Thursday, 19 March 2009

Italia - Part I: Rome

I have a confession to make: I am supposed to be packing, but it all seems so final, putting everything into our bags and making plans for New Zealand, so I've decided to procrastinate by reliving our month in Italy... surely this is a much better use of my time.

A long time before I met Kent and realised just how great it is to see the world, I decided that I wasn't really interested in travelling, with the exception of Italy. It's the only place in the world that I have always desperately wanted to see, so it's perhaps a bit strange that we left it until the very end of our travels to go there. The danger of course, in really, really, really wanting to go somewhere, is that it will turn out to be rubbish and the disappointment will be a bit much to take. Kent did warn me of this, but he needn't have bothered - after years of thinking this might be my favourite place, I was proved right... YAY!

As this was our last trip and neither of us has been gainfully employed since before Christmas, our aim was to have the best possible time for the least possible money; not such an easy task when the Euro is almost worth the same as the Pound now and Italy is a fairly expensive country to start with. This is where Kent came up with a cunning plan: WWOOF-ing. This is a global scheme which allows you to work on an organic farm in return for food and board. It's an excellent way to experience the side of a country and its culture that you just couldn't as an ordinary tourist. Our friends we visited in Norway, Pete & Ginny, are wwoofing there, and have been for almost a year, so we had a bit of an idea of how things might work. Being organised as we are, our cunning plan was only formulated as we were heading home from France, but even so, we managed to find a couple of farms willing to take us on short notice.
Before all that we had a few days in Rome, to relax before starting the first real work either of us has done in quite some time - good practise for Kent for the farm though!
The ridiculousness of Rome is that you basically can't go anywhere without virtually tripping over history - triumphal arches, churches, monuments, obelisks, ruined buildings, you name it, it's everywhere, and just there for the world to see - things like this still amaze me, probably because NZ is so new in comparison. All this history is not exactly surprising, considering it used to be the centre of the western world; I get the feeling you could spend a month here and still only really scratch the surface... and we only had 2 days!
Our hotel was a hop, skip and a jump from the Colosseum, so we headed that way first, only to be met by a large number of people with the same idea - and it wasn't even tourist season yet, gulp! It was incredible, and just insane to think that it was built a couple of thousand years ago and lots of it is still standing. Whilst my parents are very thorough, I doubt any of the houses they've built in the last 20 years will still be around that far into the future.
Our tour included a visit to Palatine Hill, where Rome was founded by Romulus in 753BC (on my birthday, no less) and the Roman Forum (which takes ruins to ridiculous heights), so we whiled away the day taking it all in, and enjoying the sun... such a nice change from all the dodgy weather we've had on our travels this year.
The next day we strapped on our walking shoes - jandals, in my case - and hit the big touristy spots: the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, St Peters Square, and Circo Massimo. Brilliantly, the city really isn't that big, and it's pretty easy to walk to most of the sights, so it was good for those of us keeping an eye on the budget.

We were a bit knackered after this, and I was a bit nervous about our first farm - sitting about playing with music all day is one thing, but I hadn't partaken in manual labour for a very long time, so I experienced a bit of 'what have I got myself into?' anxiety... it was a bit of an early night, before our adventures continued...
Eryn xx

Sunday, 15 March 2009


After the ferry docked in Newhaven (near Brighton) at 9pm, we hurried off and headed for Salisbury, where we were staying overnight before our VIP visit to Stonehenge...
We managed to wangle an out-of-hours access visit, which basically means you can walk in and around the stones, rather than being confined to the path which goes arounJustify Fulld the outside, about 10-30m away. The only downside was that we had to be there at 6.45am, although when you consider that it's about the same time as the sun is getting up, it's not such a bad time at all!
There was only the two of us and one other couple there, which was great, as during open hours it is chocca, even in winter.
There's not a lot you can say about these stones really, except that they are huge, and must have taken a very long time to get there. It is pretty impressive:

