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31 October 2010
Michael
How we travel
I'm not going to claim to be a travel expert - I think there are folks who have ventured for longer in far more challenging environments than we have, but after spending a year on the road I'd say we've learnt a fair few things about how to travel. We've refined our approaches with experience, and I decided it would be a good idea to write down my thoughts on the subject. I've titled it "how we travel", because I'm sure everyone has a different style with different priorities, likes and dislikes, and so you may well not agree with everything I write here, but perhaps a couple of tips may be of use for your next overseas adventure. Here goes.

Travelling with tech

This was the first lengthy trip we traveled with a laptop, and I'll never go back. In the last few years the new class of cheap, ultra-light netbooks has really taken off and they're perfect for travelers - not too valuable you're afraid of loosing it, and often weighing just over a kilogram.

Having our own computer was incredibly useful. I'd say around 90% of accommodations we stayed at provided wi-fi; sometimes only in the lobby and occasionally you had to pay extra for it, but even in the most remote parts of Morocco or Vietnam it was available. Aside from provided valuable access to email, facebook, and newspapers it can be incredibly useful for getting train or bus timetables, booking flights and accommodation, checking out opening hours of sights or bike rental, etc.. Even more useful is having Skype loaded on the machine; with SkypeOut credit you can call hotels, friends, and family for a few cents per minute which is super useful.

Our computer was also our television. When you're travelling for a while, at the end of the day you're often pretty tired and all you want to do is collapse and watch some television. So we loaded the netbook with TV shows; mostly downloaded AVIs of shows that we owned on DVD but had intentionally not yet watched.

Beside the netbook, our other beloved travel companion was the Kindle. Folks at my work at Bing kindly gave me one as a farewell gift and it was incredibly useful - instead of Michelle and I carrying a novel around each, the Kindle weighed just 250 grams. Plus, getting the latest Dan Brown book, or any particular novel for that matter, in a non-English speaking country can be difficult. With the Kindle we could buy new books through the Amazon website and load them onto the device whenever we wanted.

Noise cancelling headphones are fantastic, especially for flights and noisy buses and trains. Michelle and I traveled with a pair of Sony brand stick-in-your-ear types that I find are quite good at blocking out the noise even when they're not turned on. With a handy little headphone double adapter we used these guys all the time for watching TV on the netbook together, even in our hotel room, since the quality exceeded that of the laptop's speakers. We also traveled with an MP3 player each, and used the headphones for them.

Of course our other important piece of technology was our beloved Lumix-ZS3 digital camera. I'm always impressed by the quality of photos taken by SLR cameras, but I just don't find them practical for travelling due to their weight and bulk. So we went for the best compact camera we could find. Besides having a great zoom and taking nice pictures, and camera also takes hi-definition video and so we embarked on the project of creating a video diary of our travels, which I really enjoyed doing and I think really shows our adventure better than static photos alone would have. Having a regular camera that takes video is great - somehow a camcorder looks more obtrusive and touristy than a camera, plus there was no need to carry an extra device. We loaded Sony Vegas video editing software onto the netbook - it was the best product I could find that would run on such a low-powered machine with a small screen. Most of the footage we took was short, typically between 4 and 10 seconds. We would compile it using Sony Vegas, download free music from Amazon to add a fun soundtrack, then upload the result to YouTube for inclusion in our website.

One thing that I worried about when travelling was losing all our video and photos; even passports can be replaced but your photos will be lost forever. I wanted an arrangement where, even if somebody broke into our hotel room and took our luggage, we wouldn't lose all those pictures and footage. Michelle wore a money belt, so we purchased extra SD memory cards and she carried these around with a backup copy of our photos securely tucked away. When we visited Australia or met up with my parents in Poland we gave them a backup copy, allowing us to reuse the memory cards. By the end Michelle was carrying 80GB of SD cards in her money belt. We also purchased a portable hard disk in China and made backups to that, including a complete image of the netbooks hard disk in case it crashed and needed to be restored.

What we took

We gave a lot of thought to packing for this trip. Here was my logic - carrying something like a tube of toothpaste that weighs 100 grams for a year is somewhat like carrying an extra 5kg for a week, so we really wanted to think carefully about what we needed for the trip and minimize our luggage. Plus we'd learnt from previous trips that travelling light makes a big difference; there's nothing less fun than dragging a heavy suitcase up and down stairs and along cobbled streets on a hot sweaty day as you try and find your way to your hotel. If you travel lighter it's easier to move accommodation, which can mean faster, shorter hops between destinations, fewer day trips, and more efficient travel - so more time for seeing sights!

We traveled with about 10kg of luggage each. It involved a few sacrifices that not everyone would want to make, but we pulled it off. First tip for keeping the weight down is this - make sure your bags themselves don't weight too much. I put together an Excel spreadsheet and weighed everything we were thinking of taking, and was pretty surprised to see that the heaviest items by far were the bags themselves! Those hard frame roller bags (or "trolly-dollies") are the worst and usually weigh 4 to 5 kilograms - there goes most of the weight budget. Much lighter are duffle-style roller bags. We ended up settling on backpacks, which still weigh around 1.5 kilograms after we removed the attached daypack. I even went as far as cutting off unnecessary straps to reduce their weight. Due to a problem with arthritis in my left foot I switched to a small roller duffle bag (small enough to fit in hand luggage) about 6 months into our travels. This worked quite well because I could put items in our daypack and wear this whilst pulling along the small roller bag, instead of stuffing our day pack into one of the larger backpacks. The daypack could be kept handy with food, drink, the netbook, etc. whilst riding a train or bus.

We also invested in a good quality, lightweight daypack; in my experience most backpacks are bigger and heavier than you typically need, but small backpacks often don't fit you as well (especially for me with a long torso). The ideal packs we found were hydro packs (with an extra pocket for a bladder style water supply) since they're light, skinny and tall. Plus the hydro pocket can be handy :) We took enough clothing to last about eight or nine days before getting them washed. Some folks travel lighter by carrying fewer clothes and hand washing them in the hotel room, but we've found the laundromat approach is more time efficient, plus hand washing is never quite as effective.

A few other nifty little things we took included:
  • A small plastic camping spork, great for eatting snacks such as yogurt on the go.
  • A calico bag, which is be handy for shopping trips or for those occasional days when our single backpack wasn't large enough for everything we needed (for example, lots of extra layers on the day we visited Jungfraujoch or the ice caves).
  • A multi-region power adapter that has moving components to let you adapt any style power point in the world to another.
  • ATM bank cards for two different banks on different networks (Cirrus and Plus) as well as $100 cash in case the ATM networks go down (happened to us once last time we travelled in Turkey, and we panicked!)
  • A few meters of cord. This was handy for making make-shift clothes lines, or stringing up a blank over the hotel window where the blinds were terrible.
We used two caches to further reduce weight; we posted ahead two packages that mainly contained medical stuff like Michelle's contact lenses to save us carrying around a full year's supply. One cache was posted to Melbourne, which we collected 4 months into our travels, and the other was sent to Germany, which we collected about 7 months in.

Where we traveled

With the exception of Morocco, we spent all of our time in Europe and Asia. If I was to do it all over again, I might be inclined to do a bit more Asia and a bit less Europe. We also hoped to visit Egypt and Jordan but the timing with the seasons didn't work out.

There were two major considerations when we put together our itinerary; minimizing travel time and carbon footprint, and maximizing good weather. In my opinion, the weather can completely change your travel experience and impression of a destination, especially if you're more interested in outdoor aspects of travel such as bike riding, architecture, or festivals. Often folks from Australia, where the weather never gets really cold, don't appreciate just how day-and-night the northern hemisphere can be in summer versus winter. In Europe, there are a lot of festivals going on in summer. On the other hand, places like Thailand or Vietnam are already warm enough in winter and can be even more unpleasant in summer. So for our travels, given we had the luxury of a year to plan to maximize the seasons, we started in Amsterdam in September and travelled south getting fantastic weather along the way to Morocco. In January and February we focused on southern Asia, where it's always too hot. March and April were spent in China and Japan - this was the coldest part of our trip, partly due to unseasonably cool weather. Then in May we travelled back to Europe, first visiting Croatia and Montenegro whilst the weather was still warming, then venturing further north as summer arrived.

Some folks have asked why we didn't visit South America this trip, and it's a fair question. I did a fair bit of research and concluded, rightly or wrongly, that getting around that part of the world is pretty time consuming, involving either flights or long bus trips, which are pretty much our least favourite forms of transport. In Europe, and less so in Asia, there's a lot to see and often good transport so you can get a lot of bang for your buck (or sights for your time in this case). Plus many of the great, unique sights in the world that we were keen to see, such as the Eiffel Tower, Mont St Michel, the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Army, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Swiss alps to name a few, were mostly located in Europe or Asia. South America certainly has the advantage of being a cheap destination, and I'd love to visit Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Rio De Janeiro one day. Many say that the Americas are great for their natural sights, but I believe there's just as much natural wonder in Asia or Europe - amazing volcanoes, waterfalls, canyons, mountains and beaches - that can sometimes be overshadowed by the cultural wonders of the region.

Guidebooks

I love Lonely Planet guidebooks. Michelle and I have bought around 40 of these books together, and they're my favourite travel guide for independent travelers such as us. I reckon they're worth every cent and more - just one good hotel or restaurant recommendation, nugget of knowledge of the best or cheapest way to get from city A to city B, or fantastic suggested site and they've paid for themselves. We're also pretty religious about getting the latest edition - there's nothing worse than rocking up to visit some temple or museum to discover its opening hours have changed or it's shut down.

We visited 23 countries and carrying around 23 Lonely Planets wasn't really going to be an option (by the way, they weigh roughly between 400 and 800 grams each). We typically bought a guidebook for the next country a few days beforehand. This lead to a fun, yet challenging task - finding an English LP for the next country in whatever country we were currently travelling in. Imaging trying to find the India LP in Hanoi, the China LP in Mumbai, or the Japan LP in Shanghai. With some hunting we pretty much always succeeded (although in Hanoi we were only able to acquire a dodgy photocopied India LP). Another great option when we were only visiting a city or two in a country (such as Dresden in Germany or Brugge in Brussels) was to buy individual digital chapters from lonelyplanet.com, which typically cost only a few dollars (and they're cheaper if you have a US credit card!).

