Má Vlast: Memories from Prague

Music is powerful. There is absolutely no denying or arguing that. Music can transport us across the world, unite strangers and countrymen, evoke powerful emotions and help us relive special memories. MSO’s (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) concert of Smetana’s ‘Má Vlast,’ conducted by Maestro Jakub Hrůša did all of this and more. Although the piece is titled ‘My Country/My Fatherland,’ the passion and energy of Jakub Hrůša invited all of us in Hamer Hall to become one with the music. With his sweeping, inclusive gestures he granted us the rare privilege to close our eyes and imagine we too were in the beautiful old streets of Prague. Through the MSO he said, “Czech-Republic is my country but for the next 70 minutes it is yours too.”

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And many of us accepted this invitation without hesitation. One patron chatted to me for 20 minutes post show, telling me although her husband of 66 years was no longer with us, for those 70 minutes he was right back beside her. They were back at the castle, back by the banks of the river and back in the small church where they stumbled across a string quartet mid afternoon.

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For me, Smetana’s music so adequately captured my experience in Prague with my Granma. My favourite line from Dante’s ‘Commedia’ is “Siena me fa,” or “Siena made me.” I believe that not only our home city, but every city we visit ‘makes’ us in some way.

‘Vyšehrad’ starts with the harps, soft and sweet and full of promise. My Granma and I were so excited about going to Prague; this place we imagined to be a city lifted from the pages of a fairytale. It certainly was. The castle on the hill, the cobblestone streets and horses and carts at every corner made me feel like I had travelled back in time. The introduction of the strings in ‘Vyšehrad’ creates a melodic harmony that captures the feeling we were in that fairytale. The crescendo that builds up to the first cymbal is like the anticipation we felt after we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to explore.

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Our excitement grew and grew and suddenly BANG! Just like the cymbal there we were! Everywhere we turned there was another surprise. Cymbal! Astronomical Clock. Cymbal! Old Town Hall! Cymbal! Old Town Square. The rumbling drums echoed our footsteps as we headed towards Charles Bridge. Bang! The bridge! Bang! The church! Bang! The river! Prague is a proud city and I felt it proclaiming its glory, beauty and vibrant history at every turn. If at any moment you forget where you are, all you need to do is look up at the castle, which has no qualms shouting loud and clear, “I am here and I am glorious!” I felt this pride and glory in the trumpets. There is no solo and they are not a constant presence throughout the piece, but they are there every now and then to remind you the city is as strong and steadfast as this poem’s namesake: Vyšehrad.

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The second poem ‘Vltava’ or ‘Moldau’ starts with flutes and clarinets portraying the two sources of the river respectively. I felt they also represent my Granma and I. We come from different backgrounds and are two different people but in Prague, just like the two streams, we came together to become a team, ready to encounter challenges and delights together. As these streams come together Smetana himself says they “journey through the woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmers wedding is celebrated,” and the see “the round dance of the mermaids in the nights moonshine.” As I listened to the strains of the polka I vividly recalled the live folklore music that was played as we ate at a traditional Czech restaurant. We both ate fresh fish that could have so easily been caught by fisherman at the Vltava’s edge. After the first mouthful I turned to Granma and said, “It’s just like how mum cooks fish. I’ve been away four weeks and this is the closest thing to a home cooked dinner I’ve had. It’s just like being at home.” We could have been at Smetana’s farmers house with such a homely meal and friendly Evzen, our hospitable waiter, who kept pouring us beer could have been the farmer. Or maybe the farmer’s son as he was very young, tall, dark and handsome. On second thought maybe he was neither as at the end we were given a hefty bill, as we had no idea that unlike in Australia, the salt, pepper, oil, butter, pretzels and water on our table were not free but carried an additional charge if you indulged. I would like to think Smetana’s farmer would have been kind enough to give us a few free granules of pepper with our meal.

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We had a good dance after dinner and then let our high spirits carry us to Charles Bridge. We admired the bridge in moonlight (ok, admittedly it was streetlight but a girl can dream) and were greeted by more music. This time it was a busking violinist. Charles Bridge has a different atmosphere at night. It’s like the river has washed away the crowds and chaos from the day, leaving it calm, peaceful and magical. I skipped over the bridge and twirled round and round the ornate streetlights. All of Granma’s pictures are fuzzy and if you squint you could pretend my blurry outline was one of Smetana’s water nymphs, who has risen from the Vltava onto the bridge.

