Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Freezing my giblets off

I don't think I have ever been colder in my life than I was for most of today. We were told it was going to be minus 11, but it apparently only got to minus 5. I can't even possibly imagine what minus 11 feels like. We were talking to a girl from Canada where it gets to minus 44 in the winter. Really. Well. I must say I don't believe her. I don't know how you can support human life at that temperature after what we felt today. I have now bought ANOTHER hat (my second new hat) and more gloves. Sean has bought another jumper. The good news was, it was a sunny day. We had beautiful blue skies and partway through the day I went to take a swig from my drinkbottle and discovered it had frozen inside. So picture standing inside the coldest freezer ever, all day, and that's pretty much the sensation we experienced. Thankfully, our hostel is warm and comfy. We started the day very leisurely, using the laundry service and eating heaps of breakfast and sorting out photos etc. Then we rugged up and headed to the Brandenburg Gate to meet another Sandeman's tour. A bunch of people from our hostel came as well which was fun. Our guide, Chris, didn't at first seem quite as enthused as our guides for Paris and Amsterdam, but we all warmed to him during the tour, which turned out to be incredibly interesting and enjoyable. Berlin, in comparison to Paris and Amsterdam, is not the prettiest city, but it is so rich with history, recent and relevant history. So the tour was great, but the cold was a serious distraction. I was unable to stand still, because it just crept into your bones if you didn't keep moving, so there was a lot of jigging around on one foot while the guide was explaining about certain locations.

After the Brandenburg Gate, we saw the Reichstag and the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. This was amazing. For those who don't know, its a park filled with cement blocks, all different shapes and sizes. The ground beneath them is hilly and gets deeper and shallower in certain areas. The architect has been famously tight-lipped about his reasons for it's design because he wants people to form their own ideas about what it might represent. Some people think the hills and stones look like the Jewish cemetery in Prague so they think of gravestones. Some people think the blocks look like train cars, like the ones to the concentration camps. Some people can see a bar graph in the silhouette of the stones, depicting the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. I like to think the blocks are all different because it represents that the Jews were all individuals with independent character, not an identical group to be wiped out. There are 2711 blocks, but no one knows what that number represents either. We then headed further down the street to a carpark that sits directly over the site of Hitler's bunker. It was enormous, and he hid in it for most of the last month of his life. He married Eva Braun there (her wedding dress was black) and the two of them took cyanide capsules two days later. And good riddance. The bunker was blown up in the 80's and all that remains is a heap of scrap metal buried deep beneath our feet.

We saw one of the only Nazi buildings spared by the Allied bombings, complete with Soviet shells and bullet holes. We also visited the site of an enormous march (and subsequent massacre) of East Berlin citizens against the Communist regime. We saw the headquarters of the Luftwaffe, right next to a still-standing stretch of Berlin Wall. Then we walked down to Checkpoint Charlie, site of many innovative escapes into West Berlin, including a guy who hid his girlfriend in the trunk of a very low sports car, then drove the car under the barrier and ducked. Another guy bought a cow, killed it, emptied it, and wore its skin around him on a truck of cows headed to a West Berlin market. We stopped for a coffee break, but I was frozen, so I got a cup of broccoli soup with some lovely bread and it was just about the greatest thing I've ever eaten. We then saw a French cathedral, built for the Hugenots who came to Berlin from France where they faced terrible persecution. They did wonderful things for Berlin, so Berlin built them a church. Right near this is a German cathedral and a concert hall. We then saw the first Catholic church built in Germany, St Hedwig's (ARGH, HARRYPOTTER!) and the bank from Run Lola, Run!! That was way cool. Very close to that is a famous university whose name escapes me, but Lenin, Marx and Engels studied there, and Albert Einstein was a professor there. Luckily, he escaped to Germany before the breakout of the Holocaust. This university library was the site for the enormous Nazi book-burning. They burnt over 20,000 books, deemed 'inappropriate' because their authors were Jewish, Communist, homosexual etc. There is a beautiful memorial there which is a sealed room underground with a clear roof. It is full of empty shelves, enough to hold the 20,000 burned books. It was beautiful to stand in the square and see this memorial.

We then saw the memorial for all the victims of war and tyranny. The sculpture was placed there in the 90's, and depicts a weeping woman holding a child. She lost her son in WW1 and her grandson in WW2. It's incredibly moving. However, the memorial was built much earlier and used to be a memorial for the victims of WW1. When Hitler came to power he made it a memorial to the victims of Bolshevism. When the Soviets invaded after Hitler fell, they made it a memorial to the victims of fascism. And it stayed this way until the 90's when it became the memorial to the victims of war and tyranny. We then saw a beautiful domed cathedral and walked into the Museum Island where the tour finished. We were so, unbelievably cold, so we found kebabs, bought more warm clothes and headed back to the hostel, where I have been ever since! We wanted to do a pub crawl tonight, but I am so cold, I don't think I can bring myself to go out again. We shall see!


Monday, 30 January 2012


In Berlin!! YAY!! Our day started with SNOW. SNOWY SNOWSNOW EVERYWHERE!!!!! We walked out onto the top deck of the boat and all along the pier and the harbour was a blanket of snow. It was amazing. And freezing. But amazing. We ate our awesome breakfast and departed, crunching along the SNOW(!) to Amsterdam Centraal, where we jumped on a train to Hilversum. The trip only took about 25 minutes, and then we jumped on a train to Berlin, and that trip took about 5-6 hours. It is strangely tiring, sitting on a train all day. I think its because you are carrying everything with you. We had to move seats a couple of times. But we sat opposite some really adorable kids who just babbled to us in German for ages and were really cheeky and cute. I managed to sleep a little as well. Then we got into Berlin Hauptbahnhof and had to take an S-Bahn train to Alexanderplatz and then a U-Bahn train to Senefelder Platz. This process sounds tiresome, but it didn't turn out to be too bad. The we reached the EastSeven Berlin Hostel and it is BRILLIANT. Firstly, the bathrooms are amazing. Thank goodness. That shower was the best thing that's ever happened to me. Secondly, we arrived at 6.20 and every Monday and Wednesday night they cook a free dinner for all the guests. You can pitch in and help at 7, or just show up for the free meal at 8. We went down to the kitchens and got chatting as we cut up vegetables. There are so many different people here. It's insane. We've been sitting in the lounge drinking since we arrived and people are only heading out now (midnight). I'm not going because I am absolutely knackered, but gosh, I've had the best night. We spoke to stacks of other Australians as well as Brits, Norwegians, Albanians and some really lovely people from Canada and Turkey. Dinner was also excellent. It was totally vegetarian. Awesome orange salad with walnuts and balsamic sauce, vegetable soup, and this rice, chickpea and vegetable dish. AMAZING. Everyone can use the kitchens and the storage facilities, so everyone just sits around after dinner drinking the Happy Hour beers for 1 euro and talking about the different places they are from. It's fascinating, and I'm really looking forward to spending the rest of the week here. I'm so tired though! So I'm off to bed now. We'll enjoy our snow, while ya'll enjoy your heatwave.


