Archive for the ‘Train Trip’ Category

When in Rome…

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

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…or Florence, as the case may be, eat lots of gelato! At least that’s the rule we went by during our weekend in Tuscany. Rachelle, Rachel, Kirsten and I left a week ago today for our Italian adventure. Before our train that night I had a walking tour with my history class to see all of the places in Salzburg that have a connection to World War II or the Third Reich, and it was really strange to learn that some of the buildings we pass by everyday were sites of Nazi book burnings or SS prisons. Few of the buildings have any markers to indicate what they were, but most are so little changed that they are easy to identify from 1930s and ’40s pictures. Depressing.

But shortly thereafter we were getting ready to board our 9:10 train. We all got a bit of a shock only a short while into the trip after Angry Austrian Train Man, his name as we refer to him now, yelled at Rachel for daring to put her foot up on the seat in front of her. German can be a frightening language as it is, so it shakes a person up when its being directed at you loudly. His outburst quickly became rather amusing though, and we played cards and chatted until we got to Villach, Austria were we needed to make a train transfer. From there to Florence we attempted to sleep, sprawled across our seats and squished on top of each other, but we all got at least a little rest before the train pulled up in Florence at 6:30 in the morning. Our hostel had asked us to confirm our early arrival time, so of course when we got there around 7 no one was around to answer the door. Someone finally came and, bleary eyed, politely inquired as to what the heck we were doing there. Confused, cranky that we were being dumped out into early morning Florence instead of being able to take a few hours nap, we left our suitcases with him and promised to return a few hours later. A snack at a cafe perked us up a bit, and we decided we might as well head to the Accademia Gallery, where the David statue is housed. It opened at 8:15, and we were first in line, so we had the whole place practically to ourselves for a time. The statue is one of those pieces of art we’ve all seen in textbooks since elementary school, so it was really cool to see it in person. We wandered through the rest of the galleries as well, oohing and aahing at the different statues. As the museum was getting more crowded we could feel our eyelids drooping and decided to escape to our now-ready hostel to take a quick cat nap.

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A few hours later we were far more ready to face the city. We grabbed sandwiches for lunch and hiked up to Michelangelo Plaza, a hill with a gorgeous view out over the entirety of Florence. So awesome. We hung around soaking in the view for a while, and then we explored a church on the hill that had a tangled maze of a cemetery behind it. We got some gelato and sat on the side of the plaza watching the sun get lower and a cute newlywed couple take wedding pictures with all of Florence in the background. By the time we hiked down from Michelangelo Plaze the sun was setting with a vengeance, and we were getting hungry. We took the time to stroll across the Ponte Vecchio, an old covered bridge that today houses lots of jewelry stores. Shiny. Dinner followed (pasta of course!), and then it was more gelato. Yum. After our train ride the night before we were all falling asleep at 8, so we made it an early night and headed back to our hostel with the tiny creaky elevator and our room with no heat.

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Saturday morning we woke up in time to get to the Uffizi Gallery before it opened. We had been warned that it gets super crowded later in the day, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t have to climb over people to look at paintings. The gallery was gorgeous, full of Renaissance era artwork, most of which Kirsten was able to explain to us. We took a hint from Kirsten’s old family vacations and each chose something to count in the paintings. There were a lot of horses, but not enough to keep me out of fourth place. We must have seen virtually every painting in the place, and by the time we’d wound our way out of the galleries and through the endless Asian tour groups we were in desperate need of some lunch. Pizza seemed an appropriate choice, though resisting the temptation to pick it up and eat it with our fingers proved exceedingly difficult. We all ordered different kinds, and all were rather tasty. That afternoon we found the Florence street market, full of leather products and jewelry and t-shirts that said silly things in Italian. We went into the Duomo (the main cathedral) as well as some other churches. And I’m pretty sure we ate a lot of gelato, seeing as that’s all we ever did. We even had a rule that we couldn’t eat the same flavor twice, so between the four of us we tried just about everything. Ever since Budapest, Rachelle and I seem to have a knack for coming across random parades, and Florence was no exception. What we at first perceived to be an anti-tax protest turned out to be a mini gay rights parade. You go Italy. The parade worked its way down the street, and we found a little place to have pasta for dinner again that night before managing to discover an English pub showing American college football on TV. The half of our quartet who actually enjoys football found this entertaining.

