Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gearing up for Spain and France

So here we are, back in Cheltenham UK after an incredible time in Iceland! We’ve been having some down time the last few days and we’re ready to go again, next stop Spain. If we had our time over, we probably would have not planned so much time in between trips – we are finding that we are getting extremely bored very quickly and there’s not a whole lot going on in Cheltenham.

So we have been filling our time with catching up on emails, chatting to people on skype/facebook (which as you know, can take up half the day), washing, cooking and other boring stuff. In some ways, I actually like having some days of normality in between being so completely outside of my comfort zone, just not too many that boredom sets in, like now!

We’re driving to Plymouth, UK on Wednesday (Nov 4) and heading to Bilbao, Spain on a 35 hour ferry ride. This ferry, a P&O cruise liner has a cinema, restaurants, casino, health spa, gym and shopping so I’m thinking we may not want that 35 hours to end! Whilst in Spain we will be staying with our couch surfer friends (the same couple who stayed with us in Oz) in Gijon, Asturias and during their week off work are going to show us around and make sure we’re introduced to amazing food and wine! Wooooo! Can’t wait to delve into the Spanish world of culinary delights!!

Not sure how long we will stay in Spain, but the plan is to drive back to the UK through France, wine regions etc.

Today, we were studying our phrasebook to learn some Spanish because it sort of hit us that we probably won’t be able to communicate with anyone there if we don’t! Ahh! We have actually known that for quite some time, but we’ve been a bit slack and I guess you could say that it’s crunch time! Nothing like a deadline to motivate you hey! Trying to roll my tongue today for some of the ‘r’ words was nothing short of hilarious!! I can’t roll my tongue to save my life!! Of course I will keep giving it a go, even if I am a source of entertainment! I will admit that we buy a ‘point it’ book today to use as a last resort if someone doesn’t have the foggiest what we’re trying to say. ‘What’s a point it book’ I hear you ask! Well lets just say that it is a whole book of pictures of things you may need that you can point at instead of trying to work out how to ask for it. Yes, very slack but could prove to be handy.

This will be our first experience of being immersed in a non-english speaking environment…….should have some good stories to tell from this one! Haha

Til next time,

Sal x

Monday, October 26, 2009

A series of moments in Iceland

Iceland.....what a unique experience this was - well probably our most unique yet at least. In a nutshell, the landscape was so surreal and different to anything we've ever experienced. We were in awe of our surroundings and we know now, that 3 nights was definitely not enough time to spend there.

We arrived in Keflavik airport from London and took a coach to Reykjavik. The bus driver took our bags to load into the bus and Tim asked him if he needed a hand. We were met with a confused look - like what the hell was he on about? We both had a chuckle to ourselves and realised we were actually in a country where English is not necessarily spoken by everyone. We got on the bus on the opposite side to usual and as we drove off, it felt so strange to be on the 'wrong' side of the road! Like we were about to have a head on collision at any moment. haha.

We arrived at our hotel at about 1am after a half hour hike uphill with our bags. We decided not to pay the extra dosh for a hotel transfer from the bus station because according to the cashier's directions, it was only a 5 minute walk to the hotel. Yeah right! We did make our walk a little longer though by wandering right past our hotel and continuing onward for about 10 minutes until we had to ask for directions. Funnily enough, the guy we stopped to ask was Aussie who had been living in Iceland for years! So, we eventually found our hotel and crashed after a very long day of catching buses, a train and a plane.

Getting ready for bed, Tim decided to have a shower to freshen up and I was a tad concerned that the water smelled like a sewer! We worked out later, that it was actually the smell of sulphur in the water which is warmed naturally by hot volcanic springs. We learned that this smell is everywhere in Iceland! Peeew!!

We got out of bed earlier than usual to make the most of the 3 days we had in Iceland. As I usually do when I get up, I pulled back the curtains and was met with ice/snow covered mountains in the distance. I don't really know what I expected to see, but it certainly wasn't anything this beautiful. Up until this point, I had never seen real snow (I know, shock horror!) and knowing that I would be holding it in my hands in the next couple of days, well what can I say....I was having a moment, where something in my spirit leapt. Know the feeling?

