State Capital Sendoff

Austin is the state capital of Texas, which meant that – with the exception of my bus passing through Baton Rouge – it was the only state capital that I had visited so far, since Washington D.C. isn’t technically a state. Which meant that it was my second opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of these babies.

Texas State Capitol Building

Texas State Capitol Building

Even though I’m sure popular opinion would rate the live music, bar scene and creative culture as one of the major attractions of the city, I made sure that I spared a bit of time to check out the more historical and traditional attractions in Austin. While I didn’t bring myself to actually go into the museum, I did spend an afternoon wandering up the main street and onto the lawns of the Capitol building, admiring the beautiful scene and examining some of the statues.

The scene of at the Texas state Capitol building.

The scene of at the Texas state Capitol building.

As I read the inscriptions around the statues, I began to fill in some of the gaping holes that existed in my knowledge of American history. I mean, I don’t want to sound too ignorant, but all that I really knew about modern American history was what I had picked up from TV shows, movies, or other pop culture references. As an Australian, all I could really tell you is that slavery was common in the South and that there was a Civil War. So that day I learnt about the Confederate, and just exactly what the Civil War was all about, as I circled the memorial that listed the Confederate states and the casualties of war. I won’t go into it too much because hey, this isn’t a history blog, but it was quite a sombre afternoon of learning, consideration and reflection, which I guess served as a nice contrast to the rest of my time in Austin.

Memorial Statue

Memorial Statue by the Capitol building.

Later during the week I walked through the same part of town during the evening, to meet Aaron and some of his friends for drinks, and the whole scene had a difference aesthetic. The building looked a little whiter, and a lot more majestic as it was lit up and set against the dark evening sky.

Capitol by night.

Capitol by night.

Lone Star State.

Lone Star State.

***

I did wander the streets of Austin a few more times throughout my stay, popping into souvenir shops and examining all sorts of wares with “Keep Austin Weird” sprawled all over them. But the cancellation of Alyssa’s trip to Austin and the fact that Aaron had to work meant that I had a lot of time to myself, and I actually had a lot of planning to do. It was already November, which meant I only had 6 weeks to cross the south-west states to California to catch the flight out of Los Angeles that I already had booked. There were quite a few things I wanted to see along the way, which required a lot of planning, booking of bus tickets, and searching for and messaging Couchsurfing hosts. It was also around this time that the U.S. was experiencing what was dubbed the ‘cold snap’ at the time.
Oh, it actually looks nice and sunny outside today! I remember thinking to myself, only to step outside without checking the actual temperature to discover it was a nippy 4 degrees! Needless to say, I ducked back inside to change into jeans and a sweater before I’d set two feet out the front door.

And eventually the time came for me to leave my wonderful host Aaron and the super cute Sergio for my next travel destination. It was a Thursday night – a full after I had first taken my clothes off for money at Oilcan Harry’s – when I climbed aboard another Megabus service that would be taking me to San Antonio. It was an enjoyable and – despite the near alcohol poisoning – memorable week, and I’d like to think I played my part in keeping Austin sufficiently weird.

Sergio, Aaron and I.

Sergio, Aaron and I.

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Sights to See and Sights of the Sea

For a city that has a handful of extremely recognisable and world famous icons, I didn’t do an awful lot of sightseeing in Rio de Janerio. James had mentioned the cable car ride to Sugarloaf Mountain, a pretty popular tourist attraction on the eastern edge of the city. Though, when I’d probed Tom about it later, he had shrugged, appearing pretty indifferent.
“I mean, yeah, it’s a great view,” he said. “It’s one of those things that everyone just does, know you? Almost without thinking about it. If you do go, just make sure it’s on a day when the weather is nice and clear.” I’d taken the advice into account, but there was no denying that on the bright and sunny days, the allure of the beach down the road was far more powerful than any urge to climb a mountain. The same could be said for Christ the Redeemer – the journey to actually get up the mountain to the base of the monument wasn’t a breezy walk in the park, and I can’t admit to having any strong spiritual calling from Jesus to go look at the huge idol up close. So I settled for the glimpses that Tom and I had had of the statue through the clouds on our hike a little closer to home, satisfied that I was probably experiencing a few more interesting things in Brazil than statues and landscapes.