Sunday we woke up to rain and cold and not much left on our list of things to do. We finally discovered a place with cannolis (yet another food on our ‘we have to have while it Italy’ list) and sat eating those while waiting for the rain to stop. Of course, in keeping with the theme, a bizarre parade of Italian soldiers in uniforms ran by the cafe playing ‘Hava Nagila’ on their trumpets. Europe never fails to make me laugh. We then attempted to venture and find gardens that were marked on our map, but as it turns out the Four Seasons hotel had bought them and fenced them off, so alas, no gardens for us. Cold, and with our jeans wet almost to our knees, we stopped for cappuccino if for no other reason than that we were in Italy. This non-coffee drinker had to drown hers in sugar but drank it. Eventually we found ourselves at the Medici Palace, which you had to pay to get into, so we settled for taking silly ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ pictures with our umbrellas outside. Finally, finished exploring, we ate gelato yet again and then dragged our stuff back to the train station. We staked out a table in the back and proceeded to cover it in homework assignments as we attempted to catch up on our work while waiting for our 6:30 train. Of course it’s hard to concentrate when you’re freezing. Florence does not believe in heating its buildings it seems. Several hours of shivering later we celebrated the fact that our train was not one of the many canceled ones that evening and piled on for the quick two hours to Venice. We had just enough to time to make our connection there, and then we were stuck for the long haul back to Salzburg. Poor Diego, our Italian compartment mate, was probably regretting his choice of train when the four of us showed up. I know I caught him talking about ‘quatros Americanos’ on the phone at one point, and if I knew the Italian word for crazy I probably would have heard that proceeding it. He was a good sport though, and the train ride went relatively quickly. Angry Austrian Train Man was back, but he was much friendlier this time, and when I woke up for a moment at a stop still in Italy it was snowing like insanity. We got back home at around 4 in the morning, and my German skills were tested when our taxi driver back to the dorm decided I should want to chat in a foreign language at that time of the morning. The whole trip was a blast though; it was a stunning city with lots of good food and lots of bonding time for the four of us.

I spent most of this week stressing about homework because I had a big presentation for a class on Wednesday. I am all sorts of happy to have it over with. Yesterday too Rachelle and I had the fun adventure of searching out the Austrian equivalent to Draino so that we could finally fix our evil shower that refuses to drain. I’d really rather not ever have to empty a shower with cooking pots either, but luckily we were both amused enough by it that we didn’t take the time to consider how gross it really was. For the time being the problem seems to be solved. We made Austrian food for our weekly girls’ dinner last night, so that was fun. I met a girl from the second floor of our building who is from Columbia and only speaks Spanish and German but who wants to learn English, so it was quite the experience with all of us attempting to use a combination of Spanish, English, and German to communicate. Not much else too exciting though. We leave for Prague at the crack of dawn tomorrow. It’s supposed to be a spectacular city so I can’t wait to see it. Can’t quite believe we leave for home 5 weeks from today though; we’re trying to cram in everything we still have to see and do. Not to mention those three major research papers I still need to get a handle on.

Through the Iron Curtain

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Last week was pretty slow by the normally chock full Salzburg standards. I had two tests so we spent quite a bit of time studying. The vice mayor of Salzburg came into our Austrian Culture class one night, and listening to what he had to say about the challenges of governing a city like Salzburg was pretty interesting. Then Salzburg had its annual jazz festival so some of us ventured out into the city to listen to some music. Granted, jazz by Salzburg’s definition is not quite what most Americans would call jazz, but it was fun. Wednesday night we found ourselves listening to some sort of gypsy band that sang in Spanish. Thursday night we jumped around from venue to venue and ended up exploring some parts of Salzburg that we’d never walked through before. It was good to have a fairly relaxing week though because it meant we had sufficient energy to embark on our latest weekend adventure, this time to Budapest.

