When I first considered moving to Prague, my thought was admittedly “Woo! Now I’ll be able to pop to various European countries on weekends!”
Well, folks, I’ve come to a few realisations. The first is that I’m a fool who didn’t take opportunities when I had them; flights from the UK to different cities in Europe seem to be cheaper than flying from city to city on the continent itself. This makes about as much sense as the discovery that a flight to Thailand would cost around the same from London as it would from Japan, and I can only conclude that for some complicated reason involving fuel surcharges or supply and demand or witchcraft, UK-based companies like Jet2 and Easyjet are able to offer ridiculously cheap flights from Britain. I did find the Czech-based http://www.smartwings.cz/home.php?lang=en, but finding cheap flights out on Friday evenings that land conveniently on a Sunday evening is quite the challenge. Then, of course, there are trains and buses – and this is where it gets tricky. While I hardly blinked at a 4-hour train ride from mine to Jeff’s in Japan, I’m suddenly balking at the prospect of 9 hours to Budapest – partly because I had convinced myself that it was “just down the road”. This brings my other realisation – Europe is huge. And if Europe is huge, that means that the world is ridiculously massive.
Weekend trips might be limited, but I’m hoping to traverse this new country and its neighbours to my maximum capability. So, this last weekend, we decided to fill our schedule and cross the border into not one! – but TWO new countries. The first, as you might just have guessed from the title of this post, was Austria.
Our journey began at 6.30am from Florenc, on the beautiful yellow Student Agency bus. Now, I was told that these buses were a bit skanky, but it seems that they’ve upped their game a lot in the last few years. I was amazed from the moment I walked on to that massive, air-conditioned bus – the seats were beautifully sculpted for sweet, leather comfort. There were screens in front of every one with films, music and games, and the friendly stewardess provided free newspapers (in Czech, alas) and hot drinks. We even stopped for half an hour in Brno for a comfort break, where I spotted this delightful poster:
Now, my friend tells me that this is for a wheel-rolling race, which I never could have guessed from the poster. How very exciting! And that is my impression thus far of Brno, so let’s continue.
The bus journey was lovely, as I’ve mentioned. There’s nothing quite like reading Bill Bryson while sipping on a cappuccino and looking out of the window at the sprawling Czech countryside; acres of green fields and trees dotted with orange-roofed villages. It was around this time when I discovered, to my eternal joy, that my camera could take motion-capture pictures as the bus flew past:
Isn’t that beautiful?
Anyway, we eventually arrived in Vienna (at 11.20am), deposited somewhere that I suspected was not the city center. Luckily there was an underground station nearby and I’d written down which stations were in the center, and the ticket machine accepted my debit card. Vienna has a great public transport system, which I believe is on a par with Prague’s and a similar system – you can buy tickets that allow you unlimited travel for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, a day, a week etc, all at prices that would make London commuters weep with envy. We paid around 1.20 Euros and hopped the subway to Stephansplatz.
Well, I don’t really have that much to tell you about Vienna itself, really. It’s a pretty city, and of course capitalises on the people that its famous for – we walked past the Mozart House and the Freud Museum, although knowing that most of the belongings of the latter were transferred to London during WWII (and remain there today in the Freud Museum of London) I didn’t have much enthusiasm for a reconstructed waiting room. Perhaps that makes me a bad Psychology graduate, I don’t know – especially considering that I’m one of the few who still have an interest in the old, unscientific, psychoanalytic theories.
The thing is, we went to Vienna blind – no map, no tourist book, no real idea of what was on offer, so we just walked around the center (the innere stadt). I would often see horse-drawn carriages (the horses with cute little ears/horns to stop them from being startled by loud noises) or novelty old-fashioned cars, and would follow them as they were – in my mind – sure to be hot on the tourist trail. I follow large groups of tourists like a stalker, and at the same time try to keep as much distance from myself and them as possible, not because they are annoying but because extortionate price-tags tend to follow them around like wasps and ice cream. Turn down a little side-road here or a not-too-dodgy alleyway there, and meals mysteriously cost anything from 20% to 70% less than they do on the tourist paths. At least, that’s the logic that I usually follow – I think that Vienna is either not a fan of this approach or it is just a naturally expensive city. Coffees are around 5EUR, and our lunch – a burger and a glass of soda – came to perhaps 15 EUR each. I’m sure that some people (i.e. people from Japan, London or North Wales) would coo at how reasonable this price was, but being naturally stingy and now living in Prague, I immediately started clutching at my purse-strings and dreaming of 20Kc beer.
