Five Guys

All the best things in life come in sets of five*: the Spice Girls; the number of days each week during which you can countdown to the weekend; golden rings. And the five villages making up the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre are certainly no exception. In fact, even better than the brightly coloured bric-a-brac towns themselves are the spectacular hiking trails which take you from one coastal haven to the next.

Staying just outside the five official chosen ones (I’m on a budget, darling) in La Spezia, I visited the nearest of the quintet on my first afternoon – the picture-perfect Riomaggiore – before (bravely or foolishly) attempting the remaining four, adjoining hikes included, the following (very hot (31°)) day. After an initially frustrating start to the morning (requesting laundry be done by the most away-with-the-fairies hostel volunteer I had ever come into contact with (who turned out to be the manager (I was flabbergasted to say the least)), followed by said manager attempting to help me (loosely used) pre-book my ‘Cinque Terre travel card’ online (categorically unsuccessful), I headed to the train station – much more willing to stand in line to buy my ticket in person over dying a little bit more inside with every confused nonsensical noise which escaped from the hostel manager’s cake hole. (Rant over.)

I bought my ticket (allowing for train travel between each of the villages (if I got lazy) and entry on foot to two of the payable national parks through which the last two hikes ran (if I didn’t)), boarded the train and set off for numero due dei cinque: Manarola. And – man-alive-a – it was beautiful. As in Riomaggiore, the jaunty, pastel-coloured, lego-like houses sat sweetly along the dramatic and menacingly jagged charcoal grey cliff side, with the luminous turquoise sea glistening cheekily at its feet. My reward, if I completed the four-stop hike, was a swim at the last resort, so I resisted the temptation of a quick dip and got on my way to the start of the first inter-village hike. It started on a somewhat uphill leg, and as I completed the first few hundred metres (of twenty nine thousand) with my clothes already sodden, my cap positively stuck to my head, my panting akin to an overweight Elmo on a treadmill for the very first time, and my water bottle at near depletion, I doubted my chances of a successful completion of the self-set task (doubting also whether I would indeed make it to the next village alive). But then I saw Manarola from above and realised: I was totally going to smash this. The views were breathtaking (literally – the pants were audible), and, once I had decided I was definitely going to complete the feat, my newest worry was making sure I stopped to take in the scenery instead of moving and musing simultaneously (which is never a good combination for me). (Visions of newspaper headlines echoing ‘Girl Prone to Accidental Damage Not Paying Attention to Feet Trips and Falls to Dramatic Death Between Village Three and Four of the Italian Cinque Terre’ did enter my thoughts on more than one occasion.)

Arriving at the third village – Corniglia – in one (rather sweaty) piece (imagine a cone of melting strawberry gelato and you’ve near enough got it) I headed boldly down about 673 steps, along a path about one hundred miles long in search of the secluded swimming spot (which would most definitely make a ruddy good photo). Was it at the end of this twenty-five-minute sortie? Of course not. I don’t believe anything ever touched by mankind was at the end of that trail. So back I went, and up (UP 😭) I went, to find the lovely little town, and secluded little swimming spot, just a three-minute sortie from the starting point. (It wasn’t a mistake. It was a learning experience.) Consoling myself with the now warm apple I had stolen from the breakfast buffet, I had a wander, got my snaps and got back on the road, headed to the fourth wonder of this magical coastline.

Vernazza (quattro dei cinque) was going to be my lunch stop so, naturally, I picked up pace and had a renewed determination with the thought of eating food in the back (front) of my mind (one of my three favourite hobbies along with cooking and restaurant research). 🐷. Another beautiful hike was had and I made my way into the main thoroughfare in search of a suitable place to eat (you know me). I settled on a lovely little café / restaurant cum wine bar. Caprese salad and small beer plus complimentary crisps and bread consumed (nothing better than a complimentary nibble (or two)) I was rejuvenated, replete and a touch on the tipsy side – the perfect state in which to commence the day’s final hike. 

I navigated the last stretch in record time (undoubtedly the easiest climb – thank the lord) and made it to Monterosso al Mare – CINQUE DEI CINQUE – just shy of 7 pm. I did it!!! And I was bloody well going to have my swim. I bought a towel / blanket situation from one of the tourist shops, found a shady corner, and did a highly embarrassing Mr Bean-esque change from my sportswear into my swimwear. (I think one or two passers by may have caught a glimpse of a buttock (or two), but hopefully they were in good shape from all the uphill action.) Bikini on, bystanders bemused and BO at its best (disgusting but true) I immersed myself in the Ligurian Sea (never heard of it either) and floated away into a hazy dreamlike state of elation and exhaustion. There was only one thing for it: pistachio gelato. I got my cup (with half a scoop of peach (much regretted)) and walked to the station to catch the evening train back to La Spezia.

One of the most strenuous, sweatiest and sublime days of my 6 months so far. High five to that.

*They don’t. It was very tricky to even think of three examples. Any better suggestions very welcome.

Mezzogiorno

Mezzogiorno, for those of you who don’t know (I didn’t – I’m not judging), is the Italian term for Southern Italy (which I was drawn to for its resemblance to melanzane (and we all know how much I like aubergine)). The first part of my Italian itinerary was exploring this area; heading south through Puglia and then up and across to Campania to visit the marmite city of Naples. I’m thrilled to confirm I bloody loved it.

First stop was Puglia’s capital, Bari, selected unashamedly not for any of its merits but for its airport into which I flew from Romania. As I got into the city it was hot, there were palm trees and it was full of Italian accents – I was a happy girl. After a run, a Greek salad for lunch (oh the irony) and a costume change I headed into the Old Town which, as Bari (and probably the whole of Mezzogiorno) has a 1 – 5 pm siesta, was pretty dead. I wandered along the sea-facing wall of the Old Town, excited to finally be at the actual sea (as opposed to a lake (man-made: Berlin; natural: Bled); a dirty river (Serbia); or the mother of all ice baths (Vintnar Gorge)). As I made my way to Bari’s small, and somewhat underwhelming, beach I spied police tapes blocking off the sea from the sand. Hmm. At least I could still smell the sea air. (It transpires that after heavy rainfall the sea at Bari gets very dirty due to a bad sewerage system – delightful.) I set up shop none the less and began my first – real beach!!! – sunbathing session of my trip. I hadn’t been lounging for long before it became blazingly apparent just how forward Italian men are… I was lying on my front, minding my own business, working on the back tan. But of course one wants to keep their achingly slow-to-develop sun-kissed glow even on both sides. So over I turn, to be greeted by the outstretched arm and ready-to-shake hand of a comically typical, and a little cringeworthy, Italian male. Swimming shorts? Short. Body hair? Clearly a keen shaver (legs included). Confidence? Overflowing. This prickly, tanned, almost nude creature was Marco, a Bari born and bred Italian who had a penchant for Russian girls (I think it was the blonde hair) and a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) socially accepted norms surrounding the personal space of strangers in public. That said, he was a great font of information on Bari and the surrounding area (every cloud). With my milky white skin now 0.5% less creamy, my stomach rumbling and my local knowledge topped up sufficiently, I headed back to my hostel to cook dinner (brown rice with prawns (that turned out to be crayfish (I think)), veggies and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts: yum).

