Sunday, 7 September 2014

Pizza in Pisa

Yes, you may have noticed I seem to have gotten half-way through my trip and then have gone quiet for two and a half years...

There are several reasons for this, mainly the rest of the trip was quite full on and had less down time on trains etc, but also in a couple of posts time I will deal with this further - there was another reason which will make more sense when I deal with it then.

My apologies if it is obvious from here on in that it has been written 2 years after the fact.

From memory the journey to Pisa was non-eventful.

Ah, the Joys of Southern Europe in Summer
Once I got to Pisa I worked out I had several hours - I got hold of a map and checked my luggage into a storage place and started the trek to the leaning tower. It turns out the Leaning tower is across town from the train station - across the river and at least a 15/20 minute walk - so I got moving. When I got close enough to be confident I was on the right track but not too close so I wasn't paying tourist prices I found a pizza shop and bought a couple of slices, from memory they were damn nice- I'm guessing my appetite was starting to come back.

Once I got to the park where the Leaning tower is, I found an empty piece of ground and sat down and finished my lunch. This was probably the first time this trip I made good use of  Rick Steve's Europe through the back door - by using it with the back door - using it to sit on. In his defence, it is a great book, especially the bit about the Cinque Terre. He can probably be accredited with making it the tourist spot that it is today. Since returning I have enjoyed listening to several of his clips on YouTube. It was a book I had picked up in a hostel book exchange my first time around Europe in 2009. Anyhow, as I was saying - I sat down and had my lunch and figured in the time I had I probably couldn't do/go inside all the things there, so I chose to do two, the Battistero di San Giovanni (The Pisa Baptistery of St. John) Dome, and the Cathedral. Of course I had the obligatory look at the Leaning Tower - but I decided against going inside it as I figured if there was any day it would fall, it would be the day I climbed it, that and the fact that I think the lean would mess with my balance especially near the top.
Credit to Google Maps for this picture

Anyway, the Dome was pretty cool - it had awesome acoustics. I don't remember a whole lot about the Cathederal - in the end they all blend into one. I did catch a  quick documentary on how they fixed the lean (or got it to a safe angle) on the Leaning tower which was also interesting.

Once I finished there, I headed back to the train station and proceeded onto La Spezia - which I recall was a nice trip - as we were most of the way there.

When in Rome...

My hostel was reasonably easy to find from the station, so  I checked in and had a shower before grabbing some dinner. I believe I went for Gnocchi this time.

The next day I invested in a two day train pass, and decided I would knock off country #30 - the Vatican City. To be honest it was a bit of a disappointment as it was really just some glorified buildings with paintings on the roof. There wasn't even passport control, I had expected that we'd be allowed to walk around the "city". All in all, it was a bit boring and pretentious.

Once I finished that I decided to walk to several things that were nearish where I was, and would use the subway where convenient. First stop however was some food - I believe I opted for a panini and some gelato. The next stop was a small castle - Castel Sant Angelo - it looked kinda interesting but didn't entice me enough to go in, to be fair I think I had finally reached castle-apathy. I sat down in front of it and finished my lunch. 

From there I walked beside the river until I got to the next bridge and crossed there and went to the Piazza Navona. From there I headed to the Pantheon. On the way however I came across a souvenir shop and bought my newborn niece a t-shirt and a little pink teddy bear. I decided from then what would be cool was taking a series of pictures with the teddy as I travelled through Europe and back home on the journey back to her. The first photo of course was outside the Pantheon. I wasn't exactly sure what the Pantheon was before I went to see it, as I confused it with the Parthenon in Athens. Turns out the Pantheon is an old church - which is a perfect dome, with a small hole at the top to allow light in. Apparently despite the hole, not much rain enters the church. I thought it was pretty cool. From there I walked and checked out several piazzas and minor sites. At one point I stopped and enjoyed some gelato. The final leg of my walk was down a  big street, and at one point there was an underpass that had become a bookshop, so I had a quick look through there, and then popped across the road and checked out the Adidas store in the vain hope they'd have something All Blacks related and at a cheap price. A failure on both accounts. Eventually the street got me back to a subway station and I headed back to the hostel. After a shower I opted for dinner around the corner at a different restaurant the hostel recommended, all I remember was that it was nice, as I was disappointed the following night when I found it was closed. After dinner I took my laundry down the road to a laundromat to get washed.

The next day I believe I started with the essential tasks, breakfast, investigating and booking accommodation for the next location (La Spezia) and organising my train ticket, and picking up my laundry. On a positive note, the train operator was very helpful and I discovered I didn't need to head to the other main Rome station to head north, I could just get the train from that one- which saved a lot of stress and time. Anyhow, it was midday before I got to the colosseum. I jumped on a tour of the Colosseum which then took us on a tour of the forum. Both were very interesting, albeit a little different to how I'd imagined them to be. After the guided part of the forum was over I had a pretty good look around, and since at one part it overlooked the Circus Maximus, I decided I didn't need to go there and do that myself. My only regret, was not getting to the government building next to the forum earlier, as I believe for free you could go to the observatory at the top. Never mind, Italy is definitely on the return-to list. 

Ted at the Colosseum
Walking back was interesting for multiple reasons - there were excavations like an open cast mine in the middle of the main thoroughfare. Once I had cleared them, a series of Supercars came along. I couldn't work out why, and also why the ferrais and Lamborghinis were allowed into wherever they went- it seemed they were being allowed into the forum- but not the Porsche. When I finally made it back to the colosseum I was tempted by a handout for a
€10 buffet meal - I went as far as finding the restaurant, and checking out the Buffett table, but decided against it as it reminded me of the disappointment I had in London when I went to a £5 buffet and then realising it was vegetarian, despite some things looking like meat. So I headed back to the hostel and had dinner at the restaurant I went to the first night (as the other one was closed). As I was sitting there along came Kate, the Australian girl from my walking tour in Florence, so she sat down and joined me. It was great having a catchup - one of the downsides of travelling is that you meet lots of cool people, but you meet them the once and then never see them again, so it was nice crossing paths again, and sharing our experiences of the in-between days, as well as talking topics that are more advanced than the first time meeting. After dinner we had a beer in the hostel then called it a night. The next morning of course I checked out and hopped on the train for Pisa and La Spezia.

