Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Holidaying in Britain II

Of course, if you can get your hands on a dirt cheap flight to Ireland then I could be tempted to not spend the whole of the summer going for Donkey rides up the beach at Blackpool.

God bless easyJet and their next to nothing flights to Belfast. Looks like I’ll be spending part of the summer going round Ireland (though I would like to make it absolutely clear at this point that I will not be taking any kitchen equipment with me, especially not Fridges!)

Holidaying in Britain, it’s all the rage

So as the pound nears parity with the Euro the whole concept of popping across to the continent for a short break starts to look fiendishly expensive.

So it is with great joy that I was up early this morning joining the hundreds of others taking part in the sales. Except, I wasn’t buying DVDs, or the fixtures and fittings from a bankrupt Woolworths store.

No, today I had my cyber elbows sharpened as I dived into the melee of the Travelodge Christmas sale.

Whilst I have several objections to Travelodge, my experience with their London City hotel being my main negative against them, you have to agree that a £9 a night for a hotel room your principles can become a little looser than normal.

Given the number of times I got the “Server Busy” message and had to repeatedly hit reload, it would appear that they were doing pretty brisk business.

But still, I managed to walk away with some stunning bargains.

Consequently I’m going to be spending a little more time exploring my own country this year (or until such time as I get a 100% pay rise [impossible], the pound surges to record highs against the Euro [almost impossible], or just recovers so it’s back around the 1.20 mark [still highly unlikely]).

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Reflecting on Oostende

It appears I have spent a large part of 2008 reliving my childhood. Not only the trip to Venice, but also my recent day trip from Bruges to Oostende.

As a child we had a short family break in Oostende, I would have been about five at the time. Some of the memories of that trip are still as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday.

I can vividly remember the wide sandy beaches, digging a big hole in the sand, riding up and down the yellow bricked prom in a hired child peddle buggy, avoiding the large streaks of dog mess and trying to avoid dropping off the edge of the prom onto the beach, where it falls beneath the level of the road.

As I sat on the tram going along the prom at Oostende on Monday, I was amazed to still see the same yellow bricked prom, (still streaked with the odd bit of dogs mess), kids still propelling themselves along the front on peddle buggies and the wide sandy beach, (which if it wasn’t the middle of December I’m sure there would have been children digging holes in).

It just leaves one question unanswered.

How the hell did I fail to remember the giant trams rattling past the beach every few minutes. Until reading it in the guidebook I had no idea there was a tram line through Oostende. My parents even confirmed that they took me on it. Aged five it must have been my first experience of a train that ran down the middle of the road, so how did the single largest, nosiest and most obvious part of the holiday escape my memory, but I could still remember the yellow bricks with the dog poo!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Why is Flanders not bankrupt?

Today was an historic day.

I’ve been to the Flemish part of Belgium on a number of occasions, and I’ve visited a few of the main towns.

And until today on every occasion something has been happening that made the local transport free.

When I visited Bruges in 2004 the bus from the station was free because there was an exhibition going on in town.

When I visited Antwerp in 2006 they were celebrating the opening of an extension to the pre-metro and all the travel for the whole weekend was free.

When I went to Ghent from Antwerp I discovered that the celebrations appeared to be across Flanders as all of Ghent’s public transport was free.

Yesterday, I, lazily, caught a bus from the centre of town to the station and, because it was the last Sunday before Christmas, all the buses were free.

Finally, today, on the costal tram I had to buy a ticket for the day, a whole €5, the first time I had actually had to pay to be transported on a De Lijn service (it should be noted that I have never experienced free travel on TEC services in Walloon or the MIVB/STIB services in Brussels).

Which leads me to the question, with this amount of free public transport sloshing around – even being given to the tourists, why is Flanders still the rich part of the country and not facing imminent bankruptcy

Sunday, 21 December 2008

A country divided

I've been to Belgium on a couple of occasions now. To Brussels first, but then also to Antwerp (Flemish) and Liege (Walloon). In the past I hadn't really noticed any particular friction between the different language groups, and the stories I had seen in the press and on the TV about a nation tearing itself apart along linguistic lines, I thought were a little over exaggerated for effect.

Then today, in the Choco-Story I came across the open sore.

There were a large group of people walking round in matching jackets and bags, and for a while I thought they might be quite mature language students (in the same way that large groups of people wandering around London with matching bags and jackets are always students coming to the UK to study English.) However, on closer inspection (i.e. having one barge in front of me whilst I was trying to read a display board), they appeared to all be from the same company, possibly on a work outing.

I miss-timed getting down to the demonstration on making chocolate and arrived just a few seconds ahead of this group, so any chance of it being in English went out the window.

The presenter said that he would only present in one language and wanted a show of hands who wanted English, Dutch or French. Needless to say there were more hands up for Dutch and French than English, but it was difficult to say which one won.

Given that as I was arriving the presenter had just finished the previous talk which was in Dutch I think he decided he wanted a change and started to do the presentation in French. He was quite quickly interrupted by someone speaking in Dutch. I’m not quite certain what he was saying but there was a mention of Vlaams, Nederladich and Walloon. The guy speaking was one of the employee day trip group. A retort came back in French, from a colleague, which didn't sound like it was being delivered in a friendly manner. I think the presenter realised this and decided that he might be able to do it in two languages so started to repeat everything in both Dutch and French.

Now it’s possible that it was just a row between two colleagues who don’t see eye to eye, but at the same time it was noticeable that they were in two distinct groups – those speaking Dutch and those speaking French - on different sides of the room.

It’s always possible that it was a work bonding trip gone horribly wrong, it could be that the whole thing was being put on as some kind of massive company in joke

Or it could be that those news reports weren't so wrong. Could Belgium actually be pulling itself apart?