The rest of the day involved getting back to Sheffield to get the car all cleaned and ready to sell, with a minor hiccup when Kent accidentally unlocked the boot, put the key back in his jacket, his jacket back in the car and shut the boot. OOPS. Luckily we have insurance for this sort of silliness, so after a wee wait in the chilly wind, a recovery man came and broke in for us. Cold comfort came from the fact that the workmen, security guys and staff at Stonehenge all attempted to help us break in, all to no avail.
No joy with selling the car either, but hopefully someone will want our wee gem (thank goodness that someone is unlikely to have read anything on this blog and will be blissfully unaware of what a pain in the arse it has been).
We're off for a month in Italy on Tuesday, it's our last trip before we head back to NZ, and we're doing things a bit differently this time, so we're both really looking forward to it.
Talk soon,
Eryn x

Saturday, 14 March 2009

France - Part Two: Normandy

A text from Rod confirmed what we already thought might be the case... rain was on its merry way to Normandy. I'll let you fill in what was said after we learnt of the forecast.
Kent was still determined to get over to Normandy though, so we loaded up the car on Saturday morning and drove for almost 11 hours, making it most of the way there, passing through Le Mans (some of the main road is on the race circuit, so we got to drive on a bit of it), the Champagne region, and the Loire Valley, including passing through the town of Chablis. I thought it might be bigger, having a wine variety named after it and all, but no. It was about the size of Dunsandel, and half as interesting.
Kent had mentioned the idea of 'free camping' from the start of the trip - a few words from Patrick put us off doing it in Germany (the words 'illegal', 'moved on' and 'big fine' were used), the snow was a bit of a problem in Austria, and in the northern parts of our trip it was just too cold for wusses like me to be roughing it. This night, however, there were no excuses, as we were not really anywhere near any decent hostels or open camping grounds, so free camping it was... We found a small town (I wanted to be in a built up area so that baddies would be less likely to murder us) with a parking area by a water tower and pitched the tent. I ended up sleeping in the car (condensation-tastic!) while Kent had both mattresses in the tent as he doesn't fit in the car horizontally. Safe to say it wasn't the best night's sleep I've ever had, but it was free, and did mean we were up mighty early in the morning.
We drove to Caen first thing, and had a brief walk around, although not much of an idea what was what as the information office was closed (helpful). We did go to Chateau Dulac, which was, almost a thousand years ago, allegedly home of William the Conqueror, although as most of Caen was bombed during 1944, there wasn't very much left, and what was there didn't appear as old as the guide books have you believe. There was a great Normandy museum inside the castle walls though, so it wasn't a completely wasted trip.
We had already found a camping ground near Bayeux, one which said it was open all year, but we'd heard that before, so were a bit nervous about it, but fortunately, it was where it said it would be and it was open - hooray!
The inital plan was to visit this part of the country to see the Bayeux Tapestry (almost 1000 years old now, and in pretty good nick). I hadn't really clicked that it was in Normandy, where the D-Day landings happened, which added a crazy number of things to see and do to the list, but we had five days before we had to catch the ferry home, so it was definitely do-able.
Our first WWII stop was a series of German bunkers, complete with guns, some in various states of disrepair after being whooped by the Allies. There used to be a huge line of bunkers right along the coast of France (the Atlantic Wall), which the Nazis thought was pretty much indestructible. It wasn't, and the results are littered along the cliffs. It is surreal that there are plenty of reminders of the D-Day campaign, and that we could just wander all over this place where so many young men (on both sides) died. You can read all you like about history and be taught about it at school, but I don't think you really understand until you see some of the destruction which remains (and even then it's still far from real to me). Sorry to be a bit morose, but as always, I was fairly humbled by all the monuments and museums, and had a bit of a lump in my throat through a lot of them, particularly the cemetaries. We went to Arromanches (code named Gold beach) site of an artificial port from D-Day, and the American Cemetary, which overlooks Omaha Beach.

