Sunday, December 21, 2008

European Vacation

Singapore was the first stop. We had about 6 hours there. This gave us an opportunity to get out and see the city. Catching the train was quick, cheap and easy. We hit 6 pm foot traffic, ducking and weaving our way past an electronics shopping mall and state buildings, over to Chinatown. It was 27 degrees, and very humid, so a cool drink and some food was a welcome milestone. Chili crab, Singapore noodles, chicken satays and some greens with a couple of local beers hit the spot. Singapore is a big city, clean and friendly. Everything works, runs on time and most coveniences are free, such as maps, shuttle buses and internet terminals. At the same time, the city feels a bit contrived and manufactured, lacking character and substance. Most things seemed sustained by the system, giving the city an empty feel. Nevertheless, a nice city to visit and to witness a fusion Asian,Malay and Indian cultures.
From Singapore we got on a 12 hour flight to Frankfurt. Because we walked around Singapore until exhaustion, we were able to catch some sleep on the plane. We arrived in Frankfurt and had to walk for what seemed like kilometers inside the massive airport to get to our connecting flight to Amsterdam. After a short flight and a seamlessly connecting train to Central, we arrived at the Frisco Inn, around the corner from the central train station. The Frisco Inn is a great little hotel in the center of all the action of the red light district, featuring Amsterdam's steepest stairway. The debauchery of the city's nightlife was astounding. Waves of chavs roaming the streets in a who-knows-what state, followed by groups of howler monkeys, lizards and chickens. Coffee shops serving up intoxicants could be identified by a green and white sticker, or more generally a smell spilling out of the front door. Dodgey characters trying to sell even more dodgey substances on most street corners. On the upside, local fresh food was delicious although a bit pricey, but trying to save money on food only resulted in eating out of dispensing pigeon hole or eating dodgy steaks in touristy barns. Best to go local and fresh for an extra couple of €.
During our stay, we explored most of the city, with the help of free maps contained in tour brochures at most reception front desks. Picking a district of the city and exploring it on foot was a great way to do it. Shopping was abundant, sprinkled with cafes and curio shops. Abandoned piles of bicycles, awkwardly leaning townhouses and canals full of half sunken boats filled in the rest of the landscape. Highlights of this exploration was finding a massive self-serve lunch hall called La Place Mangerie, farmer's markets and hidden cafes and pubs.
The time in Amsterdam flew very quickly and before we knew it, we found ourselves on the train to Berlin for a two night stay then a trip to Jelenia Gora. We we explored the city mostly on foot. The monuments and buildings of interest were of grand proportions. Lots of history perforated by bullet holes from world war two. Generally, prices were a bit cheaper, the food was on par, and an abundance of all things opulent was prevalent. The Berlin wall was a big attraction with tourists were flocking to it in droves. We cut out a lot of the legwork by catching a tethered balloon that ascends 150 meters. The experience was certainly worth it. The city and its people were generally nice but felt snobbish and stiff. The most ironic thing being the smell of sewerage in the main snobby shopping street, summing up much of the Berlin experience. Then there is the coffee. In both Holland and Germany it seems that people like their coffee percolated with UHT milk. This could be because of their unknown taste of a good coffee, love of crappy tasting coffee or the lack of cows. Either way finding a good espresso with proper milk provided a good excuse to explore the city. Oh, and a fly baked into the pizza left a lingering feeling of food prep distrust. And if I see another food outlet lined with sugar-encrusted baked goods, it won't be too soon.
Next stop is Jelenia Gora, Poland, my home town. The train trip from Berlin was about six hours, so we were glad when it was over. Getting there felt like traveling to parts unknown. The stop over in Zary was our first glimpse of a Polish train station and it was not pretty. There was graffiti scribbled all over inside the station and a couple caged ticket windows. But we got through it. We caught the connecting train about an hour later to another connecting station, then to Jelenia Gora. We stayed in Hotel Fan, which recently changed its name to Hotel Tango, both really bad names for a hotel. The decor in this place was a contradiction between traditional, tropical with mother's touch. The African wooden statue in the foyer with a pink ribbon in its matted hair illustrated this well. Overall good quality service, rooms and food but with a massive case of identity crisis. Nevertheless, the stay there was pleasant, even though we felt like the only guests in the hotel, not seeing another guest throughout our stay.
On our first day, we explored the town center, buying souvenirs and being the general tourists. The town has changed a lot since I was there last, about 20 years ago. Lots of new stores dotted the buildings that have not changed one bit. Most of those were in a dire need of repair, but the town square was well maintained and a pleasure to walk around.
