Archive for May, 2012

Berchtesgaden and St. Wolfgang

I headed off to Salzburg once again to catch up with my friend from home. This time, we were actually going on a guided tour of the local area. Even though my inner snob usually makes itself known at the idea of such things – I feel like they are overpriced and lack personality – I ended up really enjoying it. Furthermore, it makes a pleasant change to venturing out somewhere on your own and having to organise your own transport. It did cost 70 € for two tours, but both of them were incredible.

We crossed the border into Germany on a bus full of other tourists, and got chatting to some older ladies from New Mexico who had come to Salzburg for a dog show. The first stop was the (confusingly spelt) Salzbergwerk in the tiny town of Berchtesgaden. This is home to a centuries-old salt mine. We had to put on some funny overalls and board a little train which took us half a mile inside the mountain. We also had to slide down a chute which was surprising, and very fun. We wandered through the caves. It was very cold down there, but the whole experience was utterly spellbinding.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures, so this is one I got from the internet. We had to take a little boat across the 200m-deep-water to get to the other side. The whole place lit up in different colours, it was incredible.

The surrounding countryside was gorgeous. Look how blue the water is! I wish I could’ve paddled in it.

Map of the Hoher Göll, the mountain on top of which the nearby Eagle’s Nest sits (this was Hitler’s retreat, and it is still visitable, but we didn’t go)

After that we had lunch in Berchtesgaden, and then got on the bus back into Austria – specifically to the Salzkammergut, which is a district of lakes and mountains that spans three states (Upper Austria, Styria and Salzburg). The next place was St. Gilgen, where we would get a boat across the lake to St. Wolfgang. I felt like I was in a dream, or a children’s storybook…

Just beautiful. It’s going to be hard to get used to not being around Austria’s stunning nature when I go back home. This was also probably the nicest honourary birthday I’ve ever had!

I’d also like to mention that I’ve never heard so many people saying ‘Excuse me, are you from London?’ when overhearing a conversation I was having with someone… bizarre.

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Alles Gute muss einmal zu Ende gehen

It is the eve of my last Monday at work – the next one will be a bank holiday, and then the next one I will be flying home – and so I feel it is finally time to make a “leaving” post, especially since over the coming days I will be frantically preparing for my departure. The prospect of all the paperwork and the goodbyes is freaking me out quite a lot, so I imagine I’ll be putting it off by messing around on the internet, but I think I just need to get on with it.

Before I do that, though, here’s some pretty great news: This blog has been featured on Third Year Abroad, a very, very useful site designed to help students plan and enjoy all aspects of their time studying or working abroad.

Since this is obviously something that’s on my mind a lot lately, here are some positive things I’ve gathered about both Austria and England…

Things I’m going to miss about Austria:

  • The announcement made like clockwork before a certain tram stop on my way to school, that haunts my dreams: ‘Sehr geehrte Fahrgäste, wir bitten Sie, Ihre Sitzplätze anderen Personen zu überlassen, wenn die sie nötiger brauchen. Vielen Dank.’
  • The endearing fact that certain teachers and pupils think that I must know everything about every English-speaking country on the planet. But this has made planning lessons on Ireland and South Africa much more fun, as I’ve learnt some new things myself!
  • The cheesy jokes that get made: ‘In your country you drive on the left side, but for you it’s the right side!’
  • The wide-eyed shock people have when they learn that I willingly speak two foreign languages, particularly their own. It used to annoy me, but now, looking back, it’s just quite amusing.
  • The Upper Austrian dialect/accent still being an endless source of mystery and entertainment. So many times the kids at school have tried to make me say Oachkatzlschwoaf, which means squirrel tail, because they know that anyone who’s not from round here has real difficulty saying it. (In Standard German, it’s Eichkätzchenschweif.)
  • People walking around on the street in Lederhosen and Dirndl like it’s nothing.
  • The amazing availability of vegan-friendly products in Spar supermarkets (here, it’s akin to Tesco, unlike the corner-shop type of store it is back home).
  • The breathtaking scenery, like, everywhere.
  • Reading the Guardian Weekly in the staffroom at one of my schools. Just made me appreciate it more, I suppose.

