Don’t you forget about me 31Jul08 | [NickS] 0

Foolishly without setting an alarm, yet trying to eke out as much of our trip as possible, we left a meagre 45 minutes to pack before our check-out deadline.   Choking back the tears (as well as the dodgy cereal and hot chocolate), we trundled downstairs.  First item of business: book a water-taxi to the airport.  Fleeced on all sides, from Rialto to San Marco, we booked a €120 20-minute ride.  Nick M was due to leave for France (some posh holiday with his folks, not a train in sight…), so we were to get to the airport at 4 o’clock.  Only three hours early for our own check-in time.  Better bring a book.

Job done.  Now time for a wander around Cannaregio and Santa Croce, via Rialto Market.  Now satisfied that we had heard “a punnet of strawberries” in almost every European language available to us, we went for a drink in a nearby café, travelling over the river on a stripped down gondola for 50 cents.  Sure, we could’ve taken the five minute journey for over 300 times the price, ridden in the water equivalent of a Ferrari and had an even greasier native sing “That’s Amoré” to us, but that’s not our style.  Sniffing out the now ubiquitous bakeries for a pastry-snack, we took stock of our spending habits.  Money dwindling, the girls decided to stay in the café for about an hour, lest they be tempted by the array of clothes shops.  The men went on a manly stroll, searching out a suitable place to have lunch.

By the time we returned, the urge to shop was simply too great, and we were dragged through a few clothes shops on the way to our luncheon location.  On the veranda of a small hotel, I ate “tagliatelle al Doge” – pasta, with lobster.  It’s good to be the Doge. Beautiful. Bellissimo.  With a chilled beer inside us, topping up our tan in the afternoon sun, we had a leisurely stroll past the unavoidable gravitational pull of more shops, while I took a few more (hundred) photos.

And then, we were back at our hostel, standing outside the luggage room, unable to comprehend that we were nearly at the end of our fantastic trip.  After the sentimentality was interrupted by endless phone calls from my Italian water-taxi con artist booking agent to find out exactly where we lived, An Italian Sonny Crocket, inexplicably with his preteen daughter in tow, arrived outside our hostel.  Clambering into the vessel, we travelled at a speed of knots to Venice Marco Polo Airport.  I like to think the silence wasn’t as a result of us fearing for our lives due to the obvious speed violations and unstable nature of our craft, but because we were reflecting on our own personal journeys over the last three weeks.

Arriving at the airport, tipping our taxi driver with a few extra euros (why doesn’t anyone take Romanian Lei?) we found that it was a further seven minute walk to the main airport.  At this point, we didn’t mind, as we didn’t want to leave at all, even contemplating taking the next flight back to Ljubljana…

We made our temporary interthink base at the airport café and patiently took up an activity for an hour (reading, listening to iPod, blogging, knitting…). With our completed interthink wristbands (knitted by Mummy Gill), we powered up for one last time, before Nick M walked away into the sunset of the International Departures Lounge at approximately 1700

It felt as though we’d lost a limb. I didn’t like that.  I’m fond of my limbs, thank you very much.

Sooner or later, while the sun was setting, our check-in desk opened at 1910.  Then we saw Italian inefficiency at its true stereotypical splendour.  Waiting in line for an hour and a half, various other check-in desks came and went, while our solitary SleazyJet desk trundled along at a person an hour.  Ten minutes before check-in was due to close, another desk opened up, we raced through security to find an epic queue at passport control.  Two last calls were given for our flight, everyone was waving passports and boarding cards in the air…the English were grumbling, the Italians were nonchalant.  Onto the bus, onto the plane.  Of course, the plane was packed, and the interthink crew were dotted around the plane.  I was sitting next to a half-Italian man who was watching The Mighty Boosh on his iPod, while his foreign girlfriend slept.

Reading in the half-light, I finished my second book of the day and we touched down at London Gatwick.  Apparently ‘overcast, but 22 degrees centigrade’.  A bit like Balatonlelle then.  It hit us.  We were…what was that place called again?…home.  No more packing every other day.  The ability to jump in the shower for 45 minutes after getting up at midday.  Clean clothes.

