Thursday, September 6, 2012

Just One Australian in Europe

I'm tardy at blogging.  I would never be able to keep a diary. I just can't make the time to sit and type. Laziness partly, but just busy with getting on with life mostly. Now I've finally made time to describe my recent visit to various parts of western Europe.

Just Two Australians - my older son and I - undertook a whirlwind tour through parts of western Europe, starting in London.  The 25 hour trip from Australia to UK to start the tour was actually much, much longer. Our first day of travel began at about 7.00am Canberra time.  Nine hours later, our international flight departed Sydney, bound for London.  So  nine hours plus 25 hours flying time (I can't sleep seated, despite the nice Airbus seats that QANTAS has) = 34 hours.  OK, that simply got us to Heathrow.  It was 6.30am London time and the hotel wouldn't accept check-in for hours yet.  So our day in London had just begun.  We finally got to sleep at about 7.00pm that night.  That made about 47 hours total with only a little dozing between Singapore and Heathrow.  Yuk!

But London was great.  It had been all tarted up for the 2012 Olympics and looked resplendent.  We arrived on the Monday.  The closing ceremony had taken place only the day before.

My previous post describes our excursion beyond the boundaries of London to see our ancestral family home of Marsworth and a little bit of the English countryside.  On a future trip, my wife and I will spend more time exploring this country (what IS the name of this place anyway?  Is it United Kingdom, Britain, Great Britain, Team Great Britain!!!). Doesn't matter. Just curious. The London Midlands trains were excellent.  New, clean, quiet and on-time.  London-Tring-London was an easy excursion from Euston for us complete novices.

After Marsworth, we hit the tourist spots of London.  All very spectacular.  What surprised me is that London is not (yet) an overwhelming city as are other large metropolises eg. New York.  I could see a resemblance with parts of Melbourne. I think the bus network, at least in inner London, is brilliant.

London looks gloomy in this shot, but it was very warm and humid, with only a brief passing shower.  The remainder of the day was quite sunny.

We left London on the Eurostar - the very fast train that connects England/UK/Britain whatever with Paris.  That train - it certainly zips along!  How beaut it would be if such a train serviced Canberra, linking us with Sydney and Melbourne.  It seems our population is not large enough yet for suitable passenger numbers and thus economic justification.  I was surprised that there was no signal or announcement when we entered the 'Chunnel' - the tunnel linking England with France.  It just came and then 20 minutes later it just went. And then we were in France!  And wow! The countryside!  Blue skies, patchwork fields of green, brown, tan and scattered villages each with their own church spire towering high.  And modern wind farms, highways and high tension power lines running across this otherwise pretty landscape.  Unfortunately, industrialistion is spreading its ugly fingers ever wider.

We saw some of the key attractions in Paris and the Palace of Versailles.  Paris is really a remarkable city to look at - the development that occurred during the late 1800s was extensive, massive and very tasteful.  And must have cost huge amounts of money.  The high rise buildings are few and discretely set apart from the more intersting older parts of the city. 

At a cafe outside Notre Dame cathedral.  My son enjoys an ale while I waited for my food to arrive.  The waiter behind spoke reasonable English after patiently listening to my paltry attempts to communicate in French.  The service was good and friendly.

We were told fewer and fewer Parisians can afford to live in the older parts these days and the population is shifting to the lower cost outer areas, where the architecture is simply ... ugly.

We left Paris and headed across the country by road towards Luzern in Switzerland.  On our way, we saw lots of the French countryside.  Many beautiful sights and attractive natural landscape.  We passed through Basel in Switzerland and from there the motorway took us through some breathtaking Swiss countryside.  This kind of scenery just doesn't exist in Australia.

Our stay in Switzerland was in a great little spot called Fluelen, on the shore of Lake Lucerne. I loved this place, but my son disliked the claustrophobic hotel room, lack of airconditioning (it was 33 degrees during our visit and Swiss hotels are not designed for such weather), noise from the adjacent railway and the tolling of the local church bell every 15 minutes 24/7.  The church was a mere block away.  But t hese distractions did not worry me in the least (although if I lived here I might choose a spot a little further from the rail and church).  I loved the place!  I would gladly return here for a longer holiday and I would love to see it cloaked in it's winter mantle of snow.

Fluelen, Switzerland.  The church with the tolling bell (every 15 mins) stands prominently on the slope at right.  Our hotel just out of view to the right.

