Friday, November 30, 2007

The irresistable pull of the West coast of Scotland

So we jumped on the one and a half hour ferry from Calais to Dover and before we knew it we had left the continent behind!
We were completely blown away by the feeling of home-coming when we hit the UK. Even though we haven't spent any time in England little things like driving on the left again, being able to read road signs and the distances being measured in miles gave us a bit of a glow- very strange.
We spent a night in Stafford, a smallish English town and watched England be beaten by Croatia for the Euro cup qualifier. Quite satisfying after living in Scotland for a while.
We had originally planned to visit London and Eva's cousin Michael but we had run out of time and our funds were geting low so we headed to the closest thing to home on this side of the globe- The George Hotel.
Only a handful of people knew we were coming back and we weren't sure if we would be just visiting or be able to pick up work as this time of the season is pretty slow and there are more than enough staff to go around.
Sure enough though after saying our hellos to our very surprised friends who hadn't been expecting us we both landed shifts on the first night we arrived. Adam even recieved a cheer from some of the locals in the pub.
Settling back into the George over the last few days has been strange. In some ways it feels like we haven't left but having been away has made us notice things we took for granted previously. The smell of the coal fires triggers memories straight back to this time last year when we first arrived, having a few quiet beers in the pub after a shift, re-adjusting our body clocks to George time. All these things underline how much of a home we had made this place.
Easily the most abstract part of coming back is that our room that we have been given is an exact mirror of our last room. Try reconciling your memories to that! It really is odd and we've both caught ourselves going up the stairs to our old room a couple of times.
This week has also been Christmas lights week which saw both of us putting in five hours bent over backwards on rickety chairs threading lights through birch branches strung up along the ceiling. That also brought back a lot of memories from last year- there weren't too many of us here that were at it last year as well!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


In between our two visits to Troyes we managed to fit in six nights in Paris which was really nice. It actually worked out well not having the car as what we saw of driving and parking in the capital would have made the whole experience quite stressful.
We did all the usual sights; Notre Dame, which we didn't find that impressive from the outside but was incredible on the inside with beautiful stained glass. The Eiffel tower (boy the wind was COLD up there), The Louvre-massive, The Pantheon, The Arc de Triomphe, Musee d'Orsay (Eva's favourite with all these Art Nouvea rooms), the Catacombs-morbid, Pere Lachaise cemetery and Jim Morrison's grave-even more morbid, and lots of wandering in the streets and boulevards.
We have heard so many negative things about Paris but we found it clean, friendly and, of course, romantic. Something about the cafe lined streets screaming out for you to have a coffee or a wine suited us to a tee.
One of the most impressive things about being in Paris when we were was that the one time we are without private transport there is a nationwide transport strike.
We were staying at the end of one of the metro lines and the services were cut from one train every two or three minutes to one every half/one hour. It was absolutely incredible! Luckily we don't mind being around a lot of people in a very small space but we saw at least one girl pass out and were literally smashed against the doors one one memorable journey, squashed frog style.
It wasn't just the metro though, when we had to get back to Troyes to pick up the car the intercity service was cut from 14 a day to one. We all had tickets and everyone was grouped around these heater things on the platform waiting to find out exactly which platform our train would be leaving from. As soon as the number flicked over the race was on. It was nice that everyone seemed to be good humoured about it, laughing as we jogged along to try and get on the train.
We saw a lot of police over these few days, holding back the crowds at the busier metro stations and there were some riots (not sure if they were related- I think it was students) so we really got to see a bit of French culture. We heard one quip that striking is the second national sport of France after petanque.
For an idea of what the metro was like check out this link
Photos: The Paris Catacombs, The impressive interior of the Musee d'Orsay, The predictable crowd around the Mona Lisa, We visited the Arc de Triomphe on rememberance day, Us in front of the Louvre, Seeing the Eiffel tower for yourself really is something although don't come expecting to bring your scooter to the top!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Troyes...and more car trouble

