Le Coq Francais / La Belle France

Depending on who you talk to – Neville or Libby – you’ll get an idea of what France is like. Although it is quite obvious that Neville appreciates more of the ‘la Belle’ bit than Libby the ‘coq’ bit. It’s a bit of a mystery but the French seem to have a love affair with the rooster. Wherever we went there were shops with roosters. Statues of roosters – colourful roosters.

We stayed in France for 20 days – all in the company of our dear friend Anne – apart from the last four which we spent in the Somme Valley area.

Paris is Paris, of course, and it’s always great to be part of it. It wasn’t long before we were at home with our day to day activities in Asnieres sur Seine with Anne. Down to the market for a stroll, Libby getting her hair done, trips in to Paris.

And its pretty hard to beat Paris – in any weather. We had sunny days, we even had a couple of rainy days, but we had Paris. Even walking down the Champs Elysses while workmen were setting up the pavement stalls for the Christmas markets was OK. It was just great to be part of Paris.

There were shopping trips, trips to museums and art galleries and just plain trips. A new experience for us was the Jacquemart-Andre private Museum on the Boulevard Haussemann and we were lucky enough to experience a special Rembrandt exposition.

Of course as previously mentioned we paid a visit to the Musee d’Orsay – we never tire of the French Impressionists and it was a bit of a giggle to stand in a room with two paintings facing each other. One was Whistlers Mother – the other Whistling Boy by Manet. Who said the French didn’t have a sense of humour.

A highlight of our stay in France was a few days in Alsace with Anne. We stayed in Strasbourg, a most captivating city with an unforgettable cathedral. We moved on to Colmar and enjoyed three days of Alscacion food and a visit to Eguisheim – a town in the heart of the wine growing region built with concentric streets. Go for a walk and you would arrive back at your starting point – played hell with the inbuilt compass. While Neville was fulfilling a bucket list item picking grapes in a vineyard with a heap of French pickers, Libby and Anne visited Riquewihr, another beautiful wine-growing village.

We returned to Paris where we met Anne’s friend Jean and we spent an afternoon walking in the gardens of Versailles with them, visiting The Grand Trianon there; the small palace built in the grounds by Louis XIV to escape the pomp and rigid formality of court life. Madam de Montespan, his mistress, just happened to spend a fair amount of time there too! The Palace was also used by Napoleon and de Gaulle also had an office there (but not at the same time}. Don’t think they would have got on. Although Neville could just imagine Charles sitting in his office daydreaming – the little man looking over his shoulder – whispering in his ear!

We reluctantly left our Parisian hostess Anne, having spent an afternoon with her sister Nicole in her apartment close to La Tour Eiffel before travelling to the Posiere region to visit the grave of Libby’s great Uncle Gus who is buried in the British First World War cemetry. A very sobering experience and something we recommend every Australian should do.

And so our time in France was coming to an end. Having hired a car in Lille to tour this region, we were able to visit Amiens and were looking forward to visit the floating gardens – the Hortillonnages – however our special boat trip ‘les barques a cornet’ will have to wait until another time as it was closed for the winter. Amiens Cathedral is significant in that it is the largest Cathedral in France and one of a trio of High Gothic Cathedrals along with Chartres and Reims. For Neville, who is less than impressed with most forms of religious art, he is happy to admit that he is completely amazed at the architectural skills that claim to be driven by a higher power.

We were back in Lille preparing to catch the Eurostar – spending one night there to quickly appraise ourselves of its sights – Libby completing her stressful days as the nominated driver due to Neville’s Licence being stolen in St Petersburg. We both survived the ordeal.

As you are most likely aware if you have been following this blog, our time frame has been shot to pieces. It is now almost time for us to leave Europe and we have another eight weeks unaccounted for. Our visit to England and Ireland and the two weeks in Spain and few days here in Roma still to be reported. Maybe on the way home in Abu Dhabi when Neville gets off his fast camel he’ll finish off before we hit Australia. A fact that we are, quite frankly, looking forward to. It’s not that we aren’t enjoying ourselves immensely, but five months is a long time.

A.A. (Apple-eaters Anonymous)

It is now 142 days since I have eaten an Australian Pink Lady apple. Yes my cover has been blown – I have succumbed to the call of the French hybrid. Not a patch on the Australian PLA, but nonetheless a Pink Lady that has been plucked by Gallic fingers from a tree that has been grafted with that special sap – that magic elixir. Although not at all biased, it was a Pink Lady in name only.

Wrestling with the big bear

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Our first impressions of Riga were not good. Compared to Switzerland, Riga is a dirty city. It is noisy (the streets are cobbled so the cars make a racket), the buildings are pretty run down and most of the trams are ancient. BUT it is a great city to get around, when you are on foot you see so much more and if the chips are down and you’re in trouble, everyone who is interested in assisting can speak quite good English. Our choice of Hotel left a lot to be desired, but the bed was comfortable, it was clean and there was a reasonable breakfast. Compared to Switzerland (and Australia) food is relatively inexpensive, coffee is cheap and eating out doesn’t hit the hip pocket too hard.

