Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When in Roma...

We arrived in Rome on a grey afternoon, having caught the train down from Florence, so decided there was nothing for it but to spend the evening in with a home made risotto [hoorah for Italy, where arborio is the cheapest rice you can buy :) ] and some local vino rosso...
But when the sun came out the next morning, we were off, and it still doesn't quite feel real to say that we headed first for the colosseum.. The largest ever built, nearly 2000 years old, and once capable of holding 80,000 people, there is nothing you can read to prepare for being able to stand in the middle of this very real piece of very ancient history. Of course only a fraction of the stadium still stands complete, and the tourist camera flashes everywhere help to destroy any illusions of ancient grandeur, but it is still a phenomenal feeling to walk around the seats where the wealthy would have sat and watched, and to look down at the arena, where half a million people [and over a million animals] lost their lives. Though one of the more amazing things about Rome and the colosseum, is that just when you're lost in thinking how awe inspiring it is to be where you are... you look across the street and there is the Palatine Hill...from where you look down and see the remains of the Roman Forum... and then there are small ruins that literally just sit beside traffic lights at intersections and the Romans pay them not the smallest bit of attention... and two Kiwis a long way from home just have to sigh with the incredulousness of it all and try to take it all in.

And of course, Rome is also full of slightly less ancient, no less impressive sights to see...

We stopped at half a dozen further churches, each as amazing as the last, kind of bemused to note that half of them aren't even marked on tourist maps as worth checking out - there are just too many beautiful buildings here. The Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, designed to commemorate the first King of the unified Italy is an imposing sight, covered with statues and sculptures, and holding the Italian 'tomb of the unknown soldier'... the basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in Rome, and is adorned with some of the more spectacular mosaics we have seen... and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was an absolutely massive building, it was once palace to the Popes after the return from Avignon, and a number of popes are buried here...

So once we thought we couldn't be impressed by another church, we did the obvious: we went to the Vatican :)

Occupying only 110 acres, the Vatican City is the smallest state in the world, both in terms of population [around 900] and area. The obvious attraction here is St Peter's basilica, a mammoth church built in the 16th century, and one of the most famous churches in the world. With a capacity of over 60,000, stepping inside [after standing in line and being examined to make sure we had the appropriate amount of skin covered on a scorching roman morning..] was like stepping into another world. The massive dome is over 135m high, and it's internal diameter is the same... looking up it is really hard to imagine the enormity of it, until you see people moving about in the upper levels of the dome, and you can see how tiny they appear! The interior of the main body of the church is also intense and somewhat overwhelming. The fact that Michelangelo Buonarotti assisted in the design might explain a bit.. :) The gold and marble and immense space and light from the high windows all combine to make this a truly holy experience. And add to that the amazing art adorning the walls, and a chance to glimpse Michelangelo's 'Pietà'... unfortunately through her history since 1499 various vandals have caused damage to the priceless sculpture, so it is now only viewable behind bulletproof glass. Though we were of course surrounded by hundreds [thousands?] of other travellers, pilgrims and locals, it is impossible not to feel moved when standing in the centre of the greatest church in the world.

After leaving the basilica, feeling quite exhausted and outdone by all the holiness and splendour and size, we planned a quiet contemplative walk back to the centre of Rome. But on our way across the magnificent St Peter's square outside the church, we heard a cannon fire and the small crowd gathered started to applaud. Expecting some kind of demonstration, we turned around and followed the noise.... only to look up to the sky and see the outline of a small old man, dressed all in white, visible in one of the high windows of the Apostolic Palace.. and we were witnessing a Papal address. I was thrilled to be able to understand snippets of what was said in Italian, and he followed this up with English, then proceeded to ask the gathered crowd, in French, whether there were any French in the audience [cue: loud cheers and waving of French flags] and gave a brief address in French. Spanish and German followed. It was amazing to see this figurehead, so often mentioned, so rarely seen - in the flesh, and to see him interact with a crowd of hundreds in half a dozen languages. To walk into St Peters was a once in a lifetime experience. It's almost a shame that it was superceded so quickly by an even greater one...

To finish of our Roman sojourn, we walked to the famous Spanish Steps, climbing from Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Trinità dei Monti. These eighteenth century steps form the longest and widest staircase in Europe, and have been climbed by millions of tourists over the years. Though apparently it is illegal to eat your lunch sitting on them... and also to drive down them, as a drunk Colombian man found out when he drove his Toyota down the steps in 2007...
Finally, we stopped at the beautiful Fontana Trevi, the largest [of many] fountain in Rome. This massive Baroque masterpiece is simply stunning, and is a real sight when lit up at night. One of many traditions to have arisen is that if a visitor throws a coin over their shoulder into the fountain, they are guaranteed to return to Italy one day... and over 3000 euros are collected out of the fountain each night, so they're on to a good thing!
But of course, we took part, as from what we've seen so far - we definitely want to come back for more.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Italian style, and why they do it best.

After the natural wonder that was the Cinque Terre track, we headed down the country a little further to start soaking in some of the many man-made wonders tha Italy has to offer in beautiful Firenze.

Our hostel had a roof top terrace with a slice of view of the magnificent duomo, so after admiring it from a distance, that seemed like a good place to start.. This thirteenth/fourteenth century cathedral is like no other.. and I'm amazed that we can still say that after all the churches in Europe we have seen :) But with it's distinctive nineteenth century façade of white, green and red marble, and amazing octagonal brick dome, it realy does look like nothing else. The dome is still the largest masonry dome in the world. The interior of the cathedral is relatively sparse and simple, but there are some fantastic pieces of art adorning the walls, and the interior space is simply massive. The cathedral forms such an amazing centrepiece in a city overloaded with exceptional architechture and sights. The eleventh century baptistery building with it's ornate bronze doors and the campanile looming overhead right beside the duomo help make the cathedral square area even more imposing and impressive.

Next stop: Piazza della Signoria, with the awesome Fountain of Neptune outside Palazzo Vecchio - the town hall of Florence, with a copy of Michelangelo's 'David' at the entrance. The square also functions as an open air museum, and as our time and funds were both limited, was our only chance to spy the gems of the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world's great art collections. In the square we could get up close to original sixteenth century sculptures such as Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa", and Giambologna's "The Rape of the Sabine Women"... it was so fantastic that these works of art were available for free public view!

The next must-see sight in Florence was the Arno river, and the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge spanning it. This fourteenth century bridge is one of only a handful in the world to still have shops lining both sides, as was common in medieval times. They were once butchers but now the bridge sparkles and shines with high class jewellers and gold merchants. Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge to have survived bombing of Florence in World War II, and it feels like you are part of history to cross it.

We also visited a small museum claiming to be built on the site of Dante Alighieri's home, and the church [apparently] which he attended, and where he first spied his muse Beatrice. Authentic or not, this was a great experience for me after spending years reading his works and hearing tales of his history...

Finally we felt we had to view Florence from above to get a real overview of this amazing city, and made our way up towards Michelangelo park up on a hill above the city, where we saw the beginning of sunset over the historic skyline.

It makes so much more sense now, why so many have fallen in love with this city, and we still have so much more to see and do here that we will certainly be back... one day...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The sight that made all the travel struggle fade from memory...

After our French sidetrack, it was time for the next big main event... our first trip to Italy. And once again, the efforts of border crossing seemed to be not so simple as they seemed. We trained from Avignon to Nice, and from Nice to Ventimiglia, just inside the Italian border... arriving by midday due to getting up at 5am in Avignon to make sure we made good time... and so, with five hours before our hostel closed for check in [at 5pm - somewhat ridiculous, but 'when in Rome'..] we had just 250km of rail track to go to our destination, Riomaggiore. At which point, we consulted the timetable, discovered that it was, in fact, a Saturday [who knew?] and that the fastest, most direct train we could get left just after 1pm and would deliver us to our destination some time after 7:00. Hmmph. So, after a quick re-plan, and a little more than a moment's panic, we changed route and headed for Genova for the night. And here is where we found out how our original planned journey would have failed... our train stopped, on average, over a four and a half hour journey... once every six minutes. Not cool. Seriously not cool.

But we arrived safely in Genova, and, determined not to let our first experience of Italy turn into a negative one, we hunted down the best available accommodation when arriving in a city sans booking, after 5pm on a Saturday night... and went exploring. Genova felt like a city of wealth, the buildings lit up with beautiful soft lighting, and groups of well-dressed people pouring in and out of theatres and hotels along the streets. Still, we did our best not to stick out too badly, wandering past the Piazza de Ferrari, the main square outside the opera house, with a very cool fountain, and down the main pedestrian street, Via Garibaldi, through the old town. This district is on the UNESCO world heritage list, and was quite different to much of what we had seen thus far. Most of the buildings were designed in the 16th century for the wealthy ruling families, and we were told that several of the houses facing each other across the street were built specifically in a show of 'one-upmanship' between feuding families. We didn't have the time to do the city justice, but what we did see was impressive, and saved the detour from being a complete disaster.