Sunday, 29 January 2012

Last night in Amsterdam

Firstly, RRRRAAAAAAGGGGEEEE!!!! I just spent about 45 minutes tagging all the pics in the Paris album and bloody facebook didn't save any of it. BAH.

Secondly, we are back on the boat, after a lovely dinner in Nieuwmarkt for our last night in Amsterdam. Cara and Alfie went to a floating Chinese restaurant, and Sean and I went to a little pub where we had tomato and paprika soup with bread and cheese and it was just about the greatest thing I've ever tasted. After being out in the freezing wind, it was the perfect, perfect meal. Then I went and bought another beanie. I need one with flaps for my ears because the wind is just about snapping my ears off. So I now have a red Amsterdam beanie with bobbles. YEAH! Then we found an Irish pub, an actual Temple Bar in Amsterdam. We walked in and promptly paid 6 euro EACH for a drink. A terrible tasting Kilkenny and a weak, slightly sour Strongbow for 12 euro. Highway robbery. But, the bartender was uber friendly and we had an awesome chat to him about Australia. He's British, but is moving to Brisbane. We talked about sport and cars and beer, so I contributed not much at all to the conversation, but it was a pleasant night. We're totally besties with the owner of our hostel as well. He's given us free snacks and left us on the boat while he's gone for a walk. Everyone is very trusting around here. The Dutch are very peaceful. I'm sad to be leaving Amsterdam so soon; I feel like I could stay here for a few weeks (though with a better bathroom). Time to pack up, so I don't need to rush tomorrow.

Good times, lazy days

We had unanimously decided to make today a 'me time' day. As a result, it was far lazier than our days so far, yet I still managed to end up doing a lot of walking. I woke up at 8am to Skype my parents (and it was wonderful to speak to them), and I was the only guest up until about 9am when everyone began to surface for the complimentary breakfast. As a result, I had the wi-fi to myself for ages, and managed to upload my Paris pics to Facebook! As I type this, I have nearly uploaded the last of them. I want to have a separate FB album for each city, and even then, there are plenty of photos I will later pinch from Sean, Alfie and Cara.

Once we were all up, we walked quickly to Amsterdam Centraal to enquire about trains to Berlin tomorrow (apparently we just waltz onto the train with our Eurail pass. Cool beans.) and then we went our separate ways. Cara headed off to the Van Gogh museum and the diamond museum, Alfie headed off to look at shops and Sean and I headed back to the boat to do some more photo uploading and Skyping. Then Sean and I went for a walk. In -1 degrees weather. Yay Europe! My face felt brittle, like the skin on top of milk that has been sitting out for too long. Brittle and freezing. But yesterday at the pub with the friendly bartender, he had written down the name of a brewery, complete with directions, that he thought Sean might be interested in. So we headed off to find out and it turned out to be not too far from us. Maybe a 20 minute walk? We got there at 2 and discovered it didn't open til 3. But that was okay. We had tasty sandwiches for lunch at a fancy bistro and stayed warm the whole time. When the brewery opened at 3, we realised the English-language tour wasn't until 4, but I wanted to see the Dutch Resistance Museum which closed at 5, so Sean walked me partway and then he headed back to his tour and I went to the Resistance Museum. It was wonderful. Well worth the 8 euro I paid for it. It's an entire museum dedicated specifically to the efforts of Dutch people who chose to resist the Nazis during the occupation in WW2. Currently, they have an exhibition of photos taken by a gentleman who died in 2008. He had to hide his camera from the Nazis and fake a permit to take photos, but this way there is documented evidence of the persecution of Jews. There were hundreds and hundreds of stories in the museum, about people who smuggled children out of the ghettos and into hiding, people who built and distributed illegal radios, people who hid Jews, people who got friendly with the prison guards, got them drunk and managed to get prisoners out, and one woman who was sent to prison for opposing the Nazis and was assigned the darning of the Nazis socks. She sewed them shut. I didn't have quite enough time to see the whole thing properly, but I saw plenty of interesting stuff and had a beautiful walk home in the winter sunshine. It was also nice to have the afternoon to myself for a bit.

I've been sitting here typing and photo-uploading since then. I used the terrible showers again, and it's nice to feel clean. We will be heading out to get dinner shortly, maybe have a few drinks, but we have to get up and leave for Berlin tomorrow so it won't be too late.

Signing off!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Cheese and canals

