Friday, August 27, 2010

My love-hate relationship with our blog

I decided to write a blog quite a while before we began this adventure because I wanted to keep a record of our journey, not only to share with you, but also for ourselves, to keep and read for years to come. It’s something that I’m still fully committed to doing, but being on the road full time has made me realize just how time consuming it is which often makes it feel like a burden. I often draw blanks while writing because all I want to be doing is living the experience, not writing about it. The other part of me loves writing and realizes that reflecting is as important as the experience itself.

I have been reading other travel blogs recently and reassessing my own style, wondering if I really need to cover in detail each place that we visited. Instead, maybe just the highlights, important moments, learning and reflection would suffice. The plan is to develop my writing, maybe using less words and summarizing more, while still giving you enough detail to continue living this journey with us. In a nutshell, you may find the blog has a different feel as I navigate through the labyrinth of travel writing styles. It would be great to hear what you think, particularly of the latest few posts that are a little bit shorter. What style do you prefer? What have you enjoyed reading so far? What elements about any blog make you want to read them? Share your thoughts in a ‘comment’. You may also be wondering why you haven’t heard much from Tim….well, he keeps saying that I am much better at blogging. Please know though, that he does contribute to the content of almost every post, but I will keep chipping away at him and maybe eventually he will write a few more. You should definitely get a post from him after our personal guided tour of the Audi R8 Factory in a couple of week’s time.

The drain of city hopping

Winding down in the beautiful, quaint, Czech village of Cesky Krumlov is exactly what we have needed after visiting 5 capital cities in less than 4 weeks. It has allowed us to stop and have a good think about where we are at both physically and emotionally and where to next….the plan was Vienna in Austria, but our enthusiasm for discovering another city has faded. Sure, each city we have visited has had its own character and interesting features, but the pace is pretty much all the same. Not only do the cities tend to be extremely crowded, especially in peak season, but they tend to crowd your mind as well and leave little space for rest. We are ready to slow down a bit, to visit places that are not so demanding on the senses and provide more space for relaxation and reflection. Places where we can appreciate our natural surroundings rather than just the beauty of buildings or manmade monuments. It is easy to fall into the trap of visiting the ‘popular’ places, the ones that pop up first on a Google search, but you really have to ask yourself ‘Why do I want to visit this place?’ and ‘What is it about here that I am actually interested in seeing/experiencing?’ We now completely understand why some people say that while touring through Europe, they grew weary of Churches, Museums & monuments. We haven’t seen that many and we already are! Of course we are not going to rule out cities completely and we do plan to visit Munich in the next week or so, but it is definitely time to turn down the pace a few notches.

In the last few days, we have decided to include Croatia in this road trip after hearing from a fellow traveler about how easy it is to get around by car and being reminded how much more you can see with access to four wheels. Hopefully, we will be there by the middle-end September….but for now, we are looking forward to spending a few days in the Austrian and Swiss Alps where we will be lapping up the view.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Meandering the alleyways of Prague

It’s not difficult to be completely swept away by this incredibly stunning city, definitely our favourite so far. The pics below really say it all. During our time here, we made a decision to walk everywhere rather than use public transport, simply because we didn’t want to miss anything from the landscape, albeit manmade. Our meandering led us to the classic sights of Charles Bridge, Prague Castle and Old Town Square. The unsurprising highlights for us though, were savoring Czech wine while overlooking the city and trying some very unusually flavoured traditional food, in the company of our couch surfer hosts. We welcomed some long awaited sunshine, which made our time here that much better.

Appreciating our freedom

Prague is definitely the most stunning city that we have ever seen, such a medieval feast for the eyes and being there is like wandering through a fairytale land. Behind the veil of beauty though, is a city (and country) with scars. There are the obvious wounds of war and the hardship war creates, but what we learned, was that up until only 20 years ago, the people lived under a ruthless communist rule. After our visit to the Communist Museum, we really grasped for the first time how oppressive this political ideology is and just how much it robs people of their freedom, of identity, of personal expression and achieving their personal dreams. On top of all that we learned and had seen in the last few weeks in relation to war, Governments and people’s suffering, we felt so deeply appreciative for the freedom that we as Australians have enjoyed for generations. The challenge for us, especially when we return home, is to use our freedom wisely, with great intention and to guard ourselves from one of freedom’s major enemies – apathy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Krakow Underdone

