Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

While Washington, DC does have a number of great museums, the city’s major attractions are still, without a doubt, the monuments and memorials. They’re all conveniently located in the same general vicinity, so on a bright and sunny Saturday morning Robert and I headed off to do a tour of the monuments. Funnily enough, our first stop was not technically a monument, although it was arguably just as, or even more, iconic than the host of monuments stretched out on the neighbouring greens – the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

We joined the scores of people who were crowding around the gates, trying to get the best possible pictures they could. Of course, the White House does offer guided tours, but you need to book them well in advance due to the limited places, and unfortunately my ‘planning-lite’ style of travelling hadn’t allowed for that. Security around the whole property was high, as to be expected. As well as the tall wrought-iron fences there were security personnel guarding every single exit and entrance to the premises. The tourist pictures look decent enough when you can squeeze your camera through the bars in the fence to get an unobstructed view, but sadly there’s no way there’s no other way to get a photo with the White House without looking like the cheap tourist on the outside who didn’t want to pay for the official tour. I like to think that’s part of my charm, though.

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

After the White House we wandered down through the green and onto the World War II Memorial, a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought in the war. The design of the memorial is actually quite well thought out to represent a number of finer details, and Robert explained it all to me as we walked around the site. There are two arches on either side of the memorial – they represent the two victories in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flanking the two arches are 56 granite pillars, which represent the US states and territories and the District of Columbia. The water feature in the centre is known as the Rainbow Pool, but the main wall of the memorial is what I found the most chilling. The Freedom Wall commemorates the lives of every solider who was killed during the war, and those who have since remained missing.

The fountain creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The fountains in the Rainbow Pool creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

Every single gold star on The Freedom Wall represents 100 men, and there are over 4000 stars on the wall. The figure in itself is a sad reminder of the reality of war, but to gaze upon The Freedom Wall and have that visual representation before your eyes was absolutely heartbreaking. To think that each star was a hundred men, and to see how long the wall stretched on for… I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in a single photograph. It is definitely a chilling reminder of just how high the so called price of freedom really is.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing on The Wall of Freedom.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing from WWII on The Wall of Freedom.

The WWII memorial it situated in the middle of perhaps two of the most iconic features of this area of DC – the long stretch of water known at the Reflecting Pool and the huge obelisk that is the Washington Monument. At this distance from the Washington Monument you could see that it was actually surrounded by scaffolding – Robert told me that they were just doing routine repairs and maintenance to the monument. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – from The Hermitage to the Vatican to the Roman Forum and even my view of the Brandenburg Gate, so many famous sights that I had set out to see on my journey had been obstructed in the name of reconstruction. The usually gleaming white pillar appeared a sinister shade of dark grey, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, so I just smiled for the camera and told myself that a picture of the monument looking like that is probably rarer than it’s original state anyway.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Instead of heading straight down the Reflecting Pool to the memorial at the other end, Robert took us on a detour through the Constitution Gardens, an area that was originally submerged in the Potomac River and was dredged up at the beginning of the 20th Century. We walked along the edge of the Constitution Gardens Pond until we came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial wall is beautifully designed, with the two long stone walls sinking into the earth, gradually getting taller as they go deeper. Along the wall are the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing during the war, and the reflective properties of the stone means that viewers can clearly see themselves among the names, an intended design feature that aims to symbolically combine the past and the present. There are small marks next to some of the names that indicate whether a person a was missing or how and when they died, and the wall is actually updated whenever new information is received about any of the fallen veterans. While listening to one of the volunteers explain more about the wall, we learnt that it was also intended to represent a kind of timeline of the war – to the best accuracy their records allow, the names are in chronological order of their deaths and disappearances, with the height of the war and the height of the loss of human life corresponding with the tallest part of the wall. It gave me shivers as I was reminded about my visit to the war museum in Saigon, where I was confronted with images of the war that were not as pleasant to behold as this memorial. The two arms of the wall are also carefully placed – one points in the direction Robert and I had just cam from, towards the Washington Monument, and the other one points in the direction of what our next destination would be – The Lincoln Memorial. There was so much care and planning behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that despite it being another reminder of the tragic loss of life that war brings, it really was an architectural work of art, and still beautiful to gaze upon.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Onwards we pressed towards the Lincoln Memorial, a statue I knew well from a multitude of pop culture references throughout my life. The statue in memory of the 16th President of the United States sat at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and the top of its steps offered some great photographic vantage points.

