Archives for the month of: July, 2012

On Saturday we set off very early for Versailles. We had been there before but we wanted to see the “Grand Eaux” which only plays in Summer and only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They play classical music with the fountains playing and it was lovely to watch and listen to. We were the first in the gate and had a wonderful relaxing time wandering around the hallways of the palace before the hoardes decended on the place. We walked for about 5 hours around the beautiful gardens and Marie Antoinette’s palace – the Trianon and Petite Trianon and had our packed lunch in the garden there. There were thousands of people in and around the main palace and the grassy areas picknicking later on but very few ventured far from there so it was very quiet and nice to wander around the outer areas.

At the palace and in the grounds a Portuguese artist was the artist in residence and Maurice decided she must have been on something when she envisaged most of her designs! Some were spectacular and whimsical like the ostrich and swarovski crystal decorated helicopter and the giant shoes made from saucepans and lids. The crochet covered lions were different and so were the giant things hanging from the roof which were very intricate and must have been an enormous amount of work for the minions. The litererature stated that the giant hanging cloth pieces and other pieces were inspired by the women of Versailles?? One had to have a very vivid imagination.

We caught the train back which  is about 1/2 hour to central Paris and then the metro. We picked up a few more delicious goodies for dinner and enjoyed them in the courtyard with more good red wine.

On Sunday we caught the metro to an outer Paris suburb – Sevres to see the “Tour de France” cyclists race past. We got there a few hours beforehand and had a picnic and then watched as the locals came out to get ready for the floats from which merchandise is thrown to the waiting crowds. We managed to pick up a couple of caps and gave the other sweets that we caught to a little boy of about four years old standing near us. The floats were staggered over about 3/4 hour and every time he saw one he got very excited. He was thrilled with all his goodies that we gave him and his mother made him come over and thank Maurice when they left. The riders appeared about an hour later and they were gone in about 10 seconds but were cheered on as they went past by all of us.

After the riders had passed us we walked back to the metro and went into the “Champs Elysees” stop where we joined the tens of thousands of other spectators at Place Clemenceau. We just happened to make our way a bit forward and saw “George from the Goldcoast” who was standing on a chair he had brought with him from the place he was staying. He most generously asked us to get up on the chair when he heard us speak so we got some good shots of the riders and could see the course and where they finished which just happened to be very close to us. It was a great atmosphere and of course there were many British flags and supporters around us. The police were out in force everywhere.

When the race was over we went for a long walk past the Tuilleries gardens and the Louvre down to the right bank of the Seine to have a look at “Paris Plages” which they have been doing since 2002 in the square in front of the Hotel de Ville (city hall) and along part of the Seine. They ship in tons of sand and put up umbrellas and deck chairs so the Parisians can think they are at the beach! It only runs for a month and we happened to be there the day it started. They have ice cream sellers there and you can rent a deck chair or laze on the sand. They also have special showers rigged up and the whole atmosphere is unique and fun.

Monday morning we were up early to catch the underground to “St Lazare” station which is depicted in a Monet painting and has changed little since his time and caught the train to Vernon and then a bus to Giverny to Monet’s house and garden. I had booked the tickets online so we didn’t have to queue which was good and so we wandered in peace for about an hour around the beautiful gardens in front of his house and through an underground tunnel to the Japanese bridge and gardens on the other side of the road. It is a beautiful garden full of every kind of flower and with beautiful large trees surrounding the large lily pond. It is open every day for 7months of the year and there are many gardeners working in it all the time. The colours and varieties of flowers are just beautiful.

The house has been renovated as has the garden as it used to be in Monet’s time (he died in 1926) and it is beautiful. It is full of the Japanese paintings that he loved. He had a Japanese architect design his first bridge which later had to be rebuilt.

We wandered around the village of Giverny and had our picnic on a bench and then had a coffee in a lovely little cafe garden where Monet used to go and meet his friends. We caught the bus which took 20minutes back to Vernon and then the very modern train which took about 1/2 hour back to Paris. We then walked around “Place de L’Opera” before heading back to the appartment. The metro is very easy to use in Paris and we bought them in lots of 10 tickets which worked out at about $1.30 a time, so very reasonable.

We were very glad that we had this little studio appartment to stay in as we were told that as of a few days ago hotels doubled their prices to cash in on people stopping over on their way to the Olympics.

There are so many areas of Paris to explore so we will be back onen day to continue the exploration.

On our last day in Paris we went to the Rodin museum which Nancy and Bill recommended to us. Again we got there early which is vital if you don’t want to queue for hours at every museum.  There was a long queue by the time we left. We had a good look around the museum and the garden which was being set up for a large function the next day. He captured the human form so well and his style was also quite varied over the years.

We then found our way to “Les Halles” and to a restaurant which was recommended called “Au Pied du Cochon” (at the pig’s foot) which has been open since 1947 and is open 24hours a day. There were only French people eating there so we thought it should be good. It was! We both had beaujolais to drink and a traditional French onion soup with the cheesy crust on top. Maurice had a lovely piece of salmon and I had pork head casserole (without the head!)with potatoes which was delicious and then I had the best creme caramel and Maurice had homemade icecream. It was a fitting meal to end our stay in Paris and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Here in Europe the waiters have been excellent everywhere we have eaten with nothing too much trouble and any variations possible. Even in the little bar/cafe where we had coffee and croissants in the morning the man was there on his own and managed to serve eveyone at once. You paid when you left or when he had a minute. Twice a week they put fresh croissants in baskets on the counter and if you want one you ask for a plate and then choose the ones you want.