Although there have been a few places that have been difficult to leave, our time in Krakow left us feeling a little disappointed because several things prevented us from getting the most out of our time there. The rain and cold weather had been following us all the way from the UK and although our bodies were fighting, the dreaded cold set in for both of us which left us feeling pretty miserable. We were also unimpressed with the campsite’s showers which tricked us into being warm, but after getting in, went cold within a few seconds. Despite wanting to curl up in our tent in our trackies, we soldiered on and caught the bus into town on our first day. We had planned to be there for the free walking tour, which we missed because of a ridiculous traffic jam and therefore stuck on the bus. We did learn, that traffic jams are common in Krakow, even in the middle of the day….we decided to drive to Auschwitz to spend an afternoon, but after sitting in traffic for half an hour we realized that there was no way we were going to get to the other side and have enough time to do Auschwitz justice. So, after a heated discussion, we made an executive decision to reschedule Auschwitz for our final day in Krakow. The dilemma being that we had to sacrifice the free walking tour and miss out again. You might be asking what’s so important about the walking tour? Well, we have found that these tours provide a great overview of a place and particularly it’s history. Without the history or at least some background information, a walk of the city is reduced to looking at some ‘nice’ buildings and monuments. We were pretty frustrated to say the least but had to remind ourselves that the main reason we came here was to visit Auschwitz, so anything on top of that would be a bonus. Thankfully, our final day brought the sunshine we had been waiting for which always has a nice effect on anyone’s mood.

In a nutshell, we left Krakow wanting more, but knowing that we needed to keep moving. Despite experiencing some frustration, our time in there definitely wasn’t a waste. One major highlight for us was meeting some Polish couch surfers (Chris & Ewa) in the city, who ended up inviting us back to their home where we ate home made carrot soup and traditional Hungarian/Polish goulash. The veggie drought was finally broken and our bodies were extremely thankful! An absolutely lovely couple who we wish we could have spent more time with, but we appreciated again, the connections that ‘couch surfing’ facilitates.

Chris & Ewa

We did have the chance to wander the beautiful streets and Main Square of the city as well as the Jewish quarter where you could visibly see the damage and scars from war. It was here that we managed to stumble across the free walking tour group who were in their final half an hour. They happened to be on their way to the ‘Schindler’ factory and we decided to join them after spending quite a bit of time prior, trying to find it ourselves. We were surprised to find a renovated building, which didn’t look much like a factory at all, but we learned it was now a museum. The fact that it was closed meant we were unable to venture in. Following the tour, we had the opportunity to taste a traditional dish – polish dumplings…..very tasty.

Polish dumplings

Scaffolding.....a common sight throughout Europe ;-)

The beautiful streets of Krakow

Although we felt we hadn’t used our time very wisely, we knew that the limitations we experienced in Krakow were mostly out of our control. Shit happens while travelling and we have to accept that this will almost always have an impact on our plans. We have decided to remind ourselves to appreciate the things we did have the opportunity to see/do instead of giving our attention to what we missed out on. Maybe then we will learn to respond more appropriately when shit does happen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New page added

2010 Travel Dates...check them out under 'extra info' in the navigation bar.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Surviving Auschwitz

I’m sitting here, trying to find the words to describe our visit to Auschwitz and I’m struggling. Maybe it’s because I’m still processing the experience and still can’t get my head around what I actually saw. Maybe there are no words that suffice the suffering and extermination of so many innocent people. The night before, I couldn’t sleep because the images I had already seen were flashing through my mind. I had heard from a couple of people that visiting Auschwitz is one of the hardest things they’ve ever had to do and from others that ‘you will never be the same’. I guess I was mentally preparing, which was obviously futile because you can never really prepare for something like this.

To give you a very incomprehensive background… Auschwitz, located in Oswiecim outside of Krakow, Poland, has become a major symbol of the Holocaust. Approximately 1.1 million completely innocent people were systematically murdered in the gas chambers of this camp, 90% of them Jews. Most people arriving by train never actually entered the camp, but just crossed it on their way to the gas chambers after being selected for extermination based on their inability to work. The minority, chosen for slave labour became registered prisoners with shaved heads in striped uniforms. They were stripped of everything, including their personal identities, which were replaced with a numbered tattoo on their arm or chest. They lived in the most inhumane conditions and worked a minimum of 11 hours per day and consuming the smallest of food rations. Many people died of starvation, exhaustion or disease from poor living conditions. High electric barbed wire fences surrounding the camp were guarded by SS soldiers armed with machine guns or rifles. Prisoners were beaten or shot dead for the most trivial behaviours such as looking at an SS guard the wrong way or refusing to work due to exhaustion. A regular ‘selection’ process was also conducted to send any ‘unproductive’ prisoners to the gas chambers and to also make way for new comers.

