Where We're Going

Where We're Going

Friday, 18 July 2008

Happy Bollards, Schwip Schwap & Minge Coffee

We awoke after one of the best sleeps of the trip and tried our luck at the breakfast buffet, which we got for free again, woop! We started our walk the same way as yesteray but decided to walk along the river to the east in order to get a better view of the Molecule Men. We walked past them and further to the east until we found ourselves in a really run down area, with a Lidl smack bang in the middle of nothing. We bought juice and noticed an orange and cola drink named Schwip Schwap. Bizarre. A lot of the surrounding buildings were deliberately wonky, they were very colourful and kind of nice to look at but I can't imagine what they can be used for. We saw a poster for Monkey Island Festival before finding ourselves really quite lost in East East Berlin. John had his trusty map and we were soon back on course (ish).

After having seen dozens of men with accordions on this trip, John has decided he wants to learn how to play one and we both yelped with joy when we passed a musical instrument shop selling them in all shapes and sizes: old ones, miniature ones, childrens ones. There was also a gigantic harmonica that we would have like to buy for Elliot but it would have needed a backpack all on its own it was so big. We discussed the likelihood of being able to find Take That music for the accordion and hoped that someone, somewhere, had the brilliant idea of arranging it for an accordionist.

We came home, packed and re-shuffled our bags around and I re-packed the snowstorms, carefully wrapping them in t-shirts and pillowcases to keep them safe. It was very odd to pack up for the final time knowing that tomorrow would be the end of our adventure. It's exciting to think about unpacking them all in our flat but still weird to come to somewhere that has been home to someone else for 2 months.

I finished the book I had been reading and we went to the common room to find another to pass the time while the weather was miserable outside. We had hoped to meet up with our friend San San while we were in Berlin but both of our phones decide to die on us, so we had no way of contacting her :( one of the guys from our dorm, a posh, camp Australian with glasses and dreadlocks came bounding over to us while we sat on a sofa, while one of his friends collapsed in the one nearest us. The only book I could find in English was about Stone Cold Steve Austin, the WWE wrestler, so I was quite happy to be interrupted by them. They started quoting Invader Zim and I couldn't hide my excitement at finding people who had heard of it, let alone who could quote it! They were equally excited and continued animatedly quoting until the one closest to us fell asleep and the dreadlocked one went to talk to the American headbangers from yesterday.

Although our time here has been short and relatively calm, it was the perfect place to end our perfect adventure.

Porkfish, Giraffe Car & Alphabet Biscuits

I slept soundly but when John awoke he told tales of the snoring man on the top bunk next to him, and his failed attempts (after much umbrella-poking) to stop him from doing so. We breakfasted at the buffet bar downstairs, and for doing so would normally cost €3 each, but as it was the hostels 10th year there was a tiny note on one of the flyers saying that if your birthday was on the 10th of any month you and the people with whom you booked would get a free breakfast! Hurrah for John! The guy at the desk didn't know what we were talking about, but after showing him the small print we got our free breakfasts that turned out not to be worth the €3 anyway.

We walked south from the hostel, over the River Spree and saw the Molecule Men near the next bridge along. We only crossed the river so we could see the cool bridge that had been designed to look like a castle, it was crenelated and had turrets. We crossed back over the river and walked westwards along Mühlenstraβe past the East Side Gallery where John was attacked by a crocodile (!), and read lots of the graffitied comments, including "Make Love Not Walls" and a mural of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and subsequently had the theme tune stuck in my head all day. We re-crossed the river, walked past a huge church which must have looked very phallic from above, and ended up on Orienstraβe. We passed a food stall called "Food Bag" and then had a little sit down in a park, where we saw baby sparrows and I fell asleep in the sun for a little while. I woke up when it started to get colder and we made a move past the horde of tourists at Checkpoint Charlie towards Brandenburg Gate and The Reichstag, just in case the sun would still be shining when we got there as we'd only ever seen it on cloudy days. We stopped in a huge souvenir shop, and saw snowstorms which had small glittery balls instead of snow, some with small gold coins and the worst tie EVER made: it was yellow and had a picture (a term I use loosely) of Berlin which consisted of a rubbish blurred black and white image of what could have been any city, with construction cranes in the background. Most odd. The shop had some lovely Christmas decorations but I don't think they would have survived the journey home.

