A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: StephenJen

A good anniversary story needs a great Finnish...

it's also in the Tallinn!

snow -17 °C

We celebrated this year with a short trip to Helsinki. We had not been to any of the Scandinavian countries before so we were very interested to venture a bit further North.

As our plane descended in preparation for landing we could see huge snow covered expanses, dotted with houses and towns. The plane had a nose camera which enabled us to watch the landing. It is a strange experience to watch your plane speeding towards a, seemingly, small strip of gray tarmac in a sea of snow. The pilot got us there (of course) and I felt like shouting out three cheers... one for the landing, one for the snow, and mainly one that we were on another holiday!

We took the local bus into the city center. Our hotel was situated right next to the Central train station, which is where the bus terminal is so we were checked in in no time.

We threw on a few more layers of clothing before heading out for a walk around town. We had crossed a bridge over a frozen river, on the bus trip, and were keen to have a closer look. We walked through parkland behind our hotel which was covered in a thick blanket of snow. I stopped to make a snowball only to find that the snow was too powder dry to form a ball. The snow was falling all day, but not in big flakes like in London, small icy drops which bounced off our coats to the ground. Nothing gets wet. We had woolen beanies on but the snow just bounces off and they stay perfectly dry. Probably why it is so popular, as outerwear, with sheep!

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We got to the river and found it was frozen. Several people were walking across rather than using the bridge. A group of guys skated past us in the middle section. A woman and her dog crossed from the boathouse to the opposite bank. Jen then scientifically tested the integrity of the ice by throwing a couple of small pieces of ice, left by the snow plough, at the surface. At maximum velocity the projectiles shattered into tiny pieces and skidded along the thick ice.This was followed by a short conversation about fearfully hammering away at the underside of the ice having been swept away after falling though a thin spot. Suffice it to say, vivid imagination versus reality often ends in a first round knockout. We walked to the bridge.

The 19th started with a ferry trip to Suomenlinna which is an historic sea fortress. It was included in the Unesco World Heritage List in 1991. Suomenlinna is only a short trip from the dock at Market Square in Helsinki, where we boarded our Ferry. We could feel the bow breaking through the icy waters as we cut a trail to the island. We arrived at the island and those who travelled with us quickly scurried away. We took a few photos as the ferry returned to Helsinki. We only ever saw two other people as we walked around the island. Which meant we didn't have to hurry and we didn't have anyone in our shots...nice. Neither of us had ever been in a place which was so cold before. I had foolishly neglected to wear thermal long johns, I generally save those for wrestling, BAD IDEA... I found the going pretty tough when exposed to the windchill. We had gloves, jackets and beanies on but just couldn't stay warm.
Suomenlinna was striking in it's silence. Only the sound of our steps in the thick snow and the occasional yelp as one of us slipped around on an icy patch of ground. We walked from the dock to the Fortress, cannons aimed seaward, and to the King's Gate. We warmed up with a hot drink before the return ferry trip. We highly recommend a visit in winter, despite the cold. This is a really beautiful place.

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The next day we rose early in order to catch the 06.05 bus to the Norfolk line ferry terminal. We took the slow boat to Tallinn, which was... let's say interesting. We boarded the ferry at about 07.30 and found a quiet spot in the lounge bar at the stern of the craft. Shortly after we found a seat, and to our suprise, the bar opened and the majority of the passengers started downing beer, wine and even cognac...in significant quanitity. We settled for coffee and a roll. The engines started up and soon we were cutting a path through the frozen waters in the direction of Estonia. It was facinating to see where the ice ended and the open water began. A little further into the journey a live trio emerged from behind a heavy stage curtain and started playing what I think is best described as "easy listening polka". It's basically polka performed as subtly as a polka can be performed with a clear understanding that it is 8.00 in the morning. Couples rushed to the dancefloor and 30 mins into the set it was like so many other small clubs or pubs in the world... a tortured band playing to a bunch of pissheads who were combining a general lack of balance with random thrusting of limbs in something vaguely resembling dance. Imagine Oliver Reed on "Dancing with the stars" that should paint the picture. We found the whole thing enormously entertaining... to a point. Ultimately we retreated to a quieter area until we docked in Tallinn, Estonia.

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We had the weather gods on our side and the sun shone brightly from the blue skies above. Tallinn is a very pretty town with a distinctly medieval flavour. The photos speak for themselves...

As dusk approached we made the return trip, arriving back at Helsinki in the dark. We grabbed something to eat before venturing out for some night photography.

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Our final day was spent taking a last leisurely wander around the main town before the trip back to London.

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We really enjoyed our first Scandinavian visit. It was quite a contrast to the other countries we have visited thus far. We are now planning a longer trip exploring this part of the world next winter. Finland, Lapland in particular, has a great deal to offer and we are very keen to visit again.

Posted by StephenJen 14:11 Archived in Finland Comments (6)

There's no business like snow business

Britain's coldest winter for 18 years

-4 °C

We have routinely whinged about the cold Melbourne winters. Never again!

Winter in London, this year, has been one of the few times that we have been cold through to the very marrow of our bones. Not suprising as we are experiencing the coldest winter in 18 years. Last week saw significant snowfall right across England.

We awoke in the middle of the night to snow bucketting down and by the time I was ready to leave for work on Monday morning (05.00am) there was a thick white blanket covering the entire neighbourhood. Unfortunately, I had to drive to Barnsley, in South Yorkshire, some 190 miles North. Whilst I made it there and back in treacherous conditions I shant do it again. That said, provided we don't have to get to work, we still LOVE waking up to snow!

