Monday, 29 March 2010

It's cheap and easy to get high in Germany.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, you read that title correctly. It is very easy and rather cheap to find oneself high in Germany. 'What moral degredation has this girl suffered in such a short time?' I hear you ask. Well i an attempt to sunder my own repuation, I shall also add that I find myself sitting, this partially fine-partially rainy Frankfurt evening, in the middle of the red light district. 'Oh my!' you exclaim. 'What has become of our shy Imogen?' Well let me tell you, and in the process alleviate your fears and reclaim my good name.

It's cheap and easy to get high in Germany. Fact. I wouldn't know about drug prices or availability, but I can tell you that the Rheinturm in Duesseldorf and the Cologne Dom tower are both super cheap, very simple (although the latter not so easy) and extra high. In my last blog I wrote about the Rheinturm, and I will now recommend the Cologne Dom with equal gusto. For about €1 Mo and I had the privilege of climbing the 92 metres to the top of the tower to look out over Cologne. Once again, photos are to follow. Needless to say it was a bit of a trek, a lot of spiral stairs and some slight hypnotism from staring at them for too long. But the view was pretty cool indeed, up and down the Rhine. Every surface on the way up, and up there was covered in grafitti, lots of letters in hearts, but it was a great chance to see some of the stone work up close as well. And then yesterday we once again headed upwards to Drachenfels in Koenigswinter, near Bonn. But let me start at the beginning.

Well after Dusseldorf we headed to Cologne on the train, a trip which took about 1/2 an hour. We arrived at our hostel, the Black Sheep Hostel (would once again hghly recommend - very small business/family feel). We were invited along to paint easter eggs that evening, and then eat the pancakes made from the eggs, all for free. We accepted the invitation and headed out to explore the town for the day. Our aim was to visit the Dom and the Lindt Chocolate Museum. We got to both, and also walked all over the city until we were exhausted. Although to be honest, we were probably more exhausted just from climbing the tower - afterwards our knees were shaking whenever we were faced with stairs. The Cologne Dom (Cathedral, just realised you might be wondering) is enormous on the outside. It just looms out of nowhere when you walk down the main shopping street, and is RIGHT next to the train station. But somehow it also works as a reverse TARDIS - on the inside it's quite small, and a little disappointing. But we couldn't go in very far because a mass was about to start.

After climbing the epic tower of knee breaking proportions (do it if you're ever in Cologne), we wandered along the river to the chocolate museum. This was pretty interesting, with a few free samples. It was pretty cool to watch a Lindt machine do its thing, although I was really hopefully we would be given a sample from it, freshly made, but no luck. Anyway, after that we mosied back to the hostel for egg making. That was fun, my egg was not very pretty, Mo's was, but that's ok. We chatted to a girl from America who's made Germany her permanent home. Mo and I agreed there was something a little strange about how emphatic she was about her love of Germany and German people and all things German, finding it a little over the top. *Shrugs*

The next day we caught a train to Aachen. This is about an hour away from Cologne, and we hoped to get away from the rain in Cologne. Our plan was to no avail, and we wandered a little cold and damp. Interesting city, lots of Charlemagne/Karl der Grosse/Charles the Great references and statues (google him and you'll work out why). The church was very very shiny on the inside, in the most literal sense of the word - so much gold and sparkly stuff it was a little insane. To hide from the rain we went through the Town Hall, which was interesting and dry. Nothing of particular note, except the lack of outsidey weather.

In Aachen we also went on a hunt for a mysterious museum of the newspaper, but couldn't find it anywhere - three different maps gave us three different precise locations, but we went up and down all the streets in the general area before giving up and finding a cafe where I could get something savoury (tomato soup) and Mo something sweet (chocolate cake). Cafes like that have proven to be particularly difficult to find... We then ambled back to the train, although by this time the rain had stopped and the sun was out a little bit, so it was much more pleasant and we stopped to look at things like the old city gate.

That evening we went for a walk down to the river again, and had a pleasant stroll around the area. Cities usually look very pretty at night.