We have figured out that the bathrooms are not great, but the complimentary breakfast is AWESOME. So after eating enough to fill a horse, we headed in the freezing cold to Amsterdam Centraal to meet another free walking tour. The same tour company, the Amsterdam equivalent of the two tours we had done in Paris. We had high expectations by now, but this guy was also amazing. His name was Ged and he was from Manchester. These tours also had heaps more people on them, so we had to get used to being in a huge group. We formally began at the National Monument, in Dam Square. Then we walked past a 'tasting-house' - one of our tour guide's favourite spots in the city. It was built back when it was illegal to sell alcohol in Amsterdam, so the owner got around the law by simply allowing people to 'taste' (buy it anyway). We walked through the Red Light District, which is significantly weirder during the day. Here we are trooping round in the brisk morning air, breathing mist into the crisp winter day, and there is a woman in sexy lingerie posing in a doorway. It's really, really bizarre. But fascinating. There is no equivalent in Australia. Between the Red Light District and a church, there is an anonymous artwork set into the cobblestones, a sculpted gold hand on a sculpted gold breast. Apparently it just appeared one day and the council dug it up. But the prostitutes had decided they liked it and kicked up a fuss until it got put back. Our guide explained that the Dutch government is extremely pragmatic about such things, and would rather its citizens be happy. He said any law is breakable in Amsterdam provided it is discreet, it hurts no one, and its brings money into the city. That's how there is so much weed - its not legal, its tolerated. The discreet bit is calling them 'coffee shops', instead of Weed Central of Ganja Palace. The hurting no one bit is that marijuana is a soft drug, that doesn't induce violence and is impossible to overdose on. Because the government is so relaxed about marijuana, they have been able to stamp down on hard drugs, and as a result, Amsterdam has an extremely small amount of junkies and hard drugs. And it is wonderful, of course, for the economy. Our guide also told us, however, that the government has banned the opening of any more coffee shops and there is talk of movements to make weed only available to Dutch residents. So if anyone wants to front up to Amsterdam and experience it like it is, do it soon! We saw a hidden Catholic church, built when it was illegal to be Catholic in the city. We saw the headquarters of the East India Trading Company - oh man, Pirates of the Caribbean movie reference! - which is now past of the University. We saw a women's prison, that has a carving of a woman being whipped over the doorway and the inscription, 'I don't hit you because you're evil, I hit you to make you good'. Hmmmmm.

Houses in Amsterdam have taxes on the size of your house. The wider is is - that is, the more space along the sidewalk it takes up - the more expensive. As a result, houses in Amsterdam are very tall and slim and we got pics of the smallest house in the city. There are some big, old, expensive houses and some of them have carvings on the rooves detailing how the owner made their living (these were built centuries back and included arms dealers with cannons carved on their roof, and slave traders, with people carved on their roof). We saw the Royal Palace and the squats - part of the Jewish Quarter, which was cleaned out during World War 2 and then inhabited by poor people and hippies in the mid-century. These hippies later saved the city from a complete renovation in the 70's which would have seen all the houses and canals knocked down and filled up and a big freeway put through the middle. Thankfully, those tree-huggers and crazies chained themselves to the buildings and again, the government pragmatically conceded. These squats that they lived in are painted beautiful vibrant colours and covered in manic graffiti. It was very cool. We walked through a 'secret garden' - an incredibly peaceful little estate, walled in because I think it used to be a convent? Even now, only single women over 30 are allowed to live in the houses surrounding the gardens. It's a weird law, but that's how the city works. Then we stopped for free cheese. It tasted like very strong parmesan, and was apparently aged Gouda. Delish! We finished the tour at the Homomonument, a memorial dedicated to all in the Netherlands who have been discriminated against and persecuted for their sexuality. It is a collection of pink triangle sculptures. Pink triangles are, as you may know, an international symbol of gay pride, invented by the Nazis who used it to segregate the homosexual prisoners from the other categories (communists, Jews, etc) in the concentration camps. It's a wonderful example of resilience and reclamation. Here, our guide told us about Amsterdam in World War 2. We were sitting in front of the church, whose bells kept Anne Frank going in her many months in hiding. The house she hid in is right round the corner and Anne could hear the bells and wrote about how they kept her sane. We didn't do the Anne Frank House museum today, but maybe tomorrow. Alfie and I did it during our last trip and it was incredibly moving. I would definitely see it again. Apparently when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam and pulled all the Jews out of the Jewish quarter, the non-Jewish residents of Amsterdam were horrified and went on strike for two days. The city literally shut down in protest of the treatment of its Jewish residents. Of course, the Nazi war machine was relentless and evil so the strike soon ended, with people being forced to return to work under pain of death, but for 48 hours, this little city had stood up to the Nazis and that counted for a lot. 

When the tour finished and everyone had dispersed, Alfie, Cara, Sean and I asked our tour guide where a good pub was. He walked us all the way to this little one whose name escapes me, but was wonderful. You could sit on a bench with the radiator under you and the bar right in front of you. When we walked in, there was no other customers. For a good 45 minutes we drank beer, cider and hot chocolate with the bartender who came from country Holland and spoke flawless English. I love the people we have met so far. Everyone has been so chilled and relaxed and spoken to us so easily and been so welcoming to their cities. 

After we had finished at the pub, we went souvenir shopping and found some chips. Then we got another (MUM/DAD DON'T READ) spacecake and headed back to the boat to change into warmer clothes, because we were frozen. Then we walked to a wagamama restaurant and had enormous bowls of ramen for dinner. We stopped to buy chocolate on the way back, and since then have been sitting up in the dining area typing! We haven't planned much for tomorrow, which is a first. We are going to relax, first and foremost. Hurrah!


Mum, Dad, Chris, Annette, Melinda and any other parental figures, don't read this, you've been warned.

This morning we got up completely smoothly and efficiently. We cleaned up the rest of the stuff in the apartment, and didn't have to rush. It was awesome. We got to Gare du Nord and hopped on the train to Lille Flanders and went for an hour, then got on another train to Anvers Central (which is actually Antwerp, in Belgium. Anvers is the French word for it). We sat next to a very chatty French Somali man. On the next leg, from Anvers (Antwerp) to Amsterdam, I sat next to a Dutch man who spoke flawless English as well as Dutch (obviously), French, German, Spanish and was learning Bulgarian. He was really lovely and affirmed the two things I have come to be sure of when dealing with Europeans:
1. They love Australians. Love them. It's a cliche, but it's true.
2. They have a brilliant knack for languages. My Dutch friend on the train was telling me that Dutch schoolchildren have compulsory English to learn, and as a result, many Europeans grow up well-practiced in English. We are extremely spoilt, to be English speakers.

