Old Cities and New Friends: Munich, Rome and Florence

Leaving my freeloading lifestyle (and not so coincidentally my parents) behind I departed Salzburg and headed north to Munich. One downside to the lack of parents was the lack of motor vehicle, so my backpack and I were delighted to discover that the hostel was only 3 minutes walk away from Munich’s central train station. This delight was however short-lived when I realised the area surrounding the train station appeared to be possibly the scungiest area of Munich… Filled with strip clubs, shisha bars and casinos it was not an area that I planned to spend anytime in barring resting my head! The hostel I was staying in was awful… Not particularly clean, very uncomfortable beds and full of gap students – it turns out, unless you are an 18 year old gap student and enjoy. (Despite the fact I used to be one and loved it, I have since discovered that to everyone else in the hostel gap students are an absolute pain in the ass!!)

Wandering through the streets of Munich with no real purpose I found the hippest of all hipster Cafes where a cup of tea is served not with tea leaves or a bag but instead with an actual twig of whatever tea you are having e.g. I had a Thyme tea… And was given a twig of thyme to hang in my tea!!!


Avoiding the hostel at all costs I wandered through much of the old city of Munich that evening, finally finding a delicious vegetarian restaurant for dinner where I splashed out on a fancy and delicious meal (for one)! Before walking back to the hostel and locking myself in my room for the evening with my headphones quite firmly planted in my ears.

With only one full day in Munich I was pretty set on learning about the city and seeing a fair bit… My day started with the best intentions… I ran round the English Gardens which were very nice and even saw some locals surfing on the river that runs through the gardens. I managed to talk to one of them and asked him if this was allowed and he said no, but the police and park rangers specifically avoid the area so they don’t have to tell them off so in that respect it kind of is allowed! Watching them surf on a river with a very strong current was very cool… Although as there were two concrete walls on either side of them I suspected that if I ever tried it I would end up unconscious and at the bottom of the river.

Leaving the hostel and walking through Munich’s Old City I attempted to join a free walking tour of Munich… Turns out you had to make a reservation, that I did not have, and therefore couldn’t get on the tour till the afternoon. 

Munich’s New City Hall – Despite the gothic appearance this building was in fact built in 1904

I therefore spent the morning walking around the city shopping and eating punnets of raspberries! The walking tour was great (and free!!) I learnt about both Munich’s medieval history and it’s role in WWII which was fascinating as I had never quite connected the dots that Munich was where Hitler rose to power from! My favourite stop on the walking tour was one of Munich’s WWII memorials of bronze cobbles on a street.


To explain the significance of this we will briefly diverge into WWII story time (feel free to skip this if you aren’t interested!)…

So, Hitler’s first attempt at taking control of the German Government occurred when he attempted the Beer Hall Putsch. Following Mussolini’s example in Italy (the March on Rome), Hitler decided to march from Munich to Berlin, gathering support as they went, with the intention of overthrowing the government when they got there by demonstrating that it was the will of the people that he be in charge. Things however didn’t go to plan… Hitler’s march on Berlin only covered about 1km through Munich before it was stopped by a police barricade. Shots were exchanged with 14 Nazis killed and 4 police. While Hitler had committed an act of treason which still carried the death penalty he was instead sentenced to 7 years in prison and only served 9 months of those (imagine how different history would be if his judge hadn’t been a Nazi sympathiser). Hitler then eventually rose to power through legal means (of elections) and once in power he erected a monument to the Nazis who died in the Putsch where the police barricade had been and two Nazi soldiers were stationed there. Every time someone walked past they had to perform the Nazi salute to the soldiers and if they failed to they could be shot, beaten up, imprisoned etc. Despite Hitler being the majority party only 32% of the German population had voted for him meaning that the majority of the country didn’t actually want him in power… This meant many people did not want to perform the Nazi salute. The cunning residents of Munich found a street which cut behind this monument and thus avoided performing the Nazi salute. These bronze cobblestones represent the silent resistance of many citizens of Munich to the Nazi party. (Note, the Nazis did eventually cotton on to this and ended up stationing a Nazi guard on this street as well who would punish people who repeatedly walked through here or who walked through here without a good enough excuse!