The first night we ate at a bistro type pub and we were amused when the waitress confessed to it being her first day on the job and promptly served up a carafe of red wine when we had ordered a Sauvignon Blanc. We had delicious serves of seafood risotto and chicken breast and together with the wine, the bill was less than 19 euros. The second night we decided to eat in and chose a Bordeux and that’s when the international incident started to gather momentum. We had paid for the bottle only to remember that we didn’t have a corkscrew. To try and overcome the problem Neville then chose a screw top bottle and asked them to alter our order. Once the middle aged non-English speaking female attendant realised that the bottle was being exchanged we had a crash course in very negative suggestions – all in Latvian. It seems that cash register receipts are as set in concrete as ballot-box votes, and after this was explained to us by the next person in the queue, a very helpful wine-drinking Latvian lady, it was agreeable to all that the cork was 79% removed on our behalf and we went on our merry way.
We mapped out a plan to see a selection of the Old City sights and spent some time at two. These were the National History Museum and the National Museum of Art. The former had an excellent precis of Latvia’s history which in itself is highly complex. As a Baltic state, many countries have invaded, defeated, been repelled, re-invaded and conquered Latvia since the days of the Vikings. We were particularly interested in the pre-WW1 to post WW2 period and the information supplied managed to answer our questions to some degree. The situation, at times, was so complicated that it was not unusual for two countries to be independently trying to conquer poor old Latvia, who, while struggling to defend herself from these two, further had matters complicated by having some groups within the country siding with one or the other of the invaders whilst another group were making themselves independent and declaring a new Republic. Of course, most would know of the plight that befell them post World War Two when they were occupied by Russia. What is less well known is that Russia’s interest was so transparent that, at the cessation of hostilities after the Great War the Allies allowed Germany to stay on as an occupier to theoretically keep the Big Bear out. That was a big blunder with people being executed for reasons as trite as wearing a red scarf. With every man and his dog wanting to have a say in what went on, it all went pear-shaped and we know how it ended up.
The visit to the Arts Museum further confirmed Russia’s dominance with the influence placed on the country’s art community to show the Stalin Communist Party as the way forward. The cultural community in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries was most enlightening and we were able to enjoy an exhibition by, perhaps Latvia’s most prominent artist, Janis Rozentals. There were in excess of five hundred of his paintings and early photography both owned by the State and from private collections. However, the art community, frustrated by our good friend Josef S., turned to cubism and abstract art post World War Two because Joe didn’t always grasp that ‘they were taking the p….. ‘. Neville just didn’t fall into step with what he considers is very loosely called ‘a great era of Latvian art’. He has always felt that with the paint left over from when he retired, he could suspend himself in a harness from a branch of his favourite gum tree and swoop over the canvass armed with brush and can and literally put Carrajung back on the map. But Libby didn’t think he was deadly serious.
We moved on to Vilnius in Lithuania and travelled by bus with LuxExpress, our old friends from 2012 when we travelled from Estonia to Russia. As expected, the bus was first class, with toilet and coffee making facilities. We even watched a movie. The driver considered himself some sort of sex symbol, Neville thinks – his announcements were in a heavy breathing husky voice – the voice you would expect George Clooney to put on if he was talking to Sharon Stone on the phone!
The countryside between Latvia and Lithuania is surprisingly flat, arable and the farm houses mostly were in pretty good order – even a couple were recently built. Everything and everyone was preparing for winter – as we left Riga workmen were lifting wooden flooring that supported the outside eating areas for restaurants. In Vilnius the autumn toning on the trees was very evident – and beautiful.
Our first day sightseeing was centred around the main Cathedral Square. The palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, the main Catholic Cathedral of St Stanislav and Vladislav and the Old Armoury (which houses the history of Lithuania – the Latvian equivalent) – all located conveniently in the one very picturesque garden setting.
As with Latvia, these people have been belted from one century into the next. Not only having to deal with the Germans and the Russians, doing deals about who was going to occupy the country during World War Two, before they turned on each other, they had the Poles putting pressure on them prior to 1939. Without going into too much detail, Lithuania was the first Baltic country to declare independence from the USSR in 1990 and the last train of Russian troops left in 1993. Wow, wouldn’t that have been a party.
Apart from a general reconnoitre of the Old Town we used the day to get the gist of the public transport system – unsuccessfully – and in the evening enjoyed a concert at the Philharmonic Hall – a very talented Lithuanian string quartet and after intermission a Dvorak piano quintet. Our frustrating research of the bus system saw us catch a taxi home to our hotel.
On the second day we decided that a visit to the KGB Museum had to be endured to learn more about Lithuania’s fate during this unforgettable period in their history. To brighten us up we then had a look at the Money Museum and ate in the Republic of Uzupis – an area frequented by artists and Bohemians who have a declared constitution which is displayed on a fence in more than 20 different languages – before hailing a cab home again.
Over 142,000 Lithuanians were detained by the Soviets between 1944 and 1952 – 60,000 were released after questioning. Of the remaining number, about 20 to 25,000 died in Russian gulags. It was a stunning feeling of utter helplessness to stand in a room that has been identified as an execution chamber and learn that so many Lithuanian lives were ended here by Soviet and Nazi German tyranny. To see that the room was designed with wooden walls (to stop the ricocheting bullets), a sloping concrete floor (to wash away the blood) and a chute to remove the bodies left us with a reminder that for all the things that can be observed of human behaviour, with the current global conflicts, history is no teacher. This huge building was occupied by the Soviets prior to World War Two, then the Nazis took over and after the war the Russians resumed their campaign to bring Lithuania along with Latvia and Estonia under Soviet control.
We left Lithuania behind and pretty well spent a day travelling back through Latvia to Tallinn in Estonia. We arrived in the early evening and on arrival at our hotel were informed that it was partially closed due to ‘many rooms of no electricity.’ But arrangements had been made to accommodate us at an alternative hotel ‘five minutes away by walking’. When told that ‘by walking’ was no longer in our extensive vocabulary the front desk man wasn’t fazed – a cab-charge was quickly produced and we were suitably ensconced in our ‘up-graded three star rooms’. A quick walk around the Old Town before retiring reminded us that Tallinn is special for us – our visit four years ago still fresh in our minds.
We only had two days to reminisce in Tallinn – easily one of our favourite cities in 2012 – strutting around like locals. We did manage to see some sights that were missed last time and added some enjoyable memories eating out at couple of very comfortable restaurants. A taxi ride to the brand new Bus Station – Hancock family please note – and LuxExpress were transporting us to St Petersburg. The requisite one and a half hours at the Russian border was endured again – one Japanese tourist’s visa seemed to take up their interest and she was fuming when they let her back on the bus. One plus, however, was that we didn’t have to take our luggage off the bus to walk through to Russia this time. It wasn’t long before we wereentering the outskirts of St Petersburg to be dropped off at the same Metro Station as last time – the ‘all letters of the alphabet and ending in skaya’ Metro Station. We had decided en route that a taxi would be ‘the go’ to get to the Grand Nevski Hotel and soon we were beginning our re-education in how to stay calm in Russian traffic – particularly in a small Nissan Taxi with a shot clutch.
