Tag Archives: Europe

THE ROAD AHEAD – our plans for European adventures

We leave Sydney for Amsterdam next week. We’ll be sorry to leave family and friends for a while, but we always look forward to catching up with our other family and friends in the Northern Hemisphere.

Amsterdam is lovely but we won’t be hanging around there all the time. We have other adventures planned:

TEACHING IN KAZAKHSTAN

Mosque, Atyrau, Kazakhstan - Photo: ThereseKL

I’ve been invited to be a visiting author at the Dostyk International School for a few days, and I’m delighted to be going there. I’ve been googling Kazakhstan and Atyrau. Kazakhstan is enormous – the ninth largest country in the world by area, and Atyrau is an oil town on the Caspian Sea. It may not turn out to be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, but it’s bound to be interesting. Yes, I’ll be teaching my writing classes in English – I still have a lot of work to do on my Kazakh.

CYCLING THE PIEPERPAD, NETHERLANDS

Who wouldn't enjoy a ride in the Dutch countryside and a few organic spuds?


Mevrouw T and I have ridden a lot of Dutch cycling routes, including the ‘Pieterpad’ which crosses Nederland from north to south (or south to north if your prefer riding uphill).

Recently Dutch organic produce promoters Biologica and Greenpeace have marked out a 1000km ‘Pieperpad’ cycling route across the country, passing by a lot of organic farms, notably those growing organic potatoes (‘piepers’ in Dutch).

Our mission, should we decide to accept it, is to ride the route, eat the produce, meet the farmers and write something interesting about the humble spud. It should take two weeks – maybe three if there’s rain and a headwind!

HIKING THE GR5, FRANCE

It's taken 10 years to hike from Lake Geneva to Nice, but this year we're planning to finish the job.


The Grand Randonnee 5 is one of the world’s greatest hiking trails, though the French manage to keep it secret from most other people. It starts in Belgium, crosses into France, winds beside the Rhine through the Alsace wine region, then climbs the Jura Range and descends to Lake Geneva. From there it heads across the Alps to Nice.

With my Dutch friends I’ve now walked most of the Alpine section, doing it a week at a time over four different years. This year we’ll start at Briancon and walk south for a week, thus filling in the missing link that has been beckoning us since 2005.

FOOD AND CULTURE IN BAGNI DI LUCCA, ITALY

Ponte della Maddalena, Bagni di Lucca. Photo: tryitaly.com

Through this blog I was fortunate to come into cybercontact with Debra and Liz, Australians who, like us, spend some months each year at a base in Europe. Theirs is in the lovely north Tuscan spa town Bagni di Lucca which we’re looking forward to visiting. I heartily recommend their blog Bagni di Lucca and Beyond, for all interested in culture, architecture, photography, food and all good things Italian.

There are bound to be other adventures over the coming months, but this is a pretty damn good start. Stay tuned to this blog for the reports…

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Filed under Cycle touring, Hiking, Holland, Italy, Travel- Europe

ASTI, ITALY – the small Piedmont town in pictures

Possibly more non-Italians have encountered ‘Asti’ in a crossword puzzle than have ever tasted its wine. I have a glass of sparkling red in front of me as I write – Freisa d’Asti. It’s doing the boj (oops, job) nicely, as did last night’s heavy red Barbera from the same region. And this little town just outside Torino (Turin) looks very pleasant too.

A quiet back street in Asti's Old Town

Asti's main street, Corso Vittorio Alfieri.

Asti Cathedral- The town is known for its square blocky towers.

Asti Junior football club holds an open training session by the cathedral...in front of a small crowd of fans.

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Filed under Italy, Travel, travel photography, Travel- Europe

EUROPE’S BIGGEST STREET PARTY? – Queen’s Day, Holland


If you’re a party animal or a bargain hunter, try to be in the Netherlands on April 30th. If you’re not, arrange to be somewhere else. Each year on Koninginnedag or ‘Queen’s Day’, it’s as if the entire Dutch nation dresses in the royal colour orange and paints the town red.

Officially Koninginnedag celebrates the queen’s birthday, though it was former queen Juliana, not present monarch Beatrix, who was born on April 30th. It doesn’t matter, because although Queen Bea probably enjoys a quiet glass of champers with her feet up at the end of the day, overwhelmingly this is a people’s party. All the city fathers do is relax laws restricting street trading for 24 hours, and the enterprising Dutch community does the rest.

On Koninginnedag it’s open slather for garage or car boot sales, there are street performers and micro-profiteers on every corner, and every cafe has an outside terrace in full swing, with live music pulling in the customers.

We start our day with an early morning trip to the world’s biggest garage sale, along Amsterdam’s wide Apollolaan (‘Apollo Lane’). Anybody with a collection of Abba vinyl, a pair of antique skis or a souvenir tribal mask from Uganda is out there trying to sell it. The Apollolaan is one of Amsterdam’s best addresses, so we expect this flea market will sell a superior class of fleas, although these days would-be merchants flock from all over town to flog stuff here.