The large LP books, such as for countries like China or India, are pretty heavy things and lugging one around all day isn't ideal. So we took to the practice or mutilating our LPs. We had three strategies depending on how many pages we needed. The first involved slicing out individual pages with a pocket knife, which was handy because you could put them in your pocket. The second involved slicing entire chunks of the book off; this works well although you need to be carefully to cut in the right place to avoid pages falling apart. Finally, if we only needed access to a handful of pages, we sometimes simply took photos of them to read on the camera. After we left a country and had finished with a guidebook, we sadly had to get rid of it. If it wasn't too mutilated, we typically left the book on the bookshelf of some hotel we were staying at.

Accommodation and transportation

During the first few months of our travels we typically booked our accommodation a day or two in advance. As I mentioned previously, Skype on our netbook was handy for calling up to book places to stay. However as our travels went on we changed our approach and more and more often we would rock up to cities and check out places to stay. This has one major advantage - you can ask to take a look at the room before you commit. Many travelers can't stand dirty rooms, but my main concern is that the room will be quiet. Traffic noise drives me a bit nuts when I'm trying to fall asleep and in some countries, such as Vietnam with its plethora of motorbikes, the traffic can be loud. Many hotels have rear facing rooms, so a good strategy is to rock up without a reservation, ask for a room at the back, and move on if there's none available. You can also sometimes get better rates by turning up without a booking, and also discover newer or less well known hotels (not listed in the guidebook) that are often better value. Our typical approach would be to head to an area of town known to have a cluster of hotels, then split up and check out one each. Of course the drawback of rocking up is the fear that everything will be full and you'll have to sleep in the street! This never happened to us, although in a few cases it would have if we hadn't made a reservation. You can usually tell when there might be a problem finding a room; typically this might happen on a weekend in a very popular destination with limited options or when there's a festival on in town. Sometimes we would call a couple of hotels a day or two before arriving and ask if they had availability; if most places are full then it's worth booking otherwise just turn up.

One nice thing about our travels this time is we had a higher budget, so instead of staying in hostels and one-star hotels we typically stayed in two- or three-star places. In Ireland we enjoyed staying at B&Bs which were great value at around 60 euro per night including brekkie. One approach that we found works well when travelling by car was to stay in places between towns rather than in the towns themselves, which were typically better value. For example in Croatia we would spend the day in Split then drive down the coast and stop at a random hotel located in a small village. In Asia, where the quality of the hotels can vary a lot, I would often check out the reviews of options on tripadvisor.com, which is a pretty useful resource.

The types of transport we used varied a fair bit between Europe and Asia. In Europe we travelled a lot by train and it's certainly my favourite mode of transport; you can relax, eat food, read, listen to music, plug in and use the laptop, use the restroom, and just stare out as the scenery goes by. In some places, such as Switzerland or Vietnam, the view out the window makes travelling by train a fun day of sightseeing. High speed trains, such as the TGV in France or the Shinkansen in Japan, are pretty impressive however as a casual traveler they're not my favourite; they're often expensive, whizz by too quickly to really enjoy the scenery, and there motion makes reading or using the laptop a somewhat queasy experience for me. Train travel in India was a cultural experience, yet reasonably comfortable with cheap 1st, 2nd and 3rd class seats. The trouble is that Indian trains fill up fast, and it can often be difficult to get the train and class you want. Plus the trains make multi-day journeys across the country often resulting in lengthy delays by the time they reach you. Fortunately this didn't happen to us, although we do recall an announcement for a train delayed by 9 hours once. We also had trouble securing train seats in Vietnam and china. In contrast, several times we easy booked flights for the next day between cities Asia.

The nice thing about train travel in Europe is you rarely have to book in advance; just rock up and buy a ticket then board. An essential tool for this is a credit card with a chip and PIN number, which is often required for use with ticket vending machines. We used a rail pass in Japan which, by my calculations, saved us a bit of money. We didn't use a Eurail pass, and in my opinion they're overrated. If you're travelling long distances with short stops in northern European countries then it can save you money, but in southern and eastern European nations such as Italy, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Spain, or Portugal train tickets aren't as expensive.

In Asia we took more short distance flights, especially in China where land travel is pretty time consuming. Figuring out how to get from some random city to another by some combination of flights and other forms of transport can pretty trick, both in Asia but also in Europe, and that has been part of my motivation to work on the rome2rio startup. In Europe especially there are so many budget carriers and different airports all densely located that, when combined with rail travel, there's often a few different ways to get between two cities.

One great thing about travelling in Asia is the cheap taxis. A 20 minute ride across town will often cost a few dollars. Often the cost is not much more than the price of petrol, and probably less than the cost of driving your car back home when you factor in maintenance, depreciation, insurance, and rego. Taxis are especially nice in places like Bangkok or other large cities where there is a well regulated, metered fleet of cabs which take the negotiation pain out of the journey. Often, though, you need to negotiate a fare. Here are a couple of great tips that I've discovered through experience:
  • You'll get to a reasonably price faster if you start the negotiation. Instead of asking "how much to go to 'Foo'?", propose a price; "200 rupees to go to 'Foo'?" If you know roughly how much it should cost, this demonstrates that to the driver and he won't try charging you double or triple.
  • Try to avoid taxis that are hanging around, waiting for naive, tourist passengers at airports, train stations, or near touristy sights. These guys seem to exist all over the world, and they make up for lost income from hanging around by over charging unsuspecting tourists. Dodgy meters, inflated quotes, or putting the meter on night/weekend/return rate are all common tricks. Here's my most reliable tip for getting a taxi in any developing country; hail it off the street. A random vehicle driving by and hailed by you is much less likely to rip you off, at least that's been my experience.
A couple of times in Asia we hired a car for an extended journey, and again this can be very good value. Both times we arranged this through our hotel. In India we hired a driver from Johdpur to take us to a temple, about four hours drive away, and we spent the night in a nearby hotel. The next day he drove us to an impressive but difficult to reach fort, where we spent a few hours, before driving us on to Udaipur where he dropped us off at our hotel late in the afternoon. The whole journey, including his return trip and his accommodation for the night near the temple, cost us something liked $100.

It's been a couple of months now since we finished our travels. We've quickly settled back into our lives in Melbourne and often reminisce our year of travel. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Maybe one day if we're really fortunate we'll make it a twice in a lifetime experience... :)

Day 357 - September 2, 2010
Michelle
A Taste of Iceland
Ah, Icelandic countryside, how shall I describe thee? Let me count the ways...other-worldly, bleak, spectacular, weird, diverse, stark, dramatic, barren, mesmerising, intriguing or any combination of the above. The final destination of our travels was very satisfying stop as Iceland turned out to be a most interesting place to visit. Granted, the weather wasn't exactly fantastic, we had a fair bit of rain and wind and as expected it was quite cool. But we were nevertheless able to see quite a lot of interesting things. Admittedly I didn't really know much about Iceland before we visited - just that the economy crashed our last year, and of course the volcano that erupted earlier this year and caused havoc in European air space (more about that later). We only spent 5 days there, but it was a good amount of time to give us a sense of the country and what it has to offer. I've come away feeling like I could quite happily return again one day to explore more of the country, perhaps with more appropriate clothing and equipment that would enable more extensive hiking and getting to more inaccessible spots with a suitable vehicle. When, and if that return trip might happen is anyone's guess!

We spent our first day in the capital, Reykjavik, which was pleasant enough, with its brightly coloured roofed buildings. But it was in the following days when we hired a car and got out to the countryside that things got really interesting. Iceland only has a population of about 320,000 people so the population density is pretty low, even Reykjavik feels something like a small town compared to cities in other countries. Out in the countryside the towns are tiny and there is a wide open sparse feel about the place, perhaps a bit like parts of Australia - except in Iceland nowhere is really ever very far away.

Iceland sits at the junction of two techtonic plates - Europe and North America, and consequently there's a lot of seismic activity going on, often in the form of volcanoes (funnily enough). There's also a lot of geothermal hotspots, with hot springs and geysers abounding. In fact, for a cold country there's a lot of hot air going around! All of this volcanic and geothermal activity results in a striking and unique landscape, with a diverse range of geographical features. There are gaping fissures in the ground and huge rock walls created where the plates are tearing apart, bubbling and hissing multi-coloured geothermal pools, hillsides with steam emanating everywhere, endless black mudflats and blacker than black beaches, spouting geysers, stunning waterfalls, deep green plains and mountains, rocky barren terrain - all in a single day's drive. I can see how one might easily fall in love with the landscape, indeed I think I am a little smitten myself.









We also went on a short guided hike on a glacier that covers one of the volcanoes. The volcano is called Katla, and is a close neighbour of Eyjafjallajokul, which erupted earlier this year. Because of that eruption, the glacier had a lot of ash on it (as did much of the surrounding countryside). In fact, Katla is even bigger than Eyjafjallajokul and is well overdue for an eruption, which will be huge when it happens - fortunately it didn't go off while we were there! The glacier walk itself was great, we put on the crampons and away we went, crunching across the ice felt both a little strange but also quite natural.

 
Other highlights of our sights included the Blue Lagoon, the most famous geothermal pool that's very popular for swimming. We also visited the site of the first democratically elected parliament in the world - in Iceland back in the 10th century. The site is open air with a wide plain and huge rock wall providing a natural acoustic for the assembly. It's a lovely idea, holding parliament in an outdoor natural setting, it made me wonder how different modern politics might be if all the sessions were held that way?! (assumably they didn't convene during Winter). On a different note, driving along our final day, we came across a set of fish-drying racks by the road side, rows and row of fish hanging out in the wind. Quite a sight to see, and quite a whiff to smell too!

And so endeth our travels with this intriguing land, capping off a phenomenal year of fun exploration and discovery. We're sad that it's come to its inevitable end but needless to say it's been a fantastic adventure. With apologies to Dr. Seuss, "Oh the places we've been!"

Day 352 - August 28, 2010
Michelle
From Disneyland to Heidi-land
We're currently on en route to our final destination of the trip, Iceland. We've had a full past six days in Paris and Switzerland, with our camera continuing to get a solid workout.

We actually visited Paris last year in October - although it's something we generally try to avoid, I actually quite like visiting cities for a second time, especially premium destinations such as Paris. The second time is always a little less frantic, with less worry about getting around to seeing all the sights, but rather just perhaps filling in the gaps from last time, absorbing the atmosphere again and maybe seeing some slightly different aspects of the place. This time in Paris, we meandered past Notre Dame and the Louvre and along the banks of the Seine at a leisurely pace. One thing we did specifically go to re-visit was the Eiffel Tower. This time the queues to go up weren't any where as ridiculously long as last time, so we headed on up the stairs to the 2nd platform. As promised, there was a great view over the city, but it was also very interesting to see the tower up close and from a different perspective.

