Europe Travel Diary

A bit of self-indulgence.  Living in the UK as a student means travelling around Europe any chance you get.  I don’t want to forget these adventures, so I’m doing a travel diary of sorts on the places I’ve been visiting.

Christmas Vacation – Part I: Glorious Paris: 22 December 2008 – 26 December 2008

These notes are about the excellent adventure we had over Christmas in France, Belgium and the Netherlands with my cousin and his wife, who flew over for a few days. My memory is frail, so I need to write this down.

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The Eiffel Tower...duh

When we first came to the UK, one of my ‘must-see’ places was Paris. You see it in movies and hear about it from people, but there’s nothing like the experience of actually going there. And at last, I was going to be there in person. For 4 days. Or thereabouts.

We arrived by plane at CDG Paris from Luton airport 22nd of December, coincidentally my mother’s birthday (in case you were wondering, I DID call to give her my regards). We caught a train and then switched to the metro, arriving at Rome station. The hotel was supposed to be just around the corner, but we spent ages roaming the streets in the dark looking for it. I guess the map was not drawn to scale. We were fortunate that a friendly French dude saw us flipping the maps sideways and upside down and gave us some much needed assistance. The hotel was in this area called Elysees, and the reception looked like we just walked onto the set of Psycho. It had narrow, carpeted winding stairs and a lift that took you halfway in between floors. Go figure. But the room itself was above average for a 3-star. With the prices around Xmas it was the best we could afford.

By the time we dropped off our bags it was time for dinner. We were tired and didn’t want to go far, so we settled on this Japanese restaurant just up the street. It had nice ambience, and the food was relatively decent.

The next day we had wanted to go to the Louvre, but it was closed on Tuesdays, so instead we went sightseeing around Paris. First up, Sacre Coeur Basilica. It was an absolutely amazing cathedral, epic in scale but graceful in appearance. The inside was just as amazing as the outside. The only downer was the shady thugs trying to force-sell strings to you near the bottom of the steps, but despite getting some rude fingers shoved in my chest I pressed on and ignored them – the only way to go. It was the only place where we encountered unpleasantries.

Next we went to this place my cousin’s wife saw in her guidebook, which surprisingly doesn’t tell you how to get to the places it recommends. It was Parc de la Villette, home of this giant shiny ball (which turned out to be some kind of movie viewing dome) and science museum. We had enough fun on the outside, so didn’t end up seeing the actual exhibits.

Lunch was eaten on the run near Notre Dame Cathedral, a panini. Not bad. The Cathedral was a mindblowing piece of architecture. I personally liked the Sacre Coeur a little more, but this was not far behind.

Next we wandered the streets to some other fine looking attractions, many of which I cannot recall. However, it was good enough just to be walking down the Parisian streets, admire the buildings and absorbing the culture. It was a surreal experience.

We ended up near the Catacombs of Paris, which was supposed to be a spine-chilling place where they burnt the bodies of the diseased during the plagues. Unfortunately, the entrance was a little hard to find, and to my disappointment the place was closed by the time we found it. We weren’t the only ones though – there were plenty of other equally bitter tourists swearing by the side of the road.

Dinner was supposed to be at this amazing steak place my mate recommended, but who knew Parisians ate so late? It didn’t open until 7:30, and we had a Moulin Rouge show to catch at 9, so we ended up going to this pub-like place for a steak/pasta dinner. Very average, unfortunately.

Moulin Rouge, on the other hand, can only be described as an eye-popping experience. It started off on a sour note when the dog-faced witches at the reception insisted that we place all jackets and bags in the cloackroom – it was policy, apparently, but we were never told of it beforehand. The thing is, they charged for each item, so we were unexpectedly hit with a whopping 12 Euro fee to store a couple of jackets and bags. They also refused to allow us to stuff our jackets into our bags to reduce the number of items. After some bitching and scratching, we settled for 8 Euros. The show, however, was very entertaining. We expected to see some skimpy-clothed girls dance around, but we did not expect to see half of them topless, one of them in a tank of water with a python, some dude juggling 7 sticks in the air, a multi-ventriloquist, amongst other acts and dance routines. Whole thing went for about 2 hours. A little pricey at 99 Euros but it was worthwhile.

The day after was time for the Louvre, probably my most eagerly anticipated location of the entire trip. We spent a good 5 hours there I think, but we could have just as easily spent 5 days there. I would recommend anyone to go and experience the place, even if you’re not into art. It’s not just paintings and sculptures either. There is this aura about the place that just renders you in awe and leaves you feeling absolutely inspired. I do have to say though, despite all the hoopla about the Mona Lisa, I still don’t get what’s so spectacular about it. That being said, I can’t wait to visit the place again.

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The Louvre - the best museum I've ever been to!

It was Christmas Eve, and after a little bit of shopping at Galleries La Fayette (where we bought my mum a bag), we struggled to find a place to dine. Really struggled. Everything was closed. Everything. We literally walked around for almost 2 hours looking for a place. On the bright side, we found this cake store called La Petite Rose, run by Japanese ladies. We were glad to speak a little Japanese, as their English was non-existent. Their cakes and macaroons were devine. After asking around a couple of hotels, we walked another 10 mins and found this multicultural restaurant called Marco Polo – the food was surprisingly delicious! Or it may have been that we were dying from starvation.

Christmas Day. We had already expected most places to be closed, but it wasn’t quite as bad as we anticipated. Walked to the Arc de Triomphe, took some snaps, then off to the Eiffel Tower! Seeing it in person was quite different. You really get to appreciate the structure for what it is. We ate some cakes purchased from La Petite Rose while enjoying the beautiful weather. Another splendid sunny day. We caught a cruise around the Seine, taking in the various landmarks. Then we went around the back of the Eiffel and took some leaping poses – the most fun we had the entire trip!

Dinner was devoured at this burger joint called Hippopotamus. Average stuff. It also may have made my cousin sick.

That brought an end to our Paris adventure. The next morning we would head for Brussels. Paris is the type of place you can visit again and again. I definitely want to see the Louvre again, and catch the Catacombs and that steak. Perhaps throw in a few other cities next time. Hopefully another opportunity will arise soon.

Christmas Vacation – Part II: Brussels Pis: 26 December 2008 – 29 December 2008

On Boxing Day, we bid Paris a sad farewell and headed by high-speed train to Brussels, just a stone-throw away. That’s the terrific thing about Europe. Everything is so close.

Unfortunately, my cousin was getting sick from what seemed to be a stomach bug. Not fun. I was getting a little dizzy myself and my wife was starting to show symptoms. Cautiously, we decided it was probably best to get some rest once we got to our Brussels hotel.

Our hotel in Brussels was siutated conveniently very close to the central station. Unfortunately, we arrived in Brussels at a different station (which we mistook for central). This led to some wrong turns, some badly given directions, a lot of map viewing, and heaps of walking with luggages. However, it turned out to be an interesting experience. If you thought Paris was dirty, you should take a look at Brussels. It was Boxing Day, but the streets up toward the city centre were virtually deserted. Strange smells emanated from the nooks and crannies and it was hard to walk a couple of steps without having to avoid dogshit. Graffiti decorated just about every wall and even some poor vans that probably parked in the wrong place. Even the trees and grass looked dead. That was our introduction to Brussels.

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Poor little guy (Mannequin Pis)

I’m glad to say that things got better as we neared the city centre. We took a wrong turn and ran into Mannequin Pis, the little urinating dude that somehow became the symbol of Brussels. It was weird – located on a narrow street corner against a wall no one would ordinarily notice. And the dude was tiny – I’m not passing any judgment on the guy as it was indeed very cold, but the WHOLE dude was tiny. Can’t even get a good picture with zoom. We decided to come take a closer look the next day.

Our hotel lobby had the strangest, most pungent smell of filth imagineable. Imagine vomit crossed with sewerage soaked up in a wet rag and left in a dark corner for a week (the smell did get better though). We were early so we couldn’t check in yet, so we gladly went back outside and had some fries and waffles across the road. It was actually quite scrumptious. The waffles we had were Brussels waffles, not Belgian waffles. Take it from me – the latter are much better than the former.

We decided to rest and recouperate for the rest of the night. The wife and I did find some time to go outside, by which time the streets were bustling with activity. Christmas markets, lighting hanging between buildings, you name it. It could not have been more Christmasy (unless it snowed). We checked out some chocolate places and some restaurants that sold mussels for future reference. In the main quad called Grand Place there was an interesting albeit repetitive light show which attracted the crowds.

The next day the sick were feeling a bit better but we decided to err on the side of caution and take it easy for one more day. We had a lengthy lunch at a Japanese restaurant which took a good 2 hours due to slow service, but the food was quite nice, though rather sparse. We spent the rest of the day walking the streets, checking out the little urinating dude again, up around to the Royal Palace, and Parc de Bruxelles, followed by yet another cathedral. It was relaxing, and the evening ended with a round of mussels from one of the restaurants we scouted the day before (not bad) – I liked the cheesy one which the others didn’t. We had more waffles and ice cream afterwards – Belgian waffles this time. With chocolate sauce. Delicious.

Coming up next, a day trip to Bruges.

Christmas Vacation – Part III: In Bruges (Day Trip): 28 December 2008

On the 28th of December 2008, we caught a local train from Brussels to Bruges, only an hour away. Bruges was definitely on the top of my list. A well-preserved medieval town was something I was dying to see.

Bruges station looked just like any other train station. But I guess they didn’t have trains back in medieval times, so it made sense. As we ventured deeper towards the city centre, we started seeing some of the old buildings. We went into this little community where only women lived. They had a nice little church which was pretty cool.

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Pretty Bruges

Hooves of horses pulling carriages clicked against the narrow cobbaled streets with stone houses, but there was a feeling that the place was becoming too commercialised. Shops lined the roads on either side, and it was hard to feel like you had been transported back in time.

We took a wide array of photos, eventually arriving in the city centre, where there were two large squares. Hungry, we decided to eat first. The restaurant we originally intended to dine at refused service – said they were ‘full’ despite plenty of empty seats. Bewildered, we went into another Italian restaurant in one of the squares. It was busy, and the food was extremely salty. Definitely a disappointment. Even the usually reliable tiramisu was not up to scratch. But we were hungry, and it was a meal. Strangely, even when there were empty seats, others that walked in were also refused service. It still puzzles me why they do that.

After lunch, we first went to check out the Belfry across the square. Common sense prevailed and we decided against going all the way up. We then checked out this church that apparently holds some of Jesus Christ’s blood. On a piece of cloth or a stick or something like that. My cousin lined up and had a look at it, said it looked like a sausage. Now call me a sceptic, but I highly doubt that sausage belonged to Jesus. In any case, people worshipped the thing. After that we wandered back towards the station, taking in the many sights the town had to offer, including a parade with ponies that really freaked me out. Lastly we went into yet another cathedral, where Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child was on display. I guess it will have to do until we go to Italy.

We ended up heading back to Brussels late afternoon, after buying some Apple and Honey flavoured beer and some ginger cookies. I must say Bruges was a slight disappointment. Perhaps it was because I had already seen so many medieval-style buildings in the UK, so none of the Bruges architecture really stood out. It just felt like another town in Europe. I guess you could say I agree with what Colin Farrell said about the place in the film.

Christmas Vacation – Part IV: Weeds (Amsterdam): 29 December 2008 – 30 December 2008

The 29th of December 2008 was the day we made our way to Amsterdam, this time a 2 hour and 45 min ride on the train. We played the PSP (WLAN linked) until my cousin’s battery went dead, then I finished off the rest of Twilight.

Our Amsterdam hotel was very no frills for a 3-star, but extremely convenient, located right next to the train station. After chucking the bags in the room, we went scavenging for a light meal. Instead we had some nasty oily fries and croquettes. Very nice though.

We wandered the streets past many tourists, as many men as women. We took some photos around the canals, and went in search of the Anne Frank House. Unfortunately, there was a massive line when we got there, so we decided to keep heading on towards the Pancake restaurant down the street. After a short wait, we were seated, and were mesmerised by the sweet and savoury selections available to us. We were not disappointed, but mostly chose sweet pancakes as we were still feeling the after effects of the fries.

We went back to the Anne Frank House on a full stomach, and the line was even longer than before. We decided to come back nice and early the next morning. Then we strolled down the streets past several bridges and canals until we entered Amsterdam’s famed red light district. I had heard many stories about this place and it was an interesting experience to say the least. All these scantily clad women, posing and pouting in store windows, trying to entice men to go in. Some were actually very pretty (and I assume they were ‘busy’ ones), but there were also your fair share of old, miserable, overweight ladies too, but I guess there are a lot of people out there with weird fetishes, so you never know. It was actually less seedy than I imagined it. Certainly, there were a lot of sheepish looking men with their tongues out, but I suspect there were more people there like us – tourists simply trying to satisfy our curiosity.

After zig-zagging through the red light district and some dinner at a Chinese restaurant, we went in search of something else Amsterdam was famous for. There were a couple of coffee shops away from the red light area (out to the West side) which apparently sold very good weed. We found both of those stores – Grey Area and Amnesia, and settled on the latter for its classy interior and friendly atmosphere. I smelt marijiuana for the first time, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I had always wanted to try weed, but the stoner over the counter told us it was best not to smoke it unless you already smoked cigarettes as the taste is quite foul. Since my wife wanted to try the space cake all along, we decided to share one between the two of us. On the way back to the hotel I also bought a weed lollipop, and we shared both that night. Disappointingly, we felt nothing but slight dizziness and just fell asleep. My cousin, who had an entire cake by himself, had a similar experience to report.

The next day we checked out early and went back to Anne Frank’s house again. There was still a long line but we braved the cold and it was well worth the wait. It’s strange how one little girl became the symbol of the entire Holocaust. They lived in that secret little annex for 25 months before being betrayed, and it was a moving experience to visit the place in person. What struck me about Anne Frank was the quality of her writing. It possessed a maturity well beyond her years, but at the same time conveyed all the feelings and anxieties of adolescence so perfectly. There is something about reading her words that just breaks your heart. I’m just in awe of her writing ability. The Anne Frank House was, simply, one of the best, most memorable experiences I’ve had since visiting Sydney’s Jewish Museum (for the second time last year).

After the museum, we passed some time in a cafe, then went back to the Pancake place – this time to have both savoury and sweet pancakes. Awesome stuff. Afterwards we went into the shopping district and looked at some shops, and visited the Torture Museum. Lots of painful-looking equipment, drawn pictures and explanations written in small print. But it was not the frightening experience that I had hoped for.

The Sex Musem, on the other hand (which we visited after that) was a different story. Very informative, very interesting, very hilarious. A good deal – 3 floors of stuff for only 3 Euros or so. It did cross the line with some graphic photos of stuff (including animals and urination) I’d rather not think about ever again. My wife also had time to devour another space cake, this time by herself as I wasn’t intending on mixing my flight medication with weed. We had some more greasy fries and croquettes before calling it a day.

