Monday, 16 January 2017

Wandering Here and There

 
Normally I would leave a post about travel for my travel blog, however as it turns out I have recently finished a book by Bill Bryson about a time when he decided to travel around Europe. As such, this book enables me to actually write about travel as well as writing about a book that I read. Actually, I write quite a lot about books that I have read, however I tend to migrate over to this blog when what I want to write about tends to be quite long (as is the case when it comes to writing about Europe). Mind you, I won't be going into too much details with where I went and what I did, namely because I want to leave them for my travel blog, and also it will probably be much longer than what I would be comfortable with putting into a single post.

One thing that I should mention is that the experience of travel back when Bryson went around Europe, and the experience of travel today, almost twenty-five years later, couldn't be any different (and more so when he first went over to Europe in 1971). These days we have the Schengen Zone, which is a collection of European countries with an open borders policy, that is where you don't need to show your passport, or get a visa, to enter. Then there is the Eurozone, which means that there is a common currency across the region (though there are a number of countries that haven't adopted the currency, but then again Switzerland doesn't consider itself part of Europe). I still remember my Dad telling me how he attempted to enter France from Switzerland back in the early 90s and was denied entry because he had an Australian passport (Australia and France were at odds over nuclear testing in the South Pacific).

Disused Border Post on the French-Belgium border

However, traveling across Europe doesn't feel as if you are traveling across different countries. Sure, you still see border posts scattered about, as we did when we crossed from Belgium to France, however it simply feels as if you are crossing state boundaries in Australia - there is a simple sign welcoming you to Victoria, and a few reminders that they have drug testing for road users, and also that the speed limits change. In fact a part of me wonders what's stopping people traveling to Amsterdam, loading up on marijuana, and then traveling back into France. So, when Bryson talks about how Switzerland is basically lots of electric cables stretching across mountains, and along railway tracks, it doesn't actually register to me that we are in another country - to me we are just in Europe.

Anyway, I probably should include a map of my travels, for both journeys that is:

This is the route we took in 2011

This is the route we took in 2016 (though it is a little more convoluted)

First Impressions

So far I have been to Europe three times, the first time I came in through London, and the next two I entered through Frankfurt. In a way, to me, the only way to get to Europe is by plane. Okay, I could go by boat, but that would be hideously expensive, or I could go by land, but that would involve having to enter China, and Russia (or cross through the Middle East), which is a difficult proposition at best. Also there is the fact that there aren't any ferries from Australia to Indonesia, so once again I would have to get there by jumping onto a Cruise Ship - something that I have no burning desire to do.

The thing is that the trek to Europe involves a twelve hour plane flight from one of the major South East Asian Capital cities (or via the United Arab Emirates). Okay, Qantas is launching a direct flight from Perth, but after they broke a flag of mine and basically said 'too bad so sad', I haven't flown with them since (not that they particularly care). However, the trek basically involves me traveling to the other side of the world, which means that the trek sends me into some sort of dream like state, which upon emerging I realise I am as far away from home as I could ever imagine. Then there is the view from the plane where I am descending over London - or more so in a holding pattern waiting for Heathrow to give us permission to land. Mind you, I never had that particular problem at Frankfurt - rather I was looking out of the window, while it was still dark, and seeing this city surrounded by numerous towns and villages - it isn't like my experience in Australia, where cities just sprawl, but rather there are green belts keeping them all separate.

As for my first arrival in London, I ended up simply crossing from one terminal to another so that we could catch our next flight to Athens. Mind you, Heathrow is huge - it took us two hours to get from the train to our terminal the last time I was there, though a part of that time did involve standing in the checkin line. It wasn't so bad that time simply because we were transferring flights, however when I glanced at the huge lines at UK Border Control, I was somewhat glad that I was bypassing that (though I almost took the wrong turn, which would have resulted in us missing our plane). The first time I came into Frankfurt I passed through customs pretty quickly, namely because it was 5:00 in the morning, but due to some significant delays the next time, we arrived at noon, and found that customs wasn't as efficient as you would expect from the Germans.

