|The plan||We plan to travel from Paris to London in 43 days by the following route: Paris → Madrid (14 hours by train) → Barcelona (5 hours) → Geneva (14 hours) → Interlaken (3 hours) → Rome (13 hours) → Florence (3 hours) → Venice (3 hours) → Munich (9 hours) → Berlin (6 hours) → Amsterdam (6 hours) → Bruges (4 hours) → Calais (3 hours) → Dover → Canterbury → Hastings and Battle → Portsmouth → Salisbury → Bath → Oxford → London|
May 5... Paris, France - Hello everyone from Europe! Paris is a beautiful city - we love the architecture - every view seems to deserve a photo. After our flight from New York, we were well and truly stuffed, and after finding a cheap hotel, slept all day and most of the night. This did mean we were up and walking to the Eiffel Tower by 6 am, and had it all to ourselves. Europe is expensive (but everyone knows that) and being our cheapskate selves, we decided not to fork out the $40 it would have cost us both to go up the tower. This will no doubt be a familiar story for us. But, seeing these wonderful sights from the outside is usually enough - and the Eiffel Tower was very impressive, even from the ground. We stumbled upon a small market and had a chocolate crepe and a baguette for breakfast. On sale were also snails, octupus, and countless types of cheese. By the time we reached the Arc de Triomphe, the rest of Paris' tourists had also woken up, and the place was swarming. Apparently Napoleon comissioned this grand structure to commemorate his glorious victories in battle. Shortly after he suffered multiple defeats and was banished from France - is a monument a bad omen?... The time had come to retrieve some Euros, but all attempts at many ATMs failed miserably - this culminated in Graham's keycard being swallowed by one very dysfunctional machine, which told him "Sorry, I am unable to help you" and proceeded never to return the card. In the bank, we were told to "come back tomorrow." Finally, we found a banker who spoke English and was able to understand our dilemma - he helped us withdraw money from our credit card. All banking hassles are now sorted (except for that chewed card of course) and we are much relieved... We passed many other fine buildings, and saw where Louis the XVI and Marie-Antoinette were beheaded. We criss-crossed over the River Seine, and stopped at a few beautiful cathedrals, including Notre Dame. The architecture and stain-glass windows were stunning, but somewhat offset by the souvenir stalls in the middle of the church... Tomorrow we plan to see the Louvre. Love Graham and Nicole.
May 9... Barcelona, Spain - What can we say about the Louvre? It was big, filled with stuff (to quote Graham), and beautiful. We had a lot of fun just browsing and admiring the artwork, without stopping to read about it (we couldn´t have anyway because it was in French). We sort of got lost initially as it is rather maze-like, but managed to wander by all the important things all the same, including the Mona Lisa (surrounded by hordes of tourists), Venus de Milo, Hammurabi´s code of laws, and the French crown jewels... We´d actually started the day by visiting the botanic gardens (not a patch on the Adelaide Botanic Gardens), then went to the bank. They had assured us the previous day that the swallowed card would be retrieved and ready to pick up at 10 am. It wasn´t. But by the end of the day we had the card and could return to our dingy Paris hotel room again. We´ve decided it´s been the second worst hotel room we´ve stayed in so far on the trip, and we´ve stayed in a lot of bad ones! Still, it was extremely cheap by European standards at 31 euro, and the mouldy smell did lessen a little with altitude (we were on the 5th floor)... The next day we caught a train a few hours south to Blois, a very pretty place in the Loire Valley. We hired some bikes and rode through the nearby forest, villages and chateaux. While we couldn´t find any gateaux, we did have some delicious French pastries. The town of Blois itself was also nice to wander around. We made it a very leisurely walk as we both ached so much from riding and carrying our backpacks. There were markets, medieval buildings, pretty gardens, and plenty of bakeries at which Nicole could practice her French (it´s getting better!). The next day we caught an overnight train to Barcelona. We got a nasty shock when we discovered the compulsory reservation fees required on top of our already paid-for, very expensive Eurail pass (36 euro each to reserve a seat). It turns out that almost all long distance trains (more than 300 km or so) in France, Spain and Italy require a reservation like this to be made. So, we´ve rearranged our plans and are going to travel lots of short distances so we can avoid paying outrageous extra fees. We´ll show those Eurail people! ... Anyway, we´ve spent a fun day in Barcelona. It´s warm and sunny and seems laid-back. We´re staying right near the main street/pedestrian mall called La Rambla (the ramble). There are plenty of buskers and street performers (including many bizarre "living statues"), markets and even locals doing their national dance. In the market there were oodles of pets for sale, including rats and hamsters ("Is not rat, is hamster", "Don´t mind him, he´s from Barcelona"). There were also plenty of "pig-e-ons" too. We saw La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral in progress (started in 1882) designed by Barcelona´s beloved architect, Gaudi. It´s unusual but very impressive to look at. Funnily enough, we´d seen a documentary on it (by accident) just before we left, where we found out it is an Australian man who is in charge of trying to finish it off (as Gaudi died unexpectedly when hit by a tram in 1926, leaving few directions for the cathedral´s completion). We saw another of Gaudi´s creations, a garden called Parc de Guell, which had some very cool buildings with mosaic designs on them (Nicole has big plans to learn how to do mosaic art, Graham didn´t really know what a mosaic was). It´s been a relaxing afternoon... Love Graham and Nicole.
