Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

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Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

Detour: Bratislava

For a trip that should only have taken approximately three hours, I spent a ridiculously long time getting to Prague from Vienna, but there were many factors I had to consider when planning out my day. The first was that Kathi and Anna-Greta would both be leaving before 9 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I would also have to leave at that time, since I would definitely need to be on a train out of Vienna before either of them finished work. Kathi was catching a tram in the same direction as myself – towards the train station – on her way to work, so when my stop finally came we said our warm, slightly emotional goodbyes, and promised that we would definitely see each other at some point in the future. She been a great girl and had been a lovely host, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Vienna and staying with her.

I had my next Couchsurfing hosts lined up for that evening in Prague – however, Tomas had informed me that no one would be home before 5 o’clock, so if I arrived in Prague before then I would have to look after myself until that time came. No big deal, I thought to myself. There was always pretty elementary things to take care of when arriving in a new city or country – for example, the Czech Republic’s currency was Czech crowns, or koruna, not the Euro, so I would have to exchange or withdraw some new money. There was also the possibility that trains would run late, so a three hour journey was still only a very approximate guess.

***

The trains were not running late. Neither was I. However, the train station that I was departing from was not that same one that I had arrived in, and the layout of this new one was very confusing. There was English translations for pretty much everything, but it didn’t help me run any fast when I realised I had made a wrong turn and had three flights of stairs to run up with all my baggage to even make it to the entrance of the platform that I was supposed to be on. I made it just in time… to watch the train I had intended to catch slide out of the platform and down the tracks into the distance. Luckily for me, I hadn’t reserved a place on the train, so there was no financial harm done in missing it. It just meant I had to wait a lot longer at the train station for the next train heading to Prague.

Or did I? I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Eurail app I had downloaded, which has listing of all the train stations on the Europeans rail network, as well as all the different times the trains run. It had saved me before when I was stranded in Hamburg, telling me exactly what trains I needed to catch in order to make to Groningen that same evening, and now it was giving me another piece of alternative advice. I could wait for a few hours at this platform, for the next direct train to Prague, or I could take a detour. There is a regular route from Budapest in Hungary to Berlin, and Prague is one of the stops along the way. That train doesn’t pass through Vienna, but if I jumped on a different train I would be in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – in just under an hour, and would be able to intercept the train there. That was the beauty of the flexible Eurail pass I was using – I could catch as many of these unreserved trains as I liked in one day, and it would not cost me any extra as it would have to catch the single train to Prague. And, I got to visit another country and city along the way! All aboard for Eastern Europe!

***

On the train ride to Bratislava, I looked up the city on my Lonely Planet book. “Bratislava was pretty fun,” Rachel had told me during the brief period we had hung out in Madrid, “but you only need a couple of hours to see the main centre, really. Talon and my brothers and I were there at like, four in the morning, I think?” She’d laughed, shaking her head at the stories she was reliving. “It was ridiculous, but it was fun. Check it out if you get the chance.”

Despite having an entire day to get from Vienna to Prague, I didn’t have a couple of hours to spend in Bratislava – then entire length of my layover was about 45 minutes. Even so, that didn’t stop me from running out of the train station and down to the nearest main road to take a few photos as evidence that I had made it this far east. I still had all my luggage strapped to me, so it wasn’t as easy as you may think. Unfortunately, the train station isn’t that close to the historical centre, where all the more beautiful architecture can be found. I didn’t want to venture out into an unfamiliar city where I didn’t speak the language and had a deadline to return to – I didn’t want to miss another train – so I settled for taking photos of some street signs, whatever buildings I could see, and the front of the train station.

Welcome to Bratislava!

Welcome to Bratislava!

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

Slovak billboard - I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

Slovak billboard – I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

The train station at Bratislava.

The train station at Bratislava.

And a selfie to prove that I didn't just steal these pictures off the Internet.

And a selfie to prove that I didn’t just steal these pictures off the Internet.

***

Then it was back to the station to buy a few snacks before boarding the train to Prague. The train was unlike most of the other ones I’d been on throughout Europe. Rather than being much more open with rows of seats on either side of an aisle, this train was more like the cabins we had on the Trans-Siberian railway. They were closed off compartments with sliding doors, except instead of seats that folded out into beds there were simply six regular seats per compartment. I would later be told by Tomas, one of my hosts in Prague, that that style meant the train was rather old, but it seemed pretty clean and modern to me at the time. I walked down the halls and poked my head into the cabins until I found one that seemed manageable. The curtains were drawn, and there was a young man lying across three of the seats on one side of the cabin, apparently sleeping. On the other side, an young woman who looked about my age sat by herself, looking rather timid. I squeezed in and took the window seat, peeking out the window through a crack in the curtain.