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Italian Job - Florence

I got to Florence sometime in the afternoon, found my hostel and checked in.

When I went upstairs I saw they'd given me a top bunk, but there were plenty of bottom bunks free so I went downstairs and swapped. I went about my ablutions and sorting my bag etc, I think I had a bit of a lie down, and by then it was dinner time. Now it seems in Europe that they push the limits of advertising further than we would at home - in this case the lonely planet had mentioned that dinner was free in the low season, and the flyer at the front desk advertised what was provided by the hostel, including free breakfast and below it was dinner, which on a quick glance you would assume is also free, which it wasn't. In saying that I ended up getting the three specials which were a Euro each, a basic margarita pizza, salad and a basic pasta dish. At this point I had the choice of sitting by myself, or by a girl who'd already got her dinner, or one who'd come in after me. I decided the best idea would be  to sit by the one getting her dinner after me as then I'd have more time, and also I think the other girl had been fussy when ordering, and I'm not having the mother of my children being a fussy eater lol

I asked the "after" girl if I could sit with her and she was happy to have me. We had a good chat, she was from the Netherlands and studying Italian. She told me about Florence, and I mentioned how I was heading to Amsterdam and currently reading Anne Frank's Diary in preparation. I even mentioned my new baby niece, but it was all in vain as she was meeting an old friend later on.

After dinner I went to the station and organised my ticket for Rome for the next day at 6pm and went to the Pharmacy and bought some more nasal strips as I had run out, and so far I've only had one mention of snoring, and that was a night where I have drunk the most.

When I got back to the hostel I sat down to organise my accommodation for Rome and got talking to a girl next to me, as she was trying to decide what to do in the next few days. She then asked me if I wanted to go for a beer later on, which I was up for. As luck would have it, the first hostel I checked out was conveniently located etc, so I booked that without too much effort and went and got ready.

I went and found Hannah (the girl from the computer) and we and her roommate who was originally from Panama but living in the States went out. Hannah was keen for sushi, so when we came across a place we went there.

The next morning I got up and had breakfast, and was joined by Hannah. It was a fairly decent breakfast considering it was free. I went back upstairs and got my pack ready, checked out and put it in storage and by then it was time for the free walking tour that the hostel provided. 
It was a good walking tour, informed me of stuff I wouldn't have otherwise have known. Hannah and I got talking to an Australian girl called Kate and once the tour concluded we swapped names to add each other on Facebook and went our separate ways. I headed first of all to the Michaelangelo square which was on top of a hill, and had great views, albeit souvenir seller Mecca. On the way I stopped for lunch and had a Penne in Pesto pasta.

After the square I headed back to where the tour concluded and went across the bridge, which had buildings along it to (imagine the London bridge that burnt down) and to the Duomo/cathedral etc. I got a ticket and went through the cathedral and catacombs, and climbed the bell tower. I didn't bother with the Dome as the line was too long and I didn't have time. The bell tower was an effort to climb, but good. Once I did that I headed back and got my bags and headed to Rome on the train.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Comedy of Errors: The Merchant (/Medic) of Venice

My train basically was supposed to go from Prague to Munich, and then 40 minutes later I would catch a train from there to Venice, travelling through the night.

When we got about halfway through the journey to Munich, an announcement came over the intercom informing us that the train would go as far as one place, then there was a rail replacement bus to take us to another station to rejoin another train. It was a bit stressful, but I managed. I realised however once on the train taking us to Munich that it was running quite late, so I went about finding the train manager to check if we'd get to Munich in time for my next train, which he assured me we would, and the other train would wait for us. We didn't, and it didn't however, so I went to the information people and they gave me a form to claim on, stamped my ticket, recommended I stay at the hotel across the road, and told me the next train was at 7:30 tomorrow. So I had a night in a rather nice albeit not particularly cheap hotel, but it was a better sleep than I would've otherwise have got. 

Next morning I got up, had breakfast and went across to the station again and went about claiming my money back and getting a ticket for the new train. I seemed to get the only person who couldn't speak English, and after waiting for my number to come up there wasn't much time. This ended up causing a headache because I then didn't have reserved seat on the trains I was taking, and because I'd got my money back on my other ticket, I didn't have proof that I originally did. The ticket guy should've told me that. Annoying as I'd asked all the right questions but got all the wrong answers.

I ended up sitting with some young Germans for most of the way, and they were most helpful especially at Verona when it wasn't clear which platform I needed to be on.

Before that though, it was interesting passing through Austria, and then into Northern Italy, and the amazing landscapes of them both.

At one point I poked my eye with a cable tie on my rucksack when I was putting it up on a rack. Ouch!

Quite fittingly, this vending machine represents
Venice well - i.e. that "You can get Fucked",
 and being a self-service that it is DIY, in other
words - "Go Fuck Yourself"
I got to Venice about 2pm and found my hostel. The hostel itself was alright, the beds weren't bunk beds for a start, the staff however I found weren't particularly keen to help, but neither were the tourist information people - maps were €3, there were 3 staff but they'd only serve one person at a time, and only let one customer into the office at a time. 

The same day as I got there I went for a walk and got information for my next train journey - the train people on the other hand were awesomely helpful and restored my faith in Venetians and Italians in general. On the same wall I found a Co-op supermarket so I had a bit of a look, about 500gm of cheese was about €2 so I bought myself some and proceeded to munch on it (the constipation didn't hit until 2 days later), and some gelato, which I knew Suzanne and Bevan raved about when they were in Italy.

I think I had a bit of a sleep, and then went and had some pizza for dinner.

The next morning I woke up and the eye I had accidentally poked with the cable tie had weeped and was bloodshot and sensitive to light. Like I said the staff at the hostel were a bit useless, but I got the name of another hostel from them, and proceeded to book it for the next night, as I hadn't seen much, and I would also need some time to have my eye seen too.

