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15 September 2007 @ 08:12 pm
I really do have a great dislike of airplanes.  This may, as some of you probably have guessed, well be linked to my fear of heights (or, rather, my fear of falling from them) and to my love of sleeping (and hatred of sleep deprivation).  However, recent experimentation has shown that flight has aquired a new facet of discomfort, thanks largely to our increasing paranoia as western countries: liquid restrictions.

Now, I understand why they do it, probably better than most, having spent a large chunk of the last few weeks in the home of one of the UK's leading counter-terrorist officers (and seen a videotape of his lovely OBE[?] presentation, where it looked like he nearly forgot protocol and was going to turn his back to the Queen).  However, this has also given me to understand that it's still a pretty damn silly thing to do - if someone really wants to blow up a plane, someone will eventually find a way to do it.  It's a risk you accept every time you hop on a plane or a bus or cross the street that something will go wrong and *poof*.  More 'stiff upper lip' about this sort of thing, say I.

More importantly, I find not being able to take a reasonable quantity of liquid of the plane to have a highly irritating side-effect, for me, anyway: rapid dehydration.  A pressurised cabin is very dry.  The portions of water the stewards hand out at and in between means is very small.  Doctors recommend that you have at least half a liter of water for every 2 hours or so you're in the air.  Maintaining a proper level of hydration on a long-haul flight, therefore, depends on drinking an incredible amount of fluid before boarding the plane (and spending the resultant incredible amount of time holed up in the plane's midget-sized toilet) and then harrasing a stewardess every fifteen minutes for a refill. 

You know, if I had actually done this, I probably would be in bed right now, rather than sitting up ranting whilst drinking quite a bit of water.

It is good to be home.  More about that and Wot I Did On My Holidays to come when I'm not kept awake purely by ravenous thirst and coca-cola consumed some hours ago.  Instead, I'll leave you with this.

Towards the end of the trip, as one does, one reflects on the things one misses about one's home country.  Meat pies were up there.  Proper sized cans and bottles of drink.  A good greek-style kebab.  Friends and family.  Good beaches.  The prospect of warm weather.  Tonight, though, tonight... On the precarious drive home from my parents house where I'd left my car for the duration of the trip, I discovered what I'd really, deeply been missing for the last six weeks.  It something I'd never even thought of.

Driving along, radio up full-blast and singing along to such greats as ABBA's Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!  I'm a dag, I know, but I do love to sing (alone - I like the music up too loud to really include others) in the car, no matter how many funny stares I get.  I'm a dag, I know.
 
 
09 September 2007 @ 05:25 pm
France continues to live up to all of our expectations.  Crowded, dirty and, despite Rouen being a tourist town, rather unaccomodating on the whole.  The good food doesn't quite make up for it

We've been to quite a few places since I last updated.  Prague, Nuremburg, Heidelberg, Luxembourg and, because we decided we should give France a second chance and need to be within a couple of hours drive of Calais, Rouen.  I was going to update in Luxembourg but, like everything else in the country, it was rather expensive.  So you get this, delayed post, instead.

Now, for the important bit:

While we went to Prauge, we never drove into Prague from Berlin, and we most certainly didn't do it during a peak period.  Doing so would have invalidated our lease, and we'd like our $3,000 back.  And while we were in Prague, I most certainly did not hit a post while reversing, taking several chips out of the bumper and adding a large amount of white paint to it in the process, because, while we were in Prague, we never actually drove our hire car into the Czech Republic. 

Is that clear?

I admit that I didn't know all that much about the CR before we made the trip out, basically only what the Lonely Planet guide had said, and so was somewhat, I suppose, surprised by it at first.  It's a very nice city, full of interesting buildings.  Best of all, it's dirt cheap - a very favourable exchange rate enabled us to book into the most swanky youth hostel in a studio appartment with private bathroom, fully functional kitchen and a nice view to boot.  Posh.

We went on the requisite walking tour led, for the first time, by someone who wasn't from Australia or a nearby country.  Lots of very old, very pretty buildings.  Lots and lots of photos for you all to endure upon our return.  Also went to the requisite handful of museums, though by this stage I was approaching museum fatigue and never lingered long.  The communist musuem was pretty dinky, but worthwhile to visit due soley to its location: above a McDonalds and on the same floor as a casino.  The city museum, while less dinky, had huge gaps in its history - nost notably there was nothing present regarding the first and second world wars, nor anything about what happened behind the iron curtain.  They did have an incredible scale model of the city, though, which made the price of admission worthwhile.  Large and interactive, you could change the lighting or use the cameras to zoom in on places of interest.

The person who made it had far, far too much time on their hands.

The other notable thing about Prague for yours truly, aside from what I'm now begining to think of as typical European driving habits, was the underground.  Dear gods it's bloody deep.  Far , far worse than the London Underground in this respect.  I suppose the bright side is that I should have fewer problems with the Underground in future, having conquered the Prague system.  Kind of.

