Soo, term finally ended, and all through term I had been looking forward to Christmas vacation (I'm always looking forward to vacation) cos it's finally time I explored the rest of Europe.
But as always, there is never enough time to travel to all the places you wanna go and there's just too much to see, and due to various other constraints, I eventually settled on Germany --> Austria --> Switzerland --> France. Which is still quite a lot, and for a whole month too (giving me little/no time to study...), so yeapp! Note: Gonna be updating this post as I go along my travels.
On the logistics of travelling
After spending lots of time calculating the costs of individual train tickets, individual country passes or combination passes etc, I finally settled on the InterRail Global Youth Pass, 10 days in 22 days. It gave me 10 travel days within a 22 day validity period which I can use in most European countries, and though it didn't cover the full month I was travelling, it actually worked out quite well for me cos for the latter half of the journey I will be with my family and staying at a resort for some time so I wouldn't be travelling that much anyway.
Travelling by train isn't thatttt complicated, but being from Singapore, where trains = Mass Rapid Transport (Subway/Underground/Metro/whatever you call it), and where in the UK I just travel mostly between London and Cambridge, I was a bit more kan cheong (A Cantonese and Hokkien term meaning nervous, harried or uptight as defined by TalkingCock.com) about travelling by trains here.
Some trains require reservations, and trains aren't that frequent, so checking the train schedule beforehand is definitely a must. I managed to avoid most trains that require reservations, and the trains are quire regular so it wasn't too bad. The only stress might be with connecting trains for certain trips, but as long as you know which train/platform to get to, it's usually alright.
|Train station at Nürnberg, if I remember right.|
I have a 65l Lowe alpine backpack and a 20l Vaude day pack, and while I can perhaps, barely be seen when carrying my bags, it isn't too bad. I just can't run carrying my bags, but I can at least walk and climb stairs fairly easily. And the 65l backpack is 15.4kg, which just about made RyanAir's weight limit.
|Setting off. This was taken before leaving Germany for Austria.|
Stayed in hostels/hotels most nights, couchsurf for one, friends' places for a few. Do quite a bit of my catching up on sleep in trains. It's a good thing I can and have slept in a wide variety of conditions :)
Before coming to Germany, I didn't think much of it. Perhaps because of WWI/WWII and all that, I generally didn't know what to think of the country. The few German friends I have are all really nice though, and having been to Germany, it definitely is a nice place to be in and I definitely want to come back at some point.
|The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin|
They cycle a lot to get around the city, which is quite nice. They've got dedicated cycling lanes, and drivers are generally nice to cyclists (:
|Even the post is delivered on bike.|
Capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Reminded me so much of Singapore in terms of its infrastructure. Buildings mostly constructed post war, pre-fabricated blocks. Its history is so amazingly rich and convoluted. Honestly, I barely knew much of European history, especially wrt WWII and Cold War. I just knew that 1) Hitler was the dictator that started the war and 2) he got a lot of Jews killed (Anne Frank diary). So the whole Germany trip ended up as a learning journey in WWII and for Berlin, the Cold War too.
Highlights: Fat Tyre Bike Tours (covered a lot of significant WWII and cold war sites), Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), museum für naturkunde (went there instead of Pergamon museum), Christmas markets!
|Don't the cranes remind you of Singapore? Though we don't have domed buildings, just sky scrapers and HDBs.|
Heidelberg (2 nights)
A university town, pretty much like Cambridge (it is apparently a sister city of Camb). The oldest university in Germany, third to be established in the Holy Roman Empire. Its surroundings is way prettier than Cambridge though, with hills on either side and lots of hiking trails for weekend trips. A friend studies there, so showed us around the town and university (:
Highlights: Philosophernweg, Schloss Heidelberg
|The view of the altstadt and schloss of Heidelberg from the Philosphernweg.|
Nürnberg (2 nights)
The capital of Franconia, unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and now the second largest city in Bavaria. The Nazi party held their party rallies here since 1933, and it's also where the Nazi trials were held post-WWII.
