Monday, 24 January 2011

Austria - The first flares

Hello everyone!

One final day in my week-long adventure to the continent. Lots of fun, I must say.

One thing I have been noticing a lot more this time than on my previous Eurotrip is the architecture. Yes, that sounds boring, but live in Asia for a year and you'll understand how beautiful the buildings are in this part of the world. Today we started with another quite frankly bizarre house - the Hundertwasserhaus. Don't ask me what it means. Actually, don't ask me anything about this house, as we couldn't get in. Normal people actually live here. Well, as normal as you can be if you live in this pad.

Another aspect prevalent in Europe that is missing in much of Asia is quite a simple one. Green. No, not that kind of green, though I know a few places where you can acquire that. No, I mean the colour. Parks. Grassy strips. They inject life into a city. Asian city planners obviously saw it more important to house their burgeoning populations at its expense.

Without trying to bash Asia too much - I love the place, and will be back in a few months - there is something else it lacks, this time in the food department. Now don't start burning effigies of me here. Korean food, Japanese food, Chinese, Thai and Malay food - all absolutely fantastic. As a main dish. But I have a sweet tooth, and Asian sweets don't really cut it for me. Not the bean paste breads. Spolier alert - not even the rice cakes. But European countries. We do cake. And boy, do we do it well. This one underneath is certainly now in my top three. It's called Esterhazy Torte. Interchanging layers of cream and slightly firm sponge, with the bakewell tart icing on top. WOW.

We had ran out of new things to see, so hit up a couple of places I had been before so I could see them in a different light. Literally. Last time I was here I saw the big wheel in daylight, and it had Petr Cech's giant frame adorning the side. See the comparison, and ask yourself which is better.

One of our days in 2008 was spent in the charming Schönbrunn complex; the summer palace of the Habsburg royalty. It was a great day - partly because we are part of a select band of British folk who can claim to have beaten the Germans in a penalty shoot-out - and I wanted to see how majestic it looked under lights. Of course one of the drawbacks this time was that...well...I went at nighttime,'s not open at nighttime. Unless one of the staff inside unwittingly leaves the sidedoor open as she finishes her shift. Well I just had to go in, spontaneous exploration is my nature. It looks incredible when illuminated, and has a bit of an aura to it when no one else is around.

Inbetween these events Kristina had gone to work, so I had done what I often did when travelling alone around Europe, and gone to see the city's main football stadium. It is home to SK Rapid Wien, one of Austria's most successful sides. Intriguingly, many of their fans were mingling outside the metro stop, so I followed them. They were heading towards the stadium. Through the gates, with the Gerhard Hanappi Stadium towering over us to the right. They headed...left. To a floodlight astroturf pitch where some men were about to start a kickabout.

Or not. I had stumbled upon a friendly match involving SK Rapid Wien. They actually have a couple of players I've heard of - step forward Jan Venegoor of Hesselink. I chatted to some locals to get information, and discovered that the winter break was still in force for the Austrian league, so they were keeping match fit with this friendly. As you can see from the video at the bottom, the fans were happy enough. Happy enough to light flares after 30 minutes. For a practice match. Don't see that at your standard British pre-season game.

I've had a great week, ended with if not a bang then at least a spark. The spark of a red flare. No more travelling for the next six weeks, apart from the occasional trip to London to sort admin stuff out. For what, you ask? I'll tell you. The next time I post a blog it won't be from Europe. It will be from Asia, and specifically will tell some tall tales from...SRI LANKA!!! Auf wiedersehen Europe, and a very good morning to the Indian subcontinent on March 2. Europe do cakes well, but I hear this region produces a mean curry...

Love you all


Sunday, 23 January 2011

Austria - The first sachertorte

Hello everyone!

So we're now in Vienna. Well, that's what I was told. However the first place of interest that we visited had much of a very different language...

Was I back in Korea?? Probably not - it was about 2'C, far too warm to be a Korean January - but seeing some hangeul did excite me a bit. Probably more than it should. Maybe I need to let go a little bit. Though Vienna didn't help me with that, as various Korean signs kept popping up - the kimchi restaurant sign below was spotted the following day. The market that housed all of these Korean delights was actually an interesting place in its own right, full of numerous exotic fruits and other goodies. Well, they didn't seem that exotic to me as I've lived in a region that classes these things as normal for the past year, but exotic to your standard European.

Kristina was racking her brains as to what she could show me, as I had seen all of the main attractions that Vienna has to offer. Or so I thought. We were walking through the main shopping area when this conversation happened:
Kristina: (pointing) I'm guessing you've seen that, then?
Matt: What?
Kristina: (pointing at a massive church-like building) That!
Matt: Umm...(takes a closer look)...err...I don't think so?
Kristina: (shocked) You didn't see the really big church???
Matt: I...umm...
Kristina: The biggest attraction in Vienna?!

She was talking about the Stephansdom which, though maybe not the 'biggest' tourist attraction of this city, is pretty damn big, and probably would be seen by anyone claiming to have seen all of the main buildings of Vienna. Big gothic church. Not much more to say about it, really.

