Thursday, September 23, 2004

Austria and North Italy

Vienna - Salzburg - Innesbruck - ITALY - Verona - Bologna - Florence

Mamma Mia, Pizzeria!

Vienna, a peaceful relaxing city, with it's huge baroque/neo-gothic buildings of stone with Hungarian influences, lush green parks, beautiful art nouveau style coffee houses, buskers playing classical music on the streets, people dressed as Mozart trying to sell tickets to the opera...definitely one of my favourite cities!

I was thoroughly immersed with culture in the place, witnessing a live transmission of a Tchiakovsky orchestra playing in St Petersburg, projected on the screen in the striking neo-gothic town hall (which has a 2 metre knight in armour at it's pinnacle, as you do), to enjoying the buskers moving the crowd to tears (not enough to part with their cash however) with their beautiful haunting string orchestral music of Schubert, Brahms, Tchiakovsky and of course Mozart. Wandering through the city at night is a truly magical experience...

Consumed much Viennese coffee*, wienersnitzel, and bratwurst/kasekranner sausages (kasekranner is sausage stuffed with cheese) from the wurst stands dotted all over the city.

*Viennese coffee, like the baths in Budapest, originated from the Turks when they ruled this part of Europe from the Ottoman empire after the fall of the Roman empire.
However, what is interesting to note is that Bratislava/Slovakia, which is an hour away from Vienna/Austria, has really terrible coffee! What happened in that hour gap that turned the worst coffee in Europe to the best coffee in Europe is beyond me...

Went to Salzburg next, a very picturesque city of churches, white solid fortress on top of green lush hills with nice walking trails with beautiful views of the city especially at night, and pretty gardens and fountains. And lets not forget the Sound of Music movie settings!

Was considering doing a Sound of Music tour, but then decided it would be cheaper and more interesting to go to places on my own with some other people at the hostel. Went to see the Mirabella gardens where the children sing "Do Re Mi" (filmed some very inaccurate hilarious re-enactments with said hostel people on someone’s digital camera).

Also went to Schloss Hellbrunn (a baroque palace) mainly for its gardens with amazing trick fountains that some sadistic king with a sense of humour (sounds like a cool bloke) made to get his guests wet for the fun of it! Basically the fountains would spray water at you from unforeseen locations when you least expect it, no matter how much you prepared yourself for it! Marionettes and music would play in different areas of the garden, all powered by water pressure!

Also saw the Gazebo where Liesl sings "I am 16 going on 17". Unfortunately it was locked so no leaping on the benches inside for me! Then went to Schloss Leopoldskron which features the house from the movie and the lake that the children fall into. Unfortunately I couldn't go in and sip pink lemonade on the terrace balcony as it's private owned now...

Also went to a beer hall in a monetary! to enjoy dangerously cheap 1L steins of beer made by the monks there. God bless them all!

Innesbruck was next, a little town surrounded by huge Austrian alps. Saw the famed solid gold roofed emperors terrace, kinda ordinary actually. The old cobbled streets lined with baroque facades and lavish signs were more interesting.

Bought a postcard that says "There are no kangaroos in Austria". Heh heh heh.

Then I went to Italy....

Ah, fair Verona, a beautiful old Italian city, surrounded by red walls, bridges, old palazzos and villas, and also a huge open roman amphitheatre where operas are held. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is set there, based on a real life story of love and feuding powerful families. I saw Juliet's house/balcony, where the walls are covered with lover’s graffiti and paper notes with love messages stuck with chewing gum. I left a note that says "To my love, I love you always, From your love, me. xx" (look out for it if you ever visit Verona).

Romeo's house, on the other hand, is basically a huge wall and a door. Guess no one cares about poor Romeo! (except Juliet of course)

The hostel there is an old villa with beautiful gardens, left there by an old man who's dying wish was to turn his villa to a youth hostel so that poor backpackers like me can enjoy Verona as much as he did! That was nice of him. Unfortunately the people running it aren't as nice, as (with most youth hostels in Italy) they kick you out from 9:30am to 5:30pm, and curfew is 11:30pm!

