"Have a beautiful night"

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January 15th 2012
Published: January 15th 2012
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“Have a beautiful night” ..he said.......but that’s a story for later inside the blog......

Well, we survived the crossing of the English channel, it was rough and some people were sick, but we reached the other side and it turns out that we were the last ferry out before the port closed....not sure what we would have done if we were stuck in the UK.

And so begins the “European Whirl”......a race around Europe, head-spinningly fast ....lots of cities, mountains, wheat fields, vineyards, restaurants, churches, cobbled streets, Smart cars and all manner of interesting things to see and wonder at.......countries full of history that show that Aussie history is basically still in nappies...

Our first night was in......um, I seriously have to dig into my memory to let you know (I’m writing this on day 8...and finishing it post-tour !!)......Amsterdam....wow, seems like forever ago that we were there, and we’ve been to SO many towns now that they’re becoming a bit of a blur..... Amsterdam was great, I do remember that. We did a canal cruise before dinner, and it was such a beautiful and interesting city. I could easily live in one of the beautiful buildings on the canal, mind you, I could never afford to live on the canals in Amsterdam......not unless I meet a very rich man that wants to keep me in the manner I’d love to become accustomed to!! I love the canals, the bridges, the bicycles chained to the said bridges and guardrails etc (looks messy and artistic at the same time.......I could photograph them regularly and never get bored or run out of interesting ways to capture them). We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant that is built on the canals (copy of the floating one in Hong Kong if my memory serves me correctly!!)....I know it seems to be odd to have dinner in a Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands, but remember that they have a history of trade with Asia, so it’s not actually too unusual.

Mike (tour leader extraordinaire) then took us for a walk through the seedier side of the city....it’s actually a larger area that I expected. Was it interesting? Hmmm, yes and no. I know some girls choose prostitution as a means of making a lot of money quickly, but they had hard faces and I actually felt sorry for them... It was interesting walking past the bars where you could smoke dope etc....the smoke escaping from them was so strong....more fools those that go inside and pay for the stuff, when if you just stand outside you get high for free !!!

Big day – 3 countries – UK, France (via Calais), The Netherlands............and the next day (day 2) we were off to Mannheim in Germany, via Cologne, a cruise down the Rhine River, and Heidelberg. The gothic cathedral in Cologne was awesome.....really great stained-glass windows and the building is huge. Cologne is also the home of “4711”, which apparently is making a comeback. The Rhine River cruise was also interesting and worth doing (though I’m sure there are more impressive parts of the river that would potentially be more scenic, and this was just a small part of it) - the hills were covered with loads of grapevines, and there’s even a quaint little church/bar on the riverside, where you actually have to go through the bar to get into the church – only in Germany?!! There were also a couple of old medieval castles.....seems that castles are everywhere up here (how many castles do people need???). Heidelberg – we all loved it. We went to the old part of the town, and it was gorgeous....it was late in the afternoon, so already dark (sun goes down by 4pm) and it was wonderful to walk around the old town and look at the interesting shops, cosy little cafes, red sandstone buildings, and kids skating on the ice-rink ......many of us agreed that we’d love to go back for much more time and explore it further.... It’s a great university town and felt so vibrant.

Next day, we were off to Innsbruck, via Munich.... Munich has a big history, including the awful situation during the Olympics in the ‘70s, when a group of terrorists kidnapped a number of athletes, and subsequently a lot of people died during the police attempt to rescue the athletes. Apart from that, it has the mandatory impressive churches, and historic buildings. The weather was pretty cold when we were there.....the bad weather system that had closed the ports in the UK and France was crossing Europe and the wind gusts were unbelievable. At one stage I was about to cross a street and I heard a huge raw coming down the street, I looked up expecting a large truck, and it was simply the wind roaring down the street and blasting the buildings.....I looked around and many people had the same look of surprise on their faces when they realised what was causing the noise – it really was incredibly loud and like nothing I’ve heard before. I ended up taking shelter in a cafe for lunch, and saw the news on the tv - the wind gusts in Munich were around 132kms an hour, and other parts of the country were up to 160+kmh......isn’t that cyclone force at home???