As recommended by Marco, the hostel staff, and indeed any other individual who has ever been in the vicinity, I went on a jolly day trip to nearby town Polignano a Mare. The Old Town reminded me of a small version of Mykonos (just cream rather than white). It consisted of a rabbit warren of narrow winding streets in which to get wonderfully lost, and snack on delicious pistachio gelato. (I don’t believe there is a location unsuitable in which to snack on pistachio gelato, but this sure was an idyllic one.) The town’s biggest draw was its teeny tiny rocky cove which was packed – almost entirely – with brightly coloured towels laid out on the rocks, umbrellas poking out at jaunty angles and a spectrum of cream to caramel to chocolate to red velvet skinned bathers placed like candy crush pieces on every bit of available land. I found a free spot (all ten centimetres squared of it), dumped my stuff, de-clothed (bikini already in place (it wasn’t that kind of beach)) and headed straight to the glisteningly clear turquoise water. I say ‘headed straight to’… more accurately I ambled unsteadily in my flip flops across the rocks – and sunbathers – trying vehemently not to fall over, injure myself, or grab hold of anyone’s body parts in the unfortunate event of either of the former two coming to frightful fruition. Thankfully I made it to the water with no cuts, no bruises and no groping allegations (albeit a handful of near misses). The rocks continued once in the water – not most appreciated by my flip flop-less feet (OUCH), but once I was far enough out that I couldn’t touch the bottom I was in paradise.

Next pin on the map was Lecce, a university town not so different to Bari. It was here that the heat went from holi-yay to holy fucking shit (so the delicious gelato (dark chocolate with orange – my new second favourite flavour) was very much a necessity rather than an indulgence (ahem)). During my time in Lecce I met the cutest of poodles – two-year-old Mickey (as featured on Facebook) – in a traditional papier-mâché trinkets shop. I was much more interested in stroking the dog than eyeing up the handmade goods, and I think the owner (doddery old Italian man with very little, if any, English) rather took a shine to me, that is before I almost destroyed his entire window display (and my dignity). As I positioned myself to capture Mickey at his best angle (envisage legs squat, arse out, mouth open with utmost concentration on my subject) I backed into what I feared at first to be multiple shelves of the craftsman’s precious, delicate goods. In this split second I had visions of glass shattering, shelves caving, hundreds of euros demanded on the spot for damages. Thankfully I had just backed into the shop door! But even so, with my pugshot captured I swiftly left the shop with a red face and sweaty palms (both of which had nothing to do with the weather), at which point I indulged – I mean recouperated – with the decadently rich gelato with its luscious citrus hint.

My final stop in the lower half of Italia was the opinion-splitting, pizza-inventing, traffic law-disobeying, Unesco World Heritage Site of Napoli. And – oh my – what a city. The traffic is crazy busy with cars, taxis and vespers galore taking no prisoners when it comes to getting to their destination in the quickest time possible. You have to walk out boldly into the constant stream of traffic if you want to get across the road at an point (anyone timid would struggle to move more than five metres), but, surprisingly, I never felt like I would be hit; the drivers are clearly insane, but very much on the ball. And given it’s probably the street theft capital of the country, I luckily did not once feel unsafe or at risk of being mugged / kidnapped / raped – which is always a plus. 

And as for the pizza… The mother of all pizza. The pizza before pizza became a thing. The magnificent, heroic, simplicity-at-its-best, humble, handmade, wholly-loved – and loved to be eaten whole – Pizza Margherita. Well. Prepare to feast your hungry ears. Napoli, home to this game-changing delicacy, has, unsurprisingly, no shortage of pizzerias claiming to serve the best Pizza Margherita of all time. So I had some investigating to do. If I were to follow the advice of a fellow traveller in my dorm room, my station-to-hostel taxi driver, and Julia Roberts* herself, I would head to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, (apparently) much hyped as ‘the best pizza in the world’ and featured in the American rom-com Eat Pray Love (I’ve never seen the film but still a claim to fame, right?). And so that’s exactly what I did. Luckily enough I met a fellow solo traveller on that morning’s walking tour, so I was able to enjoy the gigantic carb cookie with company (and also learn a great deal about the American fraternity / sorority system – equally fascinating and bizarre). Arriving at the pizzeria to a crowd of hungry tourists and locals waiting for their turn to be seated, we collected our ticket, bought a couple of beers, sat on the sidewalk (😉) and waited for our number to be called. After not too long a wait we got called, we were seated, and the mouth started a watering. The menu had the following options: Pizza Margherita (normale / media / doppia mozzarella) / Pizza Marinara (normale / media / maxi). Obviously we were both going to get Margherita (need that even be a question?): normale pour moi and doppia mozzarella for him. They came. They were beautiful. They were photographed. They were demolished. Perfectly textured dough (not thin and crispy but not thick either), perfectly oozy toppings, and a perfect Italian palette (basil-mozzarella-tomato). Perfection itself. (From now on and forever more I am going to be the snob of all pizza snobs: I apologise in advance.)

To continue the food talk (why change the habit of a lifetime?), along with the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (not an exaggeration) I also enjoyed – on the same ruddy day – the best gelato I have ever tasted too. (Apologies again if I return to the UK unable to fit through any doorways due to rapid Italian weight gain.) Made from buffalo milk, it was the creamiest ice cream, like, ever, and the pistachio really didn’t disappoint. (Mennella for anyone in the region.)

With my extra baggage well and truly secure (an additional wobbly layer just under my skin), I left the chaotically cool Napoli for the country’s romantic capital, Roma. At least the abundance of arduous sightseeing ahead might go some way to reverse the Napolean naughtiness (I can always live in hope).

*For this whole time I thought it was Sarah Jessica Parker that starred in Eat Pray Love, who’s photo was hung proudly in L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, and who’s wise tastebuds I was paying homage to. Lol.

Rome to Rio

Well, not exactly… Budapest (take two (this time Buda fckn BEST)) to Sibiu (Romania) …but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Not only experiencing two very different countries and cultures, I went from polar opposites in terms of hostel. In Budapest it was my first stay at the hostel chain Wombat’s – think multiple floors of bunk bed filled dorms, key card locker access, ‘computer says no’ type staff. And in Sibiu it was the home of a Romanian man – Padre – in which I stayed along with a handful of other (just as bemused) fellow travellers (as well as Padre himself).

I arrived at Hostel La Padre to be greeted at the door by the main man, a dozen fresh apricots scattered across the floor (being clumsily collected by said hostelier), and a German father (retired) and daughter (at high school) duo who peered down at me from their bed (yes this startled me a little too) which sat on a mezzanine above the main entrance room, which turned out to be my bedroom. I had a whole bloody double bed to myself, so I overlooked the fact that my mattress was practically the reception desk. The grand tour with Padre began with the locking-of-the-front-door lesson, practical exam included (I passed first time with no minors), before he led me into his cave, asked for my money and took a photocopy of my passport (exactly as in all hostels, just much more suspect in this bizarre situation). After enquiring whether I smoked (I don’t) he assured me that smoking would be confined to his patio, which lasted all of fifteen minutes before he, and any smoking lodgers, proceeded to chain smoke throughout the property, with a full ashtray to keep the kitchen infused when there was any inhalation downtime. Lovely.

But it wasn’t all bad. Sibiu was a beautiful little city full of pastel coloured buildings and jaunty cobbled streets, and my first evening’s dinner of salmon fillet, roasted vegetable gratin and a lovely (much needed) glass of Sauvy-B set a better tone. And Padre wasn’t all that bad either. Despite his favourite (of limited vocabulary) English phrase being “fuck you, stupid”, he was actually a rather charming old man who had a heart of gold (even if he did have dirty mouth and lungs in desperate need of Kim & Aggie). On learning that I didn’t eat meat (not a recognised diet in Romanian culture) he offered to take me food shopping at the vegetable market and help me cook a veggie barbecue on his makeshift outdoor wood burning oven. (Think old school dirty dishes trolley with wooden rulers used as firelighters and an old hairdryer plugged into a long extension cable to provide air. Seriously.) So off to the food market we went, in his van, where we bought about a million aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc, etc. After completing some other shopping chores (DIY stuff for him, sun cream for me) we headed back to the ranch where he had to check some new guests in (Slovakian and highly annoying) and then begin firing up the barbie. I contemplated we would eat around 8.30 / 9.00 pm… oh how wrong I was. In amongst cleaning charred aubergine, frying onions and slicing courgettes – to cut an excruciating long story short – the police were called by an angry neighbour around 10.30 pm, and at this point we were yet to eat for what turned out to be AN HOUR AND A HALF. And the stuffed mushrooms? They didn’t make an appearance until 1 am !!! The only reason I held out was because that was the only dish that involved something other that a vegetable – a small slice of mozzarella placed inside. Clearly Padre’s understanding of vegetarianism was a little too literal. So I was tired and hangry (possibly the worst combination?) but I couldn’t blame poor Padre with his smoke infused charred aubergine salad, which he went on to top with individual heart shaped slices of tomatoes for all the single ladies. Bless.