On the day of our visit, the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly, which did feel a bit strange considering the ‘darkness’ and evil of this place. We walked through the arched entrance which read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, meaning ‘work makes you free’. My stomach churned thinking about the irony of those words and how the people entering these gates were deceived into thinking they were in transit, which was obviously not the case. The grounds didn’t look much unlike a high security prison, but the difference was that most of these prisoners were ordinary civilians like you and me, people with good professions and high moral values. To think that whole families were tortured and murdered in this place was just mind-boggling.

The entrance to Auschwitz I

Inside the grounds, Auschwitz I

Our guide led us into several blocks where we saw heartbreaking images of horror, of human faces with such sadness and fear rampant in their eyes. Tears filled mine when we walked into the room displaying images of children suffering from starvation and clothes of tiny babies who had been murdered in the gas chambers. In the following room, we saw hundreds of suitcases piled to the ceiling, each displaying the name, date of birth and address of the owner. We learned that families were told to record these details on the suitcases so they could be easily returned after their relocation – one of the many deceptions used to ensure the people never knew their fate. Also displayed were 45,000+ pairs of shoes including an area dedicated to children’s shoes and 2 tonnes of human hair. I wish we had more time to spend in these rooms to reflect on the items and their owners, instead of being rushed off by our tour guide. All I could focus on was the innocence of the people and the human potential that was so brutally stolen. Although viewing these items was disturbing, we felt a bit detached as well and I think the magnitude of it all definitely needed that extra time. We were also surrounded by herds of other tourists and often had to shuffle through the crowd just to get any glimpse of the images which probably detracted from the impact.

The suitcases

The 45,000+ shoes

2 Tonnes of human hair

It was an eerie feeling to walk into the only gas chamber left standing, knowing thousands of people met their death in that very room. We were utterly horrified to learn that the gas caused death by suffocation and took about 20 minutes. The bodies, including every opening, were then searched for anything valuable, which was then extracted. Simply nauseating. What was hard to accept was how any human being could carry out these atrocious tasks on another human being. It was the epitome of evil.

The only gas chamber still standing

One of the crematoriums

Over the years, the camp was expanded, with over 40 subcamps. We also visited the second major camp - Auschwitz Birkenau, the one depicted in most of the Holocast films including Schindler’s List. A huge 400 acre field with train tracks lining the centre, through the famous brick arch. Here we saw the appalling conditions in which the prisoners lived….bunk beds lining the horse stables with concrete floors where up to 10 people slept and where some often died from suffocation. The toilet block featured holes in concrete where prisoners were only allowed to enter twice per day and were beaten while in the process if they didn’t hurry. It was here that we heard about the prisoner’s courage and determination to survive, to support each other and to smuggle in necessary items to stay alive. We saw some art work painted by a survivor which depicted some men returning from a days work and some were carrying others. A very powerful image of the endurance of the human spirit. Our guide recommended a book with a title that inspired me instantly…it’s called ‘Hope is the Last to Die’, one woman’s personal journey of surviving the camp and how she maintained her belief in human goodness. One that I would definitely like to read.

Auschwitz II, Birkenau

One of the 'horse stables' where the prisoner's slept, Aushwitz Birkenau

For our final part of the tour, we walked in the footsteps of the victims from the time they disembarked from the train and were selected for extermination, to the moment they stood waiting in front of the gas chambers. All I could do was be silent and try to imagine what these people may have felt, most of who had no idea they were walking to their deaths. As we stood in front of the remains of the gas chambers (they had been demolished by the SS as the war was ending in an attempt to hid the evidence), I felt completely numb, emotionless even, which is extremely unlike me! I suspect, that it may have just been my brain’s way of coping with something so achingly painful and this whole experience will take a while to process.I will conclude this post with a series of questions asked by someone on our tour which instigated a very confronting response from the guide… “Didn’t anyone know this was happening and what about the smell coming from the camp? Why didn’t anyone do anything?” The response: “Suffering continues in our world and people still get caught up in their own lives with their small problems”. A slap in the face and very well said! Something to think about.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scratching the Surface of History in Berlin (Aug 11-17)

We really weren’t prepared for what we would see, read and hear while visiting Berlin. We didn’t know a huge amount about the city and had not spent any time doing prior research about what we wanted to see or do. Sure we knew it was the capital of Germany, so of course we would be surrounded by quite a lot of history which we had touched on in school. At first, we were not that enthusiastic about visiting a lot of the monuments, or seeing any architecture, particularly because we had been slack and not done any reading about these places, so what would be the point? It would just be like seeing another monument or another building and we didn’t feel like we had the time to spend reading while we were there. Yep, that’s right, we can ashamedly say we (or mostly I) did not have a very good initial attitude. Well I can tell you that our attitude changed very quickly when we found out about the free 'Berlin Essentials' walking tour and decided to go. While this tour gave us a great overview, we also decided to do the ‘Third Reich’ tour the following day as well for some more detail. These were the very first guided tours we have done and we discovered that for people like us who haven't done much prior reading, they are a brilliant way of getting to know a place in a short space of time.