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Tasting the Aspic

I came to Bruges on a day trip from Brussels in the early summer of 2004.

The whole selling point of Bruges is that it is a perfectly preserved medieval city, and that’s what draws the tourists.

I know on this basis I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing has changed since 2004, but I am pretty certain that absolutely nothing has changed. The temporary roadwork’s look as though they are in the same place as they were four and a half years ago.

Walking around the city centre it is amazing how, with the exception of the Christmas decorations; nothing has changed in the slightest in the time. Anywhere else some things would have changed (some of the roadwork’s might even have finished), but here everything has remained the same.

Quite frankly it’s a little concerning, like being trapped in a time-warp from which you can never escape. Just have to hope that I can leave on Monday and that I too don’t end up being dispatched to the aspic factory for preservation.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Commuting for the fearless

45 minutes trundling through a tunnel, and then having to stand on a crowded train for half an hour. Sounds like the evening commute? Sadly it was my journey to Bruges. Following the recent fire in the Channel Tunnel the train crawled through at little more than tube train speed, and it after the speed of the journey from London to the tunnel entrance it comes as a bit of a shock at how slow the Belgium high speed line is.

Having arrived at Brussels a little late I still managed to make the connection, but only because the train to Bruges was five minutes late, and then when it arrived absolutely heaving.

I’m not certain if the Belgium’s are used to the Londoners idea of a full train, but some of the reactions from those already on the train as wave after wave of British tourists heading for Flanders poured into the carriage, merrily propping themselves up against the edge of seats, implied that this was all getting a bit too much.

Certainly, all those standing were speaking English and there were a couple of comments along the lines of “This is as bad as Southern/C2C/First/Insert favourite company as appropriate.”

Ghent is quite a large town, and I would suspect has a significant population that commutes into Brussels, though as to whether it matches the numbers who poured off the train at Ghent leaving enough space for everyone to sit down is another matter (I get the impression some had decided to get a quieter local train for the remainder of their journey).

Still, it makes a change. For the last five years my commute has always been against the flow heading out of London in the morning and back in the evening. I’d forgotten how miserable standing on a packed train for 30 minutes was!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Credit Crunchies

Back in July, in my second post, I bemoaned the fact that my trip to Poland was getting more and more expensive as the credit crunch bit and the pound fell.

Perhaps I should have kept my gob shut at the time, as it’s getting worse.

I should be off to Brugge in a couple of weeks, but every day it gets more and more expensive.
I did not pay for the hotel when I booked it, just reserved it. At the time the Euro was at about 1.27 to the pound. Over the last couple of days the pound has sunk to new lows against the currency and it currently stands at 1.17, adding nearly £20 to the cost of my hotel in a little over three months, with the worst slumps happening in the last few weeks its probably only going to get worse.

Perhaps now I should be looking at the possibility of cancelling, but if I do that, I loose the cost of my Eurostar ticket. Unless of course Eurostar were unable to run the train, in which case they would have to refund me.

Eurostar managers recently voted for strike action over the run-up to Christmas (and let’s face it you can get more run-uppery than the last weekend before Christmas!). Perhaps, for once, I should be secretly hoping that the strike and inevitable chaos it brings takes place.

Obviously for people who want to get home to loved ones for Christmas it would be devastating, but for me…

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Answering my own question

When I arrived in Belfast I wanted to come with no pre-conceptions. I wanted Belfast to speak for itself without the baggage attached to it from the subconscious of having seen it feature so much on TV news during my childhood.

I asked the question is Belfast now fully open for business?

I don’t think its a question that just two days can answer, but at the same time I’ve been able to get a taste of where the answer may lie.

Yes, the shops are gleaming, the cityscape stunning and the future rosy. But at the same time the gleaming shops are the same ones which line the street of every town in Britain. M&S, Carphone Warehouse, Next, Orange, Debenhams. I had hoped that Belfast would buck the trend of other cities in the UK and not be an identikit city. Sadly if you were to read out the names of the shops on the main street it would be impossible to tell if you were in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool or Belfast.

In places there is that hint that there is more under the surface. There are no Irish theme bars, just Irish bars. Some of the shops don’t have branches in London, but they do in Dublin and Cork, and in the streets lots of the cars bear number plates from Ireland.

But, perhaps the most depressing thing from my visit was discovering that despite the end to violence and the peace process being over a decade old, the physical divisions between the two communities still exits. The 20 foot high peace walls topped with barbed wire to keep the two communities separate, the gates that sever the link between the communities at night.

In the end rather than answering one question I now have several

  • Is Belfast open for retail? Yes

  • Is Belfast open for tourism? Yes

  • Is Belfast open to community cohesion? Try again in five years time

Monday, 10 November 2008

Perhaps best not to compare

Over the last few months I have visited two places which have been torn apart by ethnic tensions and fault lines between religions.

In one, now peace has returned, the two communities have started to work together to repair the damage of war and turmoil. They have used the cooperation to build up their tourism industry and return their community to peaceful cohabitation.

In the other the communities are still separated by walls and peace lines, the old animosities exist. Whilst the politicians work together the communities are still not together and integrated.

One is a former war zone, the other is part of my own country.

Bosnia was torn to pieces with ethnic Serbs, Croats and Muslims fighting each other, committing atrocities that brought back memories of the worst of World War II. In Mostar the Croats blew up the bridge that linked the Croat and Muslim community in an attempt at ethnic cleansing.
Today, the bridge is restored and the communities are now only rivals when it comes to building the largest religious building.

In Northern Ireland, the peace lines still exist, the police stations are still heavily fortified and the suburbs of Belfast and the towns along the coast are still referred to as Nationalist or Loyalist.

