O Fair Verona! Solo Interrail Part 6

This post gets quite gloomy.  After a short break from this series (because I lost my notebook with all my notes in it) I am going to continue with my solo Interrail journey.  The series starts here and the previous installment can be found here.

Juliet's balcony, Casa di Giulietta, Verona, Italy.

I awoke in the Novotel Hotel Rossi in fair Verona (of “Romeo and Juliet” fame) and it was raining.  So apparently that happens in Italy from time to time, despite their best intentions.  I was quite surprised because I’d never expected it to rain south of the Alps for some reason despite the fact that I know how ecosystems and desertification work.  I guess I was having a blonde moment, which was odd because I was auburn at the time and I tend to be blonde when my hair is blonde.

So the day hadn’t started well, but I didn’t want to stay indoors because I wanted to get a better impression of Verona, given that at the time all I had seen was a) copious discarded syringes around my hotel, b) everywhere (except that one Japanese place) seemed to be closed on a Saturday night.

After deliberating about whether to go out over fresh coffee surprisingly tasty cheap wine in juice boxes that would fit in a child’s lunchbox (seriously), I wandered out into Verona.  I was glad I did.

The Roman Arena in the town centre (amphitheatre) was stunning – smaller, but more complete than the one in Rome, much more manageable to walk around and a really nice thing to find in the city centre.

After that, I went to the thing I’d wanted to see the most in all of Verona – the Casa Di Giulietta.  It’s in a little square and the house is a museum to Romeo and Juliet.  After making my way through the exhibition (which was really professional despite being in a small-ish 16th century house), I got to the piece de resistance – Juliet’s balcony.  Now I will be the first to say (as they do say at the Casa Di Giulietta) that it is highly unlikely that this is the actual house that Juliet lived in.  For starters, as far as anyone knows she was a fictional character in a play made by a man who lived 800 miles away.  Regardless of that, it was nice, just for a little moment, to forget the reality and just imagine that it *was* real, that Romeo somehow scaled the sheer walls and got up to this balcony… after all, isn’t the whole point of fictional and theatrical narrative that we get to imagine realities other than the one we occupy??

Afterwards, I found coffee at McDonalds because it was lunchtime and all the restaurants wanted meal-buying customers not coffee drinkers.  The girl behind the counter who served me was so skinny that she looked consumptive.  She will always haunt me.  I have never seen anyone that thin before for their skeleton size (if you see what I mean).  I still have nightmares about her.  There was literally no muscle mass on her arms just an unnatural and mesmerizing consumptiveness.  I wanted to know why.  Did she have an illness such as AIDS or TB that she was fighting through?  Was she not making enough money to afford to buy food?  I have obviously seen underweight people before, myself being one of them (chronically) but I have never seen anyone as malnourished as this woman.  She looked like she was in her mid twenties, and at death’s door with her gaunt, grey face and her neck silhouetting the rings of her windpipe and the hollows either side of it.  If I’m a size US 2-4, she was like a size -2, and she was taller than me and I’m 5’6. When I returned the next day, she was on the counter again.

I think about her from time to time, even all these years later, and I always wondered what became of her, whether she got the medical treatment she so obviously needed or if she faded away.  Healthcare is not free in Italy – and it shows in so many places.

She was extremely rude to me, but I just got my coffee and moved on, resisting the urge to wrap her up in a blanket, bring her home and feed her soup until she looked alive again.

It made me feel morose – then I got mad at myself because there I was, on an incredible once in a lifetime trip to Verona on Interrail, and I still wasn’t happy.  And I realized it went deeper than my day-to-day mood, there was a cavernous, all-encompassing melancholy that had ensconced my soul so thickly that I had no idea what would make me happy.  I should have been reveling in how wonderful everything was.  Instead I felt like there was something missing, and I didn’t know what it was.

I think this was the first time I asked the question (to myself, in bed where nobody could hear me); ‘am I depressed?’  I quickly stifled it with a boatload of excuses.

The gloom gave way to a cracking migraine, so instead of going onwards to Venice as I’d planned, I extended my stay in Verona to 2 more nights and I went back to the hotel, where I sat in the dark wearing earplugs and downed a few co-codamol (Vicodin) with some wine to try and get the pain to stop.

I passed out, and when I awoke it was a bright new day.

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The Swiss Alpine Route to Verona: Solo Interrail Part 5

New to my Solo Interrail series? Start here

I’m going to pick up where I left off last time, after I had just made it back to Zurich station and was now feeling like I was back in civilization having just spent the morning lost in the alps.  I sat down over a coffee and wrote postcards to my Grandma and Aunt.  This was 2008, a year after the EU smoking ban, which Switzerland was exempt from, so smoking indoors was a bit of a novelty and I did make the most of it (I don’t smoke now so I think I would hate to return to any country without an indoor ban on smoking).  I asked two nice backbackers to take my photo with one of my disposable cameras.

