Escape to Portugal | Arrival in Porto

On July 28th 2015 I set off on my first solo trip in two years, and my first with hand-luggage only. The destination of choice was Portugal, on the basis that I wanted to visit somewhere with a warmer temperature and relaxed Latino ambience as opposed to the colder climate and outdoor pursuits-driven landscape of more northern areas of Europe which I’m better used to. I was excited to rekindle my sense of lone adventure, but felt out of practice too, and this became noticeable on arrival.

My plane touched down in Porto just before midday. My lack of preparation and the arrangement of the airport made for a muddled and delayed time there. After changing into shorts and a vest top in the washroom (and subsequently re-stuffing my small rucksack), I had to find an ATM that would accept my debit card, having been so busy that I hadn’t had time to change my currency beforehand. Then it was time to find the metro to take me into the city centre. After I wrongly approached the car parking machine on the lower level, a fellow tourist directed me back upstairs to the main level to buy metro tickets, only for me to be told by a member of staff up there that these had to be bought downstairs from the machine. (Life lesson: never take advice from an American man with long hair!) There were large queues for the three machines but there were no staff around to advise and the queues weren’t moving as confused tourists looked around helplessly. I finally reached the front and selected a ticket for zone 4, having read that the machine accepted 50Euro notes. Mine however was rejected meaning I had to walk all the way back upstairs yet again to buy some water for change. By now I was getting frustrated – I just wanted to be in the city out in the sun exploring.

20 minutes later I finally had my ticket for the violet line to Trindade at the price of 2.35Euros. Up on the platform my hands were full with change from the machine, tickets, receipts, water, a map and guidebook. I kneeled down and precariously shoved bits and bobs in various pockets, only to glance up and wonder why a man was staring at me with interest. A glance back down revealed that I was flashing a large amount of cleavage…The journey to Trindade only took about 25 minutes but because of my headless chicken-style running around in the airport, two hours had passed by the time I reached the centre. But I was finally here, it was time to think forward and that began with applying large amounts of sunscreen, ideally without involving extra exposure..!

I set off down the street noting the style of the pavements with their uneven, shiny-stoned surfaces. Câmara Municipal do Porto provides a great view down the Avenue dos Aliados towards the river Douro. People sit at tables under small trees reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. I noticed a lot of beeping going on by impatient taxi drivers which seemed to contrast with the ancient tram that would laze along the streets with an occasional clang. Unlike in other cities, it seemed you could be pretty relaxed about walking in the road without fear of being squished by one. Walking up a road to the right, I had my first sighting of a Portuguese bakery…and it was love. But I forced myself to wait a little longer before making a move. 003 004 008 010 Inside the Torre dos Clérigos (Tower of Clerics), a sign stated that the top would only be open to visitors from 7pm for 5Euros. With my first and only plan of the day out of the window, I instead headed down a little cobbled side road with quiet pastry shops where stray cats dashed underneath cars, leading me to the miradouro (viewpoint) which showed a sea of orange roofs with the iconic metal bridge of Luis I in the background. It wasn’t the most outstanding view I’d seen but I remained open-minded. Some steps took me down a narrow alley between scruffy stone houses and as I passed neighbours gossiping across to each other I felt almost invasive. Soon after this hushed local area of modesty came the Cais de Ribeira which was heaving with packed restaurants, but rather than the menus, I was attracted by the beautiful detail on the tall buildings, with their vintage look of tiled decoration and the balconies painted with corresponding colours. It’s this ancient beauty, combined with the collection of traditional wooden boats on the water, that probably influenced UNESCO to declare the Praça da Ribeira (riverside square) a World Heritage Site. My stomach was starting to rumble but I didn’t fancy dining alone in this touristy section. I dropped 50 cents into the case of two young boys playing guitar before wandering on towards the bridge. A long set of steps led me up past another poorer area where washing hung off lines attached to houses with paint peeling off the walls as young girls sat in a doorway playing games. 016035 036 039 040 041 042Crossing the top half of the Ponte de Luis I to the south side of the Douro, things get quieter. I felt more confident of finding a supermarket here and sure enough, quickly found a local fruit and veg shop, my mouth watering at the sight of fresh produce. Moments after walking in it became obvious that this was very much a place where a local few went, namely old women. “Desculpe!” I would say as I accidentally knocked one with my bag, but they never seemed to notice. The younger lady at the till would chat away with them as she weighed their bags stuffed with pears, nectarines, cherries and plums. As she weighed mine, I saw her glance quickly at my Oyster card holder which I was using to store notes (to save the space a purse would take up in my bag). Recognising the English words, she cleared her throat, looked me nervously in the eyes and slowly but profoundly said: “1.80.” Seeing her pride put a smile on my face and I walked out of the shop in a happy day dream, before almost flattening a girl stood right outside holding her hands out for money.056 058 060 Settling down in the green space of Jardim do Morro, the view of the town was much prettier, the river now more visible and glittering in the sun. I bit into a succulent peach and watched a young teenage couple on a bench in front of me look at each other with tentative excitement before locking their hands together. A few minutes later they walked off hand-in-hand giggling shyly and a busty girl in tight jeans who looked about six years older sauntered past them to sit on the wall. Then a motorbike revved past and her boyfriend pulled up beside her and rested his arms on her lap. It was a five-minute scenario that highlighted the phases of growing up and growing in love. At first there are the sweet, fragile romantic moments of making eye contact and feeling butterflies when you hold hands, then there’s the sexual excitement and physical comfortability as you spend more time together and grow more familiar with each other. I spent most of the afternoon resting here, enjoying the lack of visible tourists around, until around 5.30 p.m. I decided I should find my hostel. A steep cobbled street led down to the lower half of the bridge, where a group of young boys attracted applause as they jumped into the water. I was tempted to join; it was hot and I was still getting accustomed, the parts of my back that I hadn’t been able to reach starting to redden (one downside of travelling alone!)    061 062 066 Walking up past São Bento station, the looks and comments from local men began to increase. Of course I had no idea what was being said, but could tell the comments were pretty indecent. With my blonde hair I had expected to stand out, but was still surprised by just how ‘odd’ I appeared to be. The attention wasn’t perturbing and I didn’t feel unsafe; I just ignored the men and walked on. One thing I’ve learned from travelling alone is the art of bluffing. Even if you are completely lost or scared or uncertain about something, you have to put on a brave face, otherwise you make yourself more vulnerable to unwanted attention. I find that when in a foreign country, it feels easier to stand up for myself against harassment, perhaps because when one doesn’t understand the language it’s harder to get upset by the verbal reply, and also because since I know nobody else I’m less concerned about what people might think of me. This meant therefore that when the old homeless man came over with his hand held out and started poking me, I could look at him square in the eyes, firmly say “Não” and walk away with no further attempts being made by him.

