finding Vienna

 

 

 

 

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
(Saint Augustine)

The thing about the travel bug is that once you’ve caught it, it becomes a life condition.

He had always teased her that she did not have a list of places she wanted to see. Now that list was so long, she wondered where to start. He had introduced her to places Arabic, and pre-packaged Mediterranean was familiar territory from family holidays. Northern Europe, however, remained uncharted territory. The fashion was for the likes of Budapest, Prague – she was not about to follow the fashion.  So, in Spring 2015, Vienna it was …

She imagined a sophisticated city of imperial palaces, classical music, hearty food, snow and mountains – it was all those things … without the snow and the mountains, for Vienna sits on a plateau to the west of The Danube, the surrounding hills covered not by snow, but vineyards and dense undulating woodland.

A love of the arts, which drew her and her girlfriend together when they worked side-by-side in publishing in the 80’s, became the focus of their trip. So there could only be one place to start. Within hours of unpacking, they entered the magnificent doors of Vienna State Opera for the evening performance. Climbing the vast marble grand staircase to take their seats high in the auditorium, they marvelled at the well-heeled Viennese ensconced in their tiered boxes, classical music running through their veins. Spellbound by Schwanensee (Swan Lake) performed under glittering chandeliers.  Such a privilege to be there.

Vienna oozes the arts through its every pore. Klimt’s “The Kiss” at The Belvedere, took her breathe away … much reproduced on greetings cards, nothing could take away the magic of seeing the real thing. And with immaculate timing, Vienna’s naughty boy, Egon Schiele, had just opened at The Leopold.

A city of imperial palaces – the magnificent complex of buildings that form The Hofburg, Vienna’s former Imperial Palace – the obvious place to start to dip into Austria’s history, with a guided tour of the state apartments, room after room of porcelain and gilded candelabra, and a special exhibition about Sisi, Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, and wife of Frank Joseph I.  Then to the south, the stunning Schloss Schonbrunn, former summer residence of the Habsburgs – reminiscent of Versailles with its grand mirrored rococo ballroom and formal gardens, laid out in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.

Vienna, city of cake and chocolate – Demel tearooms, the heady sweetness of chocolate hitting the taste buds,  Sachertorte and a cup of tea sitting at the bar in it’s dark mahogany interior.  And city of a cuisine which exceeded any preconceptions. At Figlmuller, famous for its schnitzel large enough to fill the plate.  Rich beef goulash at Weibel’s Wirthaus and the faded romantic “Kleine’s Cafe”, sitting in the kind of cobbled square so reminiscent of WWII movies, where the Gestapo screech to a halt on a side-cared motorbike.  Tucked into a corner of this tiny cafe, with its smoke-yellowed walls, eavesdropping lovers in earnest conversation, their first taste of apfelstrudel. And Cafe Pruckel to drink late evening coffee, listen to piano recitals and mingle with the locals.

This was the life she imagined …. a culturally rich life.  Her appetite satiated, for now …. she was living that life ….. and she had only just begun.

finding Barcelona

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” (Henry David Thorea)

A determination to show him, and herself, that she was brave enough travel without him, took her to Barcelona in late 2014.

Always top of her “to do” list, it seemed the obvious place to start. So, accompanied by a well-travelled girlfriend, she dipped an intrepid toe into the “city break” experience.

Enticed by Gaudi, she knew Barcelona would feed her appetite for a culturally rich life, but of course, it was more than that, much more.

The food … still warm enough at the beginning of December to eat seafood paella al fresco at the water’s edge! And delicious tapas accompanied by a full bodied Spanish red, an eating experience at it’s very best in a tiny bar just off The Ramblas, where they put themselves at the mercy of the owner and feasted on what was put in front of them.

The dance …. ah, the dance. An impromptu evening under the breathtaking glass mosaic roof of the Palau de la Musica Catalana … an unexpected chance to see raw, passionate, spine-tingling romany flamenco.

The music …. a candlelit Spanish guitar recital in Iglesia Santa Anna, a 12th century cloistered church, the audience of no more than 30. Such a privilege. Unforgettable.

And the art, of course, courtesy of Gaudi, and his fellow Catalan, Miro. Sagrada Familia remains a dusty building site, and the fact that it will seemingly never be finished is apparently the appeal, though its grotesque facade did little for her. His Park Guell was nevertheless a “must see”, with its crazy mosaic landscaping and breathtaking panoramic views of the city.  Then an nspiring afternoon at Fundacio Joan Miro.  Both artists were self-absorbed, determined visionaries, and both of them were, it would seen, mad – completely and utterly mad!

Barcelona – crazy, elegant, beautiful Barcelona -was everything she imagined it would be, and gave her  a tantalizing glimpse of a life she’d imagined, in all its soul-enriching, thirst-quenching, heart-stopping colours.

finding Happiness

“It’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years” (Abraham Lincoln) 

Two countries, one man, and memories that were as much about how they were as where they were.

In late 2013, they flew to Turkey. Theirs hadn’t been the endless summer she’d longed for, as they battled with the emotional see-saw of each other’s insecurities, but as they boarded the plane, it finally felt it was their time.  

