Frank Billions: Space Detective – Chapter Two

The words “long awaited” are often applied to long winded marketing-speak-riddled descriptions of various follow-ups to pieces of writing, films or other forms of serialisable entertainment. The term usually implies that somewhere vast hoards of ravenous fans are chomping at the bit, queuing for months on end waiting for some product or other to be ready for their growling appetites. So to call “Frank Billions, Chapter Two” long-awaited, while technically accurate, might be construed as misleading, were it to be revealed that the number of individuals who were actually waiting for it is quite small. Continue reading Frank Billions: Space Detective – Chapter Two

Tomato, Cheese and Eggs

I was recently asked to dinner by an acquaintance. Having nothing against this particular acquaintance and always being in the market for some free grub I accepted. I was then asked if I had any dietary requirements. I said that I didn’t. This is always the polite policy in these circumstances. Unless you have a serious allergy or something. If your whole body swells up like a jumping castle at the mere mention of the word ‘prawn’, then you’re probably excused from this piece of etiquette.

I’m not a fussy eater at all, I’ll eat just about anything set before me and often ask for seconds. Having said that, I do have a couple of rules of thumb that I try to observe as whenever I can, my own customised kosher, if you will. For the benefit of those ever thinking of having me over for tea, or for those thinking of devising their own dietary requirements or etiquette guidelines, I thought I’d list mine in full:

  1. Eggs and cheese can’t touch.
  2. Melted cheese has to be properly melted and golden brown.
  3. Tomato has to be very well hidden (preferaby wrapped in a lettuce leaf under a bucket in a locked shed on another continent).
  4. Yellow foods cannot be served on a Wednesday.
  5. Seafood needs to be moulded into the shape of Walt Disney (or Friz Freleng if it is a Wednesday).
  6. Potatoes must always be inscribed with an amusing limerick*.
  7. The knife must always be perpendicular to the fork, while the fork must at all times be parallel to itself.
  8. Peas are never to be eaten but must be pegged at the hostess when her back is turned.
  9. Formaldahyde must never be labelled vinegar and left on the table during mealtimes (except on Wednesdays).
  10. String beans must always be served standing on end.
  11. Never place elbows on the table, they should be left at the door with the umbrellas.
  12. Broccoli must be eaten stalk-end first. Caulifower must be eaten in reverse.
  13. Creamed corn must be served re-constituted into corn kernels and grafted back onto a cob.
  14. Pizza must always be accompanied by a square food.
  15. Never belch the alphabet at mealtimes, unless you can do so in Greek (or Hebrew if it is a Wednesday).
  16. Happy Meals should never be purchased when one is melancholy. Similarly, melons must never be purchased when one is feeling jovial.
  17. Although sausages are inherently funny, one must conceal one’s amusement until the hostess has made a humourous remark on the subject.
  18. Fish must be partially digested and later regurgitated into the beak of one’s young, if one is a penguin.
  19. Where one’s location is also the name of a food, that food should be eaten sparingly (e.g. eating a frankfurt in Frankfurt or eating Bega in Bega). The opposite is true for locations that merely resemble the names of foods (e.g. eating perch in Perth or eating haddock in a hammock).
  20. It is acceptable to throw grapes, pop-corn, nuts, and so forth up into the air and catch them in one’s mouth. This should not be attempted with anything larger than a watermelon.
  21. Except in very casual settings, one should never place spaghetti in one’s nostrils.
  22. When eating meat it is considered ‘of questionable taste’ to elude to the animal from which the meat originates. Exceptions include: humming the theme to “Skippy” when eating kangaroo, eluding to having “found Nemo” when eating fish and singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” when eating venison (it is customary to perform the latter with the aid of a cherry tomato).
  23. On Wednesdays it is acceptable to arrange items of food on one’s plate to resemble a clown’s face. It is not acceptable to reproduce any other clown body parts.
  24. It is not acceptable to pretend that tomato sauce is actually blood in some gruesome prank. Similarly it is not acceptable to put actual blood on a sausage sandwich.
  25. Squeezable bottles containing tomato sauce or mayonnaise should be replaced before they begin making a ‘farting’ noise. If a diner has the misfortune of using such a bottle, he (or she) must give the impression that the noise came from some other origin.
  26. It is generally unnecessary to ask permission to be excused at the end of a meal, quite the opposite, in fact. During the meal, one should frequently ask permission to remain at the table.
  27. When one is finished eating, one should place one’s knife and fork together in the centre of the plate, then turn one’s cup upside-down, hide the bread plate under the tablecloth and throw one’s napkin to the floor and say, “I’ve had quite enough of this company” and storm out in a huff.
  28. Two-minute noodles must be consumed in exactly two-minutes.
  29. Sneeze-guards at all-you-can-eat buffets should be tested regularly.
  30. Soup must never be consumed through a straw, except on Wednesdays when beverages must be consumed with a spoon, a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of chives.

Observing these simple rules can make mealtimes more enjoyable. If you are aware of any useful rules, please let me know.

Tom.

* Potato-related limericks are so commonplace and prevalent throughout the poetry world that I hardly feel it necessary provide any here. Nevertheless, for the convenience of those who might have forgotten some of the classic rhymes of their youth, or who may have misplaced their well-thumbed copy of “Mother Goose’s Standard Book of Limericks Relating to the Common or Garden Variety Potato and Other Tubers”, I have listed some of my favourites below.

There once was a garden potater
Who decided to make himself greater
He was salted a sprinkle
and cut with a crinkle
Although he preferred himself straighter

There was a potato called spud
Whose garden would usually flood
He would often predict
That his day to be picked
Would see himself dragged through the mud
A brainy young fellow called Plato
Predicted the modern-day NATO
He also devised
a medium-sized
bicycle made of potato
There was a potato called Sam
Who was served with some veges and lamb
When asked by the meat
Why he was so sweet
He just said “I yam what I yam.”

Day 42: Dachau

The first site we decided to see in Munich was the concentration camp at Dachau. I personally had no great desire to see the place, to be honest my initial feelings were that I didn’t want to go. But it was an important historical place and we were there, so we took the tour.