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Posted by StephenJen 13:57 Archived in England Tagged events Comments (1)

New Year's Eve in Paris

... skull, skull, skull.

semi-overcast -3 °C

We were full of expectation as we booked our trip to Paris for New Year's Eve. We could vividly imagine the colourful fireworks shooting from the Eiffel. We knew where we wanted to be positioned to take in the midnight spectacular. Only one slight hiccup... they don't do the NYE fireworks thing in France. I know, I know... we should have checked before booking but hey, we love Paris so we were happy to be back there to welcome 2009.

We spent a very relaxing few days enjoying good food, good coffee and romantic strolls in the freezing cold, can't feel my hands anymore, evenings. We saw the irony of us watching the film "Australia" in France, whilst on holiday from London. We joined the masses on the Champs Elysee and counted down to the new year. We finally remembered, being veterans of Paris metro travel, that you can save a whole lot of time in queues by purchasing the 10 ticket deal when you first arrive. Ha!.. take that travel gods... how do you like me now? After a mandatory high 5 we used the first of our twenty tickets and headed for the hotel. Next day we found that all public transport for new year's eve and new year's day was FREE OF CHARGE. Touche Travel Gods...Touche.

About the only sightseeing activity we did was a fascinating journey into the catacombs. Skeletons are always going to be somewhat macabre and confronting, but we didn't have the sense of sadness we experienced in Cambodia. There was no air of injustice and evil. Anyway the photos will do much better than my words can to describe the scene.

All in all, we had a nice relaxing time and Paris always looks beautiful, no matter what season.

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Posted by StephenJen 08:03 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Munich and Austria

Walking in a winter wonderland...

snow -4 °C
View Munich, Salzburg, Fussen on StephenJen's travel map.

We arrived in Munich on a wintery, but dry, Thursday morning. As was the case in Berlin, we found the metro was not as easy to understand as elsewhere in Europe. After struggling with the ticket machine for a while we conceded defeat and made our purchase at the ticket desk in the airport. We boarded the S Bahn service to Hauptbahnhof, which is the main central station in Munich We found our way to our hotel, not far at all from Hauptbahnhof Station (the main one in Munich which we came into - about 35 minutes from the airport). We checked in without any drama and were pleasantly surprised with our hotel, which is always nice!

Thursday was spent meandering around the city, spending most of our time around Marienplatz, the central pedestrian square in the middle of the city which is surrounded by several brilliant buildings, like the Old City Hall (Altes Rathaus) and the New City Hall (Neues Rathaus).

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Mariensaul Column in front of Neues Rathaus

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Friday we travelled by train about 20km North-West of Munich to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp. Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the Nazi Party and was considered the prototype for subsequent camps. Dachau was a work camp where Jews, Jehova's witnesses, sympathisers and criminals were forced to labour in support of the war effort. Whilst Dachau did have a Gas Chamber, it was never used. Instead, prisoners who did not die from disease, exhaustion, suicide or malnutrition were sent to "extermination camps" such as Auschwitz. In April, 1945, 32000 prisoners were liberated by American & British Forces.

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Arbecht Macht Frei - Work Shall Set You Free: The Gate to Dachau through which all of the prisoners entered.

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Memorial

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The Path to the Dachau Crematorium

It was a freezing cold day at Dachau and, with very few people visiting, there was an eerie quiet throughout the grounds. As we looked around, we could not even begin to imagine how anyone could have survived. The appalling conditions, workload, overcrowding, disease, torment and torture that went on there, seemed all the more devastating as the rain and freezing wind swept across the compound.

On Saturday we jumped on a train for the two hour trip to Salzburg, Austria. We were able to get return tickets for both of us for only € 28. These are called Bayern Tickets and allow unlimited travel on any regional transport for up to FIVE people between 9am - 03am the following day. Fantastic! Traveling by train allowed us to observe the change in terrain from within the warmth of our carriage. The built up areas of Munich were replaced by farmland and heavily treed areas. A thick blanket of snow covered the landscape as we drew closer to Austria.

When we arrived in Salzburg it became apparent that we were not dressed warmly enough. We immediately headed to buy some additional thermals and warmer coats. We had checked the forecast and it was supposed to be a low of -3 and despite having almost every layer we owned on, it was simply not enough!

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Streets of Salzburg

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Statue in Salzburg

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Snowy view - Salzburg

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Jen in Salzburg

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Couple walking down to the Salzburg Christmas Markets

One of the highlights of Salzburg was the Christkindlemarkt (Christmas Market). As it got darker (and colder), it looked just like a classic fairytale Christmas. There were fairy lights everywhere, the snow was falling, music played and people wandered from stall to stall buying their Christmas gifts. The stalls had rows and rows of lovely hand made Christmas ornaments and decorations. We joined the multitude of people huddled around drinking Gluewein (hot mulled wine) and eating giant pretzels and tasty bratwurst! After a perfect day, we reluctantly returned to Munich on the evening train.

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Christmas Markets in Salzburg

Sunday we had breakfast at our hotel and then wandered around the City Centre. We had lunch at Bistro Am Marienplatz. Whilst the hot chocolate and crepes were perfect, the grumpy waiter diminished the visit somewhat! After lunch we paid the tiny entrance fee of €1.20 and climbed the stairs of St Peters Church for some great views across the city. On such a clear day we had views as far as the alps.