I would like to say I was sad to leave Padre’s pad(re), but I wasn’t. I was tired of feeling sick from all the cigarette smoke and unsure whether each time he spoke to me (or anyone for that matter) in English he was being highly offensive or highly inappropriate (either way no one was winning). So I booked myself onto the earliest train after my third and final night à la Padre, and set off to Romanian stop numero duo: Cluj Napoca.

Rather than boring you, I will just say that Cluj didn’t involve much to write home about. I didn’t feel great while I was there (I don’t think the lethally strong Tokyo Ice Tea helped the headache situation) so I spent a lot of time napping and eating Nutella. (Sometimes you just need Nutella.) Luckily for me the hostel staff (all male) were mostly on the 7+ end of the good looking scale, which helped my decision to stay indoors and get myself better. And my Jewish / American / Berlin-based accelerator tycoon who was highly annoying, highly talkative, highly self-righteous and highly cringe worthy did cheer me up by going for a run in a bee costume (it was serious active wear for him (tight bright yellow top, even tighter black shorts) but I for sure was entertained), and buying me said jar of hazelnut chocolatey goodness.

I had an early start on my last morning in Transylvania with a taxi for the airport booked for 5.45 am (yikes). After frantically booking extra baggage weight the night before the flight, for fear I would go over the 23 kg limit, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my backpack weighs just – just! – 18.5 kg (which I’m not sure if is average / above / below, but at least if I start performing luggage-laden lunges I’ll know exactly what weight I’m lifting). I made it to the airport, had a good (albeit delayed) flight, and am now en Italia, beginning my five-week exploration travelling South to North, looking forward to some of my best British babes coming to join me as I work my way up the country. But for now, folks, ciao!

S-love-nia Stole My Heart

As I type it is 9 pm on a mild Sunday evening. I am sitting in the beautiful central courtyard of Ljubljana Castle, cocooned in the softest pink blanket, having just nurtured my soul with a scoop of mint chocolate gelato (may not be pistachio, but I am sticking with the green theme), waiting to watch this evening’s Film Under The Stars (Paterson (I hadn’t heard of it either (but it is in English) (post-film note: not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed it))). Mellow classical piano plays through the speakers as the audience slowly choose their seats, and all of this set me back less than €5. The sky is a watercolour wash of the palest, calmest blue; a deeper, richer hue waiting in the wings to bleed across the picture-perfect backdrop before darkness settles and the stars come out to play. The evening feels simply magical, which serves as a charmingly apt illustration of the past week I’ve spent in this Balkan paradise.

Bled (home to the famous Lake Bled (and the infamous Bled Cream Cake)) was my first stop, my thinking being that I would need somewhere calm, relaxing and beautiful to recover from Exit Festival. And oh Lordy was it calm, relaxing and (Lake) bleddy beautiful. The town of Bled is lovely in itself – lots of little tavernas and cafés; a fine medieval castle; cream cake on tap – but it was the central lake and surrounding nature that were the real highlights. If you are familiar with Lake Bled you will no doubt be familiar with the perfect postcard image of the tranquil turquoise waters surrounding its own (Slovenia’s only 😉) island, all framed effortlessly by dark green woodland, brighter green grass, hazy Alpine mountains and a never ending turquoise sky. Well. This image is reality. This place really is that beautiful. And after hiking to Slovenia’s most visited photo opportunity (made up fact but I wouldn’t discount the idea) Ojstrica (the third of three viewpoints we clamboured to after making a number of wrong turns) I was able to have my time in the limelight, and take an exact replica (or twenty) of the photograph found on every man, woman and dog’s smart phone who have visited this area. And of course we all then felt like National Geographic photographers who had just discovered the world’s most hidden natural beauty, and were documenting the until now unseen landscape for the world’s eyes to revere forever more. Well, maybe not, but we did all have a banging new iPhone screen saver.

During my first full day I visited Vintgar Gorge with new best mates Adele (unfortunately not the Adele, but a lovely Australian substitute) and Mark (‘red neck’ Canadian who liked to talk (a lot)), who I had met while misdirecting myself (and subsequently them) to Ojstrica. With me in charge of the directions once more (what were we thinking?) we made it to the gorge via a hop, skip, jump (and a kind-hearted Slovenian taxi driver who took pity on us). We walked the walk, oo’d and ah’d, and took dozens of photographs before reaching the pièce de résistance: the mighty 13 m high Šum waterfall. After a bite to eat perching uncomfortably (but not letting on – obviously) on the jagged rocks, watching Mark (at least three times) and Adele tackle the jump into the emerald green pool of ice cold temptation, it was my turn and I took my position on the side of the cliff (and then fannied around getting scared to take the plunge). With the prospect of a great action shot photograph to upload to Facebook, I made the leap – plugged my nose and shut my eyes tight (I might have been jumping off a cliff but I was going to do it sensibly) – and plunged into the ARCTIC waters. I surfaced with my contact lenses intact, my bikini secure, and my street cred at an all time high. (That was before the shrieking as I couldn’t get out of the ice bath quick enough (but luckily for me the photo didn’t capture that part).)

As beautiful as Lake Bled is it does have some competition, which comes in the form of Lake Bohinj – its larger, less well known sibling which lies just 26 km to the southwest. I decided to investigate the Bled vs. Bohinj debate myself. The weather during my visit to Bohinj wasn’t great, but I did still manage to get a swim and sunbathe (and cappuccino) while I was there, so not a total damp squib. The situation felt more remote in comparison to Bled, which was great for a ‘back to basics’ morning of walking (and even better when I desperately needed a wee lakeside, with no public toilet in sight). The water was just as clear, but appeared slightly darker and lacked the jewel-like vibrancy of Bled (which knocked off a couple of points in the Lake-off, but was a welcome attribute when Mother Nature was calling…). The water was also colder than in Bled (increasing the latter’s lead), but the scenery surrounding Lake Bohinj was more extensive and less developed (closing the gap considerably). When I had dried off from my swim the heavens, quite abruptly, opened their doors for all eternity (or at least it felt that way). But with a quick forage into my bag I whipped out my trusty Pac-A-Mac (always prepared) which saved the day, my hair and the public from spying my bra through my ever-transparencing top, and got me to safety (the pub) semi dry. Once the coffee was down and the storm had cleared I made my way back to the bus stop, still just as unclear on the winner of the Bled vs. Bohinj Lake Championships 2017 as I had been when I set off.

Following my leisurely few days immersed (literally) in nature, I travelled to the country’s capital, Ljubljana (or, my preferred prounounciation, jubble-jarner). I hummed and harred about stopping off here at all, and Boy George am I glad I did. I would actually contemplate emigrating here. I thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone who likes a small but perfectly formed European city (and of course I’ll offer you a cup of Yorkshire Tea if I have upped sticks by the time you visit). Its size enables it to feel both explorable and interesting while remaining non-intimidating. There are shops, bars, a castle and a park. Beautiful Braoque architecture lies around every corner (I sure was paying attention to that free walking tour), and the intricate facades and statues remained enjoyable to discover (unlike my ‘not another old building’ attitude provoked by a number of other, indeed much more prominent, capital cities).