By the time we got to Unter den Linden the wind had picked up, and although it meant all the flags were looking great, it had also brought dark clouds and it wasn't long before the rain came. Walking towards Alexanderplatz we saw a 6-person bike and encountered some gypsies who we, when asked if we spoke English, couldn't resist doing a "Big Train" sketch at them, which you can see here. We neared the TV Tower and John took some "arty" jaunty photos. We saw a bear with a curly moustache (a Chap bear?) and were lured into a shopping centre with the promise of 'The Best Toilet In Town!', were hugely disappointed and in protest John used the free disabled loo instead. After having been walking for 7 hours we walked homeward along our favourite street, Karl-Marx-Allee, seeing what looked like a wizard who had fallen on hard times asleep in a bush.

Dinner was trusty falafel again and for pudding John had a Nogger ice cream, which was very much like a Feast but with vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate. Back at the hostel I dozed while reading. I think our bodies are finally telling us to slow down, which we will be doing very very soon! Refreshed from naps we went to the common room where we sat on a comfy sofa, ate biscuits and laughed at some American girls "rocking out" to the rubbish metal music being played. After a (messy) pint of wheat beer, John's new favourite, we went for a nighttime wander, taking photos of fun stuff and passing some interesting clothes shops, one with a t-shirt depicting Darth Vader with a medallion and a boombox. We discussed art and ethical value systems, then after being briefly locked out of our dorm, bedded it up.

Hot D&G Soup, Hippo Fountain & Tardis Toiletten

Our morning train wasn't until 10:36 so we were fairly leisurely in our getting up. Toast was devoured, bags were packed and a bus was caught. The Prague rush hour seems to be between 9am-10am annoyingly, so the bus was crammed and I fell on top of a man in front when the bus turned a sharp corner. The Metro was a more comfortable ride and we were at the station in no time. Unfortunately, so were hundreds of other people who were also going to Berlin it turned out. We got a seat in a compartment with a couple of people younger than us. The journey was nice and we passed 3 castles between Bad Schandau and Dresden alone! The further we got into Germany, however, the worse the weather became and by the time we pulled up in Berlin it was full-blown raining. We caught an S-Bahn and then walked to the hostel past lots of kebab shops and cafes. The hostel common room was quiet and full of books with suits of armour statues flanking the entrance, and it looks as though it was a warehouse before being a hostel.

We're finishing our adventure in a city we know and love and a hostel that is big and clean, so it'll be a great end to a great trip. We left our bags to dry and went for a wander in the rain. We chose this hostel because of its location in an area we already know pretty well, so it was nice to walk around and know where we're going rather than clinging to a map. The city has never disappointed us, and even in the rain we had fun. We saw lots of fun things in our first short wander, including funny graffiti, a shop called "Ass Style", some cool fountains, a packet of liquorice "kitten paws", anti-pickle patches and discovered that public toilet booths look just like Tardises! We stopped for dinner at a kebab shop where I had ring-shaped falafel and John had some kind of meat and chips, a delicacy he had been craving for weeks. They gave us our food on real plates and we sat and ate in the shop, in the only seats that were available on a table with a guy our age. He asked where we were from and we told him about our adventure. He told us he was working as a voluntary event manager to get some experience in the field and we had a nice chat about London, kebabs, pigeons and all sorts.

We left happy, our bellies satisfied and our hearts happy to be back here, where strangers strike up conversations over kebabs. We walked to our old haunt, Karl-Marx-Allee then back to the hostel when the weather got worse, and met the other people in our dorm, a Dutch guy, a couple of French guys and an Asian guy. I started reading a book by Josie Dew in which she cycles across America, and John scoured maps of Berlin, Amsterdam, Riga, Krakow and Vilinus, just in case.

A Door of Heads, Goose in a Beret & Tramp on a Scooter

We slept in, then after a breakfast of toast and jam (fruit! Yippee!) we caught a train to Karlstejn, where we saw a woman and her son who we had seen the previous day in Kutna Hora! The train took only 35 minutes and the sun was shining when we left the train. The roads leading towards the castle were lined with souvenir shops, mainly the same old stuff we'd seen in Prague. There were a couple of Karlstejn snowstorms but they looked a bit too tacky and I was still more than happy with my Holy Infant one. One of the few things we saw that we hadn't seen in Prague were some clothes peg animals, giraffes and kangaroos, that I can't describe very well but were very cool. We walked up to the castle and found that we could only see it if we were on a tour group with a guide, so we joined an English speaking tour group full of, you guessed it, bloody tourists! The girl leading the tour was the youngest guide imaginable, she must've been no older than 21, but she was very good and kept saying what we thought were funny things in a complete deadpan voice, it was hilarious and other people looked at us when we giggled. We were sure to restrain ourselves while she was actually talking though, mainly because the history was very interesting, but also because we weren't as rude as all the other pepole who just decided to talk over her whenever they wanted.

