Travelogue Baltic 2: Rostock

 BALTIC CRUISE – ROSTOCK  (GERMANY)

17 June 2016

The beauty of this cruise is that the vast majority of the sailing is done overnight, so you wake up (almost) every morning in a new port in a new country.  Today was the turn of Rostock, Germany.

Organised excursions for the day varied from a day trip to Berlin, a tour of beachtown Warnemunde and a tour of university-town Rostock. None appealed to us since Berlin was a 3 hour us trip each way, it wasn’t the weather for the beach (barely 20 degrees and gloomy) and we felt a group tour might frustrating, constantly being herded and hindered (especially since we’re a good 20+ years below the average age on this cruise!)

We made arrangements to catch a shuttle into town to make our own way around Rostock and headed for the gangway (which was conveniently on our deck!). The disembarkation process was simple enough, just requiring a flash of the sea pass to log our departure, so within minutes we were in Germany. Of course, I can’t say “on dry land” because, as dumb luck would have it, it started to rain the moment we disembarked the ship.

It was only a very light drizzle, but it brought out the crazy in everyone, apparently! A short walk down the pier and we were at the bus stop. The only thing that demarcated this was an actual bus stopped there.

We arrived to mayhem. A beanpole of a young German chap in cruise uniform was in the doorway of the bus, taking a heated verbal lambasting from some fiery Mexicans at the foot of the bus’s steps who were clearly displeased at not being able to fit on the current bus, which already had its full complement of passengers – and was clearly subject to the “only want to hear one click” German flexibility when it came to allowing additional, which the troupe of Mexicans were animatedly asserting was the solution. It escalated to the point that the little cluster tried to storm the Bastille and push their way onto the bus and had it not been for the fact that the German chap was a quarter of their age and twice their average height, they might very well have succeeded! Despite a little old lady trying to squeeze her way past him (squealing in the process), his superior wingspan outed and he scooped the lot of them out of the bus, yelling for the bus driver to close the door quickly behind him.

Poor fella then found himself on the ground with all sorts of yelling and hand waving in his face. He did his best to get everyone to form a line, but there was to be none of that – nobody was prepared to concede even a single position in case they didn’t get their seat on the next bus. Giving up, the German retreated to his box of supplies, swearing audibly to himself and pretending to look busy counting tickets. I walked up to him to ask for a tourist map and he gave me a death stare… calming only (marginally) when he realised I wasn’t there to complain.

It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two later that the next business arrived. The German had given up; he didn’t even try to get the orderly queueing system line in place. Good thing too as there was physical violence in the doorway of the new bus as an American almost leapfrogged over the Mexicans to get on the bus. It was almost comical as the American pushed them aside with his best “talk to the hand” palm, shouting justification that he’d already missed 3 busses and wasn’t missing this one, as 2 tiny old Mexican ladies grabbed at his shirt and one of their husbands threw punches. The American landed on the top step, swiveled around and was squashed flat against the driver as he tried to get in position for his old school thumb-in fist slow rotation circular undercut punching. His wife had been left behind in this skirmish and was now looking bewildered at him through the bus window as he took his seat in the front row, dishevelled but smug.

We had no such trouble. We asserted ourselves into the throng and rode the wave onto the bus. It was like very noisy body-surfing. Most of the people who missed that bus did so because they were so busy faffing with their brollies, which made us almost glad that we’d  (already!) misplaced our Copenhagen one.

It was about 20 minutes into Rostock and we were deposited on Long Street, aptly named for being the longest street in the historical centre, reconstructed into a parade street of monumental buildings in the GDR era.

We were grateful for the buildings to get out of the rain – and fortuitously found ourselves in the Galleria where we got new brollies, down from 49 Euros to a bargain 5 Euros (the Germans do know how to have a decent sale!) so we got 2.

The brollies made it more comfortable to walk to the tourist office, where we sought refuge for the 15 mins of hard rain while collecting tourist maps and plotting our course.

Rostock is a perfect day trip stop as everything is within walking distance in a convenient circuit with no double-backing required. A quick review of the map and its accompanying legend determined that our day would be a university-church-market-hall-wall-gate-church-church-harbour-church-church tour. Somewhere in the middle there would also be a leisurely visit to the craft brewery.

The tour started with a single step. Literally. The University of Rostock’s main building is adjacent to the tourist office, so taking a step outside revealed the first sight on the map. The university is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1419, and is in a beautiful terracotta Renaissance style building so we felt we’d already achieved something.

A walk down the main shopping street, Kropeliner, got us to the New Market (well, relatively as new can be being almost a thousand years old) and town hall (“Rathaus”, built in 1270). The square is surrounded with a facade of pastel gabled houses and is a bit like Warsaw’s square, but filled with fruit and vegetables stalls instead of cafés and restaurants.

We ticked off the gates and the city wall, built in 1350 and large sections of which are still preserved today. We skipped most of the churches in favour of a walk along the harbour’s popular promenade, the end of which housed the microbrewery we’d been recommended.

Zum Alten Fritz was cosy and warm inside, with traditional German wood-intensive decor. The middle of the room was dominated by a huge wooden bar with all copper vats and pipes (presumably) delivering fresh beer to the stations piled high and wide with beer glasses of various sizes. Between the bar and the front bay windows that overlooked the (damp) beergarden were a handful of high tables, where we sat, and the rest of the space was restaurant tables and booths, with people eating enormous eisbeins and other great big pork dishes. The local brew, Stortebekker, was very satisfying so we settled in and enjoyed the view and the atmosphere.

The trip to Rostock would not have been complete without at least sampling the famous Rostock beer though so we went back into town to source some.

Ironically, the first venue with Rostock branding was right underneath the famous St Marien church, renowned for its astronomical clock (built in 1472)… and now for some pretty formidable free wifi! Fortunately the beer wasn’t as strong as the wifi, so we were soon able to mobilise to get back to the bus stop to catch our shuttle back to the ship.

The bus stop was manned by a different tour director, who had effortlessly lined the guests up in single file, had everyone waiting patiently for the next bus and managed an uneventful embarkation. It was almost disappointingly orderly after the kerfuffle in the morning!

DAY AT SEA
18 June 2016

There was no chance we were going to get cabin fever on our day at sea. While we only had one standing engagement  (pun intended) in the acceptance we’d made to the by-invitation-only Honeymooners party, there was LOTS to do on board.

Each evening a printed notice of the next day’s arrangements – called The Cruise Compass – was delivered along  with the turndown service. The sea day one was a bumper issue, with all sorts of activities arranged throughout the day covering everything from dance classes to rockwall climbing to bingo to pop quizzes to gambling lessons and an array of arty crafty things like napkin folding art and cutting and sticking things to other things. Something for everyone – and some hard to picture for anyone.

Equal parts exciting and daunting was the mealtime daily planner, which showed that everywhere was offering extended hours so our 3 favourite restaurants’ serving hours were overlapping and we could get a good feeding literally any time day or night! Not that we’d been starving by a long shot. We’d been very well taken care of by the Windjammer buffet dining, Reflections 3-course table-service and Park Café for the in-betweener quesadilla  / roast beef slices / chocolate chip cookies to see us to mealtimes.

The breakfast buffet was so extensive that we’d had to make some tough trade-offs. I’d even bypassed bacon in favour of gammon and declared “sausage of the day” to be turkey, which was surprisingly satisfyingly porky! We also tried American ‘biscuits and gravy’; a heavy scone with delicious creamy slightly peppery white sauce, which worked well with my hashbrowns.

Fed to bursting, we made our way to the Honeymooners party, held in the Castle &  Crown pub. We hadn’t been there before and it was a whole new world to venture through the casino to find yet more entertainment awaiting us, including the cinema that flighted a new film 4 times each day.

We were welcomed, ushered to a table, offered champagne and mimosa and served canapés and chocolate strawberries. We were also given a ticket for a lucky draw. There were 11 couples in total on the guestlist, so we were left to ourselves while the last few arrived.

Aysy, the cruise activities director, did a charming welcome and “live, love and laugh” speech before unveiling a magnificent giant cream cake dedicated to all of us! The cake was delicious… but it was impossible to do justice to the wedged we were served on top of what had already been a morning of straight eating!

We didn’t win the raffle (1st prize a bottle of champagne; 2nd a hamper of branded Royal Caribbean merch), but thought that maybe our ship had come in when on our way out through the casino we spotted a pokey machine with 24 credits still on it. Two spins of the wheel and we were (back to broke). A very good thing neither of us are gamblers because we’re clearly not naturally talented!

The next pressing item on the agenda was pool time.  It was a bit chilly at the main pool so we settled in the Solarium, a cosy indoor pool with fountains, glass roof and loungers facing inwards toward the pool and outwards against the floor-to-ceiling windows for an unfettered ocean view.

This did nothing to work up a lunch appetite so we did the responsible thing and visited the gym. Impressively decked out, it was surprisingly busy (especially since the ship is so big that it’s easy to do 5,000 steps a day just moving between meals!). The gym also had a spa and sauna attached; this ship really has *everything*.

The work-out didn’t do much to create appetite, but fortunately we’re driven more by taste than hunger so enjoyed a lovely pasta lunch nonetheless before progressing to bingo in the Safari Club lounge. We needn’t have rushed; we found out that bingo was $50 each when we got there, which was too rich for our blood!

In between all of this excitement, Guest Services had contacted us to say that my suitcase handle was irreparable. Hardly surprising since having the exact right handle in stock was unlikely to say the least. They instead gave me a whole new suitcase, which was very nice of them.

We had decided to skip the Captain’s Dinner in the main dining room for the sake of avoiding having to get all dolled up, and the Windjammer having a Turkish themed evening entrenched our decision as sound. There was just enough time to grab a kebab and a curry and still get to the 7 o’clock movie at the cinema, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with Tina Fey (who will play me in the movie of my life, but not in as serious a way as she portrayed this Kim Baker war journalist person in the film).

As ridiculous as it may sound, we went out for dessert after the movie. The intention was to go for a waffle since there was a full scale station set up with The Works. It was only when standing in the queue did the magnitude of this decision hit. There simply was no more room in the inn!

Well, there’s never NO room, so we made our own softserve cones and retreated to our lounge where room service delivered us a soothing coffee and green tea nightcap. Not very rock ‘n roll, but tomorrow was another day.

Travelogue Baltic 1: Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN

15 – 16 June 2016

The Baltic cruise had actually originally been our second choice for honeymoon destination (behind a Costa Rica and Panama combination), but trumped thanks to our – in retrospect very wise – decision to opt for the “one stop shopping” cruise option. The first half of the year had been very hectic, so having a single booking translate into the majority of an itinerary was an absolute blessing! (Not that all the busyness has prevented us from booking our next 3 getaways already, mind! 😀 )

Quite used to our usual double-barrel flight arrangements through Dubai, the journey was as painless as any, marred only slightly by my sinus infection’s insistence on using cabin pressure as a valid reason to flare up, leaving me gasping for breath, sniffing and sneezing. Fortunately we had a row to ourselves, so tissue plugs in the nostrils and full horizontal allowed me to sleep through the worst of it. A very glamorous and romantic start to the honeymoon indeed!

We arrived to a very moderate 20 degree Copenhagen. As per pilot’s update, a smattering of cumulonimbus threatening some light late afternoon showers in an otherwise perfectly pleasant day.

The airport is really tourist friendly with English translations on all the signage and simple options on how to move from the airport to Copenhagen Central (or catch a train to Sweden, or a host of other presumably popular options).

We mastered the automated ticketing machine and were soon headed to Track 2, which we trusted was the correct one since we arrived to a platform of tourists all equally unsure of the same decision – and all audibly joyous (little more than 10 minutes later) as we all pulled into the Central Station, as planned.

We’d picked up a tourist map at the airport and the short train ride was more than enough time to navigate our path from Central Station to our hotel, which was only a few hundred metres and an almost straight line away.

Cabinn Inn is a very functional and conveniently located hotel in a city where the word “bargain” simply does not apply to accommodation. The rooms are tiny, with a small double bed taking up the majority of the floor space, a single bunk fitted above the head of the bed and the en-suite little more than a shower head above a toilet cubicle. The Rand:Krone might literally be more or less 2:1, but you’d get way more than double the value for this R1600 room (excluding breakfast, which is another R170 each for a continental selection) back home. Nevermind though, it was just a place to rest weary heads – and, no doubt, good practice for our cruise cabin.

Denmark is a Nordic country attached to Northern Europe by a bulb of landmass, with a collection of islands – called the Danish Archipelago – stretching into the Baltic Sea. Copenhagen is the capital, situated on the Eastern side of the largest island Sjaelland (Zealand) and spilling over to the Western side of neighbouring island Amager (which is where the airport is).

Denmark is joined to Sweden by a combination of tunnel and an 8km suspension bridge over the Oresund strait which houses both rail and motorway. I can imagine this modern convenience would have been quite handy back in the 10th century when the Vikings established their little fishing village and more so in the 15th century when Christian IV started working his magic to elevate Copenhagen’s standing – and in so doing, requisitioned many of the regal buildings which are among the numerous tourist attractions in the city today.

Our plan for the arvie was to move immediately towards the main canal (the one that runs between Sjaelland and Amager) to walk the length of the waterfront until Christian Bridge and then veer inland to meander the main city centre en route back to the hotel, catching some dinner somewhere along the way.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Mostly because a) things are a lot closer together than they appear on the map and b) there are some supremely consequential things that maps don’t show, like bridge maintenance that renders a route unplayable. A good combination of problems to have seeing as the former dilutes the latter.

Our walk was very pleasant. And a lot less traumatic than me having to bicycle, like 9 out of 10 residents of Copenhagen do, apparently. The lay of the land is very flat so amenable so consequently there are hoards of bicycles everywhere. Fortunately for us, being the middle of the work day, we saw them in slots in parking lots. Can only imagine there must be a proper cycling rush hour before and after work!

