Monday, 1 August 2011

Things I've learnt

I realize I have been a bit slack on the blogging front recently, probably because we are back home now and I have nothing interesting to write about. However I have talked to several people who are keen to travel and have asked for advice. So I thought I would write a blog on things I have learn't while traveling, specifically in Europe.

1. I hate Athens
I realize I have ranted about this before, but seriously, if I was going back to Greece, or going to Greece the first time, I would spend only 1 day in Athens. Plenty of time to see the Parthenon and get out. There is very little to see and do in Athens and its a very dirty city. You can catch a ferry from Athens to most of the other islands. You will enjoy Greece more by traveling round the islands rather than staying on the mainland. Also I think the lack of english or even non greek signs lead to my hate of the area.

2. You don't need to speak the local language.
With international travel these days being so easy, you will find most Western European people will speak some English. However don't be a rude prat and learn to at least say hello, thank you, good bye and yes and no in the local language. Its not that hard and it really goes a long way.

3. Avoid people with maps
A common pickpocket scam is people posing as tourists with maps asking if you speak english. The map is there to hide what their hands are doing. They could be genuine tourists but don't risk it and play dumb if they ask if you speak english. Also the same rules apply to people selling stuff on matt's and people trying to give you things for free. Avoid at all costs and say no. Remember you can be prosecuted for buying illegal goods if you buy from illegal street sellers.

4. Get lost
A lot of times you will find you will be wandering around a city with your nose stuck to a map. All very well if you are genuinely lost but if you know where you are forgo the map and take a wander rather than taking transport. Venice is a great place to do this. You will see a lot more things on the way than you would have if you take transport and often things you never expect you stumble upon.

5. Plan but don't over plan
A rough idea of what you want to do in an area is a good idea, it saves a lot of time wasting, especially if you don't have access to the internet when you are there. In big cities like London a lot of attractions are in the same area so planning to see things close to each other saves a lot of traveling time. A degree of flexibility is needed though, sometimes your feet will just give up and you wont be able to walk any more. 

Friday, 15 July 2011

To tour or not to tour

As many of you will be aware, and if you have been reading my blogs you certainly will be, that we did an organised tour of Europe rather than going it alone. This was not an easy decision to make by any means, so I thought I would pen a blog on organised tours. Are they a good thing or a bad thing?

First timers
If your a first time traveller to a foreign country then an organised tour would definitely be the way to go, especially if it is to non english speaking countries. A tour takes the stress out of travel and is a great way to see a lot of things in a short amount of time. Often when you are first going to a new place such as Europe you will only have a vague idea of what you want to see and do, the Eiffel tower in paris, the Colosseum in Rome. A lot of tours will only spend a couple of days in each city so you don't get a lot of time to explore but it gives you a taste of things, and will give you a better idea of what you would like to come back to see next time. Our tour director said at the beginning of the tour, write down the places that you booked the tour to see, often at the end of the tour you will find that those places were not the ones you enjoyed the most.

Free time
A particular grumble with organised tours a lot of people have, and are why a lot of people are so anti tours, is because of the lack of free time to explore. Like I mentioned before, most tours will only spend a couple of days at most in each city, and a lot of that time could be taken up by doing walking tours or optional activities. The key thing to remember with tours is that nothing is compulsory, you don't actually have to do the included tours. This still does not often give you a lot of time to explore, but a full day in most cities is enough to get a feel for it. There will certainly be times though that you wish you had more time and you feel like you are being herded like cattle from one tourist attraction to another and not given enough time to soak up the atmosphere of the area. Alternatively there will be times when you are glad you are leaving the next day.
Its comes down to choice though, do you want to see more places and do less, or see less places and do more?

