The Land of Enchantment

After disembarking from the Rail Runner in Santa Fe, I was greeted by a noticeable climate change as the cool evening air rushed at me from the darkness. A lot of people back home were surprised to hear the New Mexico was a little on the chilly side, given its reputation for being a stinking hot desert. But it was November, which meant that winter was coming, and evenings in the desert are cold enough as it is. It wasn’t necessarily cold though – just fresh and crisp. I made my way into the parking lot where I was set to meet my next Couchsurfing host.

Like a lot of my previous hosts, Bradley was new to the Couchsurfing game. The dynamic between us seemed reversed to what one would normally expected – despite myself being the one turning up and crashing at a strangers home, I found myself feeling rather relaxed, with Bradley almost seeming a little intimidated by me. He was a bit older than me – mid to late thirties – and very warm and welcoming, but at first I had the feeling that he wasn’t sure if what he was doing was “correct”, whereas I had become something of a seasoned Surfer by now. I guess I’d learnt along the way that there was no right or wrong way to be a Couchsurfer, but I also had absolutely no pre-planned schedule for my arrival in Santa Fe, so I was happy to go with the flow and tag along with whatever he was doing. We swung by a grocery store, where he picked up from dinner ingredients and beers, and he headed back to his place. After briefly recounting my painful previous 24 hours, I assured him I had absolutely no qualms with him cooking some dinner and getting to know each other over a few beers at home.

I guess I should use the word “home” loosely, though. Bradley explained to me that he had just moved to Santa Fe pretty recently, and he was working with a physical therapy company. The building had been transformed into a very professional looking practice, but there were also living quarters in the back of the building, and that was where Bradley was currently living. It then made a little more sense as to why he might have seemed uneasy – he admitted that he wasn’t totally sure if he was allowed to have guests, but he’d accepted my Couchsurfing request because he’d wanted to help me out. But there was an extremely comfortable looking couch for me to crash on, and with the only condition being I’d have to make myself scarce during business hours of the day, as long as he was okay with it, then so was I.

I’ve always thought that there’s something therapeutic about talking to strangers, and opening up to someone and being able to tell them whatever you’re feeling without having them judge you or make references to anything else prior in your life. I’d loved Couchsurfing so much because actually being pushed into proximity with these strangers (albeit relatively screened through profile reading) forced you to open up in these new, fresh kind of ways. In the case of Bradley, I feel like he enjoyed the experience just as much as I did. He had moved there after the ending of a long-term relationship, for a clean slate and a fresh start, only to learn that some other completely independent forces had brought his ex-boyfriend to Santa Fe as well. And Santa Fe isn’t exactly a large city. It doesn’t even feel like a small city – more of a large town, really. I got the feeling he didn’t really have anyone around here who he could talk to, but I was more than happy to lend my ears. He had some other frustrations that were bothering him, and I also got to unload some of the feelings or frustrations that you sometimes just don’t have the time to pay attention to when you’re always on the road. After my partying antics in the last two cities, it was definitely a welcome change of pace for the evening.

***

The following morning, Bradley informed me that he had most of the day off, and that he only had a few clients in the late afternoon and evening, giving him plenty of time to show me around. Our first mission was breakfast burritos: apparently they were popular all over the Southwest, but were particularly amazing in Santa Fe. We wandered through a few places around town before we found one that Bradley deemed worthy, but I gotta say, it was worth the wait. I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes a breakfast burrito so different from other kinds of burrito… except that, you’re having a burrito for breakfast? And like… as if that isn’t amazing?! 

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

After breakfast we headed to downtown Santa Fe, where we did a brief walking tour around some of the more popular buildings and attractions. Santa Fe translates into Spanish as “holy faith”, so it’s unsurprising that in the centre of town one of the most prominent buildings was a church, Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

There were a lot of beautiful things in and around the church, but my favourite was the bronze statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American saint who was one of the first to convert and become a part of the Roman Catholic church.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

There was also the Palace of the Governors, a national historical landmark and the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Once the home of the seat of government for the state of New Mexico, it is now a history museum, although it was more of an interest to us on the outside, where many pedlars and street vendors had laid out their goods and wares for sale.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

We also wandered around a few more streets, looking in a few shops, and Bradley even pointed out some of the cities gay bars, which he admitted to not frequenting too often on account of there being a severe lack of variety and diversity in the patrons. I’d sometimes had similar thoughts about the bars that I frequented back home in Sydney, a city of 4 million people, so I couldn’t even begin to image what it would be like here. We continued along, mostly admiring the architecture of the city. One of my favourite buildings was the New Mexico Museum of Art, which looked like a piece of art itself, in my opinion.

New Mexico Museum of Art

New Mexico Museum of Art

As beautiful as the museum itself was, Bradley assured me that Santa Fe was an artists haven, and that there were plenty of other smaller, private galleries with unique artworks that we could check out. At least, that had been our intended next stop, until we walked in a particular direction that gave me a better view of mountain overlooking Santa Fe, and I saw what was on top of it.
“Oh my God, there’s snow up there!” I knew it had been cold, but cold enough for snow? I was shocked.
“Yeah, it can get cold enough for it up there,” Bradley said, and paused for a moment before adding, “Do you wanna take a drive up there, check it out?” I hadn’t been to the snow, or even seen snow, since I was about 16 on school camp, so I agreed it might be fun to go have a look.