The usual rigmarole of air travel passed us by – passport control, baggage reclaim…we were in arrivals.  We were in Britain.  My parents were at arrivals, apparently pleased to see me.  Maz borrowed my phone to locate Greg Phillips, designated driver for the Yeomans/Phillips/Field contingent.  He was parked in blue, we were parked in orange.  Tearing ourselves away from each other with all the difficulty of a haddock on a waterslide (it’s fair to say we might have needed a bit of a break from each other’s company), we parted.

Twenty-three days after we got to Prague, we’d visited ten locations (including Slovakia), left one phone in the Czech Republic, lost one bag (incl. wallet) in Sibiu, taken over five thousand photos, met countless people and had a really, really good excellent fantastic amazing time.  A route comprising other global locations forming in my mind for the Famous Five of interthink ’08, I’m going to bed.  A clean bed.  My bed.

Without clutching my passport, or setting an alarm.

The Final Countdown 30Jul08 | [NickM] 0

Ah, free breakfast. Always a positive thing, surely? Well, to an extent at least: bread rolls were fine, tea was average, but the cereal was fairly disgusting, having as much taste as running through the Vatican in a thong. Food aside, we washed and left around 10ish to go to St.Mark’s Square and Basilica. Saying the queue outside was horrific probably doesn’t do it justice, but thankfully someone was watching over us, and the queue dispersed fairly quickly.

Inside, the girls were considered to be too revealing of their shoulders and legs, but no fear, the Venetian tourist office was here to help – offering shawls for only €1.50. With the ladies appropriately covered up and resembling something between Guantanamo Bay prisoners and bottles of Fanta, we went in as part of a free English tour. The British guide, Naomi, was extremely knowledgeable and provided a detailed background to many of the numerous paintings within the Basilica, explaining the construction and stories behind these fantastic artworks.

For an extortionate €8 we got the opportunity to go up the bell tower for the most scenic panoramas the city had to offer (and in my opinion, the best on the trip). The sky was clear and offered almost unlimited visibility over the lagoon and the rest of the archipelago.

Afterwards we followed the edge of the square and it went into the Doge’s palace. Paying €13 even after Nick Stylianou’s best attempts to wangle Gill’s UCAS card as identification for all of us (“In England, one card is valid for groups up to five….honest”), we entered without our half-price student discount. The building turned out to be an extensive museum, including the Doge’s apartments, the prisons, the armoury and political rooms of the palace, providing an insight into how the Republic of Venice used to be run and administered. A personal highlight was “The Bridge of Sighs”. Sigh.

We found out that our ticket enabled us to enter another three museums, so even though we were all tired in the relentless heat, we soldiered on by the thought we had already purchased the ticket, crossed San Marco’s square and entered the Museu Correr. Inside were the three additional museums crammed into one side of the San Marco Square – the archeological one, the arty one and the library.

Due to the excessive temperatures and relentless sightseeing, it was decided some rest should be taken before the evening frivolity. Indoor sunbathing I believe is significantly under-rated. You get all the benefits of tanning at the beach without sand being caught in areas of the body best left unmentioned, with the added bonus of a cold shower nearby. Needless to say, very relaxing and enjoyable, but ridiculously whiffy.

It had been decided a few days previously that for the last proper evening meal we would go a bit upmarket…splash out, if you will. We found a lovely place by about 10 pm and proceeded to have a variety of excellent (and expensive) dishes. Highlights include lobster crepes and veal on the bone. Aided by two bottles of lovely Venetian wine, in no time at all it was 12 o’clock and we were reflecting on the previous 3 weeks, the trials and tribulations, the whirlwind romances, the copious drug abuse…okay, slight exaggeration for dramatic effect. But we all gave various awards to each other, such as Most Likely To Be Injured [jointly awarded to Maz and Nick S] and The interthink Sixth Candle award [to the most helpful Croatian nun in the world, made an honorary interthink life member]. Strolling back through San Marco’s square at night, listening to the bands playing, Nick S got caught up in the moment. Topping off a truly excellent evening, in an overblown romantic gesture, he managed to buy [read: haggle shamelessly] the entire lot of roses from two different sellers for everyone to share [so, just the girls]. Totally enamoured, the girls immediately awarded Nick S the winner of the man-points league.