We got to Amsterdam Centraal and dragged our stuff out into the city with us. Our hostel (on a freaking BOAT) turned out to not be a very long walk at all from the station, but it took us ages to find, so we were quite relieved when Cara saw the distant sign and called out across the canals 'VITA NOVA!' It's really cute in here. The reception dude was really nice, gave us a map of the place and a heap of vouchers for specific discounts on tourist attractions and activities exclusive to Vita Nova. Sean and I are in our own cabin as are Cara and Alfie. They are tiny, with a set of bunks, a sink and a cupboard. There is barely room for us and our luggage, but it is somehow very charming. We are only here for three nights, so I doubt any of it will be a problem. After dumping our stuff and googling some tours etc, we headed out. It was only 7.30 when we left and, like so many places in Europe, everything in Amsterdam is open very late. I wanted to walk through the Red Light District because we hadn't last time we were here. Everything in Amsterdam is also very close together; it's easy to see all the important things on foot. We walked into the Red Light District and saw the prostitutes in the red windows. It was hilarious. Most of them were on their phones or picking their fingernails and just looked bored out of their minds. Which you probably would be if you had to stand in a window with dumb tourists staring at you all day. We walked out of the Red Light District and found some pizzas which were delicious, but huge. We couldn't finish them. And then (MUM AND DAD DO NOT READ) we went to a coffeeshop and got spacecakes. It did absolutely nothing for me. I doubt there was actual weed in it. But the experience has now been had! Huzzah! On the way back home we went to one of the Sex Museums (which is not one of those live sex shows. You couldn't pay me to sit through one of them) but is an actual museum about the cultural history of sex, and then we headed back to the boat and were quite tired so we went to bed!! Big day. We only have 2 full days in Amsterdam so we're going to pack a lot into them!!


Thursday, 26 January 2012

Joyeux Australie Jour! (Or however you say it)

While we were thinking enviously of the BBQ's back home that we would be missing out on, it was also our final full day in Paris today! I am not ready to leave this city. I love it. No, more than that, I am in love with it. I could easily live here. Not forever; I love Melbourne/Australia too much, but being here for just the week has made me really want to learn French and I would adore coming back here for a year or so just to absorb the culture. So we tried to pack a lot in today and succeeded pretty damn well.

Firstly, Alfie, Cara and I headed back to Pere Lachaise cemetery. I have wanted a photo smooching Oscar Wilde's grave for ages and I was going to spit if I left Paris without one, particularly having stayed in an apartment so close to it. We took photos of Balzac's grave, Oscar Wilde's grave (obligatory kisses included), Edith Piaf's grave, the Holocaust memorials, the graves of Gertrude Stein and Jim Morrison, and I tried to find the grave of Jean-Dominique Bauby (the guy with locked-in syndrome who wrote 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly') but I couldn't see it. It is really one of the most beautiful cemeteries I've ever seen, and we had early morning sunshine dripping across the sky and the effect was amazing. Then we met up with Sean and headed to Notre Dame! I had been to the cathedral 4 years ago during my previous visit and was excited to see it again, but this time our Paris Pass gave us access to the towers for free. Yayyyy! So we gave our lactic acid a good workout and chugged up the steps to look out over the city and chill with the gargoyles. We got some awesome pics and the views were amazing. The cathedral is going to be 850 years old next year and there are some exciting restoration works going on. We went and took photos with the huge bell and even heard it ringing. There was this kid FREAKING OUT because he was so afraid of the bell. The poor thing was practically hyperventilating just standing near it because he was so scared it would make a noise. Afterwards, we walked to Saint Chappelle, but the line was huge and we were limited for time so we had to give it a miss unfortunately. Cara and Alfie went to check out the archaelogical crypt underneath Notre Dame and Sean and I went to walk up along the Seine. The bridge from Sex and the City is just up from Notre Dame. I mentioned earlier in my blog that it is known as the 'Love Bridge' and is covered in padlocks with lovers names on them. We were in Paris, the beautiful city of lights, love and art, so yes. Yes, I bought a padlock, found a marker, and wrote 'Emily et Sean' on it. If you think that's cheesy, go jump in the Seine. It's romantic, dammit. Sean, being the obliging, lovely man he is, came with me and we locked it onto the bridge and threw the keys into the river for good luck. It was awesome. Then we found amazing baguettes and got onto the train to Montmartre with Cara and Alfie.

Montmartre, the uber bohemian part of Paris with the little winding roads and cheese shops and patisseries and artists and writers and lovers, is gorgeous. I had only experienced a fraction of it last time, but was determined to see more of it this trip. For anyone who has seen 'Amelie', the entire film is set in Montmartre. The free tour of Paris we did on the first day here runs a tour of Montmartre for 10 euros and it was worth every cent. We arrived at the meeting point to discover we had the same guide as we had on our free tour, Naomi, which was fantastic because she was so much fun, extremely knowledgeable and very easy to chat to. We began in the red-light district at the Moulin Rouge, the location of the invention of the can-can dance and the striptease. I went to the Moulin Rouge the last time I was here and it was an experience. It was almost a bit too cheesy for me...I think I expected it to be more like the movie. But I'm glad I went. I just don't feel the need to fork out over 100 euro for another trip. After the Moulin Rouge, we headed up toward the Sacre Coeur Basilica, stopping at lots of fascinating places along the way. First was THE CAFE FROM AMELIE. Holy moley that was exciting!! Apparently the director, Jeunet, wanted the manager to shut down the cafe for four months over summer to shoot his movie. The manager told him to get lost. Jeunet came back every day for 18 months until the manager caved. Amelie was a smash-hit and now the cafe does amazing business. Then we saw some graffiti from Miss.Tic, one of the pioneers of street-art, spurred by vengeance on a former lover. Next we stopped at the house where Vincent Van Gogh used to live. You can't go in or anything, but its pretty cool to stand in front of it. There is a little plaque above the doorway and it is on a busy, picturesque corner of Montmartre. 

