Friday, 8 July 2011

Greek Islands Cruise Part 2

After a night at sea we were able to sleep in a little before having breakfast at the restaurant and relaxing on the deck of the ship and then in our room. At around 10:30am we rounded Prevlaka (the southernmost tip of Croatia) and entered the Bay of Kotor. The next hour or so was spent cruising through one of the most beautiful areas we had ever seen; towering mountains dropping steeply into an astounding blue harbour; small villages perched on the edge of the water, usually on promontories; a road winding precariously around the various bays and inlets on each side of the water; and small islands, occasionally with a church or farmhouse in the centre, with people waving as we cruised past. Montenegro was the country we had heard least about before coming on this cruise but this section of the cruise rapidly established it as one of the places we most enjoyed, and this even before we had dropped anchor in the port. It is no wonder that this is a world heritage site.

Kotor has been known since ancient Roman times, having been part of the Roman province of Dalmatia, and was first referred to in 168 BCE when it was called Acruvium. It is located at the far end of the Bay of Kotor and was walled during medieval times. That wall still exists now, both around the city and extending up as a fortification over the hillside for 4 ? kilometres, giving a view of the harbour below. We travelled into town by tender, a trip which was incredibly smooth due to the calm waters in this part of the bay, met our tour guide and driver and boarded the bus that we were going to be travelling on as we explored this part of Montenegro.

The first step was to climb the hill, immediately behind the town, which we did via 25 switchbacks back and forth. This road is only 1 lane each way and feels quite narrow as well as windy. When traffic came in the other direction it was occasionally necessary for one or the other vehicle to reverse in order for them to pass. Looking out the window it was at times only an inch or two separating a side mirror from the side of the car or the rock mountainside. Near the road is an old mule track known as the 'Ladder of Cattaro', which used to be the only route linking the coast to Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro. There are stories of large pieces of furniture being carried on the backs of mules up and over the mountains. By the time we reached the top we were a kilometre and a half above sea level and the views were magnificent.

After a brief stop and multiple photographs we journeyed on to the village of Njegusi located on the other side of Mount Lovcen. This town was the birthplace of the Petrovics, the royal Montenegrin family but we were not there for a history lesson. As we drew near to our destination we spotted a group of small cabins and were commenting on how quaint they were. We then drew up at these very same cabins, and the restaurant that was the main point from which holiday accommodation in the cabins could be booked. Our lunch consisted of homemade cheese, smoked ham, bread and a choice of coke, red wine, or a mead drink. Because there were a couple of tour buses stopping at the same time it was very crowded. The bread was quite dry but the prosciutto and cheese were lovely and the red wine was very strong.


Of recent times, Montenegro has only been officially recognised as an independent nation since June 3, 2006, when it declared independence from Serbia as part of the long-term break up of the former Yugoslavia. This was not the first time that something like this had happened for this area. In 1878 Montenegro had received recognition as an independent state within the Austro-Hungarian empire (a situation which lasted till the end of the Great War, when it was annexed by Serbia and then incorporated into Yugoslavia). In its previous independent incarnation the capital was Cetinje, our next stop on the tour, and the city has maintained much of its historical character. We saw a number of foreign embassies, the theatre, an old monastery dating back to the 15th Century, and a variety of other buildings, with the highlight being a tour of the old royal palace.

While described as a palace, the building itself was smaller than many of the houses we see in Qatar or Australia. However, the guide who showed us around was immensely proud of the history of his country and the history it has had. The building featured an amazing collection of artefacts, most of the related to the royal family, including some of the medals, uniforms and regalia presented to them. For a tiny nation, as they were, they had obviously been very influential. Much to Meg's delight the upstairs section had been preserved to look as it had done when the family had lived there. The excellent preservation with the knowledge and enthusiasm of the guide made it feel as if we were stepping back in time. It was a wonderful experience.

From Cetinje we headed back toward the coast and the centre of modern Montenegrin tourism, the town of Budva. Unlike some of the roads we had previously traversed this was a wide modern highway which, when we saw Budva made a lot of sense. Budva is a tourist town because it is very beautiful, sitting on the Adriatic with idyllic beaches and small islands. Settlement there dates back approximately 2 500 years, but it is so modern in its architecture and fittings that it could be anywhere in the world. Jaz Beach, one of the prime areas, has hosted concerts by the Rolling Stones and Madonna, and some other big names were slated to appear there during the summer. However, Budva is probably best known for the island of Sveti Stefan, which is now connected by a causeway to the mainland, which was once a fortified village but is now a resort and was the titular setting (although no scenes were filmed there) for the 2006 version of 'Casino Royale'.

The last part of our trip took us out across the coastal plains toward the Tivat Airport before turning onto the road that took us through the Vrmac Tunnel (nearly 3 klm long) back into Kotor where we were to take a walking tour of the old town. The Venetians built the town walls back when Venice still had its own empire and much of the architecture of the rest of the city is Venetian as well. It had lovely old cobblestoned streets that are so narrow that traffic is almost exclusively pedestrian. An earthquake damaged much of the city back in 1979 but it has largely been rebuilt to maintain the old character of the town. We had a lovely walk around, admiring the beautiful, old, Catholic cathedral and sending postcards from the local post office before catching the tender back to the ship. The walls of Kotor bear the legend "What belongs to others we don't want, what is ours we will never surrender." It is a truly beautiful place and we hope that this is one of the things referred to by those words.

Cruising out through the bay was possibly more beautiful than the cruise in, as the sun was setting and the lights of the small villages began to twinkle on the shoreline. Up on the hills overlooking the bay there were individual dwellings and churches that must have had the most amazing view overlooking the bay. We immediately decided that, if we ever won the lottery, one of the places we would love to own a house would be on the shores of Kotor Bay. Overnight we would be cruising along the remainder of the Montenegrin coast (we passed Budva while we were having dinner) and then past Albania.

The following day was spent entirely at sea, the first of two we would spend this way during this cruise. The lack of a need to wake early to take a tour allowed us to sleep in before breakfast again. We were able to spend the day exploring the ship, participating in things like trivia and mask making. In the evening was the first heat of the karaoke challenge where a variety of people from around the world, including a girl from the Philippines, another from the United States, and a man from South Africa were among the contestants. Our South African friend fancied himself as a rapper and produced a hilarious version of the theme from 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air' while another, very drunk, English woman produced the most cringe worthy performance of the night. All in all it was an amusing day.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Greek Islands Cruise Part 1

The 2010/11 school year was complete and we had had a few days to recover and set things up before departing for the summer. Stella was going to be looked after by our cleaner, Nikhil, and everything was organized. Our flight leaving Doha for Istanbul was at 2:15am so we ordered a taxi for 11pm giving ourselves a lot of time in case there were any problems with traffic or crowding at the airport. We were dismayed that it was late but at 11:18 it turned up and it was a good trip with very little traffic. Our journey through the new section of the Departures terminal (which used to be the Arrivals) was very smooth. Once inside and at the final gate before boarding we were pleased to see another member of staff (Mokhtar Badri with his family) and a family of some of our students (the Oganesyan’s) were on the same flight to Istanbul.

This initial flight was relatively smooth, taking about 4 hours. We woke at one point to a beautiful beginning of the sunrise, the sky outside our window was a variety of gradated colors and a couple of photographs were taken. Istanbul Ataturk International Airport was large and busy but we only had a relatively short wait before the next flight to Venice. So we sat at a café to watch the world pass us by. There was a very interesting mix of nationalities and peoples, including a very cute young girl, who had clearly just learned to walk, attempting to escape from her mother while not straying too far from comfort.

Only two elements of the airport frustrated us. When we first arrived we checked the gate from which our next flight was to leave and found it was, not entirely surprisingly, at the far end of the airport. When it was nearly time to check in at the gate we walked the majority of the way, only to find that our gate had been changed. It was now at the opposite end of the airport. No doubt this had been announced but, as our Turkish is somewhat limited, we had not noticed that announcement over the loudspeaker. When we finally got to the gate we found one of the security personnel to be very officious. While he let us through with very little scrutiny, people of Indian background had their papers passed over with (literally) a magnifying glass. Although we did not understand the language it was clear that he was speaking in a very rude way to people.

We were feeling quite tired by this time, having had very little sleep, so each of us spent much of the flight to Venice dozing. Once again we were served breakfast, so this did not bode well for our diets during this trip. Although there had been a significant amount of cloud during the flight, this had all cleared by the time we approached Marco Polo International Airport and we found ourselves back in Europe once more. Customs and baggage collection were relatively straightforward and, as we passed through immigration, there were Royal Caribbean Cruise representatives waiting through the gate. Even though we had not booked transport from the airport to the port (it was a little on the expensive side) they were happy to organize a taxi for us. Davide (the taxi driver) had recently returned from Australia and was very enthusiastic in his approach to life. With some interesting information about Venice and the surrounding areas we were dropped right where we needed to be in order to board the cruise.