***

The snow was clean and firm, perfect for making snowballs, of which Bradley and I tossed a few. I mainly just loved putting my bare hands into the cold, fresh ice and bouncing around leaving my footprints as I went.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

The forest floor was covered in a blanket of white.

Snowball!

Snowball!

Bradley and I just wandered through the snow field, mucking around and chatting. With our lives and experiences being so vastly different, we didn’t really seem to have that much in common, but he was just a nice and genuine guy, which made for good conversations and sharing of stories and experiences.

Some of the slopes were actually being used for skiing.

Me, not skiing.

And then there was me, not skiing.

Other than playing in the snow, the trip up the mountain provided a pretty breathtaking view on the clear morning.

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Dispelling the myth that the Southwest is a flat expanse of nothing.

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A beautiful view… There’s also a shot of the scenery in the background 😉

***

After our trip to the snow, we came back down to Santa Fe and made our way to some of the galleries that Bradley had mentioned earlier. He had said that the city was a hot spot for artists, but I hadn’t really grasped just how much of a stake the art community had in Santa Fe. There were whole streets literally lined with galleries, and some of the art was absolutely exquisite. We spent the rest of the day there, slowly trawling through all the amazing art galleries and marvelling at their creations. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of most of them – after all, they weren’t world famous paintings by any measure so it was important to protect their intellectual property. There were some with such fine details that would have taken hours. Bradley and I would stand at a single painting and just point out all the intricacies, unpacking the entire image before moving on.

However, I will always have a soft spot for sculptures, and the courtyards among the galleries were home to some equally beautiful 3D art.

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Even without art, the areas surrounding the galleries looked like mysterious, picture perfect scenery.

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Many of the outdoor sculptures were also wind chimes or windmills of some sort, which danced and twirled in the light breeze.

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This harp sculpture actually created some gentle, ethereal music as the wind blew through it.

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I eventually grew tired of even some of the most famous art galleries that I had been to throughout Europe, but in all honesty, I could have spent an entire day wandering between all those galleries. In fact, we spent a better part of the afternoon there, before it eventually grew time for Bradley to head back home. Or, I guess to work, technically.

***

There was one particular thing that I’d thought about checking out while I was in Santa Fe. At the suggestion of Rob, my Couchsurfing host back in DC, there was a luxury spa located just ten minutes outside of downtown Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. After the excessive partying and the long transit that preceded my stay in Santa Fe, a relaxing afternoon in a spa sounded absolutely perfect. Bradley offered to drive me up there before he had to work (luckily, because I hadn’t seen one cab in the city so far, let alone a bus), but there was no mobile reception up on the hill, so we just had to arrange a pick up time for whenever he would be finished work. That left me with at least a few hours at the spa, which would probably be the perfect amount of time.

I wasn’t trying to break my budget, and while the spa offered all sorts of massages, skin therapy treatments and private hot tubs, I just opted for a general entry to the communal areas. The unique thing about Ten Thousand Waves was that given its place on the mountainside in the relative wilderness, most of it was open air and outside. While the spa I’d visited in Zürich with Umer had had an open rooftop where you could view the city from the spa, the one here in Santa Fe was surrounded my trees and nature, a private slice of forest sanctuary. I had my phone in my locker the entire time so I didn’t take any photos, but I’ve lifted some images from the website to show how beautiful the spa is.

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There were cold plunge pools next to the hot tubs, so you could immerse yourself in cold water before returning to the warmth of the spa, and wet and dry saunas, of which I am a huge fan. Highlights also included the futuristic toilets that cleaned up after you, washing with water jets and drying with warm air so you literally did not have to lift a finger.

***

After I finished up, I headed on outside and waited for Bradley to pick me up. There had been some hold up, and he was almost an hour late, which was a little annoying since he had no way of letting me know in advance, but completely beyond his control. He still felt bad, so he ended up buying me dinner on the way home, in a cosy little restaurant that served some good traditional local food, which was similar to Tex Mex but with slightly different styles, spices and flavours. We headed home after that – I would have to be getting up very early the following morning to get the first Rail Runner back to Albuquerque to get my next bus heading west.

“Do you have enough warm clothes?” Bradley asked me as I was packing up most of my stuff. “It’s gonna be pretty cold over in Flagstaff this time of year.”
“Umm… I have jeans?” I said. Truthfully, this was the coldest it had ever been during my travels, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned.
“Do you have any thermals?”
“I’ve got a thermal top.”
“What about thermal underwear.”
“Ahh… no. Am I going to need it?”
“You know, you might not, but I wouldn’t want to risk it.” He went into his room and fished around in his cupboard for a few moments, and then returned with two black items of clothing: a long-sleeved thermal t-shirt, and a pair of long thermal underwear. “You can borrow these if you like. They’re pretty old, but they might fit you, and I won’t be needing them any time soon.”
“Oh wow, thank you! But… I’m not gonna be headed back this way… How will I get them back to you?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I can easily get some more whenever I need to. We can’t have you Australians freezing your asses off down in the Grand Canyon, though!” Receiving hand-me-down thermals might not have seemed like a big deal to Bradley, but as someone who had received so much assistance from people who were essentially strangers during this journey of mine, it meant a lot to me. It was another favour that would assist me yet give him nothing in return, and something that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to directly repay him for. He must have known that though, and he didn’t seem to mind. I thanked him profusely, but he insisted it was nothing, and we finished the night with some more good conversation and finishing the rest of the beers.