After a few wrong turns I finally found Avenue Rodrigues de Freitas where Magnolia Porto Hostel is located, to the east of the city centre. I knocked on the big red door of number 387 and a lady signed me in and showed me to my dorm, which I would have to myself that night. The room had a homely ambience unlike that I’ve experienced in most hostels. It’s as if the owners have put more thought into the rooms than ‘You need a bed for the night – here it is.’ I washed my smelly feet and let them dry near the window, as I’d declined to bring a towel for the sake of luggage space.

At 8 p.m. I set off out again, glad to have only my camera bag on me. I wanted to watch the sun go down at the nice spot across the river from earlier. A grey cat sat looking vain on the walls of the Muralha Fernandina. Runners passed me down a flight of dusty steps from which I could peep into people’s kitchens through the open windows. The runners turned left to run alongside the river and for a moment I regretted not bringing my trainers.

Serra do Pillar is a nice viewpoint, and probably best enjoyed with a glass of local port (which, despite its fame and heritage here, I definitely was not fussed about sampling).  The green space adjacent was busier now, but with locals rather than tourists. I was glad to have come across the place – popular tourists areas rarely do it for me. By 9 p.m. it was getting chilly and I headed back across the bridge, pausing to admire the softening glow of the sun on the river and buildings, before wandering through random areas of the town map-less. Porto hadn’t overwhelmed me yet, but it definitely seemed to be a good city for just rambling around, finding interesting little things here and there such as the Sé Cathedral. 069 076 079 083 093Again, I got confused on the way back to my hostel. In the park nearby a sign read ‘Festival das Francesinhas’ and I translated the words ‘free entry’, but there didn’t seem to be much going on. I later discovered that ‘francesinha’ is a popular dish here – a thick sandwich filled with cheese, egg, sausage and other meats in a rich sauce. However in this heat the only food I felt like eating was the juicy fresh local fruit. This time a man welcomed me inside the hostel and I felt like I was returning home as I entered my quiet dorm. The lights didn’t seem to be working but I didn’t mind – it made things more cosy and I could crawl into bed tired from the heat and just wait for the impending darkness to come and send me to sleep.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPhone or iPad by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read about day two in A Train Trip to Pinhão

A Change of Perspective | My Second Trip to Warsaw

The first time I visited Warsaw was in October 2012 for a wedding. On a morning trip to the Old Town, a bleak sky took a little life out of the town buildings, merging their pastel colours into a blend of blandness. If you closed your eyes and listened to sounds of horse hooves clomping on the cobbled streets, you could imagine being in the era of Soviet rule, hunched figures hurrying through the drizzle to buy their bread before rushing back home to their duties. Driving to the local salon to get my hair done for the ceremony, I remember pulling up outside a run-down building with peeling paint, the smoking staff scowling up at the cloudy sky. The weather had dimmed the mood of the town and its subsequent memorability.

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Fast forward to June 2015 and I was back in the capital on a brighter day. Driving past the hair salon, the sun shone on a freshly-painted building complete with a new sign and clean windows. Traffic levels boomed on the long weekend as people drove into the capital for a sunny day out. Status appears to be important in Poland as it strives to distance itself from its Communist connotations and develop into a more prosperous country with a greater preference for Western lifestyles. If you have money, you buy a fancy car. Branded clothing and accessories are sought after here. While many Londoners dream of a country mansion where they can work from home and avoid the urban grind, city life seems to be the ideal among many in Poland because it’s seen to indicate a certain status.

It never ceases to amaze me how influential the sun can be psychologically on one’s attitude towards a place. Summer scenes were vastly different from those I had seen in the autumn nearly three years ago. Approaching the Old Town, the buildings stood strikingly against the perfect blue sky, looking incredibly rich in colour like skin bronzed from the sun’s rays. Tourists in shorts and dresses ambled around slowly in a warm state of relaxation, the only sense of rush in the area being from the kids jumping around in excitement trying to pop the bubbles that ballooned from a man’s bucket. There was more energy around the place since I was last there, but less tension at the same time. People moved slower, but more progressively too.

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A group of runners milled around doing calf stretches and lunges as we looked for a restaurant to eat at. Zapiecek made traditional Pierogi – deep-fried dumplings stuffed with cheeses, vegetables or meats. Sat outside under white umbrellas, little conversation was exchanged between diners. Instead, people sat lazily, smoking pensively or reading the newspaper. I drank a dried fruit compote whilst the waitresses stood in the doorway in their red and blue aprons, basking in the sunshine. 091099

Then, as I was eating, a young girl of about 12 approached our table and asked for some change, none of which I had. Seeing her be ignored by the diners around me made me feel slightly uncomfortable. I thought about how increased prosperity makes members of society change their perspective towards the lesser fortunate. It made me think of those real-life rags-to-riches stories you hear about, and question whether these people stay humble or not.

Destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War, Warsaw has had to renovate itself dramatically. It doesn’t have the number of tourist attractions or social venues to be found in London, but I find that this simplicity makes the capital attractive. Hopefully the increasingly Westernised perspective that the country now holds towards consumer and lifestyle choices won’t make it sacrifice the quiet, modest charm of areas like the Old Town for big brands and brash buildings.

My Morning Walk around Geneva | A Mixed Bag of Luxury and Comfort

‘Luxury’ and ‘comfort’ are two words often associated together when discussing travel. Luxury is defined as ‘something that provides pleasure or comfort’. Comfort is defined as being in a ‘state of physical ease with freedom from pain or constraint’. However for me, it came to be that during a morning in Geneva, Switzerland, the two did not fit agreeably in the same bag, and instead made quite an uncomfortable experience.

Having rushed to catch a train to Geneva on a Saturday, I arrived in the city on an empty stomach having not had time to eat breakfast. I studied the station map closely to look for lockers where I could store my backpack, and went wrong twice. When I finally found the area shown on the map, I still couldn’t see them. Commuters were rushing around so it was hard to find anybody to ask, and I couldn’t seem to find any staff. Fed up and not wanting to waste time exploring, I decided to just take the backpack with me. Big mistake.

If you walk down the Rue des Alpes onto the Quai du Mont-Blanc, you can admire the famous Jet d’Eau which shoots seven tonnes of water into the air, towering over the flock of yachts that look up at it in silent awe. Flicked by the sun’s rays,  the water was sometimes painted with rainbow colours. Swans glided over the shimmering water (the blue colour of which was a pleasant change from views of the Thames) which flows in from the River Rhône.

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Crossing the Pont du Mont-Blanc, you reach the (supposedly) English Garden. It’s a pleasant enough place, but unfortunately being located next to a busy road, it’s difficult to escape the noise of traffic. It’s a bit like Russell Square Gardens in London, with joggers and dog-walkers meandering around its paths (albeit without the squirrels). The Doobie Brothers ‘Listen to the Music’ played outside a café as I walked through the garden towards the main town, passing an Asian couple taking a zillion photos posing with their fore-finger ‘on top of’ the Jet d’Eau.

10900222_10155252362780495_84661736624735382_o Geneva’s atmosphere evoked the characteristics almost typical of what one associates with Switzerland as a nation – impersonal and rich. Walking past the likes of Rolex and Louis Vuitton with my grubby backpack, I felt slightly out of place. Nevertheless, I was stopped twice to be asked for directions, so I must have looked like I knew what I was doing! I scanned the sides of Rue du Marché for a supermarket but was unsuccessful, seeing only cafes and bistros instead. All I wanted was something small, quick and cheap! But it seemed my stomach would have to wait.

The sights grew less ostentatious and the atmosphere less snobby as I approached the Old Town. By now I was getting tired from hunger, and my shoulders felt sore as I trudged upwards along narrow streets. A man on a bike rode past with his son sat behind him, the little boy’s open mouth rattling “ahhhh” as they bounced over the bumpy cobble roads. I noticed a Co-Op bag in the dad’s hand, but could only watch helplessly as he cycled away.

My feelings of hunger were temporarily forgotten when I was greeted by the striking sight of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, built in the 12th century. Visitors can climb 157 steps to reach the top of the North Tower for views of the city. With my backpack however, that seemed to be too much of an ask, although looking back I should have checked if there was somewhere to put it.   10841895_10155252360695495_182192141877632288_o

Walking west from the cathedral, the smooth stone on the buildings reminded me of that seen in Bath or Edinburgh. Ahead there was a balcony overlooking the Parc des Bastions, famed for having a giant chessboard and monuments of famous figures from the Reformation. In summer I can imagine it to be a lovely area, with a tree-lined promenade and space for picnics and games. But seeing the muddy grass and dull, leafless trees, I decided not to make the journey down to it today, especially in my state of soreness and hunger. Instead with a sigh of relief, I released my backpack and sank onto a bench. A young mum sat opposite me with a pram, looking depressed. In fact, there weren’t many cheery-looking people around at all! I could probably discount myself as one of them too. By now, my stomach was rumbling loudly with hunger and I could feel two tight knots forming on my shoulders.

A flashy Range Rover drove down the Rampe de la Treille as I set off back towards the city centre. Private cafes and boutiques lined the quiet Grand Rue. They seemed to say ‘Only enter if you have lots of money’. Reaching the bottom of the hill, the traffic noise vamped up and a tram clanged its horn. I quickly explained to an approaching charity rep that I wasn’t a Swiss citizen and, dodging bikes, crossed the road determined to find a supermarket. I had no idea where to look, choosing to walk up a random street, only to stumble across a Manor shopping mall. Hurrah! I rushed inside like a kid desperate for the toilet. The food court was manic. Two Brazilian men asked for my recommendation of which brand of chocolate to give someone as a gift. I said Lindt. After nearly clearing some shelves and taking a child’s head off with my backpack, I was outside with food in a bag.

My energy rejuvenated from the knowledge that I would soon be able to eat, I strode back over the Pont du Mont-Blanc, back to the Jardin Anglais. Just as I was about to bite into a sandwich, I noticed a scruffy man sat on a bench 20 metres away drinking from a Heineken can staring at me, and stopped myself on the basis that I might have to move away. After deciding that he posed no threat with his drunkenness, I carried on gorging, watching with amusement as more Asian groups posed on the fountains. An old man with ragged clothes and a backpack greeted me with a “bonjour”, dragging a trolley next to him. Glancing at him and the drinking man, I realised that on the first impressions of others in this city, I probably had more in common with these two than the majority.