The castle is huge and grand and magnificent and awesome. We saw lots of bits and pieces from the 14th Century, including some old playing cards, one depicting a unicorn! In one of the rooms was a lute player with the largest instrument I have ever seen. I didn't ask, but I think his must have been an angelica, a type of Baroque lute. He played for us as we looked around and it was lovely. In one of the rooms were lots of portraits and a 14th Century statue of St Catherine of Alexandria standing on top of a King. Michaela, the guide, told us the story: the King wanted to marry Catherine but she refused because he was a Pagan, so she was condemned to death on the breaking wheel. When the time came, the wheels broke and she was beheaded instead and became a martyr. The statue is supposed to represent the defeat of paganism by Christianity, but it's a bit of a weird one. The castle shop had lots of desirable things, but we had to be sensible so John bought a map and I bought a postcard.

On our walk back through town we saw a stall selling a "Bohemian Speciality" called Trdelník consisting of sweet dough wrapped around a metal cylinder and then grilled over a flame and rolled in a mix of sugar, cinnamon and almonds. It was delicious, and the wasps swarmed around us getting high on the sugar scent. On the train back to Prague there was some graffiti saying "Bear Grog" and we imagined what that could possibly taste like. Later on the Metro we saw a guy with a feather stuck on his head (it wasn't supposed to be there) and were reminded of the silly pigeons we had seen with fluffy white feathers on their heads in the park. We Metroed to Muzeum, where we saw the National Museum and walked up Wenceslas Square, which is actually a long stretch of road, then headed north to the market that had been closed the other day. It was completely full of crap, like being in East London again - stalls of t-shirts, pants, weapons (including shuriken) and bits of tat. We passed a shop sign in neon Comic Sans (shudder) and walked for the last time past "The Brick Project". It is a charity "sculpture" made up of lots of thin white bricks which have been bought for a few Euros then decorated and laid in a circle then built upwards in layers, kind of like a chimney. The notice on it says: "The proceeds in this years collection will be used for extension of a work centre to reconstruct a social-therapeutical centre producing marinated cheese and pickled sausages". Nice.

We stopped at Billa to pick up some mushrooms (surprisingly hard to find!) and some eggs for an omelette we had promised to make Ben, then headed back to the hostel for our last night in Prague. When we got into our dorm there was a note on my bed and a little box - Ben had bought us some chocolate kitten tongues! I had only ever seen them in Germany and Austria so it was quite a treat having Czech ones as well. We ate some then napped until Ben got in an hour later. He told me all the things he had learned at language school while John was still sleeping, and I learned a new phrase: "Moja jeptiska!" We chatted about lots of things, including British biscuits (he'd never heard of a Jaffa Cake!), and I made our omelette. It wasn't as good as it would have been at home, but it was OK. Two guys from Plymouth, Max and Joe, have been at the hostel for the last couple of days and we have watched in amazement each dinnertime as they've been making grilled chicken with fresh pesto sauce and sausage casseroles and other culinary delights. It turns out they are not "travelling" but just on a break for a few days, which explains it. After 2 months the only things we can afford to do are pasta, soup and omelette. We have stopped doing the bread-for-every-meal thing after our bellies complained. We ate our omelette and Joe made a big playing card tower on the table next to us. After we'd all eaten we decided to play card games and were taught two by Ben, Ten and Egyptian Ratscrew which were lots of fun. A couple of Canadian girls joined the table and we played poker with the huge jar of sweets which is kept at the front desk as chips. After many, many rounds (most of which ended in us going all in) John and I eventually won! Hurrah! We played until past midnight and it turned out to be our favourite night in Prague.

The Bone Church & a Bubble-Wrapped Jesus

A good night's sleep was had by all, despite a guy in the middle of the room snoring like a pig, and we woke at 8am to a cloudy, but dry, Prague. We broke our fast with cereal and then left to get our train to Kutna Hora. There were lots of cleaners at the station, and one of them had a small child with her in a uniform also sweeping. We wondered if it was Take Your Child To Work Day or if the child labour laws here are just really slack. We boarded a double-decker "City Elefant" train and left the city. We didn't see much on the two hour trip, me especially as I slept for half of it, and there was more grey sky when we reached our destination. The first place we wanted to go to was the famous "Bone Church". I memorised loads of interesting facts about it, but if you read the link you'll get all the info there :) The ossuary was amazing, if a little macabre, and John had no idea it even existed, despite it being pretty famous, so he enjoyed it there and was very snap-happy. We left the church, passing a souvenir shop with the most incredible thing I've seen in a while: a Holy Infant snowstorm!!!! I had searched all over Prague and they didn't have any anywhere! It was hideous. I immediately loved it and had to have it.

