Wednesday, December 22, 2004

James visits the German Christmas Markets

Lubeck - Hamburg - Bremen


A few last things about Scandinavia....

Stockholm: A shoppers paradise, filled to the brim with department stores, gallerias and designer clothes shops. If you can afford it that is.

Copenhagen: A bikers paradise, filled to the brim with bikes left in every nook and cranny in the streets, against shops, congregating in the middle of a square, all seemingly abandoned, but cunningly locked securely. In fact bikes have so much power I think they even get more footpath space than us lowly pedestrians. Speaking of walking my leg has improved a lot since I walked into a lamp post the other day...

And then I went to Germany...

Arrived in Lubeck at night, the best time to really admire the town with the laser lights beaming from the towers of the cathedral in the centre of town to the towers on the beautiful large medieval city gate, almost looking like tightropes made of coloured light. Lubeck is a town that many people don't care to visit: usually they catch a cheap EasyJet or RyanAir flight to its airport and then catch a bus direct to Hamburg, without even stopping to admire this beautiful medieval red brick town, with Romanesque/gothic striking architecture, and the friendly people.

Nobody does Christmas markets like Germany!

And why not, as the markets, much like most Christmas traditions, all mainly stem from Germany itself. After all, isn't that why I’m here now? (Or am I deluding myself and am really here to see about a girl? (who I’m seeing tomorrow) )

So what is a Christmas market? Basically the townsfolk set up wooden huts/stalls decorated with Christmas lights, tinsel, greenery etc, and sell (exquisite expensive) Christmas decorations, candy, gifts, and all sorts of good food and wine. "Gluhwein" is a spicy hot wine, good for the cold days - bratwurst sausage and roast stands, fried potato cakes, battered fish, burgers... sautéed champignons with onion and garlic yogurt sauce is not what I expected to see but it's everywhere...

There's also rides, Ferris wheels, Christmas parades, musicians... In Hamburg even a flying Santa and reindeer - they tied a sleigh to a rope between the town hall and another building on the other side of the square, then a motor dragged it through to the other side. Only problem was once they got to the other side, the only way Santa could go was BACKWARDS to where he started. Which slightly destroyed the illusion of "bye kids, Santa is leaving now" but hey it's the thought that counts!

Hamburg is Germany's 2nd largest city. It also is one of the largest ports in the world, and Hamburg's Reeperbahn has reputedly more prostitutes than Amsterdam.
More expensive too, but hey how would I know?

Still, there's lots more to see in Hamburg. I've been through the famous Alter ElbeTunnel (Old tunnel under the Elbe river), which I have recently noted features in many German film clips!

Not many people are backpacking these days, in fact there's only a tiny few people in the hostels I’ve been in Germany, and they only speak German so I’ve been pretty much on my own these last days.

Bremen is a nice town, has a very dramatic town centre with the twin tall towers of the cathedral imposing itself over the rest of the square - the spectacularly intricately garnished town hall adding to its glory. Not to mention the bright colourful Christmas market in the square itself! And a first for them - they also now have a
medieval Christmas market too!

Visited the Becks Brewery there, where I had consumed many free beverages (which this email is being written under the influence of),
and met some locals, who will show me around Bremen tonight...

Speaking of which I’m about to go meet them, so...

Frohe Weihnachten!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

James embraces Swedish culture with meatballs at IKEA


Ah, Scandinavia, the place where a Danish pastry is called "Vienna Bread" a hotdog is French, and the PUB is a department store...

Anyway... a flip of a coin sent me via night bus from Copenhagen to STOCKHOLM! Yay!

First impression of Stockholm was the magnificent array of light illuminating the whole city even at 6am when I arrived by overnight bus. In fact all the towns I passed in the night were brightly lit up by thousands of lights... I hate to see the electricity bill in these parts...

Stockholm is a very beautiful city indeed, with bright earthy yellow, red and orange coloured buildings in the old town amid narrow cobbled streets; large baroque townhouses along the several waterfronts; period romantic old villages and houses in the green open-air museum of Skansen park with the Nordic zoo containing wolverines, reindeer, bears and seals; Christmas markets abound selling xmas paraphernalia and candy amid outdoor ice skating rinks filled with children... including me, not the most graceful ice skater mind you, but I survived unscathed...

The hostel I’m staying at is pretty cool. Located close to the centre of Stockholm, it has a free sauna, free pasta, and free internet! How can you go wrong with that? Met some pretty cool people here too; to name a few: - Daan, a funny 19yo Dutch guy who likes watching MTV with a talent of sweet talking his way through anything - then there's Zoe, a funny 23yo funky Aussie chicky who makes jewellery;
Lorna, a Maltese 30yo woman with a beautiful singing voice; Holly and Jasmine, pretty Aussie sisters 19 and 15 years old who we somehow managed to smuggle into all the clubs and bars we went to even though you needed to be 20 or older to enter (thanks to Daan)...

Watched the Noble Prize winners and participants from all over the world entering the Concert hall where the awards ceremony takes place every year in Stockholm on December 10th. Was uneventful but still nice to be part of such an important global occasion.

Also was there for the Lucia light festival, where a very beautiful girl is crowned St Lucia, who, with her crown of candles, is paraded around Stockholm and then sings with her choir at Skansen, and finalised by fireworks (which were pretty dismal apparently). it was funny how all the guys at the hostel were saying how hot she was until someone mentioned she was only about 14! Whoops!

Anyway, to embrace Swedish culture, guess where I went? That's right, IKEA!! The first designer furniture store they ever made right here in Stockholm! And, to further immerse myself in the Swedish experience, I ate Swedish meatballs in their restaurant! Swedish meatballs are nothing special actually, but still something one has to do...

Didn't get the chance to eat Reindeer though, so I guess I won't feel guilty for having eaten Rudolph this Christmas...

Sweden/Stockholm has a few downsides. One is that you can only go to clubs when you're 23 or older, and even some bars won't let you in unless you're at least 20! Also, you can only buy decent "cheap" alcohol at government run bottle/wine shops called "Superbolaget" (which, following Aussie culture of abbreviating everything, I call it the "SysBo"). Otherwise you would have to pay extortionate prices (12-20 AUD) just for a beer in a bar! Stockholm is very expensive, comparable to London...

Did manage to have a very cheap Saturday night clubbing with hostel folk however. Firstly we bought many bottles of wine from the "SysBo", then made our way to a "cheap" bar in the south of Stockholm. Then somehow, Daan managed to sweet talk the security guard at a very popular Swedish nightclub to let us straight in past the queue for free, and then have her look after our coats
all night! (Because the cloakroom was full) Not sure how he did it but we were all very impressed!

Anyway, I’m writing this in a very tired state having just arrived in Copenhagen from overnight bus (so hope this email makes sense), in order to catch another bus to Lubeck, Germany, later today. Then I’ll go to Hamburg, then Bremen, then Xmas in Hildesheim...

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Injured James ponders life in a cafe in Copenhagen

Copenhagen - Malmo


Still in Copenhagen as you can tell. Why aren't I instead gallivanting around the city or other towns in Denmark you ask? Because I’ve been silly enough to injure my right knee and left calf, that’s why, being to self absorbed enjoying and walking the sights all over Copenhagen, I’ve overexerted my poor legs. Not to mention the sudden transition from hot Melbourne weather to cold Copenhagen weather has not been friendly to one's joints...

Not a good situation to be in, seeing that I’m supposed to be backpacking and all. Health is the most important thing to a backpacker, for without it you cannot really travel. Having said that, it hasn't stopped me and this Italian guy (Antonio) - who had sprained his ankle - from limping to the Carlsberg brewery for the free tour and beers, both limping on the right leg, arms outstretched, yelling "Beer!" in true Zombie like fashion!

As you can see I’m not the only one to have injured myself. In fact, a girl called Marta (Spanish) has injured her foot from walking too much, and Jason (oz) has lost all feeling in his right heel!

Anyway, Copenhagen is an awesome chilled out place. The city is quite sizable, full of gardens, lakes and canals, peaceful, laid back...the streets are clean, people are friendly, and the city at night is a sight to behold.

I love being in the main pedestrian street mall (1.6km long) at 5pm when it's dark, the smell of roasted caramelized peanuts wafting through the crisp cold air; hordes of shoppers in winter coats hustling and bustling past each other clutching shopping, dinner and Christmas presents; the vast multitude of Christmas lights adorning every nook and cranny, tree and building, colours of white, yellow, green and red, illuminating the clean paved cobblestones; buskers playing all sort of music adding to the festival like atmosphere... there's me, sitting by the fountain with a hot chocolate banana crepe in hand keeping me warm... indeed, these are the moments I truly live for, and appreciate more the beauty of life and what it truly is and has to offer if one were to stop and look, listen, touch, taste it...give life it's due attention, for it is surely a magnificent thing, life - a fragile flame so short, and easily, unexpectedly, and tragically extinguished before you know it.

Sights of Copenhagen include “The Little Mermaid” statue, the palaces and castles, the Carlsberg brewery with the famous elephant statues holding up the Carlsberg brewery tower...also the State of Christiania.

The State of Christiania was a "social experiment" run by squatters who took over a large area of land and the city's abandoned army barracks. What they did was turn it into an area that was outside the jurisdiction of the EU and Copenhagen itself - it has it's own laws, no taxes, people live there in free trade in wooden houses and broken down buildings decorated with artistic graffiti. Here you'd find flea markets, hippies, soft drug dealers (hard drugs were abolished years ago), dirt roads, no cars, the feeling you've stepped out of the EU and back in time. In fact, leaving the place you'd read a sign saying "You are now entering the EU". Clever.

Occasional police raids run through the area, but apart from that the state is pretty much left to its own. Probably due to it being a magnet for tourism.

Did a day trip to Malmo in Sweden with Marta, (Spanish). We caught a bus that went over the very long beautiful silver suspension bridge joining Sweden with Denmark,
I think the longest suspension bridge in the world, several kilometres long, indeed a work of art and ingenious architectural engineering... the waters are of artic white blue colour by day, pitch black at night.

Malmo itself is as chilled out as Copenhagen. The 3rd largest city in Sweden, it's the only city I know that has a picturesque open cemetery in the middle of the town square! The architecture of the place is exquisite, copper roofed ornamented buildings, bronze sculptures all over the place, the many bridges, rivers, canals, gardens...a small outdoor ice skating rink set up in one of the smaller prettier German looking squares under the large trees with it's boughs overladen with thousands of Christmas lights...a sea of large red candles - flames floating over the blackness of the grassy banks in the town square at night, awash with colour and light, is a sight to behold.

I meet a lot of interesting characters on my travels, because I have time left I’ll describe a few:

There’s a Japanese guy here called Nory, who speaks perfect English in true American accent. An ex-hard drug dealer in Washington, he's lived all over the world since the age of 4, from Japan to Africa to America to Europe. Only 18 years of age yet I find him to be a quite worldly, generous, funny character. He's going back to Japan soon to work on a farm. As you do.

