Sunday, April 12, 2015

Home again, home again...

Apart from the expensive taxi/lost camera incident on our first day, the rest of our travel plans had gone like clockwork, so we were probably due for a hiccup on our  homeward trip.

After much deliberation (based on a warning from one of the workers at the station and later by a couple of shop holders, that the train was not a very safe option for travelers) we still intended to take the RER train from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle. Certainly the atmosphere at Gare du Nord was ‘dodgier’ than at Gare de Lyon but with confidence inspire by the Fodor’s forum and our experience on the Metro we thought we’d be OK. On Thursday morning however, I discovered via Twitter that there had been an accident on the B line and the trains were out until 11 am. This created a slight panic and forced us to reassess.  I found a shuttle service on Google and was able to book one for 10am. Given that my computer was reading 8.45am, this seemed like an easy fix until Geoff looked at his watch and realized the computer hadn’t updated the time change from London to Paris and that it was, in fact, 5 to 10 and the shuttle was about to arrive! At this stage we were very grateful that our dreadful little hotel room had been too small to allow any unpacking. We threw on the clothes we’d been wearing the day before and fled down the labyrinth of a staircase and out onto the urine spattered pavement to await our ride.

The shuttle was a great way to get from door to door and pre paid so there could be no expensive surprises. The airport was quiet because unbeknown to us there was a strike on. Several Emirates flights had been cancelled, thankfully not ours although the board was indicating a slight delay.

Farewell France
The slight delay turned into quite a lengthy one and by the time we landed in Dubai we had just 17 minutes to get to our next flight. Although we expressed our concern about this to the flight attendant, we were given no information about how to get to the next gate or whether it was worth us trying. Thanks to our front of the plane seats, we were first off and decided to try an ‘Amazing Race’ type dash to the next gate.  Unfortunately this involved running the length of terminal D and transiting on the airport train to terminal A. In the process I ran smack bang into a metal bollard, rendering me speechless with pain. We tagged on behind a wheel chair assisted passenger who was making the same dash from her delayed plane, figuring that the airline assistant knew where he was going.

As we hit the top of the escalator we heard the final call for our flight and we were through the desk by the time the announcement finished. With hearts pounding and sweat dripping off us but with a certain sense of smug success, we presented our boarding passes. These were accepted but then as we started to walk through the doors we were told the plane was not able to accept us because our luggage hadn’t been transferred. Along with a dozen other disappointed passengers we were given some very vague instructions about talking to the transfer desk. We followed the wheel chair again because we had no idea.

The transfer desk was a disaster of disorganisation  and rudeness. It took 2 whole hours for them to reassign the 20 displaced passengers to new flights. We were given new boarding passes for a flight the following day and a hotel voucher. We waited another 30 minutes for a shuttle to the hotel where we were given a room with 2 king single beds for the 3 of us. By this stage it was 4am local time and we had to be back at the airport by 7.30 am. With some creative top and tailing we were just nodding off when someone knocked on the door to deliver us some towels!

Grump, tired hotel selfie. 

Needless to say, by the time we boarded our flight to Melbourne, we were tired , grumpy campers. It was a shame because until this point our experience with Emirates has always been positive but the lack of communication throughout this situation will take some time to forget. In hindsight it would have been obvious to the airline that we wouldn’t make the next flight when we left Paris   and they should have told us that. At the very least, an apology for the inconvenience would have helped smooth our feathers.

We arrived back in Melbourne at 5.30 am on Saturday, determined to stay awake till bedtime local time so we could avoid too much jet lag. With only 4 hours sleep in the past 48, this was a big challenge. We stopped in Geelong to catch up with Sophie and stayed to watch her play netball. On the drive back to Mortlake serious sleep deprivation kicked in so we played some holiday reflection voting games to keep us focused. Some of the results of these might be useful to anyone else contemplating the same sort of trip.

Favourite Stops
1.     Switzerland – Switzerland was a last minute addition to our itinerary and I’m so glad we made it. The warmth and generosity of our hosts had a lot to do with this country being our number 1 but so did the cleanliness, ease of transport, delicious food and magnificent scenery.
2.     The Scottish Highlands – This may have been the best time of the year to visit the Highlands. Lots of attractions are still closed but that means there are hardly any tourists about and you get to enjoy the natural beauty and remoteness of this area without waiting in queues.
3.     London – 6 days didn't touch the surface of this fabulous city.

Best Views
1.     Mt Titlis, Switzerland – Being on top of the Swiss Alps took our breath away.
2.     The top of the Eiffel Tower/ Arc de Triomphe- both give spectacular views of Paris, a city that is (in my opinion)much prettier from birds eye level than street level.
3.     The back side of the Isle of Skye- this is a land that time has forgotten.