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

It wasn't often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert's presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren't selfies.

It wasn’t often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert’s presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren’t selfies.

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom...

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom…

... and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

… and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed south towards the Korean War Memorial. If the other war memorials had given me shivers, then this one definitely gave me goosebumps. While the other memorials were a dedication to the soldiers who had fought and served, with walls that literally listed the extensive loss of life, the Korean War Memorial was an homage to the similar veterans of a different war, but it was more of a graphic depiction than a written or symbolic dedication.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

From there we left the war memorials behind to visit the remaining memorials on the walk Robert had planned out, all of which were dedicated to important individuals in America’s history. First up was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the newest of all the memorials, created in 2011, near the Lincoln Memorial where the famous human rights activist delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial is made up of three main pieces, and together they depict one of the inspiring quotes from his address in 1963. Two pieces stand with an empty slot in the middle – representing the “mountain of despair – while Martin Luther King Jr. himself is etched into the third piece that represents the “stone of hope” which is carved out of the mountain. It’s a beautiful memorial, with simple but effective symbolism.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

We moved on to more presidential memorials, starting with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was actually a peaceful little trail that was set in a quiet and shady grove. During the walk through the memorial, Robert taught me a lot about the former president that I knew surprisingly little about. Roosevelt had been paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, and while he had refused to ever be seen in public with it, he used a wheelchair for much of his private life. With this in mind, the memorial is specifically designed to be easily accessible to those with a disability. He was also the president that led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and the memorial serves as a kind of timeline of the tumultuous events of his presidency. There were various visual representations, but the thing I found most inspiring about the memorial were the quotations from various speeches he delivered.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

"... and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

“… and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man..."

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man…”

"Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear."

“Freedom of speech.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.”

The fact the Roosevelt also led the people through the Great Depression is acknowledged by statues that show the poor lining up for food. As Robert and I wandered through the memorial, we saw some tourists taking photos of the line of poor people, except they were jumping in the photograph to be a part of the line.
“Isn’t that kind of disrespectful?” I asked Robert quietly as they finally walked away.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful,” he said flatly. “They’re making a joke out of a period of historic poverty. Nobody should be wanting to join that line.” We stood there for a sombre moment of silence, before continuing on our way out of the memorial.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

As we crossed of the Inlet Bridge, which bridges the gap that lets the Potomac River flow into the Tidal Basin, we approached the final memorial on our tour – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When we got to the base of the steps, Robert sat down to catch his breath and sent me off ahead.
“I’m too old to be bothered climbing all those steps, and I’ve seen the inside more than enough times. You go ahead, I’ll wait here.” I had to cut him some slack – he was more than double my age – so I left him there to climb the steps to the top of the memorial that was designed in the style of a Classical Roman rotunda. The inner chamber held a bronze statue of Jefferson, and I took my time walking around the room and reading all the inscriptions along the walls, presumably quotations from some of his speeches and addresses. I surprisingly found myself recognising some of them – words and phrases that somehow rang a bell, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where I knew them from.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

When I was finished musing over the words of the former US president, I returned down to where I had left Robert, and we made our way over the National Mall for some lunch, feeling throughly exhausted and completely famished from our long walk through the September sunshine.

***

On our way home from the memorials, Robert took us on another detour to show me a few more sights of DC. He took me down to what was known as the waterfront – the area along the Potomac River – and pointed across to the towers that signified the state of Virginia. Robert explained that there are laws that restrict the height of buildings in Washington, DC. The height of most residential buildings is limited to 110 feet, or 34 metres, and buildings on some commercial and business streets are allowed up to 160 feet, or 49 metres, with variations in areas around the White House and Congress buildings. I suppose it could have something to do with security – something that is in the back of every Americans mind since September 11, 2001 – except for the fact that the first version of the law was introduced in 1899. I guess it must have something to do with keeping the important buildings still looking important, and not letting them be overshadowed by skyscrapers.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

There are also canals that run through some of the streets of DC, parallel with the river, and Robert and I walked along a few of those until we got to one specific sight he had been keen to show me.
“This is the famous staircase from The Exorcist,” he said as we finally rounded a corner and approached it. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t remember exactly what the staircase looked like – to be fair, it was nighttime in the movie – but I remembered enough to appreciate it. I had probably been a little too young to be watching it when I had actually seen The Exorcist, because I remember being thoroughly spooked, even for a film as old as it was when I saw it.