The most shocking sight is that of the gate in the peace wall half way along Townsend Street, closed each evening to separate the Communities of the Falls Road (Nationalist) and Shankill Road (Unionist).

Given all the talk of peace and reconciliation within Northern Ireland it is slightly scary, and sad, to see that the two communities are still so separated.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The fleck of silver

There is a saying that in every cloud there is a silver lining. The cloud that has surrounded Northern Ireland for the last 40 years or so has been so dark that it is hard to imagine that there could have been anything good to have come out of it.

But with tourists scared away by the threat of violence the over development and “Disneyfication” of the areas natural sights has never taken place.

Anywhere else in Europe something like the Giants Causeway would have a “visitors experience” there would be a stonking entrance fee and you would only be allowed to see the rocks from a distance through fear that all those tourists feet would damage the site.

With the tourism industry in Northern Ireland only now starting to get into full swing they have been able to see how people have made mistakes elsewhere and avoid the worst of them. Added to that there are still not the number of tourists that an area as naturally stunning as the North Antrim coast should expect to get.

It’s still free to walk right up to, and onto, the Giants Causeway, certainly the most spectacular natural feature in the British Isles, probably in the whole of Europe.

It’s perhaps the most beautiful silver lining, it’s just a shame that the cloud is there in the first place.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The dividend of peace

I didn’t want to come to Belfast with any pre-conceptions. For so many years in my childhood the streets of Belfast had featured on the evening news, for all the wrong reasons.

For the last couple of years, with the only fights being verbal and between politicians, Belfast so rarely features on the national TV that you would almost think the place didn’t exist any longer.

Where as in the past the blue lights of an RUC police car would have light up the streets of the city centre, as the army went to defuse a bomb. Today, the streets are lit by the blinking lights from all the cranes which are renovating and rejuvenating the city centre.

With the gleaming shopping centres, stylish waterfront, and imposing city hall, is Belfast now fully open for business?

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A tenuous link

So from Venice a city that’s sinking, it’s onto the next destination, the birth place of the ship involved in the most infamous sinking.

From the Piazza San Marco to the cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the next stop is Belfast.

For all the years of my childhood, and into my adulthood, a byword for violence. Today Belfast is a resurgent city, and, having only ever travelled in the Republic, it will be interesting to see how different, and how similar the city is.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

It wouldn’t be Italy without it

So far on my trip the public transport had behaved itself admirably, every boat on time, every route running correctly. It felt almost Swiss.

Then today, the transport system disintegrated. I’m not certain why, it’s a Tuesday, so its not as if it is the weekend, or the start of the working week. The weather, whilst not being as great as the previous few days, was still OK, the lagoon no choppier and the canals not noticeably higher or lower. There didn’t appear to be any more tourists that there had been yesterday, and yet everything stopped working.

The “next boat” boards which had previously been happily displaying the times of the next services were now all replaced with a message “Servizio Irregolare”, queues were building up at all the stops, and none of the boats appeared to be going to where they said they would.

It was so refreshingly like the Italy of my childhood, and the everyday occurrences of life in London!

Perhaps the transport authorities in the UK could learn from this. Rather than having information systems which keep displaying trains that either left or were cancelled two hours ago, or having everything flashing “Delayed”. Perhaps, in Italian style, when the service goes wrong, just bring out the Gelati, crack open the Chianti and put up “Servizio Irregolare” on the indicator boards.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Don’t bother with the signs

In work there have been numerous occasions where I have felt that the signs I have put up have had little or no effect. This was hammered home in true style today.

Visiting the Cathedral of San Marco is one of the “Must Do” things of any trip to Venice, every guide book, every guided tour, every recommendation is always to have a look around, and in every one I have seen there has always been the message that the cathedral doesn’t allow people to come in with bags, they have to be left in the cloakroom which is located about a minutes walk away from the cathedral.

To add to the information signs are displayed in Italian, English, German and French fully explaining. There are even signs which have images of a piece of rolling luggage with a line through it, a backpack with line through it and a shopping bag with a line through it.

In the process of queuing for the cathedral you pass at least three of these signs.

You would have thought that people would get the message, but no, at least one in ten visitors get to the front of the queue and get sent away to drop their bag off, and in a queue that can take the best part of an hour to get to the head off, that’s quite a serious issue.

About four people in front of me in the queue had a bag, we passed all the signs, no flicker, we passed the big visual one with lots of pictures of bags with crosses through them and a sign pointing to the luggage office, not a flicker, we get to the front of the queue and she is stopped by the cathedral staff on the door, after an initial attempt in Italian the, clearly weary, member of staff said “no bags” to which the woman erupted into a self defence saying that nobody had told her and they should put signage up to that effect if they wanted to enforce such a stupid rule. With a simple hand gesture the member of staff signalled to the line of signs, and the big colourful one. The response “you could have made it more obvious”

Perhaps she would have liked one posted the entire height of the bell tower which flashes in 25 different languages no bags with clear symbols, perhaps she wanted someone to spend their working life walking up and down the queue announcing, in every possible language, that bags have to be left in the office. Perhaps, she, like the countless thousand other tourists this year that will have missed the signs, needs to get to an optician sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

A childhood revisited

I went on a wander around the northern part of the Lagoon today, and in the process brought all the memories of family holidays flooding back.

At least twice (though in the clouded depths of my mind it might as well have been every year) as children my parents took my sister and I on holiday to Jésolo. It’s a beach resort on the Veneto coast, about 25Km North-East of the Lagoon and filled with the nameless hotels that make up a package holiday resort. The kind of place where the Germans, Swedish and Brits all head to in the summer, and attempt under no circumstance to mingle with anyone other than their own nationality (and the Brits make comments about sun loungers, Germans and their towels!)

