Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

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Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

After being the last one on the plane – I was hanging on to every inch of news about the looming end of the US Government shut down – and settling down for a long overnight flight, I finally touched down at Guarulhos International Airport just as dawn was creeping over the horizon and into São Paulo. After disembarking, collecting my baggage, and passing through Brazilian customs with no hassles, I wandered through the terminal in a groggy daze, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pills I’d taken during the flight. It was only really sinking in that I currently had a handful of questions and problems, and not a whole lot of answers or solutions.

Firstly, I had been a little terrified at the thought of coming to Brazil at all. I’d heard horror stories of people being mugged at gun point on the beach in Rio, although that wasn’t going to be much of problem for me if I couldn’t even find my way out of the fresh hell that is a foreign airport. That was another thing I had to get used to again – I was in a non-English speaking country and would soon learn that – unlike Europe – it wasn’t even that common and a second language, with many people only speaking Portuguese. My phone was also running low on battery, and I was unable to find any stray power outlets in the terminal, so I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb that would eventually leave me completely stranded as soon as that percentage hit zero. There didn’t appear to be any readily available (read: free) wifi in the airport anyway, so it was looking more and more like I was going to do this the old fashioned way. I had spoken to Fausto a couple of times on Facebook, and while they had been brief, he had provided me with the essential details such as his phone number and address. He’d also told me he would have to go to work the morning of my arrival for an important presentation, so he might not be there when I arrived. My phone was having troubles making regular texts or calls, so I really had no way of contacting him, so I just had to set out for his apartment and hope for the best.

Fausto had warned me that the only way to get to his place from the airport was to get a cab. I’d been skeptical at first, being a traveller who is always willing to brave the public transport to save a few dollars, but what I had failed to realise is that the reason there is no public transport from the airport is because the international airport isn’t even in São Paulo. I thought Guarulhos was just the name of the airport, but it turns out that it was actually the neighbouring city, and the drive to São Paulo would take the better part of an hour. Luckily taxis – and basically everything, comparatively – are pretty cheap in São Paulo, so once I found out where to catch a legitimate taxi (I’d also been scared with rumours of illegal taxis that either charge way too much or simply rob you during the course of your trip) I jumped in, showed the driver the written address, and enjoyed the ride as I was driven through the lifting fog and into the metropolis.

***

I had met Fausto previously in my journey, during my brief stint in Barcelona, where I had joined him and his travel companions for a swim in their gorgeous hotel pool. It wasn’t the first time that someone I had met earlier on my travels had provided me with a place to stay: I’d only met Rich in Bangkok when I met up with her in Barcelona, and Giles let me live in his home in London without him for two weeks despite having only met him briefly in Berlin. But I’d stayed in touch with them more than I had with Fausto, and I was afraid it might be awkward due to the fact I had practically invited myself to come and stay with him (people always say “Sure, come and visit me!” but how many of them actually mean it?). When I finally arrived at his apartment, I received a pretty good impression of what a lot of the homes in Brazil, or at least São Paulo, were like. Before me loomed a beautiful, sleek, modern looking condo, surrounded by ferns, palms and other tropical plants to create a well-kept garden. However, before all that was a huge metal fence that covered the whole side of the property that faced out into the street. A quick glance each way down the road showed me that this was standard practice for many of the more affluent-looking residencies in the area. After paying the taxi and watching it drive off down the road, I approached the gates and was immediately greeted by the security guard. He asked me something in Portuguese, and instead I showed him Fausto’s written address, which also had his name.