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Smetana’s next poem is Šárka. The steady tempo that symbolizes her lover Ctriad and his men approaching the fiery maiden reminded me of the constant clip-clop of horse’s hooves echoing on the cobblestones. We treated ourselves to a horse and carriage ride around the city one sunny afternoon. Ctriad is smitten by Šárka’s beauty and falls hopelessly in love with her and the same could be said for the horses and I. I felt like royalty as I sat in my carriage and trotted past all the peasants on foot.

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Of course, so many love stories end in tragedy. That same day Granma and I had a fight. The morning sun started to recede and dark clouds rolled into replace them. And they rolled in quickly. Suddenly we were in the middle of a violent summer storm and we were drenched.

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Just like Šárka blows her horn to signal her maidens to come out and attack Ctriad’s men, the clash of thunder seemed to release harsh words from both of us. I think it was the remnants of tension from the day before when we ended up on a slow 8-hour regional train from Berlin. Granma had a fantastic time as people took pity on her and so she ended up with a comfortable seat and got drunk with Irish backpackers. Meanwhile I was jammed between the door of the smelly toilet cubicle, a pile of luggage and the door of the train where the sun shone through and burnt me. Our cruel words to each other and our fiery tempers matched Šárka’s maidens. Our words cut, just like their swords cut the poor men to pieces. Luckily we didn’t murder each other!

‘Z českých luhů a hájů’ brings peace back to ‘Ma Vlast‘ and the Czech countryside definitely brought peace back to Granma and I. All the instruments in this poem combine to give smooth melodies and the feeling of a hymn. Gazing and admiring the Czech countryside certainly makes you want to sing in praise for such breathtaking scenery. I closed my eyes during this poem and remembered the peace I felt as after exploring St Vitus and Prague Castle. Afterwards, Granma and found a bench overlooking the river and the fields and just sat and enjoyed the warm sun.

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7 minutes into this movement, the tempo becomes lively again, and as I listened my face lit up with a cheeky grin. This part would have to correspond to when I, being too cowardly, made Granma go into a shop and buy me Absinthe ice-cream so I could pretend to be a suave Bohemian artist.

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The percussion starts again and the music suddenly has a dynamic quality to it. By now we are back in the old town square and it is buzzing. Maybe everyone had absinthe for lunch. There are people laughing and talking and children squealing in delight. There are so many foreign languages and I like to think each instrument is representative of a language. When they all come together they create a vibrant, sometimes chaotic but mostly cohesive refrain.

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Tábor and Blaník complete Má Vlast. These two poems emphasize the struggles and triumphs of the Hussites and of the country. My words cannot do this history justice. All I can say is by visiting buildings and reading books I perhaps cannot fully understand the turmoil endured by these people but I certainly am empathetic. What I can say is this message is empowering. I love the message that despite adversity there is hope and there can be triumph. A bit like travel I guess. There are days you will want to give up. In Prague there were many moments like this for me. I was about to end my trip with my Granma and embark on my 6-week backpacking expedition with my friend. I was terrified. Surely there would be no way two 19 year old girls could get themselves around Europe in one piece? And I was devastated this incredible experience with my Granma was coming to an end. I don’t many people that can say they travelled and had an absolute blast with their Granma. But perhaps the most emotive part of this section for me is the call and echo of a shepherd’s boy’s pipe. The boy, who I like to think of as Prague, called out to me and I responded. This city called to me to come and visit, no, not just visit, embrace and immerse myself in its history and culture and I did. It called me to make special memories with my Granma and I did. I like to think that just as a city ‘makes’ us as Dante says, we too can make our mark on a city. Or in light of this incredible piece of music, I like to think somehow I left a sound, one note in Prague. And Prague, in the music of my life, you definitely left a note in my heart.

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Smetana didn’t compose Ma Vlast for a young girl and her Granma and I bet Maestro Hrůša had no idea what vivid memories and emotions he was conjuring in the mind of an usher in the circle as he stood in front of the MSO. But I would like to thank him and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for letting me relive my magical week in Prague. Thank you Smetana and Hrůša for allowing me to experience in person and in music Your Home.