Our train to Hungary left the Salzburg train station at 4:30 in the morning. After some consideration Rachelle and I, as well as our friends Mike and Phil who came with us, determined that it made the most sense to just stay awake through Thursday night and then sleep on the train for most of the morning. So Thursday afternoon I called to reserve a taxi for 3:30 AM and hung up a few minutes later only semi-confident that the woman at the taxi company had understood what I was telling her. When we were all standing in front of our dorm, freezing, at 3:30 and there was no taxi I wasn’t entirely surprised. I was however, a little nervous we were going to miss our train. After a few minutes of being creeped out by a strange car driving down our street backwards, discovering that it was in fact the newspaper delivery man and not a serial killer, and fretting about our lack of a ride, we walked towards the main road in hopes of finding a random taxi. We had just gotten around the corner from the dorm when we saw just such a taxi coming towards us. Much jumping up and down ensued. The taxi put his turn signal on as though he saw us, but then he turned down the street we had just come from. Assuming he was simply turning around, this did not concern us greatly at first. When we realized he wasn’t coming back for us we realized he probably had been our original taxi all along and was now waiting outside of our dorm. Rachelle proceeded to run down the street to fetch him. Just after she’s turned the corner Mike and Phil and I witness a bus pull out of the bus depot a block from our building. It’s 3:45 in the morning. You’re lucky to ever catch a bus past midnight here in Salzburg. And not only was this bus randomly leaving the depot in the middle of the night, it had Main Train Station as its destination. The three of us just about died. We have since declared it a Phantom Bus. Maybe it never existed.

Eventually Rachelle came back with our taxi and we made it to the station with plenty of time to spare. When we got on the train though we suddenly realized we had no idea where to sit. Our tickets had an assigned compartment, but all of the train’s other passengers had just come from Switzerland in the middle of the night and understandably were all sprawled across the seats sound asleep. We clunk up and down the train a bit before finally asking someone where we ought to be. Of course it’s four cars behind our current position, so we traipse all the way back. Upon finding our correct compartment we discover two women fast asleep. Awkward. We have to wake them up. They speak Hungarian. Eventually we all get seated and attempt to sleep for the seven hour trip.

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We got to Budapest groggy and hungry and quickly discovered we had no idea what was going on. We came out of the train station into a chaotic construction scene and had only a vague plan that involved getting to the metro. Where the metro was we hadn’t a clue. Fortunately someone pointed us in the right direction of the underground, and we lugged our luggage down the long escalator only to be reminded that we had no Hungarian currency, and we couldn’t buy metro tickets in Euros. Cue trekking back up the escalator and venturing out into the surrounding streets in search of an ATM. This was no easy feat. When we did find one we had no idea how much money we needed, as the Hungarian forint was so inflated at one point that a meal might cost 1000 forint. Really strange to see an ATM spit out a bill with 10,000 written on it. Money in hand we guessed our way through the metro and to our hostel. The hostel was in the middle of yet another construction site, and a crowd of rowdy people carrying flags seemed to be standing directly in front of our building. Confused, tired, and growing increasingly annoyed at our inability to read Hungarian, we fought through the crowd and to the hostel door. Now the the outside of this building was possibly one of the sketchiest buildings in the history of ever. We had already become nervously aware of the general rundown appearance of parts of the city, and so it was with a great deal of trepidation that we hiked up the several flights of stairs we had to take to the hostel itself. Much to our delight, the hostel turned out to be a perfectly lovely little hotel, with free cookies and a lot of other travelers willing to share their various travel stories.

We ate lunch that first day at a Hungarian restaurant not far from our hostel. The rest of the day we spent napping and wandering around, getting our feel for the city and the things we wanted to see and do. It was also a Hungarian national holiday, celebrating the anniversary of their 1956 Revolution. We saw a huge parade of people carrying Hungarian flags and lots of the buildings in the city were decked out in red, white, and green. Though the revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, Hungarians are still very proud that theirs was one of the first attempts to overthrow communism in the Eastern Bloc. Saturday we woke up and set out along Vaci Street, one of Budapest’s main tourist drags, until we got to the Central Market Hall. The first floor of the huge building is mostly food stands with vegetables and fruits spilling out everywhere. Upstairs is filled with souvenir stalls and people trying to sell stacking dolls, lacy tablecloths, and beer steins. We wandered through the maze of aisles, bought some neat pastries (real whipped cream!), and then left to see more of the city.