Best Free stuff
1.     The Clava Cairns in Inverness– They’re fascinating and the tourist buses don’t go there so you can spend time in this special place all by yourself.
2.     The British Museum – hours of history at no cost.
3.      The Luxemburg Gardens – although you do have to pay to get into the playground.

Best value for money
1.     Breakfasts at Premier and Novotel- we didn’t have to eat lunch
2.      The Info centre at Culloden
3.     A ‘skip the queue’ tour at the Eiffel Tower. Great guide, interesting tour behind the scenes of the tower and instant access to the elevator.
4.      The 3 day Paris Metro card and 7 day London Oyster got us everywhere we needed to go and both subway systems are simple to use.

Biggest Rip offs
1.     The Loch Ness Centre – just don’t even go there.
2.      Europcar – Talked us into ‘added extras’, lied to us about insurance cover and over charged for fuel. Ended up costing us more than double the quoted price.
3.     The Tower at York.
4.      Pay and display parking in a paddock near Hadrian’s Wall.

1.     The Tobler’s house in Wettingen– staying with locals is always the best option.
2.      Ardmore Cottage in Balmacara – I found this on It was a lovely traditional setting with contemporary benefits like a washer/dryer and good wifi.
3.      Premier Inns – we stayed 6 nights at Premier St Pancras and it cost us about $AU 200 including a full breakfast each morning. This was a great price in a great location (100 metres from  King’s Cross station). The service was excellent, the room was large and the wifi was free.
4.      The Novotel Gare de Lyon in Paris – spectacular breakfasts and right beside the Metro.
5.      Duck Cottage in Thirsk – another well presented cottage in a lovely, friendly town.

1.     The filthiness of Paris- especially the cigarette butts and stale urine
2.     The scammers in Paris, particularly at Sacre Couer.
3.      The beauty of Yorkshire, particularly the east coast.
4.     How good the fish and chips are in the UK. The haddock and chips we ate in Whitby was amazing.
5.     How many steps there are in Europe. If you want to admire medieval architecture  (not to mention travel on the underground) you have to be able to manage the steps. I am now a stair master!
6.     The friendliness of the English. I don’t know why this surprised me but I felt incredibly welcome everywhere in the UK.

And now our wonderful journey is over. 4 weeks went by in a flash and it feels a bit surreal to think of all the things we did and saw. I’m looking forward to reading back on the blog so I can remember it all.

As always, one of the great benefits of traveling is the appreciation of coming home. It’s lovely to see our big girls and our little grandsons again. Our house and our animals have been wonderfully looked after in our absence and I’m ever so grateful for my own bed, a choice of clean clothes and my own bathroom ( oh, the joy of knowing the last bottom on the toilet seat was your own!)

Welcome home Pa :-)
I’ve been reminded that for all the terrible things we hear on the news, most of the world’s population are friendly, helpful people with fascinating stories to tell. We are just tiny cogs in a giant wheel of humanity.

Travel is not as difficult or as expensive as we think it to be. I wish I’d started earlier.

Thanks to everyone who has followed this trip on Facebook or Fodors. Your suggestions and support have been very helpful and it’s been fun to know other people were traveling ‘with ‘ us.

I’ve been looking at airfares to Canada today.

See you there.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

All good things must come to an end

Our last day in London was bright and sunshiny and beautiful, just making it harder for us to leave. Despite our early starts and late finishes, we've run out of time to do everything we'd like to do. I guess that just gives us more reasons to come back.

Taine was given the choice of which museums to visit, meaning I missed out on the Victoria and Albert but c'est la vie. Our first stop was the British Museum and, in particular, the Egyptian Exhibit. This is a lovely, spacious building and, for the first time in our week in London, we had room to breathe as the crowd was very light at the start of the day. In this museum the depth and breadth of British history really comes alive. It’s almost incomprehensible to be looking at objects from the stone age, not to mention trying to make chronological sense of the feudal system and the royal lineage.

The Egyptian stuff was quite confronting. Mummies and their accompanying cat scan pictures showing the people within the caskets make these exhibits very ‘real’. I’m not sure I’m ok with the display of dead people without their permission. They thought they were going to the afterlife – I guess the British Museum is one version of that.

Next stop was the Science Museum. This is very like Scienceworks at home. I hate that in the holidays too so this was not my favourite stop on the itinerary. Geoff and Taine had a go in the flight simulator and then we mooched around the exhibits of hands on science activities. Unfortunately there were hundreds of other kids mooching around them too so it was hard to get our hands on.

