“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain ’til you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
– Jack Kerouac
I sit here with a thousand words inside me, and a thousand more memories on top, all bubbling away and zipping about, weaving themselves together in some sort of attempt to make chronological sense of the past three weeks, desperate in their endeavours to not be forgotten. I don’t know where or how to begin, as I sit here, freshly back from the trip of a lifetime, my regular world a stark contrast to the fantasy I was just lucky enough to experience. I left stressed, lonely, and hopeful. I return with a heap of new friends I grew to love dearly, memories of labyrinths and gas lamps, vast skyscapes, breathtaking architecture, soul-wrenching emotion, near-kidnappings, film festivals held on the walls of minsters, giant underground cathedrals, haunted houses, ruins turned into a bohemian revolution, the actual Moulin Rouge, epic EDM dance parties in enormous thermal baths with lasers in the sky, friendship, highs, lows, stories you couldn’t possibly make up, and the ultimate in adventure.
Our time began in Amsterdam, where we’d planned on spending a night before heading over to join our Contiki group in Berlin the next day. Thanks to a bit of a cock-up at the Winnipeg end, our luggage didn’t make it off the plane with us, so we had to stay at the airport for a while trying to explain that our bags would also like to spend the night. Exhausted and eventually with suitcases in hand, we made our way to the hotel, which thankfully wasn’t too far away. After a bit of a nap, we realised we only had a few hours left in this beautiful city – so we did what any newly-on-holiday person would do and head out to the Heineken factory! The tour was fantastic (as was getting free beer for trivia), and we hit the streets (packed due to it being Pride day) in search of the I amsterdam sign to be massive tourists with. We walked through the city, stopping briefly as I was overwhelmed with deja-vu: I don’t often remember my dreams at all, but a recurring one I’ve had for years involves a rapid descent through a castle being chased by robots and escaping into a town square covered in cobblestones by a clock tower – the very place I found myself in that night in real life. It was bizarre enough to move me to tears. After snapping some photos, we found and climbed all over the sign, and went for a lovely dinner by a canal.
Our first adventure came that night when we found ourselves separated on the streets of Amsterdam – unable to find J. and with no telephone on me, I tried for a while to hail a taxi, none of which would stop, and being me, promptly burst into a fit of tears. Eventually a man came up to me and asked what was wrong – and in my panic, “don’t go with strangers in a strange city in the middle of the night” won over “you can do this”, and I followed this man, who kept assuring me he was taking me to the spot the taxis stopped. Knowing nothing about Holland but clogs, tulips and bicycles (none of which were available to help me get out of my predicament), I figured maybe there was some sort of taxi central, but after forty minutes walking around with him asking me if I wanted to drink wine or smoke pot with him (and occasionally asking people for money), we ended in an alleyway. Still sobbing, and at this point terrified, I told him I didn’t think the cabs came there, and that I was going to go and wait in the road. I ran. I ran fast. I hailed the first car I saw and hoped desperately the driver would know where my hotel was. Miracle of miracles, he did, I had enough money for it, and I arrived to find J. safe in bed. Lesson learned: NEVER wander off in strange cities in the middle of the night. Never go with strangers, never forget your phone, and always, always remember how lucky you are to have someone that cares about you. Never let them go.
So our time in Amsterdam was brief, but we head onward to Berlin the next morning to meet up with the fifty-two people that would become our best friends for the next two weeks. We had a couple of hours to kill before the official group meetup, so we found a very German sounding restaurant named Andy’s and sat with a pitcher of beer in the sun, making each other laugh and sneaking video clips of each other answering impromptu philosophical questions. After changing and heading to the hotel, I met a girl I knew instantly was going to be an amazing friend. She ran up to me and introduced herself as “Jackie, like Chan”, and said how she’d been following my stuff on Facebook and “had to meet this girl”. She was lively, bubbly, full of hugs, dance moves, and good vibes, and we became fast friends. Getting to know 50+ people didn’t take long at all, and over a traditional German dinner, very quickly, very good friends were made.