The next day we went to Bonn. This was a 1/2 hour trip on the train, and I hope to go back sometime soon. We were following instructions from Mo's Oma again, this time to find her childhood home and do a couple of things she recommended, including going up to the Drachenfels Ruins. We spent most of the morning getting to Bonn (our original plan was to go by cruise boat, but they're not running until next week), then getting to the house. It was a little bit epic, but also an adventure. Busting to go to the toilet for half the journey certainly added to the experience. The house was a little cute traditional looking place, not a McDonalds this time which was encouraging.

We then headed up a big mountain on the cog railway, to a ruined castle/lookout/???. One thing I've noticed here is the Germans are good at giving access to historical sites, but not very good at advertising what exactly they were. Anyway, I felt like I was in some kind of Jane Austen story, going for a day to the ruins. There were so many people there, and the 'problem' of too many ruins in Europe was clearly present - the tallest point has been used for attaching antennae to, there's grafitti, a lot of people clambering everywhere, an ugly visitor centre (all closed 'for refurbishments') and a general air of decrepitude. A littel sad really, but I suppose there's only so many places that can be cared for.

We walked back down the hill, past the ultimate lego castle (usually a folly stops just at the tower, this extended to the entire building), before eventually getting back into Bonn (walked to the closest train station, no trains, went across the river on the ferry to the other station and caught a train from there). We planned to go to the Haus der Geschichtes - all about Germany in and straight after WW2, and thought we'd have the whole afternoon there, but in the end only had about an hour. I'll be going back there - was fascinating. We then went for another evening wander (we're trying to do this in every city - they look totally different at night), through Bonn, saw the house where Beethoven was born, and happened upon lots of random performers including fire people and drumming maniacs.

It took time, but we finally tore ourselves away from Bonn, back to the train station, where we were lucky enough to be sharing a train with a lot of football fans returning from a match, and riot police. Reassuring? I think not. But we got back to the hostel safely, repacked our bags, set our alarms for 6am and turned our clocks forward for the end of daylight savings.

This morning we got up, stumbled to the train station, got on a train and sat bleary eyed until the pretty Rhine valley woke us up. A couple of hours later we arrived in Frankfurt, and that is where me sitting in the red light district comes into it. Our hostel is about a block from the train station, but is right in the middle of the centre of negotiable affection. The hostel assures us there's no danger, and so far we've felt it's just a bit weird. Seems like a nice hostel - far bigger than the other two, and less personal, but clean, well organised and friendly enough. I'm writing this on a borrowed laptop on free wifi. We managed to con our way into cooking ourselves dinner tonight, asking if there was a fridge anywhere we could put some pesto we'd brought. The receptionist seemed a little surprised at the request and told us to go up to the 7th floor where there's a kitchen for guests on the 7th floor, giving us special permission to cook as long as we cleaned up after ourselves. Feeling a little dodgy we did as she said, went to the unlabelled 7th floor and found a shiny kitchen. We cooked food, ate food, encountered one person who had no curiousity about us at all, washed up and left again. It was good. I suspect not many people ask for strange things like somewhere cool to keep some pesto, or even better somewhere to cook themselves dinner...

I'll tell you about Frankfurt some other time, probably when we're in Berlin or Prague (next two destinations). Good time being had by all, my German much better now, looking forward to seeing history stuff in Berlin. And now it's time for me to go and sleep. Good night!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Guten Tag

For those of you missing my errant 'y's and 'z's from five years ago (was it really that long?) never fear, they have returned. That's right ladies and gentlemen, I am back in the land of the Deutsch, where the keyboard is odd and the language odder. Of course, I'm (sort of) used to the latter, but perhaps will never be accustomed to the z and y keys being swapped, or the other idiosyncracies of a language where a letter with dots over it gets priority over a questions mark.

