A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: piepers

Post Trip Reflections

31-5-06
And so we returned to civilisation as we know it. Three weeks after our European Trip has ended, and my head still swims with images of the countless little sights absorbed but not yet processed. There is a great sense of relief to be back among the familiar sights and smells of Melbourne, and to stretch your bones on your own bed, knowing you don't have to find a different bed for tomorrow.

Of course there has to be a degree of anti-climax now. After all, we have seen most of the finest art that has been preserved through the centuries, seen the most significant architectural sites from Ireland, England, Holland, France, Italy, (and the intrguingly distinctive Gaudi drenched Barcelona). Yet there was also some pretty ordinary work that was somewhat disappointing. Among the golden peaks of human endeavour, there were some molehills of underachievement. It was confirmed for me that the spark of genius is rare indeed.

Excruciatingly hard to return to the work-a-day world. So grey, so mundane. And yet, what did we see on the other side of the world but what is mundane for they who live there?

While us cats were away, the home mice naturally were tempted to play. Results: one new laptop stolen during a "party", one car stolen and joy ridden through a brick fence. I thought I had removed anything of value from the house in anticipation of lower standards of housecare from the Young Thoughtless Males. Memo: next time consider plastic shrink wrapping FOR THE WHOLE HOUSE NOT FOR THE LUGGAGE!!!!

On reflection I find this blog highlights a serious coffee addiction,which may be due to Melbourne itself having developed a huge array of latte sippers. Also that the bodily needs for decent nutrition need to be satisfied to sufficient degree that you are not distracted by either excessive hunger, thirst or intestinal distress from the primary task of walking around, looking, listening and thinking about your surroundings.

Posted by piepers 00:41 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Dubai the land of heat

sunny 40 °C

We are in Dubai today.... with much unpublished material not having been able to get the chance to post it on this blog yet. Here it is hot, hot, hot and very different.
To friends and family, just to let you know, we will be on a plane at 2.30 in the morning the 7th May (Dubai time) so should be home after midnight on Melbourne's sunday

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The above was all I had time to bang out in the close confines of one of Dubai's Internet cafes. Let me expand this entry a little.
We arrived in Dubai skimming in over a landscape whose skyline has an ancient collection of low rounded and linear shapes obscured by air that seems dusty or dirty. On the receiving end, we detect a card held up displaying our names. We are whisked away to a car for our airport transfer, where we observe the local traffic style (the symphony of horns) and frequent four-into-two-lane road changes just to keep everyone excited. To add to the confusion, U turns also happen at intersections leading to a degree of hazard for pedestrians.

Our accommodation at the Pearl Residence, with its ironing board cover matching the couch, and its piggyback power adapters festooing the electricals, was adequate enough, very thoroughly cleaned each day in a process that seemed to take about an hour. The TV offers many Arabic films, Hollywood cartoons dubbed in Arabic, and a dash of CNN and BBC. Long way from Kerry O'Brien in quality. Tiring of infotainment that is basically a 30 second grab of crude headlines repeated without cease.

We crank up the cooling and get the room quite cool, a welcome relief after a rather overheated hotel room in London. But the outside temperature was right for a quick swim on the rooftop, very refreshing in the 40 degree heat. And for entertainment, the guys operating the window washing cradle, as it dangles from the side of the building with not a safety harness in sight.

Out on the streets the sun beats down like a drumstick whacking the back of the head. We hang around outside the supermarket waiting for it to open at 2pm due to it being Friday. A thin waft of cool air leaks out onto us from the shop air conditioning. Presently the lights flicker on, the shop opens for business and a six pack of Fanta is obtained.

Refrigerated air is your friend in Dubai, and the lure of avoiding the heat by staying in your room is strong. Undaunted, we explore the old quarter, crowded with tiny stalls crammed with goods which we could see no reason to acquire. We walk through a fun park and market combined, where a stall selling "found" luggage of unknown origin jostles with the crowd descending from the ball of death, in which an adventurous fellow spins a motorcycle in tight circles in defiance of gravity.

The skyline is dot dashed with angular cranes adding more buildings that seem to be around seven storeys in height. The architecture is for the most part similar to what gets pulled down in StKilda Rd these days - a tired seventies look with some local flavour in ornamentation.

Memo: check for acceptance of credit card befoe eating meal. Murphy's law states that the ATM that is compatible with your card, and issues money in the desired denomination, will be far from the restaurant where your beloved is held as security pending your payment of the bill for one large pizza an ice cream and a coke.

But now our travellers have tired of the travel. This is a chance to rest before the last leg home. We take advantage of it and sleep longer than we have for many days.