Tuesday afternoon was spend housekeeping and doing washing before getting ready for our departure on Wednesday 25th July to Rome. We got up early and had our last coffee and croissant at the cafe/bar and caught the metro to the Gare de Lyon. Au Revoir Paris.

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There is so much to say and there are so many beautiful views of Paris that I thought I would put it into two parts. 

We got to the Gare du Nord in Paris at 10am on the 18th July and made our way to our small studio appartment in the 9th arrondissement. Francoise who owns “le Papilles Gourmandes” (the gourmet taste”which has delicious meats and cheeses gave us the key.

The appartment is just down the hill from Sacre Coeur church to the right. Although it is very small it is well located just up the road from the metro station of Notre Dame de Lorette. There is also a piano in the appartment. It belongs to a friend of a friend and he lets it out when he is not in Paris – Roy Howat is an acclaimed pianist specializing in French music and plays all over the world.

There are many wonderful bakeries, cafes and delicatessen shops and restaurants nearby.

We wanted a French meal the first night we were there so we walked the streets and could only find Italian, Indian, Asian and a Hungarian restaurant so we opted for that as they had some French food!

We wandered around the streets the first afternoon and ended up at the Galleries Lafayette where there were people everywhere. It is sale time in Paris until the 31st July and the “soldes” (sales) are in every shop so Maurice and I picked up a couple of bargains and shed a couple of older things when we got back.

There seem to be more beggars and homeless people on the streets here than we have seen previously. There were a few in Bucharest in the main city area and more in Budapest but even more in Paris with many sleeping in the metro and in sleeping bags on the pavements and in the parks which is sad to see. There is also an enormous amount of graffiti everywhere even on some of the monuments. Every underground tunnel is full of it.

We next day we hiked up the hill early to Sacre Coeur before the crowds set in to have a look at the city from there and there was a camera crew there and actors having their faces painted.

We caught the metro to near the Luxembourg Gardens and had a lovely lunch that we had packed in the gardens before wandering over to the Pantheon which is a very impressive building and then to the Rue Mouffetard, one of Paris’s oldest merchant streets in the Latin Quarter.

I had booked us to go on a recommended dinner cruise on the Seine aboard the “Calife” so we caught the metro and walked down to the Seine at the Quai Malaquais. We had pre dinner drinks and then the boat left at 9pm. It was wonderful seeing Paris with it’s beautiful architecture all lit up and the Eiffel Tower which at 10pm everynight turns on it’s sparkling lights .

We sat next to a lovely couple Bill and Nancy from Buffalo, New York State and we had a delicious three course meal with decent red wine. It was very well organized and was more like a meal at a restaurant with each table served separately and the food was delicious and piping hot. We found our way back to the metro and got home about 1am.

My French has been coming back to me and I can understand almost all everyday things and the vocabulary is returning from the depths of the brain! but Maurice has found that a lot of people speak enough English to help him out.

Having been in Paris a couple of times we had seen a lot of main attractions and opted this time to do something different so I booked us into the “Cordon Bleu” cooking school for a “fish part 2” demonstration by a top French chef. There were only 3 “lay” people there. Maurice, me and another girl. The rest were budding young chefs. It was extremely professionally conducted with an American chef doing the translating for everything the French chef said and with a large mirror to show what the chef was doing and three large screens to watch the proceedings as well.

We learnt some good tips and got to taste the food after it was prepared. The chef did three fish dishes and they were all delicious. It didn’t finish until about 2.30pm and by this time we were ravenous so we went nearby to a great little cafe with the freshest salads and delicious four cheese quiche and excellent coffee.

We then walked to the “Tour Montparnasse” where we went up to the 56th floor to get a wonderful view of Paris.

We have been stopping by at another great little cafe for morning coffee before we get on the metro and it is good coffee and only about $2.50 for a good sized cup. There were some there having a beer at 7.30am! We just managed coffee and croissants which were delicious and put out in baskets only on Sundays. If you want one the barman gives you a plate and you chose your own croissant – very civilized.

The little fruit shops have very reasonably priced raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and delicious nectarines so we bought some for our breakfast.

We went to Francoise’s shop and bought some delicious terrine, ham, morbier cheese and next door to the bakery with with the best selection of bread. We bought a bottle of red and had dinner in the courtyard. It is just as well there is a small courtyard for our use as there is nowhere in the studio appartment to eat! The kitchen is behind cupboard doors and the bathroom is as small as our toilet back home. It doesn’t bother us as we spend little time here. The metro is just down the street and very handy.

The local little supermarket also had a good selection of everything especially upstairs which is like a coolroom but not closed off. You go up the stairs and it is really cold and all the milk, meat etc is on the shelves.

