Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Each romantic but in their own way

You and me both fella

Big tip for anyone going to Paris, DO NOT GO ON BASTILLE DAY. Seriously write off the next several days in huge long lines and claustrophobic crushes as well as risking life and limb getting on the metro (nearly 2 weeks later my forearm is still tender where the door tried to shut on it). I estimate 2 billion people are in this city during this period (Elizabeth thinks my estimation skills need practice).

Eliz helped untangle his bike
On the plus side it is a time of military parades, fireworks over the Eiffel Tower, firecrackers in the streets, lots of energy and excitement. The choice of day was coincidental and matches the same time I was here 20 years ago (also coincidental, snap).

So near but so far...
The first day started with the long walk along the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Then we continued on to the Eiffel Tower which had just been closed to prepare for the night's festivities. We completed the round trip back to the hotel by going to the Notre Dame Cathedral.

We decided to see the fireworks and took the metro, with standing room only and squashed up so tightly people near the doors or trying to squeeze in were regularly getting stung by the doors. At the stop we just flowed like a river with the crowd to the best available vantage point. What followed was near on an hour (to midnight) of a phenomenal fireworks display and light show on the tower. The theme was disco with classics like I Will Survive, Dancing Queen and other memorable hits of the 70's, in English. The tower came complete with a huge mirror ball and glitter lights that would flash periodically. Really strange but amazing and very cool.

Getting home was difficult, the subway we came in on was shut down with military in front and we kept getting herded to 'the next subway', which never eventuated. Around 1:30 we pulled out the map and the phone compass and headed in the general direction of the Arc de Triomphe and home on foot. Finally we did find an open subway and took it the rest of the way, very tired and having clocked up 28km for the day according to my pedometer, a new record.

Hall of mirrors
The next days were a bit more normal just incredibly busy, we visited the Palace of Versailles, the highlight being the hall of mirrors (King Ludwig tried to copy it) and the huge gardens. The Louvre was huge and as ornate as the Palace, and included the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo statue among its artworks. Finally we did get up the Eiffel Tower, all the way to the top, staying there to witness the sun go down on Paris before the next day's train whisked us to Amsterdam.

The giant has a missus
Gardens at the Palace
Elizabeth on the Eiffel Tower 
From the Eiffel Tower

The red light district
Amsterdam has got to be one of the strangest cities I have ever been in. Scantily clad beautiful ladies behind windows kept smiling at me and beckoning and a strange smell kept wafting out of 'coffee houses' that did not sell coffee (seriously they were called coffee houses and had their own tour) and Elizabeth became strangely protective and would not let me out on my own.

Where else in the world can you do a tour during the day and witness an orchestra in the main square playing the classics and also do a tour at night through the red light district witnessing two sides to a city that live in harmony and peace with each other and without the seediness and danger prevalent in other cities? Large crowds of people, couples, families etc wandering cheerfully and safely through what is normally the seedy and dangerous underbelly of other cities.  In fact the tour guide says the hard drug scene is nearly non existent and sexually transmitted diseases are low compared to other similarly sized cities. If this is a great big social experiment then it seems to be working.

We also took a delightful cruise through the canals and visited the Van Gogh Museum in a city that must be one of a kind in the world. So as I drifted lazily and strangely calm taking in the strange smells of the city I reflected on what our next stop, Copenhagen, will have in store for us.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Switzerland Reloaded

Zermatt, with the Matterhorn on the left

Found sticking in Lake Geneva

We enjoyed Switzerland so much that we jumped at the chance to go back when a friend we made in South Africa offered us accommodation at her place. After a beautiful train trip we arrived at the town of Vevey. A lovely location on the banks of Lake Geneva to avail ourselves of the absolutely stunning hospitality of Sue and the incredibly generous time of her friend Angie.

Montreux Jazz Festival near Vevey
A fun Friday night out
We spent the first night gleaning information from Sue and Angie as to the best places to go in Switzerland and re-arranged our plans to dump Hamburg (sorry Hamburg, nothing personal), and to go from Vevey to Zermatt (home of the Matterhorn) and from there take the Glacier Express to St Moritz to travel through the wonderful Swiss Alps. We spent the next day on the internet organising accommodation and train journeys for the next week and a bit so that we could relax and enjoy Switzerland without the pressure of finding the next roof over our head.

From the botanical gardens
The UN building
Then we went to Geneva on two day-trips as it was only one hour by train from Vevey. First stop in Geneva (well second, we visited the botanical gardens first) was a walk to the Palais des Nations, home of the United Nations in Geneva. We found we were able to take a tour and decided to have a closer look at this historical building. First built just after WW1 to house the precursor to the UN, the League of Nations. The LON fell apart when it failed to stop WW2 and they started again with the UN. It is the second largest UN centre in the world , after New York.