STORY TIME IS OVER!

Another very cool part of the tour was the daily markets in Munich (except Sunday), here you can buy fresh produce, meat, cheeses, olives etc basically everything you need for a Bavarian diet! There are also beer gardens within the markets. The end of the walking tour also signalled the end of my energy for wandering around and therefore the remainder of my evening in Munich was spent sitting in a park reading until I caught the overnight train to Rome.

Sleeper trains are great… As long as you don’t mind confined spaces! The ability to lie flat with a duvet etc is just wondrous when travelling for over 12 hours. Unfortunately my train ended up being nearly 2 hours late meaning I spent nearly 14 hours on the train, 2 of which were spent stuck in a tunnel at which point the fun really started to wear off (however anyone following me on snapchat will know that I still managed to make my own fun)!

When we finally arrived in Rome I ditched my bags at the hostel and began wandering. My lack of a sense of direction, or a plan meant that I walked a very long and roundabout route to everywhere that I went! 


I stumbled upon this church on my walk… Despite the plain exterior the Catholics have spared no expense on the interior!! I revisited the Pantheon and the Colosseum which I definitely appreciated more the second time around… When I first went on my gap year it was more just box ticking than actually appreciating these places! 

Exterior of the Pantheon

The architecture of the Romans is unbelievably sophisticated and considerate on many occasions e.g. In the Colosseum the steps are very steep as they wanted even the slaves to be able to see the arena and they had a pulley system which meant they could put up shade cloths for hot days… Seriously advance thinking for a society that considered slavery to be all good!


I also went to two museum exhibitions… Because when it’s 39 degrees museums and the AC they provide have SERIOUS appeal. The first exhibition I found by mistake was a Banksy exhibition. This was fantastic, over 150 pieces of his work and not at all crowded I wandered through enjoying the art and many quotes from Banksy…


As someone who has always considered his artwork to be cool but never really thought about it I came to appreciate the level of social commentary that his work provides and his ability to generate much needed conversations through street art.

In almost a complete reverse to Banksy the next exhibition I attended was a Barbie exhibition. This was also much more interesting that I anticipated, mainly because it intertwined history with the evolution of Barbie and explained how specific moments in time impacted on the creative direction of Barbie. 



While all of this was fantastic, undoubtedly the best part of my day in Rome was meeting up with Mark, Tom, Josie, Charlie and Marc in the evening and going for dinner/drinks/sightseeing with tour guide Mark! Wandering through the streets of Rome in the evening with friends both new and old was amazing. We visited the Trevi Fountain where we saw a couple get engaged, we went to see the Colosseum lit up at night, and ate gelato from San Crispinos (the best gelato in the world). 

The happy couple (centre), the body guard (right) and the four people we don’t know who look better than us in this photo (left)

While I do love travelling alone and the autonomy it gives me over what I do, being able to be with friends on the other side of the world appreciating pieces of art/architecture that are significantly older than the country we come from is probably one of the best things you can do!

Leaving Rome after only 24 hours (but a very busy 24 hours if you don’t mind me saying) we all headed to Florence where 19 of us were meeting for 3 nights of fun. Travel caused us a few headaches that day, with trains being missed, buses being impossible to find, taxi companies hanging up on us… It was a relief when we conned a maxi taxi driver into driving 8 of us the 20km out of town to Bivaglia meaning we not only made it to our destination but also had brief respite from the heat (we were all very sweaty from our failed attempts to leave the city).


Arriving in Bivaglia I quickly realised that there was very little chance of me actually going into Florence to do sightseeing over the course of the next few days. Settled in amongst the Tuscan hills, it is a small village with nothing to do except lie in the sun and, thanks to Josie’s good booking swim in the pool attached to one of the houses we had rented! While 15 people stayed in one location (the house with the pool), Jamo, Mark, Tom and I were 2km uphill in a separate AirBnB. While in the afternoon sun the walk at times seemed somewhat unbearable it was a completely manageable walk after a few too many wines at night when the sun had stopped harassing us for the day!

