Sunday, May 04, 2014

A Week in Moscow

Having heard many stories, anecdotes and even warnings about visiting the Russian capital, I arrived feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Upon arriving at Domodedovo Airport, I quickly familiarised myself with the Russian mantra of 'service with[out] a smile' and proceeded to meet a good friend of mine from Switzerland. Together - equipped with a basic proficiency in Russian and a thirst for vodka - we would explore Moscow.

Standing on the Red Square.

My very first impression of Moscow was, as expected, a mixture of delight and amusement. Within an hour of arriving, I was to experience my first 'only-in-Russia' moment. Sat in a bar on the central Noviy Arbat, I witnessed a Ferrari racing down the pavement, scattering frightened pedestrians, followed by two police vans and, of course, a drunk Muscovite riding a horse! Needless to say, a wide grin plastered my face.

Social bathrooms: not only available in Sochi! Apparently, this was a gimmick inspired by the internet memes.

During the days, we took in the many magnificent sights of Moscow, such as the Kremlin, the Red Square, the Park of the Tsars and the All-Russia Exhibition Park. Whilst the nights were spent sampling Russian beer and vodka in bars and Stolovayas (remember: Moscow never sleeps!).

Inside the Kremlin.

Thanks to a handful of very hospitable, close friends, we had a truly unforgettable time. When visiting foreign countries, I think it is so great to have local friends who know the best hang-outs, speak the language and generally treat you to an experience that is so much more enjoyable than travelling alone.

The beautiful metro system in Moscow is referred by some as 'the palaces of the people'. Pictured: Arbatskaya

Moscow may well be a sprawling and perhaps intimidatingly impressive city, but I felt so comfortable there. Indeed, I saw no cause for the previous well-meaning words of warning I had received. I could imagine returning for a longer period of time as I only scratched the very surface of the capital.

A view of the Kremlin and the embankment.

Me and my travel companion enjoyed our stay so much that we made another of our gentlemen's agreements. After we improve our Russian, we will take the Trans-Siberian Express and discover the beauty of the Russian countryside and the more traditional towns and cities.

The Park of the Tsars.

The changing of the guard.

The All-Russia Exhibition Park.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Goodbye Switzerland

The time has finally come to leave Switzerland. It has been an epic year, I've seen beautiful Switzerland (amongst other countries) and have met really great people. As with ever when moving into a flat with random strangers, you never know how it will turn out. I was fortunate enough to find myself in an apartment full of cheery people (with equally sociable neighbours), with whom I became great friends over the period of one year.

Boat trip on Lake Lugano.

I spent my last day in Switzerland in Lugano with two good friends, which is in the Italian-speaking part of the country. With a Mediterranean climate and surrounded by mountains and lakes – indeed like many Swiss towns – it made a nice way to round off the exchange year.

Lugano is situated in Tecino, the predominantly Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland.

Swiss towns and cities, due to their small size, tend not offer many sights to see, but you'll often find a lake to see! We took a boat trip on Lake Lugano and spent the rest of the time eating. A very laid-back place and many houses along the lake looked completely cut off from the outside world. Sublime...

The sleepy streets of Lugano.

I'm now on my way back home, taking my time by hopping off the train in Paris for two nights. It's been sad to leave Zurich, but I also am looking forward to going back to Aberdeen and studying properly for once – and not like an exchange student! I want to thank everyone in Zurich who made my time as special as it was, I'll miss everyone. And I want to thank YOU too for reading these blog posts. I hope I didn't waffle on too much.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Zurich Street Parade

Who'd have thought? The world's largest, and perhaps wildest, outdoor techno parade in Zurich; a relatively quiet and small city in one of Europe's most conservative countries. Famous DJs from both Switzerland and abroad held sets in the parade, which started at 1pm and went on well into the night.

The parade's moving stages are called 'love mobiles'.

950,000 people took part in the free festival this year, including me and two good friends. Many of the other festival-goers were dressed in crazy costumes, some much more revealing than others. Indeed, skimpy outfits were the norm and seemed to not just be limited to girls, a few older gentlemen could also be seen sporting little more than leather hot-pants, unfortunately.

Each moving 'love mobile' had their own DJ, all of whom playing better techno music than the last.

Not only were the streets teeming with ravers, loads of yachts and boats covered the lake, gathering closest to Utoquai bridge, part of the parade's route. In the hot August Sun, there would have been nothing better than cooling off in the water whilst listening to the music. Shame I can't quite afford a nice yacht in Zurich just yet...

All ages could be found at the parade, some enjoying the music more than others.

From the hotel balconies lining the streets, dressed-up dancers could even be seen making the most of their prime position. I did however also notice some older hotel guests, seeming as though they weren't originally aware of the huge techno extravaganza taking place, looking on uncomfortably in bemusement. A hilarious sight to behold!

Lake Zurich bustling with yachts of techno enthusiasts.