Tour mates
There are many many tour companies out there and they cover just about every age and price range available. There are the younger booze cruises of Top Deck and Contiki, or the older wealthier retired persons jaunt of Trafalgar or Insight. Who you pick will depend on you budget and you personal choice of bus mates. Your tour mates can either be fantastic people who you get on well with or a bunch of whining old biddies or drunken teenage louts. What ever tour you choose to do, this will always be a risk you will have to take. The other risk you are taking is the length of the tour. If your stuck with horrid people for a month you might want to throw yourself out of the bus, on the other hand, the people can make your trip that much more enjoyable. A two week tour you are just starting to get to know the people you travel with, after a month and they are the people that you sing Tom Jones with on the bus back from dinner and free wine.
Being on a tour is certainly a less lonely experience than traveling by yourself or as a couple but it is always a gamble as to who you will be with.

The cost of doing a tour can seem excessive, but it really depends on who you choose.
For example a 4 week tour of Europe will cost you the following:
Cosmos: $4800
Globus: $6900
Contiki: $5300
Topdeck: $6750
Trafalgar: $7800
The cost will of course depend on the type of accommodation that the tour uses, the cheaper tours will tend to use 3-4 star accommodation outside the city centre, the more expensive will use 5 star accommodation in the city centre. When you look at the per day cost of a tour versus doing it yourself, you really cant compare. You will get decent accommodation for a lot less than if you did it yourself because these companies all have contracts with hotels they use regularly.

Experienced tour directors are a major advantage of organised tours, especially if your a first time traveller. They tell you what to look out for, how to ask for the toilets in the local language and explain how local customs work. Would you know if someone came up to you with a map and asked if you speak English that they are most likely to be a pickpocket? What about buying a handbag off a guy with a rug on the ground could get you arrested for buying fraudulent goods? If someone offers you a rose on the Spanish steps, say no, even if they say its free because they will soon be chasing you down the road for money.

At the end of the day to tour or not tour is still a hard question, personally, if its your first time travelling and you have a limited time and want to see a lot, you really cant go past organised tours. However if you have traveled before (and I'm not talking to Australia) , and know what you want to do, then tours probably aren't the best thing for you. However there are still some countries in the world such as Egypt where going with a tour group is still a good idea.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Blog updates

Well we are back home in Dunedin, I have received so many comments from people saying they have enjoyed reading my blog, so I wanted to say thank you. Also someone told me that they couldn't comment on it, I apologize for this as I realise I had member only comments turned on. This has now been changed to anyone so if you would like to comment on any past blogs you can do so now.
There is also a couple of new features to, as per a request there is now a print button at the bottom of each blog which allows you to print out the blogs if you so wish (I know there was a couple of people wanting to do that).
I have also changed one of the settings to allow people with mobile phones to read it more easily, this being mostly my husband...
So a few updates there, hope you have all enjoyed the blogs so far. Keep tuned in though as there is still more to come.
Happy reading!

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Tips for long distance flying

Having completed two 40 hour flights across the world, I thought I should do a blog dedicated to long distance flying. Here is a list of things to do on a long distance flight

1.     1. Bring young children and babies aboard and let them scream for the entire flight
Fellow travellers will delight in your children as much as you do, thinking them sweet as they scream away an entire 14 hour flight. This will also be a chance to highlight your stellar parenting skills as you ignore their screaming and continue to watch your movies.

2.      2. Recline your chair as far as you can
Reclining your chair back as far as it goes as soon as the seat belt light comes off is a great way to get intimate with the passenger behind you. They won’t mind in the slightest when they find you sitting in their lap and unable to see their inflight entertainment screen

3.      3. Scream during periods of turbulence
Turbulence is a normal part of any flight, but you can make it lots of fun for fellow travellers by screaming every time the plane hits a rough patch. It’s a great way to make everyone feel calm and secure that their plane isn’t going to fall out of the sky.

4.      4. Keep your overhead light on during lights out.
Overhead lights are a great thing to read by, especially when the rest of the plane is dark and everyone else is trying to sleep. It’s especially great for the person next to you being bathed in light while they are trying to nap.

5.    5.   Kick the back of your chair.
Instead of annoying the person in front of you, think of it as a relaxing back massage keeping them awake while they are trying to sleep.

Where's your troosers?