Marta is the second Spanish person I’ve become quite good friends with after Erik ("Johnny Depp" look-alike from when I was in Lisbon last year). Marta looks a little like Penelope Cruz. Sorta. A great gal, friendly, a vivacious independent spirit with a good sense of humour - one could easily fall in love with her if you weren't careful. She lives in Pamplona, a final year architecture student with a passion for travel as her father is a ship captain who sails all over the world.

Antonio, as I’ve mentioned before, is not your typical Italian stereotype. A RyanAir steward, looks a little like Jude Law (me and my celebrity look-alike observations - it's your fault Emily! ), is witty, good natured, not sleazy, with a soft heart of gold. A good board game player, he was very sad to part company with us at the hostel.

Anyway, time is now running out, so I’ll keep you all posted on my whereabouts through the rest of Denmark and North Germany soon...


Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Back in the Other Side of the World.

I'M BACK!!!!!!!!!

Well, here I am again, back doing the backpacking thing again....after being back at home for 1 month!!

Of course, in true James style, something has to go wrong with my car the last days before leaving home. Last time it was a parking ticket. This time it was a car accident. I get to my car after my last night out in the city at 2am to find that someone had smashed the car parked behind mine, which in turn was crashed into the back of my car! Luckily the guy who did it was nice enough to leave their name and number, so it will hopefully sort itself out in the hands of my dad while I’m away for another year or so....

Anyway, had a very long plane trip from Melbourne to London, followed by an EasyJet flight to Copenhagen. Because I was flying the night before my birthday from Melbourne, effectively I had celebrated my birthday 3 times due to the time zone changes, 1 in Oz, 1 in Singapore (stopover), and 1 in London/Copenhagen! However, even though it mentioned the fact it was my birthday to many places in hopes for discounts, I got none! Except an extra bottle of red wine on the plane, but they are all complimentary anyway!! Oh well...

Cold. Dark. Wet. Christmassy. These were the first impressions of Copenhagen in my head as I arrived after a long trip from home. But I’m loving it. More on that in one of my big emails later.
I'm a little worried that a lot of hostels have closed for the winter meaning there will be many places where I won't be able to find a place to stay.
But I’m optimistic that things will work out...

So, plans for the moment are to spend this month in Denmark and north Germany, spending Xmas to New Year with Charlotte and family in Hildesheim, then fly back to Bristol to do some more work till my working holiday visa runs out in May...

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Greek Island Hopping and the Peloponese

Santorini - Foleganoros - Sikonos - Ios - Naxos - Paros - Antiparos - Athens - Nafplio - Mycenae - Corinth Isthmus - Olympia - Gythio - Areopoli - Monemvasia - Sparta - Mystras - Athens

G'day youse guys,

Greeks seem to have a distorted perception of distance/time. For example, Greeks never run buses on time - if it ever arrives that is - basically the buses will arrive when it feels like it! A bus arriving an hour later is not unusual. In fact, one should just ignore the timetables and ask the person at the bus ticket office when the bus will arrive.

Though this has it's problems too, as one person's perception of "5 minutes" is someone elses "20". Same with distance. As a general example I found that 200m=600m, 500m=800m, 800m=1.5km, 1.5km=800m, 2km=get a bus/taxi cause it's a 1hr walk!
Also, the more rushed you are to get to your destination to say, catch a bus (that will turn up on time only if you're in a rush), the shorter the distance they claim it is, and the further away the distance it really is in reality!

But Greece is an absolutely wonderful place!

Anyway... left Santorini to go to Paros with some friend called Dave (Canadian). Because the ferry had to stop at several islands (Folendoros, Sikonos, Ios, Naxos), we decided to jump off the ferry at each stop, take photos of each other standing on the island, then hop back on the ferry, so we can say that we had visited the island. From memory, Folendoros was a small rocky island with a tiny white village; Sikonos was a larger version of such. Ios was even bigger with a nice beach visible. Naxos was the biggest, looking a lot greener and mountainous too.

Paros is a smaller version of Naxos. However we arrived to find it pretty quiet - the Greek islands are now practically dead - there are almost no tourists around and most of the shops and hotels have closed for the coming winter. Also the weather has gotten a little chillier and windier (which is why I skipped Mykonos and Delos and went straight to Athens after Paros/Antiparos).

Anyway, me and Dave befriended an Aussie couple at breakfast in a cafe, which was good because they had a car, so we ended
up getting driven all over Paros and Antiparos.

Antiparos, a smaller island close to Paros, has beautiful white beaches and a stunning cave full of stalagmites which went way down into the ground into an abyss - apparently one of Europe’s best caves. Couldn't agree more. Then we went to the beaches, where we found the best rocks to skip into the water. We then built a tiny stone village and temple reminiscent of Stonehenge, and took a picture of it close up so it looks like an authentic ruin. Sorta.

Afterwards we went back to Paros and went to the marble quarries, where they mined all the marble for the ancient Greek temples and sculptures. Played in the quarry and the caves nearby like little kids, then drove to the highest point for spectacular views of the island at all sides, seeing the staggered rock fences along the contours of the island mountains.

Headed back to Athens the next day, where (again) I ended up with hostel folk on the large rock adjacent to the Acropolis, drinking red wine and trying to take photos of our silhouettes against the lights of the Acropolis.

Next day I left Athens for Nafplio, which is considered one of Greece's prettiest towns. It didn't disappoint. Towering over this little harbour town of earth coloured rooftops and white/yellow walls is a huge rock peninsula which on top sits Palamida Fortress. To reach it you have to climb up over 1000 steps. Up there one can climb over the ramparts and walls of the old fortress to breathtaking views of the town below. Nafplio also boasts a castle which is much lower and closer to town. The place is stunning at night when they light up the walls of both fortress and castle. And, if that's not enough, it has a nice pebble beach on the other side of the peninsula.

Did a day trip to Mycenae, which is the old ancient Minoan city where the great Agamenemon ruled. He was the leader of the Greeks against the Trojans in the 10 year Trojan war, where they were trying to get back the famous Helen of Troy, his brother’s wife, from Paris, who was a prince of Troy. As well as gain a bit more land too of course. Anyway, Mycenae has some impressive ruins, the famous Lions gate, the domed graves of Agamenemon and his wife with a almost Egyptian like triangular entrance portal, the circle graves, the old palace where Agamenemon ruled from...

Went to the Corinth Isthmus to see the beautiful man made Isthmus canal. This canal was made to create a shipping lane right through the Peloponnese, effectively separating it from the mainland and making it technically an island. The result is a narrow strip of bright blue water streaming in a straight line between tall white vertical cliff faces. Pretty cool.

Olympia was next on my list. There is pretty much nothing left of Olympia standing, most of it is just pieces of rubble, though the ancient gymnasium has a corridor of thin pillars standing which looks like something could have been there. Also saw the Temple of Zeus (the floor anyway, and one standing column), without the famous Gold and Ivory 12m statue of Zeus - one of the wonders of the Ancient World. Apparently the Greeks moved it to Istanbul to stop it from being destroyed through war, only to have it destroyed in Istanbul by fire. Greeks must be kicking themselves for that one.

Oh, also ran down the old ancient Olympic stadium, a large rectangular area of dirt/sand basically. And saw the Temple of Hera where they light the Olympic torch.

Anyway, went all the way south to Gythio, which is the port of Sparta. Very picturesque buildings line the harbour, as well as a causeway leading to a little islet where allegedly Paris and Helen consummated their affair before eloping and causing the start of the Trojan War. Some trees, some shrubs, a little Byzantine white church, an old medieval tower, and an old lighthouse currently sits on the islet.

Went down to Areopoli, which is a town in a region south of Peloponese called the Lakonian Mani, famed for it's stone towers dotted along wildflower covered coastline. No wildflowers due to it not being spring, but a nice enough town to walk around noting the architecture.

Then I went to Monemvasia, which is one of my favourite places I’ve been to! Staying in the town of Gefyra, which is a picturesque coastal town with nice beaches, one could look across the ocean to see a huge towering outcrop of rock sitting in the middle of the waters, with a causeway linking the two. Walking across and then behind the rock you come across a dark tunnel. Walk through the tunnel and you emerge into a beautiful semi deserted/ruined Byzantine town, which is hidden from view from the mainland. Couldn't stop taking photos of the place as it is very picturesque, especially climbing up to the top of the rock where an old ruined fortress sits. Most of the houses are in ruins due to a massive earthquake which separated the town from the mainland in the first place.

Went to Sparta, which is where I've always wanted to see after learning about the Spartan civilisation in high school.

The planting of vast multitudes of palm trees in an area where palm trees are not normally found does not detract from the fact that Sparta is a uninspiring boring town. The ancient Spartan ruins themselves at the north of the town are merely disappointing piles of rubble, with no entry fee, no staff, and no security (I climbed over the fence to get in because it was locked up - at 3pm!)

One thing did amuse me though, in the main square of modern Sparta there is a gym, right on top of a fast food restaurant! Crazy Greeks.

Did a day trip to Mystras nearby, which is a large Byzantium deserted city of churches, palaces and a castle on top of the mountain on which the town follows down the slopes to the fortified walls at the bottom. Quite fun to explore amongst the ruins along the dangerously broken down paths to magnificent views at the top of the castle walls.

And Now I'm back in Athens, for my last night in Europe (for a while), before heading to London to catch a plane back home to Melbourne.

So, thus ends this particular chapter of my life. It's been an interesting and memorable 14 months away from home, learning heaps about life, myself, and all that sort of thing that one sees on soppy Academy Award winning movies. Or something like that anyway...

Anyway, looks like I’ll only be home for over a month or so. My plans for the future are to go back to Germany in mid December this year for a German Christmas and New Years, then go back to get more work in Bristol, England until my working holiday visa runs out in May. I will then travel to Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Moscow, St Petersburg, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, possibly Norway, Denmark, North Germany, Netherlands, then back in England in time to start a teaching degree, which may last a few years including teaching in the UK for a while. Then who knows... Of course all this depends on time, money and luck, but fingers crossed hey?

Until my next adventure,

James Lee

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Central/South Italy

Florence - Siena - Rome - Naples - Mt Vesuvius - Herculaneum - Pompeii - Sorrento - Positano - Capri - Amalfi - Atrani - Ravello - Salerno - Paestum - Materna - Lecce - Brindisi


Hope all is well back home seeing I’ll be back there in 28 days? from now!!

Florence as mentioned in my last email, is a beautiful white marbled facade town, home of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is full of lovingly crafted marble sculptures and rare paintings, unfortunately contained within expensive museums such as the famed Uffizi gallery, which I had intended to visit but ran out of time (and patience waiting in the extremely lengthy queue of people waiting to see works of art such as Botticelli's "Birth of Venus".

