Sunday, 22 February 2009

22 February

Last days

After almost exactly 5 months, its almost time to go home.

Today is our last full day in London and this will probably be the last blogg we write on the road.

London has been uncharacteristically warm and sunny, so we are seeing another side of this city that has almost always been 'glum' on our previous visits. People are everywhere. Out and about enjoying the early onset of spring after a fairly severe winter. Its 'half-term' holidays, so the city is packed with locals and kids as well as tourists. A real taste of what 'high season' must be like.

The usual round of tourist attractions has held a little less thrill for us this time. After such a long trip we might well be suffering tourist overload, so it has been great to take it a little easier while staying with our cousin Alys.

Tomorrow we lump our caravan of bags off through the Tube to Heathrow for the long flight home via Singapore. While we are looking forward to getting home, the thought of the summer heat in Brisbane is not an attractive one! It has been 12 – 13 C here and we find that very comfortable for walking about. Add another 20C to that and we are going to suffer until we re-acclimatise.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

17 February

Holy Grail 'Again!'

A few days have passed since we updated the blog. This is probably attributable to the easy-going nature of our lives at the moment. Our comfortable and well-appointed Edinburgh apartment is a few minutes' walk from the Royal Mile and the Grassmarket, so we don't have to work too hard to get about and see the sights of the city. A few days back, we were complaining that we were disappointed not be experiencing some good 'harsh' Scottish winter weather. Well, it's only gotten worse! Today and yesterday were positively summery for this part of the world. Today we had lunch in the beer garden of the local at Roslin. Sun beating down. Daffodils and other bulbs were shooting in the gardens. True, early spring weather.

We were in Roslin to visit the Rosslyn Chapel of Da Vinci Code fame. If we remember correctly, in the book, the final clue to the location of the Holy Grail was found here in this magnificent 500 year old chapel built by the St Clair family, who had historical connections with the Knights Templar.

In fact, we only came to see the old chapel. We know the Holy Grail is really enshrined in the Cathedral at Valencia,

Spain. We saw it!

Roslin was famous for another industry besides 'grail searching'. A walk through the local cemetery alerted us to the fact that Roslin was once home to the biggest gunpowder factory in Scotland. A smattering (poor choice of words?) of graves attest to the poor safety standards and high risk of working in such an industry. One family grave had three members who died in separate incidents at the gunpowder factory.

Being without personal transport has not been too limiting on us in Scotland. The rail and bus systems are extensive, frequent and reasonably priced. Yesterday, we jumped a regional train to Stirling to visit the Castle, stopping off in Linlithgow on the way back to visit its castle for good measure. Today, our trip to Roslin gave us a 90 minute, scenic, round trip of the Lothian and Midlothian districts in front row, top deck seats on a local bus. Bargain at AUD 5.60 each for the round trip.

14 February

Scottish winter?

In a way, we had been looking forward to some 'harsh Scottish' weather this week. For most of our trip, we've been extremely lucky with the weather. In five months, we can count truly rainy days on one hand (rain as opposed to overcast and dull!). So far, we think we've had only a couple of days when we didn't see some blue sky and it has been overwhelmingly sunny. And even when it did snow – in Spain of all places! - it only lasted for a day.

In one respect, Scotland has let us down! A few days before we arrived in Edinburgh, the whole of the UK was experiencing blizzard conditions. The past couple of days have been positively balmy at 8C plus. Silly as it may sound, this actually feels warm to us after our slow acclimatisation to the European winter!

“Disappointment” about the mild weather is about our only “complaint” about Edinburgh. Even though we haven't been here for more than 20 years, we have always liked this city. It is relatively small, full of history and well-preserved architecture and the people are easy-going, and friendly. Our apartment is five minutes' walk away from the Grassmarket area at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile.

The city has a thousand stories. Just one should be told here to provide a feel of what the city has to offer.
Maggie Dickson was a poor fish hawker around the markets of 17th century Edinburgh. Young Maggie had been deserted by her husband, so she left Edinburgh, moving to the country. Stopping at an Inn, she worked for her board, fell in love with and then pregnant to, the son of the innkeeper and, returning to the city, she decided to keep her condition secret, not even telling the father. Somehow she managed to have the baby without anybody being any the wiser. Sadly, the child died within a few days, so Maggie decided to dispose of the body in the Tweed River. When it came to it, she couldn't bring herself to throw the body into the water, so she just left it at the river side. Eventually Maggie was found out when the baby's body was discovered. Convicted of the obscure crime of Not Declaring a Pregnancy, she was sentenced to death by hanging.

