Day 57 – 61, sth of france, cycling by moonlight and my first ghost

•August 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Ahh…. The south of France..it’s so magical and romantic I could die.

I’m sitting here in our airy room in a little guest house in Marseille looking out over the tiny balcony, watching a pink sombre sun melt away behind the rose tinted buildings. There’s a g&t beside me, my iPod is wafting cool soft tunes through the early night air and I have the smug and self congratulatory air of someone who just killed it at the gym and now is about to head out on the town to see what new and exciting things there are to discover.

I’ve probably said this about every place we’ve been to but there is something special about France. Maybe it’s because the food feeds my soul, the language fascinates and charms me, the architecture humbles me, the weather is hot and balmy and the people live life to the fullest.

Im always so inspired when I’m here to be more creative, do, write, compose, create, learn something new and wonderful. And no exception this time either.

Our trip around the south of france has brought us to Toulouse firstly – la ville rose, the pink city. It’s buildings created for hundreds of years from mud bricks made locally giving the vast majority of buildings a wonderful pink hue. The city is a glorious rose tinted destination for the French but has maintained it’s air of palpable history, charm and adventure. Everyone asks us why we went to Toulouse but it’s really beautiful when you get there. We stayed at he hotel de grand balcon. Very highly recommended.

Anyway, after two days in Toulouse, exploring the city, we caught a train to Agen, passing through some incredible fortified cities such as carcasonne and nime. It was 36 degrees outside but perfect for a 5 hr long train journey in a well air conditioned train. I spent the time expanding my french vocab and finishing my book.

Once in Agen, we met up with an old friend Max who drove us to our chateau which we were staying for a couple of nights which was indeed everything you would expect in a southern french chateau: old, charming, comfortable, impressive and beautiful. It’s called chateau de l’loste for anyone who might be around Agen and looking for somewhere to stay. Beautiful rooms although be warned, the small rooms have no air con which can mean hot, sticky nights (not in the good way).

We had a beautiful time at the chateau and spent long afternoons reading and napping while the evening was taken up with dinner, drinks and long walks around the grounds.

On one particular night we spent the afternoon over at another chateau not too far away where Max and co where staying. We ended up having a wonderful meal (thanks Ant) followed by charades which all made for a very fun night. D and I had rode there on our bikes so after charades, and being full of wine and bravado we headed out into the quiet moonlit countryside to ride home – about 2am.

Now you would think that because there was a full waxing moon in the sky, the trip home would be easier but as D and I rode over those long straight and utterly silent roads in between vast fields of haricot vert and corn, we both got a bit nervy. We felt completely exposed by the blazing moon which illuminated these fields in a very erie and spooky manner. We were also the only ones on the otherwise deserted roads and it wasn’t until we rode into the safety of the chateau grounds that D tells me that he was freaking out about seeing something weird in one of the moonlit fields.

“something weird’ like what?” i asked.

“oh, a headless horseman, or a murder, or someone running up to us” he says.

Well thank god we were inside the chateau by this point as I have a very vivid imagination and was starting to feel a bit nervy myself. But that wasn’t the worst of it…..we started to walk up the grand staircase in the dark and deserted chateau and it was at this point that i saw my first ghost.

This is how is happened. We got to the top landing where we would normally turn off down a corridor to our room but at the top of the stairs I got a very creepy feeling all of a sudden. My hair stood on end and I suppressed a weird feeling of dread and panic. As i looked up at a group of chairs which were sitting under the window on the landing i swear i saw a women sitting quite formally and upright on one of the chairs. I looked again knowing that I must be imagining it but the more I scrutinised the chair, the easier I could see the outline of her dress and more scarily, the place where her head would have been. There was a strange moonlight there shining on that spot so i put it down to that and rushed past to the room feeling freaked out and a bit silly.

The next day i casually mentioned this to D who immediately told me he had seen the same thing exactly! Freaky.

Anyway, we survived. :)) And later left the chateau for Marseille which is we are now. Its so different to many other French cities in that it’s a bit dirtier and grubbier but also it edgier and actually has a cool vibe which most other french cities seem to lack..

Anyway, must go. Must have an early night as getting up early to drive to mont saint-Michel or perhaps Lyon.

Btw some of the weirder photos below are D and I amusing ourselves with props in a very quiet bar one night. Oops!

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Day 46 – 56, Northern Ireland, castles and the flu

•August 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I must admit that as fun as Barcelona was, a part of me was happy to leave the heat and parties behind and make a dash for cooler more sedentary environs i.e. the grey skies of Belfast and Northern Ireland.

