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.

Man on a Mission

The Alamo is potentially the most well-known tourist attraction in San Antonio due to its place in American history, but just outside of town there are a series of other old churches known as the San Antonio Missions. We had intended to ride our bikes out there on Friday afternoon, but after the Thursday night we’d had, Hector, Nico and I decided we were in no condition to make that journey. On Saturday both Hector and Jay didn’t have to work, so I spent the day hanging out with them. I joined them around town while they ran a few odd errands, but then it was off to see the Missions.

Although there was one stop on the way out there: an open air market, full of all kinds of trinkets, gadgets, and other things for sale, most of it second hand. We pottered around there for a little while, though I didn’t end up finding anything noteworthy or anything I wanted to buy. The highlight was probably the market’s sign:

Fabulous

Fabulous.

After that it was on to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. There are four old missions that are found downstream along the San Antonio River, although the furthest one is where the visitors centre was located, so we headed down to the Mission Espada.

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Mission Espada.

Mission Espada.

We went into the visitors centre and gift shop and had quick look around. There was a small cinema that was showing some historical videos, but I have to admit that after the past few nights of partying that I’d had, staying awake in such a dark environment proved difficult, and Hector caught me dozing off a couple of times before we’d made it to the end of the presentation. After that we headed to the next closest church, Mission San José, which was larger slightly more impressive than Mission Espada.

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Mission San José.

Mission San José.

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The missions had all been Catholic outposts that aided the spread of Christianity across the Southwest during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but now they were mostly just historical buildings, heritage listed to as to keep them preserved in their current conditions. There was a room that had been redone as a church inside Mission San José though, but I much preferred just wandering through the open grounds and exploring the secret nooks and long abandoned rooms within the old building.

The modern side of the missions.

The modern side of the missions.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

It was great that I’d had Hector and Jay to take me out to the missions and show me around – my last minute planning and decisions to end up in San Antonio meant that I didn’t really know a great deal about it and hadn’t done much research, and while I’m sure if I’d ended up there without them, every man and his dog would have suggested I go and see them, having a personal guide to the city never hurts.

***

We made our way back into town later that afternoon, and after stopping for snow cones and Tex Mex (Mexican food with Texan influences – although to be honest it’s pretty much the same as what we’d call Mexican food in Australia, which did make me curious as to what real Mexcian food would actually be like), we picked up some supplies for the evening. Hector and Jay had been organising to throw a party at their house that night – I’m not sure if it was a special occasion or not, thrown in my honour, because from what I had seen so far they didn’t seem like the kind of guys that needed an excuse to throw a party.

They really went all out. Between food and drinks and their hilarious friends, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last night in the city. I spent the beginning of the even playing token Australian abroad, answering all the usual questions about my mysterious homeland, then pronouncing a bunch of different things, and including names, so they could hear my accent, as well as explaining the different terms we used for different things back home. It’s kind of weird the things you take for granted about the way you… simply exist, I guess? And you never realise it until you meet someone who’s never met anyone like you.

After eating and drinking came, inevitably, dancing. Apparently Jay used to do drag, so out came a wig and pair of heels too, although no one could really pull off a successful dance move in the heels (but that didn’t stop us from trying). There was lots of laughing and dancing, although one thing that happened that I found rather peculiar, upon later reflection, was the numerous times that I was referred to by some of the guys as “white boy”. I mean, it wasn’t really shocking – I am white, after all – and I wasn’t offended, because… well, I’m white? Most of the people at the party seemed to identify as Hispanic on some level, and I realised that I’d never found myself in a social situation or a group of friends where white or Caucasian wasn’t the most represented racial category. It didn’t bother me at all – it was just funny to be the token white boy for once, instead of the token gay guy.

Shots!

Shots!

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio - beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio – beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

A solid effort and a great night.

A solid effort and a great night.

***

Sunday was my last day in San Antonio, but my bus wasn’t due to leave until the evening, which gave Hector and Jay plenty of time to show me the Riverwalk, the remaining attraction of San Antonio that I had yet to see. Though not before bringing me a refreshing cocktail in the late hours of the morning, while I was printing my bus tickets off Hectors computer.
“Sunday Funday,” he said with a grin. It was savoury, but there was no pickle in it, so I drank it without issue.

