Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Euro Trip : Paris in a day

Catacombs tour, walk up Montmartre, then scoot over to the Tower and walk to the Louvre via the Arc. That's pretty much Paris in a day, though there is Versailles left, but that's not technically in Paris.

We had lovely, unforecast sun. I may have even got a little burned.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Euro Trip : To Paris, and everything since the last one

Thus begins our journey to Paris. Our last early morning rise to catch a 6:30am train from Berlin to Karlsruhe, sit around for an hour or so at noon, then trundle on board another train for the remainder of the ten hour trip.

The last entry covered leaving Venice, and heading for Munich. The thermals came in very handy. On our first afternoon, we went for a wander to a camping store, to pick up some more socks for me, passing by the university and a few monuments. The biggest thing to get used to was organized traffic and cyclists that shared part of the footpath with pedestrians. They wore no helmets, which was a little off putting, but then again, no one was traveling at breakneck speeds and they generally kept single file.

The next day was a bus ride to Neuschwanstein (think new-swan-stone, but replace the w with a v; that is also the literal translation) and Lindehoff (there could be an umlaut in there). This was my second trip to the stein, but is was no less impressive. The tour was with the standard Grayline coach tour, but the tour host was able to off extra information about Munich, Bavaria, the castles and their designer, the "Mad" King Ludwig II.

I tend to think of Ludwig as the Sad king. Bought to power as a king too young (18yrs), his role was a disappointment to him, as he was not a true king (as was Louis XIV, who he greatly admired) and had to share power with a parliament. Already being painfully shy, he set about doing what he really wanted to do, build castles and keep to himself.

Lindehoff was the only castle completed in his lifetime. It was a homage to Louis XIV, and only showed images of the Sun King. It was also quiet small, meaning only to house Ludwig and his servants. I could go on and on, but Google is your friend, and check it out if you have the chance. It seems the rest of Germany view the castles as a place to visit for Japanese tourists.

Ludwig died a "mysterious" death with the doctor that had declared him as mad, before he had met him. My guess is that once the doctor did meet him, and perhaps concluded that he was not mad, they were both killed, but it was made to look like some arranged murder/suicide via drowning (apparently they both drowned, by the side of a lake). Modern forensics could probably deduce a less mysterious conclusion. It was a sad ending to a 700 year rule by one royal family over Bavaria.

Also, while in Munich, I did spy the hotel that I stayed in, some 7 or so years ago. Hotel Stachus was still there, now flanked by a KFC and a department store. The character of that part of Munich seemed to have changed, with a vest increase in tourists, beggars and people going about their business. Or may they just weren't piled in the tents of the Oktoberfest grounds this time.

The next port of call was Bremen. The wad a very nice two day stay, as we stayed with distant relatives of Annika. It turns out that in former times there were three families of Treuels located in the Bremen area on the banks of the river Elb(?), although no link has been found between those families. Also, the actual meaning of Treuel is a little hazy, too, but it is thought that it might be related to the job of pulling ships up the river. Given that Bremen was such a major port, there may be no relationship between the three families except for the job common to them. DNA tests could probably determine any blood relationship, but since the Australian Treuels keep sending fakes to this particular family, it probably doesn't matter. The German pronunciation of Treuel would give Australians even more issue than they already have. Treuel often gets transcribed as Trevel or Truel. If you roll your Rs, and say troil, but with a really short O, you'll get close to how it is normally pronounced. It's almost one syllable.

The Treuel family are wonderful, generous people and showed us around Bremen and some of the surrounding areas. We had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant at the end of a dyke path, and were treated to a very fun interactive museum of natural history called the Universum Bremen. 