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

Robert and I climbed the staircase – I took it slowly, step by step, taking my time to soak it all in and appreciate it – before continuing on. We passed through the prestigious Georgetown University on our way home to appreciate some of the architecture, although by this point of the afternoon our feet were well and truly aching, so we called it a day after that and made our way home. But I was so glad that Robert had taken the time to show me around – he knew the best route to take to see as many monuments as efficiently as possible, and he’d also been able to show me a couple of cool things that I otherwise never would have known about. He was also a really nice guy, who had done an extensive amount of travelling in his lifetime, so we were always talking about our trips and exchanging stories. He was old enough to be my father – which is sometimes a throwaway term, but he was literally only a few years younger than my dad – so he might not have been the kind of person I would have ever got in touch with or got to know if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. But I’m glad I had though – fun, friendly and incredibly knowledge, he had been a perfect guide and host for my weekend in Washington, DC.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

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Once Upon a Time: Prague Castle

I’m not going to lie – of all the major touristic attractions that I had known about, heard about and made plans to visit, the thought of going to Prague Castle made me unexplainably excited. I’d heard so many things about Prague being such a beautiful city, and the thought of a castle on a hill that overlooked the city inspired foolish, romantic notions of fairytale settings and wonder and magic. Of course, realistically I know it was just going to be a castle, but I let part of myself get swept up by the fantasy daydream.

***

The following morning both Tomas and Matej had to leave for work, so they left me to my own devices to explore the city, with nothing but a key so I could come and go as I please. And a fair bit of advice, of course, as to which buses to catch to get where, and what things I might like to see. “If it’s your first time in Prague, I assume you want to go to the castle,” Tomas had said as he’d told me all this before he’d headed out the door. He’d been right. So I set out on the bright and sunny morning to catch a tram that would take me across the river and up the hill to the castle. As we got closer, it became harder to see the castle, as we drove through areas of greenery and it became a lot harder to look up from inside the tram windows. The line map on the top of the tram car had a little picture of a castle next to the stop that you were supposed to get off at to visit it, but… it was sort of in between two stops. I wasn’t sure which one to pick. My Lonely Planet guide was no help. There were no obvious English speakers that I could ask, and no one seemed friendly enough to approach. Oh well – in the end I just followed a bunch of other tourists who seemed to be on some kind of tour.

When I got off the tram, my surroundings were slightly off-putting. It was like a ghost town – other than the group that had gotten off with me and were wandering slowly away, there was not a soul in sight. But I was left standing in the hot and heavy sun, in a cobblestone area that looked like a set from a Shrek movie (except it was obviously real, not an animation), making me feel like I was in a deserted theme park more than anything. Was I already inside the castle complex? Was this just some random town, or village? I was so confused, but in the distance down one main road, I could see the spires of the castle emerging above the closer rooftops. I set my course towards them, and made it just in time to see the final procession of the changing of the guards, not unlike the display I had seen in the Old Town of Stockholm in Sweden. As they marched off down in the direction I had came from, I turned to the main gate of the castle grounds. It was topped with intricate golden metal framework and statues of men that appeared to be in various stages of combat. The picture was, of course, completed by the tourists doing typical tourist things such as taking photos with the stern, solemn looking guards at their posts at the castle grounds entry. I chuckled and took a few photos of the gate itself before wandering into the grounds.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

As I began wandering through the courtyards, I realised that the castle itself was not one huge ancient building, the the greater limits of an area that included a few large churches and palaces. I wandered through the first courtyards looking for my way into these said palaces – I could see the spires pointing up into the sky above the buildings immediately in front of me, but it was like a maze to get through everything.

The spires of the chruch taunting me - just out of sight... sort of.

The spires of the chruch taunting me – just out of sight… sort of.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

When I finally made it to the churches, there were some guide ropes set up, as though there was some kind of line to get inside, but there was no one lining up so I simply walked on through and into the building. I had just entered into the halls of the St Vitus Cathedral, and was gazing upon the St Wenceslas Chapel. The echoing chamber was full of people, but the chapel itself was beautifully lit up by the sunlight pouring in through the windows. However, while it was gorgeous, it was just another church, so I headed back outside after taking a quick look around.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

