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Blog Archives: Entries for 2012

Central Europe Trip

A 12-day journey through central Europe involving Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Slovakia, August 2012.

I began in Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, where I spent 4 days-3 nights walking its cobbled streets listening to its many fountains and soaking up its relaxed friendly atmosphere. Naturally I spent time walking around part of Lake Zurich and was even lucky enough to take a boat ride on the lake one evening on a chance meeting with a Swiss lady who enquired upon where I wished to go. I said I was heading to the lake to eat some bread and cheese I’d purchased in a supermarket on Zurich’s main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse. The lady escorted me to a bench beside the lake before enquiring if I wished to take a boat ride to enjoy the lake’s environment. When I asked about the price, she said “Don’t worry” and took me down to where the boats departed. Once aboard, we found seats and relaxed in the evening sun and enjoyed the cool breeze that emanated off the nearby Alps. It was a relaxing one-and-half-hour ride and I’d highly recommend it. There are longer trips that include journeying on the Limmat river, passing many of Zurich’s historic and interesting sites.

Some of the main attractions include churches; Grossmünster (Great Minster) with its tall towers, one of which I climbed twice, Fraumünster with its large clock face – reputed to be the largest of any church in the world, and St. Peter close to Lindenhof Hill, the area of Zurich’s foundation. Interesting squares include Bürkliplatz with its large fountain, located at the southern end of Bahnhofstrasse on the Limmat River’s west bank at the point where the river joins Lake Zürich. The Quaibrücke is a lovely stone road bridge linking Bürkliplatz with Bellevueplatz (Bellevue Square), on the east side of the river. The small, but delightful, Delphinbrunnen (Dolphin Fountain) is located on the left side of Bellevueplatz.

I stayed at the Zurich Youth Hostel, a short tram ride from the centre and a 10-minute walk from the nearest tram stop. As the trams usually announce the stops, I found it easy to traverse the city, especially as I purchased a 24-hour travel pass each day for just over 8.00 Swiss Francs. I’d ask the hostel staff for the tram I required to reach the various destinations or attractions I wished to visit each day then set off to the tram stop. I followed the main road using the sound of a small fountain as a location mark to inform me I was near the tram station. I’d cross the road, stamp my ticket in the electronic machine beside the shelter and when the tram arrived step on, find a seat and listen for the announcement of the stop I required. I constantly asked people on the streets for directions and/or trams I required. I found people both friendly and helpful. Nearly everybody I met spoke English and either gave me further directions, or in several incidences, took me to near where I wished to go. I often changed trams at Paradeplatz, a famous downtown square on the west side of the river. It’s mainly a transportation hub and known for its chocolate shop and cafe, Confiserie Sprüngli, but it also contains important buildings like hotel Baur en Ville and the headquarters of both UBS and Credit Suisse banks.

I visited all three churches mentioned, the Grossmünster, on the eastern side of the river being the most interesting. There’s a tactile model in front of the church’s entrance which gives an excellent idea of the church’s scale. I discovered it was possible to climb the tower after following the sounds of several other tourists who headed to the back of the church. I kept hearing the squeak of an old floorboard, and my curiosity aroused, I followed. I found a heavy door and then a large narrow step. A Swiss gentleman informed me it was the tower, and intrigued, I began to climb the old, worn stone spiral stairs. There was a rope rail on one side to lend support as the steps were extremely steep and very narrow. I returned two days later with a journalist from one of Zurich’s TV companies to repeat the climb, this time giving my impressions of smells and sounds once at the top. On my first ascent, I met some American tourists who showed me the remainder of the way once the stone steps finished. A series of smooth wooden stairs took one the rest of the way to the top. The tower’s summit was divided by a small wooden room each side leading to a narrow open space giving wide views of the river, the city and hills beyond. I enjoyed the cool breeze and quietness of my position. I had a brief rest before descending, using my cane and following the sound of people’s footsteps to find the next set of stairs down. The Fraumünster opposite, across the Münsterbrücke, built 1838 was disappointing. Most areas inside the church were blocked off to visitors and although I heard the clock chime, there was little else to hold my attention.