The next day we went on a walking tour of Berlin in the beginning of what proved to be a giant European heatwave. We saw the Brandenburg gate, street art, grabbed some currywurst, almost made it onto a hot air balloon, took in the Berlin wall (where I cried at a message of love graffiti’d on it), and head out that evening to two German bars. The first didn’t last long, as it was basically in a boiling hot, airless room, but the second was surrounded by deckchairs in the park under the stars. The next morning, we went along the East Side Gallery (longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall), and headed on to beautiful Dresden, which was stunning. The town had been completely rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II, and was full of beautiful, baroque-type buildings. We climbed a tower, took in the views, and head across the border into the Czech Republic.
I must say Prague was the city I was most looking forward to, but it didn’t even end up making my shortlist of favourites. It was absolutely stunning, but it was also packed with people who don’t move and shove you out of the way, scary traffic, pickpockets (luckily we were safe), and in a case of horrible timing, my PMS followed by two entire weeks of ‘that time of the month’ (two months ago I’d had a miscarriage – something I don’t want to go into; but my hormones were definitely all over the place) in addition to heightened emotions and heat exhaustion led to a big fight I read too much into and almost wanted to drop it all and go home. After a difficult night, neither of us wanted to miss out on getting up to see the sunrise over Charles Bridge, and we rose at about 5:00 to walk through beautiful parks and cobblestoned streets to catch the skies over the city bursting with colour. That morning, we joined the group for a bike tour through the city – which was absolutely wonderful! We learned so much, saw gothic cathedrals, began our adventures in speed photography, and spent some time in the beautiful old town square, where historic buildings and churches surrounded cafes that spilled out onto the streets. Here we had quite possibly the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life – at Coyote’s of all places!! We toured a nuclear bunker, dressed up in gas masks, and spent the evening with the rest of the group at a traditional Czech restaurant, where I bonded closely with a beautiful girl named Irene, shared drinks with new friends, and watched some fun dancing and games.
Next up was back on the road toward Vienna, with an amazing pitstop at the Sedlec Ossuary – something I’ve wanted to see my entire life!! I’d always imagined it bigger, but it was a smallish chapel basically built with the bones of over 40,000 people arranged to form chandeliers and decorations inside. Nothing can describe what it was like to be surrounded by such immense beauty made purely of human bones. When we got to Vienna, we stopped at the beautiful Schönbrunn Palace for a quick jaunt and some fun group photos, and then head off toward the Schnaps Museum for a fun tour and lots of tasting 🙂 That night we were dropped off at the city’s Rathaus (city hall) – a stunning gothic cathedral upon which had been hung an enormous projection screen, surrounded by rows upon rows of seats. It happened to be the Vienna Film Festival, and we had our pick of glorious food and drinks from an open-air eatery to enjoy it with. Afterward, a dream was realised: when J. and I booked this trip, we realised we would have the opportunity to live a Frank Turner lyric (the song this post is named after, the one I dedicated to my busmates, and the one I’ll attach to the video I’ll be making of the whole trip) and “drink with drifters in Vienna” – we all went down by the riverside and sat by the water enjoying a beer. Amazing 🙂
The next day was a much welcomed free day – so a small group of us joined forces and began the day at a very fancy cafe, trying out their famous cake (I can’t remember what it was called, but it was VERY chocolatey!) and cream-filled, wafer-covered ice coffees. We went to the Sisi Museum at the Hofburg Palace, which moved me once again to tears – I’d never heard of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (“Sisi”) before, but her tale and her writings were so tragic they tugged at my heart. Here, as I read quotes of hers in big letters across the walls, I vowed to write a song about this character – a carefree young girl who was thrust into the spotlight at fifteen years old, marrying a king who loved her unconditionally, living in splendour, yet eternally searching for some unattainable solace, miserable, and yearning for death… eventually assassinated in the late 19th century. Having in the past been in some very dark places, her words of such beauty and loneliness struck a chord, and I bought the only English book available on her and her writing. Our group lay on the grass in the palace grounds, taking photos (myself getting a massive bruise I ended up rather proud of after launching myself into the air and tripping trying to take a group shot), sharing stories and lots of laughs, and from here we went into town to climb over 300 steps in blistering heat to the top of a tower. Totally worth it! We found a pretty little tea house close by and grabbed a bite and a beer, and J. and I celebrated our half-year together by going on an adventure, finding a wonderfully creative restaurant with a big sign saying “we’re all mad here” on the outside (throwback to Fringe festival last month!), had epic conversations and pizza, and reconvened with the group as they btook us to Prater amusement park to end the night, where we rode rollercoasters, and I shot myself into the sky with Jackie on a giant slingshot. It was brilliant.
