Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Home sweet home

Well after 3 flights, about 20 minutes sleep at the Madrid airport and a super fast shopping and ambiencce soaking up expidition around Hong Kong, I finally made it home nice and early this morning, yay :)
So, the final tally for anyone who's curious;
8 flights
16 corresponding panic attacks
20 trains (not counting all the inner city trains or we'd be here all day)
8 countries
16 town/cities
far too many bottles of that same damn red wine at La Alberca
lots of museums
more kilometres walking than I care to count
and 1 amazingly good time

Thanks everyone for bearing with my ramblings for the last 6 weeks. Next year is the US and hiking the Camino Santiago.
Adios, dag, auf wiedersehen, ciao, au revoir and goodbye until then :)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Pretty brief this one as I covered Madrid pretty thoroughly last time I was here so this visit I’ve mostly been using to catch up on sleep. After returning from Segovia on Saturday and taking a quick nap, headed to the Prado art gallery as it is free after 6. Spent about an hour wondering why they don’t just call it the Goya gallery since there are at least 14 rooms dedicated just to his works. Really enjoyed the El Greco pieces though and also found some more beautiful Roman style sculptures before giving up and going back to the hostel for an 11 hour nap.
Met a few of the PI girls in the morning for a quick coffee and found our way to the sprawling street markets around La Latina. Did a little shopping and a lot of browsing and then found a pub for a glass of gazpacho and a quick lunch. Spent the rest of the day just chilling and repacking my bags for the final time. Met the girls again in the evening as we had planned ot visit the Reina Sofia gallery but unfortunately being Sunday it had closed early so went for a quick walk around the park.
Caught up with Tim back at the hostel and met a few of the guys for dinner and drinks while occasionally being deafened by the people fixated on the Barcelona v Madrid soccer match on the telly behind us. Headed back to La Latina which had by now become a massive street party with people wandering through the crowd selling cheap cans of beer, heaps of food stalls, some pretty crazy dancing and a bunch of carnival games…also bingo which was a little obscure. Hung out and drank and danced and chatted for a bit, then with the always exciting prospect of 2 travel days with no sleep rapidly approaching, said my goodbyes and headed to bed.
After Tim’s less than stealthy departure from the dorm in the early hours of the morning (there is now a Tim shaped dent in the locker:P) checked out and joined my final free walking tour from Plaza Mayor to fill in the last few hours before heading to the airport which firstly involved climbing over the 100 odd bags that had been stuffed into the luggage room infront of mine, and battling my way through all those pesky young Pope fans to find the bus stop J

Sunday, August 14, 2011


So after finishing up at Pueblo Ingles and enjoying a fun, rainy night out in Madrid with a few new friends, got up early(ish) and eventually got myself to the correct train station to visit Segovia. Did not realise that the train station is actually way outside of town so I was a bit disappointed to arrive and find nothing but paddocks, picturesque though they were. Hopped on a bus into town itself, which was considerably more impressive.
My first stop was the Roman aqueduct which was probably the most impressive water pipe I’ve ever seen.  It dominates the skyline anytime its visible and is in surprisingly good condition given its age. Next I found the beautiful gothic cathedral, building of which started in 1525, but the building wasn’t consecrated until 1768. The artworks in the cathedral were unique amongst all the others I’ve seen in that along with the paintings, there were also quite a lot of detailed, almost lifelike statues, mostly depicting the gorier aspects of the bible. What I especially liked was that amongst those blatantly ignoring the no photos signs which were up everywhere, the highest number snapping away with their cameras were nuns :P (so of course I figured if they could get away with it…).
Headed down through the windy streets and perched right at the edge of a valley found Alcazar, a castle dating from at least the 12th century and which was the inspiration for the Disney castle. Toured the beautiful rooms many of which featured exquisite decorations on the ceilings and in one room a highly detailed frieze depicting all the Asturias, Castille and Leon monarchs. Climbed the 152 stairs up to the top of the tower for a pretty spectacular view over the city and the surrounding farm lands and then spent the rest of the afternoon roaming aimlessly among the narrow cobblestone alleys until it was time to head back to the train.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

La Alberca

Okay, quick higlights summary of my time at Pueblo Ingles in beautiful La Alberca as I only have half an hour of free time and then its back to talking. Firstly, just to make you all jealous ;) the hotel is lovely, the pool is awesome, the food is ridiculous and the scenery is gorgeous. The weather has been sunny and warm all week and the people are great.

Spend all day talking, eating, talking while eating, drinking while talking and eating, and then we go to the pool and repeat the whole process in the afternoon. Had a big party on Tuesday night which was followed the next morning by a walk into the actual village of La Alberca.