Getting on board the ‘Splendor of the Seas’ was the next order of business. Our baggage was swiftly dealt with, we had our photographs taken to remember the cruise, and we were ushered to a desk to fill out the necessary paperwork. At this point we discovered that Quinn’s wallet was missing which meant that he had no photo I.D. other than his passport, which had just been collected. The increased scrutiny that this brought to us meant that, for the first time, our relationship with Quinn was called into question. Fortunately we keep electronic copies of all sorts of documents on a hard drive so we were able to convince the security people that he was our son and allowed to board.

The port of Venice is on an artificial island (Tronchetto) to the north of the city, just near where the bridge from the mainland (the Ponte della Libertà) meets with the first of the over one hundred islands that make up Venice proper. There were four other cruise ships, three of them larger than ours, also in port and we later found out that there were approximately 12 000 visitors in Venice just on the cruise ships alone. We could also see the industrial area of Venice from the deck, as well as the bell tower of the basilica in Piazza San Marco. We spent some time getting acquainted with the ship before deciding to take a nap to recover from some of the rigors of the day before our evening meal.

One of the highlights of the cruises we have been on so far has been getting to know some of the staff on board. The company employs people from all over the world who speak a variety of languages to cater for as many different guests as possible. This ship had moved, from doing cruises around South America, across to Europe a couple of months earlier, in readiness for the summer cruising schedule in the northern hemisphere. Our regular waiters for evening meals are a Filipino man named Rosanno and a Brazilian lady named Adriana. Because our regular dinner companions, a family from California, were not yet aboard, we received the full focus of Adriana and Rosanno’s service and they showed themselves to have both a good sense of humor and a keen interest in us and our backgrounds. Even the nap had not fully solved our sleep issues, so an early night was in store before venturing into Venice the next day.

We had intended to wake early and get some exercise before breakfast, but a failure to set the alarm on any of our clocks meant that we woke at 7:40am with less than an hour before we needed to meet with our tour group for our Venice tour. Consequently, it was quick showers and dressing before a reasonably rapid breakfast (although not so rapid that we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to eat real bacon, and pork sausages). Our tickets for our tours had not yet been delivered when we ventured to the theatre, however Wayne went back to the room quickly to grab the battery for the camera, which had been recharging overnight, and the tickets were under the door.

It had rained over night, and it was still somewhat overcast, so the seats on the top of our tour boat were slightly damp which deterred some of our companions from joining us, however the sun was starting to emerge and we braved the deck. Our tour guide was a retired Venetian lady who was extremely knowledgeable and there was an enormous amount of information to tell us about the history, economics, and current position of Venice as we made our way among the islands that make up the different areas of the city. Because of the size of our boat we had to keep to the larger rivers and canals, however we were still able to see many of the sights for which Venice is famous, including the gondolas and some of the nearly 500 bridges that cross the smaller canals that run through many of the islands.

Initial settlement of the islands of Venice took place in approximately 500 CE and it has had a fascinating history, including being a major empire building power during the 15th and 16th centuries. Indeed, a number of the other places that we were going to visit during the remainder of the cruise had been part of imperial Venice. However, due to limitations of space and constant difficulties with the amount of water in the city, there is very little which could be called modern. The tallest buildings are the church steeples and bell towers (of which there are over 80 still standing) and the most recent ‘new’ buildings are from the 1950’s. From a population high of nearly 200 000, the population of Venice today is closer to 60 000, and our guide lamented the fact that the average age of the inhabitants is close to 60 and that there are very few young people. Partly this is due to the cost of living in a city that grows increasingly expensive, especially if you do not own your own home.

The first part of our journey took us through the Canale della Giudecca, with the island of Giudecca on one side, and that of Dorsoduro on the other. Here we learned that Venice has long had a history of sheltering refugees (there has been a sizeable Jewish community here for hundreds of years, hence the name of the island). For much of it’s history, different islands of Venice served different purposes (for example Isola di S.Michele serves as the cemetery for much of the city) and we went past islands which have served as hospitals, as nunneries, as the centres of vegetable growing, and as places of segregation for those who had the plague. With tourism having become the focus of much of Venice in most recent times, many of these islands have now become devoted to hotels and there are some very beautiful places to stay or to study.

Our guide explained which islands, or parts of islands, were for sale (although the difficulty is in determining who one might actually purchase them from) and also pointed out some amazing boats that were for sale. We went past the Lido (one of the few islands in Venice on which cars may be driven) and had the history of fashions in health and their impact upon residence of different areas related to us. In the latter part of the tour we went past the Isola di Murano, which has long been famous for glass making and which still uses the same methods today as have long been used (and jealously guarded). Another lament from our guide was about the encroachment of inferior quality glass into the souvenir market without correct labeling. We also saw the Arsenale and the Stadio P.L. Penzo before returning to the main island, San Marco.

From the more recent ‘The Tourist’ back through other movies, books and plays (Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ spring to mind) Venice has been a favorite setting for all sorts of media. Consequently, the Doge’s Palace was very familiar (although somewhat disfigured by advertising) as were many of the other buildings in the background. This is the main area where you might find the traditional gondolieri, and we were informed that the first female gondolieri has relatively recently begun working, while another is in the process of applying. We speculated as to whether this might have been the lady that we saw rowing earlier on in the tour. St Mark’s Square, so our guide related, is the watery section in front of the palace, but most people associate it with the land next to it. This area, too, was very familiar as well as very, very crowded.

One of the issues from which Venice suffers is regular flooding. This is so regular that, apparently, the land known as St Mark’s Square is flooded on 200 days per year. Much of the city is sinking and needs constant upkeep in order to maintain its position above the water. A new series of artificial islands are being built near the entrance to the Adriatic Sea at a cost of many billions of dollars to try and alleviate the impact of tides and rising water because of high storms, however it is not known if this will be at all successful. This work is intended to be finished by 2015. We reached the end of the tour, not far from the ship, with a couple of hours to spare before the ship was due to leave Venice and commence the travelling part of our cruise.

The ship’s muster (where we go through the procedures in case of an emergency) took place as we were leaving the outer islands of Venice behind us, and moving into the Adriatic Sea. As muster finished we stumbled across a mask-making workshop to prepare for the masquerade ball that was going to take place that evening and spent an hour or so meeting other guests and making masks. Meg had run short of her favorite perfume (Chanel’s Allure, if any of you ever feel the need to pick her some up as a gift) and so a visit to the various shops was in order to see if any was available that we could pick up any at a discounted price (there was and we did). Dinner that evening was a much more formal affair and so, after some time relaxing and reading, Quinn and Wayne suited up (thanks to ‘How I Met Your Mother’ for the phrasing) while Meg donned one of the formal dresses she had had made by our tailor in Qatar.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Life, Love and Monkey love in Doha

We have been busy living and working lately hence why our blog has been neglected, Wayne is up to his knees in marking and report card writing so I will be your blogger today. Now the question is, 'where to start?'

As most of you know Brock has gone to live with his natural father in Brisbane which is absolutely the right decision for Brock. Wayne, Quinn and I miss him every day but are looking forward to seeing him when we return to Australia in July for part of the summer.

OK, now life in Doha. We have moved into the school compound and love our apartment, with Quinn getting to hang out with his friends and be able to use the school bus service (less waiting around for us to finish work for him). We also have the use of the Clubhouse, which I love, because on the days I am not working I use the pool, gym and restaurant.

Work is going well for Wayne and he is really enjoying working on his masters program. He was very fortunate in that, as part of this, he was invited to be a key note speaker at a conference in Romania (I had to stay home and teach his classes). Wayne had a wonderful time and the conference was a huge success; pictures in the local paper, meeting the town mayor etc. Of course as per all of our travels the return trip did not go so well with Wayne having an allergic reaction to something and collecting a stomach virus on his way home he spent a horrid trip home on the plane falling so ill that they needed to divert the plane to make sure he was ok.

Bumps Lumps and scrapes

Stella has grown into a delightful cat although her latest habit of eating plastic, metal and anything that moves has had us all on our toes and questioning at times if we did in fact need a little cat!

Quinn – blood clot in eardrum…. Trip to specialist all is great now

Ruby- while driving into compound the security guard drops the boom gate on Ruby's bonnet scratching her from the front to the top of the windscreen, and a misplaced pole matched the front to the back a fortnight later.

