A Travellerspoint blog

Livin' la vida London - final days!

Our flight into London City from Schipol was uneventful although it dawned on us that we had reached the final destination before our long (and highly depressing) trip home. Not once on this trip have we gotten tired or sick of travel, which I wouldn't have picked prior to leaving. In fact, we have loved every minute and wish there was more to come!

Backpacks on, we hopped on the DLR and trekked into Chancery Lane by Tube to Suma's cousin Uma's place for an excellent curry, courtesy of Niranjan - greatly appreciated!

We set about making the most of it - day one, we headed out to the British Museum. Could spend days in there! Highlights included the Rosetta stone, the Parthenon sculptures, the Egyptian Mummy room, and that the whole thing was FREE! Definitely one of the best museums we've seen.

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We shopped till we dropped, covering Oxford St, Regent St, Carnaby Lane, and a trip out to White City to the HUGE Westfield London.

Spent a lot of time with Uma and Niranjan going for long walks around the Thames and Westminster and back to St Pauls. Was really great catching up and sharing stories! Also renewed our all too friendly association with Pimm's and lemonade on a brilliant couple of summer's days..

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Speaking of which - on a bright and incredibly hot (32C) day, we scored centre court tickets to Wimbledon to watch the Williams sisters annihilate their opponents in the ladies semi-finals, on their way to facing each other in the finals. Got some great value from our zoom lens!

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Equally memorable was watching Fed-ex outlast Andy Roddick in a marathon 5th set to get his 15th slam - and in the right time zone!

It all culminated over the weekend with the engagement party for Darsh and Alex - and we were joined by some strangers from Amsterdam and Alex's mate Eugene from Germany in crashing the Staab/Solomons pad. A morning at Borough Markets, a lunch at Nandos and a walk around Soho, a competitive poker, wine and cheese night, and a rowdy but enterprising game of Monopoly filled in our time - and had us in party mode for the whole weekend. The party itself was a blast (what can be remembered) - great food at Asia de Cuba and a great night of cocktails and dancing at St Martin's Lane.

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London's a spectacular city, particularly in summer - people just lap up the weather and in such a buzz. With very little rain around, London made up for it all by delivering it all on our final day, a hailstorm as we shopped on Regent St! London's big city summer buzz was difficult to capture, but we did grab a few night shots on our evening walks.

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So - that's it for the blog! Seems strange reflecting on it all now - tomorrow being 09-09-09, exactly 2 months since we returned. We have some fantastic memories and experiences, it's pretty amazing how much ground we covered, cultures we've visited, food we've tried, transport we've taken - the list could go on..

Back to reality!!

Signing off - Deepak & Suma.

Posted by deepaksuma 03:38 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Hot 'Dam!

We knew we were in the Netherlands when..

.. all of a sudden, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bicycles! Every station we passed, inumerable gleaming chrome handles of European bikes caught the eye, stacked up against one another. We were soon to find out first hand how integral the bike is to the Dutch way of life!

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After a short interchange at Duivendrecht we hopped on a local train to Amsterdam RAI, where we were met by Kesavan Pari, in standard pose and bounding walk - in all his quirky glory.

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Yikes.. Bikes!

After a great catch-up, a few evening beers at the local brown bar, a very welcome and incredibly tasty curry (first one in a loong time) and just a couple* more glasses of wine (suffice to say, it was a very good night) - we hit the earth with a thud (figuratively) early the next morning when we were introduced to our travel companions - yepp, bikes! It was a shaky start, especially for Sum who couldn't reach the ground with her feet when on her bike, and we weaved around, through and sometimes over the obstacles and other riders. Bike lanes are narrow and require good practice, but before long we had the hang of things, and we managed to get to Meera's gym in one piece - for a spin class!

The class was interesting, a great sweat, and we loved the multi-lingual class, especially energetic calls of "Lllllinks, rechts! Rechts, links!"

Despite Meera's instructions and carefully watching our route on the way, we got hopelessly lost when we tried to make it home on our own, and a 15 minute ride became 45 mins before miraculously, we ended up right in front of K7 and Meera's place.. bizarre.

Canals, Crowds, and Anne Frank Huis

We hit the roads with our bikes and headed into town, leaving our bikes at the Van Gogh Museum and walking and tramming it around. Our only really touristy attraction we saw was Anne Frank Huis - the terraced house along a central Amsterdam canal where Anne Frank, a 12 year old girl jewish girl, wrote her famous journal during the Nazi occupation of the city. The house has been largely preserved as it, devoid of furniture which was all moved out along with the family upon their capture.