Dachau was the first and longest running concentration camp, operating throughout the entire twelve year rule of the third reich. It was not an extermination camp, although being the model for all other camps it did have a fully functional gas chamber. During the early years the place was mainly used for political prisoners as well as regular criminals. During the war years the population grew to include all of Hitler’s “undesirables”. Dachau also had an SS training camp attached to the concentration camp, so the SS guards at Dachau were as cruel and inhumane as any.

Being at the actual site on a cold, wet, bitter day brought the appalling history of the place to life in a way I never thought possible. It made it more real and incredible than history lessons and documentaries had done. At one point I had to leave the tour because I was physically ill from hearing about the torture that these detainees experienced.

After visiting the main block and detention cells, we explored a reconstruction of the prisoners’ barracks, and the the open yard.

Dressed in thermals, jeans, a jumper, jacket and a woolen hat, I was about as cold as I have been so far this trip Yet the prisoners of Dachau were given thin pants and a shirt, and a light jacket during winter.

From the barracks we visited the crematorium, the gas chamber and the site of the unmarked mass-graves of prisoners who spent their final days at Dachau.

Dachau was originally a munitions factory before it was a concentration camp. After the war it was a prison for people charged with warcrimes, and eventually became a camp for refugees. Today it is a memorial site for those who suffered torture and death during the Nazi regime. I initially did not want to visit Dachau, but I am certainly glad that I did. This was an example of humanity’s darkest hour and to ignore it because it is unpleasant is to forget or diminish the horrors that occurred there, which is something that we cannot do.

This memorial sculpture depicts prisoners throwing themselves on the electrified fence, one of the very few "choices" they really had.
This memorial sculpture depicts prisoners throwing themselves on the electrified fence, one of the very few "choices" they really had.
The barracks in the background behind a vast cold grey space.
The barracks in the background behind a vast cold grey space.

Day 39: Austria has no Kangaroos

Sorry but the wi-fi at our current hotel is so slow and unreliable that the full range of photos from this leg could not be loaded properly. Our apologies. -Ed

Ed, please stop writing in my blogge. -Tom

Shortly after midnight we arrived at our hotel in Vienna. We checked in and slept. Then next morning we wondered Vienna a bit, exploring a shopping centre, the first one we’ve been in in about a month.
Anna and I and our phrasebook took on the task of ordering breakfast at a bakery. We managed to get generally what we asked for and sat down to a pleasant Austrian breakfast.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed is visiting supermarkets in different places. In all honesty they’re all about the same, with a few brand labels a little different. In Paris we got in trouble at a supermarket because we picked out some apples but didn’t have them weighed in the produce section, so when we got to the checkout without a sticker, there was much bewilderment in broken French and English. Having learnt from our mistake, we picked up a bag of grapes, placed them on the scales, pressed the grape button, printed the sticker and then promptly spilled the grapes onto the floor. We scooped them up, replaced them on the stand and grabbed anotherbag. We then managed to purchase some other essential supplies without further incident.

After our jaunt at the shops we caught the train into the city and started exploring the sites. On our way to a museum we stumbled across the “British Bookshop”. This was an English-language bookshop, and since we had read just about everything we packed, we purchased a few more paperbacks for our journey. I picked up the second Harry Potter book (continuing my newly found although relatively late interest in the series) and Anna picked up a couple of Jane Austins, “Blitherington Parsonage” and “Compington-Spomford Manor”. Classics.

Next we enjoyed the museum of Music, an intersting and hands-on look at musical history, great Viennese musicians and the future of music. I particularly liked the display allowing you to conduct your own virtual orchestra.

Brahms' actual glasses through which he composed such classics as A German Requiem and the theme from Baywatch
Brahms' actual glasses through which he composed such classics as A German Requiem and the theme from Baywatch

After a spot of lunch (Wein schnitzel) we wondered back to the impressive and fairly old Vienna cathedral, not a bad example of the genre. Beatiful stained glass, marble and architecture. We polished the evening off with a concert in a baroque building with a stringed quartet playing some of Mozart and Wagner’s greatest hits. The night was complete with opera and ballet. This was definately one of the highlights of our trip.

The next day we caught the train to Salzburg, home of Mozart and setting for the film “The Sound of Music”. This was beautiful, although not as green at that time of year as shown in the classical musical movie. We saw the imposing castle above the town and explored the birthplace and residence of Mozart, which had both been turned into interesting museums. While we were in the castle it began to snow and by lunchtime it was coming down so heavily that it felt like being inside a snow-dome. We visited a cafe and tried some apple strudel, sache torte and Mozart kugeln (Mozart balls). All-in-all, Salzburg was impressive, although a longer visit in Spring or Summer would probably be impressive.

From Vienna, we caught another train into Munich, Germany.

Day 35: Ah, Venice…

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Our last day in Rome and we were booked in to a bus tour of Pomeii and Naples. Here’s how it went:

  • Our friendly tour guide picked us up at 6.45am. We had been able to make short work of the breakfast buffet earlier so we climbed aboard the bus with pockets full of rolls and Nutella sachets (they’re mad about that stuff here – no vegemite, no peanut butter). We were then taken back to the tour guide’s office, a couple of blocks away where we waited a full hour for the other tourists to arrive from the various other hotels. Finally we climbed aboard our actual tour bus and made the long journey out to the cities. Arriving in Naples, we did a couple of laps of the more interesting bits before heading to Pompeii. Arriving slightly before lunch we were shown through a factory that made fairly awful trinkets out of shells or something, and then sat down to a warm lunch before finally being directed towards the region that once was the city of Pompeii.
  • Pompeii street
    Street in Pompeii - Stones in street were pedestrian crossings, chariot wheel would fit either side.
  • Mount Vesuvius, overlooking much of the region, is an active volcano. We knew that and were prepared to take the risk of being under it. So were the citizens of Pompeii. They were less fortunate than we were however because one day in the year 79 AD, Vesuvius errupted and covered Pompeii completely. Well, what with one thing or another the rest of the world forgot that Pompeii even existed. Years later, in the year 1748, the city was rediscovered remarkably preserved under its blanket of volcanic rock. It has since been largely unearthed and the public of today can roam about the streets of 79 AD.
  • Cafe Pompeii
    A Pompeii take-away joint
  • The first thing that impressed me was the sheer size of the place. Normally when visiting ruins you might expect to see a few buildings, or maybe a street of crumbling remains, but the excavated portion of Pompeii is vast. You could easily become lost in the streets and alleys of the place. Fortunately, our guide knew his way around.
  • Someone's place
    Inside someone's place - remarkably well preserved really.
  • The second thing that impressed me was how much of the old Pompeii still remains. It was quite an experience to stand on a street corner and look right along the streets at lines of houses and shops. It was not difficult to picture it in its prime. You could still see the markings on the stone streets made by ancient feet and chariot wheels. Inside the houses, baths, shops and market places you could still see the signs of ancient life.
  • Plaster Man
    Plenty of poor folk were trapped in the lava. Eventually their bodies decomposed and left a cavity in the volcanic rock. Acheologists filled these cavities with plaster to create these eerie moulds of Pompeii's victims.
  • Pompeii was fascinating and well worth the trip if you ever get the chance.
  • The next day we caught the train back northwards to the city of Venice.
  • Venice was amazing, and easily ranks as my favourite city so far this trip. From the moment we walked out from the train station, it did not fail to disappoint. When they say Venice is built entirely on canals instead of streets, they’re not exaggerating to get you to go there, they really mean it. There are no cars, buses, roads, bicycles or traffic lights in the city. City blocks are defined by canals and you get around by walking along the squares, alleys and bridges, or by taking a water bus to different parts of the city. Most other cities we visited are full of various points of interest to see. Venice is unique in that it IS the point of interest you go to see.
  • Building in Venice
    A building in Venice surrounded in canal
  • We managed to figure out the complex water bus system and arrived at our stop. From there we navigated the labyrinthian alleys and bridges and found our hotel. We explored some of the city squares and churches and had tea at a place selling individual (but huge) slices of Pizza.
  • Ferry
    The best way to get around Venice
  • The following day we decided to visit the Island of Murano, famous for its glass-blowing industry. We were warned that this was an opportunity for local entrepreneurs to take serious advantage of unwitting tourists. Not wishing to be unwitting we turned down our hotel receptionist’s offer of 70 Euros to go out to the island. The island of Murano is one of the stops on the water bus system, so an ordinary ticket will get you out there (€6.50 – or free if you already have a 24 hour pass). We wandered around for a while and eventually rocked up at a factory and watched a couple of the local glass blowers giving it their best. The visit out to the glass-making room cost €5 each. Here two blokes in t-shirt worked as a team to produce the various Murano glass products. Out of the furnaces, a blob of molten glass on the end of a long pole looks like fairly firm (slightly glowing) honey. They spent about fifteen minutes on each piece (vases on our visit), adding bits of colour, re-furnacing, blowing them out a bit, reshaping, re-furnacing, adding more colour, and so forth until they had an impressive looking vase. This they put into a cooler furnace, or else the rapid temperature change would cause it too explode, or so said our guide.
  • Gondolas
    Gondolas. Yep, gondolas.
  • On our final day in Venice, we found something I thought was quite cool. It was the church used in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the exterior (that’s film-talk for “outside bits”) of the Venetian library where Indy and that Austrian lady find the subterranean crypt and the coffin containing the directions, inscribed on a shield, of where to find the Holy grail. Unfortunately they were followed by members of a secret brotherhood and almost incinerated. They manage to escape, which leads to an exciting boat chase through the canals and out into the open water. The boat chase, the catacombs and the library were all filmed in the UK, but the exterior of the church was right there in Venice.
  • Narrow canal
    A typical narrow canal, Venice has hundreds of these.
  • The church, proving its versatility once more, was hosting a hands-on exhibition of some of the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, constructed from his original designs. This was an added bonus to the day.
  • The Grand Canal
    The Grand Canal snakes its way through the city.
  • That afternoon, we boarded the train again for the seven and a half hour journey to Vienna. I’ve mentioned earlier about how enjoyable these train rides are. This one was no exception. This train was arranged in compartments – think “Murder on the Orient Express” (without the homicide or quirky Belgian detective). Traveling northwards we enjoyed the sights of snow-capped mountains in the distance, and eventually snow on the ground outside. A little before midnight we arrived in Vienna and negotiated the underground, or “U-Bahn” to our hotel.
San Marco Square by night
Busy San Marco Square

By the way, if you’d like to, please feel free to comment! It’s great to have the feedback and get an idea of who we’re sharing our holiday with. Just click on the comment link at the top of each entry and comment away.

Day 31: Si fueris Romae

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Ah Rome. Built nearly 2500 years ago by two brothers who, by all accounts, were quite well mannered despite being raised by wolves. Here’s the scoop:

  • A more sensible Tom and Anna arrived at the Florence train station with almost twenty minutes to spare before our high speed train pulled out bound for Rome. One of the nice things about seeing Europe by train is that you actually get to “see” quite a bit of it. Unlike flying where you’re high above the clouds, or driving where you’re far too busy wondering why everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road, on a train you get to enjoy the country side, small towns, paddocks and the inside of railway tunnels. We arrived at the enormous Roma Termini station and walked to our hotel and checked in.
  • After a spot of lunch (we decided to have Italian), we hopped on the Metro and travelled to the Colosseum station. The nice thing about the Colosseum station is that as you emerge from the underground, the first thing you see is actually the Colosseum. We marveled at it for a bit and then went in for a closer look. This enormous sporting arena, dating from the first century AD has survived surprisingly well for its age. Most of its original structure is still standing so, unlike other remains around Rome, you don’t have to push your imagination too far to get a feel for what the place must have been like in its prime. We managed to join a tour where a friendly looking Italian man gave an interesting commentary and made obscene jokes almost simultaneously.