So the village is heritage listed and the buildings are all maintained in their original styles. There are religious inscriptions above many of the doors and one was a torture house during the Spanish Inquisition and they found a shackled skeleton in it when renovating a couple years ago. It is also on the Camino pilgrimage trail (expect to hear more about that over the next year cos thats going to be worked into my next big trip). There is also a town pig which roams freely around the village and is fed and housed by everyone, and every year they kill it and hold a raffle to see who gets the meat and the proceeds go to buy the pig for the next year. The other pig in town is a concrete statue outside the church and if you go there at midnight and touch the pig's testicles (which are pretty hard to miss :P) you'll have a baby 9 months later so we all steered clear of that end of the pig.

We visited a bodega to sample some wine (well sample's the worng word since its the same wine we drink copious amounts of at every single meal) and some fresh sliced jamon. Got to try drinking from a bota which is a traditional bottle for drinking wine which is actually very difficult to do because the wine coumes out very fast, but is very fun and quickly turned into a competition to see who could keep drinking the longest. Mostly though, the trip to the village was exciting because everyone has got sick at some time this program starting with Tim who lost his voice the first few days, followed by almost everyone copying him a few days later so I can now say with certainty that if you walk into a store in a tiny Spanish village and buy 7 packets of cough lollies, you will get stared at :).

Last night was an exciting night for wildlife as we were standing outside the bar listening to one of the Anglos sing when someone noticed hte stone next to them start moving. It was actually a huge toad and there was extensive discussion about whether it might be poisonous or not before it finally hopped(ish, it was quite a lazy toad) away. I then headed for my villa and found a huuuuuge spider in my bathroom. Luckily my housemate was still at the bar cos I do believe I screamed like a little girl before finding my thongs and using it to practice my karate moves, then moved my bed into the middle of the room just in case anything else was lurking in the curtains :P

Today is our last full day here and we head back to Madrid tomorrow afternoon :(
hanging on La Alberca

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Back to Bareclona

About 10 minutes after the train arrived in Barcelona, a bunch of guys on the metro immediately initiated Susan into the not so exclusive club of people who’ve been pickpocketed before they even get to their accommodation (something like 75% of tourists get robbed on their first day in Barcelona). Luckily after about 3 minutes of shouting, one of the other 30 people on the train realised that we weren’t going to let the door close so the train could leave until something was done, and with their subtle retreat somewhat foiled by all the commotion, a helpful Samaritan managed to retrieve the camera from the a-holes (the rest of the people on the train who sat there and did nothing are free to get bent) and we made it to the hostel with all our belongings intact for a well earned sleep.
I got up for an early morning train station visit to book my seat to Madrid which took all of about 10 minutes (compared to the 2 ½ hours I spent at the same station last time) and then after breakfast, we headed out to explore. Headed to Park Guell, the park estate designed by Gaudi at the turn of last century but abandoned and now left as a city park full of mosaics, bizarre buildings that seem to have grown up out of the ground and beautiful ironwork fences and gates. Can’t imagine what it would have been like had it gone ahead as originally intended but was very nice to wander around up there enjoying the sunshine and the view of the city from the top of the park was amazing.
Did a little shopping and returned to the hostel where I was finally able to do my laundry (and there was great rejoicing) while we had a picnic lunch in Plaza Rieal and went for a bit of a wander through the gothic quarter. Enjoyed a little siesta while I repacked my bags with clean clothes for the first time since I was last in Spain :P
Just to compare notes with the one I visited in Amsterdam, checked out Barcelona’s Erotic Museum which houses a much smaller collection but generally along the same lines (Amsterdam's definitely the best one to go to just in case anyone was wondering). This one obviously draws a much smaller crowd as it advertised a free drink and wi-fi as part of the ticket to lure in more people. Enjoyed our free drinks in the lovely courtyard in the centre of the museum, and then carried on shopping and sightseeing through the gothic quarter until we found our way to a tapas restaurant for a tasty dinner and huge glass of sangria.
Has been so lovely having Susan to travel with over the last few days but sadly we split up tomorrow morning and I am heading for Madrid to meet Tim and spend a week at Pueblo Ingles. A whole week in the same place, gonna be sweeeeeeeeet J
exploring Park Guell
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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