“Ahh, Mr. Fausto!” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief, his recognition indicating that at the very least I had made it to the right place. But the guards face showed a look of concern, and when he said something to me. I recognised a few key words, in particular “trabalho”. It sounded very similar to “trabajo”, the Spanish word for ‘work’, and I knew enough Spanish to make meaning out of the madness. Fausto was obviously at work, and while the guard didn’t seem to doubt my legitimacy as a guest of Fausto’s, he managed to communicate in his extremely basic English that he had no key. I pulled out my phone – wondering if it was simply going to be a long morning of waiting in a lobby – to discover that I had received some text messages. From Fausto! After quickly reading over them, I had to convince the security guard to take me up to Fausto’s apartment. He shrugged, but escorted me upstairs anyway, and in a few minutes we were both standing in front of his apartment door. He kept muttering away in Portuguese, but I got down on my hands and knees and put my fingers along the tiny gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. After a few moments of sliding my fingers along the bottom of the door, I found what I was looking for – a piece of sticky tape. I gently peeled it off and it came away easily, and I discovered what appeared to be a piece of dental floss stuck to the tape. And when I pulled on that dental floss, sure enough the key tied to the end of it slid through the gap and out onto the floor. The security guard cried out in amazement, and I held up the key, smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. He stayed with me to make sure the key worked, and then left me alone to discover Fausto’s apartment.

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

Fausto lived in a beautiful apartment that looked out over São Paulo. He had left a clean towel out for me so that I could have a shower, and I ended up taking a nap on the couch and letting the sleeping pills wear off while I waited for him to get home. Any fears I had of potential awkwardness evaporated as soon as he arrived home – we was as warm, friendly and charismatic as he had been when we’d first met in the under-crowded Barcelona nightclub, and in no time we were catching up as I was telling him the long story about my missed flight and how I had ended up in Brazil. Last time I’d seen him, South America hadn’t been on my travel plans, so he confessed he’d been a little surprised to hear from me.
“But still, it was a pleasant surprise! I’m glad you finally get to see Brazil now,” he said with a smile. “I actually just came to check up on you after my presentation was finished. I’ll have to go back to work this afternoon, but if you like we can go grab some lunch now?” All I’d had for nearly 24 hours was plane food, so lunch sounded amazing.

When we got down to the street, Fausto ran me by some of the basics about Paulistano life. “There’s public transport, but it’s not that reliable and doesn’t really reach a lot of places. Taxi’s are definitely the way to get around, they’re everywhere and they’re not that expensive.”
“What about walking? Are the streets dangerous?” I wasn’t a fan of paying for cabs, but I guess it was a matter of safety first. Fausto pursed his lips in thought, unsure of how to answer.
“Well, it’s not really dangerous,” he said, “but it’s not the safest place in the world. You just need to be alert.” He shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “But then you could say the same thing about some parts of New York, right? So who knows.” I guess he had a point, although New York did have an incredibly comprehensive public transport network for a city it’s size. Having just spent such a long time in the Big Apple, during my time in São Paulo I found myself inevitably comparing and contrasting the two cities in various ways.

***

I took the days in São Paulo relatively easy – I hadn’t done an awful lot of planning, so when Fausto returned to work on that first day I headed home to consult a few maps and read up on the local attractions and sights. Fausto lived in an area called Vila Olímpia, which was quite close to what he had described as “the Central Park of São Paulo” (again with the NYC references), Parque do Ibirapuera. Pleased to discover something that was within a comfortable walking distance, I set off one afternoon to check it out. Ibirapuera Park is the largest in the city, although it’s nowhere near as large as Central Park, but as I walked through the streets of São Paulo, the thing that struck me most was how green and leafy the city was. I remember having similar thoughts about Singapore earlier in the year, with trees growing peacefully alongside big shiny malls, but São Paulo took it to the next level. Trees erupted along the edges of the road and stretched out their canopies over the streets, and it was enough to momentarily distract you from the fact you were in a huge city and lose yourself in the surrounding nature. The term ‘concrete jungle’ is so often used to describe cities like New York which, save a handful of dedicated park, are largely void of greenery. I feel as though São Paulo interpreted the term in a much more literal sense, combining equal parts of both concrete and jungle to create a truly unique atmosphere that I had never encounter before, and am yet to experience since.

Street art.