We also explored an area of Paris called "La Defense", which is a striking cluster of modern buildings and development. Central to the area was a huge cubic archway, and there were plenty of interesting sculptures around too. Quite a different face to classic view of Paris. Visiting Paris a second time also confirmed for us something that we felt last time we were here. Paris is a great destination as far has having a lot of premium sights goes, but it takes a lot of "getting around". It's got a great Metro system, but walking around it still feels very car-centric. The Seine is lovely but all the traffic up and down the sides takes away from the experience for us. Riding around on bicycles we also felt that it isn't especially cycle-friendly. So yes it's a beautiful city with some stellar sights, but somehow the noisy traffic spoils the "romance" of the place for us, in a way that we hadn't necessarily noticed in some other European cities. I guess it's still a big city, or maybe just not so much "us". (don't get us wrong, we still enjoyed it, just making an observation)

 

From Paris we also made two day trips. The first was to the chateau at Versailles, which certainly lived up to its reputation of grandeur and opulence. As impressive as the palace itself were the gardens, with a huge complex of groves and numerous fountains. This was all very fine, but we were also visiting on a Saturday, when the fountains are all run for about 1.5 hours in the afternoon, with classical music playing. The running fountains really brought the whole place alive, with all sorts of different interesting configurations and structures.

Our second day trip was to EuroDisney. Now is confession time - I had never previously been to a Disneyland anywhere, so it seemed time to make the pilgrammage. Michael also had the ghosts of a frightened 4-year old experience to confront, so we went on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and 25 years later he found it not quite so scary this time. It was a fun, colourful day - cheesy and kitsch yes, but cheesy and kitsch done well. Especialy the "It's a Small World Ride", which was a must-do. It was actually impressively detailed and we were tempted to go round a second time, except that we also wanted to catch the parade. Oh the simple joys!

Disney done and dusted, we moved on to Switzerland for a few days. We spent a couple of days in the Alps around the Jungfrau region. The scenery around here was mind-bogglingly stunning, with classic Swiss countryside - green mountains full of chalets topped by snow-capped peaks. It probably helped that we had marvellous weather too. We based ourselves at Interlaken, and on the first day we travelled up to Jungfraujoch, which has the highest train station in Europe. It took three trains and 2.5 hours to get up there from our base in Interlaken. Each train travelled a little more slowly and up a steeper incline than the previous one, the last one took us through the mountain via a tunnel that apparently took 16 years to dig. At the very top were were at an altitude of 3454m (11333 feet) above sea level, we had views of glaciers and there were tobogganing and flying fox activities on offer too. Neither of us had ever been that high before, and we certainly noticed the altitude, feeling just a little light-headed. But oh the views - simply spectacular. The next day we headed up to another peak, not quite so high - "only" at 2900m. To reach this peak we took several cable cars up through more Heidi-like landscapes. At the top we were rewarded with breathtaking, head-spinning 360-degree views around the entire valley.




   

We stayed in Interlaken only for a couple of days, but it's really a place where you could spend a whole week just going out to see different areas and hiking around. But with bad weather forecast for the third day, and limited time in our schedule we decided to head to Bern, the capital of Switzerland, for a day. In fact, the weather in Bern turned out to be okay, after bucketing down in the morning it surprisingly cleared up for a few hours, enough time for us to do all of our sight-seeing.

We enjoyed our day in Bern - the old town is quite charming, sitting up on a hillside over the river, dotted with whimsical fountains and lined with buildings that are largely uniform but slightly varied in colour and style. We also happened across an unusual oddity in a sports store that we randomly wandered into - a continuously moving elevator with no doors. You step in and out of the compartments as they move past each floor. It's really quite a strange sight, and almost surreal to look at. There's apparently a few of these kinds of elevators left in Europe, but for obvious safety reasons they really aren't used much anymore.

And so now it's on to Iceland for a few days, the weather is looking reasonable so hopefully this will be a good final stop.


 

Day 344 - August 20, 2010
Michelle
Of tides, theatrics and the great chateau crawl (Mr. Hertz, can we please extend our car rental again?)
Our past couple of weeks in France have provided some extremely satisfying sight-seeing, we ended up extending our car rental twice and finishing up a week later than originally scheduled. Among other things, it's been great driving through the picturesque French countryside, full of hay bales and sunflowers. Oh, and of course stopping at a few other sights along the way.

After Mont St Michel, we spent a day exploring the two seaside holiday towns of St Malo and Dinard. They're not far away from Mont St Michel and have similar large tidal variations with some interesting artefacts that arise from this. In the course of the 2 hours that we spent on the Dinard side of the estuary, the tide went out. With this, the rows of boats tethered in the water were left forlornly beached, the boarding and docking sites for our boat back to St Malo moved sites and three nearby "islands" suddenly became accessible by newly revealed causeways. It's interesting to see how the towns have adapted to the tidal differences, using the flow to generate hydroelectricity and most ingeniously, building a simple concrete wall on the beach to create a swimming pool. When the tide is high, the pool fills up and when it goes out the wall stops the receding water and voila! there's a swimming pool.

 
One other fun thing we saw at St Malo was a tent set up where audience volunteers would be "made up" in comincal fashion by disembodied hands. It was strangely compelling to watch, and the gathered crowd seemed almost mesmerised. this speaks to something I've noticed about the French and their penchant for theatrics. We've also noticed it somewhat in the culture of French-speaking Belgium and French-Canada as well. The general public also seem to be quite happy to step up and volunteer for things and furthermore, join in with their own expressions and interctions, thus adding to the overall "show". Of course, most people around the world are amused and drawn in by fun theatrical performances, but it seems that French-speaking cultures seem to generate particularly unique and interesting forms.

In the same vein of such theatrics, we've also found that the French have embarked on some really quite zany but incredibly bold and creative, and indeed almost whimsical, undertakings. One of our most fun experiences of this was in Nantes, not originally on our itinerary but added when we read about the "Les Machines de L'Ile Nantes", a kind of museum where they create all sorts of large scale mechanical creatures and objects. The pièce de résistance at the moment is a giant mechanical elephant that you can go for a ride on - it plods around in a short loop around the museum, and can be made to spray water at onlookers and trumpet loudly. Not to rest on their laurels, the current projects of the museum include an enormous metal tree that supports plant life and that people can walk all over, and an enormous 3-layered carousel of sea creatures. On display on the museum are many of the creatures that are going to be part of the carousel, they all support several people of different sizes and shapes (good for family groups), and have all sorts of different moving parts that can be controlled in various ways by the different passengers. If you were an engineer, this would be a super cool place to work.

On our way to Nantes, we got side tracked when from the freeway we spotted some kind of festival going on in a small town below, with all sorts of tents erected. We backtracked to have a look, and found ourselves in the middle of a full on celebration of America's wild west. People everywhere were dressed up country-western style and wearing cowboy hats. Or even more, dressed up in full native American regalia (or in some cases, lack of regalia) with teepees and campfires set up. There were stars and stripes flags flying everywhere, a rodeo and a huge line-dancing tent in place. Stalls with all sorts of related things and a huge truck decked out with Route 66 paraphrenalia. At first we were wondering whether it was run by Americans as a kind of cultural exchange/promotional event, but no, everyone there was definitely French. There's obviously quite a following of this culture in France. Again it speaks to this kind of theatricism that we've noticed here in France - people getting all dressed up and really playing into the role. I did notice though, all the food stalls were still selling French-type snacks, rather than American elephant ears or corn dogs!




 



Moving on from Nantes, we headed toward the Loire Valley and stopped off to check out some troglodytes, underground dwellings dug into the earth and into caves. It was quite interesting to see some of these homes that were inhabited as late as the 1930's. We also noticed that most of the buildings in the nearby towns were built of blocks from the same tufa that was dug out the ground to create the troglodytes - it's a striking glowing white colour and quite magnificent.

We detoured for a day to visit Futuroscope, a high-tech theme park. Most of the attractions are indoors and are a mixture of virtual reality/simulation rides and large-screen IMAX or 3D shows. Just as interesting though were the park grounds, with eye-catching and imaginative architecture for all the buildings. We also saw some fun (and very theatrical) dancing robot performers and then returned later that night for the sound and light laser projection spectacle.

We then returned to the Loire Valley and its famous chateaux. We were careful about how many we visited, not wanting to get "chateau-ed out", and in the end we visited about half a dozen. Highlights among them included Villandry, with its impressive gardens; Chenonceaux, where we hired a row boat and paddled out to admire the arches of the castle spanning the river; and Chambourd, a festive riot of architectural ornamentation.

   

But the icing on our chateau cake (or should I say, chateau gateau?) was a chateau that doesn't actually exist yet, but rather, is one in the making. In another example of a slightly wacky but original and ambitious French undertaking, Guédelon is the site for a 13th century chateau that is being made using 13th century techniques, so pretty much everything is done manually. The whole project is expected to take about 28 years, so far they've been going for 13, and the building is about 1/2 way there. Everything is generated from locally available materials, so they are quarry their own stone, fell trees from a nearby forest and dig up clay and limestone from the ground. It's fascinating to wander around the site and see huge chunks of stone being chipped away at and carved by hand, clay being shaped into roof tiles, baskets of mortar being transported by pulley up an unfinished tower. It wasn't easy to get to and was quite a detour but well worth the effort, and highly recommended to anyone visiting France and has the means to get there. (Although apparently someone like the idea so much that they're doing a similar project in Arkansaw now too - a medieval castle in Arkansaw, now that would be as novel a sight as a rodeo in north-western France.)

On that high note we finished up our road trip and returned our car in Paris last night. We're going to spend a few days in and around Paris, we visited last year but didn't quite get to see everything, on our list for this visit are the chateau at Versailles and Eurodisney! After we're done here we'll have a little over a week left of our trip, which we'll most likely spend in short stops in Switzerland and Iceland.