We’re in the market for a child’s travel cot and locate one within minutes. It’s a terrific bargain, but how are we going to transport it back to our accommodation? On Koninginnedag many roads are blocked to cars and the trams are not so much running as crowd surfing, inching through the packed streets with the bells ringing constantly. Oh well, they call them ‘carry cots’, so that’s what we do. It’s a long walk, but there’s plenty to see along the way.

Vendors, many having staked out a pitch the night before, try to outdo each other in attracting punters’ attention by wearing the most outrageous orange costume or silly orange hat. There are orange wigs, cowboy hats and feather boas, and inflatable orange crowns, cheeses, and windmills to be worn as headgear. If you haven’t brought one with you, don’t worry – someone else will sell you one.

Suitably stupidly attired in orange t-shirts with absurd inflatables on our heads, it’s off to the famous Vondelpark in the centre of town. The park is traditionally devoted to kids’ activities on Koninginnendag. Under the shady trees, kids try to sell their surplus Buzz Lightyears and Teletubbies videos to the hordes shuffling past. Every child who’s ever learned a tune on the violin or keyboard is out busking, some of them displaying precocious ability. Others show less talent, but still get money for effort and looking cute.

Kids who can dance and kids who can’t put on the CD player and strut their stuff on a sheet of orange plastic. They run coconut shies, or brace themselves to have eggs thrown in their faces, or sell cookies and orange juice (with a shot of vodka if you want it – Dutch liquor licencing laws are very relaxed on Koninginnedag). There are inventive games of chance, like betting on whether the beetle on a modified ouija board will crawl to the picture of George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Osama bin Laden.

Our vote for most original and entertaining event goes to ‘Amsterdam’s Cheapest Skydiving’. For a small fee kids can put on goggles and be strapped into a chair with a large bunch of balloons attached to it. Three young attendants then give the customer a simulated near-death experience. One blows air into the client’s face through a tube, another shakes the chair around in a way calculated to resemble turbulence, while a third scrolls hand-painted pictures first of sky, then of rapidly approaching ground in front of the daredevil’s eyes. Is there any better thrill to be had for a euro?

We take a break for a quick look at the telly to see how the rest of the country is celebrating. Each year the royal family visits different towns in their kingdom and residents turn out in force to entertain their Royal Highnesses with a series of displays and performances, none more than a couple of minutes long.

The Dutch royals pride themselves on their informal relationship with their subjects. Queen Beatrix and her family walk around the chosen town, shaking thousands of hands, filing past displays of pottery by handicapped artists, and stopping to join a bongo drum band of local schoolkids. They slip into a church for a brief organ recital and a concert by a local opera singer, then outside Crown Prince Willem Alexander and his popular, glamorous wife Maxima strap on roller-blades and skate with the locals, occasioning warm applause.

In the late afternoon there’s one more excursion we need to make, into Amsterdam’s canal belt. Spring has already sprung, and we’re unusually lucky to have fine weather. Amsterdam looks even more lovely than usual with the trees wearing their new green growth, and the river of orange-clad humanity flowing underneath.

The canals are packed with boats and the boats are packed with orange partygoers, waving enthusiastically to other orange people on the bridges. The Heineken is flowing freely and the volume dial of every sound system is turned up to 11.

At night the party crowd move on to the Museumplein behind the Rijksmuseum, where the bands play into the night and the orange crowd rocks on.

All in all, it’s a right royal day, a day of the people, for the people and by the people, the only major cost to the state being the cleanup afterwards. This being scrupulously hygienic Holland, cleaning anything is handled with amazing efficiency. By the time we walk back through the Vondelpark in the evening, the garbology team has done its job, and you’d hardly know there’s been a party there.

TRIP NOTES:

STAYING THERE: For numerous accommodation options, see http://www.amsterdam.info
Recommended are: Quentin Arrive – Budget double from EUR70 ($140). http://www.quentinhotels.net. Tulips B&B, opposite Vondelpark – rooms from EUR80 http://www.hostelsamsterdam.com, ’t Hotel rooms from EUR145-220. http://www.thotel.nl

FURTHER INFORMATION: http://www.amsterdam.info or http://www.iamsterdam.com Koninginnedag is free (not counting food, drink and carry cot).

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Budget travel, Holland, Travel, Travel- Europe

COLOUR CLASH – cycling Denmark’s Bornholm Island

Allinge church

‘That shirt doesn’t fit in here,’ says my wife, ‘It’s repulsive.’ She prides herself on her ability to spot bad taste, mine in particular, and the purple and aqua pattern splashed across my chest is admittedly rather striking. ‘It’s a cycling jersey,’ I counter lamely, ‘It’s supposed to stand out and repel motorists.’

But even I can see that my shirt looks wrong on Bornholm, an island where everything, from each waving wheatfield to every cottage windowsill, seems in perfect visual harmony.

The Danes have gone to a lot of trouble to make this place look good. In Svaneke they’ve even had their water tower architect-designed, by a chap very well known to Australians.

Svaneke crop (red)

Bornholm is where the Danes themselves go to recharge the batteries with beauty, fresh air and country charm. It’s an hour’s train ride from Copenhagen into Sweden, then another hour or so on a sleek catamaran ferry, which we’re pleased to note was built in Western Australia.

