Nom de Plumage

August 11, 2013

It Can Only Get Better

Filed under: Diary,Solo Travelling,Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 7:28 pm
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What is the tell-tale sign that you are in England? Rain, cold and grey clouds! Welcome to London……..

And that was just the start. When I woke in the morning, I realised that I had locked my key in my locker and have no money to do anything. Normally, I would associate this little dilemma with a day to relax and save some money, but not today. Today I have planned to meet my cousin and her husband for the first time in London and I had not a pound to spare. I ring management and explain my predicament, but as it is a weekend, they will not send anyone to cut my locker open until Monday. My weekend plan is ruined and in desperation I resort to plan B – beg! I ask one of my roommates for a loan. Claire kindly lends me twenty pounds and although that will not get me far in a city such as London, it will at least buy me a return train ticket to meet my cousin.

My cousin Julie and I made plans to meet at 3 pm at Piccadilly Circus. I arrive early to get a little sight-seeing done and love the city instantly. Well almost, if you forget about the weather. The home of theatres, glittering lights, China Town and wonderful restaurants and at the moment some maintenance. By the appointed meeting time, I am back waiting at the fountain at trying to spot my cousin among the masses. Finally she arrives with her husband Anton and we immediately get acquainted. They are a beautiful couple and only recently wed. I am at their mercy and let them lead the way down to the Thames and on a boat or floating restaurant/bar. I wish I can write and say that the Thames river is beautiful and exciting and if I can put aside its once ugly industrial past and focus on it from a tourists perspective, I need a huge imagination. I would be lying if I wrote and described it as anything but a river used for transport and not much else. But it does have a nice view of the city and sipping a glass of white wine and talking with my cousins on a boat on the Thames, is very special.

I never learn! To drink wine on an empty stomach always gets me into trouble and it does not help when the boats sways from the rough weather. But I managed with dignity to get off the boat and walk in a straight line to China Town for some much-needed food. I love China Town. Busy, noisy, crowded and full with amazing restaurants, the problem is to decided which one. We choose buffet style and are very lucky to get a table. It is something that I learn very quickly here in London, that restaurants fill up very early here and even though there are many to choose from, there is no guarantee of success. The city is amazing! Dinner was delicious and although I cannot remember the names of the dishes, I can write that I left the restaurant happy and full (two plates of food can do that).

Not far from China Town, is Convent Garden. Now I have heard Convent Garden mentioned many times and yet I had no idea what it was. Probably not what I expected when we arrived, but it was alive with musicians and performers and they offered a wonderful comic show free. What is not to like about that? I especially liked the male singer, who had a great operatic voice, but he also performed his act with humour and cheek and I love talent that can take an act to a different and more enjoyable level. It shows love and skill from the performer. There is an Italian café nearby and we stop for a coffee and a final chat before we end the night. I loved the evening and although my journey has given me chances to explore new and different countries, it is the very special part of meeting my family and discovering family treasures/secrets that makes my journey even more precious.



August 2, 2013




Today is a milestone, for it is six months since I have left home and it is also the day that I shall be leaving the European continent, bound for Britain. It is then only fitting, that I should reflect on my adventures and prepare myself for new ones.

My three-day visit with the French woman did not entirely play out as planned. Although, I did get to see spectacular scenery and fulfil my dream to see the Somme Valley and the war cemeteries, it was not without some dramas. I did something very out of the ordinary and excepted an invitation from a stranger to stay in their home. I have always felt uncomfortable about such things and hence the reason it took so long to confirm my visit. My hesitation was in tune with my intuition and I should have listened to it. Without going into too much detail, basically the woman suffers from severe depression and made me feel very uncomfortable and through her jealousy and insecurities, she judged me unfairly. It was hard to overcome such ill-treatment, but I am wiser for the experience and leave France sadly on a sour note.

I experienced something also that I believe many travellers, regardless of their sex or age must experience, and that is pursued by someone who is married.  It is while I was in Lucerne that I met a man who worked in a bar and throughout one evening he flirted. This time, I listened to my intuition and decided against returning any flirtation because of my imminent departure and eventual return to Australia. I ask advice from some friends and they all said that I should not have been so quick to fob him off and that I should go back and see where it will lead. It lead to my finding out from a third-party that the man is not only married, but has children. He did nothing to deny it and could only muster a sheepish smile. Thankfully, nothing happened and if not for the fact that I regretted wasting the money to return to Lucerne, it did save me embarrassment and eliminated the dreaded ‘what if’ ?

