A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about family travel

Yikes! Bikes and dykes (it's not mardi gras) it's Amsterdam!

or... Hey, Big man. Business?

sunny 27 °C

There's just no place like Amsterdam for a lost weekend. It has all the ingredients for an escape from routine for a couple of days.

Amsterdam is only a 45 minute flight from London. The moment we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew raced out the trolleys, threw us a ham roll and coffee, and then scurried away again because it was time to start preparing for landing.

We arrived at Schipol airport and jumped on a train to Centraal. A tram from there to Zuid and a short walk to the hotel. At least that's how it was meant to go. On the train into town we tried to retrieve the email detailing the name and address of our accommodation. No luck. We couldn't connect. I knew that it was one of the NH hotels and I had looked on Google maps before we left and worked out where we needed to go in relation to the hotel we stayed at last trip. We got to Zuid station and headed in the direction of the Hotel. We were confident we would find it. I mean, it's a hotel. It's big right? We saw an equally confused couple of guys about 50 metres ahead of us. They made every turn that we were going to take and so we figured that they must be looking for the same hotel. As we had neither a name or address for the hotel, we basically followed them for a while until we came to a little cafe and decided it would be handy to know where we were supposed to be going. We started searching the list of NH hotels in Amsterdam but none of the names were familiar. We decided upon the one closest to our current position and headed off... in the direction we had come from. After a very healthy walk we arrived and checked in. The room was really nice. We gave ourselves a 30 minute pit stop before heading to town.

NH Musica hotel room

We took a tram to centraal and looked for somewhere for coffee and coke. No folks... the drink!
It was a beautiful sunny day and we enjoyed the stroll around the streets and waterways of the city.


We ate lunch at the world's best burger joint before surrendering to fatigue (we had left home at 03.00 to catch 2 buses and a train to the airport). Back to the hotel and a nanna nap until the evening.

Saturday night we woke refreshed and ready for a big night out in the Dam. We headed into town and got ourselves some dinner. We spent the rest of the night between the red light district, the coffee shop and the waffle shop. It is always cheap entertainment after midnight in town. We sat with our legs dangling over the waterways just people watching.

Amsterdam at night

At about 02.00 am we hailed a taxi and headed for the hotel. After several minutes driving in, seemingly every direction the driver pulled over and said he wanted to check the address. He started asking us if it was near places we had never heard of. I told him we figured that he was a taxi driver so it may be reasonable to assume that he would have a better idea of the town than someone who had only arrived that morning. He reassured us he had worked it out and off we went again. We went back past several of the streets we had just travelled before stopping again. This time he wanted to check his map. Again we asked if he had any idea what he was doing. Again he assured us he had it sorted and off we went again. On the fourth occasion we politely explained that we would like to make it home before morning and left the vehicle. We walked up to the next major road and luckily another taxi eventually came past. This guy had no idea where we wanted to go, despite having the address. Happily, he called his controller and about 15 minutes later we were home. It seems that nobody from the Netherlands drives a taxi... only Egyptians! We now fully expect to find only Dutch taxi drivers in Egypt.

Sunday was another lovely day and we spent it wandering about, taking photos and eating. We shared a meal with a guy named Aaron who was over from New Zealand to compete in the Laser fleet racing. He was really nice and interesting to talk to. As you might imagine hauling your gear around the world is expensive and Aaron would benefit enormously from sponsorship, so if anyone has appropriate business connections in NZ send them the link please.

We took a walk, about 15 minutes south of Dam Square, to the flower market. The Amsterdam flower market is a long stretch of stalls beside a waterway where you can find beautiful fresh cut flowers, in a wide variety of rich colours, as well as plants and a huge number of bulbs. You can also buy your Grandma a canabis starter kit for Christmas (it helps with the arthritis).