Then we headed up to 'Moulin de la Galette' which is the only windmill left in Paris. When the Romans decided to starve Paris out, the most effective way was to burn down all the windmills, rather than burn the crops, because the crops were useless without the windmills. The owner of Moulin de la Galette was so incensed, he ran out with a pitchfork and threatened the Romans. They chopped him into pieces and put him on each wing of the windmill. Very ghoulish and horrible. But then they got paid to leave the city and left before burning the Moulin de la Galette. The people of Paris honoured this martyr who ran out to threaten the Romans by having a huge party every Sunday night at the Moulin de la Galette. Go Paris! After that, we walked up to a square named after a writer called Marcel Ayme. He also lived in Montmartre and wrote a famous story about a man who could walk through walls. There is a sculpture of this character, quite literally walking through a wall. We saw a statue of Saint-Denis, 'the Headless Saint' and then we saw a statue of a very beautiful woman called Dalida. She was a performer and her three husbands killed themselves and then she did the same thing. So much tragedy in Montmartre! It is good luck to touch the breasts of the Dalida statue. So I did. They were cold and statue-y. We went to Le Maison Rose, which is a restaurant frequented by Van Gogh. He used to go there twice a day! It wasn't because the food was great, it was because the top floor was a brothel. It is not anymore, of course. Then we went to the 'Lapin Agile', a restaurant frequented by Picasso. He basically charmed his way into the hearts of the staff and would give them paintings in exchange for food. This, of course, paid off a hundredfold for the staff when Picasso became extremely famous. The Lapin Agile is just opposite the only vineyard in Paris. It is a tiny little patch of land and apparently yields revolting tasting wine because of the pollution in Paris seeping into the grapes. However, a bottle from this vineyard is excruciatingly expensive, purely for the collecting purpose. We heard about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a disabled artist (he had very short, deformed legs) whose paintings and advertisements of the Moulin Rouge are very famous. He was addicted to women and absinthe and died of syphilis and alcohol poisoning in his late 30's. However, he died having fun, unlike so many other famous residents of Montmartre! He is played by John Leguizamo in the Moulin Rouge film.

By this time we had reached the Sacre Coeur Basilica. It is beautiful inside, and the highlight were the mosaic paintings. The most breathtaking scenes, all created by little tiles! The view across Paris is unrivalled (Paris is, after all, a very flat city. Montmartre is the only mountain) and I the sun came out again as we arrived there. I sat down and watched the sun over the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by cobblestones, my feet tired, in the centre of beautiful Montmartre with three people I love very much and I was so, SO glad I did not have to get up and do anything. No work, nothing I had to rush for. It was magic. We made our way back down the mountain, stopping at a square filled with artists selling their art. There is a cafe there called 'La Mere Catherine' and when the Russians were in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, they used to go there, whack their knife and fork on the table and say 'Quickly, quickly' in Russian because they wanted to be served faster. The Russian word for quickly sounds a lot like 'Bistro'. So the owner of this cafe, to draw in Russian customers, put a sign out the front saying 'BISTRO', as in, 'you will be served quickly here'. All the surrounding restaurants saw the business boom, copied this, and henceforth, the word 'bistro' is now used to mean restaurant. Crazy, huh? We finished the tour at the apartment of Picasso and Modigliani. They lived here together as they both became extremely famous and were very entertaining to learn about. Then we went to an Irish pub for a complimentary wine with the tour guide, and an Argentinian girl from our tour. We all sat around and chatted for about an hour about everything and anything and it was incredibly chilled and relaxing. Then we went souvenir shopping, and got crepes from the best creperie in Montmartre. They were pretty amazing. Then we said goodbye to our Argentinian friend (I don't even know her name, and we hung around with her the whole time and had a great time. I love backpacking) and Alfie and Cara went home. Sean and I went to another Oz Bar in Montmartre and had a drink and chatted to some lovely Australians to commemorate the day, then trained to the Arc du Triomphe, then trained back to the apartment and cleaned up! We leave tomorrow early, and I'm exhausted, so I have to stop blogging now. But I had a fantastic final day in Paris. 

Au revoir!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Phantom of the Opera and other skulls

This morning, after what turned out to be one of my more efficient night's sleep, we got ready fairly quickly and headed into the city. First to Gare du Nord, where we attempted to book tickets for our train to Amsterdam on Friday. Turns out it was going to cost us a booking fee of 39 euro for a direct route. Yep. 39 euro for something that our Eurail pass was meant to cover the cost of. Screw that! So we have to change trains twice and it will take longer, but now we are on a trip that cost 3 euro to reserve seats for instead. After that we headed to the Opera Garnier. I wasn't too sure what to expect from this, but it was something that interested me and a guided tour was free with our Paris Pass, so I wanted to try it out. It turned out to be one of the best things we have done so far, more enjoyable for some of us than Versailles and the Lourve. Our guide was a lovely French woman called Clementine who spoke beautiful English and she told us all about the history of the theatre. It turns out it's a very new theatre, being only built in the 19th century. Napoleon picked the architect, Garnier, out of over 100 applicants including Napoleon's own wife. Garnier has cleverly managed to conceal his signature and even his portrait in numerous artworks and carvings around the opera house, as in those days it was not polite to 'sign' your own work. But Garnier was proud, and he wanted to leave his mark, so he did. Turns out neither Napoleon or Garnier were even allowed in the finished structure because of Napoleon's unpopularity with the French people by the end of his reign. The Opera Garnier was the first theatre in the world to use deep red in their colour scheme. Garnier also left space for an elevator, because he knew the technology would be perfected soon and wanted his opera house to keep up with the times. Back in the day, the lights would be left on during performances and everyone would talk and eat and laugh during the show. Particularly the subscribers, who had their own box in the theatre, would come to the theatre 3 or 4 times a week. They would therefore know the show by heart and were only there to be 'seen'. The Phantom of the Opera (collective squeal, all you ALW nerds) was of course, inspired by this theatre, but Gaston Leroux made up the chandelier crash. Turns out it was actually one of the weights from inside the ceiling that holds the chandelier in place. It fell through the boxes on the side of the auditorium and squashed a lady sitting on the ground level. Ouch. Box 5 has a little plaque over the doorway that announces it is reserved for the phantom of the opera. It is right next to the Emperor's entrance. Needless to say, there were lots of pics taken! The room (foyer? intermission room? I've forgotten exactly what it was called) where all the balls were held is unbelievable. The ceilings are enormous, there are full-size sculptures everywhere and the sheer amount of gold in the room makes you feel like sliding on some sunglasses. There is really too much to say about what we learnt today, and I can't possibly write it all down, but it was a really enjoyable hour and a half and I would definitely recommend it to theatre lovers!

We then had our homemade sandwiches, found coffee, and split up. Some random woman asked me for my sandwich while I was standing outside the coffee shop waiting for Sean. She stopped in front of me and spoke in French and pointed to my sandwich and then to her stomach. I blinked at her stupidly for a bit while she repeated herself and then just started shaking my head while trying to think of the French phrase for 'go away you weirdo'. She hadn't looked homeless, or poor. Of course I can't presume to know either of those things about her, but I've seen some shabby looking people on the streets of Paris and she wasn't one of them. She just looked like someone who saw my sandwich, fancied herself a bit peckish and decided she wanted it.