My three-month Eurail Pass has now officially expired and it is with a wonderful sense of achievement that I store the pass away as a reminder of my unbelievable destinations. Before departing on each train journey, I needed to fill out the form (to validate each journey) on the pass. I had used my pass extensively, that while in Berlin, I needed another form. The two attendants at the train station, were in shock that I requested another form, so much so, that they read the form to see what countries I have visited. Impressed, they laughed and handed me a new form and wished me well.

If you had asked me just one question before I even left Australia about what I fear most on my journey, you will be surprised to know that it is the fear of not being able to communicate with people. True! It is because I knew that I could not learn every language of the countries that I shall visit. I have read and heard countless stories of locals being rude to tourists who will not/cannot communicate in the language of the people, that I was very nervous. And for what? I will not lie that I did not meet a few rude people, but once I had made some attempt to communicate in their language, the language barrier dissipated and communication (either verbal or hand) is established. Funny, that even though I could not understand the actual language spoken, I somehow could understand the meaning behind the words. It is the unwritten law of communication and it surprised me that with some effort, we understood each other. Unfortunately, I missed not being able to read everything that surrounded me, or even have a meaningful conversation with the locals.

Of all the train stations in Europe that I travelled to/through, it is undoubtably Gare de Nord in Paris that was the station I visited the most. Not my most favourite of stations and yet it is fittingly the last station that I visit as I leave Paris bound for Britain on the Eurostar. I make my way up the stairs towards the UK customs and it is with relief when the customs officer speaks to me in perfect English. Ahhh! We spoke while he was processing my ticket and then he stopped and shook his head while he was flicking through my passport. The dreaded stamps from Berlin! I tried to make light note of it and although he laughed and informed me that many tourist also make the same mistake, he reiterated politely and strongly the foolishness of my actions. What now makes perfect sense, then seemed sensible. In fact, for a five euros and five stamps, each of countries that now do not exist, I had in fact committed an offence. He assured me that I will not have my passport confiscated because many other tourists fall into the same trap, but he warned me to think twice about my actions and that passports are legal documents that must not be tampered with. Point taken!

I believe that I may have had high expectations of the Eurostar train and it was only when I enter the train, reality hit. In fact, the train was very cramped, leg space minimal, luggage space minimal and the decor is a faded and worn grey colour. The journey itself was barely two hours long, but it was the experience of travelling under the channel that I was anticipating the most. Twenty minutes; that was all it took. Barely a blink and I was on British soil.  I exited the train at St Pancreas station, and became euphoric at the sound of the English language. My journey got that much easier simply because I could put the fear of not being able to communicate behind me, to a world where I could read and communicate perfectly. Bloody marvellous! My journey on the London metro was not so easy, especially when it is almost peek-hour. But it also does not help when I am carrying a very big back-pack and the metro train is very cramped and narrow. I was very taken back and had to contend with being jostled about.

At my destination, I had no idea where my hostel is. The hostel is operated by a private company and they do not provide directions. I tried looking for a taxi and could not find any or the taxi stand, so I went to ask someone at the station. The guard directed me to a place around the corner and still I could not find it. Went back to the station and he informed me again what I need to look for. It is in fact, a tiny shop (without a sign) and when I peered inside the large window, there was a large group of men of many different ethnicity playing cards. I hesitantly walk in to ask if this is where I can get a taxi. A quick discussion of whose turn it is next, a little Jamaican guy jumps up and takes me to his taxi. No sign and no meter. I am nervous and he senses my hesitation and assures me that it is a flat five-pound fee.

When I reach my hostel, I knock for about ten minutes before someone eventually hears me and opens the door. I had to telephone the office that I arrived and they inform me that they emailed me informing me that I have to go to another of their properties. Thankfully, the secretary comes to pick me up and it is only a short drive to the hostel. It is more like a huge house, clean and very comfortable and full of Aussies. I feel right at home and in good company.


July 25, 2013

On The Trail of My Heroes In The Somme



How can anyone ever really be ready for the magnitude of war? Can anyone who has had the great privilege to visit war cemeteries, not be affected somehow by the masses of perfect white headstones; many unknown. I defy anyone who says they experience no emotion. I have dreamed of one day undertaking this pilgrimage and naïvely believed that I would comprehend the scale of the human cost. No way! There is nothing that can prepare me for what I am about to see.