May 13... Nice, France - We're back in French speaking territory, but not for too much longer... For our last day in Spain we wanted to escape the big city and discover some of the country-side. We had big plans to visit an apparently stunning monastery set on an enormous cliff in a forest, but we couldn't work out which train to catch or even from which train station to catch it. And the staff were less than helpful! So instead, we took the approach of well, where can we go from where we are without paying anything? The answer turned out to be a place called Tarragona, a sea-side town south of Barcelona, that was once the capital of Roman Spain. It was a beautiful place to visit, with ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, an interesting looking cathedral, narrow cobble-stoned streets, a good view of the Mediterranean Sea and most importantly, cheap ice-creams. We bought a Magnum - and boy, did it taste gooood. Poor Graham - he can only survive on bread and cheese for so long... The next morning we rushed to catch the train to the border town (French-Spanish) of La Tour de Carol, and somehow managed to get on the wrong train. Oops, but in our defence, the Barcelona main train station is enormous and extremely busy. So we got off at We-don't-know-where and got on the next train going in the other direction, got back out at Barcelona, on another train and eventually reached La Tour de Carol. Here we discovered a fantastic invention called the train station hotel. It turns out that these are in almost all train stations no matter how small, and that they are just as cheap as other hotels. But most importantly, they save your back because you don't have to lug those heavy back-packs so far. Needless to say we are going to make good use of these for the rest of our Eurail segment of the trip. La Tour de Carol was a small quaint French village set in the Pyrenees Mountains. Our Lonely Planet Guide didn't mention this place, so it was all the more fun to explore it ourselves without maps or preconceived ideas. Naturally in a place that small there isn't much else to do other than have a picnic - so that's what we did. We also bumped into Wayne, the curious English backpacker with a strong Cockney accent who couldn't find a place to stay (he spoke not a word of French) and so we recommended the train-station hotel technique. He had chosen La Tour de Carol as a destination in much the same way we had - to quote Wanyne, "by randomly pointing at a town on the map and going there". We found the only open restaurant in town and enjoyed a quiet night as the only guests. We ate Paella, the Spanish national dish, and met the young owners (the chef, and his wife, the waitress), who had moved from Paris just 4 weeks earlier to get away from the city life... The next day we raced down the stairs (just in time too) to travel to Toulouse, and then transferred onto another train to Marsailles, and then transferred to another train to Nice (or Nice-Ville as the station is called). It was a long day, but we're showing these Eurail people what we can do without paying anything extra. We unwound after our train journey by watching the Eurovision Song Contest (on TV) and were happy to see the quality of the acts hasn't changed a bit (it mostly looked like spontaneous karaoke)... Today, believe it or not, we attended the Cannes Internation Film Festival (although it was no easy task getting there because of the train strike that has resulted in most trains being cancelled for 48 hours). Well, we didn't actually watch any movies because the ones we wanted to watch (Troy, Shrek 2 and Farenheit 9/11) weren't showing until later in the week, and all the rest were booked out anyway. We did see the red carpet though, and a whole bunch of people walking up it, some of whom must have been famous. There were also many limosines and people dressed extremely fancily. We fit right in - not! In fact, we are sure the many camera crews appreciated our presence as they tried to film famous people (we made no attempts to get out of their way, hoping that one might just be an Australian crew and we could wave "hi mum and dad"). We wandered along the beach-side, marvelling that people would actually want to swim in the absolutely freezing cold water. We were rugged up in jumpers etc., most people weren't even wearing t-shirt and shorts - in fact, there were more than just a few women sunbaking topless... Tomorrow we're off to Pisa (if the train-strike allows). Watch for us on TV mum and dad - you never know... Love Graham and Nicole.