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The sit up train from Budapest to Munich was comfortable and we got in to Munich at 8.30pm.

The station is very tourist friendly with a variety of restaurants, cafes, supermarket etc. I have to mention the toilets again. There was a turnstile with a slot machine for payment.

We had for dinner my favourite thing when I first arrive in Germany – a crunchy Bratwurst sausage in a roll with tangy German mustard and potato salad – delicious!

The sleeper train to Cologne (we had to change trains for Paris at 5.43am as there were no sleepers left on the direct train even though I booked it well in advance) was another new one with towels, shower etc and the conductor brought us in breakfast at 5am – good coffee and an airline type box with juice, muffin, pumpernickel bread and cream cheese – just a bit on the early side!

Cologne station is massive but a few other stations could learn from it with lifts everywhere and good timetables and spotless – German efficiency as usual!

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Our “mini hotel Nightingale” in a central suburb in the “Pest” side of Budapest was more like a backpackers place with a communal area and kitchen in an old appartment building full of character with large rooms and with a wide marble staircase and old lift.  It was like something out of an old Spy movie.  A couple of the doors in the building had bars on them – they were like fort knox.

Breakfast wasn’t included so we went across the road to the large supermarket and bought a small bucket of nectarines, a punnet of blueberries, some good rye bread and cheese, water, half a dozen yoghurts, milk, water and three substantial sandwiches all for $15. 

It is interesting to see the differences around the world in hotels and restaurant prices.  We had a four star hotel in Yichang China with staff falling all over us for $75 a night and the basic room in the “mini” hotel in Budapest was the same price.

They had students in rotating shifts running the place who were very friendly and helpful who gave us all sorts of tips about the city.  The building was very well located with the metro tram  and bus outside the door and banks/supermarket/chemist/cafes/currency exchange all nearby.

We caught a tram and metro to the millennium memorial which was very ornate with pillars and many statues. From there we walked over to the Museum of Hungarian Agricultural which is known for it’s different types of architecture in several castle like buidings.  It was set in a lovely park on a lake. We then went across the road to the Szechenyi Thermal Medicinal Spa and Bath. It was built in 1913 in neo-baroque style. It has 15 indoor pools, saunas and steambaths and 3 large outdoor pools. The indoor thermal spas have a sulphur odour but not very strong.

We spent a few hours here relaxing and in the water. They have a round section which is a whirlpool and you get swept along by the water around and around which was fun as well as jets that come up from the bottom of the pool and you can stand over them as they bubble around you. It was Saturday and it was crowded but it was a great place to people watch. There were people of all shapes, sizes and ages and as Maurice suggested there were many there that probably didn’t have mirrors at home!

We had dinner at a lovely restaurant which had a live jazz band and a wonderful singer.  It might have been a small cinema in it’s hey day as there was a stage at the end of the long room. We had a traditional Hungarian meal – goulash of course, paprika chicken and dumplings and some nice Hungarian merlot.

The main courses in Budapest unless you have a large steak or fish are extremely reasonable between $10-$12 dollars. The same applied the next day when we ate outside at a lovely restaurant overlooking the Danube. We really enjoyed the Hungarian wine – nice merlots and a lovely chardonnay and also very reasonably priced.  The waiters in the main are very professional and even in a small cafe with table service a coffee was served on a little tray with a glass of water for about $2. 

The next day we went for a walk around the “Pest” area near the Danube. When we were many blocks away I realized that we walked off from having coffee without paying. We found our way back and the waitress was amazed that we had come back. She was very grateful as she said that a lot of people that sit outside just leave without paying. I hoped it didn’t come out of her wages.

Since leaving Perth on the 1st April we have not worn anything other than short sleeves but Budapest was the first place we had to put on a jacket but that was only for part of the day! 

A few Hungarians told us that we were having extremely unusual weather for this time of year with the days alternating betweeen sunshine, cloudy skies,a bit of rain and strong wind. It was quite warm when the sun was out but cool when the clouds rolled in.

We passed a church where we saw advertised a string orchestra concert in the large St Stefan’s Basilica so booked to go to that in the evening. We walked over the “Chain bridge” and had lovely views up and down the Danube.

That evening the seven piece Sting Orchestra was excellent. They played a variety of pieces from a range of composers.

Apart from the very touristy areas there was a lot of graffiti around and many homeless people with their goods and sleeping bags in various parts of the city. We often heard the police and ambulance sirens. There was also a strong security presence eveywhere especially on the streets and in the parks and at every metro station there are people checking all tickets.

Budapest is the only place we have found so far that if you want to use the toilet in Starbucks or McDonalds you have to buy something and show your receipt or pay to use the facilities. Public toilets are almost non existent.

You can buy a 1,2 or 5day pass for very little and this can be used on all public transport which is very handy. We caught the metro the next day near to the chain bridge and then walked over to “Buda” castle and took the funicular up to the top. The old town and the castle are beautiful and the views over the river to the “Pest” side were spectacular. The castle now houses the National Gallery, the National Museum, the National Library and History Museum.