I took my stuff to the new hostel, and instantly they were 100x more helpful, the manager Nick was an American and he told me how to get to the hospital, and that it wouldn't cost more than a maximum of €70.

I headed to the hospital, getting a little lost, as Venice is hard enough to navigate with two good eyes... But eventually I found it. They have assistants in the waiting room who tell you what to do, and to be fair looked amazingly hot in their white coat/dress things. Eventually I got seen by the eye specialist, he told me I'd scratched my cornea, put some ointment in my eye and bandaged it, and gave me a prescription for some drops.
I then proceeded back towards the hostel, stopping at a pharmacy for the drops, and getting them to help me put them in and re-bandage my eye. Near the pharmacy was a place I had lunch, at quite a reasonable price too - I had spaghetti bolagnaise, which was nice, but not mind-blowingly better than homemade. The good thing about Europe I'll happily admit, is they are up with the times and most accommodation and restaurants have free wifi - I mention this, as it was at this point I checked my emails and found out that I was an Uncle to Sienna. I'll also happily admit I teared up, which of course made my eye hurt ...

I made back to the hostel, they gave me a bed, a bottom bunk which I was stoked about and I got directions to the main sights and proceeded that way. Somehow I got a bit confused and somehow approached the Rialto bridge from the other side than what I thought I was on. Once I worked that out I headed to St Marks square, and then back to the hostel for a pasta dinner. - by this stage my bandage was a bit lacking due to sweat and the fact I kept playing with it, so I bought some adhesive eye patches at another pharmacy- which were just the ticket. To be fair walking around Venice with only one eye is a little disconcerting due to the crowds, the possibiIity of pick-pockets and sense of direction. Back at the hostel I got talking to a young Swedish guy who asked me how old I was, and then told me you're never too old! However we did have quite a good chat after that. Most of the other people at the hostel ended up playing a drinking game which included the game "I have never..." This made interesting listening the next morning when the Swedish guy related in a phone conversation how he'd meet a guy called Luigi, (a comical name even to a Swede) and one of the the "I have never...s".

The next morning I got up, and took some stuff to the post office to send home. It ended up being a little bit of a long exercise, and not cheap, but I got sick of having to jiggle around the stuff in my bag, and any weight I could get rid of was a bonus. I debated whether to get a ferry to check out the canals, but put it in the too hard basket and didn't want to  use up valuable time. I headed back to the hostel to collect my bag and book the next hostel, then went to the station and got a ticket for the next train. I sat down for a while and then caught the train.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

From A Hot Car to Praha

 The train journey was an experience - I was in a six-person couchette room, essentially two triple bunks on either side. Four of them were taken by four English girls that were friends , the other by some random non-English-speaking woman about my mothers age. I was worried I would piss the girls off with my snoring, but at the end of the day it was so hot in the carriage I'm not sure how much sleep I actually got. It was like a sauna, eventually I gave in and took my tshirt off, but unfortunately the girls didn't follow suit. I did have a good chat with one of them when the train stopped on the border for about an hour, and due to there being no movement, there was no breeze coming in through the window.

At about 7:30 we got in to Prague. I made it first priority to go to the hostel and check in. The good thing was they let me do so, and go to my room straight away, as opposed to having to wait until 12 or 2pm. I went in and had a bit of a lie down for about half an hour until the person who was sleeping got up. I then decided it was a good idea to take care of some washing, which I did by hand and with the shower. I also re-arranged my bag, had a shave and brushed my teeth, and had a well-needed shower, not necessarily in that order. I then also needed to organise my train to Venice, get some lunch and do some sightseeing. I opted for lunch at the cafe downstairs that was either part of the hostel, or at least part of the same building. I had some nice soup and a piece of ham quiche. From there I went and sorted my train out, finding it was much easier to get between the two than the instructions made out for getting to the hostel. Once I did that I did a bit of research so I could book accommodation for Venice. By the time I'd done all that (& Possibly had a sleep) it was about 8pm, so I went about finding a nice dinner. The staff at the hostel recommended a pub around the corner -which was good, and when I looked at the price coverted, it was essentially $4nzd for the main course, so I accompanied that with a beer and dessert, apple strudel, as I figured it was a fitting dessert for that part of the world. I then went about sightseeing albeit by night. Prague was still busy then.

The next day I got up and checked out, but stored my luggage downstairs. I grabbed a quick McDonalds breakfast, and not far from there was the starting point of a free walking tour, that had been advertised on the map the hostel gave me (basically it's free, and you tip them at the end, based on what you think is fair - I usually give them a standard figure, in this case, because it was in a different currency, and I felt he did a good job I gave him slightly more.) I then went and had lunch at the restaurant he recommended - I had wanted to try Pork Knuckle, so I had one. I then went and had a quick look over at the castle grounds, then headed back to the hostel, got my bags and went to the station.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

From Pole to Pole: Krakow

After a peaceful journey I got to Krakow. Finding the hostel wasn't quite as stressless - it seems the instructions make perfect sense when you know where the hostel is, not so much when you don't.

Once I got settled I had some dinner - the hostel was also a beer house, and I had a pizza for dinner, which was nice. I decided the next thing that was important was that I needed to do some laundry. I asked at the reception and they gave me directions, but again that was a difficult exercise to find the place. Once I did it was too late to do the laundry myself, but for a little extra they'd do it and have it ready for me in the morning, which ended up being a blessing.

The next morning I got up and had a quick bite and went to pick up my clothes. I realised when I got there that I wasn't that far from the Jewish quarter, so I went there for a look, complete with my bagful of clothes, I felt a little like a sacrilegious Santa, but the good thing was that I was in a shirt and jeans, so I probably looked like a local going about his errands as opposed to some tourist.

I swung back to the hostel past the bottom of the Wawel (castle) and through the main square. I'd been thinking about how I was going to go and visit Auschwitz, as you can get a train there yourself, or take a tour. I decided on the tour for simplicity reasons (and because I was sick of taking the hard road) and knew I could do that in the afternoon. It was probably a good decision also in the sense that it was guided, rather than just me walking around by myself.