French Riviera

Had a nice train ride to Nice (haha, get it, try the veal folks) and headed up to the hostel. A few hours later Susan arrived, yay! Had a few drinks and split a pizza while we caught up and then turned in for the night. Yay for a real conversation finally (hostel conversations rarely count as they mostly consist of “Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? Nice talking to you”). Enjoyed the free hostel breakfast and sorted out our train tickets to Barcelona in record time before jumping on the train to Monaco.
Really beautiful town set between the harbour full of huge yachts and the mountains. Hiked up to the Prince’s Palace, the official residence of the ruling family and did a quick tour of the lavish formal state rooms which were all very creatively named (Yellow room where there was yellow wallpaper and so on) and filled with numerous artworks and portraits of the Grimaldi family. There was a beautiful portrait of Princess Grace and the interior courtyard was covered with frescoes. The views over the city from up at the palace were just spectacular as well. Kind of saw the changing of the guard (bit like in London, you need to get there and look at nothing for 30 minutes before if you want to see anything other than the tops of their helmets) and grabbed a quick lunch at a cafĂ© in one of the alleys behind the palace.
 Just down the street from there was the Monaco cathedral which was rather interestingly decorated with a mix of the usual classical religious artworks and a range of brightly coloured modern abstract pieces. Found the graves of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace and then headed back down the hill and up the hill on the opposite side of town. Up here was the Monte Carlo area with all the designer shops and a lot of Porsches, Ferraris and all that stuff. Headed into the casino foyer but you have to pay 10 Euro just to go into the gambling rooms but I’m sure its lovely in there if the foyer was anything to go buy. Pretty warm and worn out by then so crammed back on the train and jumped off at the nearby town of Villefranche.
Just from the train station the view of the beach was absolutely amazing with clear blue water and white sands and sunbathers (many topless) lying about everywhere. Hiked down to the beach and discovered at least part of that was an illusion as there was no sand to be found anywhere but rather all small gravel. It was smaller gravel than any of the other beaches in the area so as advertised as being sandy, and at least you didn’t have to spend 10 minutes trying to get the sand out of everything when you left, but can’t imagine it would have been comfortable for the hours of lying on it that must have been required to achieve the levels of tanning/sunburn that most people down there had done. Headed into the water which was beautiful and really deep. 2 metres off the beach I couldn’t find the bottom even by diving down, makes a big change from Adelaide beaches.
Enjoyed the beach for a while and then took a little wander through the markets that popped up at the edge of town, lots of funky jewellery. Squished back onto the next train and back up to the hostel for a very yummy dinner.
That just left us this morning to explore Nice so dropped our bags at the train station, despite the best efforts of the snooty luggage room attendant to thwart us, and then started walking. Found a really beautiful Russian Cathedral nearby and had a wander along the incredibly rocky beaches on Nice’s coast which alternated between free beaches and paid areas covered in sun lounges and umbrellas. Headed into the old town for nutella crepes and eventually tracked down the fruit and flower market which probably had more soaps, olives and paintings than flowers but very interesting all the same. Currently on the second of 3 trains to get to Barcelona where, I’m really praying there is a laundry cos still haven’t quite got around to that as I keep finding surprise clean clothes buried in the depths of my bag…which is extra confusing as I swear that my bag is getting lighter and easier to pack as I add more stuff to it. Maybe I’m just getting more awesome :P
overlooking Monaco
dried fruit at the flower market
Russian Cathedral

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Having heard all manner of horror stories about the queues in Florence, set out very early and eventually found the quite drab Galleria Dell Academia a few minutes after it opened and joined the other unorganised folks in the line for people who hadn’t called ahead for a reservation. Settled in for a long wait despite being only having about 12 people in front of me (2 of whom had also been in my Vatican tour group) and so was quite surprised when we all got let in after only a 10 minute wait. Headed straight for Michelangelo’s David which is just amazing, and was nice to get there while the gallery was still relatively quiet too because the several times I went past it later you could barely see the base of the statue). Stood around admiring for a bit and then had a quick look around the rest of the gallery which mostly houses religious artworks and a collection of early musical instruments. Stopped by to admire David a few more times before I left, I dunno what it is but even though you’ve seen it a million times before and there are at least 2 full size copies around town (and that’s not counting the souvenir statues on sale everywhere) there’s just something about the original that really draws you in.
Anyway, spent the rest of the morning exploring Florence which is a lovely old city. Checked out a few old churches, which seem to be a lot less ornate than in other cities but absolutely huge and still filled with artworks. Visited the Duomo cathedral who’s painted dome dominates the skyline, and St Lorenzo which is Florence’s oldest cathedral and contains works by Donatello (not the Turtle).  Found Piazza Della Signoria which was where the David originally stood and which now has a copy, as well as a big open air collection of other sculptures. Nearby was the Galleria degli Uffizi, another gallery featuring the Birth of Venus and many, many other works, but there was at least a 2 hour wait in line and I was suffering from art overload by this point anyway so skipped that one. Climbed back up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, home to another fake David, which by now was full of tour buses and people enjoying the amazing view of the city and back to the campsite for a nice relaxing afternoon enjoying the view and the sunshine.
Wandered back the city for a stroll around sunset. Checked out a few more piazzas but mostly sat amongst the statues in Logia de Signoria listening to the musicians play for diners at the ristorantes. Also found Il Porcellino, a bronze statue of a boar which (according to the most popular stories) will ensure you return to Florence (or give you good luck, or grant a wish) if you rub its snout and drop a coin from its mouth into the grating below...also apparently it was in Hannibal?? Hiked back up the hill for a great view of the city all lit up at night. Another exciting day of riding the trains for 7 hours tomorrow to get to Nice where Susan will be joining me to (hopefully) soak up some sun and glam it up on the French Riviera…also I’m really close to finishing my 100th Sodoku puzzle on the trains so exciting times ahead folks J
overlooking the city from Piazzale Michelangelo
fake David
Il porcellino
'Rape of the Sabine Woman" at sunset