Next up, we headed for what became my other favourite city, Budapest, stopping in Bratislava, Slovakia on the way. Again, words fail to do justice to just how incredible Budapest was. This was the city going into the trip I knew the least about, but became the one that stole my heart. I had no idea it was two cities rolled into one; Buda and Pest sit on different sides of the river Danube and brought a fusion of exotic romanticism filled with architecture, castles, parties and adventure. By night we first went on a sightseeing tour, getting a spectacular view of the entire city, and taking in the royal palace. Then came a highlight: a dinner cruise down the river, seeing the city completely aglow from the water as we ate a feast of local specialities. At first we thought perhaps birds were circling a giant cathedral, lit up in gold, but we soon realised they were bats as we stood on the bow of the boat in each other’s arms. It was nothing short of magical. Before we left, J. and I had hoped we’d have time to visit the thermal baths in the city – little did we know that the one night we were there just so happened to transform these baths into a massive EDM dance party!! “Sparty” (terrible name, but I bet whoever came up with it was high-fiving himself pretty hard, haha)… how does one go about describing Sparty? The Széchenyi Baths are the largest in all of Europe, its water supplied by two thermal springs. Usually, people flock to the waters for their “healing” properties – but this time, people showed up by the hundredfold to party. I’ve never seen anything like it. Great music, cheap drinks, fireworks, and a laser light show that created 3D objects in the sky and made you feel like you were in the Matrix… all in the warm water while under the stars. This was an experience I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
Not too many people made it up in the morning for the walking tour, but around 11:00 we all started filtering out of our hotel rooms and into the corridors, where a small group of us teamed up and went on a mission to find a beer bike we’d seen the night before. These bikes can sit up to eighteen people, with ten sets of pedals. Everyone teams up together and drives the bike around the city with the assistance of one guide, whose responsibility it is supposedly to stop the bike ending up in a ditch or the river, as it’s also attached to kegs of beer and an unlimited supply! We were slightly disheartened when we found them all booked up, but lucked out when we found one on its lunch break, whose operator agreed to let us hop on for 45 minutes. It was perfect – we made it about halfway through the town square, haha, but enjoyed just being in such a beautiful part of town (Hero Square), relaxing in the sun in amazing company, then wandering through parks and learning about Dracula. We’d heard rumours that the labyrinth under the castle was de-illuminated after six p.m., and that it was still open for exploration for another hour afterward… by gas lantern. How could we resist?! We showed up at the castle only to find another handful of friends, and together we went down into the Labirintus on the adventure of my dreams. Lamps in hand, we went through sprawling dark hallways, thankful for the cool air and slightly terrified we weren’t going to get out. We took turns being tour guide (J.’s tales of Dracula in the best Schwarzenegger voice I’ve ever heard went down brilliantly), kissed in cages, and visited torture chambers, caves and cellars 16 metres under the ground. My love for these people grew so incredibly much as the trip went on, and I find myself so sad today wondering why some of the world’s best people must be so far away.