The second day involved visiting Cieplice, my home town. For this we hired a car and were surprised to have succeeded as I only had an Australian driver's license, not an international one. So driving on the right (wrong) side of the road took some getting used to, luckily without the expense of an accident.
We drove into Cieplice and the memories came flooding back. We visited my old neighbourhood, the house where I grew up and the park where I used to play as a kid. It all seemed so much bigger when I was little. In the park we were greeted by squirrels who were all too eager to get some food by climbing up my leg and scaring Taryn. Seeing and experiencing all these sites was very significant for me and my head was spinning for a couple of days afterwards. That evening we were invited for a dinner at my cousin's place. I have not seen him for 21 years so it was really good to do so as we were pretty close as kids. I also met his wife and their little one. I also caught up with my aunty and my other cousin whom I haven't seen since she was a baby. It was a great evening and one that I will remember forever.
The day before leaving was spent running a few errands, eating and sleeping, exactly what holidays are meant for. The day after, we were leaving for Krakow. We woke up and noticed that it has been snowing all night, and all was covered in white, including our car. It was the first snowfall of the year, and it looked magical. Driving through the snow was a bit of an ordeal, but slow and steady won the race. We returned the hired car without an inci-dent. While at my cousin's, we found out that the train trip from Jelenia Gora to Wroclaw, the stop over to Krakow, was going to take about 5 hours to cover about 120 kilometers because of the state of the railways between those two towns. This would have been a real drag, so he offered to drive us into Wroclaw, which was great. In Wroclaw we made the 12:15 train with 10 minutes to spare.
We arrived in Krakow in the evening and in the middle of a snow storm, getting to the Secret Garden Hostel was a trial, and eventually we caught a taxi there. It turned out to be only a few blocks away. There we obtained the keys to our apartment which was actually a few more blocks away, but a walkable distance. The apartment was very cute, located in the Jewish quarter of the city. This part of the city is full of restaurants, bars and galleries and seems like the arty part of town. The next day we went out to explore the city, but it was snowing so heavily that we couldn't see much of it at all from under our hooded jackets. We decided to go visit the Wawel castle, and upon arriving there, we found out that the entry on that day was free, so we got tickets to see whatever we could. It was great to see the old residence of the country's royal family. Everything was on a grand scale and well worth visiting. After this we went to the old town square and stopped over for some afternoon snacks at an iconic chocolate factory. In the following days we explored the city in general, stopping for meals as we went, and even managed to cook a couple of dinners in our apartment's kitchen. Krakow is a huge and beautiful city with many stories to tell, it's well worth visiting and exploring as it has something for everyone. We checked out at midday on the last day and caught a connecting bus to Katowice airport and were bound for our next stop, Rome.
Our friend and her boyfriend live and work in Rome, so we were able to secure some cheap accommodation and their help in telling us how to get around and what to see and do. Most nights we stayed in an Irish pub Flann O'Brien's. The accommodation was actually really good, and we got if for almost half price, knowing one of the staff. Having said that, if we had to pay full price, the room was not worth the pay. On our first day we visited the Colosseum, Pantheon and Fontana de Trevi, enjoying the city in between. Lucky that we had a map which has all the iconic sites, giving us an invaluable navigation tool.
Knowing someone who lives in town also gave us the opportunity for some free accommodation at their house. After setting up and leaving our luggage in one place, we ventured outside Rome to Spoleto. After arriving, we met up with some locals and had a great lunch, complete with a bottle of home brewed wine. After that we went to the old town which was stunning. There we wandered around the cobble stone streets admiring the old architecture and a massive bridge. We also stumbled upon the truffle festival, which was unmistakingly obvious judging by the nostril-burning odour. From there, we made our way back to Rome and sadly ate dinner at the Hard Rock cafe, authentically non-authentic. The next day we needed some rest so we took it easy, I got a chance to catch up on some exercise, before replenishing the calories in a thanks-giving party organised by some yanks. There we were treated to some turkey and apple pie and witnessing a drunk mother battling her rebellious 14 year old daughter before cracking and giving her alcohol.
The next day we were off to Florence for a night. We caught the Euro Star train there, probably the most comfortable train ever. Arriving there, we discovered an old and charming city with many things to see. That is probably why it felt very touristy, with extravagant prices for everything. Tourists were the meal of the town and were devoured piece by piece by dodgey market hawkers and restaurant 'service fees'. Nevertheless, the city has a lot to be offer with piazzas, pizzas, statues and galleries around every corner. Michaelangelo's David was probably the highlight as it's situated on a hill that offers beautiful panoramas of the city. After two short days we felt as if we have seen all that the city has to offer and headed back to Rome. Overall Italy felt as if everyone wanted to be a movie star, wearing over the top fashion, acting snobbish and superior, with no sense of courtesy but underneath there was no substance to back up their claims. The cities were dirty, the food was substandard and the self imposed superiority of Italy and its people is just an outer gloss with no substance. Sad but true. Our next stop was Barcelona.
