Nov 29th - Dec 7th
29.11.2009 - 07.12.2009 7 °C
November 29th : Bruges - Ghent
We got a last minute reply on couchsurfing last night and weeerabl to get in contact with couple; Lisa and Tomas, who were willing to host us in Ghent. So, up early this morning we hopped on the train there. We then caught the tram to meet them on a street corner. They were a lovely young couple, studying graphic art. We walked to the flat (in an old office building – cool!), dumped our bags and then they took us for a walk around beautiful Ghent. We explored the little cobblestoned streets, the squares, the 'graffiti street' (which, as you could imagine, is completely covered in street art), the smallest house in Ghent, the river, the oldest part of the town, the castle, and the all-important traditional candy shop, where we tasted the local house speciality. We also visited the church to see a famous medieval Flemish primitive painting by Jan Van Eyck. It was really beautiful and Lisa told a bit about the importance of it in the history of art (e.g; the use of light refractions, different botanical subjects). After that Lisa and Tomas walked back home and we went on to the Design Museum, where we spent quite a while looking over all the furniture, textiles, jewellery, pottery and glassware. There was a special exhibition on the 'Artel Group' from Prague (around 1920 onwards) who made some amazing modern design glassware, toys and allsorts, we both really enjoyed looking through it. I, particularly, have found much more of an interest in design and textiles since travelling this year. Having seen so much of it (in various styles) I am gaining more of an idea of what I like and what I don't, and more of an appreciation of the work that goes into it. I'm certainly not rushing out to spend hundreds of dollars on a vase, but I'd certainly have a crack at making one!
After the museum we went to the supermarket to get some dinner ingredients. Back at the flat we cooked a curry and chatted with Lisa and Tomas about Belgian life and art. We had a nice dinner with some wine and then hung out in their room listening to some records (another good thing about travelling – discovering new music!). They then took us to the old socialist hall which has been turned into a 'social bar'. This basically means that you can go there to socialise, and you don't need to purchase a drink to do so. You can relax with an empty table and chat the night away. I think it's a great idea, and although most people in there were drinking anyway, you didn't feel obliged to do so. I'm sure the old Flemish Socialists would be pleased We met a friend of Lisa and Tomas and spent the night knattering before walking home for bed.
November 30th : Ghent –> Antwerp –> Amsterdam
We were up fairly early this morning. I was promptly attacked by the cat, who seems to have developed a severe disliking to my feet for some unknown reason. Not knowing how to tell him to go away in Flemish, I made some strange noises which only seemed to provoke him more. We got changed and made a phone call to book a cheap bus to Amsterdam from Antwerp, the next main city in Belgium. We said our thank you's and farewells to Lisa and Tomas and walked to the train station. I took a photo of the obscene number of bicycles parked out the front of the station (a thousand at least!) and we then got a falafel for breakfast. Yep. A falafel. For breakfast. We live a good life.
We hopped on the train. When we arrived in Antwerp we were greeted by the amazing sight of the central station, which is absolutely beautiful (they claim it's the most beautiful train station in the world, and at the moment, having seen a few, I would agree). We stowed our bags in a locker and then went for a walk about town. Having come from picturesque Ghent, Antwerp was a bit more like a plain big city. We did, however go for a very long walk to Cogels-Osylei. This is a beautiful area of streets full of Neo-Classical and Gothic style buildings. They were all going to be torn down in the 60's but were spared and are now renovated and absolutely beautiful. Lots of the places look like fairy castles, it's hard to believe people actually live in them! We then wandered around the Jewish quarter. Coming to large European cities you really realise how homogeneous Australia is. Although we have a degree of multiculturalism, it is nothing like Europe. This is obviously largely due to geography I suppose. Anyway, walking around Antwerp was amazing; we passed Sudanese boys speaking with Muslim women, Hasidic Jews peddling past girls in saris and swarthy Eastern European men smoking and laughing, it was great!
We wandered around for a while and looked through the zoo windows, then went to get some food to make a picnic for lunch. Back in the beautiful train station, we grabbed our bags, ate our food and then walked to the bus station to wait for the Amsterdam bus. We waited in the warm for a short while, until the lady kicked us out to wait on the street.