Now I think Northern Ireland gets a bit of a bad wrap a lot of the time and may not be fully appreciated a as holiday destination Sure, its grey, rains most of the time, has some VERY dodgy looking suburbs, seems to contain more than its fair share of old, infirm people, a very odd architectural aesthetic which essentially means most houses are these sad looking square, flat fronted boxes covered in ugly grey pebble dash and hideous plastic front doors and double glazing, and with a people who’s accent makes the movie Don’s Party look like a meeting of the Oxford don’s Jane Austin appreciation society.

But thats not why we go to Belfast. It is of course to spend time with D’s mum Pamela and her partner Raymond at their gorgeous house in which we pretty much spend everyday like the the one before. That is, get up late, eat breakfast, have a few coffees, get dressed around midday, go to the gym or a walk, come home, have a nap, have a G&T, play with the cats, surf the net, eat dinner, drink some more, watch some tv and talk the night away before falling into bed around 2am ad nauseum.

This, boys and girls is my idea of heaven! I absolutely love it there but have to be really careful not to put on 10 kgs in the first day and every other day after that. Pamela was a complete angel and cut out the plates of potatoes and bread where she could but still we just about managed to leave her house yesterday with a new weight of just below morbidly obese. Phew!

It was amazing and I miss it already. Tres relaxing and totally easy. Just what we needed smack in the middle of this mammoth excursion.

We were also lucky enough to be brought away for two days by Pamela and raymond to see some of the castles around Ireland. We ended up staying one night at Cabra castle, country Caven, and Solis Castle in Donegal. Both really beautiful and old….

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) I came down with a nasty chesty cough in Ireland which then became an even nastier flu and chest cold. It really hit me hard when staying at the beautiful Solis castle meaning i missed out on a little excursion to another neighboring castle for that evenings dinner. I had to instead, make do with being cooped up in my kings sized bed, in my sumptuous room with only satellite tv and room service to keep me happy. :)) Woe was me….

But the flu was pretty harsh and has left me still feeling weak, coughing and sneezing even a whole week later. Ugh. Im so grateful that I was staying at home with the mum in-law, travelling while sick would really suck big time.

Anyway, apart from dying of the flu and putting on a million kilos I had the best time with Pamela and Raymond..thank you guys!!

We left Ireland yesterday and caught a quick flight to Toulouse direct from Belfast airport. It’s amazing and still surprising that you can leave the grey, rainy skies of belfast and in 2 hours time, get off the plane into balmy Mediterranean 30+ degree heat where everyone is brown, saunters rather than walks and sips wine in the shade in 17th century rose coloured town squares. The difference is startling! And why I love europe so much. So much diversity and new things to discover at every turn.

D and I have have already had an amazing time here in Toulouse. We’re staying at the gorgeous hotel grand Balcon on rue de Romiguiere. Really recommend it if you’re ever in Toulouse.

Tomorrow we head north for a few hours to meet our friend Max and stay in a country Chateau for a few days before driving to Marseille and Montpellier before heading to Berlin where we will meet some friends from Australia. Can’t wait!

Day 38 – 45, Barcelona, steroids and civil war

•August 12, 2010 • 1 Comment

Just so you all know, I completely ache for our eurail passes and highly recommend them to anyone who is spending some time in Europe.

If you’re one of the 3 people following this blog, you’ll know that many of my blog posts have been written while en route from one city to another; speeding through the countryside in one hispeed train or another, downing a beer, and lapping up the blur of countryside whizzing by.

Anyway, lesson is: trains rock, planes suck! Get used to it.

So in light of our new found love of train travel, we decided to train it to Barcelona from Cologne via Thalys trains. Not a short trip either: 4 hours to Paris, then change of station before an 12 hour overnight train to Barcelona. The train to Paris was pure luxury…. Huge, comfortable seats, fast speed wifi, power points for your computer or iPad (if you’re a tragic early adopter like moi) and yummy meals and wine served by extremely friendly poly lingual waiters. And the sleeper leg to Barcelona is exciting, romantic and novel.

We woke up at 7am just as the train pulled into the station and with bleary eyes disembarked into the already hot Catalan morning.

We ended up staying in a fantastic apartment we found on airbnb near Gracia. From there we could explore the wonderful city of Barcelona from the narrow, colourful laneways and beautiful beach of Barcelonetta to the medieval cobblestoned streets of the gothic quarter.

It was pure magic.

And on top of all that, we arrived at the beginning of circuit festival; a huge gay dance festival where every buffed, muscled, steroid using gay from every corner of the world comes together to dance, pose and basically be seen.

