Location: Cote D'Azur, France
I travelled down to Nice hoping to catch the last of the French Summer/Autumn. After the cold of Germany, 18 degrees felt like a heatwave (although not hot enough for a swim). I stayed at Villa Saint-Exupery, an old monestry on a hill overlooking Nice that had been converted into a hostel. The hostel is consistently ranked in the top five hostels in the world. The facilities are excellent and you can imagine in the summer that it would be buzzing full of travellers... unfortuantely for me the hostel was less than 20% full and the staff seemed to out number the guests!
Nice was nice. Again it would have been more impressive during the summer but the sight of large boats, big villas and people roller blading down the esplanade was still pretty good. The sunsets were magical and you could see why the rich and famous gather to this little part of the French Riviera.
I also took a day trip over to Cannes and to be honest compared to Nice (and Monaco) the place was a dump... sure it had nice shops but it lacked the character of the other places. Unless the film festival is on I would give it a miss (to be fair it was extremely windy and cold when I went so my view may have been a little biased).
My birthday was on the 4th and I decided it would be appropriate to reserve this day for Monaco. I put on my best clothes ("best" being a relative term when you are backpacking) and took the short train from Nice to Monaco.
I started my day by walking up the hill to the Royal Palace. As I approached I could hear the sound of a band playing as the changing of the guard took place, however as I turned the corner and got the Palace in sight the ceremony was over... talk about bad timing. From the Palace you got a great view out over Monaco. What I noticed most (besides the big boats in the harbour) was just how densley populated Monaco is. I guess that's to be expected when over 34,000 people try to cram into a 1.94 sq km tax haven. From here you could also hear the purr of the engines of the various super cars parading around the streets below.
I then trekked through the little streets and gardens of the Palace and over to the Oceanographic Museum (the local aquarium). The aquarium is great but the more impressive thing is the building, which is precariously perched on the side of a cliff, 279m sheer down to the ocean.
Next I decided to walk the famous F1 race track. For those that don't know the track winds its way through the streets of Monaco, along the harbour and up past the famous Casino Monte Carlo. The grand prix has been held here since 1929 and it was amazing to think that they actually raced on these small twisting streets. The track literally passed outside the door of the Casino. The Casino itself was quite impressive and the only cars within a square km radius were either Ferraris, Aston Maritns, Porsches of Bentleys... not bad. I kept following the track as it wound its way past the boutique shops and through the famous tunnel and back along the harbour. If I thought Nice had big boats then I was blown away by the size of some of the monsters in the Monaco harbour... they were massive.
The Cote D'Azur certainly is for the rich and famous and it would be great to go back there during the height of summer... and maybe even sneak my way onto one of the huge boats.
Location: Paris, France
I started my stay in Paris by heading to the Eiffel Tower for a sunset viewing. With clear skies it was spectacular and certainly a lot different to last time I was there (itwas raining and absolutely freezing). On my little journey out to the Tower I came across two other interesting things. First, I stumbled across the tunnel where Princess Dianna had that little prang a few years ago. Second, I found a building covered with living plants. It is hard to describe (see the photo for a better look) but the building had a watering system covering it and hundreds of plants that made the whole building look green with plant life.
I also walked the Champ de Elysse and walked up and under into the Arc de Triumph. Next was the Louvre. Now the Louvre doesn't have the sort of art I am really into (I'm more of a Monet, Picasso and Gaugin man myself... geez that sounded quite wanky) but it was still fascinating to see the world renowned works such as the Venus de Milo and of course the Mona Lisa. As everyone says the Mona Lisa isn't really that impressive and is quite small. To be honest I felt that the eyes on one of the murals in Northern Ireland followed me more than Mona's. The other interesting thing about the Louvre is that everyone was taking photos even though there were thousands of signs saying the opposite (in Italy you would almost get shot if you took a photo of David).
I got a taste of Paris' expesive reputation when I decided to get a quick snack of a cheese toastie... it cost 5.5 euro (almost $10)!
I spent my last day in Paris by taking a day trip out to the Palace of Versailles. This really was impressive. While the inside of the Palace was fascinating (espeically the Hall of Mirrors) the more impressive thing was the absoultely massive garden. Even in winter I was taken aback by this place, absolutely stunning!
Location: Heidelberg, Germany
After seeing Heidleberg's Schloss (castle) countless times in the Entemann family calendars I had to make the "pilgrimage" for myself. My hostel (which I shared only with a Ukranian chemistry student) was located right below the castle and couldn't have been in any better location.