The next morning we planned to get up and get going early, then managed to do both an hour earlier than planned due to forgetting that daylight savings was ending... oops... but happily ended up in Riomaggiore by 9:30 in the morning. After checking in we strapped on our walking shoes, filled the bag with lunch and set off for the main reason we stopped in this part of Italy: the Cinque Terre walking track. And within five metres of the entrance, all the stress, the early starts, the long train journeys, the uncomfortable waits at stations.... it all disappeared from memory, because we were standing looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, pure, blue and shining in the sunlight, and it would take a hard person to fault that view.

The path is traversed by thousands of visitors every year, but our run of good luck continued and the track was pleasantly empty. As we were staying in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, we took the track north, which starts out as easy as a stroll in the park, a nice wide, paved, gently winding path leading the way to the second village, Manarola. This stretch is known as the Via Dell'Amore, as you can imagine taking a leisurely romantic stroll between the two clifftop villages. Step two wasn't much tougher than the first, though the final ascent to Corniglia was a winding set of 368 stairs. That's when it really got interesting. The path to the next village, Vernazza, was a whole lot steeper, a whole lot narrower, and a whole lot more winding. And when, about an hour and a half later, we finally made it.. we found out that the path from there to Monterosso was the steepest and most challenging... Oh. The path went from standing by the sea in Vernazza to 150m above sealevel in the space of about 10 minutes walk.. then dropped another 40.. gained another 60.. you get the idea. On top of that, the path [two-way path] at times was no bigger than a foot wide, with a sheer cliff up on one side, and sheer cliff down on the other - no handrails. The path winds between olive groves and vineyards and at times felt quite like trekking in New Zealand bush.. But finally we emerged in Monterosso, after a spectacular descent into the bay, dipped our feet in the Mediterranean, and congratulated ourselves on a job well done :)

A race against time and the French train system...

So, leaving San Sebastian, we attempted to cut across France to make our way to Italy, final destination of this mad month of travel... We made the border crossing into France very easily, then attempted to make our way across the country to Carcassonne. Looked like a fairly straight line to us... but from Hendaye [on the Spanish border] we got sent north to Bayonne, further north to Bordeaux, then across to Toulouse, and finally on to Carcassonne itself... all of which took about five hours and 350-ish extra kilometres than if we were allowed to plan our own, considerably more direct, route. But after a tiring day fighting the French train system, followed by an hour long walk into the industrial zone of the town [and here we were thinking it was all medieval and pretty, not just a French version of Albany!] we made it to our accommodation by 10pm, just in time to be told that there was nowhere in town open to sell us anything for dinner, unless we wanted to head to the McDonalds across the carpark.... not, exactly, what you would call the best introduction to the beauty, enchantment, history and cuisine that the south of France is world famous for...

But we got up the next morning, refreshed and ready to go, and headed to the fortified city. Perched on a hill, this place is simply stunning even from a distance. It really looks like a true castle, but when you reach it, it's even better because it is actually the remains of an entire fortified city, with inner and outer walls and houses and alleyways and all that was necessary to run a town in...the middle ages.. or something. With turrets and high walls and arrow slits and towers all around, it's a quite spectacular experience. The city was technically struck off the list of official fortifications by Napoleon, but due to public outcry, demolition didn't get very far - thankfully! Otherwise, what would they have used as a set for that great work of art 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves'? ;)

Following on from Carcassonne we travelled to Avignon, a picturesque medieval city on the bank of the Rhône river, and former official Papal residence in the fourteenth century. The main sight here was obviously the Palais des Papes or Palace of the Popes, a great hulking gothic building built on a natural rock formation in the mid-fourteenth century, with 5.5m thick walls and taking up over 2.5 acres...
And, as those stats might imply, it was suitably impressive. Avignon was a town of no account prior to it's selection as the new home of the papacy due to unrest and threats facing the Pope in Rome. And ever since, it has been able to dine out on the seven Popes who made it their home, and the legacy they left behind... The palace is vast and imposing, the largest gothic palace in Europe, and contains several chapels with original wall paintings superbly preserved from the 1340s. We were able to walk up to some of the top ramparts and get a spectacular view over the city, including the almost-equally-famous Pont Saint-Bénezet.
This was originally a bridge which spanned the Rhône and provided a crossing between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the left bank of the river, built in the twelfth century. Unfortunately, the river moved a bit fast for their twelfth century architechture, and the bridge kept collapsing.. and they kept rebuilding it.. again and again.. till a flood in 1668 really walloped it and swept most of the bridge away, at which point it was given up as a lost cause. So now there are only four of the original twenty two arches of the bridge standing, jutting out into the river, making it a real 'bridge to nowhere'.

We also went for an evening walk to watch the sun set and see the bridge, palace, and city walls in the evening light, and it finally became clear just why so many people talk about retiring to the south of France for a life of luxury and relaxation. Avignon is a perfect picture-postcard example of all things quintessentially laid back [in that special 'French' kind of way..] maybe give us another 40 years [and some mysteriously large windfall]...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sunny San Seb...?

After an intense time in Barcelona, we retreated north to the coast for some relaxation in San Sebastián. Unfortunately, the weather decided not to go along with our plan, and sunny San Sebastián was anything but...
Still, it was a lovely place to relax, and definitely worth a visit. We did a walk around the many churches in town, though unfortunately most of them were either closed to visits, or under reconstruction... but we did make it inside the city cathedral, which was an amazing gothic church, complete with dark imposing spires.. and some pretty impressive stained glass windows inside. We also went in the Iglesia San Vicente, which is the oldest remaining church in San Sebastián.
And of course, no matter what the weather, you can't take a trip to San Seb without a walk along the beach, which was, conveniently, a one minute walk from our hostel. We sat on the raised boardwalk along the side of the beach one night, listening to the quiet sounds of the waves on the shore and enjoying a fine sub-euro Spanish red.... and decided that relaxation could be defined, just like that.

Magnificent Barcelona

Barcelona was one of the most highly anticipated stops on this trip, and it really didn't disappoint.
We were staying in a hostel half way up a mountain on the outskirts of town, and got our first shock when we were told that it would be impossible to walk into the city centre because of the wild pigs, foxes, snakes and [!] farmers in the bush... interesting.....
But we quickly turned our attention away from the frightening wildlife [got to watch out for those Spanish farmers!], and on to the more exciting, though no less strange, local attractions. First stop was Parc Güell, designed 1900 to 1914 by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona's most famous son. The park is simply mindblowing, with crazy Gaudi mosaics, buildings that could well be made of gingerbread, twisting tree-like columns... the whole place puts you in a good frame of mind to build up for Gaudi's most ambitious, and as yet unfinished, project, the epic Sagrada Familia.
Though construction started in 1882, even the most ambitious estimates predict that it will take nearly another 20 years to complete. The church is following Gaudi's designs, based on images from nature, and lots of crazy complex geometry... he had a ridiculously intense maths brain, and the designs look visionary and futuristic now... yet Gaudi started the drawings in the 1850s, and died in 1926... So, armed with all that knowledge, we headed for the spires sticking dauntingly up above the Barcelona skyline, ready to be blown away...
.. And it worked. Standing inside the main nave of the church, surrounded by massive towering pillars and columns, astounding vaulted ceilings, and the most intense stained glass windows ever.. it's impossible not to feel moved. The epic detailing on the facades, the amazing colours in the windows, the way Gaudi plays with shadows, with light, with darkness... you can understand how this masterpiece is 130 years in the making. Even though our little camera got a serious workout, it just doesn't feel possible to capture the essence of this place [evidence on facebook of our best attempts anyway...]
We took the lift up and wandered the awesome winding staircases and narrow paths which let you get a close up look at some of the towers, the windows and the detailing higher up.. and it would have been so easy to get lost up there, and spend a whole day [or more!] just being amazed...
But we had more to see and do so had to drag ourselves away. Still, it would be fantastic to make it back one day once construction is completed... put that on the list!
We walked down the Ramblas, Barcelona's main shopping/pedestrian street, and it was one of the more interesting main streets we have seen across Europe for street performers and street art.. so much so that we actually stopped and 'commissioned' a painting, which we then had to lug around France and Italy for the next few weeks... [it was worth it!]
At the end of the Ramblas there were some quite cool market stalls, the waterfront, and the Mirador de Colon - a great big tower with a statue of Christopher Columbus at the top, pointing out over the harbour.
Next on the list was the Barri Gòtic, or old quarter of town, including the church of Santa Maria del Mar, which is a fourteenth century church that was built on the seaside, now hemmed in with narrow streets and is a beautiful, imposing gothic building. The Barri Gòtic is full of tiny, labyrinthine streets, and enclosed alleys that could feel imposing or threatening if they weren't just so beautiful! We also stopped by Barcelona's Arc de Triomf, and had a look at Barcelona zoo, though we didn't have time to visit.
A final interesting landmark in Barcelona's city centre is the Torre Agbar, which anyone who has been to London will probably refer to as the Barcelona Gherkin as it is startlingly similar to the Swiss Re Tower in central London. The Torre Agbar though, is actually a lot prettier than the Gherkin, covered with 4,500 LED lights which are programmed to make some stunning visual effects, especially at night.
Barcelona has so much to offer, the city itself is big, bustling, a pumping big-city mechanism, but the unique sights give it an enchanting feel that few other cities of that size are able to produce. In our limited time we managed to wring a lot of fun out of the city, but it definitely goes on the re-visit list... so maybe if those in charge of Sagrada Familia ever manage to lay the last stone, we can manage to get ourselves back to Spain to see it...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

They took our cup, but they couldn't take our spirit: Conquering Valencia.