Turunc turned out to be the closest she had ever been to paradise.  A tantalising glimpse of its bay teased them as their taxi wound its way through ancient pine forests. Sparkling blue waters beckoning them down, and took their breath away.  “Is it OK to be deliriously happy?” she’d asked.

imageSuch precious times …. when contentment was the Aegean sun on her skin, her man by her side, and tucking life-affirming moments into their memory bank.  Never a strong swimmer, riding pillion on his jet ski was both exhilarating and utterly terrifying – eyes squeezed against the sting of salt water, arms gripped around his waist like her life depended on it, yet total trust that he would keep her safe. Getting plastered, literally, in the mud baths, and afterwards winding a path through the Dalyan reed beds, past Lycian tombs cut high into the cliff and out to Iztuzu beach for turtle-spotting … so wonderfully exotic, another world.  Then … there was the mountain trek … in a jeep. No doubt a tried and tested formula, equipping twenty adults with super-soakers guarantees to break down barriers and find their inner child … an action-packed, dust-ridden, water-drenched, laughter-filled, conquer-the-world kind of day. They would later reminisce, it was their best of times.

The following months were happy enough, though while her feelings grew, it never really felt like he was hers. That dull uneasiness when something doesn’t feel right.  And so the day they would leave for Egypt loomed in her diary like their endgame … at least she would have him, until then.

Sharm El Sheikh was like nowhere she’d ever been – a surreal strip of tourism painted on desert flats between the Sinai mountains and the Red Sea, where fifty years ago, there was little more than a Bedouin fishing village. It stays firmly locked inside hotel security gates, cocooning visitors from the real world, and, for them, from their real feelings for each other.  

Ignorance, they say, is bliss. Lazy sun-kissed days soothed her troubled heart, and they embraced the opportunity of visiting this extraordinary land. Sharm’s appeal, and where the magic happens, lies of course in it’s breath-taking coral reef. With his encouragement, she’d ventured for the first time into a silent underwater world, and marvelled at darting tropical fish weaving between the corals, sunlight showing off a jewellery box of colours, the likes of which she had never seen.  

Not content with staying put, he was determined, despite the dangers of leaving the Sinai peninsula, to visit Cairo. Imagine seeing the Giza Pyramid for the first time as their plane swooped in low to land. The Museum of Antiquities stunned  them with room after room of faded hieroglyphics that spoke in hushed whispers of ancient times … Tutankhamen in his gilded glory and royal mummies lying in silent repose. A trip down the Nile and their first sight of the Sphinx, proud gatekeeper to the pyramids beyond. She’d never imagined in her wildest dreams finding herself there, with him … it would stay with her forever. 

Shortly after their return, he told her it was over, and broke her heart. Time heals, of course, and now it is not the pain, but those extraordinary times she remembers when she thinks of him. Right from the start, she’d asked him to help her spread her wings … and that is what he did.

 

 

finding Marrakech

“Life is either a daring adventure …… or nothing” (Helen Keller)

Their paths crossed, and she knew her world would never be the same again. Right from the start, he’d told her they would have no future together – her means would never stretch to the far-flung corners of the world where his imagination took him … and yet, nearly a year on, his hand wrapped protectively around hers, they weaved their way together through the bustling alleyways of the Marrakech souks.

Just ahead of them, two elders walked in earnest conversation. Dressed in hooded robes, with something of a Jedi knight about them, they might well have talked of the sports results of the night before, but their rapid Berber dialect hinted of mysterious and foreign lands. They strolled the dusty, winding paths of the souks with a familiarity that paid scant regard to the haphazard passing traffic his protective hand sought to shield her from. A sun-wizened market trader sitting lazily side saddle on his trusty donkey. Some two dozen trays of freshly laid eggs balanced precariously on the rack of a rusting push bike, destined for the food stalls in the Kasbah. A spluttering moped, it’s trailer laden with vegetation wilting in the midday sun. A family of four astride another, the youngest, no more than a toddler, secured only by his father’s arms on the handlebars .

The souks opened before them like an Aladdin’s cave. Away from the perpetually busy, tourist saturated Jemaa El Fna. From the hypnotic rhythm of the snake charmers, cajoling the cobra to perform their dance, soporific in the intensity of the heat. Away from the menagerie of tricksters, pick-pockets, herbalists and story-tellers. Away from the water sellers, and the lines of caleches, their horses waiting patiently for their next fare.

Away to the dappled shade, where the true Marrakech artisans plied their wares in cool, darkened inlets built into the ancient ochre walls of the Medina. A soft hammering filled the air as intricate patterns emerged on the delicate lanterns. The heady aroma of pyramids of exotic spices, bubbling tagines, and rows of figs and dates attracting more flies than passing trade. Rows of soft leather babouches, lined up like an untarnished paint pallet with their pointy toes and colourful hues. And rugs hanging from every beam, their weaves steeped in tribal history and tradition.  The souks – all that is Marrakech in their every breath – lulled into an afternoon calm as the call for prayer echoed from the Koutoubia mosque.

The elders paused, looked back. A momentary meeting of eyes, of East meets West. Then they took another path, and were gone.

His protective hand shielded her still, as they emerged into the light of the bustling metropolis. And she wondered if he, like the elders, would one day take another path and leave her to find her own, or if they would follow a path together.

Inshallah …….