We made a brief stop over in Nuremburg, and finally discovered a city that's more dead on a Sunday than Perth.  'Lifeless' springs to mind.  Still, there was a fair bit to see in the old town - the castle and its walls, most of which are still standing and a great statue about marriage that I shall have to show you all pictures of later.

Nuremburg also plays host to the German National Museum which, as the guide suggested, was worth the trip in and of its self.  Arriving late, I only got to see a small fraction of the collection in the three hours I had to spend.  Again, true to the guide, they had a nice collection of armour and weaponry; unexpectedly, they also had a huge and very cool collection of musical instruments.  The final hour was spent enjoying their special collection, which focused on german masterpieces of varying types, from works by great painters to examples of the 'original' masterpieces - that is, the work a journeyman craftsman had to produce to be counted a master of his craft.

From Nuremburg, Heidelburg, or rather, lucie_p's house about an hour out of the university town, where she and her family most graciously put up with us cumbersome Australians for two nights.  I admit to have being rather nervous about the encounter, this being the first time I've met someone I've only known via the internet, and also knowing myself to be somewhat lacking on the conversation front at times.  Still, I think it went rather well.

Again, as has been typical of this trip, our hosts were rather better to us than we tend to deserve, and fed us very well indeed and even went to the trouble of getting german beer for the boys to try out, and some apple wine for me, ever on the hunt for nice tasting apple-based alcohol.  We did encounter the language barrier at times, though almost exclusively in relation to the youngest who, in the end, took it upon herself to teach David and me rudimentary German through the medium of Pokemon.  I'm afraid she wasn't entirely sucessful.

We caught the train from Darmstadt to Heidelburg, a university town nestled in a valley below the ruins of a large castle.  Alas, here we encountered the worst weather of our trip to date: not only did it rain, but it periodically dumped hail on us as well.  Now, bear in mind that it's still considered to be summer over here.  I think I'll stick to Australia.

Undeterred by the weather, we hiked up to the castle which offered some spectacular views of the city below (as once noted by Mark Twain, who was rather taken with the area himself).  It also offered, rather bizarely, some of the worlds largest barrels.  Room-sized, space-for-20-people-standing-atop-it barrels.  Once used to store wine tithes.  Go figure.

We left our hosts the following morning for Luxembourg, taking their recommendation to take the scenic route up the Rhine valley towards Trier, once a roman town.  We had a lunch there and spent a few hours wandering around looking at the remnants of the roman city, before continuing on our way.

Luxembourg was, again as the book describe it, very much like a fairytale town come to life.  Only more expensive.  And full of stairs.  And surrounded by not one, not two but three huge-ass walls.

We spent two days in Luxembourg; one in the city itself and one in another town.  In the city we went on a walking tour (surprise surprise) , visited a modern art musem (a true surprise, given our feelings about modern art, but it was about sci-fi influenced design), and explored an open section of one of the defensive walls (castemates) which was somewhat dark and dank, and got progressively narrower the deeper in we went.  It's hard to imagine the place teeming with a defensive army, people running to and fro, up and down narrow, spiral stairs with food and ammunition, but they must have at some point. 

In the evening, Lyall and I went to the fair that had been set up just outside the city center.  Luxembourg, you see, is the europen center for culture for 2007, or something similar, and have a lot of temporary installations, one of which is a full-blown carnival with rides and sideshow games.  I went on one ride, a rollercoaster, and tried my hand at a couple of games.  The range of prizes they offer makes it a touch more worthwhile to play rigged games there than it does in Australia - on offer at quite a few of the booths were PS3s, Wii's, iPods  and DS's, as well as a host of other goodies.  In the end, I won a stuffed hippo, but demonstrated that my archery skills have not terribly waned since highschool.

The following day we caught the train and linked bus out to Vianden, which seemed to be the only town offering things that all three of us might be interested in.  In the end we really only got to do one thing - an adventure park.  The 'adventure park' was actually a park of ropes and terrible heights - one of those places where you spend several hours scrambling over wobbly platforms, flying down zip lines, doing tarzan swings and trying very hard not to look like a complete twat while doing exercises that require dexterity, upper-body strength and coordination, all the while dangling percariously twenty to forty feet above the ground.

It was surprisingly fun.  Less surprisingly, I'm still very sore.

We left Luxembourg early for the six-hour drive to Rouen, the town where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake.  As I said earlier, France continues to make a poor impression.  The hotel we booked into turned out to not have any rooms free at this particular hotel (at least not at the price we'd booked for) and instead sent us to a hotel that, while owned by the same people, is rather a large step down in quality from what we'd expected without a reduction in fees.  One suspects that this is their usual scam, and that they were counting on us being too tired and it being too difficult for us to find similarly-priced accomodation for us to protest.