The next day was forecast to be raining heavily, so we opted for inside amusement (and something a little lighter) but thought it was about time we had the funny noise our car had been making most of the way through Europe sorted out first. This would have been fine, had either of us spoken fluent French, and whilst I can communicate a few basics, explaining what was wrong with our car, considering we weren't even sure, was a bit beyond my capabilites. So we found ourselves at the Bayeux Information Centre, where the very nice lady pointed out that she couldn't be sure if any of the mechanics she knew spoke English, as she always spoke French with them (touche!), but she kindly wrote down a translation of what we thought the problem was and pointed us in the direction of the Renault garage. We were pretty worried that they would see us coming and start rubbing their hands together in glee, but actually, the exact opposite happened - the young mechanic (no english) took Kent for a drive, couldn't figure it out, so took it into the workshop, had a bit of a look and figured out that it was a loose something, sorted it all out, told his boss (good english) who told Kent what the problem had been, and when we asked how much it would be for the time, he said it was free... yet again: why does everyone think the French are so awful? They are clearly lovely, and I can't imagine getting that kind of service for nothing on this side of the channel!
The rest of the day was spent looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, which was fantastic, and yet again, it was just right there, with hardly any people around; the Journalist Memorial, which commemorates reporters who lost their lives in combat zones since 1945; the British Cemetary (which includes 8 New Zealanders) and the Bayeax D-Day museum, which was very well done, but was a lot to take in.
Kent had found a brochure for a cheese village about an hour's drive away, so we went there in the morning, it smelled a bit inside the factory, as cheese often does, but the tour was pretty good, and it was free, our favourite price. To make up for it, we bought a couple of cheeses to take back to Rod & Lou... despite sealing them in airtight containers inside a plastic bag, they continued to remind us of their presence for the next 2 1/2 days until we got them to the fridge in Sheffield - mmm, pongy!
The Chateau a Guillame le Conqureant (William the Conqureor's Castle - apparently this was his main one) wasn't too far away, but unfortunately was a bit disappointing. We'd already seen some footage from the Normandy campaign in WWII which showed some of the castle at Falaise getting hit by bombs, so knew it wouldn't be in the best condition, but instead it has been reconstructed, and in parts is just ugly and awful... such a shame, but it is probably a big money spinner for the town, so you can't really blame whoever's in charge for having a go.
We attempted a look at some Roman ruins the next day, but after driving for over an hour to get there, and parking, we walked into the visitor centre to find all the displays covered in sheets, and the whole thing being redecorated...aaargh! Technically it was open, but the receptionist didn't speak English, and only managed to nod when I said 'ferme?' (closed). Surely it wouldn't have killed them to put a sign up in the carpark???! Instead we went back to the seaside to look at Le Grande Bunker in Ouistreham, a 4-5 storey concrete tower, from (you guessed it) WWII, built to back up the Atlantic Wall defenses. It was taken almost completely undamaged by 4 British troops in July 1944, even though there were over 3o Germans inside at the time. Outside, there was one of the landing craft they used on D-Day which was reused during the filming of Saving Private Ryan - it's the one Tom Hanks et al were in right at the start, so we had a bit of a nosey at that too. The town also still had some 'dragon's teeth' in the sand dunes, which were kind of cool to see, although the spiky sharp nasty bits had been removed earlier, so the coolness was diminished somewhat.
And then it was Friday, our last day, so we took the coastal route from Le Moulay Littry, where we'd been staying, to Dieppe, where our ferry left from... we passed through some of the most gorgeous little towns either of us has seen, with beautiful old houses and long sandy beaches (and the odd yummy patisserie!), slightly gutted that we only discovered them on the way home, but at least we saw them.
K & E x

Sunday, 8 March 2009

France - Part One: Alsace-Lorraine

More crap weather.
We spent the morning organising the rest of our trip and thought we better make good use of the rest of the day, so went to the Memorial L’Alsace e Moselle, a tribute to the people of Alsace-Lorraine & Moselle, an area which has changed countries quite a few times in the last couple of hundred years, as it’s right on France’s border with Germany, and we all know how much heed they used to pay to whose country was whose.
It is an incredible museum (although for 10E each, it would want to be), so well done and we both loved it, so much so that we fast ran out of time to look for somewhere to stay that night, making it to the information centre with minutes to spare, but then deciding that actually, it would be worth driving the two hours up the road to the castle we’d stayed in last time we were in France. I called the woman there, and it was all sorted, until we got on the road, and all of a sudden the raindrops took on a rather snowy look… as did the roads, but we kept going, passing cars with snow chains on (uh-oh) until we rounded a bend on a mountain road to find a couple of lorries in trouble in the snow. Even the snow plough wasn’t enough to convince us that pushing on through was a good idea, so I called the castle lady back, cancelled and we headed back where we came from.
We met a couple of Brits in the hostel that night, who were in this part of the country to do some skiing – when we said we hadn’t realised there was a ski field near, one of them wondered aloud why anyone would go there in winter if they weren’t skiing… good question! They did say that the weather on the coast as they had driven from Calais was lovely though, so this perked us up a bit, and Kent decided that we’d attempt to drive most of the way to Normandy the next day in the hope that we might find the sunshine... fingers crossed!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Hills Are Alive