It was an experience - in some ways quite moving, but sometimes I felt as though I should've been moved more by it. There were moments where I wondered if I was going to tear up, but others where I felt bad for being desensitised to it. They also made you pay for the toilet, which when I thought about it, wasn't too bad as it was like 2 zloty - virtually nothing, had it been in euros I would have told them to send the bill the the German government as it's the least they (Germany) can do.

Birkenau was just down the road, it was open air, as most of it had been destroyed before liberation, but the size of it in itself blew my mind. Again when you stood next to the gas chambers it felt as though I should be feeling more. Something that irritated me a little was some people who'd brung their 2yo. Naturally a 2yo isn't going to appreciate the history and restrain themselves from bouncing around and making noise. I felt like being a smart arse and asking them at the end if they enjoyed learning about genocide today.

After the bus ride back to town, I had dinner at the hostel - which was free - some spicy tomato soup and a pizza bread. I got to talking to a guy at my table, an Indian guy called Rohan. Had a great conversation with him, turns out he used to work for Microsoft in Seattle, but must've made his fortune and now is essentially retired and travels and volunteers back in India - and he looks as though he is only about my age.

The next morning I checked out, but had the whole day to sightsee. There was a French guy from Paris in my room who I'd conversed with several times, who was in a similar situation, so we combined forces and sight-saw together for most of the day. We mainly went and had a look at the Wawel grounds and then the Jewish quarter. It was nice to share a beer with someone for a change. When it came time for him to get the train to where he was going I went to the station to double check on my ticket, find out the platform etc. After that I went back to the hostel, and was even allowed a shower (despite having checked out hours earlier) then headed to catch my night train to Prague. At the station I picked up some McDonalds as I hadn't been particularly hungry before, and didn't feel like a huge meal before the trip.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Invasion of Poland: Gdansk

After getting up and having some breakfast and getting packed up I checked out, admittedly in a bit of a hurry. Apparently my breakfast wasn't inclusive in my extra night, so I had to fork out another 15 euro when time was of the essence. Needless to say I didn't feel bad then about piling up my little lunchbox earlier. Anyhow, I got that sorted quickly and also made it across to the train station with time to spare.

It was then a long train ride to Gdansk - which involved 3 changes and a little drama as the German rail office had reserved me seats for the trains in Poland, but not actually had me pay for them, which I had assumed had been done, but looking back can see that that step had been missed and I didn't ask the right questions. Anyhow, it was easily sorted and to their credit the Polish rail staff knew English and were polite enough about it.

At 8:30pm I finally made it to Gdansk and then had to proceed to find my hostel. I realised on the journey that technology had failed me and the email I had with the details had not been downloaded to my phone yet as I hadn't subsequently taken it to a wifi hotspot to do that. I did however remember that it was near a hotel that is part of a chain I was thinking it was the Mecure, so I decided to walk towards that (it was actually the Hilton that it is near to) but I came across the Scandic hotel and asked them for help. 

After some more walking, consulting of road signs, and consulting the Hilton, I found my hostel. Despite it being semi-hard to find, it actually is quite a good set up with free wifi and internet computers, lockers etc.

After getting myself sorted, I went out in search of some Polish money and some food. By this stage it was almost eleven - I got some cash from an ATM, possibly too much, found a supermarket about to close and got some bier sticks in case that was going to be the only thing I was going to be able to find and proceeded back to the train station where I had seen a McDonalds and KFC when I had arrived. They were both still open and rather popular - I opted for a burger drink and fries from KFC and surprised myself when I couldn't finish the fries due to a lack of appetite.

I walked back to the hostel, now I had some money I was going to be able to get a towel, however the staff weren't at reception so I opted for washing my feet instead before hitting the sack.

I woke, or at least got up at 6, although it felt later due to the sunshine. I did a few things, had a quick look outside, took some medication, sorted a towel and a shower etc and by then breakfast was ready. Breakfast consisted of cereals, toast/bread (which I didn't have) and a selection of processed cheese wedges and salami and ham. You could've even had tomato too.

After breakfast I talked to one of the staff on how I would get to Malbork Castle and Egiertowo - which is where my ancestors were from. I then lost some time checking my account balances after having to pay for the Polish trains and then getting cash the day before. Once I had done that I headed out - deciding either Malbork or Egiertowo were still options, but if I was going to go to Egiertowo I wanted to see if I could do some research first, so I went to the History museum, which was a pleasant walk along the canal away. I had a small talk with one of the staff, but did not learn a huge amount more than what I already knew of the history of Poland, and the museum didn't seem to have a variety or much English. Some of what I was trying to establish was whether it was possible my ancestors were/could've been Jewish.

Once I finished there I walked to the train station having decided that Malbork castle was the order for the day and headed there on the 12pm train, which took about 50minutes. Once I hopped off I proceeded to the castle, via a shop where I picked up a Polish hotdog, which was rather nice, a slightly thinner sausage, in a hollowed out cylindrical bun, but before they put the sausage in, they pump the bun full of whatever sauce you chose. The woman serving was in her 20's, attractive and spoke English. It seemed a little hit and miss in Gdansk whether people could speak English or not, but I was pleasantly surprised that someone in a shop in rural Poland, albeit a tourist site knew English.

Anyhow, Malbork castle was good, but for some reason left me lacking, I don't know why. I took a guided tour, it was a good work around the castle, but I wonder whether because I'd watched the documentary ("Battle Castles") I was too familiar with it, and perhaps it was because it was a red brick castle as opposed to your grey or sandstone type.

Getting back to Gdansk took a little bit more time, as the train didn't leave the platform for ages, then seemed to pause periodically along the way.

