Saward Abroad

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

Month: December 2016

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.

 

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