Day 334 - 10 August 2010
Michael
Time for another road trip
Anyone who knows me well knows I'm not a fan of car travel. Spend too long in a car, either driving or as a passenger, and I get pretty crabby. Plus I can't read or use a laptop whilst someone else is driving without feeling car sick. Train travel is much nicer in these respects. But there's just some places, and some parts of the world that are best explored by car, usually because the public transport isn't quite as good, or because the sights are spread out rather than in cities or towns. France's north coast and the Loire Valley are examples. So we picked up a car in Belgium and headed for France. But before we left Belgium, we spent a couple of days seeing some sights in the country that we missed because they were harder to reach by public transport, and there were a couple of unforgettable ones.
The first such highlight was the canal lift I described in my previous post. The following day we checked out another mind-blowing piece of engineering also designed to move barges and other ships from a lower canal to a higher one. This one was called an inclined plane, and it was basically a mechanism where a giant bath tub, once again containing one or more ships, would roll down a massive slope like a train on steep tracks. First the tub docks at one end and a gateway lifts up to connect it to the canal. The ships enter, the dividing gateway drops, water in between is pumped out, and then the tub rolls down the slope very slowly, at roughly walking pace and taking about 40 minutes to roll around 1.5 kilometers. The most exhilarating experience was standing just near the tracks as it rolled past, towering above us and chugging by oh so slowly.

As we continued our drive, we reached the town of Ypres. It was here that a lot of trench fighting occurred during the First World War. The area is littered with cemeteries, including Tyne Cot the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. That evening we decided to make a dash back to Ostend to see Cirque du Soleil - we had sadly missed the show when we were in Ostend the week before and decided to return to see it. We stopped off at an Internet cafe just 2 hours before the show and purchase tickets online, opting for the cheapest category D tickets. We then drove to Ostend and arrived just 5 minutes before the show was to start. At the ticket office, we were told our tickets weren't printed yet, and with the show just about to start they gave us some spare tickets for category A seats just 6 rows from the front. Sweet! I wonder if this trick could be repeated?

The next day we drove to France. On the way we checked out one last sight in Belgium; a group of shimp fishermen who drag nets behind their horses out at sea. Today it's really just a tourist spectacle, but it was great fun to watch.

We headed along France's north coast, enjoying some spectacular scenery along the way. Since it's holiday time for the French, we're taken the approach of staying in larger, less touristy cities to make finding accommodation easier, and for this reason we spent the night in Le Havre. Actually it was a fascinating place to stay. Le Havre is a UNESCO world heritage site "for its unique architectural and urban planning based on innovative exploitation of reinforced concrete", according to the plaque in the main square. Reinforced concrete? Not your typical world heritage site then it seems. The place sure had a lot of concrete, and the layout was quite striking. Most impressive was the city's concrete church, which looked unusual from the outside but quite stunning inside.

From Le Havre we passed through several popular French sea-side towns that were seriously crowded. Deauville had some very colour beach umbrellas for rent that made for a fun photo. Then we pushed on and reached the D-day landing beaches. It was at Gold Beach that we came across the remarkable Mulberry Harbour. The allies needed an harbour in Normandy to offload all of their equipment, supplied, and men to fuel the war effort. Capturing an existing one intact was going to be nearly impossible, so instead they constructed a portable harbour which was towed across the English Channel to the coast of France. Today several fragments remain, including the remains of several of the piers as well as a ring of concrete blocks to form a barrier against the sea. From the beach, and from the nearby cliffs facing the sea, it was truly an incredible sight.

We continued on and visited some war cemeteries. The famous grave site at Omaha beach, where the Americans landed and fared quite badly, was overwhelmingly large and certainly moving. It was quite odd that approaching the cemetery it felt like we were in the US again - all of the trees perfectly trimmed and aligned in symetric rows.

Today we visited Mont St Michel, which I have looked forward to seeing eagrly for some time now. It didn't disappoint; the sight of this large abbey atop a rocky island, connected to the mainland by a causeway, was quite something. The rock is in a bay that has a massive tidal variation, and when we visited the tide was quite low so the abbey was surrounded by extensive mud planes, which was quite interesting. Getting to St Michel also proved tricky with a flood of tourist streaming in. We were a good 4km away, stuck in crawling traffic, when we decided to ditch the car and walk. As we walked, we thought somebody should set up a parking lot and bike hire scheme to help reduce the amount of traffic; it all seemed somewhat poorly set up. However approaching the rock by foot wasn't so bad, we enjoyed a stunning view of it as we made the approach. When we got there, we enjoyed exploring the island but decided to skip the hour long wait to visit the abbey itself, convinced that it probably looks much like any other abbey on the inside and that's its exterior was the real draw card.

Tonight we are in the town of St Malo. We'll probably spend two nights here, then push on towards the Loire Valley and Paris!


















Day 326 - 2 August 2010
Michael
Back to Belgium
We've been travelling in Belgium for a week now, and we're still not quite done with the place. For such a small country it sure packs in a fair bit to see! It turns out our brief stop in Brugge last year really wasn't enough.

Our first two stops in Belgium after flying from Hungary with WizzAir were Antwerp and Ghent. In Antwerp we did a fascinating boat tour of the port there, which is the fifth largest in the world (after Shanghai, Hong Kong, Rotterdam and Singapore). It was interesting to see all the different parts of the port dealing with different types of goods; containers of fruit, silos of grain, tankers of oil, etc.. One unusual sight was a group of guys manually opening a lock gate by pushing and rotating wooden poles beside it, which seems pretty old fashion compared to everything else we saw! We also checked out a lovely shopping mall that was a beautiful restored building. Ghent was nice enough, but not terribly exciting. We discovered upon arrival that we'd just missed a massive 10 day festival by one day, so the city looked a bit hung over with trash everywhere and people packing stuff up.

Next stop, we headed to the coast and stayed a couple of nights in Ostend. There were two highlights here; a huge sand sculpture exhibition and the Atlantic Wall from WW2. There were around 100 sand sculptures on display at the exhibition and the theme was sights around the world, which was quite fitting for us. We played a game in the Europe section where I had the guess the country for each cluster of sculptures, and I got them all right; although I did have a bit of trouble guessing which was Finland and which was Norway. The Atlantic Wall was quite interesting - it's not actually a wall but instead a line of defense along the coast that the Germans set up during both world wars. In WW2, the allies ended up landing further west in France, and I could see why after learning about the wall.

Next stop was Brussels. I'd heard many people are disappointed with Brussels, but for us it was fun and different enough from other classic European capitals to be enjoyable. Plus it's a great place to get accommodation in summer or on weekends, when the prices drop due to the lack of EU bigwigs. Looking at the map, I noticed we were pretty close to Aachen and suggested to Michelle we contact our friends Suzanne and Ralf to see if they'd like to catch up in Brussels, which they did! Together we had fun checking out the Atomium, the city's landmark structure which is rather impressive up close (it's huge and looks like quite an engineering feat, especially for 1958) and has funky lighting at night. Next to the Atomium is Mini Europe, which during summer is open in the evenings with a fireworks display. I took one fun photo of three famous landmarks - the Arc De Triomphe, The Eiffel Tower, and the Atomium - of which only one is real.

Another highlight of Brussels was an unusual Art Deco church that is the fifth largest church in the world. We climbed through its massive interior to the top and enjoyed a cool view over the city.

Finally, today we hired a car and left Brussels. We drove about an hour south-west to check out the fascinating canal lifts in the town of La Louviere. First we looked at a couple of smaller canal elevators that made up a series of four, built in the 19th century, to handle the altitude difference which the canal needed to traverse. Each had two giant bathtubs which the ship would enter and then raise or lower. However just 8 years ago a new elevator was built to replace all four. The thing is massive. It's the largest ship lift and raises of lowers the ships 73 vertical meters in enourmous bath tubs capable of holding a 1,300 tonne barge. Pretty staggering engineering. We then headed to Charleroi to spend the night, and also check out the amusing jet bar - a 1985 Airbus parked next to the freeway (I don't know how they got it there) that has been converted into a bar. It used to be a cafe, so we were hoping to have dinner there, but in its new bar/nightclub form we just took some photos and left.

We'll do some more sightseeing by car in Belgium over the next couple of days, then cross the border in France where the North coast, Normandy, Mont St Michel, the Loire Valley, Paris and perhaps even Euro Disney await!
















Day 318 - July 25, 2010
Michelle
Missing the gobsmack
As our travels have progressed, we've found that we're becoing harder to impress. That's not to say that things aren't pleasant or interesting, but just that they don't have the same "wow" factor as if we just on a short holiday. It's not all that surprising given how long we've been on the road and given the wide variety of things that we've seen in all of our travels over the past few years. (not that we've seen everything, not by a long shot!) It's probably natural to have some ups and downs in excitement factor. And so the last week or so of our travels, the latter part of Austria and a stop in Hungary have been like that - lacking a little in gobsmacking moments but enjoyable enough.

Our last two stops in Austria were in Linz and the Wachau valley region. Linz is the 3rd largest city in Austria, (which in a country of 8 million people is not all that large). The highlight of our stop in Linz was a great science/technology/arts museum called Ars Electronica. There were lots of hands-on exhibits and a fascinating exhibition relating to geocities, energy use and modern living. Michael had fun with an interactive camera display (see photos), and there was also a large room with a massive display where we watched huge astronomical displays and 3D projections. Cool stuff!

From Linz it was on to the Wachau valley region of the Danube River. The region is UNESCO World Heritage listed and is known for its picturesque towns and vineyards. It was all quite lovely, although again I think we have been spoilt by last year's travels in the Romantic Rhine area of Germany. One quite unusual sight we visited there in Melk was a great abbey overlooking the town. Once inside, we found the abbey had all sorts of technicolour, multimedia and special effects displays. Despite what you might think, although a little full on it was all done quite tastefully, not too tacky and it still felt true to the spirit of the abbey. Interesting to see a very effective 21st century presentation of a 300-old attraction!

From the Wachau region we pushed on to Hungary. We made a quick stop in Győr (where we visited another nearby abbey) then headed to Budapest. Budapest has been quite interesting but again didn't quite reach the heights of our expectations. That being said it is good to have visited, and does have some very picturesque spots. It actually seems like quite a liveable city with a reasonable bicycle path network, nightlife and green spaces. Perhaps it's one of those places that reveal themselves more upon spending longer lengths of time living there. I also think if we had travelled there in isolation we'd be more inclined to do things like join tours of the historic buildings, but at this stage we're quite careful about what we choose to do in that respect (there's only so many gilded rooms one can look at).

We visited the House of Terror museum, which recounts Hungary's traumatic past through the years of WWII and communism, and it is interesting to see how the country is continuing to recover from this period today. There's a lot of buildings around that are beautifully elegant but also at the same time run down and decrepit. We also visited a labyrinth of caves underneath the hillside that were been in use since prehistoric times through to WWII. The various and unusual exhibits inside included an ivy-covered renaissance-style fountain that was spurting out not water but wine. We were advised not to drink it but we had fun pretending to do so! It was also very enlightening to visit a different cave that had been put into use as a hospital both during WWII and during the 1950's - it was also prepared as a shelter in the case of nuclear fallout during the Cold War. Quite amazing to see all the infrastructure and equipment in place.









