When you were Young: Mykonos

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Monday 21st September

We were meant to have had a wake up call in order for the group to have time for a quick breakfast before our ferry. Fortunately Kirstie didn’t take the term ‘wake up call’ literally like I had done so because we set our alarms it didn’t matter that we were not notified. Some of those in the group were however running quite late as a result of the miscommunication.

After arriving at the ferry Kirstie and I made our way to our seats. A lady was sitting next to us but had placed a hat on one of the seats saying her sister was already sitting there. Eventually she let us take our seats however almost immediately tried to push her way through the row despite the available row width being less than a theatre or sports stadium. Kirstie and I scrambled out to let her past and took our seats again. Soon the lady returned with sister in tow. They said something in a language which was lost on me before mercifully she left and never returned so we ended up with a spare seat. The remainder of the journey was uneventful and due to the early start I mostly slept as did Kirstie who somehow curled up on the seat like a cat.

We checked in to our hotel in Mykonos after meeting our new guide Kyriaki and checked in to our hotel. The group was split up and we were in the one with Nik and Anna “The Doctors” and Aaron and Lindsay. Sometimes it can take a while for a group to click especially if there are groups travelling together (because they tend to stick together) but we were quite fortunate that even early on people were open and interacting. This was evident when a large group of us decided to get lunch and a couple of beers together during our free time.

After enjoying a hearty Greek salad we decided to go to the beach where the owner of the cafe we’d eaten at let us use the deck chairs for free. We took a bottle of Rose with us and lounged in the heat although it wasn’t quite the glorious sunshine I had expected. In fact on our arrival it had rained, apparently the first drops on the island since April. Eventually we all returned to our rooms for a shower before we met back in reception to catch the bus in to the old harbour in the main town.

The old port was quite pretty and Kyriaki took us on a ‘orientation’ walk. This was an opportunity for her to provide some information about the island and to show us some of the main sites which included the famous Little Venice area, the Windmills and a pretty church. Mykonos gained its name due to its first ruler, Mykons, the son of the god Apollo in Greek mythology and is also said to have been the location of a great battle between Zeus and Titans.

After the walk we went for dinner where I had stuffed peppers as a starter and Moussaka as a main course. I was feeling quite tired and would have been quite happy going to a bar where we could chat a bit more but we ended up going to a night club. I hadn’t really drunk enough and I think I was just having an off night and more reserved than usual because I was carrying my camera. As I’d booked on a early tour to Delos I was relieved when the majority of the group decided to call it an early night and to get the midnight bus home.

Tuesday 22nd September
Kirstie and I made our way to breakfast and sat on an adjacent table to Nik and Anna. Josh soon joined us despite staying out until the early hours of the morning but his friend Mel was apparently still asleep in bed. We ate breakfast until the bus arrived and then left for the old port to catch a boat to Delos now a small uninhabited island which had once been home to a ancient town of approximately 30,000 and significant in Greek mythology.

It was incredibly windy on the deck of the boat and as we were taking a couple of group photos Niks hat blew off but thankfully was caught by a crew member on the quay rather than heading in to the sea. We escaped inside due to the wind and because whilst it wasn’t raining the ominous clouds from the day before remained. Fortunately the sea wasn’t rough and we arrived at the port with no further dramas.

We started by walking towards the Theatre but without a guide or displays it was difficult to know the significance of what we could see. Kirstie was however more likely to be correct with her suggestion of shops and her observation that they were of a similar appearance to those in Pompeii however we all laughed at Stevie’s jokey prison island concept.

We arrived at the theatre where I tried to imagine how it would have looked in its prime when in 600BC it would have been home to a new entertainment phenomenon “the play”. Stages in the style of the Ancient Greeks are still used as are their themes of love, comedy and tragedy though masks to express emotions are now mostly discarded.

The first significant structure was the House of Dolphins which had the remains of mosaic but beyond that weren’t sure of the historical importance. We continued upwards, up a steep hill which according to our map led to the Sanctuary of Zeus. None of us had appropriate footware and clouds slowly started to release their contents whilst we also began to understand why the Islands name is translated as ‘Island of the Wind’. Eventually we arrived at the top and the view of remains below felt worth the effort as it allowed us to grasp the scale. It was quite a small island and it must have been quite densely populated.

We followed a slightly different path down and came to a temple with a headless statue which Josh had seen on a postcard so went about successfully creating the image. The sun was finally starting to disperse the clouds by the time we reached the quay. We still had plenty of time to explore the other half of the island but went in search of the cafe and museum first.

The centre of the entrance to the museum contained a large black table which Nik instinctively placed his bag of fruit on and a lady quickly emerged explaining it was actually an artefact. Nik and I were obviously embarrassed but once we’d apologised and she’d gone sheepishly joked to each other that he was just returning it to its original use from thousands of years ago – to store Greek grown apricots and plumbs. On our exit we noticed a computer displaying CCTV footage from at least 20 different cameras around the Island which obviously made sense because of the historical significance of the remains.

After leaving the museum I spotted the ‘Avenue of Lions’ and we followed a path which took us past a few other remains first which included a temple and the Sacred Lake. The Avenue of Lions was dedicated to Apollo by the inhabitants of the Island around 600 BC and reminded me of the avenues of sphinxes in Egypt.

We made our way back to quay and as it was less windy I sat on the top deck in the sun listening to music. I felt very relaxed though perhaps not quite as much as Steve who fell asleep. After arriving back in Mykonos we slowly made our way through the town from the port towards the Windmills passing through Little Venice in the process. We ate at a organic restaurant suggested by Josh where the taste of my dolmades could not be questioned though they did fail on my beer order. First they missed me out completely, after a while they brought over two beers, one of which was the wrong size then compounded the mistake by charging me for three including.

We were slightly late in meeting Kyriaki at the old port bus stop but it didn’t seem to matter and we joined the rest of the group on the coach. There were a few new faces but no time for introductions as we drove to Paradise Beach, one of the most famous beaches on the island. I had expected the sand to be fine and golden as it had been in Valencia but it was actually quite rough and not overly pleasant to walk on. I took a sun lounger and belly flopped in to the sea only to discover it wasn’t the warm feeling Mediterranean sea I had imagined from the postcards.

Fallon and Kirstie were already taking a dip and I attempted to get a video of us diving under water on my go pro. I returned to my sun lounger and ordered a mojito where I slowly ‘sun baked’ as the clouds had parted to reveal blue sky and sun. After a while I was heated up enough to take a second dip before I ordered a Dragon cocktail and dried out again. By the time I’d finished the “beach party” was beginning at the bar we were ordering drinks from.

In the high season I imagine it must get quite lively but it was mostly just us which was also quite nice because we could be silly on the stage and break more ice. Steve, Kirstie, Anna and Nik were often seen to be on there trying to learn the moves from the instructor, though I had a few goes and tried with moderate success to spin Fallon and Kyriaki. Towards the end I was alone doing my increasingly out dated signature ‘Man on a mobile phone whilst DJing’ dance move as Kirstie clicked away on my camera. I then decided to jump off the stage towards her and she caught the perfect image of me in mid flight.

Nik, Anna, Fallon and I then decided to get a tequila each which probably reflected how merry I was getting. A miscommunication with the bar staff meant we ended up with 2 each, one with “good” tequila and one with “bad” according to Nik. Personally they both tasted as disgusting as each other in my opinion. Shortly after we boarded the “party bus” back to the hotel. Kirstie tried to start a singing competition with the Kiwi lads that had joined the tour and I assisted in belting out John Farnham to ensure a hands down Aussie victory.

I’m not sure why I then was volunteered in to singing solo and after a not particularly great rendition of Wonderwall I returned with Hey Jude. I had no intention of singing the whole song and instead just shouted / Sang “Naaa, Na, Na, Na-Na Na, La-La-La Laaa” hoping someone would shout Hey Jude as I fell silent and pointed to ‘my’ audience. Thankfully Aaron obeyed as did one or two others. Unfortunately despite an attempt by Kirstie to rouse the Americans in to singing Cotton Eye Joe my performance could not be bettered (in my own mind I should add…)

The Greek culture is about late dinners so we briefly returned to the hotel before we caught the bus back in town. I was sitting near two of the new girls Mel and Anna. As they felt they needed to integrate quickly in to the group we agreed to skip all of the standard getting to know you talk. At some point it began to rain and even though they appeared to be under cover drips made it through. In contrast I didn’t realise how close I was to water gushing down just behind me until I stepped back to go to the toilet soaking my chair in the process.

The food had been nice enough but in my merry state I was still hungry. Fortunately I was in the country famous for a kebab nicer than a kebab called a Gyros which I’d never had but been told to try. Nik wanted one as well so we ordered one before joining some of the others in a bar. The music was loud enough without being a conversation stopper and after a few more drinks most of us left for the midnight bus.

Life is Life: Athens

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Going to Greece coincided with me moving from Balham back to Ealing. After work I went back home and made sure everything that was going to Ealing was definitely packed and that I had everything for Greece. The original plan had been for Kirstie and I to have a ‘slumber party’ at Stansted airport however Kirstie’s very kind colleague had offered to give us a lift which was gratefully accepted so instead I made my way to Greenwich. We ended up having a late night at her colleagues leaving do, where I’d been made to feel welcome (despite gate crashing) so we were both quite tired the next morning.

Saturday 19th September

The drive to the airport was trouble free and even though we were checked in Ryan Air required Kirstie to complete a visa check and we had a long wait not helped by a very disorganised group directly in front. Then after passing through security we had another long wait because the number of bags needing to be checked by security were beyond the capabilities of one person. The guy working the counter was friendly and whilst Kirstie was adamant she’d removed all her liquids a last minute deodorant addition had sneaked through her net. When we arrived at the departure gate we were told our bags had to be put in the hold because there wasn’t enough space in the over head lockers.

Our final long wait was in Athens when Kirstie had to go through a different passport control. We agreed to meet at the baggage carousel to collect our bags and once Kirstie arrived we made our way to the train. Unfortunately we only just missed the one we needed but we still arrived at the hotel with enough time to have a shower and to freshen up before our pre tour meeting. As I relaxed I made the ‘mistake’ of checking the Watford score just as Igalo scored and when we went 2.0 up shortly after, the emotions really started to build. When Newcastle made it 2.1 I feared the worst and for 35 excruciating minutes I cradled my mobile as my mind became increasingly torn between the tour meeting and thinking of my dad cheering the team on at St James Park without me.

It was when we went up to the roof terrace that I got my first sight of one of the most recognisable ancient structures, the Parthenon. My breath caught in my throat as I saw the structure which (arguably) best represents ancient Greece. It wasn’t quite the picture postcard image I imagined but perched high above the city it must have been a stunning sight before it was destroyed over the centuries. Returning inside Kirstie and I had to quickly change rooms because she’d noticed ‘a water feature’ in the shower (water dripping from a light). Once we had moved our things we joined the others in reception for a pre-dinner guided walk.

After leaving the hotel we made our way to Monastiraki square a small busy market square where we could see the acropolis in the distance. We walked up one of the narrow busy streets where we came to another square named near temple dedicated to the God Hephaestus. Carrying on we arrived at the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos before I realised we were back at the street near the hotel.

I had built up quite an appetite because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and the choice of food looked so enticing I found it challenging to make a quick decision. Ultimately I followed Kirstie’s advice and tried to go for something I wouldn’t have had back home so opted for zucchini stuffed with Mince and rice. When it came out it wasn’t how I expected it to look however it tasted good with the Mythos beer. We were then given a dessert of Greek yogurt and honey which was particularly delicious. It really made me realise that the Greek yogurt I buy back home isn’t as good as the real thing.

Kirstie and I were both slightly torn as to whether to stay out with Steve who had arrived late having just flown in from New York, Dan, Nick, Fallon, Jade and Alyssa travelling together from Perth and a family from the Netherlands. Kirstie and I both knew we needed a good nights sleep and there would be plenty more opportunities to drink so instead opted to take some night photos of the Parthenon before returning to our new room which thankfully didn’t include a water feature.

Sunday 20th September
I felt fairly refreshed when I woke up and after a shower we both went down for breakfast where I admit I was pleasantly surprised at the range on offer. After making myself a ham and cheese toastie I grabbed a croissant and what I assumed was a mini pain au chocolate. When I bit in to this pastry the taste caught me by surprise and I realised it was actually savoury with unidentified filling but I assumed spinach and a soft cheese.

After breakfast we returned quickly to the room and then to reception where we waited for Vicki and the rest of the group to join us. After leaving the hotel we turned left, even though we had been told the night before never to go that way because it led to a dodgy area. The first building of note we stopped at was the stock exchange which whilst I imagine was fairly new had been built in a classical style. As we left an old man shouted something and Vicki told us he’d said “That’s where they steal money”.

We carried on walking and came to the National Library of Greece, the National University of Athens and the Academy of Athens. Outside the Neo Style academy, rather appropriately, were statues of Plato and Socrates. Together, along with Aristotle they laid the foundations of Western philosophy, science and mathematics. Plato and Socrates died nearly 2500 years ago and whilst I am sure many of their ideas have been debunked with technology their opinions and ideas are still studied and quoted.

When we left it was nearly 11am and Vicki quickly hurried us along so we could see the ‘Changing of Guards’ for the unknown soldier in front of the Parliament building. It was a lot busier than I had expected considering we were visiting in the low season and we didn’t have a clear view of the ceremony. After it was over and the crowds dispersed a few of us got pictures with the guards who looked pretty tough despite their clown-esque boots (Tsarouchia). One or two tourists from another group got a bit close prompting the guard to strike the ground with his bayonet and another that did an army salute was equally reprimanded!

Next we walked through the Palace Gardens which took us past the zoo and also gave us a glimpse of the president house before we arrived at the birthplace and spiritual home of the Olympics the Panathenaic Stadium. Originally built out of wood it was rebuilt from marble in 329BC and by 140 AD could hold 50,000 people. The remains were excavated and renovated for use in 1870 and again in 1896 so it could be used in the birth of the modern Olympics. It was then renovated again so it could have a symbolic role in the 2004 Olympics where it was used as the end of the marathon. Vicki explained that the word “Marathon” commemorated the victory of the Greeks over the Persians when Pheidippides ran all the way from the settlement Marathon to tell Athens of the victory before he died of exhaustion.