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View from St Peters Church Tower

After St Peters, we walked up through Residenz and had a look around the Englischer Garten, one of the worlds biggest public parks. As dusk approached, the temperature dropped significantly so we hightailed it back to the hotel.

After a short Nanna-Nap, Jen peeked through the curtains and announced excitedly, "Its Snowing.... Its REALLY snowing! Really, Really Snowing". It was, it was bucketing down with snow. We quickly threw on our standard seven layers of clothing, grabbed our cameras and headed out to shoot midnight snow. It was fascinating to see the sights, bathed in sunshine earlier in the day, now covered in a three inch blanket of snow. It re-enforced one thing we already knew...Boy do we love snow!

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Marienplatz under Midnight Snow

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Odeonsplatz

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Monday we headed for the Augustiner Brau, a brewery and beer hall in town. We sat at a huge wooden table and ate hot lentil stew with bratwurst and each tried a massive glass of the house beer, Edelstoff Hell. It was great to eat a lovely hot meal on such a cold day, and in such a different environment. Apron clad waitresses lugged beer to the tables and hunting trophies adorned the walls. We felt less guilty eating the lentils than the Bratwurst given the surroundings! We chose the Augustiner Beer Hall over the more raucous, and tourist filled, HofBrauhaus, but we could still imagine how busy the city and its beer halls would be during Oktoberfest.

On Tuesday we again took a day trip by train, this time bound for Fussen. Fussen is a beautiful town located in the Bavarian Alps, just 5 kilometers from the Austrian Border. The famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau are located near the town. Neuschwanstein has appeared in several movies, and was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Park and for the Cinderella Castles at the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland. We climbed aboard an overloaded horse-drawn cart and made the climb to Zur-Neuen-Burg for our customary Bavarian lunch of Bratwurst, Bread and Mustard. Adequately refuelled, we climbed the final stretch to the castle just in time for a fresh snowfall.

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Schloss Neuschwanstein

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Horse and cart up to the castle

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View from the Castle

We jumped back on the Cart and, with dusk approaching, travelled to the second of the castles which overlook the town, Hohenschwangau. We gave the horses a congratulatory pat for a job well done, and quickly took some photographs of this, the older of the two castles, and of the town below before catching our train back to Munich.

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Stephen and Jen at the Bavarian Alps

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View from Hohenschwangau

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The last few days of our holiday were spent simply relaxing. We slept when sleepy, ate when hungry, and enjoyed a walk around the town when bored. On Thursday afternoon we headed for the airport and before we knew it, we were back in rainy old London again. Ah well... gotta earn some more money for the next trip!

Posted by StephenJen 17:57 Archived in Germany Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

A few days in Paris

another eyefull of the Eiffel

all seasons in one day 10 °C

The one thing we love about living and working in London is how it helps you appreciate getting away from the hussle and hassle for a few days abroad.

Our short trip to Paris started with a mad dash to Kings Cross-St Pancras to catch the Eurostar. Once onboard though, we quickly settled in and the unwind commenced. We heartily recommend travelling to Paris by train rather than by plane because you don't have all the hassle, or cost, of getting to and from the airport and delays are very rare. Also, we have more space and you get to watch the scenery as you speed by. We feel like our holiday starts as soon as we take our seats.

That said, we were still really eager to emerge from the tunnel on French soil. We had an early train, so we arrived at Gare De Nord at about 10.00am. The metro is great in Paris and very easy to understand and navigate. We purchased tickets at the machine and were on our way to Cambronne station. We had booked a room at a very well positioned, affordable, hotel called The Baldi. We checked in to a small but comfortable double room on the top floor. Dumping our luggage, we grabbed our cameras and headed out the door for breakfast. We were lucky with the weather. Whilst it was very cold for the duration of our trip, we enjoyed extended periods of clear blue skies and occasional sunshine to warm our faces.

This trip to Paris was in strong contrast to previous trips. The city had a very different aspect. Bathed in green, brown and gold. It really is a beautiful part of the world.

Here are some of the sights of Paris in Autumn.

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Gare Du Nord Railway Station

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Autumn in Paris

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Posted by StephenJen 01:20 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Och-eye...It's guid ti hae yir cog out whan it rains kail

Or, oh yes... make the most of your opportunities... like we did, in Scotland

overcast
View Scotland, och eye... on StephenJen's travel map.

Well, good friends getting married in a country as lovely as Scotland was enough motivation we needed to take a look at this beautiful place, and 5 days was just enough to make us realize that we need a longer period of time to explore it properly.

We landed at Glasgow at Prestwick airport, not the nearest airport to the city but certainly the nearest to our first destination - which was the Isle of Arran.

We stayed in a budget B&B overnight near Irvine, where we caught the ferry across from Ardrossan to Brodick on the Isle of Arran (nicknamed "Scotland in Miniature"). We checked into a welcoming B&B on the waterfront, the owners of which went to ridiculous lengths to make us feel comfortable and able to get ready for the wedding despite our rooms not yet being available... all at no extra cost!).

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View across Lamlash Bay from our B&B in Brodick

The wedding was at Lamlash Parish Church, a lovely spot overlooking Lamlash Bay, and we all had a lovely time seeing our good friends marry in such beautiful surroundings. The Reception followed at the Auchrannie Hotel, again, a lovely room which was set out beautifully for us all to dance, eat and drink the night away. The bride and groom had employed the services of a traditional ceilidh, a called dance, not unlike a barn dance, which everyone had a go at, most of us looked silly doing, but we all thoroughly enjoyed!

