Iceland, Copenhagen, Windsor Make for a Fantastic Break

Friday 21 August to Tuesday 8 September 2015

travellingross rating = 10/10

After another short busy rotation, I was off again. This time to Europe which is the best flight as it is direct to Amsterdam, on a good airline (KLM) and leaves in the late afternoon rather than the usual 6am or thereabouts. With the shorter time on site, it was hectic (but still enjoyable and challenging in the right ways), so I had limited time to plan anything for this break. Fortunately I was meeting 2 friends who shared the planning work load. And it helped having a day off in Parbo before flying out (to get the KLM flight, rather than fly questionable Surinam Air).

Iceland

Landing in Amsterdam, I had a five hour layover which was enough to get my McDonalds fix, then meet Amy who had flown in from South Korea a few days earlier to catch up with cousins in Rotterdam. I spotted her in the WOW (yes, that’s the Icelandic budget airlines name) line and it was our first time in person for 18 months. Amy and I did more research for Iceland while reading the wow airplane magazine enroute from Amsterdam. Very informative and we quoted from it throughout the trip.

We arrived a couple hours ahead of Chiraag (a mutual friend from Perth) and then set off to collect our Renault Captur rental car before heading east. Iceland is only 330,000 people but the rental car guy said they have had 1.5 million tourists this year so far. the rental car guy gave me the low down on random things to beware of renting a car in Iceland – sand storms, wind so strong it could flip your door off, ash damage, the speed limit is max 90kmh. So throughout the 7 day trip we would remind each other “hold your door” when getting out as the wind was truly the strongest I have experienced. It was also cold for summer and I was very glad to bring my thermals. As I expected, Iceland is overall quite expensive, especially on the food side since most of it is grown in glass houses due to the cold and infertile volcanic soil. A soup for instance is around $23 AUD (but some places have refills). But this is offset by free entry to every sight that we saw (expect Blue Lagoon). The 3 of us all have similar travel interests and Iceland is full of natural wonders which is my travel turn-on so we all rated the trip as one of our best ever. We laughed a lot and it was an excellent setting to catch up. Chiraag had roaming data on his phone and that made a world of difference so we could search places to see if worth a stop as we drove by, navigate, review restaurants ratings before deciding to walk in etc.

The photos speak for themselves and show the beauty of this country. Highlights for me were seeing countless waterfalls during a 6 km hike, seeing my first glacier, swimming in a thermal hot river, bubbling hot springs, and of course seeing the Northern Lights unexpectedly in the capital city (Reykjavik). The latter has been on my dream travel list for many years and we saw something spectacular as we walked out of our apartment – purples, whites, greens. Surreal and filled the sky. I still want to see more and hear that Canada is also good for it (with the added bonus of polar bears). Overall, Iceland reminded me of New Zealand but ten times better and less populated so it made driving a dream.

Copenhagen, Denmark

We hauled ass to the airport to make it in time for Chiraag’s 6:30am flight to Dublin and then Amy and I battled the longest security line ever known to man for our flight to Copenhagen. We landed about midday and still did not have accommodation. I had spent time last night searching options and found an AirBnB place that would be perfect only to get declined when I checked my messages on airport arrival. So we taxi’d to my back up hotel contemplating whether to stay there one night while we found something better. But we searched and got an ‘instant book’ AirBnB place in a really good location that we could go immediately to to drop our bags and then come back at 5:30pm to check in.

Copenhagen is a smaller global city of about 1 million people and so more my preference than the overly busy cities elsewhere in Europe. Over the 5 days we managed to visit a range of sights including doing a free walking tour (for a tip), the Carlsberg brewery, Rosenburg castle with the crown jewels and royal collection, the Amalienborg Palace which has no big gates or exclusion zones, and shopping along the world’s first pedestrianised mall (that confusingly has bikes and cars on it). The Danish capital offered Amy and I time to sleep in and relax more than the full days of Iceland so we both enjoyed that. Food was really good (which is saying something coming from me who is not a foodie). The weather was mostly cloudy and wet except our last full day that we went to the brewery. I had very little knowledge of Denmark, so I enjoy these type of trips where you go in ignorant without even knowing that they are not on the Euro currency (how annoying) and now know more about the country than some Danes themselves. Amy and I are now full bottles on the Danish Monarchy. I have little idea what the remainder of the country has to offer, but the city is only 16 km from Sweden across a road bridge so it would be quite simple to return and explore the Scandinavian area.

