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.
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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 10: Loch LO-mond

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Okay so, scamming some more McDonalds wifi, but this time the MacBook battery is flat, so I’m pecking out some notes from my iPhone.

We just stayed two nights in the most beautiful B&B. It was a gorgeous country house in a village called Fintry, half way between Glasgow and Loch Lomond (pronounced with emphasis on the “Lo”). Our hostess Meg was a wonderful Scottish lady who was extremely helpful and accompdating.

Yesterday we checked out the Glengoyne Distillery, alledgedly the most beautiful distillary in Scotland After a fasconating tour we sampled some of the 17 year Whisky. Very nice on a cold morning. Next we saw Glasgow, doing a open-topped bus tour and visiting the incredible Transport Museum.

Today we are seeing the Loch.

Oh dear, just saw a chap in a suit take a nasty stack on the ice outside. A more serious version of Anna’s graceful tumble on our way in, after watching me have a little slip too. Turns out ice can be dangerous. Who knew?

Anyways, great to hear everyone’s feedback (hint hint). We’re having a great time. See you all soonish.

Tom and Anna

Europe: Day 2

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After a quick breakfast and check to see what was happening on the internets, we packed our day bags and headed into town.

There is still plenty of snow about, although now it’s mostly crushed down and icy.

The White Tower with Snowmen, by Anna.
The White Tower with Snowmen, by Anna.

We did a “hop on hop off” tour of London today. We climbed on the open topped double-decker and set off. We drove past some great monuments, listening to a commentry along the way. We saw Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Fleet Street, a few famous pubs and things.
We hopped off at the Tower of London and spent a good couple of hours there. Could have easily spent longer I reckon. We did a tour with a Yeoman Warder named Bob. Yeoman Warders are also known as Beefeaters but Bob didn’t seem too keen on that name and he was a little intimidating. We were able to check out the crown jewels – not a bad collection at all. Also we were able to walk through the white tower, which was the home to the English monarchy for a fair while. It was also a prison, housing many famous and infamous people over the years including Queen Elizaneth I and a polar bear. Fascinating and also a little indimidating, although as Anna mentioned, all the snowmen about the place seemed to take the edge off.

A quick lunch and we were back on the bus.

Next we visited Trafalgar Square. This is one of those places that I’d heard of previously in books and film, but I’d heard of them in the context of CS Lewis, Agatha Christie, Douglas Adams and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Unwittingly I think I had put places like Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus in the same category as Cair Paravel, Hobbiton and the planet Vogon, so it was bizarre to stand at the base of Nelson’s column and check out the view. The fountain had frozen over so it wasn’t switched on.

Next we visited the Winston Churchill Museum that the wartime cabinet rooms, which is set down in a bunker, not far from 10 Downing street. This is where England was run during the second world war, so we were actually looking at the desks, beds, chairs and telephones used by Churchill and others during the war!

Lastly we stumbled back up to Picadilly Circus and caught a West End show. We saw “The 39 Steps”, which was excellent fun.

Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you’re enjoying the updates. We’re certainly saving on postcards.

 

Tom and Anna.

The Great European Holiday: Countdown

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Just 10 days before we fly out! Very very exciting times.

Well what would a once-in-a-lifetime international trip be to a shameless geek like me without some shameless geekery? I don’t know, and I don’t think I’m going to find out either. Even though I should be packing, I have spent some quality time with the old blog, figuring out how to place a very simple map on the page. Thanks to Google, I found a very useful site for that sort of thing called UMapper. It only took me a couple of hours, think how long it would have taken before the internet was invented!

While I’d love to bring each and every one of you along, sadly that would be at best, a costly venture and at worst, an awkward explanation to have to give to a customs official:

“Did you pack these bags yourself?”

“Yes”

“Are you aware that it is an offence to conceal a large number of humans in your carry-on luggage?”

“I swear I don’t know how they got in there. Mind you, I did notice that the walk from the
train station was a bit of a struggle.”

etc

So, stay tuned for our travels in Blog form. Think of this as a Bill Bryson book without the price tag (or the remarkable wit and humourous anecdotes; evidently my travel-writing skills, ability to get into ridiculous situations and beard are all still in their infancy).

Tom.

Coming up:

Next weekend we travel to the first of many remarkable cities, Sydney. They say half the fun is getting there. If there’s even a shread of truth to that expression, then the two-hour trip down the F3 should be a corker. Perhaps there’ll be roadwork at Gosford or something equally as breathtaking.