To get anywhere in St Petersburg you pretty much have to travel on the Nevski Prospekt at some stage – an eight lane carriageway that is used by trolley buses, conventional buses, cars and trucks – in fact everything bar horse and dray. Definitely not to be crossed by foot anywhere other than a set of traffic lights. It is nearly five kilometres long – at one end is the main railway station, the other is the river.
Our main aim in St Petersburg was to see as much of the Hermitage that two double day tickets would allow – given that we only have two feet to carry us – we elected to make them half days. The plan was to get there about eleven in the morning and stay until one of us ran up the white flag. Also this visit we were able to see an incredible permanent exhibition in the General Staff Building which is adjacent to the Hermitage buildings. It was described as “The Works of French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists”. The GSB is an incredible building in itself – four floors – the fourth with forty rooms of the above. Everything from van Gogh to Monet to Picasso. It hasn’t been open all that long and the Russkies need to do a bit of fine tuning. The pamphlets are only in Russian and apart from the general ban on taking water into the Hermitage or the GSB, they don’t tell you that there is no cafeteria inside. It seems that you are expected to enter, see the exhibits, leave and then use the cafeteria in the foyer. As it takes at least five hours to see just the fourth floor it’s obviously not set up for the tourists yet. No, there are no pass-outs.
The Hermitage worked out really well – we saw pretty much everything and did manage to limp back to our Hotel via an early meal each night. With our pre-booked tickets we always entered without the general rush. One night we also attended the Small Concert Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonic for a performance of a local internationally famous couple – violin and piano – a treat for us were the three encores that most of the locals missed as they rushed for one of the remaining freebies in the world – the cloakroom. Our Nevsky Grand Hotel may not have been so grand but it was certainly five minutes ‘by walking’ from most things that we wanted to see.
Neville took the opportunity to have his toilet loving iPhone looked at – the helpful young Russian technician said ‘mother-board very sick and definitely terminally ill and Russian roubles not to chase it is best option’. Fortunately Antonia in Zurich lent him a spare Samsung and we are able to take photos and access emails and the web with it. Thankyou Antonia.
Apart from being robbed on our last day in St Petersburg our stay was completely uneventful. Yep, Neville left his backpack unattended for about two minutes as the pleasure boat went under a bridge and his wallet was stolen by one or all of the five people that shared the back deck. The back pack was carefully zipped back up so that we didn’t discover it until at a restaurant a couple of hours later. Even though we raced back to our hotel and reported it to the bank, it was too late, and we discovered that a few thousand dollars had gone ‘east’. Fortunately Westpac has undertaken to reimburse both credit and debit card transactions, and the Commonwealth Bank’s investigations re the travel card eventually were concluded in our favour. This left us a bit flat but a few days in Moscow relaxing with Marat and Ellina put us in a better frame of mind.
The Fayrushins stayed with us in Melbourne in 1995 with son Maxim and this was our second visit to see them. Our stay was great and Ellina’s English improves with each day of our visits. We ate out at their favourite restaurants and also enjoyed a meal in the home of Ellina’s mother, Vera, on the last night of our stay.
Moscow, a city of over ten million people, is unique. You can walk down a street and see lines of cars parked with just a sprinkling of ‘normal’ vehicles. The bulk of the badges will be Audi, Mercedes, Porsche and BMW – not much early model stuff amongst it either. And they still park them at right angles between parallel parked cars if there is room, just like they did four years ago. The traffic jams occur at any time of the day – or night.
Then you see a man or woman living in a little room acting as a caretaker to a block of apartments or over a group of metal sheds that are the garages for the cars of the occupants of those apartments. How the other half live! When Neville queried Marat on how people have acquired so much wealth that they can afford expensive cars in such a short time since ‘perestroika’, Marat said that if we had three days to discuss the workings of the economy Russian style he would attempt to explain it. He did add also that it is no coincidence that the siblings of most Russian leaders of past years pretty much all live in the good old ‘hew hess of hay’ and that also includes the current Foreign Minister.
Given our unfortunate brush with organised crime in St Petersburg, although we were sorry to leave the Fayrushins who will always remain our close friends, it was refreshing to be back in the west in Zurich to pick up Neville’s favourite suitcase – the infamous ‘BIG RED’.
The flights to Zurich were an adventure that unfolded as the day did. An early morning cab to a railway station that transports you to the airport went without a hitch – farewell hugs with Max who accompanied us – then it all went south. Air Baltic had cancelled our flight, their office was unattended and after two trips through security clearance to find a phone we were eventually helped by an Information Attendant by using his phone. Air Baltic matter-of-factly put us on an Aeroflot flight to Riga with enough time to connect with our Zurich flight but neglected to book our luggage right through. We had to re-enter Riga airport to collect our luggage – which left insufficient time to make our flight. Another search for an Air Baltic desk was more successful and a very helpful Robert (who had lived in Adelaide for six months!) Got us to Stockholm to catch an Air Scandinavia flight and we probably arrived in Zurich about two hours later than scheduled. One more little blip was a boarding pass for Libby in Stockholm – it refused to appear from the computer in time and only an executive decision by the attendant got us both on the flight to further civilisation. You may be questioning our sanity with the trouble that we have now and then, but although a tad stressful at the time, mostly we solve the pressing problem with or without a little help and it all finishes up OK.
We had another great few hours with Michael, Antonia and their children, staying with them overnight en route to Paris. Our friend Anne was waiting at Gard Nord when we zoomed into Paris on the TGV. Disappointing though – each time the train driver approached 300 kms an hour he levelled out at 299!
We took half day trips into the city from Anne’s apartment which is very centrally located – only 8 minutes by train from Gare Saint-Lazare. A walk along the Seine embankment, a couple of museums and art galleries, lovely weather apart from a little drizzle (less rain than Melbourne we’re led to believe) and we’re happy tourists. One observation Neville has made concerns the martyrdom of St Anthony. It is obvious that as we move further west from St Petersburg, artists – who seem to have a perverse pleasure in depicting St Anthony being martyred by arrow – keep adding a few more arrows as we get closer to Paris. In the last museum we attended in Paris they had almost turned him into a pin cushion!
We made another pilgrimage to the Musee d’Orsay – we never seem to tire of the Impressionists – a converted railway station from the Nineteenth Century, the building is worth a look just for the architecture. Neville loves a painting by Monet of White Turkeys and his nose is out of joint that they don’t have a print of it for sale.
We spent a few days with Anne in Alsace but that’s a story for another day. Apart from visiting a very interesting Bankers private home that was left to the state – he and his wife were ardent collectors of art – most of our stay in Paris was R & R with our friend.