Barely a block and we were at Kalvebod Brygge. The waterfront consists of wide wooden decks fringing the canal on our side and what looked to be restaurants and cafes dotted along a similar waterfront on the other side of the water. There was no railing separating deck from water and there were several people socialising, sprawled out on the wood, chatting on the steps and sunning themselves on deck chairs, like the canal was a beachfront (and like it was hotter than it actually was). All very orderly good clean fun, which is probably why there were none of the usual barrage of signs prohibiting this, that and the other.

We detoured from our waterfront walk when a pole of tourist signs caught our attention with a pocket of places of interest a block or two inland and, in so doing, wandered along Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard. With the Glyptoteket and Tivoli in front of us we realised we’d come full circle, so took a turn into Ny Kongensgade figuring the ‘kongen’ bit was something to do with king, royal etc. It did. And we caught the (outside of) a few museums, churches and the Christiansborg Palace a block or so in.

We learnt that a “lapidarium” is where stone sculptures and carvings are retired to; Copenhagen’s Lapidarium of Kings is found in Christian IV’s brewhouse. We also learnt that The Glyptoteket is an art museum, built around the personal collection of Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. Combining these bits of information with a sighting of a BK billboard announcing that beer is an option of drink in their meals meant we learnt a third thing – beer is a big part of Danish culture – and a fourth thing – we were going to like this place!

We extracted ourselves from the cultural part of the walk to cross the bridge to Christianshavn, a semicircular island pocketed in the close section of Amager.

The buildings along the water on this side were quite different to their historic counterparts on the side we’d just come from, with lots of metal, glass and shiny facades. With no particular agenda in mind, we wandered along Christianhavns Canal – a bit like Amsterdam, with all the brightly coloured boats moored on either side and the bars and cafés spilling onto the streets – thinking we’d reconnect with the Sjaelland side over the next bridge.

Our plan was thwarted however when the next bridge, which also seemed to be the last bridge, was under construction. A pity too because we’d spotted a hive of activity on the other side that we wanted to check out… but now that would mean walking back all the way we came and then retracing all those footsteps on the other side. Typical.

We did also see a couple of big cruise ships docked and assumed one of them to be our destination for the next day (excitement!), so logicked that we could do that end of the waterfront along with the citadel and Little Mermaid the next day when we moved over that side to board our cruise. Thus, we followed the next part of the plan and took Borsgade towards Stroeget (the main shopping street).

All the walking had activated our appetites, but it was awkwardly too late for lunch and too early for dinner so we reverted to Old Faithful from previous travels and hit the 711. This was our first real exposure to Copenhagen prices and we got quite a fright when a slice of pizza and a Carlsberg each was about R250!

It was good (pepperoni!) pizza though and the beer was cold, so it’s hard to complain when you’re able to sit on the steps at the base of a regal horseman statue, in the sunshine, with a view across a pretty canal at a collection of beautiful centuries-old buildings… when one could just as easily have had to be working in the winter back home. Not that (m)any seemed to be working here – there were swarms of people “beaching” canalside!

Stroget – at 1.1km, the longest pedestrian street in Europe – stretches from Radhuspladsen (City Hall Square) where we were all the way up to Kongens Nytorv Square (the back end of Tivoli), with a healthy collection of high-street shops, restaurants and bars. We combined our sight-seeing with hunting for a dinner place, for which we were hoping to do something traditionally Danish since we only had one evening in Copenhagen.

Also, it seemed like as good a time as any to tick the traditional Guinness off our list. R312 for 2 pints of Guinness at The Dubliner officially puts Copenhagen in first place on our Guinness Index!!

We had happened upon a tourist publication while in The Dubliner that suggested Vesterbro (the suburb on the far side of Tivoli) as a good destination for casual dining, which made for as good as any a next mission.

We walked a fair way down the Istedgade and didn’t see anything by way of traditional food – although by their sheer numbers, you’d think schwarmas, burgers and Italian food were local specialities! – so sought refuge in an grungy alternative bar called Simpelt V instead.

Hard to say how long we were there since it was as light as day when we left as when we arrived – our first taste of white nights on travel-fatigue day (compounded by my watery-eyed sinus haze) was very confusing!

It had also confused our bellies so, determined not to have the Tuborg and Carlsberg be our welcome dinner, we got a bacon and cheese hotdog at the 711. The Danes are as passionate about hotdogs as the Icelandics, so it was a legit bit of on-the-go dining, mastered by the 1-man-band who was working the tills, toasting our rolls and even catching a shoplifter simultaneously – easily a 3 or 4 person shift back home (and the shoplifter would have gotten away, for sure).

Flaking while it was still light felt very defeatist, especially on our first night.

… but a long night’s sleep (plus a Med Lemon, an Allergex and a generous slathering of Vicks) did me the world of good and I woke in a far better state.

Pity the weather wasn’t as complicit. We woke to grey skies and it was already drizzling as we hit the streets in search of breakfast.

It was coming down a fair bit by the time we got to the top end of Stroget so we sought solace in, you guessed it, 711. It didn’t disappoint and we procured delicious fresh Danish pastries (in both sense of the word) with melt-in-your-mouth pastry, light creamy custard and rich smooth glacé icing.

With renewed vigour, Chris then very cleverly sourced us a cheapo brolly, which made our walk in the rain that much more manageable.

Beyond wanting to tick the few sightseeing boxes we’d missed the day before, our new mission was a (warm, dry) place that served smorrebrod, the Danish traditional open-faced sandwiches.

We struggled on the main shopping street since most places only serve from 11 or 11.30. We should have guessed as much from the day before where there was much advertising (and reviews in the travel guides) for brunch and lunch, which seems to be the focal meal for the day.

We eventually came right with nondescript Restaurant and Cafe Nytorv (which I later found out is actually a bit of a heritage site, being 150 years old and one of the oldest inns in Copenhagen), where a humourless hostess looked very unimpressed that we wanted to order off the lunch menu a full half hour before time! She did begrudgingly concede – although it took so long for the food to come we thought she might be holding out until the legit serving time!

When it was served, we could see why it had taken a bit of time. Each plate was a beautifully constructed pile of things atop a dark crusty bread base. This was no simple “grilled cheese sarmie”!

Unwilling to try the adventurous traditional herring smorrebrod, we’d opted for one meat and one seafood to sample a variety. The meat one was a thick wedge of warm liver paté with sautéed mushrooms and crispy bacon; the seafood was (cold) shrimps with sliced boiled egg, caviar and lemon. Both were very tasty… but certainly not the portions one would expect Vikings commanded (especially not at R160 apiece!)

The rain had stopped, so it was a good time to get back to the hotel and make our way to the cruise ship.

It was very easy to do since the front desk called a taxi for us and we paid with credit card so didn’t have to worry about running out of or having too much currency (which was a double relief since we hadn’t drawn any cash since Copenhagen is so card friendly).

The harbour was further on the other side than we’d thought so we didn’t get a chance to see those last few sights… but it didn’t matter because we were so excited to be at our big ship, Serenade of the Seas.

Checking in was easy enough and soon we were footloose and baggage-free, etc exploring this sea hotel that was to be home for the next 10 days.

The ship has everything we expected and more – multiple pools, multiple restaurants, countless bars, indoor and outdoor cinema, video game arcade, casino, HUGE gym, running track, basketball court, climbing wall… etc. We ended up accidentally having lunch when we wandered through the Windjammer Cafe and the curry looked and smelled too good to pass up!

By then our room was ready so we made our way to 3554 and were delighted to find that we’d been upgraded to an outer cabin, which had a porthole and lounge area – and was easily 3 times the size of our Copenhagen hotel room! Being on such a low floor, it felt from the view of the liquid horizon like we were just above the waterline. Very lush indeed!

On a less delightful note, my suitcase had already been portered to the room but, sadly, the trolley handle was broken. This compounded what can only be described as a fail for my poor luggage this trip since my personalised belly band had gone AWOL on the international flight, I’d accidentally left the pullover protective sheath cover at Cabinn Inn, Christian had lost the keys to my lock (very unlike him) and now the handle. So much for bad things happening in threes!

Guest Services were quite calm about it, gave me a form, logged the case (no pun intended) and said housekeeping would pop by to take the suitcase to the carpenter for fixing (not entirely sure what a carpenter can do for a plastic handle, but am ever hopeful and preparing to be awed).

They also despatched a fella with a big pair of bolt cutters to clip off the offending keyless lock, so I could unpack my suitcase into the spacious wardrobe before my suitcase went off to be repaired.

With all that excitement behind us, there was little else to do but leisure in our “stateroom” and Christian utilised our lounge room and the Danish cable feed on our flat-screen telly to watch the Euro Champs England/Wales game. I’m sure most of our neighbours appreciated (I know all of our neighbours must have heard) the high-volume jubilation when “our” team won.

We joined the welcome party on main deck at 5, which was (at best) very average. We had a beer to be social and cringed at the $$ pricing and mandatory 18% gratuity on everything. Fortunately though, all meals are included in the cruise cost so it numbs the pain a bit – especially when dinner is a multi-course feast at the a la carte restaurant, as we’d chosen to do. (Nevermind the cheeky quesadilla we’d munched in the Park Cafe in the Solarium en route to dinner! It’s impossible to go more than a few hundred metres on the ship without eating *something*!)

After dinner we caught a show in the Tropical Theatre. It was a frothy variety show featuring all the artists doing full shows during the duration of the cruise. Great idea to help (us) decide what to hit and what to miss.

The cruise director gave us the stats on the nationalities on the guestlist. Over a thousand Americans in the overwhelming lead, with British, Canadians in second and third and a handful of Spanish speaking countries peppering most of the remaining Top 10 slots. No mention of Saffas; guess we have the sorry state of the Rand to thank for that!

Travelogue Baltic 5: St Petersburg – City Tour

 BALTIC: ST PETERSBURG – CITY TOUR

21 June 2016

Our second day in St Petersburg started quite the opposite to the first. Both of us had a restless night, fearing we’d oversleep… and got up half an hour earlier than planned (which was *early* seeing as we had to be on the bus by 7 15!)

Fortunately, on this cruise there was no such thing as too early for breakfast and, in fact, the main dining room was ready and waiting to serve us. The main dining room offers a combination of buffet and table services, with waiters at the ready to bring you a plate of your own design. That seemed – even after the opulence of St Petersburg – a bit too decadent to be practical when there was a buffet right there, so we dished for ourselves and were soon happily munching our gravlax/bacon/eggs/sausage etc, at leisure with plenty of time to spare. As is typical, people at the table complained at how long their food was taking (no more than a few minutes), but they were damned if they’d get up and serve themselves!

Passport Control was even quicker than the previous day as they just checked the existing stamps, and we were among the first to meet on the platform, before the coach had even arrived.

The drive into town seemed that much quicker the second time around; possibly because more familiar so we were anticipating the destination with some sense of the route (you know how the way home always seems quicker than the way to a new place).

Our first familiar sight was the Neva River, the main waterway in the 6 islands that make up St Petersburg. We’d passed over it yesterday; today we stopped alongside it to cash in a wish by rubbing the brass gryphon heads that sit alongside the Egyptian sphinx statues.

This was also am ideal vantage point to get a good look up and down the wide river. It’s obvious to see why it is called rhe City of 1000 Palaces. St Petersburg is nothing short of magnificent with the grandiose facades along the riverfront of a bygone era where bigger was better and detail essential. No cost was spared in the elaborate designs and adornments  that distinguished one mansion from the next in the single continuous row. Even the exterior paint job is meticulous, with a pretty consistent palette of dusky pastel colours with the slatted columns painted white.

We made another roadside stop further down the river at the Rostrums. These are tall terracotta twin columns with ships’ props embedded. At the base of each is a huge statue of a Poseidon/Neptune type chap. This section of the river was even wider (apparently it’s a kilometre wide – in the middle of town! – at some points) and the row of riverfront palaces as grand and consistent, side-by-side, as far as the eye can see in every direction. This city is nothing short of magnificent, in every conceivable sense of the word!

Even the roads are broad, which is unusual for an olden times city. Bearing in mind it was by now around 08h30 on a workday, traffic was thick, but not unmanageable (especially for us, long-suffering Jo’burg drivers). I suppose everything is relative though because even in the 1800s there was considered to be too much carriage traffic… but then the solution was simple: only nobleman could use the roads. That wouldn’t fly nowadays where it’s all for one and one for all and the parking is even free to be fair to everyone.

The next stop was St Isaac’s Church. The previous day’s tour had ended with a visit to a souvenir shop. We’d been assigned 20 minutes to shop but since Uda had flippantly pointed out some pretty notable sights through the window a few blocks earlier, we sprinted down the street retracing our bussteps to get a photo of the church, Palace and statue she’d printed out. Little did we know that we were returning to these the next morning!

The Church is a behemoth of a building, able to seat (well, stand, since Russians stand while worshipping) 14,000 people! It is adorned within an inch of its life and surrounded by the more of the same massive mansion block buildings in every direction. Words cannot describe the scale of everying in this city to the point that your imagination can form a true picture from my words!

The statue across the road from the church is of Nicholas I, Catherine the Great’s grandson. The (magnificent) palace behind it was built for his granddaughter, Maria, who refused to live in it because she couldn’t bear the thought of the view being her grandfather’s ass. Proper First World problems.

The big excursion for the morning was a visit to the Hermitage Museum. It kicked off with a bang when even the entrance Baroque staircase was a sight to behold. The decoration accent colour is gold. As in gold leaf, not golden coloured paint. Not my idea of a good time, but gives you an idea of the reckless abandon with which construction and decorating was undertaken. It was mostly the Empresses (Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) that are credited with the elaborateness and, as Christian said, it was easier back then when the Csar/ina had complete control over all the wealth and could spend on whatever they chose. He further said it was a good thing too because otherwise we wouldn’t have these magnificent things to admire now, in a world that’s a lot more selective in its opulence.

The Hermitage tour kicks off with the Winter Palace, built for Elizabeth but used first by Catherine the Great. Catherine ceded to Alexander I, her favourite grandson. Then his brother Nicholas (from the statue) became Emperor. It’s a tricky story to follow.