***

It was still dark when I got up that morning. Once again, Bradley was an absolute saint and offered to drive me to the Rail Runner station at such an ungodly hour. He had intended to drive me to the first main station where I had disembarked less than 48 hours ago, but we ended up cutting it so fine that he headed directly to the next station. Traffic was so light that we ended with plenty of time to spare, so we got to share some heartfelt goodbyes before I left. We hadn’t spent a lot of time together, but I’d really grown to like Bradley in the short time that we’d had. More than being a friend, he’d actually come across as more of a father figure over the past two days. He’d fed me, even clothed me, given me a place to sleep, looked after me and showed me around, and had numerous meaningful conversations about things as personal as our lives to things as simple as the beauty in all the art we had viewed together. I didn’t see myself ending up in Santa Fe again anywhere in the foreseeable future, but I was glad I had made the final leg of the transit from hell to get there to see it, and to have once again had another great Couchsurfing experience. I gave Bradley one final hug as the  Rail Runner approached, and he flashed his lights from his car in the darkness as the train pulled out into the dawn, taking me back to Albuquerque.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

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Czech It Out

After saying goodbye to Itzel and alighting at Praha-hlavní nádraží, the main train station of Prague, I set out to navigate the public transport system of the capital of the Czech Republic. It was so close to 5 o’clock by the time I arrived in Prague that I didn’t even have to wait around at all – another perk of my detour was that I had done all my waiting either on the train, or in Bratislava. But first I did have to withdraw some crowns, the local currency, and then find somewhere to spend the large value notes in order to get change when I realised none of the metro ticket machines would accept them. There was also the strange requirement that I had to buy an extension for my luggage on top of my regular ticket, presumably because it would take up more room that could potentially fit another passenger. There was also a similar ticket for taking dogs on the metro, but in the end I had to forgo this extension and just buy a regular ticket simply because I didn’t have enough change to get the right one that I needed. “They rarely check for tickets on the metro in Prague,” Itzel had told me. “But they’re not really that expensive either, so you might as well buy it.” I did the best I could with what I had, and hoped that I could bluff my way out of any encountered trouble with excuses of being a tourist.

I followed the directions that my hosts had given me, though it was still very confusing. There were so many buses going on different routes and in different directions that all left from the same stop, and there was an uncomfortably lack of anyone who spoke English to help me out. But I persevered, and in the end I caught the right bus and followed the little blue dot on my iPhone GPS until I finally made it to my new home. Tomas and his boyfriend Matej’s house was right near the bus stop, and thankfully they were home by the time I finally arrived. Tomas had told me that I would be the first guest that the couple had hosted via Couchsurfing. I’m not sure if they were excited or nervous, but they warmly welcomed me into their home, a gorgeous little flat in a beautiful part of town. They had made me some dinner, too – I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but it was a homemade meat dish with some vegetables and it was a traditional Czech recipe and it was absolutely delicious – just what I had needed after a long day of travelling. I also noticed the distinct use of dill in the cooking, and I smiled to myself and remembered my time in Russia, and in my head I could still hear Marti saying “Isn’t this dill-icious?” I guess that’s how I knew I was back in Eastern Europe. We sat around their kitchen for a little while, chatting and getting to know each other, and then Tomas asked if I felt like going out and seeing some of the city. After a day of doing nothing but watch the Eastern European countryside pass me by, I was keen to get out and about, so I showered and got changed and the three of us headed back into the city centre.

***

Tomas was probably one of the best hosts I could have asked for during my stay in Prague – he was incredibly knowledgeable of his city, and was always pointing out the smallest and most random things, yet had some interesting story or weird fact about each and every thing. Some things were history lessons, while others were more modern facts, or even urban street smart tips. “Don’t come here at night, it’s a little dangerous,” he had said as we passed a park area on the bus. “There are drugs. Drug dealing, things like that.” Then he shrugged his shoulders with a smile. “Unless you are looking for that kind of thing.” Our first stop that evening was down by the river, where there was some kind of small outdoor performance on, with a band playing live music and a temporary bar set up selling some local Czech beer. Tomas bought us a few beers and we listened to the music and talked more about Prague, and my previous and future travels. Most of my European hosts seemed a lot more interested about Australia though – I’d been gone for so long that even I started to forget that I was actually a foreigner from half a world away. Out on the water, the river was filled with paddle boats, some of them in the shape of swans, slowly gliding along in the warm afternoon sunlight. The further north I travelled, the longer the daylight hours were becoming, and I loved it.