I still had an hour and a half to kill before I needed to be at the airport, but with my backpack, I felt no desire to wander around anymore. There are many interesting places in Geneva north of the river that I’d love to visit, such as the Palais des Nations (UN), CERN and the International Red Cross museum, but today wouldn’t be the day. Not only was my back cursing, but my bladder was now almost bursting. Instead, I forced myself to heave my backpack on again and walked back alongside the lake, amongst lycra-loving cyclists and tourists ogling at the water fountain.

In summary, I didn’t get a great impression of this small city. Through its display of luxury, it seemed quite uninviting and too money-orientated for my liking. But this impression wasn’t helped by my lack of travel comfort. Without this, I was restricted in my options and my views were tarnished by my self-pitying frustrations.

Lessons learned: 1. Eat breakfast; 2.  Even if it takes a while to do so, find a luggage locker.

In different circumstances I’ll happily give Geneva a second chance and see if I feel the same way!

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If you plan to tour Geneva and would like to use this article as a guide, with GPS included, please follow this link to download it!

Familiar Faces in Foreign Places

You’re in your home country at a bus stop or in a lift or some other enclosed space, joined only by an older stranger. The stranger begins speaking to you and so you engage in polite small talk to fill the time, almost because it feels necessary in order to avoid an awkward silence. Then you part ways and forget about the other person. A few days later, you see them again in a more public context, but they are not looking to be busy themselves. They don’t notice you and you have no reason to speak to them. What would you do – walk right past them whilst looking in the opposite direction, or go up to speak to them, regardless of hardly knowing them?

It is hard to believe that one would feel any desire to approach them. The social-networking generation seems almost too afraid of the potential gawkiness of human interaction to strike up conversation with a random person they share no established connection with. Familiarity is a comfort. When someone is certain of their position in their nearby surroundings, they are less likely to feel the need to communicate with a vaguely familiar human being. If you go on a solo trip to a foreign-speaking country, you might find yourself amazed at how easily the rules of the equation can change.

Day One in the Black Forest, Germany. I had spent the night in a youth hostel in Freudenstadt, a market town in the north of the area. Before a day of hiking commenced, I dropped into the tourist office to quickly find inspiration for a route. Walking out of the door whilst running the directions through my mind, I almost bumped into a man chaining up his bike. “Hey there!” he said cheerily in an accent I instantly recognised as Canadian. “You’re staying up at the youth hostel, aren’t you?” I was taken aback by his genial approach and replied with a hint of uncertainty, wondering how he knew. “I cycled past you on the way here – I’m at a guesthouse in town,” he added, as if noticing a look on my face. He looked to be in his early forties, but despite his older age I still found his confident chattiness quite surprising.

It seemed only polite to ask a short question or two.  After sharing his plan for the day, the man remarked, “You’ve picked a great day for a hike,” nodding up at the blue sky. This seemed like an appropriate time to move on, so I wished him a good trip and we parted ways. I promptly returned to recalling the name of the path I was looking for, and my brief encounter with the man was forgotten in favour of sign posts and sweet little streams.

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A few days of moving southwards later, I ended up in Freiburg im Breisgau, where I would spend a few hours of the morning before heading back to Heidelberg. The town is famed for its Minster and for being Germany’s sunniest city. Sunlight wasn’t out on show today though. Thick clouds created a sense of lethargy as I dawdled through the large hoard of tourists and students in the university town. It was market day and I squeezed and side-stepped past people looking at various cheeses and vegetables and wines, feeling like a mouse amongst the mania. Elbows knocked me and I looked around dazed as the air was filled with rapid German chatter. The past few days had been filled with walking and my legs felt sluggish. The weather and the people were draining, and I suddenly felt a little overwhelmed by my surroundings. I needed to stop and recover for a minute.

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An ice cream sign called me over. One scoop of mint choc chip – heck, why not two? I walked on past a row of picnic benches filled with tourists gorging on bratwurst and burgers. Suddenly, one of the munching men caught my eye. I realised it was the Canadian man I’d seen a few days earlier.

Without thinking twice, I bounded over to say hello, feeling a wave of respite from the mass of unfamiliar people. Caught unaware, the man looked up mid-ketchup-spurting-bite with wide eyes of surprised embarrassment. He’d see me standing in front of him holding an ice cream in my hand with a big grin on my face, like a little kid. We both laughed at how silly we looked. After a proper greeting, the man asked if I’d like to join him for a drink at a nearby beer garden that served only Swabian speciality beers. I said yes without hesitation.

My initial dubious impression of the man had completely vanished. In the last three days I had only uttered about 50 words. I was craving some human contact through which I would be able to have a fluid conversation in my own language for a few minutes. Having felt lost in and exhausted by the busy state of the town, the man’s familiar face provided an element of reassurance. So I went ahead and did something that would have probably been classed as ‘breaking a rule’ back home – going to have a drink with a male I hardly knew, and a much older male at that. But the man’s age wasn’t on my mind at all as we found a table on an upstairs terrace and chatted about Canada. He said I seemed to know the western side of the country better than him. His name was Kevin and he worked in the civil service, but loved cycling in his free time.

As he ordered and paid for our drinks, attempting some basic German with our waitress, I realised that Kevin was a genuinely good-natured person. I told him about my degree and my hobbies, and that I would be volunteering at the Olympics when I returned. With a big smile he said, “Well it seems like you have a lot going for you, Shannon.” Those words have stuck with me since.