But there was one other sight in particular that James had described that had piqued my interest much more than either of the mountains. “There’s the steps at Lapa,” he’d said as he rattled off a quick list of things that would be worth seeing, and perhaps it was the fact it was something I’d never actually heard of that made me research the steps and eventually want to go and see them. I jumped on Google and did a brief search of some of the other sights in the area – Lapa was a neighbourhood closer to the centre of Rio de Janeiro – and on one of the afternoons where Tom was at work, I set out via the bus and metro to explore a little bit more of the city.

***

I found Rio to be a curious city because it felt very decentralised. I’m much more familiar with the concept of a city centre, an obvious hub of activity that has a greater population density, is usually a little more expensive than the rest of the city, and has lots of things to see and do and entertain the tourists. But as soon as I stepped off the metro and emerged into the more central streets of Rio, I realised this wasn’t the case. The touristic focus of the city is by and large the coastal areas, and the regions that have the gorgeous beaches and natural beauty within the landscapes. That’s what people want to do and see when they come to Rio – I too had been primarily more interested in catching some rays and working on my tan than I ever had been about the sights I was about to visit.

Now, Rio is a pretty big city, so maybe there was a more accurate, central hub that I didn’t know about. To be fair, most of the city it actually based long the coast, around the mountains and the landscapes, and so the “centre” really just seemed to be the midpoint between the northern and southern parts of the coast. But the area I was in looked not far off being a ghost town. A lot of the buildings looked particularly old and run down, graffiti and litter were present – not overwhelmingly, but consistently – and I was very quickly introduced to another far less glamorous side of the city, which I had a feeling didn’t see half as many tourists as the beaches at Copacabana or Ipanema. It told a different story, a toned down version of the rife poverty that existed in the favelas over the hill, the concentration of the Brazilian slums. It was actually quite confronting, and for the first time during my stay in Rio I actually felt the mild presence of danger and the need for a little more caution than usual – a fear that I had been secretly harbouring about the city yet had never before now been actualised. But I kept my wits about me and moved on, taking a few photographs of the significant buildings and trying me best to not look too much like an ignorant tourist. Firstly there was the Teatro Municipal, considered one of the most important and beautiful theatres in the whole of Brazil.

Teatro Municipal

Teatro Municipal

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

After that I made my way further west over to Lapa, where there were two more sights that I had read about. The first was the Arches of Lapa: the ancient Carioca Aqueduct. When I first read about them, I assumed I had just misheard James say ‘steps’, but they were actually something else entirely. I have to admit, I was expecting a little more than what I saw. To be fair, there was nothing misleading about the name – the were definitely arches. However, they’re been described as great architectural feat, a landmark of the city, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when I discovered the building looking particularly dirty on one end, as though it had suffered some major neglect. Although in the end it all ended up feeling rather fitting for the ghost town vibe I was starting to get from the area.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

But as I followed my directions down a few small side streets, levels of fear and uncertainty slightly but gradually rising, I turned a corner and instantly felt like I was in another city, with an entirely different mood and atmosphere. Escadaria Selarón – Selarón’s Staircase, or the Steps of Lapa – loomed ahead of me, an explosion of colour that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the otherwise dank and drab corner of the city.

The Steps of Lapa

Escadaria Selarón

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

Honestly, I hadn’t done that much research into what the steps actually were, so I was completely blown away when I stumbled across them. The entire staircase had essentially been turned into an artwork, with barely a patch of free cement that wasn’t adorned by a tile or ceramic in some way. There were words in the steps, there were flags, there were pictures – it was such a complex and diverse range of colours and images, there was nothing you could do but slowly ascend the staircase while marvelling at the walls around you, taking care to not trip up them in the process. There was a substantially larger amount of tourists on the steps, too – it seems as though this is one of the few attractions that people venture out this way to actually visit. I took my time picking out some fellow tourists who seemed trustworthy enough, and asked them to take my picture on the steps.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

It was actually quite a long staircase, and as I climbed further I realised that the staircase was actually a street. There were houses along either side, front doors opening directly onto the staircase, and I few times I actually noticed Brazilian families coming and going from their homes. I wondered what it must be like to literally live on a tourist attraction – frustrating at times, but surely a beautiful backdrop to spend even the most relaxed and casual days of your life. When I reached the top, it was interesting to gaze back down the steps and realise how unremarkable they looked from above. Almost all of the tiled surfaces faced downwards, and you could only really be confronted with all the colours as you climbed the staircase. I sat there at the top of the steps, partly to sit and marvel at the complexity and beauty of the whole thing, and also partly because I had discovered an adorable little stray cat which I couldn’t stop photographing.