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Amiens cannot be described as being picturesque or quaint, and yet it does possess some charm and beauty. It is the cities geographical position within the Somme and its gothic cathedral, where her claim to notoriety lays. I have no personal patriotism towards any city or cathedral, but my host does, and believes that Amiens cathedral is more superior to that of its famous sister in Paris. Admittedly, Amiens cathedral is larger and the intricate façade at the entrance is very beautiful. But within the stone walls, lays a cold and almost bare building, lacking any character. Notre Dame of Paris maybe smaller, but she packs a stunning impact and its fame is well deserved. Although something wonderful to ponder, is that the façade of the cathedral has only recently been discovered to have been constructed using colour. All the figures and scenes depicted on the stone walls, came to beautiful life as you would expect from a painting. Over the years, the colours faded and then disappeared, lost in knowledge and admiration for the skilled craftsmen who built such a place of worship.

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The gentle green hills of the Somme valley is dotted with war cemeteries. Gone is the mud and stench of death and in the spring, the fields come alive with poppies. But it is winter now and although there are no flowers in bloom, the sun is shinning, the sky is a radiant blue and the fields are lush. I am taken aback by the beautiful scenery and the serene atmosphere. If there is one cemetery within France that holds a special place within Australians heart, it is Villiers Bretonneux. Countless times I have seen it on TV, but nothing can prepare me for the real thing. Situated within the heart of the valley, the beautiful stone monument that reaches for the heavens, has the names of soldiers that perished in the Great War. I walk alone between the many rows of white headstones, reading and wondering who you are and did you know what horrors lay before you? There are many headstones without names and even though I know not their identity, I thank them all for their sacrifice.

I have never been to an ANZAC ceremony in Australia, nor can I see footage or photo’s of both wars without feeling great sadness and anger for the millions of lives lost. I am of a generation who can never understand or imagine the sacrifices  made or the horrors faced by the men and women. But as an Australian I write, my tears are late and decades have passed, but my heart is full of admiration and pride for the thousands of men who sacrificed their lives and future for the freedom of France and the world. What makes driving through this valley very special, is the proud display of the Australian flag in the window of homes, at schools and in the small villages.

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A few kilometres up the road, is Le Hamel; another war memorial dedicated to the Australians. On the site of the battlefield that our hero General Monash fought some of the bloodiest turning point battles of the war. The trenches are still visible but have long ago been reclaimed by mother earth. It was interesting to read detailed stories of the battles fought here and the courage and sacrifice of all involved.

We stopped at a lake nearby for a picnic lunch of sandwiches, foie gras, fruit and tea.

A short stop at Pozieres and another Aussie war memorial before we headed to the mother of all memorials at Thiepval.

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Nothing can prepare you for the magnificent stone structure that consists of sixteen four-sided pillars with the names of 76 000 men lost from France and Britain. This memorial also has white headstones and wooden crosses from both sides, identifying soldiers killed. But it is the names carved into the faces of the pillars, lost forever, that catches my breath. What is even more scary, that the figures are only a fraction of the true cost of the war. Of all the memorials, this is the most impressive and there is also a fantastic bookstore and museum on site.

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Our last great war memorial is Beaumont Hamel. This one is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Canadian and Scottish soldiers that perished. Unique, because this is not a memorial with headstones, rather an intricate trail of trenches that are now covered with a thick green carpet of grass. I walked through some of the trenches and failed to even imagine what life was like among the mud and stench of this place of refuge. Many trenches and parts of the battlefield are out-of-bounds, due to live shells and bombs that lay dormant among the trees and hills. The Canadians have dedicated an impressive bronze statue of a caribou that stands proud on a hill overlooking the trenches. The Scots have erected a beautiful bronze statue of a soldier in traditional costume (kilt), protected by lions as they also overlook the trenches.

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The sun was slowly setting and we both realised just how full our day has been. But it was not over yet. We have saved the biggest to the last. Unfortunately, I could take no photo’s of this site, but to do so, you would need a plane/helicopter to fly high above and get the full-scale of this thing. At La Boiselle is a gigantic hole called Lochnagar Crater. At an impressive one hundred metres across and thirty metres deep,  this awe-inspiring crater was created by the relentless bombing from the enemy. If the result is impressive, what was it like to actually witness this phenomenon first hand and survive to tell the tale.

We drove home exhausted and full of emotion. My host prepared our final dinner together and then afterwards, it was a leisurely evening of eating our dessert in front of the fire and watching Inspector Barnaby in French. A real hoot!

To end…..

I was honoured to have  the special privilege of walking through the valley and among the resting place of the thousands of ‘digger’s’ who have left an indelible mark in our history. The word ‘digger’ is a special name given to the men who have seen war and it gives them a very honoured place among the hearts of all Australians. Lest we forget…….


