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For me, Christmas has always been about spending time with my family. So, I must admit that I'm a little sad this December. I'm sad, that I can't be home with the fam enjoying the traditional Christmas festivities. I saw some photos from our extended family Christmas which was on Saturday and it looks like it was a fun day.

In an effort to try and beat the homesickness, I've thrown myself into London's Christmas festive events. I'm trying to make this year so Londoney that I'll forget what I'm missing out on. And I've had a ball so far!

The Great Christmas Pudding Race
I read about this on LondonTown.com and thought it would be interesting to watch. The race comprises of 150 contestants in fancy dress racing around an obstacle course in Covent Garden all while carrying a Christmas pudding. The event is held to raise money for Cancer Research in the UK. Natalie and I ventured into Covent Garden to watch the spectacle.

The event was set to start at 11am but we had been standing around for about an hour before the first race actually started. I'm not sure it was worth the hour wait, although it was quite amusing to watch.

The participants are encouraged to dress up and many of the teams had gone to quite an effort. I was particularly impressed by the Parrots, the Christmas presents, and the girls in full reindeer costume complete with face paint.

We watched the Corporate Race which was a relay of sorts. To tell you the truth I had no idea what was going on. The obstacles on the course included climbing over an inflatable barrier, collecting eyes, a nose, a smile and ears to stick on the pudding, hanging a bauble on a Christmas tree and popping a balloon. The obstacle that seemed to cause the most trouble was the inflatable slide. The team dressed as Christmas presents found it quite difficult. One of the Present girls made it down the slide only to have to turn around and climb back to drag her friend down. It was definitely the most amusing part of the race.

Nutcracker Ballet
I was inspired to go to see The Nutcracker ballet by posts on a number of craft blogs that I read. They had blogged about the magical experience that is The Nutcracker at Christmas time. Most of the bloggers had a daughter or a niece in tow. Now, I don't have a daughter (nor a niece!) but I was sure that the little girl in me would enjoy it just as much.

And it was a truly magical experience. I really liked the set design and costuming which I guess could be described as wacky. In particular, I liked the set design for the Dance of the Snowflakes. The snowflakes leapt out of an enormous fridge and glissaded across the stage.

After 15 years of ballet lessons, I have a real appreciation for just how hard it is to do. Of course, they make it look so easy. The ballerinas pirouetted around the stage gracefully. The danseurs impressed us with their tours en l'air (jumping while spinning). The ballet ends with a pas de duex with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. It is the climax of the ballet so it is usually performed by principal dancers. Erina Takahashi played the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and danced beautifully. The Prince was played by Yosvani Ramos. I'm sure he managed to complete triple tours. The music is so familiar but still so beautiful. I've downloaded the Nutcracker Suite from iTunes and have enjoyed listening to it at home.

I hope one day to share the Nutcracker experience with a niece (or maybe a daughter). One day...

(Photos care of the English National Ballet website)

Riding the carousel in Leicester Square
During the festive season, there is a fair in Leicester Square. There are sideshow alley games, a few rides and a carousel. The carousel was always my favourite ride at the Easter Show. After seeing the carousel in Leicester Square, I was determined to ride it. Apparently, this Christmas is all about entertaining my inner-child.

After the ballet, I dragged Natalie and Caitlin up to Leicester Square to ride the carousel. All three of us climbed aboard and mounted a horse for one and a half minutes of spinning and undulating to the accompaniment of organ music. Although maybe not quite as much fun as when I was 8, the merry-go-round ride definitely put a smile on my face.

Frost Fair
Another LondonTown.com recommendation, the Frost Fair, promised a Winter Christmas market with arts & crafts and food & drink stalls, ice sculptures and husky dog sledding. After my experiences at the Viennese Christmas markets, I was keen to see what London had to offer. Leah, another Christmas market aficionado, tagged along for the afternoon. We were both sorely disappointed with the Frost Fair. The place was packed with people and you could hardly move. The goodies on offer at the craft stalls were average and mostly tacky. We also paid a pound to get into the markets at the Globe Centre to be greeted with more of the same tacky, average crap. We will definitely be skipping this one next year.

jess - 19th Dec 2006, 11:11 tags: london social theatre christmas dubs christmas06

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I've always enjoyed collecting things. At the moment I'm particularly enjoying collecting stamps in my passport. When we discovered that Bratislava was only 60km (an hour train ride) away from Vienna, we decided that a day trip was in order. It was a chance to see a new city, visit a new country and most importantly get a new stamp in my passport. And it's a stamp with a little train on it. It is too cute!

