Thursday, October 24, 2013

Germany, Amsterdam & Prague

OK , we're back in Adelaide but before we get into the here and now, we'll finish up the then and there.....

Spain, France, Belgium, Germany - all in 24 hours

Not a lot to report on the trip to Germany apart from Brad claims he saw the Eiffel tower for 3 seconds as we skirted Paris, the rather ordinary Belgian waffles we bought from a Belgian petrol station and the fact that for a 27 hour bus journey we were surprised the bus had no toilet and stopped only every 4 hours....


We pulled in to Düsseldorf in the evening and after checking into our hotel ventured out for a bite to eat. Our hotel was near the train station and it was a bit confronting to see so many dodgy characters milling about, causing a nuisance and making us feel more unsafe than we had anywhere else in our trip - not a good intro to Germany. After devouring a Polish hot dog from an Egyptian vendor, we quickly made our way back to our room for a good night's sleep.

The next day we got up around lunch time and wandered into a cafe where I had a Schnitzel and Miriam a thick Pea & Ham soup. This quickly alleviated our concerns about Germany and fortified us for the day's sight-seeing.


This was more like it, we decided as we arrived in Cologne - the moment we left the train station we were confronted by the colossal Cologne cathedral, with our hostel only a few steps up the road.

We had a great walk, hand-in-hand along the picturesque river, a drink in the pretty "old town" square and having being asked by our German friends Eddie & Nelly via a strange email request to have a German sausage at a particular sausage van, we felt obliged to do so.

That night we went and played pool at a nearby pub and met up with 2 friendly locals who couldn't play pool very well but were great conversation. They had both been to Australia and had some excellent tips for us on what to see when we do our East Coast trip next year! Australian travel advice from Germans turned out to be a common theme of conversation throughout our trip....


Once the capital of Germany (during the East/West split), Bonn is a pleasant,  small city with some pretty squares and buildings, not to mention the house where Beethoven was born. We had been recommended to make this day trip by some friends of ours and we were glad we did. 


One of the highlights of our Germany trip, Marburg is a beautiful small university town that escaped the worst of the bombing during the second world due to it's status as a hospital town. Its historic town centre looks amazing and from there we wandered up the road to Marburger Schloss (Marburg Castle) which is perched on a hill with amazing views of the entire town. We were staying with our friends, Eddie and Nelly who we met when they were backpacking in Australia. Since we saw them last they have had 2 children, Fiona (3) and Oskar (1) and it was great to catch up with them. We spent 4 nights with them and went on a few forest walks, local tours and even a BBQ in the back yard (almost) aussie style. It was a great change of pace for us as we had been pushing the pace of our trip recently, so this was a great way to recharge the batteries. We are hoping that they can come to Australia soon so we can repay their great hospitality!


We found ourselves with a few days spare before needing to be in Berlin to meet a friend and, as you do when in Europe, decided to exit Germany for a few days and visit Amsterdam. It turned out to be a good move as Amsterdam was one of the most interesting cities we visited. Interlaced with beautiful canals lined by quaint houses and containing more bikes than people, every corner seemed to hold a new surprise. Although a charming big city, it's not without its seedy side with coffee shops doubling as marijuana dens, and the infamous red-light district for which the word "discrete" would be a fitting antonym. 

We arrived during the Fringe festival, and whilst not quite of the same calibre as Adelaide's we enjoyed a great comedy/drama show that highlighted the absurdity and tragedy of the west's penchant for consumerism. To highlight the international flavour of our trip, I'll mention that us Australians, while we were in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) we met some friendly Germans (who spoke English) at the Irish pub where we were playing pool, they were from near Frankfurt and as we were staying there in a few weeks time, we exchanged numbers to catch up again!


Whilst not the prettiest city we visited, it was a culturally important destination as we both learnt a great deal about the World War II, the holocaust, East/West split and German reunification in 1989. The city has done a great job of incorporating this history in various places and we spent a number of days on foot, buses and metro seeing sights like the Reichstag, multiple parts of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate and "The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe".


It was off to another country, the Czech Republic and it's capital Prague. This was definitely one of our favourite cities of the trip - a touch of Eastern Europe, it's amazing buildings & bridges and for cheapskates like us 5 months into our trip - inexpensive prices. 

During our time here, we visited the Prague castle, walked along the banks of the Vltava river, ate in & out and due to the chilly temperatures, bought some warmer clothing. The one downside to our time here was that due to the ineptitude of our hostel staff, we ended up with a bag full of wet clothes to take on our journey...