From there we walked back along the river, Tomas pointing out different architectural features of different buildings until we finally wandered up to the Old Town historical centre. Where the riverside pop-up bar had been a more underground affair, I could tell that we had wandered into the prime tourist zone of Prague as soon as we arrive. It was a beautiful area though, with the main square surrounded by small Gothic churches and cathedrals. I say ‘small’ in comparison to some of the larger churches I’d seen in Madrid and Rome, but they did manage to tower above the cobblestone pavements of Staroměstské náměstí, letting the small city hold its own and even stand out as one of the more beautiful places I had visited so far. The other major feature of the Old Town Square was the Old Town Hall, or more specifically, the astronomical clock on the bell tower. “It’s very popular with tourists,” Matej said, indicating the throng of people that was amassing at the base of the tower.
“Yes, every hour there is this… show… display…” At first it just seemed like Tomas couldn’t find the right word in English to explain what he was trying to say, but later I would realise he was just uncomfortable at using any of those words to even try and explain what we were about to witness.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The bell tower performance isn’t technically a tourist trap in that it doesn’t really cost any money. Yet still, I couldn’t help but feel a little ripped off after watching it. It’s an extremely famous and popular sight to witness, and the flocks of people surrounding the bell tower had definitely peaked my curiosity. Matej and Tomas must have been rolling their eyes as I stood on my tip-toes to peer over the crowd, but they knew it was something I would have to witness and judge for myself. When the hour rolled around, the chimes began to echo through the square, and little wooden doors opened up from the clock, and out came a small procession of figurines, which Tomas would later inform me were supposed to be a parade of the apostles. Above them, a skeleton emerged to ring a small bell, which clanged out over the crowd. Flashed from hundreds of cameras went off, and I waited eagerly to see what else would happen… The apostles did their loop and went back inside, and the skeleton eventually finished ringing his bell and retired back into the clock. There was a small cheer from the crowd in front of me.

“That… wait, that was it? Everyone stood around waiting for that?” Don’t get me wrong, it was a cute display, and more than most clocks manage to do to entertain a crowd. But I just couldn’t believe that that was all it took to attract such an audience. Tomas and Matej both chuckled, having clearly anticipated my reaction. “It’s a tourist thing,” they both said. “You had to see it at least once.” As fate would have it, I ended up in the same part of town the following afternoon and purely by chance, I happened to be there on the hour. During the daylight hours it was easier to take some clearer photos, although I can’t say they’re that much more exciting than being there to witness the show first hand… which isn’t saying much.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

After that we wandered through some more of the town, exploring the old streets as I marvelled at the simple, intrinsic beauty of the place. Prague really did feel like a kingdom from a storybook, complete with a castle on the hill across the river, gazing down over the city. The three of us stopped by another one of the couples favourite bars on the way home, where we had a few more beers while Tomas told me more about Prague, while also interrogating me about my own journey and travels. They were both such sweet and lovely guys – I was starting to wonder when my luck at finding such nice hosts was going to run out. The two of them both had to work in the morning though, so we eventually stumbled back down the street to crash, and I would continue my exploring of the fairytale city on the morrow.

One Friend, Two Friends: Old Friend, New Friends

When Kathi and I returned from our excursion on the river, we parted ways for our separate plans that afternoon. She had a date, and I actually had another friend who lived in Vienna whose birthday, as it happened, was that very day. It’s not everyday that you accidentally arrive in your friends city on the other side of the world on their birthday weekend, so we had made plans to catch up for a drink to celebrate both his birthday and my being in Austria.

I’d originally contacted Stephen asking if I might be able to crash with him when I was in Vienna, but unfortunately he didn’t have any room for me in the place that he lived in with his girlfriend. Luckily things had worked out through Couchsurfing in the end, and I just met up with him on the afternoon of his birthday instead. I had met Stephen when I was studying at university – he was on an exchange semester at The University of Sydney, and we sat next to each other in one of our philosophy tutorials. Now, almost exactly a year later, we were sitting at a beach-themed bar on the side of the Danube in the middle of the city, catching up and reminiscing and soaking up the sun. I say afternoon, but it was actually closer to 7pm – what I would have typically called “evening”. But this was European summer, and if we measured parts of the day by how much daylight the had, “afternoon” wouldn’t end until approximately 10:30pm. I ordered another Radler and sat down to tell Stephen more about my travels, and what I was planning to do next, both short-term and long-term. “You could always get a working visa and come back to Europe to teach English,” he had suggested. “I know of a lot of places that are always looking for native English speakers to help adult students perfect the language, especially places in Austria and Germany.” Scenarios flashed through my mind of living in Berlin, teaching English to the locals during the week, and spending my weekends on the dance floor or in a dark corner at Berghain. I could definitely think of worse ways to spend my life, but at that stage I was thinking as little as possible about my life after my year of travelling. I’d been on the road for months now, and I wasn’t even halfway through my journey.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Stephen and I.

Stephen and I.

Eventually Stephen had to go, so I wished him a happy birthday one last time as we bid each other farewell. I hadn’t drank too much, and I ended up just heading back to Kathi’s, but that night was still rather significant. After all the travelling I’d done in the past few months, that conversation with Stephen had planted a seed in my mind, an idea in my head – the idea of living abroad. Every following city that I visited, and every time I cast my memory back to the places I’d visited, it wasn’t a question of whether I liked the city or not, but rather, ‘Could I live in this city?’