Alfie and Cara headed to the Musee d'Orsay and the Arc du Triomphe, and Sean and I headed to the Catacombs. For anyone interested, the entrance is right near the Oz Bar and for people between the ages of 14-26, it's only 4 euro. You walk through the door and there is this tiny little ticket booth and turnstile and then they send you down a spiral staircase that goes for AGES. The staircase is fricken miniscule and it's incredibly claustrophobic, so I don't recommend it for anyone with nervous dispositions. You get to this tiny gallery, very well-lit, made of white limestone and there are some pics up about the mining history and stuff. Then you walk into the catacombs. The tourist trail is about 2km all up (though the entire network of existing catacombs spreads out wider than Paris itself and is full of illegal raves and other crazy things) and it is really dark. There are electric lights every few metres so you can see the walls and stuff, but it put me in mind of medieval prisons and that Goosebumps story about the Tower of Terror. Yep. I was scared, I'll admit it. But after a while, you just get used to it (though I was sort of relieved when we would see other groups of people). The ceilings get really low at some points. Sean nearly bumped his head a few times. In some areas there was water dripping through the ceiling which is really unnerving. Then you get to the actual ossuary and it is breathtaking. I felt a bunch of different things walking through there, but thankfully, fear wasn't one of them. By the time you have reached the ossuary you are used to the feeling of being so far underground. When you see the bones up against the tunnel walls, perfectly stacked in arrangements of skulls and femurs and everything else, you just can't quite believe it. The remains of over 6 million Parisians are in the catacombs and every one of these people had dreams and thoughts and pain and love and now their remains are here for all to see. It feels almost indecent, but there is so much reverence for them also. There are altars and monuments throughout the tunnels and I would have said it was sombre, rather than eerie. It probably took us an hour to walk the length of the whole museum, but that was at a pretty leisurely pace, stopping to look and take photos etc. Then you climb about 50 million steps to get out and there is a pretty crappy and tasteless gift shop (in which I watched   a woman brazenly shoplift and leave the store undetected) but even a flat ending to the whole experience can't erase the respect you have garnered for all the souls interred in the catacombs.

The rest of the day was very easy-going, which was a nice change from the rushing around we have done. I got a nutella and banana crepe, which is officially the best food ever, and we made our way back to the apartment. Jules, Neil and Ryan came round and we said our goodbyes. Jules flies home tonight, so you'll all get to see her real soon. It was awesome having someone from home to hang around with at the start of our trip! Then Sean and I investigated a laundromat and made friends with the kebab guy. We accidentally ordered two, but I hadn't eaten dinner yet so it was all good. Tomorrow is our last full day in Paris, so it's going to be busy! Write soon!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Versailles underwater

Back home finally! It is nearly 8pm here and we are all EXHAUSTED. Sean and I pulled up pretty rough this morning after our adventures at the Oz Bar, but we saddled up and headed out early(ish) to meet Jules and Ryan and head to Versailles! Alfie and I have wanted to go to Versailles forever, but we hadn't had the chance too last time we were in Paris (4 years ago, on the contiki, and we only had 36 hours in Paris). Anyway, we got there around lunchtime and saw the wonderful State Apartments. I took stacks of photos, but it started to depress me because I would look back at the little square on my camera and it would look nothing like the scene I had just tried to capture. The sheer size and grandeur of the ceilings and the gilded cornices and the ornate fabrics and intricate paintwork is just so mind-blowing. When you squish it into a little camera frame it loses so much of its magic. So I tried to concentrate on just drawing in the atmosphere around me. I still took heaps of photos, but I tried to drink it into my memory bank more. We saw Marie Antoinette's bedchamber, and the door which she escaped through on the night of the storming of Versailles is left ajar. It was wonderfully eerie to be confronted with such a moment in history.

After the State Apartments, we all ended up in separate groups and Sean and I visited the Dauphin's Apartments and then the gift shop. We went to head out into the gardens, and discovered it was raining. Not heavily, but it was freezing cold to begin with and the rain made being outside pretty unpleasant. So we picked up a hot chocolate and peeled off our wet clothes and just warmed up inside for a bit. Then we found Alfie and Cara and ate the lunch we had packed (yeah, economic travelling!) and argued about whether it was worth purchasing a 5 euro ticket to get driven through the gardens to the Grand and Petit Trianons and Marie Antoinette's Estate. We all wanted to see these parts, but the idea of trooping through the rain and mud for ages didn't fill us with joy. On the other hand, 5 euro seemed extreme for the Petit Train we would be taking. In the end, Cara, Alfie and I bought Petit Train tickets and Sean took our one umbrella and walked the length of the gardens to meet us there. (We had all, of course, offered to buy him a ticket but he is stubborn and proud, like a snobby mule, and wouldn't accept it). So we met him at the Grand Trianon, along with Jules, Ryan and Neil, and walked through the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette's estate. It was very beautiful, but being as tired and cold as we were was quite the distraction, and we were ready to head home after that. We stopped quickly at the other gift shop and I will take this opportunity to inform the cyberverse that if anyone ever wants to buy me an expensive perfume, 'Josephine' from the Versailles gift shop will do nicely, thank you.

We broke a cardinal rule of our European adventure and stopped at Macca's on the way back. I just really, really needed a cheeseburger. I may have expired from the cold or murdered someone otherwise. Then we trained back to Pere Lachaise and grabbed some groceries on the way. I am full of food now! Tomorrow we plan to do the Opera Garnier, the Catacombs, the Arc du Triomphe, and some washing. Keeping it real, peeps.