On several occasions my parents, trying to instil some culture and appreciation of history and the arts in me and my sister, took us into Venice. I can still vividly recall at the time complaining that there were too many steps and bridges and that it wasn’t the beach. The only reason I liked going was the journey. From Jésolo it was a long bus ride to the ferry on the kind of bumpy and rattley bus that would have made anyone else sick. I however was different, the more a bus rattled and bumped the more I enjoyed the journey and I didn’t feel ill. Put me on a luxury air-conditioned coach with perfect suspension that behaved as though it was flying over air and I would be spectacularly and copiously sick (usually over my poor mum!). Then there was the long ferry journey across to Venice, which was also an adventure, before we finally arrived where the art was, which was where it got boring, until the time came to come home again and to repeat the journey in reverse.

In my memory the journey always took hours, but I can now categorically confirm that my memory lies. The journey to Burano and Torcello required catching the ferry across the Lagoon which stops at Punta Sabbioni, the part of the mainland which forms the top of the lagoon, and the place where the buses to Jésolo depart from. In fact as the ferry arrived, just over 40 minutes after leaving Venice, there were two busses parked up with Jésolo as their destination. According to the map it’s less than 20Km to Jésolo so the entire journey from start to finish couldn’t have been much more than an hour.

As we approached the landing stage, all of a sudden I stopped being a 30 year old man, I was an 8-year-old boy again, the bus was in the same place as it always was (albeit a little more modern than they were 22 years ago, though as the ferry I was on had a manufacture date of 1981 proudly being displayed it was almost certainly the ferry had I had caught previously.), the ferry was docking at the same landing stage, the same small café, the same battered ticket office, and I really had to remind myself that I wasn’t getting off to get the bus back to Jésolo!

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Shop till you drop

A couple of days ago, it was announced, to the usual levels of self publicity, that Ryanair were about to offer the ability to use your mobile in flight, at vast expense. Michael O’Leary, the chief executive, and a man who knows how to bleed the public dry, was, for once, quite open and honest about his airlines philosophy. He stated that “if you want a quiet flight, go with someone else. We’re noisy full and we are always trying to sell you something”

Noisy and full are also words that could have been used to describe my easyJet flight. It’s not been that long since I last flew with them, but I’m pretty certain that they have got even more into the “sell sell sell” mode than they used to be.

They have even now introduced lottery style scratch cards, where you can win up to £25,000 (though I would suspect that this might just be in speedy boarding credits or a free luggage allowance for the year)

It’s led me on to think about what else the budgets can try selling.

Coming Soon…

  • Speedy Evac, pay £20 and guarantee to be one of the first people down the escape slide should the plane be involved in an accident.

  • £1 charge for using the toilets.

  • “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, credit card machines will fall from the ceiling. Insert your card, enter your PIN number, and once a £5 charge has been debited from your account an oxygen mask will be released.”

  • £7.50 for the life jacket (perhaps a special deal could be arranged, £10 for a life jacket, and an oxygen mask.)

  • £35.95 for a seat, if you don’t pay this fee you have to stand all the way to your destination (not as daft as it sounds, some budgets have been investigating using harnesses similar to hanging roller coasters and perch seats, so that they can squeeze in double the number of passengers by having them all stand for the flight – it would prevent DVT!).

I would like to point out all these are my copyright, so if Stellios or Mr O’Leary decide to introduce them, then I accept all major world currencies, or lifetime free flights with a full-fares airline.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Honest, the blog hasn't been abandoned

14th July - "Of course, this could all be a fad, I'll write a couple of posts on my first couple of days on my next trip and then abandon the blog to rot!"

And so far, I have proved myself right. But, there has been a reason, sort of.

I've been having a big overhaul of the website, getting rid of the rarely visited or difficult to maintain parts and updating much of the mapping on the site.

I've also been hard at work sifting through all my photos from my big trip around Central Europe. In the end I got quite carried away with the camera and took over 2200 images (with the highest "snap-happy" rate happening in Interlaken)

Still, I've sorted through them, and am about to start uploading them to the fotopics site.

I've also been preparing for the remainder of the year, and into 2009 taking advantage of some particularly good deals.

For the first time ever I have been able to get hold of the mythical 1p flight (albeit with over £35 of taxes), for Granada next March, plus a £0.00 flight (plus £35 tax!) to Belfast. Finally, media hungry Travelodge, always bombarding me with e-mails from the couple of times I have booked with them peaked my interest with their sale. Four nights for less than £40 (that's the total for four nights, not the nightly rate!). Though as to what the Scottish/English boarders are going to be like in January could be interesting, but based on the weather this so called summer in the UK I am confidently predicting 32C and glorious wall to wall sunshine (or -6 and trench foot)

Next up, in a couple of weeks in Venice, so if I don't post again before then, it's not because I'm forgetting my Blog, it's just I've got nothing to say at present, and I've always been told, if you haven't got anything to say keep your mouth shu....

Sunday, 3 August 2008

And this is the reason why everyone hates the Brits!

Before finally dropping off to sleep last night I overheard the guy in the room next door on his phone to friends (I would assume) back in the UK. He was, by his accent, from Manchester, but the views he espoused were similar to those I have seen from a number of Brits abroad.

He felt the area around Interlaken was not a very friendly place as they spoke German at you and that when he tried to make them speak English they would get rude.

Now, forgive me if I am wrong here, but Interlaken is in the German speaking part of Switzerland, and therefore the language they will naturally greet anyone (who they don’t know the nationality of) will be in German.