Next, and more substantial stop on the itinerary was sunny Valencia, home of the America's Cup, one of the longest central city parks ever, and quite possibly the strangest set of buildings in the world...
We started our touristing by visiting the Torres de Quart, which, until the mid-nineteenth century formed part of a city wall, and now is just a cool old tower/fortification. From there, we rolled through the central food market, though were pleased/disappointed [depending on which way you want to view it] to find no bunches of hanging carcasses this time.
Made our way to the Cathedral, which dates from the thirteenth century, and *supposedly* holds the chalice used at the Last Supper, used by a number of popes over the years.. Not that we saw anything of said relic though, of course... so we just admired the amazing interior instead, not so crazy and intense and over the top as some we have seen recently, but gave it more of a feeling of calm inside. Also mighty impressive from outside, as the Cathedral was completed over a number of centuries and so is a real mix of styles, mostly Gothic, but a bit of Neoclassical and Baroque, together with a smattering of remains of the old Visigoth cathedral that stood on the site prior to the current building's construction...
After the Cathedral we went for a very long and very strange walk through one of the most distinctive features in Valencia, the many-kilometre long park that runs through the city in the bed of a dried up river which was diverted after severe flooding in the 1960s. Passing many playground, fountain, and wandering dog, we made it to the "ciudad de las artes y las ciences de Valencia" [or City of Arts and Sciences] - quite possibly one of the more ambitious architectural projects we have ever seen.. It is made up of four main parts, the first you pass is 'L'Umbracle', shaped by 55 fixed arches and 54 floating arches covered in climbing plants, which covers 7,000 square metres... the 'El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía' is a giant eye shaped performance arts centre...
then comes 'Hemisferic', a giant dome containing an Imax theatre... eventually you get to 'L'Oceanogràfic', a giant open-air ocean park, the largest complex of it's type in Europe, and containing 45,000 animals from 500 different species... But really, the most impressive thing is the buildings themselves, regardless of what they hold - they are crazy huge constructions of glass, steel, bizarre angles and lots and lots of water... an absolute engineering nightmare to construct, I'm sure, but spectacular to behold now!
Our final port of call was the harbour itself, and the America's Cup village it holds there, since those nasty Swiss stole it from us.. The village itself felt rather desolate and empty, but that would be the case with nothing going on... I imagine it positively hums in race season. And we got to see a few giant framed, signed photos in the America's Cup exhibit centre, including our friends Grant Dalton and Dean Barker, but not that traitor Russell Coutts... though I'm not sure he isn't happier with his millions of dollars than he would be with a photo on a wall in a building no-one seems to visit in a coastal Spanish town.... still, we know something about national pride! :)
Outside and around the village was what will be used for the Valencia edition of the F1 Grand Prix, though it also looked rather sad with the odd car just puttering along in no particular hurry...
Anyway, we walked till we couldn't walk any more, and while the only kiwi-related site we have seen in a long long time wasn't exactly thriving, it was very cool to be able to say we have been there...
And now for more touristy times... off to busy Barcelona :)

History, religion, castley goodness - One day in Granada.

After Seville, we had a superspeedy stopover in Granada, home to the most-visited monument in Spain, the Alhambra.
The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex of the Moorish rulers in Spain, begun [they think] in the 9th century, and completed in the fourteenth century [though modified plenty since then..] Anyway, anyone looking for a history lesson can find it at ...
It just has to be seen... the name means 'red castle', and was meant to be because it was built on red clay... but now the walls and fortifications themselves appear red, though they were once whitewashed. The sheer scale of the site is completely daunting, covering over 140,000m squared area... and walking around it it feels every bit that big. Simple though it may sound, what got to us was the sheer 'castle-ness' of it all... irrelevant/unexciting if you have grown up in an area steeped in centuries and centuries of history, but to two [literally, at times] lost kiwis 20,000km from home, it was mind-blowing. The history that this site has seen, the destructive forces it has withstood, and those that it did not make it through - as evident in the many ruined/collapsed bridges/former buildings around.
In an attempt at shortest post in some time, we'll leave it there... awe-inspiring, larger than life, and oozing history all over the dusty red clay - whatever hassle it takes to get to Granada is worth it just to say you've been.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sunny, super, Seville - yah, Spain!!

Well, our Spanish experience didn't get off to the greatest start, when we got entirely confused, and planned on catching a train from Lagos to Seville... which, it turns out, you can't...
So, we got a train from Lagos to Faro [the 'capital' of the Algarve region], then waited two and half hours for another train to Vila Real de Sao Antonio, where we found two Australians who shared a taxi with us to a ferry terminal, where we caught a ferry across the Portuguese border into Spain [who knew there was water there?], then a taxi across town to the bus station, where we made the last bus by about 20 seconds, caught a bus to Huelva, and then a bus from Huelva to Seville....all of which taking about 10.5 hours... then a walk to the hostel... by which stage we were somewhat tired, though slightly bemused by just how many forms of transport we had managed to use in one day..
Anyway, the point is, whatever it took, it was more than worth it, because Seville is a simply stunning city, and everything anyone could want for a first introduction to life in Spain.

The city is [as so many are, we have discovered] built on the banks of a river dissecting the city centre, and we began by visiting the huge daily fresh food market with a lovely New Zealand couple [from Ekatuhuna, of all places!], who we had met in our hostel. As an aside, I find it interesting, that considering well over a quarter of the New Zealand population live in Auckland, we have been travelling for just over five months, and have met a grand total of five other kiwis [general rabble at the Walkabout for rugby matches not included], being one from Hamilton, one from the Hawkes Bay, one from Rotorua, and now two from Ekatahuna...
Anyway, the market was huge and impressive, as we have found most European food markets to be. Probably the most entertaining thing, however, was the fact that one of the meat stalls [of which there were many] had bunches, yes, bunches, of fresh, unskinned, fluffy looking rabbits hanging from the front of the stall. Which, as Antony pointed out, wasn't so bad. But then there were the bunches of feathery pigeons beside them... and the pheasants... all hanging by their feet from the front of the stall - quite possibly one of the strangest food-selling situations we have encountered. But then, around the corner was the little Spanish lady with a vat full of live snails, who she seemed to spend her time chasing back into their hole when they inevitably tried to escape.... Needless to say, we didn't make any purchases that day...

After the market we crossed the river and headed over to the historic city centre, first swinging by the Torre del Oro, which was originally a military watchtower, and got it's name after the Spanish stored gold brought back from conquests to America within it. Continuing on along the riverbank, we made our way in to the Cathedral, which stands as one of the more impressive structures we have seen so far. The cathedral sits on the site of an original mosque, and was begun in the early fifteenth century. I think the only remaining part of the mosque is a minaret that is now a bell tower, protruding well above the rest of the cathedral builings. Currently, it is the largest medieval gothic religious building, the largest Catholic Cathedral in the world, and has the largest altar in the Christian world.... so yeah, fairly fantastic!! We loved that there were some great big open squares around the cathedral so you could actually get a good view and appreciate what you were seeing, rather than coming around a tight city corner and having to squint into the sky to get a glimpse... We still felt the Dom in Cologne was more impressive/imposing in it's exterior appearance, but this definitely shoots to the 'top churches' list!

We also had a look at the Alcázar, which was originally a Moorish fort, and has some vast impressive gardens, but only from the outside. The university also got a visit, though I feel some of the students thought we were crazy people [and were probably right!], as some of the buildings that are now part of the campus originally formed the oldest tobacco factory in Europe, which is also the setting for the novel and opera 'Carmen'. While on a literary trend, we passed by the Hospital de la Caridad, which was founded in the seventeenth century, by Miguel de Mañara, who was supposedly the inspiration for the fictional Don Juan, who repented from his hedonistic youthful life and founed the hospital for the sick and homeless.