July 24, 2013

The Somme Valley

Filed under: Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 3:57 pm
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Allow me to rewind my travel clock, to a time last September, sitting on a train bound for Zürich and having a wonderful conversation with a French woman. Our two hours of conversation quickly set the tone of friendship and procured me an offer to visit this woman at her home in the Somme Valley at a later date. In all honesty, I was not sure about this and felt somewhat uncomfortable, but to pass up an opportunity to visit such a historic place, could not be passed up lightly. Fast forward the months and this time I am sitting on a train bound for Amiens and the French woman’s home. You must excuse my lack of personal information in this part of my travels for reasons of discord and pain, which came to the surface a few days later and one that I wish I could forget. But the Somme is a dream come true and a majestic part of the world, that I could not pass these few days by without a recording of what transpired. So, the French woman’s name thus far, I will not mention.

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She was a few minutes late to pick me up from the train station and it was lovely to see her again after many months. We drove back to her home; a beautiful two hundred year old brick home in the heart of the Picardy valley. It was nice to have the opportunity once again to live in a home, with a private room, a bathroom with privacy, an open fire and home cooked meals. True to form, lunch was waiting for me after I settled into my room and it was very French and very delicious; green salad for starter, mashed potato with pan-fried duck breast in a cream sauce, cheese platter and a pithivier for dessert. We caught up with each other’s lives and at times I felt like I was treading on egg shells in fear of offending her. After lunch, we went for a drive to the picturesque valley and a place rich in history.

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In another moment in time, these marshlands were nothing but vast expanse of mud, the stench of decaying bodies littered the land and the deafening sounds of bombs and guns, permeated the surrounding area. Death and horror shaped and transformed this valley and yet here I stand, almost one hundred years later, to a place of utter beauty and serenity. I really had no idea what to expect, for certainly the many photo’s and footage of the war showed only destruction. What lays before me is a place of colour of the vast flat valley, the mirror calmness of the water that is everywhere and the historic village and ancient ruins that dot the hills. The Bay of Somme is a sea that is ruled by the tide and when we arrived, the sea had all but disappeared and wet sand lay exposed to the winter sunset.

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The village is part modern and part historic. The modern part caters to the tourists and the locals and feels very much like a seaside village. The narrow main road through the town is peaceful and very pretty. But for me, it is the historic part that I loved the most. The old uneven stone structures that have survived the war somehow, dot the valley and the lush greenery of the hills and gardens bring life and renewal back to a place once covered in death. Whatever I was expecting, it certainly wasn’t this. We walked over the hills and along the bay. The day was almost over, but not before a splendid marriage of colour over the sea and marshlands as the sun was going down. I stood transfixed and camera happy watching the brilliant pinks and blue of the sky.

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We arrived home late and she prepared a very unusual dinner that consisted of zucchini, onion, aubergine, mashed potato and cheese. I have to admit, different but tasty. Afterwards, I washed the dishes and we made plans for tomorrow. I guess this was the moment when things started to go pear-shaped because when she invited me to her home, it was on the precursor of her showing me around the Somme and the War sites. She either had forgotten or did not want to go and so I had to remind her of my purpose for my visit. She became defensive towards me and made me feel guilty about my family life, my freedom and my travel experience. I knew then, that my three-day visit would be harder than I had anticipated.


July 3, 2013

Chateau de Chenonceau

Filed under: Diary,Solo Travelling — nomdeplumage @ 4:04 pm
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Another confusing and time wasted day in France.

Because of the season, I missed the opportunity to visit some castles while in France, but I am surprised that the Chateau de Chenonceau is open to visitors. I need no encouraging. I get the 9:22 am train from Gare Austerlitz for a two-hour journey through the stunning Loire Valley to Tours. Not actually knowing how to get to the castle, I follow the signs from the train station to the tourist bureau and waste one hour walking in search of something that maybe existed and if it did, the street signs lead me nowhere. I find someone to help me and they direct to get the train that actually stops at the castle. Problem! I just missed one and have to wait an hour for the next one. Time for lunch.

I eventually arrive at the Chateau after a thirty minute journey and it is 2pm. Some days are just harder than others and I guess this is one of them.

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The train station is between the Chateau and a quaint little town. A short walk to the main entrance to the park where I buy a ticket and explore the little gift shop. Tempting as the gifts are, I am eager to move on. The walk to the castle is along a dirt track that is aligned with beautiful trees on either side. It is unfortunate that there is no foliage on the trees and yet there is something very mystic and beautiful to see the bare gnarly old trees. At the end of the path, the castle comes into view and it is as beautiful as I imagined it will be. Situated on a picturesque site of several acres, there is a little cottage that cannot be accessed by tourists, a maze, manicured gardens, a working vegetable garden, a farm still working and a forest on the other side of the river and a river that flows beautifully under the castle. For anyone who does not know, Chenonceau is the château famous for the spectacular long bridge that joins the castle to the forest on the other side.