We stopped for lunch and, as Jen and I are learning Spanish for our next trip, started testing each other with dialogue from our course. We did pretty well but too much time in the coffeeshop had taken the edge of our Spanish language skills... and our English language skills to be honest. Anyway, I was struggling to translate "The bag is not brown, it is black" because I had forgotten the Spanish word for 'Black'. "Don't tell me...Don't tell me... I'll get it" I told Jen. After several minutes of agony trying to remember it came to me "Ahhh... NEGRO" I shouted.
The black family just entering the establishment seemed happy that I was so excited to see them. Not my best moment. Jen looked at me in horror and we laughed ourselves to tears for the next half hour.

One of the most apparent differences between Amsterdam and many other cities in the world is the extent to which the general public use bicycles rather than cars. The Dutch seem to have succeeded in establishing a safe and effective network of bicycle paths and the default mode for getting sround appears to be bikes and public transport.

Multistory bike park

The rail system is efficient although we found that services ceased too early on weekends. We hasten to point out that, in Amsterdam, we found two things we can never find in London... public transport with personal space and SUNSHINE! Mmmmm, it makes me feel like a kip.

On our last day we had breakfast in town and then walked to Centraal station for our train to the airport. On the way I realised that a conversation I could hear in the background was actually a twitchy gentleman walking beside me saying "Hey... big man... business?" I told him we were fine thanks and were not interested. "You want some coke" he said "I have some great coke" I smiled and said "Thanks, but no thanks" he asked "Are you keeping your woman happy?" I assured him Jen was happy, he smiled broadly, laughed a bit, shook my hand and said "Stay strong big man, stay strong man". We laughed and headed to the station.

All in all, Amsterdam makes an ideal getaway for a few days. It is a well designed city with all the essential ingredients for the visitor. Uniquely Dutch offering like clogs, dykes and tons of tulips. Architecture, museums, galleries and other sights worth photographing. The stranger than fiction red light district, complete with touts outside sex clubs, working girls in shop windows, and dodgy gents around every corner asking if you want to do 'Business'. Not forgetting the famous coffeeshops for an Amsterdam style chill out. The people are relaxed and friendly and we found we could walk around at any time of the day or night without feeling the slightest nervousness. We loved it and give it our *Five Clog* rating.


Posted by StephenJen 00:21 Archived in Netherlands Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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.




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).

Mariensaul Column in front of Neues Rathaus



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.

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


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!

Streets of Salzburg

Statue in Salzburg

Snowy view - Salzburg

Jen in Salzburg

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.



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.

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!

Marienplatz under Midnight Snow



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.

Schloss Neuschwanstein

Horse and cart up to the castle



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.


Stephen and Jen at the Bavarian Alps

View from Hohenschwangau


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.

Gare Du Nord Railway Station

Autumn in Paris




















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

Wurst holiday ever!

Bier, brats and bus rides in Berlin

11 °C

Guten Tag!
Last friday we braved the infamous Easyjet experience and headed, by cab, for a 5am check-in at Luton airport. Destination... Schonefeld airport in Berlin.

We had heard all manner of horror stories about Easyjet. Our housemates had been in Spanish meltdown after their flight was delayed for hours on the return leg of a holiday. We had left ourselves plenty of time and arrived early. Happily we had no problems and the flight boarded and left on time. At 10.30am, local time, we were in Berlin.
We stayed at a hotel in a place called Schoneweide. It is a town about 20 mins by train from the heart of Berlin and the station was only 2 blocks from the hotel.

Shoneweide railway station

The nice surprise was that our room overlooked the Spree river. The room was nice and the mattress didn’t drive springs into our backs… which made a nice change from home.

The Spree from our room

We arrived on a day of about 11 degrees with some light rain at times. It was a lot colder than London and, as we had not done our homework well enough, we had neglected to bring our winter coats. To remedy the situation, to Jens eternal pleasure, we went shopping for warm jackets. We found a shopping centre only a block away and we were able to find some very affordable coats. Whilst there we also sampled our first German currywurst. It is a somewhat traditional street food essentially bratwurst, knackwurst, bockwurst or some other variety of wurst which is then cut up and served on a small cardboard tray, smothered in tomato sauce and sprinkled with plenty of curry powder. Mmmmm… somethingwurst. The culinary tone for the trip had been set.