Our next stop was Berlin. With only one full day in Berlin, we aimed to make the most if it with walking tours from Alexanderplatz(?) to the Brandenburg Tor, and side trips out to Sachsenhausen(?) and Checkpoint Charlie. Wombats is a great hostel, but the clientele are quick to forget that not everyone is out and about at 2 and 5am, especially that group of noisy boys staying on level 2. So we has a bit of a late start, but a mostly fine day, exploring some of Germanys grim history. Small tip for fellow travelers. The S1, north, seems to have some track works between Frohnau and Birkenwerder, so you may wish to grab a cheap Sunday all day pass and catch a PEG from Litchenburg(?) to Oranienburg instead. Or, do the bus transfer available, instead. It was a bit confusing for the non locals, like us.

After the grimness of Sachsenhausen, Checkpoint Charlie was not as we had expected. There is a checkpoint still there, with two soldiers posing for souvenir photos. However, the rest is a boarded paneled wall, telling the tales of the walls construction and attempted escapes, blocking what could be construction of a proper memorial. There was no portion of original wall to be seen, but it was dark and perhaps we were looking in the wrong spot.

One tour pamphlet we were reading was saying that Berlin was not pretty, constructed with concrete slabs. Take away the German signs, and we could have been in parts of Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne. Maybe it was because of the relative newness of the city compared with other parts of Europe that are still sporting their ruins from older times.

We strongly recommend the Vietnamese restaurant across the road from Wombats. It's top quality and very reasonably priced, with an entree and main coming to about €10 each, excluding drinks.

I'm glad Paris is the second last stop for us, and that we are there for a few days before moving on. All this train travel makes me feel  like I'm moving, even when I'm not.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Euro Trip : Good day for ducks

Our first full day in Venice started wet. It's a bit of an interesting thing, over in the Dorsoduro district. We're actually staying near the border of that district, in the Castello area. When you pass over into Dorsoduro, the combination of rain, high tide and wind mean that the place goes under water, especially around the Piazza San Marco. We had started doing a walking tour of the area, with the help of the Lonely Planet guide book for Italy, and had got just a few hundred meters past the piazza, when we decided to back track and pick up some gumboots we had seen, going for €15 each. Most vendors had them going for €20.

So back to the hotel we went, dropped our shoes, and started again, with the comfort of dry feet.

The walking tour was a showcase of churches and historically significant buildings, but since all we had was the route transposed on to a tourist map (with street names!), it was nice to just follow the walk ways and see the sights without getting too lost. And even if you did get lost, there are always signs for San Marco, the Rialto, Piazzale Roma and the Ferrovia.

Time certainly does pass quickly on one of these walks. After our false start, it was already 10am. We ended up at the termini at about noon, to make use of the guaranteed, but pay for use WC. It was about 1pm when we seriously considered getting something to eat, and 2:30pm before we actually did.

Venice really is quite pretty, and easy to spend the whole day wandering around, getting lost. For a cheap stay, I'd recommend off peak, two nights and be prepared to buy gumboots. You could probably spend another couple of days actually going into those old buildings, seeing glass being blown, and taking a gondola ride when the afternoon warms up.

Tomorrow is the transit day to Munich. Hoping Travellex pull their finger out with the transfer I made last Thursday, so I can get some clean socks when we get there.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Euro Trip : Via per Venezia

Today was our transit day from Cinque Terre to Venice. I think it's the most trains I've ever caught in one day. Riomaggiore to La Spezia, then to Pisa, then to Florence, then to Venice. The day started a bit cloudy, but we didn't get steady rain until getting to Venice.

The first bit of fun was finding our hotel. First, the was the ferry service to catch to S. Zaccaria, which is kinda not sensible walking distance from the termini, with packs. Next we realized that the printed Google map, and the little tourist map were very sparse on street names. And Venice had many many streets, none of which are easy to remember, or get to. A GPS would be very handy. We finally made it to our hotel, just as the light had been replaced by darkness.

After dumping our bags, and checking emails we headed out for a quick wander to see if we could find the efficient route to the hotel that we should have taken in the first place, and to grab a bite to eat.

Being on the move all the time is starting to take its toll. I'm thinking about wearing this T- shirt again, for the second day, and I'm looking forward to Munich, in two days time, where I can pick up another pair of walking socks (or two).