Meg – virus while Wayne was in Romania, virus when Wayne got home from Romania

Wayne- Allergic reaction to the sulpha in Romania and the Romanian horror virus

The poor man came home and got straight into bed without showering as he was so ill. As I am a loving wife I cuddled up to him not realising he was ill until the next morning so I went to work for him and when I got home I found him really unwell and covered in a purple rash… a trip to hospital a drip and lots of meds later he got home and he was feeling better, I on the other hand was not and caught this horrid virus so it would be fair to say the weekend was not a pleasant one. Quinn was lucky in that he didn't get the virus but several of his friends succumbed to it making Wayne a very popular man on the compound lol.

Fun Stuff

Life in Doha can be very quiet so we have had a series of dinner parties with other teachers that we have gotten to know. We have loved doing this as we both like to cook and love to hear from our friends about the places they have been and taught in, poor Quinn has found it weird to come home and find his teachers sitting in his lounge room but he is a great sport and enjoying life. Quinn has turned into quite a social butterfly and his weekend starts on a Wednesday night with movies and take away but we love to see him with his friends and they are a great group of kids. Quinn was also supposed to go to Thailand on a school trip but due to the issues over there with Red shirts etc the school had to make the difficult decision of cancelling the trip. The kids were crushed but so mature in how they all coped with it.

We also had the pleasure of taking a large group of the kids to see Shrek 4 at City Centre which we all enjoyed especially telling everyone about Quinn when he was little hehehehe.

Wayne and I have not had as much time together as we would like as I have been working a lot, but at primary or the learning centre, so we are counting the days till the summer break. We have taken some time out to go to the movies and loved 'Date Night', hated 'The Back up Plan' and enjoyed our own date night with dinner at a very swanky Thai restaurant.

Monkey Love

Life in Doha is great, most of the time; we have a cleaner twice a week, a massage therapist, drive a current model car etc but we had not given much back into the community. Sure, we teach the kids here but we felt that there had to be something more we could do and then we found it. Now it's not exactly community service but its fun and it's making a difference to someone.. We are…….

Socialising the monkeys at the zoo! We go once a week and play with the three monkeys at the zoo; Timmy, Tina and Rita. These monkeys are very bored and a little confined as their cages are way too small by anybodies standards. We take the furry friends fresh food and treats to help pass the time. They love to drink water from plastic bottles and swing on swings that we tie up for them every week.

I can hear you saying why? Well here as in several Arabic countries animals are not respected they are seen as dirty so they don't always get the care they need. Some of the security guards even tease them and throw dirt at them so they have learnt to not trust people. The zoo is trying to breed two of the monkeys, but need them to trust people so that they can monitor the progress of the infant; and that my friend is where we come in. We have loved it so far although, if you tick them off, they are not above throwing dirt in your face or pulling at your clothes. Wayne has made a very delicate friendship with Timmy and this is great as they need him to be very calm with men as the vet is a man too. We take them toys and anything we can think of so any ideas you have please let us know.

So that's about it today in the big City of Doha.. we are happy smiling and very content with life, we are leaving here on the 1st of July to fly to Sweden and then onto a cruise we will then be in Sweden for a few extra days we are flying back to Doha to check on Stella see the monkeys and fly into Melbourne on the 12th July we are spending some time Melbourne Sydney Tuncurry and Brisbane

We would love to catch up with you all so if you want to see us please let us know

Love live and be happy

Meg Wayne Stella and the boy

(Stella has a voice in our house and refers to Quinn as BOY.. so it sort of stuck )

Monday, 17 May 2010

Conference in Romania (Part 1)

Sometimes I feel like am living in one enormous dream. Simply by creating and maintaining an online presence on a number of websites I have made contact with people who share similar interests to me spread all over the world. It was the beginning of May and I was uploading some photographs from a drive that Meg and I had taken the previous day to Ar Ruwais and Al Shamal in the north of Qatar onto a website called WAYN (Where Are You Now?) where people record their travel experiences. One of my contacts is the principal of a school in Romania and they were hosting an educational conference and asked if I wanted to present. I had never been to Romania so, not really expecting anything to come of it, I asked the Head of Qatar Academy Senior School if it would be ok for me to attend. Much to my amazement the response was positive. All I had to do was write and submit a paper to deliver at the conference (I had approximately 4 days to get this done) and organize for someone to take my lessons while I was away.

Fortunately, I am doing work toward a Masters Degree in Educational Technology through the State University of New York and the course co-coordinator was willing to let me kill two birds with one stone and submit the research I had been doing on podcasting both as the paper for the conference and the assessment for my course. With a couple of late nights I had my paper (and an accompanying power point) prepared and my wonderful wife agreed to look after my classes for me. The school organized my flights and accommodation and in the space of just over a week I was ready to fly.

Saturday night at 10pm and I say 'Goodbye' to Meg, Quinn and Stella and jump into the cab for the airport. That night the Emirs Cup (sort of a Qatari equivalent of the FA Cup in England) has been played and, much to everybody's amazement al-Rayyan (our local team and the team I have chosen to support) who have had a terrible year have caused yet another upset and won the cup. Consequently, the streets are full of lunatic al-Rayyan supporters driving around, honking their horns, and hanging themselves and their flags out of every available space on their vehicles (windows, sky lights etc.). While I am happy for the team I am concerned for the safety of the motorists and somewhat frustrated by the delay to my travel time to the airport.

However, I had left with an enormous amount of time to spare before the 2:15am flight (largely so that Meg and Quinn don't feel the need to wait up until I go) and there was more than enough to book in, check my luggage, go through the interminable lines at passport control, and still make the flight with much time to spare. In fact, I had to read for about half an hour before they would even let me check in to the flight and I spent an hour or so in the business lounge consuming some very nice tomato soup and reading some newspapers before I head down to the gate. Because Qatar Academy has the policy of flying business class if the trip is to be longer than 4 hours I was asked to wait at the gate and ended up being the last person on and sitting in seat 1A.

Possibly through nerves I had not slept much the night before and Meg had refused to allow me to nap during the day so that I would sleep on the flight. Exhaustion was really starting to be strongly felt as the plane took off and I took the toiletries bag from the flight attendant looking forward to slipping on the eye mask and snoozing. However, she mentioned that breakfast was going to be served immediately so my sleep was delayed until I had finished the fruit porridge, juice, omelette and bread roll. There was just enough time to hear that we would be flying over Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria on our way to Turkey, and to note that 'Sherlock Holmes' was available to watch as a movie before sleep descended and so I probably achieved about 3 hours before a flight announcement alerted me to the fact that we were making our descent.

My initial impression of Turkey was seen through a hazy light cloud as we began to make our descent into Istanbul. Coming from having lived in Qatar for the last 9 months I was struck by just how green it felt like flying over one of those giant train sets that people used to build when I was growing up. There were little groves of trees that looked like they could have been artificial, so regular was their growth pattern. Buildings, too, seemed to fit into sets, with large identical apartment blocks side by side followed by a group of factories then picturesque houses. Undulations in the ground looked like little creases in someone's papier mache but reminded me of what Orhan Pamuk had written about the earthquakes that impact upon this area in the world much as they do in California.

The Princes' islands in the middle of the sea off the Istanbul coast looked like someone had paid signal attention to detail with the buildings all in elegant rows circling around the hills that projected up from the blue sea. It struck me that these were all fairly new buildings given that the 1999 Earthquake had devastated those islands which might go some way toward explaining the absence of haphazard building plans. Passing over them, at about 6:30am, it was easy to imagine people just waking up ready to make the commute into Istanbul by ferry. However, given that this was a Sunday morning and Turkey had been westernized under Ataturk so that Sunday had replaced Friday as their day of rest back in 1923, it was more likely that the people below me were getting a well earned sleep in.

Comparisons with a giant train set were somewhat affected by the three enormous mosques visible from the plane as we crossed the coastline, which probably wouldn't have appeared on any of the train sets I saw during my childhood in Australia, but the huge red Turkish flag looked glorious as it waved in what appeared to be a significant breeze. One can only speculate that flight paths are deliberately chosen to maximize the appeal of the city as we appeared to circle the entirety of Istanbul before leveling out and making a relatively smooth touchdown at Istanbul Ataturk Airport.

Having been last on the aircraft, and sitting in seat 1A, I was first off and walked up the boarding path feeling like I was the only person present. It must have been that our gate was at one end of a long area that wasn't busy because, after a short walk, I came across a small group of airport staff and was directed up a flight of stairs which opened into a bustling shopping and dining area reminiscent of every other major airport we had been in around the world. My departure gate for the next leg was quite a distance and down a flight of stairs because we were going to be bussed out to our plane so that, by the time I found a seat among the passengers heading to Madrid, Milan, Frankfurt and Stuttgart (as well as those travelling with me to Bucharest) there was only a short wait until boarding was called.