We walked to the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist, which was being done up inside (internal scaffolding!) so there were plastic sheets over the famous and precious 18th Century paintings and on the altar. There wasn't much to see, apart from a drunk-looking Jesus on a cross, and we walked the 3km to Kutna Hora, which I recently discovered to be twinned with Stamford in the UK and Eger in Hungary where we were only weeks ago. Since 1995 the "city centre" has been a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it really is a pretty little place. I had a very weird coloured Tutti Frutti icecream (peach and turquoise swirled together) and we walked to St. Barbara Church, passing an estate agents window with local houses costing under 50,000 pounds. The church (or cathedral as they call it) was partly under scaffolding, but we weren't disappointed as the views over the town from the hill on which it stands were wonderful.

The rain got too much so we went to an Albert and picnicked on our purchases under an umbrella near the ossuary. We caught a fast train back to Prague, where the sun was shining! We came back to the hostel and, after having heard the UK Eurovision entry on the radio for the second time that day, spent the next 5 hours chatting with Ben about his first day at "school", music, comedy (again), his family, the state of the education system in the UK and America, the monarchy, the bone church, nuns, hedgehogs and other stuff too. We ate pasta and soup (a speciality Ben had not tried before) and then went to bed knackered after our very long day.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mole Window, Beer Cheese & Giggling Guards

The lovely ambience was shattered when a group of Northern lads came in loudly in the early hours, followed by another group of lads who decided to turn on all the lights, fall over everything, swear and shout at each other at around 3am. This lasted a good hour or so, and once the lights had eventually been turned off, one got out a torch and proceeded to shine it directly at John and me, which was nice of him. By now I was super awake and it took another hour or so to get back to sleep. It felt like only minutes had passed when I woke to my 8am alarm going off next to me. Up I trotted to see if I would have any luck in the shower. I won't give you details (you wouldn't want them) but the female shower room was utterly disgusting. John had a similarly bad experience, slipping over on the wet floor and cutting his finger badly on the showerhead. I knew that I'd brought antiseptic wipes and plasters for a reason and now was the time for Nurse Vixie to spring into action!

The "free breakfast buffet" was disappointing, and we found that someone had opened our milk and helped themselves to it then left it out so it was all warm. I do not like people here. We ate lots of cereal to set us up for the day and headed out into a very wet Prague. We took a metro (and some very fast escalators) to Vltarská where the biggest market in Prague is located. But not on Sundays :( From there we walked past a pizzeria called Pizza Go Home and towards a park right at the north of the city called Stromovka, where there was a planetarium and the really cool looking Exhibition Hall which had a small clock tower on legs on top of the main building with a small spiral staircase leading up from the main building, between the legs and up into the clock tower. I had hoped to see an interesting fountain I had read about nearby, but we couldn't find it. The area has been built up a lot since the map I have was drawn, so maybe it no longer exists :(

We walked past a Segway shop on our way to get a tram, and there were lots of Czech chavs at the tram stop. We trammed it up to another park in the north called Letenské Sady where the main attraction is a big red metronome. As we climbed the steps to see it up close we saw some graffiti saying "Piss Cat Ears" ( the most random we have come across) and noticed that the power cable running above it has lots of pairs of shoes hanging from it, and even some womens heeled boots. Continuing in a south westerly direction we walked to Pražský hrad. The castle grounds include the Basilica of St George and St. Vitus Cathedral as well as a dozen other buildings, and while the castle looked pretty in tact there was scaffolding covering the cathedral. We bought postcards and wandered around in the drizzle, admiring the trees that looked like Mark Rothko paintings. We saw two old women in plastic ponchos who looked like wizards and then watched the changing of the guard at the Spanish Hall entrance. While we were watching them one started laughing, which set another one off, and it was amusing seeing them trying to control their giggles.

We left the castle and walked towards town, spying the Petřin Tower, which looks like a miniature Eiffel Tower, on a hillside above the city. We ate ice cream, John had a Choco Dream and I had a pistachio Magnum equivalent. No gelato today. We walked past St Nicolaus Church and stopped at the Church of The Holy Infant of Prague (its real name is the Church of Our Lady Victorious), a Baroque church with the most amazing decoration inside. We've been to a lot of churches and cathedrals, and even more because of this trip, an I think this is my favourite, both because of the ornate, ridiculously over the top decoration and because the story of the Holy Infant is so cool. A wax figure of Jesus was given to the church in Prague in 1628 and is paid homage to by pilgrims who come from all over the world, inc. South America, Spain, Vietnam and China, after people said that they had seen the Baby Jesus and that miracles had occured after praying to the Holy Infant in Prague. Other things we've read have said that the church made up lots of these stories in order to get people to visit the church, but of course Catholics cannot deny people saying that they've seen apparitions so it had to be believed. I love Catholics. Above the church, up some windy stone steps, is a small museum showing all the different hand-embroidered silk outfits that have been made for the wax figure, and they are incredible. There is also a little photo gallery of the Holy Infant wearing each of the outfits and all over the city you can buy miniature replicas of him. I think they're wonderful, but John thinks they're hideous. If only there was a snowstorm with him inside, it would be perfect!