Anyway, did get some amazing views of the city from above in an old monetary on top of a hill overlooking Florence, which also contained a beautiful old cemetery with elegant marble gravestones with vines growing on them and all that sort of thing.

Went to Siena the next day, a small town in Tuscany, where all the buildings are the colour of, well, siena. Probably due to the type of building materials they had available at the time, but I think secretly it's a good way to avoid having to wash the walls (they are filthy but the siena colour hides the dirt). No amount of rain (and indeed there was plenty of it that day!) could remove all the dirt caked on the walls. Nice Romanesque town though, with it's chocolate wedge like shaped/shaped main piazza.

Went to Rome next, a glorious city with a glorious past, shame about the people though. I've found that Italians can be either exceptionally nice, or exceptionally nasty! Got a 50 euro fine with other hostel folk at the train station because we had unvalidated tickets due to somehow accidentally bypassing and missing the validation machines there! Italian ticket inspectors are perfect incarnations of evil, no excuses or explanations are accepted!

Was lucky at least to be in Rome for this huge festival called "La Bianco Notte" (White Night) which was an one night only thing that went from 8pm till 6am! Watched "Cirque de Soleil" do spectacular circus stuff at the Spanish Steps, then with hostel folk enjoyed drinks at a bar in front of the Pantheon at 2am while people watching - Rome was heaving with people of all walks of life that night, moving around in all directions to watch other performances, bands and events going on. Ended up at an outdoor rave at the main train station which was fun!

Getting up the next day you would find Rome devoid of life till about noon when bleary-eyed people would emerge for lunch. The amazing thing was all the stages that were set up and the bottles and rubbish scattered everywhere last night had miraculously disappeared! The only time I’ve seen Italians efficient at something (besides brushing you off if they don't want to deal with you)!

Went to the Vatican and St Peter's Church again to warrant a better look than when I was here doing the Contiki tour last year. Turns out that, according to my journals, I visited the Vatican and St Peter's Church EXACTLY one year ago to the day! Divine intervention perhaps?

Also went to into the Colosseum because people kept telling me "you're in Rome, you HAVE to see the Colosseum! "So I did, and it was indeed impressive, though smaller inside than I imagined. Also had a good look at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, which is where all the ruins of Ancient Rome are located and you'll find broken columns here, a statue of a god missing a head there, and a lot of unidentifiable piles of rubble and buildings that were important at some stage in history but only get a sidewards glance today.

Checked out Bernini's famous baroque sculpture of Ecstasy of St Teresa, the only sculpture I know of a saint having a... well, an orgasm! Satisfied, from Rome I headed to Naples.

Naples is a city that you either really love or hate. The dirty streets with garbage filled gutters, beautiful views of the bay, high crime rate, very friendly people, broken down houses/apartments, good quality cheap food.... Naples is also the birthplace of pizza (so guess what I ate there?) It was pretty good, usually tomato paste, mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk, and fresh basil leaves.... also good (but not for the heart) is the deep fried cheeses, potatoes and rice dumplings they make! Bellisimo!

If you want a cheap thrill, try crossing the road in Naples. Drivers in their cars, buses, mopeds and bikes are crazy, and the trick to crossing the road is to not hesitate and just do it, making sure you look at drivers in the eye as you do so!

Went to Mt Vesuvius, which is a very large active volcano which caused the demise of the inhabitants of Herculaneum and the famous Pompeii. Went up to the very top to see the crater, which still had smoke coming up from particular areas. Great views of Naples bay and surrounding villages from there!

Then went to Herculaneum, which was remarkably well preserved having being buried under lava mud. You can walk through the old ancient fishing town and see colourful frescos, piazzas, shops and pubs as it was in that time. Interestingly some of the architectural styles haven't changed too much from there to some places in Europe.

Pompeii is pretty much the same as Herculaneum, only 5 times bigger, and contains an amphitheatre, more richer lavish villas/piazzas, and of course, the local brothel featuring mosaics of...well, use your imagination! Pompeii was one of those places I’ve always wanted to see as a kid so now I can cross that off my list!

Went down to Sorrento for the start of my Amalfi Coast adventure, the Amalfi coast is supposed to be one of the most beautiful coasts in the world, and it didn't fail to disappoint! Rugged cliff faces and coast line with white washed houses staggered on the edge, connected by a series of white steps, twisting narrow pathways and tunnels, opening up to small intimate piazzas, local houses, or the expanse of the cobalt blue Mediterranean sea! Though the sea is very salty and the beaches aren't very good (pebbles and black sand) - does not compare to Australia beaches at all!

Ok, so first was Sorrento, a popular resort town, but nothing as exciting as the other towns. Has a cool old mill at bottom of ravine and extinct waterfall.

Went to Capri, an island off the coast, with its famous blue grotto! Didn't go in, was more amused by watching petrified tourists lying flat in small row boats in turbulent waves as row men valiantly grab hold of a dodgy rope and pull them all into a tiny hole in the cliff face where inside lies a cave with water bright blue from the sun reflecting off the bottom. Views from the chairlift at the top of the island at Anacapri town were amazing! Also the famous Via Grupp road, a picturesque road meandering through the cliff wall, and the rock of the legendary sirens, though the only sirens you see today are the pretty topless Italian girls sunbathing on it...

Positano was another resort town, the most expensive and scenic part of the Amalfi coast, filled with designer clothes shops, restaurants and tourist shops that you can only look at but not afford to buy things from!

Amalfi (trying to keep this email short now) has a spectacular duomo cathedral with lots of Byzantine gold and mosaic influences, also contains the tomb of St Andrew the apostle.

Atrani has the cathedral that inspired M.C Escher with his famous "waterfall" drawing. In fact Atrani has a lot of Escheresque qualities to it.

Ravello, on a cliff on top of Atrani, has beautiful villas and gardens, once a residence of Wagner (this guy's been everywhere!), choral orchestral performances now perform in the gardens at dusk near the cliff edge with spectacular views and groves of lemon trees where they make their famous limoncello, a lemon flavoured strong liquor. Hic.

Salerno is the end of the Amalfi coast, nothing terribly exciting there, I only stayed there to do a day trip to Paestum, where you would find 3 Greek Doric temples standing in a middle of a field of poppies (when in season of course) and ruins.

From Salerno I went to Materna (rocky Basilicata region), which is a small town of stone houses (and cave lodgings) built on the slopes of a steep ravine, timeless, almost like living in a town in ancient Rome, most of it still hasn't got running water, electricity or gas as people were relocated 40 years ago due to Malaria epidemic and have only just started moving back in. The place seems almost deserted, with rock churches with Byzantine decorative motifs, and the place is stunning at night from the top of the Cathedral overlooking the town below...definitely a favourite of mine in Italy.

Went to Lecce, which is a small town at the heel of Italy, known for it's refined "Lecce Baroque" style, there is a church there with pretty cool gargoyles of mythical creatures and giants...

Then from Brindisi I went to catch a ferry to Corfu, after a turmulous start that will be part of next email...


Thursday, September 23, 2004

Austria and North Italy

Vienna - Salzburg - Innesbruck - ITALY - Verona - Bologna - Florence

Mamma Mia, Pizzeria!

Vienna, a peaceful relaxing city, with it's huge baroque/neo-gothic buildings of stone with Hungarian influences, lush green parks, beautiful art nouveau style coffee houses, buskers playing classical music on the streets, people dressed as Mozart trying to sell tickets to the opera...definitely one of my favourite cities!

I was thoroughly immersed with culture in the place, witnessing a live transmission of a Tchiakovsky orchestra playing in St Petersburg, projected on the screen in the striking neo-gothic town hall (which has a 2 metre knight in armour at it's pinnacle, as you do), to enjoying the buskers moving the crowd to tears (not enough to part with their cash however) with their beautiful haunting string orchestral music of Schubert, Brahms, Tchiakovsky and of course Mozart. Wandering through the city at night is a truly magical experience...

Consumed much Viennese coffee*, wienersnitzel, and bratwurst/kasekranner sausages (kasekranner is sausage stuffed with cheese) from the wurst stands dotted all over the city.

*Viennese coffee, like the baths in Budapest, originated from the Turks when they ruled this part of Europe from the Ottoman empire after the fall of the Roman empire.
However, what is interesting to note is that Bratislava/Slovakia, which is an hour away from Vienna/Austria, has really terrible coffee! What happened in that hour gap that turned the worst coffee in Europe to the best coffee in Europe is beyond me...

Went to Salzburg next, a very picturesque city of churches, white solid fortress on top of green lush hills with nice walking trails with beautiful views of the city especially at night, and pretty gardens and fountains. And lets not forget the Sound of Music movie settings!

Was considering doing a Sound of Music tour, but then decided it would be cheaper and more interesting to go to places on my own with some other people at the hostel. Went to see the Mirabella gardens where the children sing "Do Re Mi" (filmed some very inaccurate hilarious re-enactments with said hostel people on someone’s digital camera).

Also went to Schloss Hellbrunn (a baroque palace) mainly for its gardens with amazing trick fountains that some sadistic king with a sense of humour (sounds like a cool bloke) made to get his guests wet for the fun of it! Basically the fountains would spray water at you from unforeseen locations when you least expect it, no matter how much you prepared yourself for it! Marionettes and music would play in different areas of the garden, all powered by water pressure!

Also saw the Gazebo where Liesl sings "I am 16 going on 17". Unfortunately it was locked so no leaping on the benches inside for me! Then went to Schloss Leopoldskron which features the house from the movie and the lake that the children fall into. Unfortunately I couldn't go in and sip pink lemonade on the terrace balcony as it's private owned now...

Also went to a beer hall in a monetary! to enjoy dangerously cheap 1L steins of beer made by the monks there. God bless them all!

Innesbruck was next, a little town surrounded by huge Austrian alps. Saw the famed solid gold roofed emperors terrace, kinda ordinary actually. The old cobbled streets lined with baroque facades and lavish signs were more interesting.

Bought a postcard that says "There are no kangaroos in Austria". Heh heh heh.

Then I went to Italy....

Ah, fair Verona, a beautiful old Italian city, surrounded by red walls, bridges, old palazzos and villas, and also a huge open roman amphitheatre where operas are held. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is set there, based on a real life story of love and feuding powerful families. I saw Juliet's house/balcony, where the walls are covered with lover’s graffiti and paper notes with love messages stuck with chewing gum. I left a note that says "To my love, I love you always, From your love, me. xx" (look out for it if you ever visit Verona).

Romeo's house, on the other hand, is basically a huge wall and a door. Guess no one cares about poor Romeo! (except Juliet of course)

The hostel there is an old villa with beautiful gardens, left there by an old man who's dying wish was to turn his villa to a youth hostel so that poor backpackers like me can enjoy Verona as much as he did! That was nice of him. Unfortunately the people running it aren't as nice, as (with most youth hostels in Italy) they kick you out from 9:30am to 5:30pm, and curfew is 11:30pm!