Everything had been great - the trip over, the hotel room, the food. Ideal!… well it would have been if there was no train strike or rail maintainence scheduled from Friday evening until Monday afternoon. There were, however, plenty of buses and a tram network to compensate. So after about 4 hours of waiting, studying timetables, hopping on the wrong tram, dragging ourselves from tram stop to bus stop, taking one of the trains still in service in the opposite direction we wanted… twice! we found ourselves, almost inadvertently, heading for the heart of Berlin. Easy!

Now the only antidote for a frustrating start like that is a city which really grabs you from the outset. Berlin was just that. The city looks amazing. A beautiful marriage of old and new with some of the most modern architecture we have seen in our travels so far. The people are relaxed and polite, unlike the inhabitants of London. We were struck by the amount of space we had and we felt very safe. Berlin is an incredibly clean place, everything looks new. Mind you, when you consider the extent of the damage sustained during allied bombing in WW2, almost everything is relatively new.

We took the train to Alexanderplatz. It has a large central railway station and meets both tram and bus routes. There is an open town square with shops and restaurants in all directions. After a quick bratwurst from a street stall we headed to Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg gate. During the years of division by the wall this was actually inaccessible to both the East and West sides of Berlin as it lay within the grounds of the border. It was restored after the wall came down and today is an extremely impressive structure.

Brandenberg Gate

Dusk was closing as we walked along the autumn coloured, tree lined path from the gate towards the Reichstag. Huge German flags punctuate this massive building and the words ’Dem Deutschen Volke’ (The German People) stand boldly on the facade. Within the old building a huge glass dome has been built. Visitors are able to take the spiral climb around the inside of it and enjoy a panoramic view of the city and the Spree. However, the prospect of standing in the massive queue for hours prevented us from doing so.

The Reichstag

We ambled back to Alexanderplatz and had dinner at a nearby restaurant. I was hoping for a traditional German offering. In saying that, my idea of traditional fare is most probably nothing more than an Octoberfest driven characature based on broad stereotypes. Apron clad plaited bar wenches with a fist full of beir steines. Loud ‘all singing, all slapping’ men in Leiderhosen wearing small peaked hats with a feather on the side. Maybe some midgets to carry oversized trays laiden with huge somethingwursts and every kind of pig based product known to man. Not unreasonable is it? I realise that the midgets may just be a ploy to make the food look bigger, but I wouldn’t let that diminish my enthusiasm. The food was modern international so Jen had a pizza and I had parmesan encrusted pork medallions. We managed to get through the whole process speaking Deutsch, so we headed back to the hotel feeling satisfied that the day had ended far better than it had begun.

Saturday we headed to Alexanderplatz. We wanted to see Berlins tallest structure, the Fernsehturm.


We were surprised to see only a very small number of people in line to take the elevator to the observation deck. We jumped in the line. Once through the doors and inside we realised the line snaked along the large entrance and up two flights if stairs before reaching the lift lobby. We decided it would be worth the wait. We used this tower throughout the remainder of our trip to find our way back to the train station as it stands 368 meters tall and the steel sphere which houses the observation deck reflects the sunlight on a bright day, making it unmissable. Once up on the deck, we had a 360 degree view of Berlin. It was a perfect way to see the way the historic buildings bedded into the modern city and helped us make sense of our map too.

The view of the city

We walked to Marienkirche, which is a old brick church built in the 1200s. Outside is an amazing fountain, the Neptunbrunnen (Neptune fountain). We spent a lot of time studying the detail of the work and trying to get some photographs without people climbing all over it.

The Neptunbrunnen


By this time we were running dangerously low on pork product! (having used so much energy standing in line and taking photographs) Thankfully, there was a small market nearby so we were able to refuel with a currywurst.


MMMM... somethingwurst!

Next stop was the Lustgarten (Pleasure garden)


Standing adjacent to the garden is the 1905 Berliner Dom. The former church of the royal Hohenzollern family.

Berliner Dom



We wandered through the garden towards the river and discovered a boat tour about to embark, so we quickly climbed on board. It took us along the Spree which winds through the heart of Berlin.