We walked over Charles Bridge (with scaffolding), saw the National Theatre (scaffolding) and walked into Stare Mesto where we passed the biggest shop of Russian dolls we've ever seen. They had lots of fairly normal dolls but also dolls of all of the teams in the Premier League and all the divisions, as well as all the British rugby teams and lots of American baseball teams. Pretty incredible. We also saw a set of Pope dolls, but they were vastly expensive so we gave them a (sad) miss. We stopped by Albert to get some cheese, and after getting drenched, headed back to the hostel to dry off and have another late lunch (4pm again, silly us). We met the new guy in our dorm, his name is Ben, he's from New York and he's here for 2 weeks doing a language course after making friends with some Czechs over online chess. We ended up chatting with him for 6 hours, about everything. We started on Catholicism (good ol' Holy Infant) moving to British comedy and from there to politics to history to schools (he's a maths teacher) to accents to crisp flavours and finished at Top Gear, with everything else inbetween. We were having so much fun that we forgot to have dinner before bed.

Rocking Horse Cats, Snake Benches & Flirt Dessert

Waking late, we ran to the train station in order to catch our early-morning train to Prague. The station was packed, as expected, and we spent our last few coins on some water for the journey. The ride was pleasant enough and we had fun playing musical chairs again. There wasn't all that much to see out of our windows but lots of greenery. We passed a village called Levice which has a small castle high on a hill overlooking the village, and about an hour later passed what looked like a building site with a big pile of sand or stones, I couldn't tell, with three towers which were made to look like turrets with little flags on top. We also passed lots of pretty churches and an army vehicle junk yard full of broken helicopters, planes and tanks, at which John wanted to stop (especially after a guy we had met in Munich told us that his Dad had bought a tank for only £1000) but unfortunately (!) we whizzed right past it and further into the Czech Republic. The journey was pretty long, 4½ hours, and when not moving seats or gazing out of the window at castles, I spent the time making lists.

It was a refreshing (supposed) 19 degrees when we got to Prague, though it still felt quite muggy and warm under the blanket of clouds. We took a Metro (so clean!) and then a bus to our hostel and checked into the largest and most full dorm in the universe - 14 beds, though by the mess you'd think it was more like 40 - and headed straight back into the city. Near the bus stop we saw some graffiti of a reclining nude signed by "Kickasso" and a man with a ferret in his satchel.

Prague is very pretty, though it was so full of people we didn't really get to enjoy it much initially. We got such an early train that we forgot to have both breakfast and lunch so at around 3pm we decided we should probably eat something and stopped at a pizzeria to have a cheap meal. It was such a nice change from pasta and soup! Walking through the streets you are surrounded by tourists and souvenir shops, and we ended up going into a couple simply because I could no longer resist the Bohemian Crystal and its taunting sparkles! More glass animals awaited us, we saw a sausage dog and, not a pentapus, but a quadropus (or a demipus if you like) and masses of other sparkly bits and pieces. Prague certainly knows how to do tourist tat, it is wonderful! The few snowstorms we saw were all a bit too nice, quite fancy in fact, and this was evident from the price. I will have to resist until I see a tackier (and cheaper) version, I think. We were drawn into a shop full of beautifully carved wooden chess sets, daggers, shields, mini crossbows and a crossbow pistol. John was tempted, but I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be able to get it through customs... On the other half of the same shop were long lines of utterly gorgeous, intricately-painted Russian dolls. Passing picture shops and galleries along a side street, we spied some very cool 3D postcards and a cat-themed gallery.

We stopped at a supermarket called Albert, which had a fruit and vegetable covered painted cow at the main entrance, fish in tanks at the back of the shop and a travellator in the centre. I could faintly hear 'The Winner Takes It All' by Abba being played and was relieved to hear that I wasn't the only person singing along when I overheard a lady singing in the dairy section. We saw another purple-rinsed old lady, the most vivid purple yet, some water bottles that looked like hand-grenades and bought some cereal with a weasel in a hat on the box. The day was further brightened when I received a text from Miss Kaz Tew, and very much hope that she a splendid time at the Chap Olympics with Mr Biddle, Mr Kennington and Mr Dean. We were thinking of you all, but didn't so much as see a moustache today, most disappointing.