On the duly appointed day, she was taken to the gallows in the Grassmarket and the deed was done. Maggie's body was loaded in a coffin and placed on a cart, headed for the graveyard. On the way, the driver was startled to hear knocking from the coffin. Opening the it, he found Maggie very much alive! Given that she had obviously been saved by the will of God, she was set free. Maggie eventually married the father of her dead child and set herself up in a pub just metres from the Grassmarket gallows.

Her pub is there to this day. By legend, those facing Maggie's intended fate on the gallows were regularly taunted by Maggie from the front door of her pub. Locally she was, and still is, known as 'Half-hangit Maggie”

12 February

How “Bazaar”!

Leaving Istanbul today, we had another early start for the medium haul trip to London. Our driver was late (as usual) and the roads were very wet so it was a wet and, therefore, scary drive. But, having driven ourselves in some fairly hairy situations, we weren't as fazed as we would have been 5 months ago.

Istanbul was great, but not as exciting as it was first time round. We probably should have expected Istanbul to change, but not this much! After our attempt to find the old Istanbul on the Bosphorus ferry trip, we just gave up and went with the flow for a couple of days, playing tourist at the usual sights, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the Turkish Military Museum, all great 'attractions' and definitely not to be missed. The Military Museum was new to us. It was huge, covering several hundred years of Ottoman and Turkish military history. Political correctness has not yet impacted on the Turkish Military. Old enemies and new are treated with disdain while all Turks who die in battle are Martyrs. Still, this was a great museum AND we had the whole place fairly much to ourselves.

After our long exploration of the glories of Turkish military victories (and defeats) we decided to use up the remainder of our transport passes by jumping the metro to an 'outer' suburb to see if there were any remnants of the 'old Istanbul' to be found there. Of course not! Suburban Istanbul has also 'grown-up'.

Now, through the magic of modern transport, we have flashed across Europe from East to West in time for lunch in London. Back in the familiar world that most Aussie tourists feel at home with, we are approaching the end of our odyssey, staying a night in the apartment of our cousin, Alys.

Tomorrow, off to Edinburgh.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

8 February

Yes, we probably are adventurous.

The Bosphorus is the first link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Further down stream is the Dardanelles, famous seaways in both war and peace.

Apparently, quaint fishing villages line the Bosphorus.


We took a ferry from central Istanbul up the Bosphorus in our quest to find the old Turkey. For mile after mile along the Bosphorus, all we could see were multi-storey modern residential blocks and multi-million dollar houses. The seafront on both the Asian and European side comprised walkways and parkland , dotted with children's playgrounds. Very Sydney North Shore! But we plodded on to the 'quaint' fishing 'village' of Sariyer. Our plan was to walk around the village, check out some of the old wooden Ottoman houses, have a 'quaint village' lunch and catch the local bus back for the 20 km trip back to Istanbul.

On the ferry, me met an Australian couple about our age who were a bit stunned at the way we had been, and were, travelling. They thought our plan for the day was fairly adventurous. What - catch a local bus? We don't think much about how we get about these days. We get lost. We get confused, but we have some fantastic experiences on the way and we always find our way home.

Adventurous? Maybe, but it's the way we like to travel – not too down and dirty, but making contact with the locals on some level.

As to the quaint fishing village? It was a bit of a disappointment. After some searching in the back streets, we did find some old wooden houses of Ottoman vintage, but on the whole the 'quaint village' had turned into a modern outer suburban shopping strip with the added attraction of a flash fishing quay and some nice seafood restaurants.

The bus trip back to town took the best part of two hours along the shores of the Bosphorus, past million dollar yachts and hundreds of fishermen trying their luck with long rods off the neatly-paved and well-manicured shores of outer suburban Istanbul.

But was it adventurous? Once it might have been, but today it was just another suburban bus ride through some very well-heeled areas of this enormous city. Never mind, we have found some old parts of the central city that we will revisit over the next few days.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

6 February

What a difference 8 years make!

Calls to prayers echo from a thousand minarets just on sunset over Galata Hill as we listen and watch from our balcony. Last time we were in Turkey was 8 years ago. The sound of the call to prayers is still a powerful memory.

Yesterday we managed to get ourselves to Malta airport by 4:45am for the 6:45am flight to Istanbul – although it seems like days ago now! After a bit of a mix-up about the pick-up arrangements at the airport (the driver was late) we headed off, at speed, through this city of more than 13 million people.

Our memories of our last visit were of dirty crowded streets, frantic, unregulated traffic, goats on the road and all the other trappings of an over-crowded 3rd world city. It was an exciting and very different place for us!

Was this the same place?