The Isle of Arran is a beautiful place to visit and we wish we had have allocated some more time to explore the island... so have made a commitment to return to see it properly with more time!

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Isle of Arran

The following day, Holly. Kris, Stephen and I headed off back to the Mainland and on to Glasgow and checked into a lovely serviced apartment Holly had found a few weeks before, in the heart of Glasgow. Perfect for exploring the surrounding city.
Glasgow is a bizarre place, with beautiful old buildings and architecture swamped by masses of ugly and poorly designed housing estates for the cities low income earners, of which there are many.

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Glasgow Cathedral

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Glasgow Cathedral Interior

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Beautiful Art Deco theatre, the Capitol

We were lucky enough to be in Glasgow on a day where many of the cities public buildings were open to the public to visit, for free! We visited the Glasgow City Chambers, just off George Square, and were stunned at the full marble staircase, the dark council chamber and the sheer grandeur of the banqueting hall. It was a great coincidence to be there on the day that we could visit, and we are glad we took a peek inside.

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George Square - Glasgow City

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Glasgow City Chambers

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Glasgow City Chambers Interior

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Glasgow City Chambers - Full Marble Staircase

We took a stroll up to the "Barra's", the market area in the East End. There were all the usual things you expect to find at a market in any major city, Copied DVDs, BB Guns, Cheap Clothing and household items. Another thing we saw a lot of at the Barra's was what is known as a "Glasgow Smile". This is also known as a Chelsea Grin/Chelsea Smile. Basically, a Glasgow Smile is a practice which originated in the city of Glasgow which involves a person being cut from mouth to ear, causing a permanent and extended smile like scar (most famous recipient of such practice would be the Joker from Batman). Its quite a fascinating thing to see, when every 3 or 4 men that pass have such scars... and these look like regular guys (did not seen any women with this)... Very, very strange thing to see indeed. Needless to say, we did not get a photo of one of these...

After two nights in Glasgow, we decided to get up early and drive to Edinburgh for our very last day before catching a night flight back to London. After all, It's guid ti hae yir cog out whan it rains kail (Make the most of your opportunities!) Boy... are we glad we did! As soon as we reached Edinburgh, we let out a sigh and smiled as we knew we had gotten up early for good reason. It took us about 1.5 hours to drive from Glasgow to Edinburgh (including time finding a car park!).

We wondered up the Royal Mile towards the Edinburgh Castle, where we spent a few hours wandering around exploring and taking in the amazing views of the city from the Castle. Lunch was fabulous, Oysters, Haggis, Chicken and Lamb, and boy were we all full!

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Entrance to Edinburgh Castle

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Jen at Edinburgh Castle

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Stephen & Jen at Edinburgh Castle

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Edinburgh Castle

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Guns eye view from Edinburgh Castle

The Sun stayed out for us to wander the streets of Edinburgh until it was time for us to get back on the car and head back to Glasgow Prestwick for our return flight to London.

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We did toy with the idea of changing our flights to stay in Edinburgh longer but decided instead (thanks to the small issue of our four jobs!), to book in another holiday back there really soon.

Posted by StephenJen 05:09 Archived in Scotland Tagged air_travel Comments (2)

A Wales of a time...

a weekend road-trip in South Wales

overcast 13 °C

Well, its actually been a while since we went to Wales the last time but we thought it necessary to upload our entry for this awesome weekend adventure anyway...

We headed off in mid May for a weekend on the road and some exploring of the rolling green hills and castles on offer in Wales.

We started by driving out from London direct to Tintern Abbey, one of the greatest monastic ruins in Wales. There were very few people around, with the exception of a few kids on a school trip, so we were able to explore and take photos at our leisure.

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After getting our fill of the Abbey we hopped back into the car and headed for Chepstow, not far down the road from the Abbey, to Raglan Castle.... a fantastically beautiful castle in South Wales...

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The evening was closing in and the cloud settling in low so we took a drive up through the [Brecon Beacons National Park],

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to Brecon Town where we found an Inn for the night and got a good sleep before heading out early again the next morning...

We took a long drive out to Carreg Cennen Castle, an amazing Castle sitting atop a hill amongst rolling green hills and farms. Carreg Cennen goes back to the 13th Century and it is amazing that it is still in such a magificennt state after such a long time.... and the best views we have seen yet....

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We then moved down and towards Cardigan Bay to visit the Devils Bridge.... whose most famous feature is probably its three bridges - which are built one on top of the other. The original bridge was believed to have been built either by the Cistercian monks of Strata Florida abbey or by Knights Templar. The latest bridge was built by the County Council during this century. Walking through the area, we got to see some amazing waterfalls of the River Mynach...

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We loved Wales... and look forward to more weekend roadtrips over the next year or so - maybe next time it will be warm enough to camp!!

Posted by StephenJen 11:02 Archived in Wales Comments (1)

Ladies and Gentlemen... Frank McComb.