We bussed back to the hostel in the rain, where we drank Slice Cola and sorted out our bunks. The room is, as I said, very full and smells distinctly of socks and students. It's not only the most unpleasant smell we have encountered on our travels, but also the least ventilated room in existence. We sat in the lounge in the evening, as people milled around, and John enjoyed both of our free "welcome" beers while reading about castles nearby. Unfortunately, as well as being stinky, a lot of the people here are obnoxious and rude. It's such a shame as Prague was one of the places I was most looking forward to coming to and I wouldn't like to think that horrible people will taint our stay. We have three castles to enjoy while we're here so I don't think John will even notice!

We had a nice night time wander around the immediate area and I phoned William to get the lowdown on the Olympics. He sounded in highest of spirits (could that have been down to the G&T?) and said that a marvellous time was had by all.

Everyone in our dorm was out for the night so we settled down to another early night, to the wonderful sound of silence.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Weather-controlling buses, a Lovely Castle & Purple Ladies

After another eventful night of comings, goings and squeaky bunks, we breakfasted on bread and chocolate spread in the garden then walked towards the Danube to get a bus to Devín, one of "The 55 Loveliest Places in Slovakia", according to a book of the same name. On the way we passed the park with the cool musical instrument - basically there were nine metal squares and when you jumped on them they made different sounds, quite like a xylophone. We played on it happily for a while then continued on our journey. We very nearly didn't even realise it was there, I read nothing about it anywhere and there's no plaque or anything near it, except on one of the squares it said that it was designed by Alfons Van Leggelo. The only reason we knew it was there was because of the woman we saw the other day playing on it. I love her for enlightening us. We stopped by the Post Office, got a little lost inside, but came out with stamps, hurrah! Pity I forgot to write Anglia on some of the postcards before I sent them, so sorry if you've not got a postcard, that would be my silly fault...

We got to the bus terminal below the UFO bridge and noticed on the side of one of the buses a sticker which looked like a wizard with a cloud with a cross through it and determined it must mean one of these things: a) the bus is not a weather-controlling bus, b) there is no climate control or c) the driver is not a wizard.

There were no signs to the castle and the bus stop was not marked as Hrad Devín so we and a Mexican guy had to guess when we should get off. It turned out we were right, but it took us until we had left the castle to realise that. We got off the bus and went in the "logical" direction, walked around in a big circle in the scorching heat (33 degrees) for 20 minutes until we eventually found the entrance. The castle was a ruin (no scaffolding, hurrah!) but a really good one, and there was loads of information (in English!) as we walked past various chapel areas, towers and past settlements. There were also a number of museums, some underground, within the castle grounds showing a detailed history of the area and ownership of the castle, as well as lots of artefacts that have been found on various digs at the castle. While we were there we saw some archaeologists excavating an area of the castle grounds, and it was really exciting to think that stuff is still being discovered there.

According to the museum there has been a settlement on the grounds since the Stone Age and it was still a "proper" castle until 1809 when Napoleon's men burned it down. This was our third castle in Slovakia, and all three of them were burned down by Napoleon, the naughty beggar! All documentation, records, plans and maps of Devín castle were also destroyed so there was no way of re-building it accurately and it has been a ruin since. The actual grounds of the castle are huge and there are lots of separate parts, all of which we explored with interest. The views over the Danube and the miles of forest were beautiful and we were only about a mile away from the Austrian border. We sat on the only bench we could find in the shade for a long while and didn't see any other people for at least half an hour. It was like our own little Jixie Tower!

There were a couple of souvenir shops shops in the grounds, but no luck on the snowstorm front. After our bus journey back to town, where we met the first ticket inspector of the entire trip, we went to buy some soup for dinner, spotting two nuns dressed in black on the way. The first black-wearing nuns we've seen in Slovakia! In Tesco we noticed that all the white-haired old ladies in Bratislava dye their hair with a dark purple rinse rather than the usual blue one, and I helped one of these purple ladies (who had very fluffy hair like a duck) at the checkout. Soup was purchased and then so was ice cream, cookies flavour today.