I doubled back the way I came until I came to a ticket office – wait, tickets? Yep, while wandering the castles courtyards and gardens were free, apparently you needed tickets to enter into each of the main attractions… including the St Vitus Cathedral. I wasn’t about to pay to visit it again, and they had weird ticket packages and bundles that had different validity dates for certain things, and it all just seemed too confusing. I had managed to sneak into the first church undetected, so I figured I would move ahead and see if there was any way around the entry fee to see some of the others. I never ended up even finding the Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace, but I did come across the Basilica of St George. However, it was a much smaller building than the first cathedral, with one entrance where someone was collecting tickets. I pressed ahead, figuring I could return later with a ticket if I so desired.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

There were a lot of beautiful courtyards and minor buildings throughout the castle grounds, and when I reached the edge wall there was a view that stretched into the horizon, the view from the castle of the old kingdom below. However, in the end I found the whole of Prague Castle to be an underwhelming disappointment. Yes, it holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, and it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Yes, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are there, but they’re kept in a secret, hidden room, and I didn’t catch a glimpse of them. In the end it was just another set of churches to look inside, and unlike most of the churches I’d seen in my travels, like the ones in Cologne, Rome and Zürich, you had to pay to get inside all of these. After swearing that I had seen enough churches to last me this journey, it was a little more than I was prepared to do. So I followed the stepped walkway that led to Prague Castles exit, and crossed the Vltava River and headed back to Old Town Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Truth be told, even though the castle ended up being a bit of a let down for me, I still took immense pleasure in wandering the streets and enjoying the ancient and natural beauty that resonated throughout Prague. The castle was a nice aesthetic touch, visible across the river in the distance, but there was no need to actually visit it to get that fairytale feeling.

***

The next day was something a little bit different. Tomas was a landscape architect, and when I arrived on Tuesday he had told me that on Thursday they were going to get a visit from the mayor of Prague. The apartment complex in which they live had had a garden that was ugly and dying, not good for anything, so Tomas had taken it upon himself to put in hours and hours of hard work to restore the garden, complete with spaces for children in the complex to play, for people to plant gardens and vegetables, and a general sitting area for anything from an outdoor feast or picnic to catching up with a neighbour over a cigarette. Somehow, their garden had been entered into a competition, and unsurprisingly, had won. “There’s going to be a TV crew and everything,” Tomas had told me about the mayors visit. “They’re probably going to interview me too.” I could tell he was excited about the whole thing, but a little nervous about being on TV. Matej had been busy preparing food the day before, and that morning there were a bunch of official looking people, camera crews, TV hosts, as well as all the neighbours out in the garden. I watched on by the table of food, not really understanding any of what was being said, but feeling a little special to catch an inside glimpse into what was probably a special event for a lot of them, but what was for me as authentic an experience as I might get in everyday life in Prague.

Or maybe that’s selling my time in the city short. It was an interesting and non-touristic experience, but I also spent a lot of my time in Prague just hanging out with Matej and Tomas, eating local food at their local favourite places, walking around the beautiful city, or hanging out at night and watching movies, with them introducing me to some strange Czech ones as well as sharing their favourite Hollywood films – Death Becomes Her was a hit all around. I just only just now started to feel fully recovered after my excessive Pride binging in Southern Europe, and I realised it had been roughly two weeks since I had done any kind of crazy partying – extremely uncharacteristic of me – but I was rather enjoying the break, and it had given me the time to fully regain my strength.

I did spend one afternoon with Tomas and his friend Ondra having a stroll through a lush green garden area. I was amazed at the luck I had been having with the weather, and the daylight had been coming long and strong for weeks now. Beer was free flowing in most parts of Prague – you could could get it in plastic cups to go from many places, much like the set up for Pride in Paris, and so the three of us got our big cups of beer and took them outside to enjoy them on the grass. Ondra was a little quirky, but still a nice guy. He only spoke in English half the time, the other half in Czech, which made him a little mysterious to me, but I think Tomas explained it as that his English just wasn’t that good. Or he just didn’t like speaking English, whatever. But the three of us managed to have some funny conversations, with Tomas a relaying translator, having a couple of deep and meaningful discussions as well as laughing at the random and silly things we observed in the park around us. Tomas also took me over to a nearby church at the park. It was open, and free to all, but photography was prohibited. Inside, there was a case that contained some ancient relics, including bones and artefacts that belonged to saints from centuries past. It was a cool little thing to glimpse, and the church was virtually empty – a sign that I had definitely diverted from the tourist path and off the beaten track.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

***

I’d enjoyed my very brief time in Prague, and once again it was a little upsetting to have to leave behind people who I had just met, yet had grown so close to in such a short amount of time. “Don’t worry,” I had assured them as I had packed my stuff up on my final night. “I’m breezing through Europe so quickly this time, it just means that I’ll definitely have to come back one time to do it all probably.” They seemed to like that, although they were such nice guys that I’m sure they’d find plenty of new and fun Couchsurfers to fill my place when I left. But I was glad that once again I had taken the opportunity to Couchsurf and meet some amazing people and see some pretty cool and interesting things.