Street art.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

When I eventually reached Ibirapuera Park, the greenery took a chokehold on the concrete and exploded into a complete rainforest. I wandered aimlessly along the paths, getting lost amongst the nature and enjoying the slow pace of life away from the city. In the centre of the park the sounds of traffic had almost completely faded away, and it weren’t for the paved path under my feet I could have sworn I was actually in a remote rainforest. When I finally emerged from the denser forest of the park and into the clearings, Lago das Gaças – the huge lake in the northern end of the park – provided the perfect setting for some photographs of the city skyline looming on the horizon.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

I found the park so beautiful and soothing that I ended up going back several times. The rainy season was well underway, and one afternoon I even walked around in the rain and enjoyed the relatively empty scenery. The park is also home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which had a free exhibition that I briefly visited, as well as a range of other interesting structures and sculptures.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the 'Oca', or 'hut'.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the ‘Oca’, or ‘hut’.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

When I wasn’t checking out the parks and exploring the concrete jungle, I took a trip up to Avenida Paulista, what Fausto described as the major downtown and shopping area, or “São Paulo’s equivalent to 5th Avenue”. Determined to not spend money on taxis when it could be helped, I ended up walking the whole way. It was a great way to see more of the city, but in the end there wasn’t as much to do in downtown São Paulo during the day, since I wasn’t exactly on a budget that allowed for afternoons of shopping. And still, I couldn’t help but be drawn away from the streets of the city into the greener pastures that lay sprinkled in between the skyscrapers. I discovered a few little extra bits and pieces that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for all that aimless wandering, so in the end it was definitely worth it.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

I also spent a long portion of my days in São Paulo just relaxing, whether it was in a nearby café or Fausto’s apartment, writing my blog and just enjoying the warm, tropical weather. I would hear much of the comparison between between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during my time in Brazil, and the debate reminded me of my own hometown of Sydney and the comparisons to Melbourne. Both Rio and Sydney have the advantage of natural beauty and being close to a handful of beautiful beaches, so their relative competitors attempt to make up for their lack of inherent beauty with lots of cultural activities and artistic pursuits. With this in mind, I was assured that São Paulo becomes a much more interesting city at night, so I was happy to siesta the afternoons away in preparation for the coming evenings…

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.

River Deep, Mountain High: The Great Outdoors in Zürich

The following morning, I bid farewell to Umer as he set off on his own trip. Before he left, he gave me his dads monthly travel pass again. “My father said he won’t need this today, so you can borrow it for one more day while you’re staying here. It let’s you go a lot further around the city than one of the standard daily tickets, so perhaps you’d like to make use of that while you can.” It was the last of the numerous suggestions and tips that Umer had offered me, and I thanked him for his stellar advice as he headed off to the airport.

***

The first thing I did that morning was head back to the centre of town to the dock at Lake Zürich. The monthly pass that I was using today also covered use of the ferry, which made round trips around the lake to certain points much further down the shore. There were long trips that went to the other end, as well as shorter ones that did rotations to closer docks. Umer had said it was a nice relaxing way to spend the morning, and it was a beautiful day to be out on the water. I took one of the shorter trips, which still took the better part of an hour, and watched the shoreline glide past, admiring all the adorable traditional houses that were situated right by the water. One thing that I would continue to notice during my time in Zürich is that the Swiss love their outdoor activities. It has something to do with the seasons – during the winter there is very little daylight, and the cold doesn’t permit people to be outside for too long, so when summer rolls around and the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm, people seem to take full opportunity of as many daylight hours as possible.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

There were lots of pools and parks along the edge of the lake, and plenty of people were out sunbathing and swimming and kicking balls and all sorts of recreational activities. I sat in the sheltered shade of my seat in the ferry and just took it all in. I had just come from the small coastal town of Ancona, and I had been expecting to be returning to my tour of major cities when I arrived in Zürich, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a small village feeling very much entrenched into the essence of this place. Even in the major intersections where trams tracks overlapped and cars seemed to be turning in all sorts of random directions, there were no skyscrapers, no obvious central business district, and no particularly large or overwhelming buildings. The feeling was cute and quaint, and it suited the city perfectly.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