Most of you probably know I'm travelling around Germany for 17 days with another exchange student. Our plan looks something like this:

23/3: London to Düsseldorf
25/3: Düsseldorf to Köln (hopefully including day trips to Bonn and Aachen)
28/3: Köln to Frankfurt
30/3: Frankfurt to Berlin
3/4: Berlin to Prague
6/4: Prague to München
9/4: München to London

Generally the days should be easy to fill, there's plenty of touristy/historical/authenticy stuff to do everywhere, and it's just the evenings that could potentially pose a challenge. Neither of us are massive clubbing fans, so we plan on lots of night exploring (safely of course Mum), perhaps some culture, food and anything else we can find that won't cost us lots of money and will let us be in bed in time to be up bright and early the next day.

Currently I'm sitting in one of the communal spaces of the Düsseldorf hostel - Backpackers Düsseldorf, and I would seriously recommend this place for anyone coming to Düsseldorf. Free internet, bed linen, towels, breakfast (toast, tea, coffee) and very easy to walk to everywhere in the city. The beds are wide and comfy (I note the wide element because my bed at UEA is very narrow, so it's nice to not feel like I'm going to fall out if I breathe in), the rooms are quiet, the lockers huge and the bathrooms not as dirty as is often expected. We hope that the rest of our accommodation is as decent - went for the cheapest places with the highest ratings on so hoepfully we won't have too much grottiness.

Düsseldorf has been nice. It's not the most interesting of cities, and I doubt I would ever have come here if it weren't for the super-cheap Ryanair fares we got. Which incidently landed us about an hour out of the city centre (although we knew this before we booked). There was something slightly confronting about landing at an airport that is an ex-WW2 military airbase, having just written an essay on the end of that war and the beginning of the Cold War - I'm discovering that history is still taught with a bias towards the allies, and when faced with solid evidence of the war, I still struggle to throw off the 'Germans equalled the enemy' prejudice years of school history has given me. Totally unfair, but I am working on it.

Ryanair. Not bad. Got us from A to B without any hassle, expect a lack of information about which desk to go to for baggage check-in. I was mildly concerned to see what looked like a teenage boy tending to the engine and checking the tyres and doing all those things you usually see four people doing on less-budget airlines. But he drove off in a buggy, so must have at least been old enough to have a driver's licence. And I felt both infinitely more relieved, and almost just as concerned when I saw Jesus was to be our flight attendant. I hadn't realised being a carpenter back in the day was of the same level as working for Ryanair today, or that the second coming would take place while I was strapped into a Boeing 737-800. But really, such things shouldn't come as a shock.

Back to Düsseldorf. We arrived, got into the city and realised it wasn't too far from the train station to the backpackers, and decided to walk. No problemo, except that the particular street it's on was numbered by a three year old who didn't realise 80 goes between 79 and 81. After staring at what should have been the right building for a little while, someone stopped and told us where to go, without us even asking. Earlier we'd had another helpful citiyen try to help us, only for us to tell him how to get to where we wanted to go...

There isn't all that much to do here. I'm quite relieved we're only here for a day and a half. Last night we went wandering, found dinner and then slept dinner off. Today we went wandering, went into the most unfriendly museum I've ever seen (the city museum what's more), tried to goad some swans into doing something other than sleeping, found Mo's Oma's old house (now above a McDonalds) and spent the best €3,60 ever going up the Rheinturm. If there's one thing you do in Düsseldorf, go up there. It's amazing. The lift goes at 4m/second, and the tower is about 240m high. You can spend as long as you like wandering around the 360 degree windows that have a magnificent view over Düsseldorf. Wandering, sitting or sleeping I should say. Photos to follow when I am on a computer through which I can load some pics.

After that we wandered back to the hostel, found some dinner and wandered until we ended back here again. We've now worked out a vague plan for Cologne, and will head there first thing tomorrow morning.

So far my German is coming back fairly well, but I'm not getting many opportunities to practise it - as usual everyone is überkeen to 'help' by speaking English, and it's so sporadic that we have to use German that I'm not tuning in quickly enough from the beginning of a sentence, and miss the first thing anyone says to me. But hopefully by the end of the time here I'll be a lot more confident, and will snap into the language just like that.

Well that's all for now. More to follow, not sure if any of our other hostels offer free internet, so you may have to wait until I get back to the UK.