May 15... Rome, Italy - Italy is a surprising country. We didn't realise the monuments and ancient structures and ruins would be quite this impressive (of course, if we were better educated, we would already know this)...The Leaning Tower of Pisa was cool and it really did lean! In fact, so do its neighbours - a big cathedral and baptistry. On the train to Pisa, we sat next to a couple from Sydney on their honeymoon - they were spending two months in Europe and doing it in style. But, even with a bigger budget, they too had found themselves heading for McDonalds in Paris in search of a meal that didn't cost an arm and a leg. After marvelling at the tower, we ate a pizza in Pisa, then spent the night watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in German. One guy won 500,000 euro (that makes him a millionnaire in Australia). The next guy had to phone a friend to find out Cyclops had one eye... The next day we travelled to Rome. As soon as we stepped off the train we were swept up in the crowds. We embarked on an extensive accommodation-finding mission but after about 10 places being full, we were about to give up, and head for the nearest small town instead. Totally unexpectedly, a chinese lady walked up to us and asked if we were looking for accommodation. She proceeded to tell us she ran a free government service helping people like us and made a tonne of phone calls on her mobile to find a vacant room in our price range. Somedays you're just lucky! After settling into our spartan but clean hotel room, we headed off to grab a meal and see the sights of Rome. Wading through the people on a main street, we hit the Roman Forum. This was the heart of ancient Rome, and is now a massive archeological dig. What has been uncovered so far is pretty incredible given its age. There are lots of elaborate arches, columns and remains of temples and churches. It was a real pity we didn't know more about what we were looking at. Our guide book's descriptions weren't very helpful, and it had no pictures. One set of three columns looks much the same as another set of three columns! We looked over the shoulder of some British tourists to read their book, and eavesdropped on some of the guided tours. It helped a bit, but we'll just have to read more at home. The Collosseum, on the other hand, spoke for itself with its size alone. We both kept thinking about "I Claudius" from which most of our knowledge of Roman history is derived. (Everyone should see it, it's a great series, but it does go for 12 hours!). We stopped in a few churches along the busy road, which were beutifully quiet and deserted. The artwork and architecture was so magnificent we could have been in an art gallery or museum. Tomorrow, we plan to visit the Vatican... Love Graham and Nicole.
May 18... Monselice, Italy - Well, we turned up to the Vatican on the right day. It happened to be a special occasion, although it took us a while to figure out what was going on. There were throngs of people crowding St Peter's Square for the canonisation ceremony of 6 people by the Pope (well, new saints is one thing he is famous for). The rest of the Vatican was closed for the day, but we did spot a couple of the Swiss guards in their colourful, court-jester-like outfits. Later in the afternoon, we saw the Pantheon, which was once a ancient Roman temple. It's said to be the best preserved ancient structure in the city. It still has the name of Marcus Agrippa written in big letters across the top - he was the one who had it built (another name we recognised from I Claudius). It was a hot day in Rome, and we walked past the Trevi Fountain. We wanted to wade in the cool looking water, but we're glad we didn't, because the following day we heard from some Australian backpackers that the police angrily blew their whistles and pulled some people out who had been dangling their legs in the water. What a crime! Everywhere we looked there were gelati shops tempting Nicole - she really has been craving ice-cream in the past few weeks... The next morning we returned to the Vatican, and visited the Vatican Museum. It was a long queue - we waited for over an hour. The museum was full of ancient Roman and Greek statues of mythological gods (we had to ask ourselves why these belonged to a church), mediaeval and renaissance religious paintings, some ancient church manuscripts and countless other "religious treasures". The highlight was definitely the rooves of the many galleries, each more elaborate and impressive than the last. We finished in the Sistine Chapel that Michaelangelo painted. Within the dense crowd it was easy to do a snippet of filming and take some photos despite the constant blare over the loud speaker "It is forbidden to take photos or video". The painting itself is very big and quite beautiful, and it must have required an enormous amount of effort to paint. After this, we walked into St Peter's Basilica, which is enormous, and seemed over the top to us. Sadly, there were a lot more signs of tourism than there were of worship here. By this stage we were Vaticaned-out, tired and hungry. After a brief McDonalds stop (it is shameful how much McDonalds we've had in Europe - but everything else apart from bakeries and super-markets is just soooo expensive) we returned to see the Roman Forum once more. The ancient ruins made a whole lot more sense to us because we had bought a small book giving us an explanation of what we were looking at - the curia (where the Senate sat), various temples, the rostrum, Caeser's tomb and the seat of justice... We caught a late train out of Rome and got off at random at a pleasant looking town called Prato. After searching high and low for affordable accommodation, we had a stroke of luck by passing a cheapish hotel on our way back to the train station. The pasta and pizza were also cheapish here too which made a nice change. But most importantly we saw a water rat (or was it an otter?) swimming in the river (actually it isn't that important, but he did look pretty cool). The small town quiet atmosphere was nice so we had a picnic by the river this morning before catching a train to Venice. We had read that Venice was super expensive, so we've gotten off just before it, at a town called Monselice. From our brief wander we can say it is very pretty with a cool castle sitting on top of a densely forested hill that we can't quite work out how to climb up to... Love Graham and Nicole
