International Services (part 1) 13Jul08 | [NickM] 0

“Aaagh! What the hell is that noise?”

This has been an interesting day to say the least. When given the task of documenting it, I thought this was going to be a rather brief entry – a walk in the park, as easy as pie. Alas, it has turned out to be a rather different kettle of fish.

Okay, clichés aside, back to the beginning…

Being the well-planned young adults we are, we gave ourselves plenty of time to get to Wien Westbahnhof to catch our train for Budapest in order to get a transfer to the ancestral home of the Laszlós in Balatonlelle. Watches were set for 0800, train leaves at 0952. Sorted.


Don’t actually get up until 0820, then after a slightly too leisurely breakfast, we look at our watches and it’s 0920. So begins the interthink trans-Vienna mini-marathon. A race against time consisting of 2 metro lines, 2 lost room keys and to add insult to injury, a giant set of stairs at the station which we were forced to climb thanks to the misreading of a sign by our very own Miss Field. Despite all this, we made it. We shouldn’t have, but we did. Shoddy Soviet engineering paid dividends as the train (terminating at Belgrade) was delayed by 15 minutes.

No harm done, lesson learnt: Get up, get ready, get out. We pulled into Budapest in one piece, having met three of the RGS’ most outstanding chaps of ’08 on the way (Tom Wales, Joe de Sousa and Simon Rollings). Combined with our chance meeting at the Vienna ‘operetta’ with the infamous Irene has resulted in one of the most unlikely inter-rail trips possible.

The only other (arguably minor) incident of note on this portion of the journey was the distinct lack of working air-conditioning, resulting in a set of smelly, sweaty travellers.

We boarded the 1330 train for Balatonlelle on time, on schedule, on track. The air-conditioning fan’s only function was to make a mildly annoying noise, but that seemed to be the limit of its functionality, but as we already resembled drowned rats it didn’t seem to matter. Off we intrepidly went.

Two hours into the three hour trip came the highlight of the day, all starting with a mundane welcome message from a mobile phone operator. Nick Stylianou snapped out of his doze and ripped out his earphones, staring intently at his phone.

“T-Mobile welcomes you to Slovakia.”

“Oh, bugger.”

Wiener Attractions 12Jul08 | [Gill] 0

For those of you not familiar with the local language, Vienna = Wien and Viennese = Wiener.

Before beginning my depiction of our single full day in Vienna, I must point out that my actions which apparently offended “the entire service industry of Prague” were by no means unreasonable – I asked for a margarita pizza, something that is understood and served in every city, town, village, hamlet and hermit’s cave in the world without difficulty, and so my response “What do you mean what type?” to the waitress’ question “What type?”, was not really unprovoked. However despite the reasonable nature of my question, I have been hounded as a xenophobic snob ever since. Hmph.
Anyway, our day got off to a ropey start when we overslept by an hour and a half, although this was generally met with appreciation as everyone knows that 7 am is a barbaric time anyway. Things didn’t improve much upon arrival in the centre of Vienna, when we naively opted for the first tourist trap that harassed us. A man named “Toni”, dressed in traditional Austrian attire (complete with sunglasses, mobile phone, and an ID pass saying OFFICIAL TICKET SELLER) kindly persuaded us to buy tickets to a show that sounded perfect: instead of being two hours of heavy, incomprehensible opera, it offered a medley of dances, orchestral music and singing, perfect for the western tourist with a short attention span. Especially once Toni had offered us a group discount, we snapped up the opportunity, congratulating ourselves on finding such a pleasant yet accessible way to spend the evening, that didn’t involve binge drinking with Australians.

When we arrived in “the palace room that Mozart once performed in with his sister” (Palais Palffy), we were slightly surprised to find that, attractively decorated as it was, it was considerably smaller than we had expected. And the “professional orchestra” that we had been promised consisted of five slightly disgruntled looking people in fancy dress. The stage was also about half the size of our school one, and just as noisy to walk on, meaning that the “dancing” was restricted to the two people walking side to side and jumping occasionally. Furthermore, the male opera singer couldn’t sing loud enough to be heard over the “orchestra”, and forgot his words in one song. Having said this, the female opera singer was very good, as were the musicians, and it wasn’t actually a bad

way to spend the evening (although horribly over-priced and over-hyped). An added, bizarre bonus to the evening was a chance reunion with Irene (see “prague crawl”), who, with her friends, had apparently also been targeted by the ticket sellers. And our readers will be pleased to know that numbers, having been lost, were re-exchanged.