Once we had finished our beers (I tactically ordered a half-pint so he wouldn’t have to wait for me), we headed back downstairs into the street. I felt rejuvenated, my batteries recharged. Kevin planned to spend a few more hours in Freiburg, while I needed to head back to the station. After a quick hug goodbye, we parted ways for the second and final time. There would be no sharing of contact details to keep in touch, as is so often the trend amongst young travellers who have spent a few drunken hours together. It was just simply an hour of shared company that made the day a little more interesting for both.

I’ll likely never see that man again, and so he will never know how valuable I found his company for that short time (unless, of course, he finds this blog!) I had never felt so glad to see such a familiar face whose owner I was so unfamiliar with.

My dad told me two things before I travelled solo for the first time: 1) that travelling alone makes one more open to new people and new experiences, and 2) that it makes one realise that people are nice. After that morning in Freiburg, I realised that I had underestimated the applicability of his statement. It’s something that is not just relevant to people you meet in bars or on a tour, someone sat next to you on the bus or sleeping in your dorm; it can also be relevant to random situations where there is no expectation of speech and interaction. If someone is alone abroad, they are likely to feel more receptive to the company of an unfamiliar person, if that person seems more familiar than the alternatives. And yet, if they were in their home country, they might not even consider approaching a stranger.

I now have a better understanding of why people in a foreign country sometimes crave contact with someone that speaks their language. It can be a form of comfort – a reassurance when one is feeling insecure in or disillusioned by their unfamiliar surroundings. There is no shame in craving some ‘home-away-from-home’ moments – everyone is bound to experience that need at some point whilst travelling alone.

The rare coincidence of seeing someone again in a foreign land made it seem silly for me to avoid approaching the Canadian man. It seemed like one of those moments that happened for a reason, to not only boost my morale but teach me a life lesson.

So if you’re overseas and an older stranger starts talking to you enthusiastically, go with your gut of course, but try not to make assumptions about their intentions and subsequently dismiss them off the bat. A few days later, you might appreciate their bold and unconditional friendliness.

Romance on the River | Summer Evenings in Germany

July 2012. My first year of university was complete and I was spending three weeks away on my own. Whilst back home in England, thousands of tourists from all over the world were being welcomed into London for the Olympic Games, I was following various rivers up, down and across west Germany. On the way I would encounter scenes of romance that would both captivate and torment me.

Heidelberg is the epitome of ‘charming’. It’s a town bustling with activity but it still manages to retain an intimate, personal feel. During one afternoon there, the sweet sound of Spanish guitar distracted tourists from admiring the cuckoo clocks in shop windows, causing them to stop with ice cream in hand, in order to watch a juggling act. The guitarist watched the juggler carefully, corresponding his chords with his partner’s fluid movements. Wedding bells rang through the town as I began the ascent up the 300 steps to the famous Schloss. Newly married couples had their photo taken here, with its charismatic backdrop of the town and River Neckar. Even cloudy skies couldn’t dim the glow of this place.

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In the evening the sun came out. After casting a proud glance over the coverage of the Olympic swimming from London in my hostel’s bar, I ventured outside for a walk. Everything smelled fresh after the late afternoon rain shower. Squelching sounds of trainers on the puddled path recurred as chatting couples jogged past. Upon reaching the central hub of town, the activity picked up: boys and girls flirted over a game of volleyball; children charged around the water fountain, shrieking wildly in their swimsuits; elderly men and women chatted on benches, walking sticks by their sides, as middle-aged couples walked past hand-in-hand. The sun dazzled off the surface of the River Neckar and enclosed the Schloss in a perfect bubble of radiance. Groups of swans gathered together under the bridge near the river bank, before gliding off together towards the glittering path laid by the sun on the water, its cheeky twinkle promising excitement. They joined a sole rower slowly oozing his way down the river, his oars making faint ripples in the peaceful water. Topless boys on mopeds rode over the bridge, beeping at girls in short shorts in a way that made one laugh rather than feel repulsed. There was an infectious energy in the town, playful and cute.

Warmth from the evening sun on my skin made me feel relaxed and animated at the same time. I felt glad to be alone just so I could watch all the different people doing their different things, wanting to absorb all the activity around me. The moped boys came round on another loop of the bridge, whistling and calling out to the giggling girls. Normally I would have ignored them or made a face; tonight if they had offered I would have jumped on the back and rode off with them around town. It was that kind of evening – the ones that make you wish it could be summer all year round, when the sun is out and it feels like anything could happen.

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A day later I was in Mainz. On paper it’s pretty similar to Heidelberg – another river town that attracts plenty of tourists, runners and cyclists. But here I felt a completely different set of emotions altogether. An evening run took me through the Volkspark with its pretty flowerbeds and along the bank of the Rhine. Couples sat on the steps kissing, or snuggled up looking over the railings into the river. I crossed the Theodor-Heuss Bridge onto the other side, where the cosy couples continued. As my legs began to grow more weary, so did my patience. Suddenly it was no longer sweet and touching to see these scenes of affection. My shoulders were sagging as I reached the former Kaiserbrücke. Padlocks dotted the partition between the railway bridge, souvenirs left by travellers and etched with love notes – S.A ❤ T.H – and so on. I stopped to read over them pensively, wondering what the love story was behind each one. Cyclists would occasionally ride past, but there would be no interaction this evening. I turned to lean my elbows on the railing, chin in hands as I watched the sun go down wistfully. As it fell lower in the sky so did my mood, until I’d dropped into a lonely state of melancholy, the most alone I’d felt in a long time. My thoughts drifted off with the river current, and I felt sad.