One of the benefits of regular travel is that it reminds you that impatience and arrogance are not confined to one cultural group. In this case it was an older Romanian (from her passport) woman who walked straight past the queue and was openly outraged that people would not just let her continue straight through. It did not take long before we were all out on our Turkish Airways flight (for some reason they are major sponsors of both Barcelona and Manchester United football clubs) and ready for the second leg of the journey. It was a beautiful sunny day in Istanbul and because the airport runway leads off over the sea we were soon up in the air and able to spy the enormous number of ships waiting offshore before we turned north and headed back over the city on our way to Romania.

It is only a short flight to Bucharest from Istanbul and I spent the majority of the time looking at the wonderful scenery below. By the time we crossed back over the coast we were just in Bulgaria and from there to Bucharest it was patchwork farms, beautiful rivers that looked almost purple in colour, patches of forest where you could see the division in tree types by the variant shades of green, and then the tall buildings of the city in the distance. Touchdown was again very smooth and I soon found myself on the ground of Aeroport Henri Coanda. Because Oradea is in the west of the country, near the border with Hungary, I was going to have to transfer to an internal flight and this wasn't going to be leaving for nearly 12 hours. Sadly, the airport has neither a business lounge nor a luggage storage facility so I had to reclaim my baggage and then work out how to fill the next few hours.

The obvious solution was to take a trip around Bucharest and see what I could see of the city. It is about 20 klm into the city centre so it was downstairs and onto the 783 bus heading for Piata Unirii via Piata Victoriei. I had tried to learn a little Romanian before I left but only two phrases had really stuck. 'Sorry, I don't understand' was one of them and this came in useful more than once on the way in as people mistakenly assumed that I knew all sorts of things from where (exactly) we were going to how to use the ticketing machines. When the confused looks came with me explaining in Romanian that I didn't understand the language I was at least able to make use of my one other phrase, 'I have a little [signify with fingers for emphasis] Romanian'. Not one of the people that I met was unable to speak substantially more English than I could Romanian but their excitement that I had made some effort to acquire their language meant that everyone I spoke to was very helpful and friendly.

There are a number of things about Bucharest that struck me on the drive into town. The first was that Romanians seem to be very attached to their parks and gardens. There are a number of enormous parks on the route from the airport and at the very centre of the city is yet another one, Cismigiu Garden. Unlike some other cities that we have visited these parks aren't done up as formally landscaped places with every flower and hedge in its place. Indeed, in most of the parks the grass had not been mowed for a while (understandably, because there was every indication that they had had quite a bit of rain recently even though the weather was very sunny) and the placement of trees resembled a real forest rather than a carefully planted grove. Each of the parks also incorporated water, whether in the form of rivers or in elaborate fountains.

Architecturally Bucharest is clearly European and, from the size of some of the mansions on the main boulevard, at times there has been considerable money spent. In some ways it was very reminiscent of Munich or Vienna with the grand formwork and statuery used to support beams. However, the substantial period of communist rule which ended with the collapse of the Ceaucescu regime had obviously taken a toll. Many of the buildings that I saw were very run down, paint was chipped or peeling off, gardens were overrun, windows were smashed or boarded up and roofs were in need of repair. Even some of the buildings where businesses had clearly taken over what had been formerly residential space were not doing well enough to provide the significant renovation necessary to restore them to their former glory.

It was late on a Sunday morning and the weather was lovely so many people were out on the street. There was going to be an open air AC/DC concert that evening and things were already being set up in preparation for that event. There were many men (predominantly) walking around wearing AC/DC t-shirts and it was very clear that this was going to be a big event. Unsurprisingly, while there were some teenagers dressed the part most of the fans were men in their 30's and over and I would have liked to have stayed to see what sort of final composition the crowd had but, alas, it was not to be. The other noticeable group were the significantly elderly sitting on stoops, steps, and sometimes directly upon the ground up and down the main streets. While it would be wrong to say they were begging (very few of them said anything or even indicated with gestures that they wanted help) it was fascinating to watch how many people, often coming out of church, stopped and put money into their hands. Perhaps the government does not look after the elderly but it seems like there is a feeling in the community.

I had intended to look for a tour bus to take me around so that I would get as many of the prominent sites as possible but none of the tourist offices that I came across were open and there were not many buses, other than the public ones, on the street. The number of churches (mainly orthodox) and the religious iconography made me suspect that this was one of the reasons why not very many businesses were open. Those that were obviously opened were the fast food restaurants (McDonalds and KFC are seemingly universal) and the sex shops. Given the aforementioned churches the latter were a bit of a surprise but I withstood any temptation to venture inside and see what sort of products they offered. In the end I walked around the main central part of the city and then back out for a couple of kilometers in the direction of the airport before my feet told me that it was time to catch the bus again. Fortunately Bucharest is almost completely flat so there were no hills to negotiate. Apart from this, and the absence of the sizeable Danube (the Dâmboviţa River is still impressive however), it is probably no surprise that the city that I was most reminded of was Budapest.

Back at the airport I was able to check my luggage and then it was determining how to kill the couple of hours before the Tarom (Transport Air ROMania) flight to Oradea. I met a friendly Austrian man and we were able to converse in a mixture of English and German about computer technology (that I was typing on my laptop probably prompted the conversation, and he wanted to loan me an adaptor even though I had one of my own in my bag). I managed to explore what must have been close to the entire airport and was somewhat surprised by how little in the way of souvenirs or other paraphernalia there was available at the limited range of shops. It seems that tourism has not yet had much of an impact upon the economy here.

Eventually I was able to pass through customs once more and on to the somewhat smaller propeller engined plane headed for Oradea. Although it had been beautifully sunny for the entire day until now, approximately half way through the flight we hit a bank of rain clouds that stayed with us for the remainder of the trip. Having left Doha where the previous day the temperature had been in the 40's it was somewhat of a culture shock to find rain and a temperature of 9°C. It was hard to tell whether it was the length of the day or the presence of the thick cloud but the final part of the trip seemed to take extraordinarily long to complete. Once on the ground I was met by a couple of members of the organizing committee for the conference who were very welcoming and rapidly conveyed me to the Continental Forum Hotel where I was to be staying for two nights. It overlooks the lovely Crişul Repede river that runs through Oradea so I spent some short time on the balcony enjoying the view before finally collapsing into bed after what felt like a very long day.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 3)

After the long drive of the day before it would have been very tempting to sleep in however, being in Budapest on the last day of our official 'tour' with Aron, Meg and Wayne were both up relatively early and headed downstairs for the buffet breakfast. It was exciting to see bacon and eggs (there is not a lot of bacon in Qatar and the bacon that is there is turkey bacon), sausages and other hot foods, along with the cereals, cold meats, fruits and various types of breads that we typically encounter in Europe. Both boys eventually joined us but it was clear that they were still very tired, so they were given the option of staying home for the final Christmas Market of the tour. This they elected to do, so it was only Meg and Wayne who came down to meet Aron when he arrived at the Hotel Unio.

We were very pleased to hear that his children were feeling a little better and determined not to monopolise too much of his time, so that he could return home to spend the remainder of Christmas Eve with his family. The Unio Hotel is not far from Teréz Körút (Theresia Boulevard) one of the main thoroughfares that runs through Pest, so we decided to walk from there up to the Nyugati (Western) Station. The station was opened on October 28, 1877, having been built by the Eiffel Company, the same engineering company run by Gustave Eiffel which was responsible for the design and building of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is the main station for transport to and from Budapest Ferihegy International Airport and one of the major transport hubs in the city.

Above the railway station lays a major shopping centre, the WestEnd City Center which was Central and Eastern Europe's largest shopping centre when it was opened in November, 1999. Even though it may not have been as big as some other shopping malls we had explored in other parts of the world it was still an interesting experience. We were able to do some more Christmas shopping before heading downstairs to the underground railway station which is part of the third oldest underground in the world. While the London Underground was built in 1863 and Istanbul's Metro in 1875, Budapest's Yellow Line was complete in 1896, yet despite that is quick and efficient. Soon we were disembarking at Vörösmarty Station which is adjacent to Vörösmarty Square.

The square is held to be one of the city's most beautiful and is adjacent to the Gerbeaud Confectionary company building which acts as a giant advent calendar during the month of December. Each day one of the windows had been opened till, as we were there on Christmas Eve, there was only one left. As with the other markets that we had been to it was largely comprised of small wooden huts which held a mixture of food and drink stalls and those selling Christmas decorations or traditional Hungarian folk products. All the products on sale have been handmade in the traditional way and this is guaranteed by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists. Christmas cookies and glassware are particularly famous but the market is also known for providing entertainment in the form of puppet shows, folk dancing, and traditional music.