I guess we're at the hump of our holidays now. In two Sundays time, we'll be catching our flights back to Australia. With all the excitement in the news regarding the A380s, it will be interesting to see if we actually depart on time.

Oh, we found Twisties. They're called Fonzies! Ayeeeeeee!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Euro Trip : Thieving Bastards

On the morning of leaving Florence for Pisa, and then the Cinque Terre, I did a quick funds check to see how much we had left on our Travellex card. When I logged into my Internet banking account, I noticed $9000 in charges that we weren't expecting.

It would seem that from the day we flew out of Australia, persons unknown had decided to use our credit card details to book flights and accommodation throughout the UK and Europe. A short call to the credit card services and we got our cards cancelled. They did offer to send an emergency card to us, but because we're on the move, we declined.

The Travellex is enough for Euros, we can just make sure we have enough cash when we get back into London. All that remains is for me to contact the fraud department when we get back to Australia, and we can go through which transactions are legit, and which are bogus. We should also have replacement cards waiting for us when we get there, so we can re- establish standing orders, like mobiles, Internet, private health insurance, charities, etc. We'll do a few spot checks for bills online when we get to some place where we feel a bit safer letting our minds wander into the websphere, without having to be too mindful of our immediate surroundings. Even as I write this, traveling on the train from La Spezia to Pisa, I keep a watchful eye on people wandering the carriages.

Euro Trip : Cinque Terre becomes Duo Terre

With our little bit of excitement regarding our credit cards, we were a little late to follow through on our plans to visit the leaning Tower of Pisa, on the way to Cinque Terre. So we stopped in Pisa long enough to pick up some lunch and catch our connecting train to La Spezia, were we would catch another train to the first town in the Cinque Terre group, Riomaggiore. I'm still not sure how to pronounce that properly.

We had heard that you have to pick up passses for the Cinque Terre track in La Spezia, so Annika made some initial enquiries, while I waited on the platform with the bags.

I could see her talking to the info officer. She face palmed. That's not good. Then she rushed out and picked up a couple of tickets from next door, and we rushed to platform 7, to make the next train to Riomaggiore.

It turns out that only one of the tracks that connects each town to the next is actually open. All the rest are closed, due to bad weather. When we arrived, we could see a sign saying that the track between the second town and the third town was closed, due to fallen rocks. And than there was a separate sign, with everything from the third town to the last town being closed due to bad weather. That was a bit disappointing.

However, we got a beautiful room to stay in, in Riomaggiore. It over looks the little harbor, though is not quite visible in all the classic photos of that town.

We decided we would see if the track was open the next day, and if not, we would have our trip to Pisa and take our chances with the whole track possibly being open on our last full day in Riomaggiore.

Well, we're on the train back to La Spezia, having seen the Tower and even walked up it. Holy cow, what an experience. Between the lean that was setting my inner ear on full tilt, and the indents in the marble steps, caused by 800 years or so of traffic, it was a bit of a fun house, minus the fun. We made it to the to the top, but with much trepidation. I think there would even had been cause for concern if the lean was not there, but the lean didn't help. All the smiles in our photos were nervous ones.

I should mention the lovely restaurant in Riomaggiore. La Lampere(?) has lovely seafood, and the regular range of pizza. I had a very nice oven baked Sea Bass with potatoes and tomatoes. Annika had a yummy scampi pasta. The waiters seemed to cover three generations from the same family, and the music was... choice, with selections from something you might hear in a classical fine dining restaurant, to Lenny Kravitz and Green Day.

Tonight will be cheap eats, with take- away pizza and French fries. Tomorrow, we will check out the track, hope more of it opens, and travel between by train if not. There's usually enough to explore in each town, with the non park track, if Riomaggiore is anything to go by.

Euro Trip : Leaving Napoli

It's been a few days since we left the sanitary disaster that was Napoli. Something that I failed to mention in previous posts was that Napoli was a mess because the local government could not come up with a good waste management plan, and was prone to using whole towns as the dumping site. Somehow, the mafia is involved as well.