It wasn’t until we arrived at the airport that the weed started to take effect on my wife. But a reaction at the airport was probably the worst place to have it. It was a mixture of laughing at stupid stuff and being extremely paranoid about everything.

We flew from Amsterdam back to Stansted, and caught the 11pm National Express back. We arrived home around midnight. And so it brought to an end my first European vacation. It was such an exciting and unforgettable trip, but it was also good to be home and being able to sleep in my own bed. I’m sure this will be a memory I will cherish forever – it’s not going to be easy after this year to be able to have a trip like this again.

Barcelona: 7 January 2009 to 9 January 2009

Our first trip in 2009, Barcelona, Spain.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

An early morning start, something we were definitely not used to, especially in the blistering cold. Significant shrinkage. We boarded the early morning National Express bus to the airport, and despite experiencing only limited traffic troubles, we still got there just in time, which makes me wonder nervously what would happen if there was just one car accident on the way.

The flight to Barcelona was relatively smooth, about 2 hours. I had my Xanax, my PSP and The Book Thief, so I was occupied the entire journey. We disembarked at around 1:30pm I think, and caught a series of trains/metro to our hotel at Jaume I (strangely, there are no other Jaumes on the Metro). After settling in the 4 star H10 Montcada, we mapped out our adventures for the rest of the day. First things first – lunch. We went up the road to a cosy little bar called Hugos and enjoyed some delicious tapas – fried potatoes, chicken with garlic and parsley, and a Spanish omlette. We then headed down to the (not-so-busy) street of La Ramblas, which was surprisingly empty and lacking in excitement. We then went south and saw the Chris Columbus (the explorer not the director) monument and down to the wharf. The skies were a perfect blue that day, and complemented the seas majestically. Naturally, some photo-taking ensued. We then walked around to the other side of the harbour and up to the Casanova monument, then to the Arc de Trionf (very different to the Parisian one). More snaps.

We thought we would have trouble adjusting to the late meals of the Spanish folk, but it did not turn out that way. After much searching around Catalunya, we ended up having paella and pizza upstairs at this smoky little joint past 9pm. I was devastated by the cigarette smoke which cast a dark cloud (literally) over the disappointing meal. Apparently most public places still smile upon smokers here. We were duped by the colourful posters and seemingly large variety of paellas outside. Stupid us.

On the bright side there was free internet in the hotel, which we unashamedly abused.

Thursday , 8 January 2009

Slept in late, and without breakfast in the hotel deal, we went back to this busy sandwich/calzone place near Hugos which we spotted the day before. Luckily the crowd was sparse, so we quickly ordered a cajun chicken calzone, with green peppers, onions and pita sauce. The most devine thing ever. I almost had a seizure after the first bite – it was THAT good. Man it was good. We followed that up with a vegetarian grilled sandwhich – also very good, but paled in comparison to the ultimate calzone. We vowed to return to this place for more.

Next stop, La Sagrada Familia – a ‘masterpiece’ cathedral still in the process of being built. Commenced over a hundred years ago, I believe, under the guidance of the great legend Gaudi. Entry tickets were a rip off (20 Euros for 2, and I got a student discount) and it cost more to catch some lift to go up (which we didn’t, after seeing the long queues) – guess they needed to fund the building. It was the weirdest structure ever – hard to put it into words. It was not pretty, but at the same time you cannot take your eyes off it. Messy, discoloured, abstract, wonky – yet there was something brilliant about it. Kind of pleasant to see something so bizarre after visiting the same old cathedrals in France and Belgium.

Then caught the Metro to Parc Guell, another Gaudi place (they pretty much all were). It was a long long way up the hill (freaking leg-wobbling hill), and thank god for the escalators there which reduced some of the agony. It was a pretty park, not mindblowing. The Gaudi museum, which cost us 10 Euros, was a rip-off too.

Then back down to the city centre, where we found this Japanese ‘sushi’ place run by mainland Chinese people playing Taiwanese music. Turned out there was not that much sushi, but a lot of yum cha, teppanyaki stuff as well. I had about a million plates of dumplings. They charged us for refilling the tea pot. But it was all-you-can-eat, so no complaints on the price.

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La Sagrada Familia

We were stuffed, and needed a walk. So we caught the Metro to Montjuic. Big roundabout, which we mistook for some magical fountain. Walked up the pathway flanked by two enormous towers. Approached the Catalan Museum of Art or something along those lines. Took a lot of photos outside. Some involved jumping off flights of stairs. Nice big fountain there, but it was dry. Took a photo for a tourist on the way down. I think I took the wrong background (to what he wanted), but it was a better background anyway so he’ll thank me when he gets it developed.

After the disappointment of dinner from the night before, we were determined to find a better place this time. Settled on this Michelin guided restaurant with at least several patrons, which boosted our confidence. My wife decided to give paella another go, and went for the lobster paella. I chose the cod with melted cheese and garlic mayo on top. Another disappointment – it wasn’t bad, but for those prices, it should have been a lot better. We also had an underwhelming dessert resembling creme brule. It’s sad when the best tasting thing there was the free cookies they offered with our tea and coffee.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Last day. Slept in, but not too late. It was a shopping day. Sigh. We checked out and left our baggage with the hotel staff. First, of course, the calzones. We had a ham calzone this time plus another grilled sandwich. Salivation. Bliss. Unbelievable. The wife bought a massive boulder resembling a bun. It was pretty good.

Then we went to see the Palau de Musica Catalana, but the tour was an hour away, so we caught the Metro north and walked back down, seeing a few Gaudi-designed buildings on the way. Took some photos in the light drizzle, which soon turned to rain. The Palau gave us a 50 minute tour of the music hall, a world heritage site. It was pretty good. I’m not a music man, but if I was, I would think this was a magical place.

The rest of the day was punctuated with shopping, shopping and more shopping – mostly at Zara. I didn’t mind it though as we had seen pretty much everything we wanted to see in the city and it was raining at last, at times rather heavily. Our dry-weather luck had finally run out. We did enjoy an expensive lunch/afternoon tea at Farggi, an icecreamery. The cheese cake was average but the ice chocolate was superb. More shopping. Then more calzones. Seriously, we had to have it one more time. We reprised the chicken experience. Unforgettable. We convulsed violently from each bite.

We decided to make an early visit to the airport. More metro/trains. It was mayhem there – seemed like some flights were cancelled. We spied on little chubby kids secretly feasting on candy in a candy store. Check-in, security, terminal. Everything was going well. My wife found another Zara and bought a couple more tops for family. I bought a couple of icy cold beverages.

Found out the 8:45pm flight was delayed. At around 9:10 they started gathering people for the bus which would take us across the tarmac to our Easyjet plane. Even after we packed the bus, the driver was nowhere to be seen. He eventually arrived and took us to the wrong plane! Yay! Luckily we had not boarded (unlike some) when they realised the stuff-up and got us all off and back onto the bus. We went to the right plane this time. But behold – someone was ‘missing’. Wasted another good 20 minutes. Announced that person probably never existed – computer glitch they say. Meanwhile some poor bastard was probably roaming the tarmac in the rain looking for his plane, or on the wrong plane. Naturally, we got back to the UK much later than anticipated. Despite zipping out of customs at lightning speed, we missed our late night National Express bus. Caught the after-midnight one instead, arriving back home just before 1am (thanks to the dearth of cars on the road).

In all, a fabulous couple of days. Very relaxing, very pretty, somewhat artistic – and splendid calzones. Man I miss those calzones.

Dubh Linn Adventure! (8 March 2009 – 9 March 2009)

With just a week to go before another long term break (don’t you love university vacations?), the wife and I decided to take advantage of one of the cheap Ryan Air offers and head off to cheery Dublin (Ireland) for a day or so.

So on Sunday, we caught an approximately noon flight over from Stansted, arriving in Dublin just after 1 in the afternoon. Equipped with just a couple of light backpacks, we decided not to head straight to the hotel, instead preferring to kick off the sightseeing as soon as we disembarked the airport-city bus. First stop, the famous Trinity College of Dublin University, where, I would find out the next day, just about every great Irish writer attended. Aesthetically, it was probably no match for some of the more eye-popping Oxbridge colleges, but to its credit it did have an impressive scholarly feel to it.

Next up, wandering around the city streets. To be honest, I was a bit out of it with my flight medication, so even with a map, I really had no idea where I was going. Nevertheless, I pretended for as long as I could, taking us around to Merrion Square where I took my photo with the Oscar Wilde…thing and checked out the exciting exterior of the Natural History Museum (conveniently closed for renovations). We managed to waltz into the National Gallery for a quick peek, but the numerous flights of stairs took out much of the urge to see the artworks. More bland sites ensued, including the aptly named Mansion House. Somewhere and time in between we settled on a lukewarm hot chocolate, some delicious crispy M&Ms and some not-so-sour sour Skittles.

Next up, two of the oldest Cathedrals in Ireland, St Patricks Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, both visually stunning but dark and moody from both outside and in. Then we progressed along some other road until we came across City Hall. As fate would have it, it was the last day of the Dublin Book Festival. I was ecstatic, but unfortunately, there wasn’t much worthy of note inside. However, there was a great looking patisserie called the Queen of Tarts across the road, which we vowed to return to the next day with less bulging tummies.

toothpick

Giant Toothpick

The journey took us back to Trinity College and the busty Molly Malone statue, the supposed subject of a famous Irish song (just discovered thanks to Wikipedia). From there, we went back to the Trinity Capital Hotel just around the corner, a surprisingly classy, stylish and comfortable source of accommodation for just 79 EUR a night including breakfast!

After a well deserved rest, we went in search of dinner at the famed Temple Bar district. I don’t know if it was the recession or the cold, but the streets of the hippest joint in town was eerily empty. Following much back and forth action in the streets, we settled on this traditional Irish restaurant where we dined on several grotesquely fatty but somewhat tasty (though oversized) dishes, including an apple crumble for dessert.

Next morning after downing an average hotel breakfast, we walked back towards City Hall to see the adjacent Dublin Castle and its beautiful front garden. Impressive to see a medieval building in the middle of a city, but I guess that’s Europe for you. Of course, we later went to Queen of Tarts for a delicious carrot cake and cappucino that cost two and a half testicles.

Next, down to see the remains of the Dublin City Walls. It was…big. We then strolled along the River Liffey and crossed the famous Ha Penny Bridge. I assumed the woman sitting in the middle with a cup of coins was Ha Penny.

More walking and shopping along the broad O’Connell Street, full of monuments every block, including the longest toothpick I’ve ever seen. The trek eventually took us to my ‘must-visit’, the Dublin dublin-writersWriters Museum. As ashamed as I am to admit, I had no idea so many of the world’s (and history’s) greatest writers and poets came from Dublin. I’m talking legends like Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, just to name a few. Even freaking Bram Stoker! Armed with my audio guide, I embarked on one of the most memorable visits through 2 floors and 4 rooms for a couple of hours, learning the literary brilliance of Dublin and its writers, their struggles against censorship and their greatest masterpieces. I even got to see some first editions of works such as Dracula and Ulysses!

So that was about it. For a couple more hours we had lunch and shopped around the shopping district. The fact that we spent most of that free time in a book store summed up the quality of the shopping there. From O’Connell Street we took the airport shuttle, then the return flight, then the return bus and taxi back home. And just like that, our glorious trip to old Ireland was complete! A nice little break but I’m glad we didn’t spend much more than 24 hours there since we managed to see just about everything in the time allotted. I’m sure our upcoming megatrip will be the opposite, guaranteeing to leave me wanting more time at each stop.

ANNIVERSARY VACATION – 16 March 2009 to 4 April 2009

PART I: PISA, PIZZA, FLORENCE, PIZZA, VENICE

And…we’re off! The longest and most anticipated European holiday of my life (so far). It also happens to coincide with our 1 year wedding anniversary! Can you believe it? One year!

The adventure began on 16 March 2009 and will end on 4 April 2009. That’s just under 3 weeks. If we thought our Christmas trip (comprising 3 countries, 4 destinations over 9 days) was tiring, this journey will take it to another level (5 countries, 13 destinations)!

Day 1 – Beginning of the Adventure!

So on Monday the 16th, we groggily got up at 5am, caught the 6am National Express and the 8:25am flight from Stansted. A couple of hours later, we arrived at our first stop, home of the leaning tower, Pisa. It was to be a fleeting visit.

pisa-tower

It really leans!

How could we be in Pisa without having some pizza? So we did, at a nearby tourist-targeting restaurant. Pizza with salty sausage and a ham and mushroom calzone (different to and nowhere near as good as the heavenly ones we enjoyed in Barcelona). It was average, but we were starving, so it did the job.

Afterwards, we raced back to the station to grab our luggage and catch the train to Florence, ignoring the many enticing gelato stores calling out to us (mainly my wife). Pisa is a strange place. There really isn’t much there, and everyone around us were pretty much tourists, all there just to see its most famous building. So I’m glad we only spent a couple of hours there.

Roughly an hour later, we arrived at Florence. It was still early in the afternoon, so after checking in at a nearby hotel which had a really stinky foyer (it was brutal), we decided to go out and get some fresh air. Despite nasty weather reports predicting rain, Florence was picture perfect – blue skies and bright sun poking at us like a million golden needles. We wandered the busy streets lined with pretty buildings until we reached the Gothic Duomo, official known as Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, a jaw-droppingly humungous cathedral dressed in patterns of white, green and pink. We skipped walking up the steps of the similarly patterned, 82m tall Campanile (we had learned our lesson in Cambridge and Oxford – which were less than half the height).

Random walking ensued, leading us to Piazza della Signoria, a spacious courtyard featuring sculpture after sculpture. That’s the amazing thing about Florence – everything can look like any other European city, but you take a couple of steps, and suddenly you’re faced with a dozen sculptures in the middle of nowhere or a ridiculously beautiful cathedral that will leave you in awe. After taking my photo with statues of Donatello and Leonardo (couldn’t find the other two Ninja Turtles on the spot), we continued south to the magnificent Ponte Vecchio, a majestic bridge/arch over the Fiume Arno (river), then further to Piazza Pitti (big plaza and building, not sure what it was). Numerous photo opportunities presented themselves and we took full advantage. Somewhere and some time in between, we managed to feast on four scoops of gelato (hazelnut, straciatella, coffee and pistachio) from two gelato stores. (I’m reminded that it was really 4 ‘half’ scoops). Let’s just say it wasn’t my idea.