The view from the top of the steps.

The view from the top of the steps.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

The steps were really interesting though, and something I was so glad I had taken the time and effort to go and see. Now, whenever I see a movie that’s set in Brazil and there is a visual of the steps at Lapa, no matter how brief or insignificant, I can’t help but shout out “Hey, I’ve been there!” to anyone who will listen. It wasn’t a hugely popular attraction, such as, say, the Eiffel Tower, and I think the fact that there were less people made it even more memorable, and something that I really will carry with me for the rest of my life.

***

That day was the only real sightseeing that I did while I was in Rio. After seven months on the road, it’s a little difficult to muster up the enthusiasm for that kind of thing all the time, but I felt satisfied with what I had managed to see. The rest of the sunny days I spent hanging out with Tom, going to the beach with him and James, and for the most part just relaxing and taking it easy. People sometimes underestimate how taxing on your mind and body travelling can be. Sure, it’s essentially an extended holiday, but you’re constantly moving your body around from one unfamiliar environment to the next, and all the new things you see and learn about and discover can build up to overwhelm your mind. Rio provided the perfect opportunity for me to just kick back, soak up the sun, sand and sea, and really not have a care in the world.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

And there's me, diving into the surf.

And there’s me, diving into the surf.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

And of course, the experience wouldn't be complete without a selfie.

And of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a selfie.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

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…

Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

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

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

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

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

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

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

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

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

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

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

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

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

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

***

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

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

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

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

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

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Losing My Religion

Day Two of Selma’s itinerary started off with another sight that was deemed one of Rome’s “must see” attractions: The Vatican City. The further along I got on this itinerary, the more I realised that there are just so many things to see in Rome, and that I would have probably wasted a whole heap of time had I not had the good fortune of Selma’s advice. Still, the Vatican was something I was almost in two minds about. “The Vatican? Won’t you, like, burst into flames or something when you step inside?”, my best friend Jesse had said during a Skype conversation while I was getting ready to head out. I just laughed and shrugged. I hadn’t let my homosexuality or my distaste for organised religion stop me from entering any of the other churches throughout Europe so far, so why should I treat the Vatican any differently. By that reasoning St Peter’s Basilica was – to me, at least – just another church.

The Vatican is located slightly north-west of central Rome, and Valerio’s place was in the south-east, so it took even longer to get there than it had taken to get into the centre yesterday. Selma’s instructions had advised I wake up early to visit the Vatican, presumably to avoid the queues, but unless it is absolutely essential, I have discovered I am just not a morning person. Especially not for the Pope. So the sun was high and bright as I stepped out of the metro system and into the streets, where I immediately could find my way to the Vatican by simply following the flocks of people. There were lots of people holding signs advertising guided tours, hollering at passers-by with things like “You going to the museum? Vatican Museum is not this way, you want want guided tour, aye?” Every now and then I would see people stop and talk to them, and I wondered if any of them realised how ripped off they were probably going to get. “Long lines for the museum, but not with guided tour!” Maybe I was wrong though – I never bothered to investigate them further. I dodged the assumed tourists traps as I blended into the throng of the crowd.

The centre of the Vatican City.

The centre of the Vatican City.

There were lines to get into the main church – there was absolutely no way around that. Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free, so there wasn’t really any reason not to go in, once you realised the lines moved at quite a constant and steady pace. I couldn’t have been in line for more than 20 minutes before I was through the security check and on my way in. Some of the other tourists around me, however, were not so lucky. Like many holy sights that I had visited in places like Bangkok and Angkor Wat, respectful attire was compulsory for entry into the largest Catholic church in the world, and I had done my research. As I approached the front of the line, I pulled out the pair of jeans that I had stuffed into my backpack and pulled them on over my short, immodest shorts. I’d been sure to wear a t-shirt with decent length sleeves, so once I had covered up I was given the green light by security. The women behind me in their sandals, summer dresses and light gauze shawls weren’t so lucky.

The first thing I noticed when I was finally within the compound was, lo and behold, another line. It was a line to climb the steps to the basilica’s atrium, a dome that supposedly offered views of the Vatican and the surrounding area. I stood in line for a short while before I realised a sign that read “Exact fare only” (it cost €5 to walk the stairs or €7 to take the lift). I checked my wallet – all I had was a €50 note. I deliberated in the line for a little while, but in the end I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the wait to be turned down for not having the correct change, and even if that didn’t matter, I wasn’t sure the view itself would be worth even more waiting. So instead I slipped out of the line and entered into the main chamber of the church.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter's Basilica.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter’s Basilica.