We arrived in Spain and the contrast became clear pretty quickly. The place was clean, people were friendly and didn't act like wanna-be movie stars. Exploring Barcelona was fun, but really there was not much to see there, seems the city is still riding on the fact they held the Olympics 20 years ago. One main touristy roar surrounded by dodgey side alleys. Trying to get tapas without going into a smoky bar became impossible, with such bars being present everywhere and full of people drinking and smoking at all hours of the day. On average, finding a good meal became tedious as most of the restaurants served tourist versions of a good meal, so our paella ended up a dry, bland version of itself. Indeed, the best meal we had here turned out to be Chinese. One of the most exciting things we discovered in Barcelona was the central market, full of produce of all kinds, dominated by the open-air seafood stalls full of weird and wonderful creatures, half of which were still wriggling around. Hoping that we can find some good Portuguese chicken, we hopped on a flight to Lisbon.
Lisbon is a beautiful city that seems relatively unaffected by the evils of western capitalism. The city has an easy and arty feel about it, with the entire city's footpaths being paved with white pavers intertwined with intricate black mosaic patterns. We stayed in a cute and cheap guest house, Res. San Paolo, where our room was always cold for some reason even though it was quite warm outside. On our first day we wandered down to the city centre which was bustling with all kinds of businesses. On our way we stumbled across a small bakery that was selling their wares by weight. We couldn't go past the Portuguese tarts and a custard filled, coconut wrapped vanilla lamingtons. Both were so delicious that we had to have them two days in a row. In the city centre, almost every street corner had chestnut vendors who emitted massive clouds of smoke that engulfed the streets. Even through this haze we managed to find a hand-painted tile with our house number on it. A great souvenir as Portugal seems to pride itself on its hand-pained tiles. We then had a lunch of peri-peri and Portuguese chicken that filled us to the brim. With this fuel, we wound our way through the maze of streets up to the St. Jorge castle which provided great panoramic views of the city. After that exhausting run we wound up for the day, just to revisit these sites again the next day as there was so much more to soak in. On the second night our hotel porter said that we should not leave Lisbon without seeing a performance of traditional Portugese music, Fado, over dinner. He highly recommended an iconic restaurant that did just that. I have to say, it was an unforgettable and enchanting experience. Every half an hour, the lights would dim, the performers would emerge onto a small stage in the restaurant and perform acoustically. Overall, Lisbon is a great city to visit on anyone's itinerary. Next stop for us is Madrid, somewhere to rest for three days.
Arriving in Madrid at 11:30pm and no available hotels on that night meant that we had to stay in an airport hotel. We found a nice one that said it was 400m away from the airport and had a free shuttle bus, which was a good sign. Upon arriving at the airport we found the phone number of the hotel, called it but it didn't connect. There was no shuttle bus in sight. We had no choice but to catch a taxi. Upon telling the taxi driver our destination, he swore and proceeded to take us around many looping roads and even a town, until we arrived at our destination and had to fork out €20 for the privilege of getting taken to a hotel 400m away. The hotel was nice enough, but the food was dodgey and stale. The next day we caught the hotel shuttle back to the airport, from where we caught the metro to the city center for €1. On the metro both of us were unsuccessfully pickpocketed. Taryn was observant enough to spot the pickpocketer unzipping her bag. After being spotted, he quickly proceeded to get off the train, but not before being nice enough to tell me that someone else has unzipped my backpack pocket. Luckily nothing was stolen, but a great welcome to Madrid indeed. However, soon enough our troubles were over. We found our hotel, High Tech Hotel, which was in a great central location. The room was really comfortable and the staff were helpful. Wandering around Madrid was great. The city is really big with lots to see and do. This is in stark contrast with Barcelona which was lacking all that Madrid had to offer. Having three nights here meant that we could relax and soak in the city at a slower pace. We managed to see most of the monuments and sample some local cuisine. This did include burgers, pizza and kebabs, all of which were top notch. Quality of the shopping was good too, but like everywhere else in Europe, overpriced. So after a relaxing stay in Madrid, it was slowly time to begin thinking about heading to the southern hemisphere. However before doing so, we stopped over in Rome for one more night as it would work out cheaper and our flight was heading out of there. So we caught up with our Roman friends for one last meal, ironically an Indian curry. We then spent the next day checking out the couple of piazzas we missed the first time around and then we were off to Bangkok.