But I digress. The majority of the day was spent touring the landmarks of Vienna, particularly the classical complex of the Hofburg. The group initially split – whilst Nick S went on a tour of Kunsthistoriches (the Art Museum), the others went to the Naturhistoriches (Natural History Museum) – two identical buildings facing each other. Nick reported the Art to be “impressive”, and I can say the same for the Natural History museum – not something which immediately takes my fancy, but the taxidermy collection which ranged from gorillas to field mice was very interesting, as were the displays of precious stones. As well as an extensive collection of dead animals, there were a few tanks of live animals, including an iguana that Maz had a lengthy staring contest with, and which caused me to scream loudly and jump back when it stuck out its tongue, as I hadn’t realised it was alive.

This was followed by a visit to the palace, including the silverware display that put our “Last Supper” to shame, a tour of the Imperial Apartments, and an exhibition on the Empress known as “Sisi”, best remembered by us as having a 51cm waist. You may think that by this time we were absolutely saturated with museums and palaces, and despite being right, we then continued to the grounds of Schönbrunn, the summer residence of the Hapsburgs. The highlight of these was a magnificent sculpture tableau of a classical ruin, and despite being tired we were all disappointed that we ran out of time and had to leave soon after.

The group again split here – whilst Gill, Nick & Nick went to the hostel for some of the fastest consumption of pasta ever recorded by humanity, the other two went to a gay festival taking place in the city, which was described as containing “every cliché you could ever imagine”. And then we reconvened for our final entertainment, if such a word is appropriate – the infamous Toni-endorsed ‘operetta’. Despite this finishing quite early in the evening, when we emerged we discovered that all Viennese nightlife had already gone to bed at 10 pm. That is, apart from the two suspicious men in the park, who tried to lure our very own pair of Nicks into some bushes with calls of “Eh, young boys! Come over here!”. And thus ended our whirlwind tour of Vienna.

Vienna Waits 11Jul08 | [Rio] 0

At about 7am we all woke up and realised we were already running late after a much interrupted night’s sleep.  The pub crawl involving free beer, wine, vodka & cranberry or absinthe shots (THEY BURN MORE THAN YOU WOULD IMAGINE) had obviously taken their toll on all of us as we emerged bleary-eyed from the hostel into the unforgiving light of day.  I don’t remember much of the morning as a result of my semi-consciousness but I do remember feeling slightly disappointed to be leaving Prague – I know that we’ll only be moving on to more excitement in more European countries but our time here, with our hostel minutes away from the picturesque Old Town Square will be difficult to beat – we managed to fill every day with the perfect balance of culture and sight-seeing, cycling and walking, cheap beer, (cheaper than coke!!! Who could ask for more?!) dancing and Eurotrash.  And we met some great people, too, including a guy from Quebec with whom we shared a very heavy (but very cheap) watermelon, as well as Maz’s various conquests.

We managed to find our way to the right train station at the right time (miraculous if you ask me) and spent four and a bit hours on the train from Prague to Vienna.  The weather here today has been scorching (I’m sure it wasn’t this hot when we got on the train this morning… although to be fair I probably wouldn’t have remembered anyway) and so the rest of today has been spent generally blobbing about in useless heaps, revelling in the amazement that we actually managed to get up to get the train this morning.  In fact, such was the inactivity today that the highlights, and in fact the exhaustive synopsis of our activities reads as follows:

1.  Finding out that free pasta is readily available at this hostel, resulting in a vat full of cooked spaghetti for dinner, which not even Maz could finish off, and could probably feed the inhabitants of Zagreb for at least a year.  Other than free pasta, everything else in this hostel appears to come at some cost, which is why I preferred our Prague hostel.  The general atmosphere here seems slightly more hostile too, probably either because everything seems so antiseptically clean (admittedly our room is very nice), or because the only people we have bumped into here were a group of Irish guys in their mid-20s who seemed to disapprove of my pasta-cooking technique.

2.  A trip to the local Spar to stock up on food after realising we hadn’t actually eaten all day.

3.  The discovery of the game ‘Singstar’ on the Playstation in the small kitchen/common room known as the Backies Area.  We entertained ourselves for most of the evening with this, constantly listening for the possibility of a stranger walking in whilst one of us belted out the chorus of “I Touch Myself”.  Not a fantastic first impression whilst attempting to make friends.  I still maintain, however, that the game was faulty since the microphones seemed to respond better to Nick’s convincing impression of a donkey being raped than any of the rest of our efforts.

And so the day is drawing to a close.  We only have tomorrow left here in Vienna, so it’ll be difficult to fit in everything we want to see in this lovely, but huge, city – thank God we have Nick, his guide book and his meticulous ability to plan in order to make the most of it!