One of the many statues inside St Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it's name.

One of the many statues inside St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it’s name.

I have to admit that my musings in the morning before my arrival at the Vatican had been a little bit off – I had seen a lot of churches so far, but this place was impressive. I wandered around the hollow space aimlessly for some time, just staring at the walls and the ceilings and the masterpiece artworks that adorned them. It was almost similar to the interior of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with gold plating and lavish trimmings, but as I admired all the beauty, I couldn’t help but think that it was all so over the top, and question whether or not it was necessary for a church to be so intricately decorated. Although these places were built in a completely different time period, almost a completely different world, and I suppose institutions such as the Catholic church would have had enough power that they could have commissioned anything to happen, not just a masterpiece by Michelangelo. Which isn’t really any more of a comforting thought. I had been able to admire almost all the other churches I’d visited during my travels simply as holy places of worship, where people found solace in their faith, even if I did not. But there was something else, something more than the interior design within St Peter’s Basilica that made me a little uncomfortable, somehow reminding me of all the things that I really did have against religious institutions such as this one. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but all my previous attempts at finding some kind of enlightenment came to naught as of that day, and I fell back into a phase of religious disillusion.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

Personal reflection aside, the basilica is still rather wondrous to behold. A highlight is the statue of St Peter, whose toes on this right foot have been worn down to a smooth nub after centuries of pilgrims touching and kissing his foot while they pray to the saint. As I was taking a photo of the main alter in the church, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around to see a couple, a man a woman, extending their camera out to me and pointing at the alter. Figuring that they wanted me to take a picture for them, but also guessing that they didn’t speak English or Italian, I just smiled and nodded. I took the camera and snapped a few shots before handing it back to them, and then motioning for them to take a few for me in return. “спасибо,” (or phonetically ‘spasiba’) the man mumbled to me in a deep voice as we parted ways. I got momentarily excited, and went to say “You’re welcome”, until I realised that ‘thank you’ was pretty much the extent of all the Russian that I knew. After I had finished looking around and taking a few pictures, I exited St Peter’s Basilica through the underground crypts, where former Popes are laid to rest. It was a solemn route in which photography was not allowed, so after I left I snapped a few last pictures out the front in St Peter’s Square.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter's left foot still have distinguishable toes.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter’s left foot still have distinguishable toes.

Outside St Peter's Basilica.

Outside St Peter’s Basilica.

Outside the church in St Peter's Square.

Outside the church in St Peter’s Square.

***

The next stop of the day was the other major feature of the Vatican – the Vatican Museums. Now I’m not a huge art buff, but I’m no snub either, so I wanted to take my time and at least see some of the highlights – according to Lonely Planet you would need a couple of hours for that alone. I followed the crowds exiting the basilica and found my way to the museums. I instantly knew that I had made the right decision in forgoing the expensive tourist trap guided tours of the Vatican Museums – what appeared to be a long waiting line to get in was actually just a steady stream of people moving into the building. I never actually stood still once while I was ‘waiting’, and I was in and away in no time.

The collection of artworks in the Vatican is quite remarkable though. Every room is crammed with as many works of art as possible, from the most minuscule and seemingly insignificant to the most amazing of masterpieces. There were sculptures, statues, paintings, portraits, walls and ceilings decorated with the most extravagance: it just went on and on. I won’t even attempt to describe or explain everything I saw, but I did take a few photos of some of my favourite pieces.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The famous statue titled "Laocoön and His Sons", which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

The famous statue titled “Laocoön and His Sons”, which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

The Belvedere Torso.

The Belvedere Torso.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they're not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they’re not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

I followed the signs and directions for the most brief tour of the museums, which as expected still took a couple of hours. But no matter how you go about it, the final stop on any tour of the Vatican Museums inevitably has to be the Sistine Chapel. Photographs are forbidden in the main chamber, and rightly so. I’ve previously expressed similar sentiments that being unable to take a photo of a place, such as inside the temples of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, make the place a little more special and sacred, and you really have to be there to see it. Of course, you can see the highlights of the chapel with a quick Google search, but there is so much more to the room than Genesis. The chapel itself would have been quite a chilling and moving sight to behold, if it weren’t for the fact that the rule of silence was so heavily policed. Don’t get me wrong, I think that requiring to be silent in places like the Sistine Chapel is totally acceptable – it’s still a holy place and I’m sure there’d be dozens of Catholics around the place casting prayers up to Heaven as they gaze around in awe. But the effect of that silence, and indeed the point of requiring it, seems a little defeated by the “ATTENTION! SILENCE PLEASE! NO PHOTOGRAPHY!” boomed out over a very loud speaker system in 6 different languages every thirty seconds. It’s a little hard to be impressed while standing in the midst of a famous work of art when you feel like you’re being ordered around like a herd of cattle.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