May 20... Interlaken, Switzerland - Before leaving Italy, we spent a day wandering the streets of Venice. It was a pretty amazing and unusual place - thousands of tourists, lots of glassware and mask shops, a maze of alley-ways often with dead-ends leading us into a canal (we managed to stop walking before falling in though) and a complete lack of cars. Some parts looked awfully crumbly, and we were amazed that many buildings had managed to survive for a thousand years (the marshy islands of Venice were first settled by mainland locals escaping from invaders in about 500 AD). We walked for ages, getting lost multiple times, eventually ending up at the edge of far island, far away from the tourists. At this stage, Nicole realised she needed to go to the toilet fast - she was busting! There was a park, which Graham suggested she make use of (behind the bushes of course), but she was not keen on that idea with many locals wandering by periodically. So the great toilet search began. We walked fast and long, stopping in quite a few restaurants asking if she could use their toilets - and the owners meanly refused and pointed us in the direction of a public toilet in a park in the distance. This appeared to be closed, but we tried putting the money into the slot anyway - and were rewarded by having our 50 eurocent piece swallowed up into a void with no toiletting success. Walking on, we finally stumbled across a restaurant owner who took pity on us, and everything was better. For the rest of the afternoon, we could take a slower pace - and it was worth it. Venice really does seem remarkable. We resisted the urge quite easily to go on a gondola given the price tag of almost 200 Australian dollars for 50 minutes. The main square (San Marco Piazza) was dominated by tourists and pigeons. The large church in the centre with the added Moorish architectural influences looked big and impressive and the long, long rows of pillars of the surrounding buildings made up the rest of the square. We could not help but buy some ice-cream before walking back to the train station, and continue onwards towards Switzerland... Graham has had a chance to use his German now, but it is not proving too successful, given that all the locals seem to speak English (perhaps that is a lucky thing). It has been easy to fall in love with Switzerland. The train ride in was pretty stunning with huge forest covered mountains and small picturesque villages dotting the hillsides. We managed to find a campground in Interlaken, thus saving us heaps of Swiss Francs, and finally giving us a chance to use our tent that we bought in Florida! The nights have not been the most comfortable - hard ground to sleep on, a magically leaking floor (it has been raining constantly at night) and cool temperatures. However, the days have been great. Interlaken is a small town in between two lakes of crystal-clear aqua-coloured water and a background of snow-capped mountains. We have both had the Sound of Music stuck in our head in the last couple of days. Yesterday, we caught a ferry along to some lakeside villages and hiked around the mountains. We found a beautiful mountain stream perfect for a picnic and walked past a wild deer and her fawn. Lunch had to include some Lindt chocolate in addition to our standard supermarket bread, yoghurt and orange. We caught the ferry to the next town which was nearby a massive waterfall, that seemed to us as impressive (if not more so) than Niagara Falls. Unfortunately we missed the final ferry (we were too busy exploring) and it seemed we were doomed to spend the night in the forest. Luckily we found a path with signs pointing towards a town an hour and a half away, which we knew had a railway station - so we set out walking. The walk was quite pleasant apart from the constant drizzle. It gave us a chance to see lots of cows and sheep with bells on... Today we plan on leaving Interlaken, having decided that there is just too much rain for camping. Why can´t some of the rain be spread out a bit so Australia is a bit greener and Switzerland is a bit drier? Love Graham and Nicole
May 24... Munich, Germany - From Interlaken we caught a train to Luzern, which was another typical Swiss looking town - nice houses by a lake, with surrounding green pastures, with an overwhelming sense of order. It was still raining so we put the tent away (probably for a long long time) and found the "cheapest hotel" around. Cheap does not exactly exist here. We had window shopped earlier in Interlaken, looking for the most expensive item we could find. The 56,000 Swiss Franc watch won (that translates to over 60,000 Australian dollars). Luzern seemed like a good place to take a walk, over the covered wooden bridges and up the hills and far away (not really too far) to a look-out over the city. We also walked along the old city walls and visited the Co-op supermarkets periodically to stock up on Swiss chocolate (and other items). We have experimented with a few brands - even the "home-brand" equivalent at a bargain price tastes almost as good as Lindt. Unfortunately the Lindt factory is only open to free public tours (and all you can eat sessions) from Wednesday to Friday. So we missed out - doh! We also wandered past a statue of the Protestant reformer Zwingli and the original church associated with him. It was a simple church with little decoration, which was quite a contrast with all the cathedrals of Italy, Spain and France. For our last day in Switzerland we caught a train to Zurich, which is only about 50 minutes away from Luzern. They were having an advanced screening of Shrek 2 in the train station (it really is big enough to fit a temporary cinema) but all the sessions were sold out. Graham has been dying to see Shrek 2 and Troy for weeks now but we have not had too much luck finding screenings in English. Zurich was a really pleasant city to wander around, with nice old buildings, lots of Swiss banks, and the first reasonable botanic garden we have found in Europe. Heaps of people were out strolling next to Lake Zurich, including many punky looking teenagers undergoing fashion crises. We met up with two final-year Swiss medical students, Andreas and Simon, who had done a placement at the QEH last year. They took us around their city and university (which sort of reminded us of Adelaide Uni) and then out to an Italian restaurant for dinner. We used up our last remaining Swiss Francs here with ease. Afterwards they took us down the Bahnhofstrasse, which is the main street with all the expensive shops in Zurich and we had fun laughing at all the things we would never be able to afford nor want to buy. Each square metre of land on that street costs almost 1 million dollars to purchase... Today has been another travelling day, out of Switzerland and into Munich. We are getting very used to the train system here - it is quite fun sitting in first class luxury (a requirement of the Eurail) looking like slobs, surrounded by our backpacks. Surprisingly, we have only been told once "You do know this is first class, dont you!". We just smiled and offered our Eurail pass as proof. But our favourite part of the train journey is arriving at the station, when we get to hear the sweet farewell translated into English - "All passengers are requested to leave the train. The train crew bids you goodbye"... Love Graham and Nicole. PS - Did you know that in Europe, the keyboards have "z" where "y" should be, and "y" where "z" should be!