Bologna, a striking red city featuring "The Two Towers" - two red Romanesque towers, one tall, the other short and leaning much like the leaning tower of Pisa. Bologna also has 40.5km of arched porticos and arcades, and a vibrant student population and nightlife!

But the main reason I went there was for the food!!!**

**Bologna is where Lasagne, Tortellini, mortadella, and of course, Spaghetti al Raglia (Bolognese) was invented!

Had to try the spaghetti Bolognese of course, it was beautifully cooked pasta, not undercooked or soggy, with minced meat - little disappointed with that as I heard real Bolognese was diced stewed proper meat cubes in sauce, but can't complain.

Also discovered the best gelataria in the world ("Sorbeteria della Castilligone"? I think it's called), where they make the stuff in front of you! Tried a flavour called "Michelangelo", which was a almond cream with roasted almonds coated with sugar! Also another called "Cassato Sicilian" with ricotta cream, dried fruit and melted chocolate! Bellissimo!* Everyone who visits Bologna raves about it (much like the "Schwarma Queen" kebab shop in Salamanca, Spain)!

*I found that speaking Italian can sound really clich├ęd, especially when saying words like "molto bene", "bellissimo" or even just "capische?". Though never heard anyone say "Mamma Mia"!

The overly expressive musically sounding Italian is more noticeable in the middle of Italy, whereas in the north the way they speak sounds very much like Catalan (Barcelona Spanish).

Italian men seem to be very aggressive/annoying in trying to seduce foreign women travellers. But they get their own back because the beautiful Italian women seem to like playing with and humiliating the Italian men who try to seduce them! Because they can.

Also, Italians seem to have no concept of personal space! You can sit on an empty train and someone (usually smelly) will come up and sit right next to you! They also seem to love talking to themselves out loud (just like I observed the French do)!

I arrived in Florence on a cloudy rainy day, so it wasn't as spectacular as when I was there last year. "Saw Michelangelo’s David" for free with some hostel people as some of the museums have special nights where entry is free from 8:30pm till 11:00pm! Saved myself 10 euros that way! It was pretty cool, though I thought David's hands were a little big, but then what do I know about art? Then the power cut off and we had to leave (due to a thunderstorm).

Anyway, off to Siena (I think) tomorrow!


Friday, September 3, 2004

Slovakia and Budapest

Poprad - Levoca - Zavolen - Korytarky - Banska Bystrica - Kosice - Budapest (Hungary) - Eztergom (Hungary) - Sturovo - Bratislava

Dobre den!

In Vienna at the moment. I can't believe I’ve been travelling for a year already (left 6th September last year), time has really flown by, and I’ve seen and learnt (and eaten/drunk) so much! Not long before I head back home though, in less that 2 months....

Slovakia. A beautiful country, it doesn't matter which city or town you are in, you can always see some mountain or hill in the distance. Coming from Poland through the high tatra mountains of Slovakia was a highlight, with enormous mountain peaks and sheer cliff faces amongst dark green forests. Slovakian people however don't really pay heed to it, they are so used to seeing and living in a location where us folks would pay lots of money to "get away from it all" on holidays.

Poprad, a small industrial town with nice enough town square, was an overnight stop to catch up on sleep lost in Poland, and also a good place to do a day trip to Levoca, a beautiful walled town with a pretty renaissance town square, also a cage of shame where criminals would be locked up and be made fun of in the middle of the square. Was tempted to go in but it was locked.