That pissed me off.

But as this is my last blog entry, I must say that this has been one of the best experiences of my life and I’ve loved every moment of it, and judging from the various speeches, this was a view shared by everyone on the trip, so not just me being sentimental. Venice was a truly fitting end to this European Adventure, and all of us eventually fell asleep at about one in the morning, sad that it was over, but with about a hundred photos of roses, people and bridges in different combinations. At night-time. Breakfast seemed unlikely.

Canal-hopping 28Jul08 | [Rio] 28

We woke up at around 6:30am as quietly as possible so as not to wake our room-mates (one of them was called Steve Jones, we later found out… what a unique and completely exotic name!) with whom we’d arrived back at a fairly reasonable hour, but who would probably appreciate a lie-in nonetheless.  We wandered to the train station which was only around 10 minutes walk away, in time for our train to Villach (in Austria), where we would be stopping off before another train from there to Ljubljana.  I think we were all a bit sad to leave Ljubljana – it was a truly beautiful city, and probably my favourite place on the trip.  We all knew that in Venice, not only would prices rise, but the streets would be packed with holidaymakers.

This would be our last train journey, so we were determined not to cock it up – we thoroughly checked every display we could lay our eyes on before boarding the train.  The train journey to Villach passed fairly uneventfully, apart from the consumption of my sandwiches which we’d prepared for lunch after about 10 minutes of being on the train (about 8:10am).

We had around half an hour to spare at Villach, so we waited on the platform, ecstatic after the discovery of some Haribo in a nearby vending machine.

We then took the 10:37am from Villach to Ljubljana.  We’ve been lucky on our trip in that most of the time, we’ve booked 5 seats and have been given a 6 seat compartment, without another single person in the carriage with us.  The spare chair is used for general clutter.  Unfortunately, on this journey, we had to share our carriage with a man, who turned out to be nice enough, and didn’t complain about having to be stuck in a compartment with five noisy and excitable teenagers, even after Gill nearly knocked him out whilst trying to lift her rucksack onto the luggage rack.

I have to say, walking out of the station at Venice took my breath away.  Water was lapping only about five metres away from us, and although the city was very busy, I couldn’t help but appreciate why this had become such a popular place.  The hoards of people did prove to be fairly irritating whilst we attempted to find our hostel since, as Nick Manners put it, with our rucksacks on our backs,  we had the turning circle of a large cruiser.  But after struggling through the crowds, crossing numerous bridges and navigating down the narrow streets of Venice which all look fairly similar, we realised it was worth it.  Our hostel fronted onto a small canal.  It was absolutely beautiful.

We dumped our bags, and headed out to find something to eat.  You’d think it wouldn’t be difficult, but prices were high and we were eager to cut costs- we ended up at a small pizzeria, but we paid the price with some pizzas which… Well, we all agreed that I could have cooked better, and I once set the grill on fire when I was trying to toast bread.  I think I’ve made my point.  Our evening meal wasn’t much better… We had to repeatedly tell the waiter that Nick had ordered chips and not salad with his meal, and Gill’s attempts to order a panini and a vegetable dish were thwarted (it was the wrong time of day, apparently), so she settled for a vegetable soup which was basically hot water with a couple of carrots.  Yum.

The the breath-taking city made up for the food by far, though.  In the afternoon, we all went off in our separate directions to explore the city (after three weeks together, we thought it would be a good idea)- Gill stumbled upon the St.Mark’s basilica in the St.Mark’s square and said she nearly had an accident herself because it was so stunning.  We decided to check it out, so after dinner we headed over to the square.  She wasn’t wrong, and it was even more beautiful lit up against the stark black sky.  The square was edged by restaurants in which string and piano groups played classical groups in the open air.  The music was beautiful, the city was beautiful… I fell asleep that night thinking I must be in heaven.