After all the walking we had a brief stop to rest and have a drink at a coffee shop. The poor waitress seemed to have a constant look of anguish but I suppose I looked the same when I worked at McDonald’s. In fact I’d have broken down and cried if a big tour group had turned up and didn’t listen when I called out the orders. I had planned to have a Greek coffee but instead went for a Frape with ice cream which was more refreshing in the heat.

It was in the afternoon that we really began to explore the remains of Ancient Athens. It started with the impressive Hadrian’s Arch, positioned in front of the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and through which you could see the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis in the background. The Temple of Olympian Zeus was completed in 132AD having taken 632 years to build. Sadly due to the conversion to Christianity and having been damaged beyond repair by war it was abandoned between 267 and 425. Over the next centuries it was quarried for material and what had been envisaged as the greatest temple in the ancient world is now just a few pillars.

Heading towards the Acropolis we made our way through the crowded streets of Plaka and passed the the Winds which was unfortunately under restoration so we couldn’t see it and the ancient Agara (market) which as the centre of Ancient Athens is arguably the birthplace of democracy (meaning ‘power from the people’). Vicki explained it was the ancient Athenians who created a new form of government whereby they could choose and replace leaders because they were tired of being ruled by tyrants.

The path soon turned in to a steep climb so I had a little photo stop (breather) when I had a nice view of city and could see Temple of Hephaestus we’d seen the night before down below. Eventually we came to an area of rocks where there were two routes, one a set of steps, and the other a short but steep scramble over the rocks. I scrambled up over the slippery rocks which had been smoothed from all the people climbing the path over the centuries however at the top I was greeted with a stunning panoramic view of the city.

Vicki wasn’t allowed in the in the Acropolis itself so we all made our own way round at our own pace. The first major set of ruins was the Monument of Agrippa followed by the Shrine of Athena Hygieia. There was also the Erechtheion Temple which included 6 female figures ‘holding up’ the roof. Apparently only replicas remained and 5 of the originals were in the Acropolis museum and one in the British museum.

I have to admit I personally felt the ruins, especially of the Parthenon were quite underwhelming not that I’m trying to sound blasé about seeing them because I was thrilled at that. It’s just whilst historically the Parthenon is such an iconic structure its surrounding location kind of resembled a demolition site. It was also quite obvious where restorations had taken place unlike other ancients sites I’ve visited that attempt to disguise them.

After we’d wondered around the whole site and with some time left before we were due back at the hotel Kirstie and I went in search of the museum however the signs weren’t particularly good. After ending up where we had started we decided to go home via the Ancient Agara. I think it is fair to say we were both slightly disappointed at the number and state of excavations in comparison to those in Rome. We briefly called in to a free museum there but didn’t stay long.

Instead we returned to Monastiraki square and wondered around the various shops selling souvenirs. After we had finished wondering around we returned to the hotel room so we could get ready for dinner. As a group we then caught the underground train to one of the nicer suburbs so that we could have dinner. After we had eaten we went to a bar where Nik and I had a shot of Ouzo whilst Kirstie and some of the others had Tequila however as we had an early start no one suggested going for further drinks and we all returned to the hotel.

Bamboleo: Valencia and La Tomatina

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Tuesday 25th August
When my alarm went off at 3.45am I felt tired. Really tired. It wasn’t helped that the night before a fox had kept me up, that I’d rushed around London to get printer cartridges to print out new boarding passes and not finished packing until gone 11.30pm. Thankfully the journey to Gatwick was uneventful for Summer, though I was slightly nervous when we stopped outside Clapham Junction for no stated reason and the time we had to change trains dramatically decreased. We arrived at the airport at 6.00am and waited around an hour for Lucy who it turned out had experienced the journey from Hell.

We dropped off one piece of shared hold luggage and after a quick bite to eat made our way to the gate. The flight was full of other people I assume were going to Tomatina and those arriving late had difficulty fitting hand luggage in. It appeared there were a number of stag do’s on board or at least I assume that was why one guy had to walk around in a pink baby out fit complete with over size dummy. Another group behind us dared the stag (I assume) to “get ‘Chloe’s’ (evidently one of the air hostesses) number”. He pressed the assistance button and eventually she hurried along. “Is there an emergency?”, “Yes Chloe, I need your mobile number”. I don’t remember the wording of the blunt response but no number was given and she quickly turned around and walked to customers really in need.

After we arrived at the airport we took a taxi to our hotel where we were given our documents for Tomatina and the rep helpfully provided us with a route in to the old town via the old river bed. His final piece of advice was “it’s great, just wonder around, get lost in there and find something awesome”. We made our way to the Jardines del Turta (the old river bed) where first we came to some modern looking buildings which housed various museums including the Museo de las ciencias. They were quite interesting pieces of architecture, all looking like something that would have been suited to a sci fi movie. Somehow they also all envoked the feeling of water even though there weren’t any fountains or any flowing water nearby. The river had been diverted after a flood in 1957  and to fill the extra space a number of parks had been created which made it an interesting route in to town.

After about an hour we arrived at the Puenta del Mar bridge on the edge of the old town. The Gothic looking style contrasted with the modern buildings we had left behind and we entered the old town, slowly wondering towards the Mercado Central (central markets) in search of a late lunch. The first building of interest was the Ayuntamiento (city hall) which was opposite a nice square the Plaza Ayuntamiento.

Spain is infamous for siestas and we quickly realised their slight inconvenience for tourists when we arrived at the markets and found them locked up. We quickly spotted an outside bar which smelt good and was busy enough to suggest the food was acceptable. Initially after hearing the wait was 10 minutes we carried on but as it had a €8 deal for paella and Sangria we quickly backtracked. Bamboleo by the the Gypsy Kings was playing in the background and I finally felt like I was on holiday living the life. Valencia is, apparently, the home of paella so we all ordered the Valencian version which contained chicken rather than sea food. We all agreed the food and Sangria was good and that the rep had been right in telling us to just stumble across somewhere.

Food cravings satisfied we started to walk towards the Cathedral Basilica where we came across a pleasant, quiet square with a church, the more lively Plaza Redona which had a fountain in the middle surrounded by various shops. It was here that I looked up and caught a glimpse of The Torre de Santa Catalina which we then walked past before arriving at the cathedral. The cathedral is said to be the home of the Holy Grail and as I’ve studied Arthurian literature my inner geek came out. Lucy and Summer weren’t so keen unless the display included the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch (a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

As it turned out the room had already closed and luckily I quickly found them and instead we decided to climb the Cathedral tower. The distance was 207 steps and when we arrived at the top we were greeted by a impressive view of the city below with a wonderful back drop of some mountains and cloud free blue skies all around (ed. there may have been one or two clouds I’d initially failed to notice). We could see the museums near our hotel in the distance as well as some of the taller buildings in the old town. A bell was also housed at the top though it didn’t appear to be in service which was probably good for the hearing of everyone at the top.

Once we were back at the bottom we began as route back to the main road to get the bus back to the hotel. First we stumbled across the Basilica and the Turia Fountain in Plaza de la Virgen. I particularly liked the statue/fountain and tried to recreate the pose for a photo. We arrived at the main road quite quickly but didn’t have any joy identifying where the bus we needed left from. Instead after a quick unanimous group decision I flagged down a taxi which we were surprised came to a price that was possibly cheaper than the bus and certainly more comfortable.

Each of us had a quick shower before we headed down for the pre event meeting. “Bomber” the PP rep provided us with some history of Valencia, of Tomatina and crucially the times & other important information for the following day. A pre festival party in the open part of the modern complex had also been arranged however as entry was free the 3 of us decided to get some dinner first from the nearby shopping centre. I also took the opportunity to get some cheap essentials for the festival (cap and shoes, total bill €10). We ended up eating at one of the few places still open, an Italian restaurant called Ginos however the pasta I got was good and the waiter was friendly. Skipping dessert we returned to the party.

We were all quite tired by the time we arrived and as there was no where to store the shopping we’d got we decided to just take a look inside by going in pairs. It looked quite pretty but not particularly lively and it seemed others had taken the sensible idea of not getting to drunk before the event we’d all come for. After spending less than 10 minutes we left and returned to the hotel where I think we all probably fell asleep quite quickly.

Wednesday 26th August
At some point in the night I woke up with Summer delicately shaking me, telling me I had started snoring and I obediently stopped and rolled back on to my side to prevent it. I’m not a regular loud snorer but I’m aware I’ve been guilty in the past if I fall asleep on my back which I had on this occasion and even in my sleep I think I was aware that I was snoring (though Lucy didn’t hear it). I’m not sure if I went back to sleep so I was probably in between state of conscious and sub consciousness when Lucy’s alarm started to go off at 5.30am signalling it was time to get up. There seemed little point in showering as we were about to get covered in tomatoes so once we were dressed we headed down to breakfast.

After filling up on a true continental breakfast (croissant, salami, chorizo, cheese, Spanish omelette and the triangular cheese which is like dairy lea we boarded the coach to Bunol. The La Tomatina festival began in 1945 to commemorate a food fight which took place in the towns 1944 fiesta, the origins of which have been forgotten in time. It was early so whilst I could feel my heart trying to pump a bit of adrenaline around my body at some point I fell dozed off for 30 seconds and Summer went “Rooaaarrrr” making me jump. I made a mental note to throw a tomato in a sneaky retaliation attack.

After just under an hour we arrived at the site and had a quick toilet stop whilst they were still relatively clean and before the queues built up. It felt like quite a long walk in to the part of the town used for the festival. We arrived at the entrance and decided to walk all the way through to the opposite side of town to get our bearings. On our way we brought some sangria and got caught in a crowd as we saw the Google Car taking pictures of the pre tomatoed streets.

We ended up back in the centre of the town just as the famous ham pole was raised. A guy climbed the lower half of the pole, already covered in grease and spread even more on. Once he was done the crowd surged forward slightly as members of the crowd started trying to climb the pole. Initially each gallant attempt was met by cheering, and then ultimatley a groan as each person failed. The objective was to work as a team and it seemed simple to me that strong people had to be at the bottom to hold up lighter people however the concept of team play was lost on one guy wanting glory for himself and he even pulled a girl by her hair in his feelble attempts to get to the top. One guy climbed the tree next to the pole but decided against leaping over and apparently another climbed up wearing nothing but a hip pouch but I have to admit without my glasses I didn’t realise he was naked.

The crowd steadily continued to build up and we got talking to members of another tour group before Lucy and I made our way back up the street towards an area that looked down on the street below. As we waited for the first truck we heard the gun shot which signaled the fight had begun and as it turned around the corner the carnage began. After it had passed I was initially surprised, almost slightly disappointed, that I and the surrounding area didn’t look so messy. There were a few tomatoes on the ground to squeeze and throw but the world’s largest food fight hadn’t really begun.

The street used was quite narrow and only large enough for one car to pass and from vantage point it looked jam-packed. It was slow progress to get the trucks through which meant Lucy, I and the others in our vicinity took a real beating because we were standing at the same level to those in the trucks throwing tomatoes. In fact one or two seemed to have picked us as targets possibly due to Lucy’s orange cap but Lucy got revenge when she landed a tomato one the back of one of their heads as they bent down.

By the 5th truck had passed I was a mess and the food fight was in full flow as adrenaline took over. We decided to head in to the crowded street and a liquid resembling tins of chopped tomato came over my feet almost up to my ankles in places. The crowd surged us forward as people pushed from the back and It felt mildly claustrophobic so I used my go pro as a slight buffer between me and the person in front to avoid being squashed. There were one or two times I tripped not realising that I was on the curb but luckily I didn’t go down though I felt slightly reassured that Lucy and I were constantly looking for each other.

Eventually we saw a side street which we escaped uo and after making our way through a park before we came to the main street. We couldn’t find an official shower so but a family were using a hose to clean individuals for a small tip so we joined the queue. We never did find a shower so this was a good decision though even though my cap had protected my hair I still felt rather filthy when I changed in to ‘clean’ clothes and boarded the coach.

Summer was one of the last to board and whilst she’d been able to get a hose down as well her normally impaculate blond hair resembled a pizza base. She told us she’d been part of a group at the end that made an attempt to get the ham when the crowds had died down. I got my tablet out and blinked a few times when I noticed the screen looked pink. I checked with Lucy and Summer and they confirmed it was to them as well. It’s funny how after spending more than an hour seeing pretty much nothing but red our brains had trained my eyes to see that colour.

We returned to the hotel and after a proper shower I made my way to the super market to grab us all some late lunch, though it turned out there was only one type of baguette available. After returning to the hotel I learnt that all the showers from those at the festival had caused the water pressure to crash and poor Summer had been forced to wait even longer to wash her hair. We briefly made our way to the swimming pool but it was quite shaded and surprisingly windy so we returned to our room where I had a nap.

La Tomatina organisers had arranged a after party. As we waited in the reception we first got talking to a group from New Zealand before Lucy and Summer recognised Jarrod And Beau who had sat near us on the coach to the festival. We eventually arrived at an industrial estate which randomly included a fancy resort that had been transformed in to a pool party. The pool area was nicely lit up but I couldn’t help thinking ‘who on earth would visit the rest of the year, unless it’s the best truckers rest area ever?’.

As Lucy and Summer queued for drink tokens I went on the hunt for food. It turned out that the chips took to long to cook so were off the menu, the pizza had been burnt to a crisp and as the paella hadn’t been delivered as with the supermarket there was only one choice, a burger. Eventually I found the others and we chatted for a couple of hours over a few beers. I couldn’t face the queue to get more beer tokens once mine had run out especially as it seemed some of the bars hadn’t stocked up enough. Ultimately Summer, Lucy and I were probably suffering from two early stbeachso called it a night but not before I tried the (now discounted) burnt to a crisp pizza.

Thursday 27th August
We decided to have a massive lie in at last because our only real plan was to visit the beach. Lucy had mentioned the day before the bath had been stained pink and initially I’d put it down to our eyes. I was surprised when I showered the next morning to notice a patch of pink seemed to remain. Once we’d had breakfast we got ready to go out and met Beau and Jarrod by the entrance.