Our train ride to Vienna was rather early in the morning. While we breakfasted on our journey, we were missing one essential ingredient. Coffee! (We are all slaves to caffeine.) On our arrival in Vienna we put our heads together and agreed on a draft itinerary. Items on our agenda included: browse Christmas markets, devour a wiener schnitzel, and taste Sacher Torte at the Hotel Sacher. Of course, we all concurred on priority number 1, find coffee.

Andrew, who had been to Vienna before, was Tour Guide Barbie for the day. He compared the layout of downtown Vienna to a big clock. At the centre of the clock is a "big-ass" cathedral, St Stephen's Cathedral (we affectionately nicknamed it, St Big-Ass). The Ring Boulevard (Ringstraße) skirts the clock and two tourist trams run along this boulevard. One tram runs in a clockwise direction and the other in an anti-clockwise direction. The Ring Boulevard actually follows the path of the old city wall. Vienna's tourist sites are dotted at different "hours" on the clock face. I think we'll change Andrew's title to Tour Guide GI Joe.

Our first undertaking on our morning in Vienna was to hop on the clockwise tourist tram. Our plan was to travel the ring boulevard for an overview of Vienna. However, this plan was quickly thrown out the window when we spotted the elusive green sign of Starbucks. All sight-seeing plans were put on hold while we ingested our much needed dose of caffeine.

Thirty minutes later, four functioning human beings set out from Starbucks, ready to execute Operation View Vienna.

  • St Stephen's Cathedral -- we headed into the city centre to visit St Big Ass. St Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) is an enormous, Romanesque and gothic church originally built in 1147. It is apparently a much-recognised symbol of Vienna (although, I'd never heard of / seen it before). The cathedral has an impressive roof which is covered in coloured tiles. The roof is so steep that it is never covered in snow. It was scene of both Mozart's Wedding and Funeral. We had planned to go inside the Cathedral but there was a large crowd of people awaiting entrance outside.

  • Hofburg Imperial Palace -- an enormous (everything is enormous in Vienna) palace, a former imperial Winter residence and now the official residence of the President of Austria (nice house mate!) We didn't venture inside. I think Palaces are always more impressive from the outside anyway.

  • The Austrian Parliament Building -- built in 1883 it is an example of the "Greek Revival" architectural style. In other words, the building looks like it's been transplanted directly from Athens to Vienna. White marble, columns and a statue of Athena dominate. I thought the building was incongruous in Vienna.

Next stop were the Christmas Markets. We explored the markets in two locations, the markets at the Justiz-palast (Law Courts) and then those at the RatHaus (Town Hall). It was a lovely experience. Impressions:
  • Most of the stalls were selling Christmas ornaments, presents or food treats of some kind. My favourites ornaments were the decorative glass baubles. I was tempted to buy one or two but doubted that they would survive the trip back to London (and definitely not the trip home to Australia!). I did buy a cute little "Santa putting presents under Christmas tree" ornament to hang on our Christmas Tree in SheBu (now we just have to get a Christmas tree *G*).

  • I did say "most" stalls were Christmas themed. There were a couple of stalls selling boomerangs and didgeridoos. Andrew and I were highly amused by this and the stall owners were highly confused by our amusement.

  • We decided we had to try some of the food treats for an authentic Christmas Markets experience. We sampled a delicious potato pancake smothered in a garlic sauce. We sipped Christmas punch while browsing the Rat Haus markets. My punch was Red Bull flavoured (highly authentic!) and Andrew's apple (he declared it too appley). We tried Roast Chestnuts for the first time. A bready texture with a nutty flavour. The perfect treat for a cold Winter's day.

  • It was a very strange experience to be browsing Christmas markets, listening (and singing along to) Christmas carols, dressed in an overcoat, scarf, gloves and beanie because the temperature is below 10 degrees. My hands were numb and my cheeks rosy. And yet, somehow, it feels right. I guess all those Christmas carols about snow and frost and cold have had a subliminal effect.