Music academy and Fernsehturm from the boat

Kayaks on the Spree

Figures in a sculpture on the wall running alongside the river Spree

The balance of our time in Berlin was divided between ingesting wurst and checking out the tourist sights.


Checkpoint Charlie


The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe


Grosser Stern

Monday we headed to one of the places we had been most eager to see, the Eastside gallery. It is the longest remaining piece of the Berlin wall. It is home to graffiti which is deserving of the term 'Wall Art'. Some very famous images have been born on this stretch of concrete. It has, unfortunately, become littered with tags and pointless scribblings by tourists. However, it remains clear evidence of the division of the people of Berlin and cuts an imposing, somewhat depressing, line along the river.

East Side Gallery




All in all, we really liked Berlin. It is the antithesis of London - lots of personal space, very polite and relaxed people - it is a clean and affordable city. We look forward to visiting again in the future.


Posted by StephenJen 05:12 Archived in Germany Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Waffles, Beer & Chocolate

Adventures in Belgium

sunny 20 °C
View Our Big Adventure on StephenJen's travel map.

Let us warn you - some images in this blog may be offensive to some readers - the blog contains graphic images and descriptions of ridiculous amounts of chocolate and beer. You have been warned.

So we went to Brussels on good friday - arriving early on a lovely warm day and checking into our awesome hotel. We have come to not expect too much from our hotels that are often included with budget flights (star ratings mean nothing overhere) and we are usually pretty happy. This time we were ecstatic. We got there and were staying in an NH Hotel which is a (real) 4 star place... it was clean, safe and service was awesome!

So after checking in we went for breakfast of Chocolate waffles and sat to adjust to a new country. Stephen prepared himself to again be the French interpreter and as always - did marvellously for the duration of the trip.


We wandered around town for the first day, takiing in sites like the Grand Place, the shopping strip, had more waffles and started our beer tasting... mainly fruit beers which have become our favourites!

Stephen in Brussels


Bon Homme

We met this little guy called Bon Homme (good boy) begging in a street in Brussels for money for food. His owner was sitting off to one side and looked suspiciously like Hunter S Thompson (but alive). He was so good, and it worked on us as we popped a few coins in his kick - mainly just an excuse to pat him really... VERY CUTE.

Kettle collection in a waffle house
One thing we noticed about Belgium was that the place is very good at making things just that little more interesting, like the kettle collection in a waffle house.... things like this are everywhere in Brussels particularly. They are just so good at building and displaying things just a bit more creatively - a stark contrast to London - where everything is the same! There is great art in the streets and the shops are so much cooler and unique...

Another good thing about Belgium is the chocolate. It feels like every second shop is a chocolatier or candy shop. The whole place smells of chocolate and they realy take it very seriously there - i thought i was serious about chocolate but they are just crazy!

A big easter egg in Brussels. They get bigger - much bigger.

Like a kid in a candy store....

There are so many beautiful old buildings in Belgium and there are cobblestones everywhere - which look beautiful but do have a tendency to wear the feet out of weary tourists.

The place is like postcard in every direction and really like the romantic image we had of Big European cities... without so much progress and modernisation as Paris has...

Stephen in Brussels

We headed off to Brugge for a day for the Chocolate Festival and to have a look around. Its only an hour on the train from Brussles. If we thought that Brussels was nice, Brugge was amazing. Brugge still has horses and carts, cobbled streets (of course), lace-makers, people getting everywhere on pushbikes and yet more chocolatiers. Though there were a lot of tourists - its not hard to see why. Sounds corny but it really has managed to keep a kind of "old world charm" about it.

Stephen just off the train to Brugge
Streetscape in Brugge

So - we paid 10 Euro to get into the Chocolate Festival - and it was worth every bit. We grabbed a showbag and picked up samples from most of the people displaying their wares. There were chocolates everywhere to taste, displays on people doing chocolate sculpture, painting with chocolate, a guy painting chocolate on nude woman, and HUGE sculptures out of chocolate .... the smell was overpowering but it only made us more hungry for the good stuff.

We watched in awe (and with our mouths watering) as a guy created a chocolate Pinocchio to go with his already completed Giupetto. Amazing. That was just one of many amazing sculptures we saw that day (see the pics of these by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page).