Ahhh, Innsbruck, Austria, such a beautiful, quaint, and friendly town.......I love it. In reality, it’s like so many other European towns.........it has all the usual historic buildings, cobbled streets, but it has a really friendly, warm feel about it, and I felt incredibly comfortable there. It felt safe, not that I’ve felt unsafe anywhere, at any time......I really can’t find the words to truly describe what I mean, but another one that comes to mind is that it felt like it had an “honesty” about the place......no false identity.... Anyway, we went for a wander around town and had dinner (I had a really nice pumpkin and feta strudel – yummo)....and then we all met back at the hotel. Just before I headed into the cafe, it started snowing, ever so lightly, but again Yea, Yippee.......snow.......Hey, I’m a Queenslander and snow is rare for me, so I’m allowed to be amused by such things as a few snow flakes...

That night we went to a show......traditional entertainment we’re told, for times when they bring the cows down from the slopes for winter etc etc....Tyrolean singers and dancers.... It was a lot of fun and they were very entertaining....lots of yodelling, slapping of legs, Lederhosen, ringing of cow bells etc, which all sounds very kitsch but it was actually good fun and the entertainers genuinely seem to enjoy performing, so it made it great fun for us. Also......through the intermission, it was snowing quite heavily outside, so the majority of us headed out to play in it.......was great fun. I was snowed on again.....I love it.

Sadly, we were up early the next morning to head to Italy, and first-up, Venice. The snow overnight had covered the cars and paths etc, so Innsbruck looked beautiful.......I wish we could have stayed for a few days, as I would have loved to have explored more of the city. They’ve held the Winter Olympics there in years gone by, and a day before we were there, there was some sort of ski-jump competition......it’s amusing to know that from the top of the ski-jump ramp, the sight you see at the bottom is the local cemetery !!! The slope was SO high, there is no way you’d get me jumping off it. I’m pretty sure a James Bond film was shot in and around Innsbruck – a Roger Moore one...

So, on to Venice, via the Brenner Pass where there was beautiful white snow everywhere – it truly was a winter wonderland and looked like an old-fashioned Christmas card (ie churches and buildings with snow covered roofs, surrounded by pine trees dusted with snow)......it was AWESOME.

Despite my long-held lack of desire to go to Venice, I really enjoyed it, a lot...it wasn’t the smelly, water-logged placed I’d heard about........it’s actually a beautiful city full of amazing architecture and small, interesting streets that wind their way between the canals and old buildings. Again, a place I could stay for days in order to photograph every nook and cranny....but sadly we just had the one day there.

Venice is where my blog title comes from.......I’d walked down a tiny alley-way to take a photograph and had to wander a little way in to finally get the shot I was wanting.....as I was leaving, a guy had wandered in and was also trying to get the right photo and not succeeding, so I explained that I’d found the best place was further in etc, which he appreciated. Later on, I went onto one of the bridges to take yet more pics, and he was there, and returned the favour with advice that he’d been shooting in black and white and getting some amazing photos. We chatted for a bit, and as he left, his farewell was “Have a beautiful night”....it wasn’t the usual off-the-cuff “have a great day”......his farewell was thoughtful and said so nicely, that it’s stayed with me for days and puts a smile on my face every time I think of it (it didn’t hurt that he was also dropped-dead gorgeous, just adds to the beauty of it). If you ever want to make someone’s day......his farewell is a great way to do it...

We went on the obligatory canal cruise on a gondola......and the cruise certainly provided many worthwhile photo opportunities. Two of the couples on the tour were celebrating anniversaries, so Mike organised singers to be on their gondolas to serenade them.....it was really impressive to hear their beautiful voices floating down the canals....people on the bridges also appreciated the unexpected treat and many people were applauding as we passed underneath the bridges. Apart from that, I can now say that I’ve been on a gondola and I don’t need to do it again – once was enough. We finished our afternoon in Venice with a slow ride back on the water taxi on the main canal, and it was great way to see some of the richer properties of the city.........loved seeing the buildings and bridges lit up at night. There is so much to see and do in Venice, I loved it. Mike had told us about the method for eating in the cafes and bars (before we went to lunch) – if you stand at the bar, it’s cheaper than sitting.......so we stood at the bar, ate sandwiches with amazing fillings – I had crab and prawn) and drank wine spritzers for less than 4 euro... Italians don’t understand the concept of queuing, and so we’ve learnt to put our polite behaviour aside and be more forthright when ordering coffees at truck-stops and cafes etc. At the truck-stops you pay in advance for your coffee, then head to the coffee bar and hold your ticket up for service.......apparently you don’t put it on the bench as the staff will understand that to mean that you’ve already had your coffee etc..... If the bar is busy, then you push your arm through wherever there is a space, even tiny ones, and the staff will grab your ticket and make you your coffee. Don’t ever expect the coffee to be really hot though, as the idea is to basically scull it on delivery and leave as quickly as possible...and make space for the next customer..