If it was late enough in the morning to warrant drinking, then it was probably late enough for lunch, so the first port of call was Quarry Hofbrau, which despite the name, did not actually serve German food. However, they did make some delicious Tex Mex, but the real reason Hector wanted to bring me there was so that I could try their Dos-a-ritas. That is, a frozen margarita garnished with a full bottle of Dos Equis beer. There was a range of different flavours that could be topped off with different beers, but I’d a fan of the classic margarita and I’d been enjoying Dos Equis for most of the weekend, so I stuck to the original Dos-a-rita. Don’t ask me to explain the physics of it, but the frozen margarita keeps most of the beer still inside the bottle, which slowly drains out when you lift the bottle up. So you can let it all pour out at once, or keep topping up the glass with more beer as you keep drinking it. If it hadn’t only been midday, I probably would have ordered another!

Dos-a-ritas!

Dos-a-ritas!

However, after leaving Quarry Hofbrau, Hector and Jay did take me to something else – a drive-thru bar. I don’t mean like the bottle shops in Australia where you can drive through, throw a case of beer in the back of your car, pay and keep going – this place had a menu! They did cocktails! Of course, they’re not allowed to serve “open” alcohol to the cars, so each drink was just sealed in a plastic bag before handing it over. I was part impressed, part amazed, and part terrified as to how this was actually legal. But it was, so of course I ordered another cocktail to go.

***

After all that, we finally headed down to the Riverwalk. The whole concept is really interesting – given that it’s such a popular attraction, the San Antonio Riverwalk is almost like a main city centre that is focused around the winding stretch of water. I know that cities build on or around water isn’t exactly unique – I’d been to a few examples myself – but it was still a cool vibe. There were shops and restaurants along the waters edge for miles in either direction. When you walked down any of the staircases that take you to the waters edge, it feels like you’re leaving the upper streets of the city behind and entering some secret, magical world, full of people yet free from traffic, except for the occasional tour guide boat chugging past, wide-eyed tourists taking in the scenery.

The Riverwalk

The Riverwalk

Boat tours went up and down the river.

Boat tours went up and down the river.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering down the Riverwalk, hanging out and chatting and remembering all the fun we’d had over the weekend. Hector kept asking if I wanted my picture taken with anything – after travelling by myself for so long, I sometimes forget that that’s what people did when they visited foreign cities. I had just resigned to mostly not appearing in my own photos (or taking selfies, of course), so once again it was nice to have someone to take the pictures for me.

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Outdoor amphitheatre along the edge of the river.

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After walking a decent length of the cool, shady Riverwalk, we went back to the actual city centre, where we had been on Friday night. I glimpsed the Alamo again, and Hector took me to see another popular attraction, the San Fernando Cathedral. The inside was beautiful when we had a quick peek inside, but given that it was Sunday afternoon and there was a service beginning, as tourists we weren’t allowed to hang around for long.

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San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the nation.

And then the sun was setting, all too soon, and it was time to head back and pick up my bags and make my way towards the bus station. Nico and Daniel met us there, and I said my heartfelt goodbyes to the guys who had welcomed me into their lives for the weekend, and truly made my San Antonio experience an amazing one.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better first Couchsurfer,” Hector said with a smile. “Although I wonder if we’re ever get anyone as awesome as you!” I was so glad to have had a positive experience too, both for me and them. Bad first experiences can really put people off for life, but a good one allows for them to keep a little hope if ever the future ones don’t turn out so well.

I loaded up on snacks, stored my bag in the luggage compartment, and made my way onto the bus. I had been catching the cheaper MegaBus buses up until now, which cut on costs by not actually having an official bus depot, but now I was kicking off on some long haul journeys that MegaBus didn’t cover, so I was boarding the first in a series of Greyhound buses that would be taking me across the Southwest. First up was the long drive across the vast empty expanse that was the rest of Texas. I waved to the guys one final time before the bus pulled out of the depot and chugged away into the night.

