Here you go - after many requests, this is what I have been up to! 4 weeks in the making, photos are on their way to the website!
Just before I moved out, my friend Dave from home came to visit before we went Eurailing together. We had a few big nights, culminating in an argument with the conductor on a double-decker, and a photo of me in some random car (don't ask!!).
At some ungodly hour (about 7am) and with me on around 2 hours sleep, we headed off to Stansted to catch our flight to Denmark. It was sad to leave the Bone for the last time, saying goodbye to the few of my friends who were still around but I was really looking forward to the summer ahead.
We were met at Aarhus airport by Dave's cousin Greta, and set about exploring the town pretty quickly. They have a great system called Citybikes, where you pay the equivalent of $5, ride the bike around for as long as you like, and get your money back when you finish. It was a fantastic way to see the city. We also went to a place called Den Gamle By, where they have taken 400 and 500 year old buildings from all around Denmark and recreated a little village. It was really interesting to see the way that they lived during that time, I even tried some of the bread & dripping that they were giving out. We also used a rope ferry and saw a viking longship.
Denmark here we come!!!!!
Also while we were in Denmark, Dave's extended family treated us to a traditional danish lunch. One of his relatives owns a pork farm, so we headed off there to have the most delicious ham and homemade sausage that I have ever eaten. I was also reintroduced to Aakavit, the traditional danish spirit which is like a very strong version of vodka, to my taste anyway (dave would probably disagree with me). I also put aside any squeamishness and tried sild - pickled herring. It tastes every bit as delicious as it sounds. After lunch we decided to see where all the food had come from - so we went on a tour of the pig farm. In a word.......smelly. It was extremely interesting, but I pitied anyone who would be sitting next to us on the train (despite wearing overalls to try and keep the smell off us). At the time, we were also staying in a thatched cottage, complete with kittens in the roof - which was absolutely amazing! It was a really nice house and the thatch was actually really good at keeping out the cold and the weather.
After our time in Aarhus we headed to Copenhagen to visit Mary. Copenhagen is an incredibly beautiful city, and they also had the citybikes, which made it really easy to get around the main attractions and see most of the inner city in less than a day. By a stroke of luck we saw the changing of the guard at the Amalienborg Palace (which is not exactly secure, the courtyard in the middle is quite a busy intersection! a major change from London!). Unfortunately our travelling companion, Padraig fell in love with the Little Mermaid and so abandoned us for the rest of the trip (you'll notice he's missing in the photos). We also did day trips to Roskilde Cathedral, where the Danish kings and queens are buried, Helsingor Castle, the setting for Hamlet, and most importantly, the Carlsberg brewery. It was here that we saw some of the first advantages of being Australian overseas, when the woman on the desk called us part of her 'extended royal family' and gave us twice as much free beer as normal. That was really great, until we were trying to run to the train about 4km away in half an hour and we didn't know the way! I truly believe that we foudn the only Danish kids that didn't speak English along the way, so it was a bit of a mad rush to make the train by about a minute and a half, not a bad effort really.
From Copenhagen it was on to Berlin, with only a quick stop in Hamburg to change trains and grab a hamburger (i'm sorry - we had to!). The train trip itself was quite uneventful, except that when crossing from Denmark to Germany they drove the entire train onto a ship and let us loose in the duty free section. Berlin is a beautiful city, and it was one of hte few places on the trip that I felt I could live in very easily. We walked around the city for a while seeing the sites, then took a self-guided audio tour of historical areas from the Wall era that started at Checkpoint Charlie. It was really fascinating, but also incredibly sad when we got to the memorials of those who had been killed attempting to cross it, and simply horrifying when we reached the gestapo headquarters, where the torture cells in the basement are still there as a museum/memorial. In a way i'm quite surprised that I enjoyed Germany so much, given that we saw countless memorials and I visited two concentration camps. When we were in a camp near Berlin, Dave and I were both chilled to the bone when we reached the 'pathology laboratory'. I could never understand how humans could possibly commit such unspeakable evils to each other.
Berlin has undergone an amazing transformation - almost every building is less than 10 years old, and Potsdamer Platz, where there were only 10 people living when the wall fell, has almost become the city's main square in terms of the economic and residential buildings around it. Hitler's bunker, however, only a few hundred metres away is an unmarked empty block, unsurprisingly.