That night, we went to an incredible place called Szimpla: the”ruin pubs,” a cult bohemian open-air collection of bars through which we roamed, marvelling (and trying not to collapse in 40-degree heat!) at the bric-a-brac-erie, the Christmas lights strung haphazardly across walls and tree branches, the live bands, the DJ who commanded a simultaneous spirit of chill and excitement, the various paraphernalia that adorned doors and walls, seating made from old bathtubs with mattresses in them and fairy-lit bicycles strung from the ceilings. We had what became my new favourite drink but escaped relatively early due to the heat.
Szimpla Kert in Budapest
After leaving this beautiful place, we found ourselves en route to Poland, where the entire coach took part in a music quiz (which we won hands down! Thank you, useless ’90s pop knowledge!), stopping briefly in Banská Bystrica. We were soon in Krakow, and first thing in the morning, explored (and got stuck in) the Wieliczka salt mines, once again heading underground into a labyrinth of tunnels, licking salt off the walls (Anthony: “So where’d they get the salt from?”) and learning about the oldest mine in the world. This place was incredible: we saw dozens of statues carved out of rock salt by the miners (including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose words make up a portion of my text tattoo) as well as several underground chapels complete with chandeliers. It was stunning, and the size of it too immense to begin to describe. Our small group of adventurers got separated from everybody else somehow, and we found ourselves not on the lift for normal people up to the exit, but squeezed in through a gate onto what felt like some kind of coal chute, shot back up to the surface. We grabbed food (I never want to see another sausage again) and danced in sprinklers in the heat until finally everyone was together again.
Krakow was also the place we were determined to discover something called Lost Souls Alley – definitely not on the tour, but ranking hugely high on TripAdvisor! Escape rooms these days are all the rage (and with good reason), but imagine one located in a haunted house instead, at the end of an alley where your two choices were either strip club to the left or screaming and chainsaws coming from upstairs. Unfortunately they only had a single slot open that day and could only take up to eight people – so after feeding pigeons and splashing around in the beautiful market square, the most dedicated of us head over to the alley itself. Solving puzzles while being chased by monsters through room after room of absolute terror? Brilliant. We emerged alive, and went on to join the rest of the group for a traditional perogy dinner. I believe Krakow was also the place of the $1 shot bar… after our friend Danny bought at least a hundred, I’m pretty sure we’re all either barred for life or we’ll go back to find they’ve erected a statue of him. This may also have been Warsaw. I’m getting my Polish lines a little blurred.
Quick sidenote: Poland was where I had to make an emergency stop for hair dye after Sparty destroyed all the beautiful purple in my hair and turned it grey! Do not buy hair dye in Poland! It does not come with all the supplies you’ll need, and your choices will be one of three. I grabbed the red one and ended up having to mix it with my own hands in the hotel sink and plop it on my head, hoping for the best. Rescue mission to come.
On our penultimate day, we found ourselves in the actual Auschwitz concentration camps. What to say about this place? It seems wrong to even utter words, instead taking the time to reflect once again on the horrors that took place in these factories of death. I walked past barbed wire, listening to our tour guide tell horrific tales of what could have easily happened to me or you had we been born in a different place at a different time. I saw endless shoes, spectacles, and luggage, stolen from real people who were gassed and burned. I walked through gas chambers and read about the experiments, and walked down hallways of photographs of those that lost their lives. Labourers. Hairdressers. Students. Ordinary people. I cried silently as the tortures were described, imagining there could be nothing more terrible than this happening to someone I love. These people were loved. And they were killed. My choice in atheism was affirmed again in this place: the religious among us may wonder where was God at this time of evil. The rest of us may wonder where was man. As we walked toward Auschwitz II (Birkenau), I told J. that when I got home, it was going to be so difficult taking part in our normal again. Seeing people complain on Facebook. Filling out spreadsheets. Things that, compared to these atrocities of broken bodies and deadened hearts, of faces without names whose souls reached for the sky as their physical shells of bodies plummeted into ash, mean nothing at all. Nobody deserves to suffer, but nothing could possibly be anything close to what happened in that true nightmare of history. Be so, so very thankful for the life you have today.