May 26... Munich, Germany - Of all the things we have seen in Europe, the place we went to yesterday has had the most impact on us - the Dachau Memorial. (When Graham asked for directions to the "Dachau Concentration Camp," he was told by the lady at the tourist office, "It´s no longer a concentration camp, it´s actually been a war memorial for sixty years.") The Dachau Concentration Camp was one of the first and largest camps set up by the Nazis in 1933, initially to lock up political prisoners - anyone who opposed their ideas. It soon turned into a slave labour camp, frought with murders, starvation and disease, and the numbers grew as other "undesirable" people were taken there. The prisoners included Jews, gypsies, beggars, homosexuals, immigrants and criminals. Many of these people were later shipped off to extermination camps, such as the one in Auschwitz. At the memorial, there is a large museum, where we could learn about the history of the camp and the experiences of the prisoners. We were also able to wander around the site, and see the main gate (with the words, "Arbeiten macht frei" or "work makes you free" written on it), perimeter fence (barbed wire and electric), dormitories and roll call area. At the edge of the camp, was a crematorium, where the bodies of those who had died were burned. The adjacent rooms were the "disrobing room," "shower room" (which was a gas chamber) and "death chamber" (where bodies were stored). The gas chamber was never used for mass murders, unlike at other camps - no one is sure why. Walking through an area that was designed for genocide was quite disturbing. We also saw the sites of where medical experiments were carried out on prisoners - hundreds of people died through experiments to investigate the effects of altitude, hypothermia, malaria and other infections. The words "NEVER AGAIN" are inscribed in big letters at the memorial. There are countless other details from the memorial and museum that will be hard to forget... On a lighter note, the suburb of Dachau was actually very pleasant, and we enjoyed our walk back to the train station to catch the S-Bahn (even better than the O-Bahn...) Today we ventured to Fussen, a small Bavarian town near the Austrian border. On the train we met another Australian couple - we seem to meet some everyday - we all have the Eurail in common. Strangely enough the last two days all of them have come from Adelaide. In fact today we heard enough Australian accents around us to think we were back home! A nice 5 km stroll from Fussen is "Mad Ludwig´s Castle" otherwise known as Neuschwanstein, a fairy-tale style castle built by the man himself from 1869 onwards. It is set high up on a cliff, with a great view of the surrounding pastures, lake and forest. Later in the evening, we returned to Munich and walked to the Englischer Garten. This extensive and beautiful park apparently is full of naked sunbathers in the hot weather, but we arrived a little late in the day to catch this spectacle. We did however, see a group of people surfing (yep, that´s real surfing, with wetsuit, surfboard and all) on the rapids of a river running through the park - it looked like heaps of fun. We also saw some other typical Munich activities - a large group of young drunken louts hoisting their giant beer mugs in the air, and of course, lots and lots of people smoking, like one collective chimney, as seems to be the norm in Germany. Tomorrow we are off to Wittenberg and Berlin. Its an early train so we better go get some sleep... Love Graham and Nicole.
May 28... Berlin, Germany - We left Munich just in time - the weather was miserable as we hauled our backpacks to the train station through the red-light district. The last couple of days, Graham had had a mild cold, but by the time we reached our destination of Wittenberg it had well and truly spread to Nicole. Luckily we had enough energy to see Wittenberg well - and it was well worth it. It was the base of Martin Luther and the Reformation and has a really interesting museum about all the events of the time. Luther, who was a monk, became worried about the practice of people buying their forgiveness through the practice of indulgences, and came to the conclusion that salvation came through faith in Christ alone, thus spawning the Protestant churches. In the museum was an indulgence box, an original copy of the 95 theses (reasons) against indulgences, a copy of the papal documents excommunicating Luther and one of the early Bibles translated into German. After the museum, we wandered to the church where Luther reputedly nailed his 95 theses to the door. It was a really interesting day... Today we came into Berlin, and walked around one of the last remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall, which was torn down in 1989. It was sobering to think that less than 20 years ago, people were shot for attempting to escape to the West from the communist East. Seeing remnants of this period of Germany´s history paints quite a different picture to all the modern buildings, infrastructure and attitudes we have also seen here... We found a movie theatre playing movies in English, and so tonight, we are seeing "The Day after Tomorrow" on the advice of the guy behind the counter. Love Graham and Nicole.