Potsdamer Platz - Bastion of Capitalism
From Berlin we took a night train down to Munich - which will forever remain infamous in my mind! On the first day we were greeted by this short, unshaven, overweight, balding guy by the name of 'Lenny from Maine'...a dangerous character. After Dave and I found a hostel with Lenny's assistance, he convinced us to go on one of his walking tours the next day. We spent a little bit of time walking around the city before seperating for the day, Dave to explore more of the city and me to visit Dachau concentration camp. Again it was a horrifying but enlightening experience - and it showed me just how much of a tourist attraction these things had become when I saw people taking photos in the gas chamber and the crematorium. I was happy to leave it knowing that I would not have to see something like that again for a very long time, but the camps, though depressing, had given me a new understanding of what people went through, and to think that these were just the concentration - work camps, rather than the death camps like Auschwitz.
Mum, aunts and uncles, anyone on staff at UTS...and anyone who holds me in any esteem (if there are people like that out there) - do NOT read this paragraph! Dave and I met up in time for our tour with Lenny. The premise seemed pretty simple - 7 Euros, you walk around with a bottomless (until we drain the two kegs dry between 8 of us) beer in your hand for 3 hours. Simple and fun...right? WRONG! For starters, it was not just any beer, it was Augustinia, the oldest beer in Munich, having been established around the same time as the town. The bits of the tour I can remember were really interesting, however it devolved to the point where our tour guide would say 'This is a site of amazing National importance, this is where and i'm not going to finish speaking because none of you are listening to me anymore because you're all too f*cking pissed!!'. By the time i saw people surfing a few hundred kilometres from the nearest sea, and a few thousand kilometres from the nearest sea with waves, I was an expert on Augustinia. After that point the memories get pretty non-existent, but I am assured that we got kicked out of the Hofbrauhause (Hitler's local) as soon as we marched in for singing 'innapropriate songs' with two guys from the US Naval Academy. At that point I woke up in a bar with a waitress trying to charge me 4 Euros (yelling 'YOU PAY! YOU PAY!') for what I think was a glass of water (Dave had been missing at this point for around 1 and a half hours, later resurfacing having finished his long bus driving shift), and I decided to go home - with no money in my wallet. I woke up the next day with 50 Euros and a killer hangover, but thankfully in my own bed. I have still been too scared to look at my bank account and find out how much I actually withdrew that day. I had a killer hangover (no multivitamin), but to add insult to injury, when we woke up to get the train bright and early at 10.30 the next morning, we ran into Lenny again, trying to sell the tour to some guy in the street. He decided to use me as part of his sales pitch, saying 'you see this guy here? Look at his eyes! This is what the tour does, you really should do it!'. I would only testify that the tour was extremely good value and God, in his infinite wisdom, would be promptly sending Lenny to hell.
After Munich we headed to Vienna. I suppose it is unsurprising that like Germany, Austria was a place where I felt i could happily live. In my mind, Vienna remains the most beautiful city that I have ever seen. It was also the only city we visited where my attitude was 'oh, it's just another stunning building that I would take a photo of anywhere else - I really can't be stuffed doing it this time'. Unfortunately we didn't get to spend more than an afternoon in Vienna, so we just grabbed some lunch and walked around looking at the exteriors of the buildings. We also saw a high speech chase (complete with a police car on 2 wheels) through the medieval square out the front of what once was the royal palace! Unfortunately, we had to leave the beauty of Vienna for what would be our second-worst train ride of the entire trip, the night train to Florence (the Venice one was full). If the lack of airconditioning and lights on a 30-plus day didn't forewarn us to the way this trip was to turn out - then the Polish family of 4 living out of one suitcase on their way to Rome, us, and a Japanese gentleman all trying to fit into a 6 person couchette (sleeper) compartment certainly did. Fortunately, after a while we discovered that the light and airconditioning switch was a few centimetres in front of the Father's face, so we switched it on and the cabin cooled down fairly quickly. A very sleepless night followed, and we got into Florence around sunrise, which made the trip worthwhile as we watched the sun rise over the river with the terracotta buildings around.
A Florentine Sunrise
Florence was also a beautiful city, but nowhere near as striking as Vienna was. THe days we were there were also stinking hot! It was a lovely city to walk around for the most part (or at least the centre was as Dave and I found out when we found ourselves several kms out of the centre during siesta - when not even the trains were running, the suburbs are not that nice). We wandered aroudn for quite a while trying to find a hostel when we first arrived, and, just as we were giving up, we found one that would take us for 2 nights. We walked around the city just looking at the buildings, including the duomo (which is apparently the 4th largest cathedral in Italy, but I thought that St Mary's was bigger). It was an absolutely spectacular building though, with different scenes and saints painted all over it. We decided to avoid the entrance fee, so we trotted off to Mass like good little boys....in Italian. It was worth it, and the scenes on the interior were even more spectacular than outside. Dave bought himself a 110% genuine pair of Chanel sunglasses from a very nice gentleman from Tunisia who promised that he would send the warranty in the mail. Unfortunately he had a parking ticket, so was desperate to stay away from being seen by any police. I went to a leather shop and bought a beautiful wallet which they even branded my initials onto, which I was very happy with.
