Tag Archives: Graffiti

Travel Guide: Bratislava

Bratislava marked the end of my winter adventure through Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia (with a brief stop in Italy). By the time I got there, I was used to the cold and the short daylight hours and I was also very glad to meet up with a friend the day after I arrived.

One of the important things I learned on this trip is that driving in Europe requires a vignette, basically a road pricing sticker that includes road tax and can vary based on roads driven and distance. The cost of a vignette is quite reasonable but the fine for not having one is rather steep. Turns out I’d been pretty lucky because I didn’t learn this until I’d been driving around for five days. After buying an online vignette for Slovakia, one of the few countries that allows this, I took back roads out of Maribor back into Austria. As I drove through a vineyard on a road with one and a half lanes, a border official waved and that was it. I do very much like this about Europe. Shortly afterwards, I stopped to look around.

The winding, twisting, narrow roads led into small towns with winery after winery, each clearly visible on the surrounding hills. Thinking of the lives that had been built here gave me pause.

Getting to Bratislava was simple but getting into Bratislava was a little more complicated and I marvelled at how people had navigated before technology. I was more than happy to park the car and leave it for the next two days. Getting around Bratislava on foot is very easy and there’s extensive public transportation.

I was staying across the street from Bratislava Castle, the grounds of which are open at all times. I walked through it that afternoon and again the following morning.

Bratislava Castle was first built in the ninth century but the current version was rebuilt beginning in the 1950s. Today, there are museums that are open to the public, as well. I was more interested in the garden . . .

. . . and the churches and other buildings located just down the hill. There were real signs of life and ideas here, which I always enjoy seeing.

I took a quick walk through town to get my bearings, surprised at how very few people were around. I was also surprised at the number of hipster establishments that didn’t seem to match the atmosphere. The streets were really quiet and the sky, no longer the bright blue of Slovenia, gave the city a feel of being tucked into winter. Although I couldn’t tell you why, I got the impression that Bratislava could be a very stark place and it did not feel like anywhere I’d been before.

The UFO bridge certainly added to that impression.

But then I stepped inside a brewery (and then another one . . . and then another two the next day) and I found all the people. They were laughing and talking and joking and almost no one was looking at their phones. This was very, very different from what I see in Asia and I felt suddenly warmer for being around people who were interacting with each other and the space around them.

The following day was one of walking and wandering. I met up with a friend and it was great to have the company and to share this new experience. We walked through the old town and quarters of grand buildings . . .

. . . through the city to visit the Blue Church . . .

. . . and took a short walk from the Blue Church to the site of Bratislava’s only remaining synagogue.

Earlier that day, right next to St. Martin’s Cathedral in the old town, we’d seen an exhibit on the street about the synagogue of Bratislava that, despite protests by the community, had been torn down in the 1960s to build the UFO bridge. Bratislava has a long and extensive Jewish history and there were historical markers about it around the city, including a museum dedicated to Jewish culture.

We also walked across the Danube River . . .

. . . and found ourselves in a park that must have been a relic of Bratislava’s communist history. Imagine the stories these benches and trees could tell! Or the last people to sit here. Who are they? Where are they?

Just across the street from the Presidential Palace, we saw another relic of communism – a fountain that had once clearly been a showpiece but was also in disrepair.

Another notable element of walking around Bratislava was the graffiti tagging everywhere. I felt a real lack of reverence and desire to be heard and I liked that attitude very much. Things that have been needn’t always be. And Bratislava was a little bit of everything.

The next morning, it was time to go but I really wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Instead, the last day having a car made it possible to visit Devín Castle, a stone castle located 10km from Bratislava. It was built in the thirteenth century and was then destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s. The sun had come out again but the wind was really strong. It was easy to see why this castle had been built up on a windy hill at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.

Thanks to a photo exhibition, I learned that the Iron Curtain had run directly in front of the castle to separate Bratislava from Austria across the river. I knew that the Velvet Revolution, the history of which Bratislava is very proud, had toppled communism here but I didn’t know that the Iron Curtain was a physical structure. In school, we’d talked about it as a concept, not as something tangible. Learning about that was really powerful and reminded me again of how much I don’t know.

After the cold wind, the obvious choice was to stop for some hot wine once more before the last part of the journey, which would again follow Austrian wine roads because they’re so much prettier than the highway.

And then all too soon, the car was dropped off and I had far too much time to kill at the airport. As is my habit, I drank a hot chocolate and reflected on the roads travelled. I had seen parts of the world that I’d never really imagined seeing and I honestly felt the growth in myself as a person. When I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I never would have known how to go about a trip like this. And here I was with all clothing in my pack worn twice like it was nothing. It has been a long road to get to this point and that I cannot forget.