The hot Sun combined with the music and only drinking beer was not particularly conducive to keeping you fit. Nevertheless we spent a good eight hours there and I now have the buzz to go again next year! Maybe next time I'll wear a costume myself, although perhaps I'd best avoid the more skimpy of costumes...

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Alp Horns, Cow Bells And Yodelling

The 1st of August was the Swiss National Holiday. All across Switzerland people celebrated the founding of the Helvetic Confederation. Zurich, which usually is adorned by Swiss flags anyway, showed its national and cantonal colours even more proudly yesterday.

The 26 cantons of Zurich represented in the parade.

A parade made its way along the Bahnhofstrasse, showcasing stereotypical Swiss types – donning traditional dress and brandishing cow bells and alp horns. Aesthetically, the parade was beautiful indeed, although acoustically less so - a brash mix of trumpets and eccentric yodelling.

Alp horns are quite unwieldy instruments.

At the end of the parade, a stage, equipped with the biggest flag I have ever seen in my life, was the scene of a speech, a rifle-fire salute, flag juggling, alp horn playing and yodelling extravaganza. With so many national symbols, I thought it might have been uncomfortable, as a foreigner, being there. Thankfully, the event was completely free of politics and tourists were very much made to feel welcome.

The stage at Bürkliplatz.

The Swiss are quite keen when it comes to fireworks. I can only really make a comparison to the 5th November in the UK (Guy Fawkes night), but there were much more explosions to be heard over the skies of Zurich last night than I've ever heard back at home. Although this might have something to do with the cheap price of fireworks – and the ease of access to them here – despite the earlier, not-unconcerning exploits a Swiss friend told me he got up to as a teenager...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Final Month In Zurich

Time flies when you're having fun. A saying I've always found to be true. I now have less than a month left in Zurich before I finish my year abroad. I was at home for a little while but I just had to come back and spend my summer over here – partly because I actually wanted to have some warm weather (a rare phenomenon in the UK) and also so that I could start with my reading for next year without the distractions of home life.

Relaxing by the Limmat river.

Of course, I don't plan to spend the whole time here doing something productive! There are still parties and barbeques going on as well as the Zurich Street Parade - a crazy music festival (on the 11th) which transforms the orderly, Swiss city into a huge rave! Best of all, unlike many things in Switzerland, it's free!

The pristine Lake Zurich looks rather inviting in hot weather.

Besides, I can use the odd break, reading my prescribed literature on National Socialism for the new semester in Aberdeen is only bearable in small doses. In many respects, this year has been a bit of a break in general, in anticipation of the hard work waiting for me for honours the next two years.

The lake at night, looking over to the Utoquai bridge.

I'm leaving Switzerland on the 14th of August and I've already had to say goodbye to a few friends. I'm going to miss this place and the people, all the more reason to come back here at some point - I'm already looking forward to the ski season.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Reverse Culture Shock

On my very first week of university in Zurich, I was warned that the reverse culture shock will be worse than the initial shock of moving to a foreign country. This definitely seems to be the case, for me at least. I've spent the last week or so back at home in England, (in order to attend a wedding). And it's been very bizarre being back...

When it's not raining in England, it's about to rain.

I left a relatively cool Zurich (25C) only to find that I forgotten just how bad British summers are, arriving into overcast 13C Manchester. What I found really strange, is that people speak English here, and not just any old English, but English with English accents! It took me a while to get used to not hearing passing strangers speaking German. Indeed, to begin with I found it very difficult to adjust to. Through force of habit, I thanked someone in German for letting me passed in the airport and I spent a good 10 seconds stuttering to an official, when trying to find out where I needed to go.

Finally reunited with a mug of decent tea!

I was also affected by the recent road trip I had in Germany and Poland, it felt very strange seeing cars driving on the correct side of the road again! Apart from all the weirdness of being back in Blighty, it's been great seeing my family again – and not to mention being able to eat fish and chips! British 'cuisine' may not be terribly good, but I missed it all the same. I'd say Swiss cuisine is better, but that's not all that important when you can't afford eating out!

My local, where the pints are affordable and the craic is good.

The biggest shock however, was receiving change from a tenner after buying three pints in a pub. In Zurich, you'd be happy to get one pint of beer for that and still have the shirt on your back. It's been great to be home! Having said that, 10 days has been plenty of time and I'm looking forward to spending one more month in Zurich, where hopefully, the concept of 'summer' isn't a far-fetched fantasy!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Road Trip: Part Three

The final leg of our journey was originally to stop over in Wroclaw. We decided however to just spend an afternoon there. From the outside, Wroclaw looks uninviting. Grubby suburbs and uneven roads surround the centre. But I guess most suburbs of most cities tend to appear that way.

Wroclaw can actually look pretty, depending on the camera angle you take.

Once you get to the heart of the city, you discover quite a pretty old town district, lined with cafes and restaurants. Another opportunity to try Polish food, pierogi (filled dumplings) is something I'd definitely recommend for example. Without really knowing anything about the city beforehand at all, we exhausted our ideas of what-to-do in one afternoon. I'm sure the city has more to offer though.