From Florence we went to Switzerland, finally arriving in Interlaken at 11pm after a spectacular trip, with no where to stay, no credit on the UK phone, about 5 languages running through our heads and perfectly happy to just find a place in the park, but we decided against it. After about an hour of looking, we found a YHA a while out of the town, and fortunately they came to pick us up by about half past 12. After that, it was a matter of picking up our breakfast for the morning, and attempting to get some sleep for our 5.30am wakeup call.
After a bus ride where I sat next to a guy holding (i kid you not) a loaded assault rifle in full camofluage gear, I was glad to get off the bus and get on the train for what was one of the undoubted highlights of the trip - the Jungfrau. Basically, about 100 years ago this Swiss guy decided that people would be too lazy to hike to the top of the alps for a day trip, so he built a railway tunnel up through the middle of a mountain from the base all the way to the top, but they would be willing to pay 110 francs (about $150) to . We got the first train up, about 6.30am, in an attempt to beat the crowds of Japanese tourists who quickly came up and invaded the viewing platform - pushing anyone who wasn't in their group (and a few who were) out of the way so that they could get the best views. Luckily, we had about 45 minutes at the top with only around 100 people, with clear blue skies before we were basically forced off the viewing platform by the crowds. We took a look at the other things to do at the summit, including a really interesting carved ice 'garden' about 30m below the surface in solid ice, as well as a walk out to some other areas around the summit. By the time the Japanese tourists arrived the weatherwas starting to roll in, and so we headed down at about midday. For the rest of the afternoon we travelled to Geneva and spent a few hours there in a park sitting by the lake - which is about the only thing that you can do there without being charged an OBSCENE amount of money, they wanted 15 Francs for a deck of cards, and 12 francs and a mortgage on my first born son to be able to get a meal at McDonalds, but it was worth it!
On top of a Mountain - I could think of worse places to be!
From Geneva, it was an overnight trip through the south of France to try and make it ot Barcelona the next morning. We spent the day looking around the city, walking up la Rambla (the main street - a pedestrian mall lined with shops and stalls selling everything from guitar amplifiers to 'spooning' turtles and snakes). We walked pretty much non-stop from 9am until we met up with Christina, my friend from London who we were staying with at about 7pm. One of the things that i was absolutely desperate to see in Barcelona (ever since I saw the postcard on Tillie's wall) was Sagrada Familia. It was designed as Gaudi's masterpiece, and, about 100 years after construction started, it's still going strong. If you can picture a MASSIVE cathedral which is absolutely ornate in every detail and has 13 spires, all brightly coloured and well....gaudy, then you'd be getting close to it. THe only problem is that it's taken them so long to build it that they're already having to replace some parts where the stonework has begun to wear away. It was an amazing sight, and the exterior was every bit as fantastic as i'd hoped, but the interior was so full of scaffolding and construction equipment that it was hard to imagine what it will look like inside when it's finished. We were able to climb (or get an elevator up) 2 of the steeples which have been completed though, and the view from the top was absolutely amazing, looking over the whole of Barcelona. After Sagrada Famillia we walked around the city for a little bit more, before going back to the main train station to meet Christina.
I'd experienced Spanish hospitality in London, but nothing could prepare me for the real thing. In the almighty words of Davo, 'we ate like kings and drank like Irishmen' - a trend that was to be repeated everywhere I went! After a long time on the road, and a particularly long day tramping the footpaths, staircases and markets of Barcelona, it was great to have an evening where we could just relax over a few drinks and catch up.
The next morning, Christina had to go to work early, so Dave and I made our way back to the station to get a train down to Alicante and see the rest of las chiquitas. It should have been a simple task, but as we were on the crowded metro, and I was standing next to a particularly dodgy (gypsy??) looking small woman (she had small hands and smelled like cabbage, anyway), i felt my beautiful new wallet being slowly slid out of my pocket, no doubt destined for the large coat she had over her arms, despite the 30+ degree temperatures. I was lucky enough to slam my hand down on it (and it's contents of 80 Euro cents) before she could take it. In hindsight I should have acted differently and grabbed her arm instead, but I was just so shocked at the time that I didn't know what to do. Fortunately, it was our only brush with crime for the whole trip (until I got here and within 2 days someone stole my camera). They've also started X-raying the luggage on some Spanish trains now (a reaction to Madrid i suppose), but the trip down to Alicante itself was fairly uneventful except that we saw a big bushfire on the way down - a bit of a precursor to our time there really.