Sometimes the world feels right to me and over the last few weeks it had. There is solace in that feeling. There is solace in knowing there are places out there where the world feels okay. Thank you, world.

Travel Guide: Salzburg, Vienna, Leoben

Before dawn on New Year’s Day after a week in Switzerland, my parents and I took the train from Zurich to Salzburg. The trip itself was beautiful and everything I had hoped train travel through Europe would be. We journeyed through mountains, hills, trees and through increasing amounts of snow, but there was sunshine and blue skies the whole way.

Salzburg

I really, really enjoyed our afternoon in Salzburg and would have loved more time there to walk up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, or drive to Schloss Hellbrunn in the countryside. But now I have a reason to go back!

Salzburg was surrounded by water and, surprisingly to me, great stone cliffs that seemed to come up out of nowhere when we were walking through the old town.

As before, the walk through the old town took us past beautifully painted buildings and intricate architecture that just don’t exist anymore. I know that real people don’t live in these old towns, but they certainly are pretty. The narrow streets leading to large open squares in Salzburg are hilly, which means that church towers and other buildings just sort of peek out at you around corners.

But there are other parts of Salzburg that remind you that this is a real place where people live and I was glad to see that, too.

Mozart made his home in Salzburg and we visited Mozart Geburtshaus, Mozart’s birthplace, which is considered the more informative of the two Mozart houses. We learned a great deal about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his family (including a very talented sister!), and Austrian musical tradition and I was really impressed with the collection of artifacts and family papers. Music is a really important part of heritage here and classical music was playing through speakers throughout the old town in Salzburg, prompting a surprising amount of waltzing in the streets and in the squares. I kept expecting to see a live orchestra around each corner!

Like we’d seen across Switzerland, there were little Christmas markets and stands set up across the city.

We also stopped by the university church . . .

. . . and the Dom zu Salzburg, where we stopped to visit the church and to drink glühwein.

Vienna

The next morning was equally bright and sunny and we left fairly early for Vienna. We could have easily stayed another day in Salzburg and left for Vienna that night but something told me I’d want the time in Vienna. This turned out to be accurate and again, I really need to go back!

Vienna is beautiful. It’s beautiful and grand and opulent with wide streets and specially painted bike lanes. As soon as we saw the bike lanes next to the opera house, I knew that I would like Vienna very, very much. It was pretty at night, too.

The first thing we did, however, was walk a little ways out of the old town to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest food market. It’s part restaurants . . .

. . . and part food stalls . . .

. . . and part other goods.

My family loves markets and food, and we ate and drank and tasted and smelled for a good couple hours. I can only imagine how much busier it would have been on the weekend when the flea market is open, but I was really glad to have the chance to see some of the art painted on the closed stall fronts.

From there, we basically followed the streets brightly lit by Christmas lights. We wandered into a couple of Christmas markets and did some window shopping before stopping at the Austrian National Library. To warm up, we joined the long queue waiting to get inside. We were greeted by everything that creates the idea of a library – wooden bookshelves with the upper levels accessible by ladders, old books, vaulted painted ceilings. It was still cold inside, likely to keep the books in good condition, but so pretty that it didn’t matter.

We were also lucky to see an exhibit of Beethoven’s personal papers, including the program and score of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, which I have actually seen!

The next morning we followed a guided walk around Old Vienna and it took us down narrow, quiet streets to tiny squares with old, quiet churches.

There were also busy shopping streets and grand squares with opulent buildings and statues.

My dad and I climbed one of the towers of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and although it was cloudy, I was glad to see the view of Vienna from above. My spatial skills are mediocre so I appreciate actually being able to see the expanse of a city.

Fun fact: Vienna used to be a walled city! Our walking tour took us past the remnants of the old city walls.

This was the coldest day we’d had (it had actually snowed!) and we decided to spend the afternoon indoors. Along with many other visitors, we took shelter in the Leopold Museum to learn about Viennese art of the 1900s. The exhibition included painting, sculpture, furniture, and jewellery and I enjoyed learning about artists who were completely new to me. I also didn’t know anything about the impact World War I had had on Vienna; I think it’s important to understand the place where you are and I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about it. The importance of art was clear outside of the museum, as well.