Although, it’s disappointing to admit that more than half the tourists in the room were behaving like cattle. I left the museum after that, and the Vatican as a whole, feeling not exactly underwhelmed by what I had experienced, and not necessarily disappointed. I just felt a little confused. Like, was there something I wasn’t getting? I appreciated these places as world renowned and works of art, but I just felt like I was missing something that made it all really seem that worth it. Maybe it was the disillusionment I felt in St Peter’s Basilica, or maybe I was just suffering from museum fatigue, or was just tired of an itinerary that was starting to feel like a season of  “Europe’s Next Top Cathedral”. I was glad that I had seen what I had seen, but I decided after my visit to the Vatican that I was going to terminate the rigid itinerary that Selma had provided me with. There were still a couple of major sights I legitimately wanted to see, but I think my trip to the Vatican marked the day that I had officially grown tired of museums, churches, and every other typical tourist attraction.

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.

From Tourist to Traveller: Berlin Sightseeing

After an exhausting weekend that nearly destroyed me, I decided to take some time out of the crazy Berlin party scene and do a couple of touristy things. Of course, I needed at least a full day just to receiver from the messed up sleeping patterns and diet that consisted almost solely of booze and currywurst. But on Tuesday, when I finally felt human again, I set off in the morning to do a self-guided Trip Advisor walking tour of Mitte, the central district of Berlin, also known as the Government Quarter.

But before I begin that recount, I need to do my obligatory rant, or rave, on the public transport situation for a new city. And I have to say, notwithstanding the train delays on my journey to actually get into Berlin, I am in love with their local train services. There are two kinds: the S-Bahn, which runs above ground and are actually integrated into the national rail system, and the U-Bahn, the underground trains that are essentially the German version of a metro. Trains on all lines come frequently at regular intervals, and between these two highly integrated networks, it’s possible to get almost anywhere in Berlin with relative ease, although there are so many different lines and interchanges that it can be a little difficult to wrap your head around at first. The only real issue I had with the U-Bahn and S-Bahn was the price of a ticket: €2.80 for a single trip seemed a little steep in my opinion, but then I guess I had still be paying student fares in Sydney right up until I left – welcome to the real world, kid. Although there’s one tip I can offer that you won’t read in any Lonely Planet book – there’s no barriers at the stations for which you need a ticket to pass through, and checking for tickets on board the train is very infrequent. Now I’m definitely not condoning fare evasion, but… there a few short trips I make where I felt it was worth the gamble. So for a system that is well-established, efficient, and if you can’t get away with it, free, Berlin public transport gets a general tick of approval.

***

The first stop on my walking tour was the Brandenburg Gate. The most famous of all the east-west crossings of the Berlin Wall, it’s a symbol of the division that once ran through the city, though during my time in Berlin I’d learn that while the wall came down in 1989, distinctions and differences between East and West Berlin are not unrecognisable. Visually, the gate is probably the most iconic feature of Berlin, so I posed for a photo before continuing through. The time I was in Berlin also coincided with a visit from the US president Barack Obama, and so Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate, was full of security guards and scaffolding, as some type of arena seating was erected in the clearing. I passed through the arches of the gate from east to west to find the Tiergarten stretched out before me, and turned right to head towards the Reichstag, the German parliamentary building. According to my Lonely Planet guide book, there was a popular and impressive view of central Berlin from the glass dome ceiling of the Reichstag, and that it was free to go and see. What the guide book failed to tell me was that you needed to make a booking prior to your visit in order to secure your spot on the viewing platform. Slightly disgruntled but not really that bothered, I left the bustling tourists to their lining up and headed back towards the Tiergarten.

Gate

The Brandenburg Gate, with just a suggestion of scaffolding.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate.

The Reichstag, the parliamentary building which I unfortunately didn't get to enter.

The Reichstag, the parliamentary building which I unfortunately didn’t get to enter.