We spent the morning wandering around the streets of Reykjavik, familiarising ourselves with our new surroundings. I guess the biggest things that struck us were the multi-coloured, multi-textured buildings/roofs, the mountainous backdrop and of course the cold!! Although it wasn't as cold as what we expected....and not as much ice as we expected either! The temp was about 5 degrees. It took us a while to find an open cafe for breakfast because most shops don't open until 10am in Iceland - they obviously understand that a good lifestyle includes a sleep in. We finally found a little cafe and had an impressive omelette (although it did have that slight sulphur taste) with an amazing coffee (we discovered later, that Icelandics make some of the best coffee we have ever tasted). We had a good laugh over one of the breakfast menu items....'The Hangover Killer', consisting of a hangover sandwich and a Bruce Willis shake with Jack Daniels and a Treo painkiller tablet. Serving alcohol with painkillers - classic!
In the arvo, we caught a bus to the Blue Lagoon. For those of you who don't know what that is, basically it's a famous hot spring for bathing in - click on this link for more info We had such a relaxing experience in this eery yet amazingly beautiful place. The air was so cold, the water so warm and being surrounded by blue sky, ice capped mountains and volcanic rock was simply out of this world! We gained much amusement from plastering ourselves with the silica mud mask on offer which is naturally produced and refined from the lagoon. All the Asian tourists were horrified that we had our non-waterproof camera in the water (of course we were very careful to hold it out of the water) but we were so glad we risked getting it wet coz the pics are awesome! See for yourself....
We left the Blue Lagoon and were surprised by how wrecked we were! All we felt like doing was going to bed! I guess that meant we were extremely relaxed ;-). We got back to the hotel and decided we didn't want to waste a moment in Iceland so we were going to head out again and of course we needed to take the camera. One problem.....we couldn't find the camera!!! Ahhhhh!! You know the feeling of losing something that is so precious? Yeah well we were kinda feelin like that except I just went into complete melt down! We thought we must have left it on the bus, so Tim got on the blower to the bus company to find that they hadn't come across it, our heart sank. While Tim was still on the phone, I frantically searched our bags again, throwing things around our hotel room like a mad woman, camera nowhere to be seen. The drama of it all really did make me lose the plot a bit, especially when we had just taken some amazing pics at the blue lagoon that could never be replaced unless we returned to the country. So...I crouched to my knees and put my head on the floor, had a cry and asked God to help us find it. And....wouldn't you know, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black loop peeking out from underneath the bedspread on the floor. My heart leapt, I reached in and there it was!! Woooooohooooo!! The sense of relief was incredible!! Thank God those memories were not lost!

After a few beers, some chocolate cake and hanging out with some fellow Aussies and German guys staying at our hotel, we ended up hitting the sack ready for our 8:30am-7pm tour the next day.

Whilst most people we spoke to at our hotel chose a tour that was on an impersonal big coach, with a mono toned speaking tour guide, we struck it lucky with a brilliant tour guide (Hushy) and a mini-bus with 7 other people! Hushy told us heaps of interesting facts about Iceland and it's history including what to do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest - 'stop crawling around and stand up and you'll find your way' (the trees are really short, more like the Aussie scrub) lol. According to our guide, it is never windy in Iceland, it's simply the calm air rushing by haha. On the tour we visited some of the major sights outside of the main city - waterfalls, hot springs and the site of the original democratic Parliament, but the best part of the tour was the snow mobiling on Langjokull glacier. I rode with Tim which I obviously still haven't learned is a pretty stupid thing to do! Most of you who know Tim would also know that he's pretty fearless when it comes to most things, especially when riding anything motorised and he enjoys taking a risk or three....well to my horror, when we hit a patch of ice on this snow mobile, he decided he wanted to go for a bit of a slide. All I can say is that the 90 degree slide flung half my body off, with my arms clutching onto Tim for dear life! Needless to say, Tim copped a few hard punches from me for his efforts!
We stopped at the top of the glacier to admire the view and it was here we had another moment. We were in awe again. One of those times which I think really can't be truly appreciated until later, although I think I actually shed a tear while looking out into the horizon. I guess for me, being on the top of a glacier was a spiritual moment where I was able to reflect what I had actually conquered, the fears that I had faced head on to get here and I was now at the top of the mountain. It was all so worth it!

