Trip Start May 31, 2007
72Trip End Ongoing
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Thanks again to all those who are keeping in contact with emails and messages - we appreciate it.
Since the last installment we've stumbled through (this may require a deep breath) Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam, The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Lübeck, Copenhagen and Helsingor. We're now in Hamburg. This could be the lengthiest entry yet or perhaps a job for 2 entries, but we'll see. You might need a coffee or two for this one.
We arrived in Paris at a station located a considerable distance from the main city centre, and discovered after consulting our tattered guidebook that we had quite a way to walk to the nearest hostel
We set off for a considerable time through the packed and noisy streets of the city before consulting our map again to see how close we were to our goal, and discovered to our dismay that the scale of the map was huge - we were only roughly halfway.
Finally we reached our destination, staggering like people who've been lost in the desert, and found it covered in plastic sheets and tradesmen. It seemed to no longer exist. Unable to face more walking at this point, we decided to find the nearest underground station and (hopefully) a room finding service.
Stefan, our young German chum, had accompanied us to this point, and was now leaving to meet a couple of Austrian girls he'd met in Lyon. He had become increasingly annoyed with both France and the French as time progressed, and was at breaking point when we found the Paris underground ticket and network system to be mystifying.
"THIS FUCKING FRANCE!" he bellowed at the ticket machine as he slammed a balled fist into its side. The ticket machine remained quite unmoved. This altercation caught the attention of a kindly local, who helped us get oriented and pointed us in the direction of the hotel district. We found an okayish but expensive 2 star that turned out to be fantastically located, bid goodbye to Stefan, and settled in for some rest.
After breakfasting at a friendly cafe that would be our first destination for the next few days, our first stop was the catacombs beneath Paris
You walk down 130-odd steps into a few dark, cramped and moist corridors, then abruptly you are navigating a number of honeycombed passages piled to the roof with staring skulls and stacked bones. It's unsettling to say the least. More unsettling was a middle aged American guy whisper-shouting "Honey! Get a picture of me with this guy!" and indicating some unfortunate cracked skull.
After exiting the catacombs, we headed over to the Eiffel tower, which was an arresting sight from the ground. One of the foundations housed the most expensive restaurant we'd seen so far on the trip - the 'Jules Verne', which had meals that averaged 80 euro per plate. We climbed the stairs, and found the tower to be suprisingly packed with gift shops, bistros and even a post office. The views, particularly from the upper levesl, were fantastic.
The next day we got up extremely early and raced to the Louvre to beat the crowds. We had planned to rush to the Mona Lisa initially (just out of interest), but there was already a large crowd there regardless
One tourist - a guy wearing a submarine captain's hat - remarked loudly to his wife that "they should put it up another gawd-dammed 20 feet, that way folks could see it!". I could see his point, I guess.
After literally 8 hours of walking around looking at paintings and statues, my eyes felt like they had been filled with iron filings, and my boots were emitting jets of feet-smelling steam with every step. I had left Eb exhausted a few rooms back after she had bravely pleaded for me to "go on without her". I consulted the map - we had only seen about half the contents of the museum. I dropped to my knees like Charlie Sheen in 'Platoon' and softly asked to be covered by a blanket.
The next day, we left for Belgium.
After being weighed down with a rainforest's worth of guidebooks, railmaps & pamphlets by the very friendly guy in the Brussels tourist info booth ("You are from Australia?! I have nephew in Australia! You take these!") we staggered to the hotel we had booked. The info guy had promised that the place was centrally located, and it definitely turned out to be so - right in the centre of the city looking out on the Grand Square.
We were extremely lucky- the room was usually 140 euro per night, we managed to get it for 60 (including breakfast) for 2 nights. The Grand Square looks very impressive - it's not all that huge, but it's bordered by architecturally impressive buildings that date back centuries, including the amazing Hotel D'Ville.
The D'Ville had a very strange and incredibly loud audio visual light show that started at 10pm, went to 10 past 10, then started again at 11. Only problem was that I had gone into a deep sleep after the first presentation, and when it started again i almost toppled out of bed. Very interesting and imaginative stuff, though.
The next day we went for a wander to check out the city. After Paris, we were a bit museum'd out, so we decided to settle for eating and gawping at buildings. Once you leave the city centre, Brussels starts getting pretty charmless. We turned a corner at one stage and found the symbol of the city - the 'Manniken Pis'. This is basically just a small metal statue of a urinating cherub. Around the statue were throngs of tourists taking photos, and around them was shop after shop selling tacky plastic miniatures, towels, mugs, plates, etc featuring the likeness of the statue. It was all fairly awful.