Bryson's Travels

Obviously there are a number of places that Bryson has visited that I haven't and vice versa, though I will only try to stick to our common travels. Mind, his first trek involved traveling all the way up to Hammerfest in Norway, specifically to go and see the Northern Lights. Obviously I haven't been up there, nor have I seen the lights, but from what I gather it can be pretty hit and miss. In fact you could travel all that way and never actually see them. Also, it seems that the only way to get there is by bus, though I suspect there are planes that travel there these days. However, due to the unpredictability of the Northen Lights, and the fact that you can really only see them at the height of winter, I'd probably just watch them on Youtube


He also traveled across Yugoslavia and into Bulgaria, which surprised me somewhat because I was under the impression that you couldn't travel as a tourist into the Eastern Bloc. Well, okay, my high school history teacher did say that he went to Hungary, and notably pointed out that if you wanted to eat you had to go for the packed lunches. However, from what Bryson indicated, this wasn't necessarily the case in Split, as he spoke of visiting bars and drinking beers. In fact he indicated that this was the case in Sofia as well, though when he was back it was at the height of the economic crisis and was witnessing first hand the breadlines.

As for me, while I have been to Greece, I haven't been into Yugoslavia or Hungary, however I have been into the Czech Republic. It was interesting traveling through there by train, since you would pass old communist era steel mills. The other thing is that the Eastern Bloc is still quite impoverished, at least compared to the rest of Europe. Mind you, it doesn't necessarily look like that, at least from what I could see in Prague, but then again I was only in Prague for one night before we then jumped back onto the train and headed towards Berlin (while passing through Dresden). However, I do remember wandering into a night club in one of the old towers, a nightclub that was touted as the 'largest nightclub in Central Europe'. Mind you, I was pretty lucky because when I arrived I walked straight in, however when I left the line was stretching quite a way down the river.

Prague
As for Scandanavia and Denmark, well I have to admit that I haven't had the pleasure of traveling there, though Bryson does suggest that Stockholm is wet and miserable. However, from what I gathered from this book, all Bryson seemed to be able to do was complain, which is why all of the Americans writing poor reviews about The Lost Continent now makes sense - all he seems to do is complain. Still, when things go wrong on a holiday you are going to want to complain.

Paris

The French have unfortunately been hit with the label of being rude - I believe that that is further from the truth - they are no more or no less than other countries. In fact I had more problems with the Germans that I had with the French. Mind you, that didn't necessarily mean that there weren't rude service staff in France, I met a few of them, but I also found some quite pleasant people as well. For instance we wandered into a pub in the middle of the country, and when they discovered that we were from Australia they became really excited. I had a similar encounter in Amiens, when I met a local who simply wanted to speak to somebody who could speak English.

Mind you, as I mentioned, there were some quite rude people, particularly when you are wandering around Montparnasse, but then again that part of Paris is incredibly expensive. I discovered that at the first Hemmingway cafe I visited to discover that the price of a beer was incredible. Mind you, of the six cafes that I visited, four of them were pretty good - they even showed me where Hemmingway used to sit (and another showed me where Picasso would sit). Of the other two, they were more than happy to take my money, but the impression that I got was that people like me generally don't visit their cafes.

And this is the stool upon which Hemmingway sat.

People suggest that Paris is overrated, but personally that isn't any further from the truth. However, I suspect it really has a lot to do with why people travel - a lot of people go to Paris, and visit the Louve, simply because that is a thing that people do. However, they simply grab a brochure at the front counter and go and visit the things that everybody wants to see, such as the Mona Lisa. As for me, I visited the Louve not simply to see the Mona Lisa, but to see what it had to offer, and they have a lot - an awful lot. In fact I was there for four hours (or more - I lost track of time) and still didn't get to see everything, particularly the statues in the Richelieu wing.

Sarcophogai from Cleopatra's Egypt

There are other things about Paris that I love as well, such as the square in Montmatre where artists sit around painting pictures of anything and everything, as well as the museum that happens to be in the garden where Renoir produced his masterpieces. Then there is are the gardens, such as the Jardin Luxembourg, or the Tullaries - the thing that people seem to do there is sit in front of their favourite statue and read a book. Hemmingway would also talk about how he would visit the Jardins Luxembourg for some peace and quiet, though from my visit I could hardly say that the place was all that peaceful.