As well as wandering the city, eyes wide and neck arched back (quite lucky I didn’t have any further mishaps to be honest), I spent one morning away from the centre, at the ‘world famous’ (not convinced) Postojna Cave. It was quite a pricy trip (entrance plus transport almost double my daily budget), but so so worth it. After arriving too late for my booked timeslot (filling the subsequent hour wait with an apricot croissant and cappuccino certainly softened the blow (and my ever decreasing muscle mass)) I made it to my re-assigned slot with bags of time, and was entertained as I waited by an OAP Slovenian dancing squad complete with traditional dress (I don’t know how they coped in the sweltering heat), traditional musical instruments and traditional (I’m guessing) random whoops and whistles by the long navy sock wearing men. It was quite a spectacle. As we made our way through the ticket scanner we were each photographed (with no warning or explanation) like paparazzi-choked celebs going through customs, only to have these mugshots very crudely photoshopped onto a cave background, waiting for us like bored babysitters in the school playground when we finished our underground adventure. I made the foolish decision of looking for my photo – I’ve never looked so pissed off to be in a cave in all my life. But as for the cave itself… BUDA FCKN TASTIC! We were transported into the depths by a very speedy, very rickety old train (I’m quite amazed that none of the normal to tall visitors were deposited beheaded from the low stalagtatic ceilings) before making our way through a series of enchanting underground rooms and walkways on foot. It was flipping fantastic. Freezing, but fantastic. I couldn’t decide if I felt more like I had been transported back to my magical sixth birthday at Disneyland Paris, or had landed a leading role in the Harry Potter franchise. Either way I felt like a child again, wandering the caves eyes wide and neck arched back (and delighted to report – quite miraculously – no embarrassing trips, falls or stalagmite altercations).

Back in jubbly-jonga, there was time for a run in the sun-drenched Tivoli Park (the first since Bratislava – three (!) weeks ago – I’m ashamed to admit) before heading to the castle for the Film Under The Stars – the perfect end to my week-long date with Slovenia.

Summer of Love

July 5th 2017 was a big day. Not only was it my sister’s birthday (HBD Lou Lou) and one of my bezzie’s birthday Boxing Day (HBD Karen) (I didn’t forget either), it was my second time ever at a festival, my second time ever camping (I kid you not), and my second chance to FINALLY see The Killers play live, after eleven long years of waiting*.

A long bus ride from Budapest (on which I will say no (FCKN) more) brought me to Novi Sad where I met my LA babe Sophie (romance first blossomed in Kraków) for the renowned Serbian Exit Festival – this year themed the Summer of Love (absolutely no attempt to incorporate this ‘theme’ into the festival whatsoever) – held in the magical (and supremely dusty) Petrodian Fortress. We made our way in the sweltering heat (with our backpacks, without any injuries) to the campsite, which, in comparison to the torture that was the queue to get into Reading Festival 2009, was a bloody breeze. (I’ll skip over the minor hiccups of Sophie’s ticket not arriving in time, her back-up ticket not including The Killers’ set and her driving license not being deemed an acceptable form of ID required to allow her entry. Minor hiccups.) We approached the tent rental desk with trepidation; neither of us had the foggiest on how to put up a tent, let alone in the mid-thirty degree heat. So when we were taken personally to our pre-rigged tent, sleeping mats and bags (and we didn’t even order (or pay for) bags!) within, all ready and waiting for us in a freaking great spot on the grass and in the shade… we knew this was going to be a good week.

The first night of the festival – Day 0 – was headlined by The Killers (I reckon the band were unable to play any of the dates of the actual festival, so the organisers just bunged another day on at the start to accommodate them). We were both super excited and set off to the fortress with plenty of time to get aqauinted with the layout, have a bite to eat and secure a great spot for the set. (Which was bloody lucky as we arrived at the fortress after a ONE HOUR walk from the campsite.) On entering the complex we soon realised that the police security meant business. If you thought airport frisking was thorough then let me introduce you to a whole new level of public body search. (Let’s just say if you’d had anything non-surgically inserted to enhance what yo mamma gave yo, you would have been flat chested in the space of ten seconds.) Gateway groping complete, we were free to explore the venue (and rearrange our lovely lady lumps). Dinner down, beer in hand, it was time for The Killers. We got an almost incredible spot just one row back from the security fence behind the superfan pit (we are fans but let’s not get carried away), behind two of THE MOST ANNOYING GIRLS WE HAD EVER ENCOUNTERED. (Well, initially we were third row, but after a sneaky have-the-rest-of-my-warm-beer-if-we-can-swap-spots deal with some tall Serbian teenagers, we achieved second row status.) The first (of the annoying girls, not Serbian boys) liked to jump (I have no problem with jumping) while holding onto the railing for support (still a-ok), with each takeoff catapulting her arse back into the crowd behind her (giving me the right hump). The second just got very emotional, and proceeded to sob through the majority of the set (and tried to use this hysteria to get some more (probably just as annoying) friends to join the front row (which we were having none of)). But despite the non-stop arse and tears, the concert was bloody brilliant, culminating perfectly in their most famous smash hit. My fourteen-year-old self was finally able to open up her eeeager eyesss to Mr Brightside.

Daytime at the festival was very chilled, and a step up on the hygiene front from my (very limited) prior experience – thank the lord. The toilets were individual portaloos as opposed to the large open trough cesspit (akin to that iconic Slumdog Millionaire scene) of Reading ’09; showers were easily accessible (as opposed to my rather sticky bank holiday weekend in Berkshire); and I avoided the pleasure of being offered someone’s rhythm stick surreptitiously disguised in an empty popcorn box held cunningly at hip height (that did happen and I did nearly reach in for some popcorn…). The music didn’t start until the evening, so our days were spent fluctuating between chilling in the shade at the campsite and chilling in the sun at the beach, all the while sipping on delicious smoothies and grazing on pasta. (Someone’s gotta do it.) And there was no need to worry about getting sick of eachother (obviously this would never have been a problem for Soph) because we met a great bunch of equally crazy festival goers. The first and in many ways most memorable was an Arg from towie lookalike, with the accent, tight shorts and hair styling rucksack (and love of eating) to make you double take, wondering if you were indeed in the vicinity of Brentwood royalty. Unfortunately not. But this guy was bloody hilarious anyway. He had a serious(ly unrequited) crush on Sophie (bless him) and farcical stories involving illegal substances, kinder eggs and a certain orifice (one story not three), the visualisation of which will stay with me as a lingering lasting memory of my time at Exit. (Sorry if FTMI (far too much info for your delicate eyes) – my ears had no choice in hearing it either.)

Now back to the music. The line up of über cool DJs which I had never heard of was interspersed with some not-all-that-fitting British (Jake Bugg, Years & Years, Rag & Bone Man) and American (Jason Derulo (shockingly bad performance bulldozed our exceedingly high expectations (we didn’t even stay for Ridin’ Solo))) artists, with Hardwell’s closing party being the friggin’ best thing ever, which really came as a shock to me! I started the week hating the guy. His face was just so annoying. Good looking (don’t get me wrong) but annoying. And then he played the best set ever – along with fireworks IN TIME WITH THE MUSIC – and I realised he was simply very, very good looking. It was a pleasure to watch.

After pretty much every single night of me being the first one to bail on the music and escape to my tent (we all know I’m a boring bitch who needs a lot of sleep), our aim for the last night was to party until sunset, for which I am very happy (and a little surprised) to confirm: we totally did. After falling in love with Hardwell, we got our groove on at the reggae tent ’til it was light, and posed in front of a pink elephant and blue santa (why the hell not?) to capture the beautiful moment. After a couple of hours of recovery tent time, Exit Festival was over and out.

*Rewind to fourteen-year-old Rachel, year 9 at high school, having just been invited by now-Berlin-based Kirsten (scroll down to relive the breakfasts) to join her at The Killers gig in Birmingham. Wahoo! Get home. Tell mum. [Insert older sister getting in mum’s ear.] Suddenly I’m not allowed to go to the ‘heavy metal’ ‘mosh pit’ concert aimed at grown men with face tattoos and metal spikes on their shoes and shoulders (ok maybe I’ve embellished a little). I was told over a barbecue in the garden – such a nice setting for such horrible news. So after over a decade of passive aggressive renditions of Hot Fuss classics in the shower, on July 5th 2017 I was finally able to give (to Serbia) my – slightly withered by now – Brandon Flower. The climactic Mr Brightside hit all the right spots.