This is Canada, eh?

When we weren’t tearing up the town at night, and Stuart and I spent a lot of time just hanging out and catching up, and also trying to cram as many authentic Canadian experiences into one week as humanely possible. If you come from the other side of the world, you might be forgiven for conflating the culture of Canada and the way of life in the US into one big North American culture… actually, the Canadians might not forgive you for that. But Stuart seemed to have a mental list of a whole bunch of small cultural delights that I simply must not leave Canada before trying. A few of these involved food – something that I was more than okay with – and we were often nursing our hangovers with coffee and donuts from Tim Hortons, or tucking into a steaming plate of poutine, a dish native to Quebec. I must admit I felt a little repulsed when Stuart insisted you had to cover the fries and gravy with cheese curds, but in the end it was delicious and totally worth it. Food comas ensued.

Breakfast of champions - a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

Breakfast of champions – a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

The disgustingly delicious poutine.

The disgustingly delicious poutine. I got mine with added chicken.

***

From national dishes to the favourite sports of the people, Stuart also made sure I didn’t leave the country without attending an ice hockey match. “This is my early birthday present to you,” he told me as he booked tickets for him, myself and Sam, another Australian guy who was also staying in the first hostel we were staying at. My birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks, but I would be back in New York by then, so I let Stuart buy the tickets to what he considered a very important Canadian cultural experience.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world – the closest I’d been to playing sport in a long time was learning how to rugby tackle with the Amsterdam Lowlanders. Australian football in any form does not interest me in the slightest, but when you’re in another country it’s a little easier to get excited about their sports because you can put it all down to experiencing their culture. And as I was about to find out, Canadians love their ice hockey. The two teams that were playing were the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadians. The Canadians were the team that Stuart backed, so he was especially excited to be watching them play in their home city. We were pretty much in the nosebleed seats of the famous Bell Centre arena, since the tickets were booked relatively last minute, but it was actually a pretty good view of the entire rink. And even from that far away, you couldn’t help but get totally into it, because the entire crowd was consistently roaring with cheers and applause and just going crazy in general.

Our view of Canada's favourite sport - ice hockey.

Our view of Canada’s favourite sport – ice hockey.

Matches of ice hockey are notorious for having their fair share of pretty aggressive, even violent, altercations. Our match was no exception, though from our vantage point it wasn’t always exactly clear when a fight had broken out or when there was just a longer than usual struggle for the puck. I have to admit it was a little exhilarating, watching the players swarm each other while the crowd erupted with simultaneous boos and cheers. I’m not usually one to condone violence, but in the controlled environment of a sporting arena I supposed I could make an exception. As well as watching the fights, I got to experience all the other novelties that come with attending such sporting events, such as the giant screens that put certain dancing audience members on display during halftime, or highlight an obvious couple in the hopes they’ll do an awkward kiss for the camera. And of course, we splurged a little on all of the over priced food – hot dogs, chips and pizza – as well as the huge cups of beer. In the end the Canadians were the winning team, so we all went home happy that evening.

***

There was one other famous building in Montreal that Stuart and I were yet to see, but it was located a little way off from the centre of the city, where the rest of the sights were. As it happened, Stuart had arranged to meet Paul, a cousin of his who was living in Montreal. They had some family-related things to see and do, but it involved driving around the city in Paul’s car, so I was more than happy to just tag along and be chauffeured around a little bit and showed some of the other sights of Montreal. The first stop was Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and the largest church in Canada.