Today we're moving on from Hungary, and are heading back to Belgium and France to visit some areas that we didn't reach when we passed through last year.

Day 310 - 17 July 2010
Michael
The hills are alive with the sound of salt mines, ice caves and fortresses
I'm currently sitting on the train platform of sleepy little Overtraun, a small village on the Hallstatt lake, waiting for our train as Michelle goes in search of food. We spent one night in Hallstatt, which has been a peaceful change from the series of cities we've jumped between in the last week. Today we took a couple of sizeable cable cars up into the mountains above the lake for some hiking as well as a visit to an ice cave. The cave was similar to one we visited just a couple of days ago near Salzburg, but this one was better lit so I was able to snap a couple of nice photos. Also at the top of the mountain was a hiking trail to the Five Fingers Lookout, a rather dramatic viewing platform that juts out over the precipice.

Yesterday we came to Hallstatt by train from Sazlburg, where we had spent the previous four nights. The weather here has recently been pretty hot, so after a couple of nights in an apartment that was fairly stuffy but smack bang in the middle of Salzburg, we moved to a hotel with airconditioning closer to the station. The highlight of our visit to Salzburg for Michelle was certainly the Sound of Music cycling tour we took on the first day. Michelle forced me to watch the film on the journey there, and I'm now stuck with the songs in my head. But it was certainly good to do the tour whilst the film was fresh in our memories. It was quite remarkable how faithfully the film's scenes matched the layout of the city - I've noticed many films don't do this at all, for example with a character walking out of a building into a completely different street, then into a cafe several kilometres away. But in Sound of Music you could trace her journey from the Abbey into town and it all made sense. I filmed Michelle acting out a few of the scenes to add to the video, which was fun. Sadly the gazeebo used in the film has been locked because silly tourists would reenact the dance scene from the film and injure themselves. Probably a good idea, since Michelle would have no doubt been one of those silly tourists. At my insistence of course.

From Salzburg we did a couple of day trips. First was the obligatory trip to the salt mine which made Salzburg what it is today. Unlike the salt mine we visited in Poland, this one was less extensive, but better run and somewhat more showy (in other words, fun). The tour included entering and exiting the mine on a little train, two underground slides, and a boat trip on an underwater lake with Cirque de Soleil-style music and funky lighting. The second day trip was to Werfen, which has a ice cave and fortress. Both the Werfen ice cave and the one today were fun to visit, with a blast of literally freezing air greeting you as you approached the entrance. This made it quite a refreshing change from a 30 degree day; carrying a change of warm clothes to put on before going in was certainly essential! The caves were filled with ice due to freezing air blowing through in winter which freezes rain water that enters the cave. This can result in some pretty cool looking ice formations. The fortress above Werfen was also pretty spectacular, located on a hilltop perch over the town. The highlight of the fortress is a falconary show which is put on each day in its grounds.

Before Salzburg we visited Ljubljana in Slovenia, which was so close to Austria it was worth a quick detour. We arrived on a Saturday evening and there was lots of fun stuff going on, including a basketball tournament in the main square and various street performers. My favourite performer was a bizzare French guy who had built several quirky inventions that we would demontrate. His inventions, and his performance, certainly lacked polish but were fun nonetheless. One invention was a strange robot that breathed fire. Another was a robot that launched a balloon into the air. They wouldn't always work, and he was constantly poking and prodding them to get them going, but it was still fun. Another odd sight in Ljubljana was that of a group of young men wandering around with billboards attached to their backs - never seen that before.














Day 303 - July 10, 2010
Michelle
Not Germany, not Australia, but Austria
Our past few days have been spent in Austria's two largest cities, Vienna and Graz. We made a brief overnight stop in Olomouc in the Czech Republic but unfortunately that turned out to be less interesting than we had hoped, so we quickly moved on. The weather so far in Austria has been quite hot, so there's been lots of ice-cream quite happily consumed! Michael has also been making good use of his German here, and not just for buying ice-creams (we seem to have accumulated a good complement of different languages between us).

To the relatively uninitiated visitors as we are, at a superficial level it's easy to forget that we're actually travelling in Austria and not Germany. Besides the language, much of the architecture and various systems seem very similar (the train system eerily so). I'm sure there are differences between the two countries, but as an outsider it's not necessarily very obvious, probably a bit like Australia and New Zealand, or USA and Canada. It's also amusing to see tourist souvenirs saying "No kangaroos in Austria", obviously the Austrians have to deal with the same confusion as Australians sometimes.

Of course, Vienna is the capital of classic European culture and music, and so it seemed appropriate to make a visit to the Haus der Musik, which had all sorts of exhibits on musical elements. Besides a comprehensive overview of Viennese composers, there were also several hands-on exhibits, and best of all, an opportunity to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - well, digitally anyway.

Vienna seems to be quite a liveable city - in many ways the streetscape reminded us of Melbourne (except perhaps with more larger, older buildings). And although we didn't take advantage of it ourselves, it seems like there's plenty of musical and cultural events going on. There's a fantastic bicycle path network and we took advantage of the Vienna City Bike scheme to ride fairly cheaply between various sights. The bikes themselves weren't great quality - fairly simple and rather heavy - but they were good for getting around from A to B.





Vienna has a wondeful mixture of classical and contemporary architecture, there are some truly grand older buildings around the city, as well as wonderful palaces to see. But we also saw some wacky colourful designs by an artist in the 1980's, as well as some newer development on the northern bank of the Danube River.

In another example of mixing the old with the new, we also visited the 19th century amusement park which is still operating. The whole amusement park is very well done - it has something of a classic feel, with contemporary appeal but at the same time is not too tacky (in as much an amusement park can be not tacky). In addition to the rides themselves, there's some lovely decoration of buildings as well as ornamentation and sculptures that are both fun and reflective. We went for a spin on the 100+ year old ferris wheel, the Reisenrad and had a great view over all the different rides.

 

From Vienna we headed south to Graz, which, amongst other things, is where Arnold Schwarzeneggar comes from (now I bet you didn't know that, eh?). But that's not so much the focus of Graz, nor the reason why we went! Like Olomouc we only spent one night in Graz, but we found plenty to fill our time there. There's the remains of an old fortress at the top of a hill, where a wonderful giant clock tower remains overlooking the town. We ascended the hill by means of a fantastic elevator that has been constructed inside the middle of the hill itself. As it was Michael's birthday, we also enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant at the top.

Back down in town, there's a couple more very interesting modern constructs. One is a kind of circular island/bridge with a cafe in the middle of the river. And then there's the Kunsthaus, a contemporary museum housed in a funky building that is best described as a "space-age sea slug". It's very funky (in a good way), and even funkier at night when it's all lit up with moving lighting effects.

We're now taking a little detour from Austria and going to spend 2-3 nights in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia (pronounce the "j"s as "y" and you'll be able to say it). We've heard good things about it, so looking forward to this stop. After that we'll head back into Austria and continue our circuit around the country.

 

Day 297 - July 4, 2010
Michelle
Poland past and present
Our travels in Poland are almost over, and yesterday we said "good-bye" to Michael's parents after 2 weeks making our way north through the country together. After Wrocław we visited Kraków, Warsaw and Gdańsk, taking in the sights and history of the different cities.

As the old capital of Poland, Kraków has something of a historic feel to it with an old castle and some medieval defensive structures still in place. But aside from this, Kraków also has a very lively vibe with plenty of events and activities going on, especially now that we're starting to hit high summer. We came across a medieval festival (where amongst other entertainments they fired a small cannon), also a folk dance festival and a massive fundraiser for Africa concert in the main square. The last event seemed to be sponsored by some part of the Catholic Church and brought us one of those random unexpected highlight moments of seeing nuns bopping away to the music amongst the crowd. They weren't right up in the mosh pit at the front, but they were certainly having a good time further back in the crowd.

Just out of Kraków we also visited some salt mines dating from medieval times. The tour of the mines took us some 165 metres below the ground into some huge cavernous spaces. An impressive amount of infrastructure has been built into the mines, including chapels (for the miners to pray to their patron saints) and restaurants (for tourists to fill their bellies). There were also a lot of salt sculptures and carvings to look at as well, and our visit ended with a ride up a miner's lift!



In Warsaw we enjoyed the pleasures of wandering around the old town centre which has been reconstructed after World War II, but we were also able to take in some of the more recent architecture too - both blockish Communist and more creative post-Communist eras. One standout (for better or worse) is the Communist-era Palace of Culture and Science, apparently dubbed the "elephant in lacy underwear" by the locals, which given such a moniker, turned out to be not quite as ugly as we expected.

There was also an excellent museum about the Warsaw Rising during Nazi occupation towards the end of the war, and we were able to garner some appreciation of how tough things were for Poland in the 1st half of the 20th century, being stuck between Germany and Russia. One thing I've noticed through all of our travels, especially recently, is the great opportunity to really learn about and properly appreciate aspects of history of which previously I only very little understanding, especially most recently visited countries such as Croatia, Montenegro, Ireland, the Czech Republic and now Poland. Often I've had a kind of vague awareness of their 20th century trials and tribulations, and indeed a lot of things have happened in my lifetime, but I never really understood the history and reasons behind various events. It's all really quite an education. But travelling through these places, joining walking tours, visiting museums, seeing monuments, all help to clarify and crystallise the narrative for me.

And then finally we spent a few nights in Gdańsk, which used to be a major port for Poland. It's a lovely city in itself, with a slightly different landscape from the other Polish cities due to its harbour. One very interesting remnant of this history is a medieval crane, which was used to lift loads on and off ships and was operated by men running on the huge treadmill wheels inside the crane. Touching base with 20th century history again, we also visited nearby Westerplatte, the place that was attacked by the Germans in 1939, starting World War II. From Gdańsk we also made a day trip out to the seaside town of Sopot. Being a warm sunny Saturday, the place was packed with people. Although not a "classic" tourist sight, it was great to see the local modern day lifestyle.







Then finally today we headed out from Gdańsk to Malbork Castle, an impressive red brick fortification that was bombed heavily during WWII but is being gradually restored over the decades. We visited some rooms that were only opened in the last 3 years, if we ever go back again there'll probably be even more to see. One very fun side-sight at Malbork was the world's largest image created from...Lego! Yes, 1.2 million pieces of Lego to put together a massive picture based on a 19th century painting.