Both tours went for about 3 hours and we visited some of the major sights during that time and heard a general history of Berlin, the world wars, the Cold War and particularly the rise and fall of the Nazis. As we walked through the city, we saw:

  • The Reichstag (German Parliament building);
  • The Brandenburg Gate, in which anyone coming to Berlin in the early years were required to enter through;
  • A site where a remaining section of the Berlin Wall still stands and is also home to ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, the Soviet border crossing dividing East and West Berlin during 1961-1989 when the wall fell;
  • The memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial);
  • The site of Hitler’s bunker where he also committed suicide. The site has purposely been left bare with no form of any memorial for obvious reasons;
  • The last remaining Nazi building, which was once home to the Nazi Aviation Ministry. It is an extremely intimidating building with solid lines and granite materials used to stand the test of time;
  • The book burning memorial, which commemorates the 1933 event where the Nazis burnt over 25,000 ‘un-German’ books and
  • The Jewish Quarter including a major Synagogue and cemetery.

The Reichstag

The Brandenburg Gate

The last standing Nazi building

Very powerful artistic images - Eastside Gallery

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial)

In the following few days, we returned to some of these sites to spend more time reading and reflecting. We also visited the Jewish Museum and the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall which is home to the famous ‘East Side Gallery’, a collection of art works reflecting on the events throughout war history in Berlin. Also worthy of note was the ‘Topography of Terror’, a collection of images and descriptions in chronological order of ‘The Third Reich’, or the period of the Nazis reign.

While I am definitely not a history writer and will therefore spare you from any lame historical descriptions of the places we visited (I’ll leave you to google them and read for yourself), I can tell you about the impact they had on us and how our interest in learning more about modern history has changed…..there is something different about visiting a place and being told the story then and there, rather than reading it from some history book in school. Maybe what we had learned as a teenager seemed abstract and more like a story, while being here and seeing where it all took place brought it to life and made it real.

The human devastation, hardship, torture and murder perpetrated by the Nazis was what disturbed us the most. We saw images and read stories, not only of the murdered Jews, but also gypsies, homosexuals and any other ‘outcast’ who was deemed ‘unfit for work’. We were shocked to learn that over 70,000 people who were mentally ill or physically/mentally disabled were also murdered in gas chambers. The Nazis labelled them ‘useless eaters’ or ‘life unworthy of life’ and justified their murder as ‘euthanasia’, using the propaganda of ‘putting them out of their misery’. The evil of what took place not only in Germany, but across Europe as the Nazis gained power, is literally sickening. I have never experienced instant nausea bordering on the urge to vomit until being exposed to these images and stories in the place where they occurred.

The experience was personalised for us when we visited the Jewish Museum and went inside what has been named the ‘Holocaust Tower’. We were there just before closing time and entered an iron door unaccompanied. We were instantly surrounded by four concrete walls at least 5 storeys high and in complete darkness besides a small ray of light strategically shining high in one corner. The iron door slammed shut behind us and sounded as if it was being latched which echoed off the walls. I instantly went into a panic inside and scrambled for the door to make sure it was still open. It was the feeling of fear and suffocation of those walls that made me want to get out of that nauseating enclosure immediately. Despite wanting to get out of there right away, we decided to stay and allow those feelings to be, without the need to escape them. Maybe that afternoon, we caught the tiniest glimpse of what it was like to experience the terror of living under the Nazi regime. It was a powerful exhibition to say the least.

Before Berlin, our biggest aim for travel was to experience food, wine and culture through meeting local people. Where we have previously been a bit uninterested with learning about some historical events, visiting museums or viewing pieces of architecture, we realise now that all of these are key pieces of the puzzle if we truly want to discover a culture. Sure, some of what we see and read may not always arouse our interest, but our experiences in Berlin have made us more open to learning and to appreciate the importance of history a little more.

Leaving Berlin after 6 days was difficult because we literally felt like we had only scratched the surface and there was so much more to discover. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very kind to us and rained every day we were in Berlin which made squeezing things in a little difficult. It would have taken us another two weeks (at least) to visit the museums and other sights we were interested in, but we knew we had to move on, especially knowing there will be many more places we will have to tear ourselves away from. In particular, we were disappointed to have not visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which was the first ‘model’ camp the Nazi’s implemented. We were mindful however that we were on our way to Krakow in Poland to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, so we let it slide. All in all, we were thankful for what we had the opportunity to see and learn.