Item 1 was checked off our to-do list; next stop, Wiener schnitzel. The closest restaurant our guidebook recommended was Einstein Café. We decided to make this our next destination. The service was typically Germanic; efficiency over courtesy. (I do not know how the Americans survive in these countries.) We consumed 4 Wiener Schnitzels, 2 Topvars (a Slovakian beer) and 2 Radlers (the German word for Shandy). It wasn't the best schnitzel I've eaten (a title currently held by the Rathauskeller in Munich) but at least I could tick "eat Wiener Schnitzel in Wien" off my list of life-goals.

One of the benefits of travelling with Frisbee types is that they don't groan when you suggest having a throw of the disc. Tossing the Frisbee is the perfect after-lunch exercise and has proven benefits for digestion. (I'm sure I read that somewhere *G*) After lunch, we threw the Frisbee for a while, dressed in overcoats, scarves, gloves and beanies / tuques. We must have looked slightly silly. Of course, it became very silly when the boys began to set themselves challenges..."Through this copse of trees and round that massive bush!"

After we'd prised the disc from the boys' hands we headed back to St Big-Ass to see if the crowd had abated. This time we managed to make it inside for a glimpse of the impressive interior. It really is an impressive and beautiful church. A group decision was then made to climb the spire over a tour of the catacombs. Big mistake! HUGE!

I've already documented my phobia of heights (my experiences with Vor Freslers in Copenhagen). However, when I handed over my 3 euros for a ticket, I honestly did not think I would have a problem with the climb. Although the spire is 136 metres tall, the staircase is entirely indoors with little or no view to the outside world. We started the ascent as a group, but I quickly fell behind Andrew, John and Leah. (They've been playing ultimate regularly, while I've been nursing my injured ankle). After 10 minutes of going up and up and up while going round and round and round, I started to feel a little bit dizzy. I made three rest stops where I then forced myself to continue on. Finally, I could push myself no higher. My head was spinning and the dizziness was making it difficult to move. I leant back against the stairwell wall and it felt like the tower was swaying precariously. (Andrew assures me it did not move.) Finally I gave into my body's weakness and hurried back down and out in to the fresh air.

Apparently the view was not much to talk about. The spire is undergoing restoration and scaffolding obstructs most of the scenery. However, you'll have to ask Andrew if you want an honest opinion. My mind / body can be very frustrating sometimes! The current score: Jess 1 - Spires of the World 1.

Andrew, John and Leah deserved some afternoon tea after their strenuous climb and I was in serious need of some comfort food so we headed to the Sacher Hotel (pronounced saa-cer) to check number three off our Vienna agenda. The Sacher Hotel serves the "real" Sacher Torte, a dense chocolate cake with a thin layer of Apricot Jam in the middle. This original recipe is a well-kept secret and the trademark for the "Original Sachertorte" is owned by the hotel. I know of Sachertorte as we used to serve a variation of it in the café I worked in the QVB. (However, John and Leah had never heard of it.) We dined in the very posh hotel café on Sachertorte, Viennese Apple Strudel and Viennese hot chocolate. It was very decadent.

Our time in Vienna had come to an end; it was time to return to Bratislava. I feel it was a very successful day-trip! I was a bit sad as I didn't get a stamp in my passport on the return journey. Apparently they're only concerned on inspecting people going to Austria.

Back in Bratislava, we revisited the all-night Pizza joint for our evening meal. This time John decided we needed to be more adventurous with our order. We decided to try to decode the Slovak pizza menu. It was actually quite easy to do as we knew what to expect on certain pizzas. We identified tomato paste and cheese as they appeared on all the pizzas. We were able to establish the Slovak words for ham and pineapple from the Hawaiian pizza. We used the pictures on the menu to figure out capsicum, corn and broccoli (on a pizza!). When we quizzed our waiter (who spoke excellent English of course) we discovered that we had deciphered the code. Huzzah!

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After a bit of a sleep-in, we left the hostel with our first destination locked in, the Information Centre. We were keen to find out what Bratislava had to offer. The guides at the Info Centre were most helpful. They suggested an itinerary for the day, recommended a café for breakfast and most importantly (for John and Leah) they sold us tickets to the Ice Hockey game that evening.