We returned to the hotel and collapsed on our bed, fatigued after a long day. But dinner still had to be had, even though our stomachs weren’t exactly hungry. We didn’t feel like pizza. So what did we do? Pathetically, we went to the nearest McDonald’s, where –hear me out – we at least had the Italian special Napoli Burger (which was unsurprisingly disappointing). Of course, we couldn’t go wrong with the McNuggets and Sweet & Sour sauce.

Early night.

Day 2 – From Florence to David to Venice

A sub-par breakfast comprising predominantly biscuits and wheat cookies (plus an apple) was good enough for us before venturing out for a second day in Florence. However, we only had half a day (before we had to head to Venice), so we needed to be quick.

I for one was shocked that we had pretty much seen all there was to see in the city from a long afternoon the day before (on the tourist map at least). However, what was a visit to Florence without seeing Michelangelo’s David?

But first, we went to check out the place we purposely skipped yesterday so we’d have something to do – Basilica di San Lorenzo. On the way there, we passed a stall market, where my wife bought two smashing scarves/shawls after some haggling. The Basilica was beyond huge. They must have had a lot of time and space back in those days because that’s the only explanation I could come up with. So we shelled out some dough for entry into the Basilica, which was nice, but nothing we hadn’t seen in other parts of Europe before. We also received entry to an underground museum dedicated to the Medici family, which was both spooky and chilly. It did contain some sparkling, priceless treasures though.

Things like this appear out of nowhere in Florence

Things like this appear out of nowhere in Florence

Then, it was time. We waltzed down to Galleria dell’Accademia, home of what many consider the greatest sculpture ever. Was it really that good? Is Michelangelo more than just a party dude? I admit I am not the greatest admirer of most art. I can appreciate great prose, truly terrific sculptures and paintings exhibiting tremendous technical ability; but for the most part, I simply don’t get poetry and the majority of abstract artworks. However, Michelangelo’s David is a masterpiece anyone can appreciate. Carved from a single piece of marble over a couple of years without any assistance, David is something that needs to be seen to be believed.

I don’t know how long I stared at David’s schlong or for how many minutes I sat behind admiring the firm buttocks of the young shepherd-warrior/Goliath-slayer. The miniscule detail was just insane – from the definition of the muscles to the veins on his hands to every strand of curly hair (and pube). It was so mesmerizing that I just about forgot all the other artworks at the museum.

Lunch? A local pizza joint which sold square slices priced according to weight. It was actually better than the proper restaurant pizza was had in Pisa.

At 2:37pm, we bid a fond farewell to Florence and boarded the Eurostar for a 2 hour and 40 minute train ride to Venice. We sat opposite a strange looking albeit finely dressed Italian fellow who may be a serial killer or an escaped mental hospital patient. He was weird. We planned our next leg of the trip and I listened to more of Stephen King’s “On Writing” audio book. It’s awesome.

No words can really do Venice justice. At least no words I’m capable of espousing, anyway. I had totally forgotten what Venice was supposed to be like, so when we strolled out of the train station, I got a tremendous shock. That’s right! The city with all the canals, gondolas and bridges!

Forget Paris – go to Venice if you want to experience romance. The closest I had ever come to Venice before was the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. It’s actually not too different, at least not from a first glance – except the real city is (probably) a thousand times bigger, a tad dirtier, a fair bit smellier, but infinitely more amazing (plus you spend money instead of lose it). There’s simply an air of beauty in Venice. You feel it brushing against your skin. You inhale it through your pores. And that’s just from walking around for a couple of minutes outside the hotel.

Speaking of hotel, the one we booked was sensational. It has the narrowest, most obese-unfriendly lift I have ever seen! But to its credit, the room’s doors are lined with blue and gold (the colour of the Indiana Pacers), so I knew it was a good omen.

A short rest, and we were out and about again, randomly crossing bridge after bridge, absorbing the atmosphere and culture. Every restaurant we passed involved an enthusiastic dude or dudette popping out to explain the dishes and ‘tourist’ specials.

Somehow, we ended up at another gigantic cathedral. This one was dark and damp and empty, but eerily beautiful in its spooky way. It had a cult-like atmosphere – strange-looking fellows waltzed in and out of the shadows, disappearing into strange rooms. No joke. We got the hell out of there when it looked like vampires were about to fly down as bats from the high ceilings.

We walked and walked, venturing into the dinner district, passing stalls and restaurants. Eventually, we decided to go cheap, ducking into a café-like restaurant where we ate lasagna and funghi risotto. You get what you pay for, I suppose. My wife did buy a pistachio cookie afterwards. Hard as a rock, she says.

Day 3 – Beautiful Venice

Venice during the day

All day, all Venice. Another beautiful sunny morning greeted us as we stepped out after a tasty breakfast. We were extremely lucky to hop on the ferry just as it was about to depart from the first stop, meaning we didn’t have to wait and we got a seat. For the next 40 minutes or so, the ferry took us through the main canals of Venice, passing most of the top sights of the city along the way.

We disembarked at San Marco (St Mark’s Square), a world heritage site built to house the remains of St Mark (as legend says). It’s one of those surreal experiences to walk in the square, surrounded on all sides by remarkable architectural feats and dozens of pigeons waiting for any scrap of food to leave you hands. Of course, we went into Basilica Di San Marco, a breathtaking basilica with painted gold ceilings guaranteed to captivate your imagination.

We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon wandering the Venetian streets, really not caring too much where the narrow streets and plethora of bridges took us. We enjoyed large single pizza slices from two separate joints (delicious!) and ended up seeing most of the sites we wanted to see (though most were closed), at least from the outside. It was just a relaxing, fun-filled day.

We somehow wandered back to the area where we had dinner the night before and tested some cheap coffee. I got an espresso rather than the hot chocolate I ordered, but it was still pretty good. By 4pm we were back in the hotel for a much needed rest, but by 6pm we were out and about again, venturing back to the restaurant district once more for dinner. Tonight, we went for the 10 Euro set menu at a nice little Italian restaurant. The first dish, the entrée, was actually very good. But the main was bad and the sides were worse. Fearing the worst, we skipped dessert at the restaurant and bought an apple strudel from a little family store instead. Before returning to the hotel we purchased tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Rome. It’ll be sad to leave Venice but I can’t wait to visit Rome!

PART II: ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME!

Rome is a place saturated with so much history and greatness that I had been itching to go for as long as I could remember.  And on the 19th of March 2009, that long-time dream finally came true!

Day 4 – From Venice to a Busy Afternoon in Rome

We boarded the train from Venice in the morning, and after a 4.5 hour journey, arrived at Roma Termini.  First impressions: kinda dirty, lots of smokers, hazy skies and lots and lots of pizza and gelato stores at every street corner – but I knew Rome had much more to offer.  Fortunately, our hotel was a mere stone-throw away, so we quickly checked-in and I took a free city map from the reception.  And suprisingly, the city appeared relatively small.  Most of the places were within walking distance.

Given that we only had two whole days (and two mini half days) to see the plethora of attractions, I wanted to waste no time before getting started.  So we ventured out, and less than 5 minutes later, we came across the gigantic Santa Maria Magglore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major) and went inside.  I had seen plenty of cathedrals up to this point, but it was still amazing to see the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  You never get sick of the high ceilings (or so I thought).

From there, we headed south-west through a park with Asian kids playing basketball next to the beautiful Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, an old looking ruin-like thing.  One thing I noticed at this point was the abundance of dogs, and consequently, dogshit, in Rome.  I was careful, but still ended up kicking a piece of grey, fossilized dogshit halfway down the street.  However, I knew I was one of the lucky ones, because there were plenty of mega dog dumps that had whole footprints stamped in them.  Poor bastards.

Seeing that there was still light, we ventured further south until we reached San Giovanni Laterno (Basilica of St. John Lateran).  Extremely tall and white, it’s the oldest of the 4 major basilicas in Rome.  Inside, there are sculptures of each of the 12 apostles.  Very cool, but I doubt any of them were THAT buffed.

We headed back to the hotel just as the sun was setting in the west, and tiny speckles of rain began to fall from the sky.  Forecast was heavy rain, and I was getting worried.  For dinner, we enjoyed 2 pizzas in this family oriented pizza joint just a few shops down from the hotel.  It was delicious, and we were even interrupted by a couple of piano-accordian players off the street that came inside.  I didn’t give them any money.

Day 5 – Vatican City and the West Side

We decided to split the two whole days we had in Rome into West and East.  This first day, we would spend in the west, and the main attraction was of course Vatican City.  One of the reasons Rome was at the top of my list was of course the smallest country in the world.

We got up relatively early, had a shitty breakfast, then caught the metro to Ottaviano station.  For the first time since I went to work during peak hour over a year ago, I experienced the train jam.  It was brutal.  Hundreds of commuters packed like sardines in the over-crowded carriages.  I saw one guy get hit by the train doors 3 times – in the shoulders, in the head and chest, then in the balls (right between the legs).  At least he made it through in the end.

You're not allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel...oops!

You're not allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel...oops!

After leaving the station, we followed the massive crowds until we reached the Vatican Museum.  I hadn’t seen lines this long since Universal Studios in Japan, 2002 (where we were in lines for about 7 of the 10 hours we were there!).  Word of advice: get advanced tickets online or join the expensive tour groups.  Otherwise you’d end up like us, waiting for over an hour (and this was a Friday morning before 10am), watching those smart enough to purchase advanced tickets zip by with smiles on their faces that made you want to leap over the ropes and punch them.  There were plenty of tourists and school groups too, and I assume plenty of non-Christians judging from how many people that pushed in, climbed under the ropes when the guards weren’t looking or pretended to be looking for friends so they could squeeze their way to the front.

Eventually we got in, and were hit with another shock.  €14 per ticket!  I thought Catholics were supposed to be giving people!  Considering how many daily visits they have, Vatican City must be making an absolute killing (and that, is a SIN).

The Vatican Museum was huge.  And confusing.  It was all one-way traffic, but there were times when you had to choose a path. Every corridor was lined with paintings from ceiling to walls.  Not just paintings, but also sculptures and rugs.  All depicting Bible-related stuff.  I was a bit arted out, to be honest. People back in those days must have been (1) insanely religious; (2) loved to paint; and (3) had nothing else to do.

At last, we arrived at the big kahoona: the Sistine Chapel, where I took a photo of the Creation of Adam before getting yelled at by one of the mean-looking guards who kept saying ‘no photo!’ to anyone who dared raising their cameras above their waists.  Strange, because you were allowed to photograph all other rooms as long as it was without flash.  I guess this allows them to sell more posters, books and puzzles…you could even get your own personal Pope Benedict XVI pen at an exorbitant price!  Anyway, I was disappointed I couldn’t sneak a photo of The Last Judgment.  If I don’t make it through the pearly gates when I die I’m going to explain that I forgot what I was supposed to do because they wouldn’t let me take a photo of The Last Judgment!

We escaped the Vatican Museum and had a delicious crepe lunch in the adjacent street.  Next door was the sensational Old Bridge Gelato store, which sold not only delicious but well-priced gelato.  Where else in Italy can you get 3 flavours for €1.30?

So lunch was done and the afternoon kicked off with the free side of Vatican City, St Peter’s Basilica, said to be one of the holiest Christian sites in the world.  You kind of get that feeling from the outside.  The spacious, majestic courtyard – which looks very different on TV and without a gazillion people crowding it.  The inside, of course, was jaw-dropping.  No matter how many cathedrals and basilicas you visit, this one will always take the breath away.  The art, the architecture, the rays of natural light beaming through, Michaelangelo’s Pietà.  I guess it does have a holy feel to it.  There was a separate line to the side for people wanting to see dead popes’ bodies.  We passed.

The free part of Vatican City

The free part of Vatican City

From Vatican City, we headed east, passing Castel Sant’Angelo (a towering mausoleum for some Roman Emperor and his family) and Palazzo di Giustizia (I believe the Palace of Justice).  From there, we crossed the bridge and walked south to the next attraction, Piazza Navona, where we gawked at the Egyptian obelisk and the Fountain of the Four Rivers.

We were tired and needed a break, so we strolled to Caffé San’ Eustachio, home of what many believe is the best coffee in Rome!  It was indeed sublime, and not very expensive, though I haven’t had enough coffee to make such a bold statement.

Back on track.  Further south to Campo de Fiori, some old market place that was just finishing up for the afternoon, then east again to Largo di Torre Argentina, some ruins that supposedly host four Republican Roman Temples and the remains of Pompey’s Theatre.  To be honest it probably could have been ruins of anything!

We then went north again, in search of the Pantheon.  We were lucky to get there just in time, as a few minutes later, they started kicking everyone out.  I felt sorry for the hoards of school kids that just arrived and were itching to get in.  By the way, the Pantheon was designed to be some temple for the ancient gods of Rome, but then, as they all did, became a Christian church.  It wasn’t very big, but had a certain charm.  Exceptionally well-preserved considering it was built in 126AD.

East we continued, past the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius, then what was left of the Temple of Hadrian (just a bunch of big, tall columns), then up more until we reached the Mausoleum of Augustus.

Our weary legs carried us to the last stop, Piazza del Popolo, a massive square with, you guessed it, an obelisk and some fountains and some domes.  No complaints though – it was a wondrous sight nonetheless.

And like that, we conquered the West Side of Rome (though we cheated a little because there were some sites south of the Vatican and west of the river that we didn’t visit, but by then we were too tired to care).  Dinner consisted of some hot BBQ chicken and square slices of pizza purchased from the local shop next to the hotel and consumed in the room.

Miraculously, not a drop of rain all day despite a 60 per cent chance forecasted.  It then poured all night.  Must be divine intervention.

Day 6 – The Colosseum and the East Side

Next morning, we were greeted with no sun, but no rain either.  Just greyish clouds, which were good enough for me.  Today was all walk as we tried to conquer Rome’s famed East Side.

First up, the basilica known as Saint Peter in Chains, home of Michelangelo’s magnificent sculpture of Moses (another buffed edition).  As for the statue itself, nothing but praise, though I kept thinking of what George Constanza once said about Moses – that he must have been a nose-picker, given that he wandered through the desert for 40 years and with all that dry air.  It was too hard to tell from the nostrils on the statue.

Gladiator!

Gladiator!

Next up, the Colosseum (after a slight detour to see Domus Aurea, which was a bit WTF).  It was huge.  You couldn’t miss it even if you wanted to. ‘Wow’ was the only word I could conjure as we walked right up to it.  But then I conjured an additional word of ‘shit’ when I saw the line of people waiting to go in.  It was insanely long, but not unexpected given it was a Saturday.  After much self-deliberation, I decided against going in.  It was pricey too, but the weight of the decision was attributed to the long wait we would have to endure.  After the Vatican Museum of the day before, I was in no mood to spend a couple of hours in line when there was so much more of Rome waiting to be seen.  Besides, I had already seen Gladiator a few times and I even watched Jumper (with Hayden Christensen and Samuel L Jackson), both of which depicted the inside of the Colosseum, past and present.  It was good enough for me.