We learnt they’d stayed quite a bit later than and whilst they looked to be paying for it, it sounded like it had been worth it. Eventually they decided to join us at the beach so we all made our way to the bus stop. My geography of Spain was quite poor so I hadn’t actually realised Valencia was on the coast so I tried to buy some beach footwear but we could only see restaurants so I quickly lost motivation and gave up. When I was younger I loved the Dorset sand and sea but I didn’t enjoy having sandy feet and I still throw an inner tantrum if I have to put socks on sandy feet.

There was a quite spectacular sand castle and a sand sculpture of the “Last Supper”. It turned out Valencia was on the Med so the sea wasn’t as cold as I expected and I practised using my Go pro under water in preparation for Greece. I had no idea how the footage was coming out but at least after a couple of days I was finally familiar with the buttons. Lucy’s was slightly more updated with a view finder so that gave me an indication.

We’d had a late breakfast but after a couple of hours relaxing and not using much exercise I began to feel a bit hungry. Fortunately Jarred and Bo? were as well so we went in search of some Spanish Tapas. The night before I’d set my heart in eating calamari and I initially showed little reaction when Lucy pointed it out to me on the Tapas menu. A few seconds later I reacted in the excited childish manner expected. The food portions were pretty good and we actually ended up with some food left over.

Jarrod and Beau went back to the hotel and Lucy, Summer and I returned to the beach. Whilst they went back in to the sea I stayed to look after our stuff and attempted to build a sand sculpture of Vicarage Road before turning it in to the old Wembley Stadium although in hindsight a bull ring would have been more appropriate. I had a final dip in the sea where I tried to create exciting wave videos because they were bigger than the afternoon. Back on the sand I built myself a chair (really a mound of sand) before we noticed it was much later than we realised after we’d lost track of time relaxing on the beach.

We decided to have a look further along the water front and found a market area that sold all the beach wear accessories we’d expected to find earlier in the day. We also saw a guy blowing bubbles which had generated a small crowd mainly of children. Things turned slightly sour when a kid kicked the bucket, went down quicker than Christiano Ronaldo clutching his toe and got his gran to shout at the bubble man. She was booed and a big cheer went up when bubble man started up again. We also saw a brass band playing music and I was impressed how Summer identified it as “Under the Sea” from the Little Mermaid so quickly.

We eventually went for dinner at a place called Destino 56 which had interesting décor. The wall was an under water scene and for reasons we weren’t sure little plastic figures hung from the ceiling. Summer and I shared another Valencian Paella and I had a glass of white sangria. I had no idea such a combination existed and whilst I enjoy Sangria I’m not that keen on red wine. I have to say I found the white Sangria one of the most easy to drink cocktails I’ve ever had and it reminded me of the juice from tinned fruit salad. Once we were finished we walked past the sand sculptures now lit with candles and got a taxi home.

Friday 28th August
Our flight was scheduled for the early evening so we had just over half a day to explore more of the old town. After another lie in and a good breakfast (where I made a ham and cheese toastie) we checked out, put our bags in to storage and caught the bus in to town.

The bus terminated at the grand looking train station which was next door to the bull ring which was an even more impressive structure. We followed the main road past the town hall as we had on the first day and came to the Central Markets. The markets seemed to have a variety of different foods available including somewhat predictably chorizo and those less expected such as live eels slithering around in a shallow tank of water. We brought some gifts and made our way back to the cathedral.

We took a different path to the first day and as we made our way passed lots of examples of street graffiti (certainly more street art). Some of it looked slightly sinister, some was slightly random such as a reoccurring little figure and other pieces were hugely impressive. Once we arrived at the Cathedral Lucy and Summer went for a coffee and I went to take a look.

I was quite impressed with the Cathedral and it was helpful that the audio guide was free. Obviously the highlight was the Holy Grail in the Capilla del Santo Caliz however predictably that was at the end. The Holy Chalice in the Cathedral is deemed by Christian historians to be the most likely used in the last supper and it has also been used by a number of Pope’s which has further strengthened the authenticity of the claims. As well as ‘the Holy Grail’ there was the preserved severed arm of St Vincent in the Capilla de La Resurreccion. A a number of other interesting Chapels also contained various pieces of art.

I met up with Summer and Lucy and we began a search to find somewhere nice but reasonably priced for lunch. We didn’t really have any ideas when all of a sudden someone in the street gave a business card to Lucy. In London I wouldn’t have considered this approach but we looked at the deal and whilst a 3 course meal and a drink for under €10 seemed to good to be true we took a chance. I was really impressed with my goats cheese salad, pasta and French toast with ice cream. It wasn’t the type of fried French toast I expected and it was actually much nicer but by that point I was too full.

We were in more luck when we quickly spotted an empty taxi. I chatted to the driver about football because I had noticed his Valencia pennant. He was particularly animated when he realised the Watford manager was “Ahhhh Quique Sanchez Flores”. As we chatted Lucy joked to Summer about how football is the international language in Europe. We made another quick stop at the cheap super market to get Sangria for Summer. Whilst we arrived at the hotel a few minutes after the designated pick up because it was Spain it didn’t seem to matter that we were late.

Living all Right: Brno and Prague

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‘Water-way’ to have a good time

Friday 31st July
It was a late afternoon by the time we arrived in Brno and had checked in to our hotel apartment style room which it has to be said was a bargain expertly chosen by Marc. After changing in to something more suitable for the warm evening we went in search of a place in the main square to get a beer.

As we headed to Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square) we came upon St James Church where we eventually sat down at a bar with some available seating outside. It seemed a very popular but pleasant location to relax with a beer and there was a pianist nearby which added to the atmosphere.

After leaving that bar we found the Freedom Square where the highlight was a clock which looked like an egg timer and not really in keeping with the style of architecture in the square. There was no seating in the bars within the square so continued to the Church of St Peters and St Pauls via the Vegetable Market Square where I had booked a labyrinth tour for us for the following morning.

St Peters and St Pauls church was high up on a hill and I imagine the view from the Tower would have been quite spectacular but it was closed so we wondered back in to town. Whilst we were starting to get hungry we found another pub first so that we could assess our options, play some more ‘s-head’ and have another refreshing Czech beer.

Leaving the bar Chas had identified two options. The first was an American style dinner but like a bar in Wernigerode that I’d been to, it had a model railway to carry the beers. The one in Brno was however even more spectacular as it had model bridges that raised automatically to let people through and the trains seemed to run using sensors. The food didn’t look overly ‘traditional Czech’ so we walked across to another pub which it turned out was.

We each ordered some traditional Czech bar snacks including deep fried bread and dips and a marinated cheese. We also ordered a main course and so when it all came out we had far more food than we needed and yet it was so cheap (compared to the UK). It was in my opinion the best meal we’d had up until that point and the beer was also award winning.

After a couple of drinks we returned to the earlier bar with the model railway and played some more s-head and drank more beer. Even though there were only 4 or us it felt like we were generating quite a bit of noise without being overly boisterous. The main conversation being as follows: Hamish “is it my go?”, me, “No it’s M Mans”, Chas “C’mon Martin”, Marc “Guys why can’t we have a civilised conversation whilst we play?” At one stage I inadvertently took a paparazzi style picture of Hamish as he watched Marc joyfully remove his scotches from the little wagon.

We made our way home and after watching a bit of the only tv channel available and sitting on the balcony I decided to go to bed because we had a fairly early start due to two underground tours that had been pre booked. Marc followed at some point later but not before he effectively declared war on Chas and Hamish by sneaking into their room in the style of Uncle Monty (from the film Withnail and I) and waking them up. In preparation for a retaliation he locked the balcony door, barricaded our bedroom door and once asleep declared a snoring competition on me which he subsequently won. I resorted to listening to relaxing music for much of the night.

Saturday 1st August
I was vaguely aware of Hamish saying “How’s my boys eh?” and I was so dead to the world it wasn’t until later in the morning it was confirmed this exchange had occurred. It did however mean I had at least fallen asleep at some stage. We left and checked out of the hotel later than planned which meant yet again we were in a rush though this time the sirens were wailing and the lights were flashing red. Hamish led the way with a fast pace with Chas and I on his wheel but at 9.29 he announced he should receive a court martial for failing to get us there on time. Instead as we turned the corner on to the Vegetable Market I immediately saw the sign for the labyrinth and we collected our tickets with seconds to spare.

The tour was all in Czech however we were given English audio guides. The Labyrinth had a number of different underground displays which represented how the underground stores in Brno had been used. This included as a cellar for the Moravia region’s famous wines, a alchemist laboratory, a tavern and even a prison/torture chamber. Whilst the tour was guided our female guide only spoke Czech and whilst we were given audio guides the whole experience felt less personal.

Leaving the Labyrinth we probably relaxed a bit to much as we wondered around the market and dawdled however fortunately our entry time to the Ossuary under the Church of St James was more flexible and unguided. I hadn’t really known what to expect and the English description of the history didn’t fully prepare me. It appears that although 50,000 people had been buried there from around the 1800s it was forgotten and not re-discovered until 2001. The vault was on the verge of collapse so had to be preserved and it was at this point that all the skulls (cleaned) were used to decorate the room and even appeared to he used to build a pillars.

Whilst it is clearly a quite significant place it is not surprising that some find the various displays disturbing and Marc in particular found it an unpleasant experience. Personally I felt it was done in a similar way to the Capuchin Crypt I visited in Rome, perhaps in an attempt to almost imortalise the skulls however as they weren’t whole skeletons it certainly felt more creepy and sinister. The sheer numbers also meant it was difficult to forget these weren’t the remains of those that didn’t fear death (as was the case with the Capuchin Monks) but were victims of frequent plague and war that probably did.

We walked back to the main square where we found a restaurant that was serving even though it wasn’t lunch. Having skipped breakfast Chas and Hamish needed an “OJ” which is known as a coffee to you and me. An orange juice is of course also an OJ however confusion never arose about the beverage Marc and I knew they wanted. OJ gradually developed in to an OJB a coffee and a beer. I only occasionally drink coffee on holiday however even I thought the OJB seemed a great idea as I was tired from the night before.

For much of the trip Marcs rucksack strap had been holding together by a miraculous thread. As we wondered through town and towards Spilberk Castle I tried to encourage him to buy a new bag in the city centre where prices were likely to be cheap compared to home. As he announced the bag was completely fine it dropped to the floor in a ‘you had to be there moment’. Fortunately for him it hadn’t actually broken and the strap had just unattached so we carried on though another thread must surely have broken in the process.

We arrived at the bottom of the hill to the castle and made our way up. There were some pleasant views of the countryside and it was evident that the Czech Republics city was as small as it felt. Eventually we arrived at the gate to the castle and I used my camera as an excuse to have a brief race before I watched Marc bound up the steps and disappear. I wasn’t far away and a few seconds later I heard Hamish shout followed by laughter. I guessed what had happened so ran up the steps to see Marc holding his broken bag. “It’s oh kay” he said as he tied the strap together and pretended nothing was wrong.

My laughter didn’t last long and karma came back to bite. My phone hadn’t been happy all morning, heating up and restarting, not turning off correctly and the GPS wasn’t working. I turned off flight mode and I realised it was something serious when it failed to pick up a signal and merely told me to “insert sim card” which was already inserted. Whilst the others grabbed a quick OJ (coffee) I went to fetch Axel and after returning to the coffee shop we ended up having another dash to get the train.

I wasn’t quite sure why or how for the second day we’d left ourselves short of time but we made it to the platform with a bit of time to space but we were overheating. The air conditioning wasn’t working and seeing the guy in the corner was wearing a T Rex shirt Marc tried to start a conversation with a fellow fan of his favourite band. Despite the lack understanding in terms of language both understood the others pointing and the general message. The bottom line was that the window was locked but when the guard came the guy in the corner asked for it to be unlocked for us.

Hamish and Chas had gone to the buffet car for beer and when they returned I went on a similar adventure. It seemed I had to walk (sway) through the entire train before I was stopped from entering first class by ‘Maria’ who explained I’d walked past the buffet car. It transpired the restaurant car selling area was a cupboard which I’d mistaken for well a store cupboard. I returned back taking care not to wake a Czech soldier before Axel finally proved his worth and became a S-Head table. Hasmish failed to find a “Ace in the Hole” despite declaring otherwise every other go and after not losing once on the previous days lost 3 in a row.

The train was slightly delayed and whilst I’ve been on longer (4 days) than the 2 hours it took, I admit it did drag. It didn’t help I had a headache either caused by sleep deprivation, dehydration, to much coffee, or to much beer or a combination of the above. After downing a bottle of water we caught the underground to the hostel where we seemed to spend an age checking in. I noticed there was beer tasting and I hoped we would have time to take part after we had found somewhere to get dinner.

We headed towards the river and eventually found a fancy looking place selling authentic Czech food at a price where we could eat like kings. Sure it wasn’t the 15p a drink I remembered from 10 gears ago when I went with my dad but a roast duck dumpling feast and a beer for under £5 wasn’t bad at all. For a third time in a day we had to have another brisk walk to get to the beer tasting. Initially the group was quite small, us, 2 Americans and 1 Australian however within about 15 minutes the group had expanded so an extra table was required.

The beer tasting was interesting and also a great way to meet some of the other people in the hostel. Apparently the average Czech drink 148.6 liters per capita making them number one in the world and due to the water content you can remain hydrated after 5 pint (or the equivalent of). This didn’t surprise me and there have been times in history when drinking was healthier than drinking water but there was another ‘fact’ that I thought was quite amazing. In the UK we tilt our glasses when pouring pints and I noticed that our expert beer taster wasn’t and it was almost like she read my mind when she explained why. Basically German and Czech beer is different and the glasses are designed to allow plenty of room for head which let’s the gas out. By the time we had the shot Becherovka which tasted like Christmas we were a chatty social group.

Marc had opted to skip the beer tasting and after finding him at a small bar we crossed over the bridge where we found a nice place with a table. As we sat chatting Hamish enchanted us with Calibans famous soliloquy from Tempest and some other famous poems and speeches he’d memorised. I was utterly impressed he’d learnt them all as a hobby and was unaware of his hidden talent.

