365. “St Harriet”

IMG_6556 (480x640)My first attempt at the Vatican was a definite failure. As it turns out, one does not simply visit the Vatican on a whim in the middle of summer whilst wearing a summer dress. I got myself a modesty scarf and decided to chance it (the lines weren’t too long by then). But alas, I was still deemed too slutty and denied entrance.

Round two was much more successful, this time I managed to be appropriately covered, but in some kind of divine revenge for even thinking I could enter with my knees bared, it was a 40 degree day. I don’t think I’ve ever been in anything more than 38, and even then I was feeling faint. Conveniently, there were enormous crowds on my arrival too. Standing in a gigantic line that went all the way around the courtyard (the line kind of wiggled around so as many people were in the shade as possible) it was going to be at least a few hours of incredibly slow movement. I was not fortunate enough to be one of the ones in the shade either.

About the stage where my vision was getting blurry and I had long since run out of water (tourism in that heat is just exhausting), a nice old woman came along to pitch the “skip the line tour.” I’d already been haggled multiple times for those tours and had written them all off as totally unnecessary expenditure. But by that stage I was already thinking about quitting on the Vatican and finding the nearest establishment that could put ice and water in a glass and give it to me. This woman told me that for €25 I could skip the line, go straight in and have a guided tour and I thought bugger it, I didn’t come on holiday to spend two hours in what felt like an inescapable sauna. I got her down to €20 and off we went. Sadly my feeling of relief was very short lived. First we had to go in to a nearby shop and sign up (they have to register names as a group apparently). Waiting around happened. Then we went back outside (at least we were in the shade) where the tour started with an incredibly long winded explanation of the history of the Vatican and the square out front. More waiting around happened. We did get to sneak round the back and get photos with the Swiss guard in their hilarious Uniforms, which was possibly one of the only perks. Then we were back out front again, more waiting, in to another shop to pay (you guessed it, more waiting), more “history” and explanations and finally we went around to the museum entrance. I would say it was probably almost an hour and a half before we were actually looking at anything inside the Vatican, and it was an enormous ruse so the tour guide could keep adding more and more people. Worst of all, when we got to the Museum entrance there were no lines whatsoever, and by then I was really annoyed at myself for not doing a bit of research.IMG_6553 (480x640)

Like the thousands of people queuing out front, I had no idea that if you just go via the museums there’s almost no line, it spits you out at St Peter’s Basilica, and the museums/Sistine Chapel are where all the good stuff is anyway. The guide was also fairly useless, rushing us through when there were loads of things to see, and she only really knew about the few key things that she stopped to explain, and couldn’t answer basic questions about other things. For instance, when I asked what the enormous and rather out of place modern sculpture smack-bang in the middle of the courtyard above the Sistine Chapel was, she didn’t even have the decency to make something up! It’s quite the noticeable eyesore, looking like a giant, gold poké-ball. You’d think someone going past it twice a day would have some idea. Especially when they are meant to be an expert in the subject.IMG_6431 (480x640) IMG_6430 (640x480)

So I wound up paying some serious 40-degree-heat-induced foreigner/idiot tax. I will never again do one of the “skip the line” tours or turn up at something ridiculously famous in the peak of the tourist season without doing my research!

On the bright side though, whilst waiting for far too long out the front, the guide pointed out the names of the saints around the Colonades that matched those in the group. Apparently the one pictured above is Saint Harriet. Sounds fairly dubious and I haven’t been able to verify if that is actually true (the closest I’ve found is that it could be St Hilarion or St Hyacinth) but I don’t really care, I’m just going to assume that it’s true as it was probably the only interesting thing I learned on the tour. Ignorance is bliss.IMG_6557 (640x480)

266. House of Bols

In Amsterdam we were met with some pretty disappointing weather, so indoor activities were bumped higher up the priority list. Thanks to the wonderful iPhone app that is Tripadvisor Cityguides, we were able to download a guide to all the attractions, with map locations and reviews, and even a compass feature that points you in the direction of an attraction/restaurant/bar, all without needing to be connected to the internet. With that, our scavenger hunt began.

