Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Hague

It didn't take long for my next sightseeing opportunity to come up. The girls had an appointment in The Hague to torture themselves in the name of beauty so dad and I jumped in the car too knowing that we'd have at least a couple of hours to explore the city while they were busy.
After dropping them off we actually went to the beach first because it had been recommended to us. It was a nice day but in what I'm starting to believe is a typical June day here it was still cool, windy and frustratingly sometimes sunny and sometimes overcast. It actually changes so frequently from sun to rain and back here that I've had to re-evaluate my belief that the weather is similar to Vancouver's. It's better. At least there is some hope here that bad weather can be waited out.
So we found ourselves on a wide and very long expanse of beach called Scheveningen which attracts millions of visitors each year. The beaches and sand dunes here are all very strategic in the sense that not only do they have to be the beach, they have to serve as a barrier, protecting the rest of the country from flooding. As a result these beaches are really long and stretch most of the length of the coast. They can be quite nice, they just need warmer weather and water for me. They're doing some construction to reinforce the dyke system along the coast but there is still a boardwalk with shops, restaurants, casinos and even a pier with a bungy jump crane.

To the 2 of us, The Hague means really only one thing, the International Criminal Courts which is what we were most interested in finding. We did find it and I was a little disappointed to see that it was a more modern looking building. I was expecting something more European in architecture. I wonder how many people they get coming up to take photos of the entrance sign...

The ICC building.

We saw a little of the centre after that. The Dutch architecture is different from the Bavarian style obviously and it's cute too. It has the typical pedestrianized streets, big churches, lots of cafes and a 17th century palace but I like that sort of thing.

We really didn't have time to do anything more than a quick run around before picking up the girls again and heading home.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


It was an exciting reunion at the Amsterdam train station finally meeting up with the others again. It'd been 2 years to the week since I'd seen my parents in Thailand and 2 1/2 years since I'd said goodbye to Savannah and Kees in Egypt. They're all here now in Alkmaar, a pretty little town north of Amsterdam. I'll talk more about it later once I've seen it better. The weather has mostly been less than ideal for exploring.
A few days after my arrival in Alkmaar it was Savannah's 21st birthday. She'd made plans with the others to go to Paris for 2 nights to celebrate it there so the 5 of us drove the 5 1/2 hours down and stayed in a hotel right in the city centre, within spitting distance of the Louvre. I'd been to Paris for just 1 day almost 11 years ago, oddly enough just 2 days after my 21st birthday, so it was good to get a chance to go back and see some more of the city. In fact it was the first non-English speaking city I'd ever gone to so I was looking forward to having a chance to see the city with "experienced" eyes and put it into perspective in my own mind.
It's really nice to have such late sunsets and it was light out until about 10pm. This was essential as I can honestly say that it's actually a pretty retarded idea to try to see everything you want to in Paris in 48 hours. We'd all been there before but had all seen different things making it a little awkward for prioritizing since we'd all be together the whole time as well. It's not terribly surprising that I also immediately took over city navigational duties and once again had a little group of followers trailing behind me. Walking is really the way to go even though they have a good (if old looking) metro system because then you can really see and appreciate the more minor monuments and general grandness of the buidings that seem to be around every corner.

That first evening after checking in we walked along the Champs Elysees from the Egyptian obelisk at one end to the Arc de Triomphe at the other. From there we went to the Eiffel Tower where we were unable to go to the top for dad at sunset because they closed it early for some reason. We walked back in the dark by way of the Hotel des Invalides, a war veterans hospital and retirement home which had been looted for its rifles during the French revolution and has the church holding the remains of Napoleon as well.

The church at the Hotel des Invalides.

We started the next day, our only full day in Paris by visiting the opera house. Wow is it ornate and grand. It's not very old having been opened in the 2nd half of the 19th century, but it holds it's own as an attraction. Next we went by the Moulin Rouge and would've gone to a show that night but could not pass the dress code :( It's in the red light district area just below Montmartre so we walked up the hill and saw the church and views over the city. We missed the last tour of the catacombs by 10 minutes so went over to the cemetary Pere-Lachaise, the world's most visited cemetary apparently. There are quite a few famous names in there but we only saw 2 of the most famous, Chopin and Jim Morrison.

The opera house.

The church at Montmartre.

We finished off the day by running around (mostly lost) in the Louvre for it's last 2 hours of opening. We'd've never been able to go if not for the fact that a couple days a week it stays open until 10pm. The Mona Lisa was actually bigger than I'd expected though I had very low expectations really. I really have to say that art has no real affect on me generally and I found that aspect of the Louvre quite boring. The building itself is impressive in parts and it's size is just way out of control. We only saw a very small portion of what was on offer but surprisingly the most interesting exhibit to me was the small section of African and Polynesian carvings. They have good signs guiding you to the room with the Mona Lisa but unfortunately other than that the whole layout seemed quite confusing and very few displays or signs had any English either. On that note I thought that the reputation that the Parisians have was not really justified in our experience this time. The city didn't really stink that much, there were more English signs than I'd been lead to believe and I've met much ruder people manning various information stations or ticket booths in other countries...

