Hi Mum, I was in NYC, Venice and Switzerland (kind of)

More catching up on several years of travel.

Freiburg and Colmar

In September 2011 we impulsively booked a weekend in Basel, Switzerland. It was a cheap fare from London, what did it matter that we knew nothing about Basel and what there was to see? We realised that Basel isn’t the most charming Swiss city; it’s not nestled amongst snow-capped mountains, or situated on a beautiful lake. But it does have the wonderful advantage of being very, very close to the Black Forest in Germany and the Alsace region of France. So we decided to eschew Switzerland completely and spend our weekend in Germany and France.

First stop: Freiburg.

This idyllic town on the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany is only about 45 minutes by train from Basel. We lucked into a wonderfully warm and sunny day, utter bliss after a frankly rubbish London summer.

Once we arrived, we noticed that things seemed a little bit… odd.

Lots of costumed people, lots of banners, plenty of roads closed and crowd barriers erected. What was going on?

We worked it out.

The motherflipping pope was in town.

We tried to go about the business of enjoying our visit regardless, but it made getting around the town a little bit tricky. We did see the pope go by in his little perspex popemobile – both of us quite underwhelmed. Who’d have thought that less than 2 years later he’d have quit the job?

Anyway, Freiburg is a delightful place. We sampled the beer and of course, the Black Forest Gateau. We walked in the woods and lazed in a clearing in the sunshine. It was lovely.

Second stop: Colmar

I’d never heard of Colmar. It’s a small town in the Alsace wine country, and is also about 45 minutes from Basel. All we knew is that it was a nice place, so we hopped on a train to visit for the day. People were right: Colmar is indeed a nice place.

In fact, it’s a downright gorgeous place.

It turned into yet another glorious sunny day of walking and exploring, eating great food (flammekuchen) and drinking lovely wine.

Definitely worth a visit.

So that was the weekend in Switzerland that we spent in Germany and France.

Venice

We also spent our second anniversary in Venice. You know, Venice is a stunning place. It’s so quaint and charming, and you get constantly lost, and every time you turn a corner you are faced with another arresting outlook.

It always looks like a painting.

So why not go and have a look through our Flickr feed, which has lots of such photos of Venice.

Just like every other weekend, we spent it walking, getting very lost, and finding good food. Before coming to Venice I’d read up about cichetti, or the little plates (like tapas) that can be found in small bars. I had a list of bars that reportedly did good cichetti, so we basically did a bar crawl, snacking our way from place to place. It was a great way to see the city, and mostly kept us out of the way of the well-trodden tourist paths.

This is one of the places we found, at about 11.30am on a Sunday morning.

Because of the small canals and alleyways, there weren’t many places (apart from the large squares with their overpriced cafes and restaurants) which enjoyed full sun. This little place, on an unusually wide canal, was bathed in sunlight. It was full of small and large groups, of families, friends, children and dogs, coming and going. Plates of food on every table, glasses of wine and Aperol being handed around, lots of laughter. It made me very much want to be Italian.

New York

One plan Alex and I had discussed before even leaving Australia was the possibility of visiting New York while we were living in London. It seemed wonderfully decadent, to leave one huge metropolis to visit another, but given the distance and the price, it was also a no-brainer. And when my sister and her husband were also up for it, then we made plans.

We spent a week there in October 2011.

It was my first experience of the United States, and even though everyone is at pains to reassure you that New York really isn’t America, you know it seemed pretty, you know, American. There was amazing food.

(That’s Alex devouring a reuben sandwich at Katz’s, by the way. It was like he’d come home.)

There was also that sort of food which you think should be really dire, and is, in a way, but is also completely great. I’m talking about food covered in goopy yellow cheese and accompanied by waffle fries.

And there were ridiculously kitschy cocktails at unbelievably pretentious bars.

And everything was super fun.

Alex and I did a lot of eating on this trip. We found some really great food, especially burgers.

Boy, Americans know how to make a good burger. London got a whole lot better recently when they opened a Shake Shack in Covent Garden.