We’ve maybe all been there once, experiencing that moment when you suddenly realise something about that person: that person whose perfectly-sculpted face with the dimpled smile had mesmerised you for so long, giving you butterflies every time you saw them, to the extent that there were times you couldn’t look them in the eye for fear of blushing; whose hot and cold behaviour was always excused by you out of desire to believe they felt the same way, telling yourself that you could help motivate them to become a better person; that person who you had waited on for so many months, only to be repeatedly disappointed; someone whose company could be so magical, and yet leave behind a curse of confused questions. Finally there comes a time when you realise that you were completely deluded out of desperation, and they never really had felt the same way ever. Your feelings had been governed by a vision rather than by reality. You realise how humiliatingly and obviously un-reciprocal the whole affair was. Then you think of the people in the past who actually did care, whose friendship you had possibly sacrificed because of your obsession with this other person who was so emotionally unavailable. And now, that loyal friend was perhaps no longer available either, just when you would have truly cherished their company.

I stood gazing down into the water lost in my thoughts. Suddenly a lone swan glided out from underneath the bridge, as if it had been left by its friends back in Heidelberg and come wandering upland on its own. It was a pitiful scene – a bit like those drippy ones in American films where the guy/girl has just been left by their loved one and everyone seems to ‘have someone’ apart from them. I wanted to laugh and cry at the fact that my state of being was essentially being portrayed by a swan. Any minute now someone would probably come up and implore me not to jump. I decided to leave before things got too ridiculous…

The next morning I felt completely fine again, as if I’d been spring-cleaned of some dusty, lingering substance by an emotion that had arisen purely from the environment around me. A long-awaited cleansing. Funny how two similar places can arouse completely different emotions in someone, with no apparent warning. Rivers are continuously flowing and changing direction, just like romance. It’s the extreme emotions on either side of the water that people look for, or run away from. People cross the bridges over rivers in search of a new direction to follow, or to return back to something out of need. The river below contains the memories that people try to ignore or forget about, because of the uncertainty that they create. When you’re alone and stop halfway over the bridge and look down, you might find that they come back to you unexpectedly. There and then can you finally confront the feelings that you’ve been repressing. And after you do, the current of life will carry on as normal. It will possibly be one of the most valuable experiences of loneliness and sombreness that you’ve ever felt.

Saturday Nights in Hamburg

One of the first words that springs to mind when one thinks of Germany is ‘Oktoberfest’. The world-famous festival brings natives and tourists alike to Munich to engage in plenty of dirndl-donning, beer-drinking and würst-eating. In the past few days, friends in Germany have been filling my Facebook newsfeed with updates about and photos of the festivities. Apart from making me feel extremely jealous, these posts also brought back memories of just how fun partying in Germany can be.

But for once, Berlin is not the destination of topic. Whilst the capital may boast a circus of energetic youth, Hamburg is actually regarded by many Germans as the country’s best city. And after spending a week there in July 2012, I can see why. Situated on the River Elbe in the north, this city has many options to help ensure that during a summer visit, you have a memorable(?) Saturday evening.

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 If the weather is good, a perfect place to start your Saturday evening in Hamburg is at a river-beach bar, such as StrandPauli. Sand and rustic umbrellas created an authentic setting and the youthful summer vibe was completed by a sound system playing the likes of MGMT and Empire of the Sun. Guys on deck chairs nudged their mates in the direction of groups of girls gossiping over glasses of sparkling rhubarb punch, daring each other to go over. Order a bottle of the refreshingly fruity Schöfferhofer Weizen-Mix, pop your shades on and your feet up, and you’ll forget that you’re actually in a city…

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Around 7pm, get rid of your hunger pangs by sampling some German cuisine. ‘Frank und Frei’ is situated near the Sternschanze S-bahn directly north of StrandPauli. This laid-back mixture of a pub and restaurant had plenty of outdoor seating, and you might even make friends with a local cat or two…Flammkuchen was one of the specialities – it’s a bit like pizza but with a thinner base and no tomato sauce. Cheese and pear were a great combination.

A trip to Planten un Blomen is a must on a Saturday evening in summer. If you carry on along the S-bahn and exit at Dammtor, the beacon of Heinrich Hertz Turm will guide you the short way to the beautiful park, home to a flurry of flower-beds showing all kinds of colours. A large pond sits in the middle of the grounds, complete with a little family of ducks. Every evening in the summer season, columns of water illuminated with different colours are projected from a machine beneath this pond in time to classical music. It’s a very enchanting performance. Visitors sit on the banks or stand, watching in respectful serenity. The tranquil environment that results from the combination of sounds and sights makes these outdoor concerts popular with all ages of people wishing to be serenaded after a busy day in the office, or as a treat for the family.

What’s particularly great about Planten un Blomen is that it’s free to enter, so you could enjoy the concerts every night, even in the rain. With its quintessential romantic setting, Planten un Blomen offers visitors the chance to enjoy both music and the outdoors in perfect harmony (pun intended). Bring a rug, some wine, and a date.

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I soon learned just how much variation Hamburg has to offer on that same night when I visited St Pauli, home of the Reeperbahn – Hamburg’s red light district. The streets were bustling with party people as women paraded around selling condoms and sex toys alongside clubs flashing ‘Table Dancers’ in bright lights above steamy windows. I’d joined up with an international youth camp for my visit. The male tour guide looked quite uncomfortable as a scantily-clad lady in a window beckoned him over…

The Reeperbahn is a popular choice for hen and stag-do parties, and I myself was approached in a bar by an English man out with a groom-to-be and friends, who greeted me with a cocky “Now my German isn’t great, but…” Awkward. The fact that 16 year olds are allowed in bars until 12 midnight could make this a potential cause for concern, but on the whole (ignoring the Herbertstrasse which prohibits all non-working women from entering) the area felt safe due to the large but not over-bearing police presence.