From Venice it was on to Rome via the Apennine Mountains.....Rome is another city that I was never in a rush to get to. My overall impression is that it’s a city that needs some TLC. There is so much graffiti on the buildings, which really surprised me.....they seem to want to preserve and display their historic buildings, yet appear not to care about looking after the newer buildings.....even the ones that are possibly one or two hundred years old. There was also a fair amount of litter on the streets and the local countryside, which looks awful, but I recall it was the same in Turkey.

We met our local tour guide, Susanna, and headed out for a walking tour....she’s a nice lady, but she drove us nuts by forever calling us “my group”......it quickly became a catch-phrase for many people....She also appeared to have no sense of the size of the group (48 pax) and how long it would take to look at something, take photos if we so desired etc, and so any tours with her became sprints.... We tossed coins in the Trevi Fountain.....I had no idea it was so big, or would be SOOOOO crowded – amazing....and now to see if my wishes come true. We then went to the Pantheon which is another amazing building (you can google the details if you’re interested)...and went our own way for dinner at the cafes nearby...naturally, being in Rome, I had pizza (4 cheeses) and it was good.

Next day – another early start and a big day of playing tourists. We did a driving tour around town, then spent an hour or two at the Colosseum, before heading to the Vatican to be blessed by the Pope. The Colosseum – pretty much what I expected it to be...it’s very large, has a pretty gruesome history, but what really amazed me, was that it’s a place where Christians were murdered, yet they had a Nativity scene set up just inside the entrance....go figure !! As to being blessed by the Pope, well, I’m not catholic so I didn’t get excited like some people, but it was pretty interesting to be there and see the event unfolding....there were thousands of people there. One thing that amused me a lot, and it’s one of those “I should have” situations, was that in a shop just outside the Vatican, they were selling calendars with pictures of priests...all good looking, all fully clothed....but what a crack-up....they appear to have a good sense of humour. I should have bought one. A few of us went to lunch in a nearby cafe, and we figure it’s a good one, as it was full of the local priests...

In the afternoon we went to archaeological ruins of a town called Ostia Antica...at the mouth of the Tiber River. It was really quite interesting, again though we did it at a bit of a sprint....apparently it’s in better condition than Pompeii, but I’d still love to go there one day.

That night we had a fantastic group dinner – the food was good, and the waiters were great fun...very cheeky, entertaining, flirty......all good fun.

Next day started with an early trip to the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica. Hmm, from all the photos I’ve seen, I was of the impression that Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece was huge...as in, covering the whole of the ceiling, but it’s actually only one painting amongst many. I was really surprised. Nonetheless, it’s impressive, and the work that went into the painting was incredible. I’m glad I’ve seen it. St Peter’s is probably the largest church I’ve ever been in, and I can appreciate it, but didn’t go gaga over it. I still think the church at the Prague Castle is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen.