Windsor, United Kingdom

We were asked to check out early from our Copenhagen accommodation (11am) so we got to the airport with time to have a bite to eat and spend our last Kroner before saying goodbye as I flew to the UK and Amy to Taiwan. We’ve previously travelled to Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, Houston, and Jamaica together but I would say this was our best trip together so far.

The mission of the UK trip was to stay with a friend I met at the Ghana job (doctor who was Chief Medical Officer) who lives in Windsor and also to meet up with friends I met at Munich Oktoberfest in 2013. It was nice (and cheap!) to stay with a friend for a change, and nicer still to be in a place where I had no tourism desires since it is my 3rd time to Windsor/London and I have done pretty much all the tourist items there (except I still want to do the London eye, see Kew Gardens and Greenwich). So instead we visited the local pub, went to the local shops, saw a stand-up comedy show in Chiswick (must be posh as the comedians kept referencing this), bussed into Piccadilly Circus to see a Saturday matinee performance of ‘The Book of Mormon’ (ok stage show from the writers of South Park, but I am surprised so many people go see it as it is as controversial as that TV show), then met up with my Oktoberfest friends for dinner and a couple beers, and a sunny Sunday to wander the main street of Windsor and have a final pub dinner (unfortunately the worst steak sandwich I have eaten…or attempted to eat I should say) before getting up at 4:45 am Monday morning to go the 15 mins to Heathrow to catch my flight to Amsterdam and then direct back to Paramaribo. A relatively quiet way to end the international component of my break. Typing this on the flight and have a day off in Parbo tomorrow (Tuesday) before returning to work Wednesday.

Websites and Tips to Make this Trip

Stayed at:

Iceland:     Hellisholar Cottages, Hvolsvollur, 280 euro for 2 nights for a 3 bed studio cottage. VERY small with no light in the shower (lucky for mobile phone flashlight). Nice setting, terrible restaurant food.

Klukka Apartment, Selfoss, ISK36,000 ($267 USD) for 2 nights. Looks terrible from the outside but spacious, modern and adequate on the inside. Half of someone’s house cut off and adapted. Good location.

Reykjavik Airbnb apartment for $463 AUD for 3 nights. 2 bedroom unit in a complex with a small balcony which we could watch Northern Lights from.

Copenhagen: Montergade 4, $900 USD for 4 nights. See Airbnb review.

Rental Car: Compact car (Renault Captur) from Green Motion booked through holidayautos.com for 399.25 Euro. Glad I got an automatic.

Amsterdam: Finishing with a Birthday and a Mothers Day

Wednesday 6 May to Monday 11 May 2015

travellingross rating = 7/10

Following our short stopover in Antwerp, we returned the rental car to Amsterdam airport and then taxi’d the 25 mins or so to our vacation rental apartment. The location was out of the main part of town, but a 2 min walk to a tram stop that was easy enough to navigate wherever you wanted to go. The accommodation was welcoming and modern. Mum would have her birthday on 7 May and then it was Mothers Day on 10 May.

I have never had an interest in visiting Amsterdam. Amsterdam to me is about pot, prostitution, canals and bicycles (who do not obey any traffic rules). Not exactly the key drivers for choosing my travel destinations. This city is busy with tourists and the layout of the streets around the canals made me annoyed for reasons I still don’t know – maybe because you are constantly on the lookout for something that might run you over. It was nice to spend 6 nights in one location and relax a little and of course spend a couple of my Mother’s special days together. Here are the highlights and some observations:

  • Rembrandt House: I like his paintings and works. The house was sold by his bank to re-pay the mortgage and he died in debt. Interesting how this tends to happen to artists.
  • Keukonhof Gardens: for Mum’s birthday we spent the day at the largest tulip flower festival. Picturesque place with many colours and settings to explore. An hour or so to get there by bus, but with my great navigational skills (as opposed to Mum’s) I got us there and back with time to freshen up and go out for a delicious meal overlooking the canals in a fancy hotel.
  • Anne Frank House: We took turns lining up for 2.5 hours to get into a museum where all the furniture is removed and you are ushered around looking at wallpaper and floorboards. The interesting part was seeing her diary and papers. Anne comes across as a typical teenage girl spoiled brat and maybe that is what makes her story connect with so many young people – that she was normal. The Dutch Resistance Museum resonated with me more.
  • Heineken Experience: I had very low expectations of the brewery tour but Mum and I were both surprised at how good and creative it was. More than just a brewery tour, but an explanation on marketing, branding and how their history has evolved over the years. The tour finishes with a few beers and let’s just say that Mum was merry.
  • Zaanse Schans Windmill Park: For Mothers Day we trained here to explore some of the few remaining windmills in the Netherlands. Educational and scenic. Not many eateries though and could be more orientated to making a full tourist experience. This was our last full day in Amsterdam and for the trip and we concluded with a tasty dinner at the Lebanese Restaurant down the road from our apartment. One observation is that most restaurants seat you without a menu and you sit waiting 5 mins until they bring you the menu.

Belgium: Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp

Friday 1 May to Tuesday 5 May 2015

travellingross rating = 7/10

Leaving the Western Front WW1 battlefields, we headed north to the outer suburbs of Ghent as a platform to explore some highlights of Belgium – beer, chocolate, architecture, paintings, the blood of Christ. We stayed in a nice house on a big block with an automatic lawn mower. A cross between a bed & breakfast and a motel with daily housekeeping, strange automatic lights, pathetic heating, a Spanish family living in another closed off section of the house, and a front door that we were told had “a mind of its own, so do not go outside without your key”. Odd like only the Western Europeans can do. But a comfortable and welcoming base where we did a series of day trips. Highlights:

Bruges

  • The traffic to get even near the main historic centre was ri-dic-u-lous. I was convinced that a concert was on or the Pope was visiting or something epic. But no, this is just a typical Saturday in Bruges. Mad busy.
  • A canal city with many corners and hidden sections. There are two large squares with historic buildings surrounding them. I have seen the movie “In Bruges” so was re-living that.
  • Basilica of the Holy Blood. Yes, they claim to have a vile filled with dried blood that was washed from the body of Jesus Christ when he was taken down from the cross. This relic is displayed a couple times per day and I thought it would be held up to be admired in front of the crowd. But you file passed it and place your hands over it in prayer while the crowd watches you do this. We were about 10th in line. I wasn’t ready for that! Can’t say this was a spiritual/religious experience as I was too occupied studying it for legitimacy while also trying to act in prayer as a couple hundred eyes watched me.

Ghent

  • Unfortunately a wet cloudy day, but a scenic canal town. Nicer than Bruges, but very similar.
  • Hot chocolate that comes in a tea pot. With a chocolate on the side. Sickening is an underestimate, but gave me a sugar high for a good couple of hours. When travelling with Allyson, you need this energy haha.
  • Adoration of the MysticLamb is in the cathedral. Never heard of it, but apparently a globally recognised masterpiece consisting of 12 hinged panels painted in the 1430’s. It is under restoration, but from the glimpse we saw, I can appreciate the incredible detail and value.

Brussels

  • On the way to Brussels we stopped at Waterloo to see where Napoleon was defeated by the Duke of Wellington in his final battle on 18 June 1815. A huge mound of grass covered dirt with a lion on top is the landmark they chose to honour this with. Interesting. Under a huge reconstruction/reno for the 200th anniversary. I like visiting places like this to learn history as I would never pick up a book or Google it to learn more about this battle.
  • Brussels was my fav of the Belgian cities we visited. Maybe cause there was not a canal in sight. I liked the town square facades, the lack of tourist crowds, the chocolate shops, the delirium beer.

Antwerp

  • A short stop for lunch on the way to Amsterdam. A flag filled town square, and a cathedral with Rubens painting. I don’t like Rubens I have realised. He painted people with too many muscles, which takes away any ability for me to be convinced by his realism. Keep trying mate, you’ll get it right one day.