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I have always envied stately homes owned and operated by societies élite, their beauty and elegance; but there is also something wrong about living in such large residence during winter. Forget central heating and our modern luxuries, heating in those days was very primitive and castles were always perpetually cold. One has to wonder about the wisdom and price for luxury. But what I cannot take away from this château, is the beautifully furnished rooms and the elegance in its simplicity. There are rooms were I found the room ‘over-the-top’ and none more so then the upstairs bedrooms and the rich red bed coverings and detailed wallpaper. Too much!

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But of all the many rooms within this grand home, it was the kitchen that awed me and made me dream of the possibilities that could be produced here. A large kitchen with stone walls, it is fabulously furnished with utensils and moulds. I envy the copper pots, something France is famous for; and dream of the different moulds that produce delicious desserts. The space is huge and it is also the comfortable. But it is the warm feeling that the heart of a home inspires within me, that really leaves an impression on me.

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I walk the endless acreage and although the season is of hibernation and the flora lays bare, there is something still very beautiful to see them bare and slightly covered in a winters mist. I walk through the bare forest and trample on the blanket of dead leaves. The trees lay bare but with a tinge of green moss that cover parts of the trunk; the only sign of life. Small surprises open up among the forest, hints of lover’s secret meeting haunts (a love chair), or a place for fun (a maze) and stone structures that add some depth amongst the vast expanse. Through it all, the mist hovers low and I smell the crisp air and breathe in the cold, undeterred because the beauty enchants me.

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I have some time to spare before my train back to Tours arrives and it gives me an opportunity to go and explore the little town on the other side of the train tracks. If you can imagine a town with narrow streets, stone buildings, peaceful and filled with shops that cater not only for the tourists, but the locals; then you can imagine a town that is uniquely French and very pretty.




July 2, 2013

Paris Again

Filed under: Solo Travelling,Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 6:04 pm
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Paris is my destination before I leave Europe for good in a weeks time. It is only fitting that I should leave from the city from which I first arrived many months ago. The weather has not improved since my last visit, cold and wet; but at least it has kept the tourists away and that gives me a little more breathing space. This time, I will stay away from the main tourist attractions and see what else Paris has to offer. But of the places that I wish to revisit, it would have Notre Dame and the Arc de Triumph.

I have seen many cathedrals on my travels and Italy has the best by far. Notre Dame would seem almost paltry compared to the Vatican and yet, it is my favourite cathedral. I just had to come back and visit. This time at a more leisurely pace. It was pouring with rain and the cathedral offered shelter and warmth, it also offered peace and music. A choir was practising and I sat and listened to the beautiful music. What I love about Notre Dame has nothing to do with any religious affiliation, but the gothic architecture so unique to any other building associated with religion.

I then ventured within the suburbs of Paris on a literary sojourn. St Germaine is a beautiful suburb associated with writers and one place of residence was a little hard to find. I was on the hunt for house that Voltaire died in and it took a lot of searching for a very small plaque to direct me. I found it! The other very famous place, is actually a café famous for the literary élite who would visit regularly during the period between both wars. The café Les Deux Maggots is a very posh beautiful place and the temptation to go and have a coffee was strong, but ultimately my nerves failed me and I observed from afar. Something about Parisian café intimidate me.

If you are looking to spend an hour or so having fun, may I suggest the Arc de Triumph. Just stand or sit on the pavement that surrounds the Arc and watch cars navigate their way around the infamous round-about. It make you not only cringe, but admire the sheer chaos as cars somehow manage to get on and off without having an accident. There are no rules; every car for themselves and may God help you. Loved it!

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Paris has its own version of Madame Tussaud’s and it is called Grevin. I love going to these types of museums because it is something we do not have in Australia and it is also wonderful to see life-like figures of famous people who I would otherwise not see. Grevin is smaller than the other wax museums and it is also set out in a different manner. Each section is divided into scenes that relate to the era that the person(s) lived and so you get a feel for who the characters were. There are the movie stars and my two favourites, Jean Reno and Thierry Lemitte; and kings, sport stars and writer’s. French history intrigues and I love reading about the exploits of the King Louis XIV and the ribald career of Moliere and Voltaire. Each is represented here.Worth the visit and a lot of fun.