After leaving the pub we wondered through the small old narrow streets of Prague in search of a traditional beer hall which Chas had located on the map. It was further away than initially anticipated but when we arrived we sat down on a table with a friendly local. Hand gestures, and one or two words were all we really needed to communicate though because he didn’t speak much English and we spoke no Czech besides “na zdraví” (cheers) so got a friend on another table to join us as an interpreter. The beer which had come out of a ancient looking tap rather than a modern fancy pump seemed to taste even better than the previous pints but we were thwarted in having another as the bar had closed.

As I had only had a radler at the first bar I was probably a bit too sober considering I was quite tired and not in the best state of mind because of my phone. I just wanted to get home but had I been a bit more merry I’d have been happier to go along with the flow on the journey home. Marc had already disappeared so I was dependent on Chas and Hamish and all the above caused a bit of a silly squabble when they wanted to have one more pint in a Reggae bar.

As it was when we did get to the hostel (having randomly bumped in to Marc in a kebab house) all the lights in my room (the others were in a different room) were on and it was clear sleep was the last thing happening. Everyone in the room seemed quite friendly and it was much better than discovering everyone was asleep. I wasn’t as chatty as perhaps I usually am because I knew my holiday was nearly over and when gradually people started to turn out their lights I followed suit and probably fell straight sleep.

Sunday 2nd August
There was a bit of confusion as to where we were meeting in the morning for breakfast and without a working phone I awaited in reception. Eventually assuming the others were still in bed I went to their room where I discovered them waiting in the hall waiting for me to come out of my room. Re-united we went in search of a cafe still serving breakfast in the old town so we could combine the walk with seeing some of Prague’s historic old town.

After we had eaten breakfast we continued to explore the old town and inadvertently stumbled upon the famous Old Town Square just before 11:00. We therefore decided to wait a few minutes so that we could see the famous Orloj (Prague Astronomical Clock) display. We then did a loop and returned back to the bridge near the hostel so we could hire a rowing boat along the Vltava.

Whilst the others each had a go I didn’t want to risk my camera so merely took pictures to record the event. The ‘highlights’ were getting a bit close to one of the bigger boats, Chas and Marc trying to swap positions which caused the boat to tilt dangerously to one side and Chas nearly crashing the boat in to the bank. It was despite those hilarious mishaps quite relaxing for me (perhaps not the others) and very pleasant to see a different view if Prague.

After rowing, Marc and I went for a refreshing fruit drink whilst Hamish and Chas checked out some markets on the Island. On our way I got a doughnut style roll with nutella spread inside. After a few days of rushing around even I was grateful to have a bit of down time before meeting Marc’s friend Ruth. Marc went to find her, Chas and Hamish whilst I paid and after they returned to find me we all went to an American style diner for food. On the way to the restaurant we introduced Ruth to Marc goading by them hiding in a shop doorway and jumping out on him in unison. We also introduced her to S-Head and for a while it looked like Hamish would lose again but he somehow saved himself and Ruth lost much to the disappointment of Chas, Marc and I

Hamish and I had to prepare to go home but still had to get a few gifts. Earlier I’d seen some wafer biscuits (edit: which went down very well at work) but Ruth encouraged me to get them from Tesco as they were cheaper. So it was that Tesco became the last place I saw in Prague before collecting Axel and making my way to the airport. On our way it started raining, which I said was Prague crying tears of sadness at us leaving. It had been an intense holiday but ultimately a lot of fun and by the end I was already thinking where the next Coldening adventure could be.

S Head and beers

S Head and beers

Footnote.
After getting the underground and a bus Hamish and I arrived at the airport. Even though we were early the check in desk was open and we were one of the first inline. After 15 minutes, perhaps more, it dawned on us the family being served were still there and when they did finally move and it was our turn we discovered the flight was delayed by 3 hours. We used our free food compensation vouchers to get some goulash soup, a bagel and a beer. This ate up some time before we went on a walk around the different gift shops where I brought myself some Becherovka In a little gift set which came with a glass. We also spent time playing a game called “Which Bin does my Rubbish go In”, which reached fever pitch when I discovered a forgotten receipt. When we did finally go to the lounge we were joined by groups on stag dos and when one poor girl smashed her bottle of vodka it seemed everyone even children looked to see her helplessly watching the contents spill over the floor. We got to Victoria at 1am by which point all the trains to Balham had gone to bed, which is where we wanted to be. If my phone had been working I would have tried to get a hotel but instead I had to get a taxi, telling the driver sadly “I’ll be back here in just over 7 hours!” It had been pretty horrendous but Hamish and I stayed strong, kept each others spirits up and it didn’t affect the great time we had experienced.

Boys are Back in Town: Vienna

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The historic centre of Vienna from the tower of St Stephens Church

Thursday 30th July

As my alarm went off at 3.45am I nearly made the mistake of turning it off and sleeping for just  ‘a few more seconds’. Fortunately instead after a few more seconds had passed I sat bolt upright as I remembered why I had set my alarm for such a cruel hour. Eventually I left the house just as the sun was beginning to rise because whilst it was dark all around there was light in the east. I made my way through the town and saw a small cat, perhaps a kitten that had torn open a black bag and was devouring the contents. It must have been startled to see a human because as it turned to look at me it had a ‘hand caught in the cookie jar’ face.

Marc was last to arrive for the taxi and whilst this initially led to the popular sport ‘Marc Goading’ the journey itself was uneventful. At the airport Chas had to collect the money he’d ordered which took a lifetime. Marc realised he had to phone the bank and saying he was with Halifax I gave him the number. He called and then having failed to correctly provide his account details got put through to the help desk where it was politely pointed out to him that he didn’t bank with Halifax. My moment of tiredness kicked in at airport security where I forgot to take out my hand gel and small bottle of aftershave causing my bag to receive a thorough search. As we waited Marc mocked me for my pacman t shirt, the floral patterned aftershave travel bottle (which I’ve kept because it was free and practical) and perhaps correctly my hip patch which has been decommissioned as a result. I was also the only person with a suitcase and ‘he’ quickly got the name Axial (pronounced Axl) Rolls as “he” was made by Axial.

I tried to sleep on the plane but when ever I was close to nodding off Hamish used a ‘nose prod’ to wake me up. At one stage I caught the culprit red handed as I randomly swiped the air when I had my jumper over my head to block at the light. Arriving in Vienna we made our way outside, boarded the bus and found the hostel with little difficulty thanks to Chas’s logistical planning. We checked in to the hostel and dumped our bags in the room before heading back out to explore the city.

Whilst I had spent some time putting some general ideas together there was no set plan as to how we would spend our first half day. As it was we stumbled across the Hofburg Imperial Palace as we meandered up some of the famous narrow lanes towards St Stephens Church. The Hofburg Imperial Palace, one of the old Habsburg palaces was pretty spectacular and there were some Roman ruins in front. We passed some nice statues and buildings though admittedly probably didn’t appreciate their significance before we eventually arrived at the church.

The knave was free so we went in and I admit I was impressed at how spectacular it was. Next Chas, Hamish and I decided to climb one of the towers whilst Marc opted to stay downstairs in a ‘designated area’ (play pen). Every time I climb a tower it sounds a great idea at the bottom and by the time I’m half way up I start to question if the effort will be worth it and accept I’m that little bit more unfit than the time before. On this occasion I got to what I thought was the top before realising I had further to go. With a heavy heart and heavier legs I climbed the final part of the tower. It had seemed a good way to get a sense of the size of Vienna and as it was a clear beautiful day the views were pretty good.

Leaving the church we stumbled upon a café at a goulash museum. Obviously the obvious choice was the goulash but I saw the Austrian veal schnitzel and my heart was set. Washed down with a beer it was the perfect tonic to re-energise the batteries and we then made our way to the Kaiser-gruft (imperial vault) the final resting place of the Habsburg emperors and close relatives. Some of the coffins were quite elaborate and I wondered whether that symbolised the wealth of the nation at the time, the emperors popularity or whether they had requested it at the expense of the population. I was surprised that Franz Ferdinand wasn’t among them considering the unfortunate role he played in world history when his assassination was ultimately the powder keg in a chain of events that culminated in the first world war. It wasn’t what I expected and as the displays were in only in German I had no idea what the information boards said other than the names. I don’t think the others had been overly impressed either and my self designated role as tour leader was in jeopardy as a result.

Vienna is to me arguably one of the historical cultural capitals of Europe due to its fine art collections and the famous composers that lived and died there. Our first real taste of the arts was at the Fine Arts Museum where Chas and I were led around by Hamish. Hamish explained why some of the paintings such as Rembrant’s self portrait, Hunters in the Snow by and David and Goliath by Caravaggio were historically significant and why their styles were adopted and adapted.

In one of the rooms I saw a big comfy looking chair and as my legs were weary I sat down to appreciate the fine paintings. As Chas and I relaxed a bit to much on a comfy chair Hamish took out his pad and began sketching. By the time he’d finished it was impossible to deny I’d nodded of. We left the art gallery and caught the tram with the intention of doing a full loop of the historical old town however realised we were on the wrong route so got off and proceeded to walk to the Rathaus  (Town Hall).

Not far from there one of the others spotted a wine bar and so we wondered in to break the journey up. It felt like we were slightly off the tourist trail so it wasn’t that busy and the waitress was quite friendly. We ended up spending about an hour before we left and finished our walk to the Rathaus. Some kind of festival appeared taking place and it looked quite busy so we made a decision to carry on to St Charles Church where Chas, Hamish and I were seeing the Opera Ava Maria.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect about how the venue seating would work as it was unallocated, how professional the show would be or how strict the time on the ticket would be. As it was we were able to have a quick beer before taking our seats. The church itself was spectacular however our seats were about as far from the front as we could have got though had been a fraction of the premium price.

I admit I’m not as familiar with classical music, especially Opera as perhaps I should or rather would like to be however the beautiful baroque cathedral surroundings and acoustics meant it felt a particularly powerful performance. Canon by Pachelbel is my favourite as it reminds of my childhood and as far as I’m aware it was probably the first piece I heard. I didn’t recognise any of the music before Cannon and as soon as the first note was played I recognised it, daring not to believe I was going to hear my favourite piece live in Vienna. Everyone else probably favoured the two Ava Maria pieces by Bach/Gounod and Schubert respectively. All in all I think Hamish and Chas enjoyed it as much as me.

We met up with Marc who had waited for us in the beer garden outside the church. As it was still only 9.30 we then began a quest to find some food. There is some debate as to who was responsible for the unacceptable failure of the mission. Marc maintains that he was cleared of any responsibility because we walked up a parallel street. This is however a conflicting account to that remembered by the editor as he had claimed to have scouted the area and had announced there were “loads of places” on a busy road at the end of a seedy feeling narrow street. The busy road never materialised and we ended up getting a kebab before catching the underground home. It is worth noting Chas and Hamish were partly responsible for us walking in a complete loop for an hour however as they had a clean history having successfully completed the Suffolk Coastal Path with me a year earlier both were cleared of any potential charges of idiocy.

Eventually we arrived back at the hostel where we had a nightcap and I made my worst decision of the day by having a schnapps We then played a few games of S-Head before heading upstairs where having been up 20 hours and overcome with tiredness Marcs snoring, which resembled the hum of a ships engine room, sent us all off to sleep.

Friday 31st July
We all got going slightly later than planned after we had woken up and we weren’t helped by the fact there was only two showers on the floor. Eventually however Hamish, Chas and I went down for breakfast and Marc followed a couple of minutes later. We then spent quite a few minutes with the very patient and helpful hostel receptionist who planned our routes so we could do the activities we wanted and crucially get to the main station in time for our train to Brno.

Due to time constraints it wasn’t possible for us to swim in the Danube and to go to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). Whilst it was a hot day and it sounded a unique opportunity to swim in the Danube I opted for the cemetery. I was already questioning my judgement when I realised there had been a crash with a tram up ahead and after using Google translate understood ‘Fahrt deaktiviert’ meant “drive disabled”. Google maps suggested a bus and following my gps signal on the map all was going well until after passing the cemetery we kept going. Eventually we reached a bus stop and I was let off and it felt like I was as far away as I’d been before boarding but the opposite direction.

I trudged back and finally reached gate 4 where I was told off for trying to enter. The cemetery is free so I knew that payment wasn’t the issue however whilst I didn’t understand all the german as the gate keeper was wearing a Kippah and he pointed at it I assume that it was a private Jewish cemetery. I carried on and finally reached gate 3 where I worked out I had around 30 minutes to find The Dr. Karl Lueger-Gedächtniskirche Church as well as a couple of the famous composers memorials. In all the bus journey had added one hour to my journey time and as my pedometer buzzed I realised I’d also already achieved my 12000 step target.

I walked along like a man on a mission aiming for the spot Google maps claimed to be the church. All the paths looked the same and I wondered whether once I’d found the church how I’d find my way out. Despite it being a large structure it didn’t seem much higher than the trees so I didn’t at any stage have any indication whether I was close or even heading in the right direction. I was questioning my judgement and perhaps for the first time in recent years feared I’d feel the effort wouldn’t be worth it.

As it turned out, all the delays and effort had the opposite causing me to feel slightly overwhelmed once I’d found the church and allowed myself to take in the scale of the cemetery. I’d given up hope of paying my respects to Beethoven Mozart and Schubert however as I wondered around aimlessly trying to find my way out I had some luck and spotted a few pockets of people looking at one of the graces. I edged over more in hope than expectation and realised all 3 of the above were buried together. I raced back to West Bahn Hof and arrived back at exactly the same time as the others.

This is the account of the Danube as told by Hamish: Siz man was immovable, no, he would not come to swim in the Danube as the grave museum of Wien beckoned. With a resolute shuffle, off Siz went to get the tram (which later crashed).

Us three boys went north on the hyper efficient metro system, during which we became the bawdiest and loudest occupants of the carriage whilst Marc regaled us with his impressions of Patrick Stewarts ridiculous quadruple take. Wien whizzed past through the metro window, and soon the mighty expanse of the Danube slid beneath us, to our collective gasps and whoops of the anticipated swim.