I spent the first evening walking the old streets and crossing the Old Bridge to get a view back towards the castle before making the short climb up to the castle the next day.
I was expecting to be disappointed (after all I have been working the castle up over the last few years) but to be honest it was really spectacular/beautiful. The castle itself is perched on a hill overlooking the river Neckar and the old town of Heildelberg. It contains an interesting mix of architecture and is home to a wine barrel that can hold over 221,000 litres of wine! The gardens are vast and very well kept and you can imagine how great they would be for a picnic in the warmer weather.
The rest of Heildelberg is equally beautiful and a walk along the old streets, especially at this Christmassy time of the year, was quite magical. Heidelberg is home to one of Europe's oldest Universities, the University of Heidelberg, which is located in the middle of the old town.
I got an excellent view of the town from across the river when I walked up the Philosophenweg (Philosopher's Walk). It was here that I also heard, then spotted, a woodpecker!
Location: Budapest, Hungary
Meeting up with Marianna gave me a good excuse to head back to Budapest. In my previous post on Budapest I have already raved about the place so I won't go into much detail this time. Instead I will just quickly go over some of the things we did this time around.
First of all we decided to go ice skating in the artificial rink set up just besides Hero's Square. It was here that I paid with 10,000 forant and only got change for 1,000.... luckily I was onto the old woman at the ticket stand and demanded the full change. Marianna also had the same trick applied to her... sneaky Hungos! It took me a while to get the hang of ice skating unlike Marianna who had obviously misspent her youth at the Ice Arena. It was quite an experience actually ice skating outdoors in a city that actually gets snow!
We went from frozen snow to water when we hit up the thermal baths. These were the same bnaths as last time but this time there was steam erupting from the outdoor baths... of course we (well at least I did) spent quite some time in the whirlpool but I decided against drinking the water this time!
We also visited the Terror Museum. It wasn't until visiting this museum that I realised how f***ed over by the Soviets the poor Hungarians were after the war. I really started to feel sorry for the people who once belonged to one of the powerhouses of Europe, only to see it destroyed because the Soviets got them after the war rather than the Allieds. If anyone wants to read about the Communist history of Hungary I now have about a book of handouts from the museum (nothing was in English so they just gave you great slabs of leaflets to read)!
Once again I stayed at the Guesthouse Backpackers which again had a good group of people keen for some big nights out so it was sad once again to have to leave Budapest.
Location: Munchen (Munich), Germany
With the French rail workers on strike (as usual) I decided to leave Jono and Alice in Strasbourg and head over to Budapest to meet Marianna, Charlee's sister. On the way I decided to stop off in Munich so I could head out to the Dachau Concentration Camp.
However, when I arrived in Munich and got off the train I was confronted by two men in ordinary looking clothes. They produced badges and said they were police. I wasn't convinced and so asked them if they really were police... they convinced me (or I decided not to argue with them) when they lifted their jackets to reveal guns. Turns out all they wanted to do was question me about where I had been but it left me a little ruffled. The other thing I noticed as I walked to my hostel was that it was a lot colder than last time we were in Munich for Oktoberfest. There was snow on the ground and there was a biting wind.
The cold weather made the experience out at Dachau much more authentic. It was hard to spend more than 10 minutes out in the cold so it was sobering to imagine what the prisoners must have gone through during their days of hard labour. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis and formed the prototype for all the camps that followed. You enter Dachau through its famous gate which has the inscription Arbeit macht frei ("work brings freedom") imprinted on it. The camp was only meant to hold 6,000 prisoners but when it was liberated in 1945 the Americans found over 30,000 prisoners crammed in. Dachau wasn't a "killing" camp like Auschwitz (it's gas chamber wasn't ever used) but thousands still died due to the appalling conditions, starvation and disease. Certainly walking around the camp you really appreciate how tough life as a prisoner must have been and the short video you see in the museum is one of the most disturbing video's I have ever seen (just think of dead human bodies piled up and being carted away and you'll get the idea). It would be wrong to say I "enjoyed" going to Dachau but it was certainly worthwhile and something I would highly recommend (much like the bull fighting in Spain).
I decided to lift the somber mood Dachau had cast upon me by the best possible German way - heading to Hofbrauhaus to relive Oktoberfest. Hofbrauhaus is probably the beer hall that most resembles Oktoberfest, with its beer wenches and oompa band and a stein or two soon had me feeling much more cheery!