***

The following day was my final one in Vienna, and since Kathi had to work for most of the day I figured it would be the best opportunity to do my loop around the tourist ring and see some of attractions Vienna had to offer. The inner city, or Innere Stadt, of Vienna is a designated Unesco World Heritage site, and the architecture easily takes you back to centuries past. I wandered the streets and got a little bit lost, just soaking up in the atmosphere as I strolled past the coffeehouses and other eateries and watched the flocks of other tourists come and go.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

A lot of the major sights are situated along a tram line that does a consistent ring around the city centre, but after I finally made my way out from getting lost in the Old Town streets, I decided that it was such a nice and beautiful sunny day that I would walk around the ring, instead of staying cooped up on the public transport. Some of the highlights of the sightseeing in Vienna were Stephansdom, or St. Stephens Cathedral, a 12th Century Gothic church that towered above the streets, and the impressive neo-Greek architecture of the Austrian Parliament Building, complete with a gold trimmed fountain depicting the goddess Athena, with the four figures around the base of the fountain representing the four most important rivers in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

I didn’t take too many photos, but then I didn’t know too much about all the different sights in Vienna. It was kind of better that way, I think. There was no pressure to see all the important things, like their had been to visit the greatest hits of Rome. I was able to just meander around, stopping when I saw something I thought was interesting, taking the odd picture here and there, strolling through the greenery in the various city parks and just enjoying the relaxing atmosphere the city had to offer. I laid down in grass and had a snooze, had a slice of cake at a coffeehouse – it was all just so chilled out that it didn’t even feel like sightseeing. It just felt like living.

***

In the late afternoon I met up with Kathi and one of her housemates who had returned the previous evening, Anna-Greta. Kathi had suggested meeting at Naschmarkt, a popular market that had all kinds of amazing foods and fresh fruit and produce, as well as flea market stalls that were selling all kinds of things. Unfortunately I didn’t have much need for all that food, since I’d be jumping on another train to a new city the following day, but it was interesting to check out. Kathi and Anna-Greta bought a few things, and then we sat down to have some food at one of the restaurants that was set up along the market. We ate Thai food – something I hadn’t seen since Thailand – and I told them how popular it was in Australia, and we discussed other cultural differences between Austria and Australia. My favourite moment, however, was when it took us at least a few minutes to translate the word “bruise” from German to English. I thought something was seriously strange when they were telling me how they sometimes got “blue stains” on their skin – it still makes me chuckle when I think about it.

After we’d finished eating, the three of us just hung out at home for the rest of the evening. Anna-Greta had been partying all weekend at a big festival, and all three of us had to get up relatively early the next day, so we didn’t feel like heading out anywhere. Kathi and I pulled out our ukuleles and Anna-Greta grabbed her guitar, and I gave them a couple of lessons and taught them some chords to be able to play a few new songs. I introduced Kathi to Paramore, whose most recent album has a couple of ukulele tracks that I had learnt how to play. She loved the music, and was pretty stoked when I taught her how to play ‘Interlude: Moving On’, and we also learnt how to play ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a challenge that Kathi’s other housemate had set for her. Then we just sat around chatting, and the girls told me about parties that they throw, and the music that they play and all the fun that they have, and it made me a little sad to be leaving the next day. “You’ll just have to come back next time we have a party,” Kathi said with a grin. “And at the end of the night we can run around being crazy while we play the ‘Spanish Flea’.” We all laughed, and I smiled to myself, sincerely hoping that one day that would actually happen. I’d made some great friends during my travels so far, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that some of those people such as Kathi – despite the distance – would remain my friends for life.

Walking in Sunshine: Summer on the streets of Madrid

While pride continued to be a defining feature of my time on Madrid – day and night, you couldn’t walk up or down the street without being cruised several dozen times by some sensationally attractive men – I did manage to play the tourist card while I was in the Spanish capital and visit a few of the landmarks that the city has to offer. I didn’t do a great deal on my first morning other than potter around a few plazas and lazily practice my dreadful Spanish while ordering a light breakfast. After that, it was all systems go for the afternoon of drinking at the hostels pre-pride party.

However, on Sunday afternoon I took a break from walking on the wild side to discover some of the more tranquil corners of the city, in particular Parque del Buen Retiro, the huge public gardens that stretched out next to the botanical gardens and the train station. I stopped by a corner store and gathered a few bits and pieces for a small picnic, then headed over to the park. It was a fierce summer day, and I periodically had to step out of the sunshine and into the shade of the trees. I eventually took a seat at a park bench to sit and eat my lunch and attempt to read my book, but I must admit that for the whole time I was in Parque del Buen Retiro, I was extremely distracted by the amount of people I saw exercising – mostly because they were all ridiculously attractive and obviously very fit, both men and women. It was such a hot day that even the idea of going for a light jog brought a slight tear to my eye, and I had a sneaking suspicion that – given the attractiveness quota that was being met this afternoon – that a good deal of these people chose to exercise at this time of day purely to show off the bangin’ bodies that they were rocking. In all fairness, I would probably do the same if had that body, and I certainly wasn’t complaining about the view.

There were a lot of people who weren’t exercising though. They were generally older and not as attractive, and more often than not they were staring at me, rather than vice versa. I wouldn’t know it until later when I was casually scrolling through an online guide to gay Madrid, but the area of the park where I had chosen to eat my lunch also happened to be a popular cruising area. Whoops!