I spent my evenings exploring the cobbled streets of Neiderdorf, the traditional heart of Zurich, near the Central Square and across from the Bahnhofbrücke – a bridge that links the Central Square on the east of the river with the Hauptbahnhof, Zurich’s main train station on the west side. Neiderdorf has an interesting quaint atmosphere. Lined with cafes and expensive restaurants, I listened to the cacophony of silverware on plates, glasses clinking and vibrant chatter as locals and tourists dined and drank – enjoying the evening’s warmth and cool wind emanating off the river. I explored the walls of old buildings, investigated shop fronts, tried Swiss sausage in a local take-out and climbed the short, steep hills into the back streets. It was here that I found a variety of small fountains with musical enchantment. I felt the fountain’s decoration and discovered that even several of the spouts where the water poured from were shaped as animal heads or flowers.

I enjoyed Zurich, just walking about and soaking up the atmosphere was enough, and the plethora of water attractions, historic buildings, sculptures was more than enough to keep a tourist satisfied for three or four days. The best attraction I found in the city was on a visit to Pfauenplatz (Heimplatz). I went there to visit the Kunsthaus (Modern Art Museum). I travelled by tram, changing twice and upon alighting for the third time, found myself surrounded by what sounded like a building site. A pedestrian helped me across the road and I asked for the square in question and if there were any statues near the art museum. The Swiss guy took me to a large metal door adjacent to the museum’s entrance. This was Rodin’s unfinished ‘Gates of Hell’ – a large gate or door with many figures intertwined in numerous shapes. It was tactile and I spent several minutes exploring, before heading to the museum. I’d hoped to find some more sculptures to feel, but was told I needed to arrange a private guided tour in advance. Thus I returned to the lake and wandered through the tree-lined park along the lake shore and enjoyed the sound of the water and the shade afforded by the trees. I was lucky enough to hear the ringing of the churches’ bells at 7.00 pm one evening when walking along the Limmatquai – a pedestrian promenade along the river’s east bank, which includes the Rathaus (Zurich’s old town hall) amongst other buildings. The sound of the bells was delightful, I felt a little nostalgic!

I moved on to the principality of Liechtenstein.

I took an evening train from Zurich to Zargan, Switzerland, where I changed to a bus for Liechtenstein. At the border, I changed buses yet again, and two hours after departing Zurich, landed in Schaan, Liechtenstein’s largest city. I was staying at the Principality’s only hostel, situated in the countryside, halfway between Schaan and Vaduz, the capital town. I was dropped outside Liechtenstein’s only train station and asked two guys in their early 20s how to find the hostel. They offered to show me the way. We took another bus and alighted after two stops. Then we descended a slight hill, and crossed a couple of roads, before following a long path with grass on each side. Finally, I arrived at the hostel.

I was in another Youth Hostel with its basic but comfortable conditions. Evening meals were available and breakfast was included. I stayed two nights and spent my only day exploring the small capital town of Vaduz. It took me over an hour to find the bus stop as I walked the wrong way, and was lucky, as a local lady offered me a lift to the nearest bus stop back to Vaduz. Once in the centre, I headed to the tourist information office to purchase a passport stamp of Liechtenstein – it’s not required to stay in the Principality, but makes a nice souvenir! I was informed about both the church and history museum. The museum had an audio guide so I went there first. A lady took me around and told me the relevant numbers that corresponded to the objects on display. I learnt a little about Liechtenstein’s history, culture, geography and nature. The many items included old coins, stamps, farming and household equipment. I was able to touch a stuffed wolf and also a fox. Later, I strolled along the town’s high street, stopping for a coffee before heading to the main church; the Roman Catholic cathedral of St. Florin. I ascended several sets of stone stairs and pushed open the heavy doors. It was cool inside, but contained little of interest. I briefly inspected the walls and swept the floor with my cane. I found the main altar and breathed in the incense of candles and flowers before leaving. I stumbled over a couple of unusual pieces of artwork, including a statue of a woman with no head, hands or feet called ’Mama’, and a strange kind of fountain-cum-arch constructed of metal with water falling in between the sides. I spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing in the sun, before returning to the hostel by bus. The next morning I headed to Austria and Innsbruck.