A.A. (Apple-eaters Anonymous). It is 68 days since I ate a Pink Lady apple. In fact I was asked by Ellina in Moscow if I’d like to smell a Russian apple. I did. It smelled like an apple – not a Pink Lady apple.

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It was a bit of a shock to arrive in Zurich early on Sunday morning – two Swiss francs to hit McClean for the necessaries, four and a half francs for a coffee- hey presto we’re back to Melbourne prices. Had to cut down on our coffee breaks – but that wouldn’t hurt us after the intake we were managing in the Balkans. Once we managed to get organised we were on the train to Rorschach, on the shores of Lake Constance.

It was fantastic to reunite with the Buechels again. We also managed to spend time with the four boys, even though three of them are studying away from Rorschach. Elias, (18) the youngest and David are still living at home but Fabian (who spent time with us in Australia late last year) and Ramon, who is in his final Medical year, are away most of the time. Both David and Ramon are in love so we don’t expect to see them often before we leave!

They made us very welcome and arranged an apartment for us within walking distance of their home in the building where Patrick has his office at the Cathedral. On the Wednesday Andrea took us to Klosters where they have a family chalet and we were there for a few days – scaling mountains in the summer sun. With the climbing practise they get from an early age we secretly believe that most Swiss orthaepedic surgeons have gone out of business. Neville has never seen knees in such good shape! Fifty-five steps up to our Cathedral eerie and in Klosters we were treated to a lift – after climbing thirty-seven steps. Neville re-enrolled in the Flat Earth Society. It is wonderful though, to see the numbers of elderly people out and about hiking as though they do it every day. And they probably do. We think we fitted in to the crowd! There was a presence of winter high up on the peaks – snow on a distant pass – but we enjoyed days with temperatures ranging from a crisp one degree some mornings and quite sunny and warm days. The little towns very busy preparing for the winter season with maintenance work on the ski fields and many new chalets being built in the towns. Around every corner there seemed to be scaffolding, cranes and cement trucks – this, along with the ever present tractors cutting grass and the wonderful bells that each cow wears around her neck. They are truly very easygoing as it is well documented that no cow has ever written to a farmer officially complaining about the noise.

Everything is happening in the Swiss Alps. The Swiss are so techno Neville is wondering if Farmer Bruin sits in the lounge room working up a sweat watching his flat screen to check where his Swiss Brown cows are at any given moment. There’s probably a microchip in the bell collar. A Swiss rustler’s first job would be to sneak up on the cow and undo the collar!

Patrick put Neville’s phone in a tin of rice – he said that that may do the trick to dry it out. Plan B is a second-hand phone that has been offered at the local Mobile Phone shop. Have made a diary entry not to eat any rice dishes at the Buechels when we get back from Klosters!!

We were in Klosters (alt. 1,100 m) until the Monday and what a difference a weekend makes. The village was eerily quiet with all the workmen taking the time off. No trucks, cranes etc but the farmers were still madly raking and baling grass – maybe a sign of some weather coming.

On another of our daily walks along the river (no hills) we came upon a couple of guys with remote controlled aircraft. On closer inspection we discovered that they were gliders and Neville must speak to brother Ivan as to how they were able to soar into the sky so easily. We were not close enough to see what powered them into the air, but little brother will tell him all about it. We also witnessed a few paragliders alight the earth (they more than land) from way up where. Looks a pretty good sport – drive to the cable car, walk up to a cliff face about 2,000 metres up in the Alps, run over the edge, sail around for an hour or so, alight the earth (they really do), pack it all into a back pack and head for the cable car again. Neville reckons he’d like to have a crack at it. Libby thinks it’s another of his deadly serious moments!

On the way back to Rorschach from Klosters we detoured and visited Locano which is in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. As in Klosters, we saved ourselves a lot of Swiss francs by limiting our spending spree to window shopping. Although Libby did lash out and buy a couple of t-shirts. She hopes they are a bit more successful than the dress she bought in Venice. Whenever she wears it, she sees someone else in the same tunic! Dubrovnik, Mostar and Split – Neville nearly had to don the earphones to blot out all the blaspheming!!

The trip Klosters – Locano – Rorschach was by train and bus and we were able to really see some beautiful scenery as well as get a feel for country life – Swiss style. Some of the tiny towns that the bus travelled through were quite exquisite.

Very early in our stay in Rorschach we took a boat that services a lot of the towns on Lake Constance, to the island of Lindau in Bavaria. The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway and is virtually on the other side of the Lake from Rorschach. The lake is also called Bodensee. Switzerland, Austria and Germany share its shores as their border. We think most islands are pretty special and Lindau did not disappoint. It is obviously used by older people as a retirement haven and the day trippers that flock in during the summer do nothing to alter the average age of around eighty-five!!

The European company, Wurth, has one of its main offices in Rorschach and while we were there they were displaying some of their valuable art collection to the public. We went along and enjoyed the display. We also found their shop which caters for tradesmen with some of the most interesting tool-wear one could see anywhere. It made the Bunnings men’s toy-shop look a bit plain. It was quite amusing to see a German sign in the art display with the German word fantasiche translated into English as ‘phantasmagorical’. We think that the translator was a tad exhuberent with his descriptive noun/verb/adjective!

We also were able to use the magnificent Swiss rail network and take a day trip to Montreux and Lausanne on Lake Geneva. This area of Switzerland is obviously very French influenced and the rail announcements are in French as well as German and occasionally even English. The countryside is quite beautiful and small chateaus seem to spring up around every corner. There is much evidence of wine growing and of course the Swiss seemed to have trained all the vines to have the bunches all growing in a line on the bottom wire of the trellising. You could pick them with your eyes closed! There is a castle in Montreux that is extraordinary. We get castled out from time to time but this one is worth a really good look. On the way back to Rorschach we stopped in Bern and had an hour and a half with Ramon and Fabian at the university cafe with the snow covered Alps as a backdrop – still Libby’s favourite European vista.

Neville managed to put in a couple of half days gardening for Andrea to build up his ‘brownie points’ and we were able to attend her school and spend some time with her class of ten year old girls. We were invited to sing along with some local dialect folk songs and the little girl holding the book for us to read was so impressed with Neville’s attempt at singing the words she couldn’t stop giggling! It was also the day the children washed their uncomplaining tortoises.

Our time in Rorschach all too quickly came to an end and we bid our Swiss family goodbye. Patrick, Andrea and their four boys have been part of our lives since we met Ramon on a railway station in Germany and then again in Helsinki by chance a couple of weeks later way back in 2012 on our last European trip. We will be indebted to them forever for their generosity.