Things I’m looking forward to about going back to England:

  • A good cup of tea.
  • A good curry.
  • Chips.
  • Beans on toast (the fact that the first four are food-related betrays many secrets of the current state of my stomach).
  • Netflix.
  • The TV panel shows that encapsulate our nation’s sense of humour, even if I do sort of hate them.
  • The mighty pound sterling. I just feel better paying with it, for some reason.
  • Being able to use uniquely English slang instead of having to talk slowly, in RP, all the time.
  • Not having to be constantly scrutinised as The Foreigner. It’s a novelty at first, but it can get you down a bit.
  • The Queen’s Jubilee. I’m no royalist, but it’ll be a nice change to have a bank holiday for a reason other than the official day of [insert name of random saint here]. Bank holidays in Austria aren’t always good because they mean that every shop ever is closed.
  • Taking a bath. Not specifically English, but sometimes there are times when you are just so stressed out and tense and only a hot bath can solve it.
  • Being able to be more adventurous with cooking and actually use the awesome cookbooks I got last Christmas. Kitchen facilities here only allow me to make a rotation of about three different meals (who really wants to spend all their money on baking tins and other stuff they can’t bring home?).
  • Visiting places I’ve never been yet. During the past year, I may have travelled to a myriad of great cities and countries on the European mainland, but there is so much in my own small country that I am ignorant of. For example, apart from a few days in Northumberland with my family when I was quite a bit younger, I have never properly been up north. All the time, I hear people at uni back home talk about how cool Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds are, and all I can do is nod and smile. I really want to sort that out.
  • Family and friends. I suppose.

I will refer to the second list when I have already been at home for a week and inevitably wish I was not.

A short post about Austrian bread

The one on the left is called a Laugenstangerl, and it is also available as a round roll. I don’t really know why I am so addicted to it, as I generally don’t care too much for white bread, but it is so good. It is often covered with pumpkin or poppy seeds, and is soft and fluffy on the inside. I find myself buying it as a little snack most days of the week.

The one on the right is called a Laugenbreze, although maybe people would think “pretzel” when they see it. I suppose its texture is similar to the other one but this time it’s in a cool shape. You can also get them covered in large grains of salt, which I really, really dislike. I remember the first time I was buying some bread rolls in a supermarket, completely oblivious to the salt crystals. I got home, took a bite, and was horrified! It reminded me of when I tried to eat those salt-dough Christmas tree decorations I used to make as a child (I’m sure it wasn’t just my family that did this…?).

The prefix Laugen- means lye, which is a strong alkali (sounds a little off-putting, admittedly!) used to glaze the bread. The standard German word for bread rolls is Brötchen – which means “little bread” – but in Austria it’s better to remember to use their word, Semmerl.

Budapest

This was possibly my most anticipated trip. I became fascinated with Budapest a few years ago after seeing it on a property development programme, of all things. It took four and a half hours to reach on the train from Linz, and I arrived at night so I was pretty exhausted by the time I set foot in the city. I was picked up at the station by Tressa, a cheerful, upbeat girl from Colorado, who is studying in Budapest for a semester. Since she had a lot of work and exams to prepare for, I only really saw her when I came back in the evenings, so during the day I was navigating and experiencing the city all by myself.

I must admit, the first thing that came to mind when I got off the train was, ‘Wow, this screams Eastern Europe’. I know how prejudiced that sounds, but it looked exactly how it is often stereotyped to look – very outdated and slightly worse for wear. I also felt really disorientated – I had no idea where I should be going as I couldn’t even guess what the signs said.

You see, Hungarian is a unique, ancient language, thought to have originated in Western Siberia. Therefore, it is related to no Indo-European one, meaning that for example if you were an English speaker, you’d have more luck understanding Sanskrit than Hungarian. Moreover, it’s considered one of the world’s hardest languages, due to its extremely complex grammar (which is another of the roots of my fascination, actually). But it does turn out that, interestingly, Hungarian is a regionally recognised language in Austria! Vienna is called Bécs

Anyway, Tressa’s place, not far from the main station in Pest (the side of the city east of the Danube), was very cosy and had many of the features that I had seen in that TV programme – for example, there was a lovely stained glass window in the kitchen. The blocks of flats in Budapest are very often centred around a courtyard, like so:

And the lobbies of even very average-priced buildings can look very fancy indeed. This one had a beautiful tiled floor which I unfortunately didn’t manage to do justice:

The most stressful aspect of the trip was, no doubt, when I was accused of riding the underground with an invalid ticket. I feel I should tell this story in full to make people aware!

At the top of each escalator going down to the trains, there are conductors whom you have to show your ticket. I had bought a 24-hour one about two hours prior to this incident. I was stopped, and although I kept explaining that my ticket was valid, I kept being told I was wrong and was just treated like a complete idiot. I was told I needed to pay an 8000 forint fine (about 30 euros), but I didn’t have this money on my person. The conductor took my passport and made a note of its details, and gave me 10 minutes to get some cash out. I was really panicking and thought, ‘$%*^, I am really in for it now’. I got out a wodge of money and zoomed back. Upon my return, I was surprised to find that the conductor apologised to me because she had misread the date on my ticket. Hmmm.