And this leads me to the story of Pam.....there’s often one person like her on a tour, or in a class, or in the work environment etc......she’s the one that’s always seeking attention; always knows everything; that irritates the life out of many people...... She always seemed to talk over Mike or the tour guide, then had to ask everyone what had just been said. She was always disorganised...but worst of all was her lack of good hygiene and her smoking....grossed everyone out. Anyway, by Rome, most of us avoided her like the plague... When we were just about to go into the Sistine Chapel she asked me what the tour guide had just said....I asked her where her Vox was – an electronic system, with an earpiece, so that the guide doesn’t have to yell, and we all hear what is being said. Pam’s response “I left it on the bus”....no surprise there....I told her to go and get it, but she said she’d be fine...I walked away.. Anyway, when we got into the Basilica, we were told how much time we had there, and where to meet......we had a tight timeframe as we were leaving Rome for Florence.... Our mistake, we didn’t double check with Pam if she got the info......so yep, you guessed it, she was nowhere to be found at the designated meeting time, or 10 mins after......everyone searched....but she couldn’t be found. We left Rome, nearly an hour late, sans Pam......mind you, it was peaceful on the bus now, so we were almost ok...but poor Mike was stressed as he’s not really supposed to leave people behind. Three hours later, we got the call to say she’d been in touch with the office and was catching a train to Florence. That night when we finally caught up with her, she treated it like a big adventure and was all smiles and happiness.....there was no apology for the stress she caused, or for stuffing up our day and cutting into our precious time in Florence........we were not impressed, and she was treated accordingly for the remainder of the trip....people kept their distance, but due to her lack of washing, that wasn’t a bad thing.

Florence, wow, after Rome, it was a breath of fresh air. I loved it. It didn’t feel so scruffy and unloved, if that makes sense. It was a gorgeous city, and the people seemed nice, and it seemed to have a really good atmosphere to it. We did the usual walking tour, this time with a guide that told us to slow down !! We wandered past the Duomo (previously known as the Santa Maria del Fiore), which has a very impressive marble facade. We then went to a leather factory, where a number of people bought some very nice leather coats, bags, souvenirs etc, and surprisingly, they were decent prices. Another group dinner that night at a small trattoria, and the pasta sauce was probably the best I’ve tasted in years. I prefer Florence over Rome, and would happily go back one day.

Next day, Switzerland, and a country that we were all looking forward to visiting. Many people were happy to leave Italy, and I must admit that I prefer the Germanic countries... We stopped at a lakeside town called Lugano......it was stunning. A good lead in to Lucerne. Man oh man though, Switzerland is SO EXPENSIVE. One of the girls and I found a little cafe in an arcade, and it’s prices were ok (we paid $15 for a coffee & Panini).........but many of the others went to McDonalds, and one of the girls paid $12 or $15 for a Happy Meal.....a couple of the families of 4, spent around $70 - $90 for lunch at Maccas – whoa, if you want to get rich, open a food store in Switzerland!! The other surprising thing about Lugano was the weather....it was warm enough to strip down to a short sleeve tshirt – mid winter – very unseasonal warm & sunny day.

Lucerne – words cannot do it justice. Instead of taking the bus right into town, we took a boat from a neighbouring village and arrived via Lake Lucerne. Stunning.....absolutely stunning....if I could afford to live in this city, I’d certainly consider it. We went for a quick trip to see the Lion of Lucerne – a monument created to commemorate the heroism of the Swiss Guards that defended Louis XVI a long, long time ago....it’s a pretty impressive carving. After a long day, we headed to our hotel, which has to be the best so far on the trip, and a quick shower before dinner – it was held in the hotel, and it was a very sober night for everyone....a small Heineken cost US$12......a glass of house red (and it was a very small glass that Carolyn had) was US$10......and for the teetotallers, a coke cost US$8. My water was free – surprisingly.

The next day we took a cogwheel train to the top of Mt Rigi and played in the snow. I can’t recall exactly, but it’s about 6000 ft above sea level.........down below it was a really foggy day, so we couldn’t see the country side, only the snow capped mountains, which were sensational. Under the fog, it was a cold, dark day, but up on the mountain, it was really warm again and you could strip down to tshirts etc...I love that about the snow – it’s so warm when the sun is bouncing off it. Of course there were the obligatory hot chocolates, showball fights, snow angels, and a group of people went tobogganing.....all great fun. I was chatting to an old guy that is a Lucerne local, and he was telling me that he goes to Mt Rigi on dark, foggy days so that he can sit in the sun and get warm....it’s only an hour by bus and train from Lucerne. Naturally, not many of us wanted to leave, but there was more sightseeing to be done.......this is the European Whirl afterall. On the way down the hill, we saw people skiing, horses and sleighs etc.....it was great.