Anyway, next stop was Firenze, or Florence, as it is printed on English maps. Firenze is a big change from Napoli. Streets are clean, walls are relatively graffiti free, and the place is packed with tourists, trying to navigate to the next sight seeing spot.

It's a pity we only had one afternoon and one night to explore. Then again, there's only so much looking at old buildings you can do. Ruins hold much more interest for me.

We made the most of the day with a walk to most of the major local sites. We missed out on the palace gardens, though. One hour is not enough for the ticket sellers to make it seem worth your while.

That night, we had a wonderful fancy meal at the Osteria Pepo, on Rosina. If you get enough meat eaters together, you may want to try the beef steak Florentine style. At a minimum purchase of 1kg, and sold by the 100gm chunk, you'll want at least two people who don't mind their meat still mooing at them. Failing that, the fillet with green pepper sauce (the non capsicum variety) will do the trick, or the thin slices with parmesan and rocket.

The late afternoon markets are pretty exciting. I tend to skip markets, but the goods seemed pretty good, with lots of leather and wool goods actually made in Italy. There's also a movement to prevent the sales of cheap knock offs, so whatever you buy will be genuine something.

The next day, tragedy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Euro Trip : Napoli (redeeming features)

One of Napolis redeeming features is it's food, and specifically La Brace, which is just around the corner from the hotel. I did read that you would have to go out of your way to find bad food, or simply stop at the first McDonalds you see from the termini. Regardless, La Brace came through for us on our first Sunday night in Napoli, and after having eaten at a couple of places were the menu changes when you sit down, or not everything is available (no pizza at a pizzeria!), it has saved us again after a full day of wandering the Italian country side.

So, the wandering...

Well, first we rewind one day. Yesterday was an organized tour of old Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius. Very nice, quite safe, except for those high winds at the top of the mountain. All in all, a no risk day.

However, today was the "choose your own adventure" day, in which there was a general plan to visit some Greek ruins and the Amalfi Coast. So, we took a train down to Salerno, courtesy of our Eurorail pass. Then jumped on a bus heading out to Paestum, the location of some Greek ruins. It was already a bit cloudy, but after we jumped on the bus, it started pissing down. Oh well, there's no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing (that's a mantra useful on most occasions, except hurricanes). The rain toned down a bit, by the time we hit Paestum, but rain coats and brollies were handy.

After a wander through the museo and the ruins, and a quick bite to eat at a pizzeria with no pizza, we decided the rain was too much to make the bus ride to the Amalfi worth it. Besides, we had to make it back to Salerno first!

We learned two things, which ended up being one thing, before our journey back to Salerno was done.

The first was that train tickets are not always available from the train station. We didn't initially plan to return via train, but it was an option one trying to board one bus didn't quite go to plan. "Back" was the word, and we thought that meant "catch the bus from the other side of the road". Turns out, not so much, but we decided to try for the train station instead, where a sign welcomed us to buy tickets from a bar, a tobacconist or some other corner shop.

After one more bus going passed was able to confirm that we were standing on the right side of the road all along, we were finally informed by the next bus driver that we could not buy bus tickets on the bus. He was good enough to stop at the next available and open bar, for us to buy our tickets, and waited for us to run back. Our first bus out to Paestum must have been with a different operator that did take payment on the bus.

Bus tickets seem to be purchased for journey time, rather than the journey itself. Luckily, they're fairly cheap, with 140 minutes of travel, only costing €3.

By the time we got back to Salerno, any attempt to make it to Amalfi would have us arriving after dark. A bit of a pity, since the rain had cleared up quite a lot, and the sun was in full shine while we sat outside the train station, waiting for the next bus to Salerno.

Tomorrow, Florence.

Apologies to Facebook commanders commenters. I'm doing everything via iPhone, at  the moment (and burning through the souls of innocent kittens while doing so, apparently), and the Facebook app doesn't let me view comments on notes. Maybe I'll pull my finger out and look up the  comments via Safari.