Alighting on a deserted platform we tumbled down to the banks of the Danube, little time was wasted and quicker than you can say ‘belts off trousers down’ we were paddling in the cool waters. Fearing he might drown, Marc remained on shore guarding our stuff but took his shirt off to show solidarity. Myself and Chas began a proper swim, frolicking like seal pups. After a few close calls with swans, we headed back to the shore and began searching for an ‘OJ’ bar. (Ed: coffee bar)

We secured OJ’s, ice creams and mineral wasser in a tin rectangle dispensery and began to chill on some park benches, we wondered how Sizzler’s grave tour was going and wished he’d decided to join us!

Heading back we were briefly accosted by a shirt-less Wienien who wanted some cigarettes, sidestepping this we hopped onto the next metro back. The metro was now pretty full and we made a real effort to tone down our bawdiness. Despite this, Chas’s comedically enormous back pack succeeded in cuffing an old man in the jaw a few times, but this is the price the Weiniens must pay for our touristing!

With military precision, we met Sizzler at the station. We exchanged activity brief-downs and commiserated Siz on his grave museum trip (Ed: pun intended I’m sure). The town of Biro beckoned and we still had to make a detour to collect Axial Rolls from the hostel.

Reunited, a decision was made to find some lunch and we came across a small cafe with seating on the pavement a few minutes from the hostel. With a few hours before the train we then made our way towards the Schloss (Castle). We decided to walk rather than get the tram however within minutes got overtaken by one which would have halved the journey time. As a result by the time we arrived we were already looking at watches to calculate when we had to leave to ensure we got back in time for me to collect Axial Rolls from the hostel.

The ‘Castle’ itself would be better described as a palace so whilst it looked quite grand it wasn’t what I had expected. It obviously has a lot of history associated with it as it was the Summer residence of the Austrian monarchy and seeing it was still worth the visit. We spent a few minutes wondering around the square and around the gardens before making our way to the tram stop.

The others grabbed some train supplies whilst I collected Axial. Whilst we were nervously looking at out watches the journey to the main train station was actually uneventful and not quite the mad dash across Moscow I once experienced. As it was we arrived about 20 minutes before the departure which is what I had aimed for. Eventually the train arrived, we found our seats and once the guard and checked the tickets and not kicked us off I could relax knowing stage one of our journey was complete with no disasters.

New Horizons: Wernigerode to London Paddington

Reflecting on the Eurostar

Reflecting on the Eurostar

Saturday 13th June
As we left the accommodation we made one final journey to Wernigerode station. We watched a train depart and then I said my goodbyes to dad and Jenny. It had only felt like a few days and was hard to believe it had been a week. I’d have loved to have stayed and explored more of Saxony especially Dresden with them and I know I’ll feel slightly envious when I hear how the rest of the trip went.

I sat on Wernigerode station and my train to Goslar arrived and left exactly at the scheduled time of 11.20. During May railway staff had been on strike however luckily they were currently in mediation which meant there couldn’t be a strike until the second week of June and I wouldn’t be affected.

My internet booking told me what platforms I needed and which I’d arrive on so when I arrived at Goslar (on time) I saw I had an easy change from platform 5 to 4.  I was well aware a delay on this stage would be unrecoverable so I was thankful it was as easy I’d anticipated.

In the UK a 9 minute transfer would have been tight and risky if not reckless especially as bookings do not state in advance which platform a train departs from so you are entirely at the mercy of Sods Law. I’m sure this information could be provided and if not it really begs the question why. Is there really no routine to which platform a long distance train will arrive and depart from and does our network therfore run on organised chaos and chance? When it comes to trains in my recent experience Germany wins handsomely.

The train to Hannover was also on time and quite empty. I was pleasantly surprised to note there was an electric socket so I could add a bit of juice to my tablet which still had to last another 10 hours. I had a break from writing and had some of my lunch and snacks. I finally finished off the pretzels I brought enroute to Wernigerode and which had served me well for 5 days when I’d been peckish. I don’t normally opt for pretzels, in fact I never have and I don’t really know why I had on this occasion but they had certainly done what was required.

At Hannover I had no difficulty finding the platform but felt more anxious than on the previous journeys. On the regional trains I hadn’t had a seat reservation and could sit anywhere as they were relatively empty however for my train to Koln I did have a seat reservation and the platform was heaving. Whilst I understood in theory which carriage (32) and seat (window 62) I had reserved when the train came in I had no idea where to actually go as there were no numbers on the side. All I knew was to stay in the back half because it appeared the front was going to Dusseldorf.

Luckily the station porter was able to explain and I made my way to the second to last carriage. It was chaos on the inside with suitcases everywhere and people that had got on the wrong carriage blocking the path as they stood confused looking at boards. Eventually I was able to make my way to my seat and as a bonus it was by the luggage rack.

Someone was in my seat so I took theirs because I wasn’t overly fussed about being by the window and they’d taken their shoes off and clearly made themselves at home. I wrote a bit of my blog before slowly dozing off and I woke up with a start realising the guy next to me was standing on his seat trying to check his bag. I offered to get out but he refused and so I dozed off again.

By the time we arrived at Hagen Hbf (station) we were running slightly late though I wasn’t overly concerned as I had 30 minutes before my train to Brussels from Koln. As we approached Wuppertal I looked out for the schwebebahn and whilst I saw the route briefly outside the window opposite I didn’t catch a final glimpse of any of the trains.

When we finally arrived in Koln we were over 10 minutes. I couldn’t see an information board showing my train to Brussels but thankfully found an information desk. Ironically the platform I needed was the one I’d just come down from so I made my way back up. This time I found my carriage straight away as they were more clearly labelled and took my seat by the window which had a electric socket.

The German trains had been fine but the Thayls which wasn’t run by DB somewhat predictably ground to a halt 15 minutes outside of Achen with an accompanying announcement stating “no further information about this delay is available”. It was slightly unnerving when we had stopped but I knew whilst I had to check in 30 minutes before departure I had allowed an additional 50 minutes just in case. When there was finally an announcement in a mixture of French and broken English I became slightly concerned when I thought it said the delay would be 50 minutes due to the line being closed. However fortunately shortly after we left and I realised it had probably said 15 minutes.

I had relied on 5 train changes but as I pulled in to Brussels I knew I was well and truly homeward bound. I had been on the train for just over 7 hours and 30 minutes and the fact I was only 18 minutes late didn’t seem that bad. As I made my way to the Eurostar I debated in my head which language I should say hello. By now I was quite used to attempting to speak German but I was in Belgium with a arrow ahead clearly saying “To the UK”. I decided on a cheery bonjour and in a rather surreal way they replied ‘Ello in a typical friendly cockney accent.

At baggage control I got overtaken by a group of over excited adults of my parents generation as I calmly ensured I’d removed everything that would cause the machine to bleep. Not heeding my actions they then delayed everyone behind as each one caused it to bleep and for bags to be taken to one side. They received a glare and a tut off me, not that I was in any hurry but it was the principle.

I still remember when I travelled on the Eurostar to Waterloo from Paris on my first and only journey in the late 1990s and how modern it felt. The first thing I noticed this time more than 15 years later is how much the carriage I was on had aged. I suppose I had been spoilt by the larger German trains but I was amazed at the lack of leg room and space. I’d booked my tickets quite late and I was probably lucky to even get a seat considering the Brussels to London train isn’t that frequent but for the price I’d paid I expected more than what the carriage offered (not even an electric plug). A refreshing complimentary glass of champagne in a gold goblet would have gone some way to making amends but I assume this isn’t available to cattle class.

I caught up with my blog and contemplated reading my new book but in the end I decided to relax with my music. It had been quite a hectic build up to the holiday as I’d left my home of 5 years the week before and moved to a new flat share in Balham. I hadn’t seen much of my new housemates in my first week and as I entered the tunnel I knew I was quite excited to properly be starting my next chapter in London. Recently I have met some great mutual friends that share my sense of adventure. Unfortunately one of them is due back to the ‘Land Down Under’ soon and all it’s done is reinforced my belief you just have to make the most of life’s experiences whilst you can.

All or Nothing: The Harz Region

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One of the steam engines approaches the top of the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz region

Monday 8th June
As we travelled from Goslar to Wernigerode we caught our first proper glimpse of the Brocken. The Brocken is the tallest mountain in the Harz region and besides its height is unmistakable due to the antenna placed on top by the soviets in the cold war when the region fell under East Germany so they could use it as a listening point.

We arrived in Wernigerode however the one way system was slightly tough to navigate. Whilst “Tina” held her nerve I lost mine and misunderstanding the instructions caused us to take a 5 minute detour. Eventually we arrived at our self catering accommodation and collected the keys off the owner who showed us around. We then walked to the Lidl across the road where we picked up sandwich supplies and food for a couple of dinners.

As we’d had a big lunch we had a quick bite to eat before I got my first opportunity to explore Wernigerode. For about 4 years my camera and I have been inseparable when on holiday because you never know when you will have an opportunity to snap the elusive “perfect” picture. Not everyone has that mentality, I have at least one good friend that is the total opposite and he tells me to take a photo with my eyes. As it was I made a conscious decision to leave my camera behind and as soon as we entered the market square I felt a sickening feeling of regret.

The “Rathaus” (town hall) was beautifully lit up by the sun which was slowly setting creating pinkish clouds in the horizon. We carried on the walk around the town and caught our first glimpse of the famous Harz Mountain Railway which we planned to use to explore the region over the following 4 days. Whilst I knew I would have ample opportunities to photograph the steam engines making the trip up to the Brocken I still felt mildly irritated at myself for missing the first opportunity.

It seemed a pleasant though quiet town and after passing through the centre we saw the “West Gate” of the old towns fortifications before continuing towards the smallest house (kleinist haus) where just around the corner there was a fantastic view of the castle (Schloss). Having walked around the town it seemed a good opportunity to find a beer house and we eventually settled on one where I had a Hasseroder schwarz-dunkel (stout).

That evening I noticed a framed newspaper cutting on the place we were staying. Whilst Google translate struggled to work it all out it appeared we were staying in a building with plenty of history and which had been a hospital at one point. Unfortunately all this caused my imagination to work in over drive so when my bed side light flickered (probably due to a dodgy wire) I immediately assumed my room was haunted.

Tuesday 9th June
I woke up earlier than planned the following morning perhaps because I was eager to start the day and explore an area my dad and Jenny had told me a lot about from a previous holiday. Dad and I walked to Wernigerode station and I was very impressed when he was able to speak to the person at the ticket office in German. Having brought a pass to last us 3 consecutive days we returned to the house and with Jenny walked back through town.

The Market Square was much more active than the previous night and there were a number of different market stands. We heard a distant whistle and the road barriers come down so we watched another train departing for the Brocken before walking back to the station. It was finally our chance to have a ride behind the steam engine and our plan was to travel from Wernigerode in the Northern Hartz region to Nordhausen in the south. The distance was about 60km however the journey there and back including a few hours to explore would take most of the day.

The train wasn’t as busy as I had expected considering it was the only one of the day where an easy connection to Nordhausen was possible. Whilst we were technically sat together I spent most of the time on the balcony taking in the views and dodging smuts thrown out from the locomotive as it powerered up the hillside towards Drei Annen Hohne. I am used to the little narrow guage trains of North Wales which are painted in different colours, have names like ‘Prince’, ‘Welsh Pony’, ‘Dolgoch’ and ‘The Earl’, look like models due to the way the Welsh mountains tower over them and therefore in my opinion have a certain romantic charm about them.

The German stereotype is to strive for efficiency and it is no surprise the engines follow that trend and regardless of type all the engines are black with perhaps a bit of red on the wheels. Even the oldest don’t have names and are referred to solely by number which also designates how useful it is. Whilst the engine that hauled us was both powerful and practical it didn’t have the same Welsh charm but it did make a fantastic sound and from a technical point of view it was probably a train enthusiasts dream.

The technical information is lost on me despite my love of fire and coal which it appears I’ve had from before I can really remember. My interest really came to the fore when half way up Mount Snowdon I burst in to tears and no matter what my parents did I wouldn’t stop until at the summit I suddenly went silent. I was certainly under 4 but still clearly remember the experience as do they as I believe I was often quite placid. We had been taken to the top by a evil diesel (reference to Thomas the Tank Engine which I was obsessed with as a child) but at the summit I’d seen a steam engine.

Back to the Harz where at Drei Annen Hohne our engine was taken off to take a train up the Brocken. The engine that had been at the back of that train was then transferred to the front of ours. It looked identical and I may not have noticed had it not been pointing a different way. It was also at Drei Annen Hohne that the few people that were on our carriage got off to transfer to the train going to the Brocken.

We carried on up the line and I carried on standing on the balcony until we reached a station called Ilfeld which I later realised was the settlement on the edge of the Harz. We didn’t have time to explore and instead immediately boarded a diesel railcar to Niedersachswerfen Ost. We were the only passengers and may have accidentally upset our driver when we tried to ask (in German) if we were going in the right direction.

Once we arrived in Niedersachswerfen Ost we had just over 30 minutes to walk around though it was pretty small with little to interest tourists and everything including the entrance to the station appeared closed. Having walked up to a church we returned and boarded a modern looking tram to Nordhausen. This was fairly busy however it was apparent most were locals and we were the only tourists exploring this stretch of the line.

With a few hours to spare we found a cafe where I had a refreshing Wernegrunger Pils. Refuelled we walked from the lower Stadt to the “Alt Stadt?” (Old town) at the top of the hill. Tragically in April 1945 20% of the towns population were injured or killed in an air raid attack and most of the old town was destroyed as a result. There were a few nice buildings including the Rathaus (town house). Ironically the oldest building was a church from 900AD which I’d initially I’d dismissed it as a point of interest because it looked fairly modern.

We returned back to the tram station and saw a steam engine arrive at Nordhausen Nord the official end of the Harz as our tram back to Niedersachswerfen Ost arrived. We thought we’d have to change again at Ilfeld but instead the driver (the same one from earlier) confirmed the railcar would took us all the way back to Wernigerode. We had pretty much the entire carriage to ourselves and whilst we mostly sat behind the driver it was a long journey so I did occasionally walk to the back as it had an observation window which provided great views.