Friday, July 29, 2011

Pisa; seriously, just wow.

So having got my revenge on the scary hostel lady by waking her up really early to check out, jumped on the train to Pisa. Now, even without the Tower (which by the way is all the way on the other side of town from the train station, city planners in the 1100’s were so inconsiderate!) is just a really nice little town which manages to stay uncrowded even with so many people flocking there and again it was such a relief to just walk around without being crushed by the tourist throngs (yes I know I’m one of them) for a change.  Was just walking down a street wondering when this damn tower was finally going to put in an appearance when I looked up and was totally blown away. Of all the great things I’ve seen on this trip this was probably the first to literally stop me in my track…which was inconvenient as I was halfway across a street at the time.
Now obviously I expected it to be leaning but you don’t really comprehend til you actually get there just how far its leaning, especially when you look at its base. I wanted to run past every time I had to walk under it because it really looks like its about to topple over, and I really was having one of those days. Now personally if I was building a tower and it started falling over I would have started from scratch so its mostly just incredible that these guys 800ish years ago just decided to keep on going and hope for the best. Aside from that the piazza its in also has a stunningly beautiful church, a huge cavernous baptismal which one of the attendants was chanting in to create the most amazing sounding echoes a cemetery filled with frescoes and ornate funeral monuments and 2 museums showcasing the various artworks that were housed in the church over the centuries.
 Had a delicious pizza at a restaurant just down the street from the tower (ate very quickly and kept a close eye on the Tower just in case :S). Took a last wander around the piazza and marvelled at the tower a bit more and then beat a hasty retreat to the train station as there were some terrifying looking clouds on the horizon. Made my way to the campsite in the hills above Florence where I am currently enjoying a tasty glass of Italian wine while the sun goes down J

Thursday, July 28, 2011

When in Rome...

After just about having a heart attack during check out from Venice when they tried to charge me triple the price as they’d inadvertently given me a private room rather than a dorm bed, made it to Rome without any problems and got all checked into my hostel, though I did get a lecture from the manager for being late which was news to me. Set off to explore for a bit and pretty soon found the beautiful Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the ruins of the Roman Forum. Also spent some time trying to decide which was more terrifying; drivers in Rome or cyclists in Amsterdam :s
Headed out early next morning to beat the crowds and found my way to the Colosseum which is pretty amazing. Spent the rest of the morning ambling amongst the ancient ruins on Palantine hill which include the Roman Forum and the site of a very early hut dwelling civilization. After than headed back towards the main part of town to check out a few of the beautiful piazzas which mostly all have fountains by Bernini or Egyptian obelisks and of course, lots of cafes and restaurants. Found the Spanish Steps and sat their for a while watching the rose sellers annoying tourists. In the evening joined a free walking tour led by a very enthusiastic Italian lady which gave a lot of background to all the places I’d been visiting as well as taking us inside the amazing St Ignatius church, the interior of which is covered in the most amazing paintings.
Up early again the next day and headed to the Vatican. Joined up with a tour which was good as the museums are packed so full of beautiful artworks that I would never have been able to take it all in on my own. Say lots and lots of sculptures and beautifully decorated room including the long corridor leading to the Sistine chapel, the roof of which is covered in paintings in gilt frames. The Sistine chapel itself is, of course amazing and so full of little details that you could probably spend months in there trying to see everything. Had a look around the Basilica which is very ornate (I still like St Paul’s in London better) and saw the tomb of Pope John Paul II. The current Pope is out at his holiday home which I guess explains why all the tour guides were saying it was pretty quiet (though if that was quiet I don’t want to know what busy is like). Hid from the rain in the nearby Castel St Angelo which is the Pope’s hideaway if Rome is attacked and has also served as an armoury, a tomb and a hiding place for precious art from all over the country during the war. Its now has exhibitions combining all of these aspects of its history as well as fantastic views of the city from the top. Did a bit more wandering and had a lovely (but slightly dripped on) dinner just off Piazza Navona before finally giving in and heading back to the hostel to escape the downpour.
Luckily woke up to sunshine again this morning so headed out of town to the Apian Way, the ancient road in and out of the city. Was so nice once I got past the cars to have escaped the crowds and insane drivers in the city that I spent most of the day just wandering along enjoying the solitude. The road in littered with ancient ruins and marble statues and frescoes. Visited the fascinating Catacombs of St Sebastian (and if you guys think I can talk you should have heard the guide there. The tour went for 35 minutes and I don’t think he once stopped for breath :P). The catacombs are 7 miles long with around 100 000 graves including the crypt of St Sebastian, though his actual remains and the relics of his martyrdom are now housed directly above in the church. Also saw the tomb of Cecilia Metella, though you’d swear it was more of a fortress, which also held a lot of the marble statues found during road works in the area.
Finished off my stay in Rome by checking out a few of the churches around the city, all of which are beautifully decorated and filled with artworks by some of Italy’s most famous artists. Then went for a stroll through the huge park overlooking the city at Villa Borghese and finally had a final slice of pizza at Trevi Fountain. Back on the trains tomorrow, off to Pisa and then Florence to look at more nudie statues :P