Last on our Contiki tour was Warsaw, and by this point most everybody was running out of steam and getting the dreaded Contiki Cough, yet all were filled with an eagerness to spend as much of the little time left we had together. We spent the day eating perogies, wandering through a magic garden, enjoying a beer in the sun and packing up before heading out for one last night with our new friends. We feasted, we drank, we danced, we embraced, and we all got up bright an early to say our teary goodbyes. I can’t handle goodbyes at the best of times, but when you’ve seen some of the most brilliant sights the world has to offer with these people, danced under the stars, sailed down rivers, launched yourself into the sky, got lost in labyrinths and witnessed the brilliance of human imagination as well as the madness of a man who changed history forever… when you spend every waking moment with these wonderful souls, these fellow dreamers, travellers, explorers and adventurers who flock from across the globe… you truly do leave a piece of your heart with each and every one of them. Saying goodbye was the acknowledgement that those pieces had shone brighter than ever, and as they splintered off back to their respective corners of the galaxy, life would from then on be that much duller. But, at the same time, each of those wondrous souls left a piece of themselves with me. New, glorious, exciting, brilliant friends with whom I’ve shared the memories of a lifetime. People I’m determined to do it with all over again. And that hope, that dream… shines on in its own way. A beacon to sail toward. I’m crying just thinking about how fantastic they all were.
J. and I finished our trip by first heading to Paris, where I saw quite possibly my favourite sight of the whole trip: his face when we turned the corner and he saw the Eiffel Tower in person for the very first time. It lit up like a Christmas tree, and I was at once surrounded on all sides by beauty and wonder. Of course we ventured over and climbed it, despite the protest of our legs, which were at this point about to fall off, but we made it to the second storey and took in the brilliance of the city from above. A warm rain began to fall, and I pulled out the only umbrella I had – one covered in Union Jacks, of course, which quickly threatened to get us kicked out of France! We enjoyed a beautiful French dinner with a fantastic waiter, hopped the Metro to our hotel, dolled ourselves up as best we could in ten minutes and head for another wonder: The Moulin Rouge itself. The show, Feerie, was absolutely packed, and the streets were lined with people queuing to get into this magical place. As we filtered in, we were transported to another world, one lit by warmly quiet red table lamps and veiled by drapes that hung across the ceilings like a great circus tent. We were seated, champagned, and treated to a show the likes of which I’ve never seen.
Three hours later, we were due on a train to London, so we downed a couple of giant Red Bulls and hopped the Eurostar over the channel where we were met by my dear friend of 19 years, James. He’d planned the entire day for us, and treated us to breakfast, a ride around the London Eye, a trip through the Dungeons, a brilliant pub lunch in a pub that was restored in the 1600s, where we were joined in person by the lovely Elly, with whom I’ve been blog friends for probably near a decade! Great conversation and great food were enjoyed by all, and with our remaining couple of hours, we traipsed through the Tower, taking in the ravens, the crown jewels, and various instruments of torture. (Of course.) We ended the day back at the station, all I think holding in tears, and both of us feeling an immense sense of gratitude for the kindness and friendship we’d been gifted.
I’m sitting at over 4,000 words right now (Contiki book deal, anyone?) so I’ll wrap this up. Fifty-two new friends. Fourteen cities in sixteen days. Chickie Chickies and dead guinea pigs and Holas. “Moisto bene.” Memories, sights and experiences that made my heart soar and my soul occasionally sink, all of it coalescing and transforming me into something new. Coming back to where you started is infinitely different to never having left, and though materially I may be poorer, experientially I am blessed with the wealth of riches money couldn’t possibly buy, and more thankful, reflective, educated and inspired than I’ve ever been. The Eastern Road may have come to an end, but these friendships, these memories, these dreams… these are just the beginning of a whole lot more.
I’ll be working on a video of the whole thing over the next few weeks, and I can’t wait to share the spirit of this trip with everyone. Until then, here are about 700 photos!