Tschüßi bis später!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Long-Awaited Part Two of the Catch Up

Apologies for the strange formatting in this blog - I'm not quite sure what's going on with blogger's updated post editor. I hope it isn't too distracting. There are lots of photos to keep you busy anyway.
The Gym and other forms of exercise
Windsor Castle
The Supermarket
Weekend Trip to Bath

The Gym and other forms of exercise
Well, yesterday I posted about my new bike, so that's one other form of exercise covered already. The uni is situated on a lot of beautiful land, with tracks going all over the place, so it's very pleasant to go for walks on nice days, as you may have gathered from my photos. :) Otherwise there is a very big and new gym on campus. It's very cheap, and I usually go to the gym, pool or an aerobics class at least once a week. I would like to go more, but just don't... It's the first time I've actually enjoyed going to the gym, possibly because I've been listening to Harry Potter while running, cycling or weighting. That makes it so much more enjoyable.

Windsor Castle
Was quite big and shiny. The day started out pretty overcast, but cleared up beautifully, so we got to see everything in sunshine.

Now I will be the first to admit that I was too distracted watching the one guard who wasn't in time with the rest (they all seemed a little sloppy, with some confusion and poor synchronisation), and didn't actually get any photos of them from the front, but I believe I have found the answer to the question 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' (who guards the guards) - the police! I found it amusing that the guards needed guarding at least...

This statue of Queen Victoria was just outside the entrance to the castle. From the angle of her sceptre, I would say she was a Hogwarts graduate.

We looked at St George's Chapel (when I was young, a chapel was small and a cathedral was large. How times have changed). No photos allowed inside, but here's one of the outside. A wedding was happening there in the afternoon. I imagine that would be rather grand.

We discovered that the British Royalty apparently have some trouble distinguishing between water and grass, and what is appropriate for a moat.

Once we got sick of the castle (there was lots to see inside, including all the reception rooms, and Queen Mary's Dollhouse), we mosied along to Eton. Yes, where the school is. Unfortunately it was a Saturday, so no sightings of funny suits or top hats on 12 year old boys, but it was interesting nonetheless. We couldn't go in anywhere, just wandered along the streets.

Very posh gate here, with wood and bricks - both signs of wealth. And a lamppost made by someone with too much time perhaps?

While ambling back to Windsor, we stopped to look at the birdies. No, I'm not actually obsessed with them, but there were so many of them.

I got the evil eye from one, after taking a photo of its friend...
...being a little less than graceful. Yes, it did just swim backwards into a jetty.

By then it was drawing near to bus time, so we sauntered back to the castle and surroundings. Where we found
(right next to Ye Olde Shoppe (picture below).)

As usual, there are more photos from this trip here.

The Supermarket

Well I don't really know what I was intended on writing about the supermarket when I wrote my last blog with the contents page, so I'll just have to make it up. They have supermarkets here, where you buy stuff. Good. That's all.

I suspect I was actually going to tell you about the wide range of choices between different chains. On campus there's the UFO (Union Food Outlet), which has a lot of fairtrade stuff. Everything there is a little more expensive, but for basics it does the job. The most convenient off-site supermarket is Morrisons - the bus from uni stops right outside it, so you just hop on and off and there isn't too much lugging to be done. However this is a cheaper chain, and I don't feel it's as good quality as some of the other places. And they don't have as much choice in some things. So I prefer Sainsbury's, but it does have a little bit of a walk back to the bus. But that does stop me buying too much. The last shop I did was 3 weeks ago, and I'm holding off until I get back from my Easter trip, which means using just what I already have until next Tuesday.

Weekend in Bath
We started out as seven. And ended with the name number, which was probably a good thing. Over the Valentine's Day weekend (although I had to be told that was that weekend - can never remember the date) we headed off to Bath for a few days.

Bath is almost entirely built of bath stone, which gives it a very uniform appearance, which is both attractive and terribly boring at the same time. The symmetry is amazing to look at - all the buildings are the same, and the effect is very smooth and easy on the eye. It gives the city character, but I prefer a little less order and a little more imagination. Only my personal preference however. It was quite pleasant to be in a city with proper hills again, although our hostel was at the top of one.