Belgium

I could go on and on about Paris and France, especially since the second time I passed through my eyes were opened to the amazing nature of the place (and also reading A Moveable Feast, and visiting Jim Morrisons Grave), but I will leave that for another time and move on to the next country that both Bryson and I visited - Belgium. Well, it sounds as if he made a trek to Brussels, Antwerp, Bruge, and a small village outside of Leige. Well, my experience of Belgium is Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent. Once again I would have to disagree with Bryson's assessment of Belgium, especially Brussel's old town - it certainly didn't seem to be dominated by modern buildings. Okay, we did go for a trek out to the railway museum, which took us through some of the inner suburbs, and I have to admit that the city still had a lot of charm.

A chocolate alchemist

However, the thing that really stood out in Belgium were the beers. In fact you would walk past a shop that would advertise having over 200 different types of beer on sale. One of my trips even involved renting a car and driving down to Chimay, where you can find Scourmont Abbey, which makes the beer of the same name. Sure, there are a few other monastries that make such beers, but this was the one that I was able to work out how to get to. Mind you, the abbey itself is, well, an abbey - you can wander through the gardens and visit the chapel, but they won't show you where they make the beer. Actually, I suspect it is made a few kilometers up the road at a place called 'Espace Chimay', since it had some buildings that looked suspiciously like a brewery. However, once again, you don't get an opportunity to see the beer being made because it is a trade secret. If you want though you can always go and visit the museum (which I didn't, though I did buy some cheese).

Trappist Beers


And they all have a glass to go with them

Talking about beer, there was a place in Brussels where you could go and see how beer was made - ironically called the Beer Museum. Mind you, it was located in the market place, an incredibly beautiful square surrounded by old buildings. One of the buildings is the town hall, however all of the other buildings were the former guild halls, no doubt the beer museum being the brewer's guild. We went for a wander around down there, and there certainly was a lot of brewing equipment, however it was the modern section that was operational, the part of the museum housing the old equipment was just haphazardly scattered about. Fortunately the entrance fee included a beer.

One view of the Grand Place
I could go on about my visits to Antwerp, Ghent, and Ypres, but other than the fact that Antwerp has a gorgeous railway station (considered to be a cathedral of railway stations), I'll leave my further discussions for another time.

Deutschland

Well, I have visited Germany a few times (three to be precise), but one of the reasons that I have done so is because I speak German. Mind you, people do get a little confused when they arrive in Germany and discover that everything is in German - it is as if Germans simply speak English with a strange accent, much like the Indians, the Jamacians, and the British. As it turns out, they speak German, though the reason for this misconception is that all of the Germans that one tends to meet outside of Germany speak really good English - they wouldn't be able to survive otherwise. It isn't like France where people see no reason to learn English. However, when you are in Germany it turns out that quite a lot of Germans don't know English anywhere near as good as the Germans that I have met in Australia.

What I love about Germany are the trains - they are fast, efficient, and can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go. In fact I could spend my entire time in Germany simply traveling on their trains - well, not really, since there are other things to see and do there as well. However, the other thing about Germany is that it used to be the heart of Europe, especially the region along the Rhine where I have since discovered is a huge cluster of cities. A friend who has lived over in Germany has indicated that this used to be where the former Holy Roman Empire was ruled, and Bonn used to be the capital of West Germany. Mind you, being located on Europe's major river was always going to have a heavy focus on trade.



The other thing about Germany, and in fact Belgium and the Netherlands, is that it is decentralised. It isn't like pretty much every other country out there (with the exception of Italy), where basically everything happens in the capital and the regional areas are somewhat uninteresting (well, I am exaggerating a bit, but it is like that in the Czech Republic and Hungary). The reason for this is that Germany is actually a new country - it is less than two hundred years old. For most of its history the strip of land between the North Sea and Italy was a collection of independent city states that were loosely ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, though his power was incredibly limited. As such, one can visit quite a few parts of Germany without ever going to Berlin (and there actually isn't all that much in Berlin).

Okay, there is the Brandenberg Gate, and the Museum Island, and the awesome nightclub in the power plant.

Amsterdam

Well, I've been to Europe three times, and I've been to Amsterdam three times. Personally, I'm not sure why, though it probably has something to do with the coffeeshops. Mind you, the last time I was there I realised that there is actually more to Amsterdam than the coffeeshops, though when I was much younger that was all people ever talked about. Actually, it wasn't until I was preparing for my third trip that I discovered places such as the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Rembrant House.