Back on the Swiss rail system we travelled back to Zurich in preparation for our flight to Riga in Latvia. We used these two days to meet Antonia and her lovely family. Antonia lived with Ande and her parents, Gaynor and Graham, as an exchange student and is still in close contact with them. We had presents from Ande for Alex and Angelina who are both exciting and delightful children and continually amazed us with their energy and intelligence. Antonia and Michael need some sort of award for keeping up with these two.

We had a good day out with them (Michael was in Lugano on a school excursion with a soccer team) walking along the side of Lake Zurich – very picturesque – and sampled some of the famous Swiss sausage in the city. Zurich seems quite a conservative city and as Neville observed “more Maseratti than Toyota”. It was also special to stop and listen to a busker playing some Bizet on his violin, lakeside. Very Zurich, we thought.

All too soon we were at the Flughafen – which in German Neville thinks is “flying town” – having lunch with Antonia, Michael and the children, bidding them a farewell – until we meet again on our way back from Moscow. We have left our ginormous and humungus suitcase “big red” with them until we return. Most of our summer clothes stay with “big red” while we are in the Balkan states and Russia.

And if you’re wondering why we have sub-titled this blog “Towards the North” – we may have had a false start in Switzerland, but we have definitely headed north (with a back dive with pike from Riga to Vilnius) and then on to Tallinn and St Petersburg. Our plans include visits to the three Balkan countries but we have to enter through Latvia, not Lithuania which apparently no-one flies to or from!

A.A. (Apple-eaters Anonymous). It is 44 days since I ate a delectable Pink Lady apple. Although I have been sorely tempted to try a Swiss apple, with the knowledge that the Swiss are masters of horticulture, I have resisted. Who knows, I may have become re-addicted to some obscure variety and what with the tarrif duties levied by the European Common Market, been economically stretched – i.e. flat broke – trying to get a supply imported. So I’m staying true to the Lady.

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Our Swiss Home

 

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Lindau’s famous fountain

 

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Lindau’s ‘Town Hall’

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Lunch with Andrea and Patrick in their beautiful garden in Rorschach

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The balcony at Kloster

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The view from the balcony at Klosters

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With Ramon and Fabian at Bern University

Towards the North

To the Balkans

Back in Padova for one night before leaving for Slovenia, we spent the evening with Denys, Giorgia and Amelie and it was sad to say goodbye. The good news is that we will most likely spend a week with them in Spain after Christmas. One more night in our Padova hotel in the same room (we forgot to return the key ) – Neville’s version is that that the Concierge forgot to ask for it. We had filled in their regulation form that asked for recommendations etc. Our room was at least three hundred and fifty metres from reception – you legged it down a lane – we made the suggestion that a courtesy car would be good. The Concierge was convinced this was some form of Aussie humour – but Neville was dead serious! He laughed so much he forgot to ask us for the key. Our story anyway. Into the taxi and to the train station and tthe city of Mestre to catch our bus to Ljubljana where we had no hitches and we were soon on our way through Trieste and into Slovenia.

Well may you be asking – where’s the first blog? Well, you may – but that hasn’t got it on the web any faster. These fine septuagenarians have had to overcome some serious technicàl hitches as well as travel the European countryside. We confess to receiving some heavy international support and that by the time you read this Blog No. 1 is well and truly published.

Ljubljana is such a pearl in the Balkans. Winner of 2016 Green European Capital and the central city area completely free of motor vehicles, it sets a standard very difficult to beat. There are so many unique features about Slovenia and its Capital. All we can say is that you should put it on your list of places to visit. With a population about half that of Melbourne they are heavyweights in the Winter Olympics – particularly in ski jumping. Eddie the Eagle doesn’t stand a chance here – we saw them practising – air-borne and landing on astro-turf – not a sport for the faint hearted.

We spent two days touring the countryside with Drago, a relative of our friends Anita and Vedran from Melbourne. Drago was waiting for us at the bus station when we arrived and we had a great time with him. Drinking coffee, chatting and relaxing in the beautiful summer climate is a national pastime and Drago had little difficulty training us to fit in. He also introduced us to the Lake Bled cake – looks like a vanilla slice only better!  Drago also took us to meet a young couple who he helped get a backpacker type hostel off the ground in a small town called Kransky Gora which coincidentally was having a little music festival to extract a few more Euros out of the visiting bikies.  Harley-Davidson riders from all over Europe had descended on Slovenia for the week.  The band played the best cover version of The Eagles ‘Hotel California’ we have ever heard.

Slovenia is bordered by Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary and has forty-six kilometres of Adriatic coastline. It has a 440 year old grapevine, is home to the oldest wooden wheel ever discovered – 5,200 years old, hot water is circulated in Ljubljana for central heating, 30% of its energy is nuclear and you can ride a Vespa motor scooter on the bike path without a helmet or licence as long as you stay under 25 kms! The European Alps cover 42% of its surface area.

After bidding Drago goodbye we set off on an overnight bus for Sarajevo in Bosnia. Not a trip for the faint of heart – but it didn’t get off to a good start when the bus was two and a half hours late. There had been an accident down the line somewhere and it was in a twenty-seven kilometre long traffic jam. This wasn’t the bus trip from hell, but it deserves a mention. We had to cross borders of Slovenia/Bosnia, Bosnia/Croatia and Croatia/Bosnia to get there. Passport control is a bit touchy and we spent quite a long time passing through the check points. The last checkpoint was particularly interesting as we and two other fellow travellers were relieved of our passports and the official left the bus. Another passenger assured us that things were ‘no problem’ and we can only speculate that it was because we were the only international travellers on the bus. These officials are not chatty and when he returned he actually called us out by our Christian names – a nice friendly Socialist touch! We were convinced that our two bus drivers were playing good driver/bad driver. One of them said nothing for the whole twelve hours other than the gruffest ‘SARAJEVO’ when we arrived. No-one was particularly friendly – it was a sobering introduction to eastern Europe. Some-one was sitting in our reserved seats and wouldn’t shift. The bus was full and Neville wasn’t keen for Libby to sit next to a stranger for the journey. He wouldn’t budge, the bus drivers’ couldn’t give a ‘rats’ and we were looked on by our neighbours as complaining no-good westerners. The tension eased when two seats together suddenly materialised a couple of rows back.