The Louvre

One thing that is definitely true is that Paris is ridiculously popular. It's a cool city but that much so? Really? It's so packed with tourists everywhere that you temporally cannot see and do everything you want to in a short time. Everywhere we went there were crowds and crowds of people (I've not heard so many American accents since leaving home) and while it's ok in some of the larger areas, things like the catacombs or the tower of Notre Dame where numbers are restricted and staggered it can make for some very long lines.
Dad and I got up early on our last morning and walked over to the Notre Dame for another viewing but didn't have time to wait out the lines to go up the bell tower. Instead we continued to walk around the area to see whatever else we could find like the Pantheon where other great names are buried.
After checkout we drove by the catacombs again but the line to get in was around the block so we abandoned that plan and continued out to Versailles to see the huge palace and grounds built there by Louis XIV. What can I say other than it's another one of those huge European palaces built by a king at the height of his empire's power? Like the opera house it too was ridiculously ornate and grand. I'm glad I convinced the others to go. It would take an entire day to properly visit all the palace and it's grounds and our rushed version still lasted a few hours. From Versailles we drove back to Holland.

Chateau de Versailles.


Thursday, June 09, 2011


Europe! Germany! It's my first visit back to the continent since late 2007 so it's kind of fun to be back somewhere really new. From Hong Kong I flew on Russia's Aeroflot airlines to Munich, Germany via a 4 hour stop over in Moscow. Aeroflot actually wasn't a bad airline despite what you might expect. It's often the cheapest transit airline between Europe and Asia and it seemed that everyone used it as such. It felt like the whole plane walked through the transit line rather than enter Russia.
I arrived in Munich quite late and was picked up at the airport by my friend Verena, whom I had met in Brisbane back in September.
We stayed that first night at her mother's home in the city and the following day took the train 2 hours north to Nuremberg where she currently lives and studies. I spent the next 8 days in Nuremberg just hanging out. On my first full day in the city 2 other friends, Marianne and Liz came from nearby Wurzburg to visit for the day. I'd met them while diving on Koh Tao 2 years ago so it was fun to meet up with them again too. It was a beautiful day so we hung out in the park and walked around the old town doing the European cafe thing. I like this theme of visiting friends again that I've been doing the last month :)

Liz, Me, Marianne and Verena

Nuremberg. Where to begin? I'd been to Nuremberg before in November of 2000. It has a nice hostel in the castle stables and was one of the more memorable for me of that trip. I didn't stay in the hostel this time but I still had a few flashbacks while walking around the walled old town and revisiting the old castle grounds. I didn't have much time back then so this time I was able to see a bit more.

What a great looking fire station.

Nuremberg is not a major German city, having only half a million residents, but it's well known from the WW2 era as first the site of the major Nazi rally grounds and later as the location of the Nuremberg trials of the major Nazi leaders after the war. I visited both spots though the rally grounds were being used for a major rock festival when I went so the effect was lost. The courts building where the trials were held is now partly a museum and the completely renovated courtroom 600 where the trials were held is still in use today. It was not in use when we went so the room was open to the public.

Room 600, site of the Nuremberg trials.

It's summer here and the biggest shock with that is how late the sun sets. It is light until well after 9pm which has to be the first time in about 5 years that I've light later than 7pm. I like it! The temperature is cooler but the sun is hot when it comes out. I'd be considered over-dressed compared to the locals. Trains, trams, funny sounding sirens, kebab shops, bicycles, ringing church bells, delicious dairy products and people legally drinking and BBQing in the parks round out the list of European/German things to get used to again. I'd also throw in old buildings but they only look old. The truth is that in WW2 90% of the city was completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Still, it's that old German style of architecture that really makes me feel like a tourist taking pictures all the time. I'm also very pleasantly surprised to find that even with the exchange to the Euro, food is much cheaper here than in Australia both in the supermarket and at cafes, pretty much right across the board.
Unfortunately time continues to go too fast and so before I wanted to, I had to say goodbye yet again and catch the ICE (express) train 6 ½ hours to Amsterdam to finally reunite with the European portion of my family, mom, dad, Savannah and Kees.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Manila and Hong Kong

The plan for my 3 days in Manila had to be adjusted because of the weather. A typhoon had passed by a few days before I arrived and was still affecting the weather in the region and officially started the rainy season. I'd hoped to meet up with Nikki, get out of town and go camping for a few days before leaving the Philippines. I met up with Nikki without any difficulty but the weather was still so bad that we ended up cancelling the outdoor activities and basically spent the entire weekend lounging around watching movies. We had our traditional Wendy's frosty and went out for a few meals but it was actually quite nice to relax and be lazy. I had stayed with Nikki exactly 1 year before when I was leaving last time and had forgotten the book I was reading at the time so I was reunited with it but ironically ended up leaving something else instead. The only place in all my travels I've left something behind accidentally and now I've done it twice in the same place...
I had an evening flight out of Manila to Hong Kong where I had an overnight stop over. I was not really thinking when I'd booked the flights because I should've arranged it to stay in Hong Kong for a couple days I think. I was able to meet up with Kerry though. The Kerry from the African convoy 3 years ago. Crazy to think it's been that long. He's still super cool and had given me directions to his place from the airport but he lives on the other side of Hong Kong so it was midnight when I finally got to his place. How do you catch up and hang out when you have an 11am flight the next day? You skip the sleeping part of the night.
Fortunately Hong Kong is up pretty late so we went to a restaurant across the street and ate until almost 3am before returning to his apartment to chat the rest of the night away.

He came with me to the airport and saw me off as well so we could maximize the visitation time. In his apartment I couldn't help but think of Singapore. I suppose it's natural to compare the 2 cities as they have so many similarities but driving across Hong Kong on the airport bus sort of killed that because geographically they look so different. I hadn't realized how hilly Hong Kong was before. I still think Hong Kong has the best cityscape in the world when looking at it from across the water from Kowloon. I was only able to catch a glimpse from the bus but was happy to get that much this time. Apparently I was lucky to see it because despite the strong haze of the day, I'm told that the air was actually quite clear. Being so close to China has its disadvantages.
Put Hong Kong on the list of places to visit again...