Hello again, mysterious readers! Today I’m writing to you from the super-futuristic Railjet train from Munich to Vienna. Germany has, by far, the best trains of any country I’ve ever been to. And since I’ve been to basically all the good countries, I’ll go ahead and assume they’re the best in the world. I know I’m posting only a day or two behind Clarissa, but since it took her about a week to write her last post I have some catching up to do.
As Clarissa said, we had a blast in Amsterdam. I knew one of the things I would certainly miss once we crossed into the francophone countries is the extraordinary politeness and courtesy of the Dutch. It would not be long before my concerns were realised in full.
Our next rest after Amsterdam was Paris, but since the Belgian capital of Brussels is conveniently en route, we decided that we would stop over and have a few hours perusing the de facto capital of the European Union.
Just in case the hamburger-consuming readership of this blog is unaware, most Europeans aren’t so keen on Belgians. Not for any specific reason, I don’t think, but we still take much delight in ridiculing them at every turn. I submit the following compilation of Belgian jokes for your consideration:
Anyway, the train ride from Amsterdam went off without hitch, although I was still feeling like crap as Clarissa alluded to in her last post. I don’t think she granted my condition quite enough emphasis, though! I was suffering from a most grievous case of man-flu that would have consigned any lesser mortal to their beds or perhaps even their graves. As a result, I was hoping for a smooth transit…
As soon as we arrived in Belgium, we attempted to negotiate our passage to Paris for later in the afternoon, but were told that we could either take three different trains over a course of six hours or pay a €30 supplement each to take the direct train. Unfortunately, it was far too late to be taking a six hour train so we had to cough up. Feeling a little butt-hurt, we put our bags in a locker and wandered into Brussels.
Ok so Brussels is quite pretty really. Here Clarissa demonstrates:
We had two goals before our time in Brussels ran out: buy some Belgian chocolate and take a photo with the Maneken Pis (Brussels’ most famous and also reputedly most underwhelming site: a small statue and ‘fountain’ of a little boy urinating). The first of these objectives was achieved within minutes, the latter, however, eluded us to the last. Clarissa even purchased a Belgian waffle with chocolate sauce purely so she could ask the vendor directions to the statuette. Even that didn’t help. This is the closest we could find:
Feeling somewhat defeated and with me still sniffing and sneezing like the Sick Man of Europe, we headed back to the train station to get the fancy, high-speed, luxurious train that we had paid our hard-earned monopoly-money for. At least that would be nice and comfy. At least we could get a rest then. Yes, that would be nice. Yes…
Nope. On boarding the train, we were casually informed without apology that our train had been combined with another train to produce a train with twice as many passengers as seats. Despite us having reservations, no seat could be found for us weary travelers and so we would have to squash together with all the other grumpy, smelly and irate passengers (some of them even FRENCH), sniffing and sneezing and sweating all the way to Paris.
I’ve been apprehensive about going back to Paris since the inception of our little jaunt because it is, in spite of its illustrious reputation, a smelly, dirty and dangerous city. There are, however, a number of very nice aspects to the city that I was determined we would experience. Paris would be a lovely place if only it weren’t for the Parisians.
We made it to our hostel, right at the very end of one of the subway lines, without too much bother. Our hostel was run by a tiny Korean lady called Sun-Yung and her non-English speaking sister in their own house with their little yappy dog that was bafflingly called Google. It was small and a bit… ramshackle? But the lady was so welcoming and her house so cozy that it was a lovely place to stay indeed. The other residents of the hostel (an English girl called Maddy and a Finnish girl whose name escapes me) were also lovely. The only person we didn’t like was an American chap called Zane who turned up late on the same night as us and was our only room mate. Clarissa would be better at explaining why he was annoying, but suffice it to say that he came all the way to Paris from Colorado and the first thing he did was go to Disneyland. Sun-Young also kept calling him “John”, which I found secretly hilarious.
We started our first day in Paris as most tourists do: visiting the Arc de Triomph and then strolling down the Champs Elysee. Here is proof:
This day started off OVERCAST. Like most cities, Paris is so much prettier in the sunlight. Our grey walk down the Champs Elysee, therefore, failed to impress Clarissa. She kept complaining about how the trees lining the boulevard weren’t being looked after properly, about how the everything was “so boujie” and about how many American chain stores there were. On that last note, I suspect Clarissa is not alone.