We did actually show some restraint when we purchased a couple of eggs for friends and workmates from the Guilian stall - and our restraint was rewarded with 4 extra huge eggs as a bonus with our purchases. They were doing us no favours - as by this stage we were already wondering how we could possible get so much chocolate through customs at Heathrow on our return!

Jen with the loot after the chocolate festival

We loved Brugge and took so many photos there as we walked around and took our canal boat tour. It was such a nice place - and i suspect it would be even quieter on a weekday... so can highly recommend if anyone is visiting Europe to add Brugge to the list of places to see.

Us in Brugge (hiding the chocolate behind us)

We headed back to Brussels and spent some more time exploring the city by foot.

I was very excited to visit the Brussels Beer museum - as i thought that it would be something that i could really get into.... but i was wrong. We paid our 5 euro entry and walked in. We saw a few modern beer making machines with very little explanation of what they are used for, watched a video in french, and looked for the rest of the museum - and realised that there was no more. There were other displays that were not working and others inside looked as confused as we were.... We left feeling very disappointed and then realised that we had not been given a beer like everyone else had - supposed to be included in the price apparently.... ah well....

We headed off and found a great restaurant down a cobbled laneway and spoilt ourselves with a beautiful meal and more fruit beer. Stephen fought the Mussels from Brussels (and won) and i had the best steak i have ever had (not including Dads BBQ steaks which i love). Very tasty. Public transport in Belgium is very affordable - you can buy an all day ticket for about 2.50 euro and use it on trams, trains and buses - and its very smooth compared to the Tube too... a very nice ride!

Anyway - we explored the Brussels flea market and though we did not actually see any fleas, we saw some awesome old jewellery, and kitsch furniture and homewares that would sell for loads at home. We also stumbled across a castle in the middle of the city that was closed and had no sign explaining what it was. After doing some research we found out that it was one of the last standing gates that surrounded the city. Quite random as it was just standing in a neglected part of town surrounded by cheap shops and not much else.

So we headed back to London and successfully got through Customs with our haul of chocolate (it was somewhat depleted for some reason), and were amazed that it actually took us more that twice the time to get through Heathrow as it did to get from Belgium to England on a plane.

Remind us never to go away on a long weekend again! Next time we have decided we will register for the Iris Recognition system - allows you to check yourself through immigration - past the queues of people waiting impatiently with their passports in hand.... (and its a bit James Bond - which we like...)

So as you can see - there are not a great deal of photos on this blog - because our site upload limit has not allowed us to show you more - but if you click here - you will see our full album from this trip - definitely worth the look - but that chocolate warning still stands.....

Posted by StephenJen 02:37 Archived in Belgium Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

The Royal Opera and my first performance in London

... a very misleading tale of two sit-ins

overcast 9 °C

I hope the deliberately misleading title of this entry has some of you wondering how I made such a speedy rise to the top of the operatic tree here in London! Sadly, I am yet to make my Royal Opera debut. Last week, however, I was lucky enough to attend a final full dress rehearsal of Handel's Orlando. Jane has a director friend associated with the production and she very kindly asked me if I would like to come along. Australian Charles MacKerras was conducting so we were well represented. I had been very ill most of the previous night and was less than sparkling company. Jane was her usual polite self and tolerated my vagueness and rambling. She had warned me that the performance was quite lengthy and said I could make an early exit if it became too taxing. While it was long, there were two intervals which allowed us to get some air and stretch our legs. The theatre is glorious. Beautifully ornate in deep red and gold. I felt very regal sitting so close to the Royal box.

The Royal Opera House


The theatre has gowns worn by Dame Joan Sutherland and others on display as well as photos of famous performances from opera and ballet including Nureyev and Fonteyn.
The performances in Orlando were excellent, particularly the two female leads, fine voices and engaging performances all round. We had no inclination to leave early and enjoyed ourselves very much.
Before leaving Covent Garden, Jane showed me a specialty shop which stocks items perculiar to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. It had all the things an Aussie craves - Vita brits, Tim Tams, proper Milo and the biggest jars of Vegemite in the known universe. I got some licorice for Jen, Jane got some Vita wheat biscuits and we hopped on a bus for home. It was a fabulous day!