Just before midnight, we exit our room, whisk our bags down the hotel steps before the nosey porter can try to extract another tip from us, and wait a while for our transfer to the airport. Ten minutes late, a minibus rolls up with other travellers looking as ready as us to hot foot it to the airport.

The plane is huge and takes forever to load with passengers; but eventually we are able to sink back in our seats and know we are on the way back to Australia. At this moment you know your trip is almost over, but you don't care. You just want your own familiar surroundings back, as soon as possible.

Posted by piepers 02:06 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

Mopping up England

overcast

3-5-06
Knowing the only way we were going to fit in Stonehenge and Bath was by a commercial coach tour, I booked a day trip including Salisbury Cathedral with Golden Tours. The pickup point was to be a hotel about fifteen minutes walk from our hotel at 7.30am. We rehearsed the journey in the evening prior, just to make sure we didn't miss the pickup. I will now never forget where West Brompton is.

8.10 in the morning went by, but finally we were ushered through the road construction area to where our coach was waiting, unable to reach the hotel. A seemingly endless round of pickups from other hotels followed, until by 9.30 we were back at the tour office ready to board the actual tour. No time for a pitstop, rush rush rush.

At Salisbury the ancient cathedral impressed us with its immensely high spire, its many medieval tombs of knights and barons, and its splendid stained glass. We viewed an original of the Magna Carta, watched over and commentated on by a lady who may well have been there for the signing.

While the few passengers who had opted for a pub meal lingered awaiting their pre-booked lunches, the rest were let loose in the Salisbury shops. Here I was gladdened by an exceptional prawn and mayonaise roll and a just-right cappucino. Fresh, real food; a rarity on our long sojourn.

A short drive onwards to Stonehenge, getting briefed on the way in the varied theories of how it came to be there. The stones every bit as impressive as expected. Tourists can no longer get closer than a defined circular walk, with a good audio commentary to listen to when the cold wind whipping against your ears permits. One theory suggest the site was a refrigerator for keeping meat in ancient days. The prevailing temperature supported this hypothesis. It was damn cold.

As the coach drove away, Miriam saw many small white pebbles in the meadows, and commented that her grandfather had collected pebbles like that from near Stonehenge. As a misty rain gathered, we rolled in to Bath, for a quick squint at the town and in particular the Roman Baths.

The Baths were fantastically well preserved and gave a real insight into the life and leisure of the ruling Romans and their underlings. A tasting in the Pump Room showed the spring water to be similar to but milder than the mineral water of Keyneton in Victoria. Many of the friezes and statues from the site have been recovered and are displayed in well lit conditions on an interpretive walk. Just don't know why the Romans in Rome don't polish the treasures of their city.

The day had been huge and we were glad to be dropped off at Earls Court Road, a short walk to "home". A good rest and a leisurely packing of bags was required. For after an all too brief sleep, the HotelLink mini-bus was seeking us, it was 4.30am and we were on our way to Heathrow ready for departure to Dubai.

4-5-06

We were glad to have the opportunity to catch a few of the sights we hadn't had time to see previously. Top of the list was the Tate gallery, to finally reach total art overload. A quick tube ride to Blackfriars, and a leisurely stroll across the bridge delivered us to the Tate. Entry was free except to a couple of exhibitions that were of no interest to us anyway; we were here to see the core collection. More excellent Dali and other favourite surrealists such as Magritte, Matisse, asbstract stars such as Rothko, Pollock and more...

School children sprawled in front of the huge canvases and reproduced them carefully in their exercise books. Special mention must be made of the young girl who had carefully torn up pieces of coloured paper to make a very accurate small scale version of a Matisse collage, "The Snail".

After art exhaustion set in, we headed off to walk past StPauls Cathedral, joining the hundreds of Londoners eating sandwiches on the steps. Peeking inside, it all seemed grand but the entrance fee of something like fourteen pounds per person was somewhat exhorbitant, so we backed out. Finding ourselves in the theatre district and the Strand, we saw many familiar Monopoly street names. Continung randomly through the streets we came across Australia House, the only visible reminder of home that we encountered in the UK.

Before the afternoon ended we had visited Harrods, just to see the Egyptian escalators. From the statues of Dodi and Di to the top of the building, everything in sight is gilt and resplendent. Shopwise, it seems just like Myer used to be in its glory days. Lots of good but fully priced luxury goods, and many staff doing their best to be attentive to the customers.