Rouen itself offers little that we've not already seen elsewhere and better.  Cathedrals, yes, but I've now seen bigger and prettier.  Quaint cobbled streets lined by hundreds-year-old houses?  Again, seen elswhere, and I've not had to dodge as much dog poo to see them.

I suppose I am starting to suffer somewhat from travel fatigue.  In truth, I think I'm about ready to come home, eat a good meat pie and an aussie kebab and have a night's sleep that's not constantly interruped by the snoring of a man I don't know.  Only a few more days to go.
 
 
29 August 2007 @ 08:25 pm
Ah, Germany, land of excitement.  Why, just today in the space of four hours we were treated to the spectacle of a police car that had rolled over (apparently without external aid) in the middle of a busy intersection, the Museum of Hygiene and an (in the) buff young man ambling into the heart of the town to the apparent notice of few.

We spent a total of three nights in Bremen, which proved to be just the perfect amount of time to see and get a feel for the city without either exhausting ourselves or all touristy options.  Highlights of Bremen were the universal science center (where I think I broke the smallest toe on my right foot), the walking tour and the hostel itself.  Oh, and the people of Bremen, who, with rare exception, were friendly, cheerful, tolerant and English-speaking.

The science center was essentially Sci-Tech, but done bigger and, it must be said, done better.  It was quite a lot of fun and occupied the three of us for several hours, and, indeed resulted in varying degrees of bodily injury as we variously attempted to run across a balance rope and stacked it in spectacular fashion (mine was most impressive, involving a near somersault and some flourish) or got a little to into the turning of the handles and the pushing of the pumps.

The only other museum we hit in Bremen was actually on the outskirts of the town, in the grounds of the area's major psychiatric facility.  A museum about the hospital and historic treatments, oddly enough.  Only David and I made the trek out, getting somewhat lost on the way and not arriving there until fairly late in the afternoon.  But this turned out to be ok because the museum was entirely in German and curated by a resident of the hospital who spoke several languages, but none of them English.  She was very nice and as helpful as possible, and even managed to produce a copy of a forgotten translation of some of the displays about halfway through our tour.

I'm really starting to like walking tours.  It's getting to be the thing I look out for when we stop off someplace new - what tours there are, how much they cost, etc.  The tour of Bremen was particularly good, because the tour was in both English and German, and we three were the only English speakers, so we essentially got a personal tour of the city as we walked around and the opportunity to ask lots of questions that the German speakers didn't.  Bremen was once and incredibly wealthy city.  What drove home this fact for me was our lovely guide's explanation that there is no stone anywhere in Bremen - every since piece has been floated down the river at some point over the town's history - and then realizing that not only half the city was built of stone, but the entire thing was cobbled.

Finally, to the hostel, which is the best experience I've had in one so far.  We stayed in a place called Gust Haus, and you could feel the professionalism from the moment you entered.  Friendly staff, clean rooms, clean showers (though communal -  a first for me), an utterly impeccable kitchen, a great lounge... And cheap.  The only drawback was our dorm room being on the fourth floor, all the facilities being on the first and their being no lift.  I now have calves of steel, let me tell you.

It's also the first hostel where David and I have felt inclined to linger in the common area.  We met a few great people - an astonishing number of aussies on holiday, a lawyer from Latvia on his way to get his masters in the Netherlands (and was in dire need of a girlfriend), a Brazilian (Jean) whom we dragged along to the movies (Transformers in German!) and a pair of accountants from London (also Australians).  We spent the last evening parked in front of the tv, the lawyer, the accountants, Lyall and I, making a mockery of a very mockable magic/performance art/charity show that really had to be seen to be believed.  Hillarious.  It was like Eurovision, only we had to provide the commentary.

The drive from Bremen to Berlin went very well (certainly, compared to some of our adventures so far), and took about 3.5 hours.  David hit 180kph on the autobahn, but felt the car was becoming unstable so dropped back to 150kph, which, after driving myself, today, feels like a nice cruising speed after a while.

The hostel in Berlin was nice but huge, with over 200 guests constantly coming in and out.  It was a short walk from the subway, which we made good use of, though a fair way out from the city center itself.

Berlin - now Berlin is a city I could easily spend weeks in.  It's rather like London in this respect; I was genuinely sad to be leaving after only two full days.  But what days!  We got in to the city fairly late, and David and I went for a walk through the Teirgarten, which was everything a park should be, and then to what tends to be know (incorrectly) as the holocaust memorial before calling it a night.  Lyall at this point was still suffering trouble from Amsterdam and stayed in; unfortunately his condition has gotten worse in the past few days and he now looks like the walking dead.  What was, we though, aftereffects from smoke inhalation has turned out, on enforced visit to the doctor, to be a throat infection and now, to top it off, an allergic reaction.  Not sure what we're going to do if he doesn't make a solid recovery soon, though he does have some rather strong antibiotics to take.  He's barely in condition to be driven around, let alone spend the days out walking from place to place.