The Language Predicament

As we crossed the border into Germany about a week ago we realised we had not even glanced at the phrase book to learn any German. Thankfully Tim knew very basic words, but all I could do was count to 10 (thanks to my four sisters who I listened to practise their German while growing up)! Hmm, I don't think that skill was going to help me much. It was after 7pm as we drove through this tiny little village and we were hungry. We thought we were going to remain that way as we saw most shops closed, until we approached a sign that read ‘Schnitzel’. Sweet! We could understand that one! So in the middle of this tiny town that we didn’t even know the name of, we stopped into this restaurant. We sat in the car for about 5 minutes studying our phrasebook and realising just how difficult German is to pronounce. In that moment, we had a good laugh about how this dining experience was going to turn out.

Sure enough, as we walked in, we asked the bartender if he spoke English and we got a shake of the head accompanied by something spoken in German. We were a little bit flawed by some people sitting at a nearby table who began laughing out loud at what we had asked…or so we thought. We resorted to asking for a table using two fingers and pointing….success! Sitting down and looking at the menu, we became very aware that ordering just a schnitzel was not going to be that easy when there were at least 10 different types with very detailed descriptions, in German of course. We noticed that our phrasebook didn’t even list words like ‘chicken’, ‘beef’, ‘fish’ etc. which was slightly unhelpful. ‘Ok, maybe we could try asking the waiter which items on the menu were chicken’. As we were struggling in our communication with the waiter, we suddenly heard the words “Can I help you?” from a neighbouring table. Thank God! “Yes please!” A young guy (Henry) who just happened to speak very good English came to our rescue. With a menu a mile long and to refrain from having him interpret the whole thing, we had him point to whatever was chicken as well as the schnitzel he recommended and we ordered those. Although quite greasy, the meal turned out to be quite good.

I’m sure many of you are extremely familiar with the language predicament and have a few amusing stories of your own to share. Feel free to post them as a comment. At the restaurant, Henry told us a couple of stories from when he lived in Oz for 6 months….one where he went into a phone store and asked the girl behind the counter for a ‘handy’, which is what mobile phones are often called in Germany. He was quickly informed that asking any girl for a ‘handy’ is probably inappropriate. Hehe. This morning, Tim went to the shop and tried to ask for some pegs and had to resort to the action of pegging the clothes he was wearing to a clothes line. Ah well, at least we’ll be experts at charades when we get home!

In all seriousness though, it can be quite intimidating to try and communicate with someone when they don’t speak a word of English and you can’t string one sentence together in their language. We have just arrived in Poland and the language here is not latin based which means none of their words or pronunciations even come close to any form of English. The basic word of ‘thank you’ which is very much needed when you are travelling, is ‘dziekuje’. Go on, give it a go! At the very least it will make you laugh! We have felt utterly stupid having to use our body and hand actions to try and describe what we want, but I guess it’s all a part of the travel adventure and something we will get used to.

The reason we were in remote Germany….we decided to visit a good friend on the northern coast in a place called Cuxhaven. We met Martina almost a couple of years ago when she surfed our couch in Adelaide and being not so far away, we thought it would be good to pay her a visit. We stayed for 2 nights and had a great time catching up over a home cooked meal (which was extremely satisfying to say the least) and reminiscing over Martina’s photos from Oz. Although we didn’t see much of the town itself, we were so glad to be able to have some down time in a homely environment. Thanks Martina!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Amsterdam....where the forbidden is flaunted (Aug 5-8)

We arrived at our campsite early in the afternoon and saw that the queue at reception was coming out the door with people wanting to secure their spot for the night. As we approached the end of the line, we instantly hit a wall of marijuana smoke. We wandered around the campsite and wondered if we would actually get high, simply from the second hand smoking! The campground was packed, with hundreds of tents bunched together, some with less than a meter in between. Thankfully, we did manage to get a little more space than that, although only enough for our two small deck chairs and table. We were pretty impressed with the facilities, particularly the free wifi and very cool bar/café. We set up camp and made our way via tram into the city…
The sea of tents

We managed to pick up a very cheap, yet delicious dinner. We saw what seemed to be quite a popular Falafel place (Maoz) on the street corner and knowing Amsterdam was famous for the best falafel outside of Turkey, we ventured in. WOW!! We honestly didn’t know falafel could taste this good…and for the price of 5 Euros including as much salad as you like, even better!