Zurich station Switzerland
Me in a coffee shop in Zurich Station, Switzerland holding a postcard of Switzerland, having just had a mini adventure in the Alps. My backpack is on the left and my handbag is on the right. In front of me were a well-earned coffee and a book by Anne Mustoe, as well as another postcard. I remember strategically moving the ashtray out of the shot because I didn’t want to get into trouble for smoking.

From my travel journal:

“Next, I went to the station newsagent and negotiated stamps in German (all credit went to the pan-European phrasebook I’d packed).  Next I searched for a post-box.
“Excuse me?” I flagged down a passing man.
“Hey there!”  The friendly American accent warmed my soul.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen the nearest post box, have you?”
“Sure!  It’s just out there, on the left.  It’s yellow.”  He said.
“Thank you very VERY much.”  I replied.
“No problem.” He said.
I followed the directions and found the post box just outside the station, then posted my post cards and hoped that was actually a post box (that, or I’d just put them in a used ticket disposal box, but I hoped not because they were nice postcards).

Then I got the 9:00am train to Milan, which terminated at Venice.  Depending on what time it gets in, I may just stay on the train rather than aiming for Verona.  However, I would prefer to stay in Verona as from there it would be easier to get back to Calais.
What followed was a wonderful train ride through the Swiss alps.

Swiss alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.
The Swiss Alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.
The Swiss alps lake
A giant lake in the Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.

The scenery is beautiful, especially around Zug station – if I ever get a chance to go to Switzerland again, Zug is the place to go!  Unfortunately, it also means I have already began using up my 3rd disposable camera – I’ll have to get another couple in Italy.  The scenery of grassy fells, snowy mountains and powder-sprinkled pine trees is absolutely breathtaking.  It’s much nicer to see the Alps from the ground than in an aeroplane!  I’m glad not to have tried travelling onwards in the dark otherwise I would have missed this, which would have been unforgivable.

…I think I’ve just done my bit to ensure the continental opinion of English eccentricity; I took a photo of my compartment (because I’ve never been on a train with compartments before, this is like being on the Hogwarts Goddamn Express), but I waited until the other occupants had moved because it’s perhaps a bit over-zealous even for a tourist.

(a little bit later) As we emerge from the Alps, the architectural style has become markedly Italian, with the arched windows and straight-pitched, less high roofs.  We are still in Switzerland, but signs for “ristorante touristes” are at the side of the road which runs parallel with the train track.  There is also significantly less snow, but the sky is still that clear, brilliant blue, and the sun feels warm now.  I feel less close to the sky again – being on the German side of Switzerland was like standing on a very high plateau, and it’s nice, but I’m glad to be at my normal altitude again.  Hopefully it will be sunny in Verona and even more I hope that the tourist office is open so I can find accommodation between now and Tuesday (the Easter weekend is now upon us).”

Changing trains in Milan, I was profoundly disappointed.  It was standard tall buildings type of architecture, nothing particularly chic or attractive about the place, it could have been absolutely anywhere.  I decided to continue onwards.  The next train was, now that I was in Italy, run by Trenitalia.  It had dents all over the outside of the carriages and inside, there was no air conditioning, people were just crammed on top of each other.  Opposite me, a woman sat down with a chicken in a cage.  An actual chicken.  It was squawking up a fuss and flapping its feathers everywhere, and she insisted, on this full-to-bursting train, that the chicken needed its own seat, even when a man tried to sit down.  This tiny old woman clung to the chicken cage with a death grip and started shouting at him until he left the carriage.  I was too timid to get a photo of the ridiculous chicken.

Later that evening, I disembarked at Verona train station and booked 3 nights in a hotel (Novo Hotel Rossi) in Verona, where I decided to remain for the rest of the Easter weekend.  Annoyingly, despite it being the Easter Saturday, when everything is usually business as usual in the UK, in Verona, literally everything (apart from one Sushi restaurant) was closed and since I didn’t speak Italian (I do now, this trip is what prompted me to learn when I got back), I couldn’t understand the signs in the shop doors.

I found the aforementioned Sushi restaurant, only to discover that the staff didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Italian, so I ended up trying to order in Japanese.  Turns out, only the elderly grandmother could actually speak Japanese but she invited me to share a pot of tea with her after I’d eaten, apparently she’d never met a gaijin who could speak Japanese before.  I guess you wouldn’t, living in Verona.  I don’t speak very much though (and I sure as hell can’t read it), so she probably found my conversation lacklustre.  I’d like to learn more at some point so I can navigate Japanese cosmetics but that’s a bit off topic for a travel post!

Anyway, that was my first day in Verona, and I’d used up over half of my Interrail pass (any 5 days of travel valid for 10 days of travel and non travel), but I decided not to worry about that.

I will continue with my Solo Interrail journey here.