Of course the easiest way to deal with these natives who don’t realise “we beat them in the war” (small note of historical accuracy, Switzerland was neutral throughout both World Wars, but don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good rant) is to speak LOUDLY and S L O W L Y to them as everyone can understand English the louder and slower you speak it. It’s a known fact that in their everyday dealings the rest of the world speaks English, it’s only when tourists are nearby that they swap into their “funny lingo”

I won’t even go into the casual racism that he then descended into in describing the other tourists in the region, other than to point out that Interlaken has an international appeal and visitors from most parts of the globe, as well as a resident population drawn from a wide variety of nationalities.

His final closing comments were “I don’t know why they don’t like the Brits, We won the war, we gave them our language, what more do they want”.

It could always have been an elaborate hoax or wind-up down the phone to a friend, but the way in which it was delivered, and the tone in the voice, suggested that these were his actual views as if he was warning friends to avoid this bit of Switzerland.

I’m sure he is also exasperated when the annual surveys come out and rank the British as one of the least liked groups of tourists around.

Personally, I’m surprised that we don’t come top.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

It’s amazing how much your feet hurt after doing nothing

Over the last two days I have sat on a train for two hours, followed by sitting on another two trains for two hours (with 20 minutes standing in the middle) then walking a short distance then standing in a field for an hour, then catching various trains, funiculars and cable cars with a short 20 minutes walking in between.

Yet, despite the lack of any vigorous exercise in the above-mentioned itinerary my feet still ache.

Perhaps I should have broken in my new shoes before I headed off on my trip (I brought them the day before I flew out).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought £10 shoes from Tescos.

Friday, 1 August 2008

I changed my mind, I’m glad I did

Just after my last posting the weather took a sudden and dramatic turn for the better.

Where there had previously been blankets of cloud, there were now snow capped mountains bathed in the red glow of a summers setting sun.

With that kind of backdrop how can you not go out to watch the fireworks and the festivities?

I arrived just as the children’s lantern procession was leaving the cathedral near the hotel and followed it to the centre of town. There with a bratwurst and a beer I stood and took in the amateur fireworks demonstrations that locals were putting on. It appears in Switzerland that anyone can buy quite powerful fireworks and just set the off.

At exactly 10pm (well this is Switzerland) the main show began and it was spectacular.

It may not have been the most intricate, or the most elaborate display I have ever seen, and it wasn’t choreographed to music. Instead, the intensity of the light and sound from the fireworks bouncing off the alps was tremendous, almost deafening.

The show lasted about 25 minutes, at the end of which I was convinced I was deaf, and that somewhere, perhaps many places, in the Alps, what little snow still remained was being shaken from the mountain tops.

You’ve got to feel sorry for the Swiss.

It’s the Swiss national day, and after four weeks on unbroken sunshine with glorious temperatures and light winds, you would have thought they could enjoy another beautiful day.

But, it hasn’t been, certainly not in Interlaken, and looking at the weather forecast, not anywhere else in the region.

The rain has varied between just about liveable drizzle to the kind of torrential downpours that normally only happen once every few months, not four times in one day.

But, being the hearty Swiss types that they are, they are all out celebrating, and getting damp.

The fireworks start in the centre of Interlaken in about two hours. I’ve already checked. I should be able to get a pretty good view from my room’s balcony, where it is dry, and warm, and not a muddy field.

Still, they all still appear to be happy, if the number of fireworks being set off is anything to go by.

If you didn’t know it was National day, you would swear that civil war had broken out, but then again, this is Switzerland, and they have never had a civil war...

Be careful what you book, you may get exactly what it says

When I booked my Hotel in Luzern I had a couple of options. The one that looked most intriguing was the converted jail.

It was a working prison up until 1998 and was then converted into a theme hotel, with the cells turned into bedrooms.

The problem is, I can’t see where the conversion is. If anything it was worse. Prisoners got TV’s and (at least in the UK, I assume it would be same in Switzerland) would have had their lawyers onto the case about the sharp metal edges to the bed that I managed to scrape several layers of skin off on my way past

All in all, it would have been cheaper, easier, and more pleasant (probably) to have been arrested and taken to the proper jail for the evening.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bang goes the stereotype

The image of the Swiss is that of a quiet, contemplative, clean and perhaps a little insular nation. You would never imagine rampaging hoards running around the streets, smashed out of their skulls on larger and setting of fireworks everywhere.

The stereotype holds for the vast majority of the population for 363 days of the year.

Then you hit National Day, or more importantly in today’s instance, the Eve of National day, and the second type of Swiss arrive.

Walking back through town this evening I was convinced I was in the UK on a rowdy Guy Fawkes night, only they hadn’t seen the horrible public safety films at school about setting off fireworks! Not a major Swiss city.

It’s always so clean

I’ve always thought that Switzerland is clean and tidy, but I hadn’t really realised how much.

A lot of people, myself included, would put the UK down as being quite grubby and dirty in places with lots of graffiti and urban decay. However, when compared to Poland, and in lots of cases certainly to Berlin if not other parts of Germany, The UK itself is tidy. Yes there is graffiti, and there is rubbish around the place. But in most instances it is cleared up within hours or at worst a couple of days. The most noticeable thing in the UK, which has changed a lot in the last few years, is the absence of dog-mess. Across Poland and in Berlin it was evident in a number of places.

Consequently, sitting on the train from Zurich I was struck by the total lack of graffiti, the absence of rubbish (not even cigarette ends) everywhere.

I found myself carefully eating a pretzel over the bag just in case a grain of salt should fall off and despoil the streets.

And, perhaps that is the problem. I’m kind of used to clean-ish streets at home, but it doesn’t matter if you accidentally drop a bit of salt, or a crumb of bread. Switzerland feels just a little too much like it’s still wrapped in the plastic it was delivered in. Like a collectable car, worth so much more monetary wise still sealed in its perfect original packaging, but lacking the human emotion of one that’s been played with and enjoyed.

