Greener Transport

Travel is a wonderful thing.  It’s a chance to learn and see and do new things, to meet new people and open our minds and be challenged, and this latest trip was such a wonderful time I’m dreaming up my next holiday abroad!

I majored in International Social Development at university and have always been interested in other cultures so it follows that much of my early travels had been in developing countries.  Despite all those incredible experiences, I often felt uncomfortable about the impact of tourism on local communities, conscious that no matter how culturally sensitive I try to be, I am fuelling change both good and bad, along with the many thousands of people who have trod that very same path.  This is a highly debatable topic and Wild Wilderness throws some heavy punches in the direction of tourism, but with the evening news filled with stories about racism and intolerance around the globe I don’t think this is a time to be parochial.

Now however, thanks to a UK born husband, my holidays have been in Europe and I suppose responsible tourism here is more about greener modes of transport since the aviation industry is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions.

I’m going to say upfront that I am not a supporter of carbon off-setting.  It’s not a long term solution and along with all the other quick fixes, it doesn’t create change but allows people to feel good about themselves without actually doing anything different.  Rather, we should reconsider travel altogether and think about alternatives.

So this time, rather than jet set across Europe, we packed light and boarded the train.  I loved that you could board the train in, say, Vienna and a few hours later hop off in Hungary – a totally foreign concept in Australia!

Seat 61 has done the maths and train travel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90%.  It’s also cheaper, sometimes faster when you consider check-in times, and leaves you to relax and enjoy the ride.

But sustainable transport is not just for holidays.  When my old car broke down for the last time (may she rest in peace) James and I decided to look into car sharing rather than buy a new one.  We are lucky that a commercial scheme operates in our neighbourhood and in the two years we’ve been car sharing, the fleet has tripled which means it’s rising in popularity.  It’s pretty convenient and I haven’t really felt the need to own a car at all.  Certainly it’s not always the cheapest way to get from A to B, but then I just jump on a bus or a ferry and I’m there.


Beautiful Budapest

The long unified settlements of Buda and Pest lay astride the River Danube.  It is a city of decay and renewal; crumbling, gritty, modern, and incredibly beautiful.  Here more than anywhere else was I awed by the sights this city offered: just when I thought I’d seen it all, another magnificent building or square would reveal itself.

The 1938 Technicolor film Beautiful Budapest shows the cosmopolitan life in Hungary’s capital just one year before the Second World War, a place unaware of the tragedy and devastation to come.  But it also showcases the many attractions that continue to hold appeal.  Like the remedial waters of the Gellert Baths, built in the art nouveaux style, where we spent and indulgent three hours in the thermal pools, and Castle Hill which affords the best views of the city.

Only one omission is the Gerbeaud patisserie.  If divine cakes are your thing, you won’t want to miss this Hungarian institution.

Vienna Before Sunrise

Was it just my imagination, or did the waiter at our first Wiener kaffeehaus look a little like Ethan Hawke?

Travelling on the cheap we stayed in a friendly mixed dorm, in Westbanhof, a good location for domestic and international trains without being too far away from the tourist draw cards.

By night the Old Town is labyrinthine and abuzz with clubs and restaurants.  By chance we stumbled across a warm and inviting beer hall in the subterranean depths of vienna and ate a fine Wiener schnitzel to the tune of a lively quartet.

One of the main attractions is the Museum Quarter.  We spent a good morning filing through the Klimt and Schiele collections and the avenues of monumental buildings nearby, in contrast to the smaller, yet beautifully executed Secession and Jugendstil architecture seen in the other areas of the city.

And of course we couldn’t leave without wandering along the banks of the Danube and up to the amusement park.

From Paris to Prague

We arrived in Prague to the sound of accordion played by an old busker working his way along the train.

After checking into our hostel we found our way to the town centre and joined the mass of tourists assembling to watch the astronomical clock chiming the hour, adorned with animated figures and a parade of miniature apostles.

Prague was a marvel to me.  Once the kingdom of Good King Wenceslas, Old Town Prague is a composition of medieval streets, Teutonic buildings and fairytale spires with just a hint of its hedonistic heyday in the art nouveau facades and absinthe bars, while Soviet era trams rumble along gritty streets to the outskirts of town.

Our guide book remarked that the mystery of Prague is what happened to the summer menu, but for the short time I was there I was quite happy to eat my fill of goulash with dumplings and the odd stein of local beer.


Paris, je t’aime

Even without a surprise proposal atop La Tour Eiffel on my last visit, the City of Light could be no less romantic.  From grand boulevards to narrow, cobblestone streets lined with cafes, restaurants, and mansions of old reincarnated into shops and inner city apartments, there is no where else like it.

This time we took up residence in Saint Germain and made our way on foot, visiting new places and revisiting a few of our favourites.

The vast Musee d’Orsay needs more than one afternoon to fully explore its treasures, not least because the galleries begin closing a half hour before COB, unbeknownst to us.  But we did manage to take stock of the extensive Impressionist collection.

On a similar scale is Père Lachaise Cemetery where it’s easy to lose your way amidst the thousands of monuments to people passed.  I couldn’t help but wonder what Oscar Wilde would make of the lipstick kisses covering his grave, but Edith Piaff’s humble plot evoked more sombre thoughts on her life and work.

An hour train ride took us to the gilt Palace of Versailles, truly magnificent and itself a lavish monument to an era that is better left in the past.  But we joined the crushing crowds to file through The Hall of Mirrors fitted with seventeen mirrors to match seventeen windows overlooking the gardens, and the various chambers and living quarters in all their golden brocaded opulence.

But it’s the everyday-ness that I enjoy the most, pausing on the bridges that span the Seine, the flower shops and cheese sellers in Marais, blossom-covered streets in Spring, Parisienne ladies with their well behaved pooches, sun-drenched city parks, hand-painted menu boards, scents both good and bad, tartine breakfast with a bowl of cafe o’lait.

Yes, I do love Paris.

Portobello Road and Greenwich Mean Time

As luck would have it, our return to London coincided with market day on Portobello Road.  Staying with James and Billie nearby, we took to the streets on foot, joining the swelling crowds passing through Golborne Road and on to Portobello.

The previous day we had walked the foot tunnel to Greenwich, again paying a visit to the markets there, finding a rare Homemaker tea stand which we gave as a thank you gift to our friends (not to be confused with the Australian Homemaker brand).

And of course, no trip to Greenwich would be complete without walking up to the Royal Observatory and standing astride the line at longitude 0° which marks the East and West divide (we also managed to snatch a few glimpses of the new Les Misérables filmed on location at the Naval College), all topped off with a traditional English pie with mash and peas.