On Monday we went on two tours, one below ground and one above.  The first took us into a WWII air raid bunker, sandwiched between two levels of subway.  It was fascinating, in a dark and somewhat claustrophobic fashion.  Apparently Berlin has a huge abandoned and unexplored underground section, leftover from this war or that construction project.  Very, very little of it is accessible and much of it is falling to ruin or flooding (like Perth, Berlin is built on swamp) which is a shame, though the tour company is working on correcting that

The free tour is something I'd recommend to anyone who visits Berlin.  Extensive (read: long) and done by guides who work for tip, it was both fun and informative (though David, sometime history student, informs me our guide got a few details wrong), giving both a good sense of the layout of the city and its turbulent history.  We went to most of the important sites in Berlin, even if only briefly, and went through several memorials.  I suppose it says something about me and my eventual choice of profession that I found the Night of Shame monument in the Bebelplatz most affecting.

David and I rounded the day off by a long visit to the Topology of Terror, the partially excavated and ruined basement prison level of the SS's headquarters.  We were there until after nightfall reading about the history of the site and those imprisoned there, indeed until we were actually kicked out by its closure.

The following day we all went our separate ways, me to the Sachsenhausen Memorial.  The tour took up the entire day and was, as you can expect, was rather depressing, following the camp's history from inception to use by the Soviets, to its reopening as a somewhat inappropriate memorial by the East German propaganda machine.  It's currently in the process of more upgrades to turn it into the kind of memorial we'd expect to see today, with appropriate sensitivity towards all who were imprisoned and died in and around the camp.

On a light note, the tour guide turned out to be from Perth, an MLC girl.  We quickly established whether we were one or two degrees of separation from each other (one, via multiple avenues) and then chatted with a few other aussies about the current housing situation, of all things.

Today, Dresen, but I pretty much covered that in the first paragraph.  Honestly.  I'll post a photo later - of the cop car, not the naked dude (we weren't quick enough to think of hauling out the camera).
 
 
24 August 2007 @ 08:39 pm
Well, here we are in Bremen, Germany.   We're here for a few days to recharge our batteries before continuing on our whirlwind trip through western Europe.  So far this week we've been to Brussels, Amsterdam and now Bremen.  Three countries in almost as many dazs (and on one tank of gas).

Driving over here is absolutely frightening.  Not so much on the highways (though getting easily overtaken by a car towing a caravan whilst doing 140kph yourself takes some getting used to), but certainly driving into populated areas is a hair-raising experience, compounded by what seems to be a rather laissez faire approach to signage (it's typicaly non-existent or in such an odd place or inaccurate that it may as well be).  Case to point, driving from Bruges to Brussels, we were misdirected by a sign and ended up in the heart of Ghent, a city that I never, ever, ever wish to visit again.  Narrow streets, crazed drivers, people parking seemingly at random, trams, no singage whatsoever... we were lucky to escape without accident.

We only really spent a few hours in Brussels, having had our fill of Belgium in Bruge, which seems to be Belguim compacted down to a convenient size, windmills, chocolate factories  and Russian artifical diamond producing machines named Boris.  We walked around in the afternoon and saw the sights, including the Manneken Pis and a few nice parks, but nothing that we hadn't already really seen in Bruges.

Well, that isn't entirely true.  Two things continue to surprise me about Europe, and not in a good way.  The first is the number of smokers.  The message that it's bad for you doesn't really seem to have made it here. (unsurprising given the incredible amount of smoking-related advertising).  The second is the number of beggars.  It was particularly noticable in Brussels, where quite a few had set up station along the main shopping strip, often with infants in hand.  Sad, really.

My glasses broke again while in Brussels, this time permanently (structural failure).  I finaly gave up and forked over 120 euros for new frames to house the lenses.  They aren't that bad and my insurance should cover it, but I was quite attached to those frames and their destruction now means that I have no sunglasses.  Alas.

We had a much easier drive out of Brussels and into the Netherlands, where we stayed in town called Noordwijk rather than Amsterdam, which appeared to be a seaside resort of some sort.  To us Aussies, the beach itself was slightly laughable - the forecast for the town in the heart of summer was exactly the same as it is currently in Margaret River.

We stayed in a hostel that was on the seedier side, reaaking of pot and booze; then again, this was the Netherlands.  It was just under an hour to Amsterdam by train - incredibly overpriced train, it must be said, 14 euroes there and back - and Amsterdam, on arrival, turned out to be pretty much what I expected.  Tacky.  Frankly, I'm glad we only spent the day there.  It's not my kind of place at all.  Case to point, David and I apparently copped some flack from the resident stoners/boozers for retreating to the less smokey upstairs rather early both nights we stayed in the hostel.  Lyall stuck around, and his resultant lung trouble has more than vindicated our departure.