I love Switzerland, but maybe they could just relax a little.

Small victories are always the sweetest

There has been a quiet war being waged in Europe. It’s been between the “faceless bureaucrats” in Brussels and the German Capital, but at the same time it’s been a war that all of Europe could have been effective by, if the Germans had lost.

Brussels had the, in reality, eminently sensible idea of standardising all European traffic signals so that they all looked the same and there would be no confusion.

But, this threatened an identity that had slowly been asserting itself. Western Germany had always used what is politely described as “Euroman” the Red and Green Men at traffic lights. Euroman is pretty similar to the ones used in the UK. Eastern Germany had a more cheerful character with a jauntily cocked hat and a look of speed in green mode. Since the fall of the wall “Osties” the identity that former East Berliners, and East Germans, started to describe themselves as, have held onto the figure. In Berlin it was always a way of telling where you where. Did the little green man have a hat – Yes, you were in the former East Berlin, No, you were in the West.

But the EU rules would have done away with the Ostie man and given then “Euroman” instead.

After years of fighting this it looks, at least in Berlin, that a victory has been won. Not only is the Ostie Green Man still in place, but also all new traffic lights in the city carry the charismatic crossing device. He can even been seen on that most Capitalist of places the Kurfurstendam.

Perhaps this is the new threat from the East, and it is still Red (apart from the ones that are Green)

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Relentless Change

This is my third trip to Berlin. I originally visited in February 2004, again in Feb 2006 and now again in July 2008.

The thing that keeps striking me about the city is how much it keeps changing. Spaces which were the wasteland of the old death strip at Postdamer Platz in 2004 became home to gleaming office blocks and parks by 2006 with only a few vacant lots. Today, even those lots have gone, as have some of the buildings put up by 2004 to be replaced with even newer even shinier buildings.

Across at the Huptbahnhof the story is the same. In 2004 there was just a small S-Bahn station called Lehrter Stadtbahnhof. This was surrounded by acres of wasteland and a drab and frankly scary looking bit of the river Spree.

In 2006 construction work on the Hauptbahnhof was nearing completion (it opened a few months after I visited and just a couple of weeks before Germany hosted the World Cup, the absolute deadline for the completion of the project), but the site was still a mess.

Today the stunning station with it’s graceful glass roof and cavernous interior is surrounded by parkland, the area to the Reichstag a green walkway through the city, and the Spree with cleaned bridges and walkways boasts riverside bars and even a beach.

Meanwhile in London plans for a Beach on the Thames have quietly faded away since the change of administration at City Hall. It took nearly eight years to get, nowhere.

Come on London, If Berlin (a city that is almost Bankrupt because of all the rebuilding costs) can achieve all this so can you!

If at first you don’t succeed, change the rules

Shock!, Horror!, my train from Poznan was on time. Despite having travelled all the way from Warsaw it actually pulled into the station a couple of minutes early.

Or at least it did according to the indicator boards on the platform. For this was not the delayed 10:20 service, no, no, this was the on-time 10:42 service.

Which promptly lost time and was a quarter of an hour late into Berlin.

So my final encounter with PKP was as delayed as my first. 10 out of 10 for effort, I won’t comment on achievement.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

That was fortuitous

When I was booking this trip I had looked at various options for getting from Berlin to Zurich. The train took far too long which only left airlines, of which there were only two which flew the route, Lufthansa and AirBerlin. Their prices were almost exactly the same and there was very little difference in timings.

I decided to go with AirBerlin, only because I hadn’t flown with them before.

Today I’m feeling horribly smug as a strike by Lufthansa staff has started to hit with flights on many routes (and by the pictures on EuroNews this included flights to Zurich) being cancelled.

Just to feel extra smug (and to ensure that something goes spectacularly wrong because of my hubris) I checked the current prices of seats on my flight. Now selling at €250, I paid €1

Poznan closed for redecoration

What I had planned to be a packed day of museums and sights turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.

The museum to the Poznan uprising, which started after World War I to ensure that Poznan was part of the re-created Poland rather than Eastern Germany, was closed for reorganisation

The Museum of Musical Instruments was closed for redecoration

And the Archaeology museum was just closed for no apparent reason.

Does Poznan want tourists? Well, No, they do rather well from being the main trade fair site in Poland so they can probably afford to have all their museums shut if they wanted to!

Monday, 28 July 2008

Getting there

Well, PKP (Polish Railways) managed their best effort yet. The train for Warsaw to Poznan left on time (but then it did start at Warsaw so that wasn’t going to be so difficult!).

It did arrive into Poznan late, 20 minutes after its original due time. I wonder how much of that was down to the fact the train is a cooperation between PKP and Germany’s Deutscher Bahn.

Warsaw Knee

I’ve noticed that a very large number of Warsaws citizens appear to be wearing some form of strapping on their knees.

I wonder, is this some form of new fashion, or are the cobbles of Warsaw as lethal as I thought they looked.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

An ode to Andrex

I’ve had an upset stomach today. I’ve been making regular stops for “comfort”. Thanks to the only paper that is available in Poland it is now painful to sit down.

For future reference: All-ways pack a roll of soft tissue paper!

I could never have survived austerity conditions.

An Ode to AirCon

I’ve just wandered down to breakfast, and on the way walked passed an open door. I thought for a moment that a heater must be on the blink as the wall of heat that engulfed me for a second or so was un-imaginable.

Just in case I decided on a closer look and discovered that the source of the heat was approximately 8 light minutes away being the large glowing object currently rising high into the sky.

On walking back into the hotel I was hit by the cooling sensation of air-con set to “freeze” mode.