Our breakfast at Bagel and Coffee Story gave us a chance to try the reputedly bad Slovakian coffee. Our guidebook for Slovakia warns us that we should avoid Slovakian coffee at all costs. Our coffee at the BCS was not too bad, certainly much better than sludge. Although, Andrew had two straws in his latte through which to drink his coffee. Apparently that's how they drink it in Slovakia. I don't think that's a technique that we'll take on board.
Our morning was spent wandering through the old town. We managed to squeeze in:

The Danube River -- It's known as the Blue Danube but maybe the Green Danube would be a better nickname. The river is the second longest in Europe (after the Volga in Russia). The word Danube (Dunaj in Slovak and Donau in German) derives from the word Danu meaning river. This is the second time that I have seen the river. (The first time was in Regensberg while we were driving from Munich to Berlin.) Our walk along the river bank was a little chilly but it did provide a great view of Bratislava Castle and the New Bridge.

Bratislava Hrad -- Bratislava Castle stands on a rocky hill directly above the Danube River in the middle of Bratislava. It's a steep ascent to the top of the hill where the castle is situated. Our path took us along cobbled backstreets and up a narrow staircase. Although, John and Leah remarked that it was the easiest castle assault that they'd undertaken so far. (They have more castle experience than we do.) The castle itself is very impressive. It's been around in some form for thousands of years. Castle hill was used by the Celts way back in 450 BC. Although, the current incarnation of the castle was only built/restored in the 1950s. The castle is definitely worth a visit because of the amazing view it affords of Bratislava.

Nový Most -- Nový Most (New Bridge) is a striking bridge over the Danube River, connecting the old town with Petrzalka. On the north side of the river there is beautiful, classic, elegant Bratislava Castle, representing the old town. In Petrzalka, on the south bank, is a concrete jungle; rows and rows of ugly, identical, soviet-era apartment blocks. It's an interesting juxtaposition. Our primary interest in the bridge was UFO, a restaurant and observation deck at the top of the bridge pylon. (Well, I enjoyed just looking at it; I'm a bit of a bridge nerd.) Our journey to the observation deck was a bit Alice in Wonderland. First, you catch a lift which is inside one of the pylons. It's an disorientating experience as the pylon is angled and so the lift is moving both upwards and sideways at the same time. From there you climb a staircase to the outdoor observation deck. Once again, my head was spinning because the staircase was on a vertical plane and but the walls were angled. Scaling the stairs was a very uncomfortable experience; luckily it was only a few flights. From the outdoor observation deck there is a wonderful view of the city. Bratislava is very close to Austria and from the deck you can see Austria. Apparently on a clear day you can see Vienna (only 60km away). This fantastic view is available from all areas of UFO, even the restrooms. The fourth wall of the restroom is a glass wall displaying the view. The cubicles in the toilets face this view; it's much better scenery than a cubicle door.

The Christmas Markets -- We passed through the markets several times throughout the morning. On our way to the Information Centre in the morning. On a return visit to the Information Centre to pick up a tourist card. On a third visit to the Information Centre to join our afternoon walking tour. (We just loved that Information Centre!). On each visit the markets were always busy, packed with adults and children, tourists and residents. People were everywhere! Browsing the craft stalls, sipping steaming mulled wine or munching crepes at the communal tables. There were four rows of stalls with the outer rows devoted to crafts and the inner rows selling food. The food stalls offered traditional Skovakian Christmas treats. Although we were not tempted by the bread smeared with duck lard and topped with onion, we did decide to try the crepes. I thought I was purchasing crepes covered in chocolate sauce, however the taste was not quite right. Later on we found out that the crepes were Lokse or pototo crepes. I'm not sure what the sauce was, but it definitely wasn't chocolate.

In the afternoon, we joined a walking tour of the old town. Our guide pointed out and explained the historical significance and current use of many of the old buildings in Bratislava. It was quite useful as we'd walked past these buildings many times without actually knowing their purpose. We did find it amusing though that we were shown every building that a famous composer had ever set foot in. We started with a building that Franz Liszt performed a concert in when he was only 9. Apparently Liszt visited Bratislava several times in his lifetime. Of course, we were then shown buildings that Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven had stayed in or performed in at one time or other. Even, if the composer had only been there for a few days. Obviously Bratislava has quite a peaceful history if Mozart staying in a house for a week is a noteworthy event.