We eventually found ourselves in the Plaza de España, which was created for the 1929 World Expo held in Seville. This is an amazingly impressive semi-circle of buildings set in a massive courtyard, with a very cool fountain front and centre. The whole thing has a large moat and a number of very impressive bridges, but we were disappointed to arrive when the moat was dry... :( Still, a very cool find, even if it is actually currently only used as a local government office. More interestingly, it was used posing as the 'Cairo Great Britain Army Headquarters' in Lawrence of Arabia... random fact of the day!

After a busy time sightseeing, we ventured back out one evening, as the city just seemed to have a magical feel to it... and we were well rewarded! Seville just does an absolutely super job of presenting itself as a beautiful historic European city, with fantastic soft lighting used after dark at all the main attractions, which was added to by the amazing buskers spread around the city centre, from classical violin to Spanish guitar... it all made up for a supremely enjoyable evening walk, and some super photo opportunities... [appearing on a Facebook screen near you soon..]

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

lazing it up in Lagos

After the busy sightseeing and the scary hills of Porto and Lisbon, we were ready for some serious relaxation time. So it´s lucky that next stop was lovely Lagos, sunny resort town on the Algarve coast of Southern Portugal.
Weather forecasts aside, we couldn´t have had a better weekend... Lagos, home to just under 15,000 very lucky Portuguese people, swells to bursting point with tourists in the summer months, but even though we topped 25· and the sky was clear, the place felt half-abandoned. The beaches were sparsely populated and the streets were quiet - exactly as it would have been if we could have planned it!

Doing the sightseeing part took all of about an hour, including a wander around the museum at the Igreja de Santo António. The museum itself was a fairly random assortment of old weapons, minerals, models of boats and religious ornaments. Oh, and a coin collection including some fairly manky looking New Zealand currency! The church though, was another exercise in excess in terms of decoration - it was actually quite tiny, but every inch was taken up with intricate gilted wood carvings, and way too many carvings of cherubs [some of whom, Antony was most disturbed to notice, had beards..]
There are also some remaining parts of old city wall fortifications, and a very cool little fort on the waterfront from the 1680s.

And once you´ve seen all that, all that is really left [what a shame] is the beach!
One of the most frequented beaches in summer was very lightly attended when we went, with absolutely stunning white sand, perfect blue water and spectacular cliffs and caves on either side... We also climbed a fairly scary looking cliff top path to reach a more remote beach, with just as much awesome sand, water and super view, but with far fewer people - we even got it to ourselves for a few minutes, and that´s something I can be fairly certain we would have missed out on if we were here in summer.

Lagos was a superb relaxation point early on in our trip, and definitely worth the stop, even if only to confirm that there is definitely no photoshopping necessary in all those lovely postcards of the Algarve coast!!

The Lisbon Workout plan..

We managed to arrive in capital city Lisbon after turning up to the wrong train station in Porto, but what fun is travel without a few near-misses...?
Lisbon instantly had a lot more of a ´big city´ feel to it, lacking the charm we had enjoyed so much in Porto. Our hostel was right in the middle of what we decided must be the financial district, where we watched, without much surprise, a stock exchange board show consistent 5% drops... turns out the world´s financial problems even follow you on holiday...
Lisbon is both less and more hilly than Porto [makes sense, honest!] The main road through the town from the waterfront up past the old town and into the heart of the city is on only a mild gradient, but to either side there are some serious hills, that after you have walked up, feel rather more like mini-mountains.. One of the most distinctive sights is the Castle of São Jorge, which, conveniently if you are a masochist, is located on the top of the highest hill in Lisbon! Some of the roads/paths leading up to the castle were scarily windy and narrow, but scarier when you realised that cars also used them - in both directions!! The castle itself dates back to the 2nd century BC if you believe the Portuguese, but subsequent raids, earthquakes and general degradation mean that what you see today is a mix up of centuries of renovations.
We also took a walk to the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, which has the tombs of most of the early kings of Portugal beneath it...but unfortunately they wanted to take euros off us to let us in, so we didn´t get to see much.
One of the most interesting parts of Lisbon is the Baixa, an area of organised grid-like streets, narrow and straight, apparently one of the earliest forms of urban planning, and constructed after the great earthquake of 1755 that seems to have flattened most of Portugal. The tiny side streets are great fun to walk around, though the main pedestrianised street that runs straight up the middle gets less entertaining with each step, as there are people positioned at almost every intersection ready to offer you drugs, which might be a novelty the first time, then it gets old really fast. Together with the feeling of being in ´just´ another big city, the fact that every monument and church in town charges you for entry, the drug-pushers helped lower our opinion of Lisbon.
Still, the weather was beautiful [almost too much so, we can´t even comprehend how stifling it must be to travel there in actual summer!], there were some lovely parks, picturesque views and one hell of an uphill-workout!! And a big Jesus watching over you the whole time... what more could you want? :)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Port, Porto, Portugal. Nice.

So our Southern European experience started with staying up till 1am, catching a bus across London to catch another bus across London and eventually getting to the airport by 4:30 for our 6:30am flight to Porto... where we arrived in the middle of a serious storm, heavy rains, strong winds, bit of turbulence on the flight, and a very hairy landing [so much so that the entire plane applauded the pilot when he managed to nail it]... but by lunchtime the rain had stopped, the winds died down, and the sun was certainly out shining. And it hasn't left since.
Porto is a fantastic city. Very hilly, so it was a bit of a sharp re-introduction to our walk-everywhere style of tourism after being settled in London for so long, but also made for a much more interesting landscape than the flat-as-a-pannekoeken cities we have been used to. Our hostel was half way up one of the many tiny, narrow, steep streets, and was also one of the best we have stayed in so far.
The feature which dominates the Porto skyline is the Igreja dos Clérigos, with it's 75m tall tower. We scaled the 225 narrow windy steps [how many of those have we climbed up now??] and got an amazing view of the city. The church itself was very cool as well, though probably the most surprising thing about it was the fact that there was absolutely no one else around, probably the first church we have been in where there was no 'security' watching over us, making sure we didn't touch anything we shouldn't. Also felt a bit odd that there were no other tourists around, we're well out of the main tourism season now, but as we sweated our way up and down the streets in 26º weather I had to wonder why other people didn't have the same idea... still, not to complain!
The other prime feature of Porto is, of course, the port! The entire south bank of the river Douro [which cuts the city in half] is covered with the homes of all the major port houses, some of which have been operating for well over 300 years on the same land. So it just would have been rude if we didn't go take a look [and while you're there, you might as well have a taste too!] Almost all the houses offer at least a small sampler for free, though some of them require that you walk half way up a small mountain to get to their entrance first. The most impressive location by far was Taylors, who have a beautiful garden and terrace with spectacular views of the city over the river. They also gave us a free tour, where we got quite educated on the ways of port production... and the taste! Most interesting: white port, almost unobtainable outside Portugal, available in sweet or dry, served before a meal as an aperatif [not afterwards, as a digestive, as red port is], and always ice cold.
One thing that really struck us about Porto was the internal contradictions. From a distance, the city is quintessential Southern European style, with aforementioned narrow streets, cobbled roads, terracotta roofing, pretty yellow and pink stucco walls, and stereotypically Portuguese mosaic tiling. And for a large number of buildings, this impression is accurate. But we were just amazed at how many dilapidated, collapsed, wobbly, disintegrating buildings there were, all over the city, from the heart of the city centre to the suburbs, and even nestling between the elaborate port houses on the river bank. It was as if the concepts of building standards and civic pride didn't exist, because absolutely nothing was being done in terms of repair or, in the alternative, completing demolition. It gave the city a really strange feel, though certainly added to the overall character.
As a random aside: I also think Porto must have the highest number of shoe shops per capita in the world...
Other sights: Cathedral: oldest surviving structure in Porto, and very impressive from the outside, though, like the rest of Europe, it was under reconstruction, and we couldn't look inside.
Igreja Santa Clara: a completely random find, it's exterior is hidden behind some town walls, but we wandered down anyway, and were completely blown away. The church itself dates from the 15th century, but the interior was replaced with what is now one of the finest examples of Portuguese gilding and woodwork - even after all the churches we've seen so far, this one would have to be the most elaborate, intricate carving yet, and unbelievably dark and imposing.
City walls: we couldn't figure out how to actually get to them, but there are some very cool remains of original city fortifications still standing...
Dom Luis I bridge: built in 1886, when it had the record for longest iron arch in the world... It has two levels, cars and buses use the lower level, pedestrians and the 'metro' [otherwise known as overgrown trams] cross the upper. Very cool views up and down the river, and made us not the smallest bit nostalgic for a bit of bungy jumping!
Mangy cats: ok, so not really a sight, but this city had the largest number of homeless/mangy/ feral looking cats of any we have seen. Maybe they're not homeless at all, but each have an abandoned dilapidated house to live in?

Anyway, we really enjoyed the city, the sights, the hills and the port :) .... next stop: big smoke Lisbon.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The art of relaxation.