The plan was to grab a sleep on the 10 hour flight. Soon after the meal however, I realised that was not going to be happening. We were seated next to a rowdy Vietnamese group. The man next to me was drinking red wine like there was no tomorrow, mainly because it was free. He was also making his buddies get red wines so that they could give those to him. We stopped counting after he drank his 10th plastic cup full. The drunkenness gave way to sleep, during which he was as loud if not more so then he was awake. During the night he kept shouting out of nowhere and for some reason decided to use me for a pillow. I knocked him back every 5 minutes quite forcefully as he just didn't seem to get that you just can't sleep on other people. Then during the morning when everyone started waking up, he was coughing, wheezing and yawning while shouting. Throughout this serene experience I managed to get about half an hour worth of sleep. Just to add to the man's credibility, he decided to have two glasses of red wine with his breakfast while coughing splattering and being generally loud. The only thing that kept me hopeful was the upcoming Thai heat. I even changed to summer gear on the plane in anticipation. So when we landed, we were really glad to get off that flight.
After stepping off the plane we finally felt the heat of Thai summer, but this didn't last long as we had to wait in a freezingly air-conditioned airport for six hours for our connecting flight to Phuket. Changing into summer gear on the plane didn't seem like a good idea anymore. Although we did manage to get into the mood by getting some mango and sticky rice and noodles. Eventually we boarded the flight, landing at our destination about an hour later. From the airport we got a free shuttle car provided by our hotel, the Pacific Club Spa Resort. We arrived at 11:30pm, managed to get a late snack from the kitchen and then slept. The next day we woke up and began to explore our newfound paradise. Compared with Europe, this is a land of halves-and-doubles. Everything is half the price for twice the value. The hotel is twice as plush as any in Europe, the people are twice as helpful, the food is twice as tasty, the weather is more than twice as good, all for half the price. This made us realise how going for a holiday to Europe just does not make sense. Granted that doing it was essential to get it out of our system, but going there again for a holiday is not going to happen anytime soon, unless it's a stopover to a beautiful tropical destination.
Our days here consisted of filling up on the free buffet breakfast, lazying around and in the pool until breakfast is digested. After that we get up and go for lunch in the local town, a nap in the afternoon, then to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Most relaxing routine ever.
Phuket and Karon beach inparticular, is a great place to get away and forget about life for a while. Because of that, it was difficult to get up and say that we have to leave. To make the transition easier, we decided to spend one night in Bangkok.
We arrived in smoggy Bangkok and checked into the city oasis that is Phrankorn Norlen. In my opinion, this is the only place to stay when in Bangkok. It's so homely and relaxing, contrasting the city's fast pace beautifully. As we only had about half a day left after arriving, we wandered around the local area. Weird and wonderful food markets, street food stalls, clothing stands, souvenir shops, all made their presence known immediately. We had no choice but to give in. Eating few small nibbles and buying a few small things provided the fix, then we were ready for the next day. On the second day we caught the river boat to our destination. Catching the river boat is definitely the fastest and most economical way to get across town, not to mention the most scenic. The combination of luxury houses, temples, hotels, and dilapidated shacks along the river is amazing. Our first stop was the biggest temple complex in Bangkok. There visitors can see the golden temple, made of gold and the emerald Buddha, made of emerald. The size and intricacy of the work in these temples is amazing, a sight not to be missed and well worth the money and hired clothing change. In this place uncovered limbs offend, so clothing which hides these evils can be borrowed. After seeing the fruits of many faithful labourers, we got back on the boat and traveled to our next destination, the Blue Elephant. As the name doesn't suggest, the Blue Elephant is one of Bangkok's most famous restaurants. There we booked a half day cooking course. Being in a class of three, we got almost personal treatment from the restaurant's chef in preparing some great Thai dishes. We learned how to prepare chicken satays, stir fried calamari, ancient curry, fish salad, and taro desert. It was a great experience, highly recommended to anyone. After the course we got to eat our creations. We also got to keep our apron and received a certificate and a bag of goodies. After the cooking class it was off to our hotel to shower and get to the airport for our last leg, home!
As we left the hotel, the taxi was right there which was convenient, we took off to the airport. Bangkok taxis have no seat belts so that is a safety inconvenience at the best of times, but when a psycho driver takes off down an 80kph road at 130kph, it becomes a terror ride. After counting ourselves lucky by getting to the airport, we walked around the airport shops, boarded out flight and went off to Melbourne. There we had to wait for about 5 hours, being so close to home, yet so far. At this point we were pretty tired, but flying into Adelaide and getting home was a high that kept us awake. The home was still all there, albeit a bit overgrown outside, but it felt so good to be home.

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