We had a very late lunch at Prasna Basta. It was a chance to thaw out (it had been very cold on our afternoon tour) and an opportunity to sample traditional Slovakian cuisine. John and Leah tried the onion soup. Andrew and I shared a meat plate with chicken, beef and vegetables. It tasted a bit ghoulashy. We also tried a Zemiaková placka, a potato pancake. It was delicious.

No rest for the wicked... or for those trying to squeeze in as much as possible on a mini-break. Lunch was barely digesting and it was off to watch an Ice Hockey game. We had bought tickets to watch HC Slovan play Zilina. When we arrived we found that we had unwittingly purchased the worst tickets available for sale in the entire stadium. We believed we had bought tickets for 4 seats together with an unobstructed, side-on view of the rink. In truth, we had 4 seats that were separated by the TV camera box. Our view was obstructed by this box and by pylons holding the roof up. We wouldn't have been able to see much of the game if we'd watched it from our paid-for seats. Luckily, the game was not sold out and we were able to relocate to a better vantage point.

Prior to the game, John and Leah had decided to cheer for the home team, HC Slovan, wearing dark blue and red (just like the Canucks). Originally, that was our plan too. However, when we arrived, Andrew and I discovered the Zilina's colours were green and gold. Then, in the first 20 minutes of the game, it was clear that HC Slovan were the dominant team and Zilina were the underdogs. Andrew and I switched allegiances and started cheering for Zilina (although, I was yelling Go Aussies!)

(Ice Hockey for Dummies: six players per side, aim is to hit puck [rubber disc] into opponent's goal net, three periods of 20 minutes each.)

It was my first ever Ice Hockey game, so I wasn't sure what to expect. When the first two goals were scored in the first 10 minutes, I thought Ice Hockey must be a high-scoring game. However, this belief was quickly altered. The next goal didn't happen until the third period and the final score was only 3-2.

Zilina were leading for the last period of the game 2 goals to 1. HC Slovan levelled the score in the last 3 minutes. Slovan then went on to win the game in overtime. Thanks for taking us to our first Ice Hockey Game John and Leah. We had a neat time! (*G*)

It was late and it had been a long day. We headed back to our hostel to crash, happy that we'd had a decent crack at Bratislava.

(We went home via Tescos to pick up brekkie for the next morning. Here is a tip for everyone in Australia. Fruit is not weighed by the check out chick in Slovakian supermarkets. After selecting your items, you have to take them to a separate counter to be weighed. The person at this counter will place a barcode sticker on the bag to indicate the cost of the items. We were caught out by this, even though Natalie had told me previously how she made the same mistake in Denmark.)

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I think I practically skipped out of work on Thursday afternoon. Leaving early is always enjoyable, but leaving work to go on a holiday is the ultimate in guilty pleasures. We met John and Leah at Liverpool St station at 4.30pm ready and raring to go.

You can always pick up a fantastic deal on an airfare to some glamorous European destination. Some fares can be as low as 6 quid (plus taxes) which seems like a bargain. However, I think you more than pay your way with the inconvenience suffered when catching these low-cost flights. (Look I'm already breaking my promise! I'm such an ungrateful, whinging Aussie.) Our flight to Bratislava left from Stansted Airport, affectionately nicknamed Stansucks Airport. The airport is about 30 miles north-west of London and is accessible by an express train which takes 45 mins.

Once arriving at the airport you then have to undergo the rigmarole associated with using a budget airline. Check in: 30 mins... queue in a very slow moving line... someone rudely pushes in front of you just as you reach the front of the queue. Clearing Security: 30 mins... do you have your lip balm in a clear plastic bag? Do you suppose you can really blow up a plane using a tub of Blistex? Boarding: 45 mins... stand in a queue for 40 mins to make sure that you're able to sit together on the plane... finally board the aeroplane and become one of 170 sardines squished in a can. I remarked to John that it was lucky that we were going on a holiday, because after getting through Stansted, I really needed a holiday. But, let's concentrate on the important bit here... Holiday!