So from there, we went south, past the Arch of Constantine (some white arch to celebrate a battle victory in early 4th Century – see what I mean when I say they must have had a lot of time on their hands?), along the walls of Palantine Hill (past another long line of people waiting to go in – we passed again), around the bend to the Circus Maximus, a long stretch of grass which was an ancient hippodrome, and, as the name suggests, used for a circus at some point in time.

From there, the most surprising part of the trip occurred.  While searching for a toilet, we stumbled across this little cake store in the wall.  No signs, just beautiful, eye-dazzling cakes and chocolates.  The shopkeeper was kind enough to let us use their clean toilet, but by then all we could think about were the cakes.  We bought and ate 3 on the spot for €9, actually a decent price.  They were some of the best cakes I have ever tasted.

Energized and excited by our good cake fortune, we continued north along the Palantine Hill walls, checking out Arco di Giano (another arch) and a couple of little, unassuming, less extravagant churches, which was a nice change from all the full-blown, art-crazy ones we had seen over the last couple of days.

We strolled up the hill until we arrived at the most spectacular look-out point ever – overlooking the entire Palantine Hill archaeological site.  Words cannot do it justice.  Over 2,500 years of history unveiling right before your eyes.  Go see it.  I would have stayed there for longer if I could, but we had more of Rome to see!

Turns out the day was just getting started.  We wandered around the corner to Piazza Campidoglio, probably best known for the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (the old King killed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator), though the square was initially designed by, you guessed it, Michelangelo.

The view over Palatine Hill is spectacular

The view over Palatine Hill is spectacular

Down the stairs, right at the bend, and more amazement, this time the National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II (or Altare della Patria or Il Vittoriano for short).  Massive sets of white stairs, fountains, statues and sculptures of both mortals and goddesses.  We went all the way to the top, where we discovered a World War I museum and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Italian style.  But it was the view of Rome from the top that made it all the stairs worthwhile.  Simply takes your breath away.  By then, the clouds had begun to clear, the sun was out and the wind was gentle, which made it all the more perfect.  The high view also gave us an opportunity to check out the adjacent Trajan’s Column and Trajan’s Market (the Roman Emperor dude), the latter of which was in ruins now.

More walking ensued till we reached the marvellous Trevi Fountain.  However, the hunger had kicked in and we found this popular pizza place where they sold slices by weight.  You also had to buy a drink to sit inside.  The pizza was okay, but at least we got to use the toilets (though we had to wait forever because the Chinese tourists didn’t know how to turn on the water tap!).  Some gelato of course followed, then my wife and I made our respective wishes by tossing coins backwards into the fountain.  Well, I didn’t find this out until just then, but the single coin only ensured our safe return to Rome (I thought we were already in Rome?).  You only get good luck for tossing 3 coins with your right hand over your left shoulder.  Apparently €3,000 get tossed in every day!

We travelled further north on full stomachs, arriving at the iconic Spanish Steps by early-mid afternoon.  There was a boat shaped fountain at the base, but it was really just a set of steps with hundreds of people sitting on them.  Apparently it’s the longest and widest staircase in all of Europe. Ýay.

Hotelward bound.  We headed east to the intersection housing the Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains.  It was pretty interesting – 4 separate fountains at the 4 corners of the intersection, all facing the centre.

And that ended our West-East conquering of Rome.  On weary feet, we went back to the hotel for some rest, a shithouse pasta and risotto dinner at this nearby chain store (that was surprisingly popular) that made us both a little sick afterwards.

Day 7 – An Anniversary Across Three Countries (1st Half)

One year anniversary!

Another glorious day of sun greeted us.  We were still a little tired from all the walking over the last couple of days, so we decided to take it easy before our afternoon plane trip to our next destination:  Basel, Switzerland.

However, there were still a couple more Roman sites we purposely spared to visit on this last day.  Actually, it was just really just one, and it was a quicky – the Piazza della Republica, and next to it, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs.  By this time, all the churches I had seen over the last few days had pretty much all merged into one.  I just didn’t know what was what anymore.

We returned to the hotel, grabbed our luggage and went to catch a bus to the smaller Rome airport.  But first, lunch.  As it turned out, we ended up having the BEST pizza we had tasted in Italy for our last meal there.  However, we were shocked because the pizza(s) came from Spizzico, one of those fast food outlets.  But don’t be misled by that.  The pizzas we had from there were so divine that we had to get another one just to make sure we weren’t dreaming.  I particularly enjoyed the one with buffalo mozzarella and sausage, and my wife preferred the plain cheese and tomato.  Both were sensational.  Just the right temperature, right level of saltiness and flavour, perfect cheesy texture on the top and crispy doughy base on the bottom.  Not to mention the nostril-flaring aroma.  Mmmmm…

On bloated bellies, we boarded the bus for the short half hour ride to Ciampino Airport.  The plane ride itself was same old, but the place we arrived at was fascinating – EuroAirport at Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg.  Why?  I’ll explain in my next instalment!

PART III: SWITZERLAND AND BLACK FOREST!

Day 7 – An Anniversary of Three Countries (2nd half)

And so we arrived at EuroAirport, a tiny place with a very unique location.  Officially, the airport is located in France, but it’s right at the border of both Switzerland and Germany.   So when we left the airport, we had the option of leaving through the France exit, the Germany exit or the Switzerland exit.  Pretty cool.

We caught the bus to the central station in Basel (hometown of Swiss tennis maestro Roger Federer), and our hotel was just across the road, right in front of the main tram stop outside the train station.  The hotel we booked with was called Hotel Central, with good reason, but it is a cheapo step-sister of Hotel Euler, a 4-star luxury hotel connected to it (and they share a reception).  We were psychologically prepared for the worst because although Hotel Central was rated 3 stars, it had been given some scathing reviews and one website even gave it a 1-star rating!

The lady at the Hotel Euler reception could not have been nicer.  She gave us a nice map, some free public transport passes and explained the best places to visit and eat, then led us through a series of narrow corridors until we reached what looked like a goods lift.  Actually, it was.

But because we knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, we were not shocked.  After we went up the lift, we had to carry our bags up another set of creaky wooden stairs.  The ambience was noticeably different – this place could have passed for a backpacker hostel or a brothel!  However, we were pleasantly surprised by the room when we walked in.  It wasn’t too small, was exceptionally clean and even had a flat screen TV!

Anyway, we decided to go out in search of some traditional Swiss food for dinner.  First, we were stunned by how eerily empty the streets were.  Hardly a soul.  But soon we realized it was because just about every single person was concentrated in the beautiful town centre!  As it turned out, we had arrived on the last night of Fasnacht, some massive annual festival where thousands of people, young and old, parade through the streets with their musical instruments blazing.  It was an amazing sight, though the drums and trumpets blasting wherever we walked nearly made us deaf!

Due to the occasion, the restaurants we had been recommended were all closed, so we ended up settling on this Japanese Ramen place called Nanaramen.  The food was decent, but the prices were cringeworthy.  However, as we would discover in the next couple of days, Switzerland is expensive!  Insanely, mental-asylum-inducing expensive!

Day 8 – A Relaxing Day in Basel

It’s the start of week 2 of our excellent adventure, and we needed to change of pace.  Italy was great, but due to the lack of time, we constantly found ourselves rushing.  Basel was the perfect opportunity for some relaxation.

So we slept in and headed out to explore the town before lunch.  We had actually seen the majority of the main town centre streets the night before, but it looked very different during the day.  We had picked up a brochure on 5 city walks around Basel and combined them all into one big tour.

First, we walked past Kunstmuseum (the one museum you wouldn’t want to misspell).  As it was Monday, most museums in Basel were closed, but I wasn’t too fussed as I had been arted out by Italy.

Basel is a relaxing city

Basel is a relaxing city

We then went back to the town hall, Markplatz, where they sold sausages in little caravan stores in the square.  A delicious single sausage with a small piece of bread and some mustard cost 5.50 Swiss Francs.  We also had a beautiful piece of thick ham wedged inside a bun, with mustard and ketchup for the same price.  And that was the cheap stuff.  By comparison, a medium meal at McDonalds cost in the region of 12 Swiss Francs.  Ouch!

Following lunch we continued to wander the quiet, gentle streets of Basel, crossing the Mittlere Bruck (bridge).  After purchasing some cake (for afternoon tea), we strolled down the side of the river and sat down on the bank, reading (me), eating (my wife) and enjoying the sun (both of us).  Less than 20 yards ahead was this little boat that went back and forth along the two sides of the river.  It was guided by just a wire and the river’s current.

Seeing that we had so much time on our hands for a change, we decided to walk a little more, crossing the Wettsteinbriicke (bridge) to get back to the other side.  We saved the best attraction, the Munster, for last.  It’s actually just an old cathedral, but behind it there was a small area overlooking the river that was especially pleasant.

We took a sensational nap back at the hotel, then went to this Swiss restaurant called Walliskanne for dinner.  It was surprisingly packed (surprising because there were hardly any people in the streets).  For starters we had cream of lobster soup and foie gras, and for mains we had sausage with onion sauce and potato pancake and macaroni with veal.  Extremely tasty and pricey (at 125 Swiss Francs).  By then we had accepted that it just wasn’t possible to go cheap in Switzerland.

Day 9 – Day Trip to Lucerne

Another late start, but today we were to travel south to the town of Lucerne, most famous for its beautiful lake.

The train ride only took about an hour, but it cost us 124 Swiss Francs return.  However, it was well worth it.  The first thing that struck me about Lucerne was how cold it was.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, as we started seeing snow building on the grass even while still on the train.  But the chill of the wind that greeted us as we stepped out of the train station was brutal.

We went back into the station to grab some tourist info and lunch.  We shared a massive slice of curry chicken pizza with pineapple that we mistook for corn (the shop looked popular among the youngsters).

Lucerne is a small town that sits on the edge of Lake Lucerne, and is regarded by many as one of the most naturally beautiful places in Switzerland.  We walked along the bank, taking in the clean air, our eyes fixed on the pristine, teal-coloured waters.

Lake Lucerne

Lake Lucerne

There was a big water tower and a few old wooden bridges (much of which was apparently burnt down in 1993, along with the many artworks on them) where we took plenty of photos.  In the distance we could see the endless dark forests and misty snow-capped mountains.  It was so beautiful (sigh).

After crossing the bridge, we walked up and around the hill to the outer side of the town walls, which has five or six battlements situated in between.  As we went up, it got frighteningly cold and began to snow!  We took some scenic photos not knowing whether we had snot hanging down our noses, but it was worth it.

We came back to the inside of the town walls and ventured into Old Town.  I thought it was some historic place but it was really just where all the shops were.  Around Old Town, past various water fountains and statues, then up north towards the site of the famous stone lion, which was carved into the side of a cliff wall to commemorate the Swiss folk that died during the French Revolution.  It was definitely worth the trip to see it.

And so in less than 4 hours, we had seen everything we wanted to see in Lucerne!  We caught the train back to Basel, where, as a result of the shortage of rooms in Hotel Central for our final night, we were shifted to one of the luxury rooms in Hotel Euler!  What a stroke of good luck!  Not that Hotel Central was a dump, but our room in Hotel Euler was significantly better – and it had just been newly renovated!   The room, the bathroom and the TV were all twice as big.  It even had a foyer and study area.  Awesome.

For dinner we were too tired and cold to go out too far, so we bought a meal plus an additional burger from the Burger King next door.  Cost us 18.50 Swiss Francs, and a further 0.30 Swiss Francs just for a tiny packet of ketchup!

Day 10 – Off to the Black Forest!

A relatively early morning start for us as we caught the 10:12am train from Basel to Freiburg, one of the biggest towns in the southern part of Germany’s famed Black Forest, and the founding place of my wife’s favourite – the Black Forest Cake!

However, our 40 minute ride up north into Germany was not without drama.  There was plenty of drama.  At Basel station, we bought tickets to Freiburg using the automatic ticket machine rather than wait in the long lines.  When we boarded the DB Bahn train, we somehow wandered into the ‘Bahn Comfort’ section (there were no signs), and sat nervously wondering whether we were in the right seats.  We decided this was no way to spend 40 minutes, so at the next stop, we walked down to the ‘normal’ section of the train with the slightly crappier seats.  The people that just got on fought for our seats like piranhas, so we probably didn’t need to move.

But that wasn’t all.  When the train conductor came to check tickets, he kept saying “Nein” and shook his head when we showed him the tickets we purchased in Basel.  When we flashed the receipt, he finally realized: we had bought tickets to Fribourg in Switzerland, not the Freiburg in Germany!  Luckily, the dude was nice and told us not to worry and just get off at Freiburg, which was only 10 minutes away anyway.  Sigh of relief.

Freiburg was bitterly cold, and somewhat unlike what I had expected.  I thought the Black Forest would be just all big tall trees, wooden cottages and tiny lakes.  Picture the forest in Little Red Riding Hood.  It was not like that at all.  I was surprised to exit the train station and see what looked like any other European town with modern buildings and tram tracks.  And if we thought our Basel hotel was close to the station, our Freiburg one (InterCity Hotel) was even closer, literally a few steps from station exit.  You could actually go from the back exit of the hotel straight onto the train platforms!

The view Freiburg from the top

The view Freiburg from the top

We only had a day in Freiburg, so we needed to be swift.  A brisk walk led us to the tourism office, where a nice but lost young girl gave us a map and circled the best attractions in town.  There were about 3 or 4.  After a delightful lunch at the fish specialist Nordsee (where we shared a fish fillet with tartar sauce and roast potatoes), we embarked on a walking tour through the town streets.  It was interesting, especially with the medieval canals along the sides of the streets (which were really no more than wide, open air gutters).  But for the entire time I had my eyes fixed on the tall black trees in the distance.

We had a cappuccino and black forest cake in a small café, where we were accosted by this lady who very much wanted to share her expertise of the local area with us.  She was a little freaky, dipping our map into her coffee foam a number of times and occasionally going into silent ‘thinking mode’ when trying to come up with places to visit.  10 minutes later, we still had the same 3 or 4 places to see.  It turned out she liked to sit (or in this case stand) in coffee shops and talk to random people.

The attractions were a bit average – a couple of old buildings and clock towers – though there was a red-bricked medieval church that was truly impressive.

Eventually, we arrived at Stadtgarten, a garden and the gateway to the ‘forest’ part of Freiburg.  We had two options – catch the 3-minute cable train thingy to the top, or take the 10 minute walk up the stairs (or so we were told it was 10 minutes).  After thinking about how much food we had been eating as of late, we chose the latter option.