So that was a massive relief in the end, but at the time it was a nightmare. Even if you’re travelling between EU states, you should take your passport with you wherever you go – contrary to what I’d thought before – because I dread to think what trouble I could have got into if I hadn’t had mine, not least because I was in a very unfamiliar country.

Hungarian forint

But the rest of my day in Budapest was great. The downside was that I had to rush everything a bit and cram it in – annoyingly, the only train ticket I had been allowed to purchase was one that let me arrive on Thursday evening but leave on Saturday lunchtime.

On Friday morning I walked by the Danube and got some gorgeous views of Buda (the western side):

Unfortunately, I never set foot on Buda, even though it is home to some of the most famed and beautiful sights the city has to offer, such as the architecture left over from the days of the Ottoman Empire. I hear there is a castle from which you can get a view of all of Budapest. Definitely next time!

Pest is the more modern side. It is home to the Hungarian government, plus the main shopping streets. It is also much bigger than Buda, and much easier to access due to its abundance of public transport.

‘Shoes On The Danube Promenade’ – a chilling memorial to the Hungarian Jews who were ordered to take off their shoes and were then shot into the river in 1944.

Parliament Building

Hungarian Post

Sign to an underground station

This is the type of building that, inexplicably, I’d love to live in.

Ah, yes. Let me tell you about the wonderful lunch I enjoyed.

As is the case with most new cities I visit nowadays, I look up any good vegan/vegetarian restaurants that might be about. Napfényes Étterem had got flawless reviews, so I decided to go there. It was a bit out of the way, but totally worth it. I had a salad and a pizza made of spelt dough, soya cheese, pineapple and seitan cubes, it was amazing. As much as I’d have wanted to try out some of the vegan cakes that were on offer, I was absolutely stuffed. This is why I’d advise that you go on as empty a stomach as possible – and believe me, even if you are a meat eater, you want to go there! It is located in a charming little brick cellar. The staff are friendly and it was one of the only places in the city I found they could speak pretty decent English (I’d been getting by in German, which seems to be most people’s second language there). The seating is comfy, it’s well-priced, and there is lots of variety on the menu.

The entrance to the restaurant!

After that, I spent some time wandering around some back streets. It was nice enough, but this is the time I started to feel a little ill – I couldn’t stop sneezing, my whole face ached, my sandals were becoming very uncomfortable, and on top of this, the heat was unbearable. I suppose this is why I chose this point to indulge in some retail therapy. There were some cute little stores around the Astoria underground station – if you wander round they are pretty easy to find! My favourite purchase by far was this calculator watch:

It looks much better in person!

Because it had been a hot, exhausting day, I was keen to visit the thermal baths which are a unique feature of Budapest (another Ottoman relic). But I got there and they were just about to close which was so disappointing as I would have liked nothing better. So I came back to Tressa’s place – we’d been unable to properly hang out as she’d been in classes all day – and this is when things got worse. My eyes were beginning to swell up and I felt physically unable to do anything except go to bed. It was such a shame as I had been looking forward to seeing some of Budapest’s cafés and bars at night.

The next day, I had some time to squeeze in maybe one more activity before I got the train back to Linz. I went to Margaret Island, a mile-long island right in the middle of the river. I only had time to see the very tip of it, but it has some nice gardens and things like that on it. There is also an artificial beach, although personally I wouldn’t really like to dip my toes into the dirty old Danube:

Departures/arrivals at the train station, going to many countries: Germany, Czech Republic, Serbia, Romania…

Overall, I loved my trip to Budapest, despite feeling under the weather and not being able to stay nearly as long as I’d have liked to. I will most definitely be making an effort to come back and uncover more of its mystery, now that I know what I missed the first time. I have also certainly been inspired to travel further east into Europe, although this probably won’t be happening any time soon, sadly.

Graz

Just the day after I got back from Vienna in the evening, I got up at 5:30 and hopped a bus to Graz. I was able to do this because I had a couple of days off school due to a national holiday. I’d heard that Graz was a pretty cool city, but I didn’t know anyone there, so I decided to couchsurf, and once again I had a great experience.

The journey to Graz took about three hours, and it was hot, but the journey was salvaged by the beautiful scenery. When I got there, I went to where I was staying – the flat of Tom and Robert. They were both vegan, which made food absolutely no bone of contention (good pun, right?). I found out they’d be organising a show that night and the bands – Spraynard and Caves – would be staying at their place! I had already listened a bit to Spraynard, a US band, and Caves, from Bristol, were unknown to me. But their sets were absolutely great and made me a bit sad that such a scene was lacking in Linz, since it had been quite a while since I’d attended a “jumping around” show. Hanging out with the bands afterwards was also awesome. I don’t know, this whole stay just inspired me in a lot of ways, not least because such great food was provided! Before the show, there was a barbecue of vegan schnitzel which was absolutely heavenly; and then for breakfast, pancakes made of flour and soya milk, and various spreads and homemade breads.