It had been a long day and we finally arrived back in Wernigerode at 8.30 having completed the Trans-Harz Route in full. Once we were back home Jenny kindly cooked us all some pasta and mince which was lecker (delicious).

Wednesday 10th June
I woke up early again and so spent 20 minutes using Duolingo (an app recommended to me by Victoria) to help me learn German. After we had all had breakfast and were showered we walked to Wernigerode station so we could catch the steam train to the Brocken.

I hadn’t initially planned to stand on the balcony until Drei Annen Hohne where the route splits with one branch to Nordhausen and the other to the Brocken. Despite it being colder than the day before I couldn’t resist the temptation and by the time we arrived at Schierke it was was so busy I was given the ultimatum of stand or sit. I opted to stand which meant I got some fantastic views once we finally burst out of the forest on the final climb to the summit.

I was surprised at the speed we continued to go as we hugged the mountain side, looping round the outside on a steadily steep gradient. Slowly the antenna came in to view and then grew taller and taller until finally we were at the highest point of the Harz. It was as cold as I’d expected from summer trips up Snowdon and we had a bit of a walk around the top. Whilst it was cold the sky was initially clear so we had some good views and even when it became cloudy above the summit itself remained clear.

The original plan had been to walk from the summit to Schierke but the path was a lot longer than we had anticipated. We had been led to believe that one of the oldest engines on the line would be hauling a special consisting of the lines oldest carriages so we decided to wait for that before travelling back down. The engine wasn’t one of the mallets that the line is famous for which was slightly disappointing because they are quite unique and rare but it was still a good sight with the Harz region in the distance.

We caught the train back down to Wernigerode and as it wasn’t very busy I was able to move between a seat and the balcony when the views appeared interesting. It was warmer down the bottom so we decided to visit a miniature model village we’d seen a sign for. The walk was a bit further than I calculated but we eventually arrived.

I had recently been to Bekonscot model village with my cousins and nephew and even as an oversized child I still found it fascinating. Despite this and the description I approached this model village with low expectations hoping to be pleasantly surprised and I was. There was amazing detail on the buildings, quite a few of which we’d seen over the previous days. The highlight for me was the railway section where a miniature train travelled to the top of the Brocken, the engine uncoupled, ran round and took the train back down. Equally impressive was a model of Wernigerode Castle and a church we hadn’t visited that towered over me. By now the sun had come out and it was a very pleasant way to spend an hour.

We returned back to our accommodation where we had dinner before heading back out for a drink at the Kartoffelhaus which had looked interesting when we’d walked past on the first night. This time I did take my camera so I got a picture of the Rathaus and market square. The interior of the restaurant was quite unique and whilst it didn’t look original it would have been nice to understand the plaque which gave a history of the building. I was still attempting to have a different beer at each bar so this time I had the Hasseroder premium pills before we returned home.

Thursday 11th June
As with the other mornings I’d woken up earlier than expected which to me didn’t make sense because we were an hour ahead of UK time so I was actually waking up even earlier than usual. It would be nice to think I could keep the new sleeping pattern up when I’m home but I know from experience that I’ll quickly slip back in to my normal routine.

After two whole days of not requiring a car it was strange to set up the SatNav again and to resume my duties. There were however no issues in getting to Quedlinburg and “Tina” had no issues in getting us to the car park requested. The problem was the car park we’d set it to was only for an hour. Luckily whilst the second carpark we tried wasn’t overly convenient in terms of location there was a cafe and dad was able to ask (in German) for advice. Not only were we directed to a car park by the train station but the kind man gave us a map of the town.

The old town of Quedlinburg is also UNESCO listed and almost as soon as we started the walk up a steep path to the castle/church with a dramatic fortified wall to the right I admit I was almost instantly snapping away on the camera. We walked up to the old castle, now the site of a church but didn’t go in to the museum. Instead we went back down the hill in to the Market square which had another delightful Rathaus and sat to have a drink outside as it was already a hot day.

We had almost 3 hours in Quedlinburg before our train to Hasselfelde which had felt a good amount of time without feeling rushed even though at one point I realised dad was rushing us a bit because he thought our train left an hour earlier than it did. Instead we ate our sandwiches in a park before returning to the station. We had expected the section from Quedlinburg to Gernrode to be a diesel but because it was a Thursday it was steam.

At Gernrode we changed trains and were hauled by a locomotive known as the prototype because it is the one of its type as the war stopped construction of any more. This train took us all the way to Hasselfelde and as we were in the back carriage I spent the time on the back balcony. This gave great unobstructed views of where we had come from and when we went round corners good views of the loco working hard.

We passed other trains at Alexisbad the main base of operations on this route before arriving at Strassberg where a big party of school children got on. They got off a couple of stops later so I assume they were local to the area. Eventually we arrived at Stiege where we stopped a brief time before continuing to Hasselfelde. There wasn’t time to explore so instead we just stayed on the platform where we noticed a Welsh flag. I had heard about an agreement between the Ffestiniog Railway I used to volunteer on and the Harz railway so I assume it was to do with that.

At Hasselfelde the train moved to front and took us to Elsfelder Talmuhle. Initially we thought we were going to be stranded at Stiege for 50 minutes before it was confirmed we could stay on the train we were on as it would eventually return to Quedlinburg. Now we were at the front of the train so I only stood on the balcony for a few minutes because it was noisy, dirty and the view was blocked by the loco. It was still a rather unique experience though.

At Elsfelder Talmuhle we waited for a train heading towards Wernigerode and a diesel railcar heading towards Nordhausen before the train again changed ends to take us back to Stiege. Reaching Elsfelder Talmuhle meant we had only missed out on 3km of the whole Harz section which was quite an achievement from 3 days travelling. At Stiege the engine was again moved to our end and we eventually arrived back in Quedlinburg at 7.30.

After the road we wanted to take was closed and we missed the diversion sign and this delayed us back to Wernigerode by almost 10 minutes. It wasn’t until after 8.45 that we made our way to a pub / restaurant dad had spotted the previous day. Fortunately whilst Wernigerode had been quite a sleepy town the Hotel Altora was still serving food so I had a Harz style goulash with a Radeberger pilsner.

The drinks arrived in a way I never expected and instantly made the child inside me come out and decide there and then that if I ever have the money I will do something similar. As we sat talking we suddenly heard what sounded like a model train and as we looked over to the bar we saw one trundling down the tracks next to our table which we’d missed (or at least I had). But it was what the little train was carrying that impressed us because standing in the wagons were 2 beers and an orange juice. The bar staff were smiling. They’d obviously seen our type of reaction before. The food was delicious and I ordered a second drink so I could get a video of the train. Obviously Germans have a reputation for being efficient but this took it to a new level.

Friday 12th June
I woke up feeling slightly sad that my last full day in Germany had already arrived. We’d packed a lot in and no doubt Jenny and dad had slightly regretted bringing me along because I know I like to cram in as much as possible in to the time available. During the morning we planned to explore Wernigerode castle before joining a tour of the locomotive workshops for the Harz Railway.

On our way to the Schloss we stopped off at the tourist information centre in the Market Square so we had a map of where we needed to go. It was already feeling the hottest it had been certainly since Wuppertal not that it had ever been that cold (besides the top of the Brocken). The climb up the steep hill was also our first proper workout because despite a fair amount of walking much of it had been on fairly level ground through towns. My calf muscles were set to give way by the time we reached the top and I had to accept my fitness levels have plummeted since my 8km gorilla run in September.

We could have brought an audio guide for the castle but instead got a detailed guide book which gave the necessary information for the two tours. The castle had once been owned by Otto Von Bismarck, responsible for German unification in 1871 and whose name was ultimately used for the famous flag ship of the German navy in the second world war. The castle was also visited by various German Kaisers including the last Kaiser Wilhelm II who was forced to abdicate after defeat in the first world war.

The castle and Wernigerode were located in East Germany so after the war the castle was included as part of the soviets land seizures (war repatriation). Whilst it had already been opened as a museum before the war it had obviously closed and didn’t reopen until 1949. In recent years a number of the rooms had been restored to original condition as it was when owned by Count Otto when married to (his direct cousin) Princess Anna. The tours of the rooms were shorter than I expected but informative and well presented.

Leaving the castle we returned back to the town to enjoy a drink in the market square before making a quick visit to the tourist information so we could plan something for the afternoon. Fortunately the girl behind the desk was very helpful and advised us to go on a 3km walk to the Kaiserturm. First though we walked to Wernigerode Westentor (West Gate) so we could join a rare behind the scenes tour of the railway.

As we had expected all of the tour was in German however we weren’t the only people from the UK and a gentleman from North West Germany kindly translated some bits and explained soviet occupation meant Russian not English was still the second language in the region. A lot of the information was probably quite technical and I was almost relieved I could switch my brain off and wonder around just taking the pictures I wanted without pretending to listen. Inside we saw one of the mallets and another engine where he spent a good 15 minutes pointing to different parts. When we emerged outside he spent quite a bit of time talking and I made an effort to try to capture some phrase but gave up and went back in to photography mode. I was however glad to have had the chance to go inside and my dad gave me a brief synopsis afterwards as he’d spent most of the tour listening with our west German friend.

Leaving the railway for the final time we started the walk to the Kaiserturm. A group of children were ahead and appeared to be on the way to the most organised picnic ever as 3 of them pulled a cart of food up the hill and others carried blankets. I was deeply impressed and wondered how German efficiency would surprise me next. After over 2km walking up the hill my legs for a second time in a day were ready to fall off so we had a mini break before continuing our journey where we reached Waldgasthaus Armeleuteberg. Here I had a quick beer refuel opting for the Wolters pilsner before we walked the final 400 metres.

It turned out we could climb to the top of the Kaiserturm for free so we did and were rewarded with arguably better views  than at the castle. I went down first to get pictures of dad and Jenny at the top before we made our way back to the town. Jenny cooked some dinner whilst I lay on the sofa nursing my knees and attempting a bit of packing. After dinner dad and I returned to the Hotel Altora so we could enjoy one final beer and see the model train again. With that drink my holiday was over except for my 12 hour journey home (with 5 changes just to reach London) which so long as it went as planned I was excited about.

The Schloss (Castle) overlooking Wernigerode

The Schloss (Castle) overlooking Wernigerode

Make it Last: Lennep, Wuppertal and Goslar

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One of the trains passes the people below on the famous Wuppertal Schwebebahn

Saturday 6th June
“John. Bathrooms fee.” I awoke with a start then looked at my watch 5.49am. The alarm was set for 5.50 so I’d had a minute of sleep taken away all because dad had also woken up one minute early. He runs a tight ship when going away and I suppose it isn’t a surprise I ended up being similar in my planning and ensuring I always allow plenty (not just a bit) of time to spare.

We left shortly after the official departure time but I sensed that we were still well ahead of the schedule. The journey to Dover was uneventful and thankfully there were no delays on the motorway. Arriving at Dover there was a queue of cars and if we’d been running late it may have been a bit nervy but as it was we were at least 30 minutes earlier than the recommended time. I saw a Contiki and a Topdeck coach and thought about how they’d be feeling. First day nerves mixed with excitement, tiredness and probably a slight hangover.

Once on the ferry I made my way to the stern (back) of the top deck so I could get a final look of the white cliffs and some photographs as it was a beautiful sunny day. One truck had difficulty parking but eventually the road lifted in to the air and the gate at the back of the ferry was closed. I hoped for a dramatic blast of the horn to announce our departure in a scene reminiscent of Titanic and for at least one person to be waving us off but there was nothing.

Once we were underway it became quickly colder so once we were beyond the surprisingly narrow harbour walls I headed back in side. Dad Jenny and I ordered a early lunch before seeing if there was a view from the front. Whilst I would never try and recreate that “I’m the king of the world” scene (don’t pretend you don’t know) I had at least hoped the top deck of the bow (front) would be open to the elements. It wasn’t, It was a fully enclosed fancy looking restaurant (as far as the ferry goes anyway) with a beautiful panoramic view of France that only those dinning were allowed to appreciate.

Once off the boat I as chief navigation officer did what any modern navigator does and set up the SatNav. That duty fulfilled I then looked at the paper maps supplied but already I had put blind faith in to “Tina”. I had every faith the system had improved from the days when it took people in to abandoned tunnels and besides one of the maps in front of me had been published when I was still at university, before Watford were last in the premiership.

I think Dad suffered a bit of mistrust especially when I realised shortly after Brussels that it was taking us through the Netherlands. By now I had an in depth know knowledge of Belgium’s road network because I had been intensely studying the map. This was purely to try and stay awake because I’m hopeless at doing so in a car (or train) as dad knows from last weekend when I just fell asleep without warning after he’d helped move my stuff by driving me to Balham from Ealing. As it was the SatNav was of course correct.

At one stage we were on the E14 Motorway through all 3 countries but the style and infrastructure changed in each which seemed quite amusing at the time (it had been a long drive). The Belgium section was slightly uneven and in need of some tlc, the Dutch section was well maintained and had trees along the side with a nice hedgerow up the centre, whilst the German section had road works every few kilometres however somehow it didn’t cause huge traffic jams. The German section also had an unlimited speed restriction and it was quite an experience to hear the roar of a super car (it was so quick I didn’t see which) shoot by as we trundled along at a modest 77mph.

Ultimately the journey had been uneventful and we arrived in Ramsceid only slightly later than initially estimated despite two quick stops. Once checked in to the hotel we agreed to meet up about an hour later for dinner. My plan was to nap and shower but I got distracted by the free WiFi and feeling no fresher I went to our meeting place. Jenny had decided to have an early night so just dad and I headed out alone in the search of food.

We walled through the outskirts of Lennep from the hotel and eventually came to a bar. It didn’t serve food and looked a bit seedy from the outside so we carried on. Unfortunately being a Sunday and in a small town in a slightly less touristy area it meant the signs were ominous unless we just wanted a kebab or pizza. Instead after a failed attempt to buy train tickets to Wuppertal due to a rarity German inefficiency. One ticket machine wasn’t working and then the second would only accept exact change. We were 50c short so we knew we’d have to come back.