But for now, my time in Prague was at an end. I headed back to the train station on Friday morning, and when I saw the crowds I felt a moment of panic, having not reserved a ticket in advance. But there was just enough room on the train, luckily. I couldn’t really blame everyone for wanting to go where I was headed, because as I boarded the train I was overwhelmed with anticipation and excitement. I’d tried my best to see as much as I could during my time in Europe, and while you would think that that wouldn’t involve visiting a city for the second time, there was just something about the allure I felt that I hadn’t quite managed to shake: I was heading back to Berlin.

Stockholm Syndrome

Scandinavia as a region is not known for being cheap, and Stockholm is supposedly one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It was an unsettling thought – the progressive price increases hadn’t let up since I left Thailand. However, Susanna had assured me I’d only really need two days each per city to the see the best bits of both Stockholm and Copenhagen, so I could take small comfort in the fact my time in this expensive area would be relatively brief. Aside from being expensive, Stockholm was also renowned for being a beautiful city – both in its physical aesthetic, and the people who lived inside it. “Stockholm is such a fashionable city,” Susanna had told me in our discussion about my future travels. “Everyone there is just incredibly good-looking and so well dressed. I swear, if you lived there you would have to spend nearly your whole paycheque on clothes just to keep up with the fashion.” From what I’d seen of Swedish men during my time in Australia, I can’t deny I was more than a little excited to be entering this supposed treasure trove of eye candy.

***

Unlike the trip over from Helsinki, navigating the Stockholm upon my arrival was not such smooth sailing. From the map in my guide book I could see that the port was a fair way out from the main city. Actually, that’s only half true – I could very easily see the city and the part of Stockholm I was trying to get to. As the crow flies it would have been a relatively short walk. The problem was that it was across a huge gulf in the river that ran through the city. Later, a local would tell me that Stockholm is known as the Venice of Scandinavia – I hadn’t heard the term before, but by the end of my stay I certainly believed it. Unfamiliar with the public transport system that didn’t even really seem to come down this far in the first place, I was forced to catch a taxi. I asked for the meter – he said there was traffic, and offered me a price that would supposedly be better. He asked for it Swedish Krona – I only had Euros. It was a complicated exchange that didn’t even seem to be helped by the fact he spoke English, but in the end I think the price was fairly decent. I tried not to think about it to much – You’re in Stockholm now, I said to myself. It’s not going to get any cheaper than that.

During my time in Helsinki, I had attempted to search for Scandinavian hosts in Sweden and Denmark, so far to no avail. While I was still desperately clinging to the hope of finding a host in Copenhagen, I resigned to the fact that I would also be paying for accommodation in this beautiful, expensive city. I arrived at the hostel without a reservation, hoping for the best. The hostel had a nautical theme, and a large number of the beds were located in cabin dorms, inside a renovated ship docked out the front in the river. Lucky, they still had room in the 17 bed dorm, located on solid ground and considerably cheaper. Check in wasn’t until 3pm though, so I used the shower, dropped off my bags in luggage storage and set out to explore the city. Stockholm lived up the expectations. Everyone just looked so good. Even people who weren’t conventionally attractive were so well dressed that walking down the streets felt like being an extra on a TV show or movie where the detail in every single background character had been so meticulously planned. The fact that I had been wearing the same tired clothes and repeated outfits for nearly two months didn’t do wonders for my self esteem, and a mild paranoia kicked in where I felt as though just being there was letting the city down, and lowering its standards.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

***

Like most cities in Europe, Stockholm had a travellers pass, the ‘Stockholm card’, that you could buy which provided you with either free or discounted entry to many of the city’s attractions, and free unlimited use of the citywide public transport. At first this excited me – regular readers will know how excited I get about good public transport – but further investigation revealed that Stockholm as a city didn’t really have that much public transport. In fact, it just wasn’t a very big city. There were also other passes that gave you access to public bike stands around the city – you swipe the card, the bike rack unlocks a bike, and you can ride it anywhere so long as you return it to another stand somewhere in the city within three hours. However, all these options were only really of any value if you were there for at least 3 or 4 days – the bike pass itself came for a minimum of three days. Given I was only staying for a maximum of two nights, it hardly seemed worth it. I wasn’t planning on visiting a huge number of museums, and I wouldn’t be straying too far from the city centre, which was near enough to my hostel. And so began my extensive walking tour of Stockholm.