“Hermitage” literally means “place for solitude” since the buildings were never meant to be public. Ironic for a building now this busy – as in queues out the door, down the street, around the corner, across the road and through the park! Fortunately we were there as it opened and had a pre-arranged group ticket so were just ahead of the rush.

The Small Hermitage is 2 buildings running parallel with a garden between them. This is where Catherine housed her art, which she was known to have never liked (but collected because collecting was fashionable). Since the art was hung as her private collection in her placw if solitude, she is known to have said “only me and the rats can see it. And I think the rats like it more”

It is a formidable collection of legendary artists – so legendary that even I know them and I know less than nothing about art!

The first masterpiece I recognised was Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”, which he is credited as painting in 1669, the year he died, but had etched 30 year’s prior so really was a life work. This painting was in a whole section of tens of Rembrandt originals… and I’ve now got an appreciation for his talent. While I’m sure one is supposed to appreciate brushstrokes, paint texture and whatnot, the ones that appeal to me are where the paint is smooth and the likeness so good the painting could be a photograph.

The Hermitage also houses 2 of the only 14 Da Vinci originals that can be found outside of Italy, both of Madonna and Child (the religious icon lady, not the singer).

The full tour was about 2 hours and took us through the Winter Palace, Small / Old / New Hermitages and the Hermitage Theatre. We also saw some of Rafael’s paintings and a Michaelangelo sculpture, so were only a Donatello short of a set of turtles!

The next stop wasn’t far from the Hermitage, but took some effort for a bus in the traffic. We found a good drop off point outside Michael’s Palace – another magnificent hunk of building, which cost 7 million Roubles to build in a time when the entire social budget was 700k!

Our destination was the Church on Spilled Blood, which is located on the spot of assassination of Alexander II  (son of Nicholas I). He was very popular because he abolished serfdom and made military conscription compulsory  for all (previously noblemen were exempt). He also encouraged Finland’s autonomy, liberated Bulgaria and sold Alaska to the USA. Obviously though you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and thus this was the 8th attempt on his life – and was aimed at overthrowing monarchy. Terrorists threw a bomb under his carriage. He wasn’t injured but the General next to him died immediately. The Csar – being the good guy he was – got off his carriage to see if anyone was hurt or needed help and the assassins got him with a second bomb. He was badly injured and died 2 hours later in the Winter Palace.

Alexander’s son commissioned the church at the place of his death in his honour. He was so popular that the nobles donated a million Roubles and the common people another half bar. 700 square metres of mosaics don’t come cheap! ..  Although they do save a fortune on pews since Russians pray standing.

We were running a bit ahead of schedule so Uda called ahead to see if we could go straight to lunch. We were initially batted, but the host venue called back about 5 minutes later saying we could come in 15, so we took a walk down to Nevsky Prospekt  (the main shopping street) to get better photos of the big church monument thing that commemorated the victory in the 1812 Napoleonic Wars.

Lunch was served at the Museum of Fine Arts. Based on how particular they were about our time of arrival and the fact that we were served at tables in the middle of the foyer, I surmise this to be a limited offer for which they close the museum over lunch.

Salad was already plated at our place settings, with caviar canapés and bread on the table for self-service. Then followed a bowl of borscht and a plate of chicken stroganoff. Strawberry sorbet to close. It probably was a treat of a meal… but we’ve been spoilt by the restaurants on the cruise ship. We may never be able to eat normally again!

Last on the itinerary was the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, another baroque construction, consecrated in 1733. This was the first main cathedral built in St Petersburg, as a memorial to their 18th century military glory and is the burial place for the Imperial House of Russia.

Peter the Great’s daughter Catherine had been buried in 1708 in the wooden church that stood on this spot and which laid foundation for the creation of this Cathedral to house the Royal tombs of the Romanov Imperial House, and which is currently the final resting place of 46 members of the dynasty.

We were starting to piece together the story and from what we could tell it was:
Peter the Great (unified Russia, moved capital to St Petersburg)
Catherine I (Cinderella
Peter II (Peter the Great’s grandson, last of the male direct line of Romanovs)
Anna (Peter the Great’s niece)
Ivan (Anna’s niece’s infant son, ruled for a year… as an infant)
Elizabeth (seized throne from Ivan; Peter the Great’s daughter)
Peter III (Anna’s nephew; assassinated within 6 months by his wife, Catherine the Great)
Catherine II (Catherine the Great, ruled 34 years)
Paul I (Catherine’s son; ruled 4 years, 4 months, 4 days, strangled in his bed)
Alexander I (Paul’s son, ruled 24 years and died of typhus)
Nicholas I (Alexander’s brother, ruled 30 years and died of pneumonia)
Alexander II (Nicholas’s son, assassinated at Church on Spilled Blood)
Alexander III (Alexander II’s son)
Nicholas II (Alexander III’s son, married to Alexandra)

The Romanov line ended with the October Revolution where the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas and his family so that there was no chance of returning to a Csarist regime. The whole family were buried unceremoniously at the time, but much later disinterred and brought to their own designated tomb in the Cathedral.

Quite a maudlin end to the day, but reaffirms St Petersburg as a place rich in history and stories of great victories and great tragedies.

Driving out of the city once again, it’s such a contrast of the beautiful elegant mansions built in the age of opulence versus the functional-to-a-fault grey compounds so obviously built by the Communists. Still enormous though, which seems to just be the St Petersburg way.

It was with regret that we said our goodbyes to St Petersburg as it grew smaller on what should have been the sunset, but of course wasn’t seeing as it was the longest day of the year, with darkness of less than 40 minutes so the sun was still high in the sky at 8 o’clock at night!

Travelogue Baltic 4: St Petersburg

BALTIC: ST PETERSBURG – PETERHOF

20 June 2016

The day started with a mad dash. We had overslept and woke – with panic! – at 07h48, almost an hour later than planned since we needed to disembark by 08h30 and of course still needed to get breakfast on board!

Fortunately the weather was good so less layers (and no brolly hunt!) meant quicker prep and we were pounding the passages just over 10 minutes later, hair-wash day ‘n all!

Christian, ever-cautious planner as he is, insisted we go past the meeting place (on the other end of the ship from the Windjammer breakfast bar) first. Turned out to be a good call as we were issued our stickers and instructions on where to meet the bus (in 45 minutes; on the other side of immigration) leaving just enough time to have a flash breakfast. Well, hopefully enough time; there was still the gamble of how long passport control would take (but it was a risk we were willing to bear).

We probably did ourselves a favour by being that little bit later judging by the queues, which were virtually non-existent. Other passengers hadn’t been so lucky, had overestimated the time required and consequently been sitting on the bus for the better part of an hour already.

A visa is required for shore excursions in Russia. If you make your own plans, you need to arrange your own visa. If you do the ship’s excursions you travel on a “Captain’s visa”, which really just means it is included in the package and doesn’t require any additional paperwork. We’d done the latter since it was so much easier and visas are an expensive exercise, so sailed (pun intended) through passport control.

We were perfectly to time, arriving at our assigned coach just before 9. Our guide, Uda, greeted us warmly. She gave it another few minutes before expressing that we were waiting on the last 5 guests on our roll for the day. When they still weren’t with us 10 minutes later, she did a few rounds of hurried counting up and down the aisles, double-checking  herself. Counting sounds like hard work in Russian (although they probably say the same about us).

Starting with the usual pleasantries, Uda told us we were lucky to have such a warm, clear blue-skies day, sharing that St Petersburg usually only enjoys around
60 sunny days a year. She wasn’t surprised at all that it had been cold and wet in Tallinn the previous day. So much for summer!

The drive into town was about 20 minutes. Uda filled the time with stories about the city, its history and its name.

The city was obviously named after St Peter. The name was changed during first World War because St Petersburg sounded too German, so it was changed to Petrograd (“grad” means city in Russian) to make it sound more Russian. In 1924 it was then renamed Leningrad after Lenin died and was only changed back to St Petersburg in 1991 with the fall of the Communist Empire.

The city is held in esteem to this day by the rest of the country, having gained hero status in the 900 day siege in WWII. The city held the Germans at bay for almost 3 years, but not without loss. Desperately starved of food, the siege shrunk the population by half (mostly because of starvation and exposure) to 1,5 million people. Soldiers and workmen were rationed to 250 grams of bread (or similar substitutes when there was no bread) and general populous half of that. To top it all off, they were subjected to one of the coldest winters, with temperatures dropping to up to 40 degrees below, with no electricity and no heating.

Now the city is back up to 5 million people, thanks to the immigre who come to work and study (this is the cultural and educational capital of Russia) and is the second biggest behind Moscow, which is 600 km away and has in excess of 15 million people.

It sounds like St Petersburg has had more than its fair share of strife, in the early days attributed to its position as strategic trade route between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. This sparked the 21 year war (1700 – 1721) with Sweden. Peter the Great won back St Petersburg against Charles VII of Sweden – a highly revered military leader of the time so it was quite the coup – and established his summer Palace, Peterhof, as monument to the victory. His vision were completed OTT, using the Palace of Versailles as his muse, complete with mansions, gardens that went on for days and endless fountains.

Peterhof was our destination for Day 1 of the tour.

On our way out of town, Uda shared with us about how the people of this city lived and live. In olden times there was a big divide between the haves and the have nots.  St Petersburg is dubbed “The City of 1000 Palaces” because it is so grand with a more than representative sample of mansions and stately buildings. The royal and noble people built enormous places, ridiculously decadent in both size and decor. The ground floor would house the hundreds (or in some cases, like the Winter Palace, thousands) of staff required to maintain the place. The owners would then occupy upper floor/s, hosting parties with reckless abandon… if they were there at all.

The Bolsheviks confiscated these inner city palaces from the aristocracy during the Revolution and nationalised them, turning them into communal flats. The palaces were reallocated room by room, such an entire family would occupy a single room, sharing kitchen and bathrooms with other families. The palaces went from being decadently airy to providing an average of 5 square metres per person.

Uda told us that most families had a dacha (modest chalet) or cottage (quite roomy generally double storey house) outside the city too. This is where they would escape the city in the summer to go to the forests or swimming at the lake (presumably dropping everything on those 60 sunny days she spoke of). From what I can gather, these may have been the family homes that they occupied before moving into the allocated quarters in the redistributed Palace accommodations. Uda’s family dacha was 100km south of St Petersburg, she told us, which had been very far out back in the day, but was the perfect “just out of town” now that the city had grown so much (sounds a bit like Hartebespoort).

We arrived to Peterhof, able to see immediately the grandeur old Peter had intended. Enormous buildings in yellow with white columns and trim, expansive cobbled and gravelled courtyard and walkways, sculpted and manicured gardens in perfect symmetry as far as the eye could see and fountains. LOTS of fountains.

The tour ended up being a wall through the gardens, pointing out notable fountains from the 150 on the property. Not naturally being one excited by such things, it was impossible not to be impressed. If not by the magnitude of the project, then by the impressive application of rudimentary physics and technology, using gravity  to move the unbelievable amounts of water to these (largely aesthetic) features. There is no internal recycling of water at all. The water moves from springs about 4km away to the storage lakes, through the fountains and then out to the Baltic Sea.  30 cubic kilolitres of water a day!

There were some fountains of deep symbolic intent – eg the Eve fountain in the Western end of the garden symbolising the end of paradise, with her matching Adam on his own fountain in the Eastern end – and some where enormous effort had been put in above and beyond the fountain, like a checkerboard cascade which had been designed to match the Palace’s blue and  white checkerboard floor and which had all sorts of statues (including some oddly out of place dragons) on either side and at the top.

Peter I also had some whimsical ideas like the water road he had put in. With jets on either side of the sand road, twice a day the road became impassable because of the solid water arch they created. He also conceptualised the trick fountains, where jets strategically hidden behind benches would be activated when certain stones in the cobbled pathway where stood upon. There were some proper upside down smiles from some of the grumpies on our tour who got “tricked”!

There was a “should have been” trick in the monument just outside of the trick fountain garden, where legend was rhat one could gain a wish by throwing coins at the metal figure. It was fortunate if your wish was for more coins because this come true simply by visiting the other side of the statue!

On our way out of the gardens we passed Catherine the Great’s swimming pool. It’s enormous. Pity the pool guy who had to maintain that! Can’t imagine she had much time to linger in the pool though, what with her husband being killed and her claiming power via coup d’etat n all. It is now the only mechanically pumped fountain in the Gardens.

The end of the circuit deposited us back in front of the Palace building, with a magnificent view surveying everything we’d walked over the past few hours. And that was only the Lower Gardens. Who knew what the Upper Gardens held.

Despite ourselves, we’d enjoyed it. We had been very fortunate with the weather; I’d imagine if it were cold and or rainy, we’d have had less good humour for the anecdotes and water features.

The stories of the Royal family, their eccentricities, extravagances and anguishes was intriguing.  Mental note to self was to figure out the chronology of the Catherines, Peters, Alexanders and Nicholases!

Travelogue Baltic 3: Tallinn

BALTIC – TALLINN (ESTONIA)

19 June 2016

Having elected to forego the tour and transfer options for Tallinn (based on our rudimentary research indicating that the town was less than a kilometre from the pier), it was reassuring that we could see the Old Town skyline from the ship as we disembarked at 9am. It was drizzling, but we were prepared this time so wouldn’t be buying any more umbrellas!

Our cruise ship was docked in the Old Harbour with a pleasant thoroughfare through a curio store and a coffee shop,  where we picked up a free tourist map. Not that we needed one; exiting the shops, it was impossible to miss the city gate atop the hill directly ahead.

We entered the Old Town through the aptly named Great Coastal Gate, protected by “Fat Margaret” – a 25m high grey stone tower with little red tile kepi roof and walls up to 5 metres thick – who has been standing guard over the entrance since the early 1500s.