    The Colosseum, with a bit missing.
    The Colosseum, with a bit missing.
  • Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, the overall impression I had of the Colosseum was something like a post-apocalyptic Telsta Dome. It was easy to imagine finding your gate, pushing through the crowds, climbing the stairs, taking your seat in the stands, ordering an over-priced snack and sitting back to watch the tigers take on the gladiators. Of all the world-famous icons that we have had the privileged of seeing this holiday, I think the Colosseum was the most interesting and rewarding. It’s huge, it’s still mostly standing and after 1500 years since it was last used as such, it still feels like a sports arena.

    The Colosseum's insides. Note the partially reconstructed floor.
    The Colosseum's insides. Note the partially reconstructed floor.
  • After the Colosseum we wandered up the street, past the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II (big white building with chariots on top), to the Fontana di Trevi, an impressive and massive fountain. We threw a couple of coins into the fountain, as is the local custom (when in Rome…). Oh yes, we also enjoyed some terrific gelati next to the fountain. Gelati and coffee seem to be excellent from anywhere in Rome.
  • Finally, as the evening wore on we went to the “Time Elevator”, a “5D” history of Rome experience. Now in movie theaters your seat just sits still, right? Well, not the time elevator. As the movie sweeps left and right over the rooftops of modern Rome and a CGI representation of ancient Rome, our seats swooped left and right. As we flew through fountains, we found ourselves with drops of water in our hair. Through all the special effects we were treated to a 45 minute crash course in the history of Rome.
  • The next morning we ducked back to the Colosseum and went into the Palatine Hill, where we saw more ancient ruins, including the forum and a private stadium.
    Impressive view of ruins and intact buildings
    Impressive view of ruins and intact buildings

    Private stadium
    Private stadium
  • Next we strolled over the Circo Massimo, and then to the church where the Bocca della Veritas is hung. This piece from the first century BC, possibly part of a fountain, is a large disk, about one metre in diameter with the face of an unknown pagan god carved onto the front. Legend (and Gregory Peck) has it that if you put your hand into its mouth, and you are untruthful, it will bite your hand off. Evidently Anna and I are both truthful people as we both walked away with our hands intact.

    It had to be done...
    It had to be done...
  • The Pantheon was next. This round temple with an enormous dome was built a fair while ago. Not sure when. Wikipedia might know. On the inside it is not unlike many older churches. However the Pantheon’s dome is open at the top, so that when it rains, as it had done that morning, the water falls through onto the church floor below. The Pantheon is also home to the remains of artist Raphael. Evidently they were originally placed in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but as Raphael’s posthumous reputation became less than worthy of a possie near the Pope, his remains were moved out of the Vatican and eventually wound up in the Pantheon.

    The hole in the roof
    The hole in the roof
  • From the Pantheon, we wondered around the local shops and wound up checking out some of the artwork markets in the Piazza Navona. From there MORE walking until we were at the Spanish Steps. Another impressive city square complete with fountain and steps leading up to a church. I believe that their locality to the Spanish embassy led to them being known as the Spanish Steps. We had dinner near there (Italian again) before heading back to the hotel.
  • Day three in Rome and it was high time we visited the Pope. We caught the underground to the Vatican City. From the moment we stepped up onto the street we were mobbed by people trying to convince up to take their company’s guided tour. We finally decided on the least irritating company (the spruiker was from Sydney) and found ourselves following an extremely friendly and knowledgeable tour guide through the Vatican museum. According to our guide, the museum has more than two kilometres of corridors and so many pieces of art that if you spent one minute at each item, you would be there for several years and probably be asked to leave long before achieving your ridiculous goal. We were shown past some of the more interesting sculptures, paintings and tapestries. Our guide had a degree in art history and was completing another in architecture, so he was full of interesting facts about the artworks. He finally showed us into a small crowded church at the end of the museum by the name of the Sistine Chapel. This was truly an incredible experience. From time to time in Europe you come across a piece of art that impacts you in some way. Inside the Sistine Chapel, you pretty much have to stare at your shoes to avoid such artworks. Our guide, once again proving his salt, took us through each of the panels on the ceiling and the front wall, explaining the meaning, techniques and historical background. We shuffled out suitably impressed.

    The tour guide told us it was okay to take photos inside, promise...
    The tour guide told us it was okay to take photos inside, promise...
  • Feeling like we hadn’t taken quite enough steps that day, we decided to take the climb up to the top of the great dome. This long and dizzying climb led us to the very top of the dome of St Peter’s basilica. This must be one of the highest points in Rome as we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. With enough of the view and a little pale from the altitude we headed back down to terra firma. The dome climb stair deposits you back into the basilica itself.
  • According to Catholic tradition, St Peter, the apostle, after the early church was established in Jerusalem made his way to Rome where he continued to build the church. He was eventually martyred – crucified upside down. His remains were stolen by his followers and buried on one of the hills of Rome. Years later, the massive basilica of St Peter was built on the site on his remains. The inside the church is breath-takingly massive. The ceilings are impossibly high and the walls impossibly wide. Everywhere you could see beautifully decorated surfaces, huge columns and expensive-looking marble floors.
  • Finally we tumbled out onto the large square outside the basilica. I recognised the square from the grand inauguration of the current Pope. We ate crackers near the fountain in the middle.
  • Remember the Sydney spruiker we met on our way in? Well, taking pity on a couple of his fellow countrymen in a strange city, he recommended a little out-of-the-way restaurant, not far from the Colosseum where locals (and few in-the-know tourists) enjoyed some of the best pizza in Rome. Well, we could hardly pass up a recommendation like that. After freshening up back at our hotel, we caught the underground back to the Colosseum, wandered the back alleys for a while until we found a pair of frosted glass doors leading into the restaurant. Inside we found a warm, friendly pizzeria busy with tables of locals enjoying the atmosphere. The menus were in translated into broken English. I ordered in Broken Italian. All in all it was the nicest restaurant we saw in Rome. The food was good, the atmosphere was pleasant and genuine, and the prices were among the most reasonable we came across. I can’t tell you if it was the best pizza in Rome, as I have not had the opportunity to partake in a representative sample but It was certainly the best I tasted.
      One more day in Rome to go, and it’s not actually a day in Rome. We will be taking a bus tour out to Naples and the ruins in Pompeii – hurry back!