On the way back to the hostel I decided to get dinner at a place I'd read about in a wikitravel guide of Gdansk. It was called Bar Neptune, and was in the old town, which I'd been through in the morning, so I knew how to get there. Apparently it was a legacy of the Communist times, and therefore should've been cheap. I didn't think it was that cheap, admittedly it was a decent size, but basically they have the meals on plates, on display and you choose one. They didn't speak English so I had to take a chance, and on top of that I think they then reheated it in the microwave. Anyhow, it was ok, it was potatoes, ham and some other stuff.

The next day was dedicated to visiting Egiertowo - where my ancestors were from. I got going reasonably early, but somehow made a wrong turn. After enquiring at a Police station I passed, I got on the right track and caught the 9:30 bus, which was the first for the day. It was an experience catching a bus to a rural place in Poland, but I made it. I went about exploring when I got there, admittedly it was a small stretch of road with a couple of roads coming off it. One good thing I discovered was that there was a map on a billboard which helped. I discovered an old cemetery in a bush off one of the side roads. At the gate was 1868, but it was pretty grown over with shrubs and growth, and I couldn't find any names on headstones. There wasn't much else there, but I decided to chat to a local and see what they could tell me, so I went into a restaurant that was there, armed with a crudely drawn family tree and pictures of a church and headstones. It worked well- they told me there was no church in Egiertowo but the next village back did - which I'd seen on the way there. Since the first bus back wasn't until 2:24pm, I had time to kill anyway, so I set out on the 3-5km walk to the next town. I got there, went to the church, which I assume was a Lutheran church based on the shape of it. Unfortunately there was no one there to ask questions of, but there was another conveniently located billboard map which showed me that there was a cemetery nearby. I proceeded there, but it was a fairly modern cemetery and all the names were Polish vs. Germanic. Anyhow, I walked back to the main road and saw a sign for a Skelp - which I've worked out means shop, so I found that and bought some lunch - a snickers bar, some chips and vanilla dessert thing, and then went to the bus stop (in that town, not back in Egiertowo) and sat down and ate lunch and read my book for probably about an hour.

On returning to Gdansk, I went and sorted my train to Krakow for the next day, and then also the train later to Prague.

I went back to the hostel, packed my bags ready for the early start the next day, then booked my accommodation for Krakow and Prague. After that I was ready for dinner so I asked where a good place for traditional Polish food was, they recommended I walk along the river which went past our hostel and there were some places near the old town - so  I did that and found a nice place - complete with a hot waitress that spoke English, and later on discovered there was a huge snake in a window in the floor. I went for a beef stroganoff soup and a dumplings with mushroom sauce. Both were rather nice and didn't break the bank.

After that I went back and hit the sack, waking up rather early, like 5:30am but I got up because I didn't want to go back to sleep and risk not getting up. I got myself sorted after a shower etc and made my way to the train station, grabbing a small McMuffin for breakfast once I got there. Hopped on the train for Krakow...

Thoughts so far - I thought I'd done a good job at minimising my packing, but it still feels as though I'm lugging the kitchen sink. Some of the problem being I brung some little pocket-sized books as I figured they'd be nice and portable, of course until I read them and then store them accordingly, they get in the road.

I'm a little worried about my lack of passion... Malbork castle left me luke-warm, similarly going to Egiertowo left me questioning whether I'm just trying to be some sort of hero, my appetite comes and goes, and then there is the fact that Poland is full of hot women, but my interest comes and goes there too.

Anyhow, tune in for the next instalment - Krakow.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Freaking out in Frankfurt

The adventure began at Auckland airport. After driving up from Hamilton, our family friends the Lauders took me from their place - which is basically just up the road from the airport, they'd also been babysitting mum & dad's vehicle for the week and would be picking them up shortly after dropping me off.

I checked in with no drama, which was a relief after last years debacle, had some breakfast and then went through security. 

This entry will probably have you, like I have done, questioning the state of my mental health. I then gave my sister a call in the interim. I'm not sure if it was the stress I'd been under the past week or so, the medication I'm on to get rid of my cough, the relief, the realisation that it was finally happening after buying the ticket in February, and having a desire to come back since 2011, or actually the soon to arrive next generation of the family - but every time I went to say something about the baby I'd well up and not be able to talk.

After I got off the phone with Suzanne I saw mum had tried calling - they had got in from Vanuatu, so I had a quick talk with her also, before hopping on the plane.

The flight to Singapore was good - up until the last minute before the plane was about to start taxiing , it was looking like I'd lucked 3 seats to myself, but it was not to be - an attractive German woman took one of the seats. On average it looked liked there was generally 2 people to 3 seats. I made conversation with the German woman and found out she was from Berlin, was old enough to have lived pre-wall, and lived in the former East Berlin. It was at this point that I realised my fascination with how shit it was then probably wasn't the most sensitive conversation, and therefore drew it to a close with a slightly awkward putting on the headphones and seeing what movies were available.

The flight was basically in Sunlight the whole way, so I made no attempt to sleep, although I may've dropped off for a bit because one of the movies I don't remember the lead up to the end. I watched the secret life of Walter Mitty, and Anchorman 2.

They fed us dinner about an hour before we got to Singapore.

Singapore was alright - the butterfly gardens I walked the best part of a terminal to see weren't worth it - I assume because it was dark they were all hiding. I then went and had a shower and subsequently had a small bite to eat again so I could take my medication. By this stage I was quite ready to sleep, so looked forward to hopping back on the plane. Unfortunately this plane was packed full. 

Now I don't usually say this, but about an hour in they fed us dinner (again) and I was already at capacity. I slept for a decent while, and once I woke up I watched American Hustle and X-Men: First Class. They then gave us breakfast, and I was still at capacity so to speak, so I wolfed it down and made sure I was the first in line for the toilet before the post-food rush.

On arrival at Frankfurt customs was simple, getting to the train station was not, it just seemed to take forever. Anyhow, I found it and the counter which was open and got myself a ticket into the central station, where my hotel was across the road from.

Because at this stage it was still only 8:30am I had to kill some time, so I went about having a look and trying to get a SIM card. Unfortunately that wasn't successful as any plan would only work in Germany, and I wasn't intending to stay in Germany. I made it back to my hotel about 1pm and went upstairs and crashed out, I think I woke about midnight but forced myself to sleep through until about 6am for breakfast.