The town was still fast asleep, probably because it was still relatively early and also it was a Sunday (although one might town assume that a town with such a condensation of churches might call Sunday their busy time!), so we did a spot of window-shopping as we made our way up the cobbled streets to the town square, passing the St Olav’s Church, which benchmarks building height in Tallinn and is the reason there are only 6 skyscrapers in the (new) town.

Tallinn’s Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and its town square, Raekoja Plats, built in the beginning of the 1400s, is arguably Northern Europe’s best preserved medieval town hall square, so even walking past the quaint “unnotable” buildings was picturesque. The old town is divided into lower and upper; the lower being the hanseatic traders and the upper (Toompea) was inhabited by nobility.

There was some activity on the square, with people setting up their market stalls as well as what seemed to be some sort of festival stage and benches. It was still drizzling though so we kept moving to get a head start on the tourist sites before the inevitable hoardes descended.

We managed to get ahead to the “Kiek in de Kok” tower; the entrance to the historical underground bastion tunnels, which were supposed to serve as bomb shelters for the Communist elite in case of war in Soviet times. The name means “look into the kitchen” (we had a far less mature guess) referring to its view into the surrounding homes and because that’s exactly what the soldiers spent most of their time doing while they were supposed to be on the lookout for intruders.

They would have had a grand old time if they were to be posted there now; there is a pub and cafe on top of the wall so they’d be able to warm their cockles with some of Estonia’s finest rum, Vana Tallinn, while keeping an eye on things.

The rain was putting a literal dampener on things – and ruining the view from these excellent vantage points we were visiting – so we decided to turn our efforts to the Guinness Index to wait out the weather.

A very pleasant hour in the Albion and a 4 Euro Guinness later, the rain had stopped and we were on our way again.

We retraced some of our footsteps to get a better view / pictures, but we had really already seen everything we wanted to see, so just had a bit of a wander up and down cobbled walkways, popping into the odd shop and perusing the odd menu (for nothing more than idle curiosity, mind).

The town square concert was now in full swing, with a spirited accordionist whipping up frenzy in a large group of fans in front of the stage that had organised themselves with interlocked arms into concentric rings that were twirling – at pace! – in opposite directions. The song’s tempo was getting faster and faster, as were the dancers in response, until suddenly with a few crescendic bars, the accordionist called the song to a close and everyone roared cheers, threw arms up with thunderous applause and there was laughing and hugging all round.

Since many were in traditional dress (the typical emroidered medieval derivatives), this excitement was obviously no coincidence and this concert must’ve been a big event to these local people. We were glad to have caught the tail-end of it.

We’d seen in a tourist map that there was a KGB museum in (new) town, at Viru Hotel so planned to take a turn past that on our way back to the ship. It was unfortunate that the hour-long tours were sold out for the afternoon because the exhibitions looked interesting, constructed from a old spy room that the KGB used to use back in the day to monitor the goings-on (by hidden cameras, holes in the wall and the like) in this notorious hotel.

The walk back to the ship was quite pleasant; leisurely, downhill, familiar and dry! We had plenty of time to go until curfew for boarding so got to explore the market on the harbour. We were tempted to try the Tallinn rum – based on the number of commemorative empty bottles “decorating” the pub on the old town wall, it must be quite special – but resisted seeing as we couldn’t take any aboard with us anyway (thanks to security at the embarkation points) even if we did like it.

First order of business when back on the Serenade of the Seas was lunch. Perfect timing for some mid-afternoon casual dining! Intending only to take a morsel (seeing as dinnertime was only 3 hours away), the buffet once again got the better of us with delicious pasta and con carne.

Fat and happy, it was essential that we kickback and flex our lounge for a couple of hours!

Dinnertime came all too soon. We’d had to book in the first sitting because we’d designed a series of activities for ourselves that required us to be ready by 7 or eating very late (which we don’t do).

The formal dining room is a la carte from a limited (about 10 options per course) but varied selection. The chef’s recommended 3 course combination is printed on the menu and the waiting staff – who get to know you (by name) since you always sit in the same section – give further advice based on your previous selections. Our waiter knew us a bit too well and surprised us with a bonus third dish when he served main course – a lasagne, adding to the tiger prawns and pork shoulder roast we’d ordered – which would certainly have gone to waste if everything hadn’t been so ridiculously tasty!

Our expanded dinner put some time pressure on us to get to our 7pm show – a comedy / magic show in the Theatre, but we were grateful for the leg-stretch to get the enormous feast settled.

The show was light and fun, with the host, Mel Mellis, maintaining a buoyant  monologue, heckling peppered with amusing anecdotes and punny one-liners, while performing some simple magic tricks. It was a laugh and we agreed we’d support Mel again if he had another show later in the cruise.

Next stop was a high-tail to the Schooner Bar for a music trivia quiz. Tonight was the night of Michael Jackson and the audience was tasked with identifying hit and obscure songs from snippets that the host teased. Old MJ is pretty prolific so we did rather well.

Better than the poor hopefuls participating in the game show in the Centrum. Being in the horizontal centre of the ship, the Centrum is an open 9-volume cylinder where all the decks look down onto a central floor and little stage.  There is a bar and collection of chaisses, cocktail and bucket chair tables ensconcing the performance area, but the majority of the audience settles in the protruding balconies and chairs alongside the glass dividers on the upper floors, with a perfect view of whatever spectacle is for offer below.

Tonight’s show was “Complete the Lyric”, where contestants were offered a section of lyric which then cut short and they were to continue the song.  Contestants buckled to the likes of Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson until finally ‘Chris from Tennessee’ was able to  annex the missing 26 “I Know” suffixes from Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”. It was quite a coup for him. And the whole show was quite entertaining for the rest of us.

Travelogue Australia 2: Sydney

SYDNEY
28-31January 2016

It was a good thing our transfer from Port Douglas to Cairns Airport was booked for when it was (1pm) because our little last frolick on the beach had flash-fried a decent tanning, which continued to set over the course of the drive to the airport and through the flight. Any longer and we (well, I. But you knew that) would have been burnt to a crisp!

Coral was again our driver but was (this time being in a people carrier with four other people) considerably less chatty and, from our position at the back of the van, the trip was all scenery sans narrative. A coup for Christian who had snoozed on the way there – and would most often opt for the road less Attenboroughed.

We were well in time for our flight and had even scored the prized front row seats with extra legroom (obviously online check-in isn’t a “thing” with the mature audience with whom we’d shared our off-season mini-break). We hadn’t expected an onboard meal so had had Hungry Jack at the airport (an amazing feat with one girl manning the cashier, cook and delivery functions; easily a 5 man operation at home)… but, never afraid to be a meal ahead, ate the roast beef and the chicken stir fry – and relished the Lindt ball and strawberry ice-cream dessert – that was served to us anyway.

Arriving at Sydney Airport, we were again pleased by our bags arriving on the carousel within minutes. It had given us just enough time to gather data for the bus/shuttle/taxi/train options, and we were set on taking the train to St James Station.

The airport is within the city so a mere 15 minutes later we emerged from the station at Hyde Park in Sydney Central. Around a corner and up the road and we were at our hotel, Megaboom.

Post check in, we were pleased to be vindicated that the hotel we’d chosen for its fun name was perfectly appointed and our suite nicely decked with the requisite creature comforts.

Everything had been so quick and easy since arriving that we got ahead of the game and took a trot down to Circular Quay to get an advance night sighting of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It was all very exciting, bar the Bridge having had its thunder stolen somewhat by the miniature (original, predecessor) version of it that we saw in Newcastle last year.

Friday morning’s first mission was to meet up with Christian’s cousin, Helena, who had kindly offered to take time off to tourguide us on our Sydney weekend – along with her family, travelling from Canberra (Grant and Kurt coming from home) and Woolongong (Gabriella coming from uni) to spend time with us.

Helena made it really easy for us, planning daily bundles of excursions in advance but giving us bitesize sets of instructions to follow. It was easy enough to catch the 373 bus to Coogee and head towards the steps… and there she was!

After enthusiastic reunioning and introductions, group consensus was to begin our planned beach walk, which would wind us along the coastline all morning and end up at Bondi where we would meet up with Grant and his cousins (out from Germany and on their last day in Sydney) for lunch.

Coogee was a lovely beachfront, really idyllic and picture-perfect and, had it to do again, we should probably have spent more time there. But you never know these things up front and it seemed more pragmatic to get some walking under the belt while fresh – and less than practical to start the journey of 10,000 steps (hopefully) with wet swimmers and sandy slops.

The conversation – catch-ups, introductory staples and general – flowed easily as we walked along the path and up a hill and round a bend and through a park and past a bowling green… and emerged at Gordon’s Bay, which was a bit rough for swimming. Around the next bend found us at Clovelly, an interesting set-up with concrete decks on either side of the bay turning the inlet into a sort of outsized open-ended swimming pool. This apparently had been a busy-work project initiated by the government during the depression to keep people employed and productive. What a great idea; would be good if the devils at home could manufacture a few decent projects like that to keep some idle hands working.

Walking machines that we were, we whipped past the bathers and baskers, around the bay, out the other side, up and around the bend to Bronte Beach, where we stopped at one of the pavement cafés for a wetty. It was a really beautiful day so the area was buzzing and the beach populated (attributed to uni not being in session for the year yet); great for people-watching in our downtime.

Back on the road, the coast next took us to Tamarama Beach, where we must have looked the part since a lady craned out of the passenger side of the car to “excuse me” us to ask for directions to the Tamarama Beach Club, which by dumb luck we were able to provide since we’d just walked past a building with that name emblazened all along one facade (but which was obscured from the lost lady’s view because of her direction of approach) and the path to that building ran alongside the pavement (which she also wouldn’t have been able to see from her car).

Clearly old hats at this beach walk lark, it was little surprise when we rounded the next bend and were faced with Bondi Beach.

We had to cross most of the beach itself to get to the narrow swimming zone, demarcated by lifeguard flags. It was tough, being South African, to leave our things in our bag unattended on the sand while we swam (which obviously for me meant mid-shin wading).

In the meantime, Grant and his German cousins had arrived in Sydney, so we navigated them to our spot on the water’s edge. They were keen for a swim but since angry grey clouds had pulled in, we moved off the beach to the undercover corridor at the pavilion. None too soon either as soon it was raining up a storm!

No mind though, it would take more than a few raindrops to dampen our spirits (especially since we were still damp from the seawater!) so we walked down the road to the Bondi Hotel and had a very tasty lunch, meaning a barramundi and chips for Christian and I.

Over lunch we got the back story on the Germans. It was Grant’s cousin, Barbara, and her son, Simon, who were on a 5 week holiday in Aus. Fortuitously, their stay had overlapped with ours as they flew out of Sydney the day after we flew in, giving us the serendipitous Friday sweetspot. From lunch we got in another swim at Bondi before Barbara and Simon were driven to the airport and we returned to our hotel.

We reconvened with Helena and Grant at our hotel in the evening and headed to a recommended dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung, in Chinatown for dinner. We were hungry again after our 25+ thousand step day and shared a combination of steamed and fried dumplings for starters and all sorts of exotic treats for mains. Although not particularly late, we were among the last to leave the restaurant.

Saturday started with a panic. Somehow my phone – despite being on the powerbank – had died overnight and Christian’s alarm hadn’t gone off, so we woke up 45 minutes later than the planned meeting time!! Our gracious travel companions were very easy going, so had thought nothing of it and gone ahead with meeting their kids as planned. We threw on some clothes and chucked some swimgear in our togbag and hightailed down the road to meet them at the coffee shop they’d chosen for brekkie.

They were very chill about our faux pas (now diagnosed as a flat powerbank and a 5-day week alarm) and perfectly happy enjoying their own company. So nice to meet the 2 new faces to put to all the stories I’ve heard over the years – and who I so narrowly missed meeting on their last trip to South Africa.

Group communed, we were ready to walk down to the harbour to catch our ferry to Manly Beach, which is across the water and just past the heads that serve as the entrance to the harbour.

Manly is very cool. The landing point must’ve served for decades because it’s all old buildings that look like they could easily be 100 years old. From there it’s a legit beachtown with wide pedestrian streets, market stalls and buskers and entertainers swapping atmosphere-creation for cash.

We did a bit of ambling and browsing, but really only attempted direction when the subject of lunch came up. Grant had mentioned earlier, when we’d arrived, that there was an infamous spot called Hotel Steyne that always made tabloid headlines for brawling among liquored Manly Sea Eagles, so that was enough to pique our curiosity and secure it as lunch destination du jour.

The restaurant was a lovely airy sea-facing dining room with self-service counters at the back. The food was delicious and we had very tasty toasties and pizzas. The Hotel seemed too savoury to believe the stories… until I realised, on going to find the loo to change into swimwear, that there was a whole lot more to it. Passing through the big front bar, the bustling courtyard full of checkered characters and the stale-beer smelling pokie room at the back, the stories seemed a bit more plausible.

We hit the beach and all enjoyed frolicking in the cool Pacific Ocean water, at our various chosen depths. Christian, still not getting the rules and compliance thing, got into trouble with the lifeguards for a constant commitment to swimming beyond the demarcated flag zones. The guards were tooting away on their whistles and bleating requests on their megaphones as he carried on bobbing, blissfully unaware… much to our amusement, watching from ankle-depth in the safe zone.

A family after my own heart, the suggestion was tabled to go get ice-cream so that brought to a close our episode on yet another of Sydney’s glorious beaches.

The ferry ride back to the city is quite quick and pleasant, so it must be a pleasure to live somewhere as lovely as Manly and commute in and out of the city.

On our way back in, we happened to pass a Gallagher’s Irish pub so felt obliged to stop in to measure the Guinness Index. $10 a pint, putting Sydney into 2nd place (still behind Hong Kong). The Wellington 7s was on and our timing totally coincidentally coincided with the SA vs New Zealand, which we narrowly lost in the last plays after the final whistle. All was not lost though since we were still through to the next round and teed up to play Australia in the quarter final.

Having made the pitstop, we had to move to get back to the hotel and get showered and changed to meet the others for dinner.