As a side-note, if you are wondering why my posts/response times are erratic, it’s because I’m back to work, now teaching at a facility for children who have been expelled from school, mostly young offenders, which is a very intense job, as well as being quite a drive from my house, and I’m a bit exhausted, but I am interested in everything people have to say still!!

MsAdventure Gets Lost In The Alps

From my travel journal during my solo Interrail journey.  New to this series?  Start here.  Missed last week? It’s here.

“Where do I begin?  It’s 9:00 and I’ve already managed to do rather a lot today.  Whilst I sit in the comfy compartment of the train to Milan, let me recount the goings-on of this morning.”

I got up amazingly early at 5:25am and had checked out of the hotel in Zurich by 6:00.  At 6:20am I had found the Strassenbahn station, and I reckoned it would be a simple matter to get to the main station.  I was very wrong!  I got the S6, after asking directions, and was told I was one stop away, so I got off at the next stop.  No sooner than I had alighted the double decker train than I realized this clearly wasn’t the right station.  I got on the next train facing the same direction but it must have been the wrong direction to begin with.  Whilst I was on the wrong train, I tried to ask directions, at which point I noticed an interesting cultural aspect of Switzerland of which I hadn’t been aware.  Around Zurich, white people predominantly speak German, with French being the predominant language of multiculturalism.  Not only that, but the white German speaking people (I asked several of them across two floors and 2 carriages) were quite rude to me, and I was surprised about that because in Das Capital everyone I’d spoken to so far had been so nice!  I finally found a friendly couple from Senegal who were on their way to work.  I asked them if this was the right train to get to Zurich Central station, and they said it definitely wasn’t.

“Hey, sorry to bother you, do you speak French please?” I asked.
“We sure do!”  The lady said.  She wore one of those striped fabric pinafore-bib type things that are the uniform of carers and cleaners the world over, and a beautiful short red (marron red) wig that meant her hair was elegantly coiffed.
“Um… is this the right train to get to Zurich Central station?”  I asked.
“No, this is the train to St Gallen.  Don’t worry, just get off at the next stop, cross the rails and get the next train back to Zurich.”  She explained.
“Thank-you.” I said.
“You want some coffee?”  The man asked.  He was decked out in a blue shirt under a black suit, and very shiny black shoes.  He clearly took very good care of his appearance.  He held out a flask cup.
I had a sip.  It was good coffee.
“Thank-you, I have been walking around this train and nobody would help me.  How come the German-Swiss are so rude?”  I asked.
“Oh, that’s because they don’t really like French speakers.  They think we’re all stealing their jobs and what not.”  She explained in a lowered voice, although this floor of the carriage was empty, and we were speaking in French in a predominantly German area.
“Stealing… their jobs??”  I was flabbergasted.
“I know, it makes no sense, right?”  The man laughed.
“Where are you from?”  The woman asked.
“England.  You?”  I asked.
“We’re from Senegal.”  The woman replied.  “But now we’re from Zurich.”  She winked.
“And you’re going to work in St Gallen?”  I asked incredulously.  It’s a hell of a commute for minimum wage.
“We do what we need to.”  The man said, as if it was nothing special.
The conversation turned to other strange things the French-Swiss said the German-Swiss believed about French speakers, then the train began to slow, I said a hasty goodbye and descended the steps to the door. There was an announcement saying the train was about to stop, then I alighted into the most silent place in the world.

As the train moved away from the platform, I stood in 6 inches of snow and wondered whether I should have stayed on the train until St Gallen and turned around there, where at least if there were no more trains for the day, there’d be a nice cup of hot chocolate at a ski lodge somewhere (or something.  I’m not really sure what’s there).

No, I was stranded at a train platform that was buried under snow halfway up a mountain, with one building next to the station, that looked like one of those water inspection buildings.  Beyond that, there was nothing but snow and curvy trees in every direction.

There wasn’t a train timetable anywhere in sight.  It was probably buried under snow.  And there wasn’t anywhere to sit.  That was probably buried under snow as well.  In fact, there was no visible roads or any route to leave this train station and get to anywhere else.  For all I knew, this could be the train station at the end of the world, it’s sole purpose seemed to be as a turning around point for lost passengers such as myself.  There was, however, a station map, which claimed I’d somehow managed to get 30 miles away from Zurich on an alpine route.  Oops.

I was alone.  The temperature was very cold.  Of course, on a journey like this, I knew I was going to be exposed to a range of temperatures, so I’d tried to pack light and dress appropriately, but then, I hadn’t expected to be stranded in the Alps.  I was wearing a pair of tights (pantyhose), a dress that finished two inches above the knee (I still have this dress), with a short sleeved shirt underneath, and a wooly cardigan over the top, and my coat. My shoes were some of those Skechers hybrid trainers/ballet flats.