We've got another day in Bremer, in a great hostel, and then we're on to Berlin.  More updates as I've time.
 
 
19 August 2007 @ 08:30 am

Just a short update to say that, after some slight misadventure (nearly missing the train from Victoria Station as the Victoria underground line turned out to be out of comission), we've made it safely to mainland Europe.  Well, more or less safely.  European drivers are, indeed, utterly insane and we're rather unaccustomed to driving on the right hand side of the road, a further complication.  David actually had a minor accident, clipping a parked car and breaking its driver-side mirror.  Unfortunatly, the owner was inside said parked vehicle at the time of the collision, and we were chased up the road a fair way by an irate frenchman and his morbidly obese wife.

We took that as an indication that it was time to leave France, having spent about two hours in the country, and made straight for the Belgian boarder.

Bruges is a lovely town, rather what you think of when you think of Europe (old buildings, cobblestones, soaring church spires, canals and whatnot), but I don't think anyone in their right mind would actually want to live here.  The town has just over 100,000 residents, but gets over 3 million visitors each year.  And it's a very small town, barely 6 kilometers across at its widest point.

Tomorrow we'll be heading to Brussels for at least another day.  After that, we should be heading on into the Netherlands, then northern Germany, and from there to Prague.  We're hoping to have time to visit Vienna on the return leg, which is dominated by southern Germany.

 
 
 
17 August 2007 @ 09:46 am
It's really rather amazing how quickly the human body adapts to new circumstances. Only two weeks ago, walking for half an hour across Perth was enough to leave me tired and breathless; now I think little of spending the entire day traipsing around, say, Edinburgh, which is both considerably larger and rather more hilly. That said, on Monday I made the mistake of thinking that I could easily hike from the Calton Hill to Authur's Seat and back to the festival hub for a show in under two hours.

The trip up to the seat proved to me just how unfit I really am, pausing to stop every fifty meters to have a little rest. More humiliating was the trio of Scots who took the incline at an easy jog, conversing all the way, and who were already halfway up the next hill by the time I'd reached the top of the first. I did eventually reach the top and even, daringly, took some photos from the edge.  Then I felt the timing appropriate to keel over and die for a while.

About ten minutes later, I'd revived enough to tackle the descent, which I elected to tackle at a jog to show that I wasn't a complete wuss; I quickly rethought this plan when I stepped into what was presumably a rabbit hole and nearly broke my ankle.   I did manage to make it to the show on time; this may or may not have been due to efficient use of the public transport system.

We were all growing a touch tired of the fringe by Monday, which turned out to be pretty good timing as we were set to depart early Tuesday morning. By that time, we'd seen pretty much everything we'd actually really wanted to see and, it must be said, several that we hadn't. Zombie Prom, the zombie musical I mentioned in my previous post, was amusing but reminded me rather strongly of those god-awful musicals we used to put on in high school, shooting for 'hilariously camp' and falling short. Better was the other zombie musical that turned out to be running during the festival, Famished. Set in Victorian times, it was a true gem of Pythonesque comedy and included a very funny dance routine, moustache jokes galore and some rather witty banter. Very commendable.

Also of note was the One Man Star Wars, which was much as the title suggests and One Night Stand, an improvised musical. I'm a fan of improvised comedy, and have a great deal of admiration for those who are quick witted enough to pull it off. The group of six improvised a musical set in space called Haggis, featuring the well-known song, 'My Gay Transvestite Father is Actually My Mother' that turned out to be a morality tale about hair and how we should all just get along, complete with fake ending. After a strong start, things kind of fell apart in the middle as they dug themselves into a series of rather deep plot-holes because they all weren't quite on the same wavelength, but rallied magnificently at the end. It was by far and away one of the funniest things I've seen in quite some time.

On John's recommendation, we went and saw Jihad: The Musical which, for some strange reason, we getting a lot of media attention. It was again, amusing and well-acted, but I felt that it wanted to be a lot more controversial than it actually was, skirting the edge of being daring for fear of causing offense.

To my delight, I discovered that Frankenstein's, a club/pub in the heart of the city, has regular Rocky Horror nights, and that I was actually going to be in town for one of them. I was rather less than impressed with the actual event itself; hoping for the promised movie screening with an engaged audience, I was instead treated Rocky being projected onto a number of screens, accompanied by such highlights from the musical's soundtrack as Justin Timberlake's SexyBack and Christina Aguilera's Candyman. Every now and then a member of the pub's staff would stop the other crappy music and do a number from the actual show in a somewhat half-hearted fashion. I left in disgust.