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Exploring seemed to involve climbing a lot of hills. Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River, and the Pest side is relatively flat, but the Buda side has several large hills. We climbed up endless amounts of stairs, and from there we could look out over a lot of the city. We saw the former palace, which is now a museum, and Fisherman’s Bastion, which is some sort of former fort overlooking the river. To me it just looked like a sandcastle. The guys went into a military history museum, but Rachelle and I sat outside rather than stare at a bunch of old war stuff. That night I had one of my favorite foods for dinner- cabbage and noodles! Yum.

Sunday we planned to venture to Memento Park. After consulting numerous guidebooks it seemed that this park would be a cool place to see a piece of history because, basically, after communism ended in Hungary, Budapest put all of its old communist statues in one park rather than destroy them. We caught a tourist bus from one of the main metro stations and quickly realized how ridiculous the whole thing was going to be. Communist march music blared over the bus’s speaker system. We drove about 20 minutes outside of town and got off the bus at a dusty patch of ground in a semi-residential area. The guide informed us that we had an hour and half to see all of the “sites” of Memento Park. Picture if you will half a dusty football field with two dozen or so large, angry looking statues spread around, and none of the figures have any explanations or labels concerning their history or former location. Imagine our joy at discovering we could see all of them in fifteen minutes. Granted, the statues were kind of cool in a we’re-definitely-in-Eastern-Europe sort of way. But even after admiring them thoroughly we had tons of time left to kill, and so we spent it watching old Hungarian spy training videos in a dark little room on the edge of the park. Pretty interesting to discover their government’s undercover agents in the 1970s were fairly incompetent. (And one of the men was a Horvath!)
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After being completely dumbfounded by the oddness that was Memento Park we took the bus back into the city and then attempted to get lunch. Of course it was Sunday so not much was open. What we did come across was a cheap Chinese place on a little side street. Questioning our choice in eating establishment we walked in and proceeded to point and order whatever it was that looked vaguely familiar. The woman at the counter spoke more English than we’d anticipated so communication wasn’t as tricky as anticipated. The real treat came when she put our food on the plates and then stuck them in the microwave. Reheated Chinese food. Oh boy. But it wasn’t too bad, and no one died of horrific food poisoning so chalk it up to an entertaining cultural experience. After we ate lunch we wanted to take a tour of Budapest’s awesome Parliament building. Of course we missed the last English language tour of the day by about a half an hour. Instead we went to Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube and marveled at what is supposedly a resort area in the summer but basically looked like a bunch of overgrown tennis courts and lots of shuttered bars and hotels. But the fall leaves were pretty. Later that day we hung out with the Australians and other Americans staying in our hostel and went out to dinner with a French guy who was there as well.

Our last day we had just about run out of things to do and see but we soldiered on. We had yet to see Andrassay Street, a high end shopping district with some of the city’s historical sites, so we walked up that. There were so many Western stores that it was hard to imagine what the city must have been like under communism twenty years ago. We trudged through the misty rain and made it to Hero’s Square at the end of the street. The square is a monument to the 1956 Revolution and is flanked by a few museums and whatnot. We wandered through the square and into City Park which has its own castle, zoo, and circus. We saw the castle, but mostly we just walked around and enjoyed the fall leaves (Rachelle, our resident California girl, especially). After still more walking we ended up back at the Central Market Hall to spend the rest of our Hungarian forint on some pastries. Our train left at 6 Monday night, and we were lucky enough to get a six person compartment to ourselves so we could stretch out. The train lurched its way across the two countries, getting in to Salzburg at 1 AM, a half hour later than it was supposed to be. Luckily, our 8:30 class on Tuesday had been canceled so we unpacked, collapsed, and slept for quite some time. All in all, it was a great trip to someplace that we picked kind of spontaneously. Everyone was really friendly, and it was unlike any other place I’ve been so I’m super happy we went. Today we just bought more-expensive-than-necessary tickets to Florence, Italy for next weekend so more travels to come. For the next week and a half though I’m going to be doing a lot of homework. And we’re all excited for Halloween, Salzburg style.