Traversing the city by foot was actually a great way to see the city, in my opinion. With the exception of the Gamla Stan area, whose streets mirrored olden days of the 12th Century, there was a quaint, modern beauty to the streets of Stockholm. Clean, refined and operating like a well-oiled machine, it fit the model of typical Scandinavian efficiency that they were generally well known for. Crossing the road was easy because the cars drove slow and steady, but once again locals seemed reluctant to even contemplate jaywalking. I visited a few of what appeared to be the major sights – I honestly didn’t know that much about Stockholm, and had never heard of any ‘must see’ attractions. There was the Riddarholmen Church, a beautiful old building that was home to a large number of tombs, mostly containing nobility from Swedish royal houses. After that was the City Hall, which included a huge tower that provided 360 degree views of the surrounding city. When I went to buy a ticket to go up, the attendant gave me a warning. “The elevator is broken today, so you’ll have to climb the stairs the whole way.” I couldn’t help but laugh – the building looked so old I hadn’t even expected it to even have an elevator. I’d been climbing up the steps of every attraction from the Great Wall of China to St Isaacs Cathedral, and a took a moment to think of Kaylah as I assured the woman that I would be fine with the stairs. It would have been she had wanted.

Riddarholmen Church

Riddarholmen Church

The interior of Riddarholmen church - complete with token scaffolding.

The interior of Riddarholmen church – complete with token scaffolding.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

There were a lot of stairs though – the upper reaches of the tower, where the elevator didn’t go, was a narrow red brick hallway with a pointed ceiling, which went around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around to the point where I thought that I was trapped in some kind of magicians trick and I was going to end up at the bottom of the tower without ever having emerged at the top. I finally reached the summit though, and it was definitely worth the hike. The panoramic view gave me a better understanding of the city’s layout: the different islands and peninsulas it was composed of; the wide river and multiple canals that divided them up; the obvious architectural distinctions between the old city and the newer parts of Stockholm. It was a cold and windy day, but I stayed up there for quite a while drinking in the sight. Unlike St Petersburg, Stockholm was a city that was quite beautiful from both the street level and from an aerial perspective.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

***

My second day in Stockholm had substantially better weather, clear blue skies and wam, invigorating sunshine. I set out into the bright morning to explore Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm. It was a tiny, charming area of the city, with narrow cobbled streets that were sloping in all directions, with some so steep I was actually a little out of breath after climbing them. This was the picturesque Stockholm that looked like it could have been lifted out of a fairy tale, or a children’s storybook. I wandered around the narrow roads until I got to the palace, where I had arrived just in time for the changing of the guard. A whole bunch of Swedish soldiers marched out of the main courtyard, half of them comprising a marching band on horseback, while another set of guards moved in to take their place. I joined the throng of tourists that had gathered to watch, thoroughly impressed by the ability to play their instruments on horseback, more than anything else.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

There were lots of sightseeing tours in Stockholm, most of them by boat. It seemed like the most obvious and easiest way to see the city, dissected as it was over and over again by the multiple canals, but as I examined the list of tours and respective prices, I couldn’t help but feel it was such a grossly touristic thing to do, not to mention they seemed far too overpriced. So instead I spent my afternoon on an island called Skansen. All the islands of Stockholm are joined by bridges, so I strolled through the more modern streets of the city until I reached Skansen, an island almost completely made up of greenery: forests and parks and grassy clearings and trails through the woods. There was even a theme park with a few rides, but I had a more leisurely afternoon in mind. Everywhere there were people exercising, going for their afternoon and evening runs, and I followed along the roads that ran along the outside of the huge island, stopping to admire some of the statues along the way, before turning inland and hiking off a short way up into the hills. It was like a slice of natural heaven, completely isolated, right in the middle of the city. You would never have guessed it though – there was only the faintest sounds of the city in the distance, so quite that you really had to strain your ears to even notice them. I found a sunny clearing at the top of one the hills, and took a break to sit down and work on my blog. There’s something about that kind of natural environment that really gets the creative juices flowing. Or maybe I was just so far from any kind of distraction – it’s hard to be sure. All I know is that I spent a long time hanging out on that island. It was as though the weather was trying to make up for the unusually long and cold winter, and I was more than happy to enjoy the penance it was paying.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

Skansen selfie.