Thankfully it was a balmy 3degrees outside and we were accompanied by a drunk, chain smoking Frenchman who insisted on relaying the delights of the Antwerpen prostitutes while we waited for the delayed bus for 1.5 hours. Oh, joy of joys!
Finally the bus arrived. The driver then refused to take the guitar on board, insisting it was against company policy. We managed to convince him otherwise and after a lot of heated French conversation between he and Cam, we were sitting pretty in our seats ready for the journey.
We got to Amsterdam about 11pm, hopped on the underground and then walked to the hostel. Once there, we dropped our bags in the room and went out to the first place most people go in this fine city: a coffee shop!
We perused the menu: Purple Haze, Bubblegum, Silver Cloud, Head Swirler. All very peculiar types of coffee, let me tell you.
We then waddled back to the hostel to catch some Z's, ready for a big day tomorrow, December has joined us at last!
December 1st : Amsterdam
Today we were up, showered and happily wolfing down the free breakfast with glee before setting out to see the town. We set out to Dam Square to meet a free walking tour group and explored the city on foot. The guide was a bubbly, though decidedly annoying, American who insisted on asking everyone if they were feeling 'Super!', but it was a good day.
We explored the Old Church, New Church, Sea Dyke, Beautiful post office, Red Light District, Dam Square, Monuments, Canals.............LOTS!
I was impressed by Amsterdam's beauty, but I must say that it appears to have been talked up somewhat (at least in comparison to other European cities). Perhaps people saw some sort of amazing architectural wonders through a haze of green smoke...
An interesting thing to note about the buildings is that many of them lean forward slightly and have a large hook at the top hanging from the roof. Because these Dutch buildings are very thin and tall, the staircases are quite steep and it makes for a hard time carrying things up and down. The hooks are in place so that furniture, bags, boxes etc can be lifted to the correct level. The house leans forward slightly so that items will not damage the facade of the house. Great idea I thought!
It looks really cool when walking down narrow alleyways, seeing the houses leaning in, as though they are peering over and inspecting you as you wander down their road.
After the tour we went to the supermarket and got some ingredients to make a delicious late lunch/early dinner. 'Linner'! We had macaroni cheese followed by a pear salad and then retired to the smoking room where we hung out and chatted the afternoon and evening away whilst listening to some tunes....how Amsterdamian of us.
December 2nd : Amsterdam
Today was a bit of a slow start after a hazy late night listening to the new Mars Volta Album online and feeling particularly 'relaxed'.
We had showers and breakfast and then went for a walk to an 'Espresso Bar' (different to a coffee shop in that it actually sells purely coffee) and had a nice cappucino upstairs whilst looking out over the city. We chatted for a long while about our travel plans and what/where we will be heading in the future, and then went for a nice walk. I really like the interesting arty shops which are everywhere . It's incredibly liberal and cosmopolitan in Amsterdam, so you see many intriguing (to say the least) people on the street. It's great!
In the afternoon we caught the tram to meet Marije! We took great delight in relaying to people how we met Marije: “We met in the jungles of Sumatra”, which is entirely true! We took a trek from Bukittinggi to Lake Maninjau with Marije and her friend Iris way back in Indonesia earlier this year.
We took a bottle of SA wine for her and found her place. Once there we drank lots of tea and talked about what we had been up to before heading out for a tour of the Red Light District.
We wanted to learn about the history of it rather than just walking around sketchy streets at night time, avoiding the charlie boys and leering pimps. We met the (Kiwi) guide and started. Marije joined us because, despite living in Amsterdam, she doesn't often visit the Red Light (or so she says ). We walked around the multi-faceted area, the seedy alleyways of women in windows, the colourful streets of nice restaurants and theatres, roads of sex shows, strip clubs and brothels, old churches, famous architectural spots, smoky coffee shops and bookstores. It was a hustling, bustling and peculiar area, home to many different types of places and people. One dapper man walked passed us numerous times bellowing a Redemption Song into the faces of somewhat-embarassed men leaving street side booths. A man who appeared to be an old Hasidic Jew exited a sex theatre and told the group that we shouldn't be listening to the sinful words the tour guide was telling us.
Cam scored himself a drink at the end of the night by being the only man on the tour willing to go into the entrance of famous Gay Hardcore S&M club called 'Cock Ring' and ask how much it costs to enter. Thankfully, the door was locked, but he did try to go inside, so he got heralded as the only guy in the group comfortable with his own sexuality and won a free drink too!