Breakfast was a delight to the eyes - sausage galore, cheese, eggs mushrooms etc as well as healthy options. My eyes admittedly were bigger than my appetite, which I put down to not being well and jetlagged.

Basically I spent the day trying to formulate a plan of attack, but it got a bit much for me, so I went and booked another night (a third night) to relieve some of the pressure. Once I had done that I virtually went back upstairs and fell asleep. I awoke at about midnight, and decided that I needed to see a bit of Frankfurt so forced myself up and out and walked around the nightlife. To be honest it was a bit lame - basically I figured I couldn't have alcohol because I'm on antibiotics.

I went back to bed and got up for breakfast again. This time I went prepared with a little lunchbox in my pocket to try and nab the odd morsel for later, but I wasn't overly brave and only came away with one Swiss roll thing which is like a deep fried cheese stick.

I went across to the train station with the intention of sorting it out once and for all. Between us I got basically the information I needed, but it felt like information overload, so I took it away back to my hotel room.

When I got back to my hotel room I felt like I was freaking out, so I had a pray and also gave myself a pep-talk and then went about framing and going over what the train lady had given me to make it make sense. In the end I was happy with it, and went and bought a ticket and made reservations for the next day. Unfortunately by this stage it was also quite late in the day, so I didn't really have time to go sightseeing, especially after I had organised my accommodation for the next few nights.

I made a half-arsed effort at finding some dinner - some bier sticks from a supermarket, an ice cream and a cheese bun. Admittedly still not huge on the appetite scale. After a walk around again I went back to my room and slept.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Inbetweener

This won't be a huge entry - it's a Blog of the inbetween time - between the two adventures - the South Island and Europe, rather than the tag on or lead into the main stories. The title is a reference to the British sitcom/now movies "The Inbetweeners".

In May -we started our rehearsals for Open All Hours. It was an interesting exercise as being a minor part meant I didn't always have to be there, and when I did I would only be required for about ten minutes and then the rest of the time was watching and keeping myself busy with going through my junk mail etc

I'd been keen for a while to check out an Armageddon expo, and in May there was one in Hamilton at the Claudelands events centre. I had a stroke of luck while I was lining up for a ticket, and was given a free one by a stranger - I think they'd bought a group pass or something as it was cheaper, but had more tickets than people.

When I got in, I had a quick look at who was speaking, as at other expos, such as travel expos that I go to, they always seem to be good value. I saw fairly shortly that Mark Hadlow was speaking soon (as he has recently been in The Hobbit series). I'm not a huge LOTR fan, but since I knew who he was and remember him from his days with Billy T James I thought he'd be a good one to listen to. At one point a guy instead of asking him a question, thanked him for the good times and being part of our childhoods, with Billy T etc. it felt a bit naff, but I shared his sentiment, along with probably most of the room.

I subsequently then went about looking around the rest of the expo. Admittedly it wasn't really my thing, as it was a lot of comic book/graphic novel type stuff and characters etc that I wasn't familiar with - not a whole lot of computer games etc, and what was there was held in a monopoly of 13yo boys. There was the odd cool thing, such as a dalek, and the odd cool costume. In October a friend Bevan and I are planning to go to the one in Auckland as Richard Dean Anderson (who played Macgyver, as well as a character in SG1) is coming. Around this time Bevan and I had been helping each other learn lines, as he is in a production of Grease.

 That night there was a talk on at church entitled "God in a brothel". I went along, it was good. Sometimes it was a little awkward listening to it - basically this guy is a NZ Police Officer who ended up helping an international task force to infiltrate sex trafficking rings. He would have to pose as someone interested in bringing over more friends. In some ways it was cool and sounded very James Bond-like, but I would imagine you'd also have a constant sick feeling, and possibly a worry that you might get a feel for it. 

As per usual if late, June found me going to the Fieldays at Mystery Creek. I decided that I would catch the free bus that the council was putting on out there as things like that should be encouraged, even though it was debatable whether it was more convenient. It also gave me some exercise getting out to the main road, along with the walking around once I was there. From memory there wasn't any great highlight this year, I just cruised for some free bits of food etc.

June also began my serious campaign on Flatmate finding. Admittedly it was a lot harder than I thought it would be, I guess partially because I thought my house would compare favourably to others in the area. There probably wasn't a huge demand either.

House of Travel had an expo, which is always good to go to- I couldn't spend heaps of time there, such as listening to all the speakers - as I had a rehearsal to get to, but I did pick up some information which was good.

Like I was saying, I had a rehearsal to go to, which also involved helping construct the set for Open All Hours. This was actually kind of enjoyable, it took me back to my treehut building days as a youth. It was also satisfying as all of a sudden our set had taken shape, and there was no more pretending where doors and stuff were.

The bulk of July was performing Open All Hours, and surviving otherwise. It was a fun play to be in, albeit a little lonely as due to the nature of the cast, and that most were only in one of the two acts and therefore would arrive later or leave early - bonding hadn't occurred as much as it usually would have.

Later in the month I went to a China evening put on by Air New Zealand Holidays. It was interesting but long, and too be honest, I don't have a huge desire to visit China again, I guess I was motivated as I am interested in visiting Hong Kong and Macau, especially after talking with someone at the House of Travel expo.

The first few weeks of August were basically me running around like a headless chicken. Mum and Dad went to Vanuatu on holiday, I finally found a flatmate, I had to get sorted for my trip, and on top of that I ended up with a really bad cough - I believe it is bronchitis. So I was a little stressed. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Notes from the Other Island

Not a lot happened in March from memory. The one thing that sticks out in my diary is Shrove Tuesday - pancake day. For that I went along to Holy Trinity and ate some pancakes - I made the mistake of having one pancake for every savoury filling, where I should've just had all the savoury stuff on on pancake, and saved more room for the sweet stuff. I think they also made them the old school way with fat instead of butter, so they were probably a bit heavier than usual.