It’s a bit like Sydney Mardi gras but where everyone is as wide as they are high, tanned to within an inch of their life and usually from brazil. Fun if you like that sort of thing but to be honest, i was a bit over partying by this point and only made it to one party during the festival. I then spent the rest of the week trying to keep my puny self confidence intact by not taking my shirt off at any time or at any point where someone might see, laugh and point.

Thank god i had my dear friend and partner in crime, Justin to hang with while D raced from one party to another. Justin, you were amazing!!

Near the end of our trip we visited a good friend josune who showed us her Barcelona. We ended up seeing more interesting sites in one afternoon then we did during the whole time we were there including some ancient Roman pillars which formed part of a Pantheon type building from 50BC and which had during the 2,000 years of it’s life, been integrated into other contemporary buildings until people forgot what they were and how old and significant they were.

They were eventually re-discovered and re-exposed (something that couldn’t have been too hard considering they came through the floor and held up the roof of a particularly popular members club during the 19th century).

We also visited a quiet and unexceptional looking square in the gothic quarter that contained an old church and school. There, during the Spanish civil war, 142 children were marched out of class, lined up against the wall and executed. The bullet holes still scar the wall in a silent and terrifying reminder of the atrocity.

One of the things that captures the imagination so much in Barcelona is the fantastical and magical architecture; so varied, different and uninhibited as anywhere in Europe. From the palpably organic and surreal buildings of Guadi to the streets of uniquely designed and decorated terraces from the 17th century to the 1,000 year old cathedrals and winding streets of the gothic quarter, i think Barcelona has the most interesting and varied architecture of any European city. It’s like walking though a dream where one has no idea what’s waiting around every corner.

It’s definitely one of my favorite cities in Europe.

We finally left on Wednesday after extending our stay day after day to try and fit in a little more and arrived in Ireland yesterday for 10 days of quiet rest and recharging at the mum in laws. Something ive been looking forward to for a while.

Enjoy the photos!!

Day 32 – 37, Copenhagen, Vikings and the missing mermaid

•August 2, 2010 • 1 Comment

I know, i know…it’s been a few days since my last blog post but after the almost continuous drinking session that was Stockholm, i needed a few days of rest and recovery to recharge the batteries and get myself feeling 100% again…..in hindsight, Copenhagen was probably not the place for that rest and relaxation..heaps of fun and great people but as I’m finding in a lot of northern europe and especially Scandinavia, drinking is a national pastime which is take very seriously.

As i type this i’m once again find myself speeding through the beautiful countryside on the 7.30am train from Copenhagen to Hamburg, then onto Cologne. It was an early start considering we didn’t get to bed till about 2.30am this morning. But the sun is out and the views of the Danish countryside are beautiful so all is good.

Like all the trains we caught in Europe, this one is clean, fast and comfortable and also has wireless internet..that is if you can click on the login button which happens to be in flash – something the iPad doesn’t have thanks to Apple’s infinite wisdom. A massive failing if you ask me on otherwise a really impressive device.

Arriving into Copenhagen station from Sweden a few days ago was very interesting as you immediately feel how different it is to Stockholm. Where Stockholm is uber clean, ordered and neat Copenhagen is edgier, seems more diverse and with a bit more of a vibe. There’s graffiti, noise, crowds, rubbish, buskers and other smells and sounds synonymous with a big city – not unlike London in many ways but easier to get around due it being quite compact.

On the way there the train crosses the longest bridge in the world which connects Sweden with Denmark. It was pretty cool and something that D found very exciting as you can see from the first photo below. 🙂 Ah… Little things.

Anyway, Copenhagen was a great experience and i’m really glad we made it here. We had two great guides to the city. Firstly our good friend Roger who is as always mixing things up in the bar industry, creating a scene and building a vibe. He’s been here for two years now running his own uber trendy bar and seems to have met every cool person in the city. He’s the kind of guy who can’t walk 2 meters down the street without someone stopping to say hello.

We spent a day cycling around the lakes and harbour and even went to visit the statue of the little mermaid only to discover that she’s been moved to Shanghai for the world expo (we missed seeing her there) and is replaced with a giant screen showing a live feed of her sitting quite nonchalantly as thousands of chinese tourists take her photo. Oh well, she been stuck on that rock in the harbour for quite a while now so good to get away now and again.

Our second tour guide was a guy named Jesper who worked at a local bar called Oscars. We met him and his friends while out one night having dinner and drinks and like many of the Scandinavians we’ve met already was completely welcoming and hospitable and offered to show us more of the city the following night.