Bologna, a striking red city featuring "The Two Towers" - two red Romanesque towers, one tall, the other short and leaning much like the leaning tower of Pisa. Bologna also has 40.5km of arched porticos and arcades, and a vibrant student population and nightlife!

But the main reason I went there was for the food!!!**

**Bologna is where Lasagne, Tortellini, mortadella, and of course, Spaghetti al Raglia (Bolognese) was invented!

Had to try the spaghetti Bolognese of course, it was beautifully cooked pasta, not undercooked or soggy, with minced meat - little disappointed with that as I heard real Bolognese was diced stewed proper meat cubes in sauce, but can't complain.

Also discovered the best gelataria in the world ("Sorbeteria della Castilligone"? I think it's called), where they make the stuff in front of you! Tried a flavour called "Michelangelo", which was a almond cream with roasted almonds coated with sugar! Also another called "Cassato Sicilian" with ricotta cream, dried fruit and melted chocolate! Bellissimo!* Everyone who visits Bologna raves about it (much like the "Schwarma Queen" kebab shop in Salamanca, Spain)!

*I found that speaking Italian can sound really clichéd, especially when saying words like "molto bene", "bellissimo" or even just "capische?". Though never heard anyone say "Mamma Mia"!

The overly expressive musically sounding Italian is more noticeable in the middle of Italy, whereas in the north the way they speak sounds very much like Catalan (Barcelona Spanish).

Italian men seem to be very aggressive/annoying in trying to seduce foreign women travellers. But they get their own back because the beautiful Italian women seem to like playing with and humiliating the Italian men who try to seduce them! Because they can.

Also, Italians seem to have no concept of personal space! You can sit on an empty train and someone (usually smelly) will come up and sit right next to you! They also seem to love talking to themselves out loud (just like I observed the French do)!

I arrived in Florence on a cloudy rainy day, so it wasn't as spectacular as when I was there last year. "Saw Michelangelo’s David" for free with some hostel people as some of the museums have special nights where entry is free from 8:30pm till 11:00pm! Saved myself 10 euros that way! It was pretty cool, though I thought David's hands were a little big, but then what do I know about art? Then the power cut off and we had to leave (due to a thunderstorm).

Anyway, off to Siena (I think) tomorrow!


Friday, September 3, 2004

Slovakia and Budapest

Poprad - Levoca - Zavolen - Korytarky - Banska Bystrica - Kosice - Budapest (Hungary) - Eztergom (Hungary) - Sturovo - Bratislava

Dobre den!

In Vienna at the moment. I can't believe I’ve been travelling for a year already (left 6th September last year), time has really flown by, and I’ve seen and learnt (and eaten/drunk) so much! Not long before I head back home though, in less that 2 months....

Slovakia. A beautiful country, it doesn't matter which city or town you are in, you can always see some mountain or hill in the distance. Coming from Poland through the high tatra mountains of Slovakia was a highlight, with enormous mountain peaks and sheer cliff faces amongst dark green forests. Slovakian people however don't really pay heed to it, they are so used to seeing and living in a location where us folks would pay lots of money to "get away from it all" on holidays.

Poprad, a small industrial town with nice enough town square, was an overnight stop to catch up on sleep lost in Poland, and also a good place to do a day trip to Levoca, a beautiful walled town with a pretty renaissance town square, also a cage of shame where criminals would be locked up and be made fun of in the middle of the square. Was tempted to go in but it was locked.

Next day I went to Zvolen to meet up with Jana, (my Slovakian ex-girlfriend from when I was in UK). We were well behaved this time for once, and remained just friends. Anyway, she took me to her home to meet her parents (always a scary experience), but her non-English speaking parents took quite a liking with me, in fact her mum even asked Jana to marry me! Boze Boze!*

Anyway for the next three days I learnt a lot of Slovak and was fed with vast amounts of traditional Slovakian countryside food (as Jana actually lives in a small country village in the middle of nowhere called Korytarky, surrounded by - yes you guessed it - hills and mountains!) her mum prepared (as she is a cook). Amongst the many things tried I liked halusky (small potato dumplings with soft cheese and bacon bits), and my favourite, harula, which is pretty much like a large savory hash brown. Dobru Chut!**

Went to Banska Bystrica, got a haircut for 1 euro by psycho Slovak woman, also saw a Slovakian folk dance performance. I love watching folk dancing, the women dancing around with handkerchiefs, the men with sticks they would swap and jump over etc, the Slovakian hat swapping dance is funny and fantastic! The women would occasionally scream/yelp in high-pitched Xena warrior princess like fashion while dancing, weird.

Jana took me to a disco in Zavolen called ";Culture Forum of Fun", apparently the second best disco in Slovakia, people would come from all over Slovakia to go there. It was pretty cool, drinks were cheap (for me anyway), and I pretty much danced all night, before leaving Jana and friends to go to Kosice.

Kosice is a beautiful peaceful town and one of my favourite chill out towns. Beautiful architecture of many styles with Hungarian influences, a huge opera hall, and a tacky but lovely musical fountain dancing to 80's music (really grooves to Mariah Carey's "Endless Love")! Looks more beautiful at night with the coloured lights also changing colour to the music.

Went into Hungary next to visit Budapest, which is pretty much my favourite city in Europe (along with Berlin). A huge beautiful city, actually two cities - Buda and Pest - joined by bridges. Buda the affluent leafy hilly (pot smoking) city with castle, caves and Turkish thermal baths; Pest the working traffic filled city with the enormous spiky parliament building, more thermal baths, parks and another old castle surrounded by a moat, quite a romantic place I imagine especially in winter when the area in front becomes an ice skating rink and the castle turrets are covered with snow...

Spent a good day with people at hostel in the thermal baths, the hot greenish mineral laden water so relaxing, the baths I went to also had some outdoor pools, one featuring a whirlpool which was fun doing superman impressions in!

Tried Hungarian goulash. Spicy, hot, saucy. yum. (just like the women you might say?)

Wasn't fortunate enough to witness good Budapest nightlife. We were trying to find this squat bar/club (semi illegal bars owned by people who squat in abandoned buildings and transform them to night spots). Unfortunately because they are semi illegal they are hard to find, all we had was a general area and that it had a "red door". Of course we ignorant tourists never found it!

Left Budapest (but I will be back some day!!!) and went to Bratislava, crossing the border on a bridge by foot from Eztergom (which has the largest church in Hungary - it's huge!) and Sturovo, a small town on the other side of the Danube river. (You save 50% if you go to the border towns and cross by foot than get trains/buses that crosses countries).

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, sometimes referred to as "little Vienna". Quite small for a capital, feels more like a big town, filled with interesting metal sculptures, old renaissance buildings and, according to fellow travellers and confirmed with my eyes, the largest number of beautiful girls found in any given town/city! Velmi pecny***

Stayed a little longer in Bratislava for the Coronation Ceremony of some Queen or something. Whatever it was it was lots of fun watching comedy acts, historic/folk dances, fire breathers/twirlers/jugglers, sword/weapon/gun fights, and the best part, an actual jousting competition where "knights" would charge at each other with blunted lances to knock the other of their horses! Unreal! Unfortunately no "We Will Rock You" crowd singing/thumping AKA "A Knights Tale" (I make too many references to movies in these emails).

Well, back in Western Europe now, where everything is expensive and I have to live on eating kebabs and other cheap junk food to stay under budget...


*Slovak for "oh my god!"

** Slovak for "Good Appetite"

***Slovak for "Very pretty"

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Jelena Gora - Wroclaw - Krakow - Witzlicka Salt Mines - Ausztwitz - Birkenau - Zakopane...


I'm actually in Kosice, Slovakia, recovering from a night of partying and no sleep in a famous nightclub in Zavolen with Jana and friends. But this email is about Poland.

My entrance in Poland was rather unexpected. I was trying to decide whether I should go to Wroclaw (Poland) or spend longer in Czech Rep via Ostrava and then straight to Krakow. So I asked the guy next to me at the internet cafe what he thought. He told me that he was actually working in Poland and as the border was 15km away, asked me if I needed a lift there as he was going there in 20 minutes. So I said "sure why not?"

Crossing the border was scary as I hadn't fully researched whether Aussies can go to
Poland without a visa after the joined the EU in May. Even the guards weren't sure but
after a 5-minute wait while they made phone calls they gave me the thumbs up. I was in!

Alec (the guy who picked me up) is a Slovakian linen factory owner (owns 2) in Poland.
Anyway, he basically paid for everything for me that day - he ended up taking me to lunch, then we went swimming in a posh hotel pool in the Sudeden mountains, and then he brought a couple of friends with us for dinner and lots of drinks around the outskirts of Jelena Gora.
I even met the Commander of the Polish forces in the Iraq war (nice guy)!
There I also had my first taste of Polish vodka! And second. And third. And...

Woke up the next day in his spare bedroom in one of his factories, after more vodka and conversation early in the morning. He dropped me off as close as he could to Wroclaw while he went to a meeting. He also offered me some work when I come back to spend proper time in Poland next year.

Wroclaw is a beautiful city, with nice river islands, churches and a pretty Flemish like town square with all manner of buskers and street performers, some amazing, others terribly embarrassing to watch!

Went to Krakow next, which is more beautiful and bigger than Wroclaw, with a huge town square and a wild nightlife which left me sleep deprived constantly (I always got home around 6:30am when the clubs closed).

One night I ended up climbing up a rope left dangling in a nightclub onto the top balcony to the sounds of Polish clapping and cheering. Why I did it I don't know, but apparently I was the first to do it. Possibly the last too.

Polish girls also have a thing for fake solarium suntans which look awful in my opinion!

Seems like 80's music has only just reached eastern Europe by the sounds of it playing everywhere, on the radio, buses, nightclubs, bars etc...

I am getting some good cultural experiences, seeing Polish folk dance performances, one evening was watching an outdoor orchestra, ballet and 5 brilliant tenors singing in the main square in Krakow.

Went to the Wiezlicka salt mines which apparently are a big tourist attraction, attracting 7000 people a day to the underground salt mines where everything (floor, walls, ceiling, sculptures) are all carved out of the solid rock salt, and 131 metres underground there is a beautiful chapel that took 3 miners 63 years to carve out (they could have just hired some more people!!).

Also went to see the concentration camps at Austzwitz and Birkenau, where you can see evidence of the huge extermination factories (gas chambers and crematoriums), and possessions of all the murdered people such as combs, shoes, glasses etc in warehouses. They even had huge bags of female human hair which was used to make fabrics during the war. Human nature at its worst.
It's not surprising to discover Polish people are very bitter against the Germans.

My last night in Poland was also quite unusual, as instead of going to Zakopane, I spent the day looking after an English friend (Paul) who was ill from food poisoning, at the hostel, with his Polish girlfriend (Vicky). Ended up leaving the hostel and staying with her and Paul in one of her friend’s flats (who wasn't there) in the middle of a ghetto in the Jewish quarter of Krakow, sharing a room with two pet pythons and a turtle! Cooking toast by holding bread with forks over a gas stove was an funny experience...

