Thursday, 27 August 2015

Topdeck - Day 12 to Day 24


The last half of the Spirit of Europe Topdeck trip is an absolute whirlwind of culture mingled with physical exhaustion and a little too much alcohol.  Some of my favourite stops on the tour were during this part of the trip.  They were made particularly favourable due to the cheapness of travelling to most of the countries in the Eastern Bloc.

DAY TWELVE: Slept the majority of the drive from Venice to Vienna, Austria.  Upon arrival we walked around the summer palace gardens of Schonbrunn palace.  Scorching hot weather.  After a brief driving tour we checked into Wombats hostel Vienna and continued to sweat due to the lack of proper air-conditioning.  Went to the theme park, Prater.  Had an amazing time riding roller coasters and various other rides, especially 'exstasy'.  There were no lines which allowed us to go on a handful of rides in the few hours we were scheduled to spend at the park.

Schonbrunn palace

DAY THIRTEEN:  Sweated balls all night and woke up unrested.  Had a really relaxed day looking at a few stores, having lunch and lying in the park under a shady tree.  The location of many of Vienna's historic buildings is extremely central.   This meant that we saw many of the churches, museums and palaces in the central area despite putting in very little effort to actively seek them.  It was such a novelty to have no sense of urgency to see heaps of things in the short time we have in each city.  For dinner we went to a restaurant that offered 1 metre of ribs.  I personally went for the 30cm option and still felt extremely full as it was a massive serving.  In the evening we attended a classical music concert.  It wasn't really my cup of tea, but I could still appreciate how talented the musicians are.

DAY FOURTEEN:  Yet another travel day, this time via Bratislava headed to Budapest.  Again we had three meals in three different countries.  Breakfast in Austria, lunch in Slovakia and dinner in Hungary.  Bratislava was really nice.  I enjoyed being in a less bustling place than some of our other destinations, even if it was just for a short lunch stop.
Budapest is an impressive city with a lot to offer.  I will definitely be returning to spend more time exploring.  The views over the city were amazing!  One down point is the strange currency which meant it was difficult to know whether what you were purchasing was priced reasonably.  Budapest offers something for everyone, including some unique bars like Szimplakert for the quirky types.

Overlooking Budapest

DAY FIFTEEN:  A full on day in Budapest barely scratched the surface on what we could have done in this city.  Early in the morning we went to the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to Hungary's war history.  The museum is housed in the building which was once used to imprison, torture and kill hundreds of people opposed to various regimes Hungary was subject to throughout the countries history.  The intense video in the lift down to the basement makes this museum worth visiting, without considering all the other informative exhibits.  After lunch we relaxed in the thermal spa, Szechenyi Bath.  The bath boasts 18 public pools of varying temperatures, both indoor and outdoor.  After the amount of walking we had done in the previous days our bodies were in dire need of a relaxing soak.  Outside the parliament building on the waterfront there is a moving tribute to people who were shot on the river bank before their bodies were dumped in the river.  One highlight of Budapest was the beer bike we hired in the late afternoon.  It seated 13 passengers and we pedalled our way down one of the main streets, around the major memorial monument and into the park, all while consuming plenty of beer.

Shoes on the river bank

DAY SIXTEEN:  By day sixteen I had well and truly perfected the art of sleeping on the coach on route to the next destination.  The road to Krakow allowed us to have another 3 countries, 3 meals day with breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovakia and dinner in Poland.  Otherwise the day was mostly uneventful.

DAY SEVENTEEN:  A full on day of exploration.  We got up early to avoid the lines for the Krakow Salt Mines.  The underground cathedral was unbelievable and made the trip worthwhile on its own.  I could have lived without riding the rickety elevator to the surface, but I survived the experience so now harm done. Schindler's Factory on which the film is based is now converted into a museum.  I personally expected more from the museum that focussed more on the war as a whole and less on the actions of Schindler in saving his factory workers.  We explored a little in the less desirable areas of town, the former Jewish ghetto and the square where the flea markets are held.  Krakow's main square is great.  The markets are fantastic, there are plenty of food options and historic buildings.