Our second time round in London is a bit of an exercise in learning to appreciate staying still.  We piled off the bus from Holland around dawn on a monday morning... and three tubes later we were firmly positioned on a couch in front of a tv... this happening to be the first monday of the Olympic games, our first day back in London was over before we knew it.
The weather was grey and flat, there were constant sirens outside, everyone was complaining... only this time, unlike when we first got off the plane from Auckland, we weren't looking to be tourists experiencing the city, and somehow none of that mattered.  We met two great South African guys that first day in the hostel, and spent hours watching Olympic sport and jointly lamenting the fact that neither of our countries had won a single medal.  And then we enjoyed rubbing in the fact that at least we had a small population to explain our lack of success... and again when even Togo got a medal... and again when South African-born Kirsty Coventry picked up a haul of medals for Zimbabwe... yeah, we watched a LOT of sport.
But to counter the abundance of sedentary behavior, the guys walked to a nearby sports court in the evenings, and played a seemingly rule-free game of four [or five, or however many turned up] -a-side football against some local Brazilian guys.  Best moment: an eight year old kid was on the court when we got there, to compensate for stealing his practice space, he was asked to join in the game.  He then proceeded to single-handedly score the first three goals.  The kid was good :)  Even after the guys decided they wouldn't 'go easy' on him any more [yeah, right] he continued to show them all up.  Until, that is, his mum came and called him home for dinner.
Later that week, we transferred hostels, the Olympics were still going strong, and we made some new friends... as well as meeting some *interesting* characters...  For the next five days, the couches were taken over by two Aussies, two kiwis, and one sad South African [they still didn't have any medals, and neither did we.]  We all cheered on the Aussies in the pool, gunned for the kiwis in the rowing, and waited for a South African to make it to the final of... something!  Even the Aussies were on the edge of their seats when the Evers-Swindells squeaked ahead at the last fraction of a second, and the running joke of New Zealand's high ranking on the fourth place tally began, as we racked up a succession of near-hits.
We also had a lot of fun with a guest-who-shall-remain-nameless who picked a fight over tennis by telling us that Rafa Nadal is ruining the game, and plays like absolute rubbish... needless to say, some intense conversations followed, and we enjoyed pointing out exactly who it was with a gold medal around his neck by the end of the weekend.  Though it turned out tennis wasn't the only controversial topic..  We were in the pub watching the ABs squash South Africa 19-0 and he had to come by and claim rugby was barely a sport and that he could outrun any of our wingers... then we were watching some gymnastics finals, and that was too easy as well, anyone could do it!  He also claimed his superiority at kickboxing, held that he could beat anyone in the room at a tennis match [even though he hasn't played in 17 years] and I think somehow it came out that apparently his father single-handedly established parts of Australia... anyway, we learned very quickly not to take this guy seriously, and consequently had a lot of fun waiting for what he was going to challenge next.
Our second week in London we moved into our own place with our Australian friends, Bryce and Ewan.  It's pretty small, and not exactly in the greatest of neighbourhoods, and there are some interesting housemates there too, but it is great to have our own space, to be able to unpack, and to buy more than a day's supply of food at a time.  It's also surprising how much we appreciate having friends!  We've met heaps of nice people on our travels, but when you only get to see them for two days before you both move out of town, it's not quite the same.  But it's been fantastic getting to know the guys, hanging out watching movies, listening to music [cheers for the speakers, Paul!], kicking a ball around at the park, sharing travel stories and plans, having a few drinks watching rugby [just having people around who know that real sport is played with an oval, not a round ball is a huge bonus too!]

So, while we're super excited about our next trip, and can't wait to be seeing new sights again, we've also really learnt to appreciate staying in one place, not having to carry our worldly belongings on our backs everywhere we go, and not feeling like half our lives are spent on trains!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Fun in the lands of the Vikings...

From Germany we headed north to Scandinavia, to see if we could find us some vikings!!
First stop: Copenhagen, Denmark: beautiful city, we loved being surrounded by water again, it's something you don't think about, and don't think you'll miss till you don't have it. We walked along the waterfront around to the Little Mermaid sitting on her rock in the sea [she really is little!], and cooled off by the Gefion Fountain, which apparently the Danes think of as their own Fontana di Trevi... but it was very cool-and is the biggest monument in Copenhagen. We wandered back through the town, up and down the pedestrian shopping street [we like those too] and went into the Round Tower which was built in the seventeenth century with as an observatory, and is unique in that rather than having to climb hundreds of stairs to get to the top, it was built with a 210 metre long spiral ramp! Great view of the city, and interesting to look at the old observatory equipment still inside. There is an awesome church in town with an awesome external spiral staircase...but unfortunately it is closed for renovations till 2009 so we could only look from the outside. We also visited the 'free town' of Christiania, a suburb that was started in an old barracks by some hippies in the 70s, and has semi-legal status as an independent community [complete with 'you are now entering the EU' signs at the exits back into regular Copenhagen]. It was an experience, the place runs on it's own rules [though not many of them] and is like a giant commune. Cars aren't allowed, dogs run free, weed is openly sold, and there are some pretty basic looking houses [to say the least]

Next stop: Gothenburg, Sweden: We took a train from Denmark to Sweden over the bridge that connects Copenhagen and Malmo, and then up to Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden. We were staying about 12km out of the city, at a fantastic hostel in the bushes - it was a hell of a walk to get there in the scorching sun up a steep and winding road with all our packs on...but an absolutely beautiful place once we made it! We took a train back into the city on our second day and wandered around-Gothenburg is one of the biggest ports in Sweden and the docks were impressive. There is also a very cool maritime museum which actually just consists of about 20 vessels moored off the wharf that you can walk around, including a submarine and a destroyer. There are some lovely canals in Gothenburg, as the city was designed by Dutch city planners because the area was quite marshy and we know how the Dutch can build on ground that should really be water :) We also spent quite a bit of time lazing by a huge, beautiful lake that was a ten minute walk through the bush away from our hostel, enjoying the Scandinavian sunshine. It was a really relaxing place, and so great to feel like we were away from a big city feel for a while.

Take three: Stockholm, Sweden: Once we'd had enough of being lazy at the lake [not really...could easily have spent another week there...] we headed across to the capital city. Stockholm is an absolutely fascinating city, made up of thousands of islands, though you can walk around much of the centre without realising that you have actually crossed several of them, as the roads just keep going. We wandered through Gamla Stan, which is the old city centre, made up of three islands, and has some fantastic architechture [and lots of buskers with accordians!] We walked most of the way across the city to a telecommunications tower which you can go up to the top of for a great view. After that we were pretty tired [it was around 30 degrees] so we spent the afternoon at a 'beach' which was more like a park by the water, and was absolutely packed with locals. In the morning when we had some energy again we went to a Viking exhibition at a museum, very cool, heaps of old relics including the skeleton of a viking girl from an outer island of Stockholm. After charging through the city to the ferry terminal, we got on a Viking Line ferry to Helsinki, and spent the next fifteen hours watching the world go by. The departure from Stockholm was especially picturesque, as we weaved our way through the islands, some of which are very tiny, and seem to be inhabited by no more than one guy and a dog-what a life!

Next stop: Helsinki, Finland: we finally made it to Finland early the next morning, and found our way to our hostel which was actually in an outer area of Helsinki, near to some forest and some nice little beaches. We spent the first afternoon lazing at the beach, marvelling at how fantastic the scandinavian weather was... Made it back into Helsinki central the next day, and spent the day wandering the streets. It's a really nice city, lots of parks and lakes, and we found a fantastic huge market to wander around, and some very impressive churches to visit, we even nearly got ourselves included in a wedding! It was scorching hot again, topping 32 degrees, and this was obviously noteworthy in Finland, because we saw tv cameras filming in the city centre while we were relaxing by a nice fountain...then were surprised to see the footage on the 6 o'clock news back at our hostel that night!! We spent some more time at the beach, and visited the Helsinki City Museum, which gave a really interesting overview of the history of the city right from it's inception, through all the various invasions, and the five [5!] times the city has burnt to the ground [which helped explain why there aren't many old old buildings in town]. Grudgingly, we got back on the ferry and crossed back to Stockholm, raced across Sweden to Malmo and back to Copenhagen for another night, before heading back down to Hamburg and setting off for more bogan times at WACKEN!!