Original Council Chambers
Assembly Hall
The UN is where the major global problems attempt to be solved so the building is full of symbolism, history and purpose for the gravity and importance of its role. All through the place are gifts from different nations which helped to construct and decorate the building, in fact it was originally designed by 5 architects from 4 different countries. One hopes that the large challenges currently faced by humankind from Syria to Climate Change will be solved here.

Gift from China, the path follows you...
The idea that changed the world
Also in Geneva we visited CERN just days after it announced that its scientists had uncovered the Higgs Boson, the apparent god's particle, after looking for 48 years. The Higgs Boson is apparently what gives massless particles, well, their mass and completes the standard model of how everything works (and I thought the answer was 42). This was really cool, Sheldon eat your heart out. 27km of particle accelerator, going through 2 countries and accelerating particles to 99.99% the speed of light before smashing them into each other, pow! The world wide web was born here by Tim Berners Lee in 1989 as a way of sharing information between scientists. The original proposal on display in 'The Globe' had handwritten along the top 'vague but exciting...'. Talk about an understatement!!! The way we all connect with each other and find information was transformed.

The Globe at CERN (exhibit)
Me at CERN

Mountains near Vevey
The tired gang at the top
Back in Vevey the weekend came along and time for some day trips into the countryside and some mountain climbing, woohoo! After some climbing we went into the village of Gruyere, home of the famous cheese. Weirdly enough also home of the creator of the Alien character in the movies with Sigourney Weaver. So as well as cheese you will find here an Alien museum and a cafe made out like an Alien ship. We also had to have cheese in Gruyere, of course, and so Elizabeth finally had a fondue in Switzerland in probably the best place to have one as well as raclette. Raclette is a slab of cheese that comes on a dish with a built in grill above it, the idea is to scrape off the cheese crust as it is created and eat it on potatoes and bread until all the cheese is gone.
This is weird

The next day Angie took us on another day trip into the mountains in her convertible. This has got to be one of the coolest rides I have ever had! With the wind blowing in my...ok, in Elizabeth's hair, we careered around sharp corners up the mountain on roads that were often only one car wide like Sean Connery in a James Bond movie. I must say Angie is an awesome driver and I was only scared a little bit. After a walk we came back down to look around a beautiful little town St Saphorin like stepping back in time.

That night was our last night in Vevey and the decision was made to have a barbeque by the lake using one of those instant bbq contraptions you get from the petrol station. Well it would not stay alight and so a trip to the station got another one and a squirter bottle of liquid fire, I presume, because it sure stayed alight after being drowned in it. After a couple of hours we had a delicious dinner of steaks and chicken and sausages that was all the more yummy because of the hugely dysfunctional bbq it came from. It was a terrific last night with wonderful companions, whose generosity made for one of our highights of the year thus far. This trip is sure changing my perceptions about people and trust.

On to Zermatt and my first trial at a 4 bed dormitory (leaving accommodation to the last minute can be tricky in peak season). Not as bad as I expected but I didn't sleep as well as I normally do. Maybe only a last choice solution. Zermatt is the home of the Matterhorn, and she is a formidable mountain. We didn't climb the Matterhorn but we did climb some of the Gornergrat, right next to it. The Gornergrat has the longest cogwheel train (we have already done the steepest) that has about 5 stops up the mountain. It allows walkers to get as far as they are comfortable and then catch the train for the rest, and the same coming down (25% discount for Eurail pass holders). The views on top were breathtaking and I will let the pictures tell that story.
This was what I was looking at!
What was I looking at?...

That's Elizabeth

The next day we tackled a different path and climbed up to Stellisee which has a reflecting lake facing the Matterhorn.

That night in Zermatt they had a street party with live entertainment, or so we were told. The live entertainment was the most unlikely rock and roll star you have ever seen, but we soon became converts as he really got the crowd going and was rocking away until the wee hours.

Finally we took the Glacier Express, snaking our way to St Moritz through the Swiss Alps' amazing scenery. I would show you pictures but I had an uncanny gift of taking the picture just as a tree would come into frame. In the end I gave up and just enjoyed the ride. St Moritz was just an overnight stop before heading to Paris, just enough time to walk around the lake and get some sleep. It was about this time we crossed the half way mark for our travels, 154 days away from Perth this year and 154 to go. We have done, seen and learnt so much already that it is hard to imagine what the other half will bring...

Zermatt at night

Goodnight Zermatt

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In the shadows of wars and kings

Our first stop in Germany was Dresden. Dresden was largely destroyed by a huge British and US air force attack at the end of WW2. So in a lot of ways this place was interesting in that I could compare how they recovered from near total destruction to how Hiroshima recovered, and initially I was underwhelmed. It came across as a patchwork quilt of old and new without the beauty, sense of peace and tranquility of Hiroshima. But luckily I had 3 nights (our new minimum for most places now), to discover that Dresden had a different, but equally profound, way to rebuild.

