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

Reflections

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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

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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 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 28, 2013

Is Brussels The Ugliest City?

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

June 18, 2013

Berlin – The City of Museums

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I started my day back at the very gate that welcomed me to Berlin; the Brandenburg Gate. The Kennedy Museum is next to the US Embassy and the first of many museums that I would visit today. I have always been fascinated with America’s royal family and the power and tragedy that came at a high price. The museum is mainly a photo gallery of the main Kennedy players, along with wonderful memorabilia of John F Kennedy.

Linten Strasse is a wide and very impressive street that is lined with beautiful neo-classical buildings. I unexpectedly came upon the Humboldt University and wanted so much to go inside, but I was not allowed for obvious reasons. I am content with a photograph and walked further down the street to a very beautiful and very pink building that is the German History Museum. I am not deterred by the unusual colour and enter to discover a wonderfully rich and varied collection from ancient to modern times, royal families, art, philosopher’s and both world war’s. A great museum and one of my favourite displays is dedicated to philosopher’s such as Voltaire, Rousseau and many other’s. But the most outstanding of all, would be the moving and confronting memorabilia of both wars. To actually see SS and Nazi uniforms and footage of the destruction of both lives and cities, is very powerful viewing.

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Directly beside the pink museum is a channel of water that is partly frozen. I turn and follow this frozen path and what stands before me, is again, beautiful classical stone structures that could easily find a home in ancient Greece or Rome. The Pergamon Museum is a huge building dedicated to Egyptian and Islāmic works. The front entrance is impressive enough, but when you enter the building, ancient makes way to a modern interior housing very old precious artefacts. Further up the road is the Bode Museum and this smaller building has a very regal entrance and even more regal antiquity. From German, Greek and Roman artefacts, to sculptures, paintings and silver and bronze pieces of workmanship, this museum is also wonderful.

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But wait……there are more museums.

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I would like to write and boast that I visited every museum within the vicinity, but that would be a lie. It would not have been humanely possible nor could I have done justice. There is also the possibility that I may have come away either cross-eyed or blinded from all the reading and glare from the precious metal and stones, that I thought better of it as I still have some way to travel. These buildings are very impressive and I do not even know if any of them are the original or if they were rebuilt after the war. What I can write, is that no city that I have visited thus far, has been able to fuse ancient or modern, stone or glass; quite so perfectly as Berlin has.  What I do know, is that the Berliner Dom was destroyed in the war and was painstakingly rebuilt to its original design. What is even more surprising, is that the royal family crypt is all that survived the bombings. I am sure that the royal bones were rattled a bit, but there place of rest is once again at peace.

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Needless to say, that the cathedral was not only beautiful, but built-in stone, marble, gold and wood. There is a small museum upstairs that shows drawings, paintings and model replica’s of the cathedral and other old buildings. The guide was very friendly and even directed me on which angle and position I should stand to get the best photo’s. Very sweet!

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Alexanderplatz is a modern precinct where I stopped to have lunch. In all honesty, I was not overly impressed. But in saying that, I can see that what my not be impressive now, will change very quickly. It is still an area of vast open space, filled with modern glass high rises and growing at an unprecedented rate. It is edging closer to the old Berlin and what is a construction site now, will be something amazing in the future.

April 4, 2013

Gaudi

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Need I say more? No long descriptive title will ever do justice to the man who revolutionised architecture and changed the face of Barcelona. Love him or hate him, his work is many and yet unfortunately, some stand unfinished. When you walk the streets of the city the predominant architecture is art deco; beautiful and very stylish. Gaudi took this style further and created something very unique and ahead of his time. For me personally, what resonates the most about the man, was that he came from an ordinary family, had no real formal education and defied the times and created some of the world’s much-loved masterpieces. I am no great critic of art or architecture,( or maybe yet; after my Italian overload of Italian Renaissance art, I may just qualify as a novice) and cannot write in great detail about what constitutes as ‘great’ or ‘brilliant’, I can only write what I have seen or loved. Any form of art really comes down to the way it makes you feel or how it touches you. Gaudi’s work may not  please  many, and I can understand that his work is viewed as eccentric or overwhelming, but I love the colours, the unique detail, the intricate additions and the eccentricity. Some of his work seem right out of a fairy tale and others could be perfectly situated next to any great monument of the world.

Ticket prices are not cheap when visiting any of his work. One can only justify the hefty price in the hope that it goes to preservation of his work. Also, there are many of his buildings within the city centre (easily accessible by foot), but others are outside and do require some navigation. I chose to stay within the city and hope that in the future I can return and see what I missed.

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Passeig de Gracia is a wide (French à la mode) boulevard that houses two of Gaudi’s work – Casa Batllo and Pederera. They are almost across the road from each other. Casa Battlo is the more beautiful and a kaleidoscope of mosaics in brilliant colours. A whooping twenty-five euros will get you inside to a world beyond description. If you love eccentricity, then this is a must. On the other hand, Pederera is very plain from the outside and there is an eleven euro entrance fee, which I passed.  I continued walking the wide boulevards, enjoying the scenery and elegance of the city. Above the city skyline, tall pointed spikes aim for the blue sky and this is my direction.