Our time in Bivaglia followed a happy pattern of slow starts in the mornings, with equally slow (but very hot) walks down to the other house where we would then spend the day lying by the pool eating fruit and chips with sporadic bursts of energy where we would all crowd into the pool either simply to cool off or play games ranging from shoulder wars to volleyball. 

Time well spent with a dream team
NZ’s Synchronised Swimming Team #roadtorio

Our evenings involved revolved around two of Italy’s greatest contributions to the world… Wine and food. While two of the evenings we had a sort of pot luck at the main house the other night we went out for dinner in the town and more or less took over the entire restaurant (probably to the disappointment of other patrons) and turned it into our personal nightclub! Tearing through the town and returning to the main house we all jumped into the pool at 1am and had shoulder wars for about an hour before we finally felt cold and withdrew inside. (It’s at this point I should also mention that there were other people staying at this place… like the other restaurant patrons they probably considered our presence to be a bit of a deal breaker for their relaxing holiday). 

How quickly I make myself far to comfortable with new friends!
Nearly the whole squad

My day of departure from Florence we headed into the city early as Mark and Tom had a train to catch. This gave me roughly 2 hours of sightseeing/eating in the big smoke! I straight to the Catterdrale de Santa Maria del Fiore which I instantly regretted not booking to go and see the inside of… It is a truly remarkable building with absolutely no expense spared on its exterior…


My hopes of going in were quickly dashed when I saw the line snaked nearly halfway around the cathedral… Which is an achievement given it took me over 5 minutes to wander around!! From there I strolled the streets and alleyways in search of what I was told was the best sandwich place ever… I was not disappointed. All’Antico Vinaio makes one hell of a sandwich, with ingredients so fresh the tomato is chopped as you order, I quite happily tucked into what is undoubtedly the best sandwich I have ever had (I was also surprised because normally I don’t like sandwiches that much but this was next level!)


Despite feeling a twinge of regret as I walked around Florence at my lack of city exploration over my time there I actually had some of the best four days of this whole trip. It was a bit of a luxury for me to not feel obliged to get up and go sightseeing early in the morning and “make the most of the day”… I feel like I really did make the most of this holiday by not doing a hell of a lot except making new friends (given that I only really knew 4/15 people before the trip). It was a hell of a good time and while my liver was certainly surprised by my wine consumption it stood up to the test very well!

Making it out of Florence by the skin of my teeth (due to a few disagreements between Google Maps and me) I made it back to England where I will spend the next few weeks!

A Family Affair through Switzerland and Austria

Arriving late afternoon in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland, Mum and I were greeted by Dad, Alice and Miranda (while John was off caddying) at the train station and embarked on a somewhat tense and terrifying drive back to the hotel – Dad was still adjusting to driving on the right hand side of the road!! Bad Ragaz where we are staying is a very small town that appears to have two main tourist focuses… Golf, or spa/wellness retreats. As someone who is not a huge fan of either activity I was somewhat sceptical of what this trip would be like! I was however pleasantly surprised to find that the area is where the book Heidi is set and has plenty of beautiful walks and vistas to enjoy.
After an afternoon spent lying by the pool and generally enjoying the bliss that was our hotel we met John and Miranda for what I can only describe to be one of the best eating experiences of my life. The restaurant below John and Miranda’s hotel is incredible and we were treated to a three course meal of DELICIOUSNESS!! The set menu allowed for some individual discretion, we were able to select from a range of dishes what three we wanted.My entree was kingfisher sashimi with avocado (my descriptions will fail to describe the intricacies of the dishes as I did not write down what each involved)… Had I known just how good this was I would probably have just ordered it for all three courses! (The alternatives were a burratta (mozzarella cheese based entree with fresh fruit) or homemade noodles with mushrooms in a broth – I can confirm all were amazing (just not as good as mine).

For the main we had pan seared sea bass with artichokes and potatoes (again an unworthy written description). Yet again my tastebuds rejoiced as each mouthful reached their greedy little bud-like hands.


The alternative for the red meat eaters among us was venison with cherries and a celery purée/mash. I despise celery, the smell of it generally makes me gag a little but it turns out if you can purée/mash it to a mashed potato like consistency and make it as light as air I will love it! Seriously, more people need to start doing this with the vegetable!