That evening we went to a concert in St. Charles Church in which we were treated to a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and what I can only assume were other works by Vivaldi because nothing was actually explained. An opera singer featured for certain parts of the performance, too. The church was beautiful but one thing that didn’t occur to me when I bought tickets is that churches are not heated. I learned an important lesson when the ushers passed out blankets at the door!

Leoben

Mum and Dad flew back to Toronto the next day and I left Vienna to pick up the car I’d be driving for the next week. This was the point at which I had no plans. I knew where I’d be staying for the first two nights but the rest of the week was wide open and I was really excited for the adventure.

For example, I thought it might be fun to try cross-country skiing for the first time and planned to stay near a national park. The lack of snow meant I would hike instead, after getting over the initial delightful surprise of finding myself at a bed-and-breakfast up a goat track run by an elderly couple in what I think is their farmhouse. My German was almost as good as their English but everything went just fine.

Going from grand Vienna to the country was a drastic change but I was so glad to experience a small Austrian town.

I’ve been in a number of odd towns over time and Leoben certainly fit. It appeared that part of the old town had been torn down and a multiplex had been built instead to comprise the town’s entertainment. It contains a kebab shop, pizzeria that doubles as a bar, sushi restaurant, and movie theatre. Other than that, the town has five different grocery chains, a euro shop, three discount clothing stores, a couple furniture stores, a café/bar that did not sell food, and a sex shop. Gösser beer operations are located in Leoben, too. An adventure indeed!

The drizzle let up by the next morning, perfect weather for a drive to Slovenia!

Travel Guide: Montreal

During the annual summer trip to see our grandparents, my siblings and I had the chance to do a little exploring. My sister and I were born in Montreal but we moved when we were very young. We’ve been there somewhere around a million times to visit family but have rarely seen or experienced Montreal as a living, breathing city. It was great to have a chance to do so this time!

We spent our first afternoon in Old Montreal, charming with old buildings and architecture that makes it feel more European than particularly Canadian. French and English heritage are obvious in the signage, statues, and bustling activity of restaurants and sidewalk cafés.

Old Montreal is especially busy during the summer when the weather is warm and festivals are in full swing. (We were really excited to accidentally find ourselves at the Jazz Festival a little ways away!) There were street vendors selling everything from ice cream to jewellery and it was fun to look around. The restaurants were crowded with people enjoying the sun, and everyone we met was friendly and helpful.

As with many old cities, Montreal is located on the water. The Port of Montreal was full of people riding bikes, eating snacks, shopping for souvenirs, and celebrating Canada Day.

The Port of Montreal even has its own flag, which unfortunately didn’t photograph as well as I would have liked.

From left to right are the flags of Canada, Quebec, Montreal, and the Port of Montreal

We had dinner as a family to celebrate my grandparents’ anniversary. It was so normal – grandparents, uncle, aunt, and grandchildren all in one place! – and spent the evening laughing as our grandparents reminisced about their 61 years together and the spaghetti dinners they used to buy for 69 cents. 69 cents!

After breakfast the next morning, we the children went off to Jean-Talon Market where none of us had ever been. As you know, I love markets anywhere and my travelling companions felt the same way. We loved the fresh and local produce . . .

. . . herbs and flowers . . .

. . . and speciality shops and prepared foods.

There was even a cookbook bookstore!

I would have loved to do some shopping and cooking but we had other plans for the day and they were not to be missed. Rather than eating at the market we headed for Schwartz’s, a Montreal institution located on the popular Saint-Laurent Boulevard not too far from McGill University. In my limited excursions around Montreal, I’ve been to Schwartz’s more than a few times, which should indicate its prestige in the eyes of my family. They serve smoked meat sandwiches on rye bread with mustard and various sides like fries, coleslaw, and pickles. And that’s about it. (The Wikipedia page has a bit more information.) After waiting in the ever-present line out of the door, this vegetarian even ate half a piece of smoked meat!

We spent the rest of the afternoon continuing our walk through the neighborhood between Schwartz’s and McGill. We visited campus and then followed the street art through the main shopping area of downtown. Like markets, I love street art anywhere in the world and it was fun to get a sense of the cultural life of Montreal.

I was also very excited to see signs of community engagement in the painted piano sitting out for anyone to play and a very cool ground mural marked with the best spot for a photo.

Considering how little time I’ve spent in the city of my birth, it was really lovely to do some exploring. I got a sense of the city’s geography and can now better understand the streets that my grandparents and parents mention in conversation. I was able to practice a little bit of French and enjoyed being somewhere simultaneously a little bit familiar and quite a bit new. And, of course, it was great to see my family. It always is.