We absolutely loved Scandinavia, saw some beautiful cities, enjoyed some fantastic natural settings, and had amazing weather... disappointing number of vikings though!! Maybe we'll see more next time... :)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting a bit Germanic

Next adventures after leaving The Netherlands again meant swinging through Brussels for lunch with Mel and Dani and ending up in Cologne by dinner. The cathedral in Cologne is absolutely amazing, thought to be the largest gothic building ever constructed, and it now looms in all it's dark and imposing glory right across the square from the train station.. we liked Cologne before we even found our hostel. Inside, it's just as spectacular, and we decided a workout was in order and walked up the 509 narrow, tightly winding steps to the top - fantastic view, but the 509 back down were definitely easier! We also visited a very cool sculpture park and had fun (probably illegally) climbing on the sculptures... :)
After Cologne we stopped in Trier, a small German town near the border with Luxembourg, which was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world. Not your typical German town, then. We wandered around an old Roman bathhouse complete with a crazy system of underground tunnels and fun big rocks to climb on, looked in on the original amphitheatre (which is clearly still getting good use-The Pink Floyd Experience was coming to town later in the month and were doing their show outdoors in the amphitheatre!), went in the Dom (cathedral), and also had a look in the Constantine Basilica-which was actually the throne room of the emperor Constantine, and is now completely restored/rebuilt, and is a very imposing place.
While we were in Trier we decided to take a day-trip to Luxembourg (it was so close!) and spent an afternoon walking around the streets and through some of the spectacular parks and gardens. Luxembourg City is a beautifully placed city and it was impressive approaching on the train and seeing the city appear among the valleys and hills.
From Trier we traveled further south to Freiburg im Breisgau, a beautiful town in the heart of the Black Forest region. The town has a unique system of shallow micro-canals running along the side of the footpath in the city centre, originally used for supplying water for animals and such, but it now has the great effect of keeping the city cool, even on scorching hot days like when we were there. We wandered around the town itself, there are a few remaining medieval towers, and a very impressive red sandstone church in the main city square. Mostly though, we just hiked through the forest, which was the closest we've come to feeling like New Zealand yet, really dense tall beautiful green trees... :-D It was a hot day and we were feeling it, but then we stumbled, buried in the depth of the forest, upon a crazy tall tower built of steel and huge tree trunks... and with 230 steps to the top...but the promise of a good view was too strong, so we duly climbed our way up, and it truly was spectacular, and all the more awesome because it was a complete surprise. Only downside of the forest was on our way to find some nice patch of grass to rest on after climbing the tower, we both managed to brush past some stinging nettle, though Antony got the worst of it - such a strange sensation, and at the time, we had no idea what it was so were a bit worried till wikipedia came through and told us it was stinging nettle and the itching would soon go away...
We needed to start making our way up the country again, so next stop was Frankfurt, where we met some awesome people with great music taste who we spent a lot of time sitting around chatting for Frankfurt itself...has to be the least interesting place we've visited. We wandered along both banks of the Main river and looked at the churches and buildings (though most of them are new because the city was flattened in World War Two) but overall we found it to be just a big, bustling, relatively soulless city. Then again, it is the financial capital of Germany, so what should we have expected??
One more quick stop in Bremen en route north to Scandinavia, and that was our first German excursion over... we saw some awesome locations, met some lovely people, and had a huge amount of fun, so it's a good thing we'll be back soon to see some more!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bogan times in Belgium

We've just got back to The Netherlands for a brief stop after a week in Belgium, where we had a fantastic time. We were there for the Graspop Metal Meeting, an annual three day metal music bonanza held in an obscure area of North-eastern Belgium for around 100,000 bogans from all over Europe [and two kiwis!], but also spent time travelling around falling in love with tiny Belgian cities.
The music part can come in another post because there was too much awesomeness, and these posts keep getting longer and longer as it is...
So: Belgium.
*Antwerp: on the way to Graspop we spent a day in Antwerp, mostly just wandering around taking in the city. We went inside the Onze-Lieve Vrouwkathedraal [Cathedral of our Lady], which dominates the city skyline, and it was huge and very impressive inside. Antwerp's greatest son, Peter Paul Rubens [a very famous seventeenth century Flemish artist] has a number of works displayed inside as well.
*Bruges: We took off to the Western side of Northern Belgium [Flanders] straight after Graspop, and within two minutes walk of the train station, we found our new favourite town in Europe. This place is phenomenal. It has a reputation for being the best-preserved medieval city in Europe, and completely deservedly so! It is full of tiny narrow streets, large gothic buildings, two big beautiful central squares, medieval designed houses, fantastic parks, and the ruins of the medieval town fortifications. We had a fantastic time just walking around and exploring, stopping for the occasional picnic in one of the parks to sample a few tasty [and cheap!] Belgian beers from the supermarkets. We did a brewery tour, of the last brewery left in Bruges - [the narrow streets, though fun for walking around, don't make for the easiest mass-transportation of beers in a modern context, so most of the breweries have shut down or moved out of town.] It was really interesting to see both the pared-down, stainless steel, lights and buttons and levers modern brewing room, and the four floors of copper and barrels and vats and pipes that it used to take to produce beer there. We also got to go out on to the roof of the brewery and take in the fantastic view. Included in our tour was [of course!] a beer-the brewery was called Brugse Zot and they only make two varieties now, a blonde and a dubbel, and the blonde they serve on tap is unfiltered - but it was delicious. So much so, that we tried the dubbel as well - intense and tasty.
*Ghent: We spent two days in Ghent, which isn't as well-preserved as Bruges, and has actually tried to improve it's reputation as a tourist destination by 'creating' medieval buildings, most of which were built in the early twentieth century and are not even remotely authentic. All the same, it was another beautiful town, and had a series of fantastic huge cathedrals/churches. It also has the advantage of possessing it's very own castle [which has, apparently, been 'creatively restored' but is still awesome.] We took a tour around the castle, which included a large selection of torture instruments - wow those medieval jailers must have had some sick ideas! We also poked around the massive botanical gardens located in the outskirts of the city, very cool.
*Brussels: We took a day trip to Brussels on the way back to The Netherlands, and spent it crossing the city taking in the sights. We saw the European Parliament, the Palace of Justice, a number of huge, impressive churches, and of course, that bizarre Belgian symbol - Manneken Pis -the statue of the little boy peeing [Manneken Pis is Dutch for 'little man pee' - great.] We also found out that there is actually a corresponding little girl statue, called Jeanneke Pis, erected by a restaurant owner in 1985, but as the restaurant has closed down, she no longer pees, but she's still there, and still bizarre!

T. I. H.

Once again we've been off travelling, and away from internet, so there's some catching up to do.
Just one more quick note about the Netherlands first...
T.I.H. is a phrase you learn to use rather quickly around stands for This Is Holland and is used frequently by the international students to refer to the peculiarities of everyday dutch life. Kind of like 'only in america' with a european twist.
*Almost everything is closed on Monday morning, apparently because the shops now open on Saturdays... so the workers take Monday morning off to make up for it. This applies not just to small family-run businesses, but big department stores and nationwide chains. Or they could just hire more staff...?
*As an aside, we found out that a library in The Hague also follows this policy, opening at noon on Monday...even though it is closed on the weekend...
*The three of us were walking along a road by a canal on our way to the train station, finishing our beers as we went. A police car pulled up alongside us, and the officer leaned out her window and told us it was forbidden to drink outside in the city centre. We apologised and were about to discard our vessels when she said to us "so next time, just remember to hide them better, you need to be more sneaky" and drove off...
*Absolutely everyone goes everywhere on their bikes. Most of which have special adaptations so that they can conduct their everyday lives while balancing on two wheels, such as big barrows out the front, bags hanging off every available surface, and some with up to three child/baby seats attached. Or then there's those who just have a plain straight bike, and ride home from the supermarket twisted around with one hand holding a crate of beer behind them...
*Because supermarkets close quite early, there are a plethora of 'night shops' around every town... which evidently take their name quite seriously, because they don't open till evening. But then they close at only around 10 or 11pm - T.I.H. They could do with a starmart, aye.
*Far more popular than generic fast food, around here the grease and cholesterol cravings are filled by deep-fried croquettes, deep-fried sausages or deep-fried noodles, and these are available on most streets and train stations from a place called Febo, that dispenses them from coin-operated holes in the wall. So fresh and tasty! :-S

There have been heaps more times we have had to use this phrase, but this is enough of an introduction to T.I.H. :-D

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Waterworks: tacky beaches, canals, canals, canals.