Having had such an unpleasant time on the bus, I did, indeed, elect to take the train for the return journey, nabbing a fare for £70. It must be said that I am now quite taken with train travel. Plenty of space, even tables to sit at if you're so inclined, power points for your electrical goodies and wi-fi, food service plus, joy of joys, quiet carriages where I was not the only one who complained about the unholy racket two toddlers were making. Admittedly, the quiet carriage is only meant to mean that you can't use mobile phones, but how hard is it to put the young family in a coach that is not populated by people who are trying to work or, it must be said, are somewhat hungover? Under the collective weight of our dirty looks and some quiet words from the steward, they eventually fell silent, and the rest of the trip was blissful, watching the countryside fly by.

Of course, it turned out that the bus back from Edinburgh was less than half full, meaning that there was actually plenty of space. David and Lyall have both given me flack over it, but so pleasent was my trip that I care not.

Back in London, we had a day of rest, spending it almost entirely in bed or zombified in front of the tv, and had yesterday to see some more of the sights. Madame Tussauds was first on the list. We arrived rather early, knowing that by only a bit past opening the queue would be several hours long. The models were, of course, all very well done and we got some amusing photos out of it (including the apparently obligatory Funny Photo With Hitler) , but the £25 entrance fee still seems incredibly steep.

We seperated for a few hours afterwards; David to buy maps, Lyall to explore the underground and myself to visit the fascinating Imperial War Museum. I could probably have spent a full day in there. We met at Trafalgar Square at three, and from there made our way over to New Scotland Yard, where we met up with John and got taken inside to see a staff-run museum of sorts that we can't really talk about. It was very cool.

A fish and chip dinner and an early night rounded out the evening. Today we'll be going through maps to determine exactly where we're going and how to get there without paying a small fortune in tolls. Tomorrow, Dover and Calais.
 
 
11 August 2007 @ 12:30 pm
Whoever would have thought that it rained in Scotland?

I'm in Edinburgh, in an internet cafe, hiding from the rain until my bus arrives.  I suppose it's about time we had a taste of true British weather.  It's making dashing between various fringe events a touch more exciting, slipping and sliding on cobblestones. 

The bus ride up here was absolutely hell on earth.  I'd always thought that flying economy class limited your personal space as much as possible in the interests of cramming as many people on board as possible, but it has nothing - nothing - on the long-haul bus service here.  It's quite possible that the seating plan was designed by midgets determined to punish anyone over 5 feet tall.  Sitting up straight, there was exactly one inch of space between my knees and the seat in front of me.  When they reclined - if you can call tilting back exactly one inch reclining - said space vanished.  The seats themselves were narrow to boot - tip your head to one side and it's on your neighbour's shoulder - and mine was directly on top of a heating/cooling element, meaning that, on the whim of the driver, I froze or roasted.  Cramped, sore and sleep-deprived with deadened limbs and bad headache, I nearly cried with relief when we finally disembarked and I could straighten, with some difficultly, my legs.  I dread the return trip, and am seriously considering forking out several hundred pounds to take the train instead.

I suppose the torment was worth it.  Edinburgh is a lovely, though grey, city, and the festival is varied and interesting and cheap, provided one conviniently forgets to multiply the door price by 2.5.  I've seen mainly comedy acts so far, all decent, a play about Machiavelli which started off as mildly interesting but turned into an anti-American rant in the last ten minutes and a night of ghost stories, one of which, in the style of a BBC radio transcript, was incredibly well done and gave me a serious case of the willies.  Today I'm to see a zombie musical and an improvised musical, and whatever else takes my fancy (and is preferably free).  I'm also hoping to see the Military Tattoo at some point - I have an inexplicable fondness for marching bands - and indeed tried to go last night, only to discover that they weren't letting you anywhere near the castle unless you'd already bought your tickets.  Also, the line to enter was over an hour long.  I gave it up as a bad job and went and saw News Revue instead, which was very funny and topical, even if I didn't get all the references to British politicians and politics, and the room it was held in was poorly ventilated.

Living in a place that's famed for its miserable weather, one can understand how the idea of airconditioning might have passed the general populace by.  That said, the fringe establishments would do well to learn that if you cram fifty people into a small room, partially-insulated room with no windows, a single, $15 fan will not provide sufficient movement of air to cool the audience.  That fan is even less effective when you've been cramming fifty people into that same room all day and all night long with letting said room air.  Also, the idea of a cold drink that isn't alcoholic seems to be alien to the people of Britain.  But that's actually ok, because it's giving me a good excuse to drink lots of lovely English cider.  I think I'll go and have another now.
 
 
08 August 2007 @ 09:37 am
August 9th-14th : Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival.

August 15th-17th : London and surrounds

August 18th-September 10th : Continental Europe, starting in Calais where we will collect our hire car.

September 11th-13th: Back to London.