We had our first day apart in ages here, as my primary purpose for making Kent drive all the way here (I don't have an international permit) was to see the sights from The Sound of Music… he reluctantly agreed to come, but refused to go on the tour with me, something about it being a girls’ film. Fair enough, as it left him with time to wander up to the Fortress that overlooks the city, and to be honest, much as castles are great, I can have too much of a good thing.
The other four people on the tour were horrified that I was unaccompanied, but the driver was very spirited and had us all chatting in no time. Am disgusted with myself for admitting it, but I did nearly cry when I saw some of the sights (yes, am well aware of how pathetic this is). In my defense, it is one of my favourite films, and as a fairly latecomer to travelling, it hadn’t ever really occurred to me that I would ever be anywhere near the gazebo where Ralph and Leisl sang ‘You Are 16, Going On 17”… Ahhh. The tour was fabulous, going past the lake where the children and Maria fell in, the tree lined lane where they hung as Captain Von Trapp drove past, the house they used as the façade for the house, etc etc etc. We finished up in the lakes district, well out of the city in Mondsee, home of the church that Maria and the Captain get married in. After that, our tour group convened in a café eating apple strudel…mmmm!
Don’t think Kent’s exploits were as great as mine. He disagrees.

We met up in the afternoon and wandered around the old city, took in Mozart’s birthplace and some other stunning buildings (there are just so many of them and they’re everywhere, but somehow we stay interested) then walked back up the hill (366 steps) past the Fortress he went to in the morning for a lookout over the city – again beautiful, if only we’d had fine weather!
Our trip to the guesthouse was almost as eventful as the previous evening, as we opted to take the bus, which went near (or what we thought was near) to our street, and then walk the rest of the way. ‘Near’ was probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the exercise on the hike home was probably good for us.
We left the next morning in quite thick fog (notice a common theme here?) and figured that the scenic route we’d chosen to Lake Constance in Germany, via Innsbruck, would be anything but… but we were wrong. Pretty much as soon as we cleared Salzburg, the fog lifted, the sun blazed and we were treated to a breathtaking drive through the Austrian Alps! We lost count of the number of ski fields we drove past, many of them with lifts starting from the road – that is my kind of skiing… no perilous mountain roads to navigate before you get there either. The only downside to the drive was the unannounced toll at the top of an alpine pass (which neither our 2009 driving atlas nor the TomTom picked up…grrr). You might think this sounds a bit cheap of us, but there are tolls right throughout Europe and some of them are pretty steep, so we had been doing our best to avoid them… it ended up being one of two that we paid for the whole trip, so it’s not so bad.
The sun was still shining when we got to Innsbruck, but there was still quite a way to go before we got to our accommodation, so after a quick drive up the hill to see the ski jump that they used at the Winter Olympics in 70something, and a look at the cemetery, which was the first thing the skiers saw once they left terra firma on said jump, we took off again, bound for another location I had begged to add to our itinerary… Neuschwanstein Castle, back over the border into Germany. It’s the one Walt Disney based the logo on and all the guidebooks point to it being very picturesque… although it wasn’t ever finished, so we didn’t bother with the interior tour. Instead, we aimed the car up the hill and drove past all the suckers who opted to walk. The fact there were no other cars up there (and the filthy looks from walkers) would suggest perhaps we should have joined the masses, but there were no signs saying ‘KENT AND ERYN: LEAVE YOUR CAR AND WALK UP, YOU LAZY BASTARDS’, at least none in English, so we did it anyway, and no one said a word. Rebels, huh?
It was pushing dark now, so we roared towards our ‘open all year’ camping ground on Lake Constance, only to find it closed. So it was more a case of ‘open all year, except for when we’re not… which is now.’ It was a very small town, with not a lot of options, and our guidebook was all out of solutions, as so much of this part of the world closes down for the off-season. Luckily, Kent had thought to come up with Plan B, a hostel in a town about 20K away, so we programmed the satnav for Fredrichschafen and found it… only to discover it was the world’s most expensive hostel, but beggars can’t be choosers, so there we stayed. Despite it’s pricy-ness, it didn’t have a kitchen for guests to use, which meant we ended up cooking on our camping stove at 9pm in the freezing – oh the tales we have to share with our children!
Something you might not know about Fredrickschafen (go on, admit it, you’d never heard of it till now) is it’s where all the Zeppelins were made (the balloon-y kind, as opposed to Led-variety). It’s on the border with Switzerland too, so the Allies were a bit hesitant about bombing it. There’s a pretty good museum, with English translations, all about them… including some actual bits from the Hindenberg, which was well cool.
We indulged in our second bit of misbehaviour that afternoon, deciding that the Rhinefalls would be a good place to visit (I suspect the main reason Kent wanted to go was that he’s been there before and he loves to remind me how much more travelling he’s done than me…). The only bad thing about this is that it’s in Switzerland, which in itself isn’t a problem, but you need a special sticker to drive in the neutral land, but we refused to get one as you have to pay for a whole year and we were only planning on it being about 40 minutes. The Germans at the toll point said they thought it would be ok – at least that’s what we think they said, them not speaking English and us not speaking German. Thankfully, we managed to break into and back out of the country without being pulled over by one of their scary military conscripts at Swiss Army knife point.
We crossed another border (it’s still a novelty to get into another country without leaving the comfort of our car) and stayed that night in Colmar, France.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Bruges to Dierdorf to Salzburg