The trip started out quite uneventful. After a while, the sleeping man sat up, rubbed his eyes, and threw open the curtains. He couldn’t have been much older than myself or the other girl who was sitting quietly to my right. He gathered up his things and, without a word to either of us, departed at one of the stops along the way. I can’t say I’m surprised at his silence – in these environments, with the tourists and local travellers thrown in altogether, its pure luck as to whether the people around you even speak your language. He was soon replaced by a family – a mother, father and small child. They would prove to be strange cabin companions, with the little boy being cheeky and misbehaving so much that we witnessed the father lose his temper and repeatedly smack the child. It was a little scary, but I didn’t say anything because I really had no idea if such kind of thing was normal in this part of the world. The child would start crying and wailing, before going back to whatever he had been doing before and earning himself another smack. This exchanged happened periodically throughout the whole journey. However, when they first climbed on board was also the time when someone came around to check our tickets. Mine had already been stamped on the train to Bratislava though, so all I had to do was flash my Eurail pass.

When I pulled out my pass, the eyes of the girl sitting next to me lit up.  I saw her pull out her own Eurail Pass to show the the train attendants, which meant that she had to be a non-European resident. We got chatting after that – Itzel was a traveller from Mexico who was also backpacking around Europe after spending some time studying abroad in France. We got talking about different places we’d been to and where we were going. Itzel had gotten on the train in Budapest, somewhere that was now not on my itinerary but somewhere I had really wanted to see, so she told me all about the city and the things she did there. It sounded like a pretty fun place, and Itzel said she had an awesome time. She was doing the full length of the train route, from Budapest to Berlin, so after that I was my turn to rant and rave about my favourite European city. I told her all about the crazy things I’d done and where she should go, and how to not get turned away from Berghain. She had a hostel booked in advance as well, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and showed her the way to get there from the train station.

As it would happen, Itzel had also been to Prague, so she told me as much as she could about the city. “It’s a cute city, pretty small, and it’s easy to get around with the public transport. And of course there’s the castle.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, but I guess I would be finding it all out for myself in a few hours. Itzel and I continued to talk the entire journey – I could hardly believe how much time had passed when my stop crept up on us. I said my goodbyes to Itzel, but we exchanged contact details just in case our paths crossed again in Europe, or if I ever found myself in Mexico on my future travels. I really enjoy the way travel brings people together like that – maybe I won’t see Itzel for months or years. Perhaps I’ll never see her again. But for that shared moment of travel we became the best of friends, and the train trip to Prague would have been quite boring without her.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

After a decent nights sleep at Valerio’s house, I woke up feeling remarkably refreshed and ready to take on Rome. I had been told by almost everyone who had visited Rome that the city was enormous, and that if you didn’t have a plan of attack you could easily waste all your valuable sightseeing time trying to find your way around the maze of combined modern and ancient history. Lucky for me, I had met Selma in Barcelona, who had seemed more excited than I was at the fact that I was going to Rome. We had exchanged contact details, and at some point during my stay in Madrid she had sent me a huge message that had included a list of all the famous sights, monuments and neighbourhoods, as well as a detailed itinerary of how to make the most of all these things and visit as many as possible in the three days that I had to explore Rome. I felt a mix of overwhelming gratitude and guilt – I hoped she had already had this itinerary written down and had just forwarded it on to me, because what I got had been so much more than I had expected when I’d asked for “a few tips”. Nevertheless, she had saved me a great deal of planning when it came to all that touristic stuff that I’d never really been any good at.

As convenient as getting to Valerio’s house from the airport had been, getting from Valerio’s house to central Rome was somewhat more of a challenge. I had to get a bus to the closest metro station, and then from there catch the metro into the heart of the city. The whole trip should have only taken me half an hour if the public transport ran on time, but I was about to learn very quickly that literally nothing in Italy runs on time. So it took a little longer. Given the size of the city, I was also surprised that Rome only had two metro lines that ran diagonally across the city and intersected only once or twice in the middle. Cities like Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and even Barcelona all had upwards of around fifteen metro lines, so it was puzzling as to why Rome was so far behind. Valerio would later tell me that the city was working on a third line. It’s completion was scheduled for approximately somewhere in the next several years – Rome wasn’t built in a day, I guess?