Overall our travels in Poland have been very pleasant. We've found the Polish people to be extremely friendly almost without exception, and we've also manage to cross paths and catch up with my friend Kass and Michael's friend Greg along the way. There's also been plenty of random modern art and monuments in the streets, including various monuments to Chopin (in Kraków there are painted replica pianos dotted all over the city) and Pope John Paul II. We're now heading back down south, we'll spend a night in Warsaw, then head on to dip into the Czech Republic again on our way to Austria.

   


Day 287 - 24 June 2010
Michael
Colourful former East Germany and difficult to pronounce Wrocław
From Prague we travelled by train just two hours to nearby Dresden, where we have met up with my parents and will travel with them for the next two weeks through Poland. This was my fourth visit to Germany, and Michelle's third, but the first time either of us had entered the former eastern half of the country. Dresden is certainly a beautiful city, but it's pretty much entirely a recreation since the place was completely flattened, many say unnecessarily, at the end of the Second World War. It was only five years ago that the stunning cathedral in the centre of town, surrounded by colourful buildings, was finally rebuilt. Climbing to the top was a highlight of the visit, with a great view over town as well as down into the cathedral itself during the ascent.

Lucky for us, our visit coincided with a fun festival held in Dresden each year. The event was held in dozens of streets of an entire neighbourhood and had a very communal, East German feel with lots of music and free games and activities run by the locals who had also brought their dining tables into the street for a day of lounging out and dining amongst it all. One highlight was a computer and TV screen with Frogger running on it mounted on a bicycle and set up in the street for anyone to play. Another was seeing lots of young kids who had set up little stores on the street with all of their old toys spread of on the carpet selling them second hand. There was plenty of music, a giant see-saw with a couch attached to each end, and much more other random fun stuff to see.

Before meeting up with my parents, Michelle and I did a day trip from Dresden to the Saxon Switzerland area, so called because some Swiss visitors claimed the area looked like home (it doesn't really, as far as I can tell). But the area was still impressive, with clusters of odd chimney shaped rocks jutting up from the hills. We visited the town of Bastei, where the rocks are linked by a series of bridges, before moving on to Königstein, a giant fort built on top of a rocky plateu. When we arrived, it was rather odd to be greeted by an elevator which scales the side of the fort for a quick ascent; quite out of place at an old fort. Up top was several impressive buildings and a great view over the surrounding landscape.

A few days ago we travelled on to Wrocław (pronounced Vrots-waf!) in Poland where we rented an apartment to accommodate the four of us. The town square is surrounded by lovely buildings each with a different colour and shape yet nicely uniform as well. The most popular attraction in the city is a giant panorama painting that is displayed wrapped around the inside of a cylindrical building. With such stunning detail, clever lighting, and props such as trees and wood and ground between the viewing platform and the painting it looks most realistic and almost three dimensional. Another fun aspect of Wroclaw is the gnomes. There's meant to be at least 50 of these characters placed all over town, each doing something different such as guarding treasure of riding a motorbike or in a wheelchair. We found around 10 of them, but fun could be had doing a hunt for them all.

Today we're off to Krakow, for another few days of exploring so far enjoyable - and quite cheap - Poland.















Day 281 - 18 June 2010
Michelle Marvellous Prague
We've had Prague on our "to do" list for a few years now, so we were looking forward to this stop for a while, and we were not disappointed. On arrival we checked in for 3 nights to start with but quickly decided we were going to need more - we ended up staying 8. In all of the European cities that we've ever visited, Prague rates pretty high up on the list. It's funny, because it's not like Prague is necessarily known for anything in particular, but in itself it presents a wonderful travel destination as a classic but also modern European city. So what was it about Prague that kept us engaged and delighted for so long?

Historic Prague
As we learned on our walking tour, the Czech Republic has had a long and eventful history, from medieval times and the good King Wenceslas (turns out there were several King Wenceslas'), through the Austro-Hungarian empire to Nazi occupation, communism and most recently separation from Slovakia. And yet through it all Prague has managed to come out relatively intact and with many of its historic buildings and sites in place. Walking around there are sights everywhere that reflect the different eras of Czech history. and in fact, we heard about an elderly woman who has lived in 8 different countries throughout her life but has always lived in Prague.
Prague's castle is apparently the world's largest medieval castle in the world. And it certainly is large - actually more like a large cluster of buildings with a great impressive cathedral sitting smack bang in the middle of it all. The Czech president resides there still, so we were also able to see the changing of the guards when we were there. The Charles Bridge has been in place since the 14th century and is one of Prague's biggest attractions, and it's a great sight lined with statues and full of artists, buskers and of course, tourists. There's also an impressive clock tower in the Old town square - well, impressive in the complex mechanisms by which it displays the time and date (and seasons and zodiac), perhaps not so impressive in its hourly animation that draws the crowds but is actually quite lame by our modern day standards (it helps to remember that the clock was built in the 14th century and the animation was probably quite something at the time).

We also visited the nearby town of Terezin that served as a Nazi ghetto and concentration camp. The ghetto was used by the Nazis as a propaganda model to show the Allies that the Jews were being well treated, so there were videos produced showing the Jewish people happily engaged in daily activites and ball games, which of course was not true. Interestingly, some cultural activities did take place as several high profile Jewish artists were sent to Terezin. Later we stopped by the Communism Museum and learned something of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that saw the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia.

Another day trip to Kutna Hora took us down a medieval silver mine - we donned medieval miners' outfits to go down but I don't think they had the luxury of high-powered torchlights and hard hats as we did. Nearby there's also a monastery where centuries' worth of human bones were used to decorate an ossuary in 1870, resulting in no less than 4 pyramidal structures, a chandelier and a coat of arms plus other elaborate formations. Admittedly slightly macabre but also fascinating and impressive.




Beautiful Prague
It might have helped that our first 3 days had great weather, but our first impression upon arriving and walking around Prague was that it is a beautiful city. A really truly gorgeously, gobsmackingly, stupidly, impossibly beautiful city, with cobblestone streets and rattling trams, classic Romanesque architecture, and buildings with ornamented facades and statues on top. And that was only in our street!

Prague was fortunate not to have been bombed much during the war, as a result a lot of the old city remains intact. Part of the beauty of Prague is that the classic architecture stretches a good distance beyond the city centre. We went up to several high points during our stay, and always stretching into the distance there's a sea of terracotta roofs punctuated by cathedral spires and towers. Even when we went out to the inner suburbs we found ourselves looking down on a lovely kaleidoscope of different coloured buildings clustered all around. Adding to the beauty was the music of various buskers we saw around town, often classical music (including a cello quartet, and an unusual quartet of double base, flute, fiddle and accordion). Sitting in our apartment in the early evening, hearing the strains of a single violin floating in through the window from the castle up the hill - lovely!

Quirky Prague
Prague may be a beautiful classic European city, but it also has a contemporary forward-looking nature as well. Amongst all of the historic sites we saw plenty of funky modern art and architecture around the place as well, in fact often in complement and/or reference to the more classical surroundings. For example, the a statue of King Wenceslas on his horse on the boulevard of the city has been replicated in a beautiful old shopping arcade - with the horse turned upside down. The same artist, David Czeny, was also responsible for Michael's favourite sculpture, titled "Piss", of two men peeing into a Czech Republic-shaped pool - the statues' hips and genitals swivel and move to spell out quotes from Czech literature. Gross? not so much actually, but certainly cheeky and provocative! Then there's also the giant metronome on top of a hill overlooking the city, a mirror maze and giant baby-like creatures crawling up a TV tower (another Czeny creation).

One of my favourites is a very recent installation formed from keys donated by the people of Prague - to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution when everyone came out into the streets shaking their house keys in celebration (to symbolise that they had finally gotton the keys to their own city back). We also enjoyed the "Dancing Building", designed in part by Frank Ghery and nicknamed "Ginger and Fred", it's a modern looking building but fits in well with its art nouveau neighbours. And finally, there's the Miniature Museum, a display of works by a guy who used to make microsurgery tools but now makes miniature art - think shapes like trains, cars and camels on the leg or antennae of a flea or ant. Or writing on a string of hair. Or a miniature Eiffel tower inside a seed shell 0.5cm long. As our trusty LP says, strangely compelling stuff. Apparently he has to use special breathing exercises when he makes these things - I guess otherwise they would blow away! There's also a lot sculptures not mentioned on the tourist trail, we saw plenty of random stuff just getting around town to and from various sights.

So that was Prague. The one downside of our stay would probably be that we found many of the people to be not as friendly as in other countries. That's not to say that we didn't meet any friendly Czech people (we met several), but we did have more occasions of unhelpful and/or not particularly friendly service, especially in places where you might expect it (such as information desks). Maybe it's just a cultural thing (perhaps Czechs are on average more serious than some other countries), or maybe they were just sick of dumb tourist questions (although that's kind of their job and I didn't think our questions were that ridiculous), or maybe we happened to hit a larger number of people on average having a bad day. But overall that didn't put too much of a blight on our visit, Prague remains highly recommended!
Today we move on to Dresden in Germany where we'll spend a few days and meet up with Michael's parents before we all move on to Poland together for a couple of weeks.



Day 273 - 10 June 2010
Michael
Cliffs, giant Jenga, music and broken doors in Ireland
As I write this blog, we're about to fly with Ryanair (fingers crossed) to Prague. We'll be spending a week there before meeting up with my parents in Dresden and travelling around Poland for two weeks with them.

But let's rewind a bit to our driving tour after leaving Galway. We spent another 6 days on the road and there were a few highlights. The first was the Cliffs of Moher, a much more touristy version of the Slieve League cliffs we visited the week before. They were spectacular, with the added bonus of a couple of interesting lookout towers perched out on the peninsulas. The big downside, however, is that the paths go nowhere near the cliffs with barriers keeping everyone a good 5 to 10 metres away from the edge so you can't get a good view. The Lonely Planet advised us to head to the far south end of the trail, which you'll be "discouraged" from using but takes you right along the edge. Turns out the discouragement was a big sign reading "PLEASE DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT". With the LP advising us to ignore the sign, and plenty of other tourists also doing so, we ventured on and were rewarded with some great views. Plus I snapped this lovely shot of Michelle looking up at one of the cliff side towers, both basked in the afternoon sun, that will surely be printed and go onto our wall when we get back home (where ever home may be).