By this stage of our trip there was very little snow left, with just some small grey scrapings piled off to one side but there was still a very festive feel to the market itself. We particularly loved the Christmas decorations made out of grass, and it was when photographing a large boar made in this way that Wayne was unable to avoid taking a photograph of a small girl. When he raised the camera, she stood beside the boar, when he put it down she looked carefully at him then started to walk away. As soon as he raised the camera again she raced back and stood next to the boar once more. Consequently, there is an unidentified small girl featured in our photos.

From Vörösmarty Square we wandered down a mall toward the Danube to look across the river from Pest to Buda. The banks of the river, along with many other parts of the city are a World Heritage Site and even in the cold on a day which was fairly overcast; it was quite clear how beautiful this part of the city is. Many people know that the city was originally two cities, Buda and Pest, which were unified on November 17, 1873 to form modern Budapest. However, there has been a settlement on the site since, at least, the 1st century BC when it was occupied by the Celts who called it Ak-Ink (which meant 'abundant water'). Aquincum was the name given to the city by the Romans who were but the first of the conquering armies who have overtaken the city at various stages of its history. Aron had entertained us the previous day with the stories of the many glorious defeats which Hungary (and Budapest in particular) had suffered over the centuries. As Australians (who particularly remember the battle of Gallipoli in World War I) we felt we could empathize with him.

From the waterfront you can see some of the amazing sites on the hills which comprise Buda on the eastern side of the river. These include Heroes Square with the Millenary Monument, Matthias Church, Buda Castle, and the statue of Szent Gellért. Saint Gerard (or Saint Gellert as it is in Hungarian) was Hungary's first bishop and lived from 980 till 1046. Allegedly he was placed on a 2-wheel cart, hauled to the top of, what is now, Gellert Hill, and then allowed to roll to the bottom. Because he was still alive at the bottom he was beaten to death. He is now one of the patron Saints of Hungary and every September 24th is celebrated as a feast day for him. Like so many other parts of Europe, statues abound in Budapest and even include statues of people who are completely covered.

From our vantage point between them you could also see two of the most important bridges across the Danube. Looking to the south we could see the Erzsébet (or Elisabeth) bridge which is the second newest bridge in Budapest. It was built between 1897 and 1903 across what is the narrowest point of the Danube through Budapest. The reason it heads directly into the base of Gellert Hill is that the land was owned by a city councilor who bribed other officials so that he could sell the land at a greatly inflated amount for bridge construction purposes. Unfortunately, this necessitated a sharp turn immediately across the bridge on the Buda side which, while it was no doubt painful in a horse drawn carriage, has proven to be disastrous for motor cars with numerous people killed or seriously injured. The bridge is, at least, not named after the councilor but for Queen Elisabeth, a popular Queen and Empress of Austria-Hungary who was assassinated in 1898, while the bridge was being constructed.

To the north is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge which was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and when it was opened in 1849 its center span of 202 m was one of the largest in the world. The bridges primary structure and decorations are cast iron and, along with the stone lions at either end, make it a particularly beautiful example of what the industrial age could achieve. Despite legends to the contrary, the lions do have tongues (although they are not visible from below, which is the usual point of view, as the lions are lying on a stone block some three meters high). However, people have been known to criticize their apparent tonguelessness. When confronted with such criticism the sculptor replied "Your wife should have a tongue just as my lions have, and woe will be unto you!" In a maneuver that has become more common Hungarian stunt pilot, Péter Besenyei, flew upside down under the bridge back in 2001, which would have been very impressive to see.

We retraced our steps back along the mall, stopping to admire some beautiful shop fronts. Part way up, while looking at some of the souvenirs available we spotted a gentleman carrying a large, pine tree over one shoulder. Clearly not everyone is of the impression that Christmas trees need to be erected a month or so prior to Christmas Day. After successfully navigating his way along the side street it was a little more difficult to manoeuvre his way through a narrow doorway and up at least one flight of stairs. We appreciated his tenacity, which reminded us that we still needed to arrange for a Christmas tree for the following morning at our hotel. Aron offered to loan us one, but we assured him that we would be quite able to make do. Indeed, after a return train ride and then the short walk back to the hotel we bid farewell to our guide from the previous few days. He had been very helpful, organising all sorts of things and responding to any requests that we had made of him. If you are interested in travelling in Eastern Europe we strongly recommend contacting him at CentralEastEurope.com.

Because of the time difference it was already Christmas in Australia so the first of our phone calls to family took place before we went to bed. Following the pattern we had established the year before, Wayne and Meg borrowed a tree from the hotel to set up in our room and spread out the presents ready for the following morning. Also following the pattern, the boys claimed that they were going to sleep in the following morning because they were so tired yet, when the time came both Brock and Quinn were knocking on the door while Wayne and Meg were still in bed, wishing them a Merry Christmas and wanting to come in and investigate. Breakfast was downstairs in the restaurant (we were 4 of only 8 guests staying in the hotel) then more phone calls and present opening were the order of the rest of the morning.

That afternoon we decided to go out to the local shopping centre, Arena Plaza, to see a movie. The boys wanted to see the movie Avatar and, once we had determined that it would be shown in English they went off to see it while Wayne and Meg had a cup of coffee and strolled around the shopping centre. The more we travel, the more we come to realise that things that we took for granted in Australia (almost everything being closed on Christmas Day for example) are not necessarily the case in other parts of the world. In Hungary much of the Christmas celebration takes place much earlier in the month while the other part tends to happen on Christmas Eve. Consequently, there were lots and lots of people out at the shopping centre. By the time the movie was over it was almost dark and time for our Christmas dinner.

When we had first booked the tour with Aron we had asked if he could arrange something for us in Budapest for Christmas dinner on Christmas day. Trying to find food that resembled a traditional Christmas dinner in the UK or Australia was a very difficult task. Pertu Station was down near the Danube on the Pest side and near the Erzsébet Bridge. It is designed to look like a train station on the inside, perhaps one that is on a line that has been discontinued, even down to the rails placed into the floor of the upstairs section of the restaurant. Downstairs was elegant and the staff were very friendly. Dinner began with a beef consommé, followed by a main course chosen from a few different options (including chicken and Hungarian goulash) then desert consisted of a crepe with rich chocolate sauce. All of this had been pre-paid as part of our tour, with only the wine and drinks an exception.

After dinner we walked across and through the streets and malls to give the boys a taste of the Budapest Christmas Market at night. Unlike many of the other markets that we had visited, Budapest continued right up to Christmas itself and the square was very busy with many of the visitors buying the traditional foods and other ornaments and items for sale. The lights were very beautiful, especially at the Gerbeaud Confectionary building on Vörösmarty Square. Walking down to the Danube was cold but still wonderful with the buildings and monuments on both sides of the river being lit up spectacularly. By the time we reached the Széchenyi Chain Bridge we were all shivering but it was only a short taxi ride back to the Unio Hotel for our final night in Budapest.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 2)

When the alarm went off in the morning, Meg went to wake the boys up and we all packed our bags and tidied ready to head downstairs as soon as breakfast was finished. We had placed a call the evening before for breakfast to arrive at 7am, so when it reached 7:20 and the breakfast had not arrived Wayne was sent downstairs to try and ascertain what had happened. We had needed to be up early and get breakfast out of the way so that we could make the drive from Krakow to Vienna at a reasonable hour. What we hadn’t counted on was that none of us had changed our watches or phones to take into account the two hours difference between Qatar and Poland. You can imagine the surprise on the face of the hotel clerk when Wayne wanted to know why breakfast hadn’t arrived, only 1 ½ hours before it was due. Perhaps the fact that he had awakened her should have given him the clue before he looked at the clock on the hotel wall.

After he went back to the room Wayne decided to try and get another hour or so sleep, while Meg used her laptop to check emails and access Facebook. Once 7am came at least we were all ready to go, so after another breakfast delivered to the room we were able to go straight down and load the bags into the minibus. The early part of the trip was through the streets of Krakow and traffic was a little slow, partly because the streets were icy and partially because of the volume of people on the road. Once out of the city it was due south through the southern part of Malopolska toward the Slovakian border and mostly we moved quite quickly.

One thing that we discovered about travelling through Europe was that you have to pre-pay a road tax in order to travel on the motorways. When we stopped at a small village just north of the border Aron was able to go inside and pay the tax while we took a bit of a stroll and took some photographs. After the cold of the previous few weeks in Europe it was amazing to discover that, even here in the mountains, it was around 5°C. Much of the scenery was spectacularly beautiful with lovely old architecture (we were told that one of the wooden three story styles that we saw was specific to the area and enabled multiple generations of the one family to live together). It was also a market morning in some of the Polish towns and villages, so people had filled the streets which slowed down our journey somewhat.