As a city, Graz is lovely. The buildings are very pretty and probably the nicest in all of Austria. The atmosphere is very student-orientated and everyone seems to know everyone, and not in a bad way. There is a wonderful park in the middle. For these reasons, it reminded me of Ghent, in Belgium. I don’t think I wrote about visiting that city on here, but it’s in Flanders and it was so cool… if I had to live in Belgium again, I’d definitely want to live there!

This is inspired by a bridge in Paris where lovers/friends write their names on a lock and seal their relationship!

Inside Schlossberg, a mountain with a castle at the top! You had to take a lift inside the mountain to get up there, which was pretty cool.

View of Graz from the top

Vienna

Yes, I gave it another chance in the end! The same friend I visited in Salzburg suggested we go one weekend, and this made all the difference.

I got a bit stressed out that morning, so I ended up missing the same train my friend was supposed to meet me on. I arrived in Vienna two hours later than planned, but luckily, this time all the underground lines were open. I met her at Naschmarkt, which is a massive flea market that takes place on Saturdays just outside the Kettenbrückengasse station. There were people selling all the usual odds and ends, but as we walked further on, it became more food-orientated… so many stalls selling fruits, vegetables, spices and delicacies from all over the world. The sheer variety was unbelievable and it all smelt amazing. For lunch we got an absolutely delicious falafel wrap with hummus and red onions. We agreed that if we lived in Vienna, it’d be financially dangerous because we’d be getting all our food from here each week.

We dumped our bags in a security room at the station and went to look at some sights, since couldn’t check into our hotel until 14:00. However, we ended up collecting our stuff and making our way to the hotel pretty late, at about 18:00. My friend, who had booked it, had been under the impression that it was 5 minutes’ walk from a certain underground station.

But when we got there, it was nowhere to be seen. We asked a few passers-by and they said that it was absolutely not reachable by foot. What? My friend rang the hotel and they were a bit standoffish, but they indeed said that we needed to get a bus down the motorway there… I was sort of fed up by this point as it had been so hot – around 30°C – that day, so travelling had been hellish and walking round the city pretty exhausting.

Nonetheless, we got the next bus and we ended up at some remote shopping centre. Upon studying the timetable, we discovered that the actual bus that stopped at the hotel only came once every three hours or so. Eventually we got a taxi to drive a couple of minutes to this bloody hotel. We also had to get a cab to the underground station so we could get into the city centre and back, since the buses were so infrequent. It was ridiculous. The hotel itself really wasn’t bad, it was just probably better for people visiting Vienna on a coach tour or something. Nevertheless, the lessons I learnt were:

  1. Always check how out-of-town your place of accommodation might be, seeing as it may be overselling itself on the website;
  2. Always check availability/reliability of nearby public transport links. It can be bothersome spending an hour or two on Google Maps, but it saves so much hassle in the long run, as well as money for taxis, not to mention the possibility of being stranded somewhere (as I genuinely believed we were).

I managed to get a few nice pictures of the city in general this time.

My new boyfriend.

This is the main Austrian government building... the inside was also incredible, from what I could see.

On Sunday, we went to Schönbrunn Palace which was the summer residence of the Habsburgs until Austria became a republic in 1918. (Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination caused the First World War, was part of this dynasty, and so was Marie Antoinette). And oh my, it is an absolute hotbed of tourists… the queues to get into the palace were so long, probably only rivalled by the Eiffel Tower. So, we decided to cheat the system a little bit. Even though we didn’t go into the palace – a shame, but it would have taken us the whole day anyway – with a little bit of exploring, we found that if you went round the sides under the archways, and not via the entrance, you could view quite a large part of the gardens for free (I think there were areas where you actually did have to pay, but we never even saw those, so it could well have been a ploy to get people to part with their cash).

When we were hanging around outside, we were approached by two people who asked if they could film us. They were making a video for their friends who were getting married, and they showed us a picture of them and asked us questions like ‘What do you think their names are?’ and ‘Where do you think they are from?’. The video will be shown at the wedding, which is weird to think about, but it was an interesting little experience.

Schönbrunn from the front

The Gloriette, from the top of which you allegedly get a great view. We didn't go up, though.

Another awesome thing I found is that on Mariahilferstraße, the main street in the centre, there are two branches of Bortolotti’s, who do many flavours of lovely vegan ice cream!

So apart from wasting a hopeless hour or two trying to find this hotel, all in all this was a pleasant visit that changed my opinion of Vienna. I’d still say that for me, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi – it doesn’t captivate me as much as certain other cities have – but I wouldn’t mind going again, certainly.