DAY EIGHTEEN:  The travel day to Prague took us via Auschwitz the concentration camp.  Holy shit.  I will write a separate post about Auschwitz in an attempt to do justice to how powerful this place is.  It was quite late by the time we arrived in Prague so we went to dinner and then directly to the 5 story night club.  Each floor was a different theme, including an ice bar, RnB floor, oldies and a chill out floor.

DAY NINETEEN:  Got in bed when the sun was up and slept until 10:30am.  After breakfast we caught the tram into the central area, when we finally got the correct tram.  After the previous night we were too shattered to do more than wander around a few stores, markets and the square.  Not long after dinner I was more than ready for a power nap so we caught the tram back to the hostel.  For dinner a group of us went to a medieval themed restaurant where a show was provided while we ate.  The show involved fire, live snakes, sword fights, dancing and singing.

DAY TWENTY:  Our departure from Prague was delayed slightly by a few group members who failed to wake up in time for the bus.  On route to Berlin we stopped at Dresden for lunch, a city which was 90% destroyed during WWII.  The buildings reflected the damage through smoke blackened stones salvaged from the destroyed buildings which were incorporated in the newly built structures alongside new white stones.  Once we arrived in Berlin we did a quick driving tour before having dinner and heading upstairs to the rooftop bar of Wombats, Berlin.

Church of Our Lady, Dresden. The black part on the left is the original brick.

DAY TWENTY ONE:  A great guide took us on a walking tour of Berlin starting at the Reichstag building, taking in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler's bunker which is little more than a carpark nowadays, Brandenburg gate and finally ending at Checkpoint Charlie.  Following the walking tour we trained to the East Side Gallery.  Some talented people created those murals on the remains of the Berlin wall.  I think it's awesome that something with such a deep negative history has been turned into something beautiful, vibrant and positive.  Once back in central Berlin we designed our own chocolate flavour at Bunte schokowelt! My white chocolate combined with raspberry, strawberry and lemon pieces was delightful.

DAY TWENTY TWO:  Slept a good 90% of the drive to Amsterdam.  We went to a farm where they made cheese and clogs.  The leader of the demonstration was more than a little eccentric.  Perhaps he had been living in Amsterdam a little too long.  Once we reached Amsterdam city we proceeded to the red light district which in itself is an experience, seeing all the girls standing in their windows attempting to entice people into their rooms.  The sex show was more than a little traumatising.  I never thought I would sit and watch people have sex on a stage, and I will never look at a vivid marker, candle or banana in the same way again.

DAY TWENTY THREE:  Amsterdam is such a cool, relaxed city... until people get on their bicycles and start getting rowdy with the bells.  In the morning we joined the mad cyclists with a guided tour run by Mike's Bikes, taking in the I Amsterdam sign, Vondelpark, past the Anne Frank house and the bench from 'that scene' in The Fault in Our Stars. (Watch the movie. You will cry.) For the rest of the day we wandered around the streets and participated in a spot of souvenir shopping.  Dinner tonight took place on a canal ferry.  We then celebrated our last night together with too many body shots considering it was a Monday!

DAY TWENTY FOUR:  Finally the time had arrived to return to London, via Bruges (Belgium).  Bruges was really cute and had great waffles, as one would expect from Belgium.  Many of the souvenir stores had the Smurfs memorabilia as the cartoon originated in Belgium.  As per usual it was raining when we arrived in the UK.  Saying goodbye to the travelling crew was kinda sad. We had been in each others back pockets for the past 24 days following the same routine, so the idea of waking up without a pre planned breakfast time or time when the bags must be put on the coach was strange.

AND WE MADE IT! What a full on 24 days. Such a whirlwind.  I'm looking forward to sleeping in the same bed for more than 2 nights and not having to repack my suitcase quite so often.  Can't wait to go back and explore some of my favourite spots in greater depth.  This trip has barely finished and I'm already planning the next one!

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