We followed the street round and came back to the pub we’d started at. By now I just wanted to sit down anywhere so we went in and as they were showing the build up to the champions league realised we’d actually struck gold. We tried a number of beers including Bitburger, Frankenheim “alt” old from Dosseldorf, Fruh – kolsch and Warsteiner. The bar man was Italian and very friendly though I most of the conversation was with my “papa”. We stayed for the first half of the champions league before returning to the hotel.

Sunday 7th June
When I was younger my grandad had a cinefilm of the Wuppertal Schwebebahn and even though it wasn’t a steam engine I was still captivated by it. I admit I therefore had a child like excitement when I realised we would have a day to explore the town and to ride the Schwebebahn. We caught the main line train to Wuppertal from Lennep having finally obtained “the exact amount”.

I think I had (unreasonably) expected Wuppertal to be frozen in time as I imagined it from the family home videos. I was therefore slightly disappointed to see a lot of modern construction work was taking place and realised it was actually quite industrial. I had hoped to ride the Schwebebahn Kaiserwagen, the historic carriages from those home movies but it was quite expensive (even though it included brunch) however ultimately it wasn’t possible because the tourist information centre was closed and we couldn’t buy tickets online.

Instead we decided to watch the Kaiserwagen however after a few stops we realised we were heading in the wrong direction. The Schwebebahn is a way locals travel around the city however I was still surprised at how busy it was especially as it was only a Sunday. We crossed over to the opposite platform and travelled to the station near the zoo where we saw the Kaiserwagen.

We then continued to Vohwinkel where we could see the workshops. This part of the town seemed nicer than the area around the main train station and we were able to find a coffee house. Some food revived me and by the time we saw the Kaiserwagen return I was over any initial disappointment at not riding it or at the town not appearing like it was straight out of a early 20th century history book.

Next we travelled the full length of the line and as we were first on had a seat right behind the driver. The first part of the route travelled above the main street before travelling above the river Wupper. It seemed quite a bulky construction but ultimately probably caused less chaos than the construction of the underground in London and is no less an achievement. Whilst monorails normally travel on a track the Schwebebhan hangs down and therefore sways quite a bit. I was beginning to feel the effects of this when we reached Oberbarmen (the other end of the line) 30 minutes later.

We walked through a park which ran parallel to the Schwebebhan and contemplated carrying on to the next station before we realised it would be better to get back on at the terminus. It was still only early afternoon and we weren’t entirely sure how to spend the rest of the day. In the end as it was a sunny afternoon we decided to visit the zoo however realising there was a football match on we jokingly considered seeing Wuppertal SV (ultimately they lost 1.0 and threw away the chance of promotion to the league above).

The zoo was actually very impressive and had a wide variety of animals including some I hadn’t even heard of such as the Drill where Wuppertal is the main breeding programme of the 4 zoos in Germany where they can be seen. Other highlights included numerous penguin species, lions, tigers, orangotangs and gorillas which all seemed to be in good condition and in decent sized spaces for their size and number. Unfortunately it was probably to hot for the polar bear so he remained hidden as did the wolves and the other bears. In all we spent a few hours and managed to cover most of the vast area.

There was a restaurant opposite where we all opted to have a snitzel and I had a Benediktiner weissbier wheat bear. The portion was absolutely enormous as dad had predicted but we all found the required space. I had partly hoped I’d lose weight on this trip but the portion size and the amount of beers I wanted to try were suggesting this would be wishful thinking.

We caught the Schwebebhan back to the main station in Wuppertal before boarding the main line train back to Lennep. On our way to the hotel we stopped off at the pub from the previous night to have a quick drink and to console the bar man on Juventus losing to Barcelona. That evening I watched a bit of the women’s world cup and saw Germany beat Ivory Coast 10:0 though the gulf in class meant it wasn’t an exciting game despite the score.

Monday 8th June
I woke up earlier than planned but rather than getting up and being productive wasted time on the free internet. However once my alarm actually went off I felt incredibly time efficient as I let a coffee brew whilst I showered. The coffee tasted disgusting so that ultimately saved time in drinking it and I was just about ready when dad knocked on my door a few minutes before the designated 9am departure time.

Once we were ready to go I set up the SatNav for our first destination Goslar a UNESCO world heritage listed town. The route was direct via the motorway however dad suggested going a scenic route and cutting out a corner of the motorway. I plotted a path and when we did ultimately disobey the SatNav it tried everything to get us to turn around. Eventually it gave up and fell silent and appeared to have begrudgingly accepted our new route.

Once we eventually arrived in Goslar We started off by walking to the market square to get some lunch at the Butterhanne. I ordered my favourite German meal; curry wurst mit ein beer. I started with Radeberger before I realised they had a micro brewery. I therefore felt I had to have a second and at least try their self produced Gose Gold.

The old town of Goslar is UNESCO world heritage listed and whilst I admit I hadn’t heard of it before the holiday my expectations were quite high. Dad loves reading a map so he plotted our walking route through the town. We started off following the ruins and path of the old fortification however in most areas there was no evidence of there existence.

Unfortunately in a town which is apparently so picturesque our walk initially took us past a shopping centre and an area where in truth there wasn’t as much to see. Eventually we did rejoin a path that took us along the famous cobbled streets, past an old watermill and towards the mediaeval Kaiserpfaiz. I later read it was only listed due to a nearby mine and its ancient water management system which perhaps explained why my expectations weren’t met

I set up the SatNav for our final destination Wernigerode which it turned out was under 45 minutes away and we departed Goslar. It was certainly a pleasant place to break up a long car journey and to spend a couple of hours but I won’t be back to explore.

The UNESCO listed old town of Goslar

The UNESCO listed old town of Goslar

Wake up Boo: Rome

Wednesday 25th March
I’d spent at least an hour the night before planning different options depending on the weather. When I woke I could hear the patter of rain which is what every weather forecast I’d seen predicted. My phone has a app called Geo News to alert me if there are extreme weather conditions in my local area and for the first time it beeped but only to tell me there were high winds predicted.

It looked like the weather would improve in the afternoon so I decided I’d start by exploring parts of Rome that were covered and underground. First I headed to somewhere I’d been told about on my first trip in 2009 but which I hadn’t had time to see. The church the Capuchin Crypt is located in didn’t look that spectacular from the outside but I knew not to judge a book by it’s cover. The crypt has, since around 1641 contained the the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars some of whom had lived and died there.

I made my way through the museum but I wasn’t sure which displays to focus on and trying to read them all just left me feeling a bit overwhelmed and if I’m honest a bit bored. The subject matter was mostly religious and about the monks not about the display. The museum is fairly new and whilst it was well set out I wasn’t there to see a museum display I just wanted to see the crypt. I eventually made my way down the short flight of stairs in to the darkness. It was quite eerie seeing all the bones presented as art and it really did make me just go “wow”. It was visually impressive (if a bit macabre) and I can see how the display successfully challenges the perception of death and our own mortality.

Next I made my way to the Basilica San Clemente. I have to admit I’d known nothing about the place until the day before when I had looked at doing a half day tour to the Capuchin Crypt and the Domitilla’s Catacombs which included this. The Basilica of St Clemente shows how the city of Rome has been built up over many different levels over the centuries. There are areas of London where you can descend and see a glimpse of the old Roman street level (e.g remains of the Roman Forum at a Barbershop in Leadenhall Market). Obviously in Rome the remains are much easier to find with some “at street level” but nothing beats a bit of exploring underground to make it feel like you really are entering a lost world.

The current church was built by 1120 however descending down a level I came to the remains of a church built in the 4th century. Descending yet another level I came to a Roman street dating from the 1st century which contained a house (with a spring) and even a Mithraeum dating from the 2nd Century. To me it seemed to show how religious sites are particularly sacred in Rome and that even if the religion changes new buildings would simply be built over the top so the area was preserved for worship.

By the time I’d finished at the Basilica San Clemente it had just gone 11am so I didn’t have enough time to reach the catacombs which were closed for lunch. Instead I commenced the journey to Ostia Antica. As I made my way to the Colosseo station it appeared the rain had passed. I was walking down one of the streets when in the distance I caught my first glimpse of the Colosseum (on this trip). It gradually grew larger and I had a real sense of excitement. When I saw the queue outside however it reminded me why I wasn’t planning a re-visit quite yet.

It took about an hour to reach Ostia Antica which was the old port of Rome. I thought it had stopped raining but almost as soon as I looked at a map of the area it came down from my left side with even more fury. A German school teacher (in charge of a group of school children) and I had been trying to work out together where to go and quickly ran back to the train station for cover. I was drenched though the rain eased off just long enough for us to reach the entrance. The site was out in the open so although I’d brought a map the rain meant I couldn’t use it.

Unlike the main streets in Pompeii which were made of stone the path at Ostia Antica was mostly a dirt path perhaps because it had deteriorated more over the centuries. Luckily the the main street wasn’t to muddy and I managed to avoid most of the bigger puddles. As I walked past Neptune baths I realised it was possible to climb up the stairs to the top which I thought would give a good general view of the site. Unlike Pompeii it wasn’t very busy and not only did I have the roof to myself there weren’t that many people wondering around.

Without a guide or a useable map I wasn’t sure which directions to head in to see the buildings that I knew would interest me the most and the rain had dampened my enthusiasm. I read a few of the displays but it was only when I reached, the theatre that I really felt a sense of awe. After walking through the tunnel in the arena area I again climbed to the top but as I was taking in my surroundings the rain came down ferociously again.

Mercifully I saw a sign for the cafe and briskly made my way. After getting some food and looking round the museum I again started exploring the site with refreshed enthusiasm. I walked towards Forum and on the way saw a shop and what appeared to be a Roman Bar. Unfortunately I got slightly lost and by the time I found the Forum another sudden down pour caught me out and a tree offered little protection. I was now so wet couldn’t take in the part I felt was most important as it was ‘the centre’ and realising my camera lens was wet I gave up taking pictures.

2 hours wasn’t long enough to explore the site but it’s all I could face in the wind/rain. I later saw that ‘the Capitol’ was one of the best preserved buildings but I hadnt found it. If I ever find myself in Rome again in nicer weather I’d probably return. The site claims to be a better version of Pompeii and certainly seeing the height of some buildings is impressive but the rain and lack of a guide or map meant I preferred my day in Pompeii.

As I returned to the station I got stuck behind another school party which meant I missed my train and so began a miserable journey to the Catacombs. One I was finally back in Rome I saw my bus approaching and realised I was on the wrong side of the road. I should still have been able to get on but I didn’t realise the back door was only to let people off and so he didn’t open the door and went off without me. To add to my woe the next didn’t arrive for 25+ minutes by which time my umbrella was ruined and my feet squelched. I wasn’t impressed at my fortune and muttered a few choice words to myself.

Eventually I arrived at and found the Catacombs of St Domitilla. I had made it before closing time and was told a tour in English would be starting shortly. It was nice to finally have a guide and it was fascinating to explore the oldest underground burial network in Rome. Some of the early Christian artwork was interesting and whilst we were told some of the tombs had been ran sacked by thieves some still contained bodies.

Entry to the total network which is 15km on 4 different levels was via a church which was abandoned in the 9th century and only rediscovered in the 16th century. The tour was a bit shorter than I expected though this is because the ‘newer’ but deeper sections are not open to the public. We were exploring the oldest section and I was glad we had a tour guide because it would have been very easy to get lost as it all looked the same.

I made my way back to the hotel room and spent a couple of hours drying out. I tried to do what I could to my walking shoes but the hair dryer didn’t really help and there was no radiator. Luckily I had taken a smart pair so I put those on as I headed to the oldest pizzeria in Rome Est Est Est Pizzeria Ricci. It was opened in 1888 as a wine shop before the owner started selling pizza in 1905.

I ordered a white wine Vino bianco asciutto “frascati” which was recommended to me by the waiter. I had quite an appetite and noticed that Suppli (Fried rice balls) and fried cod both of which I had been advised to try were on the menu as starters. For a main course I eventually settled on the Calzone and ordered a refreshing Peroni Gran Riserva Doppio Malto to go with it. I knew I had to try a tiramassu so ordered that for dessert but I’m not the best judge of them but it was nice enough.

Thursday 26th March
For some reason I really struggled to get out of bed once my alarm had gone off and I had a bit of a headache. I had woken up about an hour before the alarm and spent it trying to go back to sleep without success. I wanted to explore the area suggested to me by my guide to Pompeii and after I was ready spent a bit of time planning a route so I could get there and back to the airport before my flight.

It was a lovely day and at one point I had considered walking to the top of Janiculum Hill where the Piazza Garibaldi is located. Instead using the excuse that I wouldn’t have time but that I’d walk back down I stayed on the bus. It wasn’t hard to miss my bus stop due to the big statue and I made my way over to the edge to see a wonderful panorama of Rome spread out below. Admittedly it would have been handy if I’d known which direction to squint in to see the landmarks but I thought I made out a few.

I made my way back down the hill to the area of Rome called Trastevere. Whilst initially I thought I’d stumbled down a Mafia street due to a load of Vespas parked outside a house I quickly fell in love with the little side streets. It had the atmosphere of a small but fairly busy picturesque town and it didn’t feel like I was still in the Italian capital at all. I suppose it was comparable to Hampstead Heath.

I made my way to Piazza Santa Maria where I went to Santa Maria Basilica which was quite grand on the inside due to a number of gold mosaics. Carrying on through Trastevere I arrived at the Piazza Cecilia and Basilica Santa Cecilia. I didn’t quite have enough euros in coins and the guy serving didn’t have change so he let me in as a student. This church had a smaller write up than Santa Maria but I preferred it. It had a spectacular crypt and then at a lower level the remains of a Roman house which is believed to have been the house of Saint Cecilia dating to the early empire.

It had just gone 12 when I finished so I made my way towards one of the most famous pizzerias in the area Dar Poeta. I sat outside on a table with a red and white pattern which reminded me of Bella’s restaurant in Fireman Sam. The pizza itself was Rome style so a thinner crust compared to the Neapolitan style but it was no less delicious. It seemed like a nice place to just sit back and relax and although I was starting to think about my flight home I still got sucked in to the no rush attitude.