The House of Bols turned out to be quite the hidden gem, and probably something we wouldn’t have stumbled across if it weren’t for the bad weather, and the Tripadvisor app! Bols, creater of the Dutch spirit Genever, was an unfamiliar name to me, but once I arrived and saw the bottles, a realised I had seen them before, probably many times on the back walls of bars.

I had always assumed they were just another version of cheap and cheerful flavoured liqueurs used for cocktails. As it turns out, Genever is an apparently famous type of spirit, with a price tag to match, and careful effort has been made to create a range of different flavours.

The tour of the House of Bols goes through the history of its creation, gives an opportunity to smell all of the flavours, watch panoramic films and most importantly, try a few cocktails and sample shots.

The thing I liked the most about it, being a marketing geek, was how well designed the displays were. Given I was paying for a tourist attraction for a drink I previously thought was cheap, and came out knowing all about the product and realising it was actually quite nice and far more upmarket, I’d say it was a pretty succesful marketing campaign on their part. Now they just need someone to make the bottles less tacky.

221. The worst tour guide in the world

It was hot. We’d had a big night. We were too lazy to work out how to actually see the sights on our own so thought we’d give one of the free walking tours a whirl. As it turned out, I think it was the first time in my life that I have wanted to scratch someone’s eyeballs out within two hours of meeting them.

There were about 50 others that had thought the same thing, but there were two tour guides which improved the situation somewhat. As the group was getting divided in two, we took it upon ourselves to position ourselves next to guide number one, who was one of the tallest people I had ever seen. Possibly tried to be a pro basketball but got too excited at all the cheap pivo, and is now running walking tours for tips. Nonetheless, we thought he’d be a safe bet given he was impossible to miss in a crowd. I pointed this out to him in a comment that could have been taken terribly, but instead he whipped out some quality banter and we were instant friends.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Tour guide number two decided to re-divide the crowd and put us in her group. Gunning for the most people so she could get more tips, I’d say. It started to go downhill once she opened her mouth. We all quietly commented that we had just been subjected to the worst Australian accent we’d ever heard and I thought gosh this is going to be tough to listen to for the next few hours. As it turned out, she was from Christchurch. It was one of those cringeworthy, so bad its embarassing, bogan kiwi accent moments. But I’ve watched enough Shortland Street to be able to move past her voice, even if it was reminiscent of nails on a chalk board.

Where it got really painful, was when the actual tour began. So relatively early on. In what was the finest example of memorising a script without having any concept of what it meant, we were subjected to 3 long hours of terrible jokes, awkward silences, but worst of all, being talked to as though we were five year old children. Adolf Hitler? No idea who he was, but we sure heard a lot about “the very very bad man.”

The few Czechoslovakian words I’ve heard (largely place names, and names of famous composers) were all pronounced wrong, so I can only assume the non-internationally famous words weren’t correct either. But the moment where I really decided I couldn’t stand this girl, was when she was educating us about the “hollycost.” I was just totally embarrased for our entire nation that so many travellers are going to hear this girl speak and think we are all home schooled idiots in New Zealand.

But on the upside, at least there was loads of interesting stuff to look at in Prague, so even the worst, most uneducated on the city she lives in, rude tour guide in the world couldn’t ruin a fascinating and beautiful city.

For anyone interested in a walking tour of Prague, whatever you do, DON’T go with Rachel from Sandeman’s New Prague tours!

202. Cycle Tour of Berlin

With an ever growing love for cycling (the parents will be thrilled), I thought a cycle tour of Berlin sounded like a fantastic idea. I’m a bit skeptical of tours, always wondering if it would be better to save your euros and walk, but the highlights of Berlin are all over town, and there’s just so much to learn about Berlin.

We picked Fat Tire Bike Tours and did their “All-in-one” tour and gosh I just couldn’t rate it higher! Our tour guide, Kate, was hilarious, knowledgeable and incredibly passionate about what she was doing, at one stage pausing to draw us a map of how the East-West Berlin checkpoints worked throughout the whole country.