Monday, 23 January 2012

I win at Paris

Last night, after the Lourve and a huge plate of Cara's spectacular spaghetti, Sean and I headed out to see Jules, Neil, Justine and their mate Ryan at the 'Oz bar'. There's a bunch of these Aussie pubs scattered around Paris and I like them better than the Walkabout pubs in London. The Walkabout pubs have floor to ceiling posters of Shane Warne and serve snakebites, which we never drink in Aus, but the Oz Baris decorated with famous street signs, mostly from Melbourne, and Aboriginal art and kangaroos and stuff. Still cheesy, but it ain't Warney. We finally found it and it was packed, but we promptly discovered we were the only Australians in there, apart from the bartenders. This worked in our favour - we got free shots. It was awesome!! Two French guys heard me speaking English to the bartender and promptly decided to practice their English on us all night. They were really sweet and helped me with my pronunciation and taught me new words. They told me the French were the best kissers and that I should try them out but I pointed out Sean and they introduced themselves to him and started nattering to him. They joined our table later on and kind of crapped on to all of us. Justine occasionally had to act as translator, and they were pretty relentless in recommending stuff to do, but I was just enjoying speaking so freely and conversationally to actual Parisians. I had a 'Darwin Sunset' and a 'Great Australian Bite' cocktail - oh the cheese! - but it meant that over the course of the evening I had consumed rum, tequila and Jager, which for me is a lot of drinks. Sean and I were nicely pissed by the end of the evening. By an awesome stroke of fate, Jules is staying at a hotel at the end of our street! Out of all the streets in Paris, we end up on the same one. Epic. Jules and Ryan asked us if we wanted to take a taxi home with them and Sean was pretty keen, but I was adamant. We have a travelcard, why pay for a taxi when we can use the metro for free? I very righteously dragged Sean out of there slightly early and we hopped on a train with Neil and Justine, only to say goodbye to them and discover the last connecting train to our stop had already been. In our tipsy, hazy state, neither of us was freaking out, but I was dimly aware we were stuck in a foreign city with no trains and no idea of which way to walk. Never mind. We walked up onto the street and found a taxi rank and I very politely greeted the driver, and in my best French told him we were Australian, and asked did he speak any English please? He smiled, shook his head and went 'no no no no no no no'. Ah. Right. No matter. 'Cite Joly?' I tried, which is the name of our street and he went 'Ah! Cite Joly!' and promptly drove us to our door for 6 euro. Despite the irony of paying for a taxi when I was so adamant we should train it for free, I WIN AT PARIS.

Adventures in can-opening....

I wish, wish, WISH we had videoed the moment of Sean trying to open a can. We even youtubed 'how to use a manual can opener' and watched as some douchebag punctured their way effortlessly through a can of lychees. When we tried to apply the same principles to a can of tomatoes for the spaghetti Cara was making, we discovered French cans are made more harder to penetrate than Fort Knox. Cue much swearing (Sean) and uncontrollable fits of laughter (everyone else). Anyway, I digress. That happened as we were preparing dinner tonight, but we have had a whole day of Paris gallivanting before any can-related activities occurred.

We got up too late this morning - I'm not sure about the others but I am still struggling with sleeping through the night. I am wide awake at 4am. It is tres annoying. I Skyped with Mum and Dad (talking to them on the phone to help them log in first) and it was great to see them! Then we picked up our Paris sightseeing passes and jumped on Les Car Rouges, the enormous red double-decker sightseeing buses than go around Paris. We went around the roundabout where the Arc du Triomphe is situated and I was staggered - STAGGERED - at the driving. There are virtually no lanes and no rules. It was terrifying. We had coffee on the Champs-Elysees and headed to the Trocadero for BEAUTIFUL views of the Eiffel Tower and stunning statues and fountains. And a bit of sunshine too! Then Sean and Cara climbed to the second level of the Eiffel Tower and Alfie and I ate waffles with Nutella and whipped cream. I think we consumed as many calories as they burnt off. Then we hightailed it to the Lourve, an hour late to meet the ever-patient Jules, and spent the next three hours stomping round being art critics. It was pretty amazing to be in the Lourve. We even bought a sandwich from the cafe and paid astronomical cash. A true tourist experience! We saw the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo and spent the rest of the time in mostly the Greek and Egyptian antiquities and Napoleon's apartments. Napoleon's apartments blew my mind. They were so, SO luxurious. Beautiful chandeliers and ornate, painted and gilded ceilings in every room. Enormous paintings and tapestries stretching from floor to ceiling and the richly coloured velvet upholstery on all the furniture. Truly beautiful. And expensive.

We stayed at the Lourve until closing time and got back on a packed, peak hour train to our apartment. A quick grocery shop and then can-opener battles. Sean and I will probably head out with Jules later tonight, but it can't be too late because we are going to VERSAILLES TOMORROW! YAYYYY!

Au revoir!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Paris holds the key to my heaaaaarrrrttt...

After establishing that our shower is amazing, I had a incredibly painful evening with my back completely stuffed from carrying my pack all day. It was the most heinous pain, but I took painkillers and felt much better when I woke up this morning. We were all up for a bit of the night because of the time difference still mucking us about, but when we got up this morning we all felt surprisingly good and un-jetlagged. Jules text us to say she was in Paris (yayyyyyyyyy!) and that she was doing a free walking tour at 1pm and would we like to join her? It was free. We said yes.

We headed first to a gorgeous little cafe in Pere Lachaise near the cemetery and had coffee and pain au chocolat. The people at the cafe were so friendly, and obviously very used to English speakers. The inside was red and black and very French chic. Then we headed to the cemetery. I asked for a map in French, because I'm a totally badass linguist, and we found Heloise and Abelard's tomb. YAYYY!! I'd been waiting to see them for years. (For all those who don't know, Heloise and Abelard lived centuries and centuries ago. Abelard was Heloise's tutor and they were in love and had a child together. When Heloise's dad found out, he sent Heloise to a nunnery and had Abelard castrated. They were supposedly Shakespeare's inspiration for Romeo and Juliet and my incredibly talented friend Natalie wrote her thesis on them. My favourite movie, 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', gets its title from the poem written by Alexander Pope about Heloise and Abelard. Cool beans. Facts are over.)