We walked back over the chain bridge and caught a tram along the river to Margaret Island.  We saw a cute little electric car which went about 5kms an hour so we hired that and went around the island where a lot of people were picknicking, swiming at the pool or cycling about. It was a very tranquil leafy place to spend the afternoon.

We left there and went back and found a traditional bar/restaurant which was run by a large women who looked as though she ate the whole menu every day. We did ask her if it would be too much to have an entree and a main course to which she replied ” You are in Hungary – EAT!” So we did and enjoyed every mouthful. We then went to another lovely concert by the same string orchestra at St Michael’s church and they played Vivaldi’s “Four seasons, some Mozard, Lizst and to finish “Hungarian Rhapsody No.2” but maybe we shouldn’t have had the bottle of wine in the afternoon as Maurice was nodding off during the performance. I must say it was a bit close and warm in the church. The concert was a nice way to end our stay in Budapest.

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We left Bucharest and passed through Alpine like villages all very neat and tidy and beautiful mountains thick with vegetation and lovely streams and waterfalls. We left at 7pm but saw quite a lot of scenery as it didn’t get dark until about 9.30pm.

We didn’t make it to Count Dracula’s castle in Brasov which was a three hour train trip from Bucharest so that is on the agenda when we return. We would have been safe as we had eaten plenty of garlic in the last few days. Apparently there are many castles in that area of Transylvania.

Our compartment was 5star and only the two of us which was lovely. The toilet and shower compartment was excellent and we were given water, toothbrush etc and a voucher for a sandwich and coffee for breakfast in the nice restaurant car. The poor people in the next carriage were 6 to a compartment and I have memories (not that fond) of being with smelly socked people on various trains on Eurail journeys long ago. There were only three compartments taken in our new carriage so we felt very priviledged and very grateful for the luxury after the previous horrendous train trip.

We met a lovely German older man at breakfast and I practised my German as he spoke little English. He had been driving from Berlin to Greece for a holiday when his car broke down in Romania. He said it could not be repaired so sold it to a Romanian for a small amount of money and he was making his way back to Berlin on the train.

The scenery in the morning was of very lush wheat, corn and sunflower fields and neat little villages.

Maurice has calculated that we have done about 8,000kms on trains so far and apart from the last journey we have enjoyed the train travel very much. It is very relaxing and we have seen so much and met a lot of nice people along the way.

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We slept like logs the first night in Bucharest and took our time before moving off in the morning. The hotel staff were very helpful and gave us a map. We made our way to the river and sat outside and had a light lunch at a nice little Italian cafe and then caught the underground into the centre of the city. It was hot but not as humid as in Istanbul. Most of the women were very stylishly dressed which was a contrast to a lot of the local women in Istanbul who in the heat of the day were wearing trenchcoats all done up over their clothes as well as their headscarves. It made us feel hot just looking at them.

The Romanian language being latin based and some words very similar to Italian made it easy to get around with Maurice and his schoolboy’s latin and me with my Italian. We had breakfast the second day with a lovely couple from Madrid. She was Romanian but had lived most of her life in Madrid and he was Spanish. We all had a great discussion – half Italian, part Spanish and a bit of English and Maurice’s google translate which spoke the words in Spanish. He was a policeman in Madrid.

All around the streets in the suburban area in which we stayed and also around the city there was a lot of recontruction in progress of old and historic buildings going on that was the result they told us of money from the EU which didn’t seem to have dried up yet. The old part of the city is particularly interesting and the old churches are beautiful and most played lovely music which created a wonderful atmosphere. There are some very grand buildings which have been or are in the process of being restored. Bucharest also has it’s own Arc de Triomphe but that can only be climbed for some reason on a few days of the year.

We had a fantastic meal at a Hungarian restaurant in the old part of the city which is full of cafes and restaurants. As we both love eggplant we have had every country’s version of baba ghanoush – in Dubai it was called Murtabal and in Istanbul and Romania they refer to it as Eggplant salad but it is all the same thing. They have delicious pretzel like breads in Bucharest that are sold by the side of the road and in the bakeries and they are very tasty. We have been walking a lot but I think we have put on a few extra grams as we can’t resist trying some of the tasty food in the different countries – that is part of the wonderful thing about travel – for us anyway.

The clothing is also very reasonable and very stylish and there are many boutiques around the city. I have bought a couple of things and so has Maurice and we have made a pact that if we buy something we get rid of something apart from a nice dress that I bought in Dubai and a couple of the gifts that Salim’s family gave me that Alan kindly offered to take back to Perth sometime. After living in the same meagre selection of clothing for 3months some of the older clothes were becoming a bit shabby and we didn’t want to arrive at the relatives in a few weeks looking like hobos. We saw a great T-shirt on a girl that stated “more style than cash” which probably applies to us.

One thing that struck us and we were warned about was to be careful of our belongings as there were gypsies around and there were the usual professional beggars in the city centre but not many. We did see a few gypsies but the security presence and police around everywhere – in the parks and in every shop and on the street must keep them at bay.

There are posters everywhere for erotic massage and apparently there are many tours to Romania for this purpose but we didn’t see this seedy side of the city. We only saw one girl injecting the ankle of a male friend on a street corner in the middle of the city. I don’t think he was a diabetic.

We met some lovely people the next day. I have had trouble with my Nokia phone and walking around the city we saw a sign saying “phone house” so we ventured up to the 5th floor to ask where we could take the phone. “John” was so helpful and said that he only imported phones but he rang the Nokia care centre and wrote out the address and gave us his phone number in case we had a problem. He also told us the way the taxi should take us and told us how much it should cost. We then found a very nice taxi driver who took us to the shop and gave us a commentary of all the historical sites on the way and didn’t overcharge us.

Then for 53lei (about $14) the very helpful guy at Nokia got the Australian programme and downloaded it onto my phone. Meanwhile we went off exploring the neighbourhood and had a good coffee. We sms’d John thanking him for his assistance.

By the time we got back to the hotel after a late lunch we were a bit hot and sticky and we had already checked out of the hotel so we asked if we could pay and have a shower. The receptionist told us to go ahead and wouldn’t charge us. Unbelievable and all on Friday the 13th.

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We went to the train station to start our journey to Bucharest. We had been advised when we booked our tickets that due to major railworks we would be bused to Kapikule in Turkey to join the train to Bucharest. The bus was full and we arrived at Kapikule at 1.30am on the 11th July.

 The bus conductor and driver spoke no or little English so we all got off our bus and stood in line in a waiting room. There was one policeman on duty who had on a sherrif’s badge? and the other border control people arrived at 2am. They stamped our passports and most of us went outside to wait for the train. We spoke to a New Zealand couple who were spending time in Bulgaria and a Englishman who said this was his first attempt at arranging his own travel – he might not do it again!

We were then told that there was a hold up as a computer system glitch in Bulgaria meant that passports could not be checked and the train could not yet depart. Two carriages finally turned up at 4am – one for Sofia with sleeper seats and “our” carriage – a sit up carriage for Bucharest. As the conductor spoke no English but motioned us to that carriage, on we went. We were not really happy as we had paid for a 2berth sleeper but we thought things might improve – they didn’t!

Once it was light in Bulgaria all we saw were hundreds of fields of sunflowers and fields and abandoned orchards.

About 7am after little rest we were herded off the train with our luggage and struggled with it over several rail tracks and then onto another bus. We bumped our way down the road not knowing if we were going to Bucharest on the bus. After about an hour we stopped at Zagora station and had to drag our luggage down a flight of stairs and then up stairs to the the platform to the train for the rest of the journey. Our “wagon lits” with four of us on board was probably lovely in 1930 with a solid wood fit out and handbasin and only two bunks to a compartment but the conductor then advised us that the airconditioning was not working and there was only one window which could be opened about 20cms. It was like being back at the Turkish bath without the cool water. There was also no fan in the compartment. It was stifling the whole time and we didn’t get much sleep.

We seemed to stop a hundred times. The conductor didn’t know much and after he changed into his boxer shorts spent most of his time asleep in his cabin. The Bulgarian railway stations are very dilapidated and in poor condition as were most of the buildings that we saw on the way. Most of the factories that we passed were disused and vandalised and the remaining buildings looked in very poor condition. The roads were bumpy and most country roads that we could see from the train were unsealed.

What amazed us was that there was no food or drink to be bought on the train and no one came on board to sell food or drink. – this didn’t even happen in India. I dashed off the train at one stop hoping that the train wouldn’t take off without me but I needn’t have worried as we were there for over 2hours. They had the gall to call the train the “The Bosphor Express!”

The kiosk which sold very basic items didn’t even have a fridge and I was lucky that they accepted my euros and gave me change in Bulgarian Lev because further down the line the kiosk would not accept euros and others had to go out of the railway station to find a currency booth to exchange some money. We ended up with very doughy rolls with ham, cheese and soggy chips or a kind of meat schnitzel with chips in a roll.

The couchette carriages next to us at least had windows that could be opened on both sides so that made it more bearable and after our last big stop we moved in there leaving our bags in the other carriage.

Our conductor I think felt sorry for us (we did too!) and sold us a couple of cold beers from his supply. After another lengthy delay at a station where we were told that the train from Bucharest was delayed, the Bulgarian passport control came onto the train and checked our passports and after 1/2 hour we went on our way. The Romanian side looked a lot better. It would be interesting to also see Sofia to see if the city is more affluent.

We got to Bucharest about about 2hours late which was amazing with all the changeovers and delays and made our way to our hotel. We had a shower immediately and felt a bit more human. We wandered down the road and had a nice Romanian meal with a nice young Australian couple Joy and Matt who were on the train with us. They kindly swapped rooms with us as we didn’t have an airconditioned room but a double bed and they had twin beds and airconditioning. We crashed and got a good night’s sleep.

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Istanbul was in such contrast to Dubai with lots of very green trees and flowers everywhere.

It was cooler about 30degrees but also quite humid. We stayed across the road from the Grand Bazaar in a lovely family owned hotel the “Niles”. They have a beautiful rooftop terrace overlooking the sea of Marmara and serve a fantastic breakfast with delicious breads and salad,cheeses, very tasty tomatoes and their own olive oil as well as all the usual breakfast fare.

They won a “trip advisor” award and it was well deserved as they went out of their way to make us welcome with tea and turkish delight and gave us maps and tips on the city.

The first afternoon we wandered about and went to see the “Blue Mosque” and the Yerebatan Cistern which is a most amazing underground water reservoir built in 543AD. It is a beautiful structure and has a lovely tranquil quality in the half darkness notwithstanding the number of tourists wandering along its walkways. Drops of water drip from the roof continuously.

We had some fresh juice on the way back to the hotel. They have some interesting combinations with tamarind and fresh fruit juices as well as delicious pommegranate juice.

We asked the hotel for a recommendation for a very late lunch and we went down the road to a very local place where they didn’t speak much English but we managed to order a couple of dishes to which they added a mountain of various hot tasty breads. I just got a rude awakening when I ate what I throught was a large whole capsicum but it was the hottest chilli I’d ever eaten. Another person we met was caught out with the same thing.

We found the food in Istanbul was very reasonably priced and the vegetables were all extremely fresh and tasty and the grilled meat was spicy and delicious. The tomatoes which were blood red and tasted like the homegrown ones.

After breakfast on the terrace overlooking the many boats in the harbour we set out for the Topkapi palace with thousands of other tourists. It is an enormous palace with 180degree views over the Bosphorus to Asia and overlooking the sea of Marmara. The Harem where the sultan, his family, concubines and eunuchs lived has over 300 rooms and many of them are decorated with beautiful tiles from floor to ceiling. The palace has many separate buildings some of which house a wealth of artifacts from weaponry to carriages as well as an 86carat diamond which was very impressive.

We walked about 20minutes from there to the so named Egyptian Spice Market which was full of displays of spices and all forms of Turkish Delight some made with sugar and some with honey with many kinds of nuts. This market was extremely crowded and it seems it has become as popular than the Grand Bazaar which sells everything but was not as crowded.

We had nice bottle of champagne when we got back to the hotel to celebrate my birthday and then had a wonderful dinner of a mixed mezze plate and delicious lamb dishes at a lovely rooftop restaurant overlooking the sea. We loved the balmy nights there.

On the 10th July our last day in Istanbul we went to go to the Hagia Sofia museum but as there were hundreds of people waiting in line we decided to keep that for another time.

We caught the tram over the bridge to the other side of Istanbul and then caught the train through the tunnel to the Taksim district which is only a short trip but was contructed about 1870 about the same time as the London underground. From there we walked a long way up the main street which is very wide and mainly pedestrian apart from the old trams which run from the tunnel to the main square. There are many boutiques,cafes and restaurants everywhere.

We went back to the Sultanahmet area the same way and treated ourselves to a Turkish bath at the Cemberlitas Hamami which was built in 1584. It is between 40 and 60degrees but the women’s side was not so hot whereas Maurice said his side was much hotter.

It was very relaxing lying on the central round marble platform (I was going to say slab but that sounded a bit morbid) on the small sarong that they gave you. The ceiling is a dome with many holes to let in light. The two women who did the scrubbing and the soaping were not model types (picture Gina Rinehart in a black bra and bikini pants) but they scrubbed and soaped each person then scooped up lots of water and threw it over themselves to keep cool. They then took you over to a running tap and washed your hair and doused you with lots more cool water. I found it very envigourating. There were also side alcoves with water fountains running cold and hot water that you could mix and throw over yourself. We then had a 1/2 hour oil massage and we both looked very fresh and scrubbed by the time we came out – Maurice was still a bit comatose so we went into a lovely old  coffee house and had delicious walnut type baclava and a strawberry tart. I had a Turkish coffee which Maurice likened to black tar. The waitress also gave us a redish coloured piece with syrup  to try and asked us to guess what it was.  We thought maybe preserved fig but it was a tomato!  Tasted delicious.  I wouldn’t have thought of making a tomato into a sweet.  They had a long original marble trough were you could wash your hands.  They had these in various forms in the Grand bazaar and all over the city and it was good to be able to wash your hands and face and feet we saw in some instances.

We wandered down to the waterfront and sat for a long time overlooking the busy harbour and the locals swimming off a jetty and fishing off the rocks. We found a lovely little park and restaurant attached also overlooking the water and had an early dinner there which was very pleasant and then went to a sufi music concert and whirling dervishes ceremony which we very much enjoyed. It is amazing that the dervishes whirl for about 10minutes at a time with their eyes closed and they stay in the same spot and are perfectly stable when they stop.

We then headed back to the station for our bus/train ride to Bucharest.  We will definately come back to Istanbul.

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We We arrived in Abu Dhabi on the 2nd of July at 1230am and took the complimentary Etihad coach to Dubai and got there about 2am. We were not going to disturb Alan’s lovely caretakers Mary and Augustine at that hour so the Etihad man kindly took our luggage on a trolley around the corner to a “Tim Hatton’s” 24hour coffee shop where we checked our emails and drank coffee until 5.30am when we took a taxi (the driver got hopelessly lost even though we had a good map to show him) and got there about 6.30am.

The villa is very close to Burj al Arab – one of the most recognisable buildings in Dubai with Burj Khalifa the tallest building further to the south.

We were like zombies after little sleep and so spent most of the day sleeping or resting. The day after we went for a walk and it was very hot (over 40degrees) but nice and dry and we were only about 15mins walk from the beach.

Alan (a captain of the A380 with Emirates) arrived from Australia the next day. It was lovely staying at his house rather than another hotel and we enjoyed having a conversation in English again and Maurice was able to talk aeroplanes ( his passion ) with Alan.

We went to the Mina al Salam mall near Burj al Arab and wandered around the old style building with beautiful heavily carved and decorated wooden beams where they had a wonderful assortment of mostly expensive shops. The packaged dates and towers of turkish delight were a delight. Little boats took tourists up and down the waterways.

Alan took us to a great little restaurant where we sat outside and had murtabal (eggplant dip) hoummos,tabouli and lamb – it was all delicious. The next day Maurice and I went to the “Mall of the Emirates” which is enormous with an indoor skiing area (complete with penguins) and a cafe with a large fake fire burning brightly.

We caught the train from there down to the old city of Diera where we walked around the gold souk and the spice market. The train stations are like 5star hotels with all signs and announcements in English as well as Arabic. At Diera we caught a small local boat across the river for 1 dirham (3.7dirhams to the $) and by then it was over 45+degrees so we stopped at a restaurant and had some nice arabic salads and hoummos and delicious pommegranate juice. Most of the staff in the restaurants and cafes and a lot of the shops are Indian or Asian and speak English.

Maurice was happy to be able to communicate easily with people on the street again. We decided that as we were over that way that we would walk down to Sheik al Maktoum’s house which is part of a cultural village that they are in the process of renovating. It was very interesting and also nice and cool inside as it had got much hotter,the humidity had increased and there was no shade.

Alan took us to a wonderful Persian restaurant at night and the food was again delicious – flame cooked chicken, lamb and fish and a tasty eggplant dish and salads.

The next day we decided to splurge and went to “afternoon tea” at 1.30pm! at the skybar on the 27th floor of the Burj al Arab. It is the piece in the photos that juts out of the building. The only way to see the hotel is to book to eat there or you cannot get near the building. It was a wonderful experience with expansive views over one of the “palm” developments, the ocean, beach and towards the suburbs and one part of the city in the distance. The service was impeccable and the “tea” was more like a feast with a glass of my favourite “Louis Roederer” champagne. There were about 20 teas to choose from or coffee. We decided not to opt for another glass of champage as it was $40 a glass.

I had a headache from looking into the ocean by the time we went to go and asked one of the hostesses at ground level if they could find me a panadol. She came back and said that she was not allowed to give it to me but their paramedic was on his way! I thought that a bit extreme but he in his suit accompanied by the hostess arrived and asked me if I was allergic to anything and then gave me a sealed packet with 2 paracetamol complete with date/date of expiry/dossage etc. I thanked him and he left but he didn’t think of some water with which to take these so I asked someone else for that.

Salim my UAE friend from Mandarin class in Hangzhou picked us up from there and took us on a drive around the city and over towards Sharjah which is his home. It is about an hour’s drive from Dubai. We went to an interesting mall called “Wafi” which has an area showing the architecture and goods for sale of different countries like Syria, Turkey,Morocco and Jordan. It has a large open air eating area with tandoor type ovens and all the various nationalities’ foods.

We then went over to the “Dubai Mall” which the largest in Dubai. It has a wonderful music fountain show every half hour and the tallest building the “Burj Khalifa” as a backdrop. It was very hot with a very hot wind blowing but it was worth seeing the fountains.

We were invited by Salim to his aunt’s house for lunch on the Friday when all the family get together and we me his parents and Maurice met his uncles while I met his mother, auntie, grandmother and his three sisters. It was great to meet all of his close family and they made us so welcome.

We had the most delicious roasted goat (from the family farm) with saffron rice, delicious pickles, yoghurt and salads. Salim’s second youngest sister Noura just graduated from high school we had a lovely cake that his older sister Amel had made.

The family made us so welcome and they gave me an overwhelming number of gifts. As a tradition I had incense wafted around me and sprayed with lovely perfumes before we left the house.

After lunch we had dates and coffee and relaxed in the lounge. Salim then took us on a tour through the ruggued mountains and where the familie’s goat farm is and up to Fujaira past the Friday makets where mountains of mangoes, plants and other goods were for sale.

We then went on the new highway back to Dubai. It was a wonderful day.

On the way home we went to the Wafi mall again to buy me a lovely dress for my birthday that we had seen the previous day.

The next day Alan took us on a Cooke’s (his surname) tour of the Palm with all it’s villas and hotels and past the Atlantis hotel which is a spectacular building. The further palm constructions have halted but the plans are there and there are more hotels being built and more land reclaimed. They dropped me at the train station after a nice coffee on the Esplanade and I changed metro and met Salim who took me to lunch with his mother and an aunt we had not met the previous day. We went to an Indian seafood restaurant and the food was delicious. Salim’s grandfather used to take him there when he was a small boy and it has been open since the early 80’s. We then went for a drive around Sharjah and to a very interesting museum in a beautiful building with a very plush lounge at the top.