Lost in the mountains in Switzerland
The only building for miles. And the strange, curvy-tipped trees. That wire overhead belongs to the train line.
This was the downhill side of the station, lost in the Alps.
This was the downhill side of the station, lost in the Alps.

 

My hands were starting to go numb.  I could see my own breath and there was an icy patina growing on my coat.  I started mentally cycling though the things Ray Mears says to do if you’re lost in the mountains, and cursed the fact that I didn’t bring a tarp.

After over two hours, the train finally arrived.  It almost certainly was punctual, but the frequency of trains up here meant that this was the first train that had passed in all that time.

When it finally drew up to the platform, I wondered if it was a snow-mirage, brought on by the cold, and made sure I touched the train before stepping onto it, just to make sure I wasn’t stepping off the platform into thin air.  You hear some horrible stories about things that happen to people who get stuck on the train tracks at the wrong time.

Thankfully it was real enough and it was a cross-country one, so it took me straight to the Zurich central station with none of the messing around with small, local stations.  When I got off, I sat in one of the station’s coffee shops and tried to thaw out.

I will continue recounting the rest of this travel day here because there’s a lot more that happened today, and otherwise this post will be very long.

Is this the most boring postcard in the world? Solo Interrail part 3.

Travelling on Interrail south through Germany from Belgium (read about Belgium here), the trains never ceased to amaze me.  German trains are a marvel of engineering precision, and comparing them to English trains would be like comparing a BMW to a pony trap.  Yes, the pony trap is an important part of our heritage, and it will (usually) get you to where you’re going eventually, but the BMW is the more comfortable ride and, let’s face it, more appropriate for cross-country travel.  The BMW doesn’t have to throw everyone onto a bus at Sheffield so it can go to sleep for the night.

Let me tell you about German trains.

The internal doors are made of sliding glass panels; there are small compartments containing conference rooms for business executives; the dining car has seats and tables so you don’t have to walk the length of the train with your food; the seats are reasonably sized and oh so very comfortable; but none of this is the best bit.  The suspension likes to fool you into believing you must be travelling very slowly, to feel so few bumps and corners, but then you look out the window and realize you’re going at over eighty.  But that’s not the best part either.  The best part is, in front of you, wherever you sit, there is a piece of printed paper with the heading “reiseplan.”

And that piece of paper tells you when you will arrive at each of the stations between where you are and the train’s terminus.  Not only that, but it tells you what trains are departing from those stations in the next hour or so after your arrival.  On a longer journey, the stewards will bring more than one Reiseplan to you so that you know exactly what is going on at all times.

Frankfurt1a
Is this the most boring postcard in the world??  But pretty representative of my experience of Frankfurt.
Frankfurt2a
A more interesting postcard of Frankfurt, I saw none of the things in this postcard.

The train passed through several stations, I had a short stopover in Frankfurt (where I ate a Frankenfurter – aka hot dog) and I made a couple of changes onto other, equally well-endowed German trains, and thanks to the Reiseplans on the German trains, I was able to very efficiently plan a route all the way down to Zurich in Switzerland.  I’d expected (when I awoke that morning in Brussels) that I might get as far as Stuttgart by the end of the day.  Arriving at Zurich was a total coup and a sign that the trip was improving.  Now, again, I had a shot at getting to Venice.

The scenery across Germany could be described as cloudy on top with fields underneath, punctuated with the occasional town or city.  As we got closer to Switzerland, the clouds seemed to press together, accumulating, a crowd of clouds awaiting entry to some great event, perhaps a thunderstorm concert, on the other side of the Alps.  This was a place which held onto the clouds with the first of the Alpine mountains, keeping them safe so the Mediterranean could enjoy sunshine.

I looked up accommodation in Zurich using the directory of hotels that I’d acquired in Paris, and I phoned them on the final leg of the train journey, making a reservation for a room in the Zurich Etap.  I conducted the entire conversation in French, and from the train I took a taxi to the hotel, then went to the desk that had a picture of a French flag and started checking in.  Out of the corner of my ear, I heard a conversation in English then realized the hotel also had an English-speaking check in desk.  D’oh.

Being stubborn, I decided to finish check-in in French, handed over my passport so they could take a copy, then got my key and went to the room.  It wasn’t fantastic, but there was an ashtray and a couple of beds, as well as a tiny plastic en-suite bathroom which had probably looked cutting edge in 1998.  I had a shower, a smoke and a snack then went to bed.  There was nothing to do in the hotel and I wanted to be up early because Zurich was just a hitching post on my journey into Italy.

The next morning, I intended to go straight to the central station.  Somehow, this didn’t happen.  That’s a story for next time.

Brussels, Belgium: Solo Interrail Part 2

Seconds after writing this and publishing it, I found out that Brussels airport and metro have been attacked in the last couple of hours by terrorists and it’s still unfolding.  I am completely shocked and disgusted that this has happened.  Nobody deserves this but Brussels is such a lovely place, nothing bad should ever happen there.  I hope everyone can get to safety and that they catch the monsters responsible.  Terrorists are so utterly evil, but how could even they do this?  What has Brussels ever done to offend anyone?  I am crying right now because this is so shocking.  My heart goes out to everyone in Brussels and all of Belgium right now, and everyone affected by this in any way.