Trevi Fountain, my favourite place in Rome
St Ignatius

Inside the Vatican Museums
On the Apian Way

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ah Venice

Headed out from rainy Berlin early and enjoyed a nice ride through the countryside. Changed trains in Munich and shortly afterwards learned that the Italian transport workers were on strike so the train was only running to Austria. Luckily they were organised and had replacement buses waiting for us at Innsbruck, so spent the next 5 hours on the bus driving through the mountains past lots of picturesque Austrian villages and Italian vineyards before making it to Verona where the trains were running to Venice. Unfortunately the buses from Venice to the campsite I was staying at were not, so really picked the best day to arrive in Italy. Luckily met some other stranded travellers at the bus stop (people were just lining up anyway because about 1 in every 10 buses was running, just depended on if the driver was striking or not) who knew where the camp shuttle buses went from and eventually made it to my dorm (hut really) about 17 hours after leaving Berlin.

The people that helped me find the shuttle assured me that it had been sunny and warm for the last week at least so when I woke up in the morning to find it once again cold, gloomy and pouring with rain I was really starting to take it personally. Headed into the city anyway and with no real plan, just spent the next 12 hours getting as lost as possible to see what I could find. The city is really amazing. For one thing there are no cars, bikes or fast food restaurants which is really nice. Its pretty impossible not to get lost in there as well its all canals and narrow alleys surrounded by tall buildings so you can't really pick out a landmark to get your bearrings. Half the time you will think you're walking towards a major attraction only to find yourself at a dead end or on the other side of a canal from where you thought you were. The best part of that is that it means you are always finding amazing places hidden away and you don't get bored of walking up and down the same streets all the time, everytime I tried to find my way back to somewhere i ended up taking a completely different route.

Eventually stumbled upon the huge San Marco square with its amazing Basillica and people sitting at cafes or feeding the pigeons. More wandering took me to a quiet part of town where i grabbed a huge slice of pizza and sat on a bridge watching the gondolas for a while. The sun finally came out about 4ish and the whole city was completely transformed so treated myslef to a gelati and joined the other people watchers soaking up the sunshine around the square. The rest of the afternoon went on in about the same way. Found an art exhibition by modern Asian artists right next to the beautiful Chisesa di Santa Maaria della Salute, and sat on the steps outside Peggy Guggenheim's apartment listening to a lute player serenade me with classical Italian music (well he was busking but I was the only one there so it was like being serenaded). Had a huge dinner at one of the many restaurants and eventually headed back to the campsite, planning on spending the next day relaxing by the pool.