At the end of the tour we went to a bar and continued the rest of the night drinking beer and hanging out with Marije and the tour guide. When that bar closed, we went to a kebab shop (of course), Marije got us a Dutch 'Cheese Souffle' which was really good, almost a good enough subsitute for a falafel! We then we walked to another bar for another round, inside which a man told me that I have “All the ingredients for a good Russian borscht soup” and that this was apparently a good thing(?) This marked the end of the night so we said farewells to Marije and walked home in the rain, thankful to crawl into our warm beds upon arrival.
December 3rd : Amsterdam
Ah the joyous morning-after-the-night-before!
At the pace of a snail (an old, disabled snail..), we got ourselves up and moving. We moved to another dorm as the big one is full tonight and then went downstairs to work on the boring, but necessary, element of travelling – organising transport, accom, insurance, emails and so on. After getting ourselves a bit more sorted we went out for a cappucino and then walked to Anne Frank's House. We spent a long time going through the house and museum, which was an incredibly moving experience. It was a very well arranged place and detailed the lives of the Frank family as well as the history of anti-semitism and the affect the war had on Jewish families. Anne's diaries meant a lot to me when I read them and I was really profoundly moved by the simple things like her bedroom, the walls plastered in newspaper cut outs and pictures, a normal young girl trying to live a normal life whilst hiding in secret from the outside world. I was alone in the room with her journal, looking at her scribbled handwriting in her battered red diary, and had a strong sense of her there. I felt a new appreciation for the time she had put into innocent daily musings on her developing life....all done without knowledge of the horrors which lay ahead for her.
We both felt a little bit morose after leaving and talked about the futility of anti-semitism and the unfortunate reality of it's devastating affects.
Back at the hostel we cooked up a big Mexican feast and then had a fairly early night. Well, we had intended on an early night, but the joy of sharing a room with a large number of other people (especially if they happen to be inebriated New Zealanders) can sometimes make that hard to do!
December 4th : Amsterdam -> Hamburg (Germany)
We were up early this morning, making as much noise as possible to stir the hungover blokes who kept us up all night :P We called to book tickets for the bus to Hamburg this afternoon and then set out to....take some photos! I had not taken any photos in the time we have been here. Whilst photos aren't the important part of being somewhere (unless of course you have a whizz-bang camera, this being the technical phrase), it is nice to at least have a couple of snaps to jog your memory I think. So, we had some coffee and re-walked the streets, taking some shots, before going back to the hostel for a quick lunch and then taking our bags to the bus station. The journey was okay. 7.5 hours with 2 very serious Germans who were like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and wouldn't let anyone off the bus when we stopped for a break. This was at great expense to those nicotine-addicted passengers who leapt into arguments, wide eyed and frustrated they argued their 'human right' to have a smoke to no avail. Needless to say, the tension was palpable.
Side Note: The interesting characters who transport us from one place to another have definitely coloured my memories of this trip. Be they very good, very bad, very strange or a combination of the three, the men and women who have driven us from place to place have played a very important role in our journey. I am thankful to have made it (mostly) safely this far and owe that to them.
Once in Hamburg we were immediately greeted by the familiar German friendliness which we had remembered from our last time here. In the train station at midnight a guard got up with his cup of coffee and walked us to get our tickets, showed us a map and then walked us to the platform. We got off at our stop and friendly pedestrians pointed us in the right direction to the jugendherberger (youth hostel), where we were met by a smily receptionist who gave us a private room at a dorm price. Ah, Germans! Why does the greater world let memories of a poorly-moustached, angry little man taint our opinion their friendly character?
We stayed up and chatted about our plans for Germany and then got to bed.
December 5th : Hamburg
After breakfast this morning we walked to the train station to use the internet. Whilst we had not received any couch surfing replies, we had been invited to stay in the the Hamburg University Squat. We seriously considered the option until they mentioned the Police involvement being a little shady. Many of the universities around Europe have been occupied by student squatters demonstrating against the recent change to the Bachelor-Master system, which sees only a mere 25% of students selected to complete their Masters after their Bachelor degree. We thanked them and said we may visit, but held out hopes of another couch, unsure of where we would stay tonight (the hostel is a bit dear).