Warning! The following blog contains mercilessly lengthy musical critique.

sunny 27 °C

On Monday I read an article about a piano player/singer named Frank McComb. He was playing one show only in London that night. I had not heard of him previously but I read who his influences were and thought it may well be a set that we would enjoy. I also thought it would be nice for Jen and I to get out and treat ourselves to dinner and a show. I got online and reserved a table at the Pigalle Club in Piccadilly. We had been to the club before but, having been to the Moulin Rouge in the Pigalle region of Paris, we had an idea of the sort of club it might be. We arrived and our waiter met us at the door upstairs. He led us down several flights of stairs and showed us to our table. We were staggered to find ourselves at front of the stage about three tables back. The club was a very authentic Paris supper club, the type of place you could imagine Dexter Gordon or Miles playing back in the day. We were feeling very special, but trying not to be too obvious in our excitement. We ordered a bottle of French red and chose our courses.
The lights were dimmed as we ate to the sounds of Monk, Bird, miles and Trane. By desert the DJ had started his set and we had moved to George Benson and Barry White. It was all very romantic and we were feeling pampered and relaxed.

Shortly after our meal Patrick, who hosts the Monday music night, took to the mike to introduce the evenings guest, Frank McComb. Frank sat at the Rhodes and the band followed. Drums, bass, percussion, sax and trombone. From the first 4 bars we were pretty sure we had made the right choice. When the vocal came in we were certain. The man has a voice, the quality of which I have only heard a couple of times before. Frank McComb gave us a combination of the smooth, soulful styles of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway but with the clever scat lines of a be bop horn player. He is the personification of everything I love about music. Jen and I were blown away. The band was a group of London guys who were doing just this one night and they nailed it! The set was fantastic. A brilliant fusion of jazz, soul and R&B. Add some funk and Gospel overtones, present it with a dynamic honesty and vocal fearlessness, what you get is Frank McComb.

Posted by StephenJen 13:05 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged events Comments (1)

Movin' on up (to the North Side)

The land of the iron lady

semi-overcast 18 °C

Hello folks,

Much has transpired since our last blog entry. We have left our maximum security residential unit in the picturesque White City Estate. We were sad to say farewell to our lovely nieghbours. We will miss the warm smiles and occasional items of food that Aunty Sha brought over to us. We won't miss the police sirens, loud parties on a sunday night, screaming teenagers, screaming couple downstairs or the subtle fragrance of the lift. We also said farewell to our Australian housemates Lou and Dave. They are heading home to NSW in August to get married before returning to London. We thought it might be more appropriatefor them to spend the beginning of married life on thier own. They are living in South London now and planning for the big event.

We decided to head a bit further out of the city and found a beautiful part of North London called East Finchley. It was the iron lady, Maggie Thatcher's, old constituency. It has a small independant cinema, The Phoenix, and a great pub with jazz and trivia... heaven! We have found ourselves in a really nice, quiet street and have Cherry Tree Woods within minutes, which makes for a wonderful start to Saturdays. We take an occasional amble through the greenery first thing in the morning. We get to wake up to the sounds of birds again! It sounds strange to anyone living in Australia but we had no birdlife in White City.

Our flat is a real contrast to the last place. It is a very modern remodelled victorian house. We have the very top flat comprising a laundry, loungeroom, modern kitchen and upstairs bedroom & Bathroom. We are feeling enormous benefits from being on our own as a couple. We are able to really relax, which is the essential antidote to working life in London. We have had a couple of trips away since moving in but I will leave those for the coming entries.

Here are some photos taken around our neighbourhood.

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Posted by StephenJen 14:07 Archived in England Comments (1)

Prague...

It's Czech, mate!

all seasons in one day 3 °C
View London to Prague on StephenJen's travel map.

I've never met anyone who came back from Prague without raving about it, and we are no exception.

The city looks just like the sort of places I imagined when I read fantasy books as a kid - huge cathedral spires, gothic statues and gargoyles reaching out from the tops of buildings ready to pounce. Add menacing grey skies and you have a very pretty, quite unique, almost spooky city.

We arrived in Prague in the afternoon. Dave had planned our journey to the Hotel by way of public transport. 1 bus, 2 trains and 60 minutes later we were checked in. The rooms were very nice and the staff were pleasant. We fuelled up each morning with the hot complimentary breakfast and it kept us running well into the afternoon.

As is the case with most of the cities we have visited in Europe, the transport network is very good. We were able to get around very easily. Our hotel was located close to Florenc Metro station and our well set out transport map made it easy to plot a course, each day, to see the various sights.

We have had a great run of luck with regard to weather on our travels almost no rain in more than 12 months. Suffice it to say, the run came to an end in Prague. Severe storms swept through Europe and the Czech Republic was not spared. We took the finicular up a steep hill to visit the replica Eifel Tower only to be met at the top by howling winds and a massive hail storm. We managed to get around, between rainy periods, and see just about everything on our list. The sun even showed it's face for a couple of hours!

Prague is a truly beautiful city, even dressed in hues of grey. Here are some of the sights.

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Statue of Jan Hus in the Old Town Square

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King Wenceslas watches over Wenceslas Square

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Statue of St Augustine on Charles IV Bridge

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The lamenting of Christ, Charles IV Bridge

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17th Century statue of the Crucifixion

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Charles IV Bridge

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Memorial to the victims of communism

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Night view towards Prague Castle

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Gargoyle at St Vitius Basilica

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St Vitius Basilica

Posted by StephenJen 11:46 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged air_travel Comments (1)

A relationship in ruins...

our 2nd anniversary in Rome

sunny 13 °C
View London to Rome on StephenJen's travel map.

This trip we decided to spare ourselves the 4am taxi ride to Luton airport for an Easyjet flight. Instead we got the Heathrow express straight to terminal 2. After about 2 hours in the air we were landing at Leonardo Di Vinci airport in Rome.