The Somme: WW1 Battlefields

Monday 27 April to Thursday 30 April 2015

travellingross rating = 10/10

I have been to Gallipoli. To the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy. To many war memorials in Australia. Visiting the Somme western front World War 1 battlefields has been on my list for a while and to visit soon after the ANZAC Day centenary was special. This region is town after beautiful town of stories filled with pain, destruction, loss and recovery.

We left Reims and headed towards the city of Amiens stopping at Peronne to tour the museum. This was the first town of many that we saw Australian flags flying and other Aussie symbols – there is a strong sense of gratitude and after spending time here I learned more about how the Australian soldiers were crucial in many battles to push back the German front. Our first memorial was Le Hamel which was a bit challenging to find especially considering it is relatively new, but included very interesting displays. After one night in Amiens, we continued north stopping at Villers-Bretonneux and then crossed into Belgium staying in a very modern 4 storey townhouse (stairs, so many stairs) in Ypres, which would be our platform for the next 3 nights exploring the battlefields and memorials. Highlights were:

  • Adelaide cemetery to see the grave site where the remains of the Australian Unknown Soldier were exhumed and taken to the national memorial in Canberra.
  • Villers-Bretonneux: including the school & museum funded by Victorian school children and the main Australian memorial in the Somme. The latter is out in the fields on a slight hill that was the centre of a key battle to save the town and push back the enemy. Hard to fathom how many died here, and the concept of trench warfare over such a long front. Reading the tombstones and small crosses placed by school children recently was very sad.
  • The British memorial – the largest outside of the UK. Walking closer to it, you realise the white panels are filled with lists upon lists of names. Only a few gravestones. Most of the dead were not recovered to be buried but lay beneath your feet or in the farmers paddocks. Everything looks so peaceful and beautiful today.
  • Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. Seemingly endless rooms with artefacts, re-enactments and shocking stories of the chemical gases used, including photos of victims or survivors with terrible injuries. Makes you realise it is not just about those who died, but the ones who survived who probably wished they didn’t.
  • Menin Gate Last Post. This is done every night at 8pm. As we power walked to get there, I had a bet with Mum that we wouldn’t be late and I couldn’t imagine more than 15 people would be there. I was wrong. It was packed.
  • Memorial Museum Passchendaele – seemingly small place but many levels and re-creation of what the trenches would have been like.
  • Talbot House, Poperinge – a place where select soldiers could escape the frontline for a short stay. The House is well preserved with interesting photos and you can imagine the haven this would have been.

France: Paris and Reims

Thursday 23 April to Sunday 26 April 2015

travellingross rating = 8/10

We arrived at Salzburg train station half an hour ahead of our 8 am train to Paris to find it cancelled. What! Another reason not to book train tickets in advance (dig dig). The train info centre helped us get on a train to Munich where we could connect but would need to check with the German info desk as their trains were on strike and the cause of the issue. At least we were heading off and in the right direction. After a long time at the Munich station we were rebooked onto several more trains to Paris arriving 3 hrs later than originally planned. All comfortable and modern trains unlike one’s I’ve taken in Italy. We spent 1 night in Paris near the train station, then rented a car and drove north to the centre of the champagne region. Paris highlights:

  • My 3rd time to Paris. I like the culture of this city, but each time I’ve found it increasingly dirty and full of tourists. We seemed to stay in immigrant’s quarter and not a very comfortable feeling walking around.
  • The height of the Eiffel Tower compared to the rest of the city is still amazing.
  • Mum visited Sainte-Chapelle with the stained glass windows that she didn’t get to last visit and I went to the Conciergerie, a former palace and then prison during the revolution. Mum really enjoyed hers. Mine was not v good, with only highlight being a re-enactment of Queen Marie Antoinette cell where she was held for months prior to her execution. Interestingly, I learned in Vienna that Marie Antoinette was a daughter of the Austrian Queen (she was one of 16 kids married off to the European monarchies!).
  • Montparnasse – never been to top of this office tower that has great views. Unfortunately it was a bit hazy but still a different viewpoint of Paris.
  • Driving out of Paris. Survived the chaos and happy to have an automatic in this traffic.