Okay so I may have gotten one tiny detail wrong last week.  I didn’t get straight on a train with the intent of going to Belgium from Paris.  The Parisian Lecher was basically trying to get me to stay in Paris with him and I told him that if there were no trains to Venice then I would just go back home, and I bought a reservation to Calais. After making myself feel less disgusting in the train bathroom I pored over my maps of Europe and tried to work out a route over the Alps to Italy. I wasn’t going to let one bad experience ruin the whole trip.

I jumped off the train at Lille (France) and continued to Mons (Belgium), which was the interchange to Brussels.  As soon as you get into Belgium it’s really obvious that you’re not in France any more, because the Belgians are really big on their art-deco style, and you can see it everywhere.  It’s so classy and 1920s, and it’s very easy to see why this is the land of Hercule Poirot.  I was relieved I didn’t have to go all the way back to Calais, and after the stress of Paris, Belgium was just delightful.  From the moment I stepped off the train in Brussels and saw signposts in English, I knew I was somewhere friendly.

From my travel journal:

“…They have an open tourist information centre, which is in the train station (which has a shopping-centre-like layout map) and it can reserve hotel rooms and give you area maps.  It’s dead good.  So I’ve had a long, thorough shower, changed my clothes and am sitting on an actual bed in an actual hotel room.  And there’s a delicious box of Belgian chocolate truffles in reaching distance.

This evening I plan to have a meal out then plan my next move – likely to Luxembourg or Stuttgart,maybe Cologne.  I won’t continue to wax lyrical about Brussells.  All I will say is firstly, Belgium deserves its reputation for food and chocolate (they even make the vegetables taste amazing)*  I ate a boiled chicken and seasonal vegetables meal with a creme brulee dessert.  Secondly, the architecture of Brussells is way underrated.  The city’s up there with the big tourist centres as a really beautiful place – only Brussells is totally friendly.  I am staying at the Argus Hotel near Metro Louise, amongst the high-end shopping area (Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Sonia Rykiel etc), and it’s tariff says E110 on the door but I paid significantly less.

Later still:  I have looked over my map and decided to go to Stuttgart tomorrow from Bruxelles (via Frankfurt) aiming to be on the 11:59 (lmao) train from Bruxelles Midi Station (just in case I forget tomorrow).  This will give me plenty of extra time to buy a necklace and also to postcard-shop and take some photos, although if I keep snapping I’ll run out of disposable cameras!”

*At the time, I wasn’t the biggest fan of specific vegetables.  Looking back, I genuinely have no idea what I was eating.  Fast forward 6 months and vegetables were all I ate, because I went vegan!!

Scan_Pic0009

brussells2
The Art Deco dining room in Bruxelles’ Argus Hotel, showcasing the main drawback of old fashioned film-cameras – you had to wait until the picture was developed before you could see how (or if) it had come out.
brussells1
Somewhere in Belgium – Belgium was full of rather delightful architecture.
brussells4
This was a stunning light and water display in a shopping centre in Brussels. Once again the disposable camera didn’t quite capture the moment.

What I learned in Belgium:

One of the things that really surprised me at the time was how lovely Belgium is, and it’s completely underrated among the under 30’s.  Having seen more of the whole country now, I think it’s a delightful destination and well worth a visit if you like a classy travel experience (rather than a non-stop party).  If that sounds duller than a dry white wine,  Brussels (or Belgium for that matter) probably isn’t the place for you.  I did actually go back to Brussels in 2014, when my husband and I just dropped into Brussels for dinner (we were hungry, and I’ll link the story here when I get to it), and I still think it’s an incredibly sophisticated destination with unparallelled food.  In terms of ambience, it’s probably how Paris was forty or fifty years ago and it makes for a good romantic getaway because it’s not packed with tourists but it’s still very ambient.

The main thing I learned though was that there’s a reason people don’t use disposable cameras any more. At the time, I thought it was the amount of space they take up.   Actually, I didn’t learn about the photo quality difference for several years – I have always believed that film-cameras are way better than digital, and I think I was right until the last couple of years, when digital cameras finally started having a good enough resolution (number of megapixels) to be able to produce better pictures, and we finally got a unified digital storage method (SD cards) with a reasonable amount of storage per card, at an affordable price.  There was a long time when there were so many different types of memory cards for different cameras and devices, that it was pointless buying either cameras or cards because as soon as they stopped making the cards, the camera was useless, and as soon as the camera broke, you had to buy a new set of different cards for the new camera, it was all the most ridiculous situation because of compatibility (and that’s if we don’t get started on those stupid wires we had to use to upload stuff – how many different connectors does the world need?  I’m so glad that 99% of everything uses a micro USB these days).