Skansen selfie.

***

It’s hard to really say what I did with my nights in Stockholm, because there was really so little of them. I’d spent longer than I’d realised on my first night pouring over maps and timetables, trying to get a better idea of where I was going in Europe and when I would be there, to potentially avoid some of the anxieties I’d had upon arriving here. When I decided it was time to start thinking about dinner – I’d assumed it was approaching six o’clock – I was shocked to see that it was already well after nine. The days were so long that I was literally forgetting to eat. I was there during for a Monday and Tuesday evening, so I decided to give checking out the nightlife a miss – it would probably be, yet again, very expensive, and to be honest the city wasn’t really inspiring a party mood in me. I hung around the hostel and chatted to a few travellers – a few nice and friendly people, a couple of shy and quiet ones, but no one of particular note, or anyone I attempted to stay in contact with.

I guess I spent a lot of time on my own, reflecting on how far I’d come on my journey, and how it was really only a fraction of how far I still had to go. After the close confines of the Trans-Siberian the solitude still felt like something of a luxury, though I knew sooner or later I was going to get sick of being alone. But Stockholm had definitely been a suitable city for solitude and contemplation – the gentle and non-confronting beauty was the perfect background for being alone with my thoughts.

Getting Cultured: St Petersburg and the Hermitage

After what had been a surprisingly good sleep, on what was without a doubt the best train we had been on throughout our entire journey, we woke up to a miserable-looking overcast day in St Petersburg. I was still excited though – partly because St Petersburg was supposed to be a beautiful city, but also because our tour was coming to an end. While I had made a handful of new friends who I had absolutely loved travelling with, I was itching to break out on my own again and enjoy the free and spontaneous style of travelling that I had done in South-East Asia. It was a little funny to reflect on the fact that two weeks ago, I had been yearning for the exact opposite – a little bit of structure, and someone to tell me where I was going and what I was doing. I guess it’s all about mixing it up and trying to find a balance, as well as learning the style of travelling that suits me as an individual. I think I’ve already learnt a lot about myself in that regard, though I do have quite a while to keep discovering.

We met Vladimir, our St Petersburg guide, at the train station, and there was a conversation between Maria and Vladimir that seemed slightly awkward but was entertaining to watch, though none of us could understand what they were saying. Within the first half hour, after dropping our bags at the hostel – actual check-in to our rooms wasn’t until 3pm – and meeting at a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, it was already clear that Vladimir was a very orderly and structured person. He knew the facts about his city: the main sights to see, how to get there, and when they were open – a welcome change from the Kremlin fiasco. It would have been interesting to know what Vladimir had made of Maria’s impromptu excursion to St Petersburg, but he wasn’t one for a great deal of chit-chat, so we never really got a chance to ask him. Another thing we weren’t quite expecting was for Maria to tag along with the group – she’d said she had a friend to visit, but we would later find out that that friend was busy on the day we arrived, and Maria ended up booking a night into the hostel with us. Her spontaneous holiday just kept growing and growing, and while some of the others in the group thought it was a little weird that she had come along for the ride, I just found it simultaneously awesome and hilarious.

***

We had arrived in St Petersburg on Sunday, and our Trans-Siberian tour officially finished on Tuesday. A lot of people were scheduled to leave on that morning, but Vladimir had advised us that the the Hermitage, the famous art museum of St Petersburg, was closed on Monday.
“Well then, looks like I know what I’m doing today,” Tim had said in the coffee shop where we’d had our briefing. “I won’t have another chance to do it, and it’s of the things that I really want to see here.” Alyson had shared similar sentiments, and while there were other ideas among the rest of our party, the familiar grouping of Alyson, Tim, Kaylah and myself all decided to hit the Hermitage that afternoon. While I was actually staying in St Petersburg for two extra days after the tour was over, I could see myself getting particularly lax after the others were gone, so I decided to do the typical tourist things while I was still with my companions, and save the city exploring for when I was flying solo again.