I took two buses from Liechtenstein to Feldkirch, Austria, from where I caught a two-hour train to Innsbruck in the southwest. I couldn’t check in at my chosen hostel until after 5.00 pm so I caught a bus into Innsbruck’s centre and asked for Maria Theresien Strasse – the main street. I wandered about the pedestrian area, touched some of the historic buildings, including Trapp Palace at no 38, Troyer Palace at no 39, Altes Landhaus at no 43, amongst others. I touched the doors, handles and brass knockers and felt the old walls and windows. One of the street’s main attractions is the all-white St. Anne Column (Annasäule) – raised 1706 in gratitude over the defence of Innsbruck and thus all of Tirol from Bavarian invaders on St. Anne’s Day, July 26, 1703. I climbed over a protective chain, stepped up two steps and put my hands on the rectangular column. There were strange lined shaped patterns on the column’s panels, which I took for artwork. I continued my walk and eventually ended up in another pedestrian street lined with cafes, shops and what appeared to be a clothe market – with stalls and clothes in the middle of a square. I didn’t realise until exploring on my second day, that I’d wandered into the ‘old town’.

After a brief exploration, which included finding a simple but delightful round fountain, I retraced my steps to one of the streets that had traffic and asked people for a bus to the train station. Once back at the station, I asked more people for a bus, which would take me to the Inn River and near the hostel I wanted. A local girl was waiting for the same bus and when it arrived helped me aboard and told me when to alight. Once off the bus, I searched for people to ask directions to the hostel. I met a French family who were travelling. Apparently, there were two hostels with the same name. We all thought we wanted the same hostel. They had a car and offered me a lift. However, after several minutes of driving, I realised we might not be staying in the same hostel. I showed them my information and they apologised, realising the mistake. After finding their accommodation, they offloaded their bags and checked in and then drove me to the hostel I’d booked. I checked in and enquired about nearby restaurants. I was told to follow the river and after about 200 metres, I’d find a restaurant on the left. The receptionist showed me the way to the river path and I followed his instructions. I eventually heard voices and located the restaurant. I found an outside table and was attended to by a delightful waitress. I had pork cooked in breadcrumbs, apparently this is a traditional cooking method in Austria. A large glass of lemonade cost Euro 3.80 and the meal cost Euro 14.00. Satisfied, I returned to the hostel and relaxed.

The following day I walked back along the river and headed into the old town where I found a fascinating fountain that had semi-naked statues on each corner. One of the statues had a large snake rapped around him, which started from his genitals! I enjoyed the sound of the pounding water, before continuing to the Innsbruck Hoffburg with its Kaiserliche Hofburg (Imperial Court). A middle aged man helped me across the road and find the entrance to the former residence of the Habsburgs. Once inside I asked about an audio guide and was told that I couldn’t go around unaided as I might set off various alarms. I enquired if a staff member could accompany me. A young lady showed me around the large building with its many rooms, telling me the number to enter into the audio guide at each exhibit. The tour lasted over three hours and I received a close-up look at the lifestyle of prominent Austrians of the past, such as Empress Maria. Theresa and “Sisi” – wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. The huge and magnificent Giant’s Hall was most spectacular. Maria-Teresa was most interesting, especially as she placed much emphasis on the family and considered girls as equals to men. Her story seemed to parallel Victoria, Queen of Great Britain (1837-1901) in so far as both monarchs remained in mourning long after their husband’s deaths.

After my tour, I briefly visited St. James’s Cathedral in Domplatz, where I wandered down the centre aisle, inspected the main altar and touched the Mausoleum to Emperor Maximilian I.

I finished my day’s exploration of Innsbruck’s old town by taking some photos of the ‘Golden Roof’ and climbing the ‘City Tower’. The Golden Roof, a famous balcony built above a central square by Maximilian, was surrounded by cafes and restaurants and was difficult to get near. People gave me directions by pointing, but it took a long time before I managed to find anyone to help me photograph the actual building. Sadly, I lost my camera while getting off a train in Slovakia and thus there are no photos.

I next took a train to Vienna which took nearly five hours. In Austria’s capital, I took a tram from the west train station to the south train station, and with help from a couple of pedestrians, walked to the east train station, where I caught a train to Bratislava – capital of Slovakia.