The southernmost part of Poland is quite mountainous and is the site of some of their best ski resorts. It is also, as Krakow was, intimately connected with the former Pope John Paul II. We drove past the edge of Wadowice where he was born and where his former family home has been turned into a museum. Even from the edge of town it was possible to see the top of the basilica in the market square where he was baptized. Some of the churches along our route were stylized wooden buildings which dated back to as early as the 15th Century and seemed to alternate between Roman Catholic and Orthodox. Even the turnoff to Zakopane was labelled as part of the tour for the Pope because he had come back, we assume in the early days of his papacy, in order to go skiing there. Our favourite sign of all was that for Szczyrzyc which even Aron had some difficulty in pronouncing.

The Tatra Mountains, which form most of the border with Poland and lots of the northern part of Slovakia, had seemed to be largely thawing as we were driving through Poland. When we did glimpse some of the more that 250 skiing routes which are in the area it seemed that there was only snow on the section used for skiers, otherwise things were quite green. As we crossed the border, however, things began to change and the sky became overcast. The temperature gauge which was part of the dashboard on Aron’s vehicle, showed the temperature fall from 4°C, by half a degree at a time, down towards freezing. As we drove, there was more and more snow visible by the side of the road and soon, much to Meg’s excitement, the rain that had been falling turned into sleet and then into snow.

Northern Slovakia is one of the more beautiful parts of the world and the snow, in particular, simply added to that. As well as the high peaks and ski slopes there were some deep valleys with rivers and waterfalls flowing. One of the most amazing sights was the Orava Castle which is next to the river Orava near the village of Oravský Podzámok. It stands on the site of old wooden forts and was constructed after the Tartar invasion in 1241. It consists of several buildings copying the shape of the castle rock which had undergone many reconstructions before it acquired its present form in 1611. Today the Castle has lower, central and upper sections which contain palaces, fortifications and towers. There are also underground tunnels and even a dungeon. While we didn’t get to visit properly, the main road in to Banská Bystrica still provides an amazing view of the castle.

When we lived in England we weren’t far from the headquarters of one of England’s biggest retailers, Tesco. Not really having thought about it, we were stunned as we continued heading south to come across a Tesco’s store. We were due to get some more fuel so we were able to get off the road to reacquaint ourselves with this store (even if most of the writing, advertising etc. was in Slovakian). It turns out that Tesco’s is the second largest retailer in Slovakia with well over 50 stores and plans to open another 15 during 2010. Slipping (literally) past the Christmas tree sale that took up a large section of the car park we were able to spend some good time looking for things which we had been unable to find in Qatar and some more supplies to keep us going through the day.

In contrast to the northern part of Slovakia the southern part is very flat with lots of farming land spread out on either side of the car as we headed down through Nitra toward Bratislava, the capital. It was not surprising that this region had been an area of conflict many times throughout history dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. Invasions of Huns, Franks, Magyars, Mongols, Ottomans, and Hapsburgs devastated sections of the countryside even before the 20th Century. During the last 100 years the identity of the country has changed multiple times and seen control exercised by the Nazis during World War II and the Communists in the Cold War period. It was only in 1993 that Slovakia achieved independence and even more recently that they joined the European Union.

Being winter, by the time we were getting close to Bratislava and the Austrian border the sun was starting to set. As a consequence of this we saw enormous numbers of birds rising from the river valleys near to the Danube and heading toward Bratislava. Aron explained that during winter it was too cold for the birds to nest in the open fields where they spent much of the day and that they would retreat into the cities where there were more opportunities for them to keep warm. It was not long after this that the motorway took us past Bratislava and we got a glimpse of another castle sitting on a hill above the town. The site on which the Bratislava Castle sits has been inhabited since the transition period between the Stone and Bronze ages. At different stages in history is has been the acropolis of a Celtic town, part of the Roman Limes Romanus, a huge Slavic fortified settlement, and a political, military and religious centre for Great Moravia. The first stone building was not constructed until the area became part of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 10th century. Since that time it has undergone a variety of transformations till becoming the royal seat of Queen Maria Theresa. An accidental fire destroyed the castle in 1811 and it then lay in ruins until it was rebuilt. It still looks impressive today although it was currently closed to the public.

Approaching the border with Austria, apart from the misfortune to pass across another border without being able to acquire a stamp in our passports, what really struck us was the enormous number of wind turbines we could see. Perhaps because the Danube Valley has been prone to flood in the past, wind farms have become both a source of income and of energy for landowners in this part of the world. Having two national capitals so close to one another might also be an explanation, for Vienna and Bratislava are two of the closest situated national capitals. This means that, while Bratislava has its own airport, it is also easy to reach by means of the much larger Vienna International Airport, which we passed on the highway into the city.

By the time we reached Vienna it was already dark, which meant that we got to see some of the beautiful Christmas light displays as we made our way up to Schönbrunn Palace. We had always suspected that Vienna would be a beautiful city, having been a centre of the arts for centuries, but seeing it lit up accentuated this impression. The final part of the journey took us up Prinz Eugen Straße past a number of consulates which were interspersed with a variety of restaurants, one of which made much of the fact that Sharon Stone had once eaten there. We were determined to try and take as much of this in as possible because Aron had heard during the day that his children were both sick with chickenpox. In order to give him the opportunity to be the best support to his wife, rather than spend the night in Vienna where we had originally been booked, we had agreed to travel on to Budapest. This had the added benefit for us of completing the majority of travelling on the one day so that we could relax over Christmas.

Schönbrunn Palace sits on a hill overlooking the city and has among its grounds the world’s oldest zoo which was founded in 1752. The Schönbrunner Schlosspark, which surrounds both palace and zoo, was also founded in the 18th century and is like a botanic gardens, however the actual Vienna Botanic Gardens is at Schloß Belvedere. These are just a few of the many beautiful parks and gardens which are scattered throughout the city. There are a number of Christmas markets held in Vienna, but to have the opportunity to visit the one situated in the grounds of Schönbrunn was a special experience and we didn’t even mind having to park down below the gardens and walk the kilometre or so.

As we had experienced in Krakow, much of what was on offer at the markets was Christmas related with tree decorations and other baubles featuring heavily. Each market also strongly featured the traditions of its own country in the food and drinks that were available, as well as in some of the speciality items and souvenirs for sale. Wayne decided to sample some Chocolate Punch (a concoction of hot fruit wine with chocolate which both he and Meg absolutely loved) and was delighted to discover that you got to keep the mug in which it was served. Brock, Quinn and Meg all had giant Viennese Wurst Hot Dogs while Wayne ate a form of schnitzel with some very lovely hot potato, bacon and cheese mixture. We also purchased some beautiful wooden Christmas ornaments and various souvenirs of Vienna and Austria.

After we had finished wandering the markets it was time to catch a tram down the hill into the centre of Vienna itself. It was only a short ride but once again we found public transport in Europe to be fast and efficient. When we alighted we were standing outside the Vienna Staatsoper, where people were standing offering us tickets for standing room in that nights Opera Performance. Wherever we went in Vienna there were people willing to offer us tickets at reduced prices to cultural events which was a nice change from other cities where the street hawkers offer very different sorts of products or services.

We strolled up Kärntner Straße marvelling at the sights, sounds and beautiful lights. While Hollywood has a film walk of fame, the stars in the streets of Vienna had famous classical musicians, including; Richard Strauss, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler and Karl Bohm, to name a few. However, the biggest star was clearly Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whose image decorated everything from t-shirts and store fronts to chocolates and miniature statues. One of the souvenir shops that we wandered into saw us abused by the owner who claimed we were preventing him from closing for the evening. This would have been more believable had Meg and Quinn not seen him watching pornography quietly in a corner when they first entered. His temper was somewhat negated by Wayne making a small purchase before he left but this was the only sour point of our entire time in Vienna.

At the bottom of the Kärntner Straße was St. Stephens Cathedral where a service was being conducted replete with music from the massive organ and a choir with a soprano. Although the words were in German the music itself was familiar from church services in other countries. While the inside was replete with the fretwork, statues and vaulted columns that we have come to expect in Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout Europe, the external frontage looked surprising flat. When we got up close we realised that this was because restoration work is being done there and so a flat wooden screen (painted to look like the facade of the cathedral) was covering much of what we could see. Full credit to the people who created it because, at night, it wasn’t easy to tell until you were up close that this was what we were seeing.