***

After my tour across the lake, I returned to the shore where I had plans to meeting some. Robin was to be my second Couchsurfing host in Zürich. Originally I had had three lined up: Umer had been the first and Robin the third, but my second host had to cancel at the last minute, which was why I was staying an extra night with Umer’s parents. Robin currently had a friend staying with him, which is why I could not come to stay with him any earlier, but when I told him Umer was going away he said he would be more than happy to meet up to see some more of Zürich with me. When I told him about the pass I was using for the day, he suggested we catch the train south west, just outside of Zürich to the mountain Uetliberg, which was another popular site for recreational activities in the city. Robin’s friend Tammy was busy filling out an application – the two of them were Chilean, with Robin living and studying here and Tammy visiting him, but also applying for courses so that she might be able to come back and live here too – so it was just the two of us as we hopped on the train and set off up the mountain.

As I chatted with Robin, he confirmed what I had observed from the boat – that everyone in Zürich was slightly obsessed with physical activities and outdoor recreation. The bike on the train up the mountain had quite a few people with mountain bikes, which they would ride down steepest parts of the mountain, following the popular trails before turning around and riding back up again. The public transport passes in Zürich ran on 24 hour period, so you could ride as many times as you liked as long as you were in a zone that was covered by your ticket. Robin had to buy an extension on his regular ticket, and off we went along the train towards the mountain. We got chatting along the way up – Robin was a sweet, short and soft-spoken guy who spoke with a pretty heavy accent. He was currently living in Zürich doing research and writing a Masters thesis, about a particular niche in microbiology that I would struggle to reiterate in any further detail, but it was definitely quite interesting.

When we reached the Uetliberg station – it was only about a 20 minute trip – we headed along the short hiking trail that led to a lookout. On the way we saw dozens more people out and about, who were doing a whole manner of exercising such as running, jogging, riding bicycles, and even taking part in what seemed to be some kind of boot camp drill work out. Robin and I casually trekked our way up the hill and dozens of people passed us by – we had all afternoon while Tammy filled in her application, so there was no rush. We eventually reached the lookout at the top peak of Uetliberg and gazed out over the impressive view. There was a metal tower that looked something like a huge lightning rod that we were able to climb, so Robin and I marched up the stairs to the viewing platform at the top. From there you could see the around the whole mountain, the horizons lined with even higher mountains that were cloaked in clouds and a pale pink afternoon sunlight. Up there the air was so fresh, and I breathed in a lungful as I soaked in all my surroundings. Robin pointed out a few of the natural features of the area, and we chatted about each of our home countries, our travelling experiences, and our impressions of Zürich. The nice thing about Couchsurfing is that no matter who you end up meeting or staying with, there’s always at least one thing you usually have in common – a passion for travelling. It’s the reason most people get involved – to be able to go travelling themselves – and in turn allows other people to go travelling and see the world. The more experience I had with the website and organisation, the more amazed and impressed I was at such a simple idea that very could very literally change lives.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

After soaking in the sights from the top of Uetliberg, Robin and I headed back to Zürich to meet up with Tammy, and once we did we headed to the west of the city, where Robin told us there was an outdoor concert happening. He didn’t have too many details, but he thought it might be something cool to check out, so we jumped on a bus across the city. When we arrived, we found what seemed like a huge picnic in a park, with people spread out across the relatively small stretch of grass. In the corner, a large folk band was playing all kinds of music, and there was a crowd who had gathered around them to watch. We bought some snacks from a nearby store and laid out on the grass, listening to the music from across the park and just hanging out, enjoying the cool, pleasant evening air. It was actually getting quite late, but twilight was still lingering over the city, and there didn’t appear to be any signs that the party would be dissipating any time soon. I had to get home though – I hadn’t told Umer’s parents what time I was expecting to be home, so I didn’t want to keep them waiting too late into the evening. I bid farewell to Robin and Tammy for the evening, making plans to see them again when I arrived at Robin’s place the next morning to stay with him for my last two nights in Zürich.