If I ever hear another bagpipe playing, especially when it is played badly by a bonnie wee lad of nine, it will be too soon. Bagpipes are the background track to Edinburgh, on every corner someone is playing, including a fawn, on slits… At first it’s quite nice, it feels very Scottish, after three days of it, Scotland the Brave becomes Scotland your grating on my ears


Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with its steep cobbled streets looks like it has come directly out of the middle ages, that is, if Starbucks was on the corner back then. As we decided we had had enough of walking tours, we decided to do the Edinburgh Dungeons instead. Experiencing history in a dark underground theme park with actors and plenty of scare tactics, was a much more enjoyable way to learn about Sawney Bean and his cannibal family and Burke and Hare the body snatchers.

No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a visit to the Castle that sits atop the hill overlooking the city. A beautiful old castle, it has had a long and bloody history. The Scottish, fiercely independent as they are, have not been particularly successful at trying to overtake the enemy, England, who have taken over the castle several times. The castle even comes complete with kilt wearing soldiers and Mary Queen of Scots. The city of Edinburgh is full of old buildings and fascinating places to see. Hollyrood palace, being one of them, was unfortunately closed because the Queen was having her annual garden party on Wednesday.

A tour of the highlands was also on our agenda. Pouring with rain, the highlands look rather much like you would expect. Very wet. Loch Ness sits by the village of Port Augusta. With no sight of the monster in the lake, it was all a bit dull. Glencoe was much more interesting, with its long bloody history and stunning scenery; it really was the Scottish Highlands we came to see.  

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Sex, Drugs and...bicycles?

Amsterdam, one of the few cities in the world where you can walk down the street and end up stoned without having to smoke a thing. In the main centre of town, the occasional waft greets your nose, but stroll through the red light district past the coffee houses and you very quickly feel the effects of the haze that comes through the door. Oddly enough, on many windows of these houses, 'No Alcohol' signs are present.

Wandering the narrow alleyways of the district you can't help notice the scantily clad women standing behind windows that lead to a small room. The girls are not allowed to be naked but they wear as little as possible. Probably more in fact than the bare breasted girls of the Paris cabaret shows. The girls behind the windows stand suggestively, trying to attract customers. Those obviously bored with standing, sit on stools, texting friends or reading a magazine.
No photos are permitted here, we are warned often, our tour director has seen a client try and had the girl stomp out of her boudoir, snatch the camera and promptly throws it into the canal. The client in question was lucky he didn't follow it.

Walking along the canal that borders the red light district, you start to wonder if the impenetrable air of cannabis smoke has affected your vision. The houses along the canal lean at odd angles, comical tall narrow buildings, thanks to an old tax law that taxed people based on the width of their house. The houses lean though, not as a results of being a bit high, but from boggy marsh land that has caused the piles to sink into the soil. The crooked houses rather reflect the culture in Amsterdam, a little bit left of centre and quirky.

Crossing the road here is akin to an extreme sport, or death defying act. One has to navigate through hordes of tourists, then the dual way cycle path and the thousands of Dutch that cycle everywhere. You have to then avoid the trams going past, then repeat on the other side. Dutch cyclists are an unusual breed, most of the bikes don't have gears or brakes (save cycling backwards) so they happily text or chat of their cellphones and hold an umbrella as they go.

As it rains 200 days of the year, this is apparently not an uncommon sight. No wet weather gear or helmets either, such ugly items would be unfashionable and rumple the hair. Looking at the sea of bicycles that adorn the main square, I do wonder though how they ever manage to their bike whilst high and distracted by naked women.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

The ABC's of Europe

At the recommendation from a fellow traveller on our Cosmos trip, I am doing another photo blog. This one is dedicated to the ABC’s of Europe.
Another Bloody Church

Westminster Abbey (London), did not go in this one, but it was interesting to see the location where Pippa Middleton's rear end became famous

St Pauls (London), rather a large church, all I remember about this one was the burning pain in my legs after climbing 250 stairs up the dome

Windsor castle (London) even has its own church

Notre Dame (Paris), unfortunately did not see any hunch backs

Basilica of the Sacred heart (Montmartre, Paris), next door is the Moulin Rouge. Guess which had the bigger line.

And the great unfinished church of the Sagrada Familia (Barcelona), bit like New Zealand roads really.