Slick airport, uncrowded motorway to the city, motorists keeping to their lanes, flowers thick on the median strips and block after block of new housing developments set in parklands; was this Istanbul?

In short – yes and no. Many parts of the city are new or renovated. Traffic is much better controlled, streets are clean and systems and services seem to work. There is no rubbish on the streets anymore. Dusty lanes are now paved and regularly washed down. (The city is cleaner in fact than Paris!) All this is very different. The people, though, are much the same. There are always enormous crowds in the streets. People are uniformly friendly and happy.

Today, after we did a few touristy things, we went looking for the old Istanbul that we remembered. After searching through streets lined with banks and modern offices, we eventually found it (sort of). In the back lanes behind the New Mosque near the Galata bridge, we came upon the garment district and the spice market. Narrow streets packed with people, noise, smells – just as we remembered - but now, oh so clean. Glass shop fronts are replacing the roller shutters – very clean glass at that – streets are all paved, with not a paper or a cigarette butt in sight. The excitement of the crowds built as we walked through these streets down to the ferry docks under the Galata bridge. Hundreds of thousands of people teemed through the streets on this mild and sunny Friday afternoon as packed ferries came and went at a rate that would make Sydney's Circular Quay look like a sleepy Murray River town.

Our apartment in Galata, the newer part of Istanbul, is within walking distance of the old city. And it's the richer part. Streets around here are lined with all the big name fashion shops and the usual crop of western franchises. Strict Muslim dress is rare, almost non-existent here. Everybody under 30 could have walked off the street in any major city in the world.

What a difference almost a decade makes!

Friday, 6 February 2009

4 February

Good-bye Malta

For probably the first time in four and a half months, we did nothing today..

Well, almost nothing!

We walked around half of the peninsula on which the city of Valletta is situated, having walked the other half a few days back. We watched and heard the mid-day cannon salute at the Saluting Battery, walked up and down Republica, the main street, and watched the “tourists” - there was a cruise ship in town. We went to the Malta Archaeological Museum, had lunch in a little back street cafe and did a guided tour of the magnificent 18th Century Manoel Theatre, earning the undying love of a British couple who, on a previous visit to Valletta, had waited an hour, only to be told that, because the minimum number of people had not been reached, they couldn't take the tour. With them and another British couple who were just walking by we made up the minimum.

It was such a beautiful day 20+C – what else could we do but take it easy? - And besides we have to be up at 3:00 am to catch our plane to Istanbul in the morning!

Bye, Malta. We have loved you!

3 February

Nasty shadows of development

Just across the Grand Harbour from Valletta is the modern city of Sliema. Most of old Sliema has disappeared, some as a result of the war time bombing of the harbour area, but more through the sort of waterfront development that lines the Mediterranean from Gaza to Gibraltar. Every area of the coast seems to have its own particular 'invader nation'. On the Moroccan coast, it's France, for much of Spain and Portugal it's Germany and the UK. Here, the British alone seem to dominate. And why not? Beachfront apartments here are plentiful and relatively cheap. English is universally spoken and the waterfront kiosks serve fish and chips.

For Malta, this 'invasion' is probably fairly welcome. They have a good relationship with the British people and there are strong historical links. For us as visitors though, modern Sliema held little interest. Retired Brits filled the streets, most of the old charm of the city has been lost amidst new beach 'condos' and the character that makes the rest of Malta so attractive is all but gone. So we did what one does at the 'beach' - we had an ice-cream, walked the promenade and then caught the ferry back to beautiful, old, character-filled Valletta.

The forecast maximum temperature tomorrow, for our last day in Malta, is 20C! At the moment, London is snowed in, with temperatures of -5C. Little wonder the Brits who can escape come here!

2nd February

Random Russian Girls

There we were, walking down a country road between Xaghra and Xewkija, when it hit us! We WERE on the tiny island of Gozo in the Mediterranean, wandering down a country road on a warm, but windy, afternoon to catch a vintage local bus back to the ferry to take us back to the main island of Malta - a place we had never imagined we would visit. What were the idle rich doing, we thought?

Until we started to think about going to Malta, we had never heard of Gozo. We are sure nobody has heard of the villages of Xaghra and Xewkija. (Have you?) Many of the places we have found ourselves in were never in our plans (for all sorts of reasons).

The day had been fairly typical for us. We had a late start, confused by the bus numbering system at the bus terminal. Different numbers on the front and back of buses tend to throw us a little! Pressing on, we found some interesting out of the way places and got lost a couple of times.