That plan went rather quickly awry when I once again woke up to rain. Maybe Susan will bring the sunshine when she joins me in Nice. Headed back into the city to book my seat to Rome and do a little shopping. Bought myself a new bikini and wandered amongst the canals for a while longer just in case the weather would warm up in the afternoon like it had yesterday...the universe apparently found my optimism amusing and made it even colder so instead had to settle for a relaxing afternoon adjusting my plans for the second half of the trip and, of course, trying to squish everything back into my pack. I'd say I don't know how it all manages to spread so far in 2 days but, well anyone who's seen my room at home wouldn't really be surprised by that accomplishment :P Off to Rome in the morning :)

Thursday, July 21, 2011


After a fun 7ish hour train ride through the lovely German countryside (first class rocks by the way cos they gave me a free chocolate…yes, that’s how easy I am to win over :P) made it into Berlin and found my hostel which is  really nice but I was a little worried that it was a bit too far out of the way of things. Grabbed a free map from reception however and discovered that the East Side Gallery, the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall was only a 2 minute walk away so headed out to explore.
Painted with murals by artists from all over the world in 1990, the kilometre or so stretch of wall is still pretty imposing, though you have to admire how they’ve made such a positive piece of community art out of what’s left of it. From the wall I could see the big TV tower (but really is there anywhere you can’t see it from) so kept walking in that direction along the river and eventually hit the old City Hall and museum districts and from there it was only a bit more of a walk up to the imposing Brandenburg Gate.
Just around the corner from the gate stumbled on the impressive Holocaust memorial, a huge area covered in rows of uneven grey concrete blocks. Its quite disorienting walking amongst them as the hightest ones are over 2 meters tall and it feels like a maze. You can hear and occasionally catch a glimpse of other people but you can’t really place where they are and unless you actually bump into someone else at an intersection, it feels pretty solitary in there. Don’t know if that’s what they were aiming for but it certainly seems an appropriate memorial in my mind.
Walked back towards the hotel following the path of the wall. Obviously most of it is gone other than a double line in brick that marks where it used to stand  but you still get the odd piece here and there, usually incorporated into an artwork of some kind, and it certainly helps put things in perspective to realise just how long the wall would have been when it was whole. Went past Check Point Charlie with faux US soldiers trying to get tourists to pay for photos with them, and past the house where one of the more infamous escape tunnels started , but ended in bloodshed when the escapees were betrayed to the GDR and eventually ended up back at the East Side Gallery and the hostel.
Enjoyed a nice sleep in the next morning as I had a room all to myself for the first time in 2 weeks, then hiked back up to the Brandenburg Gate and joined a free tour. Covered a lot of the areas I’d walked through yesterday plus a few other little hidden away things that I missed like the site of Hitler’s Bunker (now a car park) and the book burning memorial (an underground room of empty bookshelves to hold the number of books that were burnt). Also got lots of history to give everything a bit of context which is always great, especially in this case as it included a lot of more positive pre-war history as its quite easy to get bogged down in the events after Hitler took power (as you’ll quickly notice).
Spent a very cheerful afternoon, first at the museum under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which houses stories off individuals, families and places from the holocaust as well as a collection of all the other Holocaust memorials around Europe. Then headed to another remaining section of the wall, and beside it the Topography of Terror, a museum of Gestapo tactics built on the former site of their head office. Pretty chilling stuff. Then back to the hostel for a nice relaxing swim in the pool (best hostel ever :D)
Got up nice and early this morning and went for a run along the East Side Gallery before the crowds (and rain of course) moved in for the day. Then headed to the Reichstag where I had planned to climb the dome but turns out you have to make an appointment (somehow) to do that so instead grabbed some breakfast and tried to figure out how the train tickets worked (I failed in this endeavour and am pretty sure I spent the day riding around with the wrong ticket but it all seems to be based on an honour system anyway so close enough).
Headed to the small town of Oranienburg, just outside of which was the Sachsenhausen concentration camp which was used by the Nazis from 1936-45 and then as a Soviet special camp until 1950 and after that was turned into a memorial site under the GDR which emphasised the victory of anti-facism over facism rather than focusing on the history of the site. It was redesigned after the fall of the wall and is now a fascinating and grim memorial to those who suffered and died there with as many of the remaining buildings and sites used to show what life was like for the prisoners, who the prisoners were and how why they were killed.
Headed back into the city and visited the Stasi  museum which focuses on the mechanisms of the Ministry of state security who’s main purpose was to make sure no one under the GDR was getting any revolutionary ideas. Unfortunately most of it was in German but they had very basic summaries around the place and the visit was totally worth it for the range of espionage tools that have been preserved. Seriously, these guys would out a hidden camera in anything. Finished off at the touching war memorial in the centre of town which houses remains of an unknown soldier and an unknown concentration camp victim along with dirt from several battlefields buried below a sculpture of a mother holding her dead son. Very moving memorial to the victims of all wars.
Now based on all the places I visited you might expect to come away from Berlin feeling pretty gloomy, but on the contrary, its probably one of the most vibrant. All over the place you have the remnants of pre-war and Soviet architecture nestled among contemporary buildings and beautiful rives and parks scattered around the city. The best thing though is that rather than trying to hide away or dwell over the darker aspects of their recent past, they have instead been creatively incorporated into the reinvention of the city in such a way that while walking around, it is both hard to imagine and difficult to forget that some of history’s worst events happened here in the last 100 years, without feeling overly weighed down by that fact.  Its probably also the most heavily graffitied place I’ve yet been which for Europe is really saying something, I swear these guys will spray-paint anything if it stands still long enough.
Anyway, sorry for the slightly longer than usual entry, hope no one got too bored. Off to Venice tomorrow (I hope. There are about 4 trains between here and there so fingers crossed I won’t end up stranded along the way) and there had better not be a single rain cloud in sight when I get there or I am going to throw a tantrum the likes of which Europe has never seen before, so stay tuned J
East Side Gallery