We decided to forget about it for a few hours and went to the local market in the town hall. This was occupied by a lot of stalls, holding items which all had an air of having recently fallen off the back of a fast moving truck. It was also quite cheap and I took advantage of that fact by buying a nice big puffy winter coat (my little cordoroy jacket is doing little to protect me from the cooling European winter). We then hopped on the train and into the city. Hamburg is a beautiful city, with a big pond/lake near the centre. We meandered around there at the big Christmas market, and then went over to the Rathaus Town Hall. This had an interesting photographic exhibition about the work of the German Red Cross laid out around a huge Christmas tree. From there we went to the Art and Design Museum.
The most interesting exhibition was the 'Ikea' one! It detailed the development of their designs, designers and general history. It was really interesting to see all of these familiar objects laid out like a gallery, all of which are important in terms of their functionality and design.
From there we went to the train station, saw an anti-fascist/anti-racist rally (for annti-nasty people, they looked pretty nasty, in all black, balaklava-d and blasting angry metal music....but they brought a crowd!). We caught the train back to the internet cafe, had no couchsurfing replies and nothing from the 'rideshare' site (we had sent some messages to people driving to Wurzburg tomorrow). So went back to the hostel to try and get a bed there. We tried a few more phone calls for a 'rideshare' to Wurzburg and got all 'No's' apart from one 'Maybe' who would let us know. 'Rideshare' is a good idea, kind of like a sophisticated form of hitch hiking. People advertise that they will be driving from point A to point B, and if people want to travel between those 2 places, they can cover their portion of petrol. The last person (the 'maybe') was not someone I was keen to travel with, since he made of point of the fact that he drove a new black Audi sports car, and I didn't relish the idea of being stuck in a fast car on the autobahn in wet weather. Cam insisted it would be fine and, against my better judgement, I gave in and we agreed to go with him if he sad yes.
We went to the supermarket and got some stuff to make dinner, took it back to the hostel kitchen and ate food whilst chatting to a Russian Judo Trainer who was staying there with his team (that would explain all the aggressive adolescents in the hallways...).
December 6th : Hamburg -> Würzburg
The mystery driver called at 7am this morning to say it was fine to ride with him down to Würzburg. I was very unsure about it and, attempting a last minute back-out, stayed in bed for as long as I could and moaned that I didn't want to go, but Cam said we'd already agreed so we had to. Putting on my best grumbly-girlfriend-act we walked to the station where he was meeting us and said hello to the driver (Mark) and another passenger (this passenger was smart and slept for the entire journey, thanks to some tablets whose origin was unknown, but whose effects became very inviting to me as the journey progressed).
We were a little bit late and as we walked to his shiny, mag wheeled Audi, he advised us that to make up for this, he would just have to drive faster. He said this with a deranged mid-20 year old male bravado tone which made me look at Cam with a victorious glare.
Hate to say I told you so.
That was about all the annoyance I could muster up for the rest of the journey. I spent the rest of it gripping to the passenger door handle with clammy hands, sweating and trying to remember happy times in my life where I did not feel I was on the verge of a bloody death.
The distance between Hamburg and Würzburg is about 600km. We estimated that we would be there in at least 6 hours.
4 hours later, having survived top speeds of 250km/hr weaving between cars through the rain on the Autobahn we got to Würzburg.
Of course, Anja hadn't been expecting us to arrive at the speed of light so we had to wait for a little while for her to come and meet us by the road. I was no longer annoyed about the rideshare experience, I was just thankful to be alive. We have been through some pretty hairy travel experiences throughout this trip, but I have to say that the speed of this particualr ride definately made it the worst. I have never travelled in a vehicle at a speed that fast before, and I do not want to repeat it. If I was with someone I trusted, who knew how to drive at high speeds (like Dad or Colin), I would have felt okay, but I spent most of the time wanting to slap this guy for being such a testosterone-fuelled fuckwit. In the end, it wasn't terribly cheap either. Since he drove pedal to the metal, the fuel use was quite high, so we paid just slightly less than the train (but, as Cam sheepishly pointed out, we got there in half the time....*insert wrath of a scorned female companion here*).