A short but very memorable stop on our schedule was Dresden, one of the most bombed cities in World War II. We stayed with friends, Stephan & Christine who we met also during their backpacking days in Australia. We had a lot to catch up on and unlike our friends in Marburg, due to timing constraints we only had 1 night to do it. Despite the short time frame, we spent a relaxing time with them, getting a local's tour of the city centre and being treated to a fabulous home cooked meal back at their place. 


The main reason for going to Munich was so we could attend the world's biggest fair - the Oktoberfest. Beginning in 1810, the 16-day festival has been attracting people from near and wide for over 200 years and these days has 6 million visitors per year. We can attest to the size of the crowd as we spent the best part of an hour fighting our way down the street, watching the parade and working closer to the opening gates. That was the easy bit however as finding a seat in one of the 20 huge tents was a bit tricky. After a few false starts we managed to secure a great spot with some friendly Germans and a bit later two Swiss blokes. In our group was the wife of the 2nd biggest Munich football team and also a former cycling olympian, nothing like hanging out with b-list celebrities.... As can be expected at an event like this there was some jaw-dropping behaviour from some of our neighbours but our bunch were older, wiser and had the ability to pace things well. The tents close quite early and one of our group invited us back to a discotheque (yes, that's what they're called) to continue partying - it was a tired and weary Brad & Miriam who trudged back to our tiny tent (hotels were too expensive) at about 4am the next day....


After a day's rest to recover from Oktoberfest we headed to Dachau, a former concentration and labour camp during the Nazi rule of Germany. We had an English speaking guide who was quite engaging and able to impress on us the horrors of the camp, the events leading to it's formation, and the role it played as a "model" for all other German labour camps. It was hard to imagine the atrocities that played out here between 1933-1945. Whilst not an extermination camp, disease, torture, exhausting work, medical experiments and "testing" of the gas-chamber still claimed well over 30,000 lives. It was a very sobering experience and a stark contrast to Munich's festival atmosphere.


This was our last day in Germany and it was great to meet up with Patrik and Manuel who we first met in Amsterdam. We played some pool at another Irish Pub and exchanged details - they both planned to visit Australia and we assured them we'd give them a locals tour if they do! The next morning we were off to the airport to begin our week long journey back to Australia.


Because we like doing things the hard way, we planned a 20-hour stopover in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After no sleep during our flight we arrived at the crack of dawn with not much clue about what to see. Everyone we spoke to recommended we visit Kandy in central Sri Lanka, so we did the opposite and headed south to Colombo the capital. The airport is an hour train journey from the capital although the trip seemed to take much longer as we were packed like sardines in a carriage that quickly became stifling under the tropical sun.

Our moods did not improve once we arrived however, as Colombo was not the most picturesque town. After touring the city with a dodgy rickshaw driver we'd seen enough and decided to cut our losses and head back to Negombo, a touristy beach town near the airport. The return train trip was much less crowded and Brad struck up a deep, philosophical conversation with a local that lasted the entire journey. Once in Negombo we escaped the heat in a couple of bars, having a pizza for dinner as we didn't want to risk a local curry just before our flight. After being driven up & down the main street in search of a pool table, we eventually found one where we had caught the rickshaw in the first place, and settled in for a few games whilst watching the kite surfers and a splendid sunset. 

Kuala Lumpur

After another overnight flight without much sleep, we were pretty wired by the time we made it into the city at 8:30am. Our plan to check-in early and crash was thwarted when the hotel informed us we couldn't check in until 2pm. So after pretty much 48 hours straight with no sleep we wandered about aimlessly for a couple of hours, returning at 11am in the hope we could get into our room, but alas it was not to be. Almost delirious by this stage we crashed on the lobby's armchairs and immediately fell unconcious. It wasn't until 2 hours later that a security guard prodded Brad and suggested we try again, this time with success. After another 4 hour nap we headed to the ritzy, expat side of town and met some young British teachers who had signed up for 2 years in KL. I asked how it was going and they said they were loving it but thought they might have over-committed. This wasn't too promising considering they were telling us this after only 1 week in the country!

We've spent quite a while in Malacca previously, so we knew what to expect. We spent 4 days here, catching up on sleep, relaxing, movie-watching and a spot of shopping.

After 6 months away is was great to return to a country that speaks English and had a familiarity to it. It was even greater to be able to catch up with our friends Tim & Julie and their 2 great kids Annabelle and Josh. After a night with them, we headed to Mt Gambier via train/bus.

Mount Gambier
We were in Mt Gambier for the October long weekend and as luck would have it, our entire immediate family chose that weekend to be there too. We had a great time of catching up, and after eating out for nearly 6 months it was nice to finally have some delicious home-cooked meals.