So, here we go – pictures of pretty buildings that we saw while walking around. Sadly, I can’t tell you much about these places, as I didn’t even have a map:
We also chanced upon some kind of festival, which seemed to be environmentally themed. There were stands everywhere selling food and giving out leaflets, there were little boys cutting wood, and there were ridiculously wasteful decorations made from vegetables – yes, they WERE real, I touched them to check!:
Yes, Vienna is a nice city, and apparently voted the easiest to live in (for foreigners), which makes sense when you notice the general level of English and the efficiency of the public transportation system, although frankly I wasn’t as impressed with it as I am with Prague. I suppose I’m going to become a “Prague snob”. The main thing that put me off, I think, was the cost of everything. We ended up in Starbucks, because suddenly it was one of the “cheaper” options!
The weather was gorgeous for the whole day, though, which was lucky for the street painters that we walked past. One drew me in in particular, near a man dressed as a zombie and what appeared to be a homeless man in a crown dancing on a podium… perhaps it was the overwhelming smell of spray paint, or perhaps it was the fact that it took him approximately five minutes to “paint”, but I watched the entire process…
Somehow, using stencils to spray around and shade and pressing little bits of paper to create wave-like effects, he was able to create awesome alien landscapes in a matter of minutes. I thought about how cool it would be to own a painting that I had watched being created from start to finish. I thought about the crazily bright yellow walls of our living room and how great a red, or blue, alien landscape would look there. I never buy touristy crap, and perhaps it was the paint fumes, but we handed over 20 Euro for this painting:
You may wonder why I’m showing you this picture, rather than a picture of it on my wall in all its alieny glory. Well, funny story. You can probably guess. Wrapped up in a bin bag and spewing out dizzying fumes, we carried that damn thing around from Vienna to Bratislava to Pra – oh, wait, no. Somewhere between Bratislava and Prague, we completely forgot that we had even bought it. Due to its binbag-like casing, it probably didn’t make it to the “lost and found” shack, if there is one. Ah well, at least we supported a struggling artist… right? *Sigh*…. this was my reminder from the universe as to why I don’t buy tourist crap, I suppose.
Early evening came, and we decided that the best way to travel from Vienna to our next destination – Bratislava – was clearly by boat. I mean, let’s think about this – the choices were train, possibly bus, and boat on the Danube. That’s 70km-an-hour boat along the Danube, in case you were wondering. Which would you choose? We bought our tickets – 21EUR for one way – and sat on a cafe overlooking that famous, not-so-blue-in-reality river for a while.
If you didn’t know, I’m a massive sucker for cocktails. This one was chock-full of real crushed strawberries, and I definitely spent the best part of half an hour trying to make sure that not a single piece of fruit was left to waste. Well, I wanted my 6 Euros’ worth.
At 6pm we made our way onto the super-fast, comfortable boat that took us in to Bratislava. Now, Bratislava has apparently banned British people from some bars in an “attempt to stop stag parties”… interesting, because there were definitely two stag parties on our boat, and they were definitely speaking German. One group was also dressed as Smurfs, leading a concerned father to drag his young, excited daughter away from the drunken louts, and giving me the opportunity to come back from the outside whimpering “I was accosted by a Smurf”.
Smurfs aside, the boat ride was awesome. A minute outside left my hair in a massive nest, and I feared that my camera would be whipped away by the wind, but I managed to take some great shots (hooray “sunset mode” on my camera)…
And then, Vienna was behind us, and Bratislava lay ahead….