The accompanying museum is also fascinating, in particular the exhibit at the end which throws up some interesting ethical questions, raising debate about the narrow line between respecting people's conflicting civil rights.

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Rembrandt Square

We hit the town in the evening and made our way to Rembrandt square - not too much classical about this place, but a wacky mix of classical buildings and fountains, and neon lit bars and nightclubs. A few drinks in a trendy bar, we then headed to the good ol' fashioned Aussie (and Kiwi and Saffer) pub with a sticky floor and a gigantic fan, where they played MJ all night and served lethal tequila shots (where are tequila shots not lethal? I wonder). Ended the night with an stop at a FEBO stand (vending machine serving hot croquettes and pastries) and a New York slice. Brilliant!

Den Haag, Scheveningen and Madurodam

On the weekend, the four of us headed off on a day trip to The Hague, famous for being the home of the international war crimes tribunal, but also where the Dutch parliament sits. Strangely though - Amsterdam is still by constitutional decree, the capital of the Netherlands. Hmm..

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We arrived in Den Haag after a short train ride and made for the Escher Museum (or 'Escher in het Paleis'), a short stroll made difficult by the annual war veterans parade taking place through the city streets - there was much pomp and ceremony.

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Escher was a famous Dutch artist who did his best work during and after the wars, and is best known for his weird and wonderful drawings that seem to defy logic, mess up your mind and captivate all at once! Difficult to describe, Escher's most interesting and famous works are 'Drawing Hands' - a drawing showing two hands both drawing the other - and the 'Waterfall' which shows water seemingly defying gravity and flowing upwards.

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From Den Haag, we hopped on the tram and headed for the beachside enclave of Scheveningen. The weather took a slight turn for the worse as the clouds rolled in and the chilly cold breeze reminded us what weather was meant to be like around these parts. On the boardwalk, we took the opportunity to get in and taste one of the local delicacies - a raw herring fillet with pickles and onions on a soft white bread roll - Dutch sushi! The guy at the stall did warn us to eat it quickly, although I have a feeling the giant seagulls circling above our heads would have enjoyed it a little more than us! Sitting by the chilly beach, we devoured some tapas and watched some bizzare people in costumes on the beach, and others even crazier attempting to bungee jump off a platform over the rough seas. No thankyou!

Met some of Meera's work friends, had a great old chat. Tummies full of tapas, we hopped back on the tram and headed out to the Madurodam - a renowned garden which 'houses' miniature versions of Holland's most famous buildings, including the Dam, Schipol airport, Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt Square, Ajax stadium some others I recognised but could not name, and a whole lot of others that just looked very cool. With only a half hour before the place closed for the day, we had the place almost to ourselves as we wandered around, and couldnt help but play King Kong and look to eat/destroy things. Soo many photo opportunities - there was much mirth.

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The whole 'Dam experience

That evening, we made our obligatory 15 minute tour of the red light district, and all my dreams about great looking models strutting (or standing) in shop windows - well it all disappeared in a flash, and the seedy little district amongst the canals lost its novelty value as we hopped back on the tram within our strippenkarten time limit and headed home. Felt a bit peckish and knocked back a chocolate muffin.. tasted great, made for interesting conversation after!

All in all, our week in Amsterdam was a great chance to catch up with K7 and Meera and check out what they really are up to over in that funny continental country where everyone speaks immaculate English. A bit of touristy wandering, a bit of party party, some fitness (seeing K7 attempt Bikram yoga was hilarious - surely outdone in hilarity funnier only by my own attempts), some pancakes, and some sampling of Dutch delights - made for a memorable week in this unique (and incredibly efficient) town.

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Posted by deepaksuma 03:16 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

Berlin, Berlin

We arrived in Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 2pm after a minor train delay and a 4 1/2 hour train ride from Prague. The impressive glass and steel construction of the new main train station was a sign of things to come - example after brilliant example of a city reborn, and a people coming together.

We used the remarkably efficient S-Bahn and U-Bahn from Hauptbahnhof to Zoologischer Garten, and on to Nollendorfplatz where we checked into the brilliantly named "Hotel Berlin, Berlin."

Streets of Colour

Its festival season in Europe as most cities harness the summer weather for street parades, parks and outdoor sports. Our district near Nollendorfplatz was alive with colour as we walked through the packed gay and lesbian street parade, complete with wurst (sausage) stalls, beer tents and a great number of very interesting people having a fantastic time!

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Near Hauptbahnhof, there was also the Berlin leg of an international volleyball tournament, which we stumbled across and walked into (I'm pretty sure it was free entry?) the women's gold medal match; as well as the Berlin 'Velothon', which looked roughly equivalent to Sydney's City to Surf - on bikes! Men and women of all ages were geared up in biking suits and pedalling around town, and it looked well organised (and plenty of fun) with streets cordoned of for the occasion.