And of course the Kattenkabinet
However, the one thing that the Dutch know how to do is to throw a street party. In fact when I arrived this last time I discovered that it was gay-pride week. It certainly left the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for shame. It also answered the question as to why the hotels were incredibly expensive when I was booking them. At first I thought it was because Amsterdam is basically an incredibly expensive city, but it just turned out that I had booked my accommodation at the wrong time. Still, it was an experience, especially with my brother, who was determined to have some chicken McNuggets, barging through the heart of the street party.

Still trying to work out what this is
Also, the canals are absolutely gorgeous, as are the buildings, and the beer. There is just something about Amsterdam - maybe its free wheeling attitude, and the idea that there are laws and there are laws, and the law that says that one shouldn't go skinny dipping in one of the canals is one of those laws that probably doesn't need to be enforced. However, don't take photos in the Red Light District, and watch out for the cyclists - in the war between pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists, in Amsterdam the cyclists won. Mind you, if you did go skinny dipping in the canals you would probably find an awful lot of bicycles, and a couple of cars as well.



Italy

People seem to have a love/hate relationship with Italy. Bryson loved it, however my Dad, and one of my friends, absolutely hated it. In a way it has a lot to do with what one would call organised chaos - Italy is incredibly chaotic in a very organised sort of way. Personally, the Italians were lovely people, as long as they didn't work for the government. For instance don't even think about buying a ticket for a train at one of their railway stations because you will be waiting forever. Fortunately when I was there they had machines that would dispense a ticket. Mind you, I had a Eurail pass, but nobody told me how to use it, which meant that I ended up on the wrong end of a ticket inspector. Actually, I landed up on the wrong end of a ticket inspector in Dusseldorf because nobody told me I had to insert the ticket into a machine - in fact I didn't even see the machines until the ticket inspector told me I had to insert my ticket into it. Also, they neglected to inform me that I had a first class ticket as well.

However the more I think about Italy the more I start to warm to it, namely because of the cities that I visited. Okay, Naples is an absolute dump, namely because there doesn't seem to be anybody that goes around collecting the rubbish. In fact when I landed in Naples I suddenly realised that I was going to have a bad time, namely because when I went to arrange the hire car I discovered that the hire car agency in Greece had placed a block on my car and that it wasn't going to be released for two days. I ended up having to spend more time in Naples than I originally anticipated. However, despite the fact that the hotel was located in this horrid cement and steel commercial district, once we entered the old city Naples turned out to be amazing, especially the three castle around the place. We even found a way down into the ruins of Neapolis, the Ancient Roman city.

The funny thing was that we went on a tour of Pompei, and I had no idea that the suburban train would take us there, not until we caught the train down to Sorrento. However, despite the fact that she didn't let us wander around the stalls outside of the ruins, or grab something to eat, having somebody explain to us what was going on and what we were looking at was quite helpful. Mind you, we didn't get an opportunity to head up to the top of Vesuvius, but I tell you want, that volcano can be seen throughout the city and hangs there like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

See what I mean
Come to think of it I could write quite a lot more about Italy because after Naples I went to Rome, and then Florence, and even stopped off at Pisa to check out a rather ordinary leaning tower. I also went to Milan, however that was for one night and my experience of Milan was tearing my hair out trying to find a place to dump the rental car. Actually, that was so painful that the only parts of Milan I got to see was the hotel, the railway station, and the airport, and then I received a fine because I caught the wrong train to Venice, namely the express.

Alps

I was going to write a little more about Switzerland and Austria, however my experience of Switzerland was basically having a beer in a pub in Lausanne, and then driving from one end of the country to the other. Okay, he did catch the train down to lake Geneva and had a look around, and then went back, but we didn't spend a huge amount of time in Lausanne. In fact the only reason I went there was because my brother had spend three months there back in the early nineties.