Shrove Tuesday of course marks the beginning of Lent. Usually  I don't bother with giving up something for Lent as I think it is more "a religious practice" rather than being a relationship with God, however this year I decided I would challenge myself and give up cheese for Lent. I thought it would be a good idea for health reasons, but also because it would also test and extend my cooking repertoire, and to be fair, it is one of the few things I love with a passion, where a lot of things I can give or take.

I thought when I first started that I would get to a stage where I'd want to stab someone due to cheese cravings, but surprisingly that didn't last long and I didn't miss out too much. 

We had Stocktake at work at the end of March, notable mainly because we get pizzas or KFC for lunch.

I managed to go to a NZ Society of Genealogists meeting. What was most memorable was a story that was told. Apparently earlier this year they gave members names taken from the War Memorials around town. Someone had been given two brothers - the Burbush brothers. My ears pricked up, as there is a road on the western outskirts of Hamilton called Burbush road. I used to use it to go and visit my late Grandmother when she lived in the Brylyn retirement home in Te Kowhai. It is still a useful road to use to get from my parents house onto the new expressway. Anyhow, what really got my attention was when it was mentioned that one of the brothers married a Lily Foote. Some of my ancestors are Footes - you may have heard my story of meeting some fellow Kiwis at one of my local pubs in London, and one of them was a Foote, and turned out to be a third cousin.

Early in April we celebrated Dad's 60th birthday with a lunch at a clients café. The funny thing was, it was a surprise, and Dad had been there that week to install some dispensers, so Mum had to make sure they knew not to mention it to him.

That Monday night my old good mate from Tech days, Steve, stayed at my place. He was over from Sydney to also catch up with a mate over from San Diego. It was nice catching up again - he had been over in November, but prior to that we hadn't caught up physically since 2005. We watched an episode of The GC - a reality show akin to The Only Way Is Essex, about Kiwis living in the Gold Coast in Australia, before heading into town for dinner, and then doing a bit of nostalgia tour around houses where Steve had lived. 

The following week we had dinner with my Aunties, in celebration of my father's birthday, and then I helped out with Front of House at the Riverlea Theatre for The Seagull - by Anton Chekhov. The benefit was I got to see most of it, for a limited amount of helping. It was OK, but not the most interesting play.

On the Thurs (17th April) my grand journey began -
After work I went home and quickly cleaned up, did some washing, and headed to our family friends from farming days, the Van Houttes, at Mapiu.

Good Friday 
I Woke up had a good breakfast of eggs and catch up with Marilyn.
Once I got going I stopped at Taumarunui and pumped up my tyres (not something I do regularly, however I thought it was a good idea considering the amount of kilometres I was about to undertake - for the record, I calculated it to be approximately 2,500kms) and topped up the oil.

As it turns out I'm not the best for "just driving" and made numerous stops and slight detours along the way to check things out, such things included - 
- The last spike laid of the railway (main trunk line)
- The monument for the Tangiwai railway disaster. It was here that I also realised that Karioi was there, which happened to be where my ancestor Hermann Bartz died, (not in the Tangiwai disaster though)
- The Raurimu spiral.
- The Makatote viaduct (see below)

Eventually I got to Wellington, with 2 hours to spare - they tell you to be an hour early, but they didn't let us on until the time on the ticket anyway.

The Ferry ride across was OK, much better than the time I remember when I was a kid, where from memory I remember it rolling from side to side. Unfortunately it was already dark, so the scenery outside went to waste. So instead I just watched Seven Days and Jono and Ben at Ten on the TV.
What I didn't realise for the longest time is that the South Island isn't directly south of Wellington, and you don't even enter the Marlborough Sounds at the top. 
It appears taking your dog across the strait was a bit more common than I realised. They get you to turn the sound on your car alarm off, as the rocking will set it off, and the noise would distress the animals. 
Got off and set up tent in the dark at Picton, quite proud of myself, as New Years 2008/2009 was the last time I put it up.

I woke up, and soon after a train went across the track above - that viaduct pictured below going through the campground is the train track.  Once I got sorted I drove to Nelson via the inland road, as opposed to the Queen Charlotte Drive, as it was relatively wet. I got to Andy's around lunchtime. It was good catching up - last time we had caught out was briefly in early 2009 before I went to London. It was also nice to sleep in the nice Sleep out for a couple of nights after the night in a tent in Picton. We had a BBQ dinner with some of Kirstie and Andy's friends.
We took a drive out to Golden bay, and ended up having lunch at interesting pub. It had a B and B in a shoe, some eels in a creek etc, interesting for kids as well.

For dinner we had meat Slow cooked with Marmite as the stock. When I was a kid I never liked Marmite, but this was good.

I Waited for Andy to get back from mountain biking then we had lunch before I left. I went and briefly caught up with Fiona, a family friend from way back before I headed to lake Pearson via Murchison etc - it was quite a drive as you almost have to go to Greymouth, then come back through Arthur's pass.
I eventually got there, broke the handle on my glove box trying to get it open, and then set up my tent in the dark and freezing cold.
I Got up, took some photos as you can see,  before heading off, although I didn't get far before stopping at the caves place down the road, and had a walk around. Looks like I need to come back, as you could go through the cave system, but you'd want to use a wet suit as it was a lot of trekking up a stream. And I'd imagine it would be a lot safer and enjoyable in summer compared to then.

I got to Springfield and had a breakfast of pies.
Stopped again briefly at Oxford, I hoped the museum was open but it wasn't so I just had a quick look at Jo Seagar's restaurant/cafe/cookery school. I filled up with Petrol at Rangiora or Amberley. How I got on petrol wise, was I bought along my petrol canister for my lawnmower and therefore wasn't victim to high petrol prices in remote locations, and combined with the capacity of my petrol tank I could go for 600km without needing to use a petrol station.

Got to Hanmer springs, and set up my tent - nice to do it in the light for a change. Cooked dinner, and then had about 2 hours at the pools.