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Recreating Prato in Melbourne

I love Melbourne. I really do. I love it because it is my home, it’s full of my friends and family and I’m an expert in this city. Yet I still long for my second home, Italy, and often I’m hit with pangs of nostalgia.

To conquer this, recently I’ve visited two amazing places that have made me feel like I’m back in my home away from home.

Gelato Messina
http://www.gelatomessina.com

One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of Italy is gelati. In summer I lived off it and in winter … I also lived off it. I love the variety of flavours you get in Italy, the quality natural products they use and the joy the makers have in their product (at one of my favourite places in Prato – Gelateria Del Corso – the owner proudly displayed all his awards and told me all about gelati university … yes … they exist).

I’ve heard about Gelato Messina which opened in Melbourne last year and have been wanting to visit for a while. So, finally, one sunny winter day two weeks ago my friend and I went to see if it lived up to reviews. Did it ever! They had a huge variety of signature flavours and 5 flavours of the day. The gelati was vibrant and colourful, an easy give away they have used quality ingredients. They could even tell me without checking what flavours were gluten free and offered me a GF cone. In Italy EVERY gelateria had GF cones or coni per tutti (cones for everyone) as one man called them.

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I got choc chip and caramelised white chocolate. Oh wow! The gelato was silky smooth and often I’d get a chunk of chocolate that melted in my mouth. We lounged on the chairs outside and people watched as we devoured our treats. The only complaint I have is the price. At $6 per scope this is no where near as cost effective as the €2.50 from my second local Prato Gelateria ‘Carli’ right near Prato Porta Al Seraglio Station,that was almost as big as my head.

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Carli Gelateria Prato – €2.50 for this!!

Dog’s Bar, St Kilda
http://www.dogsbar.com.au

For 4 weeks in Prato I shared an apartment with two girls who became like my sisters. They are conviently from Melbourne and a few weeks ago we decided we needed a ‘roomie night.’ We started at Anna’s but in true Prato style decided to head out for dinner. We threw on our coats and jackets and scarfs, just like in Prato as it was winter when we were there, and headed out in the dark to find cheap Italian (again this was weekly ritual in Prato). We walked around Ackland Street in St Kilda and the difference between here and Italy was obvious immediately. There was no cheap yet heavenly food. All the restaurants were either cheap (with average food) or had fancy food (but well out of our budget price range). Eventually after a lot of walking, window menu checking and google searching we found the perfect place: Dog’s Bar. The next step was finding out if they had gluten free and dairy free food. We promised the waiter we weren’t annoying health conscious girls but had serious allergies (which is true). All was good!

We got the ‘Starving Artist’ deal (or in our case you could substitute artist for student). For $15 you could get either spag bol or risotto and a glass of the house wine. Is that not the best deal ever? Before our meals came out we were also given a generous plate of bread, butter and oil. I enjoyed the butter and oil and lactose intolerant Anna enjoyed the bread. Lactose intolerant and gluten intolerant Jenna enjoyed the oil. We were equally impressed when our meals came out. They were HUGE and oh so very yummy. We ate and ate and ate whilst we enjoyed amazing local live music and gossiped. It was just perfect and took me back to Italy. If you need a little taste of Italy I highly recommend you go here. The only disappointing part of the evening was as it was 11pm and in the middle of winter there was no where to get ice-cream!

Let It Snow

I hate winter. I don’t like shivering with cold, I don’t like thick, bulky winter clothes and I particularly don’t like the overcast skies that dampen my mood. So it’s ironic that when I travelled to Turkey to escape winter, it was the first time I saw snow falling.

When I was studying in Italy, I had a 3 week break over the Christmas and New Year period. I have an extensive travel list and so understandably I spent a long time trying to decide where to go. I was torn between two things: 1) having an authentic European winter and white Christmas and 2) escaping to somewhere a little bit warmer. In the end Turkey won due to the average temperature in December being 8-15C (and by leaving the EU for 2 weeks meant that in total my time there came under the 90 day rule so I didn’t need a VISA!).