Along with offering various restaurants, clubs and all that other naughty stuff, the Reeperbahn is also home to a number of music venues where the Beatles used to perform before hitting the big time. One of them was the club Grosse Freiheit 36, situated right amongst all the street action. This could explain the large queues to get inside. A more intimate and chilled place to have drinks is Albers Bar. Located on the outside street of the Reeperbahn, this had a fun vibe inside, playing requests which included Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’. The super-chilled staff would sing along behind the bar as they made cocktails and drank shots with customers. I was handed a Pina Colada “with extra rum”.

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The U-Bahn conveniently runs until 3 a.m. which made a nice change from London’s 12 midnight deadline, and I was able to walk back in the dark alone from Altona station to my accommodation with no problems. If you wake on Sunday morning feeling unsatisfied with your antics from the night before, you can head down to the Fischmarkt situated just below Langdungsbrϋcken. I arrived just as the stalls were clearing up, although the smell still lingered…Evidently this is the place where the hardcore party-lovers stumble to at 5 a.m. in the morning to complete the “hair of the dog” in the Fischauktionshalle, which also shows live music.

My Saturday night in Hamburg provided so many different experiences, each of which brought a fresh new mood to the evening. Whether you’re looking for peace and romance or parties and risqué fun, Hamburg is guaranteed to have something up your street, whatever colour of light is your favourite…

Good Things Come in Small Packages | Reykjavík Culture Night

If you were to ask an eight year old where Iceland is, they would probably start giving you directions to their nearest supermarket branch. Realistically, Iceland is a country that many people of my generation probably didn’t think about that much until the infamous 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (I’ve officially learnt how to pronounce it properly), angry that it had cancelled their family holiday. Apart from that though, they would probably know little else about what goes on in this weird and wonderful land, or the name of the capital for that matter (it’s Reykjavík by the way, meaning ‘Smoky Bay’). Only recently whilst here did I hear from a lady about how when visiting Alton Towers in England some years ago, she was unimpressed to see that Eskimo people had been drawn on a world map to represent Iceland. And yet in a country that has around 320,000 inhabitants compared to the 60 million or so of the UK, it might be easy to assume that Icelanders live a basic life off the land, where fishing is classed as a party.

If a Londoner was to visit Reykjavík, they wouldn’t even class it as a city. There is no underground system and there are no skyscrapers; no smelly fumes and sounds of beeping as taxi drivers yell at each other; and no huge crowds of people in high heels and fancy suits dominating the pavements as they rush off to work, talking too loudly on their mobile. The word ‘capital’ does not apply here – try ‘simplicity’ instead. Capital of a country deeply affected by the 2008 global recession, Reykjavík can be described as a timid child, reluctant to follow in the footsteps of other big and bold European cities. But if you visit Reykjavík on its annual Culture Night (Menningarnótt), you will see a very different side to the city, when the shy child comes out to play. It’s a side that shows you don’t need millions of people and a load of money to show just how vibrant your country’s culture is.

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I’ve spent the second week of my trip to Iceland doing a help-exchange with a family who live in the capital. On Saturday August 24th my host bought me a copy of the ‘Reykjavík Grapevine’ – a magazine written in English for tourists to find out the latest news and events in the capital. Three of its pages were filled with free events going on all day as part of the cultural celebrations. I highlighted those I was interested in seeing, getting giddy with excitement when I saw that one event included the chance to ride around on the back of a Harley Davidson…unfortunately I would be too late to make that though. The list of options seemed endless: dressing up in vintage costumes; wood carving classes; make-your-own-Viking soap demonstrations; photography exhibitions; boat-making workshops; Icelandic calligraphy lessons; poetry readings and outdoor concerts. My host played me some Icelandic songs as I read the magazine. One band was called ‘Retro Stefson’ and one member had been in her eldest daughter’s class at school.

The family and I packed our umbrellas ready for the rain and squeezed onto a bus heading downtown. They were running for free today and took us on a slight detour as the roads were closed of traffic. Red bunting draped from the trees as we walked along Laugevegur, brimming with people consulting the events list. Soon we heard the sounds of a drum beating behind us as a group of men and women dressed as Vikings marched along the road. A policeman on a motorbike followed behind, stopping to flash a thumbs up at a little boy dressed in a Superman costume.

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Smells of raspberries and chocolate sauce greeted us as we walked off the main street. Certain houses were offering waffles to passers-by for free and my host’s eight year old son shyly approached the table to ask for one. After managing to avoid a second helping we went to my host’s cousin’s house to set up for a second-hand sale. As we stuck poles into the ground to set up a tent, the cousin’s three year old son pranced around in the garden, showing off the medal he’d received for walking 5km in the city’s marathon that morning. A small Icelandic flag hung from the porch steps.

Guys in their mid-twenties in skinny jeans flocked to see my host’s collection of old records, jokily reminiscing with her when they saw the likes of Duran Duran and Wham!. Elderly ladies next to them nosied over the shoe collection, whilst pram-pushers gazed with interest at children’s books and an old Karate kit. My host asked me to swap a 1000krona note for some change, so I jumped into the hustle and bustle of the main street once more. The sweet shop was packed with little children wearing face paint and begging their parents for treats. On the way back, salsa music began to fill the air and people gathered to form a circle as a couple danced in the middle, before grabbing others from the crowd. “That’s my teacher!” my host’s 15 year old daughter exclaimed with embarrassment. Teenage boys on bikes stopped to watch then blushed as they were called to join in.

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The atmosphere was alive with anticipation and excitement. As I went off for a wander alone, people were walking around with a purpose that I hadn’t seen before whilst here. Choir singing sounded from the Hallgrímskirkja, the large Church, and provided a calming comfort from the wet weather. I walked down to the Skúlagata near the harbour, passing groups of people coming to and from the Harpa, the big music hall. The ladies looked like they were attending a fashion show, heels clacking on the concrete as they paraded through town in their woolen coats without a care about the rain. They clearly saw the day as an opportunity to dress up and put on a show. Forget Paris or Milan, today it was time for Icelandic women to hog the limelight.