Day 28: The Real Madrid, Malaga, Barcelona and Florence

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A busker on the train plays a violumpet. Ok, it's not a called violumpet, but it should be - it's a Stroh violin. It sounds like a mouse singing opera through a gramophone.

Well, here we are in Florence! I’m hoping this will be a catch up entry as last I left you we were in Paris, and we’ve visited five places in two countries since then! You’ll understand if it’s a bit rushed…

  • Our last day in Paris – we had been saving the pleasure of visiting the Musee d’Orsay (a gallery of the impressionist masters Van Gough, Picasso et al.). However, much to our baffled disappointment, the museum is closed on Mondays! So we spent the day wandering around the lovely sites of Paris. From Paris we flew to Madrid.

    We were not the only poor souls who didn't realise the musuem was closed on Mondays.
    We were not the only poor souls who didn't realise the musuem was closed on Mondays.
  • On arrival in Madrid we made our way to our hotel, catching the very efficient Madrid underground railway. Our hotel was on the “Gran Via”, a main street in the city centre. After finding our hotel, checking in and having a little siesta, we wandered out at about 9pm, hoping to find some place still open and serving dinner. Well it turns out that 9pm is actually the hour things start to get moving in Madrid. We enjoyed a nice meal and wandered home around 10.30pm and noticed that the Gran Via was even busier than it had been an hour ago!
  • The following morning we explored the city a bit more. There were plenty of old buildings, shops and people. We found the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art. This was quite an interesting art gallery in that you began on the third floor in early 1300s and worked your way down the building, chronologically through through the paintings until you got to the post-modern pieces on the ground floor. We got to see a couple of Picassos and van Goughs, which took the edge of missing the them in Paris.

    A decorated bull we met in Madrid.
    A decorated bull we met in Madrid.
  • I can’t say enough about how pleasant it is to travel through Europe by train, and that afternoon’s trip to Malaga was no exception. From Malaga we caught another train to Benalmadena, where we were staying for a couple of days to enjoy some elusive warmth and the company of some old friends, Ana and Omar.
  • Our hotel in Benalmadena was clean and comfortable – I was a little unnerved by the fact that the room’s security seemed to have been designed along the same lines as Fort Knox, complete with several bolts up the door frame and an electric roller shutter onto the balcony. Fortunately we were not bothered by the criminal element for the duration of our stay. The town was relaxing, friendly and seemed to have a higher proportion of English retirees that most places we visited in England. It was terrific to catch up with Ana and meet Omar and their to kids. The beaches in Benalmadena were no match for the ones we have at home, but it was wonderful to have the temperature in double figures.

    Me and the Mediterranean.
    Me and the Mediterranean.
  • On more than one occasion we have found ourselves yielding to the temptation of pretending that we are contestants on the TV show “The Amazing Race”, largely due to the joys and pressures of racing around beautiful places with heavy backpacks. If that were the case, we narrowly avoided being eliminated on our way back to Madrid. We missed the all-important train connection from Benalmadena to Malaga. Fortunately Omar (with our eternal gratitude) was able to drive us to Malaga himself, not sparing the horses, as the saying goes. Arriving at Malaga station and sprinting through the crowds to the platform, we arrived at our train with only three minutes to spare. Shaken and completely out of breath, we took our seats and enjoyed yet another European rail journey from Malaga to Madrid, then from Madrid to Barcelona.
  • In Barcelona we enjoyed:
  • La Ramblas, a pedestrian street running a couple of kilometres from the centre of the city to the waterfront was packed with street performers (mostly of the ‘dress up, stay very still and pretend to be a statue, and pose for photographs’ variety), stalls, cafes and tourists.
  • The waterfront, complete with a boats, water, fish and a wonderful full-sized replica of the Ictino II, a wooden submarine, the world’s first combustion-engine submarine, built in 1864. Have I ever mentioned that I love submarines?

    We all live in a wooden submarine...
    We all live in a wooden submarine...
  • The Barcelona Cathedral, a beautiful gothic cathedral. Unlike the churches we visited in Paris, the Barcelona Cathedral upheld the serenity of a church, despite having its fair share of tourists wandering about. An elevator up to the rooftop provided a remarkable view of the city.
    The gardens in the cathedral's courtyard.
    The gardens in the cathedral's courtyard.

    Barcelona from the cathedral roof
    Barcelona from the cathedral roof
  • A city square full of pidgeons.

    The bird man
    The bird man
  • After two nights in Barcelona we tempted fate once more and checked in for our flight to Italy with only fifteen minutes to spare.
  • Arriving in Florence, we enjoyed another pain-free EU border-crossing, this time getting through with merely a sniff from a bored-looking Alsatian.
  • We made our way to our hotel, located in the narrow labyrinthian streets of Florence’s historic city centre. From there we explored some market stands and enjoyed another late dinner.
  • Florence was established in 59 BC by Julius Ceasar as a place for his veteran soldiers. Things have moved along considerably since then. Florence is considered as the birthplace of Italian renaissance. Among its famous residents are such luminaries as Galileo, Dante, Amerigo Vespucci, Guccio Gucci and all four ninja turtles.

    The Ponte Vecchio dating from 1345. Jewellery shops from end to end.
    The Ponte Vecchio dating from 1345. Jewellery shops from end to end.
  • We spent the day wandering the ancient narrow streets, bustling city squares, amazing churches and closed museums. The cathedral in Florence was another beautiful and huge structure. Construction began in 1296. Its most impressive feature is the 42 metre octagonal dome roof, quite a feat of engineering for 1420. In the evening we managed to find a small Italian restaurant.
      Tomorrow we head for Rome, so stay tuned!

Day 22: More Paris than you can handle

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  • Day three in Paris: Firstly we visited the Musée Rodin, a museum dedicated to the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, probably most famous for his sculpture “The Thinker”. Here we enjoyed a great display of his works. I think I surprised myself that sculpture could be as interesting and engaging as paintings or music. If you ever get the chance, I can recommend spending a good bit of time with “The Burghers of Calais”, “The Gates of Hell”, and “Balzac”.