The stairs were steep, and they seemed like they would never end.  To compound the problem, I had to drag my wife by the arm about half the way, doubling the personal strain on my already fatigued legs!  At last, we reached the top, and boy was the scenery spectacular!  Looking back, we had a magnificent view of the entire city.  To either side, there was nothing but the endless dark trees of the Black Forest.  Even further out, the snowy mountain tops.

There was a light drizzle that afternoon but it didn’t take away the beauty of the view.  We actually decided to go higher and deeper to get even better views.  More uphill climbs and stairs.  More pulling and huffing and puffing.  But it was all worth it as we enjoyed 3 additional, higher look-out points with even more jaw-dropping views.  Lots of photo-taking ensued before we finally decided to head back down.

Dinner at a recommended Italian-German restaurant that only had Italian food.  Go figure.

PART IV: HISTORY LESSONS – MUNICH AND BERLIN!

Day 11 – Freiburg to Munich

We were already there, albeit at the border, but we didn’t really feel like we were in Germany until we made the trip to Munich.  Today, we were going to do that.

It was supposed to be one of those ‘travelling’ days where the day would be broken up by a long stretch of travel, but it turned out to be more eventful than we anticipated.

First, we went to a cathedral on the other side of the train station.  We saw it the day before from the mountain top and thought it looked nice.  And it was.

Secondly, we went in search of this recommended restaurant for lunch.  We never found it, so we ended up having another Nordsee lunch, but this one comprised cold baguettes.  Got one to start off with but it was so delicious we were compelled to get another one.

By the time we finished it had begun to rain, but it didn’t matter all that much because we were about to catch the train to Munich, and it was going to be a long train ride (just over 4 hours, including a change of trains halfway through).

The train ride itself went by amazingly quick.  Some reading, some shut-eye and some writing, and before we knew it we were in Munich!  I was excited.

However, we both started shitting bricks just as we were about to disembark.  The digital camera we had been carrying with us the entire trip (and had taken over 1,000 photos with, though only those from the last couple of days had not been uploaded) had disappeared.  My wife had placed the camera in the inner pocket of her jacket after taking photos at the Freiburg church this morning and we hadn’t touched it since.  I didn’t recall seeing it and neither did she.  So where was it?

While people were getting off all around us, we looked on and under the seats, thinking it may have dropped out somewhere.  But no luck.  We got off the train and I hopped back on again to check one more time.  Again, no luck.

Oh dread!  The camera was gone, along with our magnificent photos of Freiburg.  There’s nothing worse than losing a camera on holidays.  It stinks.

Maybe we left it at the Freiburg hotel lobby when we were gathering our bags?  Perhaps it fell out of the pocket in the first train?  The possibilities were endless.  I suggested that we head to the hotel first before deciding who to call to see if there was a glimmer of hope left in finding the camera.

We walked out of the station and went in search of the hotel.  First impression of Munich: not unlike any other big European city.  Lots of people, tram tracks carved along the roads, lighted signs and semi-dirty sidewalks.  The trek to Hotel Wallis was a very interesting one.  Our minds were on the camera but our eyes were on all the adult stores and strip joints we passed.  It seemed we had picked a hotel that was right in the middle of Munich’s red light district (though, in our defence, it was also only a 5 minute walk from the station, close to a supermarket and right next to McDonalds).

We checked in and decided to look through our bags once more before making some phone calls.  It was really just prolonging the inevitable, we thought, because we both knew we hadn’t touched the camera since the morning in Freiburg.  But then, a miracle happened.  I looked inside my backpack and saw a silver glimmer.  Could it be?  It could.  It was.  The camera.  Joy to the world!

Since we were both still utterly convinced that we had not touched the camera since morning, the only rational explanation was that when my wife placed her jacket on the train seat, the camera slid out of the pocket and fell right into the mouth of my open backpack (or we may have just forgotten that we moved it).  Either way, we couldn’t have been happier.

We headed back to the train station to visit the tourist information office, and were served by this guy that I am 100% certain was drunk out of his mind.  Glassy-eyed and slurring, but he was actually helpful.  I picked up a bunch of brochures and maps and we had a delicious standing dinner at the station – thick ham in a bun and a sausage with bread.  Simple but beautiful with ketchup and mustard.

Day 12 – Day Out in Munich

We had 3 more full days in Munich, and we were going to use them all to the fullest.  This first day was going to involve checking out all the sights and sounds of the city.  There were numerous options, but being the cheapskates we were, we chose to go on a ‘free’ (ie tips only) tour of the city.  All other city tours cost at least 10 Euros a head.

The Munich Royal Residenz

The Munich Royal Residenz

So we took a slow walk to the centre of the city, Marienplatz, the starting point of New Munich Tours.  In the middle of Marienplatz stood the tall monument dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and was flanked on the northern side by what I think was the New Town Hall (which looks older than the Old Town Hall to the east of the square because of the style and is actually older because the Old Town Hall was rebuilt after the war – or something equally confusing along those lines).

We could tell where the free tour was because that’s where the crowds stood.  By 10:45, a chubby English dude with curly hair started gathering everyone.  There were two free tours, one in English and one in Spanish, and the English group was so big it had to be split into two.  We went with the English group and with a skinny Aussie dude named Tom (who arrived last October for Oktoberfest and never left) as the tour guide.

The free 3-hour tour began with an 11am viewing of the Glockenspiel – some wooden dolls moving around in circles a few times over 10 minutes to the sound of out-of-tune music and supposedly told some old Bavarian tales.  Once per lifetime is more than sufficient.

Then, we were briefed about the history of Munich by Tom in the New Town Hall courtyard.  Very interesting but I like history – I could tell some others were already regretting coming on the free tour.
Tom then took us around to the major sights in the centre of Munich, including the (outside of the) Jewish Museum, some big church (which legend tells has the devil’s footprint stamped in it – but was really just the architect’s footprint), the Viktualienmarkt (food market), the Opera (and the big King statue in front if it), the famous beer hall Hofbrauhaus, and some important streets and locations where Hitler once walked and talked.  There was a lot of information divulged at every stop, more than some people appreciated.  But given my general lack of knowledge about most of this stuff, I listened intently all the way through.

Of particular interest were stories about the how people used to just urinate under the tables in the beer halls, how Hitler’s bodyguard took 11 bullets for him, and how people who tried to avoid doing the ‘Heil Hitler’ by avoiding a certain street were spied on by the SS and sent to concentration camps.  So in the end, although we didn’t see as many places as I expected, the tour was worthwhile – we learnt a great deal about the history of Munich and Bavaria in general and saw some things (such as the little Holocaust memorials littered throughout the city) that we otherwise would not have known about had we toured the city ourselves.

When the tour ended and we tipped Tom (as did everyone else), we walked around the corner into Munich’s Royal City Palace (the Residenz).  There was an entry fee but the audio guide was free.
The Residenz is definitely one of the highlights of Munich and I would encourage anyone to give it a visit.  There are literally hundreds of rooms to wander through, each with its own unique style, furniture and artwork.  Many parts of it were reconstructed meticulously after the war, but there were still some empty patches where old paintings had been destroyed completely by bombs.

The freakiest part of it was the relics made up of human bones in this dark little vault.  We’re talking fingers, skulls, entire skeleton of a child – all preserved and covered/decorated in gold and jewels.  It’s believed to be holy or something, but I wouldn’t want any of that stuff in my house!

Following the Residenz, we set out to visit the remaining places on my list that were not covered by the city tour, and these included Hofgarten (adjacent to the Residenz), Isartor (some old gatehouse), the English Garden, Ludwigstrasse, and a few other cathedrals.

By dark, we were buggered.  We stumbled to a Vietnamese/Thai restaurant that was reasonably priced but had very average food (by our lofty standards anyway).  The wife had a McDonald’s Apple Pie with soft serve ice cream for dessert.  I watched her eat it.

Day 13 – Neuschwanstein Castle

Today we went on a super-anticipated day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany’s number 1 attraction.  It was supposed to have inspired Walt Disney’s castle.

And for the first time, we went with a paid tour.  It cost us 44 Euros each, including the price of the 2-hour train to Fussen and the bus to Neuschwanstein.  Well, turns out it wasn’t really a paid ‘tour’ as such.  It was more of just a paid ‘guide’ that rounds up the people (we had around 40 today), buys your train tickets and bus tickets and entry tickets for you.  So really, if we wanted to do everything ourselves, we probably would have saved around 20 to 30 Euros all up – but this did save the hassle of lining up and trying to figure out which tickets to get.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

The train itself from 10:50am took just a little over 2 hours, mainly due to the slowness and the multiple stops, but at least it was scenic.  At Fussen, we changed to a bus, which took us another 10 minutes to get to the castle.  Though it was nearing April, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, but strangely, it wasn’t all that cold.  We were lucky once again as it was forecasted to rain, and apparently the last few times the guide took people up the visibility was terrible and they couldn’t see anything.  But today, it was picture perfect.

From afar, Neuschwanstein does look terrifically majestic.  It’s huge, perched on the top of a mountain top that looks very far away, but really only takes around a 30-40 minute walk to get there.  After another quick bite of that German ham sandwich and a few snowballs, we set off for the castle.  By the way, there was another castle nearby, and we had a good view of it from the bottom.  It was also big, but had this ugly yellow colour and was nowhere near as pretty as Neuschwanstein visually or stylistically.  People do get tickets to see that castle too, but it’s really just a bonus because everyone goes to Fussen to see Neuschwanstein.

It was a casual uphill walk to the castle through a wide, paved path.  For some, it might have looked daunting, so they waited in the long lines at the bottom of the hill to get a horse carriage ride, which I don’t recommend – you have to wait for ages, have to squash yourself with several strangers and the horses, well, they stink and keep shitting all over the place.  Besides, the carriage only takes you so far – you still need to walk uphill for another 5 minutes anyway.

The tour group kind of dissipated and everyone went at their own pace.  We took plenty of photos along the way, as the views became more and more picturesque.  The view was really amazing, even more beautiful than anything we saw from Freiburg’s mountain tops.  I think the white snow might have had something to do with it.

Eventually, we got to the top, right under the castle.  The way the tickets into the castle worked was that you get allocated a group number and time, and you have to enter through the turnstiles at the allocated time.  Given that we still had 20 odd minutes or so to wait, the tour guide suggested that we head around the barriers (which told us not to go that way because it was dangerous) to a scenic point which overlooked the town and the lake.  I’m glad we did, because we ended up taking in some of the most spectacular views ever!

Back to the castle, and our number was finally called.  The tour guide left us at that point to go have a coffee.  We would have our own specially trained tour guide for the castle tour.  No photos, we were warned, but just about everyone had their cameras ready.

The castle tour went about without too much excitement.  There were pretty ornaments, strange furniture, paintings on the walls and ceilings and so forth.  The most entertaining part of the tour, however, was the tour guide.  Apparently he wasn’t the only one, but the guides at Neuschwanstein may actually be cyborgs.  No joke – the guide we were allocated had no facial expressions, robotic hand movements timed to perfection, and a monotonous, syllable-by-syllable, memorised delivery.  He would pause occasionally, sometimes after a sentence, but sometimes mid-sentence.  I assume he must have had a lack of RAM to process all that data.

After the tour, we had to make our own way back down to the meeting point. By 4:30 so we could catch the bus and then the train back to Munich.  We strolled back with plenty of time to spare, but a lot of others were pushing the limits.  Our tour guide was great – first he managed to lose a couple of people on our way there (either that or he just bought more tickets than necessary), and when not all the people were back by 4:25, he decided that we should all leave for the bus anyway.  I have no idea whether those people ever made it back.

Having returned to Munich, we were hungry for some food.  The tour guide recommended this beer hall-type place down the road from the station.  So we decided to go there and got a massive shock – the place was humungous and filled with people.  Everyone was drinking but no one was eating.  We also had to pay 7 Euros or something just to sit downstairs.  So we ended up walking around a little more, and somehow ended up settling on takeaway McDonalds for dinner!  Was it just me or was even the McDonalds in Europe more salty?

Day 14 – Dachau

I was prepared for this to be an ultra-depressing day.  We were going to the site of the former concentration camp in Dachau, just a short while from Munich.  Dachau is the only concentration camp to have existed throughout the entire Third Reich period from 1933-1945.  Needless to say, thousands upon thousands of people were tortured there and died at the hands of the Nazis.

And at last, it started raining.  I suppose the gloomy weather was a perfect match for the somber mood we were going to be in (and hence our perfect weather record continues).

We caught the S-Bahn (fast suburban train) using the XXL partner ticket which cost 11.80 (can be used for up to a group of 5 people).   Then we had to catch a bus (covered by same ticket) which stopped straight outside the camp site.  This time we decided not to go with a tour and it turned out to be a smart choice.  There were plenty of English info boards at Dachau, but we also got personal electronic audio guides (3 Euros for adults and 2 Euros for students) to add an extra dimension to the experience.

One frightening yet funny incident occurred on the way there (on the train).  When we boarded, we saw that there was a free seat despite the carriage being slightly crowded.  When we got closer, we realized the reason – there was a pinkish explosion of chunky vomit on the floor right in front of the seats.  Disgusted, we moved a few seats down.  Every time we passed another stop, someone would run to those seats, unable to believe their luck, then turn away as soon as they saw the mess.  Then this mother and son (about 3 or 4 years old) board the train, and the son sprints full pace towards the empty seats (and the vomit), while the whole time the mother is yelling ‘Nein Nein Nein!’ but the kid had his eyes fixed on the seats and was running at it like a possessed little demon.  The kid trips just as he reaches the vomit and literally slides into it.  But by some miracle, he somehow manages to avoid most of it (or perhaps it was just too dried up to cause serious stainage).  Lucky he was in his rain boots.

The first thing that struck me about Dachau was how massive the place was.  The site has been transformed into a memorial, but it’s kept relatively low key and they have tried to preserve as much of the old buildings as possible.  The front gate, which says ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, essentially means ‘Work Brings Freedom” sent chills down my spine.

Dachau is one depressing place

Dachau is one depressing place

There is a long U-shaped museum with a theatre in the middle, where we first went to watch a 22 minute documentary film (in English – there are different screenings in other languages throughout the day – check in advance).  I thought the film was excellent – it didn’t try to pull any emotional strings on purpose using dramatic music etc.  The strongest impacts came from the silent images of the mountains of dead bodies; a skeletal arm here, a sunken face with soulless eyes there; thighs thinner than my wrists, skin and bones stacked on skin and bones.  I don’t think there was a single person in the theatre that didn’t feel their soul bludgeoned when they saw the undeniable evidence of human cruelty that took place in Dachau.