***

The following morning I left Umer’s parents place and made my way to Robin’s. He would be working during most of the day, so that’s when I would do my typical and touristic sightseeing, but in the afternoons when he was free Robin introduced me to some of the activities he did during his spare time and, like any typical resident of Zürich, those were outdoor activities. Enter slacklining: a sport that holds a lot of similarities to tightrope walking – you are required to balance on, and walk across, a piece of nylon or polyester webbing that is tensioned between two anchor points. However, the main difference is that while a tightrope is rigid and taut, a slackline gets its name in having a considerable amount of slack – it is stretchy and bouncy, almost like a long and narrow trampoline. The more extreme variations of slacklining involve doing it unsupported in crazy places such as between skyscrapers or mountain peaks, but Robin was taking me to learn in a much safer but still rather exciting place: over the River Limmat.

We got to one of the bridges that crossed the river, down near the riverside bars where everyone had congregated on the warm, sunny afternoon. We weren’t the only ones setting up a slackline over the river – there were two other guys setting up a much longer one than Robin’s, from the bridge to the rivers edge. “That guy is very, very good. He does it professionally,” Robin said as we set up our slackline. There were a couple of guys walking along the other slackline, but one of them was obviously extremely experienced. He would stop in the middle of the line and do all sorts of acrobatic tricks, bouncing on the line and landing on one foot, or even on his hands, pushing himself back up to keep bouncing and even walking across the line. It was seriously impressive. Robin had only been getting into slacklining recently, he assured me, so he wasn’t that good. I assured him he would be better than me, but nevertheless I was still keen to give it a go.

Once I first stepped onto the line, I realised how sensitive and reactive the slackline was to my body. It wasn’t too windy that afternoon, but as soon as I stepped out onto the line it violently shook from side to side, like a leaf in a hurricane. Robin held my hand to steady me as I took my first step, but he couldn’t take me the whole way. I tried my best to stay balanced, but as soon as I took my first step on my own, I came tumbling down to land in the river. I plunged into the cool and deep blue water, and when I finally resurfaced I realised that I had already floated a couple of metres downstream. The river was flowing exceptionally fast, to the point where if I tried to swim upstream, it was the equivalent to running on a treadmill – going nowhere fast. I quickly swam back to the edge of the river to rejoin the others on the bridge. Robin was definitely a lot better than myself at the slackline – for the first time ever he managed to cross the whole way across the slackline without falling off. That only happened once though – most of the times we both always ended up plunging into the river. I quickly learnt that you can’t be afraid of falling, and when you do fall you have to let it happen and not fight it. The one time I panicked and tried to stay on the line, I fell so awkwardly that I landed on my back in the water, and the impact left a huge red mark on my back that attracted quite a lot of comments from passers by.

Slow and steady across the slackline...

Slow and steady across the slackline…

... keeping his balance...

… keeping his balance…

... and he made it!

… and he made it!

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

The first, and only, step...

The first, and only, step…

... and down I go.

… and down I go.

Splash!

Splash!

That wasn’t the only reason strangers talked to us, though. The shared love of outdoor activities seems to seamlessly bring all surrounding people from all walks of life together, and make new friends out of complete strangers. Robin and I had plenty of people come up to us and ask us questions about slacklining – most of which I couldn’t answer, though – and asking if they could have a turn. The area was already pretty social with the bars lining the river, as well as a bunch of other cool things – there was a restaurant that also doubled as a DIY garage where people could come and use tools to fix and customise their bikes – so the slacklines on the bridge were just another added element to that friendly social vibe that seemed to be almost everywhere in Zürich. It made for a fun and interesting social experience – all the activities that were happening around the city made me realise something about my life back home: I didn’t have very many hobbies. The closest thing I had to a hobby was playing guitar and writing music – other than that, I just spent a lot of time drinking with my friends and going clubbing. It was a refreshing change, and I think that afternoon was when I made a pledge to myself that when I got home, I was going to find fun new things to do with my time other than drink myself stupid.

It was also an exhausting afternoon though, so afterwards Robin and I headed home for a relatively early night. We sat up for a while just chatting in his room though – there’s just something unnatural about going to bed before the sun does.