    "I wonder if I should have worn a singlet."
    "I wonder if I should have worn a singlet."
  • Next we decided to have a crack at the Eiffel Tower. You can access the tower by one of four entries housed in each of the tower’s four feet. When we arrived, two of the feet were closed and half the population of Paris had formed a queue outside the third foot – I was to discover that this was the entry for those wishing to climb the tower by elevator. Not wishing to stand in line for the rest of our holiday, we joined the much shorter queue of people willing to climb to the first and second levels (115 metres above ground level) using the stairs. Three years of living in a second floor apartment obviously placed us in good form for the first 28 steps, some of the remaining 682 were a bit of a struggle though. Eventually, thanks also to the compulsory elevator between the second and third levels, we found ourselves 276 metres above the ground looking out at a fairly decent view of Paris.
    The Are de Triomphe from the Eiffel Tower
    The Arc de Triomphe as seen from the Eiffel Tower

    A slightly anxious Anna atop the Eiffel Tower.
    A slightly anxious Anna atop the Eiffel Tower.
  • Finally we headed off to the Louvre Museum for an evening visit. This was a fascinating experience. The Louvre is jammed full of all sorts of paintings, sculptures and artifacts.

    Anna at the Louvre
    Anna at the Louvre
  • The Mona Lisa – It was interesting to actually see this work in the flesh, so to speak. Can I make a startling confession? I wasn’t really that impressed with it. Firstly, it is quite hard to appreciate properly; the whole painting is quite small, only the size of a small movie poster, and there’s a barrier of about 10 metres in front of it, stopping people getting too close. Then there’s a thick pane of glass in front of it, which manages to reflect all the lights in the well-lit room across the picture. I finally muscled through the crowd, weaved around until I found an angle where I could see the picture properly, and had a good look at the picture. But try as I might, I could not see why this painting warranted such fuss. Now clearly I don’t know much about art, but usually with a good deal of explanation and research I can come to appreciate great works that I didn’t initially understand. Not the case with the ML. I can see how it’s interesting, technically perfect and perhaps innovative for a portrait of its time, but take all the hype away and I’m not sure I would rate it as the most moving or interesting artwork I saw today.
    La Joconde
    La Joconde
    The crowd admiring the Mona Lisa.
    The crowd admiring the Mona Lisa.

    The man in red taking a picture of the crowd admiring the Mona Lisa.
    The man in red taking a picture of the crowd admiring the Mona Lisa.
  • The Raft of the Medusa – This was my favourite painting in the Louvre. I sat in front of this painting for a good while. The composition is just plain interesting with its pyramid shapes and various diagonals. The picture tells a story of tragedy, turmoil and hope. Plus it’s huge.

    The Raft of Medusa
    The Raft of the Medusa
  • All in all, not a bad evening although after tramping around the Rodin museum, up the Eiffel Tower and all over the Louvre, my feet were killing me and I was glad to head home.

    There always seemed to be buskers on the trains.
    There always seemed to be buskers on the trains.
  • The next day we caught the train out to Versailles to check out the palace there. The palace was around for a fair while, but the monarch who did the most work on it was Louis XIV. The rooms were incredibly decorated with colourful walls, painted ceilings and no shortage of artworks. We were able to see almost all parts of the palace including the king’s apartment and bed chamber, the queen’s apartment, the princes’ wing, the hall of mirrors, the chapel and the remarkable gardens. Not a bad day, but a lot of walking and after the work out our feet got yesterday we were quite worn out by the time we were back on the train.

    A room in the palace at Versaille. They sure know how to decorate.
    A room in the palace at Versaille. They sure know how to decorate.
  • The following day, on the recommendation of Dan, we went to see the Sacré-Cœur area, a region on a hill in Paris based around the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (“Basilica of the Sacred Heart”).

    The view from Basilique du Sacré-Cœur
    The view from Basilique du Sacré-Cœur
  • On the walk up to the church we passed plenty of interesting tourist shops and cafes. We hadn’t had breakfast at that point so we grabbed a couple of chocolate and banana crepes to go – keeping things healthy as always. We polished these off as we walked up the fairly steep climb to the church, passing buskers, beggars and people selling Eiffel Tower key chains (who were presumably lost).
  • The church was an impressive building built on the very top of the hill so that from the front doors of the church you got an amazing view of the city. Inside a pipe organ was playing something very fast and spooky in a minor key that made you feel like the phantom of the opera was about to jump out at you at any moment. Like the Notre-Dame cathedral, the Basilica was jammed full of tourists and I did feel a little embarrassed to be one of them, for the sake of the few clergy and worshippers, still using the building as it has been used for hundreds of years.
  • Next we moved around to the Palace Tertre, a square full of artists with their artworks. The lower half of the square was full of artists who would paint or sketch portraits or caricatures of customers. The upper half of the square was full of artists who were selling their own artworks of landscapes, cityscapes and so forth. I saw a fantastic pair of portraits of jazz musicians, painted with cool smooth colours and textures that made the paintings “look” like the music would sound. They were 1500 Euro each, so we decided to pass (plus they would have been a nuisance to get home on the plane).

    We saw scooters and motorbikes everywhere, but this Peugeot 103 Moped was one of my favourites.
    We saw scooters and motorbikes everywhere, but this Peugeot 103 Moped was one of my favourites.
  • We walked around some more, checking out the other galleries and gift shops and stopped for lunch at a nice pizza restaurant/piano bar. Next we wondered down and saw the Moulin Rougue. Finally we walked back up to the artists’ square and after much deliberation, we bought a nice small painting of some flowers in a field.

    Anna dances in front of the Moulin Rouge.
    Anna dances in front of the Moulin Rouge.
  • On our way back to the station, on the steps of the Basilica, a busker with a guitar and microphone had managed to attract a fair crowd. He was playing great pop songs in English, Spanish and Italian and had the crowd clapping and singing along. We watched him for a while and then wound our way back to the station.