Since Iceland's main industry is fishing, we thought we couldn't leave Iceland without trying their seafood. So that night we wandered around until we found a menu that was actually affordable (meal prices in the average restaurant in Iceland are the equivalent to 30-40 Aussie dollars). We saw several menus that had whale listed as well as Puffin bird and we discovered that these are delicacies in Iceland. No we didn't try whale as I'm sure you're wondering, morally we really couldn't bring ourselves to eat any. Our tour guide did tell us that Icelandics only hunt certain types of whales that are in high population and these numbers are monitored to make hunting sustainable. Hmmmm, not sure about that one. We also found horse on a menu! Nooooo! I guess anything cultural is completely natural to that particular culture. Anyway, we did find amazing seafood that night and we were more than satisfied.
The next day morning we spent our last few hours walking the streets of Reykjavik reflecting on what we had experienced and to really appreciate the beauty of this place for the last time, in a while at least. We were disappointed that we didn't get to experience the spectacular phenomena of the Northern Lights ( because both nights we were there it was too cloudy. Of course the weather cleared up on the day we were leaving! A good friend told us not so long ago that wherever you visit, u should always leave something for next time, so I guess this gives us a good reason to return to this beautiful country.

"We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand.....and melting like a snowflake" Marie Beyon Ray

Treasure the moments :-)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Penguin Bars No Substitute for Tim Tams

So before coming here, I was concerned about having withdrawals from Tim Tams, considering I had at least 2 every day! I had several English friends who told me to try Penguin Bars, that they are actually better than Tim Tams. Well surprisingly, I actually came to terms with not having Tim Tams for a while until the other day when I was craving one and decided to try a Penguin Bar instead. Suffice to say, they are terrible!!! An Aussie version of homebrand Tim Tams.

I guess the good ol' Arnott's Tim Tams will always have my heart.

Anyone fancy bringing me some?? ;-)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Northern England/Scotland Road Trip

I'm convinced that any journal, blog etc is at it's best when events are recorded soon after they's the best way of capturing exactly what occurred, including the raw emotion attached to those events. Well, as much as I believe that, it may not always be the case with this blog but we will keep trying! ;-)

So, this little road trip is our longest chunk of travelling since we've been in the UK. Can't give you every detail or I'll be here for hours, but here's a rough itinerary and some of the highlights...