Another highlight was a garden we visited in the town of Carlow. Oddly located with an industrial complex, it was constructed over 5 years and opened in 2007. It's run by long term unemployed, giving them work, and contains plenty of interesting features such as ponds, a waterfall, plenty of sculptures, and best of all outdoor chess and giant Jenga. We played a game of the later and I won, clearly having practiced more at Ash's house.

We returned the car in Dublin and spent 3 days there, seeing the sights at a leisurely pace as we awaited the next direct flight for Prague. We did a lengthy free (tips only) walking tour of the city which solidified a lot of our understanding on Ireland and its history. We also enjoyed doing a musical pub crawl; a couple of musicians led us between three pubs, played for us, and explained Irish music and musical instruments. At the end, they told us it was Irish tradition for travelling guests to sing a song of their own, to introduce the group to new music. Michelle volunteered (with a lot of nudging from me) and sung Waltzing Matilda for the group, after explain the various slang words in the song (Michelle: "Jumbuck is a sheep. Yes, jumbuck. It's not like we go around saying jumbuck to each other, it's just slang". The mostly American bunch knew the chorus so they joined in for that and despite Michelle forgetting one of the lines it went down great.

Partway through our stay in Dublin we returned to our hotel room to find the room door smashed; it looked like somebody had tried to break into the room. The bottom of the door had been smashed in, but the door had not fallen through. We quickly found the hotel manager, who checked the rest of the rooms and then called a locksmith to come and un-jam the door. He theorised (and later we realised he probably knew who it was) that a disgruntled and perhaps hung-over guest was booted out at check-out time and kicked the door in anger or retribution, but still we were keen to get into the room and check our stuff was OK. I decided it was probably a good idea to find another hotel, and scouted out an appropriate place to sleep nearby. Finally the locksmith arrived and we got into the room, to find everything was fine. The manager was very helpful and apologetic and offered that we stay the remaining two nights for free in a similar room. We decided 120 euro of free accommodation was too good to pass up (plus we liked the place) so we agreed and spent a couple more event free days at the hotel for nix.

Prague here we come!















Day 263 - 31 May 2010
Michelle
A wee trip around Eire
It's been a little over a week since we landed in Belfast, and in that time we've been working our way around the coast of Ireland by car. Our decision to visit Ireland earlier than originally planned has paid off weather-wise, with only a couple of rainy days - well, so far at least. The Irish countryside is really quite picturesque, especially in the sunshine - all along the coast there are sheep grazing in green pastures that run right up to the edge of the cliffs that overlook the ocean. We've also arrived in a season with flowers blooming in glorious yellow and purple colours.
We've found people in Ireland to be extremely friendly and amiable, staying at B&B's the hospitality has always been exceptionally warm and welcoming (well excepting one particularly grouchy woman but we'll put her down as an extreme outlier). People here are also very sociable and lovely to chat to. Although, our ears are not fully tuned into the Irish accent and they do tend to speak rather quickly, so sometimes we have to concentrate harder than usual to follow the conversation! It's been with some amusement that we have noticed that people really do say "wee" here a lot, as in "you should cross that wee bridge over there", "yes, I've got a wee car that you can hire", and sometimes even if the object in question isn't necessarily small. To us it's a novelty and sounds quite quaint, and yet so natural when spoken by an Irish person.

One slight frustration we've had with the road trip is that the Irish roads are much more curvaceous and windy than we expected, so there's been a lot more driving between sights and towns than anticipated. Fortunately with the summer approaching the days here are long (light until after 9:30pm) so we have plenty of time to get to where we're going. Also, the Irish towns are fairly congested with traffic, and many of the roads are quite narrow and one way, so often we end up going around in circles and around the blocks to get from one side of town to another. I've come to the conclusion that it's nigh impossible to drive anywhere in a direct line in Ireland!

Notwithstanding the driving distances, we've seen quite a few interesting sights so far. As already noted, the rolling pastures along the coast are quite striking. Early on we also stopped by the Giant's Causeway, an intriguing coastal rock formation of interlocked (mostly) hexagonal-shaped rock columns, formed by a geological phenomenom arising from ancient lava flows among the basalt rock. We also visited an interesting rope bridge linking a small island to the mainland, suspended several metres over the beach below.



One of the coolest things we've seen was again a last minute decision - the multi-coloured Slieve League Cliffs (apparently the highest sea cliffs in Europe), cascading down into the beautiful turquoise-coloured ocean below. Truly I have never seen an ocean or sea that colour before, and of course, there were also sheep at the top too.

There's been castles galore, as well as several ruined abbeys. Interestingly the grounds of these abbeys seem to still be still used as cemeteries, even though the buildings themselves are empty roofless shells. We also stopped off at a manor house built on the foundations of a castle that belonged to a 16th century Irish pirate queen called Grace O'Malley. The house itself was impressive, and it was also interesting to see the small amusement park on site they have set up to help finance the site. But I love best of all that she was a pirate queen who ruled the whole area, a 16th century feminist role model, actually a contemporary of Elizabeth I.

We also made a visit to some stone-age ruins of fences, not a lot more than a row of rocks lying on the ground but very interesting to learn how these findings provided information about how people lived some 5000 years ago. Also fascinating to learn about how and why the stone fences were preserved over the millenia under layers of bog and peat, and the archeological process of discovery and excavation - we have a whole new appreciation of peat and apparent layers of dirt now!

Most recently, we spent today in Galway. Galway is a lovely town with a lively vibe. The main pedestrian thoroughfare is full of colourful buildings, with people bustling through as well as bars, alfresco dining and buskers. We were there on a relatively quiet weekday, I reckon it would be a great place to be on a busy weekend or during a festival - Galway is apparently a great hub for music. Interesting to note too that Galway seemed to have a more multicultural population than other places we've seen in Ireland so far, perhaps this is related to it also being a university town.

Back in Belfast we went on a taxi tour to the neighbourhoods that were the focus of the Troubles era in Northern Ireland. Although the area has been at "peace" for some years now, there is still 5km-long wall that separates the working class Protestant and Catholic communities, with gates that are closed every night. Houses on the Catholic side that back on to the wall have protective cages to prevent damage from projectiles that might come flying over the wall. It was also interesting to see the many murals on the streets reflecting both perspectives of the divide. In Derry (as in Londonderry) a few days later we also saw several murals and visited a museum which focuses on some of the more infamous and lethal clashes that occurred there in the 1970's. All quite sobering. Like many of the countries we've visited, we were vaguely aware of the issues and history of the conflict, but it's not until we actually visit the place that the narrative actually crystallises in our minds and we actually have a clearer understanding of the whole situation and history.

It's funny to think about Northern Ireland being separate from the Republic of Ireland - again something I've only fully appreciated since being here. The divide does seem to be largely political, as most people seem to just get on with their lives. People in Northern Ireland and the Republic identify with each other and think of themselves as being from the same country. Yet the political systems and logistics such as currency used, road signs and speed limits are all different. Day to day it doesn't really make much different, but when you think about it, the situation is a little odd. It will be interesting to see how things evolve in the future.

We had a couple of other unexpected highlights in Belfast. One was visiting a science museum, which in addition to many fun hands-on exhibits, was also hosting a Wallace and Grommit exhibition. How can you not love Wallace and Grommit?! And on our very first day in town, we wandered into street to discover a television crew and cast in the process of filming a show set in Nazi Germany. It was fascinating to see the costumes and the props around the place - street signs, street posters, shop fronts all labelled in German (cleverly disguised and camoflaged onto existing shops), motorcycles with sidecars, army truck, fake German tram. We were able to get surprisingly close to the action and could appreciate the background movements of the extras to help create the scene. Needless to say, we ended up spending a much longer time out than we planned that day! But that's the beauty of travelling - you never know what you're going to see around the next corner.








Day 231 - 29 April 2010
Michael
Black Mountain and Dubrovnik
Another last minute decision that worked out well; we drove across the border from Croatia and spent a week exploring Montenegro. It's a small country, and very mountainous. Less touristy than Croatia, but still has some amazing sights. Unfortunately this can make them a bit harder to find, but the prices are a bit cheaper too.

Having the car was a great way to go, and let us explore a lot of the country easily. We could spend the night outside the bigger towns in some lovely spots for lower prices. We began our adventure in Herceg Novi, just near the border. This was a first stop on Kotor Bay, an impressive and oddly shaped bay. We hired kayaks and headed out for an exhausting 20km paddle but saw some great sights, including an old rusty shipwreck, a large cavern where a submarine used to hide during the Soviet days, and a rather neglected fort on a rocky island that's home to nesting birds which swoop at you.

The next day we continued around the bay and visited the picturesque Lady Of The Rock Island, with its pretty blue domed church. The island is man-made and each year on July 22nd the locals all boat out and dump rocks next to its shore, slowly expanding its size.

Given the sun was out, and the forecast for the next couple of days was looking grim, we decided to push on and tackle the Black Mountain itself, the mountain the country is named after. This involved a difficult but scenic drive up the side of the mountain, involving 26 hairpin turns and some tricky passing up a one lane road carrying traffic in both directions. At the top were great views and a mausoleum for one of the country's great leaders, but sadly this had just closed and we were stopped by a rather grumpy guard who probably has to stop poor tourists who arrive late every evening. We spent the night in a Yugoslav area hotel called Hotel Grand but it had clearly seen much grander days.

The next couple of days it rained quite heavily, but we still got to see some interesting sights. We visited Ostrog Monastry, which is built into two caves in a cliff face overlooking a valley 900 meters below. With clouds floating through the valley below us it was quite a sight. We also toured Lake Skadar, in the rain. Arriving in a small town we were initially told no boat trips were available, but after a bit of a bush bash I found a chap who was willing to take us out to a couple of the islands. Like us, he spent a lot of the boat journey under his umbrella. The islands have monasteries on them, and on the first we were warmly greeted by a lovely nun who showed us around - we were surely her only visitor on such a damp day.

We then headed back to Croatia via the Montenegrin coast. We past a river where fishermen have built little huts on stilts and have large nets suspended from wooden supports. It was fascinating to see such an unusual sight in Europe rather than Asia. We also drove past Sveti Stefan, a striking former fishing village on a small land mass connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. It's now a luxury hotel, and during our visit was under renovation so sadly we couldn't go inside, but the best view was definitely from up the hill above it. We also stopped in Kotor, which we had previously skipped in our rush to get up Mount Lovcen (the black mountain). The town is sandwiched between the bay and steep hills, and overlooked by walled defenses which we climbed up for views over town. Sadly the cruise ship parked out front somewhat disrupted the back-in-time feeling.