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I walked up from the harbour with no idea where I was going or what I was heading towards. It didn’t seem to matter – there was something going on everywhere. To my right I saw a stage being set up, and a small crowd of people stood around chatting with friends as they waited for the gig to start. Suddenly I spotted one of the guys from the music video my host had shown me that morning – a lucky coincidence! As the music began the size of the crowd increased until it had formed a mosh pit of umbrellas. People of all ages came to watch, standing on the grass banks and making space for others. A group of pram-pushers gathered in one corner, chattering away. The singer motioned for everyone to jump up and down, and children and adults alike joined in. You couldn’t help but smile seeing it. The music was so youthful but it was as if all the parents felt like they were 16 again, and yet nobody was embarrassed by their behaviour.

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Back at my host’s cousin’s house they were grilling steaks. We turned the TV on to watch the 10 Year Anniversary Concert of one of the country’s main radio stations. It was being held ten minutes down the road but we didn’t fancy standing in the rain. “Ahh I hate these presenters!” my host said indignantly, as a pair resembling the Icelandic version of Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby came on our screens. Then a band came on that were popular when she was a teenager and she sang along happily again as a greying singer attempted some sort of hip motion that he soon looked to regret.

Around 10.30pm, we set off through the rain to go and see the fireworks that would be held near the concert venue. People swarmed through the streets like a bunch of crazy flies and I got caught in a web of laughing and shouting as people lost their friends in the crowd. Little boys almost took me out as they sped through the streets on their scooters, hyper from the candy floss that had been selling all day. Suddenly dance music filled my ears and I saw a  massive group of people in front of me having a random rave in the middle of the street without a care in the world about what they looked like. ‘This…is…mental,’ I thought to myself, as I almost got my eye poked out by someone’s umbrella.

A huge mass of people was gathered on the grass above the concert stage, some of them dancing around the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, the first official Icelander to settle in Reykjavík. It felt like the whole population of the city had gathered there, determined not to let the rain put them off. 99% of everyone there seemed to be wearing Icelandic jumpers with their lovely striking patterns, as if wanting to show pride in their country and its native products. Children perched on their dad’s shoulders and couples snuggled up under their umbrellas. A boy came round handing out free sparklers to young children, and in the light they cast you could see the sparkle spread to their eyes. Then the music stopped and everyone chattered in low voices excitedly, only to gasp as the sky lit up with a stream of red. And then green. And gold. And purple. Then they rocketed into the sky behind us and everyone turned around in fascination, mouths wide open like little kids in front of a sweet shop.

The fireworks lasted ten minutes, and then at ten past 11 it was time to go home. The buses were still free and extra services were being offered from the airport coach terminal. Hoards of people trudged through the puddles in the same direction, absent-mindedly kicking the occasional beer can as they cheerily reviewed the evening with their peers. Suddenly I felt freezing cold. The energy of everyone around me had warmed me up before, and now I was feeling exhausted, as if the batteries had run out with the last screech and bang of a firecracker.

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We squeezed on a bus that soon got caught in a traffic jam – a rare sight in Reykjavík – watching as people clambered into their cars, some of them probably still drunk. Finally we got moving, only for me to wince as someone trod on my foot, losing their balance after the bus jerked to a sudden halt for another jam. Then I heard a retching noise behind me and looked back to see a girl my age in ripped tights slumped in her seat, vomit on the seat in front of her. Her boyfriend mumbled “takk fyrir” sheepishly as some people handed him tissues, with kids making “urghh” noises. We got off the bus with me breathing a sigh of relief, ready for my warm bed.

 

But as I lay snug under my covers, picturing that poor girl with her head down a toilet, I couldn’t help but smile thinking back over the day’s events. For such a small city, Reykjavík sure knows how to throw a big party and what it lacks in human numbers it definitely makes up for in its giant character. There was something refreshing about seeing people of all ages take part in events together – a genuine sense of community spirit as the people proudly showed off Iceland’s origins and trademark features. The culture night was for everyone, with all interests recognised and catered for. I have no idea how much putting on all the events during the day will have cost, but there was definitely a big voluntary aspect involved, and much co-operation between different organisations and societies, all with the aim of making people, Icelandic and foreign, have a good time.

It made me wonder how often you can use the word ‘community’ when talking about London, or England and the UK as a whole. It seems that the closest our country gets to a united national celebration is when Liz has reached another Jubilee or the royal baby has popped out, but even then these aren’t events that everybody is willing to celebrate. Yes, the 2012 Olympics were a great cause for celebration, but why should we have to wait four years for something to celebrate as a nation, and why should it just have to come from sport?  Danny Boyle’s one-off Olympic Opening Ceremony display is essentially the kind of thing that Icelanders celebrate every year – the historical stories and cultural traits that make the country what it is. You can’t just blame Alec Salmond or Plaid Cymru for our lack of cultural celebration – if we’re just talking about England, does anyone even remember when St George’s Day is, never mind do anything about it?

The only thing England seems to have over Iceland in relation to national celebrations is a bit more money to spend on them. Snobs could say that the firework display in Reykjavík was too short and nothing spectacular in comparison to our annual New Year’s Eve display, but that’s not important. I’m not Icelandic and yet even I could immerse myself in the community spirit. Even without fireworks, there would have been enough pride and happiness in the small city that night to light up the whole sky.

And so next time you want to poke fun at this sparse island for only being good for puffin-eating and shutting down European air travel, go along to Culture Night and see for yourself how actually, Icelanders have a lot more to laugh about.

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Details of the event can be found here.