We took the express train from the airport to Rome's main station, Termini. It was about 8pm and dark so we hailed a cab and headed for our hotel. We arrived at the address. Only one problem... no hotel. Our driver lokked confused for a while and then jumped out of the cab and started racing down the road searching for the hotel. A guy came out from his business and explained, in charades, that the numbers were all out of whack and that our hotel was actually a block down the road behind us. We found it, checked in and laughed with relief.

Day one we jumped on the metro and headed for the Colosseum. We figured why not start with the big guns of sightseeing. There is a metro stop located there so we emerged from the station to the awesome sight of this huge structure. It is genuinely staggering to see something so enormous and so old. It had a capacity of over 55000 and was built in the first century AD.
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The Colosseum

To be able to walk the interior gave just a hint of what it may have been like in all its glory.

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The rising stands of the Colosseum

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Just beside the Colosseum stands the Arco di Constantino.

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A short walk SW took us to the Palantino, a hilly area scattered with the ruins of temples built for the Emperors. There is an orange grove at the top and several terraces from which we could view the remains of the Roman Forum.

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We Grabbed some pizza sandwiches for lunch and ate seated in the shadows of the Coloseum.

After a pit stop we headed out for a veiw of the city at night. We had our guide book, a metro map and an illustrated map provided by the hotel. Now... as we have found previously in European cities, it is easy to get a bit mixed up with similar sounding place names. We devised a foolproof Aussie system to plot our course around Rome. We determined that if we got onto the metro and Boyzone station (Manzoni) and travelled past Colin See 'em and continue as far as Vinnie Barbarino station (Barbarini) we could walk to Trevor the fountain. It was illuminated beautifully and, as is customary for visitors, we tossed coins into the water to ensure we would return.

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Trevi Fountain is so impressive and beautiful at night, we took a heap of photos before getting completely lost on the walk back. We did, however, manage to get a look at the Colosseum on the way home.

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On Monday we headed out to the Vatican. We arrived at about 10.30am but the line to get in wound around corner after corner for blocks. We decided to give it a miss and, instead, jumped on the first tram we saw and went exploring. Here's what we found...

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View along the Tiber towards St Peters

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Parliament house

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Entrance to Piazza del Popolo

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Piazza del Popolo

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Central fountain in Popolo

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Fontana detarughe

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On our anniversary we got up really early and took the first train to St Peter's Basilica. The piazza was almost completely deserted and we were able to watch the sunrise from within.

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We went inside the Basilica and it was astonishing.

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Next stop was the Vatican museum, home of the Sistine Chapel

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Parts of it reminded us of the bathroom in our old place in Coburg!

It was still really early so we went and explored the ruins of the Roman Forum.

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We returned to Central Rome and climbed the Spanish Steps.

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We walked to the Pantheon and had lunch at a cafe out front.

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... before taking a romantic ride around the city in a horse drawn carriage.

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We finished the day off with dinner at a great restaurant near our hotel. The food was fantastic and the service was outstanding.
We had a beautiful day filled with amazing experiences and, most importantly, spent it together. We thought it was going to be tough to capture the romance of Paris but Rome delivered us a perfect day.

Wednesday was our last day in Rome. We spent a lazy morning in Piazza Della Repubblica

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So that was Rome. The amazing city where the ancient word meets the modern world

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Posted by StephenJen 02:03 Archived in Italy Tagged air_travel Comments (2)

Hungary for a break

Buda and the best of the Pest

semi-overcast 13 °C

With Dave and Liz in town for a while, we decided to head off to Hungary for a few days. We landed early on Thursday and checked into the Ambra hotel. It is located on the Pest side of the Danube, close to transport and some of the main tourist sights. We basically spent our five days trying to get around to most of the must see spots. We were struck by the beauty of Budapest. The architecture is impressive, the river setting is beautiful and we were able to view the city from many aspects as we travelled from one vantage point to another.

We managed to visit almost everything onour list and discovered an amazingly affordable Budapest buffet which provided dinner on our final three days. It's a great city for a short break, plenty to see and some beautiful statues and structures. Check some of them out below

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Standing on the Chain Bridge between Buda and Pest

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View from the Chain Bridge

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Budapest on the Danube River

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Statues in Pest

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Buskers at Fisherman's Bastion

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Hawk at Fishermans Bastion

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Statue of Imre Nagy looking towards parliament

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Liz and Dave view Pest from Royal Castle

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St Stephen's Basilica

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The dome of St Stephen's

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Budapest at night

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Pest from Fisherman's Bastion

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Gellert Hill Statues

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The view of the city from Gellert Hill

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Budapest from Margit Bridge

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Parliament House

Posted by StephenJen 12:28 Archived in Hungary Comments (2)

A London Eyeful of New Years Fireworks

... happy New Year from England

overcast 5 °C

'Hello London. Are you ready for the greatest fireworks show on the planet?' That was the question booming out of the loudspeakers around Big Ben and Westminster Bridge. It was met with a resounding 'Yeah' from the crowd. We were... and it was!

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The crowd gathers as the New Year approaches

I've seen my share of impressive fireworks displays from the Sydney Harbour Bridge but the show we witnessed at the London Eye was unmatched. It was an amazing feeling to stand at the feet of Big Ben as the bells tolled midnight. Then to be treated to an unbelievable display of colour and light, with the booming sound of the charges echoing off the banks of the Thames, made this a truly memorable night.