May 28... Berlin, Germany - Doh - still in Berlin! After a lack of planning and a reliance on how frequently trains in Germany SEEM to be going, we missed the last train out of Berlin to Wittenberg, and consequently our nice, warm, paid-for hotel room. And instead we have a long wait until 6 am tomorrow morning for the next train. So we are spending this Friday night at the EasyEverthing internet cafe and then the McDonalds across the road! At least it will make a good story. And don´t worry Mum and Dad - these things happen, right, and we´ll keep safe... Love Graham and Nicole.... Keep looking - the next entry below map of Belgium...
May 31... Bruges, Belgium - Well, it was a long long night in McDonalds, but part of the adventure all the same. We made it back to our hotel in Wittenberg for two hours sleep before catching the train to Amsterdam. Two Dutch friends we had made on our Amazon trip in Ecuador, Martijn and Loes, had invited us to stay with them in their home town. They picked us up from a town near Amsterdam called Weesp. (Pronounced Waysp - they had much fun laughing at our terrible attempts at Dutch pronunciation!) It was nice to catch up with them and stay in a real bed in a real house and eat real breakfast. Actually, we don't know if many Australians would consider raw meat on hot rolls to be a "real breakfast". Lucky for us, there was also cheese, and a Dutch favourite, chocolate sprinkles on bread. Holland itself is a very interesting place. The country is almost completely flat, and in many parts, below sea level. There were plenty of flower plantations, sheep, cows, goats and geese among the pastures. (Did you know that the national animal is the cow?) We were surprised to learn that significant chunks of the country have been recently created, as the Dutch drain away sea to create new land. In fact, that's what the windmills are for - they are constantly pumping water back out to the sea. We saw some nice historic towns, and spent a day at the Dutch equivalent of Sovereign Hill - a recreated village set about 100 years ago. The next day we saw Amsterdam, which has two very different sides - interesting old buildings, pretty architecture and a network of canals, which we had the pleasure of viewing on a ferry surrounded by a bunch of old grandmas from England, who "oohed" and "aaahed" on cue to the recorded commentary (Says the commentary, "And to your left is where the mayor lives"; respond the old ladies, "oooohhh"). We passed the house that Anne Frank and her family hid in in the Second World War, but the line to go inside extended almost back to Australia. Later in the day it was time to see the other side of Amsterdam - the red-light district and the coffee houses. From a distance, you wouldn't notice these places are there, as they are all housed in the old-fashioned buildings, along peaceful canals. We couldn't quite believe our eyes as we passed some of the many "establishments" - scantily clad women displaying themselves in windows, beckoning to passers by. As for the coffee houses, famed for selling marijuana, well, there sure were a lot of people smoking it and it stank. (Luckily for Nicole she has a blocked nose). Needless to say these places left a sad impression on us, especially seeing the women in their little glass cubicles trying to sell themselves. As our friends said though, they hope that these things are not the only features of Holland that people remember... We headed off on the train towards Belgium, stopping in Bruges, hopefully for a few days. Love Graham and Nicole.
June 3... Ypres, Belgium - Bruges was absolutely gorgeous. Apparently it is the best preserved mediaeval town in Europe. It seemed to us like the perfect spot for a honeymoon - plenty of pretty buildings, canals, cobbled-streets, a fairytale atmosphere - you get the picture. We finally did a load of washing to the relief of Graham's nose; once again Nicole was benefitting from her cold. We didn't really do anything in particular other than wander the streets and relax and look at all the chocolate shops. Mmmm chocolate. They even had a chocolate bra for sale in one store... After Bruges we caught a train to Ypres, a small town with a lot of history. The western front ran near here in World War I, and hundreds of thousands of soliders died in the region. The town was also flattened by artillery - so all the buildings we saw were reconstructed. Every night since 1928 five buglers play the Last Post (except when the city was occupied in WWII by Germany). We joined a large crowd to listen to the song and the moving brief ceremony that followed - "We will remember them". Today we hired bikes and rode around the countryside to see some of the many cemeteries and memorials around the town. Lots of the graves belonged to Australian soldiers with sad and interesting epitaphs - "Gone but not forgotten"; "Thy will be done"; "Mother's only son"; "One of the best"; "Greater love hath no man than this - that he lay down his life for a friend". We stopped at a small museum which had hundreds of metres of preserved trenches that we could walk through. It was amazing to see the muddy tunnels that were home for so many soldiers for so long. There were also enormous holes in the ground left over from where explosions had occurred. We had come to Ypres with no expectations; it turned out to be a fascinating place. Tomorrow to Calais and then onwards to England. Love Graham and Nicole.