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In the evening, we took full advantage of our final (and very swish) Expedia bargain hotel, making use of the very smart gym and sauna facilities.

New (and Old) Berlin

On a bright and sunny Sunday morning we headed into Pariser Platz adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, to meet Sandeman's New Europe walking tour of Berlin. Sandeman's New Europe has presence in cities all around Europe and conduct free walking tours, (as well as some add ons extra tours) in cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, London etc.

Our guide was Emma, a ginger haired lass from Glasgow, who was extremely knowledgable and confessed her thoughts that Berlin was the "greatest city in the world" - and spoke with humour and fervour throughout that convinced us of her sincerity!

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The tour began in alongside the Brandenburg Gate, which erected in the 18th century, and was part of the no-man's land or "death strip" during the period of the Berlin Wall. Pariser Platz now hosts the American and French embassies.

We walked by the Reichstag, the current house of Germany's parliament - an old building that has undergone a remarkable renovation, bringing it into the 21st century post reunification with its glass dome.

We moved onto the "Memorial for Jewish Victims of the Holocaust", an eery memorial the size of a city block, made up of simple grey rectangular columns of varying sizes set on undulating ground. You can walk through the memorial, interpret it how you will, and it promotes one to think about how such a tradgegy came about. Its location in the heart of town ensures it will not be forgotten.

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We walked past the monotone Luftwaffer headquarters (anyone seen Valkyrie?), past the site of Hitler's final bunkers (which, by the way, is in no way commemorated and marked only by a simple matter of fact historical sign, so as not to give any neo-nazi or disturbed people a gathering point) toward a remnant of the Berlin Wall near the famous 'Checkpoint Charlie' on Friedrichstrasse, a border crossing between east and west Berlin. This is where the Soviet Union and the United States faced off for decades during the Cold War including an incident in which tanks and soldiers physically lined up on either side of the border, guns pointed, for days on end. Despite the history, the place is said to be called 'Berlin's Disneyland' by the locals who point out that nothing is original - including the famous 'You are now leaving the American Quarter' sign.

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The Wall itself is one of 3 remaining portions still standing in Berlin. Put up in 1961 to stop mass exodus of East Germans into the west (whom they considered 'traitors'), where they would find better living conditions, freedom and 'Coca Cola', the Soviets firstly erected a barb wire fence and then eventually a reinforced concrete wall encircling the West German enclave of West Berlin (Berlin the city, is located deep inside East Germany). On the East German side were guards, obstacles, a smaller wall, and guards who had orders to shoot anyone on sight who approached the wall - thus the colloquial "death strip". When the wall came down, this strip which runs right through the middle of unified Berlin, became the world's largest construction site.

As a nice memorial to the wall, a cobbled line runs through Berlin marking where the wall once ran. Simple liberties like traversing this line were simply not possible just 20 years ago.

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The last few stops on the tour were the Gemandsmarkt, Babelplatz (the scene of the Nazi book burning of undesirable authors or political opponents), the Neue Wache (memorial to those who have suffered 'through war or tyranny', made up of an empty room with single statue, or a mother holding her dead son), and Museum Insel - a nice park surrounded by 4 museums as well as the Berliner Dom.

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Remembering

The Jewish Museum in Berling is a really nice museum known as much for its meaningful architecture as its powerful exhibits, the museum traces through the history of the Jewish people in Germany, their suffering during the holocaust, and how they have survived as a people. It also tells stories of survivors, descendants, and those who passed. The exhbits are organised in zig-zagged lines and empty spaces pervade the building, representing emptiness. At one end is the 'holocaust tower' - an unheated empty concrete tower in which you can reflect on this terrible event.

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We also attended a nearby concentration camp (or work camp) in Sachsenhausen, through which tens of thousands of people suffered and died either through malnutrition, disease, through mistreatment, as a result of medical experimentation, or simply murdered through neckshots or by gas. The museum is a potent memorial and exhibit about the conditions of the prisoners, how they survived and how they were liberated. Strangely, there is also an interesting history post the liberation, as to how the site was used as a memorial to the victory over fascism by the East Germans (GDR).

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The episode of history raises some questions, as to me it beggars belief that such a catastrophe could happen, that people could be convinced that this was a path worth following and executing this horrible plan, and that others could stand by and watch it happen. It also generates a sigh of relief that liberal democracy and free markets have flourished and emerged victorious despite obstacles and withstanding current conditions - leading to a peace and freedom for this continent and around the world.