On our last night in the city we went for a final wander. It was 9pm and the temperature was still 29 degrees! The central square in front of the Old Town Hall was full of people, there were performers inside a huge ring of spectators, who were skipping and dancing and all sorts. The music floated through the city, but disappointingly none of the pretty buildings we had hoped would be lit up were. We settled down to an early night while people outside bustled until the early hours.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Zombie Tramps, The Force Bin & Ice cream with a beard

A grey sky greeted us as we walked to the train station to catch a train to Trenčín, a town to the north east of Bratislava. The sky became increasingly bluer and the clouds less frequent as we neared our destination. The journey was like a big game of musical chairs, first we moved because we were accidentally sat in reserved seats, and then we moved again to let two old ladies sit down. Our third carriage compartment was nicer, so we didn't mind too much. The scenery on the journey was lovely again and we passed some fantastic photo opps (like three huge chimneys with a face painted across all three of them) but were unable to photograph them from the train. We passed lots more sunflower fields, some mountains, a castle in Beckov (a village nearby which had no train line going to it, sadly) and lots and lots of greenery. The guy in our compartment, who had been asleep when we first got there, opened one eye and started watching us, laughing to himself whenever we got excited about something outside the window. He seemed really interested in us, like he'd never seen Brits before, and asked where we were from, we told him and he asked John if I was from there as well. He tried his hardest to speak in English to us, and though his English was poor, it was lovely that he made the effort.

Our first stop was the castle, naturally, and as we were walking up towards it we saw another couple. The guy kept stopping to take photos, as did John, and the girl who was with him gave me a silent knowing glance and a quick roll of her eyes. It was subtle, but very amusing. The poor girl; going out with a castle addict is never easy. The castle was a really good one, one of my favourites. There was a lot of work being done to it (scaffolding-o-rama) but there was also lots that was open and awesome. The castle that was still there was from the 14th Century, but parts of it were Moravian, from the 9th and 10th Centuries. Just inside the entrance was a well called "The Well of Love" which was built between 1528 and 1570 after the legend of Omar and Fatima. As we were walking around the castle there was music playing from a tourist information booth, which we immediately recognised as River Dance! Nice traditional Slovak music...

Up towards the first main tower of the castle were some falcons and other birds, sitting around looking pretty (and one was being incredibly loud), and I got to hold one of them! The lady who was looking after the birds looked (and was dressed like) a blood elf from World of Warcraft. At the back of the castle was a part called Barbara Palace, which was built in 1430 for Queen Barbara of Celje, who was the wife of Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg. That part of the castle was now an exhibition space, showing armour, weapons and lots of paintings of coats of arms. We walked up some very steep and very narrow windy steps to Matúš Tower, which was a little scary but totally worth it for the views over the town. Back down on the ground we saw a tree covered in red shield beetles, and then saw that the ground was carpeted in them too.

We left the castle, content that we'd got our £3 worth and walked through the town where we passed the coolest fountain we've seen so far - it was a statue of a man wearing a top hat coming out of a well and the water was coming from his mouth in an arc and then "bouncing" off the ground and making another arc, then another. The fountains here in Slovakia, and the ones in Hungary, have been far and away the most interesting and original fountains we've ever come across. On our way back to the train station we saw a Museum of Wheels and a boy wearing a t-shirt saying "Perhaps it's time you left" and below it had an arrow pointing to the right.

Bratislava train station is the busiest station I have ever been to, of its capacity. It's not a big station and getting in or out of it is like trying to swim against a current, where the sea is full of huge barriers, in this case, people-shaped ones. The souvenir shop in the station was the last place on my list to check for snowstorms, and I did find one. Unfortunately, it was of a crappy bear, not a good bear, and it didn't even say Bratislava on it! So they do know what snowstorms are here, they just don't want anything to do with them, despite having such pretty castles and buildings which would look perfect in them! Never mind, maybe next time we're here they will have broadened their horizons.

It was still light so we strolled into town, and saw a woman wearing a t-shirt saying "I love greens. Respond. Fashion", a priest, and noticed for the first time a big interactive musical instrument in a park on the edge of town. There was a woman playing on it when we walked past, but tomorrow that will be me! We had forgotten to have lunch, and suddenly noticed how late it was so treated ourselves to falafel and sat in a park while we ate. There was a big LED screen telling us that it was 27 degrees, even though it was nearly 7pm by then! Near the falafel shop was another clothes market so we went exploring - Bratislava is like the clothes equivalent of Aladdin's Cave. Weeks ago I wrote about a t-shirt I'd seen on a girl which said "For You Splendid Smile" - just imagine my delight when I found that t-shirt in one of the sales! It is both hideous and curiously wonderful! We saw a girl wearing another great t-shirt saying "Cute and Happpy" - she must have been REALLY happy if she gave herself an extra P!