An added, and very Maltese, event that brightened our day, was a free trip on one of the vintage local Gozo buses.
Wandering around the Victoria bus terminal on Gozo, which is about as big as a petrol station, we spotted a very old and beautifully maintained Bedford bus, circa 1960. While we were oohing and aahing at it, the driver came along and asked us, and a very confused Russian girl, who happened to be walking by, to take a seat while we waited for our bus that wasn't due for about 20 minutes.

Before we knew it, we were all off on a free ride on his bus to the small village of Xlendi and back. Admittedly, we were a bit concerned, the random Russian girl more so, that we would all miss our bus to Xaghra (see above). We shouldn't have worried. At precisely 30 seconds before our bus was due to leave, we chugged back into the terminal square and jumped the #62 to Xaghra. And the 'random/confused' Russian girl? Last time we saw her, she was trying to work out the ticket scanner at the temples of Ggantija at (Yes - you guessed it!) Xaghra.

We, on the other hand, strolled off to the country road towards Xewkija and the ferry back to the “Big Island” of Malta.

Monday, 2 February 2009

1 February

Getting in the rhythm

Under our apartment, the baker started work late today – it was Sunday! 7:00 am is a late start for him. Every other day he kicks off at 4:00am. The smell of fresh bread hits us about 6:00 as we have drifted off to sleep again once his dough machines have stopped.

We love this place! Weather is great, prices are reasonable - nothing is cheap in Europe any more - and, without being condescending, Malta is just so 'quaint'.

Waiting for a bus in the square this morning, an elderly gentleman almost pushed us onto the right bus, gave us a timetable and wished us well. We actually knew which bus to catch and already had a timetable, but it would have destroyed him if he couldn't have helped us!

Maybe it's the lack of a language problem, or just the easy flow of off season life in Malta, but we seem to be getting into the swing of Maltese life. The fact that the route numbers on the front of buses are often different to those on the back and buses leave when the driver is ready, just doesn't matter anymore...

Today, with our usual efficiency, we saw all we need to see in the beautiful little walled town of Mdina and its surrounding villages of Rabat and Mtarfa, had lunch and were back in Valletta by 1:30pm, just in time to take in a movie at the local 'multi-plex'. Now, when was the last time you went to a movie that had Intermission? 1960? Well in Malta they still 'do' Intermission. How fantastic!

We have also discovered that they have football clubs and social clubs, with cheap food and drinks, much like at home. We'll try one in the next couple of days.

31 January

Being Maltese

For an island that one could drive across in less than 30 minutes and drive the length of in 40 minutes, Malta has had a significant influence on European history – or has European history had a major influence on Maltese history?
Malta has always been at the cross-roads of the Mediterranean, the local language having its roots in Phoenician, the ancient language of Carthage. However, its size, combined with its strategic position, has meant that it has always been more of a 'host' to the great events of the world than an actual player and never more so than in “its greatest hour”- the Siege of Malta during the Second World War.

In 1940, Malta effectively became a British 'Aircraft Carrier' in the mid-Mediterranean. This tiny island and its people held out for more than 3 years against all that the Germans and Italians could throw at them. And throw they did – more than 3000 sorties – more than those recorded in London during the Blitz! The physical destruction of the island was almost total.

Today, we visited one of the few remaining air-raid shelters from that period. The soft rock of Malta allowed the Maltese to build very effective shelters more than 40 metres beneath the surface and, as a result, very few (relatively) civilians died during those raids.

Now mostly rebuilt , the harbour areas of the 'Three Cities' (medieval villages situated on the other side of the Great Harbour from Valletta) that we wandered through, on a very warm and sunny day, were just spectacular. The local stone has a cream colour that turns golden in the winter sun. Fantastic!

So being Maltese?

As Australians, we know many Maltese people at home. The story is that there are more Maltese in Australia than in Malta (probably true). At home, they are much the same as anybody else. In Malta, the 'real' Maltese are something a little different. They live in a modern European country, they have all the trappings that go with that - Cable TV, Internet - the lot ...

but ...

Somehow, the country is frozen in a bit of a time warp. Supermarkets are almost non-existent – as far as we can tell from the info pamphlets, there is ONE on the whole of Malta! The local shop is where you buy your daily needs, IF it happens to be open. If it's not and the doors are closed, there is nothing to show that it even exists – very Brigadoon! There is no train system, no Metro, just a (very efficient) bus network that uses vintage buses, some as old as the 1950s. The capital, Valletta, is not a real city at all. It is a group of inter-connected villages where people know each other, chat on the street and carry on life much as they did 50 years ago, at least in mid winter. Things are definitely more hectic 'in season', but now... this is heaven! Yet another reason for travelling in Europe 'off season'.

