Another year of travel. Another 15 countries, 341 days away from home and more than 52,000 km covered by foot (over 1000km on multi-day hikes alone) train, plane, boat and automobile. The most frequently asked questions since I resigned from partnership in a Very Large Firm and convinced Rob to, temporarily at least, cease to be a scientist to travel the world with me are ‘are you bored yet?’ and ‘have you got it out of your system?’ The answer to both questions is no. Travel, at least for me, is about new places, new experiences and enjoying the moments in the company of people I care about – Rob and family and friends who have joined us along the way. How could you ever get bored or get it out of your system? So, without more ado, here are some of those moments (in no order whatsoever).
To be fair we didn’t actually watch many sunsets. In Europe the sun seems to take forever to go down in summer and then in winter it turns dark before you even realise the day is drawing to a close. We did, however, make an effort to watch the sun go down in Zadar mainly because: (a) there are a lot of signs on the promenade asserting that Alfred Hitchcock once proclaimed it to be the most beautiful in the world; and (b) everyone else was doing it. Which just goes to show that even less than well thought out remarks made while sipping maraschino can be put to use by tourist boards for decades provided the comment is: (a) suitably complimentary; and (b) made by someone sufficiently famous. The sunset itself was pleasant, but not spectacular and certainly not the most beautiful in the world (Hitchcock should really have travelled to Broome, Western Australia before making any sweeping declarations about sunsets). It is, however, made considerably more enjoyable by the sea organ, a system of polythene tubes and a resonating cavity beneath the promenade which interacts with waves and the wind to produce random low reverberating tones.
Favourite church building
As a fan of stained glass windows I have a tendency to want to visit every church building we pass, which in Europe can be a bit time consuming. Rob sometimes ventures inside with me, but more often patiently waits outside. While in Barcelona a must see on my list was the Sagrada Familia (I suspect it featured less prominently on Rob’s, were he to even have such a list). Clearly the outside of the yet to be completed building is a matter upon which tastes can differ – it was, after all, once described by George Orwell as ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’. Whilst I wouldn’t describe it as hideous, the words I did use were ‘interesting’ and ‘different’ rather than ‘stunning’ or ‘beautiful’. Rob clearly wasn’t a big fan because he started to muse about the origins of the word ‘gaudy’ (for those interested it is entirely unrelated to the architect Gaudi). The inside of the Sagrada is, however, an entirely different matter. Here the genius of Gaudi and the stained glass artist Vila-Frau hit you immediately upon entry. The impression is one of space, light, colour and your eyes are drawn from the light flooding in through the stained glass to the ceilings which soar above you. It was nearly enough to turn a non believer into a true believer.
Neuschwanstein in Germany is undoubtedly visually appealing (if a little impractical as a castle) and Kronborg in Denmark has the whole Hamlet thing going for it, but I like my castles to be, well, castley – you know the sort that as a kid you would imagine knights running around with swords and having jousts. Basically this means that as a consequence of my Anglo Saxon background when I think of a castle I think of those built in Britain between about the 11th and 14th century. There plenty of those to choose from, particularly in Wales which seems over run with castles, but my favourite would have to be Caernarfon Castle in Northern Wales simply for its overall castleyness (yes, spellchecker I know this is not a word. If Shakespeare can invent words willy nilly I see no reason why I should not do so).
Favourite large city.
A difficult choice, but in the end I opted for Barcelona, with apologies to Copenhagen, Lisbon and Hamburg. Easy to get around, interesting history, different architecture and filled with life and good food.
Favourite small town.
All of our favourite small towns were in Germany. If you get the chance, a visit to any of Trier, Bamberg, Fussen or Regensburg is well worth it, particularly during advent. Our favourite, however, was Quedlinburg, a perfectly preserved medieval town filled with half timbered buildings.