June 6... Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire, England - Hi all from merry old England. We've made it to the mother country. After a series of train connections we caught a mega ferry to Dover from Calais, and got a beautiful view of the famous white cliffs. At the immigration checkpoint we were subjected to careful scrutiny to ensure that we weren't planning any illegal work activities or something. We tried hard not to look dodgy. Then we hired a car, set off driving (or standing still in traffic) on the crowded M20 to Oxford. It was nice to be back in a car again. We have been staying with the very hospitable Warwick and Kirsty Teague - joining the long ranks of other Australians who have received shelter at their place. The surrounding countryside is beautiful - simply splendid in fact. We had a leisurely walk in the Cotswolds from Boughton-on-the-Water to Upper and then Lower Slaughter yesterday (all the names here are so weird). It was fun passing through the pastures with sheep, cows, chickens and other assorted farm animals, whilst dodging the horse poo. At one stage we were surrounded by thousands of very hungry and very cute chickens who thought we were there to feed them. These free range chickens just seemed so happy, that we think now we might have to buy free range eggs from now. And contrary to popular belief about England, it has been dry and sunny since we've been here... Love Graham and Nicole
June 9... Bath, England - Our days at Oxford... Now we can reminisce about our time at yet another famous university. The whole place just has the most tranquil, academic atmosphere that we're sure we would have studied harder if we went to uni here. Our morning actually started with the village church service, which we all enjoyed, then we moved on to a whirlwind tour of Oxford Proper by Kirsty, who after three years of living there, seems to have figured out all the history. We saw inside several of the academic colleges, including a cool dining hall, just like in Harry Potter. In fact, every second building seemed to have been used in the filming of Harry Potter (we will have to watch it again more carefully now). We saw the college that Warwick belongs to, as well as a residential college called Toad Hall! There were plenty of people "punting" on the river, a term unfamiliar to us - a bit like rowing with a pole - it looked like fun. In the evening we went to Evensong at one of the college chapels, and heard a beautiful boys' choir sing. After the service, we caught a glimpse of a few students rushing off in their academic gowns to Formal Tea... Oxford seems very much a place steeped in tradition. We ended the night with a pub meal. It was a great weekend... The following day we drove to the Land of Few Vowels, otherwise known as Wales. The street signs alone were cause for amusement, but even better was tuning in to Welsh radio. How would you pronounce "frycheiniog" or "ildiwch"? The countryside was very pretty, and we stopped off at a ruined castle along the way, just by the side of the road. Actually they are dotted all over the place. We were aiming for the Brecon Beacons National Park. It seems a National Park over here is somewhat different than ours - this one consisted mostly of farms with grazing sheep. But it did have natural beauty, hills and some important historic sites. Not that we could find them... but we did try. In the end, Graham declared a small stone at random to be the Iron Age Fort we were looking for. Still, the rolling hills, ferns, wildflowers and amazingly chirpy birds made for a nice morning stroll. The best bit though, was being able to say, "Ahh the serenity..." as supersonic fighter planes periodically and unexpectedly criss-crossed the air, and supersonic booms broke the tranquility. Near the Brecon Beacons is a small town called Hay-On-Wye, known as the "town of books". There are 39 mostly second-hand bookshops and 1,500 people. We managed to spend a whole afternoon browsing, and searching for long-lost children's books that we had treasured. Graham found "The White Mountains" but couldn't find "The Gospel According to Captain Beaky" - sorry Mum G! Nicole had no success at finding "The Silver Crown" - maybe one day... After a relaxing afternoon, we headed for Bath and stayed at a Bed and Breakfast. When they say breakfast, they really mean enough food to see you through the day, and our first authentic English breakfast was no exception - cereal, toast, bacon, eggs, tomato, mushrooms, orange juice and of course, tea. We used the "Park and Ride" to get into Bath, parking the car nearby and getting our first views of the town were from a double-decker bus. The sandstone buildings here are very nice, as are the gardens. We're using our standard wandering approach, and hopefully soon will be wandering over to the Baths themselves. Love Graham and Nicole.