Posted by piepers 20:53 Archived in England Comments (0)

Back to Old Blighty

semi-overcast 17 °C

1-5-06
With our high speed train tickets from Paris to London in hand, all we needed to do was get from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord - a matter of two Metro stations - to step aboard the train and emerge in London. What was not so easy to determine was which of the many metro lines to take to get there. Escalators up and down and every which way, lines A to E.... I was confident I had the right one, and a French woman who wanted to get to the same locality agreed with me; so we all jumped on a train expecting a few minutes only to the desired destination. In fact, I could see after one station that we were heading in the opposite direction, heading south, and we were on an express that would not stop for about twenty minutes, until we were deep in the southern suburbs of Paris, with unknown names like Villeneuve-Prairie and Villeneuve-Triage. When the train finally stopped, we dashed around to the correct platform to get back to Paris and the right station. Still with a few minutes to go till the scheduled departure of the Eurostar high speed train, we dragged our heavy cases up stairs, downstairs, across crowds and through crowds, with little by way of signposting to direct passengers to the right place. We got separated momentarily, and suddenly the station was filled with many people wearing the same colour jacket as I was, or so it seemed to Miriam for the couple of minutes I was unfindable.

On reaching the check in counter for Eurostar, our tickets just provoked beeping from the machine. It was too late to get on the train. Fortunately, the French rail system's policy is to reissue tickets for the next available service, if you have missed any train by less than one hour. So, after we had calmed down, we were able to board the 10.20am train and still be in London by 12.00 (1pm Paris time).

The EuroStar is certainly a civilised way to travel between the two capitals, a comfortable ride, a brief overview of north western France, twenty minutes of darkness as you travel under the Channel, and before you know it you are at Waterloo Station.
Here, once we had established our bearings, we were only a short walk from familiar surroundings. With somewhere to stay for the remainder of our time the immediate requirement, an Internet cafe was quickly found, opposite the gallery where earlier in our travels we had seen the Dali exhibition. With a little diligent searching, found what looked like a comfortable hotel in Kensington (the Shaftesbury) at 59 pounds a night, and booked it online.

We were feeling a lot more relaxed being back in an English speaking country where we could find our way around easily. We even knew that we should get an all day ticket on the Loop, right away, so that we could get around central London easily. This being our second stint near Earls Court, we felt right at home, knowing where to buy food and drinks and so on. Saved on dinner by buying pre-prepared Chinese at 2.2 pounds per serve and heating it in our room, because unlike every hotel room on the continent of Europe, this one actually had both a microwave and a fridge for guest use. Very convenient.

The room itself was incredibly overheated - a common situation in England. I had to seek help to get the heat down enough to sleep. It appeared that you could not turn off the heat, but you could turn on the air conditioner and open the window a small way; not exactly a greenhouse friendly approach to energy usage. However in decor and cleanliness the rather small room was superior to most others we had stayed in. And, as I had not brought with me a cat to swing, the compact size was not too much of a problem.

There is much to be said for the restorative powers of a hot bath in a clean bathroom, followed by a cup of tea.

Best of all there was internet access, a feature that I had thought would be more widely available than it is. But Internet cafes are everywhere, even in the tiniest towns.

Posted by piepers 21:16 Archived in France Comments (0)

Not so nice a-Roma

overcast

27-4-6
We had a rough ride on the Italian train system last night, whew!
My heart sank as the ticket seller at Avignon informed me there was no possibility of getting a train to Rome in time for our booked accommodation commencing on the night of the 26th. I had to find some Internet access to email the booked b& b and advise that we would not be able to arrive until the morning after our booking commenced. To add insult to injury, I would have to pay 50 euros extra on top of our Eurail pass to enjoy the pleasures of sharing a cramped, filthy compartment with random strangers overnight. The best that could be offered to us on the rail system was places in a four person shared couchette compartment, where they give you a crappy thin combination sheet blanket that appears to be made of tissue paper,and you try to sleep if you can. The early part of the journey was pleasant enough, travelling along the last of the French riviera, Monaco, Monte Carla, Ventimiglia and into Italy, with the coastal lights sparkling in the increasing gloom. Miriam settled down by 11 or so. Then when it was passport check time at the border the cops dragged away one of our travelling companions, together with his bag, and he was not seen again by any of us. He may have been an illegal immigrant or something.

Later, after most were asleep but I was having trouble getting there, I saw two young shady characters roaming up and down the corridor. Sure enough, after a while there were cops running around and a Canadian lady reporting her bag with passport and credit cards was gone.
Now I had seen one of the guys standing ten metres or so down our carriage corridor with a bag draped over his shoulder that looked like what she had described, and gave a description to the conductor. A few hours later, the cops found the offenders still on the train. They had slipped on the train while it was stopped at a station, one of the seemingly endless stops. About four o'clock in the morning a female conductor woke me up and told me they had caught the guys, and presented the missing bag to me as if I had the owner in my compartment. I pointed her down the corridor to approximately where I thought the Canadian might be found, who was of course much relieved to regain possession of her passport, her credit cards, and every essential item a traveller needs.