We’d decided on another visit to Chinatown after the success of the previous evening – and on Gabriella’s recommendation of an authentic but modest dumpling place. It was an excellent suggestion and everything we ordered (to share between us) was amazing!

The big plan for Sunday was to meet up with old friends from SA, Carrie and Andre, who had emigrated in 2015. The arrangement was for us to go through to their house in the ‘burbs in the early arvo, so it left the morning for us to see The Rocks and Darling Harbour.

The Rocks is the old section of town which had been the first settlement when the original migrants had made Sydney their home. Helena and I had a lengthy discussion as we walked en route about the hows and whys of who went past this then-remote neck of the woods, thinking that it seemed very out of the way in a time when travel was, to be base, a bit of a schlep. We rationalised that it perhaps was in perspective when you consider that those voyagers were traversing the globe for a few spices and whatnot and if that was enough to motivate, then maybe a little tropical pitstop was a treat after all. Gabriella picked up the tail end of our convo and piped up “Well, I’d come here for a packet of chips and a high five”, which is a winning tagline for the Sydney Tourism Board if I’ve ever heard one!

Not sure about the first settlers (“unlikely to have scored a bag of chips nor cared for a high five” as Gabriella put it), but the next few batches can’t be faulted for wanting to stay. The Rocks is a perfectly preserved slice of history, with the turn of the last century buildings and narrow cobbled streets now housing a generous helping of cafés and restaurants as well as a street market (possibly only a Sunday thing?)

It was easy enough to find space at a café to settle in for some brunch and an enormous toastie and milkshake hit the spot, as we soaked in the atmosphere in the shadow of the famous bridge.

Keeping up our steps, we walked from The Rocks to Darling Harbour. Part of the fun was taking in the foreignness of all the strange Aussie names of things:
Girra Girra Steps, Waranara Terrace, Nawi Cove. All very exotic.

We were given some background on and a basic run-through of Darling Harbour, which was sadly the end of the line for our tour courtesy of the Michls. The few days we’d had together had been so much fun that it was with a heavy heart that we parted ways at Town Hall station to embark on the next segment of our adventure.

Dab hands at the train system, we found the train to Hornsby effortlessly and were soon on our way – for the first time – over the bridge and into the ‘burbs.

Carrie was waiting for us at the station (for some time, I suspect, since our timings had been so sketchy) and we were delighted to reunite! She took us on a quick tour through her new home town and we were soon at their lovely new(ish) home.

It was awesome to catch up with the Boshoffs who, we couldn’t believe, had lived in Sydney for a year already! They were still amazing hosts and lavished us with a lamb shank feast in their charming lush green back yard to the soundtrack of the babbling creek that flowed in the bridged canal flowing between the house and garden.

With a bellyful of deliciousness on board, the plan was hatched to take a trot down to the Cole’s store to get some brownie mix and ice-cream for dessert. A good opportunity to see the neighbourhood on the ground. We also ended up buying a replacement case of beers, which was less than optimal for poor Christian who had to hump them all the way home!

The brownies more than made up for it though, teasing us with delicious aroma while we waited patiently for them to bake, amusing ourselves with trying to fathom the mystery that is Aussie Rules football.

Comfortable in the living room, we watched the first few episodes of The Last Man on Earth while we enjoyed our dessert and stretched the last section of our day together, before our hosts drove us to the train station for our return journey to the city.

Now very au fait with the lay of the land, we opted to go to Town Hall station… and logicked on our walk back to the hotel that this would also be the better station in the morning because, even though a little further on the train, it’d be an easier station to get to in the morning throng since it was a flat walk with fewer traffic crossings than the shorter, downhill, weaving walk to St James. And, with a 09h45 flight requiring us to be at the airport around 07h30, prudence  would be of the essence.

We could not be more wrong. We emerged from the hotel at 07h00 to an empty street and only encountered the first other lone sole at the first intersection! There were progressively more people as we approached the station, with a few mini-bursts of life as our flightpath happened to cross-section a bus stop… but certainly nothing you’d call a “rush hour”. Maybe Central wakes up later because it’s retail driven? Maybe there’s a business district bustling elsewhere?

We were at the station in minutes, convinced that we’d be faced with a flood of people coming in on the train we’d need for the airport journey, as has been common on our previous experiences with metropolitan primetime public transport travel. We stood back on the platform, prepared for the influx to disembark before we tried to enter the train.

The train arrived.

We waited for the rush – both people – to exit before making ourselves comfortable in the caboose we had all to ourselves.

The hard part done, Sydney Airport International Terminal was only 5 stops for us, so we were at our destination before 07h30. What a win!

Sweet sorrow to conclude our Aussie Adventure. And really sad news that they’re all first world and automated so there’s no stamp in the passport to commemorate a truly excellent vaycay.

Travelogue Australia 1: Port Douglas

AUSTRALIA: GREAT BARRIER REEF
22-28 January 2016

For the first time ever, our beloved Emirates didn’t run like clockwork. We were informed as we neared Dubai that our landing would be delayed because of thick mist over the airport. The delay was only an hour… but an hour was enough to jeopardise our connecting flight to Brisbane!

On (eventually) landing, we were relieved to see that we hadn’t missed our flight because, like many others, it had been delayed for 2 hours in the domino effect the mist had caused. The relief was short-lived as we realised that this salvation was at the very real risk of missing our next flight, the connection from Brisbane to Cairns, which had only 2 hours transit time.

Never ones to have our spirits dampened by logistics, we drowned our concerns in the buffet in the Business Lounge. Scottish salmon, prawns, Champagne, a hotdog and mini doughnut (for good measure) later and we were truly in a “what will be will be” headspace when we boarded the plane for our 16 hour flight.

Sadly, the Bourbon-fuelled old worry-wart next to us in the window seat of our 3-seater row, reminded us several times of the implications of the delay since – sorry for him – his connection was an hour after the original landing time so he had a snowball’s hope in hell of catching it. And had us in hell living and re-living the prospect.

But, the travel gods (or rather, the Aussie work ethic since it was all thanks to our luggage coming out on the carousel quicksticks) were on our side, and we whipped through the controls, which deposited us neatly in front of the Virgin Australia check-in desk to hand over our luggage for the short hop to Cairns. What simple genius to have a Domestic check-in counter in the International Arrivals so you don’t have to hump everything across the airport between terminals!

And a good thing too because Christian got into trouble as it was for jumping on the terminal transfer bus through the back door, which was right in front of him when the bus stopped. Despite no signage to that effect, the driver was insistent that it was Exit Only and made Christian get off the bus and come through the front door… only to walk down the length of the bus to take the exact same seat. Christian might have been less compliant if he’d already humped our 2 big suitcases in with him!

The 2-hour Cairns flight was an excellent time to nap, with lots of legroom and nobody sharing our 3-seater, and we were soon in sunny Cairns with our private transfer driver ready and waiting for us. Her name was Coral, not a word of a lie! She joked that the only thing that contested with her for most things named after it, is Cook this-that-and-the-other, after Captain James Cook, who had the first contact with this part of the world.

Coral (The Driver) was very knowledgeable and shared snippets of interest on what we were passing as we took the scenic hour-long drive along the Cook Highway (a bit of a misnomer, being a delightful meandering mostly single lane road). It was mostly tropical forest creeping up the mountain (the same range that runs all the way down to Sydney) on the left and the Coral Sea on the right, with intermittent traffic circles which allow access to the artery that runs to the coastal towns dotted along the tropical North East Queensland coastline. The Australian Government has strictly regulated big chain access into this part of their country, so everything is still quaint and countrified.

The road into Port Douglas – our final destination, EVENTUALLY, having left home on Friday night and arriving Sunday afternoon! – is lined with hundred of huge palm trees, a disproportionately grandiose entrance to the charming boutique seaside town.

We had booked into By The Sea luxury apartments because of its high rating for location, but its reviews had understated completely. Placed on the corner of Macrossan Street (home to all the retail and entertainment action) and The Esplanade (running along our end of 4 Mile Beach), we could not have asked for better. And we didn’t have to ask. For anything. The hotel included EVERYTHING in their package. We could get (free) beach chairs, loungers, towels, beach games, bicycles, cooler boxes, ice, DVDs, books, gym equipment, laptops, tablets, boardgames etc etc etc from reception. No charge, no rush to return. How very awesome; what a nice touch!

After our long haul to get to Port Douglas, we were amped to see the place! A quick shower and some clean clothes later and we were on our way out and into town to get some supplies. Being walking distance from anywhere to anywhere, Port Douglas manages to cram everything you need for a perfect holiday – beach, restaurants, pubs, excursions suppliers and essential holidays goods shops – in a handful of roads and we had placed ourselves perfectly to access everything.

Starting with a gander of the famous (well, to us anyway, having read all the travel info in the onflight magazine) 4 Mile Beach, we slipped off our slops and hit the sand. It’s a strange beach; not the soft white sand you’d think, the sand is compacted and solid underfoot, like the tide permanently only just went out. There are also “stingers” rife, so you can’t swim anywhere but in a small demarcated area, fenced by tight mesh nets and manned by lifeguards. It’s really unusual to see so many people walking along the beach, but not breaking the waterline.

I delighted in walking on the little balls of sand that (presumably) crabs spit out when making their tunnels. It was sort of like sandy bubble wrap or crashing through piles of crunchy leaves; weirdly addictive.

Beach seen, we tried the other direction. A short trot down Macrossan Street (well, the full length) and we were at the bayfront, which Coral had said was a popular sundowner spot. We agreed, so we double-backed and got the groceries (the usual bread, bacon, cheese, eggs), as well as a selection of local beers – tinnies singles so we could sample a selection.

We returned to By The Sea to drop off our spoils and take advantage of the cooler box and ice on offer. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we headed for the park to enjoy our first Aussie sunset.

There were several people who had the same idea – a mixed bag of young and old, families and couples – so we had plenty to keep us entertained with the sea in front of us and (amongst other things) the heated family cricket game right behind us.

It’s really good to see people enjoying public space. And even more so to see them respecting what they have been given. The park is spotless and well maintained – even the public ablution block which is unmanned, but clean and in perfect working order, which would sadly never be the case at home.

On our way home we made the traditional stop in the Irish bar (uncreatively named Paddy’s) for a Guinness to log it against our growing Index. At R96 a pint, it comes in 5th behind Hong Kong, Toledo, Reykjavic and UK. It’s an expensive way to comfort us against the extortionate price the Baron charges (R36 a pint), which prompted the global research!

While at Paddy’s we were recommended pizzas at Rattle & Hum Pizza bar and, never ones to turn down a pizza, it made the perfect dinner plan. Needless to say, the whole experience was different to home… but the most disturbing was when we asked for the condiments (expecting chopped garlic and chilli) and we given little sealed tubs of prepacked “garlic aoli”, a sort of creamed garlic sauce. Really not the same.

Exhausted from the travel, we were home and in bed by 9!

… and only woke up at midday on Monday! 15 hours sleep to get over the travel!

It was overcast which had no doubt contributed to our lie in, but it was still 27 degrees with 90% humidity so the beach was the natural choice for the afternoon.

But, before that, we had important business. Lunch. And booking our Great Barrier Reef Tour.

We walked down to the Bay since that seemed the most logical place for boat companies and we hit paydirt. We got megawraps at Hog’s Breath Diner from their lunchtime bargain $9.90 menu AND we got a chance to review the literature on the various company and tour options. We narrowed down our choices and crossed off the shortlist by visiting the respective companies until we settled on the Calypso full day tour to the Outer Reef, with 2 snorkels and a dive (Christian’s first!) between Agincourt and Opal Reefs.

Very pleased with our accomplishments, we walked back to our sanctum to commence our afternoon’s beachtime.

Arming ourselves with loungers, towels and books from the resort library, we took the left turn onto The Esplanade and hit the 4 Mile Beach. Knowing what to expect this time, we handled ourselves like locals, dropping off our loungers and our bag near the lifeguard tower and taking a long walk along the beach to see if the 4 Mile bit was literal.

We can’t be empirically sure, but it seems credible enough. The beach is on a shallow concave bay so even though it feels like you’re walking in a straight line toward a corner, you never reach the corner because you’re on a constant gradual curve. We gave the curve a half hour and then turned around and retraced our footsteps.

The burst of activity having made up for our slothly start to the day, we felt justified in spending the rest of the afternoon lounging about and soaking in the view, until it started to get dark so we retreated to the heated pool at our resort.

Impossible to resurrect ourselves for public consumption, we decided to get DVDs from the resort library and make nachos for dinner (we had all the supplies already and our unit had a convection microwave, so it couldn’t be simpler). Again we were grateful for our choice of digs – literally everything we could ask for!

By the time we’d cooked, eaten (in a very civilised fashion at the table on our private patio) and watched our movies, it was (again) the early hours of the morning. It was clear that acclimatising wasn’t going to be an overnight game!

Tuesday started a little later than planned, but still in the a.m., which was a good start. As it turned out it was a public holiday, Australia Day, so there were festivities planned in town. We prepared with a bacon sarmie, using one slice of bacon each… although Aussie bacon packs the same size as home consist of only 3 humongous rashers per pack! Each rasher being easily as long as my forearm, elbow to fingertip!

In keeping with the patriotism, we decided to tick off all the hotspots on the tourist map we’d been provided by our reception on arrival. On closer inspection, we were tickled to see that few of the landmarks were of actual historical significance and we’d incidentally already seen/been to most of the places on the map.

Still, we needed to take a turn past the festival being held at the park and that was the start of Murphy street which ran parallel between Macrossan and the sea and would loop us neatly back to our beach, where we could complete the afternoon.

Getting to the park was easy. Lots of the restaurants and shops in town were closed for the public holiday… and EVERYONE was at the park. The organisers had picket-fenced off most of the park for a big marquee that housed 4 eating stations (obviously the 4 top restaurants in town) and they’d even set up 2 smaller marquees on either end, one with a generous band line-up and the other with entertainment like pie judging and tug ‘o war contests. Very festive.