Highlights: Walking tour, Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände (Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Christmas markets!
|The view of the altstadt of Nürnberg from Kaiserburg.|
München (3 nights)
The capital of Freistaat Bayern (free state of Bavaria), the largest of 16 states in Germany. Has its own constitution and is strongly Catholic, unlike the Protestant Prussian areas in the North. In the city centre, no buildings are taller than the church, cos no one should be higher than God. Also the birthplace of the Nazi party, and of course, known for its beer gardens.
Highlights: Boulderwelt (climbing, finally! :D), walking tour, mittelalterlicher Weihnachtsmarkt (medieval christmas market), Schloss Neuschwanstein, KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau (Dachau concentration camp memorial site)
|A stall at the medieval christmas market. Yes that suit of armour is for sale.|
|View on the way up to Schloss Neuschwanstein.|
|The stage where Hitler made several memorable speeches regarding the Nazi Party.|
|Dachau concentration camp memorial site.|
|Went to lots of Christmas markets (weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlemarkt). But each town had subtlety different markets.|
|Visited lots of churches as well. Really pretty and grand cathedrals, which have figurines that circle around at noon. Whatever it's called.|
|Beautiful sunsets from the train|
ÖsterreichOn the surface, it seems pretty similar to Germany. I didn't realise when we had crossed the border - signs were all still in German and the country side is pretty similar. It is quite a Catholic country though, with churches being the tallest buildings in towns. Haven't had that much of a history lesson for Austria, though it's also got an interesting past. [update: 25/12/2013] Got a great brief introduction to European history from my friend while crashing his place. Austria was pretty powerful in the past, and well Hitler was also an Austrian, though I think people associate him more with Germany. Quite a complicated history too, with WWI and WWII and all the Cold War stuff. But Austria was pretty much a break from all that stuff for me, more sight seeing and having fun :P
Great thing about Austria is that there's free wifi in a lot of public spaces! Train stations, on the trains, at Christmas markets etc.
Salzburg (1 night)
Capital of the Salzburg state, the name Salzburg means salt castle, cos it used to be the trading centre for salt or something. Known for being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the setting for the musical play/film Sound of Music. First time I navigated to a place (Kletterhalle Salzburg, a climbing gym) without Google maps or hardcopy map. Was quite proud of myself when I finally got there, cos it was not located in the most convenient of places! Only to find that it was closing in 20 minutes :(
Highlights: walking tour, Haus der natur (amazing place, covered less than half the exhibits. There's an aquarium and reptile zoo, exhibits on geology and ice ages, Christian Doppler, minerals, human body, wildlife, Salzach river, oceans etc)
|The city of Salzburg|
|Seahorses at the Haus der natur|
Innsbruck (1 night)
Capital city of Tyrol state, known for being a great skiing area. Didn't go around much of the historic altstadt (old town), so unfortunately don't know much of its history. Surrounded by the alps though, so it's super scenic and it deserves lots of photos. A small enough town that it doesn't have a metro system, I spent the whole day walking around, up to Hungerburg (858m) and back to the city centre. And I was too budget to take the funicular railway, or cable car up higher. Would have hiked up if I had the time/was properly dressed, but as it was, I was worried about getting caught in the dark somewhere in the middle of the forest on the mountain.
Highlights: Alpenzoo (alpine zoo)
|Innsbruck! Amazingly pretty and scenic.|
|Lynx in the Alpine Zoo|
|Went for a walk in the forest surrounding the zoo/leading up to the ski slopes.|
|Virew of the city of Innsbruck from Hungerburg. Played with the miniature function on my camera.|
The capital of Austria, city of music, de facto capital of the Holy Roman Empire... Vienna was the centre of lots of empires in the past: Romans, Habsburgs, Austro-Hungarian empire, German-Austria republic. Lots to see, lots to do, I definitely didn't do everything I could have. Didn't go for any concerts or operas for one, but I had a great time nonetheless.