Brandenburg Gate

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
Memorial at Sachsenhaussen

Monday, July 18, 2011

Amsterdam; Sex, Drugs and Canals

After a delightfully smooth flight (thankyou British Airways :D) arrived in Amsterdam early on Saturday and quickly found my hostel overlooking a canal (and as I later realised, right on the edge of the red light district). With the weather looking a little dicey for later in the I set out straight away to start exploring. Noticed 2 things right away; you can smell weed everywhere, even when nowhere near a coffee shop (I’m fairly certain there is by now more pot in the air than there is oxygen) and there were A LOT of groups of guys walking the streets in drag or costumes and wigs. That aside though, the city with all its canals and bridges and winding streets is really quite pretty.
My first stop as always was to find a free tour to get my bearings around the city. Took us through the red light district and past the old Jewish quarter and explained why all the buildings are leaning in different directions (really disorienting by the way, I thought I was going crazy til he explained it properly; basically, they lean forward to make hauling loads to the top floor warehouses easier and they were all built on logs driven into the ground which caused the buildings to lean left and right as they broke down over time). Also visited the home of the East India Trading Company, sampled some Dutch cheese and finished up at Wester Kerk, a beautiful old church in between the Anne Frank House and the Homomonument. By that time I was freezing (it rained through most of the tour) so grabbed a quick tea and headed back to the hostel to warm up.
Did my big museum day next, starting by heading back out through the red light district (pretty much everywhere you go you end up crossing it at some point and its actually not as bad as you would think as most of the area is normal businesses, coffee shops, restaurants and a few churches…just with a lot more hookers and porn stores than you get in your average neighbourhood) and across to the Anne Frank House. The line was huge, but not as bad as it was by the time I came out so pretty good timing really. The museum is really moving and going through the annex itself is quite eerie as it has been left unfurnished at the request of Otto Frank but still has all the pictures Anne stuck up on the walls of her room and its hard to imagine 8 people living together in such a small space all that time but definitely well worth the visit.
Followed that with a visit to the surprisingly interesting sex museum, documenting sex through the ages in art, media and culture (including one room just on erotic cakes :P).  Then headed to the fascinating Jewish Historical Museum, located in a complex of 4 synagogues where I learned all about the Jewish religion in general and the history of Jews in Holland up until the present. By the time I left there it had (surprise surprise) started raining again so headed indoors for a while to plan my next move.
By the time the rain had dried up I’d done some googling and armed with my free city map, headed out to find myself a windmill. Turned out to be a lot easier than I thought as De Otter, built in 1630 was located only 10 minutes past the Anne Frank House. Its an wood-sawing mill on the river once used for wood production but now blocked on both sides by apartment blocks so its future is looking pretty bleak I’d say but at least I saw one windmill while in the Netherlands. Wandered the canals a bit more and had a picnic dinner under the watchful eye of Rembrandt.
Was absolutely amazed to wake up in the morning and discover it was still raining (some summer vacation I’m having). Set out anyway and soon found the huge flower markets along the river which were full of tulip bulbs, though not a lot in the way of actual flowers (must be the wrong time of year?). Then headed up to the Van Gogh museum and spent a few hours admiring the amazing collection of pieces of Vincent and his contemporaries. Really an incredible artist.  Then since I’d found it accidentally, went for a stroll through the lovely Vondelpark which was nice as can’t remember the last time I saw grass in this city (well that wasn’t being smoked anyway :P)
On to Berlin tomorrow and from this point on its all trains until I head for home so now the challenge of deciphering the train system begins :s