Saint Joseph's Oratory.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

I was probably a bit too close to get a good picture that does justice to the size of the church, but it was more of a drive-by visit and a quick photo op as Paul talked about the church and the history of the area of Montreal we were in. From there we drove up Mont Royal for a chance to view the entire city from the upper reaches of the hill. From there you could see all of central Montreal, the Saint Lawrence River and beyond.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

Afterwards we went back around the mountain to visit Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, one of the huge sprawling cemeteries that covered a large portion of Mont Royal. Stuart and Paul’s grandmother was buried there, and Paul wanted to show the memorial to Stuart. There was, however, a slight problem, which was the sheer size of the cemetery. Paul had written directions for how to find their grandmothers grave, but the twists and turns and plot numbers and street names were all a bit of a jumbled mess. We even stopped at a visitor centre to see if there was some kind of directory or catalogue, but it seemed like everyone had gone home for the day, because were wasn’t a soul in sight. We drove around for a while, but eventually we gave up. I guess it might have seemed like a wasted effort, but after some of the long days and big nights Stuart and I had been having, it was actually nice to just relax in the back of the car, and watch the haunting yet serene landscape slowly pass me by. After giving up on the search we went back to Paul’s house, where we had dinner with him and his wife – which is always appreciated by penny-pinching travellers – and where Paul also introduced me to Canadian rye whiskey. I have quite the taste for dark liquors, so I enjoyed it straight over ice. Strong but refreshing, it was the prefect way to end the weekend.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one that we were looking.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one for which we were looking.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

***

During the week we also did other things, some rather touristic, and some surprisingly local. We visited the Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal, or Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. We spent a good long while wandering through all the different rooms full of sculptures and colours and abstract art, although we weren’t allowed to take any photographs in the exhibition. We also did a little bit of shopping, and on Thursday evening Stuart even told me that he was going to meet with the local gay swim team. He’d been on the gay water polo team back in Sydney, and I guess he just had a knack for discovering and meeting up with these random gay sports teams no matter where we were in the world.

“You’re supposed to pay if you’re not a member, but I came there the other day before you got to Montreal”, Stuart said to me as we walked into the college building where the swimming team was meeting. “Just say you’re part of the gay team in Sydney and you’ll be fine.” I used to be a pretty strong competitive swimmer back in my teenage years, but since I’d been travelling I hadn’t really done much exercise, so I had agreed to come along. I dove – pardon the pun – straight into it, and it felt like I’d never stopped the rigorous swimming training of my adolescence. But while I remembered all the technique, my stamina and endurance weren’t what they used to be, and before the end of the session I had well and truly worked myself into an exhausted heap. I managed to pull through to the end, but when Stuart told me that he was going to stick around and play a game with the water polo team, I told him that he was on his own. Maybe if I hadn’t worn myself out with all the swimming first, but I was well and truly ready to go home. I did, however, have to answer the questions of a lot of curious members of the swim team, asking who I was and why I was here, with many of them just assuming that I had relocated here rather than just visiting for a week – I guess joining the local gay swim team isn’t exactly an ordinary tourist activity.

It was well worth it in the end, though – through the swim team I did meet a guy named Geoffrey. With his rugged beard, round spectacles and perfect smile, he was the most adorable little librarian I had ever met – extra points because that also meant he was pretty smart. I ended up meeting up with him later that evening, and we had a short but sweet romance during my week in Montreal. Maybe I didn’t see all the touristic options that Montreal had to offer – and did a few weird and completely random things with my time instead – but the unique and cute little memories like that will always make it 100% worth it.

Good Morning Baltimore

So while I didn’t end up going back to New York via Philadelphia, I did jump at the opportunity to visit another city along the eastern coast of the United States. That was one thing that I loved about the US – in most places you can just jump on a train or drive a short distance and suddenly you’re in a whole new city, or even a brand new state. In Australia there aren’t a huge amount of cities or towns that are really worth visiting, for purposes of tourism at least, and the ones that are worthwhile going to are separated by miles and miles of desert and bushland or the vast, bleak expanses of suburbia. Thought I’ve heard of American and Canadian tourists visiting Australia because of that exact reason – to see the expanses nothingness – so I guess it’s only fair that I was fascinated by the exact opposite. Mike had gotten up early to head to university, but on this particular day I managed to pull myself out of bed at a reasonable hour, get ready and head down to Union Station, where my bus from New York had dropped me off and where my bus back to New York would eventually leave from. Today, however, was all about the spirit of the day trip. I was heading to a city that I had often heard about, in song (thanks to Hairspray) or otherwise, and where one of my favourite bands (All Time Low also created For Baltimore) hailed from, but somewhere I had never actually visited: Baltimore.