Highlights: Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History Vienna), Stephansdom (St Stephan's Cathedral), parlament (Austrian parliament building), Christmas markets :P
|The Natural History Museum in the background, with the Christmas market at Maria-Theresien-Platz in the foreground|
|One of the chambers in the parliament that survived more or less intact from the bombing in WWII.|
|Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market at the town hall)|
Not exactly the most known city in Austria I guess, St Pölten is the capital of Lower Austria state (since 1986), but it's been inhabited since Roman times. Not a huge city, but it's got a beautiful cathedral and being able to celebrate Christmas the way they celebrate it here was the highlight for me. Lots of glühwein (mulled wine) and Christmas cookies (all home made), real trees adorned with chocolate (?!!), candles (?!?!!!??) and sparklers (??!?!?!?!?!!!!) and most importantly, singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night, which is apparently of Austrian origin). Attended Christmas vigil mass at the Dom Mariä Himmelfahrt (Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary) which was celebrated by the bishop of the diocese. Couldn't understand most of it of course, but I could read/sing German well enough to blend in (: Frohe weihnachten to all!
|The interior of the cathedral. Cathedrals are amazingly beautiful and elaborate.|
|Live band playing by the chapel at the village on the evening of Christmas Eve|
|Christmas tree with candles alight! The sparklers weren't lit yet (waiting for the kids to come back from church). Instead of Santa Claus, here they believe the Christkind brings presents and flies away through the window.|
|Home-made Christmas cookies, a gift from my friend's mum for the rest of the journey. (:|
And so here ends the second part of my journey. Solo travelling, but met people at each of the places I visited, and it's just been awesome. Many many thanks to the people who hosted me in various cities! And as ever, thankful for my guardian angel who watches over me, keeping me safe (so far at least!), and thankful for Christ who came into this world on this day!
To all who are reading this, have a Blessed and Merry Christmas! 圣诞节快乐 ！¡Feliz navidad! Frohe weihnachten! Feliz natal!
Really looking forward to meeting my beloved family now (:
Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera/SvizraOfficially known as Confoederatio Helvetica, being in Switzerland was like when I first arrived in the UK. I just kept thinking of the stories I read when I was a child, about William Tell and Heidi (in the UK it was Pride & Prejudice, Enid Blyton stories etc). Amazingly pretty, on a clear day. I mean, there's a reason why people buy calendars and posters, and default screen savers and stuff are of snow-capped mountains against azure blue skies with fluffy white clouds... It's also amazingly pricey. Unsurprisingly.
William Tell was all I knew about Switzerland's history, and unfortunately I still don't know much more. The Romans also occupied parts of the area, and then the Habsburgs owned parts of it until people got unhappy and went to war to get their freedom, cantons getting together to form a federation... I'll figure it out by the end of the trip, hopefully.
Zürich (1 night)
Stayed one night, but didn't see much of the city. Arrived at 930pm in a drizzle, managed to get to the hostel without much problem. Hostel room mates were great, found out that one of them was going to visit Singapore for 3 weeks (!!!) sometime in Jan. The next day was St Stephen's Day, which was a public holiday still, and so nothing much was open. And it was still drizzling, so it was all around pretty miserable.
Highlights: none, really. Would have loved more time to explore the city.
Luzern (2 nights)
[14 Jan 2014: as you can tell, travelling with family means a lot less "me" time]
The capital of the canton Luzern, it's next to Lake Lucerne and surrounded by mountains. We walked around the old town, across the famous Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) that was first erected in the 14th century (and is Europe's oldest wooden covered bridge) and went on a lake cruise. Missed the announcement that to get back to Luzern, we would need to disembark and change cruise, and so ended up having to take a train back from a town called Brunnen. We were quite annoyed to be honest, cos the staff didn't put in much effort in ensuring that all passengers, especially non-German speaking ones, heard the announcement. Also went to the Historisches Museum Luzern, but the audio guide trails weren't very well organised and I wasn't happy cos it was really interesting.