Vicky got me to try some Pierogi (polish dumplings filled with cheese and potatoes). Yum.

Other foods I got to try are Bigos (stew with sauerkraut, different meats and anything else they feel like throwing in), Golacbki (cabbage stuffed with rice and meat), zurek (sour soup), and barszsz (beetroot soup). Yum Yum.

Next day I went to Poprad, Slovakia via Zakopane and the high Tatra mountains, a beautiful huge mountain range of rugged mountain tops, forests, lakes, etc that I wish I had time to explore.

Anyway I’ll write about Slovakia (and Budapest) soon.

James needs sleep now. Sorry if this email is all over the place...

Do widezia!

Monday, August 16, 2004

Czech Republic

Prague - Cesky Krumlov - Cesky Budejovice - Telc - Brno - Moravian Karst - Hradec Kralove - Kutna Hora - Sedlers Ossuary - Trutnov - Adrspach - Teplice

Dobre den,

Forgive me (prominte) if this email is weird, recovering in Wroclaw (Poland) with a hangover from last nights Polish Vodka in a bizarre twist of events that ended up with me crossing the Czech border into Poland sooner than expected and staying in a factory owned by a rich linen factory owner in Jelena Gora. But that's my next email.

Anyway, Czech Republic.

I lost count of how many times I said to myself "What or how on earth did I end up here?" - some spur of the moment planning and coin tossing and I found myself in places where I was the only tourist and having to rely on my bad German to compensate for my worse Czech. Fun though, and well worth it!

I got stung by a huge wasp on my backside upon arrival to Prague! Grrr. Thing about Czech Republic is that there are bugs everywhere, I must have had every kind of insect crawl over me when reading in the many nice parks around the country! I also remember a family playing soccer, with me lying in the middle of the field!

Anyway, Prague is a beautiful mystical untouched city, even Hitler refused to bomb it during the war. There seems to be some mystique about the city, but that could be just the haze that floats around the famous Charles bridge with the statues at early dawn or late at night. Whatever it is, the flood of tourists there never ceases, which makes it harder to appreciate the bohemian green and gold domed city properly without having to hear the whine of an American voice for the 100th time asking stupid questions, complaining about the weather, and stating the obvious!

Interesting note: The city of Prague is apparently laid out the same way as Jerusalem - the Temple of Solomon however is replaced with a park, but the street layout is the same!

Went to the castle, which was nice but a little overrated (or maybe I’ve seen too many castles before). Somehow snuck in for free when the (American) crowds went home at 6pm.

I've been drinking too much beer in Czech Republic - it's all good, and it's the same cost to buy a 0.5L beer* as 0.2L coke, so even if you don't want to drink beer, it seems more economical to do so!
* A 0.5L beer is 20CK, or 0.80 euros!

The nightlife in Prague was disappointing. In fact in Czech Republic most places seem to close early and the streets are usually empty at night. Or you go to a discotheque.

Went for a swim in a lake somewhere in Prague. Was lucky to find it. Also discovered a swimming pool in the middle of nowhere, in a field surrounded by trees and rocky hills/cliffs and frequented only by locals.

Went to Cesky Krumlov next, which is a pretty little village town (also full of tourists) with a castle and a very loopy river that almost works as a moat around the town. A nice place to relax, spent most of my time reading and sleeping in the park and watching people rafting, swimming or floating on tyres down the river and rapids.. Also had some nice traditional goulash with the best bread dumplings ever!

Had a Budweiser in Cesky Budejovice, which is where they make the famous Czech Budweiser beers. The old large renaissance town square is pretty, with the town hall featuring evil looking dragon heads and statues...

Somehow ended up in Telc, which I’m glad because it is very picturesque and I’m a sucker for old small towns (population 6000) surrounded by bodies of water (which is why Annecy is my favourite town). The gothic turned renaissance town is incomplete, some buildings are missing its baroque decorations because the person designing it died before it was finished and they left the town as is.

Brno was next, the capital of the area known as Moravia (Prague is capital of Bohemia). A nice city, with heaps of sculptures of angels lining doorways or holding up fountains. The churches in Czech Rep are filled with beautiful marble and gold sculptures of cherubs etc that come out of the walls so much you think you freeze-framed them flying around the church altarpieces and paintings!

Saw the Olympic opening ceremony with people at the hostel in a bar, and we played drinking games when the athletes walked in (take a drink for every country starting with "C", wearing green, has a union jack, or an athlete using a video camera. I can't believe so many countries started with the letter "C"!). Inebriated afterwards, we went to a discotheque, hot, crowded, and full of pretty Czech girls who can't speak English. Lots of fun though.

Went to the Moravian Karst, an area north of Brno filled with limestone caves, mountains and gorges. Went into Katarinska caves and the famous Punkenski caves which contained beautiful stalagmite filled caverns and a boat cruise in the underground river which was fun! They also had a thing for playing classical music in some of the caverns to show off the acoustics...

Left Brno for a random destination which turned out to be Hradec Kralove, which looked like an ugly town from all the high rise concrete buildings around it but entering the small town centre you can see some stunning colourful gothic-turned-baroque buildings (as seems the case with many small towns in Czech Rep).

Kutna Hora was next, a pleasant little silver mining town where you can go into the mines themselves in hand chiselled corridors so small you think dwarves mined there!

Also saw the infamous Sedlers Ossuary, the bone church decorated with the bones of 40,000 people - they even made a spectacular chandelier and coat of arms out of them! Morbid and has moral implications but amazing nevertheless...

Went to Trutnov, a nice gothic turned renaissance town, to stay the night before heading up into the Adrspach - Teplice rocks, which is a series of natural rock pillars, caves and mountains amongst lush forests reminiscent of scenery from "Lord of the rings". It is a spectacular place, and hiking 12km through narrow rock crevices and caves, climbing up rocks, walking across broken bridges with missing planks and trails barely distinguishable amongst the dense forest is the most fun hiking trail I’ve been on!

Then I (unexpectedly) went into Poland..

Czech Republic in a Nutshell

Trying to keep this short now (as a lot of it is written above anyway)..

Ah, the Czech Republic, a place where the cheap best quality beer flows aplenty, the grass is green and the girls are pretty!

Czech Republic is a beautiful country filled with gothic turned baroque/baroque towns with green domed buildings and cathedrals in flat grassy plains, with the occasional outcrop of rocks and trees containing beautiful scenery and rock formations/caves.

The people are quite laid back with a silly sense of humour and quite friendly, but English speaking is rare outside of Prague. I had to rely on my German a lot.

The Czech language as you know is very difficult to learn, so if you ever go, just learn to say this:

"Pivo, prosim" (Beer please)

and then;

"Dekuji" (Thanks)

Lost count of the number of curious stares, smiles and giggles I got from people when I walked past them. An Australian-Asian with a big green backpack walking through the centre of a predominantly Czech population has that sort of effect I guess.

One last thing to note: It doesn't matter which town you are in the world, it seems there is ALWAYS a Chinese restaurant there somewhere!

Best city/town: Prague, Telc, Cesky Crumlov

Worst city/town: Trutnov (cause I need to choose one)

Overrated Attractions: Prague Castle

Hidden Gems: Adrspach-Teplice Rocks, Moravian Karst

Food and drink: Goulash, bread/potato dumplings, Pilsner Urquell, Budweiser and many local beers...

Cool people met:
Josephine, Falkor, Alec, Robert (Germans - Prague hostel)
Trevor (Canadian - Prague hostel)
Eric (American - looks like a viking - Prague hostel)
Kylie, Tyrone (Australians - Cesky Crumlov hostel)
Two Finnish guys whose names I can't pronounce or spell (Brno hostel)

Best thing about Czech Republic: The beer!

Worst thing about Czech Republic: The wasps and bugs!

Na shledano!

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

East Germany

utherstadt Wittenburg - Leipzig - Dresden


Yeah I know I wrote a long email 2 days ago, but I'm now in Prague, Czech Rep, so heres the rest of Germany:

The east of Germany is of stark contrast to the other places I have been to in Germany. Gone are the medieval towns and pretty baroque villages - What we have instead are desolate towns with broken down houses, damaged walls/streets, construction work everywhere and bleak looking buildings. The countryside is also quite flat and filled with grass fields rather than hilly forest mountains and valleys that I’m used to seeing..

But East Germany is a cultural and fascinating place!

Lutherstadt Wittenburg is the town where Martin Luther did most of his work starting the Reformation and the Protestant movement, after nailing his 95 theses to the monetary door. The 95 Theses was basically criticising the Pope and cohorts for "selling indulgences" that is, people can commit sins but be forgiven if they give the Church money.

Apparently there is a movie coming about Luther, starring oddly enough, Ralph Fiennes, who looks nothing like him (Luther is big and blonde, Ralph is scrawny and has a goatee)!

Met a German guy at the hostel with two guitars and sheet music. So somehow we ended up playing/singing duets to the kids that were in the hostel all evening! It was quite fun!

Leipzig has a very Melbourne feel to it, with its beautiful arcades, gardens surrounding the city, the cultural book and music influences, and the big bar and cafe culture within. Which is why I felt quite at home in the place. Though there was construction work everywhere, I still managed to enjoy a string quartet performance in front of the church where Bach is buried, and see the famous settings for Goethe's "Faust"

Left Leipzig with a German girl called Natasch via a car hitching service (which cost us 5 euros whereas train would have cost 16 euros). Got picked up by a nice German couple who drove us through the scenic route to Dresden, which wasn’t terribly exciting because it was all grass fields. On arrival, me and Natasch bought some dinner, beers from the supermarket, rented bikes, and rode down into the old town of Dresden to see the sunset over the famous Augustbrucke bridge, Elbe river and the old beautiful buildings of Dresden illuminated with the street lamps from the grass river bank opposite with our beers.

A stunning panorama! Augustus the Strong, who was the Saxon King, had a love for architecture and made Dresden a marvel to behold! Murals of porcelain adorn buildings of baroque and neoclassical design, many pitch black with dirt over time, sculptures of marble and gold, and green bronze domes decorate the skyline.

Dresden is described as "Florence of the North", but I think of it more as "Paris of the East"!

Germany in a Nutshell

Germany is a wonderful country, with varied countryside and towns ranging from colourful medieval half timbered houses on cobbled streets amongst mountainous terrain, dense cool forests and river valleys; to sprawled out cities with large pedestrian malls, to communist era style bleak or war damaged buildings and streets on flat grassy plans... Germany is an outdoor country, that is, there are so many places to hike and wander around the countryside discovering hidden towns amid romantic settings. However one does need a car to fully explore Germany as many places, despite Germany's modern up to date society, are not easily accessible by public transport.