While Aron went to get some dinner, we opted to take a horse drawn carriage tour around the streets of Vienna. This was lots of fun and a fabulous way to see the city and the coldness of the night was countered by the blankets that we were given to cover us. Our driver (in his balaclava and bowler hat) was somewhat gruff and didn’t speak much English, but every time there was a site of particular interest he would turn and shout it out to us. The horses also wore blankets and wonderful woollen hats which covered their ears but from their nostrils came the steam of their snorts as they came to terms with the cold night air.

Our tour included the Christmas markets taking place in the centre of town as well as an outdoor Christmas tree sale where you could walk up and drag home your own pine tree (most of them looked much too big to carry easily). Some of the Christmas lighting was very impressive, with giant bows adorning the front corner of many of the buildings and Swarovski Crystal chandeliers hanging down the middle of the street. The architecture and elaborate statuary which we saw as we travelled the streets was amazing and it was a fascinating contrast to see how many people were out walking in Vienna in contrast to Krakow two nights earlier, although we were travelling through at a similar time of the evening. Passersby waved at us as did the drivers of other carriages that we saw travelling the reverse route of the tour. All too soon the tour was over, but it was a very special experience that we will remember for a long time.

When we had alighted from the carriage we found Aron and made the short walk back up the mall once more to the Statsoper. This time we had to get across to the other side of the road in order to catch the tram and we were able to achieve this by using the underground walkway. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this was going down the stairs and finding a public toilet. This was not just any old public toilet however, the sign outside informed us that it was an Opera Toilet mit Musik. While you visit the bathroom you can listen to the sounds of opera being piped through the cubicles. We might, perhaps, have been more tempted to experience this if there wasn’t a charge to do so. Instead we went back up to the trams and soon found ourselves back in Aron’s van (although not until we had made one quick final stop at the Schönbrunn Market so that Aron could purchase a mug of punch to take back to his wife, which he transferred into a flask before we set off).It took a little while to get out of Vienna itself but once we were it was a relatively short time till we were passing the airport and then only another half an hour or so till we had reached the Hungarian border. This was the fourth country we had been in during that day which, even at the rate that we often travel, was quite impressive. Once inside the border we made another stop at a service station to purchase the next Motorway pass and then we were back following the general line of the Danube down toward Budapest. This was Aron’s home town and it was obvious that it was the place that he knew the best. However, despite the local knowledge, roadwork that was taking place on the main road into town and a bridge closure meant that we got to experience some very bumpy parts of the streets of the Hungarian capital. Doing some loops around a couple of one way streets brought us to the Hotel Unio where we would be staying for the next few nights, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Night.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 1)

When we first moved to Qatar one of the pieces of official business that we had to undertake was to hand in our passports so that the visas could be affixed inside. Consequently, for the first few months of our time here we were not able to leave the country. This meant that we got to explore some of Qatar and to know more about our new home town. However, what it did not do was satisfy the itch to visit even more places. We had intended to take a driving holiday at the beginning of December but for a variety of reasons this did not work out. Consequently, as Christmas approached we knew that we wanted to fly somewhere and so we asked Brock and Quinn if they had anywhere that they particularly wanted to go. In the end, the only requirement was that it be somewhere where there was snow.

In order to arrive at a time that allowed us to see all that we wanted we needed to catch a 3pm flight from the airport at Doha. Fortunately Qatar Academy was having a half-day for the final day before the Winter Break so Wayne, Brock and Quinn were able to finish at 11:40 and head home. The traffic on the drive back in to the city was terrible but Meg had all the bags down and in the taxi so all that was required was the boys getting changed and we were off to the airport. Once again we had not told the boys where we were going and at the airport it was only Munich, where would change planes, which would give our destination away.


Doha Airport is only relatively small but busy. However, as we discovered when we first arrived, they have a service called 'Maha' where you are met by a representative who will take you through everything making sure that you have someone to translate in case there are any issues with different languages. They also wait in line for you when you are coming back in to the country and make sure everything to do with passports, visas and luggage is looked after while you rest in a lounge. We hadn't tried using it on the way out, so we decided to give it a go this time. In the end everything seemed fairly easy and we didn't feel like we actually saved anything in relation to time or queues so we will probably not use it again but it was worth it as an experiment.


Although our flights had been booked through Lufthansa the first flight itself was on a Qatar Airways plane, which gave us the opportunity to fly using our new 'home' airline. We had heard differing reports from people but we had an excellent experience. All the staff were courteous and helpful, the plane seats were roomy, and (much to our surprise) they served alcohol. As we were seated prior to take off we realized that two of the P.E. staff (who are married) were there with their two girls (both of whom Meg had taught during her relief appearances in the Primary School). They were off to Austria skiing for the holidays and would be picking up a car in Munich to drive the short distance to the ski fields. Although the boys complained that they couldn't go anywhere without running into a teacher from school it made the flight seem even friendlier.


Perhaps the thing that astonished us the most about the flight was the route that we took to Munich. We travelled north over Bahrain, and Kuwait, which was only to be expected. Then it was off over Iraq, and (much to our amazement) flying directly over Baghdad and Mosul. From there we trekked across Northern Turkey and the Black Sea before crossing the north eastern corner of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria, before reaching Germany. In all it took around 5 ? hours and we touched down at "Franz Josef Strauss" International Airport to the sight of snow covering the sides of the runways and blanketing cars in the car park.


Disembarking at Gate G18 we had to walk off the plane, up the ramp, up a number of flights of stairs to the top level of Terminal 2. We then had to walk along through the Arrivals lounge to the area where connecting flights were arranged. This took us back in the direction we had come but down to the next level of the Terminal, along to Customs where we produced our passports, and down another flight of stairs. After a walk to the gate from which our allocated flight was to be leaving, we found ourselves at Gate G17, which exited down the same ramp as we had ascended when we had left our Qatar Airways flight. Approximately 20 minutes walking to find ourselves almost exactly where we had begun.


Otherwise Munich is a fabulous airport at which to have a layover. There were a variety of free newspapers (both German and in other languages) and free coffee, tea or hot chocolate available. If you are a smoker then various cigarette companies have sponsored special smokers' rooms with lovely glass windows, so the smokers can bask in their own carcinogens and everyone else can observe them as they walk past. There is a wealth of shops of various types in case you have the shopping itch and wireless internet is free throughout the Terminal. All in all it didn't seem very long before we were called for boarding and a small group of us boarded the bus to be taken out to the much smaller plane we would be taking to our destination.


Brock has made it pretty clear that he is rather hesitant about boarding any airplane that seats fewer than 100 people. Consequently, when he laid eyes on the plane he wasn't overly enthused. 'Still, at least it is a jet and doesn't have propellers'. This flight was conducted by one of Lufthansa's subsidiary airlines and was perfectly satisfactory. There was only really enough time for us to take off, be served some drinks and then come back down after the 45 minutes to Krakow. None of us had ever been to Poland before and our first experience touching down at the John Paul II Airport was an extremely positive one. As we came through Customs and out into the Arrivals lounge we were met by a taxi driver who held up a sign to indicate he would be taking us to the Hotel Aspel. As we went out to the car park we discovered a fairy land. There was snow everywhere (courtesy of the cold snap that had covered Europe for most of the preceding 2 weeks) and it hung on the branches of the pine trees like something out of a Christmas Card. The lights decorating the terminal added to the effect.


The drive through the snow covered landscape from the airport into the centre of Krakow was magical. Old fashioned European houses with snow covered roofs, beautiful old churches likewise, many places covered with fairy lighting and then finally a town which was lit up like a Christmas tree as well. Although we had been travelling for a considerable time it was still only 9pm as we headed for the hotel, yet there were very few people on the streets, perhaps because it was so cold. While we thought that the -12°C was quite nippy, the driver told us that only two nights earlier it had been a significantly frostier -24°C.


The tour guide that we were to be meeting the following morning had organized everything for our arrival, however there were a couple of mix ups over paying for the taxi (the hotel was meant to pay and invoice our guide, instead we ended up paying and having it deducted from our costs) and the rooms (Meg and Wayne's room was originally a twin, however they soon moved into a double) but these were soon sorted. With everything organized, including breakfast which would be brought to our rooms the following morning, and a winter wonderland awaiting us outside, it was only left to fall into bed and get some well earned sleep before our holiday properly began.