Reims highlights:

  • The cathedral was the coronation place for all French kings and queens. Destroyed in WW1, it has been rebuilt. Not much to see on the inside though.
  • The German surrender to end WW2 was first signed here 7 May 1945 and then re-signed in Berlin a day later at the insistence of Stalin. Fascinating museum in Eisenhower’s war rooms with original maps etc still in place.
  • Veuve Clicquot. Lucky to get a walk in tour of this champagne house and their caves where all the bottles are stored. The 50 euro tour was best of the two we did and finished with 2 full glass sized tastings of my current favourite champagne. Veuve means widow.
  • Day trip to Epernay. It was a Sunday so I get that not a lot is open but I thought that the Avenue de Champagne would be the epicentre of tastings but it was hard to find more than a couple places. And cost 15-18 euro to taste 3 half glasses. But it was still awesome to drive through the picturesque Champagne Region and I had a couple of champagne breakfasts, lunches, and dinner.
  • ANZAC Day centenary. A momentous occasion in Australian history, we struggled to find a war memorial in Reims but would make up for this in coming days across the Somme battlefields…

Austria: Vienna and Salzburg

Friday 17 April to Wednesday 22 April 2015

travellingross rating = 7/10

An idea popped in my head a couple months ago when my suitcase turned up in Perth at my mum’s house – fly my mother and bag to meet me half way in Amsterdam. Thereby saving me coming all way back to Perth and being able to meet mum in Europe for her birthday and mother’s day. Plus this break aligns with the centenary Anzac day and I know we both wanted to tour the French WW1 battlefields following our last trip in 2012 to the Normandy D-day landing beaches, so it was perfect. I had two flights from Paramaribo and mum two from Perth, meeting in Vienna. Highlights and observations:

  • Always amazes me how full flights can be when several per day across Europe but not a spare seat from Amsterdam to Vienna
  • Amsterdam airport seems to be in a permanent state of renovation lately. And their free Wi-Fi requires you to reconnect every hour which is annoying.
  • Cold in Vienna. About 13C max. First day wet but other 2 days were clear and sunny.
  • Easy to get into old town centre via a tram stop on our closest corner. Highlights were elevator up north tower of saint Stephens cathedral – not that stunning or globally worthwhile; saint Peters church with its impressively decorated interior; Hofburg palace where we learned about the Austrian monarchy that ended in 1918 and in particular the empress Elisabeth aka Sisi who seemed like a spoilt brat who whined about life too much and was stabbed thru the heart with a letter opener in 1889.
  • The Austrian monarchy seemed doomed well before WW1 and the assassination of heir Franz Ferdinand.
  • Schloss Schoenberg was a train trip out of town and included a tour of many well preserved state rooms. The grounds and gardens were not that amazing but maybe better in late spring or summer. Lots of walking but we got there in good time with an express ticket to jump the line which meant the day was not rushed. Plenty of time to head back into town and visit the state hall library with its thousands of books dating back to the 1300’s when the university was founded. Beautiful room.
  • Our apartment was very nice and spacious with full kitchen which we made use of for breakfast and an evening meal.
  • Train to Salzburg comfortable and new but going through tunnels created a vacuum which was annoying for mums ears.

After training to Salzburg we walked about 15 mins to our hotel in the newer part of town. Not a far walk from there to the historic centre and the walk had many shops etc to explore. I wanted to visit this city back when I did the Munich Oktoberfest trip but didn’t have time. The city is known for its scenery and the film location for The Sound of Music. Also was the birthplace of Mozart. Good to finally visit and I think it would be even more scenic in winter covered with snow.  Highlights and observations:

  • Too many bikes on pedestrian streets and malls.
  • Wandering the alleys, getting lost, popping out into a scenic platz (square)
  • Sound of music tour. I can’t remember a lot of the movie but a good half day tour which is ever popular as 50th anniversary of the film.
  • Fortress high up on the hill with panoramic views
  • Late breakfasts in town squares
  • Learning about the Prince archbishop history and that Salzburg was its own state for a long time becoming very wealthy from salt mining.

Next stop – Paris and the champagne region of France.