After we passed Place de la Concorde and reached the Palais de Louvre the sun came out just a crack and Clarissa started to be impressed again. I could tell because she resumed her regular exclamation of “oh mah gahd it’s SO PRUTTY” that I hadn’t heard since Amsterdam.
Before we ventured inside, we took a quick diversion to consume some freshly baked goods from a nearby Boulangerie. Oh man, one thing I think the Parisians really get right is their baking. We actually had to go back in for seconds. Stomachs full of butter and flaky pastry, we ventured inside this most oversised of art museums. We took about a million pictures in there, most of which ended up looking like this:
There’s only so much art you can take in one day and we didn’t hesitate about bailing as soon as the mood took us. A refreshing walk along the Seine, a brief potter around Notre Dame and finally indulging in the great Parisian tradition of sitting outside a cafe, drinking tiny cups of black coffee and large glasses of red wine and staring at people with little regard for politeness soon had us feeling awake again.
Our last objective of the day was to go to my favourite place in Paris: the Jardin de Luxembourg. I have nice memories of sitting here years ago escaping the heat in the late summer with my friend Matthew underneath the chestnut trees. On this day, however, it decided to rain. Heavily. We managed just a couple of photos before we were forced to take refuge under a tree.
We also managed to visit the building housing Napoleon’s tomb, but it was closed. Frankly, we only went there because Clarissa really needed the toilet and we thought they might have one we could use. Walking through odd places looking for a toilet for Clarissa has become a regular fixture of the trip and I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you that.
To end the day, we headed back to our wee Korean hostel for a Korean meal cooked by Sun-Yung’s sister. That’s right: not only does this hostel include breakfast, but also dinner. We really do have our hostel-selection priorities sorted.
On our second full day in Paris, we decided to go and see the palace of Versailles and witness for ourselves the staggeringly gaudy decadence that the last kings of France decided was the way royalty ought to live. It was gaudy indeed. Here Clarissa points out some of that gaud for us:
There was an audio guide included in the price of admission, so we plugged in our headphones and were lead around by the dulcet tones of some pompous Englishman through room after room and hall after gilded hall. “This is where King Louis XIV would have his feet tickled”; “This is where King Louis the XV liked to consume his morning vat of fois gras” and so on. There was all sorts of fine art adorning the walls and so eventually it became a lot like walking through yet another museum. Soon we decided that enough was enough and headed out into the palace gardens. Somehow, the opulence of the gardens manages to compete with that of the palace itself.
As it happens I am rather partial to a nice bit of landscaping and Clarissa is obviously a fan of anything that’s green and grows out of the dirt, but we didn’t hang about too long in the garden on account of the arctic bloody wind that was blowing through. We took some quick snaps and called it a day. This is some efficient tourism we’re doing here, you know.
When we got back to the city itself, we had to go to Paris Gare du Nord rail station to find out about our train to Bern the following day. Oh man, so much hassle. We had to push our way around in this busy, noisy, overcrowded station for about half an hour and ask five or six different people before we even found the correct window to enquire at. After queuing with seemingly the worst parents in Paris and their hoards of unruly children, we were treated to a truly typical bout of French ‘politeness’ by the woman behind the glass who flatly told us that it was “not possible to go to Bern tomorrow” while texting on her phone. We adopted the strategy of simply queuing and re-queuing until we spoke to someone with enough patience to actually help us. Eventually a bright-eyed young lady found a train route that we could take, starting at seven in the morning.
Exhausted by our ordeal and swearing never to go to Gare du Nord station again, we headed to Montmatre for our last evening in Paris. The whole area used to be a bit sketchy but it’s now become somewhat more gentrified since the romanticized depiction of Montmatre in the film Amelie made the area super-trendy. There’s still plenty of weirdos around, though. Clarissa witnessed how the Moulin Rouge really isn’t so exciting without Ewan McGregor dancing on the table or whatever. Or was that Coyote Ugly? I actually haven’t seen either movie. Anyway, we then headed up the hill to the basilica of Sacré-Cœur.