BUDA FCKN PEST

I am going to have to commence this post non-chronologically because yesterday I had such a chronically frustrating day that it deserves first spot, and thence forth I can move onto happier times. 

So I wake up on Tuesday morning, my last day in Budapest, with ambitious plans. I had been there for two and a half days at that point but hadn’t yet got a proper feel for the city, so wanted to explore more, see more, and get a better sense of the place. I made a to do list (obviously). I wanted to see the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, explore Heroes Square, visit the basilica, buy a slogan cap from the BUDAFCKNPEST shop (my trusty dusty pink cap is now just very dusty), and have an evening cocktail on a rooftop bar. But first I just needed to reserve a seat on my train to Serbia for the following day. (With Interrail some trains require a compulsory seat reservation; the train I was getting being one of them.) The station I needed to catch the train from was a little out of the centre so I set off from the hostel, hoping the whole thing would be a one hour round trip. A metro, a walk, a bus, getting off the bus too early (thus another walk, slightly frustrating) and one hour later I arrived at Pesterzsébet station. If you have had the pleasure of visiting this station in Budapest (which I’m BUDA FCKN SURE you wouldn’t have) you will know that it barely deserves the title of station. It is a section of railway with a little tin kiosk on the side. And that’s it. (Thank God I didn’t need a wee.) I though to myself – this cannot be right! Another look on my Rail Planner app, one singular click on the route from Pesterzsébet to Novi Sad, and I discover the stations prior to Pesterzsébet. This is when the frustration rapidly escalates from mild to hot hot hot. Two stops before PesterzFCKNsébet it goes through Budapest Keleti. “And what?” I hear you say. Well. Buda bloody pest Keleti is three direct metro stops away from my hostel, with the total door-to-door travel time approximating fifteen minutes. FIFTEEN FUCKING MINUTES!!!  I am definitely going to catch the train from this closer station tomorrow (I might be exhibiting severe imbecilic tendencies but I do have some common sense). So I try to reverse the journey I had just made to the tin can station, and find that no buses seem to be going anywhere I had heard of, and the drivers of each, although eager to help, seem to have no idea of the destination I am trying to get to. (Long-term emigration to Pesterzsébet did cross my mind at this point. Maybe I could use my design skills to pimp up the train station a little.) Attempting to board what felt like the 20,000th bus (probably about right if you take into account the exchange rate), I pointed my phone at the driver once more, giving him genuine puppy dog eyes, pleading he would say he was going in the desired direction, he nodded, said something about the metro and pointed for me to continue to a seat. My Hungarian prince! I had no idea where I was going but at least I was leaving Pesterzsébet. About half an hour on this bus took me to a metro station, from which I could continue my journey to Keleti. I was back on track. Phew. However it was now 3 pm and I was hangry, so naturally prioritised getting lunch over getting the job done. I decided to re-visit a houmous-focussed Hungarian chain which I had frequented earlier in the week. This window of houmous heaven was the ONLY enjoyable part of the day. (But it was pretty enjoyable.) Houmous + aubergine + boiled egg + cucumber and tomato salad + pitta = (momentarily) happy girl. Chickpea’d up, I returned to the task in hand. I decided to walk to the train station as I’d already spent a lot of (unfcknnecessary) time on public transport and wanted to walk off lunch. A thirty-or-so minute walk brought me to Keleti. The station was big, making it even more ironic that I travelled all the way to the tiny cardboard box of Pesterzsébet. I found the Information and Tickets office, took a ticket and waited to be called. Nearly there now (I thought to myself (foolishly)). I got called up to the desk and asked to reserve a seat on the train to Novi Sad tomorrow morning. Simple? No! This was the domestic ticket office (signposted nowhere); I needed to go to the international ticket office. So I went to the international ticket office, took a ticket and waited to be called. Same question again. She asked to see my ticket for the train. I explained that I didn’t have a ticket; I was using an Interrail Pass. She needed to see my Interrail Pass. I explained that I didn’t have it with me, but they always check when you’re on the train so please could I reserve the seat? No. She must see the Interrail Pass. I offered the email confirmation of the Pass. No. I pleaded. I begged. Still no. After some heated words I buda fckn left, frustration levels now so high they came with a health warning. I made my way back to my hostel to collect my Interrail Pass and passport (and have a swift FaceTime with Mother Hubbard who made all the right noises and offered the much needed “what a buda fckn pest” towards the horrible ticket lady). I travelled back to the station at 5.45 pm, tickets in toe, not sure what time the ticket office was open until, but by this point I had lost the will to live so figured I may as well make my way to the station once more even if it was friggin’ closed. I arrived to find that luckily it was still open. I took a ticket and (you know the drill by now). I got a different lady this time. Third time lucky. Her response: reservation not required on this train. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! “But it says reservation is compulsory on this train?” She repeats said response. I HAVE NO FCKN WORDS. I leave the station, AGAIN, make my way back to the hostel (it is now 6.30 pm), lie on the sofa (a lovely corner sofa), curl up into a ball and fall asleep. Well that was a successful day exploring Budafcknpest.

Frustration over and out.

My first day in the Hungarian capital was super chilled. I arrived at the hostel at lunchtime to a very warm welcome, a parcel from my mum (the forgotten Interrail Passes…), and – as I’d stocked up on groceries en route – poached eggs and smashed avocado on toast for lunch. I spent the afternoon chilling (on the lovely common room corner sofa), chatting (on the lovely common room corner sofa), and composing my previous blog post about The Ginger Monkey (on the lovely common room corner sofa). (I do love a corner sofa.) The hostel organised a free family dinner each night (kerching) followed by drinks and a night out in the city. We went to Fogash, one of the large ruin bars that Budapest is known for. These ruin bars are basically old empty buildings (ex army accommodation and the like) turned into bars rather than being demolished. It was full of random, quirky objects and decorations, a maze of rooms with different vibes and music, and a large central courtyard teeming with locals, tourists, and far too many stag parties. We explored the rabbit warren of rooms and dancefloors, lost friends, found friends, cut some shapes and got a little sweaty. (Some things never change!)

The following morning (after an enviable eggs and avocado brekkie) I partook in one of the city’s free walking tours (something I was initially very sceptical about, but I’ve now become rather accustomed, and even – gasp – enjoy). Unfortunately on this tour I was under the guidance of wannabe comedian Lara, a short (even shorter than me) and loud Hungarian lady who insisted on repeating all of the (bad) jokes we had heard two moments ago at the initial briefing, including her imitation of Lara Croft every time she introduced herself. It was going to be an interesting couple of hours. Much more worthwhile that the tour itself, on it I met New Orleans based bar tender Nichole; a tattooed miniature bundle of joy who, in her mid thirties, had the energy and appearance of someone ten years younger. We tried out the aforementioned houmous bar (Hummusbar) for lunch and spent the rest of the day walking, walking and… walking. (Total distance covered was 0.2 km less than my most-walked day so far (which had involved a 25 km mountain hike).) Climbing up the hefty Gellért Hill we said hello to the Lady of Liberty before making our way to the beautiful Castle District, stopping for constant breaks to watch the Red Bull Air Race World Championship going on above (and sometimes below!) us.

It was soon the evening and time for a picnic watching the sunset with a group from the hostel. Stocking up on houmous (never too much houmous), bread, cheese, etc., we headed out to find a good spot to enjoy the scenery. And where better to take in the city and the Danube descend into darkness than from the ruddy great Gellért Hill. (My thighs got it good that day.) The view itself is pretty incredible, and watching it transform before your eyes from blue to orange to pink to black (while eating tons of houmous, bread and cheese) was preeetty spectacular.