Speaking of the hostel, we stayed at the Bath YHA. It was fairly pleasant, although the bathrooms let it down, especially considering the services offered in the city...

We saw lots of the sights, and went on a free walking tour, organised by the city council.

I would highly recommend these tours if you're ever in Bath. Although it depends on the guide, it was one of the best tours I've done - very friendly guide, knew a lot and was very enthusiastic about telling us everything she could.
We saw the Pump Room

Assembly Rooms

Royal Crescent

And yet more elaborate lampposts. Someone really has had too much time on their hands.

We also went on a bus tour to Stonehenge and Lacock Village. Our tour guide was a slightly mad ex-army/truck driver/turned tour guide (fairly standard combination in my experience).

At Stonehenge it was learnt that it really is impossible not to look like a zombie when listening to the audio guides.

And that they really are, just as advertised, a bunch of rocks in a field. My thoughts on this?

They were quite interesting, but I found the surrounding landscape and the touristy-ness more interesting than the actual rocks. Still, some things just have to be done.

We also went to the village of Lacock, where lots of filmy things in Ye Olde Englishe Towns get filmed.

They even have an authentic shoppe.

We pretended to be wizards, because this is where Harry Potter lived before Voldemort (voldemort voldy voldy voldy-mort) zapped him.

(I think Queen Victoria did a better job at wizard poses than we did.)

After that we went back to Bath, and had food at the oldest food place in the city, Sally Lunn's. She made buns (although I thought they looked a lot like rolls, perhaps it's another dialect thing). Our waiter was very enthusiastic, and took photos of us all eating. We asked him to, it wasn't some weird thing.

Once again my snap happiness didn't cease when everyone got sick of me taking photos, so I turned the camera on myself, and discovered I actually am a camel.

What else did we do in Bath? Well, we went to the Roman Baths to take the waters, as is appropriate when one is in Bath. I drank some of the water they all drank gallons of back in the day. It was warm, and had a strong aftertang of iron. Not as pleasant as some things I've drunk, but better than many others. Still, I couldn't drink a whole glass.

Tried on corsets at the Fashion Museum. Tight. Couldn't breathe. But still felt remarkably elegant. That was all due the fact we could neither breathe nor bend over.

Finally, before we all departed for home (and that was another adventure for the next paragraph), we went to the Jane Austen Museum, where we were treated to a tour guide who read us a spiel that seemed to have been written on the ceiling or the backs of her eyelids, then walked through and saw things from Jane Austen's life and times.

We finished with cream tea in the Regency Rooms. Including many different coloured teas and cakes and scones. Only the teas were different colours, and even that's an exaggeration. One was pink, the others were normal tea coloured.

And so endeth our trip. The final stage was to get back to London. On the weekends they're doing 'engineering works' (leaning on shovels?) on part of the line back to Norwich, so any train trip is a mixture of train and bus. This was no exception, as they'd closed half the tube lines we needed as well. We were spread out over a few different departure times from Bath, but still managed to all catch up to each other in Ipswich (thanks to a very round about route from Paddington to Liverpool St stations by the first group) and enjoy one last leg together. Part of it was in first class (we were instructed to get on 'here' and sit down, so we did...), then we decided we didn't want to have to pay lots if we were found in the wrong compartment, and moved. Overall it was a good adventure. I would like to go back to the area at some stage and see some of the other things a little further out from Bath. But that will have to wait for another day.

More photos of Bath are here.

And there you have it. You aren't actually up to date yet, because I've been to London with Stu and Elly since all this, and done other fun things, but it's better than nothing. Next week I'm off to Germany for 2 and a half weeks over Easter. I'll have Easter Sunday in Prague which should be beautiful. I'll try to catch the blog up to current events by then, but can't promise anything. In the meantime, check here for a summary of our adventures in London by Stu and Elly. To start you off on my photos, go here.

Well done on getting this far. I'll stop now. Toodles!