We circled the event and then realigned with our original plan to head up Murphy Street to the lookout point. The map did not show how steep the road was though and – in the stuffy humid heat – we were puffing, panting and sopping by the time we got to the top of the short hill. The view was pretty though, so glad we did it, all considered.

At least we were able to go down the other side of the hill and end up at our corner, grab the usual collection of beach paraphernalia and call it a day.

Having to be at (and that means walking to) our dive shop at 8am for boarding our dive trip, we needed an early night. We hit the Cole’s supermarket (the only chain allowed in town – and fast becoming our favourite place thanks to their range, prices and unwavering commitment to airconditioning!) and picked up a tray of lasagne. We complemented our glamorous dinner fittingly by picking up a bottle of wine from the hole-in-the-wall bottleshop; literally a booth counter in the wall, with a glass window where you could browse the merchandise, which you ask the cashier to fetch for you.

Despite our best attempt at responsible behaviour, we both still nearly didn’t sleep a wink, both worried we’d sleep through our 3 alarms (all set to different times in line with their respective SA / Dubai / Aus settings) and miss our dive trip.

Of course we (Christian) didn’t and soon enough it was 7am and we were fuelling up with scrambles on toast, heading out the door, traversing town like seasoned pro’s and at the dock with time to spare.

There were about 30 people in all on our trip; 7 diving, with all but me on an intro dive. This meant that the best course of action was for us to snorkel the first site and then dive separately at the second (Chris with the intro group and me with a dedicated dive master who could take me a few metres deeper than the intro group) and then the option existed for us to either snorkel or dive the last site.

The boat took us out to the farthest point and we had a brilliant first experience with the world-famous (!) bucketlist (!) Great. Barrier. Reef! The visibility was spectacular. being able to see 30-40 metres in the crystal clear water… not that you needed to when the action is all so close to the surface. With the coral growing best in the sunlight, there is a great deal to see within a few metres under the surface. Even so, at the edge of the coral shelf, where the depths plunge, the water looks bright royal blue and is translucent so you can still see quite a distance below, to see the likes of the turtle and small shark we saw within the first few minutes of the excursion!

It seemed like a tall order to beat, but the scuba diving was truly spectacular. Christian had an incredible opportunity to have his first dive in such a magnificent place – and he’s amped to do it again (although we’ll have to carefully consider where if we’re going to meet his expectations with the bar set this high!). My dive was naturally excellent too, being lucky enough to have a private dive at my pace and duration. The highlight was seeing sharks up close. Even though these local sharks are too small to eat people (and have no interest in us), it was still electrifying to be so close to something in the wild. At one point I was nothing short of mesmerised by a shark a few metres from me that was swimming in a loose figure of 8 through a shoal of silvery fish that shimmered and sheened around it giving it an ethereal glow. Of course the dive instructor took all the magic out of it later when he explained that this was likely part of the shark’s ecosystem / hygiene routine… drat.

We opted to snorkel the last site since it was a high reef with lots to see on the surface and worked on our free-diving with the snorkels instead to add to our rapidly-increasing range of aqua skills.

What a day. Really truly awesome.

We rounded off with a seafood dinner (of course) of the local speciality, barramundi, a white flaky fish that was done beautifully in a thick, fluffy and crunchy batter and served with a mountain of chips. It started to drizzle during dinner and our timing could not have been better because soon after we got back to our spot, it started coming down in sheets! So hard it took out the town’s electricity and the whole of Port Douglas was in blackout.

The rain here is something else. It comes down hard for long periods. It rained through almost every night, incessant throughout the night. Presumably it’s typical of tropical climates (and this isn’t even anywhere near monsoon season!). And they do say that the rain in Port Douglas is measured in metres, not centimetres. And it is kind enough to rain at night rather than dampening the daytimes. But surely all this rain should ease up the humidity somewhat?!?

It’s probably why the beach sand is so odd. It’s always like some rogue wave has washed up the shoreline and flattened what should be soft white sand. No doubt it’s a combination of the punishing rain all night and the inability for anything to dry because of the humidity. It had taken Christian’s shirt 2 day to dry after our traipse up to lookout point – and that was on our covered patio under the ceiling fan!

Our last morning was a bright and sunny one so we ditched our original plan to use resort bicycles to take a ride down the beachfront to Wilderness Village (a zoo habitat thingie) in favour of taking advantage of our beach a last time. The sun was bright, the sky blue and the sea (well, our little demarcated swimming section) warm as a bath. Paradise!

Travelogue Newcastle 2

NEWCASTLE 2
08-11 Nov 2015

Our walk to the bus station in Reykjavic at 5.30am (!) was easier than both our arrival walk and our expectation. Apparently bloody cold doesn’t feel any bloody colder bloody early! As if by way of an approving farewell after our awesome adventure, the Northern Lights blinked green flashes on the few clear patches of the otherwise cloudy sky, by way of farewell.

We made good time and immediately boarded the bus (with 15 minutes to spare) to nap on the 40 minute commute to the airport which, as usual, was a waiting game with little but foraging for breakfast to keep us entertained until departure.

It makes good sense to be knackered for an Easyjet flight though. The seats are wide and comfortable enough but with no reclining and no entertainment, it’s best to be tired enough to sleep away the journey. Fortunately, my niggling cold and antihistamines from the airport rendered me unconscious, so I’m sure it was a lovely enough flight for those that were “there” to enjoy it.

Manchester Airport is another thing entirely. The car hire is at an off-site ‘village’ so we were guided to a shuttle bus stop that would lead us to the chariot that would get us back home to The Toon. It took forever to come…

And then – horror of horrors! – I found out that Alex had booked with Europcar… which anyone who lived through our Spain Great Car Hire Saga of 2013 would know was questionable territory for us. But, when we made Christian co-driver on the rental agreement our agent, Yakov, said he was already loaded on the system and upgraded us to a large Skoda stationwagon “for all our luggage”, which totalled 2 small carry-on cases and 2 togbags. Still, it was very roomy and comfortable so small mercies from the karmic wheel turning.

The English countryside is prettier than its given credit for and we all wondered why we never road trip the journey rather than mapping the destination.

We made it back to Tynemouth in one piece, largely thanks to Alex’s tireless driving and navigating (with a small special mention to the Burger King at the truckstop), in time to refresh and jump on the Metro to Newcastle Central for our concert.

The concert venue, the O2 Newcastle, has the feel of a converted theatre in size and layout, but must’ve been a concert hall for a fair amount of time based on the lived-in wooden flooring and the smell of stale beer.

The tickets had advertised starting time as 7pm – which seemed fitting with Bad Manners’ frontman (Buster Bloodvessel) well into his sixties – so we were relieved on arrival to see it was still a supporting act on stage. There was, in fact, still another supporting act to follow – a band called The Extra Specials, who specialise in covering The Specials’ songs – and soon the fatter aging fans were huffing and puffing from their pogo’ing and carrying on.

Most of the audience had made efforts to dress the part for the evening and there were more Oxblood Doc Martens in one place than I can remember ever seeing, even in our heyday. Braces, brogues, monochromatic outfits – the uniform for the non-conformist!

Bad Manners gave an excellent (and lengthy) performance and the crowd gave an equally enthusiastic response, with some of the older fellas taking survival breaks along the way.

We shouldn’t point fingers too much though since after the concert, early hours of Christian’s birthday ‘n all, our after-party of choice was to go home and midnight snack on toasted cheese sarmies!

This weekend’s arrangements in general were much looser since we’d done all our sightseeing the previous weekend. We’d already made plans to meet Natalia and Uncle Bill at Lui’s for a coffee at 11 and Lucy, Mick and the kids at the new fish shack on King Edward Bay for lunch, so had the luxury of a lie-in and breakfast of choice for Christian’s birthday, bacon sandwiches. Alex and Robbie had been nice enough to sneak out and drop off the car (in Newcastle Central) so met up with us at Lui’s.

It’s always nice to meet in person people who you’ve heard so much about or sort-of know from Facebook. Feels like you’ve got so much catching up to do with people you’ve never even met before!

Our coffee date went all too quickly so we convinced Natalia to come to lunch with us. Uncle Bill was having none of that (“in my day fish ‘n chips were for poor people!”) but was easily talked into a lunch date for noon the following day for a carvery at The Gibraltar Rock, so there was no need for long goodbyes and we all had something to look forward to.

The fish shack was quite a surprise – far off the usual greasy chippie, the choices were mackerel, red mullet or monkfish all served in a paper basket lined with a wood-fired oven bread akin to a naan, with the fish and 3 scoops of 3 different salads nestled around the edges and an artistic swirl of 2 different sauces to top it off. Everything was fresh and crunchy and between the naan-like bread, the sambal-like salad and the curry-like sauce swirl, Christian was pleased as punch with his birthday lunch!

We’d been very lucky with the weather (enough so that there had been half-naked swimmers at the fish shack! Not that it was anywhere near warm enough to warrant that, mind!) so decided to make the most of the clear day and enjoy a beer at a pavement table in the sunshine on Front Street. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea and the only available table was at the Working Man’s Club, which was good enough for us.

As soon as the sun started setting behind the church it started to get chilly, which was perfect impetus to get us moving to get home and into warmer evening gear for the trip to Newcastle for the New Zealand vs Tonga game.

It was the last game of the day so, at a 7.45pm, allowed us opportunity for a civilised dinner in Tynemouth, rather than competing with the crowds in town.

The pie, mash and gravy at the Turks Head was so good it felt like it was MY birthday! The menu format is very simple and effective, guiding you through choice of pie flavour (chicken & mushroom, steak & ale, venison or potato & leek), choice of mash variant (plain, cheesy, horseradish or mustard), choice of side (peas, mint peas, mushy peas or beans) and then sauce (gravy or red wine sauce) so you get the exact combination you want. And for a fiver it was a quality bargain meal! It was so filling that we were all a bit sluggish on the journey and the boys didn’t even have a drink in the first half of the game!

There had only been 2 rugby tickets for this game so Alex and I had a wander around the town and the fan park then cut through the China Town to get to Harry’s, where we’d planned to meet the boys later. Even with our walking, we were still a bit full so nursed a drink while we people-watched.

The boys joined us soon after and showed us a video of the stand-off between the Kiwi’s Haka and the Tongan equivalent. The stadium was pin-drop silent during the performance but roared in appreciation when the players were done. I zoned out on the rest of the feedback from the game since NZ always win, don’t they?

We caught a cab back to Front Street, where it looked like things were winding down… but we still managed to get in last rounds with Mick at a spot we hadn’t yet tried, called Lola’s.

Our last day allowed us a very leisurely start, only needing to be at the carvery for noon. Of course, this also meant we were *ravenous* when we got there and dished up *way* too much food… and finished *all* of it. Three roasts, four veg, two (types of) potatoes, Yorkshire pud; all swimming in gravy and all gone very quickly!

The Cain contingent across the table (Uncle Bill, Natalia and Aunty Mary) had dished more conservatively, but seemed to enjoy their meal just as much so we can conclude that it’s a winner even when the meal isn’t as much of an emergency life/death situation. (And a bargain at 2 people for 10 Pounds!)

Even with the frenzied feeding upfront, we still enjoyed a leisurely lunch date and a lengthy chat. We bid farewell to Uncle Bill and Aunty Mary from there, but Natalie caught the Metro into town with us because she had a shopping date planned with her friend, James. She also tipped us to visit the Grainger Street Market if time allowed after the game.

We made it to the stadium in the nick of time, hearing the Samoan anthem as we were walking in and getting to our seats just in time for the opening bars of “Flower of Scotland”. Our seats were near the front of the section behind and just to the right of the posts that saw all the action in both halves – the Samoan offensive in the first half and Scotland’s in the second. To my mind, we could not have asked to be better placed for a game that seemed to have more than the usual tryline action.

After the game we made our way back to Grey Street so the boys could watch the Australia game while we went to investigate the market. It was relatively late for the market so most of it was shut already, but there were still a few shops worth investigating.

Intent on (another) curry dinner, we made our way back to Tynemouth to have a sit-down at Gate of India. It had other ideas however and we were put off by the long queue for both in-dining and take-away so cut our losses and headed for home for sausage sandwiches instead.

Our quiet night had us up and fresh early on Sunday for our final packing and cleaning before meeting Mick and Lucy at Lui’s for breakfast at 9, so that Alex and Robbie could be off for their 10.30 train, Mick could get to work and Lucy and the girls could get Christian and I to the airport for 11.

Another brilliant holiday all wrapped up; thanks to all the people that made it possible and special!

Travelogue Iceland

ICELAND
04-07 October 2015

I’ve wanted to go to Iceland since about the time I first encountered the Chappies fact “Did you know? Reykjavic is the world’s most northerly capital”. It sounded so far. So remote. So exotic. Very alluring.

I’m not sure I ever really seriously thought I’d get to Iceland though because it’s so far. So remote. Very expensive.

But opportunity presented itself when the Rugby World Cup placed us in Northern England with games a week apart… leaving the week in between as the perfect chance to sandwich the bucketlist trip. And we do love a good sandwich, so it was an easy sell to Christian, and our trusty travelmates from London.

The hardest part was coordinating the planes, trains and autombiles (or, more literally, the taxi, plane and bus) to get us from Newcastle to Reykjavic quickly and economically. Fortunately, Alex can Google a travelplan like nobody’s business so with her masterplanning and my negotiating on Airbnb, we soon enough had the method and the destination sorted.

Opting for a private taxi to get us to Edinburgh was genius, door-to-door with no worries and no mucking about. The bus on the Iceland side was simple enough since the locals are very smart in coordinating shuttles to coincide with flight arrivals – sounds obvious, but I’d bet ORT would never come up with something so practical.

Iceland has a tiny population of approximately 330,000 people, most of whom live in the capital. This has always been the case, with the founding population burgeoning in the first 25 years (from eatablishment in 874) to about 10,000 people, and then rising to 30,000 by 930. Interestingly, Iceland’s tourism is growing so rapidly that they’re now seeing multiple times their population in people from all over the world (mostly in summer, I suspect).