We also hit many of the sights (while avoiding the museums). It was all great.

After all this sunshine, Alex and I nearly got snowed in the night we were due to fly out. Crazy weather. Sally and Anthony, on the other hand, were almost stranded by Qantas’ decision to ground their entire fleet during industrial disputes. But in the end we all got where we needed to go. And we had a bloody good time in New York.

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Time to polish off this old thing…

Good intentions, poorly executed.

Alex and I had such plans to keep this blog going while we lived in London and travelled through Europe. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and so this place has languished like a million other indulgent travel blogs. How sad.

But! We’re soon to embark on another long(ish) trip and the time has come to get blogging again. Sure, our US roadtrip will be about as different from out Australia-London trip in 2011 as it could be (being only 5 weeks long, including a fair amount of flying and driving, and with a baby in tow) but we hope to have just as much fun.

Before we leave the UK, though, time to do a swift recap of some of the amazing travel we’ve done in the last 3.5 years. In no particular order…

Tunisia

Alex and I spent a long weekend here in 2011, several months after the revolution. We were a little bit cautious about going but found that most things had resolved by the time we arrived. It was a great trip, an interesting country, and I’d be keen to go back.

We enjoyed the bustle of the souks and the prevalence of that particular shade of blue.

We stayed in the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said, about 40 minutes from Tunis, a really delightful spot.

It was a little bit touristy but a very relaxing place to hang out.

Of course, the coolest part of this trip was exploring the ruins of Carthage, and the vestiges of the Roman occupation.

Most of the original Phoenician city of Carthage is gone, subsumed by the Roman and other settlements after it. Got a great view though

These Roman baths were seriously impressive – right on the waterfront and with hold and cold running water. They’ve erected one of the columns to show the scale of the place – the archways remaining are the underground passages where the water was managed.

In all, we had a great time in Tunisia.

Dorset

Around the same time, in April/May 2011, we took off again for a long weekend in Bridport, Dorset. This is because the madness of the Royal Wedding had descended on Westminster, where we live, and it seems sanest to get the heck out of there.

Boy, we were glad we did.

Pretty idyllic. We did lots of walking.

We also visited the eerie village of Tyneham, a place which was ‘temporarily’ evacuated during WWII due to the nearby Army firing ranges. Everyone left, and nobody came back. The village is well preserved, but completely empty, and there are some disconcerting signs around every corner. It’s still an active military range and you need to check before walking in the area that the MoD hasn’t closed it.

We always thought we’d have another holiday down the south coast, probably to Devon and Cornwall, but it just hasn’t happened. Next time.

Stay tuned for lots more catching up…

Hi Mum, I’m in Tuscany

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Not long after settling down in London and beginning to feel like normal members of society again, we stopped all that for a completely idyllic fortnight in Tuscany. Alex was turning the big 3-0 and his folks plus some friends from Melbourne and London came to Tuscany to live with us in a villa, laze around the pool, go wine-tasting and to fabulous markets and generally have a gorgeous and relaxing time. What good friends, to put up with such a lot.

We stayed in a villa in a tiny place outside San Casciano, in Tuscany. This was about a 35 minute drive or so south of Florence, so of course we had a few day trips there.

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Florence was – is always – a glorious place, even when filled with tourists as far as the eye can see. We found some fantastic gelato (and some truly dire stuff, allegedly kiwifruit flavoured but it went into the rubbish after a few tastes) and an incredible cafe. I, the least enthusiastic coffee drinker to come out of Melbourne, fell in love with the stuff and eagerly joined Alex and the others in standing up at the bar for a quick espresso (though I haven’t yet joined Bjarne and his love of slamming down several doppio in a single sitting standing.)

We climbed the Duomo and admired the hideous depths of imagination to which people who believe in hell can descend.

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We spent a lot of time in the garden of the villa and by the pool, playing Scrabble and cards, reading books, and trying not to get hit by the shot which occasionally cascaded over us (as the shooting season opened while we were there).