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Fireworks shoot from the London Eye

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Fireworks show in London

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London Eye fireworks

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More fireworks

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Fireworks shoot from the London Eye

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London Eye bathed in red

We welcomed our second year in England with tremendous excitement and anticipation.
We hope it is our best yet. We hope it is your best also.

Happy New Year everyone.

Posted by StephenJen 03:20 Archived in England Tagged events Comments (2)

The night before Christmas

...a monologue on fog on a blog

overcast 0 °C

T'was the night before Christmas
all pudding and nog
whilst around us, in London,
a pea soup thick fog
had decended and ended
all feel in our limbs
We left midnight mass
saying "Bugger the Hymns".

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Despite our brave plans to enjoy some traditional Christmas carolling. We spent only a short time in town tonight before retreating to the warmth of home and the burning of frostbitten digits. Jen met me after work and we made our way to Trafalgar Square. It looks beautiful at night and the large Norwegian Christmas tree in the center of the square looked a treat. We took a few pics before walking along Whitechapel to Big Ben and then on home.

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Let us take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy festive season and lets all work on making 2008 the best year yet. To our dear families, we miss you and love you enormously. We will drink a toast, and eat our bodyweight in chocolate, in your honour. Talk to you all soon. See some of you before long. Until then, throw another turkey on the barbie!!

Love Stephen and Jen xxx

Posted by StephenJen 12:09 Archived in England Comments (1)

A Taste of Istanbul

... the pita platter of tiny meat.

sunny 15 °C
View London to Istanbul on StephenJen's travel map.

Istanbul was the perfect city for our first Eastern experience. We saw some amazing architecture, met some great people, met some very weird people, survived an exciting but terrifying Galatasaray football match, encountered a fortune telling rabbit, indulged ourselves in great food and smoked some very tasty nagileh. Add a traditional Turkish bath into the bargain and you have a recipe for a fantastic birthday.

This trip, for the first time, we flew out of London City Airport. It was a breeze and far preferrable to the Mad taxi dash to Luton. We flew Swissair to Attaturk Airport in Istanbul via Zurich.

We arrived late on Friday afternoon and met our transfer to the hotel. We had a reasonable run through peak hour traffic and had a good view of the city and its prominent sights. We checked in without any problems. The room was small but more than adequate and the constant noise of the toilet cistern was easily fixed by turning off the main tap. We received email instructions from Adam as to where we would meet he and Megs. They had done some recon the previous week and so we were provided with very detailed steps.

Go out of your hotel. Turn right. Follow the road to the tram tracks. Follow the tracks uphill to the tram station. Take a tram to the bottom of the hill. Get off at Eminonu station. Cross the road to the Ferry terminal. Get on the ferry to a place called Kadikoy. We had been given a map when we checked in. We followed the instructions out of the hotel and up the hill. We took a quick pit stop and had a Turkish coffee and some very tasty pastries. We located Kadikoy on our map. So we knew where we were going. We jumped on a tram and headed down to the ferry terminal. We looked across the river towards Kadikoy. It was hardly any distance at all. We assumed that the ferry instruction was there because of cultural aspects or something but it seemed a bit lazy so we decided to stay on the tram and simply get off at the stop where we were to meet A & M. We got off and took a short walk through the underground path network before finding ourselves at the riverside.

We called Adam, excited to see them again. He asked us what we could see. None of the things he described, it turned out. Oooops... slight typographical error on our part. As we would find out along the trip, many places have only one letter differing them. This was the case for us. The 'lazy' ferry trip should have taken about 45 mins to 1 hour and was across a totally different part of the river system. Disappointed, we resolved to catching up the next day instead.

Jen and I walked along under the Galata bridge. There are a variety of restaraunts there and we were feeling pretty hungry. We settled on a place with tables outside, a nice view of the water and a backgammon set into the bargain. We enjoyed local beer and a very good curry.

The kid who served us was very attentive. He spent much of his time standing near us and grinning. He was very nice and keen to offer his services. In fact, when the band inside started playing, he even asked me if I wanted to dance. I'm still not sure if he meant with him or on my own. I spared Istanbul the embarrassment of seeing me dance.

After dinner we walked back across the bridge towards our hotel. The bridge was lined with fishermen pulling large numbers of small fish from the water on long blank lines. The town had a nice energy and we were looking forward to the coming days.

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Fishermen on the Galata bridge

Saturday Adam and Megs came and met us at our hotel. It was a fantastic feeling to hug family again. Jen was beaming. We spent the day wandering around Sultanahmet. After breakfast we visited the Basilica Cistern - originally constructed for water storage for the Great Palace of Byzantium. Its an expansive structure with a boardwalk winding through tall romanesque columns. They are individually lit and create a beautiful effect as they reflect off the water. Of particular interest are the twin medusa heads deep within the cistern.

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Medusa Head at the Basilica Cistern

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The Basilica Cistern

Next we walked to the Blue Mosque. It is an amazing structure with a large, busy square and gardens outside.

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Exterior of the Blue Mosque

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Courtyard of the Blue Mosque

We removed our footwear and stepped inside. The interior was beautiful, with large round candle chandeliers suspended by long cables from the ornate ceiling. It was a unique opportunity to see people quietly exercising their faith.

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Inside the Blue Mosque

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Inside the Blue Mosque

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Inside the Blue Mosque

We left the Mosque and walked down towards the ferry terminal at Eminonu. On the way we met a man with a fortune telling rabbit with the mystical name of rabbit number one. Jen got bullied into having her fortune told. It entailed the rabbit picking up one of many small pieces of folded paper from a tray. The paper was unfolded to reveal a message. It said she had to watch her health. Amazing! how could rabbit number one have known that. We paid the man and walked to the ferry terminal. We boarded the ferry to Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, and enjoyed a spectacular view of the Mosques as the day slowly turned to evening.