We ended up seeing many of the normal sights - the Höfburg palace, the opera house, the Sezession - but one good thing about being with a local is that you are given a new perspective on seemingly trivial matters. See these blue things below? Art, right? No. In the summer these are seats transported into the Museumquarter, where people get drunk and dance the night away.

Tiredness still reigned supreme, so we took a pitstop in a café. At this point I was able to sample another new food - sachertorte. A cake with a layer of jam interspersing the chocolate. Wonderful, if a little dry without cream. Austria do some excellent chocolate. The country's most famous son has his own chocolates. No, not the Fritzl kid (too soon?). It seems that, aside from composing and all of that, Mozart also made chocolates***. Mighty fine chocolates.
*** I may have made that up.

Due to a faux pas Kristina had to work both nights that I was in Vienna, so I investigated the buildings after dark before heading back. I wasn't bothered - I'm supposed to be saving money, after all. The buildings possess an even greater charm when illuminated. I was going to have company, though. I was staying at Kristina's house, and her mother was going to be home. Her mother who speaks English as a third language. Talking to a guy to whom German is his...well...nacht sprechen Deutsch, put it that way. That's probably wrong, as well.

It was a great experience, actually. It was always going to be when the third question fired my way was 'You like beer?' Add in a very interesting person and some home-cooked food, and it's fair to say that I had a very interesting evening. Aah, the home-cooked food - wiener schnitzel, one of Austria's famous dishes. Many would just call it pork in batter, but they are proud of this food. I've had it before, but as with most food it is far better when prepared by an expert at home. Another new occasion in a city that I thought I had seen before, but in reality had hardly scratched the surface of.

Love you all


Saturday, 22 January 2011

Germany - The first currywurst

Hello everyone!

So the final day of Berlin before moving on. We were severely low on energy at this point, so we didn't accomplish much. We were kicked out of the apartment at 3pm by a crazy German cleaner who was very expressive with his hands. He wasn't too happy with the state we had left it in.

So leave we did. We hung out in yet another cool area of Berlin. Again the architecture was splendid, though Jon and I were more interesting in the ampelmann shop. Everything you can think of with an ampelmann twist. But soon the sun was setting on our Berlin adventure, and we headed to the train station.

Jon and Arth were going home - they have jobs after all. As I have no such problem occupying my time, I was never going to leave my continental sojourn at this juncture. Remember me mentioning that Kristina was from Austria? Well she's from Vienna, and that's where I went. Places are always better, and the experience is always richer, if you have a local friend to guide you to the hidden gems that a given place has to offer. So a 12 hour train ride awaited the two of us. With the ridiculous trains I have done in the previous year, this didn't phase me in the slightest.

We needed food, however, and I had my eye on one final Berlin tourist experience - the currywurst. A curried sausage, and something of a Berlin phenomenon. You can get them in other places in Germany (and Austria, it turns out), but this is where to sample a true currywurst. It was...well...the curry taste was strong. Overly strong, you might say. Not really worth the hype, but I took my time eating it nonetheless. To the point where we forgot the time and came close to missing the train.

It was quite a quiet train, enabling us to have our own compartment and stop any strange people from entering. Like the one creepy Czech guy (we're guessing the nationality, as he hovered particularly as we passed through that country) who kept walking by our door and looking in. No curtains on this train. He resembled a very ugly Santa Claus, whose beard was a bit on the grey side and needed a bit of Daz to spruce it up. The quiet aspect of the train was occasionally interrupted by the wailing of a crying baby from the next carriage, which prevented me from getting more than a couple hours of sleep. Again.

A little after 6am, and we disembark into a cold, dark, Austrian world. I've been to Vienna once before, but this would be a very different experience to being here for the 2008 European Championships. No crazy Turks dancing on cars, no beating Germans in a penalty shoot-out to get free entrance for Schonbrunn, no feelings of being a sardine in a fanpark under the Rathaus. Hopefully not repeating the experience of leaving my big backpack in the train station and then sprinting back to retrieve it, either. I liked this city last time, and was happy to be back.

Naptime was essential before attacking the city, which is something I will do in my next blog. As for Berlin? Great city, fantastic atmosphere to it, and a lot of fun. Just tone down the techno music a little bit and I'll consider moving there, OK?

Love you all


Friday, 21 January 2011

Germany - The first graffiti house

Hello everyone!

Sleep deprivation is becoming a slight issue for us. Even after a late night and lots of beer I didn't break the four-hour barrier, and afternoon naps are in reality afternoon lie-in-bed-cursing-the-fact-you-can't-sleep-even-though-you-really-want-and-need-to-sleep sessions. Still, better to be awake than asleep, and after some eggs were back walking around our local area through the brisk German air. The temperature is hovering just above zero, making my decision not to bring a jacket look increasingly naive. Actually, not naive. Just damn stupid.