Eventually and slightly later than planned I paid the bill and left though I knew I was alright for time so long as I didn’t encounter any delays. Fortunately I didn’t and I arrived at the hotel around the time I’d hoped. I collected my bag and found the coach terminal I needed and checked in.

I was told to wait outside and naturally when a coach came in around the time mine was meant to leave I and quite a few others started loading our bags on. When I then got to the guy checking tickets he kept speaking to me in Italian and sending me away. I used my I-translate app which only told me “Airport “. I was confused and a bit concerned eventually he said two words I understood “next bus”. I then had a bit of a scramble to grab my suitcase off the coach because whilst I’d been near the back it had been pushed further back and a huge push chair was in the way. That drama over I waited and boarded the correct bus.

I had priority boarding on the flight home which meant I didn’t have to join the large queue when we were eventually called. I had the window seat but a girl was already in the aisle seat and I felt a bit awkward when she had to move for me. We eventually got chatting because of the beautiful sunset and because she asked me for some ideas of some markets and other nice places to visit whilst she was in London. It was nice to have some company on the flight but we went our separate ways at the airports train station though we did exchange numbers on the off chance I went back to Rome or she returned to London.

You’ll Never Walk Alone: Pompeii

Monday 23rd March
Back in December I thought it would be nice to treat myself to a holiday to celebrate my 30th birthday. I had started exploring the idea of staying in Sorrento in order to explore Pompeii, Herculaneum Mt Vesuvius and the Amalfi coast. At the age of two this region of Italy was according to my dad my first trip abroad but I remember nothing except throwing my favourite red ball in to a river and watching it float away and being scratched by a cat. Since then I’ve fallen in love with Neopolitan Pizza (partly due to Santa Maria in Ealing 5 mintues walk from my house), been to exhibitions on Pompeii and watched countless documentaries. Over the past 5 years the significance of Pompeii has grown on me for personal reasons and it was always on the list of places I wanted to visit.

Other events took priority and planning for Berlin and Morocco meant by the start of March I’d not booked anything even though I had the annual leave confirmed. At the TNT travel show I tried to see if any tours of the area were running but they weren’t. I decided to leave the trip for another time and instead decided to try something completely different by using a company called “Mystery Breaks”. The general idea being you gave them the dates, your budget, the type of holiday and 3 cities you didn’t want to visit and they would book flights and hotel to a mystery city. It was exciting not knowing where I would end up and in the built up they gave a few clues which only added to my anticipation.

Eventually on my birthday I discovered it was Rome. I’d been before but who can possibly be disappointed with visiting Rome? As I said in my last blog Berlin is probably the city for modern European history and Rome is one of the best for ancient history. On a personal level I realised how perfect and symbolic it was. It had to be Rome. I love Italian food, I love Roman history and it was the city where I broke my arm on my first solo trip abroad. True I’d ‘ticked off’ the main sites but I had unfinished business with the city and knew there were many Roman archaeological sites, Catacombs and churches just waiting for me to explore.

I didn’t finish packing until midnight and so it wasn’t until the journey to the airport and the flight that I could start thinking about how best to spend my time. My trip to Stanstead whilst longer than Gatwick was simple enough and the flight uneventful though we did get an amazing view of the Austrian Alps. My rep had given clear and concise details for me to follow in order to find my hotel. It was centrally located and less than a 10 minute walk from the main coach and train station. I checked in, found my room unpacked everything (no sharing this time!) and crashed out on the bed as I still had about 2 hours until dinner.

I was still in two minds about taking a day trip to Pompeii as most didn’t spend much time and fitted in activities which were of little interest to me. I had asked my “Mystery Break’ rep out of curiosity not really expecting anything different and it was only at this point I checked the link. I was impressed. It had a local guide, didn’t go to Herculaneum but did include over 2 hours at Pompeii, traditional pizza lunch and a walk to the top of Mount Vesuvius. Whilst I knew 2 hours at Pompeii was still a bit on the short side I thought it would at least be a good introduction and so I booked it for the following day.

Eventually I got ready and followed the directions to Trattoria Coriolano for my ‘introductory meal’ which had been pre-booked for me by my rep. It had quite a rustic feel about it with antique furniture and white table cloths. The menu looked fantastic and eventually I settled on fried vegetables as a starter and spaghetti carbonara as my main along with a glass of white wine. When in Rome and all that. Shortly they brought a small plate out which had a breaded mushroom and a piece of bruschetta. Assuming I’d misread the menu I ate it feeling slightly underwhelmed.

Then another plate arrived which didn’t look like spaghetti carbonara and I realised it was my actual starter which contained various fried vegetables such as zucchini. It was enormous but delicious. I finished it and was thankful my bowl of spaghetti looked so small. But I had forgotten that appearances can be deceiving. It was incredibly rich and filling. I just about had room for gelato and thought a lemon sorbet may help. It didn’t and I realised I had over indulged like never before and never will again. When the waiter gave me some complimentary biscuits I could only stare at them with horror before smuggling them in to my bag as I figured they would make a good breakfast or snack on the coach.

I had a early start to get to Pompeii and knew I was already in need of catching up on sleep after two busy weekends with two more to follow. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly I had difficulty sleeping due to all the food i’d eaten and when the alarm went off the next morning I wasn’t full of energy despite my destination.

Tuesday 24th March
I made my way to the Piazza del Poplo and even though I was on time it appeared everyone was already there. Our coach had been split in to two tour groups and our two guides took it in turns to share their knowledge and local recommendations. I could tell instantly it was going to be a good day due to their enthusiasm and passion.

First they explained the significance of our meeting place the obelisk in Piazza del Poplo which was imported from Egypt by the first Roman Emperor Augustus in 10BC. It was originally located at the Circus Maximus however in 1589 Pope Sixtus V decided to place obelisks around the city to guide people. Piazza del Poplo was one of the locations chosen because it was the northern gate to the city. There is also a church in the square called Basilica of Santa Maria del Poplo. We were told the original was funded by Rome’s people because black crows were settling in a walnut tree on the site that Nero (the murdering Emperor who now has a coffee chain named after him) and his families tomb was located. Many of Rome’s citizens therefore believed he was still haunting the city and the destruction of the tree by the Pope and the building of the church was meant to exercise his ghost.

We stopped at a service station in a place called Cassino for breakfast and I ordered my first ever espresso and a cornetto (a chocolate pastry, not an ice cream). Leaving Cassino we passed the Abbey of Monte Cassino which is a perfect reproduction of the original. At the end of the 4th century Saint Benedict set up an order and wanted to build a abbey in complete isolation. This became the Abbey of Monte Cassino and he is buried in the crypt which is only original part. The original was completely destroyed by American troops in 1943 because the general was convinced German soldiers on the Gustave line were hiding there. They weren’t, they were hiding in the nearby mountains and instead mostly civilians and monks were killed.

Our guides had been testing us over the day but as I’d answered the very first one wrong I now remained silent when asked questions (I’d incorrectly named Caesar as the first Emperor in a “QI whaa-whaa/siren” moment. Caesar was according to the guides a dictator and not an official Emperor. It seemed none of us knew the story of the countries unification in 1871 and that prior to this there were 20 regions (separate kingdoms) in the area of Italy which included the territories of Sardinia and Sicily. Spanish berbers ruled in the south, the French ruled areas in the North and few if any parts were controlled by Italians.

The unification of Italy was started by Giuseppe Garibaldi (Risorgimento) in Sicily however as he was born in Nice I think we were all wondering how someone from France had been responsible for unifying another country. It was then explained that Nice and the surrounding region had been part of a region that is now in Italy however the residents had a referendum after Italy was unified and they opted to remain under French rule. Rome was eventually made the capital and there is a statue of Garibaldi on a horse at the top of Janiculum Hill south of the Tiber which the guides recommended had a beautiful view even though Janiculum Hill itself is not one of the ‘Seven Hills of Rome’.

As we entered Campania and passed Napoli/Bay of Naples the two guides told us that it is the mostly densely populated region of Italy. Naples means new city and it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world which was originally founded by Greeks who realised the soil was very fertile (due to the volcano). When the Romans arrived they called the region Campania because that meant countryside in Latin. The area is famous for food, the most famous obviously being pizza (and the word probably came from the greek word pitta). Legend goes that in 1889 pizza was still considered a street food however when the new Royal family came to Naples a pizza maker called Raffaele Esposito made 3 pizzas for Queen Margherita of Savoy. He named the most popular one after her and from then on it became a popular dish with all the classes.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred on August 24 AD79. Historians and archaeologists are lucky that the writer Pliny the Younger sent letters to the historian Tacitus which recorded in great detail the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder was the fleet commander based in Misenus across the Bay of Naples and is believed to have been killed by poisonous volcanic gases when his rescue fleet was stranded by winds during the eruption. Such was the level of detail in the writings of Pliny the Younger as he observed the eruption he is regarded as being the first volcanologist and the type of eruption that occurred is now known as a plinian eruption. Pliny records the explosion (20 miles in height) which formed a mushroom cloud (described by Pliny as a umbrella pine because he’d never seen a mushroom). Pumice and ash fell on Pompeii for 3 days and 3 nights and culminated in a pyroclastic surge which buried the city. No lava flowed which is why the cities were preserved under a deep layer of tephra.

There had been a large earthquake in 62AD and a series of small earthquakes after which meant Pompeii was still in the process of being rebuilt in 79AD. The volcano hadn’t erupted in centuries so the civilians had no idea ‘the mountain’ was going to explode. Unfortunately they didn’t heed warnings when the daily earthquakes began on 20th August, when the water levels dropped or even when animals tried to flee. Whilst Mount Vesuvius still towers over Pompeii experts believe that prior to AD79 it was originally double in height. The last eruption was in 1944 and it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Europe because up to 3 million people live between the green zone and red zone. It is monitored regularly and experts believe they could predict an eruption up to 72 hours in advance but I have to admit I was skeptical about that claim.

We were walking to the top of the crater from the top car park which I thought would be easier. Very quickly my hamstrings and calf muscles were feeling the strain. I had 1 hour and 30 minutes to get up, walk around the crater and to get back. I wasn’t sure if the rest of the coach were behind or in front of me so I had no way of gauging how I was doing and no one to encourage me. Even though it was arguably out of season there were still quite a few coaches all of which seemed full so I can’t imagine how busy it must be in the height of the peak season.

Recently I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for my knee and I would love to use that as an excuse but the honest truth is I haven’t helped myself since my gorilla run. I am not currently at a respectable level of fitness and I had to take a couple of rest breaks which I disguised as photo shops. But I eventually made it to the top and actually in good time so I was able to properly explore the top. The views of the Bay of Naples were stunning and even though it wasn’t a hot day it was certainly clear. Steam was rising from gaps inside the crater which was a reminder that Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano and due an eruption (I admit I hadn’t expected steam). I met a German couple at the top who happened to be on my coach so we walked down together and we made it back to the bus with a bit of time to spare.

After the hike I was feeling quite hungry and I was looking forward to my pizza lunch. A drink was also included and I opted for a nice white Italian wine which surprised me because in the past it would have been in a beer. Perhaps it’s age but I actually like some wines now though and as I was in Italy it seemed appropriate. Victoria had asked me to grab a quick picture and I only remembered when I’d devoured about half of it. At the top of Vesuvius the German couple had been joking about how people take photos of their food and when they next saw me all they said to me was “We saw you” *wink* All I could do was laugh. I couldn’t deny it but I agree with Victoria that food abroad is part of the cultural experience and if it’s a special meal it’s worth recording.

After lunch I wondered around outside as it was still sunny and there was as nice garden with a view of Vesuvius in the background. Leaving the restaurant we made the short trip to the archaeological site where we had a 2 hour guided tour. The population of the town was around 12000 though it is unknown if this included slaves/prisoners as they may not have been on the census. To put it in a modern context that is roughly half the population size of my home town. 1/3 has not been excavated however I believe studies are still taking place, either way the current site is still substantial.

After entering the site our first stop was a four-sided colonnade which was the Gladiator training area. Whilst during the eruption most of the roofs had collapsed the roofs on one of the sides and been restored as had some of the doors to the various rooms. Pompeii had three theatres (including an Amphitheater) and the the gladiator training area was linked to one of these known as the big theatre which could hold up to 5000 people. It seemed quite well preserved and we had a few minutes to explore so I was able to climb to the top for a good view. Next we made our way next door to the small theatre which could be covered and could hold up to 1000 people. Both appeared to have been influenced by the Greek style of theatre though it is believed they were built before 1BC

We then walked along one of the main streets which had stepping stones because sewage would have run down the street so people needed risen crossing places. Later on we did see another street which didn’t have the stepping stones and our guide explained it would have been one of the newer roads which used the Roman drainage system. Along the streets we could see shops and a bakery before making our way to a Villa where the door had been preserved and which contained nice frescoes.

We carried on through the town and arrived at the Stabian Baths where two bodies that had been preserved using the plaster cast method were on display. This was quite haunting as it was clear the victim had been in distress and it brought the human element of the tragedy sharply in to focus. Shortly after we came to the Lupanar (the Roman word for brothel) which meant a wolf den (a prostitute was called a lupa). Our guide stopped us and pointed to an object sticking out of the the wall which allegedly was a penis to and it certainly looked like it could have been. There were pictures of different sex positions on the wall which have been interpreted by tour guides as being ‘a menu’ for people visiting and and graffiti on the walls leaves no doubt to the rooms function.

Eventually we came to the main forum which contained the Temple of Jupiter and Temple of Apollo. The Temple of Jupiter looked particulary impressive and still contained a bust of the God and there was a clear view of Vesuvius in the background. Around the outside of the forum were a series of storage rooms which I assume held the artifacts that weren’t currently in museums. The two hours was a good length of time and the guide had kept it interesting but really it had felt like an appetiser and perhaps one day I will get the opportunity to explore the site more thoroughly in future.

After arriving back in Rome I made my way to a restaurant called St Ana which was recommended to me by the coach driver of the tour and one of the guides. The restaurant itself was underground and had a really good atmosphere and unlike the previous evening I kept it simple with a pasta dish called ‘Strozzapreti’ (cheese and pepper with crispy artichokes) accompanied with another glass of wine.

This blog is dedicated to the victims of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525