Other than the museum, there are many wide open spaces with half a dozen or so memorials dedicated to those that perished and people of different faiths.  They have also reconstructed one of the long, rectangular living quarters so you can see for yourself the overcrowded conditions people lived in.  At the far end there stood the crematoriums, the most chilling (you can literally feel the chills) place on the entire site.

The museum includes A LOT of detailed information about not only the camp but plenty of history and explanations on what happened in and around Germany around the time of WWII.  You can easily spend half a day just in the museum and a whole day at the memorial site to take everything in, but we spent just under 4 hours there.  It was undoubtedly a depressing experience but ultimately one of the most important.  I urge anyone that visits Munich to make the short trip to Dachau because it is definitely worthwhile.

Personally, I learned a lot more about the Holocaust and concentration camp than I thought I would – especially, that it wasn’t all just about the Jews.  In Dachau in particular, there were plenty of political prisoners, prisoners of war, clergy, homosexuals and other unfortunate minorities.

Anyway, I was feeling a bit under the weather by the time we returned to the hotel (no pun intended), so I had a bit of a nap and then braved the weather for a dinner out in the town.  In Freiburg, my wife saw on TV this recommended place called Kaisergarten, and seeing how delicious everything looked, she jotted down the details.

We caught the subway with bunches of soccer fans off to see some match and arrived at Kaisergarten shortly after 7pm.  Amusingly, there was another TV crew there shooting, probably for some culinary show.  We had the most scrumptious dinner: crispy fresh salad, a giant veal schnitzel with tangy mustard sauce and sweet and sour fruit sauce, and liver with potato mash and sautéed onions with onion sauce.  For dessert, this mashed up pancake with apple sauce (that turned out to be too much but they let us take the rest home).

And that was Munich – definitely (and surprisingly) one of the best cities I’ve been to in Europe!

Day 15 – Off to Historic Berlin!

Munich was fantastic, so it was sad to say goodbye.  But I knew the capital of Germany, Berlin, also had a lot to offer.  Berlin from Munich was cheaper and faster than by train than plane, so despite my life-long disdain for flying, we still decided to go by air (budget airline Germanwings).

It took us a while (45 mins) to get from Berlin airport to our hotel, Express Holiday Inn, which is supposedly in the city centre (roughly speaking, it was accurate).  The good thing was that there was free Wi-Fi downstairs in the lobby, something we hadn’t had for quite some time.

Time was of the essence, so after flicking through about a thousand brochures and pamphlets and maps, we were on our way.  First stop was the Topography of Terror, the former Nazi headquarters where many of Hitler’s evil plans were developed.  After the bombs of WWII, there wasn’t much of it left, but they are looking to build a memorial/museum of sorts on the old site.  I think it’s scheduled to be completed next year, though from the look of the progress it might be longer.  But for now they have erected large free standing boards that tell the history of the place, such as Hitler’s rise to power, the way in which the old laws were brazenly brushed aside and abused when he became dictator, the people that suffered and the stories of resistance.  It was presented not all that different from the museum at Dachau actually, except it was all outdoors!

Then wandered up towards Checkpoint Charlie and the associated museum.  We were, admittedly ignorant of the whole thing, and failed to generate more perspective from looking through the objects and signs in the museum shop.  But there was a checkpoint, and lots of people were taking photos, so we joined in.  But word of warning – it costs 1 Euro per person to take a photo next to the checkpoint guards!  You can take it from the side or from a distance for free though.

We passed through the old site of where the Berlin Wall once stood and went in search of dinner at Postdamer Platz, apparently one of the busiest places in Europe in the 1920s, but after Germany became East and West it fell into ruins.  Now it’s back!  All this info is conveniently listed on boards outside the train station, and there are pieces of the old wall exhibited next to it like artwork.

We had an American style dinner in a nearby arcade (where my wife had all you can eat ribs for 7 Euros!) and then had to go back to the Information Office to return a map we accidentally stole (mistook it as free but then saw the 3.50 price tag on the back!).

As there was still light, we then headed back to Checkpoint Charlie again to read a whole row of full length boards describing the history of checkpoint and of Berlin in general.  Having done history before in high school (but admittedly dozing in and out because the teacher made it so ridiculously boring), I was vaguely familiar with some of the stuff, but most of it I was learning for the first time.  It can take you a good half hour to an hour just walking up and down the two sides of the street beyond Checkpoint Charlie to learn about everything, beginning from the end of WWII (how Germany was split between the victorious Allies), the outbreak of the Cold War between the US and the Soviets, the establishment of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the closed state regime the East side implemented (including the infamous confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie between US and Soviet troops), the uprisings from those wanting freedom and democracy, the escape attempts from the East to the West (both successful and tragically unsuccessful), JFK’s famous address in Berlin, to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall from years of political pressure and peaceful demonstrations, and finally to the unification of Germany.  It even covered the Vietnam War (where it only stated that the US ‘declared an end to’ it, rather than ‘they lost!’).  In all it was a crash course on the history of Berlin and the fight between democracy and communism over the last 60 years or so – all with pictures and in both German and English.  Very worthwhile for those who want to learn about it, and it’s all free and out in the open!

It was dark by the time we finished reading, so we decided to skip the Jewish Museum for the day and return tomorrow if there was time.  I read somewhere that the museum was over 3,000 square meters in size.

Day 16 – Walkabout in Berlin

A very interesting day in Berlin today.

After sleeping in and a lazy breakfast, we left the hotel in search of Berlin’s various landmarks.  The first and nearest was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (or Holocaust Memorial).  Essentially a site covered with 2,711 concrete slaps (of varying sizes and heights), it’s definitely one of the most unusual and brilliant memorials of any kind I’ve ever seen.  The experience was made more memorable because whilst inside the memorial (among the various concrete blocks), I came face to face to Obi Wan Kenobi himself (no, not the late Sir Alec Guinness), Mr Ewan McGregor!  He was with his wife and 3 kids, so I did not bother him, but I found out later that he was filming in Berlin and the day also happened to be his 38th birthday (for which he was throwing a party that very night).

Anyway, we didn’t spend too much time in the underground part of the memorial (which was a museum), but it was also very cool and stylish.  A great place to visit.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

Next up, we walked around the block to Brandenburg Gate and to see the Reichstag (German Parliament), past the Friedrich the Great Memorial, then Gendarmenmarkt (a square with some French domes/churches on the sides) and then the Cathedral of St Hedwig and Bebelplatz, the site where they used to hold Nazi book burnings.  All of these places were very close to one another and could be reached by foot in under an hour or so.

Then we continued along the path to nearby Museum Island, a place littered with big, artistically designed museums.  One that stood out was the more modern looking Temporary Arthouse (a giant blue and white block) and the Alt Museum.  We also had a good look at the Berliner Dom, another church.
There was, of course, the famous Berlin TV Tower, the Red Town Hall and Nikolaiviertel (the supposed birth place of Berlin) – but we simply walked by those without stopping or going in for a closer look.  By then hunger had set in and we ate at this famous Vietnamese restaurant called Monsieur Vong in a trendy part of town.  Both the drinks and the dishes were superb.  After lunch, we walked down to the hip shopping district, Alexanderplatz, looked around in a couple of department stores and wandered around the markets, but ultimately decided against spending more money.

There were still attractions unseen on the West side, so we caught the subway from Alexanderplatz to the central station of Hauptbanhof.  From there, we walked down and through the park past the Chancellery (not open to public unlike the Reichstag) and the House of World Cultures (which looks like a giant clam).  We played hilarious games of hangman along the way until we reached the Victory Column (which celebrates Prussia’s victory over Denmark).  Then, another subway to see the amazing Gedachniskirche near the zoo – it’s an old church that was bombed during the war but was never restored, a stern reminder of what Berlin has been through.

Too tired to go on (despite an inclination to go shopping – not from me), we ventured back to the hotel for some rest and free internet usage.  Dinner time rolled around and we forced ourselves to go get some takeaway pizza from the restaurant across the road from the hotel.  It was okay, but as usual, we ate too much.

PART V: FINAL STOPS – PRAGUE AND VIENNA!

Day 17 – Prague at last

[Check out lots more photos of Prague in my posts!]

This was one of those days where nothing much happened because we were on the train for a large chunk of the day. In the morning, we checked out and went to Berlin’s central station, where we caught a train for Prague in the Czech Republic. Prague, of course, was near the top of my destination list, but if not for some fortunately cancelled flights, we would not have been going there in the first place (at least not on this particular trip anyway).

The train ride was long, but at least we didn’t have to change trains midway.  The unfortunate thing was that the carriages weren’t as clean and new as the German DB trains we were used to and did not have power points to plug my laptop (so we were soon out of battery!).  Accordingly, I spent most of my time reading Revolutionary Road and playing PSP.

It was after 5pm by the time we arrived at Prague Holesovice station.  When we stepped off the train, I was somewhat shocked.  I had expected Prague to be nice and pretty and romantic and historic, but everything around me looked old, dirty and sparse.  I was more surprised to see that it was more of the same inside the train station itself.

We were supposed to catch the subway to the middle of town, but the signs were a nightmare.  We asked the lady at the ticket office who didn’t seem very eager to help, but at least did point a finger in the right direction.  Next, the ticket machines.  They were difficult but things were made more brutal as we had picked a machine where the display was faulty.  The machine also only accepted coins when we only had notes.  My wife spotted a guy in uniform (as there were no ticket offices) and we went up to ask for help, but he quickly turned his back upon seeing us approach, and his friends had to prompt him to assist us.  He told us what we already knew, ie, machines only accept coins, and said we simply had to buy something – and so we did.

We had to buy 2 adult tickets plus a half ticket for our big piece of luggage (luckily I did my research in advance and knew that our luggage needed a ticket too).

When we boarded the subway, the same dude in uniform was on the same carriage and he turned out to be a ticket inspector.  For some reason, he appeared to pick people at ‘random’, and of course that included us.  I don’t know why, but most of the locals just ignored him and his little badge.  Fortunately, there was nothing wrong with our tickets.

Prague’s main station, Hlavni Nadrazi, was pretty similar to Holesovice – old and grey and run-down.  Amazingly, the streets outside were also the same.  Were we really in the Prague that everyone keeps raving about?

Anyway, our hotel was actually very close to the station, but we someone managed to walk past it 3 times before we finally found it.  Hotel Sovereign was actually very nice, with high ceilings and neat rooms.  We rested for a little bit before heading out again.  We only had a day and a bit in Prague and I didn’t want to waste any time.

First off we went to the nearby St Wenceslas Statue, and walked around the square in search of food.  We could have had some cheap stall food on the sidewalks but decided to go for something a little nicer and soon found this dashing restaurant on the main street (where prices are dearer but the food looked too enticing to pass up).  We ended up sharing an onion soup and this mixed meat and dumpling platter.  It was my first taste of Czech food and I must say I liked it, though I had been having so much meat as of late that I actually began craving vegetables for the first time in my life.

Day 18 – Prague in a Day

We had a single day to enjoy the rest of Prague as we had to leave early for Vienna the next day, but I was confident we could do it.  I had everything perfectly planned.

I was so confident we had a late start, and began by looking for a pair of new shoes for my wife, who was getting sore feet from the only pair of shoes she had brought on the trip.  After much searching, we came back to the hotel around 11am empty handed.

Setting off again, this time we went to Hlavni station again, this time to purchase our tickets for Vienna.  Needless to say, it was a struggle due to the lack of English signs to direct us to the correct ticket office and also the very unhelpful lady at the window who needed to be prodded with a lot of questions to get us the right tickets.  Thankfully we were pretty relentless with the questions or else we would have only gotten one ticket, not gotten a seat on the train and would have gone to the wrong train station!

Prague can look pretty amazing like this

Prague can look pretty amazing like this

Anyway, from there we caught the subway across the river to Prague’s Number One attraction, Prague Castle (Prazky Hrad), the world’s biggest ancient castle according to Guinness.  It took a while to get there from the subway station, and when we did, we had to purchase tickets.  We went for the short tour that excluded the art galleries and the tickets cost us 250 Czech Crowns each.  The ladies at the ticket office strongly recommended the audio guide, which cost 500 Crowns for one!  We passed on the offer, but she warned us that without it, we would be lost as there were no English explanations and we would have to wait up to an hour to get into St Vitus’s Cathedral.

Well, she lied.  It took us about a minute to get into the Cathedral, and the museum, the Story of Prague Castle, had English explanations everywhere.

It was a pretty interesting experience but admittedly there wasn’t anything extraordinary about Prague Castle.  I found it eerie how people of the past loved to bury their dead around them (and hence all the burials in and around the castle) and it was funny seeing explanations of what they used for heating and the things they ate back in the middle ages (pretty much the same as what they eat now!).

After walking through St George’s Basilica and the Golden Lane (apparently because the goldsmiths used to live there), we rounded out the visit by heading down into an old dungeon where they kept naughty prisoners.  That turned out to be probably the best part of the whole place!

We exited the Castle and took some lovely pictures overlooking the city, then walked down to visit St Nicolaus Church, then around to the famous Kampa Island (bypassing the Franz Kafka Museum along the way).  We almost had a set meal lunch at this restaurant, until they told us they didn’t have the specials listed on their boards outside anymore, and so we settled on a sausage and bread lunch from a street side vendor.  It wasn’t very nice.

Next, we crossed the famous Charles Bridge, which has dozens of statues lined along either side.  From the centre, you do get a pretty impressive view.  Like the others, we touched the most prominent statue of John Nepomuk for good luck.  Legend says that he was killed by the King when he refused to divulge what the Queen had confessed to him, but apparently the truth was that he invited an enemy of the King to the city.

Next up, the Bethlehem Chapel, which took forever to find, and turned out to be pretty disappointing anyway.  Then up to Staromestske nam, the square of the Old Town, where we had a look at the famous Astronomical Clock and the gothic Tyn Church.  There were also some Easter Markets there, and as we were still hungry, we grabbed this hollow bread thingy coated in sugar that was quite tasty and then this fried bread with nutella spread, which ended up being a little too much.

By then I was too tired and too full to head further north towards the Jewish Ghetto, so we walked back towards the hotel, passing the Powder Tower and Henry’s Tower along the way.

For dinner, we went to a recommended restaurant called Sherwood, just around the corner from our hotel.  The soups were pretty nice but the mains were way too salty. On top of that the waiter ripped us off in the end with a magical 15% service charge he added onto the bill.  But that’s Prague for you.

Day 19 – Final stop: Vienna!

After a somewhat disappointing journey through Prague, we boarded an early 8:30am train for our final stop: Vienna, Austria.  This was to be our 5th country and 12th city in 19 days!