***

There is a service called the MARC train that connects Baltimore to a number of different places, one of them being Washington DC. The journey only takes approximately an hour, and the train is actually used by a lot of commuters who make the trip on a regular or even daily basis for work. As a result there is a high concentration of trains in the mornings and evenings, around peak hour when the regular commuters need to travel. I obviously wasn’t awake for the morning peak hour, so I planned to catch one of the less frequent late morning trains, and arrived in Baltimore when the sun was high in the sky. When I made it outside of the station, I found my bearings and headed towards the harbour, the focal point of the city of Baltimore. The surrounding city itself wasn’t anything too spectacular or different – just a regular American city with houses, apartments, churches and shops. But after about 20 minutes of walking – the further south I got and the closer I got to the harbour – the city seemed to swell up around me and the air of suburbia gave way to what felt like a city centre. Out of the high rises came a business and tourism centre, and after passing through a couple of streets that were like huge concrete hallways, I stumbled on a gorgeous view of the waters of Baltimore’s Inner Harbour.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

Inner Harbour - the USS Constellation and the World Trade Center Institute.

Inner Harbour – the USS Constellation and the World Trade Center Institute.

The first thing that comes into view when you step into the the sunshine at Inner Harbour is the USS Constellation, probably the most impressive looking of the handful of historical ships that are scattered around the harbour in Baltimore. I walked past it, but instead of going on board for a tour of the ship I kept walking towards the Baltimore World Trade Center. It was the tallest building around the harbour, and it also claims the title of the tallest regular pentagonal building in the world. At the top there is a viewing platform called ‘The Top of the World’, so I purchased a ticket and went on up.

The view from 'The Top of the World' in the Baltimore World Trade Center.

The view from ‘The Top of the World’ in the Baltimore World Trade Center.

From the top you could see out into the horizon and the harbour that stretches out into the wider bay, and all of the surrounding city. There was also a lot of exhibits and notices about the history of the city, so I spent a little bit of time wandering around and reading. I also learnt a little more about the initiative in the city, in the harbour just south of the World Trade Center, to create or ‘build’ a wetlands using a collection of environmentally friendly floating frames. The grass growing in the frames is expected to help gradually clean the the waters of the harbour, and the underside of the wetlands will eventually develop into a habitat for small marine creatures such as crabs, eels, fish, worms and barnacles. Even trash from the harbour, such as plastic bottles, will be embedded into the structure to help it retain buoyancy, and the whole thing seemed like a cool little project that was creating a thriving ecosystem that would even help keep the wider environment clean.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

I returned to the ground level to see the floating wetlands close up, and then continue my walking tour around the harbour. It was already well into the afternoon, so I stopped for some lunch. After deliberating for far too long about where I was going to eat I finally chose a place at random, but making sure that they offered some kind of seafood, as I had read that it was somewhat of a specialty here in Baltimore. Unfortunately, I’m not the biggest fan of seafood, particularly fish, but instead I opted for a Baltimore classic: crab cakes. They were the only other kind of seafood that was within my budget, but I have to admit they were absolutely delicious. Since I was eating solo, all throughout the meal my server would occasionally swing by and chat with me, and ended up asking where I was from and what I was doing in Baltimore. In the end, when he was fixing up my bill, he tried to offer me some tips or advice for anything to see while I was in town.
“There’s the aquarium just over on the other side there,” he said, pointing to a near edge of the harbour.
“Tell him to go to Fayette Street, man,” one of the other guys working there called out to him. “There’s nothing else worth doing here during the day.” He chuckled to himself, as did my server, but he looked a little too embarrassed to elaborate on what his co-worker had been talking about.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