On arrival to Bratislava we decided not to navigate the public transport system, and instead take a taxi to our hostel. Unfortunately, we were out-manoeuvred by our taxi driver and somehow we agreed on a fixed fare to the city; at a price that was twice the cost of a normal metered fare for the journey. We should have known that something was up when the taxi driver quickly herded us into the car, dived into the driver's seat and zoomed off. It was a lesson learned in assertiveness! (For future reference people, the fare from the airport to the city is about 300 Sk.)

First impressions of our hostel, Downtown Backpacker's Hostel, were favourable. Our room, although a twin and not a double, was spacious and warm. The shared bathrooms were clean and numerous (enough). The other residents were friendly and didn't seem to be serial killers *G*. (Actually, our stay in the Downtown Backpacker's Hostel was affordable and quite comfortable. I'd highly recommend it as a place to stay on your next trip to Bratislava.)

Once we'd checked in and dropped off our bags, we headed out for a late night stroll through Bratislava. John and Andrew were keen for a midnight snack and Leah and Jess were keen to see if the Christmas Markets were still open.

We wandered through down town and past St Michael's Gate. The archway beckoned and we were powerless to resist. Once through the gate we were greeted with a beautiful sight. The old town of Bratislava lit by twinkling Christmas lights. It was truly magical. From there we proceeded to the town square where the Christmas markets were located. The square was serene and peaceful as the markets were closed. (The next morning was a different story. The hustle and the bustle of the square in the daytime contrasted completely with our late night experience. I'm glad I saw the market in both a busy and a peaceful mode.) Although the markets were closed, it didn't stop us window shopping along the row of craft stalls. Decorative glass baubles, tiny doily angels and colourful wooden elves hung in the stalls, ready to be snapped up by eager shoppers the next morning.

Our hostel had recommended an all night pizza place as a dinner venue. We were not adventurous with our order, requesting a Hawaiian pizza and a Funghi pizza. We believed we could guess what toppings would grace those pizzas. Jess and the boys also sampled the Pilsner Urquell, a Czech brew. (With a healthy dash of Sprite for Jess.) Before we knew it, it was 1am and we were flagging. We decided to head back to the hostel and try and get a good night's sleep in preparation for the next day. (A big pat on the back for John who survived the day on only 3 hours sleep. He'd flown back from Atlanta on Thursday morning.)

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Our mini-break was the perfect medicine for my serious case of BBD (British Bureaucracy Disorder). We spent a day in Bratislava (Slovakia) and a day in Vienna (Austria). A healthy dose of sight-seeing in beautiful Bratislava and Vienna was just what we needed. Here is a promise to you all that there won't be any entries on Fushmush whinging about London rules and regulations. Well, for the next week or so at least. I guess the mini-break should actually be called a mini "don't stop 'till you drop". Our weekend holiday was jam-packed full of touristy fun. Our itinerary ran like this:

PM - Leave work - catch train to Standsted Airport - Fly to Bratislava - catch taxi from airport and get ripped off by taxi driver - arrive at hostel - conduct a late night stroll through the old town - eat pizza for dinner - go back to hostel and crash.
AM - Find breakfast and try the reputedly bad Slovak coffee - walk up to Bratislava Castle and admire the view - walk along Bratislava Bridge, catch the lift up to the observation deck and admire the view.

PM - Join a walking tour of the old town, learn about every famous composer that ever set foot in Bratislava - enjoy a traditional Slovakian meal for lunch at Prasná Basta - catch a tram to the Samsung Arena - watch a Ice Hockey game, HC Slovan narrowly beat Zilina in overtime 3 goals to 2 - go back to hostel and crash.
AM - Walk to train station and hop a train to Vienna - catch the tourist tram - must find coffee - ahhhh...Starbucks - walk through the city centre to St Stephen's Cathedral - walk down the main shopping street of Vienna to the Hofburg - browse in the Christmas markets at the Justiz platz - sip Christmas punch while perusing the Christmas markets at the Rathaus.

PM - Sample wienerschnitzel at the Einstein Café - back to St Stephen's to climb the spire (or not climb it Jess' case) - search souvenir shops for the perfect stein - afternoon tea at the Sacher Hotel - train back to Bratislava - pizza again for dinner - go back to hostel and crash.
AM - Catch taxi to airport and this time pay the right fare - fly back to London - catch a bus back to Liverpool St because trains are broken - tube it back home and crash.

A detailed report of the weekend to come...

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