My friend Elea met us at the station and immediately set about making us a big spanish lunch before we headed into town. Basically, the reason we visited Alicante at this time was because it was their town festival (read - an excuse for crazy Spanish people to dress up in funny clothes, walk the streets making noise, and get even more drunk and smoke even more cigars than usual - 24 hours a day). It was fantastic to catch up with the rest of the chiquitas as well as to get into the spirit of the festival. The first night, we had a party in a car park (a scenario I hadn't seen since i was 16 years old!), because the spaniards don't like to go out until about 3 or 4 in the morning. We were extremely tired, so headed home around 5am to go to bed (an early night by their standards).
After several days of swimming, drinking, eating spanish food, partying, and catching up with Elea, Patri, Nonna, and Yesi, the last day of hte festival arrived. We decided to visit the castle (an 8th century Moorish bastion), which was amazing and we were lucky enough to be there on the day that they were having a lunch for some of the government leaders, so there were a lot of guards aroudn in full traditional costume - truly a sight to behold. Half way up, we were surprised to come across a stand of Eucalypts, which at the time was the msot random place i'd ever seen them - though the climate is remarkably similar between Spain and Australia, so it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. At the top of the castle they had a giant firework to kick-start the real celebrations that night (until then they had been just warming up), i'm talking about a rocket bigger than 4 grown men standing in a circle. It was going to go off at midnight and that would start celebrations all over town, centered around these float things.
It's not enough for Spanish people to build around 30 ornate, 20m high statues of papier mache and paint within a few centimetres of the nearest buildings all through the town, they have to have a competition to see which is the best. But even that is not enough for them, they have to pack them full of petrol and fireworks and set them on fire. And it's not enough for the crowd to let the firefighters do their job and make sure that none of the buildings burn down, they have to yell the spanish equivalent of 'Firemen take it up the a*se, doo-dah, doo-dah', and 'Firemen have no balls'. And what is the reaction of the firemen to this? They can't just take it in good humour, they decide that they're going to spray the entire crowd, and any surrounding apartments that are unfortunate enough to have balcony doors and windows open. The result is a massive waterfight where everyone gets drunk, covered in ash, and absolutely saturated. I have never had so much fun! If that paragraph sounds confusing - it's because the whole situation was absolute chaos, heat, smoke, and water everywhere and getting through everything (thank god there was a washing machine - my clothes were completely unwearable!). So the giant firework goes off (which we could hear and see like it was next door, even though it was around 15 minutes drive away), and they start burning these statues all through the town, the result is a party that goes until well after the sun is up, with kids (and Davos) throwing bungers anywhere and everywhere, and the whole town of a few hundred thousand seeming out to have a great time.
So they're just going to burn this thing - and all the ones around like it!
The time came to leave Alicante and move on, through Madrid, to Lisbon. The journey is better left unspoken - let's just say that we had first class tickets, yet I found the floor more comfortable (and more conducive to sleeping) than the seats. And what a strange little city Lisbon is. In 48 hours, we were offered 'Marijuanacocainehashish??' no fewer than 23 times in the main square, including one gentlemen who shoved a brick of hash under my nose and ran beside us yelling 'YOU SMELL IT!!!! YOU SMELL IT!!!!!!' There was no escape from those guys - they'd come up to you pretending to be selling cheap sunglasses (even though we were both already wearing sunnies) and when you said no they'd slip you with a 'Marijuanacocainehashish?', we counted at least 5 offers when we were sitting down to dinner. It was a fantastic city though, with a castle, an abundance of history, and even more eucalypts around - no need to get homesick!
On our second day we headed out to a place called Sintra, which is a small town at the end of the metro line. There's really not much there except over-priced tourist shops and loads of beautiful buildings, including a full palace decked out in red, green, yellow, blue, and all the colours of the rainbow on the top of a hill surrounded by lush forest (again complete with loads of Eucalypts). It's a long hike up there (15 minutes on a bus for the lazy), but Davo and I slogged it out, and when we got to the top it was more than worth it. There was a spectacular view past the palace across all the way to the Atlantic, absolutely fantastic. Too soon, we had to walk back down the hill and head back to Lisbon to move on to our next stop, a looooooooooooooooooong way away. We arrived back in Lisbon, and hung out in the station with not much to do for a while except read books and make sure we had beds on the train (as opposed to the way we had come over). It was during this time when I was using the facilities that I noticed that a rather scruffy guy had followed me in there, and was standing uncomfortably close. I put it out of my mind as quickly as possible, but he kept following me for about an hour as Dave and I moved around the station, finally arriving in the station managers office, followed about 2 minutes later by this guy. The station manager said 'no one is allowed in here! get out now!', but fortunately as soon as my 'new friend' had left, he told us that we were free to sit in there and wait for the train....thank God!!!!