Lausanne
As for the rest of Switzerland, all I ended up seeing was a motorway. Okay, I saw a little more that a motorway as we crossed from Basel in the North to Italy in the South, but what annoyed me was that we couldn't stop and admire the view - it simply seemed as if they didn't believe in setting up rest stops where you could actually get a really good look at the mountains - all of the rest stops were actually pretty horrible. That is why were decided to pull off the motorway and park the car in Lucerne. Here we caught a cable car up to the top of the mountain, which during the winter is a ski resort, but during the summer is a place where people go hiking. However Switzerland is a beautiful country, as long as you avoid the north which is basically full of industry. Oh, and it is also an incredibly expensive country, as I found out the hard way.


After a short stop in Milan and Venice, we then caught a train up to Salzburg, which is basically my impression of Austria. Actually, there wasn't any train going to Austria from Venice, so we had to catch a bus, but like Switzerland the journey was an experience. Actually, that first trip to Europe I seemed to spend more time traveling than actually enjoying the places I was visiting. For instance we spent most of the day traveling from Venice to Salzburg, and then a couple of hours wandering around Salzburg. At least I managed to see the world's smallest violin, and also go for a trek up into the castle, were I could see over the border into Germany


Greece

Okay, Bryson didn't go to Greece, but I did, and I have to admit that it was amazing. Okay, the country is also pretty dodgy. In fact on the first night some guys invited us to come to a special nightclub, which we politely declined. Anyway, having studied Classical Studies at University, there was always this desire to go to Greece and actually walk where some of my Ancient Grecian heroes walked, and to see the places where the battles were fought. In fact I caught a ferry from the Pireaus simply so I could see where the battle of Salamis was fought. We also hired a car and head all the way up to Thermopylae to see where the 300 Spartans valiantly held off the Persian army (though I couldn't find where the battle of Marathon was fought, no matter how hard I tried).

Modern Thermopylae Memorial
Once again, like Italy, Greece is what you would call organised chaos. Don't even think of driving in Athens. I remember when I picked up the hire car they had to bring it from the airport, and when they arrived the parked it hanging half on and half off the sidewalk, and I spent ten minutes trying to get it off without crashing into anybody else. I eventually did that, found my way onto the motorway only to discover that the speed limit was 40 kph, and that everybody except me ignored it, which meant that there was a lot of angry tooting.


The other thing about Greece is that the restaurateurs seem to think you have a bottomless stomach. In Corinth one of the restaurateurs refused to tell me were the ruins were unless I agreed to come back and buy some food, while the ones at Mycene would run out into the middle of the road and stand in front of your car to invite you to come into the restaurant and have something to eat. Oh, and there was also this guy in Athens that booked us to have a meal at his restaurant as opposed to the other way around. However, one thing you need to watch out for is that some of these people have no problem slipping you fake money as change, as I had the unfortunate experience to discover.
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Wandering Here and There by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

2 comments:

  1. This summer, my wife and I got a chance to go to Paris together - her first time in Europe. (I did a two week whirlwind tour of England, France, Switzerland, and Germany in my law school days.) I agree with you that Paris is as good as advertised. We did spend a bunch of time in the Louvre - 8-10 hours over two days, and we still didn't see it all. The antiquities are impressive, I must say. I also agree that the French aren't particularly rude. If anything, in both of my trips to France, I have found that most people are delightful. It's probably true most places that the average person is, well, average, and average is pretty decent.

    In my first trip to Europe, we had a similar issue with validating the Eurorail pass - and back then, getting a visa stamp as well. We most certainly did NOT amuse the Swiss customs guy on an overnight rail from Paris to Zurich, although he was nice enough to stamp everything for us after making it clear we were dumb tourists. (Poor guy was probably sick of taking extra time to bail out clueless Americans, and he did lighten up when we made a properly abject apology.)

    I would love to go back and spend more time in Switzerland. We only had a couple of days (which we spent near and around Interlaken), and I never did get enough time to hike to the top of one of the mountains. My other regret is that we didn't have the time to catch a concert in Salzburg (a chamber concert at the old castle that evening...) - we were just day tripping from Munich, and had a train to catch.

    I am hoping that now that my kids are a bit older, we can travel a bit more. So much to see still.

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    1. You sound as if you take it much slower through galleries than I do, but then again I tend to book my days up. I wouldn't mind spending a bit more time in Swizterland, particularly Interlarken. We were only there for a couple of days as well, and most of that time we would be driving. The scenery is amazing though.

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