Dresden, the reconstructed Frauenkirche.

We drove onwards to Dresden, which proved to be a good decision. There's plenty to see there. Most of the old cathedrals, theatres and other buildings which were destroyed during the Second World War have been rebuilt, some still with original masonry. A very impressive sight indeed. Dresdner cuisine is also supposed to be pretty decent, but we were more tempted by South African instead, not quite authentic, I know, but better than eating at a certain fast food chain!

The main square in the city.

An ace road trip, covering the best part of a thousand miles. Although as much as I love travelling, I could take it easy for a while now!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Road Trip: Part Two

After Hamburg and Berlin we drove across to Krakow. There was no mistaking that we were in Poland, immediately upon crossing the border, the motorway became incredibly bumpy – so much so that I'm not even sure if motorway is the right word for that haphazard strip of tarmac. A sharp contrast to the smooth speed-limit-free Autobahnen of Germany! Nevertheless, we somehow made it to Krakow with an intact chassis.

The main square in Krakow.

A friend's family – whom she had never met before – were kind enough to host us. They live in a farm outside of the city and we were given a warm, Polish welcome (yet more beer). I can't speak Polish, so understanding what was going on was a little tricky, but I did pick up a few useful words – beer of course included (piwko).

In the old town district of Krakow.

Krakow itself is a very pretty city and there's plenty to see and do. We spent most of the time eating – Polish food is great (not a country for vegetarians)! After looking around the city, we headed to Wieliczka, just outside Krakow, in order to check out the salt mines that our hosts recommended.

A shop 100 metres underground in a mine - very strange...

The mine was really cool, the miners had sculpted statues into the rock salt – including a 3D carving of The Last Supper which was impressive. In fact the salt mine was like nothing else I've seen. There was a cathedral chamber (where you can be wedded for 2000 Złoty), a conference centre and even a little shop down there. I was half expecting to find a Starbucks and KFC too. 'Mine' is probably a misleading term for the place, rather I'd call it an underground exhibition centre – which also carries out the odd mining operation from time to time. Very bizarre – but definitely worth a visit!

The impressive cathedral chamber.

A very enjoyable time had in Krakow indeed, I could've stayed there longer! The road trip then took us back West, next stop Wrocław...

Friday, July 06, 2012

Road Trip: Part One

At the end of June, me and two flatmates embarked on a road trip. We began the journey in Hamburg, where one of my friends hails. Hamburg is a huge harbour city, once part of the Hanseatic league, in the north of Germany.

The Speicherstadt district is where all the trading goods were stored.

Any visitor to Hamburg is pretty much obliged to go to the Reeperbahn: an unashamedly bold red-light district (the biggest in Europe in fact). It's wild reputation certainly is deserved, at least upon my first impression. In any case, beer is an intrinsic part of German culture, whether you are in a Bavarian beer garden or the Reeperbahn, beer should always be involved in any trip to Germany!

Relaxing with a beer after taking a boat trip through the harbour city.

Hamburg is one of the most exciting cities in Germany, rivalled only by Berlin. But unlike Berlin, I could also envisage that life in Hamburg might also be pleasantly relaxed at times too.

After a couple of nights in Hamburg, we had a quick stopover in Berlin, where another friend joined our road trip. I had already been to the city before during the winter, but it was nice to be there in temperatures above -15C! Again, as mentioned, beer has a cultural significance in Germany. A great excuse to try a Berlin speciality: Berliner Weisse.

Woodruff, blackcurrant and rhubarb flavoured beer.

The beer can actually be flavoured with fruity syrups, this makes for – to put it politely – an interestingly unique beer experience. Far too sweet for my liking, it tasted more like cider, which would've definitely tasted nicer.

After an evening in Berlin, we set off again in the morning: bound for Poland...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

On the Röstigraben

Being soaked randomly after having a bucket of water thrown on you from a window above is perhaps not the best way to be welcomed into a town. Nevertheless, I was quite content in Fribourg – besides, the heat soon dried me. Fribourg is situated right on the Röstigraben – where French and German speaking Switzerland meet. The town is bilingual (predominantly French) and somehow seems to work just fine.

The view over Fribourg from the bar.

I went there with a flat mate in order to visit another friend and we had a tightly packed programme. This first involved getting up a 3.30am to witness the sunrise on a mountain summit. We enjoyed our well earned breakfast - continental buffet style – right on the summit, watching the sun rise, albeit behind clouds. Watching a sunrise can feel magical, but so can lying in on a morning!

The sunrise from the summit of Kaiseregg.

We also wanted to take out a boat and head from Thunersee to Bern, but the water was still pretty cold. We settled instead for having a chilled out barbeque. We did reach Bern in the end anyway, taking the lazier option of the train. It was nice to be back in Bern, but I still find it hard to believe that it's a capital city, or a city at all. Despite there being quite a big demonstration in front of the parliament building, the place still felt quiet and relaxed.