The Tiergarten is a huge expanse of greenery right in the centre of Berlin. I don’t know much about it historically, other than it being the name of a Rufus Wainwright song, but it was beautiful place to stroll through a park and lose yourself in the gardens. I made an arching route in and out of the Tiergarten, admiring some statues along the way, before emerging at the haunting piece of artwork that is the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial is a collection of 2711 pillars, all evenly spaced apart across 19,000 square metres, and which appear to be of a roughly similar height. However, as you walk into the grid you begin an unexpected descent, and discover that the ground is uneven and awash with hills. When you enter the grid, the pillars come up to your knees. After a few moments, they’re towering above you, and the only thing you can see in all for directions are long corridors created by the towering monoliths, and the occasional other person who crosses your path along the way. As I emerged from the memorial, I took a seat for a moment and reflected on the reason it was there, and who all the pillars represented: the victims of the Holocaust. Each one was the same essential structure, a homogenous collective, yet each pillar was also individual in its unique height. I’m not sure if that’s the actual rationale behind the memorial, but it struck me as somewhat symbolic. Afterwards I took a photo with the memorial, as a tourist souvenir – only afterwards was I told about a website that makes fun of men who use such photos taken at the memorial as their profile pictures on online dating sites – there happens to be quite a lot of them! That was a little embarrassing, but I just made sure to never upload the picture to my Grindr profile.

Lion statue in the Tiergarten.

Lion statue in the Tiergarten.

Holocaust Memorial: view from above...

Holocaust Memorial: view from above…

... and the view from below.

… and the view from below.

After the memorial I headed back east and eventually reached Museums Island, a block of land that is surrounded by canals, so technically an “island”, and is home to a cluster of art museums. I had a wander around, admiring some of the beautiful buildings, but decided I wasn’t really in the mood for museums. I continued along the path, looking at a few churches and stopping for a photo with the Karl Marx stature – the sociologist in me just couldn’t resist. Eventually I arrived at Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower. It’s not a particularly pretty building, but it is tall, so I went inside and took the elevator to the top. The TV Tower is one of the few sky scrapers in Berlin, and by far the tallest building, so it provided a complete panoramic view of the city, although it was so high up that so many of the sights were minuscule and almost unrecognisable – even the Brandenburg Gate looked no higher than a couple of centimetres from up there. There was a fancy rotating restaurant at the top of the tower, but I decided to save my euros and eat at Hackescher Markt, a nearby market down on the ground. I think there might have been more of the Trip Advisor tour, but the day had involved a lot of walking and I’d found myself rather exhausted. For something that’s isn’t really extremely exciting, sightseeing can be exhausting. I finished my lunch and jumped on the U-Bahn to head back home.

Berliner Dom, the cathedral on Museums Island.

Berliner Dom, the cathedral on Museums Island.

The Karl Marx statue.

The Karl Marx statue.

The Rotes Rathaus, or Red Town Hall, near Alexanderplatz.

The Rotes Rathaus, or Red Town Hall, near Alexanderplatz.

TV Tower.

TV Tower.

View of Berlin at the top of TV Tower, from the Tiergarten to Museums Island - essentially, what I'd just walked.

View of Berlin at the top of TV Tower, from the Tiergarten to Museums Island – essentially, what I’d just walked.

***

The only other touristy sightseeing I did during the week was a few days later when I visited Checkpoint Charlie, where you can still see the sign that “You are now leaving the American sector”, a remnant from the days of the war. However, with the men in uniform trying to sell you pictures with them, it’s all a little gimmicky and so full of tourists that I could only bring myself to stay for a short time. I would have visited the Jewish museum, but the weather had gotten so hot over the past few days I could bring myself to walk the rest of the way. It was there at Checkpoint Charlie, though, that I reached something of a turning point within myself: I made the conscious decision that I wanted to be a traveller, not just a tourist. I didn’t want to just check off the list of sights listed in the guidebook and take photos in front of the famous monuments – I wanted to experience what the city was really like, meet the locals and see things from their perspective, and see what Berlin was for them. Being a tourist can be exhausting, with the weird pressures you can feel from people to “do everything” and go to all the “must see” sights. For me, being a traveller is all about doing whatever you wanted to do, and going places that you actually want to be. I’d seen some of the wild and crazy sides of Berlin, and if was looking for more of that, I definitely wasn’t going to find it in a Lonely Planet book.

Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie.