If It’s Wednesday This Must Be Slovenia

Another enjoyable train ride through the English countryside and I was back in London.

Poignant sign at Victoria Station

Poignant sign at Victoria Station

I wanted to visit Buckingham Palace to view the ‘announcement’ of the Royal baby’s arrival at the Palace gates. After checking out the only luggage storage facility at Victoria Station and discovering they would charge me nine pounds to leave my suitcase there for less than an hour, I trundled off with said luggage in hand for the walk to the Palace. It was around 30 degrees and I don’t do heat very well, so you can imagine my dismay when I arrived at the gates to be told that the ‘announcement’ only stays on display for twenty four hours after the birth. I was forty eight hours after the birth.

Buckingham Palace - without the birth announcement

Buckingham Palace – without the birth announcement

 

Love those gates!

Love those gates!

Back to the station and another train to Greenwich and arrival at my hotel. I’d been upgraded to a better hotel, after the cheap one I had booked made a double booking, and I was very impressed. I enjoyed a beautiful meal in the restaurant of the Clarendon Hotel and listened to a jazz singer in the basement Jazz Bar – so had a great night without having to leave my hotel.

'Eton Mess' dessert - popular in the UK

‘Eton Mess’ dessert – popular in the UK

 

Jazz night in the hotel basement

Jazz night in the hotel basement

A quick cab ride early the next morning took me to my pick up point for the next leg of my journey – a fourteen day coach tour of Europe. I ducked inside the Holiday Inn (our pickup point) to the breakfast room to see if I could purchase something to eat, and the kind concierge told me to help myself to whatever I wanted! A couple of mini muffins, a yoghurt, juice and some fruit stashed in my bag and I was a happy chappy! What nice people at the Holiday Inn! Some excited conversations amongst our group passed the time until our coach arrived, and we were on board.

Kenia (Honduras) and Josie (Australia) at our coach pick up point

Kenia (Honduras) and Josie (Australia) at our coach pick up point

Introductions were made and house rules laid out by Cameron, our tour leader – rule number one – if you are late getting back on the bus, you sing your national anthem. And he meant it – our first rest break had us listening to a rather poor rendition of the Indonesian national anthem! What a diverse coach load of people we had on board! There were families from some exotic locations – Trinidad, Barbados, Colombia, Honduras, Philippines, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, UAE, South Africa, Russia, Canada, England, Scotland and of course Australia. No Americans, which surprised me. They were a friendly bunch, we got to know each other very well over the course of the trip. I loved the ferry crossing from Dover to Calais, keeping myself amused with silent renditions of Vera Lynne’s ‘White Cliff’s of Dover’ as I raced about snapping photos. It really is a beautiful sight watching the white cliffs trail off behind you.IMG_1971IMG_1973IMG_1977

Saying goodbye to England

Saying goodbye to England

First overnight stop was Amsterdam. I love this city (most visitors do), it is a friendly, vibrant, interesting city. After a surprisingly good meal at our hotel, we were transported into the city for a guided walking tour. This included a walk through the famous Red Light district, which shocked some of the more ‘conservative’ members of our group. I’d seen it all before, so enjoyed watching the reactions from some of them.

The lovely canals of Amsterdam

The lovely canals of Amsterdam'Belle', a statue to honour the sexworkers of Amsterdam‘Belle’, a statue dedicated to the sexworkers of AmsterdamA condom shopA condom shop

Sex shops everywhere - some very novel 'items' on show

Sex shops everywhere – some very novel ‘items’ on show

The Grasshopper Coffee Shop - aka a marihuana cafe

The Grasshopper Coffee Shop – aka a marihuana cafe

Kenia, our Honduras girl about to be educatedKenia, our Honduras girl about to be educated

The Royal Waiting Rooms at Central Station - built for the Dutch Royal Family but never used - they never catch trains! The Royal Waiting Rooms at Central Station – built for the Dutch Royal Family but never used – they never catch trains!

For our first night I had been paired with the only other Australian on the tour – Josie – to share a room, and was politely informed the next morning that my snoring had kept her awake all night. A quick word to Cameron with a suggestion that the four ‘single’ girls rotate each night sorted that out.

Sunrise view from my room

Sunrise view from my room

 

 

Marina outside hotel

Marina outside hotel

 

 

Lakeland Hotel

Lakeland Hotel

Fortunately, Josie was the only ‘light’ sleeper among us, the other two wouldn’t have woken if a bomb had gone off, so she only had to endure me every third night. It worked well. A visit to a family run cheese and clog making facility and a quaint little windmill village called Zaanse Schans filled in the following morning before heading off to the Rhine Valley in Germany.

Family run cheese and clog factory

Family run cheese and clog factory

Clog-making demonstration

Clog-making demonstration

The windmill village of Zaanse Schatte

The windmill village of Zaanse Schans

A very quaint village

A very quaint village

Pretty canal systems

Pretty canal systems

Local bakery - built in 1734

Local bakery – built in 1734
A cute family of ducks

A cute family of ducks

We were treated to a cruise along the Rhine to arrive at our hotel in Boppard, right on the banks of this beautiful river. We passed many castles, vineyards, cute little villages and enjoyed a glorious sunny afternoon.

One of many castles along the Rhine

One of many castles along the Rhine

Look closely - a pub is attached to this church!

Look closely – a church is attached to this pub!

Boppard - a very pretty riverside village

Boppard – a very pretty riverside village

Love this sculpture in the town square

Love this sculpture in the town square

Medieval archway in Boppard

Medieval archway in Boppard

A visit to a cuckoo clock shop and demonstration of how they work

A visit to a cuckoo clock shop and demonstration of how they work

Another in house meal was provided that night, along with entertainment in the form of the dreaded Karaoke. We only had two volunteers – our tour leader, and two sisters from Manchester who blew us all away with their performance.

Our tour leader and driver sharing a moment

Our tour leader and driver sharing a moment

Next stop, the beautiful old city of Nuremburg followed by a visit to a brewery in Plzen in the Czech Republic – famous for its Pilsener beer.

St Sebaldus Church, Nuremburg

St Sebaldus Church, Nuremburg

Tabernacle inside the church

Tabernacle inside the church

I stopped short of tasting the hops, unlike some of our group who were still pulling faces long after we left. I did enjoy a couple of glasses of beer at the end of the tour though. There was a nice balance of non drinkers and those of us who like a drink or two, so we managed to score second helpings at a number of taste testings!

Model display of the brewery in Plzn

Model display of the brewery in Plzen

286On to Prague for a two night stay. By now the weather was really heating up – some days were in the high thirties – so we were all delighted to find our hotel was air conditioned. Our ‘free day’ in this gorgeous city was spent visiting the castle as a group, then riding a funicular up to Petrin Hill for more spectacular views of the city.

The beautiful Charles Bridge in Prague

The beautiful Charles Bridge in Prague

Love locks on a canal bridge

Love locks on a canal bridge

Unusual sculpture outside Franz Kafka Museum - Prague's most famous writer

Unusual sculpture outside Franz Kafka Museum – Prague’s most famous writer

Roman Catholic church Týnský chrám

Roman Catholic church Týnský Chrám seen from the town square

 

 

Dinner with my Czech mates (check mates - get it?)

Dinner with my Czech mates (check mates – get it?)

 

 

Smoked salmon salad and a pilsener

Smoked salmon salad and a pilsener

 

 

Outside the Prague Opera House

Outside the Prague Opera House

It was at the castle walls that I decided I’d follow the others lead and pop myself up on a ledge to pose (seductively) with a vista of the city behind me. As I took my weight into my hands to push myself up onto the ledge (backwards), the muscles across my chest ripped – and I fell in a crumpled heap to the ground.

After my hapless attempt at posing on this ledge - that expression is one of sever pain!

After my hapless attempt at posing on this ledge – that expression is one of severe pain!

I didn’t know you had muscles across your chest that you could rip (I do now – the Pectoralis Major), but wow did it hurt! For days… So now I had to contend with a knee that decided that night time was a good time to bring on the most pain, a sore tail bone from the escalator fall, and ripped muscles that made deep breaths impossible. This was going well!

Castle guards doing the rounds

Prague marching band near the castle gates

Beautiful Prague Castle gates

Beautiful Prague Castle gates

Changing of the guard at the castle

Changing of the guard at the castle. Very cool in their Aviator sunglasses!

Our next port of call was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. A walking tour in 38 degree heat took the shine off our enjoyment of the city, and I really only enjoyed lunch and a cold beer. By this stage the heat was so intense that I succumbed to the embarrassment of holding an umbrella above my head. It helped a little. Bratislava was however, a beautiful city full of historic buildings and many sculptures.

One of the more serious sculptures in Bratislava

One of the more serious sculptures in Bratislava

And a not so serious one - this is Schone Naci, a poor & mentally ill local from the 20th century, who dressed in elegant attire & greeted townspeople every day.

And a not so serious one – this is Schone Naci, a poor & mentally ill local from the 20th century, who dressed in elegant attire & greeted townspeople every day.

'Cumil', a resident of the Old Town. It is unsure what he is doing - looking up ladies skirts or just climbed out of a sewer!

‘Cumil’, a resident of the Old Town. It is unsure what he is doing – looking up ladies skirts or just climbed out of a sewer! A favourite sculpture.

Elegant buidings everywhere

Elegant buidings everywhere
Mozart played at this concert hall

Mozart played at this concert hall

Fabulous copper doors at a restaurant

Fabulous copper doors at a restaurant

Love this ornate hanging street lamp in a courtyard

Love this ornate hanging street lamp in a courtyard

It took all my willpower to not jump into this fountain after a town walk in 38 degree heat!

It took all my willpower to not jump into this fountain after a town walk in 38 degree heat!

Even the trees had sculptures!

Even the trees had sculptures!

I certainly had my fill of sculptures here in Bratislava

I certainly had my fill of sculptures here in Bratislava

I’ve never been to Budapest before, and I was ‘wowed’ by its beauty. We were treated to a driving tour of the city before arriving at our hotel.

A group of us then made our way by public transport to Szechenyi Spa and Thermal Baths: (http://www.budapest.com/city_guide/sights/baths/szechenyi_bath.en.html for a fun afternoon jumping in an out of mineral pools of various temperatures. I was the only one hardy enough to brave the coldest pool twice. After the heat of the last few days, I welcomed it.

Cooling down at the Sch Baths

Cooling down at the Szechenyi  Baths

The main pool

The main pool

The gorgeous entry foyer to the baths

The gorgeous entry foyer to the baths

One of the cooler indoor pools

One of the cooler indoor pools

Me braving the cold pool - twice! It was heaven.

Me braving the cold pool – twice! It was heaven.

This afternoon was the highlight of my tour so far. I thought Budapest was beautiful, half a day is not enough for this amazing city. I’ll just have to return!

On to Vienna. This is one of those city’s I could happily live in, there is just something magical about it.

The famous carriage rides through Vienna

The famous carriage rides through Vienna

Cameron had organised lunch for us in an amazing underground restaurant, famous for its Wiener Schnitzel. The Zwolf Apostelkeller (www.zwoelf-apostelkeller.at) – the Twelve Apostles – was a fantastic find, it was very authentic.

Beautiful authentic interior

Beautiful authentic interior

A genuine wiener schnitzel and apple strudel was enjoyed by everyone.

This is how it's done in Vienna!

This is how it’s done in Vienna!

Proper strudel

Proper strudel

I continued the Austrian trend with a Radler – a shandy in our language. Doubt I’d ever find the restaurant again though! There are so many beautiful buildings in Vienna – Schoenbrunn Castle, Rathaus (Town Hall), the Parliament building, Hofburg Palace, the State Opera and St. Stephen’s Cathedral – so many photo opportunities. Enjoy these:

Inside St Stephen's Cathedral

Inside St Stephen’s Cathedral

Famous chandelier shop - J & L Lobmeyr

Famous chandelier shop – J & L Lobmeyr

Love the contrast of such a modern building

Love the contrast of such a modern building amongst the old

Beautiful tiled pattern of a church

Beautiful tiled patterned roof of a church

Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace

Love this photo = building unknown

Love this photo – the Hofburg Theatre – stunning!

The park at the rear of Schonbrunn Palace

The park at the rear of Schonbrunn Palace

A beautiful fountain in the city centre

A beautiful fountain in the city centre

After a great walking tour of the city, a group of us returned to Rathausplatz, the plaza in front of the Town Hall and home to the famous Christmas Markets. A summer Music Film Festival was attracting a crowd and looked like a fun place to be. There were food stalls everywhere, we enjoyed some great food and drinks in a really buzzing atmosphere.

Rathaus (Town Hall) at festival time

Rathaus (Town Hall) at festival time

Ready for the movies

Ready for the movies

Found some seats in front of the giant screen to wait for the film to start, but didn’t factor in that it starts when darkness falls and of course that doesn’t happen till around 10pm. We called it a night – this tour was exhausting! Our next stop was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. I’d been looking forward to seeing this city – I’d been to other parts of Slovenia and loved it. The approach to the city was a little disappointing – there was graffiti everywhere, even on historic buildings. One place we passed I thought was a marketplace full of stalls – it wasn’t, it was a type of ghetto covered in graffiti. The city itself was quite charming. Pretty canals, ‘lovelocks’ on bridges, statues everywhere, gorgeous painted buildings and churches with frescoed ceilings and a magnificent door.

Lovelocks on bridges - again

Lovelocks on bridges – again

 

 

Dragon Bridge

Dragon Bridge

 

 

Twin arches in the Old Town

Twin arches in the Old Town

 

 

Intricate brass doors to a church

Intricate brass doors to a church

 

 

The shiny handle from years of use

The shiny handle from years of use

 

 

These frescoes were worth opening those doors to!

These frescoes were worth opening those doors to!

 

 

Dozens of shoes thrown over lines

Dozens of shoes thrown over lines

 

 

A Greenpeace protest about Antarctic development

A Greenpeace protest about Antarctic development

 

 

 

 

Slovenian sense of humour

Slovenian sense of humour

 

 

The pretty canals of Ljubliana

The pretty canals of Ljubljana

The main square in the city centre turned into a buzzy, lively scene at night. Josie and I found an outdoor cafe with comfy chairs, settled in with some yummy icecreams and listened to a live band.

Ice cream, live music, comfy chairs - heaven!

Ice cream, live music, comfy chairs = heaven!

 

 

Pretty bridges at night

Pretty bridges at night

 

Dragon bridge looking more effective at night

Dragon bridge looking more effective at night

 

The beautiful 'pink building'

The beautiful ‘pink building’

 

Pretty entrance to Galeria Emporium store

Pretty entrance to Galeria Emporium store

On to Venice. I have one of those ‘love-hate’ relationships with this city. Yes, it is beautiful, unique, romantic and historically interesting – but oh, the crowds! It drives me insane – shoulder to shoulder crowds in 40 degree heat is not my idea of a pleasant experience. I did however enjoy a gondola ride with everyone else on the coach tour – Cameron had organised a thirty minute group booking for only fifteen euros – a deal too good to pass up. After a slice of pizza and a gelato, we made our way to the steps outside the Hard Rock Cafe for the gondola ride. I left the group after this to go exploring on my own. They were attending a lace making and glass blowing exhibition and I had seen it all before, so enjoyed the rest of the afternoon getting lost in the streets of Venice.

Florence was the next port of call. A surprise stop at a lookout on a hill provided us with a fantastic photo opportunity. One of our best hotel experiences so far – the Plus Florence Hostel – where we enjoyed a refreshing swim after another stifling hot city walking tour. The evening proved much more enjoyable as it had cooled down, and after another ‘free’ meal and a couple of drinks in the adjoining dance club, I wandered back through the city centre grabbing more photos of this lovely city.

The following morning we headed to Switzerland, with a photo stop at Pisa on the way. We were given a challenge – the most original Leaning Tower of Pisa photo – and had a lot of laughs watching everyone take on the most ridiculous positions in a bid for the prize. My contribution was a pose of ‘downward dog’ – a yoga position, with my butt up against the leaning tower. I won! My prize? A tacky marble statue of – you guessed it – the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

Our ten hour drive to our Swiss hotel turned into a fifteen hour journey, thanks to a Swiss national holiday weekend and major traffic delays. I was thrilled to get glimpses of the gorgeous Lake Como on this long drive. We amused ourselves with games on the coach – name that tune, quizzes and dancing the Macarena and Chicken Dance to get the blood flowing. At one stage I headed down to the back of the coach and layed down on the floor in the aisle, had a snooze and then did some yogic floor exercises! Our driver exceeded his legal driving hours and faced a heavy fine and a black mark against his licence, a situation we all felt very bad about. His only other option was to offload us at a service station and go off and have a four hour break – to his credit he opted to wear the penalty.

We finally turned up at the hotel at around 11pm, to be greeted by a very gruff hotel owner who informed us that if we wanted a wifi code, we had to buy something at the bar. No warm welcome, cup of tea or coffee, nothing. This once national ski champion had the most unpleasant bland personality for a hotel owner, his house rules bordered on the ridiculous and I have to wonder why this tour company continues to book his hotel. Still, the rooms were pleasant enough, and I woke in the morning to a beautiful view of a Swiss valley.

This day became the highlight of my tour. A train ride up to Jungfrauhoch – the highest railway station in Europe. It consisted of two parts, a train to Lauterbrunnen, then a cog railway to the ‘Top of Europe’ station – 3454 metres high. Not the top of the mountain (Jungfrau is over 4000 metres), but high enough. The journey up was great fun, the views were astonishing and I got to see Swiss cows with cowbells, so I was happy. I had been a little concerned about the effect the thinness of the air might have on my (now diminished) lung capacity, but I took Cameron’s advice to everyone to not rush around, and I was fine. Good practice for when I eventually go to Peru to see Machu Picchu. I had a fantastic time on this trip and was so glad I experienced it. The journey back down the mountain was amusing – most of us slept – an effect of the lack of oxygen at the higher altitudes.

After playing in snow a couple of hours previously, we arrived back to our hotel to mid thirties temperatures and promptly jumped in the pool to cool off. A bit of a nap afterwards was a welcome treat – this was the only time on this entire tour that one was possible – so I relished it. A very nice evening meal  that night (served by the still gruff hotel owner) finished off a fabulous day.

I was sad to leave beautiful Switzerland behind as we made our way across to Paris, again another long coach ride.