and you learn a lot about the lives of the girls in Amsterdam’s famous windows. We also found a street with my name – a small victory for someone with an unusual spelling of ‘Bethanie’.

It's the little things

It’s the little things

We finished up the day with some beer tasting while the rain absolutely hammered it down outside. Our time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Coming back to a city I’d already been to proved to be a good choice. I felt I’d had more chance to explore and still had a lot left to discover. But regardless we were off to Berlin. And it was a whole different kind of adventure to get there.

No British stereotypes here

No British stereotypes here

 

Seoul: Gyeongbokgung and Gogigui

I headed out alone to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. Gyeongbokgung was the first royal palace to be built by the Joseon Dynasty in 1395. It’s currently undergoing restoration after the Japanese occupation of Korea at the beginning of the 20th century when much of it was systematically destroyed. Until 1996 the Japanese Governor General Building stood on the site, having been built there during occupation in order to stop the Palace being a symbol of an independent Korea.

Walk up to palace

 

Before going anywhere in Seoul, check to make sure that it’s open as a lot of places are closed Monday or Tuesday – I guess this is so they can stay open over the weekend. Entering Gyeongbokgung Palace you go through a huge gate called Gwanghwamun. It’s a jarring experience, walking from the busy, crowded streets of Seoul, surrounded by skyscrapers through a gate and into a quiet, distinctly historical building complex. There were the traditional green and reds on the buildings, with gold detailing and huge sweeping curves to the roofs. Behind Gyeongbokgung is Bugaksan mountain, following the principle of baesanimsu (learn more about this in my Jeonju post).

I decided to take an English guided tour of the Palace, hoping to learn a little about the history of Gyeongbokgung rather than doing my usual wandering aimlessly and trying to translate Korean signposts. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic Korean woman and there was a relatively large group, mainly made up of Americans, a lot of whom had just moved to Seoul to start teaching English. They all seemed surprised that I’d come over for 10 days (admittedly I still can’t quite believe how far I went for such a short trip!). Gyeongbokgung was very similar to the shrine that I visited in Jeonju but on a much grander scale. The ongoing restoration project means that you can see up to 40% of the Palace complex as it was before Japanese occupation. It’s stunning, often said to be the grandest and most beautiful of the palaces within Seoul – I’ll get back to you on that when I do another trip to Korea! The gardens were incredibly peaceful, with my favourite spot being a little temple on an island in the middle of a lake. Korean Palaces are so unlike English castles and palaces. While we do have formal gardens, there’s nowhere near the same emphasis on outdoor spaces. Our climate isn’t exactly conducive to outdoor living!

Lily pond palace original

Gyeongbokgung Palace’s gardens

Gogigui

Korean BBQ

Every meal should look like this

After a day exploring Gyeongbokgung I headed back to Yongsan for another essentially Korean culinary experience: Korean barbecue (Gogigui in Korean). I’ve never had Korean barbeque before, despite it being one of the more popular foods that have made it over to the UK. If you’ve never had it, find the nearest place to you and go. Because there’s nothing more exciting than cooking your own food at your table. The place we went to was in the local market and was tiny, the kind of place that would be a super hipster pop-up joint if it was in London. Each table had a little coal pit that heated up a metal plate above, where you cooked the food. There was also a brass chimney that winched down over each hot plate to draw the smoke off. We were clearly not trusted to do it by ourselves as the woman who ran the place took one look at us and started cooking for us. One of my favourite things about meals in Korea is that you order your main dishes and then you automatically get kimchee and vegetables with it. We had pork, with onions and whole cloves of garlic and it was delicious.

After this we headed to the local bingsu place for some dessert. Patbingsu literally means red beans with ice and is finely shaved ice that is traditionally topped with, you guessed it, my old friend red bean paste! I steadfastly refused to be fooled against by red bean paste and we got one with fresh fruit on top. Unfortunately it was too tasty for me to take any photos as it was eaten inabout five minutes flat!

National Museum National museum atrium

My final day in Korea was spent in the National Museum of Korea. It’s recently moved to Yongsan, on land that used to be part of the US Garrison nearby (fun fact, construction was delayed for years as Seoul’s municipal government and the US Army apparently fought over the location of a helipad) and opened its new doors in 2005. The building itself is spectacular, light and airy, constructed around a central atrium with clever curation that leads you in a logical route around the entire museum in chronological order. Unless, like my friend when he visited, you manage to turn the wrong way at the entrance and so experience Korean history backwards. Apparently it was a unique way to learn about the country! I opted to start in Bronze Age Korea and work my way round to modern Korea. There’s various cafes and tea rooms dotted around on each floor and it took me about three hours to make my way round the main exhibitions – take into account here that I like reading all Iron Buddhathe signs on artefacts! There were also two temporary exhibitions, one on Afghan gold and one on Joseon period printing presses. I’m slightly obsessed with typography and old fashioned printing technology so I spent a good 45 minutes looking at all the printing blocks! One thing that really stood out to me were the iron Buddhas. I’ve not been anywhere in Asia before so I don’t know if this is a uniquely Korean style of devotional art or not but regardless the detail was astonishing.

Mandu

By far and away my favourite food of the trip was mandu (dumplings). I mean, what’s not to love? Tasty filings, boiled or fried dough, food you can eat with your hands? Obviously my last meal in Korea had to be mandu. We hit a local stall in the market for a mystery selection (I’m 99% sure my friend knew what he was ordering) and headed down to the Han to eat. 10 days was not enough time to spend in Korea. There’s so much I still want to see, so much more to learn about the culture and so much food I’ve yet to eat! This trip was a good introduction, dipping my toes into South Korea if you will. Expect more posts in the future when I make another trip. South Korea, I’m not finished with you yet!

« Older posts

© 2017 Saward Abroad

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