Updated for formatting - 25/11/2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

Euro Trip : Napoli (first impressions)

I have to place a lot of caveats on this impression, since we've only been here for two hours and fifteen minutes. It's Sunday afternoon, most shops are closed, except for a few eating places. The streets are lined with hawkers selling bags, shoes, shirts and belts. Where there is nothing being sold, there is rubbish. Large skips, overflowing with rubbish. Maybe it's because it is the end of the week. Maybe all this stuff gets cleaned up on Monday.

The piazza Garibaldi, outside of the main terminal, is a construction zone. After checking in, we went for a little two hour walk to the Duomo. The piazza Nicola Amore, along the way, also a construction zone.

We haven't been down to the water front yet. I'm not holding my hope.

My first impressions of Napoli: a bit of a shit hole.

Euro Trip : Rome'd Out

Today is the second full day in Rome, and thankfully, the last. I'm Rome'd out. We both are.

Yesterday was the Colosseum and Palatine Hill via a very good tour Dark Rome via ViaTour), and today was the crypts via the same group. Those were the official tours.

The unofficial tours were the stretch of road between the Termini and the Colosseum, twice (morning tour was moved to the afternoon due to strike action); a glimpse of Vatican City (Saturday morning is not an ideal time to visit due to hordes of children); the Trevi fountain and the queue to activate our Eurorail passes and reserve seating for our journeys through Italy (keep a spare hour or two up your sleeve for that one).

This may all sound very negative, but you have to look hard for the silver lining. I guess Rome is a big city. It's guided chaos and attracts tourists, pilgrims, and those that prey on those types. It's hard to find a nice quiet spot to eat a cafe bought panini that doesn't smell of piss.

However, the people are friendly for the most part, and the Hotel Kennedy ( where we are staying) is very nice, especially since it is in the heart of the tourist zone.

Tonight we had a sit down meal at one of the local trattoria. Sure, it was a little touristy, but the servings were generous and we didn't feel as though we were gouged when we got our €40 bill. The guided tours were really good. There's so much more to learn from a guided tour than you would get from wandering around yourself, or even one of those phone tours. Our crypt tour took us to two places we weren't even expecting to go.

Tomorrow, we're off to Napoli. I think it's going to be nicer than Rome. Mostly that's down to the accommodation being very close to the train station, and our Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius tour picking us up from the hotel.

Updated for formatting and Dark Rome link, and I was dead wrong about Napoli - 25/11/2010

Euro Side Notes

Euro Side Notes shall be a collection of short tails that have happened, but haven't made it into the main blog stories for that day.

At the moment, we're waiting at Terminal 5 (Heathrow) for our flight to Rome. We had to get up at 5am, to catch a mini cab at 5:30, to get us to the airport 2 hours before our 9:10 flight. Check-in procedures at Heathrow are really bloody efficient, such that we've been waiting for our gate announcement since 6:45. Oh well. Security checks are still on the stupid scale, with Annika having to remove her boots and jacket, and jump on a small box to be scanned.

Today, I left my faith Macpac of 11 years at the Euro Lodge. On our first day of arriving, the plastic that holds the main straps to the light aluminum frame broke. I guess it happened as a result of exposure to the corrosive salt of Vanuatu. Anyway, that was enough to spur me to get a new one. It's a bit of a pity because just about everything else about the pack was still good. One of the zips needed a minor repair.

So on our first day, trying to stay awake until we could check in at our accommodation, we went for a wander to Oxford Circus and the surrounding area. After visiting the British Museum to see the Egyptian exhibit, we went back to a Kathmandu we had spotted earlier.

From there I picked up a nice 75L pack. The day pack isn't as good as my previous one, but being able to hold a bit less, it ought to be lighter. Doh! I've actually kept the older day pack, but packed it in my main pack. That will be getting swapped over when we get to Rome. Just another 15min until the gate is announced.

The airport has a couple of apparent free wi-fi networks, but neitherseem to work. So in the mean time, I'm writing my blog entries to the Notes app on my iPhone, and will email them on when I can get a connection.