Finally, we returned our hire car in Dubrovnik and spent a couple of days exploring this dazzling town. We rocked up without a reservation and tried a few places with no luck. Then a chance encounter with lady sitting at a restaurant led to a lovely little apartment in a quiet part of the old town itself, with kitchen and all for 60 euro. The town itself is nestled in an oddly shaped bit of land jutting out into the sea and surrounded by, you guessed it, a medieval wall. You can do a full loop of the town along the wall which was certainly the highlight of the stop. We also did a kayak tour to a nearby island.

We're currently at the airport about to fly to Belfast in Northern Ireland. The flights to Ireland were cheaper then mainland Europe, and the weather looks reasonably good there at the moment so we decided to re-order our planned itinerary a bit and visit the country sooner rather than later. Certainly looking forward to this next destination, let's just hope it doesn't rain too much.

















Day 244 - 12 May 2010
Michelle
Cruising through Croatia
I love the mental shift that occurs when we've been in a country for a little while and all of a sudden we find ourselves feeling comfortable with the way things work and really enjoying the place. Not that we haven't been enjoying it already, but more just that things take on a certain familiarity, or the sights suddenly step up a notch, or a combination of both. Whatever the reason, it feels like we really "get" the country and have absorbed some sense of what it's like here (as much as we can in a short visit).

And so it has been in Croatia over the past few days as we've driven further along the coast and visited numerous small towns and cities. We've settled into the rhythm of operating in the country, negotiating the traffic and interacting with the locals. On the whole, we've found the Croatians to be fairly serious in demeanor but certainly not unfriendly and indeed very helpful. They are also generally quite relaxed, enjoy their ice-creams and don't worry too much about a little bit of short change here and there in business transactions.

It's hard not to draw comparisons with other part of Europe that we've seen, especially and Greece. The Croatian towns, with largely grey stone buildings, are perhaps not as eye-catchingly beautiful as the whitewashed Greek Islands, or the colour of the Cinque Terre or Amalfi Coast of Italy. However, they do have their own charm with paved and cobblestone streets in typical European style. Pretty much every town has a lovely bell tower or clock tower, or both. There's a certain Italian flavour in the air (and it's not just the ice-cream), although a little more laid back. It's not all that surprising since Italy is just across the Adriatic Sea, which might I mention, is also every bit as gorgeous and sparkling crystal clear as the Mediterranean. What's also striking is that there's also a lot of buildings looking run down and somewhat dilapidated. We're speculating that this may be in part due to the Balkan wars, where various buildings may have been damaged or abandoned and economic circumstances may not allow for repairs yet.



What I really like about the Croatian old town centres is that we often see locals going about their daily business as much as we see tourists. There's also plenty of washing hanging out the windows and across the streets. This does somehow feel different and perhaps more "authentic" than other parts of Europe that we've visited previously where tourists tend to dominate the landscape more. I wonder whether this will change as Croatia becomes more established as a tourist destination in the coming years.

Speaking of tourists, it's interesting to note the demographic of the tourists we're seeing here. The typical tourist here seems to be a middle-aged German-speaker. we've seen very few native-English speakers but plenty of continental Europeans and also more Japanese (we notice a definite correlation between the number of Japanese tourists and UNESCO World Heritage sights). It may just be the season, and certainly as we've hit more tourist hot spots heading south we've seen more English-speaking groups, but it seems like a large core of tourists here are European. There's also lots of yachts and leisure boats along the coast - it seems that Croatia is something of a yachties' paradise.
As we've been tracking down the coast the last few days, it's been great having the rental car. It gives us a lot more flexibility, as we can make impromptu stops along the way if we see something cool from the road (mills, forts, even an arboretum). It also also allows us access some places that would be a lot trickier to reach by public transport. Some of our highlights from the past few days include:

  • Skradin, a little village tucked into a bay from which we made a day trip to the Krka National Park. The National Park itself was interesting, with more waterfalls and traditional mills. However, Skradin itself was simply charming and the people there seemed especially friendly
  • Trogir, a medieval town that's crammed onto a small island with a stunning bell tower that gives magnificent views over town. Also a great fortress at the end of the island which gives great views back the other direction.
  • Ston - this was one of those impromptu stops made when we saw an enormous wall winding up the hillside from the other side of the bay. Turns out that it's Europes longest medieval fortification, and we were able to walk along part of the wall, again for a great view over town. We also came across one of the fort buildings where a some workers were excavating the earth inside the fort. One would use a small bulldozer to dig up the earth and dump it into a wheelbarrow, which would then be wheeled about 10 metres and emptied into a box, which was then winched up the wall by 2 more guys and then dumped over the other side down a chute. It was quite a process - clearly they're limited by the constraints of the building structure, so it looked like quite a long-winded process.

    And then there was Split, which is Croatia's 2nd largest city (but still only about 170000 people) and I'm guessing Croatia's 2nd largest tourist city. Split's main attraction is the city centre itself, which has been built up around and on top of the remains of a Roman palace that was built in the 4th century as a retirement home for a Roman Emperor. Much of the Roman basic infrastructure remains, due to the ongoing habitation of the city. For example, in the Middle Ages the Christians came and turfed the emperor's body out of the mauseoleum and converted it for their own uses, resulting in a very distinctly octagonal-shaped cathedral. The city gates are still more or less intact, making for an impressive entrance way. There's also the basement halls - the underlying substructure that were built as a foundation for the Roman palace. These great big huge halls are very well preserved, mainly because during the Middle Ages people living above would drill holes in the floors of their houses and throw all their rubbish down. It wasn't until post-WWII that the halls were cleared of all the rubbish, and there's even some sections today that can't be cleaned out because the foundations of the house above are too close (you can see the floorboards and sewer pipe running along there)!

    One final highlight of Split was hearing a group of men performing Klapa, a traditional form of Croatian singing. I love hearing men's choruses - so rich in texture, and this was simply a delight to listen to. They were located in a round stone-walled vestibule with no roof, so an amazing acoustic. We went back a couple of times to listen to them, and we soon had their act sussed out. Every 10 minutes or so a tour guide would lead a group of tourists into the vestibule, the men would perform 2 songs and hope to sell a couple of CDs. Performance over, the tourist groups would shuffle on while the men had a 5 minute break for a quick smoke, phone call or other stuff. It was all very amusing to see, but who could blame them for cashing in on the tourist flow? And it certainly added to the whole experience of the place.

    Tomorrow we leave Croatia for a few days and head into neighbouring Montenegro. Then we'll return for Dubrovnik, which supposed to be the jewel in Croatia's crown








  • Day 239 - 7 May 2010
    Michelle
    From Zurich to Zagreb to Zadar
    It's been a week since we arrived in Zurich for the second European leg of our travels. In the past week we've experienced some mixed responses to being back in Europe having just left Asia. On one hand, we miss the constant hustle and bustle of Asia - there's always something interesting going on somewhere, and the cultural differences are fascinating. By contrast the European street scene can sometimes seem a little dull. I think part of this is due to the fact that there are so many people in the streets all the time in Asia, whereas some of the places we've visited during the weekdays in the last week have just been quiet. On the other hand, European cities are so pretty - much less concrete-bunkerish than Asian cities, cycling along the church-lined river in Zurich felt so "classic Europe". There's also a clarity in the air here that you don't get so much in Asia due to haze/air pollution/dust/humidity, and after China it's nice to have cars actually stop for us at pedestrian crossings.

    We're now in Croatia. We spent a brief day in Zurich where we took in the main town centre. We happenstanced across a guy tightrope-walking over the main lake of town and a beach volleyball competition in the middle of the main train station. It was also nice to catch up with Michael's friends Yaniv and Chloe for dinner. With an eye to the weather forecast (rain rain and more rain), we then fled east to Croatia on a 12.5 hour train journey through the Austrian Alps, which are still as stunning as ever.

    Our first stop in Croatia was the capital, Zagreb. We enjoyed exploring the old town, more "classic" European architecture (you can tell it's been a while since we've been in Europe when the architecture still feels like a novelty). For a capital city, Zagreb actually feels quite compact, low-key and not so grandiose as other capitals. Highlights of the sights there included a lovely cemetery, a funicular that is the world's shortest passenger cable railway and a church with a splendidly tiled roof.

    From Zagreb we hired a car which we're using to make our way down south through the country. Our first stop on the road was the Plitvice Lakes National Park. But first, on the way to the Lakes we came across a small village that was built on top of a set of waterfalls, with water rushing beneath and through the houses. There were also some watermills, where the force of the falls are used to grind corn - really cool stuff to see and a lovely lunch spot. Plitvice Lakes itself is a wonderful sight, and really quite unique amongst anything we've seen before. A series of impressive waterfalls that spill down several levels from lake to lake, there's water rushing everywhere. The infrastructure is quite well set up, with boardwalks that took us right down to the level of the lakes, at the foot of the waterfalls and in some places over the waterfalls where we could see the water gushing down just inches below our feet. Added to this, the water was marvellously crystal clear and an amazing emerald-green colour, it was all really quite spectacular!

    Continuing on, we visited a couple of islands off the coast of Croatia - Rab and Pag. These are apparently popular summer destinations, but at the moment they are still fairly quiet. On both islands we explored a little by bicycle and enjoyed our first samples of Croation ice-cream - delicious! and dare I say it, may even rival the Italians. (Side note: we've noticed quite a few shops, buildings and tourist sights with signs indicating "no ice-cream allowed". Given the number of people we've seen eating ice-cream, including whole classes of school kids and a receptionist who greeted us at a hotel, we can see how this might be necessary. Ice-cream seems to be a national pastime here, we fit right in!)

    And finally, last night we arrived in Zadar, a small city about mid-way down the Croatian coast. We're staying in the pedestrianised old town, which has a lovely atmosphere. Indeed, Zadar has a lively buzz and activity about it that we have not noticed so much in other places we've visited so far in Croatia, there were plenty of people wandering around town and dining out last night. Last night we enjoyed a beautiful sunset along the seaside promenade with - wait for it - a sea organ. You can't see anything, but there's a series of underwater pipes that are driven by the motion of the waves to produce sonorous sounds that are haunting and hypnotic. Obviously this appeals to my sense of both the quirky and musical. We're looking forward to seeing more of Zadar today - once again we've hired bicycles and will hopefully have fun peddling around and taking in the city.







     



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