The train ride was pretty packed, and we shared the ride with a snoring Japanese man, a nun and a young, messy woman for around 4.5 hours.  My first impression of Vienna was only slightly better than that of Prague.  The station was under construction but it did look newer and cleaner and the people seemed generally friendlier. We had to walk a fair distance from the train station to the subway station, but several people kindly asked if we needed help along the way.  By then, I was already liking Vienna a lot more than Prague.

When we got off our subway at Schwedenplatz, I was glad to see just how bustling and exciting the place looked. Lots of trams running by, plenty of happy people walking along the streets, most holding an ice cream in their hands. Vienna was cool – old and new, historic and stylish, all rolled into one.

Our hotel was just around the corner, smack bang in the middle of the hip part of town.  It was supposedly a 4-star, but that only meant our other 3-star hotels weren’t too shabby.  Anyway, it was past 2pm and we still hadn’t had lunch, so we went back out and enjoyed a massive slice of pizza (cut into 3 still very big slices) for just EUR3.20.  Of course, that was followed by some ice cream!

vienna

St Stephen's Cathedral

Well aware of the shortage of time, we hopped on the subway and the popular Museum Quartier, a true heaven for museum lovers.  As the name suggested, the place was all about museums.  We walked through there into the next area, Theresien Platz, which housed the Natural History Museum, amongst others.  The exterior of the museums alone were architectural feats in themselves, not to mention the many wonderful monuments around the area.  We continued north to Heldenplatz and Hofburg, the Imperial Apartments.  We almost went into Sisi Museum, dedicated to the beloved Empress Sisi, but there was too much of Vienna still left to see.

We exited onto the main street then turned right towards Albertina, another Museum area.  In a nearby street, we found Sacher Hotel, where we sat down and tasted the world famous Sacher Torte.  Apparently it is so good that even the Queen herself could not resist.  To be honest I found it quite average.  Not a bad cake but not a standout among today’s high standard of culinary delights.

Nevertheless, it gave us a good rest, and we continued east until we reached the most frightening attraction of the entire trip: Kaisergruft, the Imperial Burial Vault.  I was feeling adventurous, so we paid the entry fee and down we went into the crypt that held the remains of a large number of the royal family.  It was amazing to see that the tombs of the deceased had become a tourist attraction, but it was more amazing to see the artistically designed sarcophaguses, many with skeletons, skulls, and most with Jesus Christ pinned on the front.  Next to big coffins there were often little ones for the unfortunate youngsters.  I don’t know if it was because we were underground or there was strong air conditioning or something, but the place made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight and made me cold from the inside out.  Needless to say, we didn’t linger for too long.

And so we escaped the crypt and its chills and caught one of the ubiquitous trams up around the Ringstrasse a little bit to see the Parliament building and also what I believe is the theatre.  Across the road was the amazing Town Hall (Rathaus), where we were fortunate to be visiting when they were setting up some kind of bike fair with stunt bikers.  They had set up dirt hills right outside of the Town Hall where riders from all over Europe tested their skills in the preliminary rounds.  We ended up watching for about half an hour, all with our breaths held as the bikes flew through the air, witnessing several nasty crashes (but thankfully no serious injuries) along the way.

To make the most of our 24 hour public transport ticket, we decided to catch the tram all the way back to our hotel.  Somehow, we ended up catching one that went the wrong way, going out of the Ringstrasse and down south for a long long time.  It didn’t matter to me – I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to take a nap.  Eventually, we started heading in the right direction again and got back to Schwedenplatz – except about 45 minutes later than expected.

We had dinner at this Japanese fusion place called Akakiko, which had generous servings of pretty decent food (for a chain store), then, as expected, had more ice cream.

Our last night before returning home!  Sad and exciting all at the same time!

Day 20 – Homeward Bound

I can’t believe this awesome adventure is coming to an end already.  Everything has gone by so quickly, but every single day has been eye-opening and extremely fulfilling.  I count my blessings every day to be able to go on this trip.

Nevertheless, we still had a bit of time on our hands, and that meant making the most of it!  First stop was the Holocaust Memorial just around the corner from our hotel.  It’s not as big or flashy as the one we saw in Berlin, but it did the job.

Next stop, St Peter’s Church, which has a distinctive blue dome.  Around the corner from there stood the Plague Monument (to commemorate the end of the Plague).  Further down the road, the massive St Stephen’s Cathedral, which has the multi-coloured rooftops.  The inside was also very grand, and we were tempted momentarily to pay to head down into the catacombs, where they buried more dead people.  However, at the last minute we decided against it – we had already had enough of the dead from the day before, so we went to the church store and looked at some pictures of it instead.

The church was in the middle of the shopping district, near the busy road of Graben.  We walked along the street from one end to the other, checking out places to have our final meal in Vienna.  We saw this place called “Kyoto” (another Japanese place), not too far from Albertina (where we visited the day before), and saw it as a sign (since it was the place we met and lived). It was run by a Korean father and daughter team, but the food was exquisite.  We had too much sushi and bento for our own good, but the prices were very reasonable.

We still had a bit of time on our hands, so we caught the tram again, this time north to see the church with the two turrets we didn’t get to see yesterday, just in behind Sigmund Freud Park.  We did so, then caught the tram back to Schwedenplatz, where we, you guessed it, had another ice cream.  You really feel less guilty when everyone around you is holding an even bigger cone with more scoops.

We grabbed our luggage from the hotel then headed back to the subway station.  Seeing that we had heaps of time (and the tickets weren’t that easy to figure out), we decided to walk to the interchange station for the train to the airport. It only took around 20 minutes.

From there we caught the slower but cheaper train (about half price) to the airport.  Everything after that went along smoothly, even though we were on the same flight as about a hundred kids, half of them with their families and the other half from some Austrian ski trip.

We arrived back home by 9pm, and just like that, our grand anniversary vacation was over.  It was truly the experience of a life time, and I wish we had more time to explore each of the places in more depth, but we had already put a big hole in the bank account.  Oh well, time to study hard now and wait until the next installment, which I’m sure will take place right after the exams…

POST-EXAM CELEBRATION TRIP TO GREECE! (13 June 2009 – 21 June 2009)

Yay, exams finally over!  The folks came over for my graduation but with a week or so to spare we arranged a trip to glorious Greece, one of my most anticipated destinations ever!

Day 1 – Arrival

I don’t remember being this excited for quite some time.  Being an aspiring writer who is working on a fantasy novel, Greece is a treasure trove of potential ideas, with its ancient archaeological sites and rich mythology.  Even with my parents around, this was going to be one heck of an adventure.

Not much happened on the first day.  We caught an afternoon flight from Luton (London) to Athens, then changed to a bus which took us close to our hotel at Syntagma Square.  By then it was getting dark and was almost 9pm, so there wasn’t much to do.  We bought these round sesame-seeded bread circles which were delicious then followed it up with some cup-noddles for dinner in the hotel.  Slept early in anticipation of an early start the next day.

Day 2 – Athens Day Tour 1 (for more details see my post ‘See Athens in 2 Days!’)

We had 2 days in Atehns, but we didn’t do them in succession as we had to change hotels on the third day (it was hard to book 2 rooms for 6 days in a row).  So the first day in Atehns was going to be a relaxing one checking out the less popular attractions, as it was a Sunday, after all.

We began in Syntagma Square, kind of like the central area in Athens.  We were lucky to see the changing of the guards near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside Parliament House.  Then we ventured down into the Syntagma Square metro, which was kind of like a mini-museum, since they had to excavate some ancient ruins in order to build the metro.  It was very interesting and pretty cool to see such artifacts in the middle of a metro station.

Next we followed the map, through the pretty National Gardens adjacent to Syntagma Square, until we reached the Zappion Exhibition Hall.  From there, we got out of the Gardens and crossed the road to see the jaw dropping Temple of Olympian Zeus, my first taste of Ancient Greece.  And boy, the sheer size of the columns just blew me away.  You could even see the Acropolis from there on top of the not-too-distant hill.  A short walk around the corner allowed us to see Hadrian’s Arch.

Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Olympic Zeus was a great introduction to Athens

Back upwards we went again, this time around the outside of the Gardens until we reached Panathinaikon Stadium, home of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.  Extremely well preserved.  On the way back to Plaka (where we stayed) we also passed the well-guarded Presidential Residence.

We enjoyed a late lunch at a place called Noodle Bar on our street, which served Asian (mostly Thai) food.  It’s relatively cheap for a touristy area and the food was pretty decent as well.  We were exhausted after a morning out in the blistering sun, so we took a short rest back at the hotel before we ventured out again.

It was still hot when we left the hotel at arond 4 or 5 pm, so we took the metro then walked up a steel incline towards Lycabettus Hill, THE place to go to catch some spectacular views of Athens.  I really pitied the people who lived on the steps going up towards the cable car because it’s a long way up or down.  The cable car as expensive but it was a must.  However, it was a short climb and you don’t get to see any views as it was all covered up by a tunnel.

When we did get up to the top the view was well worth it.

After soaking in the scenery and taking a peek at the mini-churh at the top, we sat down at an expensive cafe there on the peak (you get discounts if you got a cable car ticket), but had to change seats about a dozen times to avoid smokers and the bright sunlight shining through the various windows.  The drinks (iced coffees and chocolates) were great for a hot afternoon/evening.

Eventually we caught the cable car back down and walked back to the hotel, but not before having dinner at this Japanese fusion restaurant that was surprisingly delicious.  In all, a superb first day in Athens!

Day 3 – Day Cruise to Hydra, Poros and Aegina (for more details see my review of the day cruise here)

Early morning start – caught the group bus down to Piraeus port, then boarded the decent cruise ship.  The first stop (after a couple of hours at least) was Hydra, the best of the 3 islands we would see that day.  It was just so beautiful, the houses along the hillside, the clear, cobalt blue waters, the clear sky in the background and the cool breeze blowing through our hair.  Ahhh…

Hydra

Hydra was definitely the highlight of the 3-island day cruise

Unfortunately we had less than 90 minutes on Hydra before we had to head back onboard for lunch, which consisted of some salmon salad, then a weird piece of meat as the main course, followed by an even weirder dessert.

Next stop was the island of Poros, where we only had 45 minutes.  After seeing Hydra, Poros wasn’t much to brag about, but it was still pretty nice.

The last stop was Aegina, actually the closest of the 3 islands (I believe) to Athens.  I was shocked that the so called ‘voluntary’ tours of Aegina would cost between 22-25 Euros, so we decided to walk around ourselves instead.  First we had a cold drink in the shade, then ventured out on foot to see the ruined Temple of Apollo.  I would have liked to have seen the Temple of Aphaea, which is the one you see in all the Aegina postcards, but it wasn’t to be.  We were about to see the Acropolis anyway!

Dinner after returning to Athens was at a super-overpriced Korean restaurant nearby.  Food was above-average but prices were just ridiculous for the small servings we got.  And it took them literally 20 minutes and 3 reminders to get our bill.

Day 4 – Athens Day Tour 2 (for more details see my post ‘See Athens in 2 Days!’)

This was a big day.  An exhausting day, but one of the most exciting.  We set off relatively early in search of the Acropolis.  It looked so far away but it really wasn’t.  Looking up the climb appears daunting, but a few steps here and there and before you know it you’re already there!  We got to see the Theatre of Dionysos and Odeum of Herodes first, which were both spectacular in their own right, before we made the short climb up to the Acropolis.  Even though it was a Tuesday, it was still pretty crowded, and the slippery rocks (smoothed over by thousands of years of treading over them) made it a cautious climb.

When we got to the top, there were no words to describe the spectacle before us.  The Parthenon is just absolutely incredible.  It’s one of those things you just have to experience for yourself.

Acropolis

The Parthenon at the Acropolis, 'nuff said

After coming down, we walked all the way to Monastiraki (the flea market area) where we enjoyed a scrumptious lunch at O Thanasis (mixed plate plus pita and Greek salad).  Service was fast, food was good and the ambience terrific.

When lunch finished we went back to the hotel for a mini-rest before going back out again, this time visiting Hadrian Library (near Monastiraki Station) and then Roman Agora and lastly Ancient Agora.  The last one of the bunch was also the best.  Ancient Agora is a magnificent place to explore because it is absolutely huge, and the Temple of Hephasestus is extraordinarily well-preserved.  We could have easily spent several hours there if we had more time.

Time was running out, but there were still plenty of places to see.  So we caught another metro to Victoria and walked around 10 minutes to get to the National Archaeological Museum, one of the best museums in Greece (or so I am told).  It’s a fairly big place, and the ancient sculptures and artifacts from all parts of Greece need to be seen to be believed.  Another one of those places where you can easily spend half a day or more, but we did a fairly quick run-through.  I would have liked to squeeze the highly touted Benzaki Museum (near Syntagma Square) into the schedule too but there just wasn’t enough time!

Day 5 – Day Trip to the Peloponnese (check out full coverage in my post: The Peloponnese and Delphi by Taxi!)

This was another day that got me super-excited weeks in advance.  The Peloponnese is full of ancient wonders to explore, and today we were going to spend 10 hours (give or take) there.  Our taxi driver Bill got there a tad late due to traffic, but he seemed like an affable kind of guy.

First stop after an hour or so on the road, we reached the grand Corinth Canal.  It was worth the stop just to take a look at it.

Second stop, Ancient Corinth.  We saw the first half of it in detail, but the heat got to my parents so they convinced me to skip much of the rest, instead heading back in from the exit to check out the last remaining ruins.  I got a general feel for them at least, so it was good enough for me, but I know we did miss some pretty special things too.

Third stop, the ancient Acropolis of Mycenae.  I thought Mycenae was good, but not great.  The Lion Gate was cool to see, but the rest of the ruins were pretty much just a few bricks here and there, though the view from the top was rather impressive.

From there, a short ride to the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio, where we devoured a super-expensive lunch…the traditional Greek Mousaka was probably the highlight.  Afterwards, Bill drove us up the winding roads to see Palamidi Castle, a place I had not heard of but was pleasantly surprised when we walked in.  It was exceptionally well preserved, being from the early 19th century and was even at one stage a prison that held a Greek revolutionary hero.  The views were great and I really enjoyed exploring the various bastions and walking up and down the stairs to experience different views.  Despite the heat, we wandered around for a good 2 hours and took many spectacular photos.

When we finally got back to the taxi, Bill said it was time to go back to Athens, meaning we would not have time to make the trip to see the grand theatre of Epidavros (Epidaurus), possibly the most disappointing thing about the entire trip.  This was especially so as we ended up arriving an hour early back at our hotel (meaning we paid 250 Euros for 9 hours instead of the scheduled 10).

Day 6 – Day Trip to Delphi (check out full coverage in my post: The Peloponnese and Delphi by Taxi!)