‘We’re big on nature, arts and crafts and crazy ways of getting round the island,’ says Kim in the Bornholm Tourist Office. ‘It’s only 30km across and 40km up and down.You can do it on roller blades if you like.’ We pass on that one, and instead choose Bornholm’s most popular means of transport, the rental bike, with a deal which includes getting our luggage shuttled to our accommodation each night. It’s also reassuring to know that in case of rain, fatigue or loss of motivation, we can flag down a local bus to take us and our bikes somewhere dry and comfortable.

Fortunately we never need to resort to that wussy alternative. The weather is fine, the rolling hills manageable and the surroundings extremely beautiful.
Bornholm1 024

Poppies are sprinkled through the ripening crops, the sea is never far from view and villages are all colour co-ordinated. Paint on Bornholm is apparently only available from a limited colour chart. Cottages are deep russett red or yellow ochre, with black timberwork. Interiors are white. Purple cycling shirts are frowned on.

Smokehouse, Halse (red)
We stop for lunch in the little town of Halse, known for its ‘rogeri’, the smokehouse where herrings are hung out to dry. In the old days, smokehouses may have been smelly, unpleasant workplaces, but now their beachfront locations and characteristic pyramid-shaped chimney stacks make them ideal for conversion into cafes and charming holiday houses.

Bornholm1 010

The aroma inside the Halse rogeri is irresistible. We order the traditional local delicacy – a whole smoked herring served with heavy rye bread, chopped radish, chives, lettuce and a raw egg yolk. I don’t know the correct etiquette for eating raw egg yolk, so I just pour it over my herring, which does the job very well.

Further up the coast the shoreline is broken by rugged cliffs. Jon’s Chapel is a spectacular rock formation where legend has it that an Irish priest called Jon used to preach to a congregation on the beach below. It’s hard work to get down the steep steps, so Jon’s flock presumably consisted of a little band of devout masochists.

Jon's Chapel, Bornholm (red)

Hammershus Castle, ‘the biggest ruined castle in Northern Europe’, is strategically perched on a headland for maximum photogenic effect. So too is the modern Bornholm Art Museum, all white angles set against sea glimpses. ‘This place looks really stylish,’ says my fashion guru pointedly. I get the message, and pull a dark rain jacket over the offending purple shirt before we go inside.

The museum is superbly designed to let nature in – low windows give us views of forests and fields, and a tiny stream trickles down the treads of the internal staircase. The work of Bornholm’s artists is seriously good, and we particularly like the early 20th century landscapes and the modern ceramics. Stylish indeed.

Gudhjem village, Bornholm (red)

Gudhjem village is also a triumph of art direction. It lures the tourists with a perfect white windmill at the top of the steep hill and a church tower at the bottom. Half-timbered houses are all painted regulation red or yellow and every second building is a craft gallery, glasswork being the speciality. German tourists are arriving by the busload.
We join them for an excellent all-you-can-eat smorgasbord at the smokehouse. Again the major menu item is herring; smoked, double-smoked, pickled, pickled in sugar, pickled in pink sugar, battered, deep fried with onion relish or smothered in yellow mayonnaise. Those who don’t like herring can have salmon (smoked of course).

GudhjemNOTE: Visitors to Gudhjem should be correctly colour-co-ordinated.

Then it’s on to Svaneke and that water tower. We heard it’s now surplus to requirements, but it still stands above the village, a black pyramid on three concrete legs, with an elegant metal staircase winding into its belly. There are no backstage tours, but as water towers go it’s pretty special – it was designed by Jorn Utzon, on his way to do the Sydney Opera House.

Utzon watertower, Svaneke, Bornholm (red)

The following day we roll past wide beaches and back into Ronne, the island’s capital. ‘What’s that smell?’ asks my wife. I consult the guidebook. ‘Ronne was named after the Danish word for rotten and once smelled putrid, due to decomposing seaweed.’

‘Rubbish,’ says my wife, ‘It’s that shirt of yours.You’ve been sweating in it for three days.’ I peel off the lurid purple and slip into something more understated. My wife puts her Gudhjem glass earrings in. Then we blend effortlessly into Ronne’s cobbled back streets. We could almost be mistaken for Bornholmers.

The offending shirtThe offending shirt – this photo mercifully not available in smellorama!


The writer was a guest of the Scandinavian Tourist Board in Australia and Scandinavian Airlines.

TRIP NOTES:

Combined train/ferry from Copenhagen to Ronne on Bornholm takes about three hours and costs from DKK248 one way. See dsb.dk/bornholm
Staying there: Pension Slaegtsgaarden in Allinge, Bornholm offers B&B from DKK300. See slaegtsgaarden.dk. For other options see bornholminfo.dk

Further information: Bike hire on Bornholm costs from DKK65 per day, see bornholms-cykeludlejning.dk . For other accommodation and activities on Bornholm see bornholminfo.dk, visitscandinavia.com.au.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Art, Cycle touring, Cycling, Travel, Travel- Europe