For some unknown reason (maybe the walking had made us loose our minds) Nichole and I decided to meet at 7am the following morning to visit the famous Gellért Baths (this had been pushed back from 6.30 am in a moment of sanity). When my alarm went off at six thirty I wondered what I had ever done to deserve this brutal treatment, highly considering sacking the whole thing off for a couple more hours in bed. But then I receive a message from Nichole: “Morning!” Fuck. I can’t cancel now. I dragged myself out of bed, got my shit together and headed to the spa. And boy were we glad we went early. There was just a handful of other bathers – all over seventy, none annoying or loud – enabling us to explore the huge complex in peace, with no waiting, no screaming children, and no one from our generation to make us feel inadequate about our bikini bodies. We simply bathed. There were varying temperatures of pool, sauna, steam room; an ice cold pool; an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, an adventure pool… All with a backdrop of beautiful architecture and bright blue skies. By 9.30 am we had exhausted the indoor facilities and set up camp by the outdoor pool, a day of glorious sunbathing ahead. And that’s pretty much what I did. All day. For nine hours. It was great.

As I was walking out of the Baths I saw that they had a beauty salon. Aha! I needed to get a wax, I had the time, so I enquired. (You may be wondering why on earth am I writing – on the internet, for all to see – about getting a bikini wax. Well, dear readers, you are in for a treat.) She had availability for me there and then. I quickly popped to the toilet and on returning to her treatment room found another woman (client not beauty therapist) leaving her bags and then walking out. Hmm. A little strange. The beauty therapist explained that this other woman, let’s call her Claudia (she looked like a Claudia), had booked a facial but that she (beauty therapist (let’s go for Henrietta (she looked like a Henrietta)) wasn’t expecting Claudia to turn up as she had been a no-show yesterday. “Oh, ok, I see.” (Me speaking.) “Shall I wait until you’ve done her facial?” Henrietta assured me that it wasn’t going to be a problem; she was very quick. Hmm. Ok… So I get ready for the wax (i.e. trousers off, on the bed, area to be waxed…visible). Then in walks Claudia! “Just take your top and bra off and lie on bed” (Henrietta to Claudia) (there is a second bed) (less than one metre to the left of me). No explanation to Claudia regarding the stranger – ME !!! – lying, rather unglamorously, to her right. And then Henrietta just gets on with the wax. With Claudia lying right there! She does a bit, then moves over to cleanse Claudia’s face, then comes back to the business end to finish the job! All WITH CLAUDIA THERE! A very interesting twenty minutes to say the least. When it’s over I put my trousers back on and Henrietta is already doing Claudia’s facial, asking her how her day’s been, with me right behind putting my bloody trousers back on!!! She takes a break from the facial to take my money (I was tempted to ask for a discount seeing as it was basically – with the level of intimacies it involved – a couples treatment). I decided, though, that I’d had enough embarrassment for one day, gave her the money and left Claudia to have her facial. And you know the first thing I thought? Well that’s a ruddy great story for my blog!

The evening to follow was the usual free dinner, drinks and ruin bar (interspersed with regailing my embarrassing afternoon to much amusement). And that was the evening before the dreaded last day… I shall say no more.

The Ginger Monkey

Little did I know when I set off on my European expedition almost two months ago that I would end up in a little cottage in the depths of the Slovakian High Tatras, taking Wally the dog on my first ever solo dog walk through the beautiful mountainous terrain, or indeed that this would be my best stop by far. Thank God I was recommended this gem of a getaway by a fellow traveller in Poland (Harriet (the hilarious one), Kraków), and go me for adding it to my itinerary.

I arrived in the picturesque village of Ždiar rather bruised (ego) and battered (knees). (En route to the train station in Bratislava that morning I had tripped up – with mahousive back pack strapped on – fallen over, my knees as my breaks, unable to get up due to the weight of my back pack, lying in the middle of the street like a capsized tortoise, with three Slovakians rushing over to come to my rescue / fight back their hysteria (I don’t blame them; it must have looked bloody (literally) ridiculous). Unclipping my back pack I was able to right myself to sitting, and appreciate the gravelly damage in all its glory. For my knees it was like a re-run of when I fell over while running (lol) last February, and I think they rolled their eyes and sighed as I bust open the scarring once more. It was a great look. But I had a train to catch! After trying to style it out with the kind Slovakians – attempting small talk while emptying my bottle of water onto my legs, looking up at their totally bemused faces from ground level – I needed to get going. I walked (limped) to the station with weeping knees, hoping that no passers by would notice my unfashionable plasmatic leg accessories. I managed the last ten minutes of the walk with no further injuries, and headed to the pharmacy next door to the station. I thought (naively) that they would clean and dress me (my knees not the whole of me – don’t be silly) as the nurse had done in Leamington following Knee Bust Up #1 last year. I wasn’t to be so lucky, and had to spray and patch up my knobblies myself, and even made use of my trusty first aid kit (thank you, Karen!). Open wounds amateurishly covered, I made the train and subsequent bus with relative ease, which brings us back to where we left off.)

As I hobbled from the bus stop I couldn’t stop looking around at the scenery (probably unwise for someone who is prone to tripping up…). Huge majestic mountains surrounded me, with cute little huts dotted around covered in bright flowers and wooden decking. It was as if I had been transported back to a simpler time, where being at one with nature was simply the way of life. It felt magical and exactly what I craved. Arriving at The Ginger Monkey I was welcomed by Dan, the coolest, funniest, shell-embellished-hat-wearing, long-haired, slipper-loving Aussie who ran the hostel. He was great. After removing my shoes (house rule) he showed me round as if he was giving me a tour of his home, and I felt instantly part of the Monkey family. 

The mornings consisted of fuelling up on soft boiled eggs, toast and tea; the days spent hiking, walking the dog and gazing at the unbelievable view; and the evenings enjoying hearty dinners and drinking beer. It was a tough life. On my first full day I tackled The Saddle – a 26 km hike through the mountains with 26,000 stops for photographs. It was steep, long, windy… and I loved it. We celebrated with pizza night at the local pizzaria (I made my own and chose blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, onion, walnuts and rocket (possibly the poshest pizza Eastern Europe had ever been asked for)). The following day we were due bad weather and a village-wide powercut – the perfect opportunity to pretend we were nature-loving hippies who didn’t miss WiFi, hot showers or toasted bread. After a very cosy morning spent in pyjamas, laddleing gas hob heated water for our tea, a couple of us took Wally (the dog) for a river walk (my second ever dog walk (my first being with Rachel and Rocky in Brinklow (not quite as scenic but enjoyable none the less))). After such a back to basics day we relaxed in the evening – when the power resumed – by watching Liam Neeson strut his stuff (Taken) while nursing our electronic gadget separation anxiety. And then all of a sudden it was my last day, and not even a full one! I had until 14:51 precisely to end my time in the Tatras on a high. I decided to spend my last morning having some alone time with my latest bff (that means best friend forever, dad): Wally. We were going to do the forest walk. We set off in good spirits, and got about five minutes down the road before Wally decided he did not want to go on the forest walk, but was much MUCH more interested in smelling his friends’ urine markers. Lovely. Despite a good ten minutes of my best negotiating skills, I could not win this war. I had to return to The Ginger Monkey, tail between my legs, and return the defiant dog before setting off (for the second time) on the forest walk. I managed to progress past the piss path without Wally, and had a lovely lone stroll through the woodlands, making it back in record time (they said four hours, I did it in two hours ten 😉), giving me time for a last Ždiarian lunch before making tracks (and I’d like to point out that the onward journey did not involve any capsizing tortoises).