    A busker holds the crowd captive on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.
    A busker holds the crowd captive on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.
  • For dinner we had hoped to go back to the supermarket and grab some bread and cheese, but inexplicably the supermarket was closed (it being about 9pm on a Sunday evening). Much to Anna’s chagrin, we decided to grab dinner instead somewhere that was still open and where we knew something of the menu – McDonalds. This was actually an interesting experience. One of the main problems was that the menu was still in English, but pronouncing it in English was useless, you had to try and pronounce the English words (e.g. “fruit & yoghurt”) with French pronunciation. Apart from the ordering experience, it was almost exactly like eating at a McDonalds at home – a very mixed blessing.
      Hurry back, plenty to tell you about our last day in France and our first day in Spain.

Day 19: A Tale of the Other City

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Well, we’re now in Paris. City of Love. Here’s how we got here:

  • When I last left you, we were aboard a bus heading for Grenoble, or as my old mate Dan calls it, G-town. Shortly after the bus deposited us in G-Town, Dan arrived with his fiancee to pick us up and take us up to his place. Dan lives and works at a camp centre in the French Alps, not far from Bourg d’Oisans (which, an English speaker can easily approximate as “Board was on”, thanks Dan!).
  • The next morning, Dan headed off to do his duties. Anna and I felt that we need a little holiday from our holiday and took it easy. I polished off a Harry Potter novel that I had started in Monmouth, fortunately there was a copy at Dan’s place. By mid-afternoon, feeling that our bones had been sufficiently lazy we put on our cold weather gear and went out for a walk in the snow. Unlike the snow we had seen on the footpaths of London, this was serious snow, steep and deep and smooth. After we had exhausted ourselves we headed back, satisfied that the day had not gone to waste.

    Walking in the snow
    Walking in the snow
  • The following day Dan had managed to slip away from his duties and he, Candine, Anna and I took a drive up to the ski lifts and from there took a ski lift up to a ski resort. This was a great deal of fun. I have never been to ski fields before so everything from the winding mountain roads, (Dan would sound the horn before driving around a bend in case there was oncoming traffic) to the ski lifts to small-town feel of the ski resort was like nothing I had previously experienced. We walked through the resort to a wooden cross on the edge of a cliff. From there we could see up 1500 metres to the top of the slopes. On the walk back through town I asked Dan what the point of “snow shoes” was (we had seen snow shoe tracks on our walk the day before). He pointed to the soft snow either side of the track and said that with with snow shoes you could walk on the soft snow, without them you would probably sink to your waist in the snow. I had to give it go. I sunk to my waist in snow.
    I sunk in the soft snow. I had been warned.
    I sunk in the soft snow. I had been warned.
    Our stout walking shoes on the ski lift.
    Our stout walking shoes on the ski lift.

    Anna, Tom and Mountains
    Anna, Tom and Mountains
  • That night we sampled a local liqueur made from Berries grown at 2000 feet or higher. I can’t remember what they are called, but as always, I enjoyed trying something new.

    Winding road up the mountain
    Winding road up the mountain
  • Afterwards we watched the movie “Mission Cleopatra”, an Asterix and Obelix film based on the comics. The film was in French only, so we had to rely on our memory of the comic and Dan and Candide’s patient pausing-and-explaining. This was an awesome film! I can’t beilieve I haven’t heard of it before.

    Anna on the ski lift
    Anna on the ski lift
  • The next day it was time for us to go. We bade Dan farewell and caught the bus into Grenoble, then the high-speed train into Paris and the Metro to our hotel. Speaking as a connoisseur of Australia’s Countrylink and Sydney’s City Rail, France certainly know how to do trains. The high-speed train was smooth and comfortable (it even had a powerpoint so our laptop stayed fully charged while we watched Top Gear DVDs), apparently reaching 200km/h. The Metro (Pasis’s equivalent to London’s underground) was also fast and easy to use).
  • We managed to find a Casino not far from our hotel and spent a bit of money there, stocking up on the essentials (Casino is a supermarket chain in France). We had a simple tea of baguettes and fromage and headed off to bed.

    Our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.
    Our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.
  • Day two in Paris: We started out walking from our hotel to the nearby Pantheon. From there we continued into the city, meandering about until we stumbled into a metal pointy structure we both instantly recognised at the Eiffel Tower. We marvelled at this for bit and then climbed aboard our open-topped bus tour. This took us back around the tower, back past the Églişe du Dome, the Musée Rodin and the Hôtel des Invalideś all the way to the Notre Dame Cathedral.

    Notre Dame Cathedral
    Notre Dame Cathedral
  • At the cathedral we hopped off and admired the amazing building. Apparently the cathedral is a good example of French Gothic architecture. If by that they mean extremely impressive, highly ornate and adorned with beautiful arches, gargoyles and flying buttresses then I’d have to agree. On the inside there was no shortage of impressive stained glass, interesting alcoves and dizzyingly high ceilings. Being shoulder to shoulder with our fellow tourists, listening to chatter of hundreds of other visitors and the snapping of dozens of digital cameras made the setting feel more like a tourist attraction and less like a place of worship – this placed Notre Dame in stark contrast to other churches we visited such as the Abbey in Bath or St Paul’s Cathedral in London where there was still a sense of serenity and peace. Outside we joined the queue to climb to the top of the cathedral, but after five minutes the line, stretching half the length of the cathedral, had not moved and our hungry bellies and itching desire to experience more than one of Paris’s landmarks inspired us to abandon our posts.

    The Arc of Triumph
    The Arc de Triomphe
  • We climbed back onto the bus and headed up the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on French history (it was hard enough pretending to be an expert on British history) but from what I gathered, the arc was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 as a monument to the various triumphs that he and his troops had had about the place. Unfortunately at that point in history French Kings, Emperors and Presidents didn’t seem to last too long and Napoleon died before it was finished. Anna and I climbed the approximately 10 billion steps to the top and enjoyed an amazing view of Paris. Looking straight down we could see the Place de l’Étoile, the square on which the Arc de Triomphe is built. It is an enormous roundabout onto twelve different streets when basically anything goes.