That day was a travelling day! We took a (long) overnight train to Madrid, where we spent the morning in one of the many amazing art galleries with a guy from California that we'd met on the train who kept us.............entertained with his conspiracy theories, before heading back to the station for our 15 hour plus trip to Paris. We changed trains on the border, right in the heart of Basque country (unfortunately not sampling any of the cooking) said goodbye to the Iberian Peninsular, and were on our way. We had breakfast with my friend Pia in Paris, before heading to one of the places that we had been desperately trying to get to the whole trip - Villers Brettoneaux. This was a town that the Australians saved in the First World War, and it has never been forgotten by the inhabitants (complete with a massive sign in the schoolyard that says 'DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA'). The attitude of the locals was best summed up in two ways:
* The old man in the street who we asked for directions. He asked us if we were English, we replied that we were Aussies, and he immediately took off his hat, bowed and told us how fantastic we were.
* The police station which was closed and unnattended from 11-3pm for 'lunch'.
You have to love the French!
We hitched a ride with a tour company out to the Australian National War Memorial, where much of the battle was fought, and where there were still battle scars from World War 2. It was an incredibly moving experience, with far too many headstones saying 'A soldier of the Great War known unto God', kids who they don't even know what side they fought on, and for what? After we had looked around the memorial, we went back into town to catch a train to Lille and Brussells, missed it, and had to go back to Paris and do a massive U-turn to finally get into Brussells at midnight. Fortunately, we had foresight on the trip and booked a hostel, as they were all booked out when we arrived. We had a great little room which looked right out onto the roof of the main cathedral, was clean, was only for 2 and had a shower right next door! One of the best value places we had stayed all trip!
The cemetery at the memorial outside Villers-Brettoneaux
From Brussells we took a day trip out to Ypres to examine the battlefields and the Menin Gate (with the names of more than 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave), where they still play the last post to a large crowd every night. I was able to find my Great-great uncle's name on it which was really nice. I can't imagine the hell that those soldiers endured for years in horrible weather - it sprinkled lightly while we were there and the trenches were already starting to flood. War is such a waste! Ypres itself was completely flattened in WWI, but has now been rebuilt in its medieval glory.
After Ypres we took a look around Brussells itself, which was actually quite a beautiful city, particularly the main square. The Mannekin Pis lived up to its reputation as being the 'AVOID AT ALL COSTS' item for Belgium in Lonely Planet - I just find something underwhelming about a foot high statue of a kid going to the bathroom, regardless of how well it's dressed up! But the absolute highlight of the city, as Dave said, would be the first shower that either of us had had since we left Lisbon more than 72 hours ago!
We caught a night train to Amsterdam, where we were lucky enough to have the people in front of us rejected and us accepted for a room at the best hostel in town (and it has to be one of the best in the world!), somehow in that 30 seconds a room became available! As a city it was pretty amazing - everyone just seemed to be in a stoned haze, with not much going on. We went to all the touristy places, as well as one of the clubs, which was charging 10 Euros on a saturday night for what was (we found out inside) a Michael Jackson tribute night. After an hour me and another guy from the hostel quickly decided that we couldn't take it anymore, so headed home, via the red light district because I hadn't seen it and to have a good laugh at the drunk and stoned English guys on buck's nights. It was amazing to go back the next day on our way to the Heinekin brewery - the whole place was almost the same at 1pm as 1am! The heineken brewery was really good - probably the best brewery/distillery exhibition that I have been to. That night, it was time to say goodbye to our new friends over a few beers, before catching a night train to Copenhagen.
With new friends in the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam.
Waking up in Copenhagen signalled the end of the trip. We quickly popped across to Malmo in Sweden, for no other reason than the fact that we could and it wouldn't cost us anything. Lunch was cheaper in Denmark, however, so we went straight back!
We finally got back into Central London about 2am, where, thanks to Dave's dad we were able to get a room at the Marriot! Thanks Russell, and thanks Davo for a fantastic trip!