German people are stereotyped as serious efficient people. Efficient is correct, as everything they make they base on common sense (train system, BMWs, Mercedes, Protestantism, etc). As for being serious, it is actually quite the opposite - Germans are generally cheerful friendly optimistic people always willing to lend a hand if they can understand you. Which most can, as a high percentage of Germans speak English. Germans also feel a sense of shame for the actions of their countryfolk in the past during the wars, and worry that foreigners judge them unfairly because of it, thinking of Germans as "close minded" Nothing is further from the truth.

Germany is known for its beers, but less known for its great coffee and bread rolls (brotchen) which are often sprinkled with different seeds. Germany is also known for the numerous types of sausages they have, some of them raw (yuk!), but most of them tasty and filling, served with mustard and often with bread, fries or potato salad. And a beer. Of course.

Germans have a fondness for Eis Cafes, (ice cream cafes) which are found in practically every main street or markt in Germany, particularly the small towns. Really nice ice creams too! But never understood why they have something called Spagetti Eis, which is ice cream shaped to look like Spagetti with tomato sauce. It's not wrong, it's just different!

Annoying thing about Germany is their stupid church bells, which ring not once, or twice, but ring for 5 minutes non-stop, which can drive you insane!

Beautiful country, friendly people, delicious food and beer, Germany is definitely a country I could see myself settle down in the future!

Favourite places: Berlin, Celle, Wernigode, Hildesheim, Hameln, Dresden... the list goes on

Worst places: Bad Karlshafen

Best building/monument: Neuschwanstein Castle

Overrated tourist attractions: Goslar, Rudesheim

Underrated Gems: Bacarach, Wernigode, Charlotte...

Cool people met:
-Lynn (my "CEBIT coffee gal" - CEBIT)
-Giulia (German girl - CEBIT)
-Gunter (German guy - Berlin, CEBIT)
-Charlotte (German girl - Germersheim and CEBIT)
-Grace (American Phillipino girl - Nuremberg YHA)
-Scott and Margot (German couple - Hildesheim)
-Scott, Mat and Christine (Americans - Wernigode YHA)
-German guy with guitar - never got his name (Lutherstadt Wittenburg YHA)
-Natasch (German girl - Leipzig & Dresden)

Memorable/Funny moments:
-Octoberfest (which I can't remember too much of - Munich)
-Getting lost in Hanover at night with Geoff and Guilia after trying to take a shortcut which ended up in a field an hour later! (CEBIT Hanover)
-Partying with German, Swedish and Australians at Beer Hall at CEBIT (CEBIT Hanover)
-Trying to "seduce" Loreley instead of the other way around (St Goar)
-Being in a car driving on the bicycle path towards oncoming highway traffic at night! (Heidelberg)
-Cooking with Grace at 3am with leftover free food from the backpacker’s pantry and fridge. Still don't know what was in it but IT WAS GOOD! (Nuremberg)
-Playing/Singing guitar duets with German guy for kids at YHA (Lutherstadt Wittenburg)
-Watching sunset and the city lighting up with Natasch and beer by the riverside (Dresden)

Foods tried: All kinds of sausages, kartoffosalat, saurakraut...

Beverages tried: All kinds of beer, from the Bavarian Weissbeer, to Colognes Kolsch, to Berlins Pilsners!

Cultural experiences: Bavarian Beer Halls

Best thing about Germany: People, Food, Countryside

Worst thing about Germany: Expensive inconveniently located Youth Hostels.
TIP: Stay at Backpacker hostels instead!

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Central Germany

Fussen - Hohenschwangau - Neuschwanstein - Nuremberg - Bamberg - Wurzberg -Gottigen - Hameln - Hanover - Hildesheim - Goslar - Wernigode - Lutherstadt Wittenburg


I'll try to keep this short...

Fussen is a pretty baroque little town south of Germany near the Austrian border, a pleasant town that people usually go to because they want to see the Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles in the mountains nearby. And with good reason to, as the castles are extraordinarily beautiful - Neuschwanstein being the castle that is the inspiration for the castle for Disney.

The fairytale castles are designed by the insane King Ludwig II (which explains why it is so brilliant). Neuschwanstein is the most beautiful castle I’ve seen, and its interior is just as stunning as the exterior - romantic renaissance styled wall paintings and murals, carved hardwood furniture and adornments... the throne room itself designed like a golden basilica with astronomical motifs on the done symbolising heaven, mosaics of plants and animals on the floor representing the earth, and a enormous gold and coloured glass chandelier in the form of a crown representing the king being in between! And the view from the marienbrucke over the waterfall and gorge overlooking the castles on top of the mountain is a sight to behold!

Nuremberg is a beautiful city, with old stone and wooden romantic bridges over the river, the hauptmarkt, the square where the famous Christmas market is held (I’d love to come back when its on with the snow and the lights and people bustling about). It's amazing how almost the whole city has been reconstructed lovingly to almost it's original state before WWII bombed it to rubble only 60 years ago. Nuremberg is also full of history - the site of massive Nazi propaganda and rallies were held there, as well as the foundation of the first International Court of Human Rights, trialing Nazi war criminals for crimes against humanity after the war.

Bamberg is also a beautiful town filled with stone and wooden bridges and baroque buildings. The monetary on top of the hill has a dome which is covered with, oddly enough, paintings of 110 types of herbs!

Wurzburg boasts its stone fortress on top of a hill with amazing views of the vineyards and the town below. The Baroque cathedral is amazing!

Gottigen is a small university town that has a famous fountain of a bronze girl, apparently the most kissed girl in the world because every doctor who graduates there has to give her a kiss on the cheek! Got into a sculling competition with some graduates. I lost (of course)!

Hameln is famous for the Pied Piper legend/fairytale, where a colourful character with a pipe leads the rats in the town to drown in the river, and then leads the children of the town out to a place where they are never discovered again. There is historical evidence that there was the strange sudden disappearance of 130 children in the area, which is creepy. Anyway the town itself is stunning with colourful baroque and medieval buildings and references to the fairytale everywhere.

Hanover was nice to revisit. It was the first town I visited travelling solo, and my impression of it is of stark contrast to what I thought originally; what was a large confusing city has become a small comfortable city, which shows I’ve gone a long way from when I started as a lost confused inexperienced traveller. I even discovered the old town which I never knew existed, with the red brick cathedral and architecturally unusual rathaus (town hall).

Was planning to meet up with Lynn (who I met at CEBIT) but I couldn’t get in touch with her, so I went to plan B, which was going to Hildesheim.

I fell in love with Hildesheim, the people there are the friendliest people I have ever met in my travels.

I got a lift from a family from the train station to the youth hostel (which was very far away), then walking back I got lost and asked an old couple who walked me halfway to the city centre, then having dinner in the beautiful markt watching with everyone else two musicians playing blues, a couple joined me and ended up paying for my meal and driving me back home! The town itself is pleasant, with churches of varying styles dotted around the pedestrian shopping malls and the reconstructed historical centre (unnecessarily bombed at the end of the war) which is stunning!

After Hildesheim I went to Goslar, a tourist town for its mining history and the surrounding Hartz mountains. The medieval city is beautiful, but not as beautiful as Wernigode, where all the houses are colourful medieval houses with a fairytale out of this world rathaus, and a romantic stone castle on top of a forested hill with great views below...

Eastern Germany I’ll write about soon, then I will go to Czech rep, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary!

Friday, July 2, 2004

Germany - Rhine and Black Forest

Cologne - Koblenz - St Goar - Bacarach - Rudensheim - Wiesbaden - Mainz - Germersheim - Speyer - Heidelberg - Freudenstadt - Freiberg - Constance - Meersburg - Lindau

GutenTag Alles!

Before I start I must answer a few things that people keep asking me. Firstly, No, I am not fat after eating my way through Belgium!

Secondly, yes I would love to do travel writing (thankyou for your compliments), but don’t know any publishers or editors. So if anyone knows of any let me know!

Anyway, left Brussels and arrived in Cologne, which has an excessively large gothic cathedral, Romanesque churches, and a very impressive outdoor shopping mall filled with gallerias, clothing stores, cafes and restaurants. A shopper’s paradise it seems (though Dusseldorf nearby apparently has more fashionable/expensive shops).

Went to Koblenz next where I was to start my Rhine river cruise. (The Rhine by the way is apparently toxic so swimming and fishing is not recommended, which is a real shame)

The Rhine river cruise was a lot of fun, passing by beautiful cliffs, picturesque medieval houses and romantic castle ruins along the way. There are also lots of vineyards, which I have no idea how they manage to grow on what looks like infertile rock faces on very steep inclines facing the river.

The cruise took me from Koblenz to Rudensheim, passing through and hopping on and off several riverside towns such as St Goar and Bacarach.

Portugal is full of walled towns, Spain has cathedrals, France has arrogant people - I mean Chateaux’s, Belgium has colourful Flemish architecture.....and Germany has its medieval painted wooden villages! These riverside towns were all medieval in character, filled with wooden houses and cobbled streets and vineyards. Bacarach is extremely beautiful and a real surprise as its not visited as much as the other tourist towns of St Goar, and Rudensheim - known for its famous narrow cafe/restaurant lined street which really is quite ordinary (I saw a nicer version in Brussels).

The odds of having "Waltzing Matilda" being sung/played to you by a Slovakian duo who is famous for playing Austrian folk music in Japan in a pub in Rudensheim is usually very remote. But it happened!

Anyway, also passed by the Loreley rock, which is well...a rock. Actually more a cliff face. The Loreley is a siren, a mythical woman who used to sing and seduce sailors to their deaths by drawing them in with her enchanting voice and having them crash into the rocky cliffs to drown.

Every year the area nominates the prettiest girl in the area to act as the Loreley, and with her minstrel, they are supposed to board the ferries and sing and dance to tourists. Anyway I thought it would be funny to try and seduce Loreley (instead of the other way around). Her minstrel was not impressed (I think he harboured a secret attraction to her). Anyway, turns out she is actually from the Czech Republic, as are all the Loreley girls in the past! Must be due to cheaper labour, because there certainly is no shortage of pretty girls in the region (particularly south in Wiesbaden/Mainz which is where I went to next.)

Wiesbaden and Mainz are two cities divided by the Rhine river, both equally pleasant towns with a large red cathedral in each (the one in Mainz full of skeleton statues and scenes of death which I found quite odd.)

Germersheim was next, to meet up with Charlotte, a pretty German girl who I met earlier this year when working at the CEBIT exhibition in Hanover. Charlotte also became my girlfriend during my stay in Germersheim, who I am still crazy about and was very reluctant to leave behind!

Germersheim is a small university town full of single nice girls and not many men. Which I had no problem with! Germersheim also boasts a fortress built “recently” to defend itself against no one (because who in their right mind would want to take over Germersheim?).

Charlotte took me to Speyer, which has a famous cathedral (why that is I don't know) with a copper dome roof that had turned jade green in the rain. We had fun making up silly translations for the murals on the walls that were in Latin...