Other than football [but I decided that needed it's own post] we've done a bit of exploring in other towns while we've been here.
Our second day, while the weather was still nice [which we were firmly instructed NOT to get used to] we took a trip to Scheveningen, the 'most popular beach in the Netherlands'. And what a monstrosity it is. The beach itself is nothing to write home about, it's quite large, flat, reasonably nice sand through most of it, calm water... but then there are the shops, stalls, bars, restaurants... and the beach chairs. Now, any sane New Zealander, when going to the beach, will tend to sit on a towel on the sand, looking at the water [when they're not out enjoying the waves, that is]. But this beach was absolutely crammed full of little huts and covered chairs, umbrellas, even some beds... all of which you had to pay the staff of the bar or restaurant your chair was in front of before you could use them... and all of which were facing away from the beach!! So this is how to appreciate the nicest beach in Holland... don't sit on the sand, don't look at the water, don't let any sun get through your shelter... Why you'd bother to leave home in the first place, we couldn't fathom. But we did have a nice walk up the beach, and even almost got a tiny bit sunburnt, so it was a pretty good day out for us.
Later that week we took a day trip to Delft, home of the famous Dutch blue and white painted ceramics. It was a very pretty town, with [of course] the characteristic canals and bridges everywhere, and hundreds of places where you could purchase said blue and white souvenirs.
We also eventually took our first trip into Amsterdam. And it pretty much lived up to all the hype. The smell of smoke [of the green variety] was considerably stronger than in Leiden, Delft or The Hague, and the 'coffeeshops' were much more blatant and tacky. We took a short stroll down the red light district canal [just because you have to say you've seen it once] and even though it was early afternoon, it was still fairly shocking. Window after window full of pouts and flirty smiles... though we have been told that it is a far less peaceful stroll in the evening, when those on both sides of the windows get more pushy... but we decided hearing about that was more than enough! The Amsterdam canals are quite spectacular - they are as prevalent in the smaller towns, but much smaller, so they don't leave quite the same impression. Some of the old buildings were as impressive, particularly the tiny narrow houses that are left over from when rates were charged based on how much road frontage your building took up - one house is a mere 2.02m wide!! We went on a canal tour, and the city certainly has a lot of charm to it, particularly when seen from a peaceful viewpoint on the water.
But overall, we felt it lacked a lot of what we like about the smaller towns due to the general big-city-feel, though of course it always has it's points of difference [dubious though they are].

For now though, it's time to get excited about Belgium and all the awesome music we're going to see this weekend at Graspop....bring it on!

Hup Holland Hup

Having now been in the Netherlands for over two weeks, it must be time for an update. We took the cheapest [read: slowest] option to get here, which involved spending eight hours of Antony's birthday in a pub in London, all our belongings piled up in a corner, watching the Nadal Federer final and some football to kill time before jumping on a bus headed for Amsterdam. Twelve very long hours later, after a bus trip to Dover, a ferry across the water to Calais [mirroring exactly the Eurostar trip we took that very morning], then back on the bus and through Belgium to the Netherlands, we eventually climbed out of the bus in The Hague, found a train to Leiden, and ran into Paul in the train station just after seven in the morning. Needless to say, by about 11, we thought it should be late afternoon and could have done with a nap [who would have thought those bus seats weren't comfortable?] but we struggled on, familiarising ourselves with Leiden before having our first real European football experience...
We trained back to The Hague with a group of Paul's friends for the Netherlands opening Euro2008 match against Italy, and not much could have prepared us for the orange madness that we would meet when we got there! Every pub/restaurant/bar/house in town seems to have draped itself in orange flags, banners, posters and anything else they could lay their hands on, and every tv was tuned in. The crowds jumped and screamed and clapped every time a Dutch player landed boot to ball, and as the goals started coming, it only got louder. Coming from a nation where the national economy takes a hit every time our sports teams take a fall, we thought we knew a bit about patriotism and crowds going wild. Turns out we were wrong. These guys really know how to enjoy a game of football :)
We've watched each of the Netherlands games since [as well as a fair few of the others, just to keep up with the results ;) ] in different locations, all crowded, all very orange, all very loud. And yet even when the Quarter on Saturday ended in the shocking result that it did, the supporters put on a brave face, packed up their orange and dispersed quietly. The pub we were at even put on 'Always look on the bright side of life' over the PA system, and the crowd started to sing along. They were proud of their team for doing as well as they did, and in a way, Netherlands was the winner on the night either way, as Hiddinck, the Russian coach, is a former coach of the national side here.
It seems All Blacks fans have got something to learn after all.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Frenching it up

So finally after two weeks in London we made it to the second destination on our trip - Paris!! :)
The eurostar was awesome, really comfortable and super fast [though faster on the French side of the tunnel - they don't have speed limits!] and when we got off in Paris Mel and Brad were at the train station to meet us. By the time we got back to the apartment [cute, tidy, and very tiny!] we just had time to crack open the first bottle of cheap [tasty] French wine and catch up with Brad after nearly 11 months before crashing and looking forward to tennis the next day.
Tuesday morning the weather wasn't flash, and after how many rain delays there had been the week before, we were a bit worried, but by the time we made it to Roland Garros [managing to not get lost on the French metro system on the way!!] it seemed we would be in luck. First up was the women's quarter final, Ivanovic v Schnyder. It was a fast match, Ivanovic looking dominant throughout, and coming out on top 6-3 6-2 in under an hour and a half. While this was going on we could hear the cheers and roars coming from the second court, where Djokovic was battling it out with Gulbis... seemed that match still had plenty of action to go when our second round started and out came Nadal and Almagro. We were both stoked to get to see Nadal play live, and he was certainly on form, crushing Almagro 6-1 6-1 6-1. Not long before the match ended, the Djokovic battle finally ended, [5-7 6-7 5-7]
By that time we were pretty cold and tired, so headed back to the apartment in time to meet Dani as she got off the Eurostar and we were all there!
Wednesday the real touristing started, after croissants and coffee for breakfast, and making a picnic lunch with fresh baguettes. We walked to the Place de la concorde, and from there down the length of the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, which we were able to climb up to the top of. Nearly three hundred steps above the craziest roundabout in the world, we had so much fun watching the cars and wondering how any of them made it out unscathed!! Many photos later, we wandered back down and decided we deserved a coffee from a sidewalk cafe, where we sat and watched Paris wander past...
Thursday we put our arty hats back on again and took off for the Louvre. That is one amazing place, so ridiculously big you really could spend a month inside!! We had about seven hours, and managed to get through most wings, though some we really had to race through. Highlights include the obvious big attractions: Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, as well as the crazy opulence of the reconstructed Napoleon apartments, the amazing large [read: freaking massive] format French paintings, the Italian sculptures, and one of the biggest surprises of the day, the feature artist Jan Febre-a Belgian multi-media artist who was given free reign to place whichever of his works he chose all over a wing of his choice. There were some seriously weird pieces, in a real contrast with the fourteenth century Dutch, German and Belgian works they were placed amongst, but we really enjoyed them. After seven hours of going around and around the galleries and up and down the stairs between the different levels, Mel and Antony were feeling shattered so Dani and I missioned on alone to the Notre Dame cathedral. And it was absolutely worth a trip. Awesome amazing huge stained glass windows and fantastic gothic architecture - though it was a little odd that there was a service going on inside and yet we were allowed to wander around wherever we wanted and take photos... We made it home just in time for a quick dinner then we all took off for the Eiffel Tower, in the hope that we could get up in time to see the sun set and the lights come on over the city. Turns out we were a bit optimistic though, it took us longer to get there than we planned, and the sparkly lights came on all over the tower as we were still approaching it [didn't know it at the time, but this happens at 10pm every day, for ten minutes, then again every hour after that]. There was a literal collective cry of 'aaaah' from both sides of the road as all the tourists looked up and noticed the lights flashing away. We made it into the line for tickets, but not long after we joined, they closed ticket sales for the top level, as it was overcrowded, and it as it was already getting quite dark, and we really wanted to see the view from the very top, we decided to call it a day and try again the next day. Was still an excellent night out, as we got some great photos of the dying light behind the tower from the ground.
Friday we took the short walk to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur and had a walk around inside. It was very different to Notre Dame, but no less impressive, and well worth a visit. Once again, there was a service taking place, which we did our best not to interrupt..though there were plenty of other tourists there too. After Sacre Coeur, we took a train mission out to the Palace of Versailles for another dose of obscene opulence... and weren't disappointed. The rooms just got bigger and bigger and more and more grandiose as we went through...not exactly hard to imagine why the French people weren't so impressed when they were struggling to make ends meet ... Was awesome to be in the 'Hall of mirrors' where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, though it was a little hard to imagine the atmosphere when we were there surrounded by several busloads of big tour groups... We missioned back to Paris on the train and headed for the Eiffel Tower once again, stopping for a dinner of crepes on the way... yum! Made it into the line in plenty of time and weaved our way up to the top - wow do they pack you into those elevators! The view [or what of it we could see] on the ride up was awesome, and even more so once we got off on the second level. Took heaps of photos and wandered all around to get the complete view - crazy how tiny the Arc de Triomphe looked from up there, and we weren't even at the top! It sure felt big when we were up it on Wednesday :) Eventually took the final elevator ride to the very top, 300-odd metres above Paris, and the view, as expected, was spectacular. We watched the light start to dim, and got a shock once again by the sparkling lights at 10pm - they felt very different when we were in the middle of them!! It was awesome to see the lights of the city slowly turn on, and watch the last of the sun drain away from the day - a truly fantastic experience, so glad we made the trip back :D Sometime after 11 we decided it was time to head home and warm up, but the guys tricked me into McDonalds on the way home, claiming hunger, but really it was for a 'traditional' French experience, a.k.a. a McBeer... felt very very strange to be sitting in a McDonalds in Paris, around midnight, sipping on a Kronenbourg, very strange indeed.
Saturday morning I collected Michal, fresh off the train from Belgium, and we all headed for an Irish pub to watch the ABs v Ireland game, before having a few celebratory birthday beers for Antony. A relaxing end to an intense week.
Sunday morning came around very early as we all had different directions to head in for the next part of our adventures, though our departure on the eurostar back to London was somewhat delayed by a two hour bomb scare at Gare du Nord international terminal... which turned out to be an abandoned piece of luggage that the French police, after much standing around chatting and doing nothing, ended up destroying before we could get on our train and leave France behind... for now ...