Not so awful was the range of Belgian beers and wines we sampled - all excellent and worth seeking out at home. We had planned to travel to a place called Brugges, but on a whim we decided to travel to Luxembourg City instead.
Luxembourg is full of gorges and hills. Lots of gorges and hills. We toured around the spotless paved streets for a while, crossing bridge after bridge, before realising that the youth hostel was located at the bottom of a gorge across town, miles from the train station.
This was okay, though - the views from the bridges made all the trudging worthwhile. Luxembourg was once a majorly fortified city, and the ruins of those fortifications were scattered around - a chunk of wall here, a guard tower there - which added a lot of atmosphere.
After dumping our stuff in the hostel dorm room, we went out to grab some dinner. We made a circuit of the compact 'old town' area, and made a startling discovery - all the restaurants in town were absolutely packed, and displayed prices that, if paid, would leave us hitchhiking and staying in damp cardboard boxes for the rest of the trip.
We finally bit the bullet and ate at an average Chinese restaurant located in the town square. Outside, a big band in a pavillion was playing the 'Darth Vader' theme as part of a Star Wars medley for an amassed and cheering crowd. This clashed with the traditional Chinese music in the restaurant, creating quite a surreal atmosphere. I'm considering doing a remix.
We got back to the hostel a few hours and beers later, and went straight to sleep. At about 2am, the only other resident in our dorm came back and decided that it was definitely time to launder every article of clothing that he owned in the sink. He also opted to do this wearing 'clack-clack-clacking' thongs.
The sink was one of those 'press the tap once and the water runs for 5 seconds' jobs - a concept he seemingly couldn't quite grasp. Every time the water stopped, the pipes would THUNK, and he'd push the tap again. This went on for some hours.
So Eb tells me, anyway. I was blissfully unconcious and slept like a baby until dawn.
We decided to head into the Netherlands, specifically Rotterdam. We'd heard there were some cool thíngs there - an excellent museum, a tower that looked out on the city and revolved to the tune of Bowie's "A Space Oddity", etc, so we figured it was worth a visit on the way up to Amsterdam.
Rotterdam turned out to be an architect's dreamland, complete with eccentric buildings and monuments alongside older, more traditional buildings. Much of Rottedam was bombed off the face of the earth during WW2, and heavy construction was still taking place all over the city.
We got a room at a very friendly hotel called 'Bazar', cleverly attached to a restaurant of the same name that served African, Turkish and South American cuisine. Keeping with this theme, the owners had decided to funish and paint the walls in an extremely bright coloured tribal style, which we both thought was great after staying in so many drab hostels.
I had unfortunately managed to aquire a massive headcold in Luxembourg, so our excursions outside the hotel were both drippy & brief. We did manage to take in a couple of excellent museums and galleries before the corks in my nose came loose, so that's something.
The Dutch (when speaking Dutch), sounded uncannily to our ears like they were speaking English backwards, giving most exchanges we overheard a kind of 'Bizarro World' feel. This gave hanging out in coffee shops an interesting and enjoyable dimension, and cheered me up considerably.
Before reaching Amsterdam, we had decided to stop off a couple more towns, namely The Hague & Leiden - both apparently very nice and worth a visit.
After bouncing between train stations at The Hague, we eventually found the one that was closest to the youth hostel - one of the only budget options in the city. We were quoted an exorbitant sum for what amounted to a couple of bunks in a 9 bed dorm, and decided to flee to the town of Leiden after seeing what we had come to see - the M.C Escher museum.
This turned out to be extensive and great, and even included a 90's style virtual reality tour, complete with massive, spine-compressing VR goggles that required two hands to lift. Afterwards, we strolled around the city eating hot chips and mayonnaise from a kind of paper cone that looked like it would be more suited to hold flowers. This was a strange concept for us.
The rest of the Hague proved to be both attractive & cash-burningly pricey, so without further ado, we were off.
After The Hague, Leidon had the air of a small town, complete with windmills, canals and quaint townhouses. Everyone - absolutely everyone - seems to ride a bicycle there. I'd never seen so many bikes, either parked, nearly running us over, or shooting past like the tour-de-France.
Once you learned to get out of the way, however, Leiden proved to be an excellent town for strolling. We considered sampling some of the local cuisine in one of the few open restaurants, but paused for thought when we noticed the proprietor standing in the doorway watching a flock of passing cyclists with his thumb up his nose to the knuckle. we settled for noodles.
