We Go Together Like Jam and Cheese

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I have distinct memories of hitting the slopes (with skis and face) as a youngster; my Dad clipping Edgy-Wedgies onto my stubby skis, guiding me down the runs, and feeding me frozen Cherry Ripes when I got irritable (which was often). He would carve a path down the mountain and my sister and I would follow unquestioningly because, as with everything else, we put utmost faith in his judgement.

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Weekend in York

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York (credit: Encyclopaedia Britannia)

One of the very few downsides to living in Oxford (besides narrow footpaths being overtaken by slow-moving tourists and an excessive reliance on potatoes) is that it has made me immune to the beauty of other historic English towns. I guess it’s similar to the way that growing up in Canberra dulled my senses to modern art: where others might be shocked at plain white panels or Tracey Emin’s bed being labelled ‘art’, my hometown’s bronze bunyip, piles of orange sticks, giant silver goon sack and many-boobied SkyWhale mean that controversial pieces elicit little but a “meh, standard” from me.

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Skywhale, White Curve by Ellsworth Kelly

I guess I’ve just been so spoiled with sandstone dreaming spires, cobblestone alleyways, quaint old tea-shops and verdant meadows over the last few months that York didn’t excite me as much as I was expecting.

However, I did appreciate:

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Travelling Solo

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Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of me atop a mountain at sunset, wearing a straw fedora with my arms outstretched. Nevertheless, I had a glorious time.

By no means am I one of those extroverted types who needs to be constantly surrounded by other people, but when I think about certain activities like dining, travelling and pedalo boating, I tend to get a visual of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild; dying after mistakenly eating poisonous foliage and scrawling with his last bit of strength, ‘Happiness only real when shared’.

A few weeks ago, however, I decided that I needed to get out of Oxford. A friend once described life here as bulimic; full on for the 8 week terms when there are more classes, talks and social events than you can stomach; and then barren for the 6 week holidays when the undergrads ship out and the only organised events are MCR Settlers of Catan marathons. While the Europeans can easily flit home for a week or two, Australia is just that smidge far away. However, for me there was also the novel prospect of having Europe at my doorstep with flights costing less than a Zara parka. With my friends umming and aahing about joining me, I decided to go it alone.

I spent 9 days exploring the wonders of Copenhagen, Budapest and Vienna. Despite my misgivings, I had the most incredible time travelling solo. Maybe because these cities are not exactly the harsh Alaskan wilderness, and I didn’t have to survive on moose flesh.

The upsides:

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Two Days in Vienna

If Copenhagen is the cool girl with the burgundy lips and goofy grin, and Budapest is the eclectic hipster bedecked with Iris Apfel jewellery, then Vienna is Julie Andrews (and not just as the Austrian Maria von Trapp); beautiful and of distinctly regal bearing. 

Royal Delights

Vienna is the place for imperial history. You feel the grandeur of the Habsburg empire as you saunter along the Ringstrasse (ring boulevard), and as you crane up at bronze quadrigas and golden angels that perch like wedding cake toppers on fondant-white edifices. Even stopping for a snack break feels stately, as you eat your sachertorte (a royal favourite) in an old coffee house to the dulcet strains of Mozart and Haydn.

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In my only full day in Vienna I aimed to hit up as many of the central museums and sights as possible, like a frenzied round of (enjoyable) speed dating. After a traditional Viennese breakfast at Café Mozart (a perfect soft-boiled egg, coffee and sugar pelleted brioche) I started at the impressive Hofburg Palace complex.

I expected to dash impatiently through the Imperial Silver Collection (the first of the 3 museums included in admission). I mean, I appreciate dinnerware as much as the next person, but the idea of having enough interesting crockery to fill a whole museum seemed to be a load of…crock. I was happily mistaken. The collection was like the Be Our Guest scene from Beauty and the Beast, on crack. Think many-metres long centrepieces, elaborate gold- and silverwork, and porcelain galore filling floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets.

The Sisi Museum provided a fascinating glimpse into the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who at the age of 16 married her 23-year-old cousin Franz Joseph I. Catapulted into Habsburg court life for which she was ill-prepared and unsuited, she took to emo poetry, extreme dieting and exercising, dangerous horse riding feats and indulging her wanderlust. Stabbed by an Italian anarchist while travelling in Geneva in 1898 at the age of 60, Elisabeth’s life and beauty (her ankle-length hair was not considered an OHS issue, but her literal crowning glory) have become the stuff of legends. The tour of the Imperial Apartments was another whoa-inducing insight into royal life.

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Imperial Silver Collection, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), Imperial Apartments, Hofburg

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Three Days in Budapest

As a hopeless romantic, I tend to project stories I’ve read and films I’ve seen onto the places I visit (in France, I dreamily pretend to be Amelie/Madeline/Juliette Binoche; here in an Oxford college, I’m playacting at Brideshead Revisited/Greek). When I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel last year, I was immediately enchanted by its stunning scenery, quirky characters and portrayal of the receding splendour of 1930s Eastern Europe.

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Whether because of my deluded projections or the city itself, the three days I spent in Budapest recalled the feeling of the film. Like Wes Anderson’s masterpiece, Budapest is transportive and visually arresting; Old World glamour still glows in its opulent coffee houses and hotels, while crumbling buildings and war memorials are a reminder of the horrors of Hungary’s past. Add to this painfully hip ruin bars, bustling crowds and a rollicking music and art scene, and you’ve got one heart-stoppingly beautiful and fascinating city.

A City of Stunning Views

When I travel, I seem to spend a large portion of it climbing things. Like a kid clambering up a jungle gym to proclaim themselves King of the Castle, I like to get the lay of the land, the tiny victory of a physical feat, and my Insty snaps (natch). Peering down from above, I’m always struck by a sense of onism (the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time…) occhiolism (awareness of the smallness of my perspective…) or some other self-indulgent Obscure Sorrow which is the bittersweet and amazing thing about travelling. This view from Gellért Hill (where you can find the Citadella fortress and Liberty monument) was literally breathtaking. Or maybe that was the steep climb and my weak lung capacity…

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