Neville has a theory about day to day living in this part of the world. Perhaps there is an extra academic subject included in their syllabus. We could call it the Doctorate of Waiting. They’re good at it and they’re given plenty of practise. Two and a half hours waiting for a bus ‘is nothing’ – one cigarette waits at bus breaks ‘is good’ – two cigarette waits ‘IS BETTER’. Even the houses seem to be waiting – as we pass in the bus plenty of buildings have steel reinforcing rods reaching skywards waiting for the next floor to be added. Dario, describing Sarajevo inhabitants said – they wait, the pressure builds, they decide to react – and like Vesuvious they boil over, burn something down and that gets rid of the tension. Next day they’re fine – but the wait has started again.

We were met in Sarajevo by Ivana and Dario, sister and brother-in-law of Anita, and we stayed with her mum and dad who treated us to true Bosnian hospitality and we will need to do some serious dieting since leaving. Katerina – Ivana and Anita’s mum – is seriously into filling stomachs. Ivana , Dario and their son Mateo showed us the city sights and it is no exagerration that Ivana must have had all her friends hiding around corners as almost everyone who walked past us knew her. I swear if the Pope had been walking by he would have walked over and said hi. And that would have been OK too as he has actually shaken Mateo’s hand. Mateo insisted I try the Egyptian Vanilla Gellato and who am I to spoil a perfectly good friendship. In true Eastern style the story goes that the guy who had the recipe for the Egyptian Vanilla Gellato was offered his weight in gold for it (and he was no hundred pound weakling) but he refused! More power to his waist-line.
The saddest thing about Sarajevo is that everywhere you go you see evidence of the Balkans war that actually finished over twenty years ago. Cemeteries everywhere – we were told that over eleven thousand civilians were killed in Sarajevo alone. Almost all the high rise apartments have evidence of grenade and bullet strikes. Some apartments are still to be made habitable. Katerina and Michan’s apartment was close to the front line and during the fighting Michan shared the double bed with the wood for their fire while Katerina slept in the passage or the basement if things got too bad. It is so sad to walk through a cemetery and see so many names – born in 1969 and died in 1992. Very sobering as we also have a sons born in 1969.

Sarajevo has taken a small leaf out of Ljubljana’s book and has decided to close a section of road each evening so that people can take a walk by the river. We had a great leisurely walk along this avenue with Ivana, Dario and Mateo with some nice wine and Pizza.

On the Saturday evening, after being introduced to half of Sarajevo by Ivana, we attended the first birthday party of the daughter of her cousin which was an ideal opportunity to meet the other half of Sarajevo’s residents. On Sunday we went for a walk in a park – all have to pay to walk in the park – and Dario treated us to a pony ride while he went back to get the car as it looked like rain. And rain it did – in Eastern European bucket-loads. It got to the hilarious stage when the driver started swearing at his horse for looking around at him when it was supposed to be digging in with more than a trot. Ivana was translating and it was definitely shearing shed grammar. Neville suggested that he ought to treat his carriage to some new rubber tyres (solid rubber and pretty bumpy) for Christmas but Ivana decided that his demeanour was beyond humouring. In the evening we went to see Michan’s ‘ranch’ and had a lovely meal not far from there which Katerina also attended. This is all in the area designated Republika Croatia even though it is a part of Sarajevo which, of course, is in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though I am trying to simplify a problem that seemed too great for the UN to tackle, it is bordering on the ridiculous to see the situation that everyone is subjected to. Back to the ranch – most families if they are able, have a little place in the country. Michan and his family have the ranch – its house was destroyed in the war and it is Michan’s intention to rebuild. There is a lot of talk about it! The grass keeps getting mown and Michan keeps presenting a different plan for the house. As we said – there is a lot of talk about it, but that is good. There is great enjoyment in talking about building a house.

Michan has very little English and does not enjoy good health and Grandson Mateo is his right hand man both physically and as a translator. Mateo’s command of the English language for a young fellow of twelve is exemplary and he could quite easily hold down a job as a translator even now.

Clearly we have devoted a lot of this blog to Sarajevo and our hosts – another 1,000 words would not be sufficient to describe our feelings for them and their city.

After three days and some emotional farewells we were off to Mostar with Michan and Mile – Vedran’s dad. So we sat in the back and the two fathers sat in the front. Neither the front seat nor the back seat could correspond with each other, so it was a strange trip. We all knew there would be coffee and cigarette breaks (for Michan) but apart from that and the extremely animated descriptions of what we were passing, both seats kept to themselves.

Mostar is famous for the old bridge that got blown up in the war and was then rebuilt; but then Hamish and Andy (two Melbourne media personalities) went there and jumped off it, so we are told. A guy who sold us a fridge magnet on the bridge said if we were real Australians we would jump off it too. We quickly assured him that although the water was obviously cool and refreshing (temperature about 35 degrees Celsius) and not because of the fifteen metres that separated us on the bridge, it was because we neglected to bring our togs. And so we left the bridge feeling as though we had let our proud nation down – but secretly cursing H and A for being so thick that they could think Croatians would let the rest of us off the hook. It has been said that many have accepted the challenge, but not us.

Mostar is very eastern – where Sarajevo is east meets west. The narrow street leading to the bridge is very colourful and whilst Sarajevo has its Turkish Bazaar, Mostar and its downtown area (what an Americanism) is straight out of the Middle East. The surrounding areas are rich in vines and fruit trees. Really rocky limestone type country that drains well.

We bid Michan goodbye and were left in Mile’s more than capable hands and were transported to Neum, where Mile has a seaside apartment. Geographically, it is a strange set up. The section of Bosnian coastline appears to be bordered on both sides by Croatian territory – perhaps another product of finger pointing, tanks and guns. Mile had a taxi waiting and we were treated to a scenic drive to Neum. While staying with this wonderful man we travelled by bus to Dubrovnik which has a startling ‘Old Town.’

But back to Neum. There are fifty-four steps up to Mile’s apartment and he insisted on carrying not one but both our cases. The fact that he is about fifteen years older than Neville didn’t enter his head. After a bit of argey-bargey (polite insistence) Neville was allowed to carry one case. While we were dragging ourselves up by the handrail, Mile was marching ahead undaunted.