Woke and packed up, went to the pools again, and headed off again at about lunchtime to Kaikoura.
It was around this time that I had a brainwave and wondered if I could change the icon on my SatNav from an arrow - what do you know - Yes I can! I believe this one is called "Family Car", but I like it as it does look like my car.

I had lunch at Waiau and shortly after the road joined back onto State Highway 1. The road to Kaikoura was beautiful, ocean on one side, and a train track going through numerous tunnels on the other. I got to Kaikoura reasonably early in the afternoon- once again it was nice to be all set up well before dark. Went across to the whale watch station and made sure it was all go for the next day. Did my washing etc, cooked and ate a bit while waiting. Later walked into town- pretty much dead. Concluded with a burger and hot chocolate at a fish and chip shop.

Woke up and got sorted for the whale watching. I delayed having breakfast as I wasn't sure whether it was wise eating beforehand or not, remembering of my time crossing Foveaux strait to Stewart island. It was nice not having to pack myself and my tent up again for a change.
Whale watch was good, not too rough - saw one whale on the surface and then it going under. Like my sister Suzanne said, it seems almost too well timed, as they know when it is going to dive. After the whale dove, we cruised around and found some dolphins and different birds- they did a good job talking about them. 
Kaikoura is a beautiful place, the ocean on one side of you, and mountains on the other side. On top of that is the train tracks and it's tunnels that run alongside the road along the coast both North and South.
After returning back I saw some stuff in the gift shop I was keen to buy, but decided to come back after the afternoon crowd had headed off, and grab some fish and chips for lunch when I did.
So I returned to the campground, literally just over the train tracks. I'd seen they had pedal cars and was keen to try, if they let me. They did, in fact gave me double the amount of time. Turns out it is quite a work out, especially as my legs weren't used to working at that angle. Unfortunately the pedal car wasn't as good at handbrake skids as I'd hoped. 

I returned to the whale watching gift shop, unfortunately the cafe had shut once the afternoon crowd had left for the cruise, I then had to wait until the gift shop finished doing the banking - which they do between the two cruisings. I accepted that, knowing from experience how trying it can be to get the banking done in-between customers. 

Once I bought some stuff I went down to the shops and finally had some lunch of fish and chips at Hine's Takeaways. Admittedly I underestimated how much they would give me- which would explain why they were voted best fish and chip shop in the South Island, and the second best in New Zealand (second only to the Mangonui Fish Shop - which I have been to once, as it is up near Kaitaia, where I used to live) Subsequently had a bit of driving explore - noted the Kiwi experience bus was in town, which I hoped translated into more nightlife than the night before (it did a little, but my lack of enthusiasm didn't help.)
After that, I had a spa, and walked back to town and had dinner at the Irish pub - lamb shanks.

Friday (Anzac Day) 
I got up relatively early, packed up and left. Got to Blenheim early enough for a BK breakfast. Burnt some of it off on the basketball hoop shooting game there. Carried on north, through Seddon etc, and got to Picton. Recently I read a book called The 1 Thing: A Small Epic Journey Down New Zealand's Mother Road, by Bob Moore - it was a narrative of his journey along the whole of State Highway One, and how he tried to do one thing at every place along the way. I had kept an eye on his list of things since I had re-joined State Highway One just after Waiau, south of Kaikoura, but hadn't really been able to make the most of it, until now - at Picton he had mentioned the Edwin Fox - a ship, or at least the remains of the hull- the museum which was closed, but I could see enough of it to satisfy my curiousity. A short walk further on was the ferry terminal, so I went and found out where to take my car, and subsequently did.
The Anzac Memorial at Picton - quite fitting as it was Anzac day when I was there.
The last bit of the South Island before entering the open waters of the Cook Strait.
The ferry trip was nice, not too rough, and in daylight, so I spent the majority of the trip on the top deck- was nice to see how the two islands sit together, and the landscape of the sounds and the lighthouses of the Wellington harbour.
I believe this is the island in the Wellington harbour where Naturalised Germans got interned to during World War One. As far as I know my German ancestors must've escaped that fate, as Hermann Bartz, my Great Great Grandfather died in 1915 (in Karioi - as mentioned above) and my Grandmother was born in 1915, which would suggest her father (born in New Zealand) wasn't interred

Once I got off the ferry I headed to Masterton via State Highway 2, which turned out to be the most treacherous road of the whole trip, as the road goes over the Rimutaka hill, and I was doing it after dark.

I stayed in the Chanel court motel- the one bit of luxury I allowed myself- a small but nice room- I actually fell asleep lying the wrong way around (ie head at the foot of the bed) while watching 7 days and Jono and Ben at Ten.

Next morning got up and went to BK for breakfast. From there I went to a farmers market, bought some cheese and fejoas and chatted to the fejoa guy about my Pak choy growing in my garden- checking it was actually that. From there I went to another market, picked up some spices for my spice rack.

Headed back to motel, showered and got ready for the wedding I was attending. There was a knock on the door, it turned out that people down a few units were also friends of James' and also going to the wedding, so I caught a ride with them, and again later to the reception.

The Wedding and reception was good, they had a bit of an activity sheet which was fun.

The next day I headed north, lunch at Taihape, and just outside of Te Awamutu I stopped to buy some mushrooms from a roadside stall, but had no cash. I was desperate for the toilet by the time I got to Ohaupo, but thankfully found a toilet. Came back to Hamilton - and went straight to Riverlea for my first rehearsal of Open All Hours - but being an hour late the door was locked, and considering I wasn't an integral part I didn't want to make a big scene to get let in so I just waited to half time to get let in.

All in all it was a great trip, for once I didn't get sick, the only casualty was my glove box, which I subsequently replaced for about $10 from the Pick-a-Part, and the cost wasn't too bad. The interesting thing was, because I didn't fly across, it didn't feel like I was on another island - even though I knew I'd been on a boat. By the way - the title is a play on the title of one of Bill Bryson's books - Notes from a Small Island - which was about his journey around Britain - the first of his books I had read.