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View of the Mosques from the Asia side of Istanbul

Adam and I were sporting moustaches as part of the Movember charity event. As per the guidelines, the tash comes off when November ends. We had a small gathering of friends at Adam and Meaghan's place for some party snacks and the ceremonial shave. It was so very good to say goodbye to the endless itching of a, decidedly inadequate in Turkey, charity tash. I was also celebrating a birthday so we were all able to enjoy some cake into the bargain.

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Movember Finale - pre shave-off

With the party over we jumped on a bus and headed into town for a taste of local food and local music. We found a bar with a live band. We had a great time, the music was fantastic and Paul even joined the locals for some dancing.

Sunday morning Jen and I visited Hagia Sophia. It is a magnificent building with marble floor and a huge dome above. The interior is adorned with symbols of the faiths which have predominated historically. In 1935, after 1400 years as a place of worship, both a Cathederal and a Mosque, Ataturk turned Hagia Sofia into a museum. Today Christian mosaics share the interior with large wooden medallions inscribed with Arabic caligraphy. It is a beautiful, peaceful space.

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Hagia Sophia

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Inside Hagia Sophia

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Interior

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Women on their way to prayer

Next activity for us was to be the antithisis of the peaceful morning. We had tickets to the football match between Galatasaray and Istanbul F.C. We knew very little about the teams involved but as it was a Galatasaray home game, in the stadium known simply as 'Hell', we knew we were going to be fervently supporting the red and yellow!

Adam, Megs, Jen and I made our way to the ground and after a couple of security searches were inside and finding our section. We met up with Josh and Jessica, from the previous night, and we secured seats for ourselves on the lower section near one of the goals. The atmosphere was electric. The crowd was a sea of red and yellow with large drums to keep the endless chants and songs in sync.

There was a small caged area for Istanbul F.C supporters. Suffice it to say... there were none. The crowd belted out a variety of songs with real gusto and when the teams ran onto the pitch they were welcomed with whistles (the Turkish equivilent of booing) or cheering and wild applause. Just before kick off a hush fell over the crowd. There was an eerie silence and then it was game on. The first taste of excitement was when the visitors scored early in the first half. We heard the collective moan of the crowd followed by the sound of chairs being broken all around us.
It was a little intimidating. We made sure everyone understood we shared the dissappointment. We wanted to make it clear we were not supporting the opposition. Oh well... only one down and the majority of the game still to be played. Not too dire, we thought. Then Istanbul scored again. The cracking of seats echoed around the stadium. We were very relieved to hear the half-time whistle. In the break we chatted with a few of the locals about some of the Australian players doing well overseas. I assured the gentleman next to me that we were still in the game and he looked to the heavens for assistance.

The Second half started with a couple of scares as Istanbul dominated play again. Then the unbelievable happened against the run of play Galatasaray scored! The crowd went crazy and the guys around us hugged each other and us! One more we screamed. Just one more goal and we might just survive to write the blog. My new friend looked up at the clock and said it was crunch time. He vowed that if we scored again he would give me his Galatasaray scarf. With only minutes left, an obvious penalty was ignored by the ref. The crowd screamed at him and our hearts sank. My new friend suggested it would be best if we all left with he and his friends for safety reasons. That sounded like a good idea to us. In the dying moments of the game we scored again. High fives and hugs all around, and a new scarf around my neck.

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Our Galatasaray friends

A two all draw meant that everyone got home alive. Josh even managed to take a large section of broken seat home as a souvenier. We celebrated our survival with a meal and some nagileh (nah-ga-lar) we decided on cappucino flavoured in one and double red apple in the second. I over did it, felt a bit sick and turned white for a while.

Last big activity for the trip was a traditional Turkish bath. We decided on Cemberlitas. It is a segregated bath but the facilities are identical in both the mens and womens sections. In some of the baths the womens facilities are much less grand than the mens. Adam and I said goodbye to our wives at the reception area and headed off to get changed.

We donned our peptemals, which are printed cotton body wraps, and walked into the steamroom. It didn't seem too hot at first, but after dousing ourselves with the very hot tap water and lying on the large marble platform in the middle of the room, we were feeling the heat. Adam had purchased a massage and I could hear the slapping and thumping behind me. I had decided not to risk my back and chose to simply enjoy the heat. After about 45 minutes we were done. We got dressed and waited for the girls in the bar area.

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Cemberlitas Hamami (image from official website. http://www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr)

When they joined us we all agreed that we felt relaxed and had enjoyed the experienced. We had a final meal together, again enjoying the pita platter of tiny meat, and called it a night.

Tuesday we were heading home again, so it was time to shop. We hit the spice market and the Grand Bazaar. We purchased tea, spices, carpet, cushion covers, ornaments and a backpack to put it all in. We could easily have spent a lot more time and money in there.

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The spice market

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Looking out from the bazaar

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Glass lights at the bazaar

It was tough to say goodbye. Christmas was only weeks away and Adam and Megs were going back home to spend it with family. We had a really wonderful time in Istanbul. Adam and Meaghan were fantastic hosts and had arranged the activities perfectly. We will definately visit again.

Posted by StephenJen 04:40 Archived in Turkey Comments (2)

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