I know, I know. An indescribably bad pun but what’s good enough for Facey is good enough for the blogosphere.
It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post and I’m frightfully behind. So here I sit at the keyboard in fair Bristol city with a glass of red to my right, poised to recount how I got here.
It started in Berlin. Actually it started with a hellish series of bus journeys from the marsh via Suure Janni, Parnu, Vilnius and Warsaw, stopping for a couple of nights in Riga while I got my shit together. He who said ‘the joy of travel is not in the destination but the journey’ has never had to kill time in Warsaw bus station at 4am. I stayed in a ‘party hostel’ (Fun Friendly Franks – rubbish name but good location) cos there was a deal on. It was good, well-organised and the girls working the desk were very friendly but it seems that the Australians have their revenge for the East Coast trail that British gappers have created Down Under.
For those that don’t know, the East Coast of Australia between Cairns and Sydney is an orgy of 19-year old debauchery. Probably because in Neighbours it is the nirvana to which everyone gravitates when they find peace or retire, Queensland is a popular route destination for young British gap year students when they reach the giant isle. In general, they nip up to the top and work their way down on ghastly bus hops specifically targeted at that audience. They will stop at Byron Bay, Nimbin (to get stoned), perhaps nip out to the Great Barrier Reef and then head back to Sydney via Brisbane. They don’t mix with anyone other than the people at their hostels and invest their time getting wasted and laid. Not wholly a bad thing but I’ll admit that I found it distasteful even when *I* was a 19-year old gapper.
Australians have recreated this trail in the Baltics. It’s easily avoided by skirting any hostel that dubs itself a ‘party’ hostel but eye-opening nevertheless.
Anyway, I met Big Len in Berlin where I had inadvertently booked us into a fruity guesthouse in the heart of the city’s gay district. I should have twigged from the Celine Dion and Ricky Martin posters on the wall in the promo photos. The signs were there. Regardless, Stars Guesthouse deserves nothing but praise. The owner, Olef, was very accommodating during the booking process, the price is a bargain and the rooms are chic and spotlessly clean.
That didn’t stop me bursting into a heap of giggles when I clapped eyes on Big Len’s bed for the night.
Didn’t quite understand what the sign in the bathroom was driving at either.
We headed out for a few pints, a cruise of the neighbourhood (that’s Dad) and enjoyed a genteel night of football and charred cabbage.
With only enough time the following morning for a hearty breakfast the next day we opted to walk the 4.5km to the train station which was fine until I realised just how much ballast I’ve managed to load my bag with in the last two months. Good training I suppose.
We efficiently made it to the train with ten minutes to spare before the shuttle to Hamburg. Entertainment on the two hour journey = photo faces.
Hamburg is a lovely place. Once again, knew very little about it except that it was proper to have a hamburger here. Turns out that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Bristol, being an old port city. Where the Luftwaffe flattened Bristol in the Second World War (the 60s planners who rebuilt it arguably committed a greater crime), Britain’s Royal Air Force razed Hamburg in return. Somehow I think this engenders the same sort of psyche in the city. What worse for poor old Hamburg was that it was targeted not so much for its strategic importance as to weaken the spirits of the German people after successful raids on Coventry, London, Bristol and other major British cities. The bombers used the tallest spire of St Nicholas’ church as a guide so it and its immediate surrounds could but smoulder. Now they’ve turned the church into a monument to the horrors of war and…it has a panoramic viewpoint at the top.
Our time was chiefly occupied with the touristy Hamburg trail:
Our hotel was in the funky boho district of Sternschanze, out West of the centre of town. It turned into a punk and artist district in the 70s which has left a legacy of one-off shops, kebab houses, Portuguese restaurants and Asian snack cafes. In the 90s it was quite the place to be seen. You’ll probably see the Rote Flora on Schulterblatt, a tumble-down former threatre cum squat and the seat of many localised protests. Today it’s a cultural and political meeting place which hosts popular parties and concerts. I like it. Reminds me of the Montpelier and St Werburgh’s neighbourhoods at home.
In the spirit of training, we decided one day to go for a jog around Hamburg’s picturesque lake. The lady in reception had told us it was a breezy 10km but it turned out to be a somewhat wheezier 15km. We followed it up with an afternoon on the bikes and and evening of beers then couldn’t for the life of us work out why we were so tired the next day.
Our allotted two days in Hamburg were up so it was time to head on to Antwerp, a mere three train changes away (Osnabruck, Amersfoort and Rotterdam for the train nerds). Here I re-educated Pa in the lost art of the train picnic, loaded up at the local Lidl and kept the pen knife handy.
I learnt in Brussels last year not to underestimate Belgium. From the sweeping train station I was pleased with Antwerp. It is a comely city, famed mostly for its diamond trade (the less said about the blood variety the better, especially with Belgium’s traditional colonial links with the Congo) and for Van Dyck. The English Royals in the early 1600s liked his baroque portraiture a lot and his teacher – Rubens – encouraged this specialism. Not my bowl of rice but you can check out some more info on him here if you’re interested. He was a big deal for a couple of centuries.
It too has a sub-river tunnel. Woo! What are the chances? Beelined for that after settling in to our hotel, where for some reason loads of orthodox Jews in big fur hats were milling around.
It didn’t really matter what was on the other side of the river, I was enthusiastic enough about the tunnel. But it turns out that you emerge into a mellow park scattered with random art. Worth the trip.
Our eurotour was a spontaneous decision and I didn’t want to fly. The Eurostar was upwards of £200 each two weeks in advance and train/bus connections to the ferry terminals were a pain in the arse whichever route you tackled. So I alighted on the notion of a coach, removing the fuss of transfers. Pa was very pleased. It’s been a long time since he took a coach.
In my opinion the bus is a great leveler. And I know my stuff about buses. Going our way were: a Dutch lady who’d been living in England for 20 years, a Singaporean family on holiday, a saxophonist, a selection of immigrants and a London wide boy who turned out to be trilingual.
‘Course the downside is that Eurolines don’t see fit to book their buses onto a mode of transport across The Channel. They know to within 3 minutes when they will arrive at the next bus stop but the watery bit throws them. Instead, they have a peculiar system whereby they drive the coach to the Chunnel, see if there is any spare capacity (presumably that they can get on the cheap) and if not, double back to the ferry terminal and try the same tactic. Three hours we spent at the Tunnel and in the port. As you can imagine, Pa was delighted.
I was however happy though as I wanted to take the ferry all along. I veritably skipped into the saloon for fish and chips before dragging Dad up on deck to blow the cobwebs away and look out for the white cliffs of Dover.
<Bump.> Landed back in the motherland. I won’t describe the final leg cos it’s boring and where Big Len’s language got a little ribald.