I dread to think what it has done to my carbon footprint (ignoring on the one had the obscene number of flights I make and on the other the fact I have never owned a car), but with the temperatures, and more importantly the humidity at these levels at 9am I am glad for AirCon.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Introducing the CathDaq

CathDaq is something that myself and a couple of friends have been playing since we first went to Krakow in 2005.

The rules are very simple, you need to keep a tally of the number of members of religious orders that you see first. It is customary to call out “Nun”, “Monk” or “Priest” when you spot one.

Like the stock market some orders are worth more than others due to their rarity, or on some occasions, appearance in the news, or if they are in an odd location (though you should also be able to justify your presence!)

Trainee or novice monks and nuns are worth extra as are abbots, mother-superiors, bishops, arch-bishops, cardinals and pope(s).

But, the key rule is, The Vatican and other obviously religious places such as churches, monastery’s and cathedrals are out of bounds (that’s insider trading)

Clearly signposted events where large numbers are in attendance are also out (i.e. going to an event where the Pope will be present gets you nothing. You can only score a “Pope” if you casually bump into him on a street or if you get a personal audience outside of the Vatican.)

Variations of this are also available for other denominations and faiths. If you are particularly up on your religions you may want to take part in ID-100 (Inter-Denominational index of the top 100 Christian denominations) or the IRex the Inter-Religious index.

Architectural notes 2

Ibis architects strike again, when overlooking a major tram junction and converting an old Soviet office block, you could sound proof the rooms, or you could just leave them as they were so that every tram can be heard, even down to the bell sounding to announce the doors are closing.

Friday, 25 July 2008

European Harmony, We all agree the Germans are obsessional

Whilst waiting at Gdansk station I was able to earwig a conversation that was going on between two friends.

Based on the accents, she appeared to be Polish, and he was probably French. Together they were chatting away in their shared mutual language of English (it’s a hard life being a fluent speaker of the worlds Lingua Franca).

They were discussing the inevitable delay on his train out of Gdansk (his was even more delayed than mine). She was saying the effectively anything less than 15 minutes late was on time, and that they only normally announced delays to trains once it had passed this time, but you should only worry if your train hasn’t arrived within an hour of its scheduled time.

He mused on the decline of the French railways and how their trains were always running late, and then he mentioned the Germans.

They both agreed that the Germans were obsessional with time keeping, to the point of madness, and that Germans would go nuts if their train is more than a minute late.

Having been on a German train that was running late I am happy to say that the Germans don’t go mad, they like their English counterparts, just grumble about how bad the service is, and it never used to be like this.

But it was interesting to see that even in this time of European Union and Harmony the old divisions are still there. The Poles, French and Brits united in a conviction that the Germans are obsessed with time keeping. Now where did I leave my umbrella and cricket bat, it must be time for a cup of tea!

Aspirational, but wrong

Well, I finally arrived in Warsaw, a little bit late. Once again the Polish railways strike, and they had been doing so well. The train was to all intents and purposes on time when it arrived in Gdansk, pulling into the station just 10 minutes after it’s advertised departure time

Sadly, something (I think in Britain it would be referred to as “a-delay-on-a-preceding-train-in-the-Warsaw-area”) held the train up and we eventually pulled into Warsaw Centralny station just over 55 minutes late. I was the lucky one. I was the last to join my compartment at Gdansk, and the first to leave. As the train had started at 6am in the very North West of the country, and was continuing onto Krakow, I didn’t bear to think how late it would be by the time the final passengers got off.

To add to my fun, and in a repeat of Gdansk, albeit this time I didn’t get caught out, as I walked out of the station there was a massive clap of thunder and the heavens opened.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

You wanted a tour; we’ll give you a tour

I’ve been to my third site in Poland where you have to go on either a compulsory, or advisory, tour.

The first was at the Salt Mines in Wieliczka, you had to go on the tour so you didn’t get lost, the second was at Auschwitz - Birkenau in Oświęcim, where it was recommended to go on a tour to fully understand the site (and in some ways offer an element of support for what is an emotionally draining location) and the third was today at Malbork castle, where you have to go on a tour if you want to get in!

Whilst the three tours all had very different reasons for existing, they all had one thing in common, the length.

These were epic tours lasting around the three hour mark. Everywhere else I have been guided tours last just over an hour, or at most 90 minutes (see for example the guided tour of the Vatican Museum, though if you include the two hour wait to get in…)

So the question has to be… If the Poles can do it, why can’t the rest of Europe?!

Be aspirational, even if you are wrong

It’s always good to be aspirational, aspire to what you want to achieve, not what you are currently able to achieve.

Perhaps not so good to be aspirational if you are the bloke in charge of timetabling for Polish Railways.

It could be that I’ve been using them at a bad time, or it could just be simple old misfortune, but every train that I have caught, waited for, or just seen advertised on an adjacent platform has been late mostly by over 5 minutes, sometimes more.

Yesterday my train from Hel did leave on time, but arrived in Gdynia 15 minutes late, for no apparent reason, it didn’t stop anywhere it shouldn’t have; it didn’t appear to go particularly slowly anywhere.

Today, my train to Malbork was over half an hour late, or it could have been 20 minutes late as the indicators on the platform showed a completely different time to the timetable!

I’m hoping it’s just a spot of bad luck, and that my journeys from Gdansk to Warsaw, Warsaw to Poznan and Poznan onto Berlin are all on time, but somewhere at the back of my mind I doubt it, the people waiting at Gdansk this morning had a very familiar expression… “The 8:15’s late, again, fourth time this week, what a way to run a railway, they do it better on the continent you know…”

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Go to Hel(l)! It’s actually quite nice

After being told it on many occasions, I have taken up people’s advice and gone to Hel.