Delphi was one of those places I initially thought we could skip if we were strapped for time in Greece, but it ended up being probably the best place we visited the entire trip!  Legend has it that two eagles took off from opposite sides of the world and met in Delphi, which is why Ancient Greeks considered it the centre of the world.  It was also where the Oracle sat (remember Kind Leonidas in 300?) and espoused wisdom to those who came to seek it.

Our taxi driver today was named Bill, a fellow Aussie who had lived in Greece for 25 years and was keen to find out what had been happening back home the last few years.  Our first stop was Levadia, where we took some snaps of the pretty bridges and the water nymph statue.  The green and blue colours were perfect for photos.

The next stop was a short one, at some cafe where we sipped on some coffee and tasted some traditional Greek yoghurt.  We also got to see a traditional Greek spit roast with an entire lamb (with legs and head and all) which was pretty scary actually.

After a short while we arrived across the mountain from the busy town of Arachova, apparently very popular during the winter for skiiers.  The multi-coloured houses perched along the hillside were begging to be photgraphed, so we complied.  Very shortly, we found ourselves driving through Arachova, and in a matter of minutes we arrived at Delphi, one of the biggest and most well-preserved archaelogical sites ever discovered in Greece!

Delphi 1

Delphi was probably THE highlight of our entire Greece trip

From the Temple of Apollo to the Theatre to the Hall of the Knidians, we climbed all the way up, becoming more and more impressed with Delphi as we neared the top.  It was scorching, but well worth the effort.  No wonder Delphi is, apart from the Acropolis in Athens, the most popular tourist destination in Greece (or so I hear).

After visiting the archaeological site, we also visited the museum for a good half hour, checking out the various artifacts unearthed form the site.

Unfortunately, due to there being no obvious signs, we completely missed the oft-photographed Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia which is supposedly several hundred metres down the road from the Delphi archaeological site.  Oh well – I guess that was the only downer in an otherwise perfect expedition.

Having spent more than 2 hours at Delphi, we decided to skip lunch in Arachova and arrived back at our hotel with a couple of minutes to spare (having run into some traffic in downtown Athens).

Day 7 – Cruise to Santorini (see my full post on this nightmarish journey here)

Really no need to go into this any further than I did in my detailed post above.  I don’t want to relive it anyway.  On the bright side, we did get to see the island of Milos, which we otherwise would not have, but I’m not sure it makes up for missing half a day in Santorini.  That said, we managed to get it all done in a single day!

Day 8 – One Day in Santorini (see my detailed post on this here)

I absolutely loved Santorini.  After listening to locals I think we made the right choice when we chose to go to Santorini as opposed to any other island in the Cyclades.  It’s just so majestically beautiful and there’s something about the volcano in the middle that makes it kind of magical.  No wonder people think it is the lost island of Atlantis!

We spent a bit more money than we would have liked, but it was well worth it.  We missed out on staying 2 nights at the wonderful Hotel Atlantis, but they appear to have upgraded us from a mountain view room to an ocean view room, which made all the difference in the world.  There’s nothing like waking up to the stunning views Fira has to offer.

Santorini

If you only visit one island in Greece, make it Santorini!

Our day was split into 3: (1) the taxi tour to the Red Beach and Ancient Thera and Kamari Beach; (2) cable car down to the Old Port then cruise to the hot springs and Nea Kameni volcano; (3) the sunset at Oia.  Each part was equally superb.

One thing I forgot to mention in my post is that we enjoyed a Gyros (kind of like a kebab) after returning from Oia.  It was good but not mindblowing like I expected.  Fries in pita did not mix as well with the meat as I would have hoped.

Day 9 – Santorini back to London

We only had a couple of hours in the morning, which we used to walk around the streets of Fira and visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thira.  Of course, I got in free as student again!  The museum was really small and rather hot, but it’s worth spending 20-30 minutes there just to appreciate the ancient artworks and tools of past civilizations, especially impressive given that they were from 3,500 years ago.

We had about 3 hours to spare after travelling from Santorini to Athens before heading back to London.  Initially when we thought we had more time than that we wanted to take another short trip by taxi to see the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.  But it wasn’t to be.

We ended up arriving back home at around 9pm, exhausted, tanned (burnt in some areas) but extremely satisfied with the adventure we had just experienced in Greece.  Perhaps it was because I had finished my exams and no longer had any pressure on my back, but I really thought our Greece vacation was the best we had our entire stay in the UK.

There would only be one more trip after my graduation – to the Scandanavian countries of Sweden (Stockholm) and Denmark (Copenhagen).  Ice cream, here we come!

POST GRADUATION TRIP: FINAL STOP, STOCKHOLM AND COPENHAGEN!

It was apt that the last leg of our awesome European adventure would take place in Scandanavia – in Stockholm (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark).  We thought, correctly, that northern Europe would be more relaxing and be less crammed with activities and attractions than say Greece or Italy, so it would be a perfect chance to unwind before we left the UK for good.  It had to be a short trip too, as time was winding down and we needed to get a move on with finalising last details before leaving.

Day 1: Arriving in Stockholm

As we caught a Ryan Air flight, we arrived at the far off airport which required a 45 minute coach ride into the city.  Never fear.  I was drugged out on flight medication so I kind of dozed through it anyway.

Our hotel, the Scandic, was right across the road from the train station.  The service at the check-in was very slow, but we eventually got 2 rooms on the second floor (initially they gave us rooms on different floors and I had to request a change).  After settling down, we decided to go out and grab a bite.  This entailed walking down the pedestrian street of Riksgatan to the Old Town area of Gamla Stan.  It was around that time (when I got the city map) that I realised that Stockholm was actually made up of around 14 islands.

The first thing that struck me about Stockholm was how un-touristy it seemed.  There weren’t that many people on the streets, and even lesser cars, and it seemed generally rather clean (though there were dried dark patches all over the ground – I assumed ice cream!).

On our way to the Old Town area, we passed the Riksdagshuset (Parliament Building) which was very cool, as well as about a dozen smiling stone lions and strange sculptures, including one of a humanoid fox with baby in tow.  Old Town was very cool, full of shops and restaurants on either side.  I don’t know why, perhaps we were hungry, but we eventually settled on this Israeli kebab place which was average at best, but decently priced for Scandanavia (which is still a rip off in any other normal country!).

After dinner we wandered around a little more, bought some groceries and headed back.  Early night.

Day 2: Around Stockholm!

We had the day all planned out.  First, we walked to Stromgatan where we caught a Stockholm Sightseeing boat (the Under the Bridges one) which took us around the various islands of Stockholm crossing under just about every bridge there was!  Very cool, especially when the water level rose and fell.  It was super-relaxing and we could listen to the commentary on headphones in various languages.  During the downtimes they even played soothing music (a bit too soothing – I got slightly sleepy).  The tickets were 190 SEK a pop, so it wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth the money.  The waters were so ridiculously clean you could jump in and drink it! (and in fact tap water is very drinkable in Stockholm)

We had lunch back in Gamla Stan, at one of the traditional Swedish restaurants, where we had some of the local food for which Swedes were famous for, such as salmon and Swedish meatballs.  It was an excellent meal, not too expensive either.  Of course, we followed it up with an ice cream, which was not great, unfortunately.

From there, we walked back up to the Royal Palace, where we paid to go in and take a look.  With limited time, we skipped through most of the rooms, which were surprisingly similar to whose we saw in Munich.  Afterwards, we caught the nearby hop-on hop-off boat to the Vasa Museum on Djurgarden – and what a tremendously pleasant surprise it was!  The Vasa is a great big ship that sunk on its maiden voyage in the 17th century, and was not salvaged until 333 years later.  However, it remained remarkably well-preserved thanks to the strange mixture of salt and fresh water in the area where it sunk.  Now the wreckage forms the centerpiece of the museum, which has several floors, all dedicated to the Vasa, its crew and the history of the time.  The ship itself was magnificent, and the rest of the museum was highly informative.  Definitely the highlight of Stockholm!

After leaving the Vasa Museum, it was still bright, so we walked a little towards the open-air museum of Skansen, but changed our minds before we got there and headed back, walking up to the district of Ostermalm, where we caught the metro back down to Sodermalm (down South), to a nice little French crepe place which was delicious and the service was friendly.  However, the Sodemalm station was definitely the stinkiest I have ever experienced in any country.

We ended up walking all the way back to the hotel.  Unfortunately, the hotel staff must have mistook our ‘Please Clean Room’ sign for ‘Do Not Disturb’, because they did not clean the room.  This irked us a bit, as we had to head out for a little while as they cleaned the room, but they apologised by sending a big platter of fruit to our room to make up for it.  Consider it forgotten!

Day 3: Off to Copenhagen

This morning was caught the train from Stockholm to Copenhagen.  It was a 5 hour and 20 minute ride, but somehow we got super cheap tickets in First Class, probably because we booked early and got a special.  It cost just over 210 SEK per person, which is like 1/8th of the normal price and 1/4 of the price in Second Class!  There was also free coffee and fruit, as well as free Wi-Fi, plus ultra-comfy seats.  Talk about travelling in luxury.  Clearly the best train experience in Europe!

Our hotel, the Amalia, was also extremely close to the Central Train Stration in Copenhagen.  It was 3 stars, but from the outside it looked pretty dodgy.  At least it was close.

When we walked into our room, it was like we were hit by a heat wave.  Oh my goodness.  It was so muggy and humid it was unbelievable.  And here’s the clincher – no air conditioning!  Just a small old fan.   How were we supposed to sleep?  We opened the window (which was one of those big swinging ones, virtually inviting people from across the road to look straight in and for thieves to climb in) which let some fresh cool air in, but it did little to battle the brutal heat.  We spoke to reception, who said that because it only gets hot for like 4 weeks a year in Copenhagen very few hotels actually install air conditioning.  We got an extra fan, but that was it.

Anyway, we got out and walked to Radhus, the Town Hall, where there were many performers in the square, hot dog vendors and plenty of people moving around.  From there, we walked through the famous shopping street of Stroget, passing several landmarks along the way (none of which stood out).  We did have this delicious hot dog (with pickles, fried onions, onions, ketchup, mustard and mayo…mmmm…and then some delicious ice cream (double mmmm….)…the pistachio was perhaps the best I’ve ever had!

Eventually we reached a small port and caught the sightseeing (Canal Tours) boat which took us on a 50 minute ride around the bustling Nyhavn area and then to see the various attractions in Copenhagen, such as the statue of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the Black Diamond, the Opera House, Amalienborg Palace and Our Saviour’s Church.  We went by them relatively quick, so we didn’t get as good of a look at some of them as we would have liked.  Fear not, we’d get a better look at them tomorrow!

But in the end, we were glad we took the ride today rather than tomorrow because it was late in the afternoon and the sun was less damaging than it would have been in the morning.

For dinner, we walked around until we found this Indian/Pakistani Kebab place.  The meat was a bit dry in my opinion, but my parents seemed to enjoy it.

The night was a tough slog, the heat waking me up at round 5am and I couldn’t fall back asleep again.

I have say, Copenhagen was not entirely like I expected.  It was a lot dirtier and touristy than I had anticipated, though I was right in preparing myself mentally for insanely high prices!

Day 4: Around Copenhagen

Today was going to be a relaxing one.  We started off with the same route, through Stroget, but then we turned left to head towards Norreport, passing the Round Tower (for medieval star-gazing, apparently) along the way.  Our first destination was Rosenborg Castle, and boy was it a good one.  The Castle itself was pretty grand, but what blew us away were the flowers and the park surrounding it.  It was so beautiful, and we spent almost an hour just sitting on the park bench in the shade, enjoying the serenity.

From Rosenborg we walked all the way to Nyhavn, where we took some happy snaps and had another hotdog and icecream (yesterday’s were nicer but still good).  After lunch, a trek north to see the remarkable Marble Church (with all 12 apostles painted on the ceiling) and through the famous Amalienborg Palace.  We continued our journey until we finally got to see the Little Mermaid up close.  To be honest there wasn’t much special about it, but I guess it was cool to get a look.

We then walked up to the station of Osterport and caught the S-tog (super expensive) back to Central Station.  After a short rest (a nap, in fact), we had Italian near Town Hall and then headed into the famous theme park of Tivoli.  It was definitely one of the most amazing places I’ve seen for a while – it had that old-school feel of those carnivals you saw in films, with that sweet innocence, the candy, the screaming rides and amusement games.  And when it got dark, the lights!  We didn’t go on any rides as it cost extra (which I wasn’t willing to pay) but it is worth the admission just to see the place when it lights up, and the beautiful, well-arranged flowers all throughout the park.

Tonight, we threw caution to the wind and left the window wide open with the two fans on full blast.  I slept like a baby.

Day 5: Going home for the last time

With a few hours to spare in the morning, we walked to the Botanical Gardens, a supposed ‘must-visit’ according to various guides and right across the road from Rosenborg Palace.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t very good.  There were plenty of plants, but the place was a bit of a mess to be honest.

Of course, we had hot dogs and ice cream for lunch, and by then it was time to head to the airport.

We arrived back home by 8:45pm after a wait at Stansted airport due to traffic which delayed the incoming coach.

And there you have it, my European adventures have come to an end!


9 thoughts on “Europe Travel Diary

  1. 16sd says:

    Beautiful!

  2. Dream Tandem says:

    Inspiring!

  3. briefhiatus says:

    Do you remember the name of that Calzone spot! We are backpacking Europe starting in 2 weeks and will be in Barcelona during our travels. You make the sound irresistable! Ha.

    Also, thanks for the tip on Sagrada Familia, everyone says its a must see, but I figured I could enjoy enough from the outside.Yes? Saving my money to explore my Renaissance passion in Firenze & Ancient Rome in well, err, Rome.

  4. Mel says:

    That large bland building in Piazza Pitti is the Pitti Palace. Ugly outside but very grand inside. It used to be the residence of the Medici family, the royal quarter is very lavishly furnished, but even more impressive is the art collection, it’s the Medici after all. I think there’re at least 6 paintings by Raphael and many more by other Renaissance masters. It’s very underrated as an attraction, in one place, you get to see some of the best renaissance paintings, a lovely garden and a extravagantly decorated palace.

  5. Very inspiring travel diary! I’ve only been to Stockholm (where I live), Copenhagen, Belgium and Paris (of the places you’re writing about) myself but now I’m dying to go to some of the other places as well! If you ever go back to Sweden I’d recommend you to go to the north of Sweden (as far north you can get basically). In the summer, the sun never sets and reversed in the winter. The nature is magnificient and it’s very calm and quiet. Plus there’s a very good chance you’ll meet some nice reindeers who are almost like domestic (some of them won’t barely react if you come in a car and honk at them to move). And when it comes to Belgium I found Namur being a much nicer city than Brussels to visit. Not as dirty and better shopping. Durbuy was also a nice little town, called “the smallest town in the world”. Thanks for an interesting blog! :)

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