We ended up having a great night out with Jesper which culminated in him convincing D that a 6am dip in the harbour was a good idea. It was a bit harder to convince me of course but see photo below….

We spent a good deal of time in Copenhagen trying to get some much needed rest and planning for our move which is cologne today and tomorrow where we’ll be attending a welcoming party hosted by the Australian ambassador to Germany for the Aussie athletes who are arriving in Cologne for the start of the gay games.

But Cologne is only a short stop as we’re due to meet a whole group of friends in Barcelona for a party at a water park on Tuesday. After what will surely be a few hectic days, we’ll be travelling to belfast to spend a good solid 10 days at D’s mum’s house to unwind, get up late, eat well and play with the cats. Heaven!

Day 30 – 31, More stockholm

•July 23, 2010 • 1 Comment

Sweden wasn’t even originally on our itinerary.

We really only decided to come one day in Turkey when the heat was particularly oppressive and we were thinking of somewhere we could go that would be cooler. I was also reading the Millenium series by Stieg Larsson so Stockholm was somewhere that I was suddenly really interested in visiting.

And I’m so glad we did! It’s been really fantastic.

Im going to keep this a short post as I really just want to put up some more pics, but here are a few innocent observations from an Aussie in Sweden.

1. Sweden is such a beautiful and livable city with a rich history and thriving cafe/restaurant/club scene

2. The Swedes remind me a lot of Aussies and sydneysiders in particular Very laid back, very stylish, interested in fashion, food and love to drink

3. They LOVE to drink. That one was worth repeating. It’s the not amount they drink but the regularity at which they drink i.e everynight! Wednesday night is a small Saturday night as everyone goes out till the wee hours.

4. If Swedish people are anything like me then everyone is walking around with a constant hangover.

5. They’re so friendly and will open their houses to strangers.

6. Stockholm is so clean you could eat your dinner off the footpath. I’ve hardly seen any rubbish or graffiti – except for the useful kind which you can see below.

7. Blonds do have more fun

8. The waterways and beaches have created a city full of waterbabies and beach bums. Not the impression I originally had of Sweden

9. I could live here.

10. They don’t know what a laundramatt is. Seems everyone in Sweden has a washing machine and dryer…. Everyone! Except this rental apartment.

Btw the photos below are a mix of Stockholm’s amazing architectural style as well as some photos of the Vasa museum where you can see a 17th century ship which they discovered, dug up and preserved in the 1990s. It was completely amazing…. Like something out of the Goonies.

Oh and one of a tres yummy breakfast sandwich D made for me this morning. 🙂

We’ve decided to stay in sweden for a bit longer and will do a trip right up to the north of the country via train to see some of the magnificent countryside before coming back to Stockholm for the weekend. Then I think it’s Copenhagen, then cologne.

Day 27 – 29, Stockholm

•July 19, 2010 • 1 Comment

Everyone here in stockholm is determined to save D and I money. It’s great and oh so Swedish to reject the capitalist money making machine in favour for a more humane approach.

It started on the the Arlanda express train from the airport to the city. We had already bought two tickets at the airport which seemed pretty resonably priced for the clean, efficient and comfortable hi speed train which was now speeding us into the heart of Stockholm.

The ticket lady came up to us and after seeing out tickets informed us that she has an offer which we could still use even though we’ve already bought tickets.

We simply buy two more tickets from her which allows two people to travel for the price of one then we can get a refund on the two tickets we already have.

Sounded suspicious and I think it showed on our faces. In london or even parts of Sydney this would have SCAM written all over it. Anyway, in the end the process was really easy and saved us a lot of money.

And that trend has just continued throughout our few days here. From the guy at the metro train ticket who wouldn’t let me buy tickets from him because I could save 30 kroner by doing it at the machine to the gym receptionist who spent 10 minutes trying to work out the cheapest possible
option for us i.e day time passes, weekly or fortnight pass. In the end she just resigned herself to giving us the day pass but with a 50 kroner a day discount – just because.

Thank you! Gotta love those swedes.

And so far, I have to say that I’m really digging Stockholm. The people here are so laid back and cool it hurts. And talk about good looking! All I can put it down to is a good genetic pool brought about by all those viking sea campaigns to bring back all the really really goodlooking people – and rape and pillage and plunder.

D and I spent the afternoon at a beach called langholmen. It’s one many on the small islands that make up the inner part of central stockholm. It was so beautiful and definitely my kind of beach. You simple walk through lush forests until you find a sunny spot beside the water to plant your towel. There are hundreds of little pockets of locals in the sunny spots, reading, sleeping, sunbathing etc. Very cool.