There was a pause for lunch at a Beer Garden in the middle of Tiergarten, where we had the delightful surprise of a naked sunbather, who felt it was important to position himself not in the designated naked sunbathing spot (aaah Germans) but instead right next to the path, up on one elbow, ensuring he was angled so everyone could see his bits.

My favourite part of the tour was when we were taken down a wee side street where an original guard tower of the wall remained – I like that best because it was definitely not something we would have come across on our own. The tours are available in Paris, Barcelona and London, so I’ll definitely keep them in mind. Not sure if I’ll get a guide as good as Kate though…

69. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Tour

A huge book/movie sensation, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has certainly drawn a lot of attention to Stockholm, and for some, put the city on the map. I’d read (most of) the books and seen one of the Swedish versions of the film franchise, so I thought I’d see what this tour business is all about.

Not many modern books are so precise and specific with their real life locations and addresses, so it is easy to see why tour providers in Stockholm have begun to capitalise on the franchise. However, being a 23 year old in 2012, there’s no way I’m paying for some tour when I can just do a quick google search and find the info myself. Larry and Sergey certainly provided, with numerous pages giving lists of addresses, and this particular one picked out some highlights in Sodermalm, all very close together. I must say I’m not that great a fan, but thought it could be a novel way to wander about the area. I also thought it might be a nice way to help my parents live vicariously through my adventures, as they are pretty big fans of the books, and Dad had already emailed me to ask if I’d seen the locations!

Given that the books are about rapists and murders, I figured there was no better way to wander about the locations than alone at night. Don’t worry mum, it was actually only 6pm and on the way to tracking down dinner!

Salander's Apartment

The first stop was the ‘million dollar/kroner’ apartment Lisbeth bought with the money she extorted from the caregiver that assaulted her. Actually took a wee while to find, but it seems housing in that area has all value in the location. NIce view, though. After that I headed done and past the 7-11 where she apparently lived off a diet of microwave pizzas. She must have had the metabolism of a marathon runner to also fit the book’s description of being skinny to the point of having the body of a child. At this second location, It really confirmed how ridiculous it would be  to pay anyone for this tour – a 7-11 being in the top 7 sites. Next stop was the bar she apparently hungs out with her emo lesbian friends. Turns out it isn’t really a bar at all but a German style restaurant. Not that exciting.

"The" 7-11 apparently. Because there aren't a million of them all over town.

At that point my commitment to the tour was on par with my commitment to the books and I cut it short partly through location/book number three in search of dinner.

Turns out Kvarnen is a restaurant, not a gothic lesbian hangout as the book suggests

On the way back through from Helsinki I found myself with a few hours to spare in Sodermalm from 7am-10am (nothing was open until 10) so I continued the rest of my adventure. As it turned out, I had been snapping away at the buildings around where Blomkvist was meant to live on the way to “The View.” In a particularly hilly street, these tall old buildings had bridges connecting the tops of them. Very cool.

After wondering around with my pack for a tad too long, Melqvist Kafe, supposedly where Stieg Larsson did a lot of his writing. It happened to be one of few places open and had a really good breakfast deal, so I wandered inside. It had a very cool seating area, but I have no idea how he would have acheived anything, as the tables were all benches or coffee tables… Wrote some emails there though, just to get in the spirit! Just call me the next Stieg!

Apparently there is actually someone by the name of Blomkvist living there. I felt like waaaay too much of a creep to go find out

Someone met someone at this cafe... or something...


37. The best worst walking tour of Copenhagen

Turns out this wasn’t the tour

On our first morning in Copenhagen, an Australian, three Canadians and I thought we might partake in the free walking tour of the city we had seen advertised in our hostel reception.*

The tour was set to depart at 11am. Of the seven of us staying in the room, and the other exchange students in Copenhagen that weekend, it seemed only five of us were up and ready to go at 11am. Must have been something to do with the time spent the night before at ‘La Tequila Bar.’