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On the advice of our hosts, we visited a local winery called Villa Cigliano, on the outskirts of San Casciano. We weren’t anticipating much – a tour of the winery, and a light lunch while tasting some wines. We found a wonderfully welcoming owner, an outstanding and fascinating villa that had been in the family for over 500 years, a wonderful spread of food and some downright delicious wine and oil.

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Their family tree, covering many centuries:
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We’d recommend a visit in a heartbeat – it was a terrific day out.

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The other recommended place for a visit has to be the village of Greve in Chianti, where the Saturday markets brought Alex’s favourite thing in the world – the porchetta van. Whole roasted pigs stuffed with thyme, garlic and rosemary, with thick slices served up in a panino. Completely delicious.

Greve is also home to the most wondrous place for pork fanatics – Macelleria Falorni.

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This is the place for pork products. They practically literally hit you in the head when you walk in.

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Alex and I stocked up on cheese, pancetta, salumi and more from this place. Their products are just amazing.

Finally, we couldn’t forget the reason for being in Italy in the first place – Alex’s birthday. We went out for a meal to a small town called Panzano, where a butcher opened a restaurant. It was a great night out and after everyone was done we all – everyone who had eaten that night – stood around on the streets of the village and drank grappa with our host. Good fun.

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Ain’t nothing more romantic than posing in front of a meat locker.

So anyway – big thanks to Eileen and Bjarne for making the trip possible. It was a wonderful trip (and one that we may be replicating this year…)

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Hi Mum, we’re… still travelling

Oh, our poor neglected travel blog! We used to be so close!

After a really fun weekend in Budapest I’ve felt compelled to revive this old thing, and use it to keep records of all the travelling we’re doing now that Alex and I are firmly into the European travelling scene. Look out for posts on the following:

– Italy
– the Cotswolds
– Stockholm
– Madrid
– skiing in Tignes, France
– Belgium
– Budapest

and more to come…

Hi Mum, we made it

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Back when we used to actually update our blog, you might remember that we were on our way to London. When we last updated, we were enjoying our arrival in Europe proper: Moscow.

Since then, real life sort of got in the way. We hopped on yet another train, this time a mere day and a half trip across Belarus into Warsaw. Arriving in Warsaw was wonderful – we’d spent a couple of days there a few years ago, and just loved it. We’d have happily settled in for a few days of hanging out, but for the annoying fact that I had to get across Europe to Amsterdam for an appointment with the UK consulate to organise my entry permit. We got to spend only a single night in Warsaw, which we cleverly devoted to eating pierogi and drinking beer, and then it was another bloody train.

This one was a bit different. We accompanied each other as far as Berlin, but then I continued on to Amsterdam while Alex went to visit his cousin in Hamburg for a few days. After being in each others’ pockets for 3 months it was terribly weird being alone. Not bad, but just such a different feeling. It made me a bit antsy, to be honest.

Amsterdam is a great, charming and beautiful city, but unfortunately when you’re in a city because you have to, not because you want to, it colours your experiences a bit. Once Alex came to meet me we ventured down to the Hague to spend some time cluttering up the lovely house of our friends Skye and Peter. It was fantastic to see them, fantastic to be in a real home, and fantastic to co-opt their kitchen and do a bit of cooking. They took us to Delft to eat pancakes, and we did daytrips to Rotterdam and Haarlem – it was all quite idyllic. Unfortunately, we took entirely 0 photos of this part of the trip. Bad form.

After a terribly long time, the UK consulate finally issued my permit and it was off to London. We adhered to our original plan of ‘no planes!’ and caught the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich.

Arrival.

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Our first few weeks were a blur of becoming official people – we got bank accounts, tube passes, mobile phones, a flat. We live in East London, full of hipsters, curry houses, and endless supplies of fried chicken.
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Oh, and (of course) pubs.
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So all in all we both survived our pretty epic overland journey from Singapore to London. It was a brilliant experience, something we feel so lucky and privileged to have done. I regret almost none of it.