I had been combatting my headcold with a rememdy of my own devising (the Dutch beer and hot chips diet), and after a relaxing time in Leiden, we were ready to push on to Amsterdam.
On a whim, we decided to stop over in a town called Haarlem, as we had heard that it made a good base for exploring Amsterdam. We walked the streets for an hour and a half looking - not just for hotels that were open, but for any hotels at all. Pretty much all the shops we encountered were closed - even the tourist office was shut.
We eventually located a hotel just off the main square, but were informed by two disgruntled fellow travellers that a room for the night was 75 euros, and that it was the cheapest option in town. That was probably true, given that it seemed to be the -only- hotel in town.
Haarlem itself was a pleasant enough town, with an enormous cathedral that dominated the town square. A couple of days later we would return here from Amsterdam to check out a gallery devoted to the painter Frans Hals, but for now, we hopped on board the first train to Amsterdam, hoping to find accomodation there.
We pulled into Amsterdam fairly late, and decided to opt for the first hotel we saw. We were feeling pretty exhausted from the day of lugging out packs around Haarlem, and any respite was a welcome one.
The first place we saw turned out to be called the 'A-Train', a (surprisingly) train-themed hotel directly opposite the station. The floor of leading through reception had been tiled to resemble railroad tracks, and the breakfast area comprised of old railway seats & luggage racks, complete with battered suitcases.
We managed to negotiate a nightly rate down from 'astronomical' to 'stratospheric' with the odd guy at reception. "I will see you later, yes?" he asked, with a dubious expression that indicated that this was unlikely. We said that he would. "Hmm.. good luck." he said, and gave us a long, lingering glance before turning back to his paper.
We headed out to explore the area around the hotel after dumping our packs, and wandered through streets packed with sex shops and 'coffeshops' that smelled like coffee was served only as an afterthought.
Garbage was strewn everywhere and graffiti covered most flat surfaces, but it was a great city for people-watching. This we happily did for a few hours. You could cast a sitcom full of eccentric characters in Amsterdam within minutes.
The next few days were spent taking in a lot of the city by tram and by foot. We toured the Rijksmuseum (pricey, but well worth it), and spent a lot of time just walking around having low-rent fun - investigating bizarre shops, investigating bizarre locals, etc. Once you leave the seedier areas, the canal walks and closely packed terrace houses make for a nice atmosphere.
We walked to the Anne Frank house, but the noisy line for it stretched around the block and showed no signs of moving. Glancing up to the first floor, we noticed it was shuttered with metal, presumably so people couldn't see anything without paying. Apparently the house receives 900,000 visitors a year.
We spent a couple more days in Amsterdam before leaving for Hamburg, then Denmark.
Here once again, I pass the blog writin' torch to Eb:
Greetings to all!
I'd like to impart a little tale to you, to round off our trip from Amsterdam into Germany. It's a shade surreal, but I suppose considering the setting (a place where 'soft' drugs like hashish and mushrooms that play funnybuggers with your cortex are legal), a touch of the wildly bizarre is allowable.
As we sat on the Amsterdam - Hamburg Intercity, the train carriage was stormed by no less than 6 german Customs officials and 2 snarling Alsatians with soggy Rasta hat fragments stuck in their jaws. One official announced something sharp and German and fired a single shot from a Beretta through the roof of the train.
Four members of the 'Like, Wow' Stoner brigade failed to take notice, they being engrossed in the question of 'Nothingness' as it related to an empty chip bag. A German official the size of a silo yanked a random hippie up the collar and proceeded to mace him liberally as a raging Alsatian stripped four pounds of flesh and tye dye from his leg.
"Whoa! Like, *settle*, bra!" droned the hippie as pepper spray rained into his eyes. "Wow! I can feel colour and taste sound!" he exclaimed in an Eureka moment shared by his companions, who too were being doused into next week.
A Dutch grandmother, fearing the same fate, shrieked and hurled small, filled ziplock bags at the guards before dive-rolling through a plateglass window, while the Alsatians, smelling fear like cheap cologne, surged towards a businessman in an expensive suit as he cowered behind his iBook.
A shaking arm slowly extended from behind the iFortess and, between pinched and sweaty fingers, held out a tiny bag of green. "Mama!" he whimpered as the beast lunged through this shield, sending Alt keys spraying from there to the Dining Car.