A good indicator of the Maltese view of the world can be found in the bus timetable. Local buses leave from a large, seemingly chaotic, square in front of the Valletta city gates. The published timetable is well designed and printed in a neat, glossy brochure. However, we were puzzled by the departure frequency information that was printed as “ 5/15/30 minutes”. Did it mean that the bus left on the 5 minutes, 15 minutes and half hour? Surely not. What, no buses for the second half of the hour? No. Could it mean different frequencies for different seasons? No. There were no time spans for the seasons in the brochure. Confounded, we asked at the Tourist Information Office. Looking at us as though WE were stupid, the girl explained that buses will leave at 5 minute intervals if the driver feels there is enough demand, 15 minutes if there are just a few people and 30 minutes even if nobody is at the terminus! How simple. Why didn't we think of that!!?

On our return from the Three Cities today, we jumped on the bus that was waiting at the bus stop, only to be told that this bus wasn't leaving now and there was one coming soon. Everybody arriving at the stop got the same story and happily stood and waited for the other bus. We suspect the driver was just having his lunch. All part of life in Malta.

29 January

“Movement Sociale”

In any other language a “Movement Sociale” could be a very good thing - a social club, a continuous party? One can only imagine the full set of possibilities! But malheureusement, (sadly) – we are still thinking in French!, roughly translated, it means STRIKE! Oh yes, the very day that had to drag our 60kgs (and Paul NEVER exaggerates) of luggage across Paris on the Metro and RER (Regional Rail), was the one that the workers of the Paris public transport system chose to 'take to the barricades'.

Some trains were running and we had made good progress, reaching the enormous Gare du Nord in very reasonable time for the second of three connections we had to make to get to southern outskirts of Paris and Orly Airport. The station was alarmingly quiet for a peak hour Thursday? Yep. All trains to the south of the city had been cancelled. So, along with 10 million Parisians, we sought an alternative. Luckily we had considered a bus option the previous day, so off we traipsed with our 60 kgs of luggage.

To cut a long story short, we made the plane in good time and tonight we are settled into a 16th century apartment in the very centre of the old city of Valletta.

It's very early in our stay, but so far we love it! Not just because everything is half the price of mainland Europe, but also because the city is a living museum. We are in a back street, two blocks from the tourist area. The bakery is next door, the corner shop seems to have most stuff we need, but it is like shops in Australia were when we were very little kids – apart from its tendency to disappear behind closed doors! You have to ask at the counter for what you want. Stuff is stacked all over the place and the locals seem to go there for a chat as much as to buy dinner.

Language is no problem in Malta. Maltese is spoken amongst the locals, sounding like a mix of Arabic, Italian and Spanish, with bits of English thrown in. However, as a result of their history, they all speak good English as well. Too easy.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

24 - 28 January

Art.. and more art

Leaving the van behind has made us a little lazy about writing the Blog. Our apartment in Paris has cable TV and broadband WiFi, so we have had diversions not available to us for months!

Our trip on the VFT (Very Fast Train) from Amsterdam was great. Speeds of over 200kms per hour for part of the journey were an interesting experience. What was difficult was negotiating the Metro station, after our arrival at Gare de Nord, on the way to our Montmartre apartment. The only lift was out of order, meaning that bags had to be dragged up 7 flights of stairs at our local Metro station, then more up to the street and two flights up to our apartment – a total of 200+ steps dragging more than 50 kilos between us!.

Having arrived and settled in, the true value of living in this part of Paris became evident. Our afternoon walk took us through the 'arty' quarter of Montmartre, just around the corner from our place, up to Sacre Coeur, always magical, and on Saturday afternoon, humming with people.

After doing the art museums in Amsterdam just before we left for Paris, we have spent most of the past few days roaming the galleries of Paris - the Louvre, of course, the Pompidou Centre of Modern Art and the Musee d'Orsay. The more traditional museums are, frankly, becoming a little boring. Yes, they have 'must see' things like the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, but they just have so much stuff, it starts to overwhelm the senses. The Pompidou Centre is far from boring. Like it or hate it, modern art always keeps you on your toes! You never know what awaits you around the next corner. One of our favourites was the three totally blank white canvases on one wall. We thought it was an empty room being prepared for an exhibition. Oh no. This was “true art.”

Speaking of fun, we took ourselves off to the Moulin Rouge last night. Why not? It was just down the road, less than 5 mins walk. On the positive side, the show was “spectacular.. spectacular”, although not quite up there with the Radio City Rockettes in New York! We scored a table with a very nice French couple and had a great night. On the negative side, the cost was astronomical!

Tomorrow, we drag our bags, down the hill this time, off to Orly Airport. Destination, Valletta, Malta.