Later we visited the old bazaar and had a tea in an original little shop where some of the old men sat around enjoying the afternoon.

We drove back to Dubai and met up with Alan and Maurice at “Barbeque Delights” another great Indian restaurant which served a delicious spiced leg of lamb and spicy eggplant dish.

We bid Salim farewell and we had an early night. Against our wishes, Alan most kindly took us to the airport at 4.30am on the 8th July for our 7am flight to Istanbul.

We really enjoyed our time in Dubai and Sharjah and our time with Alan, Salim and his family.

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We took the fast train which took 2 1/2 hours to Chengdu from Chongqing. The station is enormous with a lot of signs but nothing in English saying which way to the fast trains. We had enough time thank goodness to walk around to find the correct area. Some of the Chinese unfortunately have the habit of just laughing at you when you go up to them. They think you will ask them to speak English. It is sometimes most annoying. A lot of them also stare as though we are from another planet and with Westerners shown on the TV these days we shouldn’t be so unusual. Maurice met a nice Canadian guy who gives them what for if they stare at him and they then take off – he has lived here for 3years and is fluent in Mandarin. Lucky him!

The waiting area for the fast train was full and when the doors open for entry to the train it was like a post Christmas sale with everyone pushing and shoving to get to the train. We now push and shove with the best of them. Maurice was trying to be very polite and was nearly decked by little old ladies so we have now learnt our lesson. There are very few places that we have found where you are able to wait on the platform more than a few minutes before the train takes off and then there is a mad scramble to get on board.

The views along the track ranged from cement and chemical factories nestled between hills and then beautiful valleys of fields full of green paddy fields and market gardens dotted with very green conifers and ponds. We could have been in Italy!

The new north train station in Chengdu is like the one in Shanghai – very modern and the size

of a couple of city blocks. We stayed at a good central location in the city near the “Jin Li” popular tourist area with a lot of novelty shops and old style buildings. We found a couple of wonderful restaurants with hot and fiery delicious Sechuan food. We found that China have the best cucumbers – nobbly and very crunchy – they serve them raw, pickled and cooked and are just delicious.

I had booked to be a panda keeper for the day so Maurice had a more relaxing day and went for a couple of walks. A schoolboy stopped him and asked him if he could talk to him. He asked him if he was part of the “team”. Maurice said that he wasn’t and asked him what he meant. Apparently their school had some Australians come and visit them but Maurice still didn’t find out what the “team” was.

I also had a girl in a coffee shop ask if she could practice her English and when I told her I was from Australia, she said ” I like Australia, it is a nice city!”

I caught a taxi to the Jidi Panda Reserve which is about an hour from the city and covers over 200 hectares. They have about 86 pandas of all ages from 10months old. I joined six Japanese tourists to panda keep for the day which involved cleaning out some of their cages, cutting up their apples and panda cake – an baked oatmeal cake which they love. We then went through the back of their enclosures to pathways to feed them these on bamboo poles. In the afternoon they are fed apple with vitamins which have been put into the pieces of fruit. They make the pandas come to their food and get them to stand and move around and to open their mouths so that they can see their general wellbeing. They have a keeper during the day and another one at night who look after their particular enclosure. There are several enclosures. They have a constant supply of bamboo as they each eat 30kilos a day. They spend 12hours eating, 10hours sleeping and 2hours when they are active. The young ones are very cute and they play and tumble about and hang upside down and sleep like babies with their bottoms in the air. A lot of the older pandas have come from various zoos and are much more subdued.

They also have a new Red Panda enclosure which is very large and they can move around as they like.

The Japanese tourists were on tight schedule so they left at lunchtime and I had Xiao Qian (the keeper co-ordinator guide) to myself and was able to go back and feed the pandas which was lovely to be able to just quietly watch them.

There are a pair of girl twins called Xiao Xiao (small,small) and Da Da (big, big) although they are both about the same size. Xiao Xiao is very cheeky and when she doesn’t get the attention or wants more food she makes a funny squeeking sound. They have lovely eyes and mickey mouse fluffy ears.

We have been catching the local buses (some little ones are likes trams)to find local restaurants and then having a long walk back to the hotel. At night we passed hundreds of older people in a large carpark doing ballroom type dancing and further along the road more hundreds of people doing aerobics to music and then more hundreds further down the road dancing and some very close by singing with a large crowd around them. There is a lot of atmosphere on the streets which is wonderful to see.

A few nights when we have got back to the hotel we have been watching a series on the ESPN network showing various track and field events since the beginning of the Olympics and we have seen some wonderful old footage shown from over the years.

Chengdu have put in 1 subway line since we were here nearly 2years ago and are putting in another two lines at the moment.

We had our last pedicures, manicures and visit to the hairdresser in the afternoon and as the net said that Etihad opened their check in 4hours prior to departure we got there early only to discover that in Chengdu it opened 2hours prior.

We went and had a last delicious meal at the nice restaurant at the airport and then waited with a group of Italians who had been to Tibet for 2weeks before having another 3/4hour wait at the counter while they sorted our reservation out with Abu Dhabi.  All was well in the end and we left Chengdu at 2120.

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