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June 30, 2013

Ghent and The Adoration of the Lamb

Filed under: Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 1:31 pm
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A medieval city on the cusp of major rebuilding, I arrive in this large city somewhat surprised with all the scaffolding and upheaval. It is a Monday and unbeknownst to me, all museums and places of interest is closed. The only option I have is to walk through the city and explore and visit a few more chocolate shops and shopping precincts.


I said my goodbye’s to Cherry this morning and promised to meet up again soon in London when I eventually get over there in a few weeks time. She mentioned before she left about a famous painting by the Van Eyck brother’s and told me to visit it. Honestly, I have never heard of this painting, being the painter enthusiast that I am; and went in search of it once I arrived. It was not hard to find and it is in a beautiful cathedral within the main town square. For a small entrance fee of four euros, I walk through glass doors to an enclosed glass room and there before me, is the large painting coveted by Hitler. Thankfully, it was known that he was after it and was hidden. After seeing so many religious paintings in Italy, I was not sure that I was ready to view another, but this painting is special. Painted on wooden panels and depicting scenes other than the crucifixion or birth of Jesus, this painting is of bright colours and beautiful scenes with knights and ordinary folk, Adam and Eve, priests and angelic women. Well worth the visit.


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Back in Brussels, I discover (to my surprise) a beautiful area that comprises of palaces, museums and a park. It intrigues me, considering that this is the ‘ugliest city in europe” and yet, there are hints of something special. I enjoy exploring this part and find some hidden wonders (and not all chocolate shops) of more parks, cathedrals and a stunning building at the ned of a boulevard, that has a great view overlooking the city. Never found out what the building was because it looked abandoned and very old. I can appreciate that all cities of the world have beautiful parts and parts that bring shame, even the mighty Paris has many ugly parts; but I believe unfairly, that Brussels has been given a title that may just be unfair. Oh well, who am I to judge! I have enjoyed my stay and tomorrow I am bound for Paris once again.


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The Ghent Altarpiece (wings open)

The Ghent Altarpiece (wings open) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


June 29, 2013

I Fall in Love in Brugge

Filed under: Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 3:43 pm
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Whist travelling, I have the opportunity to meet some wonderful people and then some really bizarre people and today was one of those days. I started my morning on the internet emailing my family and friends back home, when a black man from the UK comes and starts talking with me. We continue our conversation outside as I am waiting for my roommate to get ready for our day out in Brugge, when the man starts to hug me. I am stunned at first and then taken off guard, but he says that he is lonely and needs a hug. Ok, I get that! But when he starts to grab my behind to push my lower body into his, that is where the hugs end and I get pissed-off. Angry, I walk back to my room to see where Cherry is and tell her my story. Well, I gave her something to tease me about for the rest of the day.

We depart for our hour-long train journey to Brugge with the sun shinning and no hint of the cold winter weather. The scenery is nothing special, but the company is and we enjoy ourselves. Cherry has been to the city before, so she is my guide today. Our first stop is the toilets, which is located inside a brewery/restaurant and in good tourist spirit, we stop for a beer (the first of many). Called “Blonde Beer”, it is a delicious light beer on tap and that we both enjoyed. The brewery is also a wonderful place and the people very friendly. Belgium‘s love their beer and it is a completely different drinking atmosphere to that in Australia. It isn’t about getting drunk, but socialising and women partake in the beer drinking tradition that is usually associated with men.

Brugge is a city that I have seen many times on TV and of all the cities in Belgium, it is the one I was looking forward to most. Canals divide the picturesque town and chocolate shops rule. In one street alone, I counted six chocolate shops and each one does a roaring trade. We stop at one of Cherry’s friends shop called Dumon, to pick up her order. Chantal is the owner and very friendly, especially when she discovers what my job is back home. She allows me to taste some of her selection and appreciate the hand-made chocolates and the work that goes into making them. Chocolate in Australia is expensive due to the import tax, but here, it is more affordable and you get more for your money.

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Tucked away from the main square and down a narrow long alley, is a little bar that Cherry is very fond of. The setting is perfect, with wooden interior and an open fire; wonderful hosts and only a handful of customers. Naturally, we order a beer and this time I opt for a Duval. It is the nicest beer and one of my favourites and I enjoy it more here than in Australia when you understand that it cost $20 for a glass back home. Bloody taxes! The alcohol slowly starts to make me light-headed and I am in need of some lunch. At first, we are both unsure if the pub serves food and when Cherry asks the waiter, he explains that they serve sandwiches only. Fine by us, and we order a simple sandwich with parma ham, cucumber, tomato, pickled onions and mustard. And then I met my dream man……………

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He staggers slightly towards the front door (where we are sitting), slightly intoxicated and with a smile on his face. Here he grabs his jacket, scarf and beret and when he hears Cherry and I speaking English, he starts to talk to us. Elegant, polite, charming and very funny, this man oozed appeal and his age – about eighty. I feel in love and wanted to wrap him up and take him home with me. He spoke perfect English and is an adorable man who can charm women with his charisma. Oh, if only……he were younger and not married. His beautiful little wife came over eventually, ready to leave and we could see the love they share and her trust in her husband. Very special.