I am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen*

My two-stop tour of Austria started in the home of The Sound of Music and ended in that of the Sachertorte. Salzburg is a charming and playful bric-a-brac city, the centre of which is made up of a rabbit warren of cobbled streets and alleys, with beautiful gems along every path and around every corner. Delicately intricate shop signs hang above each and every window, filling the narrow passages with a homemade sense of character; a maze-like map of your surroundings overhead. And all of this simply the opening scene for the magnificent backdrop of endless mountains disappearing into a hazy pastel-coloured sky. In contrast, Vienna is like its bigger, more sophisticated (and less fun) older sister. The streets are wider, the shops more glamorous, the architecture more grand. The city feels more secure in itself, but lacks the quirky, handmade feel of its younger sibling, to whom life still feels an adventure to explore.

After lunch with latest new friend for life Justyn (of Kraków fame) at understated and delicious vegan kitchen GustaV (I had the house salad with cashew cheese – highly recommended), I embarked upon one of Salzburg’s most famous sights: Festung Hohensalzburg (a whopping great fortress atop a whopping great hill). Given that it was 32°C (and rising) I went for the funicular option, which whizzes you up (and down) in a jiffy. Marvellous. The grounds were historic and interesting, but the best feature by far was the spectacular view. A sea of blue, green, grey and cream hues paint an idyllic scene which you could gaze at for hours without getting bored. I spent the rest of the day wandering, wondering if my eyes would survive looking at a mere averagely beautiful city after what they were just exposed to. The jury’s still out…

Along with some obligatory modern art exposure, the rest of my time in the baroque city was very much The Sound of Music focussed. Shown at 8pm EVERY SINGLE NIGHT at my hostel, it would have been rude not to spend one of my two evening’s watching the classic in the place it was filmed. And boy it did not disappoint. (With the addition of ordering a pizza to be delivered straight to my armchair midway through; things couldn’t have got much better.) Full of the rays of golden sun (and pizza), I endeavoured to hit up as many of the famous featured locations as I could the following morning before catching the train to Vienna. I leisurely do-re-mi’d my way through Mirabell Gardens. The luscious green lawns embellished with millions of bright blooms would have given some serious garden envy (if I had a garden (or even a house (or even a damp basement flat)) to my name). I took far too many photos of the Pegasus Fountain where Julie Andrews and her troops do-re-mi’d before me (and you’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t reenact the scene, playing the part of youngest and cutest von Trapp, Gretl, with my selfie stick to capture it all on film (or did I…)). Having exhausted Mirabell (and my vocal chords) I headed to Nonnberg Abbey (to beg for forgiveness for my sins against music). Situated ‘at the foot of’ the whopping great Festungsberg (felt like at least halfway up as I clamboured towards it), the convent itself was closed! Looks like I wasn’t going to be granted forgiveness after all, but at least my pedometer would be thankful for the trip.

Then – to Vienna! The hostel – not that I thought possible – was to overtake Munich to claim Worst Hostel Yet, but the city was large and there was lots of exploring to do. A looong walk to the city centre from said hostel took me down a pretty trendy street full of cool and quirky bars and cafés with fairy lights galore (anything sporting fairy lights gets a thumbs up from me), with plenty advertising reasonably-priced Hugo Spritz (my new fave heatwave tipple). So that was my evening sorted! As I made my way into the heart of the city everything got bigger and more exaggerated – the size of the buildings, the width of the streets, the grandeur in general. Gelato in hand (pistachio, every time) I strolled the stylish streets, constantly gazing up at the impressive architecture, soaking up the Viennese sun. I soon realised that no matter how beautiful the architecture, there are only so many churches / palaces / politically important buildings a girl can take. I’m sure they each have their nuances and significance, and in isolation would be fantastic places to explore, but I was finding going from city to city to city was getting a little boring. On this realisation, it was definitely time for some prosecco. That helped. A lot.

My remaining few days in the Austrian capital involved visiting Schönbrunn Palace (lovely, but see previous paragraph); an ‘alternative’ free walking tour (meeting place was in a super dodgy area, where I waited (next to the sausage stand, as advised) for a total no-show); my first try of traditional Viennese Sachertorte (wasn’t that taken); and free outdoor opera broadcast live from the opera house (seemed a great opera, but sang in French with German subtitles – so I was a little none the wiser).

Now I’m all citied out, I’m heading to the mountains in Slovakia for some relaxing, trekking, and generally just frolicking around in nature for a bit. I can’t wait!

*Just kidding (but that’s clearly how old I look – sans make-up (and, for that matter, avec make-up) – having induced more than a handful of heart attacks when I confirm that I’m actually twenty-five).

Munich… Meh

My latest escapade back into Deutschland was… a bit disappointing really. The hostel (nodded to in previous post) set the initial tone – one akin to a perpetual headache  – but I won’t bore you with the details. (Just a few quickfire bullets to set the scene: extremely rude and annoyingly good looking Romanian receptionist; full-to-the-brim fridge of old forgotten food; the bed bug scare of 2017.)

And now for the city. To me, Munich felt like just another big city. From it I didn’t get a sense of charm or personality, just a handful more bier gartens than usual and an abundance of laiderhossen-clad legs in the main square (the city celebrated its 862nd birthday while I was there, and I think they use any excuse to don their famous trouser). The biggest and most renowned brewery, Hofbräuhaus, was a huge indoor chamber of ornately decorated curved cream ceilings with dark wooden panelling; old fashioned streetlamp-esque light fittings hanging down from the high arches; an expanse of great long wooden tables and benches set out in dozens and dozens of rows; and crammed full of thirsty / hungry / merry / replete Bavarian beer lovers and wide-eyed tourists. Beer by the bucketful splashed here, there and everywhere; gigantic mega-portions of meat-based German delicacies were scattered across the tables at varying stages of demolition; and a jolly, beer-bellied brass band took centre stage to cheer on proceedings. I imagine if you’re a hungry, meat-loving beer enthusiast in the depths of winter this would be your holy sanctuary. (Being more of a wine-drinking pescetarien in what felt like the peak of a European heatwave, I decided to decline on a hearty portion of whole roasted knuckle of pork and litre of Hofbräu Dark.)

A little out of town is the BMW Welt (not quite sure what the heck ‘Welt’ means) and museum, where you can pretend you are an extreme off-road motorcyclist, the owner of many a swish new model of BMW car, and shopping for your latest Rolls Royce to add to the collection, all in the one convenient visit. A little too embarrassed to clamber onto one of the fierce looking motorbikes (I was wearing a pink bardot top under a twee denim dungaree dress after all), I did make sure I sampled some of cars (one of the few girls getting into the driving seats in a roughly 20:1 male:female visitor ratio, and inspected the roped-off Rolls Royces scrupulously (in my expert opinion they looked pretty freakin’ awesome). After a morning of automobilic day dreaming I headed to next-door Olympiapark for lunch and a chill in the sun. Tumbling hills of bright green grass surrounded a large, glistening, pedalo-filled lake; a pretty acceptable view with which to enjoy my sandwich and rest my legs (impersonating a filthy rich car shopper is tiring work).

Along with the UK, the temperature in Munich was ever-increasing so for my last full day in the city I decided to explore Englischer Garten (when I say explore I mean find a nice spot for which to conduct an exhausting day of lying in the sun) (it’s a hard life). The garden was INCREDIBLE. Acres of grass, woodland, rivers and waterfalls intertwined to create a chunky slice of paradise away from the stuffy centre of the city. (Of course in the epicentre of this natural haven was an extensive outdoor beer garden.) The streams rushed by at such a pace that there were a number of surfing spots where amateur surfers came to practice their skills, lining up along the bank and in quick succession taking it in turns to ride the narrow waves for as long as they could before being swept away then clamouring back up to rejoin the back of the queue. It was fascinating to watch. All of them clearly talented, you got the egotistical know-it-alls who hogged the limelight with one too many turns, and then the unfortunate cringe-inducing non-starters who were swallowed up by the rapid current almost as soon as their boards hit the water. But they were still having a great time! After watching them all go I am definitely going to take surfing lessons in Portugal… Here’s to being a wetsuit-wearing cringe-inducing non-starter!

