Thursday, 7 August 2014

Europe Tour: Two Weeks of Heedless Exploration

On my flight ticket stands "World Traveller" and I have to smile, thinking they've summed it up rather well. I have had great opportunities to travel and live the life of a wanderer, and each time I embark on a new adventure I realise just how precious these moments of exploration really are. When else is ice cream totally acceptable at 11am?! With the newspapers and nightly news full of death and destruction, some seemingly on Europe's doorstep, and a plane with my countrymen being shot out of the sky in all its horrible reality, it was high time to do some living while there was the chance. You might say this is pessimistic, but I like to think of it as optimistically practical. Semantics. Either way: I was off!

(I've included some snippets from my day journal - things I wrote down as I thought of them, to bring some immediacy to these rememberings. This is rather a long post - you have been forewarned!)

I began in Sweden, as each summer trip starts, seeing an old friend and catching up. I don't know why I haven't moved there yet, as I love it so much; the towns centred around waterways, the full, lush green forests, ice cream, excellent food and friendly people, Ikea furniture everywhere...fantastic! Though I will concede that I've only ever been in summertime, and perhaps I should die of the cold in winter... I fell in love with the town of Uppsala (so watch this space!) and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the sights of Stockholm. I would wager it is the most beautiful capital city in the world - certainly that I've seen.

Uppsala in summer
Stockholm in evening light

Next, I went to Berlin; I'd been before, but this time it was hot and busy (if one will go in the busiest period, what can one expect?). On my way through southern Berlin from Schönenfeld airport I wrote this:
"The coming dark is tinged with pink and red. A dirty, sprawling city, still half under construction - yet there is something about it; familiar almost. It feels almost American with its wide streets; yet the large blocks of flats that scar the horizon remind me I'm very much in Europe. This too, is at last beginning to feel familiar..."

After a few sweltering days I went to Dresden for lunch and a wander around before hopping on an old fashioned train (with compartments!) to Prague. I was as giddy as a school girl and hastily scribbled this:
"We're winding our way down through thick forests, following the Elbe River out of Germany. It is wide and peaceful; everything is green and bright. We are in an old fashioned train compartment: six young people, strangers, all on their way to adventure! The buildings and low slung farm houses are delightful. To see the hills again and pine forests pleases me."
It was then I also said to myself: true happiness is having a destination. To move ever forwards and rejoice. I do not think I stopped smiling the entire way to Prague. I love the place unreservedly; it was difficult at first, trying to find my way, but I rather like a challenge. I'd studied the maps, poring over them for ages before I'd left, and for once I had a good sense of direction. Still dusty from travelling, I set out to see the city, losing myself amongst the architecture with delight. I was lucky enough to take in a sunset that I won't soon forget. It is a city with such old world charm.

Church of Our Lady before Týn, Prague
Sunset over Charles Bridge, Prague

On another train with compartments I raced across the Czech Republic; past fields and farms, industrial towns, places with intimidating fortresses and equally challenging names. I arrived in Vienna slightly travel weary, and wishing I could have stayed on that lovely old train forever. I wasn't much in the mood for buildings of splendour and grandour after Prague; in Vienna it seemed almost fake. And I had no patience for long queues to museums. So, Vienna was spent eating a great deal and making new friends; long evenings on the banks of the Donau and sitting back to watch the world go by. Rivers are good for that.

I was at last leaving the cities behind and going back to nature; always a mountain girl at heart, I felt such infinite peace as the Alps came into view on the outskirts of Salzburg. (It is now a toss up between Uppsala and Salzburg for 'most favourite place'). My hostel was on top of a hill, built into the fortress walls and overlooking the Old Town. Again my forward map planning came in handy, and I eventually found my way, perspiring in the hot sun and feeling so wonderfully alive. Nature trails; thick, shaded woods, beautiful architecture, good food, green and cultivated gardens, The Sound of Music, and best of all: mountain views. I wrote this while losing myself to the view:
Storm over Salzburg fortress
"Watching the dark clouds of a mountain storm gathering, wind whipping itself into a mild frenzy, I am happy. The smell of rain is on the air and the backdrop of the Alps is like balm to an unrealised scratch - I miss the mountains with an ache. There is an old fashioned beauty here that feels both real and ethereal."

 And the next morning, over a cup of tea with misty mountains keeping me company:
"The bells from many churches are pealing, echoing round the hills. I take it all in: the view of the hills, forests, churches and the imposing fortress. My eyes seek the far off horizon of Alps like one slaking a thirst. Drinking of such beauty deeply, as if to keep me going in the claustrophobic cities to come. I am in the heart of Europe this morning and I am glad. Give me a view and I soon find my peace and freedom. "

Before too long I was headed back to Germany, this time to Munich. I was impatient being in the city again when the mountains were so close. I enjoyed the many markets, however, and ate my way through one or two. I spent a sombre afternoon at the Dachau Memorial site; I needn't share those thoughts I had here - they have been put far more eloquently by plenty of other writers.

I was glad to soon be on my way again, and I spent the whole day in trains, winding my way up the breadth of Germany.
"Up through the Rhine valley, headed north to Cologne is like a carpet of castles and towers - every hillside and tiny town studded with fortresses. The rain came in, chasing us up the river, but it only made it all feel the more cosy. How I do love the hills and dark forests and even better if they have castles!"
Cologne was a great stop off to see a friend and drink our way through a brewery or two. The Dom, with its twin spires was magnificent, and I was fortunate enough to be caught in a terrific thunder storm while wandering through the cathedral. I sat and listened to the organ as the thunder clapped around us, shaking the foundations only slightly. Truly atmospheric!

An excellent trip, full of sights, new experiences and things to eat; new friends and getting luxuriously lost; climbing every hill (and fording every stream!), most certainly following my dreams.