We arrived at our hostel and headed straight out to...McDonald's for dinner (hey we were hungry) but then we headed for the old section to have a quick look around so that we could prioritise the next few days. One of the first things we found was 'The Zwinger', built by Augustus the Strong to be something spectacular that he could use to look flash in during special events, with large gardens and balconies to address the minions. While wandering around this large enclosed area we found some stairs that led to an impressive area of statues and views.

We had another quick look around to familiarise ourselves with where everything was and got back before it was too dark. The next day we started by dropping into the The Museum of Man (or the hygiene museum) to have a quick look, and we ended up staying about 4 hours + (sorry, no photos were allowed). This was like the human body on steroids, it had different areas for every conceivable aspect of humans. Birth, death, sexuality, mind (complete with mind games and experiments), motion (complete with activites of strength, flexibility, balance etc) and more. Really cool were the see through life size man and woman constructions. Be warned though, even with English audio guides, a lot of stuff was written in German only.

In the end it was not until the next day that we got into the part of the city that showed its character. We went into the old section and visited Dresden Castle and climbed up Hausmanns Tower (there is always a tower with stairs somewhere) to get 360 degree views around the old section. Here you could see that the patchwork quilt of most buildings was done deliberately to keep the scars of WW2 and show the destruction that war can bring. What they have done is to keep all the damage when rebuilding, if they found a piece and could work out where it came from they would put it back and not clean it. The effect is quite a disturbing contrast between burnt and old parts of buildings with the new materials and statues. It sent a shiver up my spine to realise how much was destroyed and what buildings burnt and blackened by bombing look like. Very eerie.

Afterwards we went and saw the Frauenkirche (Church of our lady), also completely destroyed, and rebuilt over 11 years with mostly public money and support. It is a bit of a shock after the look of the outside to go inside. Outside you have the patchwork quilt effect with re-used blackened sections, but inside it was one of the lightest, brightest, newest looking churches we had ever seen, absolutely stunning. It also had many areas to the side where you could go down into the catacombs with prayer and meditation areas and monuments dedicated to peace and hope.

Our hostel called this the 'church with pomp' and next we went to the Kreuzkirche (Church of the holy cross), referred to as the 'church without pomp'. Similarly rebuilt after being destroyed but very plain and light inside and just as beautiful. Preferring a clean non showy look to remember its past.

Finally in this city, that has much more than at first glance, we went to the VW glassy car factory. This is a purpose built, one of a kind, built in glass factory to build a single model of car, the luxury class 'Phaeton'. Every single car built in this factory is presold with a 6 month waiting list, and the owner is then invited to come and watch his/her car being built when its time has come (it takes about 3 days to build). They can even install the steering wheel so that the special bond between (wo)man and machine is created (I kid you not). It was really cool to tour this amazing factory and it's really cheap, only 5 euros for an hour long tour. Unfortunately we were only here on the weekend and did not see it in action. Come during the week and you can actually see the cars being made.

Then for something completely different we hopped on a train and headed to the tiny, beautiful and scenic Bavarian town of Hohenschwangau, home of the castle of King Ludwig that the Disneyland castle is modelled after. We broke our 3 night rule for a flying 2 night visit just to see the castle, only to find out that the side facing the town was covered in scaffolding for renovations. I was destined never to see the uncovered castle. Just like King Ludwig, whose need for perfection meant that after 17 years he still hadn't finished his castle, never saw it without scaffolding and only lived in it for less than 6 months.

Left window
Our Hotel
After hostel accommodation at the last couple of places we decided to splurge in this most luscious and beautiful of areas. I found a special on the internet that provided 2 nights accommodation, 2 breakfasts, 2 dinners and tickets to both castles and the museum. It ended up being good value as we did not have to spend on anything else. The hotel and room was amazing. Second floor corner suite with a window on each corner, one window facing Neuschwanstein Castle (King Ludwig's) and the other facing Hohenschwangau Castle (his dad's).
Right window

The day we were there was cloudy with intermittent rain but that did not stop us from packing in a whole day, including a visit to both castles, the museum, walking up to the bridge with castle views on the other (non covered ) side as well as up the mountain and completely around the lake. We barely got to the fancy restaurant in time to receive our 6 course meal that had us bursting. Talk about living in the shadows of a king.

Poor old Ludwig reminded me of Michael Jackson, never really growing up, uninterested in affairs of finance and government all he really wanted to do was build castles. But he was such a perfectionist he only finished one. In the end he was spending all the royal money and was committed and put away by a doctor that hadn't even examined him. He apparently died the next day in mysterious circumstances found drowned in the lake with his doctor. Yep that sounds really mysterious, personally I think it went something like this...
'I am not crazy and you know it you quack'
'Let go of me or I will call the guards'
'I will kill you if you don't let me finish my castle'
'Let go or we will both go over...'
'aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa' splash!
Case closed.

The morning we were leaving was a beautiful sunny day, damn me breaking the rules, we really should have spent 3 nights here. Living in the shadows of a king is a lifestyle I could really get used to.