There’s a world of difference between a disposable camera and a regular camera, however, and one of the key differences is aperture.  Disposable cameras (and those cheap non-disposable fixed focus 35mm cameras that everyone used to have) have a fixed aperture that’s optimized for daytime holiday shots in the sort of light you get in the Mediterranean.  That’s why these tend to come out acceptably on them.  But they’re really not useful at all in low-light settings such as evenings or indoors in certain places.

Nowadays, I use a DSLR camera and I have a bridge camera as my backup.  Yes, a DSLR is heavier, and OH MY GOD it was so expensive, but it’s worth it to get stunning pictures first-time-every-time when I’m on a once in a lifetime trip or at a concert.

Read part 3 of my Interrail journey here
To see my articles on photography, click here.

Two Unbelievable German Fairytale Castles.

By all accounts, Ludwig II was a mad king.  Of course, madness is subjective, but most people agree that it’s a bit off the wall to build yourself a fantastic fairytale castle, then spend your kingdom’s vast fortune to build another one across the way, just so you have something nice to look at from your own, fabulous castle.  It’s even more ridiculous to hear that Ludwig II married a girl, then moved her into the other castle.  I’m sure that made for interesting sex, sending a messenger on the forty minute walk to ask: “Your castle or mine?” Only to receive a reply, eighty minutes later: “Oh, not tonight darling, I have a headache.”  May as well save oneself the effort and grab a villager instead.  Perhaps this explains why Hohenschwangau castle (often mistakenly called Hohenschwanstein castle) was quite near to the village of Schwangau and Neuschwanstein castle was way off in the distance.  Old Mrs Ludwig II couldn’t exactly complain if she couldn’t see anything that her husband was doing.  Perhaps if Henry VIII had adopted this two-castles-on-two-mountainsides approach, he could have saved himself all the nuisance of having to dispose of unwanted wives after the warranty period.

But he didn’t think of it.

In Britain, we never really consider Henry VIII a mad king, perhaps because he knew which end the crown was supposed to go on, and didn’t roam Buckingham Palace in his nightwear, and anyway, when he was compared to Charles I (who was so despotic, he caused the only English civil war) or George III (who figuratively wore his underpants on his head), he gets a free pass.  I think it comes down to the fact that, historically, we have tended to respect the institution of marriage a little too much.  Henry VIII was married to each of the six women who he wronged, but that’s fine because he married them.  If, as a bachelor, he had treated just one of those women properly but not married her, that would have been a scandal.  But beheading two wives?  That was reasonable, because he was married to them at the time.  I think the other reason we don’t remember any of our kings as properly, truly mad (rather than just bloody stupid), is because we’ve never had a proper despot on the throne.  Add to that the fact that we still have a monarchy and the Germans don’t, and it’s perhaps easier to see why the Germans embrace the madness of their erstwhile monarchy and open it up for tourists to see at low low prices (Austria’s got the market pretty well cornered on this too, but I’ll come to that in another article).

Ludwig II is suggested to have schizotypal personality disorder for which there is evidence from his autopsy – he died in 1886 under highly mysterious circumstances the day after he was dethroned for extremely paranoid behavior.  Fascinatingly, he was claimed to have drowned and it was recorded as a suicide, but he was known to be a good swimmer and there was no water in his lungs.  Add to that the further mystery that his psychiatric doctor was with him at the time – and the doctor was found dead with head and neck wounds and markings concurrent with strangulation.

There are plenty of things in Germany which are spectacular, or ludicrous, or despotic, but nothing in Germany is quite as spectacularly, ludicrously, despotically fabulous as the twin castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein.  We were so taken by them that we actually went to see them twice.

The drive was painful in both directions due to bad traffic around Munich.  We parked in Fussen for a breather and that was when we saw the first of the two castles.  I’ve been told by quite a few people that Schloss Hohenschwangau is supposed to be the best one, but Schloss Neuschwanstein was the first one I saw and it captured my imagination far more.  It was fit for a princess.  It looked like a Disney castle.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a castle that was quite so… well… castley.  If someone distilled pure essence of castle and made a castle out of it, Neuschwanstein would be the result.  This castle belonged to every Disney Princess who ever lived.

Neuschwanstein castle, Schwangau, Germany.
Neuschwanstein castle, Schwangau, Germany; taken from Fussen.
Neuschwanstein castle, Schwangau, Germany.
Neuschwanstein as seen from Schwangau.

We didn’t go inside either castle because (on the way to Salzburg) by the time we’d fought our way through traffic they were both closed for the day.  The same thing happened when we drove here on the way back from Rome, so I’ve not seen first-hand what they look like inside, but when they look like this from the outside, I can’t wait until we actually get to go in.  Photography is not allowed inside the castles.