Catch up time

It's been a while, due to some severe internet-access-shortages...but it's now time to fill in the gaps!
Our last week in London was a little less frantic, but we managed to fit in a few more touristy things. Wednesday we spent at the Tate Modern [hoorah for free museums and galleries] and it was awesome. Very different to the National Gallery, and cool to see so many familiar famous names - Bacon, Monet, Picasso ...
Then of course no visit to a city would really be complete without a trip to the zoo, so we spent Thursday at London Zoo...where, unfortunately, after spending over an hour outside queuing to get in, it rained :( Still, we managed to see most things, though many of the monkeys [lazy primates!] were hiding from the weather. The new[ish] rainforest area was great [and inside ;) ], and we spent heaps of time in the 'bug' area, and looking through the aquarium and reptile house. Bit sad about the teeny tiny giraffe and zebra enclosures though...
Friday we made a trip to the Tower of London and went on a 'beefeater' tour. The jokes were bad, but it was good to hear more of the history of what we were seeing. Spent a couple of hours wandering around by ourselves afterwards- never knew the tower complex was so huge! And Antony had to be very careful not to smack his head as the ceilings were often very low, and the stairs narrow and winding...
We spent our last weekend at a hostel absolutely overrun with Australians, [both staff and guests] before heading to St Pancras international train station on Monday morning...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Back in the big smoke

We got back into London on Thursday afternoon, and started hitting the sights again on Friday. We decided to try and increase our gallery stamina in preparation for hitting the Louvre next week, and took a walk to the National Gallery. It is absolutely massive, and we spent hours walking through hundreds of amazing pieces of art, by all the big names, and even tried to look like we knew what we were doing...but really we just looked like tired tourists, and after several hours of one artist's impression of a naked baby Jesus after another, we decided we'd call it a day... only to find we'd seen a mere fifth of what the gallery has on offer. So we'll probably be back - good thing entry is free!
Friday night we decided to try a little pub we had read about, called the Jerusalem Tavern. It is apparently renowned for it's interesting and original private brewery beer varieties, and we were not disappointed! What was a little surprising was that the entire interior seated about 10 people all up, and so the road out the front was packed with men in suits standing around drinking... all very bizarre, compared to what we're used to - but very common here, where inside space seems to be always at a premium. Then again, it isn't prohibited to drink on public transport here till the 01st of June, so I guess drinking on the street shouldn't be surprising either. Anyway, the three of us ordered a honey porter, a cream stout and a spiced cinnamon and apple ale and all three of them were so intense and strong in flavour that we had to share them between us, and it took an hour and a half for us to finish one beer each! Super tasty, and a really fun [and cheap!] way to spend an evening 'out'.
Saturday morning after watching the Crusaders beat the canes in the Super 14 semi we headed out to the Borough Markets, one of the biggest and busiest markets in London. It was huge and everything looked so good, and it was absolutely packed full of people. So many stall with tables almost groaning under the weight of stacked up giant wheels of cheese, others with baskets and baskets full of individually made chocolates, stalls with delicious smelling fresh baked breads... and an awesome beer stall that had shelves and shelves full of individual beer bottles, the most varied range of beers I've ever seen in one place... including a 330ml bottle of Tui, pride of place on the top shelf, next to a bottle of Speights... yeah!! We just had to ask, and they were £1.70 each, but I guess they had a long way to come to get here... :)

Wandered back home via the South Bank and crossed Waterloo bridge for some impressive views, though we were struggling to hold the cameras still as the wind was so strong.
Sunday we missioned to the British Museum, which was awesome [and free, our favourite kind]. Some really impressive collections from a huge range of times and places, and you were allowed to take photos of everything, which was a nice bonus.
Yesterday was a bank holiday, and we decided to take a trip to the Science Museum...which, if we had of thought about it ahead of time... was probably not the smartest of moves. It's an awesome interactive museum, with lots of child-friendly exhibits [so perfect for us ;)]...and we went on a rainy public holiday... when all the parents in town wanted to get their children out of the house... it was PACKED full of tiny loud annoying children, so was a more stressful experience than we might have hoped, but was impressive all the same.

Went to a service at St Paul's Cathedral last night, which meant we could have a look around the inside for free rather than paying for a £10 tour, and wow it was super impressive. The dome is just huge, and all the interior walls are painted or carved and the whole place just feels so ornate and large and impressive - definitely worth a visit. Unfortunately you can't take photos inside, but it was awesome all the same.
And that's about all the exciting [or not so exciting] things we've done so far. We've got quite a few things left on the list to get done before heading to Paris next Monday [yah! Paris!], then the French adventures begin!! :-D

All there was to see and do...

So even though Alton wasn't the most happening of places, we did find some things to see and do after all...
It's an old brewery town, at one point the majority of the population was employed by one of the many breweries, but there's only one functional brewery left, which has gone through many changes of occupation, and is currently a Coors. Due to the beer-focus [we assume] there seems to be a ridiculously high pub to population ratio, but we were well behaved and only went inside one [honest!]
We took one of the twice-weekly walking tours [we were the only ones, I suspect most days the guide turns up, sees that no one is waiting, and happily goes home again]. It was quite interesting to hear a bit more about the history of the place, there are many very old houses there, as, I suspect, there are everywhere, but we're still new enough that they are interesting for us. The oldest house in the town that is still lived in as a house was built in about 1450. They also have the second oldest purpose built meeting house in England [the Quaker meeting house, at which meetings are still held]. One church has its first recorded use in 1070, and a civil war battle actually ended in the churchyard. They also have "Sweet Fanny Adams" grave, and seem to be quite proud of the fact that an 8 year old girl got kidnapped, murdered, and chopped up into tiny pieces in their town [quite possibly in the schoolyard...] ... The tour also included the duck pond, which was created by a dam in the Wey river to make a water supply for the mill [when there was a mill], but is now just full of ducks and geese.
We also walked to Chawton [the next town down the road] to see Jane Austen's house, though we didn't feel like paying £7 each to go in. So we just poked around the garden and outer buildings instead. It was cool, but the houses and cottages along the way were more interesting, with their thatched roofs [how do they not leak??], perfect English flat green lawns, and tiny doors that even I could almost bang my head on.
But after we'd seen and done all Alton had to offer, and spent a bit of relaxing time not doing much at all [except watch a lot of Top Gear, which is on five times a day!], we were definitely ready to head back to the big city.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Alton is quiet

So Alton, not a massively metropolitan place to be but quite nice to relax in withouth the madness of London city. The three main attractions are the Jane Austin house (not actually in Alton), the local brewery and ... ... the duck pond. Which has a steam train!! But only in summer. And only on weekends. But it is a nice place to ramble around and the weather looks mighty nice today. And John is awesome.

But all that being said we are looking forward to getting back to having things to do and see that aren't ponds. And to see Mel of course.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


So London actually turned on the weather for us after all and stopped being so grey, at least for a few days... the sun has been out, but it's still not that warm [around 14/15 degrees], yet people keep telling us it was 26/27 last week...not sure if we believe them yet.
We did some super touristy things on the weekend, visiting the houses of parliament, westminster abbey, big ben, buckingham palace, changing of the guards [all from the outside of course - London on a budget!] Had a great picnic in Hyde Park in the sun..till the sun went away.. then scared ourselves senseless at the overt decadence that is Harrods for about three hours..because that's how long it takes just to get around all the levels! Madness!
Now we're back away from the bustle of the city in rural Alton [about an hour by train out of London], and have plans to see all that there is to see around here... [several old breweries, Jane Austen's house, a steam train... woo] before heading back to town for the long weekend [hoorah-bank holidays]
Anyway, things all going well, and that's about it for now.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


So, nobody looking at the blog yet? Fools!! Oh the things you will miss. London is cold and grey. So much for spring.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Winners, we are at Hong Kong airport. The most exciting things so far are that Amy is the tallest girl here and there are men with large guns walking around. Like, massive. A tad scary that they feel that they need them. Anyway, a few more hours and then it's off to London. 13 hours of being stuck in metal box. The plane is metal, the wings are metal, we're all going to die ...