After lunch I wandered further into the park to see some of the more official attractions, starting with La Rosaleda, or the Rose Garden, at the southern end of the park. I strolled along the loose pebble paths and passed under wire archways that were overgrown with vines, the whole way admiring the vast collection of roses. When I reached the edge of La Rosaleda I encountered a rather more sinister landmark – the statue of El Ángel Caído, which in English means the Fallen Angel, the title bestowed to Lucifer of Christian mythology after he was cast out of Heaven. It’s one of the few statues in the world that is dedicated to the devil himself, and it rather eerily sits at 666 metres above sea level. I stood next to that fountain for quite a while, actually, contemplating the story of Lucifer. He butted horns with his dad and broke a couple of rules that were set for him, and suddenly he’s kicked out of home to be forever hated to anyone who would hear the story the way his dad tells it. The story obviously has a little more meat to it, and Lucifer probably didn’t have to continue on as the Prince of Darkness, but I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for the devil. Take away the fire and brimstone and Christian heresy, and his story actually seems rather human in nature. I mean, who hasn’t had one or two heated arguments with their parents?

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

After I was done feeling sorry for the devil, I ventured further into the park. I followed a bunch of winding and twisting pathways, not really sure where I was going to end up, but eventually I stumbled upon the structure Palacio de Cristal, which appeared to be a palace made of glass – or, if you will, crystal – that was set on the edge of a small lake. The palace was completely empty on the inside, but was currently the home of a rather abstract art exhibition, so I stepped inside for a quick peek. The place was essentially a greenhouse without plants though, so it was far too hot to stay inside for longer than a few minutes. The final major attraction I visited, and arguably the focal point of El Retiro, was the Monument to Alfonso XII, a huge structure complete with about half a dozen marble lions around the base. I didn’t go all the way up to the monument – it’s set on the edge of a huge artificial lake, or estanque, and I had ended up on the other side and was far too exhausted from the afternoon sun to walk the whole way around it. Instead, I admired it from afar as I watched other tourists take paddle boats out across the lake, considered them mad for intentionally depriving themselves of shade for so long. On the western side of the lake where I was situated, I happened upon a pair of buskers, a cellist and a harpist, who were playing the most beautiful and enchanting music. I lay down in the shade on a nearby lawn and listened to them play recognisable classics such as Beauty and the Beast and enjoyed the sweet, relaxing music. After the nights of partying I’d previously had, I could have very easily fallen into a deep sleep there in the park. However, I decided that that wasn’t the safest thing to do, so I headed back to the hostel for a siesta before heading out for my last night of pride partying.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

***

On my final full day in Madrid I decided that it was probably about time to hang up my dancing shoes and actually see some of the true culture and history within the Spanish capital. It was another bright, blisteringly hot day, so I got up and ready in time to join the free walking tour that was run by the hostel. I was still thoroughly exhausted from the weekend, and I knew that I didn’t see the city as some part of guided tour, I wouldn’t have the motivation or the energy to trek through the scorching heat by myself. I’d also done minimal research on what sites there actually were to see in the centre of Madrid, so I figured that for once, a group tour was probably the best option.

Almost as soon as the tour had begun, I remembered why I despised such touristic activities. There was an overwhelming amount of Australians in the group, with perhaps a small smattering of a couple of Americans and one of two people from elsewhere in Europe. Now, I don’t want to sound like I hate Australians, because I don’t, but Jesus Christ – there were so many bogans! I’ve often stated that I didn’t come halfway across the world to simply hang out with more Australians, as was the case in the first nightclub I visited in Barcelona, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to interact with them at all. After all, all my friends back home are Australian. But most of the people in the group were people who I could never see myself being friends with. There were a few strained attempts at conversation with a girl who was so okka that she might as well have been plucked from the middle of the Australian outback and placed straight into the walking tour. She seemed like a nice girl, but eventually the stifled conversation died and we walked along in a far less uncomfortable silence. The rest of the tour was in seemingly impenetrable groups of rowdy Australian men, though I really had no interest in engaging with them anyway. I walked along just listening to the guide and trying not to faint in the heat.

The first destination on the walking tour was Plaza Mayor, the main public square of Madrid. Plaza Mayor was an important site for many key spectacles throughout the history of Spain, including the beatification of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of Madrid, in 1619, bullfights which garnered 50,000 spectators that continued until 1878, and the interrogation and condemnation of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. It was partially destroyed and rebuilt after a fire in 1790, and ever since it has been a focal point of city life in Madrid, supporting many markets and festivals. The statue in the centre of the plaza is Felipe III, the man who ordered the plazas construction, and is used as a common meeting point for residents. Around the base of the statue, I noticed padlocks engraved with lovers names attached to loops in the iron frame, much like the bridges I’d been in Irkutsk and Helsinki. I guess there weren’t any bridges in Madrid that were as important, or provided as much of a spectacle, as Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The next interesting stop along the tour was Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, a quaint little restaurant that holds the Guinness World Record for the Oldest Restaurant in the World. It has been in operation since 1725, and is famous for its suckling pig and roast lamb that is cooked in wood-fire ovens. Of course, it was early in the day and the restaurant wasn’t yet open for business, but as part of the tour we were able to go inside and have a look around, including the wine cellar downstairs. Some of the bottles were so dusty that I felt like they’d also been here since 1725, and were now probably nothing more than bottles of vinegar. We took a few photos of the charming little venue and continued on our way.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín - the oldest restaurant in the world.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín – the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Other sites we visited were the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace that was rebuilt in 1755 after the previous palace burnt down. Visitors are welcome, but not without a fee, and since this was a free walking tour most of us were happy to simply marvel at the architecture from the outside. Beside the palace, in Plaza de Oriente, is the famous monument of Philip IV on horseback. Nearby was Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena, the Catholic cathedral that was built after the capital of Spain moved from Toledo to Madrid. This stop provided us with some shelter from the midday sun, and I paced the halls of yet another elegant and lavishly decorated European church.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