Castle Hohenschwanstein, Schwangau, Germany, August 2014.
Castle Hohenschwangau, aka Hohenschwanstein, Schwangau, Germany, Taken August 2014.

The castles look even better in real life and I think they were well worth the  effort of driving here even though we didn’t go inside – I don’t think there’s anything like them to be found side-by-side like this anywhere else in the world.

Make it Happen:

There’s two parts to this – getting to Schwangau and then getting to the actual castles.  Once you’re in Schwangau the rest is pretty damn easy (as long as you DON’T mistakenly go to SCHWANAU which is 3 HOURS AWAY from where the fairytale castles are).

Getting to Schwangau:

  1. Fly to Munich airport then hire a car, accommodation is best in Fussen which also has a much better selection of restaurants and bars than Schwangau.
  2. Drive straight to Schwangau from your home address – this is what I did, it took two full driving days and one overnight stay in a layby in central Germany to get here after 5pm from the North of England.
  3. By public transport it’s really sketchy, which is why I never got here on my Interrail trip – basically Schwangau is a little bit remote and doesn’t have it’s own train station.  There is a direct train from Munich to Fussen which takes 2 hours 6 minutes, then you’re on your own to get to Schwangau (Google says it’s a 45 minute walk or a 12 minute cycle – so if you’re reasonably fit and mobile you can probably walk it in under 30 minutes; it wasn’t far at all by car), but if you’re willing to get a taxi this is another option from Fussen.  I can’t find bus info.

Getting to the Castles from Schwangau:

  1. Hohenschwangau is a very easy stroll from the centre of Schwangau.
  2. Neuschwanstein is slightly less accessible, you can take a 45 minute walk if you’re feeling sporty.
  3. The more common option to get to Neuschwanstein is to take the tourist buses (run by private companies) which costs about E2.60 there and back again.  I think there’s still some walking involved and the buses are unsuitable for disabled people due to the terrain between where the bus stops and getting into the castle.
  4. The most awesome option by far to get to Neuschwanstein is to take a horse drawn carriage, at E6 there and E3 back again.  There is a 15 minute uphill walk from where the carriage drops you off.  If you’re feeling especially fancy, you can also ride in a carriage to Hohenschwangau castle for E4.50 there and E2 back again.
  5. Entrance to the two castles on a twin ticket was 9am-6pm (summer) or 10am-4pm (winter) and cost E12 each or E23 for a combined ticket.  For more information click here.

Disabled, Wheelchair and Pushchair Access:
You can’t drive to the entrances, the closest parking is in Schwangau village centre which costs about E5, or there’s free parking even further down the hill in two large lay-bys. Neuschwanstein appears to sadly be generally unsuitable for wheelchair users or people with mobility-related disabilities due to its design (although some people have had success getting around, I think this has to be taken as the exception; if you’re planning a trip for a busload of pensioners, you’ll have to give Neuschwanstein a miss, but if you push your own wheelchair and you’ve got someone to help out on the hilly bits, you will be able to get around enough to see some of Neuschwanstein). Pushchairs can get to Neuschwanstein but if you’re not reasonably fit you will be utterly shattered afterwards.  If you have an invisible disability such as CFS or MS you may have extreme difficulty with Neuschwanstein because the bus queues are a lot of standing around waiting and the walk is hilly with no real breaks; if you’re having a low-energy day, I’d skip Neuschwanstein and go for Hohenschwangau instead.  Hohenschwangau on the other hand appears to be reasonably accessible if you can make it up the much gentler hill to the entrance (but if in doubt, double check this when you buy tickets, because everyone’s level of ability is different) and pushchairs are no problem at Hohenschwangau.  Everything I saw of both castles and Schwangau village was hills rather than steps.

For accommodation I strongly suggest you avoid the expensive hotels of Schwangau and instead stay in the beautiful large village of Fussen, as there is much more choice, it’s a bigger town and there’s lots of cheaper options and more amenities.  If arriving by train, staying in Fussen will also break up the journey a bit.  I found the absolute best selection of accommodation from Booking.com but do book early as it’s a popular but relatively undeveloped area, and when we were travelling to Schwangau/Fussen from Rome, I tried to book us a hotel for 2 days ahead but the cheapest options that were left started at 150 Euros which was out of my price range (this was September prices).  By contrast, there are currently options for mid-August available starting at £43 for two people, which is obviously a significant saving.  By comparison, for the same example date (12-13th August) hotels in Schwangau start at £93 per night for mid-August if you book now.

Has anyone else been to see these fabulous castles?  Let me know what you thought in the comments.

If you’re looking for more info on disabled access of major tourist destinations, I’ve also written about which parts of Rome were wheelchair accessible.

More info about ticketing etc here.

This article contains affiliate links, it doesn’t affect the prices you pay for anything, and if you choose to book accommodation from links on this page it just means I can buy food and petrol and all that lovely stuff (which gives me more time to write articles like this one).