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La Sagrada Familia is one of the world’s longest ongoing construction site. Perpetually covered in scaffolding and with more than a decade still in construction, this, Gaudi’s masterpiece, draws the crowds by the thousands. The first sight of the cathedral, makes you gasp. It is like no other building or cathedral in the world. The scaffolding, although covering parts, does take away from the overall beauty; but it is still a breathtaking structure. The intricate stone lace-work, the incredibly numerous,long pointed turrets that dominate the overall impression and the detailed workmanship of the edifice, are only parts of what make the cathedral special. This is Gaudi’s best work and unfortunately, his last which he never got to see finished. There is a twelve euro entrance fee, but you cannot even imagine not to go inside.

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The word ‘cathedral’ conjures up images and feelings of wealth, dark, gold, cold, relics, solemnity, frescoes and religious marvels. La Sagrada Familia on the other hand is light, colour, sparsity, freedom, simplicity, intricacy, warm and little religious artefacts. When you enter, the first impression that engulfs you is the vast open space and the brilliant colours that beam down on you. There is peace and that feeling of spirituality always associated with cathedrals, but none feel so warm and offer such freedom as this cathedral. It may not be as beautiful as the Vatican or famous as Notre Dame, but give it time.

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I needed to keep that feeling of ‘spirituality’ and felt the best way to achieve inner happiness, is at a café to devour churros and hot chocolate. Chocolate is my religion and it makes me feel so good, that the word ‘diet’ is not in my vocabulary (especially when travelling). A churros is golden and crisp on the outside and gooey and delicious on the inside. Dip it into your hot chocolate and it is called heaven.

My chocolate pilgrimage continued down the road, when I discovered a museum dedicated to the art of making and consuming chocolate. I could not pass an opportunity like this by and pay the small entrance fee. There is great showmanship of  historical creation and production of chocolate, followed by ‘works of art’ by Spain’s chocolate masters and their very creative sculptures. Each sculpture has a story to tell and about the master who produced it. At the back of the museum, is a glass window that allows the tourist to look inside ‘Willy Wonka’s’ and see the artisans at work. Do not envy them constantly having tourists press their noses against the window for a show, but they all appeared happy enough and got on with it.

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March 22, 2013

Colmar

The oldest book in the library, a Merovingian ...

The oldest book in the library, a Merovingian manuscript from the 7th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Colmar is a smaller city about forty minutes from Strasbourg. At first glance as I exit the train station, is an ordinary city that holds no special appeal. But I know that the real Colmar, or the part of the city that tourists flock to visit, is not too far away and it only requires some navigation and a patience. A ten minute walk and sure enough, the picturesque part reveals itself, to what I can only describe in one word – WOW! If ‘Petite France‘ in Strasbourg impressed me, then Colmar absolutely blew me away. My words will never do it justice and my cheap camera only leaves a tantalising impression of the true beauty of this little piece of a medieval town.

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The German influence is again strong and offers colourful and quaint medieval town beautifully preserved. Cobblestone or paved roads weave their paths through the narrow streets. I love the colours of the buildings and their off-centred style uniqueness that is found rarely in any city, let-alone any modern city. A canal trickles gently underfoot as you walk over the many little bridges that unite the city and it is this charm, combined with the unique buildings, that make Colmar a must-see.

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A short ten minute train ride from Colmar, is a town called Selestat and I stopped there for one reason only – books. If you have not guessed by now, I have a passion for all things books and when I discover anything related to my my big love, then I have to see it. I am never one to criticise the advances of technology and with the huge popularity of electronic books,but  I have bucked the trend and remained faithful to the printed form. Simply because it is what I know and love, but also I love the feel and smell of a book. There are always arguments for and against the book in both forms and I appreciate both and there may come a time when I too shall conform, but not right now and not when Europe offers priceless treasures in the forms of bibliotheques.

In our modern world, we are spoilt for choice when we enter a bookstore. Books of every genre, even language and all at reasonable prices, we forget that there was a time when books were rare and very costly. It shows in the intricate detail of the workmanship and  painstaking dedication to reproduce a book. Today, most book collector‘s can have hundreds even thousands of books in their collection, but in medieval times, ten or twenty books collected over a life-time was the norm. The ‘Humaniste Bibliotheque’ is a sensational collection of books and manuscripts dating from the 1500’s, donated by theologians from their own personal collection, after their deaths. Collected and preserved, they are housed on wooden shelves, protected by glass from the ravages of time for over five hundred years. The smell is quintessentially authentic to old books and although I could not touch the priceless relics, I could admire and enjoy them.

My day and in fact my stay in Strasbourg ended with a farewell dinner with my friend Suzy. The weather turned even more miserable and cold and it started to rain. It could not dampen our spirits, although it did make it a challenge to try and find a suitable place to have some dinner. We found a café called ‘Europa’ and although not ideal, it offered warmth and good food. Unfortunately, it is late in the evening and Suzy just finished work and I needed to go back to the hostel to pack for my departure tomorrow. I ordered dinner and afterwards we shared dessert. An evening with my friend, talking, laughing and reminiscing about our travels and time spent together was always going to be an emotional experience. It is our last meeting and one I am very sorry for.

To Suzy – thanks for the wonderful memories. I enjoyed our time spent together and although brief, you touched my heart with your beautiful smile and spirit. May we always endeavour to stay in touch and I pray that our paths will meet again.

salle d'exposition de la Bibliothèque Humanist...

salle d’exposition de la Bibliothèque Humaniste de Sélestat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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