Highlights: Historisches Museum Luzern (History museum), Lion Monument, Gletscher garden Luzern (Glacier Garden)
|Luzern. Love the mountainous backdrop.|
|Sunset boat ride on the lake Luzern.|
Bern (2 nights)
We went via Interlaken on the train to the capital of Switzerland. We took a day trip to the nearby town of Thun, as it was supposed to be a pretty place to visit. Tbh, almost everywhere in Switzerland is pretty. But anyway, we went to Schloss Thun, wandered around the town, tried to visit the Schweizerisches Gastronomie-Museum (Swiss Gastronomy Museum) but it was closed for the Christmas-New Year break before going back to Bern.
Bern was perhaps, not quite as pretty, or had as rich a history as some other towns/cities we visited, and we did our own walking tour as none were offered there. We wanted to go to the Historisches Museum but it was not covered under the Swiss Pass and so we gave that a miss.
Highlights: The Zytglogge (Clock Tower), BärenPark (Bear Park) but it was Winter and the bears were hibernating, Berner Münster (The Cathedral of Bern) that started construction in 1421 and completed in 1893, Swiss Alpine Museum
|Amazing view from Schloss Thun.|
|City of Bern with the moat surrounding the inner city.|
|En route to Geneva.|
Also known as the Republique Française, I really don't know much about this country apart from what I've watched on Les Mis, that they eat a lot of strange foods (pretty much like the Chinese, only theirs is perceived to be more atas?) and that they've got a reputation for being snobbish. I did feel like I enjoyed Germany/Austria more than I did France, I mean, there are nice and friendly French for sure, but overall I think the stereotype does kinda hold true. Also, major difference travelling with family: they're not quite history people, whereas I (in recent times) am really interested in finding out more about the history of the place. So I end up knowing a lot less about the places we visited than I would have preferred.
Les Arc 1600 ski resort, Bourg-St-Maurice (6 nights)We took the train to Geneva via Spiez and Montreux, where someone was picking us up to send us to the resort. Being a ski resort, that was exactly what we did. We were snow-boarded for 3.5 days, with a day break in between. On rest day, we went down to town, nothing much there but we had a great lunch, and then went snow-shoeing in the afternoon. Snow-shoeing is quite interesting, but I think I prefer snowboarding in Winter and hiking in Summer. Was aching all over from snowboarding by the end of it, but have definitely improved since first trying it out a few years ago. Considering I do winter sports just once a year for a few days only, don't think I'm all that bad at it.
|Reminds me of Brave/Frozen.|
|The cutest sight on ski slopes!|
Lyon (1 night)
Known as the capital of gastronomy, for reasons I don't really know. We didn't eat any particularly good food there, especially since we went on a Sunday, when almost everything is closed. Also, due to a particularly early start in the day, the rest were tired and so went back to rest after lunch, while my younger bro and I went off to explore the city. That was fun. Mostly walked around the city's old streets, on both sides of the rivers Rhône and Saône.
Highlights: Les Halles (not much of a highlight tbh, most of it was closed by the time we arrived after mass), Parc de la Tête d'Or (Park of the Golden Head) (which had fallow deer, the Jardin botanique de Lyon, huge fields and a zoo which we didn't go to)
|Cos I'm a selfie pro.|
|Sunset with a ferris wheel instead of mountains.|
Paris (3 nights)
The capital of France, also known as La Ville-Lumière (The City of Light). We missed the walking tour, and so did our own. But it's not the same, I would have loved to learn more about the history of the city. Nonetheless, we visited the standard few places, watched Cirque du Soleil (Kooza) and I tried to stem the thoughts of the nearing term from entering my consciousness.
Highlights: Eiffel Tower (went to the 2nd floor), Louvre Museum (from the outside :P), Galerie d'Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie (Museum of comparative anatomy and palaeontology), Grande Galerie De L'Evolution, Notre Dame Cathedral
|Cos everyone needs a photo of the Eiffel Tower to prove they've been to Paris.|
|But not everyone has a photo of this!|
|The Galerie d'Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie|
|Cos I have an awesome family (: Photo taken outside the Notre Dame Cathedral.|
Right iPhoto keeps hanging on me, so photos will have to wait. I also got bored writing about this halfway through, so maybe after I've got the photos off my memory card into the laptop and onto this blog, things might sound a little better. Or maybe not.