When I finally reached central Rome, my first stop was Piazza del Popolo, a large public square with a huge obelisk towering over the tourists crossing the plaza. From there I following Selma’s directions and climbed the stairs up to Pincio Hill. The top of the hill was a beautiful and quite peaceful garden, a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the lower streets of Rome that I had been in so far. It was also a spot that afforded excellent panoramic views of Rome, so I stopped to take a couple of photos before wandering through the greenery. I followed the edge of Pincio Hill until I rather unwittingly walked down the next attraction, Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti: the Spanish Steps. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom and arrived at Piazza di Spagna, thought to be the most famous square in Rome, that I turned around and took in my surroundings. The square is a common rest stop for tourists wandering the city, so it was quite crowded, and at the top of the steps sat the French church Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

At the foot of the Spanish Steps I came across my first Roman fountain, the Barcaccia, sculpted in 1627 in the style of a sinking boat. Valerio had told me that the water in all of the fountains around Rome was safe to drink. I hadn’t understood at the time, but I would soon learn that similar fountains were scattered all around the city, and thirsty tourists and locals alike could be seen stealing a sip from the flowing water, or filling up their water bottles. The water all comes from clean underground springs and is completely safe to drink as it pours out of the fountain. It was a cute little feature of the city, and particularly convenient given how hot it was that day, and all the walking I still had left to do. From Piazza di Spagna I walked down Via dei Condotti, the posh shopping strip of Rome that was lined with expensive designer and luxury brands. It was an amusing juxtaposition, to see such expensive and modern designer brands in the shop fronts that were situated in some of the oldest streets in the world. Though the entire city of Rome was full of such contrasts – modern stores that were built a few months ago stood side by side in the street with structures that had been standing in place for over 3000 years. For someone who comes from a country as young as Australia, it was a strange concept to fathom.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

At the end of that street came the Trevi Fountain, one of the more well-known and more highly anticipated sights of Rome. The crowds around the fountain were unbelievable – it was almost impossible to get a photo without someone else being the photo. I actually saw a couple of fights break out between groups who were trying to take photos while other groups were getting in the way. It was actually quite frightening, and at that point I decided I wasn’t going to stay in any areas heavily populated by tourists for any longer than necessary. It was at that point that I broke away from Selma’s itinerary, although not entirely intentionally. I thought I was following her directions to another plaza, but after a while I emerged into a clearing to behold the Pantheon, another instantly recognisable sight. The 2000-year-old temple is now a church, and one of the best preserved monuments in Rome. It was beautiful, both inside and out, and the dome in the roof that is considered to be the ancient Romans greatest architectural achievement allowed a cylinder of sunlight to pour in from the sky. It was a little eerie, but also gave a rather holy feel to the aesthetic of the huge old room. I wandered around the inner chambers and admired some of the artworks and decorations before taking leave back out into the midday sun.

Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

The Pantheon.

The Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

A few short streets later and I found myself at Piazza Navona, a long plaza that is home to several fountains, the most famous of which is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the Fountain of Four Rivers. The plaza was full on tourists, but it also seemed to be a popular place for buskers, street performers, artists drawing both realistic sketches and caricatures, and peddlers selling all kinds of souvenirs and trinkets. It reminded me a lot of some of the heavily touristic areas in Paris, and I stayed for long enough to observe some of the interesting things going on, and take a few photos of course, before heading off and moving on.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

There were a few other things on Selma’s itinerary for the first day, but they were more missable things such as places to eat or where to get some good gelato. I would have followed through and investigated, but by that point I was completely exhausted. My body still hadn’t fully recovered from the breakdown in Madrid, so I ended up grabbing some quick take away food before heading back to Valerio’s to rest and recover for the remainder of the afternoon. I know, it seems sacrilegious in a city and country known for some amazing cuisine, but the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down at an overpriced tourist restaurant by myself. However, I did swing by the Termini train station on my way home, so that I could book my tickets out of Rome for a few days time. On my way there I passed a building which I later learned to be Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the Alter of the Fatherland, the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, which had also been on Selma’s itinerary. It’s a controversial monument that was built in honour of the first king of unified Italy, and also holds the home of Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the accompanying eternal flame.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

After waiting an hour to be served and book my train tickets (again, this is Italy, so no surprise there), I took the metro and the bus back home to Valerio’s. Considering I was far from my peak physical condition, I felt I had done a decent job of sightseeing for the day. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you certainly can’t see it in one either, so I had a quiet and early night, making sure I got plenty of sleep to continue the exploring tomorrow.