The meal was concluded with either a cheese board (of very strong smelling cheeses) or, panna cotta with strawberries and a fresh baked almond cake. Although prior to the dessert arriving I thought I might be full, as soon as I had one mouthful of the dessert I realised I undoubtedly had room for the whole thing… The perfect amount of sweetness and richness combined in one dish!


The next morning, feeling the need to undo some of last night’s indulgences we all dutifully set off up a hill to Old Bad Pfäfers where the taminaschlucht or tamina gorge is. Bad Ragaz, where we are staying is really only a town that came into being because of a thermal gorge that is situated above it. While there is now a pipeline that brings water down to the spa resorts within Bad Ragaz in earlier years the sick used to be dragged up the hill to the bath and then lowered into the water where they would stay for 10 days. The water in the gorge is a constant 36.5 degrees and the belief was that the warm, moving water, would constantly wash over their bodies and rid them of toxins. Belief in the healing powers of this water continues to this day with many ill or injured persons making a sort of pilgrimage to the area for soak in the healing water e.g. Roger Federer. The walk follows a river that is nestled below towering cliffs and winds its way up to the tamina. 


At the top, after paying our 5 Swiss Francs we walked a further 500m through quite a spooky gorge where the rocks hang directly over your head making you feel a little like you are walking into a horror movie set. Inside the gorge we were able to feel the water than people bath in but sadly couldn’t just climb into the bath (I think that costs a little more than 5 Swiss Francs). 

Entry to the Tamina

Trying to exit the gorge Alice and I saw a big green casing around a red button which I assumed you pushed to get out the gate… No. After pushing it six times Miranda came running up behind us to tell us that was the emergency button… Whoops! Thankfully Miranda speaks German and was able to tell an appropriate person that there was no emergency just two stupid NZers.

After our walk the real excitement began… Miranda, Mum, Alice and I were off to Salzburg for a few nights, to pretend we were in the Sound of Music and sing our way through town! We we dropped at the Bad Ragaz train station where we were told we had to buy our ticket to Salzburg from the next town over Sargans which was conveniently only 4 minutes by train. After running for the train to Sargans we made it to the town only to be told it would be 350 Swiss Francs, one way for the four of us to go! We immediately ruled the trip out as extortionately expensive. Abandoning Salzburg and feeling a bit peckish we took our bags for a walk into the Mecca of Sargans for lunch and a look around. 600m from the train station we found a restaurant that had quite a few full tables of locals (although there would be nothing other than locals as I don’t think any overseas tourists have EVER visited that town before) so obviously it would have good Swiss food. Clearly all those locals are lacking in tastebuds, the food we served was almost exclusively yellow (hints of brown in my case due to mushrooms and for Alice due to her bolognaise) and not very exciting. Nevertheless we were determined to have a good time! Conning the restaurant into letting us keep our bags there we set off to see the sights of Sargans. It turns out Sargans has one sight to see, it’s Schloss or castle, and if you ever find yourself in the town I can tell you now, it’s not really worth seeing!

Just enjoying the Sargans Schloss

Our final stop in the tourist hub of Sargans was a lovely little chocolate and ice cream shop with a delightful outdoor seating area that looked at a road, was beside a rubbish bin and a dead bush and had a particularly smelly rubbish bin! Collecting our bags we took them for a final walk through town before boarding the 4 minute train back to Bad Ragaz where we then got to walk our bags in the rain… BLISS! 

Taking the bags for a stroll

Renting electric bikes in Bad Ragaz we went exploring through surrounding villages (and even a country… Liechtenstein). Despite my initial resistance to renting electric bikes it is fair to say that they made everybody’s day far more enjoyable! We were able to bike uphill to a small town for coffee and then traverse the hillside to Leichtenstein and then bike back along the Rhine River to Bad Ragaz. 



The day however was not without it’s navigational mishaps… We took quite a few wrong turns, including one that led us onto rather soft sand which the bikes were certainly NOT designed for. This momentarily brought our cycle tour to a halt!! We found a delicious restaurant called Restaurant Adler in Fläsch. where we ate prawns (somewhat concerning considering the landlocked nature of Switzerland), stinging nettle soup, asparagus soup, homemade pasta with chanterelle mushrooms and homemade chocolates/sweets.