The Pantheon (Rome) that great movie set from Angels and Demons…or was it National treasure?

Another bloody great church, St Peters (The Vatican), I wonder if St Peters and St Pauls is where that rhyme about Dicky birds came from…

This is the Santa Croce (Florence), famous people are actually buried here, Michelangelo and Galileo.

Another church in Florence, the Dome. Has, well, a dome…like the others actually

Even Pisa gets a church…or Abby…or monastery…something like that.

St Nicholas (Monaco), where we got to see Prince Albert having a wedding rehearsal.

Here was a church, or temple, in Pompeii…nice sacrificial alter. Don’t see many of those these days.

Very cute little church this one. Found in Aegina, Greece.

Another church in Greece, in a very dodgy area. Tour director had to guard the bus to stop illegal immigrants climbing underneath.

Venice has lots of churches….this is St Marks

And here is another, I’m not surprised they have a lot of churches given the locality of the city and the rate it’s sinking.

Austria and Switzerland also had lots of pretty churches. Lots and lots and lots of churches. All with domes that look like garlic or onions. This one is in Salzburg at Mozart square.

My rate of photo taking of churches has somewhat diminished over the course of the trip however, as the apathy of just Another Bloody Church sets in.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Yodelling and Schwarzenegger

Today in Lucerne, Switzerland has certainly been an interesting one. It started out ordinary enough. Fine morning with a few clouds in the sky. Looked like a perfect day for a lake cruise.
Then the music started on board the boat. Yodelling and Swiss horns. Yes I know we are in Switzerland but do they play Maori chants on the Ernslaw in Queenstown? The captain started explaining the local scenery, and honestly, he sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger...a bored Arnold Schwarzenegger admittedly, but Arnie none the less. Maybe all men with a German accent and a deep voice sounded like Arnie, who knows.
The cruise carried on, the wind picked up and the clouds grew darker. There was thunder and lightening and it started to rain. We were, at that point, sitting on the top deck open to the elements.
Finishing the cruise under shelter on the lower deck, Arnie the captain talked about one of the hotels on the hill. A very beautiful hotel, the locals apparently call it the holy hotel. Why? Because when you see it you go "Oh my god!" and when you get the bill at the end you go "Jesus Christ!"

God: "We get fish in the lake THIS big!"

Yes Switzerland is very very expensive. Jesus Christ was the sentiment used last night when I worked out the conversion cost of our dinner. I have decided not to look at the Visa bill again till we get home.

After the lake cruise with Arnie, we were booked to go up Mount Titlis with the rest of our tour group. By this stage the weather had deteriorated further but we were still optimistic that despite the crappy weather it would still be a fun excursion. Driving along the pretty Swiss roads through the countryside we noticed that the road was getting ever increasingly covered in water. A landslip was the final cause of the coach having to stop and us having to abandon our trip to the mountain. However getting a 14 metre coach back down the country road was not such an easy feat. Lacking a suitable turning spot our driver simply reversed back down the road he came, a rather impressive manoeuvre considering the size of the bus.  

So because the scenery today didn't happen or it was raining, here are some photos from yesterday...when it wasn't raining.

Innsbruck, Austria

"How do I make it go?"

Umm?? (Yes I know I made him do it)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The hills are alive with dysfunctional families

While in Vienna, we had the pleasure of visiting the Habsburgs winter and summer (Schonbrunn palace) residences. The Habsburg family really takes the cake when it comes to weird families. They decided that instead of fighting other countries, they would simply marry into them. Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria, had 16 children and managed to marry most of them into important families, earning herself the name of mother-in-law of Europe. One of her children was Marie Antoinette who married the King of France and ended up getting her head cut off.

Looking at the back of Schonbrunn Palace

Gardens at the back of Schonbrunn Palace

 Ironically Schonbrunn palace was also the location of young Mozart’s first royal concert. It was said that during the concert he tripped over and was helped up by one of Marie Theresa’s children, the young Marie Antoinette. 