4 days before I arrived in Istanbul there was a storm that completely covered the city in snow, but by the time I arrived the snow had melted, there were blue skies and glorious, glorious sun! Apart from crazy wind in Troy, the sun followed me all of the way. Until Cappadocia…

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On the drive from Konya to Cappadocia was when I saw the snow. I had only seen snow three times before (when mum and dad took my brother and I when we were little, when I went skiing in the Pyrenees and on the best day of my life at Zermatt) so I still get overly excited!

We stopped at the Agzikarahan Caravanserai and sure enough there was snow. My tour guide talked about the Caravanserai but I could barely listen, and this is saying something because I am a history nerd! Instead, I was too busy staring at the whiteness and nudging it with my foot. I contained my excitement until he finished talking before I started to play with it.

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First things first: make a snowball. Touching snow still fascinates me. I always imagined it to be soft and powdery, like a cloud, and this statement is probably really obvious to all you snow experts but it’s more like ice. Or a slushie you get from the service station. And it’s not always white. Again, it should be obvious that when there isn’t much snow it will mix with the dirt, but please cut me some slack! When you read books about Santa at the North Pole or watch Frozen there are no brown bits in the snow.

I think it is beautiful how it nestles on the tree branches. I think it is even more beautiful when after a few good shakes of the tree it breaks free and slowly dances to the ground. A few of us snow novices stood under the trees and pretended it was snowing.

And then it DID start. It was falling so lightly I didn’t even notice until someone nudged me and whispered “It’s snowing.” “I know,” I replied, “We’re shaking the trees.” “No. It’s REALLY snowing!”

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Sure enough if you concentrated you could see the tiny white specks. They were like raindrops. But lighter. And softer. And they don’t make you wet.

I tried to catch one but to no avail. Another misconception: they don’t look like this:

I didn’t want to get back on the bus as I was enjoying the little winter wonderland but I did and we continued onto Cappadocia and Göreme. Unfortunately/fortunately by the time we got to the    Open Air Museum it was sunny.

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The next day was a different story.

When I woke up it was -10. The hotel I was staying at did not have adequate heating, I actually wonder if it had any heating at all, but at least it gave me an idea of what to expect that day. I knew I’d have to rug up. The thing is, Australia doesn’t do winter. My brothers host mum in Belgium laughed at my warm “Winter” jacket and said it was something they would wear in Spring. A family in Prato laughed when I came inside their warm house and had to shred about 4 layers of my Australian “Winter” clothes. They called me a ‘cipole.’ I didn’t understand why I was being called an onion until the famous line “onions have layers” came flooding back to me. I can quote that whole scene in English but my Italian is not that sophisticated… (Oh, you both have LAYERS. Oh. You know, not everybody like onions. What about cake? Everybody loves cake!”)

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So this is what I wore on my second day in Cappadocia: 1) tights 2) second pair of tights 3) socks) 4) a pair of long socks 5) Jeans 6) Lined (Australian) boots 7) singlet 8) long sleeve thermal 9) long sleeve top 10) second long sleeve top 11) ballet wrap 12) jumper 13) cardigan 14) thick jumper 15) my spring/winter coat 16) scarf 17) beanie 18) gloves.

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I felt so fat and padded. I could barely move. Was I warm with my 18 layers? HELL NO! I have never been so cold in my life. My fingers and toes were numb. Actually I take that back. They weren’t numb, they HURT!

Normally I will stay out all day, doing and seeing anything and everything I possibly can and if I am on a tour I am the last person back on the bus. Not this time. I lasted about 20 minutes at each stop before I climbed back on the bus and huddled in a ball.

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Despite this I loved Cappadocia and I am really glad I got to see it covered in snow. I went to Turkey to try and escape winter and for the most part I did. If I had my time again would I change anything? No way! I may have almost frozen but I still loved it and still think snow is magical. But maybe only in small doses…IMG_6428

Was This Nostalgic Plovdiv Just A Dream?

IMG_3429I’ve been a lucky traveller. I haven’t been mugged, I haven’t had anything stolen (although I’ll never know what happened to my camera in France :(), I haven’t missed a flight although I’ve been close, or had my luggage lost. The scariest thing that has happened to me (apart from getting struck by lightning) is getting lost.