Next day I went to Zvolen to meet up with Jana, (my Slovakian ex-girlfriend from when I was in UK). We were well behaved this time for once, and remained just friends. Anyway, she took me to her home to meet her parents (always a scary experience), but her non-English speaking parents took quite a liking with me, in fact her mum even asked Jana to marry me! Boze Boze!*

Anyway for the next three days I learnt a lot of Slovak and was fed with vast amounts of traditional Slovakian countryside food (as Jana actually lives in a small country village in the middle of nowhere called Korytarky, surrounded by - yes you guessed it - hills and mountains!) her mum prepared (as she is a cook). Amongst the many things tried I liked halusky (small potato dumplings with soft cheese and bacon bits), and my favourite, harula, which is pretty much like a large savory hash brown. Dobru Chut!**

Went to Banska Bystrica, got a haircut for 1 euro by psycho Slovak woman, also saw a Slovakian folk dance performance. I love watching folk dancing, the women dancing around with handkerchiefs, the men with sticks they would swap and jump over etc, the Slovakian hat swapping dance is funny and fantastic! The women would occasionally scream/yelp in high-pitched Xena warrior princess like fashion while dancing, weird.

Jana took me to a disco in Zavolen called ";Culture Forum of Fun", apparently the second best disco in Slovakia, people would come from all over Slovakia to go there. It was pretty cool, drinks were cheap (for me anyway), and I pretty much danced all night, before leaving Jana and friends to go to Kosice.

Kosice is a beautiful peaceful town and one of my favourite chill out towns. Beautiful architecture of many styles with Hungarian influences, a huge opera hall, and a tacky but lovely musical fountain dancing to 80's music (really grooves to Mariah Carey's "Endless Love")! Looks more beautiful at night with the coloured lights also changing colour to the music.

Went into Hungary next to visit Budapest, which is pretty much my favourite city in Europe (along with Berlin). A huge beautiful city, actually two cities - Buda and Pest - joined by bridges. Buda the affluent leafy hilly (pot smoking) city with castle, caves and Turkish thermal baths; Pest the working traffic filled city with the enormous spiky parliament building, more thermal baths, parks and another old castle surrounded by a moat, quite a romantic place I imagine especially in winter when the area in front becomes an ice skating rink and the castle turrets are covered with snow...

Spent a good day with people at hostel in the thermal baths, the hot greenish mineral laden water so relaxing, the baths I went to also had some outdoor pools, one featuring a whirlpool which was fun doing superman impressions in!

Tried Hungarian goulash. Spicy, hot, saucy. yum. (just like the women you might say?)

Wasn't fortunate enough to witness good Budapest nightlife. We were trying to find this squat bar/club (semi illegal bars owned by people who squat in abandoned buildings and transform them to night spots). Unfortunately because they are semi illegal they are hard to find, all we had was a general area and that it had a "red door". Of course we ignorant tourists never found it!

Left Budapest (but I will be back some day!!!) and went to Bratislava, crossing the border on a bridge by foot from Eztergom (which has the largest church in Hungary - it's huge!) and Sturovo, a small town on the other side of the Danube river. (You save 50% if you go to the border towns and cross by foot than get trains/buses that crosses countries).

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, sometimes referred to as "little Vienna". Quite small for a capital, feels more like a big town, filled with interesting metal sculptures, old renaissance buildings and, according to fellow travellers and confirmed with my eyes, the largest number of beautiful girls found in any given town/city! Velmi pecny***

Stayed a little longer in Bratislava for the Coronation Ceremony of some Queen or something. Whatever it was it was lots of fun watching comedy acts, historic/folk dances, fire breathers/twirlers/jugglers, sword/weapon/gun fights, and the best part, an actual jousting competition where "knights" would charge at each other with blunted lances to knock the other of their horses! Unreal! Unfortunately no "We Will Rock You" crowd singing/thumping AKA "A Knights Tale" (I make too many references to movies in these emails).

Well, back in Western Europe now, where everything is expensive and I have to live on eating kebabs and other cheap junk food to stay under budget...


*Slovak for "oh my god!"

** Slovak for "Good Appetite"

***Slovak for "Very pretty"