The Fast and the Fearful: Tearing it up the in Siberian Spring

The morning after our first night at Lake Baikal was the morning that Kaylah and I were scheduled to go quad-bike riding. The rest of the group had decided to give it a miss, but the two of us approached it with an easy “I’m in if you are” attitude and ended up convincing each other that we should give it go, much like the way we both decided to climb the Great Wall back in China. I really liked that about Kaylah – she was always making the most of out everything, which motivated me to do same and take every opportunity head on, rather than just passively experiencing the journey. So despite having somewhat of a hangover – vodka is not my drink of choice, and I find the bouncing back a little more difficult – we geared up and headed off down the hill with Kostya to go trekking through the Siberian forests on quad-bikes.

Crisp, clear morning view of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

Crisp, clear morning view of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

***

Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Oh my God, Robert! You fell off a motorbike in the busy streets of Cambodia! When are you going to learn your lesson!? But quad-bikes are a little easier to keep upright – so I kept telling myself – and I would have a guide this time, who would drive ahead of us so that we didn’t take any wrong turns, or attempt to drive down any dangerous paths. To save on the cost, Kaylah and I decided to share the quad-bike, with one of us driving for the first half of the trail and switching positions halfway through. We suited up, put our helmets on, and mounted the bike. I let Kaylah take the first turn of driving, so that I might be able to do some observation and hopefully pick up some driving techniques so as to not kill us both.

“This, accelerate,” the guide had said as he pointed to a small button on the right handle bar. “This, break. Follow me. About 10 metres between us.” The English was broken, but the meanings were clear. Yet as the guide took off down the trail and into the trees of the Siberian forest, Kaylah wasted no time getting started and speeding off after him. I’d started out leaning forward with my arms wrapped around her, like I did with all the motorbike taxis in South-East Asia. I very quickly slid back to assume the brace position, clinging to the small handrail that looped behind my seat. Kaylah has a pretty loud and feisty nature, so I guess I should have expected her to be a bit of speed demon. Though it wasn’t just the speed that slightly terrified me. As we raced through the forest, we occasionally had to slow down and stop to watch the guide manoeuvre through some tricky parts of the trail, so that we could follow exactly in his tracks and avoid any accidents. It was hair-raising business, though – the quad-bike jolted forward on some pretty sheer angles, and there were a few moments when I was sure that the bike was going to tip over. I clung on for dear life as Kaylah powered forward through the steep mounds of mud, seemingly unfazed.

Also – though I know my depth perception isn’t perfect – I spent basically the entire ride thinking to myself, She is not at least 10 metres away from the back of that bike. She’s two, maybe three, at the most‘. After about half an hour, we reached a small rest point in the middle of the forest. After we dismounted, the guide turned to Kaylah and gave her a big thumbs up. “Very good driver!” he said with a grin. “I smoke, then go back,” he said as he held up a cigarette, then wandered off a short way into the woods.

The Siberian forest through which we rode our quad-bikes.

The Siberian forest through which we rode our quad-bikes.

“You were so not 10 metres away from him,” I said to Kaylah as we sat down on a small wooden bench that had been fashioned out of some logs.
“I know, I know,” she said with a laugh.
“I was so scared! There were a couple of times were I definitely thought we were going to tip over! But you were so close to him!” I was being completely genuine, but Kaylah has an infectious laugh that I can’t help but get carried away by, and so I giggled along with her.
“Ah well – I can’t help it! I’m Asian, we tailgate!” Now that made me laugh. Though she’d spent most of her life in America, Kaylah has Vietnamese heritage, but I loved that she still could find the bit of humour in what some people would have just deemed a rude or racist joke. We had pretty similar senses of humour too, which was probably why she was one of the people I’d been spending the most time with on the tour so far.

Then came the punchline of this whole scenario – it was time for me to drive. Once upon a time I would have considered myself a pretty good driver. I passed most of my RTA tests the first time around, including the one where you’re behind the wheel of a car. I can drive a manual car. I’ve never been in any major accidents. But my time living out of the suburbs has seemingly diminished these superior driving skills somewhat, as I stopped even owning a car. I became the public transport enthusiast that I am today, and while I still know how to drive a car, I guess the motor skills that are required to operate other motor vehicles just gave up on me. Cambodia was a great example of that, but the ride in as Kaylah’s passenger had already ensured that I didn’t have the same invincibility complex when I got behind the controls of the quad-bike.

Here comes trouble - me just before I took off on the bike.

Here comes trouble – me just before I took off on the bike.