We don’t intend to abandon this blog, as we’re planning to do loads of travel while we’re living here. Look for the next instalment soon.

Hi Mum, I’m crossing 5 time zones

After our strange, challenging and wonderful 6 days with the Mongolian nomads (check back to our post about it; we’ve added more photos) we hightailed it back to the relative luxury of Ulaan Baator. Of course, being desperate for a shower, the powers that be decreed that we would have no hot water for a further 12 hours. Agony!

Eventually, suitably bathed and relieved (and supplied with beer), we embarked on the next phase of our trip – a two night train ride to Irkutsk, an hour or so from the immense Lake Baikal. We lucked into having the compartment to ourselves for the trip. However, this joy was curtailed by the discovery that there was no restaurant car on the train, no food vendors at most of the stations, and that we had brought just a few sweet snacks. Finally, at about 10pm on day 2 we found some food, but needless to say we spend most of the preceding day playing the “what would eat right now if you were at home?” game. (Again.)

Irkutsk is a pretty nice place. We also had a pleasant, comfy hostel which felt a little as though we were staying in someone’s home. And we met up with some travellers from the UK that we had bumped into intermittently since the train to UB, so got to spend some time with people other than each other. Hooray!

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Of course, one of the biggest attractions of Irkutsk is Lake Baikal – a lake of many superlatives. It is the deepest, oldest and clearest lake in the world and the biggest freshwater lake. It’s immense. We spent a day visiting a town at the southern tip, but I imagine you could spend months exploring the lake and its environs.

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Sadly, we were visiting the lake at an inconvenient time – close enough to summer that the ice had broken up and almost completely melted, but not summery enough for things like swimming or diving to be an attractive proposition. At least there was some ice left over for us to play with.

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There’s a myth about the lake that if you submerge your hands, you’ll earn an extra year of life. Stick your feet in, and you get 5 years. Have a proper swim, and you get a bonus 25 years of life. While Alex and I weren’t brave enough to swim amongst the ice (although our newfound friends, Kath and Daniel, did grace us with a demonstration of the agony we could have expected if we did take the plunge), we at least doffed our shoes and socks for a pretty painful 30 seconds in the icy water. I think our faces say it all.

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And it seems that Kath and Daniel weren’t the only ones taking the water here.

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Anyway, we spent a very fun day exploring this small part of Lake Baikal. It’s definitely a place we’d both like to come back to sometime.

After a couple of days relaxing in Irkutsk (and eating great food – the supermarkets were full of delicious beetroot salad, cheese, ham and bread – things we haven’t really eaten since leaving Australia 3 months previously. Oh, and don’t forget the great vodka) it was time to head off.

Between Irkutsk in southern Siberia and Moscow in the European part of Russia lies 5152km of railway. We covered this immense distance in a single hop, departing on Monday afternoon around 4pm and arriving on Thursday at about 6pm. Given that we would be spending 3 days straight on the train (and that we’re on our honeymoon, lest we forget that important point) we opted for first class. We were very happy to see our cabin – a brand new refurbishment, and I didn’t have to sleep on the top bunk! (Also note the important addition of a bottle of Baikal vodka on the table).

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Of course, after 3 days on the train, the tidiness had been completely banished.

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Spending so much time on the train was quite soporific and very relaxing. We spent time listening to music, playing games, reading books, napping, and staring at the changing scenery out the window. It was definitely an enjoyable thing to do. We especially enjoyed watching the landscape slowly change from Siberian to European.

Arriving in Moscow was exciting. It felt very cosmopolitan after our time in Mongolia and Siberia and we regretted that we only had 3 days there. We checked out a couple of great museums, including the brilliantly bizarre Polytechnical Museum (documenting the history of industry in Russia) and the moving Sakharov Museum (with exhibits on life under Stalin and the gulags).