Reykjavic was discovered in 874 by a Norseman emigrating from Norway at a time when high taxes were being imposed and land becoming scarce. He named it “Smokey Cove” because of the smokey haze created in the bay by geothermal steam. This natural warm water has longsince been piped into the cities and used for heating houses, but is so abundant that they have now even laid plastic tubing below the pavements in town and run natural heated water through it to defrost them in winter. Iceland is very proud to create all of its power from renewable energy sources, with 25% coming from thermal and 75% from hydro.

Our welcome to Reykjavic was bittersweet since it was drizzling and we had a very sketchy tourist map to get us to our quarters…. which we knew was supposed to be an easy walk from the BSI (central bus station). Alas, we took a wrong turn, took the long way around and were very grateful when we found our road and our wonderful house.

We’d managed another Airbnb win with this one – a large Victorian looking home, with spacious unkempt front garden and welcoming driveway. Knocking at the (wrong) door revealed an old lady who was nice enough to let us in anyways, even though we were supposed to have gone around to the entrance at the back of the house. We were led along her hallway to a door that opened onto a landing. Her son was actually our host and he lived upstairs and our apartment was downstairs in the basement.

The whole house was warm and our flat had big rooms and soft lighting, so was very inviting after the long journey.

Nonetheless, we didn’t get to enjoy it for long as it was edging on 10pm and we were long past dinnertime, so we kitted up again and headed into the night to find somewhere to feed us.

Fortunately that turned out to be no more than a block away and we were soon settled in a bustling and lively kebab shop, devouring very tasty lamb schwarmas and washing them down with Viking beer.

It was a short and functional dinner because we had to get to the supermarket before it closed at 11pm. Our host, Sigurjon, had been nice enough to stock us a loaf of bread, a big block of cheese and some basic breakfast items like coffee, bread and milk, but we needed supplies for our planned tour the next day.

The shop was an education in itself. Everything is SO expensive in Iceland! Our picnic pack ended up being very modest – hotdog rolls (that come in packs of 5, oddly), some ham (to partner with Sigurjon’s cheese, which looked to be something in the lines of Emmenthal), a small pot of mayo and a dozen eggs – and it was over R220!

Still, not enough to lose sleep over. And our house proved to be very comfortable and warm, thanks to the thermal heating, and we slept the sleep of cocooned babies.

MONDAY: GOLDEN CIRCLE TOUR

Monday was an early start with our tour company collecting us from our house at 8.30.  Nonetheless, we were up early enough to boil some eggs and toast some bread to ensure we were heading into the Golden Circle on the best footing.

Our driver/guide was an excellent storyteller and kept us updated and entertained as we picked up the last passengers and headed out of town.

He gave us a crash-course in geology, explaining how tectonic plates float on the Earth’s mantle and how shifting plates lead to eruptions, which cause lava to flow onto the surface and create new crust. Iceland is positioned above very active plates with volcanic eruptions on average every 5 years. That said, there have been 3 eruptions in the last year illustrating that the island is actually – in cosmic universe time – still very much in formation phase.

Our first destination was Thingvellir (Parliament Planes) National Park rift valley lake, which is about 84 square kilometres in size (about the size of the island of Manhattan). Thingvellir lies on the junction of the plates which is more clearly visible here than anywhere else in the world because the two plates are constantly diverging, causing fissures and gullies throughout the zone.

We alighted at Logberg where we followed a walking trail that illustrated the areas claim to fame via a series of info boards. Apparently back in the day, when Iceland was little more than a series of fledgling settlements, this was the area where chieftains from all around the island met up annually to discuss things and stuff, deal with matters affecting everyone (in a seemingly very civilised democratic manner) and dole out justice on criminal enquiries. As per legacy of Viking violence and vengeance, the legal council would decide on crime and punishment but it was up to the aggrieved party to enforce – mostly beheading for men, drowning for women and hanging for thieves who were seen to be the lowest of the low, even behind those found guilty of incest and infanticide, which were both rife.

The location is breathtaking and the council meetings must have been something to look forward to, especially for the people representing the Northern parts with their long relentless dark and freezing winters.

The guide pointed out the spots where the TV show Game of Thrones was filmed, most recognisable being where Briana battled The Hound and where the Wildlings fought off the Cannibals. He told us other references of arthouse films that were shot there, but none ring any bells.

Back on the bus, we headed to Gullfoss (“Gold Falls”); a wild waterfall that falls a combined 31m between a 11m fall narrowed from a wide river with an abrupt 90 degree right turn and immediate secondary 20m fall. The water rages and torrents and it’s obvious that all the signs warning not to cross aren’t being dramatic in the slightest.

Of course, one of the storyboards tell the legend of how a fella from the side of the river we were on was enamoured by a farmgirl on the other side of the river and thus braved the river to swim across to her. Comically, the story concludes with saying that they’re unsure of the girl’s response to the boy’s arrival… but they “had many well-respected children”. Sounds like they know exactly what the girl’s response was!

On our drive from the falls to the geysers, our driver pointed out that there are no reptiles or insects, no cockroaches, no ants, no rodents in Iceland, just an abundbance of birds. *No Spiders* has to be big tourism (immigration even?) booster!

There are also no trees, per se. The biggest “trees” are no more than thigh high. This is because Iceland used to be mostly under the sea, back in the Ice Age where hundreds of metres of ice was so heavy that it weighed down Iceland, which essentially floats on magma, such that the lowlands were submerged (forming the sea bed) and the highlands would have been a collection of small islands. The soil is consequently still rich with seaweed composites and minerals, making it very fertile… but not enough so to counterbalance the conditions above ground. Consequently, the majority of ground cover is mosses and grasses. And the Icelandic, with their offbeat sense of humour, enjoy the often-told joke: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up!

The stop at the geysers was scheduled as 90 minutes so, despite having scoffed our cheese and ham sarmies, we opted to try the traditional kjotsupa (lamb soup) in the restaurant to kill some time. Over R1000 for 4 soups and 4 beers – eeek! Luckily the soup was really excellent – a broth full of flavour with chunky potatoes and veg and a generous portion of lamb – which took the sting out a bit.

Warmed from the inside by the soup, we were ready to watch the geyser. The main geyser, Stokkur, erupts every few minutes so we’d been advised to be poised finger-on-the-button to snap photos as the hot water gushed from the crater into a plume several metres in the air. We were lucky and got it first time!

We’d also been warned to stay on the path since the geysers obviously eminate from underground and there’s no guarantee how deep the crust is closer to the craters (but the paths have been reinforced). Apparently every year there’s *someone* who falls through the crust and gets scalded by the hot water below. We didn’t venture off the path but had to marvel at the fools that did, and at the curious who’d remove a glove to test the rivulets streaming away from the geysers… and then, everytime, flick their hands in disbelief when the water burned them.

On the way to the last stop, the driver made an unplanned diversion when he saw a paddock with horses. He stopped the bus and had us line up at the fence even though the horses were far away at the other side of the field. Sure enough they all came over to visit with us and the guide told us that Icelandic horses, while decended from Norwegian horses, have been bred to be quite unique, specifically in terms of size and sociability. The horses are distinctly middle-sized, are very friendly and have a lovely thick coats creating duskier colouring than other horses.

The impromptu horse experience stole the thunder of the last sight, a waterfall not particularly high but wide.

We were dropped off back at our house at around 5pm and confirmed our return with our South African friend who has recently moved to Iceland on work contract, so that she could make her way over to our house.

We were smart enough to have acquired vodka at duty free (having been warned about the extortionate prices in Iceland) which we combined with orange cordial and genuine, fresh, icy-cold, straight-out-of-the-tap Icelandic water for not-so-fancy but will-do-nicely-thanks sundowners.

Jean-Leigh had only been in Reykjavic for 6 weeks but had much to tell about the life, logistics and must-see of the city. She also told us that her arrival brought the South African contingent living in Iceland to 94 people, which is way more that we’d have thought.

There was some conjecture about what to do for dinner since Icelandic specialities stretch beyond the food of bygone eras to include very accessible categories from the Western world, no doubt largely owing to the large American base in Reykjavik that was maintained from World War II until relatively recently. This in mind, we bowed to the highly recommended (by Jean-Leigh, the internet and the selection of travel guides we’d browsed along the way) Lebowsky’s, named after the cult classic movie, “The Big Lebowsky” and famed for amazing burgers in a highly stylised setting.

The call was a good one and we all ordered different things and all the food looked amazing. Using this as the benchmark and making a pointed effort to observe burgers wherever we went, it was easy to see why Western food was becoming an Icelandic speciality – they just do it better than we do. The burgers (standard 150g) are perfectly proportioned to generous amounts of topping, that include sweet streaky bacon, melt-in-your mouth cheese and bearnaise sauce popping up frequently and when you’d least expect it. We also later found out that all their meat is organic, still farmed the old way where animals are left to graze in the hills and the mountains all summer and then herded (with horses) at the end of the season.

Now based in the centre of Reykjavic’s happening bit, Laugevegur, it was easy to pub crawl around town since everything was one road up or a few doors down.

Coming home we realised that town was much smaller than we had thought and already the city grid was forming in our heads. It certainly helped that our lovely house was in the road that ran along the pond, but on the side closest to town – the perfect address for anything you want to do in Reykjavik!

TUESDAY: REYKJAVIC

Tuesday was a late start after our welcome to Reykjavic-by-night, because we had no formal tour arrangement and because our wanderings around the city had shown us that it was compact and easy to navigate so we wouldn’t need a full day to see what it was we wanted to see. It was great to have a sleep-in and lounge about in our cosy lair all morning.

Lunch became the motivator to venture out and we made it our mission to find a hotdog which, bizarrely, is something Iceland has become known for.

We tried a hotdog stand at the waterfront, encouraged by the queue of people surely meaning it must be good. And it was good, if not a bit plain. Soft roll, meaty vienna, crunchy diced shoestring onions. R40 for a “nice” hotdog the length of my wrist to fingertip.

We had to have a second hotdog from somewhere else to yardstick. We opted for one from the 24-7 supermarket since I’d seen the earlier and been drawn by the viennas wrapped in bacon. It didn’t feel very authentic… but we did it anyway… and it was great! Another delighful coup de gras presented itself in the condiments with a mayo-like “hotdog sauce” (that’s all the bottle said in English) and potato salad with bacon bits, as well as the usual onions (fried or raw), ketchup and mustard. Same price as the hotdog from the stand; we’d found a winner.

We took a walk to the Harpa events complex, a very noticeable modern glass building on the harbour. And, by contrast, the very modest Prime Minister’s office which, built in the 1700s, looks like a farmhouse and acted as a prison in the 1800s before it became the official government building in the 1900s.

From there it was very easy to find our way up Laugevegur, browsing and stopping in at a few shops of interest along the way, as we wound our way up the hill to the famous church that looks like a rocketship.

Quite pleased with our outing so far we took some time out in Reykjavic’s oldest café, Prikkid, on our way back down the hill.

Amazed at how easy it was to navigate through Reykjavic now that we had our bearings, we made our way past the duckpond on our way home to pick up our things and go sample one of the outdoor thermal baths.

The boys decided not to go, but Alex and I braved the unknown and were soon neck deep in hot water.

We started with the smaller pools, which seated about 12 people in a circle, sort of like a jacuzzi, but deeper and still. We did the 3 warm pools, each rising a few degrees until we were in the hottest, being early to mid 40 degrees. We only managed a quick toe dunk in the cold pool that was signposted as 8-12 degrees!

Then we moved onto a bigger pool which had sections marked as warmer but you could wade from one area to another rather than having to get in and out like in the small ones. Our favourite was a shallow section where you could lie in the warm water with the nape of your next resting on the boundary wall.

We ended off with the steam room, which was so hot you couldn’t stand in one place for too long without burning the soles of your feet.

All this in the outdoor 6 degrees temperature while we were willing it to get dark so we could see if the Northern Lights would present themselves.

In keeping with our chill day, we took a wander into town to look for a traditional Icelandic meal. We ended up at Loki Cafe opposite the spaceship church with lamb soup with smoked lamb on flatbread, lamb paté on rye and tasting bits of Christian’s very experimental platter that had dry fish, fermented shark and trout on rye.

With another early tour in the morning, we were soon heading toward home and were lucky enough to be treated to a Northern Lights show in the clear nightsky right above us, then and there. Green ethereal and smoky stripes that made the skyline look eerie, like aliens had landed!

WEDNESDAY: SOUTH COAST AND WATERFALLS TOUR

It was coming down in sheets on Wednesday morning, which must’ve been lousy for the driver but, combined with the steady motion of the bus and monotony of long-distance travel, made for a good naptime on the first bit of our tour – the hour-long drive To Get There.

The journey was punctuated by a refreshment/comfort stop and a few photo opps, including a waterfall that appeared to flow upwards since the wind was so strong against the mountain that the water didn’t get to complete its fall. Our guide told us that the name ‘Iceland’ is a bit of a misnomer because they island is far more windy than it is icy… but obviously Windyland didn’t offer the same allure.

The first main stop was at Myrdalsjokull in Katla Geopark, which is a glacier mounted atop a volcano. The glacier gains and loses ground depending on weather conditions, for example it melted by almost a kilometre between 1930 and 1969, then grew by almost half a kilometre until 1995 and has been ebbing ever since with the prognosis being that if global warning continues then the glacier may have as little as a century left before it’s gone completely.

Katla, the volcano, is part of a much larger (110km) volcanic system that erupts on average every 80 years and is overdue an eruption since its last episode was in 1918. It’s quite a thing too since the glacier sitting on the volcano compounds the effects of the eruption itself (lava, ash etc) with the gush of water from the melting ice, which can accumulate as much as 300,000 cubic metres of water in a few hours – not a lot of warning to evacuate the affected areas, especially when the thick toxic volcanic ash and fumes make visibility little more than arm’s length!