***

The following evening we set out after Robin finished work to meet some people in a nearby park. “I haven’t met these people, but there’s a group on Couchsurfing that organises hikes and other outdoor trips and stuff,” Robin told me as we made our way there. “We’re planning something for this weekend, so we’re meeting up to go over the details.” It made me realise that Couchsurfing wasn’t just a place to stay – it was a global, online community. When we arrived at the park, it was a similar sight to my first night in the park with Robin and Tammy, except instead of lazily enjoying the outdoors, everyone was extremely active. There were games of volleyball and soccer, people doing yoga and other aerobic activities, people throwing balls and frisbees, and Robin even brought along his slackline again, and set it up between two trees. It was quite remarkable to see so many people outside until the very limits of daylight. “It really is the summer drawing everyone out,” Robin later said. “The winter was horrible this year – it lasted five months and it was terribly cold, so everyone is very excited now that the warmer weather has finally arrived.” It was a familiar story that I had been hearing for the last month from all over Europe, from Finland and Sweden to Germany and even France. Not so much in Spain and Italy, but I had started heading north again, away from the Mediterranean.

It made me realise just how lucky we are with the weather in Australia, especially the temperate climate in Sydney. It’s never exceptionally cold, and only very occasionally does it get extremely hot. We get a healthy balance of rain and sunshine and we never have days with extreme excess, or lack, of sunlight. Watching these people flock outside to enjoy the weather made me realise just how little I appreciate the weather here, and so in Zürich I made a pact to myself to not only get a few more hobbies when I got home, but also to get out and enjoy the outdoors a little more too.

Swiss Secrets

After a long day of trains and transfers, from Ancona to Bologna, then Bologna to Milan and from Milan to Zürich, I finally arrived in one of the biggest cities in Switzerland, which in reality felt more like a large town than a small city. It was an exhausting day though – one of the most tiresome things about travelling is actually being in transit, and I was usually pretty shocked at how tired I would feel after simply sitting down on a train all day, although by now I was starting to get used to it with all the trains I had been catching around Europe. When I finally stepped off the train at Zürich, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Umer. Much like Ike had sent me the invitation to visit Ancona, Umer had seen my profile among the people who had listed that they were travelling in Europe, and had messaged me offering a place to stay with him should I ever find myself in his city. Such offers ended up shaping my trip quite a bit, since I had no set or definite plans myself, and I had had no success in finding hosts in any other Italian cities I might have been interested in seeing. I was also acutely aware of the approaching expiry date of my Eurail pass, so I had to make sure I had completed my circuit around Europe before that time arrived.

From the moment we met, Umer displayed a bright and bubbly personality. He helped me find an ATM to withdraw some money, since Switzerland doesn’t use euros like most of its neighbouring countries, but instead has held onto its original currency, the Swiss franc. As we made our way out of the train station, Umer reached into his satchel bag and brought out a bottle of light brown liquid. “Now, you have to try this. This is Rivella. It’s a Swiss soft drink, made right here in Switzerland, and it’s pretty popular. It’s one thing that you just have to try.” It looked like the colour of ginger beer, but it was made from milk whey, but I couldn’t really tell you exactly what it tasted like. It was fizzy, but it wasn’t entirely sweet either, and had a odd aftertaste. I could only manage half the bottle before I handed it back to Umer, but I still hadn’t made up my mind as to whether or not I actually liked Rivella.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

We hopped onto one of the numerous trams that made up Zürich’s impressive public transport system. The system is comprised of trains, overground trams, buses, electric buses, a cable car and regular ferries across Lake Zürich, and the system was so comprehensive that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother driving anywhere in the city, when public transport could literally take you everywhere. As we travelled through the city centre, Umer pointed out various attractions that I should come back and visit and photograph later, when I wasn’t carrying my large bag. Umer wouldn’t be able to return with me, though. The following morning Umer had to fly out of Switzerland for a work trip. However, he’d agreed to let me stay at his place for one more night without him, since he lived with his parents who would be home for that time. I had had another host lined up for that next night, but they had cancelled on me last minute. Umer also gave me a very serious warning about tickets on public transport. “If you don’t have a valid ticket, its an on-the-spot 100 franc fine. If you don’t have it on you, police accompany you to an ATM so you can get it, and if  you can’t pay it then they put you in gaol.” He told me a couple of horror stories about previous Couchsurfers of his who had been hit with the whopping fine, and even though I had been happy to risk it several times while travelling on the U-Bahn in Berlin, I decided the risk probably wasn’t worth 100 francs, and definitely not worth spending time in a Swiss gaol. Luckily, Umer had brought along his dad’s monthly public transport pass for me to use, so I didn’t have to buy a ticket that afternoon.