Another ride in the tube and we were at Parliament Square for one last goggle at Westminster Cathedral and the other assorted magnificent buildings.

On the way back to Euston for a tidy up we were able to call in at the British Library. We’ve been staying across the road from it all week but because of Easter it had been closed until now. This place is a special treat for a bibliophile. The collection of rare works includes hand written drafts of Jane Eyre and Shakespeare’s first editions. You can see the pages Lennon used to write the lyrics for Imagine. Another few hours in the library would have been bliss but the trip clock was ticking again and we were off to Covent Garden to make use of the Christmas presents our big girls gave us – tickets to The Lion King.

What a wonderful, amazing, spectacular show! Our seats were centre stage and once again we were blessed with children in front of us so we had an unobstructed view. When Rafiki broke into ‘The Circle of Life’, we all broke out in goosebumps! And then the elephant appeared – and the giraffes. It was just the most marvelous way to end our stay in this majestic city.

This morning we dragged our bags over to St Pancras for the last time and got on the Eurostar for our trip back to Paris. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to us that our Swiss knives might be an issue in luggage being carried on the train! Even when they held us up at border control to open the bag, we still didn’t twig.  Talk about dumb Aussies! Then the man asked, ‘Do you have a knife in your bag?”
A knife! Um, we don’t just have one knife – we have the pocket knives, the cheese knife and the daddy of all kitchen carving knives.
We were ready to pay whatever it took to get the knives safely to Paris (apparently it would have been 20 pound to have them ‘stowed’) but remarkably (and very frighteningly) they decided we looked like the simple minded, careless tourists that we are and let us go through….with the knives! So much for heightened security in London.

Kings Cross/ St Pancras station

Living it up on the Eurostar
The train itself was filthy and cramped and the Chunnel crossing quite unremarkable. I couldn’t believe how quickly we passed under the English Channel. Nor could I believe I had internet all the way across, especially considering I couldn’t get any in most of Scotland and Yorkshire! Before we knew it we were back in Paris, this time in the 10th arrondisement near Gare du Nord station. We chose this hotel because it’s near the station and it seemed to make sense to be able to get off the Eurostar and back on the train to CDG tomorrow. I had researched every other accommodation on our trip except this one which we chose in a bit of a last minute panic, yesterday. It is, let’s say, more of a traditional style of hotel, of the 1 star variety. We are on the third floor, up 57 very steep and winding steps. Thank goodness Geoff has been lifting hand weights because Taine and I wouldn’t have got to the first landing with our bags. On a warm Spring day the little room is like an inferno. Thank goodness it isn’t Summer! The three, cot like single beds are flock mattresses on top of badly worn wooden bases. There is nowhere to put our bags except at the end of the beds so we have to climb over them to get to the bathroom. On a bright note, the windows open (but you can’t lean out because of the bars), Taine has found some enjoyment playing with the bidet and the room has put me in a better frame of mind for going home – my own bed now looks like a glorious prize.

We made the most of one last afternoon by taking a boat trip down the Seine. In the 3 weeks since we were here Spring has taken hold and the Parisians have appeared like bears from hibernation. The banks of the river were lined with people sitting, reading, canoodling and sunbathing. We got another glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, le Louvre and Notre Dame, resplendent in the sunshine. At Saint Michel we found a suitably French flavoured café (there were red gingham table cloths) and ate snails and crepes and mouldy cheese, washed down with sangria and ridiculously over priced Heineken.

Now we’re drinking ridiculously cheap red, French wine trying to plan our trip home and avert our thoughts from the rumbling water pipes and the possible bed bugs.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Oh, my aching feet

It’s hard to quantify how far we’ve walked in the last 2 days. I think f I’d had my pedometer app turned on I’d have terrified myself. Taine has turned the trip into a fitness camp, sprinting up the steps in all the subway stations while I struggle to stay upright on the escalator.  I guess the bonus is that we’re wearing off our ‘all you can eat’ breakfasts and my calf muscles are in a lot better shape than they were a month ago. I wish I could say the same for my bunion!

Yesterday started with a trip to Abbey Rd for the mandatory crossing shot.
The tube to St John’s Wood was out of service so we had to go to Kilburn and walk back down Abbey Rd. It’s quite a walk but an interesting exercise in itself just to see the real estate change drastically over the length of the street, from barren, concrete estate housing at one end to ornate mansions at the other. The Abbey Rd studios are down the ‘good’ end of the street and at 11.30 in the morning there was quite a crowd of people waiting to recreate the Beatle’s cover picture.