I had loved my time in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. I thought it was a thriving new city with a beautiful old town. After spending a decent time happily and aimlessly wandering the old town, I thought I’d best head back to the new town to get lunch. I’d slept through my alarm that morning and skipped breakfast in order to make my bus so it was fair to say I was famished.

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The old town is on a hill and I walked down the steep, uneven, cobblestone path back to the road. I crossed the main road and that’s when I realised something wasn’t right. There had been a church right before the traffic lights and now there wasn’t. I ruled out the possibility it had been demolished in 2 hours and decided I’d just come down the hill at a different spot. Easy, I thought, I’ll just turn left and walk back along the road to where I was certain the new town was. Little did I know I had come down the hill on the other side…

10 minutes later I came across a market hall. Now alarm bells really started ringing. I had definitely not walked past this earlier. “It’s ok,” I thought. “There has to be a sign or map somewhere.” Yes, there were plenty of signs but they were all in cyrillic. I felt a panic attack starting. I started to breath really quickly and my palms started sweating. “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok,” I tried to reassure myself. “You can ask someone for directions.”

5 minutes past. I didn’t see a soul. Of course at 11am on a Sunday morning there will be no one about. “Go into the market place. Surely there will be someone there.” Good idea brain! I went back and … CLOSED.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Suddenly I saw some people. I ran over to them.

“Dobro utro. Angliiski?”

They shook their heads and kept walking, paying no attention to the lost, lonely traveller.

By now I really couldn’t breathe. My heart was pounding. I was sweating from both the heat and the fear. My mind was racing “You’ll never get home, you’ll be lost forever, you’re in some remote area of Bulgaria, you are an easy target, your story will be the inspiration for the next Taken movie.” Now not only did I have all these horrible thoughts racing though my mind but horrible images of being thrown into the back of a van and being a sex slave for the rest of my life because my dad is Liam Neeson.

I have no idea why I did what I did next and I am deeply ashamed.

I called my mum back in Australia.

“Sam! Hello! What are you doing? Is everything amazing? What’s the weath-”

“I’m lost. Help.”

“Ok, where are you?”

“IF I KNEW THAT I WOULDN’T BE LOST,” I cried.

“Alright. What country?”

“Bulgaria. Plovdiv. I need to be at the bus in 20 minutes!.”

“Sam, calm down, I can’t understand you.”

“BULGARIA. PLOVDIV!!!”

“Dad’s getting up google maps. How do you spell Plod – what is it?”

“PLOVDIV!!!”

“Ok, Plovdiv, Bulgaria. That’s an interesting -”

“I’M LOST. I NEED TO BE BACK AT MY BUS!”

“Can you see any street signs?”

“THEY ARE ALL IN CYRILLIC!”

“What’s that?”

“LIKE RUSSIAN SYMBOLS. I CAN’T READ IT!”

“Can you spell the street name?”

“CYRILLIC, MUM! SYMBOLS! I’M GOING TO DIE HERE ALONE!”

I started crying then. Real classy.

“Sam, can you please calm down. It’s ok.”

“I CAN’T. I’M LOST. NOW I ONLY HAVE 10 MINUTES!”

“Can you call your tour guide?”

Silence. Well that would have been the logical solution wouldn’t it? Damn panic.

“Sniff, yes, sniff, I have her number, sniff, she’ll hate me, sniff…”

And then a miracle occurred. I walked around a corner and suddenly I knew where I was!

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“I’VE FOUND IT! I KNOW WHERE I AM! BUT I STILL WON’T MAKE IT TO THE BUS ON TIME! I’M STILL GOING TO DIE ALONE IN BULGARIA!” I panted as I started sprinting down the street.

“Call your tour guide. Tell her you’ll be late.”

“I – pant pant – can’t – puff puff – ”

“I can’t understand you, Sam.”

At that point I hung up on my poor mum and ran and ran and ran past the restaurants with food – oh food my stomach rumbled, past the cafes with the jugs of water – oh water my throat screamed – and I made it back to the bus as everyone was leisurely climbing on.

I ran to my seat, put my sunnies on so no one could see and started to cry – in fear, in relief, in hunger, in exhaustion, in thirst. I let the silent tears fall and started to breathe normally again as I admired the sunflowers out my window. I sent an apologetic text to my mum.IMG_3502

“I’m SO sorry mum. I completely freaked out and reverted to a child for a minute and thought mum will fix it. I’m back on the bus now and I’m ok. Plovdiv is a really awesome place. I loved it. I’m so sorry again. xx”

She replied immediately.