I walked over to the aquarium and had a look around on the inside. It seemed pretty cool, but it was such a beautiful day that I didn’t really feel like going inside – I’d spent quite a lot of time in the museums back in DC – and watching a huge group of school children marching into the aquarium was definitely enough to put me off following them in. So I walked along the walkways between the harbours piers, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the breeze blowing in from the bay, and the gentle sounds of lapping water all around the harbour. After a few absent-minded turns I found myself heading back into the city, away from the harbour, and another random turn had found me on, lo and behold, Fayette Street. I could now see why the guys from the restaurant had sniggered a little at the recommendation – it appeared to be Baltimore’s answer to the Red Light District in Amsterdam, despite it being in the middle of the day. Yet there were no illuminated windows or coffeeshops like there are in the eccentric Dutch capital, just a few oddly located sex shops and a bunch of men trying to coax me down into their strip clubs where they claimed there were plenty of hot naked girls for me to see. It was my turn to chuckle to myself as I walked on past the clubs, ignoring their catcalls, though I was actually quite amused at one of the remarks made by one of the men as I walked past his club without a single hesitation in my step: “What is that in your ear, anyway? A goddam pencil?” It was a reference to my earring, a fake stretcher fashioned into a large blue spike. I probably laughed out loud, but I didn’t stop or look back.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

I spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around the centre of Baltimore, browsing through shops and exploring the nooks and crannies of the area. The theme of the city seemed to largely revolve around water, with the seafood and the boats and the fountains that you could walk under when they were built into the designs of some of the mall complexes. It was pretty interesting, though from what I had heard, and now seen, the city is definitely a location that thrives more during the evening that the daylight hours. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to find a place to stay in Baltimore, even for just a night, so as the sun began to sink towards the horizon I made my way to one of the MARC stations – luckily at this time there was one going back to DC from the station much closer to Inner Harbour – and boarded the train back to Washington to spend another night relaxing with Mike. My visit to Baltimore wasn’t wild or exciting, but it was still a pleasant excursion for the day, and it checked off another city and another state in my list of places that I had visited on my journey.

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.

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.

The Churches of Old Town Zürich

When I wasn’t exploring the great outdoors with Robin in Zürich, I took time out of the busy, active lifestyle to do a little bit of sightseeing. The city centre of Zürich itself wasn’t exactly huge, or full of iconic landmarks, but simply wandering around the charming little streets and up the cobblestone footpaths was a pleasure in itself, appreciating the quaint and classical beauty that the city maintained.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi's Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi’s Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

The most notable sights worth seeing in Zürich were probably the small handful of churches located in the city centre. While I had sworn I was done with churches after my trek through the Vatican City in Rome, these Swiss churches couldn’t be more different from the St Peters Basilica in Italy. They were a fraction of the size, modestly squeezed in between all the surrounding buildings, though the classical design suggested that the holy buildings had been there much longer than their neighbouring structures. The first of the three main churches in Zürich that I passed is called Grossmünster, which translates into “great minister”. It is located along the banks of the River Limmat and served as a monastery church when it was first inaugurated some 800 years ago. The Romanesque architecture was impressive from the outside from where I admired it, but it was a beautiful day outside, and I just wasn’t in the mood for trailing through another church museum.

The grand Grossmünster.

The grand Grossmünster.

So on I moved across the Limmat, where the other two main churches were situated – next was St Peterskirche, or St Peters church. The structure itself was significantly smaller than Grossmünster, and it was in the midst of a sea of buildings to the point where I couldn’t actually find the building itself. However, the main feature of St Peterskirche rose above the sea of buildings so that it could be seen from a great distance – the clock tower. Again, I wasn’t particularly interesting in seeing the inside of yet another church, and the main feature was best viewed from a distance anyway. “The clock on that steeple is the largest clock face in Europe,” Umer had said to to me as we’d breezed through the city on my first afternoon in Zürich. It has a diameter of 8.7 metres, but I hadn’t previously managed to capture any photographs of the impressive clock, so I took a few snapshots before moving on to the third and final church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