This is not quite as easy as you might imagine because Abbey Rd is a real road , traversed by double decker buses and local residents who are understandably sick to death of being held up by tourists posing in the middle of the road!
An added element of fun was the webcam just above the road near the studios. People at home were able to watch us in real time walking across the zebra crossing and our friend Joel even screen captured the image from his computer and instant messaged it to us so we could see ourselves walking across from both sides of the world!

Us from the webcam on Joel's computer !

We managed to walk a few hundred metres  beyond Abbey Rd to see the outside of Lords. Not being huge cricket fans we didn’t mind that it wasn’t open.

We took a bus to Hyde Park and hired bikes. This was fun for a short time but there are lots of places in the park that you aren’t allowed to ride and the bike hire runs in 30 minute cycles so you couldn’t really stop to smell the roses (or in this case, the beautiful magnolias that are just starting to bloom in Hyde Park). In the end we rode one circuit of the lake, ditched the bikes and walked another lap to reflect by the Diana memorial fountain. Being Easter Sunday the park was full of people. So many different faces and stories. I think you could sit and people watch there for hours. And, despite the multitude of nationalities wandering around, it was all so stereotypically British. There were people paddle boating on the Serpentine ( how boring would that be after 5 minutes?), picnic rugs and chequered table cloths and thermoses, squirrels and pigeons and kids blowing bubbles and everyone walking dogs of all sizes.  We only managed one side of the park and I hope we have time to get back to the Kensington side before we go home.

The plan had been to take in the Victoria and Albert museum but by 3pm our phones were flat and so we had no cameras and besides, my feet could go no further so we hopped on a number 10 bus and high tailed it back to St Pancras for an afternoon rest before our Jack the Ripper tour at 7.30.

The tube took us to London Bridge where we walked across to the East End for our tour in Aldgate. Once again, the contrast between West and East was startling. We were early so we went to a Turkish restaurant for dinner and had some delicious pizza and barbequed meats.

The tour itself was OK.  Our guide was suitably costumed for his role and had a friendly enough banter but it’s hard to get ‘in the mood’ when there are  ( I counted at least 10) other groups roaming the  same streets at the same time. There were 40 people in our group – about 30 too many for the intimate sort of story they were trying to peddle. My cynical nature started counting the dollars – 10 groups x 40 people x 10 pound per head. The poor prostitutes of Whitechapel have turned the alleyways to gold and the constant foot traffic must drive the locals crazy.

I was a bit worried that the ‘ripper vision’ (a handheld projector of photos of the victims) might give Taine nightmares but he went straight to sleep when we got home.

On our second last day in London we started to panic about the ‘must sees’ that we haven’t seen yet. We chose what is apparently the busiest day of the year to visit the Tower of London. Luckily, following Fodor’s advice, we got there before the advertised opening time and went straight in. This meant we were first in line to see the Crown Jewels and could take our time being bejazzled by the Koh-i-Noor  and Cullinan diamonds and the amazing array of golden treasures, including a  salt box in the shape of a castle. It truly is an Aladdin’s cave of wonders.

We joined a Beefeater tour with a crowd of about 100 others. Our beefeater was very amusing and informative and we learnt a lot of history in a short space of time. Even with such a huge crowd, it was pretty eerie to stand by the spot where Anne Boleyn and others had their heads removed. The display of armour was also interesting. Taine was particularly impressed with Henry V111’s codpiece!

It’s hard to do justice to the Tower in just a morning but our trip clock was ticking so we moved on and over the Tower Bridge. They have an exhibition that is quite interesting and the opportunity to stand on the glass floor of the bridge while the Thames flows beneath you is fun. We walked some way into the Bermondsey side of the bridge looking for coffee. Suffice to say, if I ever move to London it won’t be to live in Bermondsey. We caught a bus back over the bridge and then caught the light rail from Tower Gateway out to Shadwell and back to Bank to change lines for Holburn and then to Knightsbridge to go shopping at Harrods. It occurred to me that the most difficult journey in London is from the poorest area to the richest – in more ways than one.

Harrods is as enormous and expensive as you expect it to be. Like everywhere else this Easter weekend, it was over run by tourists like us looking for an affordable souvenir to take home in a signature green bag. We bought some tea in a Harrod’s tin and Geoff bought us a treat – 5 chocolates for 6.75 – that’s $14 for those playing at home!

From there we took another couple of trains and walked another couple of km to get a bit closer to Buckingham Palace without the changing of the guard crowds. We walked through  St James’ Park which is just beautiful at twilight. I wish we could stay a few days longer because Spring is just about to burst here. The daffodils are already magnificent and the blossom and tulips and magnolias are just starting to flower. We watched the squirrels playing for awhile before we staggered back to the tube and home for dinner at the hotel.

Queen Victoria Monument

St JamesPark