We were waiting for a while to get a table in a café that our landlord had recommended. Well, we waited until the waitress decided to kick some others out of the place to make room for us. Good service. Really good coffee as well, though the food was a bit on the minimalist side. Salad with...fruit. And a token piece of meat. Bye bye €8.

We had seen most of the attractions the previous day, with one glaring exception - the Berlin Wall. True, the vast majority was demolished in a wave of euphoric unity, but there is a very small section still standing. I guess it's still there mainly for tourists, as museums related to it are housed nearby. Still interesting though.

What was much more interesting was located across the road. Well, across and above, as they were in the air. They being cars. Two cars. Suspended. In the air. At least 10 metres off the ground. See for yourself below. One of the stranger adventure playgrounds you will see.

Sticking to the strange theme, Kristina and I then headed to a building called Kunsthaus Tacheles. This wouldn't be one of the top attractions in your standard guidebook. It's a building that is covered in graffiti. The government want to tear it down, and I understand that some people may see it as an eyesore in comparison to the other buildings on that street, but that is a big part of its appeal. The vibe is really cool, and it is an important pillar of Berlin's alternative cultural scene.

The sun began to dip, which further added to the eerie atmosphere of the place, but I had to head to Alexanderplatz. Side point, if you have seen the Bourne films, this square is part of one of my favourite scenes, where he is sprinting through the city and loses his trackers in the crowds and on the trams. I was there to meet a friend, Katie, from the TEFL I took in Prague in 2008. Two-and-a-half years ago, definitely time for a reunion. She took me to a bar in her area - where I got to sample some fine black beer - before we headed back to the apartment to join the others in pre-gaming for the night ahead.

Jon was particularly excited about our destination. It is a club called Tresor, and is one of the biggies in the Berlin club scene. It's a shame that no one else in our group is a fan of techno, but I was intrigued (and drunk) enough to also be excited. Games finished, U-bahns taken at beyond 1am, and entry into a very big power station which had lots of lights and heavy techno beats. Berlin's metro system continues through the night on weekends - take note every other major city, it's a GOOD thing.

I thought it was a good place. Unfortunately, the majority weren't big fans, so most of us left Jon to do his thing (which he enjoyed doing until 7.30am) and vacated sometime around 5am. I thought I danced enough to ensure I slept for more than four hours, but alas was once again proved wrong. My body now had one more day of sleepwalking around Berlin before heading to pastures new. Hang on, did you seriously think I was just going to Berlin? What's wrong with you!!

Love you all


Germany - The first ampelmann

Hello everyone!

I mentioned last time that there were three of us in the formerly divided capital. As well as Arth and Jon, we were being joined today by my friend from Austria, called Kristina. Going to meet her at the station menat that I only got 4 hours of sleep - a common theme on this trip.

Today was our tourist day. A chance to see the sights and take some pictures, but also an opportunity to tap into the history and culture that makes Berlin such an interesting melting pot. To help me get this across, I'll quickly explain some of these aspects.

Like Germany itself, Berlin spent almost half of the last century divided between two ideologies. Literally divided with that wall. Although that was torn down in 1989, reminders of the division abound across the city. Some are obvious - Checkpoint Charlie, the principal gateway between the two Berlins for the Allies, still exists.

But this division is also noticeable in other ways, and the traffic lights are a good alternative example. The red and green 'walk/don't walk' men are different in West and East Berlin. West Berlin's traffic lights have what we could consider as normal symbols. East Berlin has the ampelmann. Who is much cooler, as you can see.

Much has happened since unification, too. We saw the hotel where MJ did a spot of baby-dangling. Intriguingly, one window of the hotel was left open. Not sure if that was his window or if it's a coincidence. He won't do it again, though. The hotel itself is in sight of Berlin's most famous current landmark, the Brandenburg Gate. Not as big as I anticipated, but impressive nonetheless, and another reminder of another time.

Don't be fooled by the burden of past politik though. Berlin is a forward-thinking place. I've been to one German city before, but the vibe is very different to Munich. Here is more cosmopolitan, more international. It oozes class. Not many cities have a Bugatti Veyron in a shop window. €1.7million, of you're interested. And a lot of insurance.

This was a Friday, so an opportunity to experience the techno clubs, a cornerstone of Berlin nightlife. It is different to the accepted British style of partying in many ways, one of which is that the clubs in Berlin are just kicking into gear when most British clubs are kicking people out. Night owls, the Berliners. They also, to a man, drink on the metro, which I am a big fan of.

Our destination was a club in Alexanderplatz called Weekend. Once we got in - we only did because Jon charmed the bouncers and pointed out that it was his birthday wish - we headed up the skyscraper to the 7th floor, where the club was located. This is where we stayed for the duration of the night - Weekend is famous for its rooftop bar, but it was closed. For winter. Lack of research there.

The night itself was good fun, in spite of my indifferent attitude towards techno music. We met lots of crazy people - I even found a Korean dude in amongst the dancing lunatics. We can't count ourselves in the 'crazy' group, as we left early. I say early, it was after 4am. Still, an excellent day and night in what we are increasingly viewing as an excellent city.

Love you all