Having made it back to Cologne (Köln), Germany, a place I visited many times during ERASMUS, I’m ready to leave for my second pm2am Three Capitals Trip – Vienna, Budapest & Ljubljana. But things are markedly different. It’s cold, snowy, wintery, miserable. And unlike 90-95% of the group, I’m not a student. After avoiding boarding the other trip (to Italy), I learn ours is delayed. I get to know a few others during the wait. The majority are studying locally, internationals from Asia & South America opting to travel over the holidays rather than head home.
Undergoing 262 separate air raids, Cologne was one of the most heavily bombed in World War II. In fact, something that struck me the most during my time in Germany was not only the damage and influence of that chapter in history, but also the impressive rebuilding effort which followed. Not limited to sites in Germany, though of course there are plenty. Also in Poland, London in the aftermath of the Blitz and Japan.
Another different thing about this trip – this’ll be my second time in Vienna & Budapest, where I already have top memories. So I’m confident it’ll be a great way to bring in the New Year too. I’m also looking at it from the perspective of more to learn, new doors, new opportunities it could open. Keeping the end in mind.
The bus arrives, thankfully not much later that afternoon. We’re the first stop on a long overnight journey to Vienna. Passing through Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich, I meet people from India, Japan and El Salvador. It feels a bit awkward, not being a student, and being there for different reasons (getting away after the last dead-end job I was forced into) etc., But I suppose the path I’ve chosen, and life nowadays, generally is. At the very least, I manage to build a bit of rapport with the others and get some sleep that night. We arrive in Vienna early the next morning, Saturday 30th, and have about 10 hours before heading to Budapest and the pub crawl later on.
Unsurprisingly, it’s far colder than last time. So we don’t venture too far, leaving out the Wiener Prater (Wurstelprater) wheel and theme park. We stick to the familiar sites, such as Stephansdom – St Stephen’s Cathedral (or Wiener Steffl, ‘Viennese little Stephen’). Occasionally taking refuge in Mcdonald’s or a coffee house, for shelter or to use the Wi-Fi, we stick to following the iconic Ringstraße and MuseumsQuartier area. Again we take in the State Opera (Staatsoper), the Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum), Museum of Natural History (Naturhistorisches Museum), Parliament and Vienna City Hall (Wiener Rathaus).
There are some more options too. For example, the 5D cinema at Time Travel Vienna. Here you can experience how badly the city suffered during the Plague or Black Death – today commemorated by the Pestsäule (Plague Column) – and also the Turkish sieges of 1529 & 1683.
Later in the day we take a boat trip along the Danube. Another, different look at several sights, and something I didn’t manage the last time. We brave the cold up on deck, making most of the clear day to catch several sights from the river.
Some questioned whether it was worth the 19€, but I was glad to do it. Night begins to fall, as does the temperature so we find an Italian for dinner before the bus back. We’re back at Schwedenplatz in plenty time, but the bus is delayed again. Some have already started drinking. While standing in the cold for another long 45+ minutes, I get to know some others – two Russian and Australian girls, a group from Central & South America. Time gets tight, and a main concern becomes whether we’ll still get the unlimited free drinks on the first hour of the pub crawl. But eventually the bus arrives and traffic’s OK for the 3-4 hour journey to Budapest.
Tools & Tips
Flixbus was again great for getting from Amsterdam to Cologne…but be warned, they’re very often bang on time. In fact, I’m pretty sure they sometimes leave early – stereotypical German. I took a bus in the morning from Amsterdam Sloterdijk to Leverkusen…at the second attempt. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised the bus stop had moved round the corner to Piarcoplein – until departure time came around. Which by then was too late. Fortunately I managed to rebook and arrived in Cologne with an hour to spare.
It’s really starting to hit home. Something I planned before leaving Glasgow: no, I’m not just travelling for fun. I’m looking at it and many other things in a totally different way now. Even back home, my attitude was changed by travel, having opened my eyes to so much I never knew existed. Before, I didn’t think there was really much to see, experience, discover. Then my argument was, “OK, there is if you have plenty of time and plenty of money. Then it’s good.” But meeting other travellers back there, I learnt a lot from them and what they saw in my home country. The attractions & opportunities there are: a criminal amount of parks, tours, history, museums & galleries, festivals, street markets, groups, & events that until recently I was ignorant of.
So being abroad again, I’m doing the same thing out here. I can’t forget: this is a means to an end. I don’t know everything that’s going to happen. Of course I don’t. But that’s part of the fun, part of the learning experience to take into later life.
As far as possible now, I’m trying to make my life that constant cycle: of experience, reflection, action. A bit like the Boyd cycle: the Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action (OODA) process. Like martial arts training, reading or any other pursuit.
The great example here is Cologne, its bombing and the recovery effort. This is a dramatic reminder of the damage done in World War II, but also an important, inspiring lesson: what people can achieve with constant determination, work, commitment and spirit.