It was as I was rising to get off the train and putting my backpack on that I lost my camera. The strap must have slipped off my arm, but I didn’t notice until I was half way down the platform and by then it was too late! I made my way out of the station and asked a couple of people how to get to the hostel I’d booked on the internet, using the speech screen reading software called Jaws. I told them the address and was instructed to take bus 93 and alight at the second stop. I discovered later that it should have been the third stop. Once off the bus, I asked more people for directions, but was told it was difficult. Eventually, a kind local guy found me a taxi and paid for my journey, even though I protested. The hostel was on a large hill near Bratislava castle. It was nearly 9.00 pm when I arrived, so I checked in and relaxed. The hostel was an interesting building with helpful staff. There were steps everywhere! You went down one, then down two more before making a turn and ascending about 8 or 9 steps to the dorm rooms. I stayed two nights and spent both days exploring the small capital.

On my first full day, I wandered down the hill in search of Michaelska Street and St. Martin’s Gothic Cathedral. I eventually found it after descending several stairs and wandering past a monument to Jewish victims of World War II – a temporary exhibition. The cathedral was large, but a mass was beginning when I entered. As I was nearing the altar when it began, I was shown to a seat and waited for the hymn to end before making my escape! I next asked a couple of local girls the way to Hlavné Námestie: Bratislava’s main square in the Old Town. However, they walked me past it and I found myself in a pedestrian shopping street on an upwards gradient. I walked about listening to a busker with a violin and then tried to ask directions to the ‘fountain’. I was directed to the Peace Earth sculpture fountain in Hodzovo Square (locally referred to as Mierko) on the edge of the Old Town. Later, I found the Main Square and enjoyed the sound of the Roland Fountain in front of the old Town Hall. During my exploration of Bratislava’s old town, I heard many people eating and/or socialising at outdoor cafes and restaurants and at one point bumped into an unusual granite or marble object, which resembled an obelisk! In the afternoon, I headed to the Danube River for a boat trip to Devin Castle some one and a half hour journey from Bratislava. Naturally, I became lost trying to find the harbour and only just made the boat in time. However, I went to the wrong dock at first and failed to find the ticket office. As I arrived at the correct dock with help from a crew member from the other boat, I was asked for a ticket, to which I replied “how much?” The two guys in charge of the boat spoke to one another and finally, with minutes to spare, I was allowed to embark for free!

I found a seat on the top deck and relaxed in the sun as we motored slowly along the Danube in the direction of Austria. Devin is a suburb town of Bratislava and is at its most westerly limit. The castle itself looks over the Slovak-Austria borders.

Once in Devin, I disembarked along with a party of locals and slowly made my way to the castle ruins, following a path bordered by grass and bushes. I met a lady with a dog at one point and she showed me to the entrance, where I was permitted, again, to enter without paying! I followed the steep hill and eventually reached the top of the castle’s first level. A lovely lady gave me a brief guided tour, showing me the old well and allowing me to refill my water bottle. The castle had three levels, plus the remains of a chapel, and an even older church. The upper level of the castle was now ruins, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in the early 19th century and later by British bombing in World War II. I enjoyed the climb up the hill and the breezy view from both verandas. I briefly entered the museum, before heading back down the hill. At the bottom, I had a local Slovak dish of traditional dumplings topped with bacon and cheese, plus a desert of round balls sprinkled with sugar that tasted a little sour!

Afterwards, I went in search of the bus stop in order to return to Bratislava. Incidentally, the boat ride cost Euro 7.00 each way. I met a couple of people and they helped me find the bus. One was approaching as we arrived; they helped me ascend a hilly grass bank, cross a road and onto the bus just in time. Twenty minutes later I was back in the capital. I asked several people for directions back to Zamocka Street, where I was staying. As I tried to cross a busy road, a middle aged man asked if I wanted help. I told him my destination and he walked me through the old town and to the beginning of the hill that lead to Bratislava’s castle. I ascended the hill and once I figured I was near the hostel, entered a pizza place and asked. A lady showed me to the entrance. The following morning, I walked up to the top of the steep hill and briefly visited Bratislava castle. It has several gatehouses and is a large square castle with a wide cobbled courtyard. The castle was built between the 9th and 19th centuries, but was accidentally burnt down in 1811 by garrison troops. It was rebuilt in 1956 and is now open to the public as a museum. Many of the castle’s rooms hold art exhibits. I briefly wandered around, but found nothing I could touch, so returned to the hostel, collected my pack and caught the bus to the train station. I next headed to Kosice –Slovakia’s second city in the far east of the country, near the Hungarian and Ukrainian borders.