Mile was such a wonderful host and it was so disappointing that we were unable to have great conversations with him. He had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make us feel at home and the communication problem made even simple things hard for him to get across to us. We spent a day in Dubrovnik and he arranged for his neighbour to take us to the bus stop in his car. They were waiting for us when we returned and we’re still not sure how long they waited. He also drove us to the bus stop the next day when we left for Split. The neighbour waited with us for nearly an hour until the bus came as he said ‘Mile my good friend and I must stay with you”. He was a very animated man when it came to relaying his opinions about all things Bosnian, Croatian, lazy police, crooked politicians and just about anything else that came to mind. He had the solution for any problem but they all seemed to come straight out of the Old Testament! And there are laws against most of his suggestions.

So we left Mile reluctantly, we had met he and his wife, Emina when they visited Vedran and Anita, and it is no exagerration to say that this delightful gentleman will remain in our hearts forever. Sadly Emina died some years ago.

So to Split – but not before Neville needs to relate to you something that can only be described as toilet humour. So if you’re not into toilet humour – as they say ‘look away now’.

In the early morning Neville needed to visit that place that older men need to visit increasingly during interrupted sleep. Not wanting to disturb the masses, he took his mobile phone along to use as a torch and promptly dropped it into the toilet bowl. Now if you laughed, he is very disappointed. It seems that like Newton’s Law of positive and negative reactions, one’s misfortune is another’s hilarity. So you are forgiven. If you can imagine him on his knees over the bowl, delicately extracting an iPhone by the fingernails – the torch in the phone still shining happily away – well then you’ve got the picture. And talking about pictures, it appears that’s about all he’s got. A tech guy in Dubrovnik got the card out and said it will probably be OK but that he would need a couple of days to see if the phone is OK or not. While we are in Switzerland we will look for someone who can help. After all, what aren’t the Swiss good at.

The bus journey to Split showed us some extremely fertile land. One area of river flats at a place called Blace – like that? – was probably the most fertile stretch of land we have ever seen. It was completely planted down to vines, stone fruit and citrus and the plantings were supported by canals that criss-crossed the flats. All this within sight of the sea with endless fruit stalls lining the main road. I don’t know how they coped with the salinity problem. The other thing that will remain with us is the wild pomegranit and fig trees that grew randomly everywhere. This, plus the olive trees growing in half-hearted plantation fashion didn’t leave much room for weeds.

Split bustles on Croatia’s coast with an incredible array of sail and motor craft. There were two of the largest pleasure boats we have ever seen tied up there. Both domiciled Barbados they were so big they must be owned by the richest oil Sheik in Arabia – or perhaps two medium sized African countries. It is Dalmatia without the dalmations. No black spotted four legged D’s in sight. Split has a long history – Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruled from 284 AD for 21 years, was born and also died in Split – then known as Spolato. Splitians (for want of a better word) recently celebrated their city’s 1700th anniversary.

Split was busy – many more tourists than we expected and we had trouble finding accommodation. We walked to a very respectable hotel not far from the bus station, only to be told they were booked out. Their alternatives were also full up and we finished up at the Hotel ? Where the receptionist rang around and eventually found what turned out to be a delightful room on the other side of town. While we were deliberating about how we were going to get there, she said that Marin would pick us up in his taxi and take us there for fifty Kuna (about A$7). Marin turned up in what could only be described as an elongated Vespa on steroids. It was electric, it went up onto footpaths, around motor vehicle barriers – in fact just about anywhere a pedistrian could walk it would go. The Motor Registration Branch in Melbourne would have at least about twenty reasons why this little beauty would not be allowed on our roads. Marin said he and his partner had seven of them tearing round town. Asked if he had a girlfriend he said he was too busy to have one – he would be back in the morning at nine-thirty to take us and our luggage back to the bus station where we would leave it while we spent the day being touristy. We waited until ten o’clock and still no Marin. The cleaner rang the Hotel ? For us as M didn’t have a card with him when we asked the day before. She called out that he had forgotten and would be there in five minutes. Neville said to throw down a towel from the room – asked why, he said to clean up the blood after he punched Marin in the nose. Much laughter but Neville was being deadly serious – again. So up sneaks Marin, you can’t here him and his electrics coming, all apologetic. Glad he hasn’t any girlfriends as he wouldn’t remember to pick them up.

We liked the lifestyle in Split – more coffee drinking and the laid back style that we have seen everywhere along the Dalmatian coastline. There is also a daily ferry service to Ancona, Italy during the summer as well as the ever arriving and leaving ferries to the coastal islands. During the summer months it is not unusual for four or five of these large ferries to be in port at once, and while we were there a huge cruise ship disgorged an armada of tourists.

An overnight bus back to Ljubljana to collect ‘big red’ our humungous suit case (full of winter clothes and presents), some more time and lunch with Drago and we were ready for what we thought would be a relaxing sleeper berth in the train to Zurich. What a joke.

We had time during the day for some more sight-seeing in lovely Ljubljana and met Drago an hour before we left in the train for coffee.

We knew that we would be sharing our compartment with two more travellers as all private sleeper accommodation was taken. One guy was Swiss and had been kayaking in Slovenia with a group. The other was a Harley-Davidson bikey – there had been Harley’s hairing around Slovenia the whole time we were there – interesting to look at but they all have the same noise (patented we believe). Anyway bikey-man was Austrian and he was supposed to wake up when the conductor brought him a coffee so that he could depart the train somewhere in the middle of the night. But of course he slept on and it was only because the Swiss guy knew he had to get off that he galvanised into action. Bouncing into his trousers as he hopped down the passage, they actually delayed the departure at his station so he could get off. Maybe they had to wake up his Harley too.

As we were last booked, you can guess where we had to sleep. Yep – top bunks – and we are now seriously over top bunks. Neville has watched our dog, Sass, randomly scratch her blanket into a more comfortable position and he reckons that when we get home he is going to pay closer attention to how she does it as he needs educating in cramped-position-blanket-spreading. How we both didn’t fall as we climbed up and down we don’t know. And Neville’s chlostrophobic attack is now manageable, but only just.

Anyway we’re now in Rorschach with Fabian, Ramon, David, Elias and their parents, enjoying their company and reminiscing about old times.