This Hel has long sandy beaches, an aquarium and is easily reachable from Gdansk.

Located on a long spur of land that juts out into the Baltic the Hel Peninsular can keep the English speaking tourists in jokes for hours (helped by the Polish sense of humour by numbering the bus that serves Hel town itself 666)

I did Hel the scenic way, out on the Ferry Tram from Gdansk to Hel and then back along the peninsular and along the coast by train.

This now means I have been to both Hell (Norway) and Hel (Poland) in the year and have discovered them to be frozen over and very pleasant.

So the next time someone tells me to go to Hell I will tell them – Thank you for the recommendation, but I’ve already been, it was very pleasant

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The glorious smell of burning flesh

After yesterdays inclement weather I went out prepared for the worst. My jacket in my bag, jeans rather than shorts and a plastic bag inside my backpack to preserve my still waterlogged but just about useable guidebook.

Within about an hour it was obvious that I had over prepared. Not a cloud in the sky, and more importantly little in the way of shade (outside of being forced to sit in a street-side café with a large glass of beer and your feet up!)

By the time I eventually stopped for lunch it was obvious that the main thing cooking was me. I had a quick hunt through my bag and then remembered the conversation I had had with myself in the morning that was pretty much, “won’t bother with the sun tan cream, won’t need it”. To quote the great philosopher Homer “D’oh!”

I spent most of the afternoon indoors, so it prevented me from getting any worse, and as my skin didn’t actually feel too hot I think I might just have gotten away with it…

Monday, 21 July 2008

The sacred art of guidebook drying

To say that the weather has been changeable this afternoon would be a bit of an understatement.

After a pleasant wander around the town and a short stop for a late lunch, I caught the ferry up the river to Westerplatte. This small spit of land poking out into the Baltic had a traumatic life during World War II. It was here that at dawn on September 1st 1939 the German ship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire. These shots marked the start of the invasion of Poland and by the end of the day the continent would be mobilising and two days later War would officially be declared.

The area has not been rebuilt and a few bombed out buildings, slowly being reclaimed by nature, and a statue is all that remain. It is well worth a visit, but possibly not during the middle of a massive thunderstorm.

In an attempt to keep sort of dry I sheltered under a tree until a really big flash of lightning nearby reminded me that sheltering under tress in a storm is a silly idea, so I managed to run to a nearby bar and shelter under an awning.

However, the rain was so hard, and kept getting harder, that it managed to penetrate my bag and turned my nearly new guidebook into a soggy mess. As I type this I have the heater in the bathroom up to full blast with the book lying open in front of it in an attempt to make it usable, any attempt to turn pages at present results in the paper starting to disintegrate. That’s how wet it was! Of course, 20 minutes later the sun was out and it was all very pleasant again (if you ignore the massive puddles that had formed in all the streets)

All aboard screaming air

There were just a few babies on the flight (at one point I counted five separate sets of screaming coming from different parts of the plane!), and with a bumpy take off and landing they were more screamy than normal.

Still, despite that, the flight was comfortable, and more importatnly on-time. My luggage managed to keep it's almost unbroken record of being about the last off the plane, but it meant that I only had to wait a couple of minutes for the bus into town.

Room wasn't instantly ready, but after a quick cup of tea and a read through the key bits of the guidebook to Gdansk it was. Very nice room, balcony overlooking some parkland. It's all gone rather too smoothly, but I am happy for it to stay that way. Now I've just got to find a cash point which will take my bank card...

Key concepts in architectural design

When building an airport hotel, consider, if it is at the end of the runway, fitting something a little more sound-proofing than bog standard double glazing.

A bit of a disturbed nights sleep with regular take-offs until well after 11pm, a bed that creaked quite a bit (an achievement in a hotel less than two years old) and air-con that was either off or sounding like a jet engine!

Still, I got up a 5:30 instead of 3am, which I would have to have done if I had come from home.

Very quickly through Check-in, scarily smoothly, something is bound to go pear shaped!

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Wonderful, Wonderful, Luton?

Out onto the road again, starting my trip around Poland and Switzerland (from Gdansk to Geneve as I've titled it), in the slightly less salubrious surroundings of the Ibis at Luton airport.

I should have been having a leisurely Monday morning, journey up to Luton to catch an early afternoon flight, but six weeks ago I got an e-mail from Wizz letting me know my flight had been brought forward by over 5 hours.

With the options being getting up at about 3 to catch a night bus and the night train to Luton, or forking out for the hotel and getting up at 6 I decided to pay the charge and book a night in the hotel.

Sadly, as I have now found out, the hotel is just off the end of the runway, but only halfway up the hill to the terminal. I hadn't booked breakfast at the hotel. I might need it now!

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

It just keeps on getting expensive

The current credit crunch has finally started to hit home. I reserved a seat on the Goldenpass train from Interlaken last night for my journey in early August, and the exchange rate was less than two Swiss Francs to the Pound.

I was kind of basing my finance on 2.5 to the pound (it was that last year, why can't it stay the same!)

Oh well, don't think I'll be paying too much attention to my Bank Statement in August, it ain't going to make pleasant reading!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Jumping on the bandwagon...

So, I've finally jumped on the Web 2.0 bandwagon and added a blog to the site. Why?, well as I get more adventurous with my trips the gaps between me making notes on my days and actually writing them up into the website are getting longer, and my memory isn't what it used to be (this is actually a lie, I've always had an appalling memory!)

With the Blog I hope to be able to get some of my thoughts down each day during my travels, which will hopefully help me to write better accounts for the website.

Of course, this could all be a fad, I'll write a couple of posts on my first couple of days on my next trip and then abandon the blog to rot!

We shall see...