So all in all, a nerve wracking night. It took a long while for the adrenaline to subside. I managed a couple of hours of fitful nightmarish sleep before a freezing morning and being jolted awake by Miriam shaking me. In the confusion of having only five minutes notice from the conductor that we would have to get off at Rome, I lost my cosy windcheater that we had bought in Ireland, damn.

Also, by the time the journey was over, the railway toilets were in a condition more appropriate to a concentration camp than a contemporary democracy. The floor awash with urine had stunk from the start and grew steadily more horrific as the kilometres eked away. A strange suited gentleman who had stood at the end of the carriage looking out the window, pausing only to listen to what we think was a drag queen practising a little opera, changed into his pyjamas and climbed up into the couchette where our illegal immigrant had been. His feet proceeded to stink out the whole compartment, which we of course had to lock against the possibility of more thievery. The whole journey was an absolute health hazard. It had started like an Agatha Christie novel and ended like a failed Hitchcock movie.

We finally made it into Rome at 6.30 in the morning, where we found that the station we were at was a few km away from our b & b. A taxi driver was happy to rip us off with a fifteen euro ride including a massive service charge for lifting our two humble bags into the cab. No-one seems to give a stuff about anyone in this town, service with a snarl at every shop, but the b&b we are in seems ok and there is an english speaker on the staff , who is great and has given us some good advice.
We are told by him, look out for thieves and pickpockets constantly here,especially around the main tourist areas. And don't feel complacent on the trains, they are constant targets for thieves too.

After flaking out on the bed for an hour or so, we struggled out and tried the tourist bus that had worked OK for us in Barcelona. We were so tired that every time we closed our eyes on the bus we were instantly asleep, and unable to take in much about us. However, we did gain an appreciation of the strange jumble of the ancient, the not so old, and the plain bad taste of some of the more recent parts of Roma. With plans to tackle the city after a restorative sleep, we called it a day and hit the sack fairly early.

28-4-6
Rome

Advised by Pino, our part time (mornings only, brings our breakfast in his bag, lukewarm yoghurt, bread like paper, brioche and apricot jam, always the same....) that there was a snap transport strike again (happens every coupla months, he says)we resolve to strike out on foot to see Rome. At this point I am really glad to have with me my trusty compass, a reasonably detailed street map with major sites marked on it, and Miriam to watch my back and pockets while we walk. With the aid of these things, we navigated fairly smoothly to the Spanish Steps, accidentally found the house where John Keats, one of my favourite poets, died, the house now a museum devoted to he and Shelley. The Byron shirt shop is next door.
Onwards, and in a side street we found a pretty cool little fresh food market, bought some foccacia kind of things that were better than most of the horrible food we had been subjected to by the so called restaurants of Rome, good coffee at half the price, and a slice of real Romans going about their day.

Colntinuing on we made it to the Vatican, and round the back to the right, then to the left, and the left again to the Vatican Museums including the Sistine Chapel, one of Miriam's required sites for this trip. With a room of Raphael's frescos to compare, we argued the merits and issues of both, feeling that Michaelangelo's work was more inspired and grand in conception, but as some have commentated, his portrayals of women seem over muscular and quite masculine in appearance.

After several hours of touring the huge Vatican collection, we moved on to the Coliseum and walked right around it, as well as many other sites of great antiquity that were impressive and imbued with many ghosts of the long ago days. Particularly interesting was the site in the middle of town where it is believed the forum in which Julius Ceasar met his pointed demise once existed. It is now home to hundreds of feral cats that sleep on top of the ancient stone columns and are believed to be descendants of cats that were given by Cleopatra to Mark Antony; unfortunately he was allergic to their fur and dumped them. Now the cats are citizens of Rome and are not allowed to be harassed.

We enjoyed seeing the jigsaw of the old traces of Roman glory overlain with each new ages reworkings and renovations and additions. What was disappointing was the alarming indifference to such simple hygiene matters as refraining from urinating on every available surface. This seemed to be a popular practise among the natives of the city - and was not confined to men alone. If the scarce public toilets happened to be closed - a frequent case - the practise seemed to be to let fly in the very doorways of the toilet buildings. All this in broad daylight, with no shame displayed at all. All public buildings, such as the cafe in front of the main station Termini, had to be hosed down every morning to reduce the stench but never removing it. All in all, it seemed that the glory that was Rome is now a debased and self interested collection of opportunists out to take what they can from the visitors who surely sustain their local economy. We were pleased to be able to get tickets to get out of town and head to Florence the following morning.

Posted by piepers 14:22 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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