***

Postscript 

Am starting to feel a little poor and lonely. If any of my lovely, loyal and generous readers (did I mention that you’re lovely?) would like to send a gift – perhaps a handsome, charming gentleman (nationality unspecified) to take me out for a candlelit romantic dinner for two – it would be gratefully received. (You could even share the postage cost of my ‘lost’ interrail tickets being sent to me in Budapest which, it transpires, I did in fact leave (BY MISTAKE) at my dad’s windmill, for him to find 6 weeks after I left the UK… Ooooops 🙈)

Czech Mate

Back to life in a hostel (worst one yet) sharing the midnight hours with seven fellow travellers (worst ones yet (after Callum and Rory’s departure (not bitching about you two (yet))) staying for my first time in yet another new city (one of the best ones yet). When I arrived into Prague’s central bus station* (one hour behind schedule) the sky was overcast and heavy and with it a hum of humidity accompanied me on my walk to the hostel. Not the best first impression. Check-in was standard (now that I’m such a backpacking pro an’ all). By the time I had dumped my stuff I was absolutely ravenous. It was almost 4 pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch. What a travesty! I needed to find somewhere quick. And I needed to find somewhere good. A thirty-second stroll along a winding alleyway from my hostel entrance brought me to the most idyllic looking restaurant. Seating in an outdoor garden, a menu that was right up my street, and – to my surprise – prices to match the budget of someone who had recently lost £438 worth of travel (if you’re lost see asterisk, below). Warm chickpea salad with spinach, courgette, aubergine and sundried tomatoes. That had my name written all over it. And it didn’t disappoint. (I even went back two days later for round two of the same.) prague was taking a turn for the better.

Aside from the obvious – beautiful buildings to admirably gaze up at, narrow cobbled streets to get wonderfully lost in, delicious ice cream to indulge in around every corner – I had insider info that made my stay in Prague even more spectacular than it might  already have been. I’d met a Praguer (correct – I looked it up) at my first hostel in Ghent, and dropped him a quick line in preparation for my stay in the Czech capital. Expecting a few quick bullet points of tourist hotspots, I instead received a long email detailing all of his favourite spots in the city (including how to get to them) which opened up my stay to a whole new world of the real city behind its touristy facade. This was bloody brilliant. Following said advice I discovered the most amazing secluded secret garden full of perfectly preened bushes, perfectly sculptured statues, perfectly placed pretty pink flowers, and about two other people to share the whole place with. It was like stepping into a different world of serenity amidst the hectic selfie stick clad tourist filled streets of the city centre. And relax. A chilled evening on the shore of the Vltava river with a couple of beers and a catch up on life since Kraków with Californian babe Sophie was another recommendation that made me feel like I was way cooler than all the other tourists who didn’t have the local lowdown. And to top it of, the best recommendation of all was an incredible rooftop bar, just steps away from the Old Town square, which had fabulous views over the city centre. We arrived up at the fourth floor terrace and as we were being seated were amazed to find that we were the only people up there! The whole bar to ourselves, delicious cocktails, wonderful views and the early evening sun as a lovely warming blanket of happiness. It was pretty perfect.

But it wasn’t just the insider spots I checked out. No. I totally did the tourist thing too. On the heaviest day (31,873 steps taken, 18 km covered) I walked up to the gigantic Prague Castle complex (the largest in the world I’ll have you know), making my way around the extensive grounds, exploring the cathedral, basilica, palace… They were all great to see, of course, but I’d definitely overdosed on my quota of historical buildings that day. Now for some of the great outdoors. I embarked upon the tall, steep and sweat-inducing Petřín Hill. And if climbing its hefty 327 metres wasn’t enough, I decided to tackle the lookout tower poised at the very top. ‘Loosely inspired by the Eiffel Towel’ (slightly offensive to the Eiffel Tower – it is actually quite ugly), I conquered its 299 steps and got yet more beautiful views across the whole of Prague and beyond. Thank God a breeze got up as I was seriously sticky. After a successful descent I made my way back to the dorm for a quick power nap before more fun and games in the evening with new Scottish pals Callum and Rory.

First stop: renting a pedalo to cruise around the river. Wahoo! (My long-awaited first time on any waterway during this trip.) I suggested bringing my selfie stick with trepidation and was received with unanimous positivity. We were definitely on the same page. After dinner (and much pissing about time, on their part) we made our way down to the river, chose our pedalo, and off into the sunset we went. With three in a boat it was a bit of a balancing act (literally) but the selfie stick got a lot of love, and our thighs a much needed workout. We avoided the danger zones successfully, rounded the island (Shooter’s Island to be precise) and made it back to the pontoon in three (whole) pieces (after some interesting mooring navigation from one of our party. (Not me. Or Rory.) Now it was time for football. It was the England friendly against France and, as I was with Scots, they were going to support the French, obviously (they were still wounded from the Scotland / England draw the previous weekend). But first we had to try the city’s gelato-en delicacy: trolo – rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, grilled, topped with a sugar and walnut mix, and filled with ice cream and a whole host of other calorific delights. I went for the ‘King’. It truly was regal. The deep fried dough spiral was filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with – wait for it – chocolate brownie pieces, walnuts, salted caramel sauce AND chocolate sauce. I mean… trés bon. Trés, trés naughty. Now for the footy. We found a cosy Irish pub from which to watch. The game, although disappointing (on my part), was fun to watch, and we got the added extra of a live Irish band post match. We just needed someone Welsh to complete the kingdom! After a quick costume change à la hostelle we headed to the Jewish Quarter for a cocktail in airplane-themed bar Hanger. Interesting. The cocktails were inordinately strong (maybe that was the altitude), and the waitress was wearing a rather comical and kitsch stewardess-wannabe outfit (tilted hat included). We survived the gin-induced turbulence and called it a night before being dragged out of our double-booked seats kicking and screaming.

For my final night in Prague I decided to treat myself to the opera, darling. An interesting performance of Rusalka (basically the story of The Little Mermaid) awaited me, with even more interesting English subtitles alongside. I wouldn’t say that it was the most earth-shatteringly exsquisite artistic performance I had ever been witness to, but it was rather jolly. (The merlot I ordered during intermission #2 was barely drinkable, but that’s another matter.) And that concludes my stay in the Czech Republic! 

I’m now in Munich, in a hostel that strongly contests the first bracketed clause (of many, I’m aware) in this post. I’m midway through my stay here (I started this post while on the bus two days ago but couldn’t power through the travel sickness enough to type), so will get back to Bavaria and fill you in in due course (wish me luck).

*Now that my mum knows, and the associated worry has been and gone, I can disclose that there was in fact another mildly infuriating event in the Polish capital (this one unfortunately less mild) which, previously unstated for fear of inflicting unnecessary maternal worry, was the cherry on the dumpling-filled cake that was my trip to Warsaw. As I started packing my valuables back into my backpack in preparation for checking out I soon came to realise that I could no longer find my month two and three interrail passes… How mildly  i n f u r i a t i n g.  As I emptied my ENTIRE backpack onto the dorm room floor (much to my room mates’ delight) I checked every pocket and zipper (thrice each) to no avail. Warsaw really had run out of luck. So obviously the first thing I did in this situation was go to the hostel bar and order a beer. (Well it was happy hour.) As I – all at once and in a hurry – offloaded to new Dutch gal pal, emailed every hostel I had stayed in so far to see if they had the passes and downed a bottle of Tyskie, the panic began to subside (that’s Polish beer for you) and I calmed, ready to tackle this latest revelation with positivity. Now I didn’t have to begrudge paying compulsory reservation fees; didn’t need to always get the train because of my pass, even if the bus was more convenient; and didn’t have to carry around the stupid ruddy old fashioned paper (paper!) ticket and fill it out by hand for each and every journey. No. Now I was free to travel whichever way I wanted. Now I was officially a bus wanker. (And thus I celebrated with my pierogi dinner (and you know how that ended).)