In Salzburg we visited the home of Mozart. It is said that he didn’t particularly like Salzburg, however they have made a fortune off him. His family is also one of rather interesting dynamics. Childhood illnesses claimed the lives of several of his siblings and all but two of his own children. He himself died in his mid-30’s of still unknown causes. As the son of a court musician one wonders if his father might have pushed him into music along with his older sister. The original helicopter parents.

Salzburg is also home to another famous family, the Von Traps. If one wants dysfunction you need not look further than a bunch of singing, curtain wearing, Austrians with a runaway nun as their leader. Austria is as beautiful as it is portrayed in the movie. It’s no wonder everyone is a bit nutty, the fresh air and greenery must go to their head. 

The Von Trapp house

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Frequently asked questions about Venice

One thing that has struck me about Venice is how little I actually know about the place. I know its a city with canals and bridges, but that's about the limit of my knowledge. I have learnt a whole lot of random information while being here in Venice, so I am going to share some interesting facts, and random photos of bridge and gondolas.

  • Venice was built on a series of 117 islands. It was built to defend the people against invasion as incoming boats could not navigate the difficult canals.
  • There are over 400 bridges in Venice. There is only one bridge that allows access onto the islands.
  • There are no cars in Venice. The only transportation is boat or walking. Lots and lots of walking.

  • Gondola boats are always black.
  • The Gondola boats cost around $25,000 as they are all handmade and wooden
  • The 'Ferro' is the metal ornament on the front of the Gondola. The six metal teeth represent the six regions of Venice, the curve represents the Grand canal and the doges hat, the semicircular break represents the Rialto bridge.

  • Venice was built on wooden piles which petrify under the water.
  • It is currently sinking at a rate of 2 1/2 inches every 10 years, rising sea levels also threaten the city.
  • During periods of very high tides, many parts of the city are submerged, including St Marks square. Wooden gangways are put in place so people can still get around.

  • Venice has two famous islands, Burano and Murano. Burano is famous for lacework and Murano is famous glass work.
  • In Burano the houses are painted many different colours, so the fisherman could find their way home in the fog. If one wants to paint their house now they have to get a permit.
  • If one wants to become a glass maker, they have to study for 15 years. Even then they are only paid a minimal amount till they become a master after many years of work.

If you want more information about Venice, you can check out their very own encyclopaedia page, 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Original Ministry of Silly Walks

I think I have found the original Ministry of Silly Walks.
It is the Greek Guards outside of parliament in Athens. With their beige skirts, tassels on their knees and pom pom’s on their shoes, they certainly look the part, but when they start the changing of the guard that’s when you realise you have stumbled into a Monty Python sketch.

It also happens to be the site of all the protests they have been having in Athens. To be honest, I wouldn’t be that scared either of those guards. As a tourist in Athens though, you soon quickly realise that Athens is a horrible dirty city. There really is nothing going for it except the Acropolis. The protesters could do something useful with their time and do some cleaning, but as what is quite clear around the city, they tend to be a bit lazy. Most of the motorways intended to be built for the 2004 Olympics have only just finished being completed. After the Olympics, the stadium buildings have just been left, the area now a wasteland for rubbish and homeless people instead of being built into a nice park like setting. It’s no wonder the country is running out of money. Shops aren’t open on Mondays, and opening hours are sporadic at best. We went to go to the Acropolis museum, which you have to pay to get into, it was shut. The city is so filthy that you don’t want to spend any time in it anyway.

Temple of Poseidon

The Parthenon (translated = Virgens Apartment) 

Instead we spent the day on a local island, Aegina. In contrast it was a beautiful place with crystal clear waters. You can’t swim in the beaches of Athens because of the pollution. We spent the day driving round the island on a 50cc scooter, cheap as to hire, no wonder either, bits kept falling off it which we had to run down the road to retrieve and replace. Struggled a bit as well, going up the hill to the temple ruins with two people on it.

Temple of Aphaea

Speaking of silly walks, it turns out that the main reason people go to the ancient site of Olympia is to take photos of themselves being silly and posing as athletes in the Olympic games or running on the stadium track. I have photos of said silly poses, much more interesting than photos of a bunch of rocks.  

These people are in our tour group. Hmmm....