Soon enough Anja's gorgeous smiling face came bounding along the foot path and we gave hugs and hellos. We met Anja in Adelaide when she couchsurfed with us last year.
We relayed the car journey to her and then headed back to her place where we had some tea and caught up on all our our relevant travels and lives.
We went for a walk to the Christmas market where we all had some Glühwein and Anja got us some traditional German candied Xmas nuts to try. After that we headed round to her old flat, to have dinner with some friends.
We met Lisa, Patrick, Sima, Marvin and Ollie who were all amazingly nice, fun and interesting. We spent the night learning more about the German culture, student life, art, politics and music. Marvin is a 'proper' anarchist who was not able to drink having recently pissed on the German flag whilst naked in the town square. He had loads of interesting stories and we all really enjoyed each others' company.
As the night went on we drank beer, glüwein and Jagermeister and we all decided that it would be a good idea if Lisa cut Cam's hair. He has been talking about it for ages but has not yet done it, so off we went to the bathroom for his makeover. Lisa is a journalist, not a hairdresser, but she has done other friend's hair and assured us it would be fine.
And, it was! After a few big swigs of Jagermeister, Cam looked a bit more relaxed as handfuls of his curls came from his head. In the end it looked very good and everyone was impressed at Lisa's handiwork. At about 3am we stumbled home to catch some Z's, having arranged to come back and cook them dinner tomorrow to say thank you for their hospitality.
December 7th : Würzburg
Anja had to get up and go to uni this morning, while we stayed in bed and had an appreciated sleep-in. We checked some options for transport to Berlin and then after Anja returned we went to lunch with her and her lovely friend Carolin. They took us to the Uni cafeteria, which is a massive place and sells really nice food for prices which students can actually afford! After some nice pasta we had some coffee and cake and chatted and laughed for a while. We learnt all about the 'Wurzburg Zellerau Crew', a gangsta group based in these white-wine producing medieval streets (otherwise known as 'the hood') who are need of much mocking by us.
On our way out to go for a walk to the park we were stopped by some students raising money for an African children's charity. We gave them 1euro and then they said they were packing up the stall, would we like the rest of the glühwein? Why, yes, yes we would! We all had a few cups of hot glühwein, whilst trying to explain to the students what on earth 2 Adelaideans were doing in little ol' Würzburg!
We talked about the student occupations and said that we didn't get a chance to go and visit the squat in Hamburg, so we went to visit the Audimax here. It was really exciting to be there, to see all these young people rallying together in a bid to improve their chances of an education. They have been really proactive about it, each day having important members of the community giving speeches, workshops etc. The auditorium had an odour of students-who-have-been-hanging-out-here-for-a-while, and was full of posters giving inforrmation on the bachelor-master system and big painted sheets with 'Get Thinking!' and other slogans on it.
After a while in there, Anja and Carolin took us for a nice stroll through the gardens and a big residence park, which was very beautiful shrouded in a heavy fog.
We went to look at the different Uni campuses, saw the 3rd oldest University in Europe and lots of the nice medieval streets.
We then grabbed some beer and dinner ingredients and walked to the flat to see Patrick, Marvin, Sima and Simon, while Lisa, Anja and Ollie went to see a 'Uriah Heap' Concert a couple of towns away. We had a great night with them all again, Cam and I cooked up a big spinach curry, and Patrick helped us translate the Deutshbahn site into getting a cheap regional ticket to Berlin.
At home there is a system where most bottles get recycled for 5c each when you take them to a recycling place. Here, you get back about 10-15c per bottle when you take them back to the shop they were purchased from. So, the guys here drove back their (rather large) collection of empty bottles and returned with another really large collection of full ones, having got about 40euros back from returning them! Talk about giving people enthusiasm to recycle!!
Tonight we learnt all about the APPD Party, Sauerkraut Man and lots more of Marvin's entertaining stories. Patrick and Lisa shared their plans about going to China (they both speak fluent Mandarin) and Sima told us all about her family from Iran. They are great bunch of people and we really enjoyed our time there. When Anja, Lisa and Ollie returned from the concert they unfortunately had not got backstage, but had a good time anyway.
The night went on, it was cool to be hanging out with people in a sharehouse, gave us a real sense of home. Then it was homeward bound at about 3am, having said fond farewells and exchanged emails.