Location: Gryon, Switzerland
Gryon is located in the Swiss Alps, not far from Lausanne. When we arrived the tops of the mountains were covered in snow but the valley was not. However this soon changed when it dumped over 60cm in one night! The entire valley was transformed into a winter wonderland. Apparently this was the largest single snowfall they had received in over a year (the 2006/07 season was one of the worst on record). As the mountain hadnt yet opened there was not much we could do besides admire the view and enjoy doing more relaxing things around our chalet. Although the fresh snow gave me itchy feet to get out on the skis, after nearly three months of full on travel, and still recovering from a nasty bout of the flu, the break from a hectic schedule suited me just fine!
So, besides sleeping in, what do you do when you have three days in a ski village but the mountain is yet open? Well we took the spectacular 45minute walk up to the ski town of Villars. This walk gave spectacular views over the valley and up the mountains and also presented ample opportunity to ensure several snowballs made their way onto Jonos face.
We also managed to cook up quite a storm under Alices, guidance including a night of both cheese and chocolate fondue and my attempt at making traditional potato chips. We also enjoyed our fist steak in several months, cooked on the chalets BBQ while it was snowing. We also started, but didnt quite finish, a jigsaw puzzle of flowers (no laughing please) and I polished off a book in under two days (pretty good for me). I also spent an afternoon constructing a snowman and hiking up the hill behind the chalet in nothing but trakkies.
So while we didnt do much in the way of touristy things while in Gryon we certainly left with our batteries recharged and ready to embark on the remainder of our European adventure.
Location: Venezia (Venice), Italy
Despite being extremely touristy I really loved Venice. The city is a labyrinth of old lanes, buildings and of course canals stretching over 117 islands. There are an endless supply of photo opportunities, especially of bridges! The numbering of the houses is also quite unusual and as such it is extremely difficult to get lost (it took us an hour to find our hostel).
The "centre" of Venice is St Mark's Square (Piazzo San Marco). As the name suggests this is where St Mark's Cathedral is located which is another of Europe's spectacular cathedrals. It houses several ancient religious relics, has beautiful mosaic art on the ceilings and walls, and is home to the Greek Horses. However, the most interesting thing was the uneveness of the floor. As most people know Venice is subjected to flooding quite often. Although there was none while we were there the evidence of the floods was everywhere and no more so than in the Cathedral where the tiled floors where noticeably uneven from the shifting foundations.
Heading back out into the square it's hard not to notice the thousands of pigeons all scrambling for a feed from some tourist. It is worth spending a few minutes just watching the birds climb all over people, including their heads, looking for a feed.
We finished our time in the square by climbing the bell tower. From here we got an excellent view over Venice and its many islands as the sun began to set.
We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum which is located right on Venice's Grand Canal and is where Peggy Guggenheim used to live. It contains mainly Peggy Guggenheim's personal collection and although smaller than a "normal" museum it certainly doesn't lack quality, with contemporary works from artists like Pollock, Matisse and Picasso.
As I mentioned previously there are many bridges in Venice but the most famous would have to be the Rialto Bridge. This bridge is just one of three that crosses the Grand Canal and is the oldest. This is just one of many places where you can see the famous gondolas... and at 70 euro a ride watching from here seemed like the best option!
Everyone raves about Pizza in Italy but to be honest up until Venice I hadn't fallen in love with Italian Pizza... that is until we came across the biggest crusted pizza I have ever seen. We bought the pizza for the novelty of its size but it also tasted absolutely brilliant!
Before I finish this entry I would like to take to tell you about this American we met at our hostel. We all know the stereotype of Americans... loud, brash and occaisonally obnoxious. Well most of the Americans I have met have been the opposite; Eric was the exception. It wasn't that he was loud or brash, just that he obviously told a lot of lies about himself. If at least some of the following weren't lies then Eric had, at 23, achieved a lot in his life thus far:
- he is the 2nd youngest sommelier in the world;
- he worked 12 hours a day for 15 months straight;
- he managed/ran a 400 seat restaurant at the age of 19;
- his parents are the #1 bridge players in the world;
- Jack Johnson (the surfer/singer) used to live in house in Boulder, Colorado;
- he completed Chemical and Electrical engineering degrees in 2 1/2 years and got straight A's without going to any classes;
- he spoke German and Italian fluently (although didn't seem to understand the Italian of the hostel owner).