After the beach, D and I had been lucky enough to be invited to a BBQ by the uber friendly and charming Nicklas; the 6’4″ blond, blue eyed, svelte, barman from Torget which is a cafe in Gamla Stan we visited on our first day. We got chatting to Niklas over lunch and next minute we’re arranging to meet up for dinner and drinks. Typical of the friendly atmosphere and hospitality we’ve encountered in Stockholm.

The bbq was fantastic and everyone there was really friendly, charming and of course beautiful. We stuffed ourselves on roasted potatoes, quinnoa, marinated BBQ pork, massive Swedish steaks and salad which were all delicious as well as consuming many bottles of Rose.

Great converstions (the swedish are so good with speaking english). Thanks to Nicklas, Suz, Kikki, Daniel, Mattias, Sanna and Johan for letting us gatecrash. Awesome afternoon.

After the bbq we headed into town to go to ‘Victorias’, a venue in Gamla Stan near a park which has some great outside space. There we drank the night away and talked rubbish for hours on end.

We met a few more gorgeous people (I’m becoming de-sensitized now) and made some arrangements to meet some of them in the morning for a swim at a local beach.

Had another great day today hanging out with some other Swedish locals, enjoying the sun and eating meatballs.

Tomorrow will be cultural. Going to the vasa museum and a few other sightseeing things. Will post some other pics tomorrow.

Day 25 – 26 Istanbul

•July 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Ok. So I’m now officially in love with Istanbul. We’re getting married and having beef kofta babies as soon as the law changes to allow it.

Really. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Istanbul as we came in from out overnight coach but this exotic, aromatic, colourful, fairy light filled city has completely blown me away.

I’ve discovered that Istanbul is a very exciting modern metropolis with a vibrant and daring nightlife and shopping culture which stands side by side with ancient and amazingly exotic buildings and religious sites that hark back to a time almost forgotten.

We arrived at our guest house – eklektic house early in the morning and shown to our beautiful room. Never before have I relished a hot shower so much. I quickly booked myself into a massage (which was heaven) and Damo and I spent some time resting up in the luxury of our room before heading out and checking out the amazing city at night.

At it’s heart Istanbul is a rich tapestry of laneways and small narrow roads containing thousands of little cafes, bars and restaurants serving up delicious Turkish food of grilled meats, vegetable side dishes and deserts that have tempted us at every corner.

The streets are filled with the smells, sounds and sights of a dynamic, vivacious city extremely confident in it’s place in the world. Even their main shopping street which goes on for a million years (ask me feet if you think I’m exaggerating) is draped from start to finish by miles of christmas lights complete with fairy light Santas and snowmen. Shows a pretty good commitment to fairy lights if you ask me considering it’s July and this is a Muslim country which doesn’t celebrate christmas. Any country/city that throws fairy lights onto pretty much anything that will stay still long enough is alright by me.

And the food!! To say D and I are loving it sick is a massive understatement. I rediscovered grilled aubergine like never before and even vegetarian dishes like sea weed and garlic, courgettes with yoghurt and cheese stuffed mushrooms have excited me no end.

I haven’t really missed eating meat at all… Partly due to the fact that I’m eating literally mountains of it each day. I’ve probably gone through a couple of adult cows, and a flock of chickens….at least! Sorry sue and Marty and all my other veggie readers.

Thank god we’ve found a nice little gym around the corner to work it all off.

I love walking through the winding streets and noticing the massive old 19th century terraces simply sitting there, undeveloped and unoccupied. It won’t be long before these old buildings are all bought up by rich europeans when the fact that Istanbul bloody rocks gets out. 🙂

I’ve captured as much as I can with the pics but they don’t do this city justice. You’re just going to have to come here yourself.

We visited the blue mosque, hajia Sophia (which is one, if not the oldest mosque cum museum in Istanbul – originally built as a christian church by emperor Constantine which is where istanbul got it’s name from until 1456 when Constantinople was renamed Istanbul), crossed the Bosporus, visited the floating kitchens, hung around Taksin square, explored the dense and colorful area of beyoglu (which is where we are staying) and generally did our usual thing of walking from one end of the city to the other.

Tomorrow we’ll be hitting the nightlife in Istanbul so will try and show you some of that too. As it happens, a lovely chap called Seyithad who works at a local cafe/bar called the sugar club offered to show us around tomorrow night.

Very nice of him too.

Will let you know how it all goes. In the meantime, enjoy the pics.