We left Dijon in high spirits knowing we couldn't push the car too much but that we'd at least be able to check out a few towns and Paris on the way to a ferry to the UK where frankly we didn't care what the car did from then.
We stopped in a town called Troyes which was very, very pretty and absolutely chokka bloc with ancient houses and narrow cobbled streets. We stayed two nights doing a bit of sightseeing and went to leave on the second morning but in a very Dijon-esc way the car started to overheat just as we were getting out of the town. This led to several moments of deep breathing interspersed with a few choice words and peppered with crazy puppeteering.
Luckily the town had a brilliant, cheap and friendly hotel which we booked back into and spent another two nights organising another garage to fix the car.
The major problem was that although Troyes was a great spot it wasn't somewhere we were interested in spending four nights in (not without sampling all of the restaurants which eats into our budget). Our marvellous hotel held the solution to our problem- wifi!
We proceeded to download a couple of movies but more importantly both seasons and the movie of Twin Peaks.
We consumed the entire lot over two and a half days...... You can only imagine the abstract dreams we were having and are still having.
After much to-ing and fro-ing with the garage they let us know the car wouldn't be ready for at least another four days so we jumped a train to Paris (more on that later). We phoned everyday and we kept getting pushed back until finally we were told to come down on the sixth day as the car was ready!
We didn't get into town till later in the evening from Paris so headed down on the following morning and were told AGAIN that the car wasn't ready and that we needed to come back in two days. We had walked from the hotel to the mechanics, bags on and all and had to walk back to the hotel where we were greeted with- 'No, no, it isn't ready!?!'
The most difficult thing in all of this was definitely language. We relied on receptionists to be our interpreters but there were many, many difficult conversations. We even rang The George in search of French speakers at one stage.
But finally on a Tuesday morning we were free and also out of time and money and had to head to Calais for a ferry to Dover- That was France :(

Photos: Typical streets and wonky houses in Troyes

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Car Trouble in Mustard Capital

Leaving Switzerland we crossed the border into France on a lovely clear day. We stopped in at a town called Besancon for a couple of hours to buy a map, a phrasebook and some lunch (yummy baguettes).
The town was very pleasant, ringed by a river and with most of the buildings made out of a pinkish/yellowish sandstone. One of the churches had an astrological clock with 30 000 moving parts which 'had to be seen to be believed' but unfortunately it was closed for maintenance.
We moved on to a nearby, much smaller town where there was apparently a campsite still open (many close at the end of October). The campsite let us stay but we were the only ones there until a couple of vans showed up in the evening. The only water on was in the Women's shower block so it was very communal with people doing dishes and all sorts in there.
The small towns we had driven through so far look ancient and the streets are barely wide enough for two cars to pass with pedestrians having to walk on the street as well. We figure the buildings alongside the roads must have been there for hundreds of years, well before the roads were being used by cars anyway.
After a peaceful but freezing cold night in the tent (our condensation froze to the fly) we moved on to Dijon - Mustard Capital of the World- but on the way the car was getting a bit hot. We opened her up, everything seemed in order, and when we continued on the temperature stayed normal- fine.
We spent two days in Dijon looking about the covered markets, the mix of Medieval and Renaissance buildings and the usual churches, being guided by owls on the footpath the whole time (the town has a famous owl).
On Saturday morning we hit the road once more heading vaguely South West hoping to make it to some caves with prehistoric paintings. Once again our bad luck with caves struck with the car heating up a few kilometres out of town.
We decided not to crack the head and turned around back to Dijon. Being a Saturday we didn't manage to get into a garage despite the best efforts of a wonderful receptionist at our hotel (the first of many).
So we knuckled down to another two nights in Dijon. We slept in, we got on the net, we went to the local archaeology museum, we wandered the suburbs, all in all a very nice town but we couldn't ignore the fact that we were possibly very stranded.
Come Monday we dropped the car off at a local garage. Communication was very difficult. Several hours on and we got another saintly receptionist to call the garage and we were told that we would have to go to a Ford dealership. The fellas at Speedy Dijon didn't even charge for the trouble- legends!
We sprung on the Dealership that afternoon, were told we couldn't be seen till the end of the week, we looked sad and desperate and they took the car there and then. It pays to look pathetic sometimes.
Anyway the long and the short of it was; The car's computer or some such expensive electrical thingummy is stuffed but the garage could do a temporary fix to get us back to the UK. Phew.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Never Skimp On Maps

When we travelled through The Netherlands to Germany we had a decent Amsterdam map which took us to the German border- it is after all a small country.
Upon arriving in Germany we spent about 5 euro on a brilliant ADAC tourist map of Germany with town maps, campsites and places of interest marked, as well as including slightly less detailed maps of Austria and Switzerland.
We struggled a bit using this map in Austria but got by and were disgusted to find that any map of Italy even coming close to what we had for Germany cost around 20 euro. So we went for a basic fold out map showing major auto routes and some towns figuring that only going to Venice probably didn't warrant much more.
We bought this map at a petrol station, we assume it is aimed at motorists as it shows mainly the major auto routes. Why then did the producers of this map feel it necessary to include a map of Venice, where no car can enter! They didn't feel it necessary to include a map of Mestre, the last place you need to manoeuvre before you get to Venice! And it takes some maneuvering let us tell you!!!!
Much the same story in Switzerland where we finally came to terms with the idea that if you have no reference no amount of good sense of direction and clear headedness is going to get you around a European city- especially if you have arrived being flung out of the orbit of a motorway.
Needless to say we have bought a decent map of France, we can always flog it to someone back in the UK!