“Even big brave travellers need their mum sometimes. You’re still my little girl. Glad to know you’re ok. Enjoy your day! xx”

Oh dear … I’ve been lost plenty of times before but I guess the heat, the language barrier, my hunger and exhaustion just got to me that day.

I still can’t believe I thought calling mum in Australia would fix it! That’s travel for you. Utterly crazy!!

 

Getting Struck by Lightning and Exploring Ruins

There are three reasons why I think I got struck by lightning in Veliko Tarnevo, Bulgaria:

1) The day before I had stood on the stage of a Roman amphitheatre and Dionysus (Theatre God) wanted to punish me, a mere pleb, for trying to perform.

2) One of the ladies on my tour made a joke that our local guide was secretly a Russian spy and I laughed.

3) 30 minutes before I got hit I had taken a photo in a Church when photography was prohibited.

Here’s what happened …

The sky was ominous. I was amazed at how in the space of a few hours it could go from sweltering hot and sunny to dark and cloudy. From my seat on the bus I watched the trees swaying angrily whilst I listened to my guide talk about the history of the medieval Bulgarian Kings who had made Tarnevo their capital for more than two centuries and then their ultimate defeat at the hands of the Ottomans. He painted a grim scene and the wind howled although also in mourning.

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Our bus weaved its way up the hills to Veliko Tarnevo. We disembarked only to be attacked by the lamenting wind. My guide had talked of the wonderful ruins of Tsarevets Fortress. Most people lasted barely minutes off the bus before deciding their idea of fun was not exploring ruins under a foreboding sky, with a storm well and truly on its way.

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It wasn’t raining, yet, and anyway I wasn’t going to let a little bit of rain bother me so I decided to go exploring. I was alone in my decision. One lady kindly lent me her umbrella. As she gave it to me she warned “I bought it in Singapore with loose change so I’m surprised it’s lasted this long. It’s not very good, but hey, it’s better than nothing!”

The bus continued off to the hotel with everyone either laughing at my braveness? stupidity? or mouthing “good luck” out the window.

It was suddenly just me, a hill with ruins and an impending storm.

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I began walking up the hill going past the cowardly/smart people going back down to the town. The guard smiled and grunted “dobar den” and something else that I’m sure meant “what are you doing?” and pointed to the sky and then to this sign.

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I made a mental note not to try dancing demi-pointe on a crumbling wall on the edge of a cliff.

It began to rain. After a blistering hot day, the droplets were cool and refreshing but this didn’t last long. It started raining harder and harder. The flimsy umbrella stood no chance against the wind and rain and within minutes my clothes were soaking wet, my make-up was running down my face and there were puddles in my shoes. Considering I was already soaking wet I jumped in puddles (there were more puddles than there were paths), twirled my umbrella and pretended I was the lead in ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’

IMG_3569The only thing that even remotely suggested this used to be a fortress were the amount of ruins. It was difficult to make out what any of the crumbling stones were, or used to be, however one thing that was evident was Executioners Rock. Half a tower remained on the edge of the cliff and there was a long, sharp drop into the Yantra River below. As I imagined how horrible it would be to spend your final moments looking into the abyss you were about to be mercilessly pushed into, a crack of thunder shook the hill. It gave me shivers.IMG_3544

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IMG_3555I continued running around now with thunder and lightning to accompany me. Eventually I made my way to Patriarch’s Complex, also called the Church of the Blessed Saviour, the reconstructed church on the top of the hill, trying not to slip on the soggy grass or slippery paths. We owe this reconstruction to the Communists. Being the nerd I am, earlier that day, I asked my local guide how the reconstruction was possible as no new churches were allowed to be constructed during communism. He smiled and patted my shoulder, proud at my astuteness, and told me considering this was a ‘reconstruction’ and not a ‘new church’ it was allowed. The joy of legal loopholes. The joy of being a history nerd!

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IMG_3580It was not the reverie I’d hoped for. The frescos were neo-realist and portrayed a deformed, surreal Christ in black, red and white harsh brushstrokes. There were electric candles illuminating the interior and their eerie glow combined with the thunder outside gave me an uneasy feeling.