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On our final afternoon in Moscow, we thought we’d engage in a fine Moscow tradition and go for Sunday brunch. Suitably attired in our most natty jeans and t-shirts (the effects of the long trip are starting to be seen on our wardrobe, sadly), we turned up at the Marriott, paid a relatively large sum of money, and sat down to eat and drink to our heart’s content. Alex binged on blinis and caviare, I relished the seafood station and we both sampled plenty of Russian champagne, vodka and desserts. After 4.5 hours we rolled out, having done our very best to imbibe our money’s worth. A fitting farewell to Russia.

Hi Mum, I’m in China and 197 other countries

One day, back in 2009, I read a newspaper article about the world-famous Little Mermaid statue, usually resident in Copenhagen harbour, being removed and sent to Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo. This immediately filled Alex and I with excitement. Who doesn’t love a World Expo?

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Of course, our excitement can be directly traced back to the heady days of 1988, Australia’s bicentenary year, and the year when Brisbane put itself in the world spotlight by hosting Expo ’88. We both attended and have individual memories of an awesome time. So when we heard that Shanghai would be hosting the Expo, and that we could squeeze in a visit on day 1 of its 6-month opening time if we reorganised our itinerary a bit, then by god, reorganise we did.

China seems to be in a weird place right now. Countries such as Australia and the US desperately want to be friends with it, and China equally desperately wants to show to its own citizens that it is one of the Big Kids on the world stage. Together with feeling like second best after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, this meant that the Shanghai Expo had to be big. Bigger than big. It had to show Beijing that it could do this ‘huge event’ thing, it had to show the rest of the world that China is here to stay, and most importantly, it had to show the Chinese that they are important.

What this all meant is that our expectations of a slightly daggy, very welcoming event (such as Expo ’88) didn’t match up with reality. Various estimates of the total cost of Expo 2010 are in the range of USD55 billion. 55 billion dollars! I can’t even conceive of so much money. But once you enter the site, you begin to see where the money went.

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The site, built across two sites on either side of the Huangpu River, is apparently more immense than Monaco. Alex and I entered first thing at 9am, and left, footsore and incredibly weary at 10pm, and we hadn’t covered the whole thing. We maybe covered 2/3 of it. It’s just huge.

China proudly boasts that 198 countries came to the Expo and have a pavilion there, but in reality lots of the smaller, developing countries had a fancy-ish stall, but were empty inside. Many of these were in the enormous African and Carribean nations pavilions. As wandered through desolate and empty stalls purporting to glorify countries like Benin and Chad and Equatorial Guinea, the whole Expo thing seemed to be a bit of a sham.

So we hightailed it to a rich country’s pavilion. Parochially, we chose to queue up for the popular Danish pavilion. It glowed bright white in the sunshine, and from afar you could see happy visitors travelling down its spiral facade on pushbikes. Good fun.

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The theme for Expo 2010 is ‘Better City, Better Life’, and the best pavilions discussed the issues of healthy urbanisation. Denmark did this really well, showing some great short films about life in Copenhagen, addressing the issue of transport (hence the bikes) and painting life in Denmark as quite idyllic.

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We agree. They sold cold, cold beer there, which was very welcome after an hour queuing in the hot sun.

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We also visited the Australian pavilion, which had tremendous queues and pretty good content, although the revolutionary circular rotating screen film thing was only in Chinese – early teething problems meant there were no English headsets available.

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Still, this is an improvement from the teething problems of the trial opening, when people queuing for the Aussie pavilion were apparently getting into fistfights. Anyway, we enjoyed it and especially enjoyed that the people who put it together resisted the temptation to include any cute, furry animals in the pavilion (with the exception of the giftshop, of course). We left and visited the New Zealand pavilion just in time to see a burly Maori guy lead a few scrawny Chinese dudes through the haka.

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The focal point of the whole site is the upside-down Lego structure that is the massive Chinese pavilion (see first photo). It is immense, visible from very far away, and, it seems, impossible to get into. We didn’t even try.

In total, the experience was just as China so often is – huge, frustrating, amusing, amazing, tiring, and with horrible queues. We’re very happy we went.