A City Reborn

Two great symbols of Berlin reborn are the new Reichstag, in which parliament now sits; and Potsdamer Platz, a modern and glitzy city area with a grand dome and the home of Sony's headquarters, which used to lie in the so-called "death strip".

The Reichstag was used as parliament prior to WWII and although in West Berlin, it was so close to the border that the capital of West Germany was moved deep into its territory, to Bonn. The building's recent refurbishment and new glass dome was designed by Norman Foster and is meant to represent the transparency of parliament to the people, who can visit the dome and see right down into the chambers where parliament takes place. It also offers some fantastic views over Berlin (although you need some patience to get past the queues!).

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The resolve of the people of this city to come through such adversity and emerge in this fashion, the energy this creates and the manner in which they have gone about it, makes Berlin a truly remarkable place.

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Posted by deepaksuma 23:20 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Praha Prague Praga Prag

Cz-cz-czech it out!

Still on a high from our Opera experience the night before, we got through an early start to hop on an 8am Eurolines bus, headed for Prague. A short 4 hours later, we arrived to Czech out the city with a big reputation for beauty, fun and history.

The shabby and extremely poorly signed metro station put paid to a bright start however, as we rushed around having validated our ticket, to find the correct train to Karlovo namesti, only a few stops away.

Antik City

Checked into the hotel - another 'upgrade' from hostel courtesy of Expedia - and immediately appreciated a nice big room with comfortable bed and air conditioning.. Ah, the little things that make a difference on a long trip away!

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Staré Město

Spent the afternoon with a walk around Wenceslas Square - the city's shopping and entertainment hub; and the Old Town Square - a pretty public space complete with old buildings in classic bohemian style (tall narrow windows, spires), a tower and home to the Astronomical Clock.

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A nice surprise..

Early the next morning we had an unexpected Facebook message, from childhood friend Ajay who happened to be in town for a few days. Ajay had been following the Indian cricket team at the Twenty20 world championships in the UK. Given their early exit, he had a few days up his sleeve and by chance chose Prague!

We'll be back..

We caught up and proceeded up into Old Town (scaling the old tower) and across the old, sculpture lined Charles Bridge into the old Castle district. On the bridge itself, one of the sculptures had a brass plate underneath where everyone seemed to be rubbing the figure of the dog. Not one to be left out, we all followed. Later we found out that, like the old 'toss a coin into the Trevi fountain' gig, the legend goes that you will return to Prague.

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The largest castle in the world

In the castle, we found the large old cathedral (ABC = another bloody church) and took some photos. Outside, the Czech guards stood unmoving in their baby blue uniforms. Above them towered the usual suspects - sculptures of large muscled muscled men smiting enemies in fearsome poses. Back in the day, they must have scared everyone into obeying..

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We didn't look into exploring the remainder of the castle, but headed back into town to see a bit more of the cobbled streets and many grassy parks that dotted the town, including one with an interesting sculpture of a man made of paper-like characters from many languages - depicting peace. Don't know what its called, but we dubbed it the 'paper man'.

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Back in Old Town, we sprung a group of dancers twirling around in the picturesque square.

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Don't have a cow, dude

Prague is a very walkable city and we had been going for a good 5-6 hours, and decided to reconvene later in the evening for dinner - which we did at the Lehká Hlava restaurant, this great vegetarian restaurant where we devoured olives, goats cheese, dips, a lentil soup, burritos, and quesadillas. In a part of the world not known for being vegetarian friendly, I confess it was one of the better meals we had with fresh tasty vegetables and great variety.

The rowdy pub across the way beckoned us in soon after for a couple of (not so) quiet ones, Czech style. At least we couldn't complain of its lack of authenticity.

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It's getting HOT in here!

On the way to Lehká Hlava, we had passed a Bikram Yoga studio and with a spare day in town, we decided to give it a go, knowing very little about it. one thing we did know was that it was to be 90 minutes in a 40C studio, so we hydrated in the hours leading up to out 12 o'clock session, weary about the class and hoping just to get through it alive!

Drizzle accompanied us and reflected our tentative mood, but we were made to feel at home by our fantastic instructor who gave us a pep talk and set up our mats so she could watch us. The class itself was 'interesting' - OK it was TORTUROUS! 26 poses, run through twice each, ranging from pure strength exercises to pure flexibility (and everything in between) - the heat was sapping and muscles strained.

However, we not only got through it, but got through it well. Despite sitting out a couple of poses for lightheadedness, we were both surprised how flexible or strong we could be in some of the poses despite the heat, achieving results in the poses we didn't expect. At the end, we felt elated for getting through it, had a great sweat, and left somewhat energised and looking forward to (and dreading, at the same time) our next session.