IMG_3586I exited into calmer weather. It appeared the storm had stopped. Ironically it was now I decided to slowly make my way back down to the town. 30 minutes later I was almost at the bottom when it started to drizzle again so I put up the poor, cheap umbrella once more.*

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Suddenly I heard the loudest crash of my life. I screamed in terror, certain a bomb had gone off. It echoed around me and thundered in my ears. Later, back at the hotel, I would be told they thought there had been an explosion. The sky lit up in an eerie glow. There was a flash and I swear I saw a flame come out of the base of the umbrella. There was a sharp sting in my hand holding the umbrella. I screamed again: in pain, in shock, in fear and threw the umbrella.

Some people came running over to me pointing at the umbrella, then their hand and whether they were questioning why I had thrown the umbrella, indicating they had seen the flame or suggesting the same thing happened to them I’ll never know.

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My hand, in fact my whole arm hurt. It no longer stung, but it ached and tingled. I hurried back to my hotel shaking my hand to try and get rid of the strange sensations but to no avail. I was terrified I was going to drop dead but was also laughing hysterically out loud on the street thinking “I think I’ve just been struck my lightning.” ** I was absolutely drenched, my clothes and hair were stuck to my body, my make up had run, I was walking strangely due to the amount of water in my shoes, shaking my hand and laughing. I must have looked like a mad women. Maybe I was. I don’t know many people who go exploring Bulgarian royal ruins in the middle of a thunder storm!

*Why did I put the umbrella up after a thunderstorm? Well it had been at least 30 minutes since I last heard thunder. I thought it had passed and I would be safe.

**A lot of people said “If you were really struck by lightning, wouldn’t you be dead?” Well, we think it was a side flash. That is the lightning struck the tree near me and jumped from that to the umbrella, travelled down the umbrella and into my hand. So by the time it got to my hand, it wasn’t as severe. Regardless I was very lucky.

Tacky Tourist Souvenirs

I have a confession to make.

I love tacky souvenirs.

When I travelled with my Granma she didn’t hesitate to remind me that what I was buying was “crap,” as she so eloquently put it. Apparently I was wasting my money. Apparently buying keyrings and magnets and t-shirts is a phase all travellers go through. Apparently you grow out of it quickly. Apparently not. It’s been 6 years since my first trip and sometimes I still can’t help myself.

So here are the best (or worst) things I’ve shamelessly bought.

Cow T-Shirt

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Kids t-shirts in Switzerland are way cooler than the adult ones. Luckily for me I can fit into them (although they make me look like I am 12 years old)! It was a difficult choice but I settled on this one because yes your eyes are not deceiving you the tail of the last cow is a cord.

Yodelling Cow Keyring

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What is not to love about this? It is a plush keyring, it says Switzerland on his hat, he is chewing a daisy and HE YODELS (or it used to. His battery doesn’t work anymore. The day he stopped yodelling my heart shattered into two. But he used to wolf whistle and then yodel for about 20 seconds before finishing with another whistle.) My friend was mortified when I met her in London with him attached to my bag. When we did a day trip around Tuscany there was a 1 year old little American girl who was obsessed with Cow. I let her play with him all day and when we arrived back in Florence she did not want to give him back. Any other person would have let the child keep the child’s toy. Not me. I got Cow back.

Hapsburg Imperial Dolls

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Meet Sisi and Marie (Maria Theresa). I bought Sisi in Austria in 2011 and Marie from Budapest in 2013. Next time I’m over there I’m going to get a boy and name him Franz and I will have the Hapsburg family. I adore Sisi. She travelled with me the rest of 2011 and she came with me when I lived in Italy last year. She has also been to hospital with me and she proudly sits on my bed. I am 21 years old and I am not ashamed to have a plush doll.

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Snow Globes

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My ultimate guilty pleasure. Some buy magnets, I buy snow-globes. I have 32 from all the major cities I have been to in Europe. There is no more room on my shelf so perhaps it’s time to finish my collection here and move onto magnets. Despite carting them all around Europe only 1 has broken. After travelling with my Granma I met up with my friend in London to continue on and Granma flew home. She packed the 9 snowglobes I entrusted her with in her hand luggage. Of course this was a problem as a) you can’t take glass on a plane and b) they were over the 100ml limit. A lovely Qantas official from Heathrow took pity on my poor Granma – “You don’t understand! My grand-daughter will be devastated” and checked them in underneath. Mozart from Salzburg did not survive.