Walking home after our long day of exploring we passed the Slovakian radio station building which looks like a giant upside-down pyramid. We had read about it in on of the tour guides, and it's funny to think that we did/learned more in/about Bratislava than all of those tour group people.

we win.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Nuns with trolleys, Incredible T-shirts & cola-flavoured lemonade

People came in and out literally all night/morning and the squeaking drove us both mad so we got up early to explore the city, just to make sure we hadn't missed anything. We have a small guide book about Bratislava and the translations are wonderful! I know it must be really hard to translate things with accuracy and they have done a really good job, but there are some gems:

"From Bratislava you can buy many souvenirs... figures from ear leaves"

"During Christmas fair... products from wood, leather, wicker and ceramics attract each eye" ...separately?

I am in love with the translator.

We walked into town passing the Presidential Palace, where there were 5 guards when we usually only saw 2. We watched for a while and realised they were taking part in the changing of the guard ceremony. They looked very dapper in their grey trousers, beautifully laced blue jackets and dark grey hats with huge white feathers. The gates were wide open so we could see the whole thing close-up. The fountain outside the palace was on today (it hadn't been before) and was sparkling in the morning sunlight, so we took more fountain photos and set off for the castle. We passed some good graffiti on the way up, and the banks beside the outer castle walls were speckled with small blue flowers. The castle is very modern; it was first mentioned in records from before the 10th Century but it has been re-built and added to a lot since then. Passing a long crenelated area as we walked towards the main part of the castle, John started singing "Celebrate" but replaced the title word with "crennelate". The main part of the castle had lots of barriers because bits were still being re-built. Cue scaffolding.

Walking down the hill from the castle to town we noticed (after seeing it on a postcard and wondering where it was) a bridge with what looked like a stereotypical UFO on top of it. It has a revolving restaurant at the top, I read somewhere. When we were back in town we saw graffiti on the pavement making it look as though the paving slabs had been stitched together, a sperm-inspired fountain and a huge (12 foot high) silver sculpture of a woman bending over wearing a cowboy hat, which reminded me of Nico Robin.

There are a huge number of tramps in Bratislava and nearly all of them have yellow shopping bags from a supermarket called 'Billa'. When we had our lunch, John couldn't help but buy one and sit on a bench looking "trampish". Unfortunately, now he has shaved off his beard he doesn't quite pull it off, though he has not had a haircut in nearly 5 months so he's not too far off! While sitting there eating our lunch, not being trampish, we saw our first nun of the day, wearing brown, and 4 priests. We talked about Catholicism and Christian philosophy for nearly an hour then moved to a nicer spot outside the Old Town Hall (which has a beautiful yellow and green tiled roof), I ate a caramel flavoured ice cream and we saw another 3 blue-clad nuns, one of whom had a trolley.

The sky overhead was a beautiful blue, lightly dusted with fluffy white clouds, yet somehow it started raining while we were nun-watching. We took shelter and looked again for snowstorms (just in case) but I don't think they exist in Slovakia, despite the capital being only an hour away from Snowstorm HQ in Vienna. Walking away from the town centre we saw 3 more nuns and the nun with the trolley again! We also saw a man wearing a t-shirt saying "Smog Excellent Options" and somehow found ourselves in the seedy area of town. We quickly turned around, saw another nun, and noticed the second shop in town with a big London Underground sign.

After all the wonderful t-shirt slogans we have seen in Europe, I couldn't help but wander into a tacky-looking clothes market and we were not disappointed! The first stall had boxer shorts which said "Be Man Which Wants to Woman" and other stalls further in had more awesome t-shirts, including ones emblazoned with the wonderfulness that is: "Don't Get Wormy" and "I'm You'r Hot Not". We couldn't help but sing along when one of the stallholders' phones went off and the market was filled with the sound of David Hasselhoff singing 'Looking for Freedom'. We thought that that would be it as far as t-shirts went until we saw the most wonderful item I have ever seen. You'll have to wait and see it, but I can assure you it is AMAZING! We left the market and passed a shop selling small glass animals, in the window they also had glass mermaids, an Adam and Eve, an Elvis and a priest, but no nuns :(

We stopped by Tesco and noticed a picture of an old man with a stick with a big cross through it - no old people allowed in Tesco! John remarked that it was because it was a "youth-ermarket" and it took a long time to forgive him such an awful pun. We walked through a different park on our way home and noticed that the gardeners wear, not only red trousers, but red dungarees! We had a picnic in the garden when we got back, which consisted of bread, cheese, crisps, apple and blackcurrant juice and chocolate yoghurt. It was very nearly ruined by the horrible bulldog who lives at the hostel who (possibly after being fed beer by the Aussies last night) was ill in the garden. Everyone who was here yesterday had checked out and headed to new places, treating Bratislava as a stopover only, and it's funny to think we still have 3 more nights here when most people we've spoken to have told us they "did" Bratislava in 2 hours. I think they're lying - they can't have seen many nuns in that short time!

Nun Count: 8