    Looking down at the place from the top of the Arc
    Looking down at the Place de l'Étoile from the top of the Arc
  • The bus tour, nearing the end of its day, deposited us back near the Eiffel Tower where we sat and watched the tower lights come on as it got dark. We caught the tower’s light show, which occurs on the hour and lasts about five minutes – strobe lights suddenly light up the tower like a disco Christmas tree. Finally we Metro’ed back to our hotel.

    A sparkly night time Eiffel Tower
    A sparkly night time Eiffel Tower

Day 18: A Tale of One City

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Bonjour from France! Here’s what we’ve been up to:

  • We decided to head into Cambridge for dinner, it was Valentines Day after all. Cambridge was another unbelievable town. One of the things I find incredible about places like Cambridge is that, firstly it’s full of buildings that are hundreds of years old, but secondly those building aren’t museums or derelict ruins, quite often they’re still being used. In Edinburgh, the old parliament house, built in the 17th century is now used by the supreme court. Similarly, in Cambridge, the buildings dating from hundreds of years ago are still being used as lecture theaters, meeting halls and students accommodation. So as we passed under these ancient windows we could peek in and see the familiar scene of a student’s room. We drove around for a while, then parked and walked around for a while, looking for a nice place to eat. There were people everywhere, even though it was eight o’clock in the evening, the place was literally crawling with students. Also bicycles, bicycles were everywhere.
  • We found this Indian restaurant. We figured it must be good because there were plenty of Indian people eating inside. We went in and ordered. Apart from being one of the spiciest meals I have eaten in a long time, it was also one of the deliciousest. They say if you want some good Indian food and you can’t get to India, head to England. Sounds about right.
  • In the morning, we had a decision to make. It was 10am by the time we had breakfasted, packed and farewelled our host and we didn’t need to be at the airport until 5pm. We considered driving around to Windsor again to give the castle another crack, or checking out Hampton Court, roughly in the same vicinity. Finally we thought perhaps the best thing would be to head back to London and check it out once more, this time without the snow.
  • After some fine driving on my part, and some excellent navigating on Anna’s, we pulled in to a parking spot in London’s city centre. We had a fantastic couple of hours checking out Buckingham Palace, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, this time without the snow and with plenty of crowds (it being a Sunday afternoon). This was certainly one of the highlights so far. Where the snow had made everything quite beautiful, the lack of snow had brought these places to life. Check out these “before and after” pictures.
    Buckingham Palace - with snow
    Buckingham Palace - with snow
    Buckingham Palace - without snow
    Buckingham Palace - without snow
    Trafalgar Square Fountain - with ice
    Trafalgar Square Fountain - with ice

    Trafalgar Square Fountain - without ice
    Trafalgar Square Fountain - without ice
  • My plan had been to pull out of London by 2.30pm, get to Gatwick Airport and return the car at 3.30pm, get to the check-in queue by 4pm, check in by 5pm to get a good seat and then relax in the airport for a bit. Unfortunately things didn’t go exactly according to plan. We didn’t get back to the car until 3pm. Then, with heavy traffic and Gatwick being much further away than I had estimated, we didn’t get to the airport until 5pm. We returned the car to the rental company in the South Terminal, then had to catch a shuttle train to the North terminal in order to checkin, around 5.10pm (Our plane was due to leave at 6.40pm, but for some reason, I had in my mind it left at 6pm). Arriving at our check-in area we saw a huge mass of people, which turned out to be the queue we were supposed to be standing in. Another half an hour later later, we finally checked in went through security with an easy forty minutes before our flight was going to leave.
  • I looked on my boarding pass to see what gate we supposed to be at. It said “TV”. This had me stumped for a bit until I figured out that we were supposed to check the TV to get our gate number. I looked at one of the screens and after our flight number it said “Please Wait”. Oh well, they must still be sorting out a gate for our plane, I thought to myself. So Anna and I went and got a milkshake each and relaxed for a bit. After I had finished my milkshake and Anna had half finished hers, Anna noticed that our flight number had changed from “Please Wait” to “Now Closing”, this time with a gate number – 109, possibly the furthest gate from our location. We grabbed our bags and started running. Anna, not wanting the remainder of her milkshake, tossed it towards a rubbish bin as we ran past. Now, I have never actually seen Anna play basketball, so I can’t accurately comment on her usual form, on this occasion however she missed her target. The cup ricocheted off the top of the bin a splattered onto a lady sitting nearby. We paused momentarily to shower her with apologies and scrape up what we could and then bolted off again. Anna is still highly embarrassed by this event and would like to issue a public apology to the random lady who she threw her milkshake at.
  • Our jog across the terminal (motivated in equal measures by a desire not to miss our flight, and a desire to flee the country in shame for soaking an innocent lady in strawberry milk) was largely unnecessary. When we got to gate 109, there was a huge crowd of people waiting. Apparently there was another flight also boarding at this gate prior to ours. So we took a seat and waited a good fifteen minutes before we were able to board our flight to Grenoble, France.
  • Arriving in France, at the small Grenoble Airport we collected our bags and headed to the bus to take us into the city. France is the seventh country I have visited in my life, but the first country that does not have English as an official language. We needed to use the bathroom, to I strolled up to the bus driver to ask him if there was enough time before the bus left. I had gotten as far a friendly “Bonjour” when I remembered I that I don’t actually speak French at all. I babble out a clumsy “Me femme…toilet…um” and pointed to my watch helpfully. The bus driver clearly had no idea what I was trying to say. I stood there dumbly for a couple of seconds before a fellow passenger was able to interpret for me. It’s quite an eye-opening experience to be standing at a small airport late at night, not being able to speak the language and relying on the helpfulness of strangers to determine if you were on the right bus, or had enough time to go to the toilet. As the bus pulled out – driving on the wrong side of the road, past strange signs and through unfamiliar landscape, I began to get the feeling that I was quite a long way from home. And then we passed a McDonalds next to a KFC and I felt much better.