September 14th: Arrive home.
 
 
07 August 2007 @ 08:15 am

I have an unerring sense of direction.  If I must reach a particular destination, especially by a particular time, I will unerringly choose the wrong way to get there.   Yesterday, for example, I made it halfway down the Strand before realising that Fleet Street was, in fact, the other way.

Sunday was spent primarily walking around the parks until we - or at least David - could walk no more.  Originally intending to head to Hyde Park, we took a wrong turn out of the tube station and ended up in St. James Park, and from there wandered down to Buckingham Palace instead and, quite by coincidence, saw part of the changing of the guard.  Only part, because we arrived late and left early, due to the absolutely insane crowds and our unwillingness to get trampled underfoot.  

Again, we took a wrong turn leaving the palace and wound up at Westminster Abbey and had a wander through.  It's one of those buildings that I shudder to think of what it would have been like to build. From there, we actually found our way to Hyde Park - or, at least, Hyde Park corner, where we paid our respects to the Australian War memorial and gawped at the Wellington Arch.  I was particularly taken with the quadriga atop the arch (the angel of peace descending in the chariot of war).  Why we don't have more works of art like that instead of all these bland modern 'art' statues that are just lumps of concrete I don't know.  Perhaps because what's on top of the arch requires real effort to make.

Having finally reached spitting distance of our original destination, we decided to continue our journey towards it via, of all places, Harrods.  I suppose we had to visit it at some point while we were over here.  It was at once larger and smaller than I expected and full of interesting things - like a mammoth tusk retailing at £70,000.  If I ever have that kind of money to spare, I'm going to buy it for my coffee table.  We all did end up buying something at the store, though nothing that was actually Harrods-y.  The boys bought a book each, I bought a copy of the collectors edition of Spaced, something I had intended to buy while I was over here, half-price at £17 and a real bargain. 

We caught the tube back to Hyde Park and had a brief hotdog lunch that was surprisingly edible and then had a wander down along the lake, amusing ourselves with the notion of the locals considering 28 C to be full-blown, perfect for sunbathing, 'the heat is going to kill us' weather.  You know me - I wouldn't even consider it beach going weather, and yet everywhere we went, PA systems and signs we offering helpful advice regarding cool and the keeping thereof.  About halfway round the Park, David piked on Lyall and I, leaving us to wander into Kensington Gardens on our own.

The place is absolutely littered with Diana memorials.  Memorial fountain, memorial playground, memorial garden...  I've never actually understood the appeal of Diana whatsoever, nor her enduring popularity, and find the whole affair vaguely nauseating.  We gave all the memorials, and Kensington Palace itself, a wide berth, instead heading to the Peter Pan statue, and then to the Albert Memorial.

When I eventually kick the bucket, I encourage you to erect something similar in honour of my glorious memory.

Albert Hall rounded out the day out; we returned (once again inadvertently taking the long way) to the house of our hosts, who put on a barbeque dinner with their children and grandchildren in attendance.  All in all, a satisfying day.

Come Monday, we all went our separate ways in the morning; I to get my glasses fixed, Lyall to visit the Science and Technology Museum and David to collect tickets for our bus trip to Edinburgh.  The idea was to meet at the British Museum at 11:30.  Much to my own surprise, I successfully made my way there on time, having taken only one wrong train and a couple of wrong turns, and met up with David.  We hung around out front waiting for Lyall to show, and, after half an hour, figured that he wasn't.  We had a nice lunch at the Museum Tavern, and then went into the Museum itself. 

It was really quite interesting and well presented, though I didn't end up seeing it all or, indeed, seeing what I saw as thoroughly as I would have liked.  It seems that David and I have different ideas when it comes to visiting museums, or he was suffering from having been there previously.  I like to read all the text associated with an item and, as such, was typically not even halfway through a gallery before he was waiting for me at the other end.  In the end, he left early, leaving me to finish viewing the rest of the museum at my own pace.  I'll probably have to go back at some point and go over those first galleries again.

It was only about 3pm when I did finish, and quite a pleasant afternoon, so I decided to hoof it down to St. Paul's Cathedral.  I found it, remarkably without getting lost once, and was treated to a minor press spectacle and wandered through the crypt at St. Brigit's church along route (the crypt being discovered, complete with roman and Saxon architecture, when the church was bombed during the war). 

St. Paul's, alas, was a disappointment.  Oh, sure, it is a stunning building, but Mother Church, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to charge the rather ungodly sum of £16 for admission -  a sum I was utterly unwilling to part with.  If I'm going to pay $40 Australian to visit a church, I not only want to be able to take photographs inside but have a go on the organ as well.  I took my money to the Museum of London instead, which received a £5 donation for being genuinely interesting, interactive and well thought out.  Hooray for science!