On the following weekend we went to the Half Moon hotel, in Putney, to help celebrate our friend Phil's birthday. Sally and Phil had taken us there previously to check out some Sunday jazz. It was a rainy old day but that didn't stop us having a good time. We met Phil's other friends and headed in to listen to the music. Dick Laurie has been the resident band leader at the Half Moon for about nine years. He heads a seven piece band including horn, sax and bone. I had a chat to him during one of the breaks and requested a song. During the last break, he invited me to have a sing with the band. Naturally I was keen to perform and when he called me up to the stage I sang a Nat King Cole song called 'Straighten up and fly right'. The arrangement was shaky but we pulled it off no problem. The crowd were very warm and Dick asked me if I would sing one more. I sang 'My funny valentine'. The band played it so well, great dynamics and it sounded a treat. The crowd loved it. I loved hving the opportunity to perform. The band are all middle aged and beyond and, as is often the case, were pros without ego. It was very generous to let me sing and it was wonderful to perform in London. I am inspired to do it some more.

Posted by StephenJen 02:30 Archived in England Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Our anniversary in the city of love (part three)

following a hunch

semi-overcast 9 °C
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Day three we wanted to hit a couple more of the iconic Paris landmarks. After yet more crepes we jumped on the metro to Cluny-La Sorbonne and walked about two blocks to Notre Dame. It is an impressive building and we were excited to see the famous gargoyles on its facade. We arrived in time to witness midday mass and the organist belted out a few slightly eerie tunes. It was magnificent. We could feel the history of this place, plus I'm sure I saw a hunchback... (may only have been an old woman). We wanted to climb up to the bell tower but, on this occasion, the line was lengthy and, after realising it was'nt moving, we decided to move on.

Notre Dame

After quick stop for coffee, IMGP1117.jpg we headed to the Hotel for a quick kip and camera battery recharge.

As the afternoon light was fading we began our walk to the Obelisque at Place De Concorde. Evening fell as we strolled with the crowds along the Avenue De Champs Elysees. Arm in arm we were acutely aware how fortunate we were to be together, on this special day, in such a beautiful part of the world. The experience seemed more the stuff of movies, books or other people's lives, yet here we were... we had to pinch ourselves.

We could see, in the distance, Arc De Triomphe.


It was bathed in light and looked magnificent. When we arrived we headed for a traffic crossing where we were able to pause and take this photograph


We climbed the steep stairs to the top of the arc and, legs like jelly and gasping for breath, we took a look around the surrounding area. The Avenues looked amazing.


We spent some time just taking in the view before heading for home.

We stopped at a smallish restaurant for dinner, followed by some of the best cheese we have ever eaten and a good glass of merlot. On the way home we passed over the tunnel where Diana Spencer perished. People had left all manner of tributes there, and had written tributes on the bridge rail. We headed home via the Eiffel. At night, on the hour until ten past, the Eiffel lights up like a christmas tree. Hundreds of sparkling lights light up the city, reflecting off the windows of all the adjacent buildings. It is wonderful. Upon arriving at the tower, we waited for a few minutes and were lucky enough to end our evening with this photo.



Posted by StephenJen 02:52 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Our anniversary in the city of love (part two)

Fine arts and French tarts

sunny 11 °C
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Our first day had ended with a really nice evening walk about town followed by dinner at the nearby brasserie on Grenelle.


Sunday started with petit dejeuner at a local bistro. We only ordered items which I could confidently pronounce, namely crepes with chocolate or jam and vienna coffee, and as a result Jen almost went into a sugar coma.

We decided to head to the Louvre. We took a long scenic route past the tower and along the Seine to the Place De La Concorde. It was another perfect day and it was nice to see the locals seated on the grassed areas or around the fountains, while the children floated old style wooden sailing boats pushing them away from the fountain edges with long thin canes. We continued up Jardin Des Tuileries until we saw the famous glass pyramid of the Musee Du Louvre (a la Da Vinci code).