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After lunch, Cherry and I go our separate ways and I am left to explore the rest of Brugge on my own. It is a small town and does not take long before I am heading back towards Brussels. I stop at the local supermarket for some dinner and make my way back to my room. My friend shows up a little later and we enjoy a picnic style dinner and talk about the days events. But the night is far from over and after dinner, we go downstairs to the bar for another two beers, this time honey flavoured. How many flavours do they have? A sleepless night after too much alcohol.


June 28, 2013

Is Brussels The Ugliest City?

Filed under: Diary,Solo Travelling,Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 3:31 pm
Tags: , , ,


Well, it most certainly isn’t the prettiest, nor is it the most easiest city to navigate. I arrived in Brussels about 6pm with a map giving me directions to my hostel in Flemish. But when I exit the train station and start walking, all the street signs are in French, and the two did not correlate. I stood in the street confused and bewildered about how I was to find my hostel when nothing made sense. I wasted about an hour before I could take it no more and went to the taxi stand. The taxi driver was very rude and made it evident that he looked down upon women and especially solo women traveller’s. He was Muslim and refused to help me get my luggage in his car boot and then he refused me the front seat of the car. I have travelled now to many countries and met many people of different nationalities and religious beliefs, but never did I receive such rude treatment. I had to bite my tongue and be thankful that he was taking me to my hostel.

Up until this point, I had no idea that Brussels is labelled the ‘ugliest city’ and by the locals nonetheless. At my hostel and even within the brochures of the city, it definitely states it clearly. This statement has certainly piqued my interest and I wasted no time to explore. In all fairness, Brussels is divided into two halves and each half is invariably different from the other. The predominant part and the one associated with the European Council, is definitely clean and a nice part of the city. It is the part that I enjoyed the most and there are hints of classic old European city style buildings and streets. But the other side, is the side that I found truly ugly and very intriguing. Rubbish lines the streets, something that I only saw in Naples; and the overall look and feel of the place is very dirty and uncomfortable. I did explore and it is predominately part of the city that is populated with foreigners.

The city centre is a maze of narrow streets lined with shops and cafe’s and it was actually a relief to see that there is some promising aspects to this place. Chocolate shops rule and for me personally – heaven. I love all things chocolate and no wonder, considering I work in a chocolate shop back home. It is always refreshing to see how the master’s produce and sell their creations and I know that while I am here, I will take every advantage to indulge in my greatest weakness. Let me not forget the beer. I am not a beer drinker, wine is more to my taste, but while I was living in Germany that changed and I came to enjoy German beer. I have always known the Belgium reputation for their beer. They drink it as we would drink coke or coffee, but never to get intoxicated, just to enjoy. There are so many beer producing places, bars, restaurants etc, that sell a wonderful and diverse range of beer, that I had to join in and partake in this tradition. I was never disappointed and enjoyed the many varied flavours of beer. My personal favourites are the Krieg (cherry) and Krystal (a light beer).

I have made a new friend, an older woman from England with the wonderful name Cherry. What I love about her is her quirkiness and zest for life and it is refreshing to me a female solo traveller who knows how to enjoy herself. We get along very well and make plans to visit Brugge tomorrow. Very excited.


June 23, 2013

Sachsenhaussen Concentration Camp in Berlin

Filed under: Diary,Solo Travelling,Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 4:04 pm
Tags: ,

Many years ago when I was living in both Stuttgart and Munich, the thought had come to my mind many times about whether I would like to visit a concentration camp. The infamous Dachau camp was not very far from Stuttgart and I asked my friends and work colleagues about it. The look on their faces was enough deterrent as I knew that emotionally I was not ready to see the horrors by myself. Fast forward many years and my attitude has changed.

When I arrived in Berlin, I had not even heard about the Sachsenhaussen Camp and had no inclination to visit one. That is until I spoke to my two American roommates who had just visited the day before and they convinced me that the time was now or never. What I did know, is that it is not a place I want to visit on my own and so I booked a tour. So why now? Honestly, not because it fascinates me or that I wish to see the horrors, but because the need to try to comprehend human nature and the brutality of war compels me to bury my ignorance and face emotions and grasp a time in history that will never be forgotten.