The Swiss flag (although this one isn't in the traditional square shape).

The Swiss flag (although this one isn’t in the traditional square shape).

***

Umer was a fantastic guide, even from the confines of the train, teaching me random bits and pieces about the history of Switzerland, and other interesting facts. After I confessed to him that I originally thought that Zürich was the capital of Switzerland, not Bern, he told me that the city only serves as the capital for international purposes, and that most of the regions within the country are pretty autonomous. “Switzerland really is all about being neutral,” he elaborated. “None of the other cities really have sovereignty over any other – it’s all quite self-sufficient. It’s also one of the few countries that has a square shaped flag, and not a rectangle. The equal sides represent equality in all parts, and that idea of remaining neutral.” Who knew there could be so much history behind a flag? We also got off and had a wander through the downtown area, and passed the Limmat River, which flows out of Lake Zürich. “The water quality in the river is so high that it’s practically drinking quality. It’s mostly freshly melted ice from out of the Alps, so it’s so clean,” Umer said as we strolled by the water that was a bright shade of blue. “We don’t really have beaches around here, but in the summer time you can always find people swimming in the river and hanging out by the bars along the waters edge.” I made a note of it, since my good luck streak with the European summer weather was forecast to continue.

But our stops along the way were all really brief. “I’ll let you take your time with the sightseeing when you come back tomorrow,” Umer said. “For now, I want to show you one of my favourite things in Zürich that you probably wouldn’t see as an ordinary backpacker.” And so we eventually arrived that Thermalbad & Spa Zürich, a thermal bath and spa house whose design still held remnants of the ancient Irish-Roman bathhouse that had once stood in its place. “I love coming here”, Umer told me. “Just wait until you get inside.” We paid, entered, and got changed into our swimwear before entering the complex. The whole place felt like a Buddhist temple in that it was extremely calm and relaxing, but when you looked up the roof was old and arching domes made of ancient bricks and stones. We relaxed in the warm bubbling water, which was apparently drawn straight from natural springs that existed under Zürich, and was full of revitalising and rejuvenating minerals. It was actually the perfect relaxing experience after the long, exhausting day of train travel. There was also a mediation pool, where you could lie face up in a shallow body of water, and when you put your ears in the water you could hear soft, tranquil music playing. The whole place had quite a mystical feel about it.

However, the best was yet to come, Umer assured me. Once we were done on the lower levels, we got into a lift that took us up to the top floor. We stepped out of the lift and straight down into a staircase that led into the bubbling water, and rounded a corner and passed through a plastic curtain… which led us out onto a rooftop spa, with panoramic views of the city. The sun was slowing setting, hanging between the mountains, and the view was absolutely breathtaking. “You should see it in the winter when its snowing, it’s pretty amazing,” Umer said, and I could only imagine that the juxtaposition of temperatures would be rather incredible. So we sat up there on the rooftop spa as twilight sank over Zürich, sharing Couchsurfing stories and telling him all about my travels, much like I would have done with any new host, but in a quite a unique setting. Umer was right – it was a pretty special place, and once again I was grateful that Couchsurfing had been able to introduce me to some experiences that I would had never have had without it. Afterwards we headed back to Umer’s house, where his mother made us some dinner and then I promptly crashed, feeling incredibly relaxed after my time in the spa that had felt like something out of a dream.

I wasn't able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet - but I couldn't not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered.

I wasn’t able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet – but I couldn’t not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered. Image courtesy of: http://www.somestepsaway.com

Walking in Sunshine: Summer on the streets of Madrid

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

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

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

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

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

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

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

***

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

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

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

Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The classical streets of Madrid.

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

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

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

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

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

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

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