We ended up leaving the cemetery after that, but we have to go back later to find other graves. It's the most beautiful place, with cobblestones and beautiful stone figures of angels and gorgeous tombs. Then onto the metro to Saint-Michel to meet up with Jules and Neil and Justine and the tour guide! The fountain of Saint-Michel is in the Latin quarter and is simply enormous. It depicts Saint Michel booting Satan out of Heaven. It's pretty spectacular. Our tour guide was this lovely Scottish woman called Naomi and she took us on a three and a half hour walking tour. The tour was free, but it is her job and she works for tips. She was a brilliant hostess. Highlights of the tour included Notre Dame, La Conciergerie (a former palace and prison, now courtrooms, it was the place were all the noble prisoners were held during the French Revolution, including Marie Antoinette), Pont Neuf (Henry IV's bridge, the first ever stone bridge, covered in sculptures of 'drunk' faces), the equestrian statue of Henry IV (where we were told of the assassination of Henry IV and the subsequent hardcore torture of his assailant, Francois Ravaillic), the 'Love Bridge' (of 'Sex and the City' fame, covered in padlocks with lovers names all over it), the Lourve (just the outside, with extensive and beautiful facades and those ridiculous pyramids), the Jardin de Tuileries (beautiful gardens outside the Lourve from back when the Lourve was a royal residence, commisioned by Catherine de Medicis), the Place de la Concorde (with the huge Egyptian obelisk and the actual site of the guillotine during the French Revolution. That's right, I was standing on the very spot where Marie Antoinette, and over 2700 other Parisians, lost their heads. For decades after, no horse would go near it because the stench of blood was so putrid. So they covered it over and Napoleon plonked an obelisk he nicked from Egypt there.)

We walked up the Champs-Elysees and glimpsed the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, which we will investigate further tomorrow. Our guide informed us that the Champs-Elysees literally means 'Fields of Elixir' which is traditionally known as the pathway to Heaven. Napoleon wanted to march his army down the pathway to Heaven, which stretches from the Lourve, through the Jardin de Tuileries, through the Place de la Concorde, up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, but died before he could complete it. We finished the tour overlooking Les Invalides, which is the hospital where wounded soldiers were sent to recover before they were sent back to war and wounded again. It is also the final resting place of Napoleon. We learnt so much more extra stuff, and there is no way I can blog it all because it would take me all night, but I strongly, STRONGLY recommend this tour to anyone visiting Paris. For more info, go to www.neweuropetours.eu. They apparently do similar tours in heaps of other European cities, and we will definitely take part in those.

After the tour, Naomi took anyone who was interested to a restaurant where she could guarantee we would not be ripped off. For 13 euro you could get a decent sized meal and a drink, alcoholic or non-alcoholic. As part of our budget backpacking, we don't plan to eat out a lot, but we decided to splurge on this because of it's decent value (and we were friggen starving). I had wine with chicken and french fries (yes, I know, very French. Shut up.) and the owner asked me how it was. I said 'Magnifique, merci!' and he kissed me and told me I too, was magnifique. Winning!

My back was really, really sore again, but we had already had a big day, so we headed back, buying some groceries on the way. I tried uploading the 58 photos I took to facebook but the computer wasn't having a bar of it, so I'll try it again later.

Au revoir!!

Saturday, 21 January 2012


I am writing this from the loft bed (yes, you read correctly, LOFT BED) of our Parisian apartment. The last 48 hours have been....completely mental. But we are here, safe and sound, in the most cosy, gorgeous flat in the Pere Lachaise district. For those who don't know, Pere Lachaise is famous for an enormous cemetery in which hundreds of famous historical figures are laid to rest, including Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf. A and I didn't get to check it out last time, so it was on our list this time, and is within walking distance of our accommodation. I think we might visit tomorrow, as it is an easy activity to help fight off jet lag and we don't pick up our sightseeing passes until Monday.

The flight was horrible, as are most 24 flights. Qatar are a very good airline, but I can't enjoy any form of air travel, and C is even more uncomfortable than I am, so it was a pretty crappy time. I watched a couple of movies and tried to snooze for a bit, which worked (for a bit). Towards the end there was this kid carrying on (we'd had a few babies crying throughout the trip, but nothing like this). This kid was pinching it's mum and pulling it's dad's hair, and throwing stuff at other passengers and just WOULD NOT SHUT UP. Anyway, I didn't lose my mind or go over and punt the kid through a window so I was pretty proud of myself.

After the quickest stopover ever in Doha, (we literally had time to bus from our plane, to the next gate, check in, then bus to the next plane), we arrived in Charles de Gaulle. Our baggage took its time coming, but we soon found our way to the train we needed to get into the centre of Paris, and I had the best time trying to figure out some French words. I sounded crap, but I loved trying. We encountered so many friendly people - a random guy who noticed we looked lost at Gare du Nord station, some gentlemen who helped C when her bag got stuck in a turnstile, another Australian tourist and her family at the RER train station, and countless helpful people behind desks.

There were buskers on the train singing 'La Vie En Rose' on the train with an accordion, and it felt like our personal welcome to the city. Gare du Nord was harder to navigate, and I'm pretty sure I've irreversibly damaged my back from carrying everything for so long, but we found our way here in the end. When we arrived, our lovely host, J, greeted us with keys and a bottle of wine. Our shower is lovely and hot with brilliant water pressure, and we're about to head out to a little supermarket and buy some food. Then I'm sure we'll all crash and sleep for a very long time.

Au revoir!

Thursday, 12 January 2012


I am exhausted before I have even left. Anyone who has attempted to pack for 3 months of backpacking in a wintry climate will know what I am talking about. For anyone who hasn't, picture trying to move house and complete the most difficult game of Tetris ever at the same time. Nonstop. Every time I tick something off my 'to do' list, another four things pop up in my brain that I haven't taken care of yet. I was lifting my backpack yesterday and am pretty sure I wrenched my shoulder. My mind is constantly ticking over. I've been up since 5am (and for anyone who knows me, you'll realise how bizarre that is) because I couldn't turn my thoughts off. I'm not even feeling very nervous. I'm too busy making lists.

HOWEVER. I will put up with it. And I will not complain, bar the previous paragraph. I will suck it up, put on my big girl knickers and deal, because it is a means to an end. It's one more week of frantic running around and then I leave. I have been going through my old photos and brochures and I get this little zing of excitement and happiness when I see pictures of the Tower of London and read the words 'Berlin wall'. I have looked up the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the tour of the Parisian Catacombs and am ready to revisit amazing places from my previous trip and discover many new memories. I will get tired. I will get grumpy. Le Boy and I will no doubt get very sick of each other and I'm sure one of our group if not all will get sick. But that is life. That is experience. And I have faith, nerve and a kickarse sense of organisation to get me through the rough bits so I can enjoy the rest.

7 more sleeps!!