We had read that it would take about 9 months to see everything in the museum and, as we had some time constraints, we decided to see the big drawcards. After getting a bit lost, we came to a packed room and there on the wall, and as everyone says... much smaller than we had imagined, hung the Mona Lisa. It was quite surreal. Not the painting... the experience. We were not permitted to take a photo, so you can't see it here but let me tell you folks, the Mona Lisa is a hard act to follow. We found a contender though...

Jen (and some chick who likes milo)

We had a look at some of the French painters before heading back to the hotel and dressing up for a special night out.

One of the things Jen had especially wanted to do in Paris was to see a burlesque show at the legendary Moulin Rouge. We took the metro into the seedy part of Paris (Pigalle) and looked for the famous windmill that sits atop the Moulin Rouge.


The room was magnificent. A deep red theme, bathed in lamplight. We were seated at the front of the second tier of tables with a lovely French couple. We had very limited French and they had very limited English but we managed to exchange pleasantries and explained that this was our anniversary weekend. The meal was delicious, complete with the mandatory escargot. Our tablemates disappeared for a moment after dinner before returning with a gift to mark our first wedding anniversary- a moulin rouge keyring with a small windmill which spins - we were very touched. The show itself was pretty cheesy and, to be honest, the dancing was a bit ordinary. The girls were all unbelievably attractive with perfect figures but, as is often the case, tall people can't dance well. The show included a number of variety acts including comics and a magician. The show came to a conclusion with the much anticipated can can. We all clapped along in time and the room was filled with energy and national pride on the part of the French.
It was a wonderful evening out to celebrate our first year of marriage. Just Jen and myself.... and 30 topless women... ahhhh romance!

Posted by StephenJen 13:23 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Our anniversary in the city of love (part one)

Getting an Eiffel of the French capital.

sunny 11 °C
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Our short trip to Paris started with an early departure from Waterloo station aboard the Eurostar. After an informative taxi ride with our driver Hal (itosis). We finally breathed in again and jumped onto our train. We were very happy to receive a stamp in our passports. We want to be able to look back at all the countries we visit.
The eurostar is very comfortable and the journey was very speedy indeed in only a couple of hours we found ourselves in France at the Gare Du Nord rail station. We found the ticket machines for the metro, but found we had no coins. I had done some, very last minute, language study on the train and managed to negotiate the purchase of Coca Cola in order to get change. We worked out which line we needed and were off to Dupleix. Our hotel, the Eiffel Capitol, was conveniently close to the station, so we checked in and quickly headed out for a walk to get our bearings. As we have found throughout our time in Europe thus far, the weather has smiled upon us. We found ourselves in the middle of a glorious, sun-filled afternoon in Paris (note the irony Wayne, AB and other jazz players).

The first cab off the rank was something to eat. On the corner of the Boulevard De Grenelle was a creperie. Feeling full of confidence I ordered in French. Hazelnut chocolate for Jen, same for me but with the addition of Banana. "Britain?" asked the vendor. "Australie" I answered. He looked confused... Jen looked confused..."No thanks, not for me" jen said. He made our food, we paid and kept walking. It turned out he had asked if we wanted butter. Ooops.

We walked about a block and Jen nudged me. She grinned and I looked up over the buildings... at the Eiffel Tower. Man! is it tall.

Look what we found around a corner

We speedily made our way in it's direction. We had heard stories of the enormous lines and lengthy waits for the trip up the tower, but a sunny day in the middle of winter seemed to have caught the public by suprise and in less than 30 mins we were packing into the elevator and heading for the second level. I thought the lift was never going to stop and we were a little freaked out by the height. When we stepped out and caught the sight of Paris from above we were struck by its beauty. We will let the pics speak for themselves. The only thing left to say is that if we thought that was high... the top was like looking out of a plane! An entirely amazing place, in a lovely town.

Jen gets very high

View over the Seine to Palais De Chaillot

View accross Champ De Mars. The large building at the end is Ecole Militaire

View of Arc De Triomphe

Jen at one of the Eiffel Telescopes

Posted by StephenJen 04:57 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

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