There were loads of people hanging around looking at the view over Paris as the sun went down, listening to the buskers, watching the mimes, drinking beer and trying not to get their bags stolen. We leaned against a balustrade for a while and engaged in some intense people-watching. For a wee treat on our last night in Paris, we went to a cute vegetarian restaurant on the way down from the hill of Montmatre. The food was GOOD and we both enjoyed it immensely. Walking back towards the metro with stomachs full of apple crumble and wine, gazing at all the cute bars and beautiful people, I think we finally came to terms with Paris. “Could you ever see yourself living here?”, Clarissa asked me. “Probably not, but if it was your style I think it’d be a great place to live”, said I. Oh Paris, you crazy city! Have we found a way to appreciate you at last?
As it happened, Paris had one more trick up its sleeve to ensure that we would not leave with smiles on our faces. After walking for ten minutes to get to the metro, waiting for the train, riding for a while, changing lines through a maze of subterranean tunnels and riding another train some more, Clarissa realised that her camera was no longer in her possession. So off the train we got and back on in the opposite direction to go back to the restaurant. As if by magic, all the crazies, weirdos, drunkards and beggars appeared to now be riding the subway. Walking back through Montmatre, now very much after dark on a Saturday night, felt threatening indeed. When we finally got to the restaurant, the camera was nowhere to be found. We then had to negotiate the long journey back to the hostel while coming to terms with this highly unfortunate event and also dodging all the inhabitants of the late-night Paris metro. It was not a pleasant experience. As to the fate of the camera: I guess we’ll never know. Just one of those things.
As a side-note: on the advice of my friend Dave, I had been making semi-regular backups of both our photos. The last of Clarissa’s backups was taken just after Amsterdam so she only lost her photos from Paris. So it wasn’t as great a tragedy as it otherwise could have been.
The next morning we were up at the greasy-faced crack of dawn to get the first of our trains towards Switzerland. The first train was a nice, compartmentalised train to Lyon. We found an empty compartment and then dutifully spread all our things out over the other seats and talked loudly in English every time someone came down the corridor to discourage anyone from joining us in our little party box.
That was one of the nicer train rides we’ve had. We both slept a little, Clarissa did a spot of blogging, we listened to some music and ate more baked goods.
In fact, when we stepped off the train in Lyon, Clarissa paused because she felt she had something in her shoe. Upon taking her shoe off and giving it a shake, the cause of her discomfort was found to be a shower of croissant crumbs. We both supposed that shaking the croissant crumbs out of one’s shoe is how most French people start their day.
In Lyon we bought some food and I incurred the wrath of some disgruntled old Frenchman when he walked into me. We also observed numerous further examples of terrible parenting. We were now absolutely ready to get out of France. A train to Geneva and then a quick change to the fancy Zurich train got us to Bern around dinner time.
When we got to Bern it was raining a little, but the nice, clean train station, the lack of screaming infants and geriatrics, the pleasant aroma of baking (and the absence of any aroma of bodily fluids) and the generally non-threatening atmosphere made us feel like we were definitely going to enjoy this change of location.
After I pulled Clarissa off that window and several others like it, we marched on towards the hostel. The walk also included a brief trip on this fancy… train?:
After a far-from-great sleep in a large dorm full of noisy snorers and drunk Russians (one of whom did not like Clarissa shooshing him!), we had a few hours in Bern before our next train to Munich.
Bern is full of more oldey-worldy charm than you can waggle a stick at. Switzerland has lots of large, famous cities: Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne etc. But Bern is the understated and cutesy capital city. Also, incidentally, Einstein’s home town!
We wandered through the maze of ancient and beautifully maintained limestone buildings of the old town, just strolling semi-randomly and taking in all the sights, sounds and smells.
It was peaceful and quiet, with hardly another tourist to be seen, apart from a few at the Zytglogge. We found Einstein’s apartment, Clarissa became adhered to the window of several more Swiss chocolate shops, we took a bunch of dumb pictures in front of a cathedral, the Rathause and a load of fountains and then finally it was time to go to the train station to head out of Bern and out of Switzerland.
We both agreed that we wish he had another day in Bern. It’s a very pleasant place to be, although perhaps not as easy on the wallet as it is on the eye. My one real regret, however, is that we never did find out what “fahrt” means.
That’s all for now! Clarissa will be enthralling you with her tales of Munich and Vienna shortly. I heard it’s going to be the best post yet so anything less than that will be crushingly disappointing. No pressure, Clarissa!