We wandered around the city to just get a feel for the place and stumbled onto New Market which was a bustling square with bars and coffee shops lining the perimeter. We noticed one bar was serving a particular Belgian beer called La Chouffe which was recommended to us by Nathan and Barbara when we were in Brussels. We went in to discover what they were raving about and yes it did live up to our expectations, and then some! It was quite a sweet beer, but not too sweet….it suited our taste buds just right. A couple of glasses and a few amusing happy snaps later, we noticed an outdoor cinema screen which started showing what looked like a short film. Thinking this was quite a nice touch to the evening whilst enjoying a beer, we were a little bit shocked to see that the opening of the film was a lesbian sex scene! Hmmmm….obviously this was an extremely liberal place if these type of images were being shown in the middle of a major square in the centre of town!

Of course we did what every other curious tourist does when they are in Amsterdam…we had a stroll around the Red light District, where prostitutes parade themselves in shop windows awaiting their next customer. While the average person probably finds this touristic activity amusing, I wasn’t feeling so great about it. Without starting a moral debate, lets just say I wasn’t so keen on seeing these women on exhibit, half naked, like animals at a zoo. Despite prostitution being a legitimate profession in Amsterdam, what we saw seemed undignifying….especially when so many of the women looked really sad. On the contrary, I’m sure Tim wasn’t so opposed to seeing the exhibits before us! Haha!

One thing to do in Amsterdam on the top of our list was a visit to the Heineken Brewery. We initially thought the 15 Euro per person for a self guided tour was quite pricey, but our minds were very quickly changed as we saw how much effort, creativity and money was put into making the experience interactive and informative. The tour gave some history of the brewery, an opportunity to learn about how the beer is made as well as to participate in actually brewing some beer and tasting the product at different stages. The brewery even has a simulator called the ‘brew you ride’ which takes you through the ‘beer making’ journey as if you are the raw product. A little bit corny, but well done nonetheless. By the time you get to taste the beer at the end of the tour, it seemed like even if the beer tasted bad, we wouldn’t notice because the work of psychology and marketing had been done so well. For us, the beer uses slightly too much hops which makes it quite bitter, but we did enjoy it, simply because it was a part of the whole experience.

Brewer Tim

Our tasting

On our last full day in Amsterdam, it seemed the heavy rain was not going to let up….normally we would brave the weather, if it wasn’t so severe, but we were not in the mood for venturing out. Instead, we decided to hang out at the campsite café and catch up on some online ‘maintenance’. We ended up chatting to a German couple (Sandra & Hamoud) who were staying in a tent not far from us and having a few good laughs about Aussie and German stereotypes. Thankfully, the rain did ease into the evening, so we decided to head into town and met Sandra & Hamoud for drinks.

Amsterdam itself is a very beautiful city, especially because of the many canals that flow through it. Although we had planned to take a romantic ride along one of these canals, unfortunately the forces of nature made it not so appealing. Looks like we will have to wait until our Venice gondola ride.

Two of the many beautiful canals

Commuting via Bicycle in Amsterdam is cultural and we were impressed by the number of people of all ages riding them. It was pretty obvious that bikes have right of way over cars and even pedestrians, but we did see some sticky situations where these rules did not work so well. Especially with some confusion over which is the walking path and which is the bike path. Needless to say, I almost got cleaned up a few times! We were planning on hiring bikes at least for one day, simply because we were in Amsterdam and we wanted to experience what the locals do. After seeing how the locals ride however, we thought it would be safer to stay on the walking path! And…the cheaper option was surprisingly public transport.

So you may be wondering about the ‘coffee shops’……there were many more of them than we expected. Did we go into one? The answer to that is ‘YES’. Did we sample any of their offerings? That one will remain a mystery. Thankfully, it’s not assumed that when walking into a coffee shop, you automatically want to buy the main item on the menu. What was funny though, was the coffee shop cat who seemed to be completely stoned….or maybe just exhibiting normal cat behaviour and tired of all the tourists, who knows. We did meet a guy here who casually smoked a joint at the bar. We had a good chat and he recommended an Italian restaurant off the tourist trail which turned out to have the best Italian tapas we have ever eaten. When you see this photo, you’ll wish you got to try it too!