That afternoon we stayed in town for a bit shopping.........one stop was the Bucherer watch shop – probably the most expensive watch shop in the world.....we saw watches that were in excess of $150,000...and I believe they have one that is $600,000. Some of the younger girls weren’t even allowed to step foot into the Rolex section of the shop.....yet surprisingly, they let Carolyn and I in, and even asked if there were any watches that we wanted to try on....the cheapest one I saw was $4000 (or was it $6000).......seriously, do they think I look like I have that type of money, or was it just that I was older and they assumed I should have??? Having said that, I did buy a watch there, but it wasn’t too expensive. After that, we went to the Jesuit Church – a beautiful baroque church, and a nice change from the dark, gloomy churches we’ve seen. Dinner that night was our choice, so a large group of us headed into town for cheese fondue – it was great. We then stopped at the local supermarket to spend the last of our Francs on chocolates, as we were leaving for Paris bright and early the next day... Bye Lucerne, I love you and will miss you....the swans and ducks in the lake, the gorgeous guys in the street........sigh...

Well hello Paris....will you live up to the hype of being romantic....counteracted by rude locals and crazy traffic ????

A large proportion of the group headed to Moulin Rouge for the night.......it’s never, ever been on my bucket list, so I chose not to go and instead spent a night at the hotel to catch up on emails, blogs, downloading photos etc... The feedback the next day re the show went from “unprofessional” to “amazing”......but everyone complained about the cramped conditions in the venue, and many of the meals. So, I don’t feel like I missed out...

The next day was a big day of sightseeing........a drive around town first, to look at many of the sights (too many to get out and see)....it was great to drive along the Champs Elysees – it’s so much bigger than I thought......the Arc de Triompe is a great structure, but it’s well and truly overshadowed by the traffic going around it. To quote the tour guide “the French don’t like to be told to do anything, so why paint lines to show direction and lanes, they’d just ignore them”....and so it’s bedlam.....We then headed to the Eiffel Tower – it all felt a bit surreal by then....so many towns in such a short time, and all of a sudden I’m standing on the Eiffel tower looking over Paris... I’m amazed at the size of Paris, and probably feel a bit daunted by it...does anyone ever learn their way around this place? I enjoyed being on the tower, and more so the walk down, as it gave me a true sense of just what a large structure it is, and the work that went into building it....in a time before cranes etc...amazing. We then went for a sprint around the Louvre – “tick” been there, done that....seen the Mona Lisa...(that was a bit of an anti-climax as it’s behind glass and another barrier & stacks of tourists, so quite impossible to see the detail).

After lunch in a cute little cafe, we headed to Notre Dame Cathedral........impressive, and I love the purple stained glass windows, but have pretty much reached “full” on oohing & ahhhing over churches. Back to the hotel for a shower etc, then off to our farewell dinner.......lots of photos were taken, and it started to dawn on us just how close we’d become (sans Pam) and that we were really going to miss each other.....we’d come so far, seen and done so much, and had some great times. Sad really. Our last group activity was a boat ride along the Seine River, which was great at night, and it was wonderful to see the Eiffel Tower lit up – it really is the best way to see it.

Many of us sat and talked well into the morning, and for me, it was tough to say goodbye and head to bed. Many of us were staying behind in Paris, and only half the bus was heading back to finish the tour in London.....a few of us got up early to say farewell, including Lee in her flanno PJs (really funny sight in a very swish 5 star hotel in Paris – I’m sure they don’t see that every day).

So, now my touring is over, and for the first time in 4 months, I’m alone, and I actually don’t like it and am finding it a challenge. Paris is not the place to be alone – it’s unfriendly, the people are largely unwelcoming and unhelpful, so I’m struggling. I’m tired though, and need a couple of days of rest, as I’m drawing blanks on where to go next........everything is SO expensive. It would almost be cheaper for me to fly to Cambodia and back, than it is to fly to Germany and go to a couple of towns there....I actually feel like coming home... I will stay a day or two and see if I can get my mojo back, then make a decision....

Hugs from Paris....

PS – I’ve now added photos to my previous blog


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28th January 2012

Welcome home
I hope you have now had time to sleep and recover from your fabulous holiday. Have you been to the doctor re your foot & shoulder? I bet it was fabulous to sleep in your own bed etc. When you feel back to your old self, we must catch up. So happy to know you are back safely.. Love Fay

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