When married to a walking encyclopaedia you soon learn that restricting his access to lots more new information can be a good thing. Consequently visits to museums were not necessarily high on my agenda, but when traveling in Europe some visits are inevitable and we ended up visiting more than I would have thought. Our museum visits have covered a broad and varied spectrum and have included the rather eclectic curatorial approach of the Kelvingrove in Glasgow, an in depth examination of trains at the National Railway Museum in York, a glimpse of Jewish history at the Danish Jewish Museum and on to the more traditional museums such as the Altes in Berlin. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin was, however, the standout.
Favourite art museum
I confess that I know very little about art and many art museums and galleries just leave me bored and thinking about how sore my feet are or how annoyed by the other people in the gallery I am. There are others, however, which I find inexplicably fascinating. The Prado in Madrid is of the latter category. Yes it still has a number of gloomy paintings by Dutch masters and numerous battle scene paintings but it also has paintings by El Greco, Velazquez, Bosch and Goya. My only regret is that I read ‘The Master of the Prado’ after our visit, not before.
Favourite Christmas Market
After several weeks touring around Christmas markets in Germany with my mum, this is something to which I will have to defer to her considered opinion based on a complex formula which took into account general ambience, food, touristy feel (a negative) and quality of the gluhwein (I suspect this had a fairly heavy weighting). Mum’s verdict: Bamberg.
Favourite cake or dessert.
I have spent a rather sugar ladened year sampling various regional cakes and deserts using the justification that I would walk it all off. Bakewell tarts in Bakewell, a danish in Copenhagen, Devonshire teas in Devon, sticky toffee pudding in Cartmel, a pancake cake in Korcula, a Berliner in Berlin, trdelnik in the Czech Republic and erdbeerren torte everywhere. The list was endless, but my favourite was kaiserschmarn a sort of scrambled pancake served with a berry compote or apple sauce, made better by the fact that it was always shared with friends in a mountain hut following a day’s hike.
Favourite café/mountain hutte.
All of that cake had to be eaten somewhere. In my view the only good reason to hike up a mountain is to end up somewhere with good food and ambiance (OK, the good food would probably be enough). The best places are filled with people who have had a good day’s hike and are enjoying the food and company of others in the hut. They are warm and welcoming to visitors and locals alike. For great places in summer to both hike to and enjoy some food while taking in the views – Salober Alm out of Fussen, Germany and Café Uta out of Holzgau, Austria. For a wintery Christmas feel, if your idea of a Christmas feel involves a small hut, shared tables, dark, stuffed animal decorated walls, a crackling fire and plenty of alcohol – Sennhutte in Pertisau, Austria. Thanks to the locals at Sennhutte for the rounds of schnapps and impromptu German lessons. For those who may find themselves in a similar situation important words and phrases include “prost” (cheers) and ‘mein deutsche ist scheiße’ (requires no translation).
Favourite multi day hike.
There is a reason it has been described as ‘the finest walk in the world’ – the Milford Track combines a walk through a valley possessing more waterfalls than you can count with a climb over a mountain pass with some of best vistas you can experience.
Favourite one day hike up a mountain.
For a person who has never seen a hill I needed to hike up, I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time hiking up and down mountains. Even though it can be crowded and clouded in, the hike up England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, is well worth the effort (although at 978m above sea level it’s not much of a mountain).
Favourite one day hike not up a mountain.
Just occasionally I manage to slip in a walk which does not involve a mountain past Rob. A day spent taking the ferry along the Elbe from Bad Schandau to Hrensko in the Czech Republic and then hiking past Pravčická Brana to Mezni Louka was perfect.
Plitvice Lakes in Croatia are simply stunning and even the hordes of tour groups following tour leader flags couldn’t dim my enjoyment.
Favourite country for coffee.
When sitting in a restaurant in Glasgow our accents were overheard by an American living in Ireland. She wanted to know if we knew any good places for coffee. So fulfilling the Australian stereotype for coffee fussiness we responded that we hadn’t had any good coffee in the UK (to be fair I eschew all apps and have a random approach to finding coffee). Spain on the other hand, however, can just about do no wrong. I was almost convinced that it was impossible to have a bad coffee in Spain until we went into a chain in Barcelona airport. Oh well, Spain was nearly perfect.