Photos: I can't even find where we parked the bloody thing!

Spending in Switzerland

We headed North from Italy into Switzerland camping by a lake in a small town for the first night. We were lucky enough to see one of the nicest sunsets that night, capping off a day of awe inspiring sights.
We had driven up over a very high pass rather than take the tunnel under the mountain as the weather was fine and the views were spectacular. The step winding roads brought back Eva's childhood fear of tumbling off South Road as we would descend from O'Halloran Hill, but it was worth it.
The next two nights we spent in Lucerne, a very pretty town in the Alps by another lake. A mist hung over the lake the whole time we were there so we could only make out the outlines of the mountains but it was very beautiful, particularly at sunset.
We were lucky to find a few campgrounds in Switzerland as everything was very expensive to what we had been used to. Prices had been rising steadily since leaving Germany but Switzerland really hurt. Luckily we can cook for ourselves although what with dark and cold coming so much sooner it can be a pretty funny affair.
Our last day in Switzerland we had intended to spend in Bern but with no map we drove around their one way system for a bit and gave up, driving on instead to Neuchatel, another small lakeside town. We got a room above a cosy cafe (it was very cold and rainy) and spent the afternoon checking out the lake (so much water!) and the very nice cobbled old town. We were now in the French speaking part of Switzerland so we had fun throwing a few new words around as well.
Photos: One of two covered medieval bridges in Lucerne, Cooking (messily) at night, Snug as a bug, View from a roadside lookout, Our first night in Switzerland.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Beautiful Venice

Our border crossing into Italy was quite noticeable, not due to any actual border checks or anything like that (we still haven't left the UK according to our passports) but because as we drove into a mountain tunnel at one end in heavy snow we popped out the other end in sunshine- and Italy.
We were still in the mountains though and as we drove we got to see some of the views we had been missing on the last few days in Austria. It was really lovely. There were loads and loads of castles dotted along the road as well, perched up on impossible looking pieces of rock and the drive was quite picturesque.
Our one destination in Italy was Venice. The reason for our visit being so short and specific was that Italy is the only EU country that requires drivers to carry an IDP (international driving permit) which essentially is just a translation document.
We both hold IDPs but they arrived in Scotland after we left and we still haven't managed to organise a forwarding address for long enough to get them sent. You really have to wonder about our organisation sometimes don't you?
We had done a bit of research into the likelyhood of being asked to produce the IDP and what the punishment was for not being able to (75 Euro on the spot-ouch) and decided to risk just the hop to Venice and then straight out again.
Boy was it worth it. We stayed four nights in a campground across the lagoon so we had to get a boat each morning across to Venice itself. The first day we spent just wandering about getting royally lost. One of the striking things about Venice is how much larger it was to what we had expected and combining that with the fact it is purely crossed on foot or by boat down narrow streets and canals (most of which are dead ends) it made for a fun few hours exploring.
Adam was sorely wounded on the first day when we thought it would be a good idea to feed the pigeons on St Mark's square. They went mental. We have never had so many living things on us at once. At one stage Eva had pigeons three deep on each arm, and Adam copped a claw to the face. When we returned to the square later in the day the birds were much calmer so a warning to all- do not feed the St Mark's pigeons first thing in the morning when they are hungry!!
The following day we checked out St Mark's basilica which (along with the square) was flooded due to a high tide. The square looked to be shin deep in parts. The basilica and the Duke's palace next door made for a few hours gawping at how opulently thing were built back in the grand old days and we spent the afternoon wandering a few other museums.
Venice was just so pretty and strange looking at the same time. It was like a dream in some ways. It would have been a great city to visit as it stands but added to that is the fact it exists surrounded in water (and sinking fast) made it unreal.
We were lucky to visit when we did. There were a lot of tourists but we can only imagine what it is like in Summer- yuk. Just a few steps back from the marked out tourist path parts of the city were eerily quiet. It is as though either the cost of living in the city or the massive amounts of tourists have driven locals out of much of the town. The fact that the buildings are very run down (it looks so romantic) adds to the feeling of a ghost town at times.
On our way out of Italy we stopped in on Verona to check out at least one other town however briefly. It was a Friday and everyone was out for lunch. The town was truly bustling and felt really nice to wander about. We had a quick lunch, checked out Juliet's balcony (and the tourists rubbing Juliet's left breast in hope of new love) and headed onwards to Switzerland.
Photos: The Grand Canal, A much smaller canal, St Mark's square under water (it is still gushing in), Adam with pigeons, Adam- the walking wounded