We escaped the hostel early the next morning, much to the delight of the people staying in our dorm (that'll teach them for snoring through most of the night!) and got on the road. Despite all these countries being next to each other on the continent, some of them, especially Germany and France, are massive and take some time to drive through. We stopped in Tournai, (still in Belgium) which used to be the capital of Gaul. I think Kent was hoping there would be some kind of memorial to Asterix there, and he was a bit disappointed when not only was there nothing about him there (I have suggested this is due to his being a fictional comic book character, but Kent was having none of it), but nothing much was open, as this part of Europe pretty much shuts up shop from 12 -2pm. Bugger.
Over the border into Germany, our next stop was Dierdorf, about halfway between Köln and Frankfurt, to stay with Patrick, an exchange student I went to school with, and Denise, his girlfriend. They’re both fairly outdoorsy, so it wasn’t a big surprise to us that they’d lined up a walk in the Rhine Valley for the next day… although the distance was a bit of a shock to my legs – 22km. Fortunately, most of the way the weather was lovely, warm enough for just a tshirt, and enough sun to give us a bit of a pink tinge. The scenery was just amazing, as we were on the top of the valley for a lot of the walk, and passed a number of beautiful castles, so Kent was in his element.

Patrick’s aunt wasn’t very well the next day, so they went to visit her the next morning, leaving us with some recommendations: the Westerwald Open Air Museum, which was all in German, but gave us a good idea of some of the local history; Schloss Stolzenfels, a very pretty castle on the banks of the Rhine; and Deutsches Eck (German Corner) in Koblenz, where the Rhine and Mosel rivers meet… all of which we enjoyed, even without our escorts.
Denise saw us off the next morning as Patrick had left for Berlin for work, and we hit the road, in yet more rain, towards Austria, calling past Eichstatt, a gorgeous old medieval town, which we would have spent more time in, had it not been raining and mostly closed for winter! We also went in search of one of ‘Mad’ King Ludwig’s castles, near Prien, but failed miserably as it’s on an island in a lake and we couldn’t see it for the fog!
By the time we arrived in Salzburg, we were both a bit frayed by the constant weather, so it was really helpful that there are two streets named Bergstrasse in the area, and we chose the one right in the middle of town to look for our accommodation – of course, it was actually the one on the outskirts… but we got there in the end! It was a room in a woman’s house – she was lovely, very welcoming, and the house was toasty warm, although slightly creepy as most of the downstairs walls were covered in antlers from deer, thar and chamois...hmmm.
Adventures to be continued...
K & E x