The weather perfectly suited my thoughts and emotions for what I was about to see; cold, grey and miserable. I had to run to the S-Bahn station and I was almost there when the train pulls into the station. A man overtakes me and runs in the vain hope of getting on board before the doors close. The conductor was nice and opened the doors. The man boards the train and holds open the door and gestures me to get in. Very thankful. I arrived at the tour’s meeting point with time to spare and met some nice people. We were standing out in the open when it started to rain, then the rain froze and ice fell and finally it started to snow. I just knew that this will be a long day.

At the Bombardier train station we meet with our group leader Jakob. A young man originally from Czech but now living in Berlin, speaks perfect English. Due to the severity of the weather, many trains are either cancelled or delayed and for some time we had no idea if a train would come. Thankfully one did and we board the RE for Oranienburg. We arrive more than thirty minutes later and Jakob recommends that we have some lunch first from the local bakery because there is no food at  the camp. We all opt for a sandwich, a sweet pastry and coffee and are very satisfied except for a young American couple who ask where there nearest McDonald’s is. We all shake our heads.

Our fifteen minute walk to the camp is the same journey that the prisoner’s walked on their way to uncertainty. When we turn the last corner, the camp comes into sight and something profound and even pathetic hits me. The street is lined with houses that end at the very barricade that circumnavigates the camp. These houses were built before the war and housed the families of the SS officers. The children and wives would have seen the prisoners, heard the gunshots and smelt the thick unnatural smell of bodies being cremated. It begs the question; did they know what was happening?

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The entrance is before me and the black steel gate with the immortalised words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Life is not Free) brings a shiver down my spine. Reality could never have prepared me for what I have seen many times on TV or in books and no amount of anticipation can ever displace the fear of seeing those words before me. Through the gate and the triangle courtyard awaits. The bitter cold vastness of the inner courtyard is a powerful reminder that here the prisoners stood barely clothed and starving for a roll call every morning.  Sachsenhaussen was the first camp built and the model for all other camps to follow. Barely anything exists of its former days because once the war was over, people destroyed what valuable material they could to rebuild their homes. The high stone fences, barbed-wire fences and guard towers still are the original. A house that once was the local socialising and drinking venue for the officers after a hard days work (?) still stands, albeit bordered up. Two dormitories that housed the prisoners has been rebuilt.

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There are two museums on the premises. The first one beautifully recreates the lives of some of the men, women and children who were prisoners here. There are no graphic photos, but the stories are poignant reminders of the hardship and probable deaths faced every day by the thousands who are incarcerated here. The other museum is more in-your-face because it shows the actual weapons or equipment used to kill the prisoners. The chipped wooden frame used for hanging stands in the centre of the room. It permeated a foul smell that can only be associated with death. The other sinister wooden structure, looked almost unimportant until our tour guide explained how it was used. But of the brutality, some hope could be found downstairs in the cold rooms were the food was stored and prepared by the prisoners. On the concrete pillars are comical pictures painted by some prisoners who had possibly some humour and hope even in those terrifying times.

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We arrive at our final destination within the camp and are a sign that reads, “the only way to freedom is through the Z station”, is before us. What is the Z station? A simplified explanation; the place of execution (freedom). Freedom came in the expensive form of a bullet and then cremation. The early days before mass extermination was invented. The place still stands were prisoners were shot and as you walk further to an enclosed area, the dilapidated ovens come into view and a sick an overwhelming feeling strikes hard. Of all the places, this was the hardest to visit because all hope ended and everything became so brutally final. Our tour guide mentioned that at one stage there was so many bodies to be cremated that a thick black plume of smoke covered the surrounding town for days. The suffocating stench of burning human flesh and the stifling smoke must have been unbearable and yet I ask the question: were the people who lived nearby aware of what was happening?

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We departed from the camp bewildered and in silence for what we had all just seen. It is one thing to read about it and watch it in movies or on TV, but something wholly different in reality. I cannot write that I feel better for coming or that I may even except what happened during the war, but I can certainly write that it has changed me.

When we arrived at the train station, there was confusion about which platform we should wait on for our train and in the ensuing drama, the group separated and some got on another train. The other half of the group which I was apart of, got the next train but it did not take us directly back to the city. We had to change at a station called Lichtenberg. Thankfully, I was in a group because this station made me feel very uncomfortable. Drunk youths were singing racists songs and the feeling of tension and hate was in the air. The war maybe over, but for some, denial and hate are still ever-present.

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