The tube trip back to our host's house was quick and uneventful, particularly once I realised that the numerous interchanges I had planned could be done away with entirely if I sat on the first train for two more stops.  I love how the English just leave their newspapers on the train for others to read.  Devoid, at the time, of any such reading material myself, I immersed myself in any number of cheap and free tabloids on the 40-minute trip.

I reach home a bit before 6, only to discover that we were going straight back out again.  John, earlier in the day, had procured for us free tickets to Wicked the musical, and the time we were to meet him to collect the tickets had been moved forward.  We raced back to Victoria Station, a race during which the Underground seemingly took offence at my presence and did its very best to kill me, or at least both delay and maim me, several times.  My swipe card stopped working, the entry gate first closed hard on my leg and then refused to let me pass and, finally, the train doors gave my arm a nice set of bruises when they closed on my arm as I was rethinking my decision to attempt to board a rather overcrowded compartment.  Not at all pleasant.  

Wicked, however, rather made up for the blood, sweat and tears. Eminently better than the book it was based off of, I think it will be a highlight of my trip.

 
 
04 August 2007 @ 09:34 pm

Well, here we are in sunny London, and I say that with no hint of irony.  Today was a beautiful summer day, blue sky’d, cloudless and pleasantly warm at around 28C.  The three of us Australians actually got sunburnt, a testament, one suspects, to our tendency to spend more time indoors than out of it and the resultant lily-white skin.  At 20 minutes to nine, it’s still quite light outside, nice, but somewhat jarring when back home it’s pitch dark at 6. 

 

The flight over was difficult, as always.  I’ll spare you all the tedious details involving six-hour layovers, economy seating not planned with tall people in mind, my own inability to sleep on planes and the hour-long UK entry queue in a hall so hot and airless that at least one little old lady collapsed, and say instead that it was as uneventful and, indeed, pleasant a flight as I’ve come to hope for.  All of our luggage made it intact and the in-flight food was surprisingly edible.  Plus, the airport candy store in Kuala Lumpur sold Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which will always make up for a hell of a lot as far as I’m concerned.

 

After the endless customs queue, it was a relief to be met by David’s godfather, John, who, after a few false starts involving the car park ticket machine, drove us, though peak-hour traffic, to his home in Kingsbury, which is not very far at all from Wembley.

 

A side note – the traffic here is insane, and all of the drivers are crazy.   But that’s ok, because a great many of the pedestrians are too, and I’ve heard things are worse by several orders of magnitude once you leave the island.

 

John and his wife, Sue, gave us probably a greater welcome than we truly deserve, on top of allowing us to make use of their house for the next week.  The house is lovely, and has a conservatory overlooking the garden (which is also lovely) but is tiny – I’ve no idea at all how they managed to raise three children in it.  This is probably purely relative; the house seems similar in size to all the others in the neighbourhood.

 

Our hosts left us this morning for a wedding in Suffolk, though not, it must be said, before cooking us a full English breakfast.  Left to our own devices, we made our way into the city via the Underground, which had far less underground on the Jubilee line than one would expect from the name, but quickly made up for it in the city proper.  It’s one thing to know that some of the stations are very deep underground; it’s quite another to stare down what seems to be several miles of escalator and then get queasy because it turns out you’re phobic of depths as well as heights and have sudden visions of tumbling, a over t, down the shaft and coming to a sudden stop.

 

The feelings of vertigo were not improved by chasing my rather less fearless travelling companions down the escalator, they proving to be rather less content than I to simply stand stock still and cling to the handrail like a lifeline.

 

Incidentally, it has been suggested that I should go on the London Eye.  I think not.

 

We did some touristy things in the morning – caught one of the open-topped double-decker bus tours to see some of the sights and get our bearings and made a brief foray onto the Thames to see what could be seen from there.  We had lunch in the Sherlock Holmes Bar and Restaurant on Baker Street (who would have guessed), which was obviously aimed at us touristy types but had decent food at a decent price and some surprisingly good apple cider.

 

In the afternoon, we just wandered around the city, seeing what we could see.  A brief foray into Soho, fighting against the crowds on Regent and Oxford streets, laughing at some very, er, earnest protestors at the statue of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus (which lives up to its name – it’s a zoo) and wandering across Trafalgar Square, populated by Londoners trying to escape the heat and tourists feeding the pigeons.

 

A well spent day that was capped off by finally finding an optician who expressed that they might – if I come back first thing Monday morning and the right person is there – be able to fix my glasses.  David, you see, inadvertently clocked me in the face while retrieving his carry-on and the right arm broke off irreparably.  London optometrists are proving thus far to be singularly unhelpful, in the hopes, I rather suspect, that I will just buy new ones from them.  Not really an option, given the week and a half turn around time universally required.  I really should check to see if my insurance covers a replacement pair.

 
 
Current Mood: tiredtired