Favourite Roman ruins.
Roman ruins are everywhere in Europe to the point where you end up feeling ‘another Roman ruin – meh’. No matter how many you see, however, Hadrian’s Wall across England remains impressive.
Favourite train journey.
The West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William which traversed much of the same territory which we had once walked on the West Highland Way. The trip, which lasts less than 3 hours, takes you past Loch Lomand and up on to Rannoch Moor to the UKs highest altitude train station at Carrour (which featured in Trainspotting) before descending to Fort William. For those who are Harry Potter fans you can continue on to Mallaig which passes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct and was featured in the journey to Hogwarts.
Having become a person who budgets when travelling, most concerts we now enjoy tend to be of the free variety. An exception was Manuel Gonzalez, a Spanish guitarist we saw in Barcelona. I loved every minute and Rob loved that I loved it (which is probably as close as he will get to enjoying classical guitar). No photos as that would be disrespectful to both the artist and our fellow audience members; something which seemed lost on the gits in front of us.
Six days of casting for more than eight hours a day in the Kaweka Range in New Zealand and I finally caught a trout on fly. Of course Rob caught three and after the six days I couldn’t lift my right arm above my shoulder or properly close the pinky on my right hand but I am not letting those things dim my success.
Stuff that didn’t work out.
This travel lark is not all beer and skittles. There have been days when I have come up with an apparently rock solid plan, dragged Rob along only to be met with the ‘what the hell were you thinking’ look. And to be fair when faced with that look I have been in general agreement that the plans have been a complete fail. Obviously others can have different views but here are some of those fails:
- Beer in Bamberg. One of the reasons I dragged mum and Rob to Bamberg, besides its status on the world heritage list, was for the beer. Famous for its beer culture and with 9 breweries within the city limits where could I go wrong? Turns out that those breweries specialise in Franconia smoke beer. For the uninitiated this tastes a bit like beer dipped in bacon. For some this may seem like heaven but I prefer to keep my beer and bacon separate.
- Manchester – it is beyond me why Lonely Planet has listed this as one of the places to visit in 2016. One of those places which has obviously had revitalisation money thrown at it at one stage and then sunk back to its usual drab, uninteresting state. The only place in our travels where I have noticed a drug deal occurring (note to self – don’t head off into underground canal ways because it looks like it might be interesting).
- Dr Who Experience Cardiff. Wanting to get my inner geek on I dragged Rob along over his protestations that it wouldn’t be worth while (I ignored these because he has previously been wrong about Disneyland and Las Vegas). Disappointingly he was right (I really hate when that happens). A ride suitable only for the under 12s and a lot of props and costumes.
- Picasso Museum, Barcelona. A deceptively large building but when we got to the end of the last gallery we spent 10 minutes trying to find where the exhibition continued. A lot of paintings from his early days, a series where he studied a painting by Velazquez and a series involving pigeons but not much else.
- Gallery of Modern Art Glasgow. A lovely building but not many artworks, which is sort of important for art galleries.
- The Great Glen Way. After a couple of very uninspiring days in the freezing cold walking along a hard towpath next to the Caledonian canal we decided to give the rest of this walk a miss.
- Whanganui Journey. Three days of paddling torture. Would have been much better if the weather conditions had been more favourable.
Stuff I have learnt along the way.
Don’t worry, I haven’t gone all hippy dippy and suddenly found myself on a ‘journey’ to self enlightenment. Instead I have learnt important things like:
- My hairdresser was right when she said I was going grey and it would be noticeable if I stopped colouring my hair when travelling;
- There is no such thing as having too many teabags;
- If you are on a one woman quest to sample all of the cakes of Europe you don’t lose weight no matter how many kilometres you hike or mountains you climb;
- The word ‘gift’ in Danish means both poison and marriage.
Travel has been made easier and more enjoyable by the friends and family who have joined us on our adventures, stored our luggage, put us up in their homes, driven us around the countryside and shown us their cities. You know who you are. Thank you.