sculpture in the red light district

wonky buildings

Friday, July 15, 2011

London: Nerdster's Paradise

Ah London, one of my favourite cities. After another 4am start to get the bus to Pamplona, another bus to airport in Bilbao, a flight to Stanstead and 2 more train rides and a bit of a walk to get to my hostel I pretty much immediately fell asleep as soon as I saw a real bed so the first day was relatively uneventful. The hostel was literally a 2 minute walk to Hyde Park and right around the corner from the Royal Albert Hall so once I did manage to wake myself up a bit went exploring to see how far away everything else is. Turns out that Piccadilly circus and all the awesomeness that lies in that area was a handy 45ish minute walk so yay for saving money on tube tickets :D Strolled around Piccadilly for a bit and tried to suss out tickets for Les Mis but sadly it’s sold out the whole time I’m here so grabbed some food and a shady spot in Hyde Park for a picnic dinner and headed back to the hostel for an early night.
Woke up nice and early in the morning and joined the other early risers for a jog around Hyde Park which if you ask me is pretty much the best way to see it. After breakfast headed to Kensington to indulge my inner (and outer) geek at the Doctor Who experience. Flew the TARDIS, escaped a Dalek battle, dodged the Weeping Angels and helped rescue the Doctor from the Pandorica (well the Pandorica 2, they had a spare) and then investigated the collection of costumes, props, sets and monsters from the whole history of the show. Totally cool (yes, I said cool), though I really do need to start travelling with small children so I don’t get such weird looks for being at these things on my own. Oh and massive shout out to one of the other guys on the tour who turned up wearing a fez. Cos fezzes are cool.
From there headed back through Hyde Park and along Oxford St before finally reaching the British museum and spending a few hours goggling at the many, many, many, many, many fascinating articles from around the world. Sure puts the Egyptian room in the Adelaide museum to shame (not that that’s hard to do). Then strolled through Soho to the National Portrait gallery which along with all the Victorian, Tudor and modern portraits for me to explore had a special collection of Gilbert and Sullivan pictures and a temporary exhibition of 70 portraits of Hollywood Stars from 1920-1960 including Vivien Leigh, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and a great shot of Alfred Hitchcock directing the MGM lion. I swear sometimes it seems like London is doing these things just to make me happy.
Having given up on snagging any last minute tickets for Les Mis, got a ticket for the 39 steps at the Criterion theatre. Really clever and very funny, it’s based on a Hitchcock movie and they manage to get a reference to just about every other one of his movies in there somewhere, plus of course the obligatory cameo by Alfred himself. It has a cast of 4 and between them they play all the characters, one person sometimes playing up to 3 different people in the one scene. Highly recommend it if you ever get the chance.
Planned to have a light walking day the next day to rest my poor blisters but having early on failed utterly to find a single cinema screening Harry Potter that wasn’t sold out for the day, I gave up on that idea and instead dedicated my morning to revisiting Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and strolling along Victoria Embankment until I’d tracked down the memorials to both Sir Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert.  Walked along the Thames past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and up through Lambeth to the Imperial War Museum. Spent pretty much the whole afternoon there as the exhibits covered both world wars (including interactive walk throughs of trench warfare, children in the war and the Blitz), conflicts since then, the secret service and a chilling exhibition on the Holocaust that was particularly well done. One final stroll through Piccadilly before a picnic dinner in Green Park enjoying the view of the Victoria Memorial and then headed back to the hostel to once again repack my bags for the early morning trip to Gatwick airport.
with the TARDIS & 11th Doctor

evolution of the Daleks
in the TARDIS
British Museum
Wellington Arch
just missed the changing of thhe guard but caught these guys on their way back

Gilbert's memorial

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

San Fermin (pics)

Well turns out we are staying on the temperamental weather part of the coast so as soon as my tentmate and I headed down the hill to explore Zarautz, a big thunder storm blew in and drenched the both of us. Undeterred, we made it to town and strolled around the quiet streets but being siesta time things were mostly closed. Eventually found a restaurant with a menu of the day that was willing to serve us with 4 minutes until their kitchen closed. Enjoyd fresh bread, fettucine bolognaise, fried fish in a tomato and pepper sauce and flan for dessert, plus a bottle of excellent local wine for 10 Euro. Total bargain. Then dedicated the next hour to traipsing through the rain to find a supermarket, trudging through the rain back to the campsite only to find that while we were gone, the rain had invaded our tent and all our stuff was distinctly soggy. So, while I'm standing around the laundry waiting for my turn to use the one working (and that just barely) drier so that I can repack my bag for tomorrow's flight to London, here are a few of those running of the bulls photos I mentioned.

behind you!!
runners entering the arena

haha, got your bag

hanging out in Pamplona

at the entrance to the Arena