Somehow, a rumour had been spread that the tour guide came past our hostel at 10:30, so rather than make our way to town we could get picked up along the way. I am not too sure of the authenticity of this rumour, as the poster I saw didn’t mention it, but nonetheless we reported to reception at 10:25 and there was a crowd of people waiting there. Unfortunately, here is where things went a bit wrong. Given we had 5 minutes to spare, we decided we would nip in to the 7/11 round the corner and grab some breakfast, as we didn’t know when we might have a chance to get some food on the tour. We returned about 10:32 and saw the crowd heading towards the city, so we scurried along and followed. It turned out that crowd was actually just a group of friends, which we followed most of the way to town!

A quick change in plans and we decided to head to the Town Hall to catch the tour by 11. Unfortunately when we got there, we realised google maps had lead us slightly astray and we were actually at Christainsborg (a political hotspot that houses Parliament, the Prime Minister, Supreme Court and the Royal Family), and we wouldn’t make it to the tour in time. And with that, the worst walking tour became the best one. Between google maps on my phone, Canadian numero uno with a lonely planet guide chock full of information and Canadian numero dos who had a map that included a walking tour, we set off.

I swear we didn’t look this lost the whole time

We walked along the canal down Gammelstrand to the famous Nybrogade, which has the colourful houses you see on just about every Copenhagen tourism site. Halfway along (and about 15 minutes in to our tour), we stopped at a gorgeous little coffee shop for a much-needed caffeine break. Best walking tour ever! Almost an hour later we felt rested enough to carry on walking. We also planned out a bit of a route and learned some of the history of Copenhagen, thanks to Lonely planet. We carried on along the canal (which was all frozen over – an amazing sight), took a left and decided to check the palace out in more detail. Which largely consisted of my Australian friend running around shouting “Where are you Princess Mary? I’ve come to take you back to ‘Straya!”

Christiansborg Palace

After the palace we then discovered the National Museum of Copenhagen, which was definitely the highlight of my day. I honestly could have spent weeks in there, it was great! There were exhibitions from cultures all around the world, a very detailed walk through of Europe’s evolution from cave-men to today, Danish history, and my favourite part – the ‘Europe Meets the World’ exhibit. The museum was a bit of a rabbit warren, but there was so much to discover! From ancient Greek vases, Egyptian sarcophagi and original artworks to tribal artifacts from all over the world (NZ included). The ‘Europe Meets the World’ exhibit was so good it deserves its own post, so I’ll be writing about that one soon. I would definitely consider the National Museum a must for anyone visiting Copenhagen, even if you aren’t the biggest museum fan. It was free too, which was a bonus. Unfortunately I didn’t get all the way through as I learned yet another travel lesson: I’m a museum fiend and should therefore go to them alone!

Inside the National Museum

A few missed calls later and I discovered the rest of the walking tour was hungry, so we went in search of somewhere cheap for a late lunch. We wound up at a terrible Chinese buffet lunch place, with all kinds of bizarre rules. I.e. no taking photos, if you don’t order a drink you get charged an extra 20DKK penalty fee, if you don’t eat everything you serve out you get charged double. I don’t know why this lesson hasn’t sunk in yet, but I really should stop trying to eat Asian food in Europe.

Keeping Princess Mary safe!

Frozen boats!

After lunch the walking tour degenerated in to shopping and I decided that as much as tours are a nice idea and can be educational, if you can find a free map of the city with some highlights it is much more fun to do things at your own pace. It is especially beneficial if you like to take silly photos and have a bit of a laugh – not always appreciated when you are with a group of strangers – or if a few members of the group are feeling delicate from the night before and regular stops for refreshments are in order!

Here’s an album of photos from along the way which even includes a wee map of our route! How fancy. There are a few extra photos from around Copenhagen and some at the end from my Aussie friend’s flash camera (you’ll be able to tell the difference).

I’m Liesl! At Christiansborg Palace

* The hostel we stayed in was the Generator Hostel, which I thoroughly recommend. The facilities and location were great – modern clean, the reception staff really helpful, all in all couldn’t expect much better out of a backpackers. Even better, it was the cheapest option on HostelBookers.com, which is proving to be a really helpful website. The only downside was a lack of kitchen facilities to make your own food, but I hear that is the norm in Europe.