Perhaps because we were working on body clocks which were still a few hours ahead, on Doha time, we woke early and were able to enjoy the breakfast which had been delivered on a large trolley. From cereal and toast to bread rolls, a variety of sliced meats, juice, coffee, milk and fruit; there was an extensive range of food to choose from. Getting dressed in as much warm clothing as we had been able to muster (given that we are now living in a desert country) we headed down to the foyer to meet Aron our tour guide. Aron was not only taking us on our Eastern European Christmas Market tour but was also the boss of the agency through which we had organized it. While he is Hungarian he had spent considerable time in Poland, Slovakia and Austria conducting these tours, so he knew the surroundings very well. Much to our amazement we discovered that his wife was Australian and that he had spent quite a bit of time there. Most impressive was that he had driven up from Budapest only that morning, having left his wife and two young children asleep at home at 2am.


Outside the hotel was a tram stop which we would make use of to catch the tram into the centre of Krakow itself. Aron had a supply of Polish Zloty, although there was nowhere to buy a ticket. Not to worry, this could be sorted out once we were actually in the city. The trams were quick, clean and efficient and we were soon leaving the combined train/tram station and walking through the connected shopping mall out into one of Krakow's large squares. Here we were beset by tour guides wanting to show us all of the sights of Krakow, as well as the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines and Auschwitz-Birkenau. One, in particular, was quite determined to take us somewhere for a sum of money but we had Aron to answer his entreaties and we were soon walking through the streets on our way into the centre of Old Town Krakow where the Christmas Market was being held.


Krakow used to be the capital city of Poland (from 1038 to 1596) and has a long and substantial history. It was named after Krak, who was a legendary prince of the Vistulanians (for whom the river, the Vistula, which passes through Krakow, was named). Like so many of the older cities of Europe it used to be much smaller and walled to protect it from invaders. There are still a number of substantial remnants of the walls and we were able to pass through and see these as we walked. The streets were cobbled and several of the signs on the buildings made it clear that they had stood in this position for hundreds of years, which wasn't entirely surprising when you consider that the city of Krakow dates back to the 7th century. There is also evidence of a Stone Age settlement on Wawel Hill. Because of the snow and ice it was somewhat difficult walking, however there was very little in the way of motorized traffic on the streets which made things easier.


Sadly, the beautiful Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) at the centre of the Old Town Square was undergoing renovations which made it difficult to see fully. However, our first Christmas Market was still an exciting experience. The square was filled with small wooden buildings of various shapes, including some in the shape of barrels which were dispensing hot, mulled wine. There were all sorts of things for sale including; traditional Polish craft; Christmas decorations of a multitude of varieties and colors; Polish foodstuffs, especially a large selection of sausages; prints and postcards representing Poland and Krakow in particular; an extraordinary number of types of sweets, and many souvenirs linked to Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, who had been Archbishop of Krakow before being called to the Papacy. We had a lovely time browsing, taking photographs, and sampling some of the local delicacies.


Having toured the markets, Aron led us out of the Old Square and down through the park which runs alongside the Vistula. Having been away from England for so long it was wonderful to see so much snow on the ground once more. As we wandered along, admiring the surroundings and listening to the commentary that Aron provided, Brock and Quinn decided to indulge in a little snow ball fighting. Fortunately, neither of them is particularly accurate so when they turned their attention to the adults it was only Aron who received a blow (which you can be quite certain was not aimed at him). In the end, in order to get one another, they resorted to running up and pushing snow into their persons. By the time all of this had taken place we found ourselves near the base of Wawel Hill.


As well as being the oldest known settlement in Krakow, it is a legend that Wawel Hill was the home of a cave inhabited by the dragon Smok Wawelski. As it towers above the surrounding countryside it is the site of both Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral and has been both the residence and burial site of Polish kings. This made for quite a steep walk up the side of the hill, somewhat treacherous because of the snow and ice, but the views when one reached the top were tremendous. Interestingly, much of the building, including the Cathedral, looks rather piecemeal because each new conqueror of the area brought their own additions. This included Nazi Germany who, after the invasion of Poland, in September 1939, established the General Government (led by Hans Frank) in Wawel Castle. This diverse approach still manages to look spectacular.


Unsurprisingly, one of the first things we were confronted with when we reached the top of the hill was a statue dedicated to Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 was both the first Slavic Pope and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years to have been elected to head the Roman Catholic Church. The church is a huge presence in Krakow, with over 120 Roman Catholic places of worship alone, about half of those being built during the 20th Century. Perhaps because it was the seat of government for the Nazi regime, very few of these buildings were damaged during World War II. Even the Communist rule which followed did not seem too inclined to do damage to the historical architecture and consequently, Wawel Castle and Cathedral is a very impressive spot. Even the drain pipes are beautifully decorated as gargoyles.


It is beautiful to look from the top of Wawel Hill down to the river. This was especially true on the day we were there as there was so much ice. From the walls of the castle we could also see into the region of Krakow known as Kazimierz. This was an influential centre of Jewish culture leading up to World War II when the Jewish population of Krakow was moved into a walled zone known as the Krakow Ghetto, from which they were sent to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Plaszow. The movie director, Roman Polanski is a survivor of that ghetto, while the Oskar Schindler of Schindler's Ark and Schindler's List fame recruited the workers for his factory from there. From a population of around 70 000 prior to the war, the post holocaust Jewish population of the city was around 5 900 and by 1978 the number was down to 600. While most of the many synagogues were destroyed, the Old Synagogue (the oldest in Poland, built in the 15th century) managed to survive although all its artwork and relics were looted.


On our way back down the hill we saw evidence of one of the other areas for which Krakow is renowned; education. There we saw the Arcybiskupie Seminarium Duchowne which prepares Polish men for the Catholic Priesthood. It is one of more than 10 tertiary institutions in Krakow of which the Jagiellonian University is both the oldest and best known. It was originally founded in 1364, making it one of the oldest universities in Europe and some of the buildings associated with it date back to that time. Aron informed us that Krakow is a place where many people come to do university exchanges, to continue pursuing their degree while doing some study in a foreign land. We can completely understand why you might want to do that here. It is a very beautiful part of the world.


We walked back into the Old Town Square (although we would have loved to take one of the horse drawn carriages that were traversing the streets, something for later on in this trip), stopping to admire the St. Mary's Basilica. It is amazing to think that this building had stood on this site for over 700 years since it was constructed, surviving all sorts of conflicts and other catastrophes. It is the model for many other churches built by Polish people throughout the world and is the original of what is known as the 'Polish Cathedral Style'. It was made even more familiar to English speaking people by a book, originally published in 1929, and called The Trumpeter of Krakow. This book tells the story of a famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. As a consequence, every hour, a trumpet signal - called the heynal (hejnal) - is played from the top of the taller of St. Mary's two towers. It breaks off in mid-stream in memorial to the original. Midday's hejnal is broadcast by the Polish national Radio 1 Station and this is able to be heard throughout the country and around the world.


With a couple of stops for refreshment and to look in some of the local shops we headed back to the tram station to catch a tram back to the hotel. Aron had indicated that we would be able to still fit a visit to Auschwitz into our schedule before the end of the day, so we quickly changed into some warmer clothing and headed down to his van. We would become very familiar with this van over the next couple of days as it would be transporting us from Krakow to Vienna and then on to Budapest. This was our first encounter with it, as we made the 50 kilometre journey (it took a little over an hour because of traffic, ice and a couple of missed turns) to Oswiecim.


We had seen the entrance to Auschwitz in movies, such as Schindler's List and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but to be visiting the actual place as sunset approached and the whole area was covered with snow is something we will never forget. It is all still there, much as it was 64 years ago; the long wire fences extending toward the horizon on either side, row after row of old wooden buildings that had once provided a resting place for the 1.5 million people who had died here, the guard towers rising ominously toward the sky, even the railway lines on which so many of those people had entered the camp on their final journey. It was a sobering experience, particularly once you went inside one of the latrine huts and saw some of the conditions under which they were kept. The dormitories, even now, look cramped and we were glad that it was so late that we would not have time to visit the gas chambers and furnaces in which the bodies were first killed and then burned. Only a week or so earlier someone had stolen the sign that hung over the entrance to the facility but, thankfully, it had been returned. Our hope is that retaining this site will mean that future generations will remember what took place and such things will never happen again.


Our trip back to Krakow, with a detour to buy some fuel for the mini-van and some food and drink for us, was one filled with a mixture of excitement and seriousness. We were back in Europe and visiting some fabulous cities as we prepared for Christmas, but some of the other places we were going to see were going to be more downbeat in the manner of where we had just been. Our route lay along the River Vistula which we had seen earlier in the day covered in ice. While closer to Krakow this ice had been broken into pieces, further down river it was completely iced over. By now most of the traffic was either off the road or moving in the other direction so our trip back was faster than the trip down had been. When he reached the Hotel Aspel we headed off in different directions; Aron to stay with a friend of his who lived nearby, the boys to their hotel room, and Meg and Wayne to the supermarket next door to get some supplies for the drive on the following day.