The train journey took over seven hours and I arrived as evening fell. I took a taxi to the town’s only hostel as I was unsure of its location. The hostel was a pub and located close to the centre. It was an interesting place, the single six bed dorm was in the building’s attic and everything was made of wood. I had a bed near the open window. I was able to touch the roof and had to watch my head on wooden slanting beams! I had a meal and introduced myself to the guests, a Japanese girl, another girl from Holland and two ladies from Germany. They all seemed to be travelling around eastern Europe. On my only day in the city, I walked around the main street, found an old tower that is now the city museum, visited the cathedral, which seemed to be under some kind of construction, and spent the remainder of the day listening to a delightful fountain in the centre. Jets of water sprang forth from the ground and the water’s pressure and hence sound, rose and fell to the sound of music. It was choreographed to the music and was most relaxing. Children ran through the jets of spray squealing with pleasure. I met one Slovakian lady and her delightful family and she showed me to a nearby ice cream shop. I purchased a cornet and sat on a bench and enjoyed both the fountain and the accompanying music. I returned to the hostel around 6.00 pm and met some new guests, more Japanese. It was amazing, five Japanese people, all strangers, meeting in the small city of Kosice in eastern Slovakia?! I chatted with them for a while, asking questions about Japan, before going to the pub for a couple of pints of lemonade. The next morning I rose around 9.00, had breakfast in the pub, and headed to the train station and took a return train back to Bratislava. I stayed one more night at the hostel I’d visited previously and the following morning caught my flight back to London.

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West Africa travels

Five days ago I left the tranquillity of Abene, a beach and tropical paradise village in Senegal’s southwest coast in the Casamance region and headed to Ziguinchor, the capital of that region. After a night there in hot dry weather, I began the long journey by sept-place (seven seat) taxi to Tambacounda, in Senegal’s eastern region and near the border with north-west Mali. It was a long journey. I went to the sept-place garage around 6 am and waited an hour for the car to fill up. Some 10 hours later and several bumpy unpaved roads in extreme heat, I arrived in the small busy town of Tambacounda, known as Tamba by locals. I had no accommodation booked as the internet only suggested expensive hotels. At the garage in Tamba, a man from Liberia directed me to a lodge named block Dadec. A cheap place to spend a night. I relaxed for an hour before going in search of dinner. Fish and rice with local Yasa source, delicious.

I rose early the next morning and again headed to the sept-place garage to take a car to the border with Mali. This is where the fun began. I found a car that left around 7.30 am. However, after thirty minutes slow driving, the car broke down. I was transferred to another vehicle to begin again. However, a journey that I was informed would take around 3 hours took over 6 hours. At the border, I took a taxi to both the Senegal immigration and then over no mans land to Mali. At the Mali side, I had to show my passport to two guys I took to be police and was allowed to continue – they spoke to me in French and I didn’t understand a word, I said I was from UK and went back to the taxi. Next I had to wait several hours before sharing the front seat with a large Mali guy from the border to Kayes, the first real town inside north-west Mali. I managed to get my visa on the border for only 13,000 CFA Francs. This is about £20 or so.

Once in Kayes, I took a taxi to the bus station, it was about 5 pm by then, and bought a ticket for a night bus to Bamako in the south. Unfortunately, even though the bus left on time, after only an hour on the road, we were forced to return to the Kayes bus station by the police as it was deemed too dangerous to travel. This is what I guessed as everything was spoken in French and local language. I spent my first night in Mali on a concrete bench next to a loud music centre in the bus depot. Next morning around 6.00 am we finally departed. The journey was long, bumpy, hot and dusty. At times, the roads were in very to extremely poor condition. I was able to get omelette and coffee at several stops with help and water frequently. We stopped often, seemingly for food and also for the occasional damage to the bus.

After some 14 hours of bumping about at various speeds, we came to our final halt for the night, not Bamako, but Katu, some 10 km from Bamako apparently. I was forced to spend another night sleeping rough. This time inside the bus, which was slightly more comfortable.

I reached Bamako early Saturday morning to discover the country is in the midst of a civil war/revolution, the president in hiding and the borders for the present are all closed.
Keep travelling.

Tonythetraveller