We set out on Sun Oct 4 from Cheltenham and headed for the Lake District in northern England to a place called Millom - the home town of my (Sal) good friend Belinda who about a year ago migrated to Oz. We hung out with Belinda and her family for a couple of days while they were visiting home and were a bit spoilt with having her Mum's house to ourselves! The scenery in the Lake district is beautiful and we lapped it up during a ride on a steam train and a 'memorable' drive down an extremely windy road over the top of a mountain called Wrynose Pass. While in the Lake District, we also visited the villages Keswick, Windamere and Bowness. Bowness was probably our favourite place in the district - we adore quaint little villages set into the hillside on the side of a lake. The day we were there was quite cold but the air was still and the clouds were so low they were flowing over the mountains - stunning. This was the first time we'd seen clouds that low but of course it's not really that much of a novelty over here. We went to Muncaster castle, visited an owl sanctuary - amazing creatures and saw our first pebble beach. We ate out with Belinda, Michael (her partner) and their friends and tried black pudding - yuck!! What was even more gross was the smell of Tim's farts a bit later - so bad you could literally cut the air with a knife!! Vomit material! We won't be feeding Tim black pudding again that's for sure! For those of you who don't know what the stuff is, it's basically Pig/Cow blood with thickeners! Yeh that sounds appetising doesn't it!! But it's on all the menus here and people actually order it!
So.. from the Lake District we drove to Edinburgh, Scotland (Oct 7) where we couch surfed with Angie for 3 nights. We absolutely loved this place! We just couldn't believe the age and beauty of this city, it literally felt like we were walking back in time with so much history every where we looked. We have only been to a few castles, but have been too stingy to pay to enter them (or maybe we thought the price was ludicrous!!!), however we could not complain about the price or even contemplate skipping the famous Edinburgh Castle. I'm sure that those of you who have been into a good castle or two can agree that it's a bit like walking into a movie set or something. To imagine that people actually inhabited Edinburgh Castle and many people were held prisoner there was extremely surreal. Ok, now I'm really sounding like a novice traveller!! I'm not someone who really gets into the history side of things (although I probably should), but I was definitely interested in this one! We joined a 20 minute guided tour of the castle with an older dude (Jim) who really knew his Scottish history! He also spun a few entertaining yarns and we were intrigued by his obvious genuiness and love for his country. After the tour finished, we managed to have a chat with him and he told us about a place called Glen Nevis in the Highlands that we 'must' visit....we tucked this one away in our memory.
In Edinburgh we had the best Indian curry we've ever eaten, although we did order a tad too much but couldn't complain about being able to take a doggy bag home! :-) We spent alot of time wandering around the city just admiring the surroundings - we did so much walking in those 3 days and Edinburgh is certainly not flat! In fact, the whole city is built on multiple levels! It was the most walking I had done in a while, but I was so stoked to be able to do it. It's amazing how much you appreciate being able to walk when you haven't been able to for some time. In Edinburgh we also tried haggis in a sausage which was pretty bad - although it was probably because I just couldn't get past what I knew was in it! Mmmmmm, brains, liver, tongue, kidneys. We were game enough to taste it again later and found out that it can actually taste nice - sort of like a good meat pie without the pastry. So I guess now u know what you're really eating when you bite into a good Aussie meat pie eh?!
From Edinburgh we headed for Fort William in the Scottish Highlands (Oct 10). I don't think we really knew what to expect because the only thing we could say was 'WOW' as we drove into the mountains. When you see something that magnificent, it literally leaves you speechless. And it's even harder to put into words here. We had decided that we wouldn't book accommodation for the next few days, we would 'wing it'. Now, for those of you who know me well, know that when it comes to venturing into the unknown, I don't really like to 'wing it', I'd much prefer to plan or maybe the better word is 'control' what I can to make sure everything works out. Well, for me this was a little step toward trying to control things a little less!! ha! And it was definitely the right decision!! In Fort William, we found this little B&B just out of town and what we got was such a treat. A little house set on a fairly secluded property with mountains as the backdrop, generous, friendly and 'go the extra mile' hosts, gorgeous room with a comfy bed and a breakfast feast to die for!! We didn't want to leave there, but the hosts were off to Turkey!
We were in the vicinity of Glen Nevis and after hearing about it from the Edinburgh Castle tour guide, we knew we should definitely check it out. Little did we know, it was a bit of a hike/climb....I didn't know if I was ready for that yet but I thought - stuff it, I'm gonna give it a go! It was so worth it! The trickling water, greenery, rocks, steep drop offs and mini waterfalls on the way up were pretty amazing. What was even more amazing was what we found at the end of the 2m wide opened up into a wide open space with an incredible body of water gushing down the side of a mountain (otherwise known as a waterfall ;-) We were in awe.
We left Fort William and made our way to Portree on the Isle of Skye (Oct 11). Despite the things we'd heard about how beautiful Skye is, we felt a bit sad to leave the heart of the highlands and were a bit underwhelmed with the scenery at first. Then we really had to remind ourselves to hold back from comparing and just appreciate what each place has to offer even if it doesn't seem as beautiful as the last. We arrived in Portree when we were losing light and hadn't found any accommodation. We stopped at a B&B and saw the room, but the host was rude and unfriendly and we knew it just wasn't right. If we are going to pay the money to stay in a B&B we want to enjoy the experience and have some connection with the host. Anyway, we drove around the town for a while and to cut a long story short, we found a room right on the harbour of Portree with a million dollar view (maybe not quite that but almost) for a bargain price!