Clearly I am the coolest, tackiest traveller around.

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On Top of The World II

I opened my eyes.

Instead of cow bells I could hear voices saying “Sam, are you ok in there? Do you need some help?” in a muffled and concerned tone. I mumbled back I think so.

My hands and toes were frozen. I tried to breathe but the air was thin and I couldn’t get enough into my lungs. I felt dizzy and the toilet cubicle was spinning. The room looked upside down. That’s when I realised it was.

“Um, I think I fainted.”

The past hour rushed through my mind: get out of chairlift, run, no sprint to glacier, stand on top of glacier, try and make a snowball, throw snowball, go into glacier cave, go down glacier slide, run back to the top, rush down again, I think I feel sick, no you don’t, GO GO GO!

***

When we were about halfway up, the first member of our group started complaining of feeling sick. He felt dizzy and nauseous and although he didn’t want to miss out on this amazing experience, he simply felt too ill to continue. I too realised the air was much thinner up here but was so overwhelmed with excitement I tried to ignore it.

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The best way to distract yourself from the cold? Try on cow hats!

I got onto the next chairlift and let it take me higher and higher. I felt like I was flying, soaring, leaving the real world far below.

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The coldness hit me even harder when we finally got to the top. But there was no way I was letting it stop me. I skipped with excitement through the tunnel and out onto the glacier. Yes, that’s right! A Glacier!!!

I clawed at the ice until my fingers were raw. I managed to create a snowball but there was no way I was going to build a snowman. I threw it and watched the ice crystals sparkle in the sun.

The American tourists laughed at my fascination with the ice/snow.

“If you had to shovel piles and piles out of your doorway, you wouldn’t find it as beautiful!”

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But it was beautiful. And magical. And there were so many things to do. I wanted to hike right up to the top. I wanted to go down into the glacier cave. I didn’t have the right shoes or clothes but that wasn’t going to stop me.

Granma was really feeling the cold and change in atmosphere. She decided a coffee inside was a better option than the glacier cave. She remembered getting altitude sickness when she had gone to Mount Whistler years ago.

Down we went. There were ice statues of houses and deer and beer bottles and mountains. And then we hit the jackpot. A slide!

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There was a rope across it (this should have been a warning) but that didn’t stop us. There were warning signs in 4 different languages but that was also ignored.

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Beware children – when using this slide without a cushion you will get soaking wet and freezing cold. When you do use a cushion be prepared to FLY!

I sat down on the ice and felt it soak through my clothes and start to freeze my bones. And then I pushed off. I flew down, screaming in delight all the way down. The others followed me. And then we hit our second jackpot. Cushions. Aha! You are meant to go down the slide on the cushions!

We ran back up, if possible, giggling even harder.

This time when I pushed off, I really flew. I bashed into the icy walls numerous times, I was going so fast I couldn’t steer, and was propelled another metre through the air when I hit the bottom.

It was exhilarating.

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SLIDE!

Not long after I told my companions a) my camera lens had frozen over it was so cold and b) I didn’t feel well.

They all felt slightly queasy too and said it was normal. Nevertheless we decided to head back up to the cafe to warm up.

At this point I REALLY didn’t feel well and stumbled to the toilets, the world spinning. Please let me make it before I throw up.

***

“Sam, can you get up? Can you open the door.”

I reached up, unlocked the door and crawled out. My fellow tour members picked me up and helped me out to the cafe where I slumped into a chair. I remember being given some really warm red gloves with a Swiss flag on them, a hot chocolate and my tour guides jacket being wrapped around me and realising when I fainted I had smashed my camera.

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The last picture I took on my poor camera. I have no idea what I was aiming for here. R.I.P Camera.

They said it was altitude sickness. Granma said we should go back down the mountain to the hotel. My tour guide said he would carry me. I said no I want to hike the glacier. They ignored me.

I still maintain it was the best day of my life.

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Next time I will wear proper shoes and clothes and not faint and hike right up to the top!