Fortunately today was not Katla’s day to make up for lost time eruption-wise and we enjoyed a short hike to the edge of the glacier and admired its enormous face… me from the cosy comfort of today’s “outfit” consisting of thermal vest, long sleeved shirt, jersey, hoodie, jacket, scarf, tights, jeans, ski socks and gloves. Basically, everything I’d been able to pack in the silly togbag that had been allowed on our Easyjet flight! Can’t complain though, when you bear in mind this is fishing territory and the fisherman have for centuries been pushing the boats out into the water, waist-deep in these icy seas.

As beautiful as the Black Beach, Reynisfjara, is to stop at, I draw the line at emerging hand from glove to take a few snappies; no chance of toe out of sock for a swim!

The scenery is very dramatic with the shiny black sand against a backdrop of volatile crashing sea with whiter-than-white foam in front of you, and behind you sky-high cliff face with jagged rocks and jutty sections from a lifetime of extreme conditions and every force majeure imaginable.

Just around the cove, we visited Vic (named after one of the many Icelandic words that cover English’s simplistic bay/fjord spectrum), which was made a settlement because the lay of the land allowed equally for farming and fishing. Rolling green mountain, black beach and (marginally) calmer sea, smattering of brightly coloured tin houses and a Little House On The Prairie church up the hill surveying it all. While we ate our packed lunch chicken sandwiches and surveyed it back.

The sun had come out and so, since we were at the seaside after all, I unzipped my jacket and took off my gloves. We took some snappies of seaside and rainbows and then were on our way again.

The last 2 stops were both waterfalls:
Skogarfoss (“forest falls”) and Seljalandsfoss. The first being a very high and majestic waterfall and the latter positioned in such a way that you can walk on a ledge behind it and see through the waterfall’s curtain.

The drive home was an anticlimax, mostly spent deciding where to have dinner. We had the driver let us out at Laugevegur and walked to the Dubliner Irish Pub which had been perpetually closed on the several times we’d checked in on it. Success! It was open!

Traditional Guinness In A Strange Land down, we were released from the shackles of having to do anything conventional so we went to Chuck Norris diner and ate baskets of burger goodness.

Travelogue Newcastle 1

NEWCASTLE
01-04 October 2015

Having sworn I’d never holiday in the UK again (because of the dreadful state of the Rand and a worldful of as-yet unexplored destinations), the last thing I’d imagined was breaking the pledge to attend a sporting event, of all things.

But Christian was very excited to have been (a bit too) successful (if you ask me) in the IRB lottery and had secured tickets to all 3 matches being played in Newcastle. Since I’d never been to Newcastle, wanted to see birthplace, would get to see his favourite cousin and had our trusty travelmates joining us from London, it all seemed like a swimming idea!

Better yet Christian’s aunt and uncle offered to house swap for us and (favourite) cousin Lucy volunteered to fetch us from the airport so, since it was homeground and there was no “what to do” research to be done, there was little else to do but book flights and wait impatiently for what promised to be a cracking holiday.

The wait was well worth it and we were greeted with warm welcome – by the Newcombe ladies: Lucy and her daughters, Nell and Effie – and warm weather, which I’m told is a rarity.

The airport is close to town and it’s a pretty scenic drive through the countryside and winding village roads, so it’s more of an experience than the chore it is back home. We were soon at our holiday digs, a charming home in the very lovely Tyneside; parallel and one road in from the beach and a short trot into the action on Front Street.

Since it was such a perfect blue-sky day, a quick shower and change later, we were out the door and headed on foot to see some of what our locale had to offer.

Tynemouth is beautiful and quaint, like a slice of history untouched by time. Some effort and dedication must have been put in to maintain the turn-of-the-last-century-and-before buildings and retain the elegant facade of the much-prettier architecture from a time where form surpassed function.

We took a turn down Front Street, which was a buzz of activity with patrons from generous helping of coffee shops, pubs and restaurants spilling outside to pavement tables, enjoying the sunshine. Lucy pointed out the highlights as we listened intently and mentally mealmapped feeding times for our short stay.

The end of Front Street brought us out at at The Priory, where we turned left and walked along the coastline to Longsands for a nibble at Crusoe’s on the beachfront – delicious steak pie and sausage roll (made with real pork sausage).

Little Nell had a lovely runaround in the sand but – lacking the necessary play paraphernalia since our excursion had been spontaneous and on foot – had to settle for the promise of a return visit the following day for a proper beach playtime in the “sandysandsand”.

It was only a short walk back to the house, to my surprise still moving in the same direction as we’d come from; revealing we’d walked in a big loop and reinforcing my shocking sense of direction.

Wanting to make the most of our time together, we tagged along with the Newcombes to their house, where we had a leisurely mooch-about until Mick got home from work and Nell insisted on a “walk around the block”, so we went to the shops. Another lovely neighbourhood, we enjoyed the stroll around Whitley Lodge, appreciating how different everything was to home and feeling quite content with clean and open suburbanness of it all.

With the girls fed and off to bed, we called in for a curry and settled in at the diningroom table for a yummy dinner and quality time with quality company.

On Friday morning Lucy called in for us just after 9 and we took an amble to Front Street for breakfast at Lui’s.

And what a breakfast it was! Cumberland sausages, Lorne sausage, black pudding, white pudding, doorstop toast, eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomato… spoilt for choice! We vowed a return over the weekend with the London contingent.

… who were due to arrive imminently, so we made our way back to the house…

… with 20 minutes to spare.

The usual joyous reunion, our friends were as delighted as we had been to see how lush our accommodation was and just as eager to see what Tynemouth had to offer based on our enthusiastic reviews of what we’d seen and done so far.

We took then down the now-familiar route to Front Street, where they oooed and aaahed as we had about the prettiness of it all.

We started the walking tour with a stop-in at “The Land of Green Ginger”, an old very traditional-looking church that had suffered waning parishioners and thus had been converted into a shopping arcade in 1980, despite religious influences wanting the church to be demolished rather. It’s quite comical to see an old school church with a giant plastic ice-cream cone model at its door, beneath a banner pronouncing the church to be the home of an ice-cream parlour.

As you walk into the church, there’s a big brass plaque with a list of names of parishoners who volunteered to fight in the second Anglo-Boer War (the one that the British won), counting among them Christian’s great-grandfather, Peter Slater.

We then walked the length of Front Street – pinpointing establishments we intended to sample – and walked up to the Priory. We decided to forego the tour, opting rather to walk the length of the pier to the lighthouse at the end. The pier is quite a length and has a twin eminating from the opposite bank of the river, together guiding ships safely into the mouth of the Tyne.

From there our next stop was the Collingwood Statue – a monument to the Admiral who led the first British ship into the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue of Collingwood himself is set high atop a stone column, with wide stone steps below flanked by four of the actual canons from his ship, The Sovereign. The view from the monument’s park looks out to sea and was particularly spectacular with the sunny clear day contrasting the bright green grass with the backdrop of blue skies and seas.

From there it was a stone’s throw to our ultimate destination, Northshields Fish Quay, for lunch. A bit hot under the collar though, we stopped in for a Magners cider in The Quay Taphouse before making our way to have fresh and plentiful fish and chips at The Waterfront restaurant.

A bit overspent on time, we hightailed back, deftly navigating a shortcut through town, to Longsands to meet Lucy and the kids.

The beach was quite busy, with people clearly making a plan to come and enjoy the quite unseasonal summer’s day in Autumn. While warm and sunny, it certainly wasn’t swimming weather by home standards and we didn’t want for swimwear nor regret being in jeans.

On the beach Lucy had spotted people she knows and on our way out we all bumped into some people Christian had met when he’d been out a few years ago so, combined with our confidence at navigating around the town, was as warm as the weather to feel like a local on our first full day of holiday!

We celebrated our good spirits with a stop in at Copperfields, a traditional pub located behind the – one would guess aptly named – Grand Hotel, and then were back on the road for a sunset walk along the waterfront.

Not really sure of where we were or where we were going, but knowing we couldn’t go far wrong as long as the sea was on our right, it took encountering a tourist sign to realise we’d walked from Longsands, through Cullercoats and almost missed Whitley Bay!

We turned inland and had a pint at the King George pub, momentarily homesick from other patrons who had their dogs with them. That said, none of our lot would behave well enough to socialise in this manner, so we’d miss them just as much even if we had brought them with us!

We decided our next stop would be the Avalon biker bar that Christian had visited and enjoyed on previous visits… but were disappointed when we found the venue and the bar had been closed down. The entire street was largely boarded up pubs and clubs though, so we surmised we’d stumbled into the graveyard of what had previously been the thumping heart of The Best Stag Do Destination of not so long ago.

Never known for dwelling on disappointment for too long, we went into Fitzgeralds instead – a large pub, oddly empty, especially bearing in mind there were 2 burly bouncers manning the entrance. That said, they spent the entire duration of our pint denying a girl access to the pub despite her heatedly and stubbornly negotiating at them.

Turning the corner and going into the Fire Station, we got a taste of what the Stag Do phenomenon was all about, thanks to a large and rowdy group of lads circling their victim – a poor chap in a fullbody penis costume – goading, issuing dares and plying shots and beers at a rate of knots (no doubt enabled by the crazy “buy in bulk” drinks specials).

We escaped to the pub next door, The Victoria, only to be exposed to more of the same. Literally. Penis Man and Friends had trailed in behind us.

Christian, in a well-timed display of voice-of-reason, bundled us into a taxi back to the far more civilised Front Street, where we ticked Cumberland Arms and The Priory off our list with quick nightcaps before walking home.

Saturday was grey and overcast, but fortunately still dry. Christian and I were up early so we wandered up to the shops to source orange juice and such, and were rewarded for our efforts by a magnificent find: Heinz tinned pork sausages and beans! Which made an excellent pre-breakfast, in advance of the brilliant bacon butties that would ensue when the others rose.

Fed and feeling far better than we ought to, we headed out to see what Newcastle Upon Tyne had in store for us.

The Metro station hosts a market on weekends which, with a random mix of bric-a-brack new and old, looked like it warranted some time to be earmarked for a proper look the next weekend.

The Metro is quick and easy – but quite pricey at 3 Pounds some change for one way – and we were soon in Newcastle.

Right in front of us was the first sight of relevance – the Earl Grey Statue. We stopped to take a group photo and a kind passerby offered to take the pic for us so we could all be in it. Sadly, she was more enthusiasm than talent so, while she was painstaking about getting the 4 of us all into the pic, she cut off poor Earl Grey. Since she was so nice about being part of the whole moment, we were too polite to reset for the pic… and I’m going to have to settle for including a Google pic into the photo album for the holiday!

Grey Street is a very elegant road of serious buildings, unfettered by modern glass skyrises, that leads down to the river at the Tyne Bridge (which Christian revealed is an exact replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, built for practice at exactly a third of the size).

Walking along the river took us to Millennium Bridge, where we were highly amused by a busker passionately singing (clearly a song penned with his own ink judging by his emotional and animated delivery) about how London is full of aliens, paedophiles and Tory twats!

We were still laughing when we got to the other side of the bridge… and were still humming his tune as we walked around the Baltic Art Gallery on the Gateshead side of the river.

All our walking necessitated a whistle wetting, so we popped into the Pitcher back on the Newcastle side of the bridge, near to our busker who unfortunately seemed to have run out of steam and apparently had no more eccentric episodes to share. No mind. His one hit wonder was unexpected and unforgettable.

Next I was treated to a first-but-no-chance-last experience at Gregg’s Bakery, a chain of pie shops. I had a baked bean, cheese and banger pie. What an epic combo!

Our return journey up Grey Street was quite different since everywhere was heaving with rugby supporters – lots confusingly in Bok jerseys and kilts – and the Samoa vs Japan game was being projected on a big screen at the base of the Earl Grey Statue.

We paused to enjoy this new atmosphere, taking in a pint at Harry’s and grabbing a pulled pork roll from one of the food stalls (who were coining it, churning out rolls at no less than 5 Pounds a pop).

The Stadium was conveniently located just up the road and we’d timed it perfectly, arriving minutes before the opening ceremonials.

The atmosphere was electric, with quite an even representation of South African and Scottish fans fuelling the friendly rivalry of warcries and chanting. Even I, not one for sport at the best of times, couldn’t help getting swept up in the moment and yelling at the field, mostly encouraging but with intermittent exasperation when the Boks hinted at lagging performance. Either way, we won the game with a convincing 34-16 and all of us but Robby were thrilled with the outcome.

The roads were carnage after the game so we quit while we were ahead and jumped into a cab back to Tynemouth.

… which was also heaving when we got back, thanks to (what felt like) the entire town’s contingent in the pub to watch the England vs Australia game.

We had a quick drink in Barca and then moved over to The Turk’s Head pub across the way because it was conveniently situated next to the Gate of India restaurant, where we planned to source dinner from.

Our thinking was solid and our order placed at halftime was ready just as the game concluded, meaning we could escape the air of disappointment in the pub following England’s loss (and consequent ejection from this World Cup) and retreat to our very lovely holiday house with (another) curry feast.

Sunday was slated to be a late-start morning, with nothing to do except be ready for our cab, which was booked to collect us at 13h30 to drive us to Edinburgh to fly to Iceland.

We’d scheduled a brunch with Lucy at our now-favourite Lui’s and were well-rested and spring-stepped when we left home at 09h45 for the short walk to the breakfast heaven that awaited us.

It was just what the doctor ordered and we thoroughly enjoyed the blur of eggs and pork products that constituted what can only be described as a “generous” breakfast.

Bursting from our feasting, we volunteered to walk the long way home, up toward the local Sainsbury’s, overshooting past the soccer fields and emerging opposite the far end of our road and were still home with an hour to spare to pack, relax and have a laugh with some Friends reruns on telly before our cab driver arrived bang on time.

There’s something to be said for the comfort and convenience of door-to-door cab service… especially if you’ve got 4 people to share the 120 Pounds fixed fare. We were delivered to Edinburgh airport in perfect time with nothing to worry about except being excited for the next episode of our adventure.

on the move