The 'stoned' cat

Mmmm, Italian tapas

In drawing to a close, our time in Amsterdam was a mixed experience. The city has a strange atmosphere, where some usually ‘forbidden’ activities are not only allowed, but seem to be flaunted. There’s a feeling of ‘darkness’ about the place, but a sense of beauty at the same time and probably a lot more treasure lying below the tourist drawcards. We would have liked to stay a little bit longer to discover more of these gems, but once again, time is of the essence and we must move on. We are settling into camping mode very nicely and thoroughly enjoying being out in the elements, even if they are not always ideal. It is a nice feeling to retreat to a campsite in a beautiful setting after being in the hustle and bustle of a city. Hopefully we can keep maintain this attitude with the potentially 80+ days of camping ahead of us.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Brussels....changing weather, changing mood (Aug 3-5)

Having just left the stunning, quaint village of Bruges, we weren’t that ecstatic to be arriving into another city, this time it was Brussels. We were however looking forward to meeting our couch surfing hosts – Nathan and Barbara. We felt so at home in their beautiful, traditionally Belgian apartment and we got along really well, exchanging stories about our travels and culture. They shared their plans for 12 months travel through Asia and South America starting in September and we were inspired again to get the most out of our own adventure. Thankfully, they gave us some tips as to what to see and do in Brussels because we had not done a whole lot of prior research ourselves for our visit here.

Nathan & Barbara

The first morning we rose early with Nathan & Barbara, which was a little shock to the system considering we had been living the slack life and getting up around 9am most days! The weather was pretty bad, bringing us no less than a drizzle all day which meant that wandering the streets wasn’t that much fun. Of course it is really all in the attitude and this is something I definitely need to work on. According to Tim, I am like a werewolf….except my ferocious side comes out when it rains and when the sun is shining I am a completely different person….a little more tolerable to say the least. Thankfully I am married to a very patient man, but when it’s gloomy outside, even I know how to push him to the limit! It was a good opportunity for me to take a good hard look at myself.

We meandered the city for a couple hours (with our umbrella) first seeing the Market Square and a few other attractions close by, including the ‘pissing boy’ and ‘pissing girl’ (urinating statues). According to the Lonely Planet, these are apparently the most popular attractions for visiting tourists which was a good laugh in itself.

Market Square

To get out of the rain, we visited the Palace, which as to be expected, was grand and very beautiful. One room was particularly impressive with the entire ceiling covered with 1.4 million Jewel Beetles! We did wonder though, if this poor insect species is now extinct due to the crazy King’s decoration obsession!

Of course we tried more beer and visited one bar that had over 2000 different types on offer. Hmmmm, if ever being indecisive was a problem, now was the time. We avoided the decision and went with the bartender’s pick instead, which turned out to be a good one the first time. The second one – ‘Forestinne’ had a picture of a fairy on the front and interestingly enough, the beer did remind us of fairies and gold dust…a very strange floral taste that we couldn’t work out if we liked or not. We could acknowledge the brew was creative, nonetheless.

We visited ‘Castillion’, the last local brewery that brews traditional ‘lambic’ beer which is made using naturally occurring yeast with no added sugar. The final product is a beer that’s sour and slightly bitter in taste. Although the beer itself was definitely an acquired taste, it was really interesting to tour the brewery and learn about how it’s made. It was also fascinating to learn that this particular type of beer is brewed for no less than 3 years in wooden barrels.

We tasted the best fries in Belgium at ‘Maison Antoine’ and can honestly say they were actually the best fries we have ever eaten. It is commonly known around here that classic ‘French Fries’ are better in Belgium than anywhere else in the world and knowing we were trying the best in Belgium was a good indication we were in for a treat. The Belgians cook their fries twice under very specific temperatures and allowing them to cool after the first cooking period. This apparently, is what makes the outside extra crispy, while the inside is still really soft and fluffy. And they came with an amazing selection of sauces! Delish!

THE fries

Wrapping up our visit to Brussels, we got an early night, knowing we would need to get up early with Barbara & Nathan who were planning to leave for a few days away in Switzerland. Although Brussels wasn’t overly exciting, spending time with these guys was what made our visit memorable. Another friend made in another part of the world. Before leaving Brussels, we paid a quick visit to the ‘Atomium’, a monument which mimics the structure of an actual atom and was built in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair (Expo ’58). We took some quick pics on our way to our next stop – Amsterdam.

The Atomium

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Our European Road Trip Begins (Aug 1-3)

Here we are sitting in the common room of a little campsite in Bruges, Belgium listening to a fellow camper sing and play the piano…..and she’s brilliant! What a treat! Bruges is our first stop on our 3-month long journey around Europe. The last couple of weeks we have spent in the UK, house hopping and dossing with friends. We’ve searched out and packed our little Astra full of camping gear and now we’re on the road.

We caught the ferry across the English Channel on Sunday with our car, disembarking and following every other passenger out of the terminal. 5 minutes down the road we suddenly realised we hadn’t passed through any security and noone had viewed or stamped our passports at either end!! Will this be a time where following the crowd will get us into trouble?? Only time will tell, but right now no one knows how long we’ve been in Europe, so I guess we’re exempted from the 90 day rule under the Schengen Zone agreement! Sweet!! Unless of course we are deported on the grounds of bypassing security. Fingers crossed we don’t come unto close contact with any authorities!