Standing United

What better way to recover than to attend an open air festival in the middle of town! A tip from Ajay landed us at the United Islands festival being held in the city over the weekend, involving much revelry, live music sights and, from what we could tell, a whole load of drinking!

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As we walked back home, our final glimpses of the old city were set against the pink hues of the setting sun.. ahh..

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Posted by deepaksuma 16:18 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

In Wien

Wombats in Wien

There may not be any kangaroos in Austria, but there is definately Wombats - the name of our hostel in vienna. Unsurprisingly, it was home to a fair few Aussies, and mostly (seemingly) under the age of 20. It was situated conveniently near the main train station, and with wireless access, a kitchen, laundry, a cheap all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast, and really friendly helpful staff, it was a good base for exploring the town.

Yellow fever

It had been a long time, and on our first evening, we came across a nearby restaurant called 'Yellow' - serving 'Asiatische" food! Two plates of sushi, complete with hoy sin sauce, sweet chilli, all these flavours you take for granted back home.. ah yes!

Buoyed by our taste of Asia, We also had an asian buffet at a restaurant called 'Bamboo' on Neubaugasse, a hip and slightly grungy part of town, where they prepare your stir fry with ingredients and sauces per choice. We had had our fix.

In Wien

The hostel was a stones throw from the main shopping drag on Mariahilferstrasse, and we strolled through the mall down to the Naschmarkt - a flea market that was particularly busy on the Saturday. Colours and smells of Mediterranean and middle-eastern inspired produce, olives, wasabi peanuts, cheeses, felaffel.

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In the evening, we walked around Old Town between the imposing St Stephen's cathedral and the world famous vienna Opera House. Funnily, there was a big screen erected on one side of the building, and a sizeable crowd had brought along picnics, chairs and blankets to watch from the square outside!

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Next door to the Opera is Sacher Eck - the home of the original 'Sacher Torte'. "Expensive, but a must do" proclaimed our guide book, so in we went. The torte is a melange of chocolate sponge cake and apricot jam, covered by hard dark chocolate, and became so famous that the Sacher Eck had to fight for the right to call it's version the "original". Accompanied by a milky coffee and an average hot chocolate - neither of us were particularly impressed.

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Schonnbrun

A palace in Vienna which was the summer home to Sisi (whoever that is!) - did justice to the term 'ABC', or "another bloody castle". Well, it was more of a palace, but you get the drift. We walked around the massive manicured gardens which also houses a zoo and a large hedge maze, and climbed a hill from which a large fountain of triton overlooks the grounds.

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An absolute Heuringer

Austria is famous for it's atmospheric suburban 'Heuringer' wine taverns, which serve inexpensive wine (often home brew), along with fresh and homely food. Sunday evening brought us to Grinzing - a northern suburb known for it's array of Heuringer along it's heritage listed streets. The atmosphere was fun, the musicians play folk music, they and the waiters wearing traditional costume. Families danced and kids played in the sandpit, at one stage a congo line formed (don't know if that's normal!). We thought the wine was less than average, but it was a fun evening nonetheless.

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Wiener Schnitzel

I know what you're thinking - everything we did in Vienna was centred around food! Sad (well maybe not) but true, Vienna is a bit of a foodie heaven - and we couldn't leave Vienna without devouring a Wiener Schnitzel. Or two, as was served on our plates at Schnitzelwirt Schmidt!

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Built up an appetite walking through 'Old Town', from Schwedenplatz to Stephansplatz, through the Habsburg's Imperial palace and gardens, and into the Museums quartier.

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StaatsOper

The final evening in vienna was particularly special, as we dressed up a little (as best we could with limited wardrobe!) and headed to the Opera house to queue for standing room tickets.

I must say the concept of standing room confused me somewhat - were we to be standing in isles? Or jostling with elbows at the front of the room, mosh-pit style?

Well, we found the queue for standing tickets and waiting in line, and were soon confronted with the choice of Parterresteheplatz for 4 Euro a pop, or the Balconstehplatz for 3 Euro. Feeling thrifty, we went for the Parterre!. We didn't regret it - marched into the standing area, we were right in the middle of the theatre at ground level! Rails separated the standing rows, and we were told to 'reserve' our place by placing something around this rail - it was all so organised.

The show was a ballet of 'Anna Karanina' - which we later found out was a famous play by the Russian Leo Tolstoy. The opera house itself was spectacular, and show captivating, and despite intentions to leave early and sore feet from standing a few hours - we stayed till the end to applaud encore after encore with the rest of the audience.

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Posted by deepaksuma 16:01 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

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