Absolutely delicious king prawns

We spent a day in the very beautiful capital city of Zurich. With intermittent downpours we spent the day eating, drinking coffee and roaming the streets. Zurich was having some sort of festival that day and the streets were littered with food stalls as well as events like dragon boating occurring and a waterslide running down one of the streets! The people of Zurich were clearly not letting the rain stop them from having a good time!


Mum, Miranda and I also took the telecabin up Pizol, one of the ski fields in the area. Taking the chairlift all the way to the top of the mountain we found we were possibly slightly under-prepared. While others put their crampons on and pulled out their walking sticks we fumbled around on the loose rocks and snow and quickly decided that perhaps we should go back down to the lower level and go walking there!

Embracing the limited visibility and cold

We ended up walking the Heidi Trail which was very beautiful and very clearly targeted at kids! All around the trail were playgrounds and activities for children like sack racing! As the clouds cleared the views were beautiful, looking down over the valley to towns like SARGANS, Bad Ragaz and Fläsh. 


We stopped for lunch at a cafe with a woman playing the accordion, and were treated to the “traditional” Swiss way of singing happy birthday… First in English, then German, then in a very racially offensive “Chinese” which involved them all pulling at the corners of their eyes and singing, to the tune of happy birthday, “Ching Chong Ching Chong”. Mum and I could not believe what we were seeing!!! 


Leaving Bad Ragaz we headed to Salzburg, which may well be my favourite city to date. The drive to Salzburg was spectacular, mostly through mountains and ski fields we were treated to what I assume is some of the best of the Swiss/German/Austrian/Leichtensteinian countryside! Stopping in the very sleepy ski town of Sankt Anton for lunch (so sleepy nearly everything was closed) we enjoyed our first truly Barvarian/Austrian meal… A menu heavy with meat and sauerkraut there was somewhat limited (but tasty) pickings for a pescatarian (vegeaquarium)! We made it to Salzburg with next to no confusion, barring one closed road… Ahhh the beauty of GPS! Salzburg is a beautiful city that is easy to navigate and has very efficient public transport, Mum, Miranda and I had a glorious time roaming the streets while Dad and John played golf. The centre of the old city is nearly exclusively a pedestrian area, making it a lovely place to walk. Moreover, there are very strict limitations on how shops can advertise themselves meaning you could walk past a McDonalds or Zara and not realise what it was because their signs blend so perfectly with the architecture of the city!


The two highlights of the trip to Salzburg were undoubtedly going to the Red Bull Hangar and the Fräulein Maria Sound of Music bike tour! The Red Bull Hangar has a seriously impressive array of planes, cars, motorbikes and other motorised inventions that would be a petrol head’s wet dream. 


On top of this it has one of the coolest bars/restaurants I have been to, on a scorching hot evening we sat outside under shade drinking and eating delicious food! The menu is simple as is the mode of ordering and I am certain that regardless of the group there would be something on the menu for everyone.


These are just the flowers in the bathroom at the hangar!!
Despite inclement weather the Sound of Music biking tour was a lot of fun… With singing, sightseeing and a tour guide who enjoyed re-enacting scenes from the Sound of Music I was in heaven! Especially when I was given the speaker and phone so I could play the soundtrack which we biked (and obviously sing-a-long)! 

One of the two houses used as the Von Trapp family house
Leo our guide re-enacting Maria leaving the abbey

As well as being a sing-a-long we were given lots of great fun facts about the film itself such as…

  • Christopher Plumber was quite regularly a bit drunk on set and that he gained a lot of weight during filming and his costume had to be refitted.
  • That Marta (the youngest child) also gained a lot of weight during filming, this was because during filming to placate her they would feed her a lot of chocolate and pretzels, therefore in the final scene where they are escaping over the alps there is a body double used who is lighter than the actress.
  • There were also a lot of examples of Julie Andrews being very clumsy!

For anyone heading to Salzburg I would 100% recommend both of these activities as a way to see parts of Salzburg you may otherwise miss.. And have a thoroughly good time doing it!