The trip took us on a loop around the centre of Madrid, and after blindly following the tour guide through the streets I realised that the final stop on our trip, the famous Puerta del Sol, was actually one of the plazas I had been partying in a couple of nights ago for pride. It looked so different in the daylight – it was still extremely busy and bustling, but the crowd appeared sparse compared to the tin of sardines the plaza had been on the weekend. After the tour concluded, the group dispersed among the crowd and we all made our own way, whether it was back to the hostel to commence siesta, or to one of the many eateries that lined the edges of the plaza and the surrounding streets. For all the negative feelings I harboured toward mass group tours and anything overly touristic, I have to say that on this day I was very glad they had existed. After Madrid pride I don’t think I had the mental capacity or brain functioning to navigate the city’s main sights by myself, and it truly is a vibrant and beautiful place that I would have been very sad to not fully experience.

Icons: Sightseeing in The City of Lights

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Smells Good: A pit stop in Cologne

The end goal was to reach Paris. However, all the direct express trains were completely booked, and it was quite a long distance to cover via the slower, less direct trains. So keeping that in mind, I picked a geographical midpoint to make a one night stopover on my way to the City of Lights. And that’s how I found myself in the west German city of Köln, or Cologne in English.

Tim, an ex-lover and good friend of mine back in Sydney, had spent six months studying abroad and living in Cologne, so I had dropped him a line and asked him what there was to do in Cologne, and what sights were worth visiting. “Even if you don’t spend a night in Cologne,” he had replied, “It’s worth getting off the train just to see the cathedral. It’s right outside the train station – you could literally step outside, have a look around, then jump on another train.” The Dom – which I would later learn is the second largest church in Europe, after the one in the Vatican – was the pride and joy of the city of Cologne, and Tim assured me it was the only really must see attraction. “It’s can be a pretty fun city though. Have a little explore if you get the chance.”

***

When I arrived in Cologne in the early evening, I headed straight to my hostel – booked ahead the previous evening at Ralf’s – and crashed for a little while. Visiting hours at the Dom had finished for the day, so if I wanted to go inside I would have to check it out before I left in the morning. But after a brief chat with some English travellers in my dorm, a quick power nap and a much needed shower, I set out to wander the street a little bit. I’d been told by Simon and some of the other Berlin housemates that many people actually considered Cologne to be the gay capital of Germany, so I felt it somewhat mandatory to at least go out and do a little exploring. Cologne was very different to Berlin – it felt distinctly more… German. Despite having all the well-known German landmarks, Berlin is still quite an international, cosmopolitan city, and I noticed that feature even more when I visited Cologne, which looked like an older, slightly more traditional city. The streets were damp from rain, but they were very clean – a tribute to stereotypical German efficiency, I suppose. I believe they had also recently celebrated gay pride in Cologne too – either that, or there is always a rainbow flag flying outside one of the main government buildings.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that's still a rainbow flag!

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that’s still a rainbow flag!

I was heading towards Hohenzollernring, what I believed to be a main nightlife street if my research skills and Google could be trusted, but I knew it as soon as I hit it. I emerged from the quite, dimly lit roads to a strip lined with shops, restaurants, clubs and bars. I headed towards Loom, the closest gay bar I had read about, but upon arrival discovered that it was more of a nightclub than a bar. In addition to that, it was a White Party – the club was divided into two floors: one for the exclusive admittance of those dressed in white, and one for unrestricted access. I stood out the front for a few minutes, pondering on whether it would be worth it. The thought of being inside a packed nightclub made me realise for the first time just how tired I still was, so I ended up skipping the club and continued wandering down the street. I’d well and truly given up on my goal I had once had of trying to experience the nightlife in every city I visited – there can be too much of a good thing, and I had since learnt that I would need to pick my battles when it came to that mission.

I did, however, descend some mysterious steps into one venue, which turned out to be full of salsa dancers. It was the last thing I had expected to find in a city in Germany, but I hung around and watched some of the dancers do their thing. It reminded me of when I used to take ballroom dancing classes back when I was in high school, and seeing all these people having such a good time reaffirmed by belief that when I eventually got home, I needed to get some hobbies. But for the rest of the night, I contented myself to getting some takeaway KFC and wandering back to the hostel to pass out in my dorm.

***

The following morning I woke up relatively early to head back to the station to book my train ticket to Paris, since the office that sold them had been closed when I arrived in Cologne the previous evening. However, I encountered more difficulties: all the direct trains had no available spaces for Eurail pass holders, and the only way I could get on that train was if I purchased a full priced first class ticket. Assuring the sales woman that that was not an option, I asked if there were any alternative routes I could take. After a bit of searching, she found two trains that could get me to Paris that day, with a connection in Brussels, Belgium. It seemed like my best and only option, so I booked the tickets and returned to the hostel to organise some last minute accommodation in Paris.