And all the while, there sat Liam and I, stunned, drugless but red-eyed as the carriage filled with hippie smoke and mace fumes. A guard made from cast iron and pure rage jackbooted towards me and bellowed that the 10.37 to Hamburg would arrive in 1 hour.
Actually, none of this happened.
I made it up to amuse myself as I waited an ungodly age for the next train from Amsterdam.
There were no customs checks between the Netherlands and Germany at all. None.
The trip was uneventful. Uneventful to the point of my getting feverishly excited over being handed a survey on German train systems. It was in German, so I couldn't read it, but I'm sure there must have been something along the lines of "Are you satisfied with our laxidaisical customs and border patrols?" A group of serously baked fratboys in the next seat stared at their pens for a half hour before marking a resounding "Ja!"
At 4.36 yesterday arvo, Liam and I pulled into Lübeck station. I think it was Lübeck. Something beginning with 'L' anyway.
We'd decided to catch a connecting train from here to Copenhagen, leaving from platform 1. We wandered to #1 with about 15 comfortable minutes to spare. Plenty of time to have a sit, have a biscuit or two and hop on board when the time came. The time came. the time went. The time dragged into an age.
Liam and I looked blankly at each other and then blankly at the noticeboard which read, quite clearly, 5.01 Kobenhaven or however the heck it's natively spelled. So, in a quiet moment of 'guh!?', I left my bags with Liam and went to visit the info desk.
It turns out that our train had left bang on 5.01 - from platform 4. It took the desk clerk, a disembodied voice on a walkie-talkie and 2 train attendants to figure out the Mystery of the Missing Train. Turns out Mr Sanderson did it and he would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for us meddling kids.
So Liam and I were stuck for the night in Something beginning with 'L'.
A prliminary trudge around the town and a short, expensive trip to two tourist centres endowed us with a map and a vague change of getting a room and a nearby youth hostel. Unfortunately the map yielded a glaring misprint despite its rediculous price and the youth hostel was not in its reported location. The fact that the map handily labelled only 1 street in every 3, helped us on our merry way to being 2 dumbfounded twerps, weighed down by heavy bags and scratching our heads on a streetcorner.
A friendly local set us right and we hightailed it to the hostel, a full 3 map inches away from its listed locale. The hostel was staffed by an indifferent young man who, when informing us that the hostel was full, responded to our request for directions to an alternative with a long stare, a slow blink and a wordless dialling on a cordless phone. The call's recipient didn't answer and he wordlessly hung up and told us to wait.
Time passed slowly and awkwardly until he saw fit to call another place. To our mingled delight and dismay, a youth hostel on the dark side of the moon had a vacency - the man assured us that it was only 15 minutes away. And I'm sure it was - if Earth had a time scale like Mercury's and we'd taken a pound of amphetamine.
Liam and I gave up trudging about 40 minutes in when we stumbled on the local YMCA. The owner struggled wildly with his English but gave a truly valiant effort as he told us that there was a room for me but not Liam. It seems that the female dorm was available but the male's was booked solid.
The kind fellow behind the desk couldn't seem to bring himself to turn us out on our ear and offered Liam a spot on a couch. We graciously accepted and Liam was led to a conference room housing the world's longest yet skinniest sofa. The owner smiled sweetly and told Liam it was his to dismantle, re-arrange or do whatever it took to make himself comfortable.
I on the other hand, was led to a spotless and spaceous dorm room, where the beds were big, comfy and vacant. I felt a little guilty as I quietly struggled with the choice of top bunk vs bottom bunk and window vs door.
We met up later and, seeing as how the sun sets around 4am here and it was 7.10 at night, we'd go and stroll (not trudge) around Something beginning with 'L'. We soon realised why every man and his dog was in town tonight. It seems SB with 'L' raises both population and revenue each year by hosting a music festival and market at a pretty pot down by a river.
It was packed to the rafters with folks from all over, each one tucking into fresh food or swilling glasses of a beer named 'Duckstein'.
Both Liam and I liked the sound of this word and repeated it to eash other with varying accents and inflections. Look, I don't know why either. Its just a neat word. 'Duckstein'. We decided it was pronounced as if Einstein was a duck. OK. Now say it like you're Sean Connery.
On a floating stage, a band set up and, fronted by a ballsy young lady, they entertained us until the wee smalls and kept the coffers of Duckstein brimming with coin.
Liam and I waddled and swayed back to our rooms and went nigh nighs rather late but the bloody sun was still up.
The next morning, after making quadrupally sure the train was leaving from platform 2, we left on the 2.07 to Copenhagen.
From platform 1.