June 12... Southampton, England - Well, we found the baths of Bath eventually - the water looked a disgusting murky green, that we couldn't really imagine drinking or even swimming in. But, for centuries, that is what people (obviously a little crazy) flocked to Bath to do. We also wandered past the Bath Abbey, and a small statue of interest next to it. Erected by the Bath Women's Temperance Society, it had a woman holding a jug with the inscription underneath, "WATER IS BEST" - how funny! Another interesting plaque was to be found on the Abbey - declaring that it was there that Edgar, the first King of all England, was crowned in 973 AD. Bath was also the place that Jane Austen called home, and after much wandering, we found her house at 4 Sydney Place - it was a simple residence but the surroundings were grand and inspiring. After Bath, we made our way to the fascinating village of Avesbury. Neither of us had heard of this place before but it turned out to be a real highlight of England. Avesbury has 250 people, lots of sheep and cows, a massive man-made mound, and a mysterious stone circle. Dotted around the town, in a clearly circular formation are large rocks, that were put there about 5,500 years ago. No one knows why stone age man did this, but like Stonehenge, the rocks seem to have astronomical meaning. It was quite a sight seeing these huge rocks surrounded by sheep and cows, almost as if they were guarding them. We were able to walk right up to the stones, and as it was late in the day, they were almost deserted. The man-made mound, called Silbury Hill, is thought to have been constructed at the same time as the stone circle - it makes an impressive addition to the landscape but the question is "WHY?" Nearby were also some tombs, which we could walk into. Surprisingly, a family was setting up camp inside the tombs. The father was a bit of an oddball, as shown by the following conversation: Graham - "Are you the owner of this land?" Oddball - "Yes, all that you can see is mine. In fact, I am the land." Wife of Oddball - "He is Father Earth." Hmmmm... After realising he and his wife were clearly mad, we made a discreet exit and returned to our inn to watch an incredible pink sunset. The next morning we drove to Stonehenge - an awe-inspiring sight from a distance. Close up, from our view behind the fence, it was just as impressive, as we appreciated the size of the stones and their layout. Many of the stones had been transported hundreds of kilometres from Wales - which must have been a mighty task in itself. Of course, some people say aliens did it (most probably these are people like Father Earth, who we incidentally saw again at Stonehenge - was he following us?) Both Stonehenge and the Avebury henge were fascinating to see - we look forward to reading more about the mysteries behind them when we get back. We then found ourselves on a white horse chase, but it felt a bit like a wild goose chase. Just as there was once an obsession with putting rocks in circular patterns in the ground, so it seems that carving white horses into chalk hillsides was also a popular pastime thousands of years ago (although the obsession continues today). We managed to find three white horses - one from 3,500 years ago, one from 1780, and the "millenium horse" from 2000. Unfortunately, we couldn't find the white kiwi, which was carved by a bored New Zealand pilot during the First World War. Having chased enough white horses, we headed into Chertsey in southwest greater London, which is where Graham spent a year of his childhood. The Grove family had done a house-swap whilst Dad was researching for a worm book. As we drove around pondering how to find the street where they lived, Graham said that the area was looking extremely familiar - and he was right - we were driving along the right road! There was no one home at the house at 10 Stepgates so we could only look at the outside, his junior primary school was now a housing development, but there were still planes flying overhead, reminding him of Lachie's first word - "Concorde!" Unable to find cheap accommodation for that night, we slept in the car for the second time in Britain, then made our way to Southampton, via the coast. We took a walk at Beachy Head, which was quite stunning, with tall white cliffs, wildflowers, and a lighthouse. In the evening, we met with Naomi and Mike, two friends of Duncan's, who kindly offered to have us stay with them. Today they showed us round the New Forest - a nearby national park, with wild ponies, donkeys and cows that roamed all over the roads. There were also lots of cute rabbits jumping around the ferns and foxgloves. We even had a Cream Tea - scones with jam and cream, with tea and cake - delicious! We've had a fantastic time here with our generous hosts. Love Graham and Nicole.
June 15... London, England - These last few days have been very relaxing... Naomi took us to the ruins of Netley Abbey on Sunday, yet another huge impressive ruin hidden just behind a fence, and the perfect place to try and take artsy photos. We just chilled for the rest of the day, finishing by watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - this time we could spot some of the buildings that we had seen in Oxford. Yesterday we took a few detours on our way to Dover to return the car, driving through Winchester (the old capital of England), Portsmouth (to see the HMS Victory, the ship of Lord Nelson, Graham's great grandfather - or so he announced when he saw the ship as a five year old), and Battle (the site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings - but by this stage we were a little nervous that we wouldn't get the car back in time, so we never actually found the battlefield). We then made our way to Earl's Court in London, getting brief glimpes of the Thames and Westminster Abbey on the way. But we'll see London properly when we return in a few months' time... Our summary of Europe: Full of history (some that had a lot of meaning to us, some that we wish we'd read up on before); Beautiful and interesting architecture abounds as do magnificent forests, fields and mountains; Everything is expensive; Lacking both public toilets and decent water pressure (oh and they have carpet in their bathrooms in Britain); Chocolate is as cheap as real food and tastes like Lindt every time; The most useful shopping centres are found underground in the train stations; The further south you go, the more disorganised things become; French people (against all we'd heard) were extremely friendly, helpful and certainly not arrogant; Switzerland really was super-orderly (no one even jay-walked there); Churches feel too much like museums or art galleries; Most people speak English (although they deny this and then proceed to speak it almost fluently)... And because we've spent the last 2 weeks in England, the things that are specifically English are more in our minds: England is warm and sunny (how about that?!) - there was a warning on the news yesterday that the unusually warm weather was increasing the risk of skin cancer and people should take note; They're soccer-mad here (the Euro 2004 is currently on in Portugal, and England lost the first game, so the angry fans took to the British streets and rioted); The traffic can be really, really, really bad; Wherever you go, you're never too far from houses and people - there is no wilderness here - it can be a slight difficulty when you are busting to go to the toilet and have to stop on the roadside; There is a strong "eurosceptic" feeling among a lot of people; Everybody seems to drive a silver hatchback (just like our hire car); Each little town was home to some famous person that you've heard of and has a plaque or memorial bench to remind you; It's a beautiful, green country and the people are really friendly and good-natured (especially the Australians you meet here)... We look forward to writing our next message from Armenia. Love Graham and Nicole.