The train didn’t leave Cologne until noon, so I used the remainder of my morning to see the famed cathedral, the Dom. It was truly a towering masterpiece, so huge that I had to keep backing up and backing up until I was eventually able to capture the whole thing in a single photograph. The ancient Gothic architecture was exquisite, despite some scaffolding to disrupt the otherwise picturesque sight, but as with any church it was the insides that were the most impressive. Beautiful stained glass windows glittered in the sunlight pouring in from outside, and towering ceilings and long halls created a vast space that subdued all who entered into a respectful silence. Despite having no real affinity with Roman Catholicism, Christianity or organised religion in general, I still can’t help but be in awe of these kinds of places, and feel a sense of the spirituality they once harvested in times gone by. The churches all throughout Europe look nothing like most of the ones in Australia, which are usually fairly modern and quite plain looking at best. The Cologne Cathedral is indisputably a work of art. Even though hundreds of tourists pour through the doors of the church, it still remains an active place or service and worship – though I can’t help but think that a church that has a fully stocked gift shop has turned into a bit of a sellout somewhere along the way.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

I wandered through the church for a while, observing some of the alters and statues, and by the time I was done it was time to check out of the hostel and catch my train to Brussels.

Helsinki Sightseeing

During my time in Helsinki I hadn’t done a great deal of sightseeing, because when I arrived Susanna had told me about a free walking tour of the city that runs every Sunday afternoon. I have to confess that I didn’t know a great deal about the city, and hadn’t done a lot of research either, so I wasn’t even sure what the major attractions of the city even were. I arrived in Helsinki on a Thursday, so I figured that I would be around until at least the end of the weekend, and that I could take the tour then and do some sightseeing with a knowledgable local.

As is turns out, the tour guide was from Tasmania. She’s been living in Helsinki for 11 years though, so she knew a great deal about the city and told us little stories about the city’s main attractions. The tour began in Senate Square right in front of Tuomiokirkko, a cathedral that is probably the most iconic and recognisable attraction in Helsinki. From there we moved to the lavishly adorned Uspenskin Katedraali, a Russian Orthodox cathedral. Now that I had moved out of Asia and well and truly into Europe, the host of temples that had formed the majority of tourist attractions were being replaced with churches and cathedrals such as these. We went inside to view the stunning interior, with paintings and alters and candles spread out through the entire building, but tread carefully so as not to disturb the large number of people who were there to pray and pay their religious respects.

The iconic Tuomiokirkko.

The iconic Tuomiokirkko.

The Russian orthodox Uspenskin Katedraali.

The Russian orthodox Uspenskin Katedraali.

Inside the orthodox cathedral.

Inside the orthodox cathedral.

Helsinki's padlock bridge is far smaller than in Irkutsk, but there's no shortage of padlocks.

Helsinki’s padlock bridge is far smaller than in Irkutsk, but there’s no shortage of padlocks.

We wandered through the city looking at a range of different things, from the government houses and monuments, to quirky hotels and interesting buildings. We also passed a bridge that was absolutely full of padlocks, just like the one in Irkutsk. I remember Jenna telling me there was a similar bridge in Paris, so I guess it must be quite a common European tradition. From there we moved to a market by the sea and had some lunch, where the tour guide warned us of the particularly vicious seagulls. After that we walked through a park and a graveyard that was commonly thought to be haunted, and finished with a building called the Chapel of Silence. It was a peculiar structure with a round shape and was made of wood, and served as a non-denominational space that could be used for all kinds of ceremonies, but what was so interesting about it was the acoustics. It was designed in a way so that it almost completely eliminated all outside noise – the silence inside the chapel was almost deafening. It was an eerie building, but at the same time extremely tranquil. The interior was beautiful, and I could imagine a small, elegant wedding ceremony taking place on the main elevated area.

One of the menacing seagulls.

One of the menacing seagulls.

This monument was a gift to Finland from Russia - and was cheekily placed in front of the Swedish embassy in Helsinki.

This monument was a gift to Finland from Russia – and was cheekily placed in front of the Swedish embassy in Helsinki.

Despite the reputation for being haunted, Finnish people don't waste a single moment of daylight, and this very central grassy area was full of living people soaking up the sun.

Despite the reputation for being haunted, Finnish people don’t waste a single moment of daylight, and this very central grassy area was full of living people soaking up the sun.

The Chapel of Silence.

The Chapel of Silence.

***

After the sightseeing I met Susanna back at my hostel to say goodbye. After a rushed and hungover breakfast that morning, I had decided that I didn’t want to spend much longer in Helsinki. I’d met some nice locals, seen the way they lived, and by the afternoon I would have seen the city’s major sites too. I have to admit, after being told how long I would be staying in each location for the last three weeks, it was a bit of a shock to the system to have to make these definitive decisions right on the spot. I like to think I can be pretty spontaneous, but I can’t deny it was a little stressful. Especially when I was booking my place on the overnight ferry at 10:50am and I had to check out of the room at 11:00.

But that’s what I did. I found an extremely good fare, so I snatched the deal up and bought a last minute ticket to Stockholm. I still had no idea where I would be staying, and I didn’t know anyone in Stockholm, so it was a combination of excitement, adventure, and sheer terror. I’d had a lovely time in Helsinki, getting to know Susanna and experiencing the excitement of the beginning of their summer, but it was time to officially kick off my Eurotrip and see what the vast, multicultural continent had in store for me.

Saying goodbye to Susanna, and to Helsinki.

Saying goodbye to Susanna, and to Helsinki.