Was taken to a university party in Heidelberg with her and 3 other girls (lucky me!), and somehow we got lost and ended up driving on a bicycle path towards oncoming traffic on the highway!

Heidelberg (which I had been to before) is a very beautiful town nestled in a valley with pretty houses dotting the landscape. The romantic ruined reddish castle sits up high overlooking an old stone bridge which me and Charlotte crossed to get onto the famous Philosophers Path, which is a series of winding steep stairs and pathways through overhanging trees and vines that philosophers of old walked about pondering the philosophical thoughts etc. It is also a glorious vantage point overlooking the town below.

Left for the Black Forest next. Or at least tried to. I've discovered to make the most of Germany's countryside you really need a car and a lot of time, both of which I do not have! So I think I will have to return to Germany at some later stage and drive around preferably with a friend, to do the Black Forest, Romantic, Castle and Fairytale roads...

Anyway, caught a train into the Black Forest region to Freudenstadt (meaning city of joy) which should really be called Leerstadt (empty city) as there was hardly any life in the area, in fact I was 1 of 4 people staying in the hostel! Freudenstadt boasts the largest market square in Germany and that’s about it. Caught another train to Freiberg. The train trips allowed me to go through the Black Forest so I did get to see some nice hilly, forested countryside and houses....

Freiberg is a beautiful town, with a bit of a Swiss feel and oddly Flemish architecture within. There are also little canal gullies in the streets where water would gush from some unknown source into some unknown destination, the likes I’ve never seen before.

Went to Lake Constance next, which is a huge turquoise coloured lake bordering Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Was planning to stay at Constance but the youth hostel was full, so caught a ferry to Lindau*, stopping off at Meersburg.
*The YHA in Lindau was also full so stayed in a pension. The problem I’m facing at the moment is getting cheap accommodation as it is the peak tourist season and all the cheap hostels are booked solidly with loud students and annoying kids!

Anyway, didn't really explore Constance but it seemed like a nice place. Meersburg is a photographer’s delight, all the medieval houses up a steep cobbled road to the two castles of different architectural styles (one old medieval, one new baroque) overlooking the lake itself!

I am still in Lindau Island at the moment, which sits in the Lake itself with beautiful views around and cool crystal blue water which I have spent the day with my feet in the water with some ducks reading a book and relaxing before I head of for Fussen tomorrow....

Ok this blog is too long so I’ll stop here! Tschuess!

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

(How I ate my way through) Belgium

Bruges - Ghent - Antwerp - Brussels

I'm currently eating my way through Belgium.

Left France to enter Bruges, a beautiful town, which is pretty much an open-air museum with all the old lavishly ornate Flemish style buildings with step ladder like roofs and sculptured decorated facades to the minutest detail to the point that even park benches look cool!

By a stroke of luck and timing I ended up meeting up with Arwen, a good friend back from Melbourne, who happened to have just started working at the famous Bauhaus hostel I ended up staying at!

Was offered a job to work at the hostel there myself (free food, beer, accommodation, small pay) which I would have accepted if I didn't have to go home in October for my brothers wedding.... oh well, no reason why I can't come back next year....

Anyway we ended up walking and catching up around the cobbled town seeing the sights, somehow avoiding being run over by bicycles and horse drawn carriages, and eating. In one afternoon we had strawberries, a tub of ice cream and Belgium chocolates in the park, then went back to the hostel and had fries, pizza and beer (stopping on the way home for some yummy sausages in a kiosk in the main square).

Enjoyed some Belgium waffles covered with bananas and melted chocolate. Yum.

We did a day trip to Ghent, which is a more realistic city than Bruges, a student town with lots of Flemish architecture, castle, and the cathedral containing the famous Flemish painting "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" (which sounds like an ideal smashing pumpkins song title). And yes we ate some more.

Reluctantly I left Bruges after 3 days to go to Antwerp.

Had some moules met frites (Mussels with Fries), which was a very large serving (took me over an hour to eat it all), very delicious, and very expensive.

Looked at the diamond shops in Antwerp around the Jewish quarter where the streets are full of Jewish people dressed with their black coats, hats and hairstyles. The weather in Antwerp is strange as it would rain one minute, then be sunny the next, then both at once. Actually that sounds like Melbourne....

Went to Brussels next.

Do you know the famous Australian "Land Down Under" song by "Men at Work"?

"Buying bread from a man from Brussels,
He was 6 foot tall and full of muscles
I said 'do ya speaka my language?'
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich, and he said
'I come from the land down under....'"

Well I tried to replicate the same thing, and the closest I got to it was this result:

"Buying waffles from a girl from Brussels,
She was quite petite with too much makeup,
I said 'Spreek U Engels?' (Flemish for "Do you speak English?")
She just stared and then gave me a confused look, and she said
'Non, Francais!'"*

It seems that only the north of Belgium speak English and Flemish, and the south of Belgium speak English and French. (Which was annoying because I finally learnt the word for "please" in Flemish (alstublieft))

Anyway, Brussels, like Antwerp, has a nice Grotte Markt (Main Square) of beautiful Flemish guild hall buildings of gold and lavish decorations. Also saw the Manniken Pis, which is the famous statue of a boy peeing and is apparently the best-dressed statue in the world with over 700 costumes made for it. Obviously the Belgiums have too much time in their hands...

Stayed with Francesca, a Canadian girl with an Irish accent (who I met travelling in Blois France), in an attic flat with a terrace that you get to by climbing through the window. Anyway on my last night in Belgium yesterday I went with her and her friends to a party that went on all night and as a result I am writing this in a sleep-deprived state (in Cologne, Germany). So apologies if this email seems a little surreal...

Belgium in a Nutshell

Belgium, like Portugal, is one of those countries that no one thinks of visiting but is an absolute gem! Most people in fact pass through it on route from Amsterdam to Paris which is a real shame because they will be missing a country with beautiful colourful Flemish architecture, cathedrals that all chime musical pieces, friendly people and 1,000+ types of beers (700+ breweries), chocolates, waffles and large servings of frites with mayonnaise! Belgium people love their frites, a slow pleasurably way towards heart disease I’m sure...

Belgium is a country where you can just sit around all day doing nothing, and if you blink you'll find yourself having spent a couple of days in one place without having actually seen anything around the town. Mainly because the towns and sights are pretty small and you think that "oh I’ll just hang around the hostel sleeping and relaxing because surely it won't take too long to see everything" and then the next time you look at your watch it says 4pm and you've seemed to have skipped lunch. Not that I’ve been having proper meals, I’ve pretty much been snacking all the time here....

Belgium people have a very laid back attitude to life. For example in customer service they will act as if you're not there, doing their own thing until you actually speak to them, and then suddenly you exist! They are also extremely complacent; for example if litter flies from their table onto the floor they'll leave it there - if a person rides a bike into a wall they'll look and then go on their merry way...

Gotta love Belgium.

Favourite place: Bruges

Worst place: Brussels (only because I have to choose a worst place)

Best meal: Moules met Frites (Antwerp)

Worst meal: Stale Falafel sandwich (Antwerp)

Best nightlife: Brussels

Best building/monument: Bruges is a open air museum of its own

Overrated tourist attractions: Manniken Pis

Underrated Gems: Ghent

Cool people met:
-Arwen (But I already know her from home)
-Staff from Bauhaus Youth Hostel (Bruges)
-Staff from Boomerang Youth Hostel (Antwerp)
-Francesca, Jess, Patrick, Chris (Brussels)

Foods tried: Frites, waffles, Frites, Monsieur Croquets, frites, sausages, frites, mussels with frites, Frites, chocolate, frites, frites, frites!

Beverages tried: Too many types of beers (Duvel, Hoegaarden, Jupiler, Westmalle, Leffe, De Koninck, Palm, to name a few)

Cultural experiences: Beer drinking, waffle eating, frite eating, being lazy...

Best thing about Belgium: The food and beer!

Worst thing about Belgium: The frequently changing weather!

Anyway, next destination is through Germany, through the Rhine to the Black Forest Road to Romantic Road to Fairy Tale Road to Dresden then into the Czech Republic!


Wednesday, June 9, 2004

North France

Paris - Blois - Chambord - Cheverny - Le Manns - Rennes - St Malo - Mount St Michel - Dol - Bayeux - Arromanches - Longues Sur Mer - Omaha Beach - Lille


I’m using a stupid Belgium/French keyboard so forgive my poor rushed writing...

Paris was my next destination from Lyon, which I’ve been to before. But I wanted to spend a couple of days there doing things I didn't get to do the first time I was there, such as see the catacombs where the bones of millions of Parisians were piled, the Pere Lachaise cemetery where the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are buried, the Moulin Rouge, the Louvre to see Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo... I find Paris is very much like Berlin, in that it has just as many sights and is just as big, but is missing a certain "je ne sais pas" about it, and it is way too touristy! Therefore Berlin remains my favourite city in Europe (Annecy my favourite town)...but so many cities yet to visit...

I was lucky to see the Olympic relay torch runner run right past me, as I was just wandering aimlessly around outside the Louvre looking at my map when all of a sudden people started forming a line around me and the next thing I knew this French guy with the Olympic torch comes running past a few feet away from me cheering!

Anyway, spent a day in Versailles, with its grand chateaux and the impressive gardens where I was lucky (again, I must be blessed) to arrive in time to see the fountains turned on and music playing, which only happens for two hours on the weekends!

Went to Blois next. In Blois everyone is nice and the town a little backward even though it's a tourist place, there is one bus to the youth hostel every day at 6pm but several coming from it. Go figure! Blois is a pretty small town in comparison to its neighbour - Tours. Blois also has a chateaux and a really tacky house of magic - I recall seeing a dodgy gold dragon head coming out of the top story window and looking about with sinister music playing - which was enough to convince me not to go in.

Went to see two famous Loire Valley Chateaux’s close to Blois, Chambord and Cheverny. Chambord was quite impressive outside with its many terraces, shires and gardens, but the interior was quite plain. It also has a double helix staircase apparently designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, which consists of two stairways twisting around each other, which is pretty cool. Cherverny on the other hand was ordinary on the outside but lavishly decorated on the inside.

Chateaued out, I left Blois for Saint Malo, which is a nice walled port town with great beaches and peaceful atmosphere. On route to Saint Malo I stopped in the towns Dol, Le Manns and Rennes, both quite pretty in its Bretagne province style medieval houses and streets. I wish I had more time to go through the rural towns of Bretagne...

Went to Mount Saint Michel, which is a hill island connected to the mainland by a causeway, with a huge abbey on top and walled ramparts circling up the hill reminiscent of Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings! The island itself is surrounded by water only at high tide - at low tide it is surrounded by sand and in some places, quicksand! It was quite scary walking around the island trying not to step in quicksand.

Went into Normandy to Bayeux to see the D-Day Beaches that I’ve always wanted to see!