The next day we did the tourist loop of northern Skye and enjoyed the drive (Oct 12). We managed to get up close and personal with a couple of highland cows on this side of the fence. Weren't really sure how close we should get.......newspaper headline - 'Australian tourists mauled by a highland cow'. Hmmmm, too close would not be a good idea! haha!
Although we had planned to stay in Skye for 2 nights, we thought our time would be better spent back in the heart of the highlands, so we made our way toward Inverness not knowing where we'd end up for the night. What we did stumble across after stopping at several B&B's and losing light, was a 5 star hostel in a place called Drumnadrochit! Yeeeeah! Try and pronounce that one! We scored a double room with an ensuite for £35 a night! Nice!! That price was good enough for 2 nights and because there was alot we wanted to see in the area we decided that's exactly what we'd do!

We used the time to explore Glen Affric National Park. It's the middle of Autumn in the UK, but nowhere have we been struck by the multi-coloured, multi-textured surroundings like we were in this part of Scotland. Reds, purples, browns, greens, yellows of every shade, all within close vicinity to provide such contrasting beauty. I was mesmerised, in awe, stunned, amazed by our creator. It was incredible! We did multiple walks through different parts of the National Park, one where we walked down to Plodda Falls - yes another waterfall. I honestly don't think I could get sick of them! We got close enough to this one to feel the mist on our faces.

Late that afternoon we decided to take a drive to Inverness. Although we didn't have much light left in the day, we just wanted to check it out, have a wander around and get some dinner. We didn't end up seeing much of Inverness because it was bucketing down and we really didn't fancy wandering around in the rain we grabbed Indian takeaway and drove back to the hostel. Hey, at least we can say we've been to Inverness! As for Indian food in the UK, farout it's good! So much better than any curry I've found in Australia. I can now truly understand why all our Pom friends in Oz complain so much about not being able to find a good curry ;-)

The next day (Oct 14) we were off to spend some time with Nessie, but we couldn't seem to catch even a glimpse - that's right, of the Loch Ness monster. I've concluded, that the story of the Loch Ness Monster is one big marketing strategy to attract tourists! Or am I being cynical? Speaking of marketing - what is it with all the pubs over here....they all have 'good food' or 'real food' signs out the front. Is that the best they could come up with? lol
We made our way to Oban as a final stop in Scotland to discover that there was a major festival/singing competition called the MOD going on. The streets of this large sized fishing village were packed with crowds of people, many of whom were wearing kilts. A funny and weird sight was seeing a stocky bloke out front of a pub smoking a cigarette in a kilt!! haha. We drove around for 3 hours, stopping regularly hoping to find an accommodation vacancy with no luck. It was 6pm, getting dark and we were running out of options so we decided to just keep driving in what we thought was the direction of Newcastle (where we were going the next day). Despite finding out that we drove in the opposite direction to Newcastle, we did find a B&B about 15 mile outside of Oban and it was perfect - at least I thought it was in my tired state ;-) The great thing about Scotland is that the view from every window is always beautiful! It's the first thing I saw when I walked into the room and I immediately felt at home.
The following day we were sad to leave Scotland. We both felt such a connection with the place and had been so overwhelmed with the beauty we had encountered. We felt so relaxed and really in travel/holiday mode by this time and we wanted to savour the experience we had had. On our way to Newcastle, we stopped at Stirling in Scotland to visit the William Wallace Monument, which houses the sword of Mr Braveheart himself and we climbed the 247 steps to the top much to my disgust at the time, then to my delight when I admired the views at the top of those 247 steps. Knowing the story of William Wallace through watching the Braveheart movie made this a pretty special experience.
In Newcastle, we stayed with our friend - Carla's brother and his wife. We got along really well and they asked us what sort of things we wanted to see while we were there. I think at the time we were a tad exhausted and although we weren't expecting to feel like this, we just wanted to sleep in and hang around the house for a bit, especially because it was so cold and windy. So this is exactly what we did! I do feel slightly bad for not exploring Newcastle more especially when alot of the young people I work with are from there. We did see and cross the Tyne bridge though, the one that apparently inspired the design of the Sydney harbour.

So Newcastle concluded this little trip and we drove back to Cheltenham on Sat Oct 17, next stop Iceland!!

Btw, do you have any ideas of replacement words for 'beautiful', 'amazing' or 'incredible' because I think I'm going to wear them out ;-)