Climbing Mount Snowdon

So I’m currently on this massive hypomanic spree that’s seen me start the week by driving to Snowdonia National Park on Monday (10th) and climbing mount Snowdon, and will end the current week with me being in Aberdeen or possibly Skye, I haven’t quite decided yet.  Suffice to say people are getting worn out from being around me.

We started Snowdon after I’d been up all night the night before, so I was able to start getting ready pretty early, and we set off on the three hour drive around 9am in the morning.  The internet said to allow 6 hours up and down to climb Snowdon, so we knew we had plenty of time.

We arrived around 1:30pm due to traffic and parked in a pretty decent car park that was a fair bit cheaper than the one 100m down the road.  I would recommend parking in a municipal car park – we paid £4 (normally £5, drops to £4 after 1pm) and the other one was charging £7 but so many people were parked there for some reason!  There was the option of a train to the top but I wanted to walk up.

We followed the signs for the mountain and followed an easy tarmac track as it started to ascend, until we got to a point where the tarmac became a track made of aggregate.  There were plenty of sheep but no goats.

Plenty of sheep but no goats.
Plenty of sheep but no goats.

Up was up, and there was so very much of it.  We didn’t have enough water, since SOMEBODY (naming no names but it wasn’t me) drank nearly the whole bottle in one gulp, but there was a little cafe/shop about half way up the mountain, so we bought more water, and it wasn’t a complete rip off.  I also had a rocket lolly for the sugar as I needed a bit of energy.  We had taken some Linda McCartney meatfree sausage rolls with us that I’d cooked, and these ended up being our lunch.  They were tasty as usual.  The path passed under the train track for the first time.

We got to a point where the path passed the train track a second time, and then the whole experience took a turn for the worse.  Literally it was like someone had put a hood up over the whole area and all we could see in every direction was pure white fog.   It stayed this way for the rest of the journey.

We reached the top and it reminded me of that level in Tomb Raider II where Lara is jumping around on pieces of rock – I think it was called Floating Islands, it was one of the last levels in the game anyway, and the greenery and lack of any sort of view beyond the edges of rocky outcrops at the top of Snowdon reminded me of this.  We avoided the cafe/train station and anyway they were closed, and we just got back down again, we didn’t rush as much as on Ben Lomond because it wasn’t as cold, but I was certainly glad of my snowboarding gloves.  We reached the top at 5:10pm.

Snowdon in Snowdonia
Floating islands!!

The descent was a killer, and my bones under my knees were protesting painfully at every step, which was a nuisance because there was so much down to descend and I heartily wished for a scooter or some rollerskates (but my skates were at home and anyway they’re aggressive inlines so no good for cross country) so I could save my leg bones the trouble.  When I got back to the tarmac I did the rest backwards and pretty much everyone who passed me started to do the same, it was a LOT easier and I think it saved my toenails.

We stopped to catch our breath enjoy the view for a minute just at the exact moment when a shepherd was gathering his sheep with his sheepdog and a whistle.  I’d seen it all before on One Man And His Dog (the reality TV show about shepherding from years ago) but in the area I’m from we have fields and gates, so as a child it was rare to see the sheep being gathered up by a dog like that.  It was very special to be able to watch this and I tried to get some good photos but I only had my phone with me (my camera weighs 1lb I’m not taking that up a mountain!!)  so I don’t think they came out so good.  Judge for yourself:

There are sheep in the distance being rounded up by a sheepdog.
There are sheep in the distance being rounded up by a sheepdog.  They’re those dots around halfway up on the far right of the picture.

At the bottom, a cup of tea would have been nice but everywhere in Llanberis seems to close at 5 which is odd for a tourist hub.  I think a lot of people avoid the Llanberis path because it’s seen as the “easy” tourist path, but as a seasoned hillwalker I found it to be both a challenge but not unachievable.  The length of the walk makes it the longest with the most ascent of any of the Snowdon paths and I am not sure you should legitimately be able to say “I’ve climbed Snowdon” if you’ve never done Llanberis because all the other routes start about half way up so the ascent is far less!  I thoroughly enjoyed the tourist path because there was hardly anyone on it and I hope that this was just a quiet day because I’d hate for the halfway cafe and the places in Llanberis to go out of business just because people are walking route snobs.

The other thing about Llanberis is that’s where the train goes from, so a lot of people get the train up and walk back down again.  I balked at the price because it’s £15 for a single or £20 for a return ticket on the train!!  I thought about how many shanks’s ponies I could buy for that much money and decided it wasn’t worth the price of a pair of shoes to go up in a train, even an awesome uphill mountain train.

In the absence of any open eateries, we went back to Conwy and got a McDonald’s from the retail park drive thru then drove home.  I was glad we ate something because every freaking motorway between Conwy and our house was closed and I had to divert the car so many times!