After gliding across Lake Lucerne aboard a launch and marvelling at the picture postcard views we then visited the top of a nearby glacial peak via cablecar. Just Two Australians enjoyed a quiet dinner and Swiss ale that evening in lovely, quiet Fluelen (trains and church bells aside).

The view from our window in the Hotel Hirschen (late afternoon).
The view from our window in the Hotel Hirschen (early morning).

The next day we departed, headed for Venice, by road. The road trip took us through the third-longest road tunnel in the world (the St. Gotthard Tunnel) to Lugano, another lovely lakeside Swiss city. 

Lugano, Switzerland

Interestingly, while Luzerne (and Fluelen) were mainly German speaking and distinctly german-Swiss in architecture and style, Lugano was distinctly Italian influenced and Italian speaking. Just One Australian enjoyed a good cafe latte here!

Just One Australian about to enjoy morning coffee in Lugano, Switzerland

We arrived in Venice late that same afternoon, staying in a cornfield just outside Venice (actually, it was a hotel in a cornfield, and very nice it was too, with free internet). We  then headed out for dinner in a little restaurant just off St Mark's Square. This was fun - a motor launch took our group from the mainland to the main island, past glitzy ocean liners, like the Ruby Princess, docked in the Port of Venice. Once on the island, we walked to our restaurant, marvelling in the late evening sunset at the canals and impressive buidlings all the way. We enjoyed a good meal together and good conversation with our fellow travellers.  I was impressed with how much our Indian fellow travellers knew about Australia and its current politics!

Venice.  A very busy place. Residents here need to be very tolerant on account of the huge numbers of camera-toting tourists crawling across every part of the island.

Just One Australian finds time to enjoy a coffee in Venice (despite the heat).

From Venice we drove to Florence.  Here we again stayed in a good quality hotel with wonderful aircon and free internet.  Only the room safes were old, leading to a 20-minute panic attack one morning when I couldn't locate the key for our safe, which contained the passports of Just Two Australians!! All was well in the end, as the key was always where I thought I left it - in my pocket!! It just fell into an inner coin pocket, that's all. Whew!  Florence - more impressive buildings, palaces, architecture, but our interest was a little down due to the oppressive 42 degrees Celsius heat.

Just One Australian at the Ponte Veccchio (literally 'old bridge'), in Florence.

Onward to Rome!  Via Pisa.  The famous leaning tower, of course.  This was fun to see, though Italy seems to have a relative abundance of leaning towers!  I was quite amused when my son drew my attention to one particular souvenir stand - just about all the souvenirs neatly set out on the layer of shelves leaned!

Just Two Australians and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The leaning souvenirs of Pisa!

Finally Rome!  The ancient ruins.  Amazing.  We were fortunate to receive an early morning tour of St Peters, followed by a tour around and inside the Colosseum. This was but a brief look at a slice of how an ancient civilization lived.  What an amazing city it was 2,000 years ago - population 1 million and a cosmopolitan mix of peoples from all over the known world.  But not so nice in Rome if you were a slave or in the lower economic echelons.  In fact, Rome was a dangerous place for the 'average' citizen, with muggings and murders common in it's crowded, narrow laneways, with little interest in the problem from the Emperors. 

Gone are the gladiators, crowds, emperors and lions.  Now the place is simply infested with .... Turisti Terribili!

Iconic!  And no ... I don't mean the Hawthorn jumper.

We finished off our Rome visit with dinner some fellow travellers at a Chinese-Japenese restaurant.  The menu was written in Italian and Chinese but luckily the wait staff spoke broken English.  The food was good and at an excellent price.  Dale and Ellisha provided great company that evening for Just Two Australians.

Inevitably, the tour had to end and we left Rome airport for Hong Kong then a connecting QANTAS flight to Sydney, then a connecting flight home to Canberra. 

Our QANTAS 747 arrives in Hong Kong.  Only two more hours of waiting (12 hours already down) until this bird is turned around to take us home!

On arrival, I couldn't help notice how much larger Canberra Airport is compared with Florence Airport (Florence is a city of similar population), which we had passed on our road trip. The other thing that was so noticeable, particularly from the air as you approach Sydney from overseas, is how small our population is in this country.  No wonder we don't have fast trains and brilliant bus networks.  Ours is still a young country that is spread out thinly across a vast continent. But that can be a good thing too - the peak-hour crush on the Paris Metro is something France can keep!! And the tourist crush in peak season Venice ... not a problem in Canberra!!

I thoroughly enjoyed this holiday.

Mark

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