A.A. (Apple-eaters Anonymous) It is twenty-seven days since I ate a magnificent Pink Lady apple. Given that my withdrawal symptoms have only on occasion resulted in uncontrollable tremors I am not doing too bad. In a moment of weakness I had a Jabuka in Ljubljana which I thought was a type of apple but it turned out that the supermarket calls all apples in Slovenia jabuka because that’s the word for apple. It wasn’t half bad but not a Pink Lady’s breaches.

La dolce vita

Etihad Airways stole us from Melbourne. Mind, we didn’t go kicking and screaming – the next thirteen or so hours as a captive audience was a relief from the crazy organisation that was going on prior to our departure.

Whilst winging our way across the Indian Ocean I thought of a friend with the initials P.S. who arrived in Europe a few days before us. He and his wife travelled at the pointy end and I can say what a pleasure it was to do the same – albeit in row forty-five at the opposite end of the aircraft!

It wasn’t long before we were on our way again out of Abu Dhabi and into Venice where our friend Denys was waiting to take us to Padova. Apart from a day trip to Lake Garda (busy but beautiful) and two day trips to Venice, we have been here for the last few days. It doesn’t take long to get used to the cafe society lifestyle. Carrajung doesn’t have the same relaxing ring to it as Brunswick Street, Fitzroy which would slot into the Padovan lifestyle automatically.

Padova certainly hides its light under a bushell. Five hundred years of academia – famous blokes like Galileo Galileo and Gabe Fallopio – he discovered the tubes – and even more famous; the first female graduate of a university in 1678. The University is the Palazzo del Bo – named after a tavern called Il Bo (the Ox) -it’s funny, but not my humour. And then to top it off Giotto made a grand entrance in the early 1300’s and just about upstaged Michaelangelo by painting the ceiling AND the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel – in half the time!

Padovans really value their Scrovegni Chapel – so much that you get put an airlock for fifteen minutes for decontamination. And then you get another fifteen to take it all in.

Galileo Galileo lectured in Anatomy to students – all male of course. The first female physician didn’t graduate until hundreds of years later. His lecture theatre still exists and you can stand where he displayed his culinary skills by candlelight to hundreds of students all gathered in six tiers above and encircling him. These lectures were done in the cool of the night – Senor Kelvinator was still fine tuning his invention. And of course his subjects were animal (of the four legged variety – NOT) because the Pope was not keen on what he was up to.

Then there’s the biggest undivided medieval hall in Europe. The Palazzo della Raggione – the Palace of Reason – was built to serve as Padova’s law court in 1218. Burnt down and rebuilt in 1420, Giotti’s frescoes were destroyed – what a tragedy. Breathtaking by its size alone, it is 80m long, 27m wide and 27m high.

I reckon that you can liken Padova to the mighty Hawks – quietly going about its business collecting premierships while still standing in the public shadow of the ‘Woods with a couple carved on their shingle in 60 years. Padova to Florence – Hawthorn to Collingwood: what an analogy!

I forgot – we went to the Opera at the Arena in Verona – two days away from Padova. What an unforgettable experience. It didn’t finish after the third intermission but Neville has forgotten most from then on – got caught snoozing. Two thousand people in a Roman Arena for four and a half hours and not a drop of blood spilt – must be a record.

Our Padovan accommodation was up to the standard that we’ve come to expect from past experience. We spent quite a few evenings with our friends Giorgia and Denys and their 16 month old daughter Amelie who is a joy to be with. This couple were in Australia in 2012/3 -Denys was a tennis coach and they lived in the flat attached to Merton Street. Amelie was born in Padova about ten months after they returned. Giorgia said it was the eggs from Neville’s chooks that put her in top breeding condition. A great start to life in anyone’s book!

As we draw closer to our first two weeks away we have slipped out of Padova into the Dolomites for a bit of ‘R and R’ before we travel to Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia. It was an easy exercise – train from Padova to Feltre and a bus to San Martino di Castrozza all up about three and a half hours travel. Our Hotel is a typical three star job – you can always tell the number of stars by the size of the shower. Three stars equals 600mm square – a Physios delight. I have ricked my back trying to reach the toilet paper and smashed my Adam’s Apple on my knee trying to wash my feet. But it has been worth it. The Dolomites are simply breathtaking – the first day we took a chairlift and a cable car to Colverde-Rosetta – at 2,700m we could have looked down on Kosciuszko. We can literally see where we went as I write this on our hotel balcony. In fact if I lie on my right side on the bed I see the cable car docking one thousand metres above me. I must confess to a little hesitancy when we looked up. Memories of Clint Eastwood’s problems encountered in The Eiger Sanction rose to the surface. However all good and we lived to tell the tale. People everywhere hiking and enjoying the sunshine. San Martino di Castrozza has been up and running since the days of the Austro/Hungarian Empire when the elite of the time would visit. It is now a town of about 500 permanent residents but is popular with tourists summer and winter – altitude of about 1500m.

We chat to people everywhere we go – inviting them all to visit Australia. They all want to come – one exception was some whimp in Verona who said he was scared of our animals. Malcolm T should give us a heavy discount on our expenses.

We have returned to Padova in readiness for an early start to Ljubljana on Wednesday – two weeks after leaving Melbourne.

Post script

A.A. (Apple-eaters Anonymous). It is fourteen days since I ate a Pink Lady apple. (Although I must admit to sneaking a Royal Gala in Padova which wasn’t half bad). Pink Ladies are a secret in Europe – hooray, more for us Aussies.

 

 

2016 European Tour

Hi friends,  In previous trips away we have tried to relate our experiences, and in so doing the truth has been stretched somewhat – but only in the name of hilarity.  We do enjoy relating what we get up to, and as the years creep up, as we all say, so much to do and so little time.

We are embarking on the longest time away from Australia – a bit daunting as you know we love the place.  We’re  visiting friends, some old, some met on previous trips and some that we have had the pleasure of hosting in our homes in Victoria.  By the time we arrive back we will have visited some twelve or thirteen countries.  We never plan hard and fast – we make decisions on the run.  That’s what makes it so enjoyable. Hope you enjoy it too.

 

 

Europe Beckons Again

Only a week to go before our trip begins.  We still have lists of so many things to do, so we don’t know whether to be anxious or excited.

When departure day arrives I will be ready for the holiday – anxious, excited  but definitely ready – for our trip.

PS.  Maybe I’ll even get to meet my friend Norman again, if he’s still chilling out in Normandy!IMG_1630