But first we set out as a group to have a tour of the main streets of St Petersburg. Vladimir showed us the way through some smaller streets around our hostel, taking us past a cathedral called the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It takes the morbid name from the location on which it was built – the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – but the style is an obvious homage to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood seemed slightly bigger though, and while I did return on a later, sunnier day to take a picture of the building, as a group we never actually went inside. We continued walking along the streets – stopping at a small souvenir market were I bought a small Russian style pocket watch – until we hit the famed Nevsky Prospekt, a street that in itself was considered an essential St Petersburg experience. A wide and bustling street, it stretches through the southern bank of the city and is home to a number of landmarks, such as the Kazan Cathedral.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

The Kazan Cathedral - I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

The Kazan Cathedral – I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

However, we had arrived in St Petersburg in a supposedly exciting time. It was the city’s 310th birthday, and a major section of Nevsky Prospekt had been closed for some kind of parade. The streets were lined with people jumping up and down to get a glimpse, climbing up staircases and buildings to peer over the amassing throng. I myself climbed up onto a concrete ledge to get a better view, but at the time there was nothing more than a group of cheerleaders doing what appeared to be a poorly rehearsed and actually quite boring routine. I could hear marching bands in the distance, so I figured the entertainment was going to pick up a little, but Vladimir had told us that the lines to get into the Hermitage could be painfully long if you wait too long into the afternoon, so those of us who intended to visit set off up the street, making plans to meet up with the rest of the group for a late lunch.

***

My grandmother had been constantly reminding me to visit the Hermitage, wishing she could have been there herself, so this one is for you, Nana! The main façade of the building, which had originally been used as a Winter Palace, was covered in scaffolding and construction materials, which seemed like a bit of a shame – especially since almost every major attraction I’d visited on this tour was undergoing some kind of reconstruction – but I wasn’t too worried, as it was what was inside the State Hermitage that interested me the most.

Outside the Hermitage.

Outside the Hermitage.

It did not disappoint. From the moment you enter the building, you feel as though you haven’t just visited a museum to view the works of art, but rather you’ve actually stepped into one yourself. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the most lavish and extravagant gold trimmings, and the images of gods and men were carved out of marble and extending their limbs into the cavernous rooms. I spent the first five or ten minutes with my eyes pointed upwards and my mouth agape with wonder, so much that stumbled up a few of the stairs. Alyson had wanted to go off and see the museum at her own pace, and I would have been happy to do the same, though I found myself sticking with Kaylah and Tim for most of the time.

There are several floors in the museum, and it was easy to get lost. A couple of times we found ourselves wandering into dead end rooms, or trying to get into rooms that were unfortunately closed for renovations or refurbishing. We moved through room after room of paintings and sculptures, seeing everything from early European art of classical portraits and flawless scene depictions, to the ambiguous and abstract work of Picasso, to the ancient sculptures of characters and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. I’d like to think I have a little bit of culture in me, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art critic, and I certainly know I couldn’t do any better. I liked some of them more than others, but I discovered that I had a particular love for the sculptures. I’d always been quite interested in the mythology of those cultures, and there was just something more interesting about a 3D piece of art that you can literally consider from a number of angles.

There was a statue of a man with an eagle perched upon his shoulder, to which Kaylah had said, “Look Robert, it’s you in Mongolia!” After that, I think we may have been a little delirious, because wandered through the rooms laughing at the simple, unoriginal names – such as Portrait of a Young Man – and generally just making humorous observations about the artworks. We also looked at some interesting Asian art, and I recognised many representations of Buddha that I had seen throughout South-East Asia, and together we also recognised quite a number a traditional Chinese and Mongolian styles of artwork. That made me a feel a little cultured, to know that I had come halfway around the world, and recognising the different styles of artwork and culture that I had seen along the way.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, getting lost in its beautiful and dazzling halls, but in the end my feet grew so sore I could barely stand up. I hadn’t had a shower since our last morning in Moscow, so after the copious amounts of sweating I’d done on that afternoon combined with the overnight train, I could tell I was starting to get a little foul again, and I was ready to head to lunch and then onwards to showering at the hostel. It had been a good day at the Hermitage, but I think the greatest feat of our day was that there had been absolutely no lines to buy tickets or get inside. Despite Vladimir’s warning of waits that can be up to several hours, we walked straight in with such an ease that it almost felt suspicious. We put it down to the fact that the parade had taken up most of the city’s attention, and were thankful that we had decided to visit the museum when we did.