Fraumünster was the only church in Zürich that I actually went inside, but in retrospect I’m glad that I had made the time to take a quick peek. The English translation is “women’s minister” and the church, which is built directly across the Limmat from Grossmünster, was built on the remains of a former abbey. From the outside, Fraumünster doesn’t seem particularly impressive. However, once you set foot inside the cool and quiet halls, you quickly realise that it’s the inside perspective and the view from within that truly matters in these sacred rooms. I’m talking, of course, about the stained glass windows. From the outside on a bright sunny day they look incredibly unremarkable: black holes leading into the depths of the church. But from the inside, that sun streaming in lights up the coloured panes of glass to produce something beautiful, mystical, and even a little breathtaking. I reiterate that I’m not exactly religious and have no affinity with the Christian faith, especially after the disillusionment that came with my visit to the Vatican, but something about being in Fraumünster recaptured my sense of mysticism.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Back in my days at university I took quite a variety of sociology courses, one of them being a class titled the Sociology of Religion. In the first lecture, our teacher read us a metaphor about religion being like a stained glass window. You can study a religion from the outside – the rituals, the doctrine, the history, the beliefs – but the real meaning of a religion requires an understanding that one can only get from being inside of the fold, and being a part of that religion. Perhaps thats why, whenever I step into any of these beautiful churches far and wide across this continent, I get that superstitious sense that I just can’t quite put my finger on. Until you’re ready to fully accept it and be a part of it, maybe you’ll never be able to truly understand what it means to be part of a religion. I doubt that I ever will fully know what that is like, but for the meantime I was definitely understanding the stained glass window metaphor first hand. I tried to take a couple of photos, but the quality of my camera did absolutely no justice to the images I was seeing in front of me. Not for the first time, I took it as a sign that some things we experience in this world as just so significant to ourselves as individuals, that attempting to share them with others would simply fail to have the same effect on them as it did on us. So I momentarily lost myself there, in the cold stone chambers of Fraumünster, before saying a silent prayer – to who, I’m still not sure – and exited back out into the sunshine.

***

After my church sightseeing and soulful contemplation, I lightened the mood of my day with a stroll through the sunshine by the lake. This was before the afternoon of slacklining with Robin, so I hadn’t been swimming in the lake or river at that point. I found a seat on a bench and read my book for most of the afternoon, but I did come across a huge diving platform from which people were jumping off, and plunging into the depths of the crystal clear water. I considered doing it myself, but at that stage I wasn’t exactly feeling 100% healthy – I was still feeling a little under the weather, and recovering from the effects of prolonged partying in Madrid during Pride. I knew I would  inevitably be getting wet when I went slacklining over the river, but I didn’t want to wait around in wet clothes for the rest of the afternoon, so instead I contented myself with watching others jump off the huge platform and into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

There is one thing that I found shocking about Switzerland, even though it wasn’t exactly unexpected, and that was the cost of living. I had been warned about it, but it still hit me like a slap in the face. I wasn’t even paying for my accommodation, but my time spent in Zürich was fairly limited simply due to the fact that I didn’t have the budget to do very much. Even eating was a ridiculously pricey affair. I went to get lunch from what seemed to be a relatively cheap sausage stand – they love their wurst in Switzerland – and ended up paying around 6 francs for a simple sausage and a small piece of bread. I felt like that would have almost bought me a meal in any other country, but from what I had seen of the rest of Zürich, I had basically stumbled across a bargain. I considered it a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t feeling too well during my time in Zürich, because it meant that I didn’t have the desire to go out and investigate many of the bars or nightclubs – something that I just didn’t have the funding to do there. Robin and I visited a bar or two and sampled some delicious Swiss beer, made in various microbreweries around the country, but for the most part Switzerland was a continuation of my much needed down time. My pride tour down western Europe had really gotten the better of me.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

***

Eventually necessity required me to move on from Zürich – there were a handful of other destinations I still had to hit before my Eurail pass expired, and I just couldn’t afford to stay in Switzerland any longer. So on my final morning I packed up my bags, thanked Robin for his hospitality, for introducing me to the world of slacklining, and inspiring me to be that little bit more physically active in my life. Then it was onto the station for another train, another country, and another city on on my ‘greatest hits’ tour of Europe.