Typically not much can be seen today of the remains of WWII, just a few bunkers at Omaha beach (Sorry Tim, couldn’t find you any bullet souvenirs on the beach), the American cemetery, huge gun batteries at Longues and parts of an artificial port at Arromanches. Rode an old French push bike (that sounded like a rusty tank) there with some American friends Brendan and Anna and after riding uphill 50km the whole day against the strong wind and some rain I never want to ride a bike again, for at least a while! We were so exhausted that we ended up catching a taxi back once we got to Omaha beach, which cost 57 euros! But it was still fun and well worth it, and cheaper than any of the guided tours on offer; plus we got to see some cool Normandy countryside!

Bayeux is the only town in Normandy not to have been destroyed by bombs during WWII so it is in preserved original condition. The cathedral is quite pretty, and I also got to see the famous Bayeux tapestry which is 70m long and 1,000 years old, depicting the story of William the Conqueror and demonstrating why if people break their promises they will get bad karma. Or something like that.

Went to Lille next, which is quite pretty, with a bit of a Flemish feel to it. With it’s three main plazas next to each other it is like one big plaza full of activity, especially stunning at night when the lights go on and you get to wander the streets or sit under the upside down trees in one of the plazas (yes that’s right, upside down, suspended in mid air!).

Now I am in Bruges in Belgium, having by a great stroke of luck and timing just met up with Arwen, a dear old friend from Melbourne. But I’ll write about Belgium next email...

France in a Nutshell

France is surprisingly cosmopolitan with a large Asian and African population, mainly due to the French colonies of Indochina and some African countries. As a result, Chinese restaurants and Kebab places abound. As stated before, two facets of France exist in contradictory harmony: pleasant affluent classy areas full of snobby people, and seedy areas mainly inhabited by immigrants, all in the same clean wide streets and leafy boulevards, old city quarters and grand plazas full of outdoor cafes where people sit facing the middle of the road or plaza watching and judging people.

The stereotype of snobby French people reigns true; but then if you are stuck with having to eat frogs legs and snails instead of say, paella, sangria and tapas, I’d be bad tempered too! Also, calling French people "frogs" makes some sense when you listen to the way they speak French in a throaty croaky kind of way!

If Spain is the place to party, France is the place to chill out the day after.

Favourite place: Annecy

Worst place: Toulouse

Places with best views: Carcassone, Grenoble, Annecy

Best meal: The food at the Marseille Youth Hostel

Worst meal: Ham and Camembert Sandwiches that got warm in the hot weather in Toulouse

Best nightlife: Lyon

Best beach: Marseilles

Best building/monument: Annecy in general

Overrated tourist attractions: Paris, Toulouse

Underrated Gems: Annecy, Lyon

Cool people met:
- Bruno (French guy with gift of drawing Manga comics (he drew me one) - Bordeaux YHA)
- Flannigan (American girl I spent till 3am in the dark talking to - Bordeaux YHA)
- Karla and Ali (Mexican twins - Marseilles YHA)
- Emma (Eccentric English girl - Marseilles YHA)
- Owen (Crazy Irish guy - Marseilles YHA)
- Kay (English girl - Marseilles YHA)
- The staff at Grenoble YHA
- Marta (German girl - Annecy)
- Sheryl and Nadia (Australian girls - Lyon YHA)
- Francesca and Mina (Canadian girls - Blois YHA)
- Anna and Brendon (Americans - Bayeux YHA)

Funniest moments:
- Owen when drunk
- Scheming with Emma on how we could con an expensive restaurant into thinking we were international food critics (it sounded like a good idea at the time as we had too much to drink)
- The night in Marseilles with Owen and Kay that ended up with us hitch hiking, walking around seedy areas and sleeping on pavement outside YHA at 5am
- Karla’s reaction to a local speciality biscuit tasting in Marseilles (She spat it out and asked the chef if they liked it cause she found it awful. Oddly enough the chef agreed)
- Being unable to find the 50km sized lake in Annecy despite Annecy being such a small town and being led by Marta, getting lost in the wilderness instead.
-The "great" bike ride through Normandy D-Day sights

Foods tried: Snails, baguettes, paninis, glaces, 10 out of 366 cheeses in existence in France...

Beverages tried: Too many wines, 1664 and Kronenberg beer

Cultural experiences: Cafe sitting, wine drinking, riding dodgy bike through countryside...

Best thing about France: The buildings, streets, boulevards, chateaux’s, wine...

Worst thing about France: The people

Anyway, gotta go, Eurocup final on tonight (Portugal vs. Greece). Go Portugal!

Sunday, May 30, 2004

South and Central France

Bordeaux - Toulouse - Carcassone - Montpellier - Marseille - Avignon - Grenoble - Annecy - Geneva - Lyon

Bonjour mon amis!

Sorry for not writing sooner, I’ve been quite busy gallivanting around and Internet access is also quite expensive...

Due to indecisiveness, most of my travels through France has been decided on a toss of a coin.

Anyway, from San Sebastian I flipped a coin, and ended up in Bordeaux.

Ah France, country of good wine, 366 types of cheese, arrogant rude French people, beautiful French women with ugly French boyfriends... France is also surprisingly full of Asians from Indochina, and Moroccan kebab shops.

I think France has two facets to it: the clean beautiful city centres with the arrogant beautiful snobby French people; and the ghetto urban African and Asian slums where hip-hop, skateboarding and seedy looking graffitied streets reside.

French people tend to also talk to themselves out loud all the time. And even when you tell them you don't understand French, they will still talk to you continuously in rapid French as if you do understand!

Speaking of talking to oneself out loud, I’ve noticed after travelling for so long and being on my own, that I’m doing the same thing, as well as getting slightly more eccentric. I have a tendency to think questions to myself in my head and then answer them out loud as if I’m talking to someone. For example, I would suddenly say out loud "Nah, I reckon I should head down that way instead" in the middle of the street.

Anyway, Bordeaux is a pleasant city, should really be called the City of Portals because of the number of beautiful huge archways and gateways into the city. Did the typical "sit-in-sidewalk-cafe-drinking-coffee-writing-in-journal-watching-people-go-by" thing that French people do, which I enjoy doing quite frequently for long hours everywhere I go now.

Did a winery tour of the St Emillion wine region near Bordeaux. Wasn't too bad, got to see a Bordeaux wine chateaux and try their wines...Also went to see the Medieval town of St Emillion itself with it's "monolithic" (the tour guide loved that word) church which is built underground carved from the limestone of the earth itself!

Flipped another coin and ended up in Toulouse, which wasn’t as nice as Bordeaux. It is called the "villa rose" because of the pink architecture within the city square. Though I think it looks more like apricot to me. But then the "villa abricot" doesn’t have the same ring to it doesn’t it?

If you want to go see a walled castle town, go to Carcassone! Carcassone has 87 towers, an inner and outer wall surrounding the town, all in preserved and complete condition. It really is quite impressive up on the hill, especially at night when the lights illuminate the walls. Thankfully there are no MacDonalds in the castle walls to ruin the effect (though they exist outside the walls).

Flipped a coin to Montpellier, a pleasant young student city, where everyone just seems to sit in the cafes in the main squares and drink, eat, and chill out. I've noticed that most sidewalk cafes tend to have their chairs facing the street, which means that if you are the only person walking in the middle of the main plaza you can feel everyone’s eyes looking at you, and more unnerving, judging you.

Another coin flipped and Marseilles I went. Marseilles in comparison to Montpellier is a large gritty city, but the best thing about Marseille was the best cheap good quality meals you can order in the youth hostel! In fact it’s the best food I’ve had in France surprisingly, and people who have stayed there can testify the same thing! What was also fun was buying a bottle of cheap French wine each after dinner from the grocery store, and drinking it on the beach down the road to the sound of people playing rhythmic bongo drums and skateboarders on the ramps.

Marseilles is renowned for being dangerous and seedy, but having managed to hitch hike, buy kebabs from a seedy area surrounded by prostitutes and drunk men, and sleep on the pavement outside the youth hostel all in the middle of the night, I don't think it was so bad (how I ended up doing all that is a long story).

Went to If Island to see the Chateaux d'If, which is the fortress turned prison island famous in the Count of Monte Cristo book. It was pretty overrated and boring.

Left Marseille (and just missed the famous Marseille International Skate Boarding Competition by a day ) to go to Avignon.

Avignon is a pretty walled town containing the former Vatican headquarters and the Avignon Bridge from that really famous annoying French song that I couldn’t get out of my head while I was there - "Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse l'on y danse..." Drove me insane.

Went to Grenoble next. Grenoble is an ugly city surrounded by beautiful French Alps. Went up this transparent bubble cable car to the fortress on top of the mountain for stunning views. The youth hostel was fun, got invited to a staff Moroccan theme party and all I know is that I'll never look at a carpet burn the same way again. Anyway, if I had more time I would consider working in a youth hostel because they can pay you in cash, you get free accommodation and food, and its a great way to learn a language and culture of a place.

Met a German girl called Marta on the train from Grenoble to Annecy, who was happy to me on a tour of Annecy. However because we got too distracted from talking that she accidentally led me out of the town into the middle of nowhere! But as an example of how things always seem to work out in the end, we actually found the youth hostel nearby which is where I needed to go anyways.

We almost had a fling except I knew she had a boyfriend back in Germany and I didn’t want to ruin it for her. Stupid morals!

Anyway, Annecy is my favourite place in France if not in Europe - it is gorgeous! It has a stunning blue lake with the Alps in the background, with a pretty river canal with flowers and beautiful houses and cafes lining it. There is not much to see besides that, but I could just sit in an outdoor cafe soaking it all in all day (which I did).

Went to Geneva in Switzerland next. Went to the UN headquarters which was pretty interesting, and also checked out CERN (Centre European of Research Nuclear) with the huge super conductor collider which basically is used to smash atomic particles at light speeds to replicate the big bang and learn about how the universe was created. Interesting only if you are a nerd like me.

Geneva, despite being in Switzerland, has more of a French feel to it. And it seems to be full of Irish pubs!

Popped back into France to Lyon. Lyon is a pretty cool lively place, reminiscent of a kind of mini Paris actually. It even has a stunted smaller version of the Eiffel tower there! There's also cool statues of painted lions all over the place, which probably explains the name of the town (Lyon = Lion?). Anyway, wanting to see the cultural nightlife of the place, guess where we ended up? An Australian pub! Oh well, that's the last time I let Canadians lead where to go. Tonight we might have a little more luck...

I'm meeting heaps of cool people, Canadians, Australians, Mexican twins, and English girls. It's kinda sad having to say goodbye to people you may never see again. As someone once told me, "in travel you make really strong short friendships with people that end as soon as you leave".

Anyway, Tomorrow I head for Paris, followed by Loire valley, Brittany, Normandy, then Belgium and then Germany!

A tout à l’heure !