On our way to Bruges, we stopped at the biggest Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world called Tyne Cot which has over 11,800 WWI soldiers buried there. It was a deeply moving and sobering experience as we reflected on the fact that most of those who died were around our age or younger and many who were Australian. We thought about the devastation, for Mothers, for Fathers, for siblings, for whole families and for their communities across different parts of the world where the Commonwealth is represented. We also reflected on the courageous spirit these soldiers would have possessed and in the face of their fear they laid down their lives. Some of the graves were for unidentifiable soldiers and their headstones read ‘Known Unto God’…..what a beautiful way of remembering and acknowledging even those whose names were unknown. Lest we forget.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

We’ve spent 2 nights here in stunning Bruges. It’s such a quaint, romantic little town full of old buildings, canals and cobblestone streets. In Europe, it is known as the ‘Venice of the North’ and we can definitely see why. We absolutely loved just strolling along the streets and alleyways admiring the unique and quirky surroundings. The town is even more stunning at night when the canals and streets glow with strategically placed lights. On the first night at dusk, we saw swans floating down one of the canals and it was such a surreal and romantic moment. Just beautiful! The centre of town is the Market Square where the streets open up to a huge cobblestone courtyard with traditional restaurants and beautiful buildings on the perimeter.

Market Square

One of the picturesque canals

And the FOOD!! OMG the FOOD!! So good! In one day, we ate Mussels & Fries (Belgium’s traditional dish), we tried Belgian chocolate, authentic waffles and Belgian beer. Firstly, the mussels surprised us….both Tim and I haven’t like mussels previously, but one of our aims on this trip is to challenge our taste buds so we gave them a go and went with our waitress’s recommendation. Our mussels were stewed in a creamy vegetable sauce, were so tasty and very more-ish. We visited a few chocolate shops which not only displayed a feast for the belly, but a feast for the eyes. Simply a work of art. The chocolate we tasted was a mixed bag as far as our liking goes….we could tell that it was extremely good quality, but a little on the sickly side for our taste. We did prefer the darker chocolate and specifically the truffles which were filled with fluffy, mousse-like chocolate. Mmmmm. The waffles were nothing like we’ve ever tasted before!! Crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. We decided to eat them as the Belgian’s would and have them sprinkled only with icing sugar rather than the whole hog of chocolate, strawberries etc. Well actually the truth was, we knew that after everything else we had eaten we would really want to throw up if we had more chocolate and all the trimmings. The beer we have tried is incredible to say the least and even I agree when I’m not a beer drinker. Lets say that if I can get my hands on more Belgian beer in Australia, I might just become one! Lol. The 2 or 3 that we tried were so smooth, with a mild sweetness on the finish. Not the beer that I know!

Mmmmm, Belgian beer!

Last night, our final night in Bruges, we had our very first ride together on a horse-drawn carriage through the cobblestone streets and alongside the canals. It was a romantic way to finish off our evening. Well, we did think that was a nice ending until we checked the bus times and realised we’d missed the last one for the day by over an hour. Ooops!! So the only means of transport was our feet (unless of course we wanted to pay a ridiculous amount for a taxi) so we gritted our teeth and started moving despite how exhausted we already were from walking all day. An hour later we arrived back at the campsite ready for a big night sleep….which ended up being interrupted by very noisy campers!! Honestly, who yells across a full campsite at 4 in the morning!! Grrrr! We have now accepted that these are the things that we may just need to suck up while camping in Europe in the peak season.

Our horse drawn carriage

Today was our first experience of packing up the camping gear while on the road. Prior to leaving from the UK we decided to test all the gear just to make sure we knew what we were doing and everything was functional. We discovered that we didn’t really know what we were doing because we forced our ‘pop up’ tent into the bag (with great difficulty) completely the wrong way almost destroying it before we even started. During this time we were both a little headstrong, to say the least and were reminded how camping does test our relationship.

Cooking brekkie

As we packed up the tent this morning, we found that the thing was falling apart already! So out came the sewing kit to do some quick repairs on some really dodgy stitching. Having learned how to pack the tent away correctly and being mindful of letting the stress of packing up go, we actually managed to fulfil the task seamlessly without chewing each other’s heads off! Maybe positive teamwork is not out of our reach after all and maybe we might get through this road trip with our marriage still in tact.

Today we are off to Brussels, Belgium’s capital to stay with some couch surfers who have kindly accepted our request.