That was basically just a long winded way of saying that I bogged the quad-bike in the mud within the first 30 seconds of me driving, and had to have the guide come back and switch the bike into 4WD mode so that it could get enough power to pull itself out. He stood in front of the bike, pulling on the bumper bar while I accelerated, and I was terrified that when it did eventually come free I would surely run him over. The bike didn’t go anywhere at any great speed though, and the guide just chuckled to himself as he walked back to his bike. Kaylah and I were also in hysterics – you can’t really do anything but laugh at yourself in that kind of situation, can you? – but I was almost tempted to surrender the driving back over to her right there.

But I didn’t. Just like I’d gotten back up on that motorbike in Phnom Penh, terrified it would still be the last thing I ever did, I revved the engine to the quad bike and took off after the guide. Unlike Kaylah, I was very meticulous about keeping the 10 metres between the guide and myself, though in the end he probably ended up slowing down so I was close enough to see his demonstrations of crossing the tricky bits. The scenery was quite repetitive, so I honestly couldn’t tell, but I feel as though we might have come back a different way. There was nothing anywhere near as steep or tricky on the way back as some of the obstacles Kaylah had had to ride over. For that, I was infinitely grateful. We arrived back in one piece, though I was dripping with sweat under the protective suit from all the strength and concentration it had taken me to not ride the quad-bike off the trail. You’d think that remembering to steer is the most basic rule that is impossible to screw up – but I’m just that talented, I guess.

***

Yesterday, we’d decided as a group that we wanted to take a boat out onto Lake Baikal. We’d been inspired by the beautiful weather we’d had on the first afternoon, but we were disappointed to learn that the overcast weather on the following day had made the lake waters quite choppy and rough. Kostya assured us that it would be windy and unpleasant, and so the excursion was cancelled. There was nothing else major that had been planned for that day, so in the end I was even more chuffed with my decision to do quad-bike riding, despite the mild terror it had incurred. So for me, the rest of the day just turned into a relaxing afternoon – a short walk down by the lake, watching funny YouTube videos with Kaylah and Kostya, and visiting the sauna again – though I missed out on getting another birch leaf massage. I’ve always been of the opinion that long periods of travel require those kinds of days, where they only agenda is to have no set agenda. There wasn’t exactly an endless supply of things to see or do at Lake Baikal anyway, so I think most of us were more than happy to just chill out and wander around the small town. We had another vodka filled evening that night, though no one stayed up quite as late as the previous night.

On the shores of Lake Baikal, with the sun sinking behind the horizon.

On the shores of Lake Baikal, with the sun sinking behind the horizon.

***

The following morning we visited an open air museum on our way back to Irkutsk. It was interesting to see some of the old traditional buildings, and we had a bit of fun playing on the big wooden swings and stilts, but for me the whole day felt like a drawn-out, ominous lead up to the main event of our whole tour – the four days of transit along the Trans-Siberian railway. We stopped at a supermarket just outside of Irkutsk to buy supplies, and I was overcome with a sudden sense of dread. I had enough trouble buying groceries for one that wouldn’t go off in my fridge within a week – how was I going to plan and buy all the food I would need for the next four days? Technically, you coud buy food along the way, but we were told it would be far more expensive at the station platforms or on the train. I wandered around the supermarket, umm-ing and ahh-ing for a long time, making careful decisions, though the only one I was 100% sure about was the bottle of vodka – and even then I wondered if it woud be enough. Eventually Kostya found me and told me were about to leave, so I rushed through the check-out and back to the bus.

Kaylah and I playing on the huge wooden swings in the open air museum.

Kaylah and I playing on the huge wooden swings in the open air museum.

Travellers.

Travellers.

After that we had a couple of hours to kill before the train, so we wandered around the main streets of Irkutsk. We had a look inside one of the Russian Orthodox Churches, and then wandered down to the river. The fence along the edge of the river embankment was absolutely covered in padlocks. “It’s like the padlock bridge in Paris,” said Jenna, one of the Australian girls. They were all engraved or painted with names and dates, and pictures of doves and ribbons and other celebratory symbols. I hadn’t been to Paris, but a made a mental note to enquire about a padlock bridge when I got there. I think the idea is to lock it in the very public place and then throw the key into the river, so that their symbolic love can never be removed – but if someone had actually been explaining that, I mustn’t have been paying attention. I was probably still too busy worrying about whether or not I had enough food.

Padlocks on the riverside railing in Irkutsk.

Padlocks on the riverside railing in Irkutsk.