Surprising Serbia

Thankfully this time by taking the motorway our around 500km trip only took about 4 hours so we reached Belgrade in good time.  The problem was in finding our campsite. It turns out that in “Serbia the land that TomTom forgot” our gps doesn’t have complete maps of any of the country so only really knows the motorway.  Not much help in getting around.

After a couple of ‘shall we go left or right’  wrong decisions we found Camp Dunav, Dunav being Serbian for Danube the famous river that runs from Germany through Europe and ending at the Black Sea.

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We were a first for the camp, no Kiwis had stayed there before. Definitely a bit more off the beaten track here. Everyone who stays gets a temporary residents permit for the city.

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One thing that we found out very quickly is how cheap things are in Serbia, especially food and drink. Cheapest in Europe so far and very likely to be the cheapest place we will visit in Europe. This watermelon weighing over 5kg cost 100 Dinar, the equivalent of about NZ$1.40

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Belgrade is a big city with a population of around 1.6 million and despite it’s reasonably recent conflicts and bombings- is gradually becoming more of a tourist destination.  While certainly far from the prettiest city in Europe there’s definitely potential for it to become even more popular, the city has a great feel and a lot of character. We had planned to stay 2 nights and stayed 4 (also a record for the campground apparently, it was pretty rough).

Unlike some places we’ve visited the people are super-friendly, genuine and helpful and a lot of them speak English.  Generally the people who said they had limited English spoke really well and the ones who said they could speak English didn’t understand us.

We enjoyed looking around the city although it was pretty hot.

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Although there are alot of hideous concrete high rise apartments there are also fun, lively areas like the Bohemian District where there are bars, cafes and artsy shops all along the cobbled street.

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Another well publicised street is nicknamed ‘silicon valley’ due to the bars’ female clientele who have usually had a bit of work done, although the evidence was lacking when we went passed, must have gone too early.

The centre of town has a few pedestrian only streets which means it’s good for wandering around out of the way of the Serbian drivers.

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Forget the Italians reputation, Serbians would have to be the most unpredictable and impatient drivers we’ve come across. They can certainly make use of their horn.  We saw many ‘thread the needle’ multiple lane passing manoeuvres. Overtaking can be done anywhere anytime.

We weren’t entirely sure if we could follow the tram over the bridge, hard to tell what to do when you can’t read Cyrillic, but we got over safely.

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Most of the cars are modern European but there are still many older Yugoslav manufactured models around like the Zastava and Yugo.

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We did a bit of sightseeing visiting the Gardos Tower and City Fortress.
The tower was built within the crumbling walls of a small fortress (now in the suburb of Zemun) in the 1800’s.  Climbing to the top gives you good views across the city.

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The city Fortress is a huge structure at the north of the town. The old stone walls and buildings are quite impressive and are a good spot for locals to sell their homemade goods like crocheted tablecloths.

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The city has made good use of the 2 rivers that converge at its heart by creating a man-made lake with beaches running down either side. Excellent spot to get some sun then cool off with a swim.

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The beaches weren’t as busy as we expected which made for a slow day for the lifeguards. With no daring rescues to be made they had to resort to sauntering around in their speedos.

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The riverbanks are home to many floating restaurants, ranging from ones that look about ready to sink to some classier options.

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We went for the latter and were really surprised by the quality of food. Our calamari risotto was fantastic, so good we contemplated going back the following night.

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Can’t fault our spot on the river for enjoying good food and drink.

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Our next meal out was at a more traditional restaurant so we got more of a taste of what true Serbian food is like (good) . We ordered a mixture of dishes, not really knowing what they were. Our favourite was the simplest dish a traditional salad of tomato, cucumber, onion, oil, salt. Next the traditional bread and a bean/tomato/spices curry like dish. Least favourite, mainly as it was too salty, was the meat patty stuffed with cheese and smoked sausage, and this is the small portion.
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It was out for dinner this night that we were asked by a boy, who can’t have been older than 6, for a light for his cigarette!

Our time in Serbia came to an end with a couple of nights on the outskirts of Zlatibor in the south west of the country. Campgrounds were scarce so we treated ourselves to an apartment in a family home.

We booked it through the daughter who had good English but she was away when we arrived so it was interesting trying to communicate with the mother who knew zero English. Matt was trying to make conversation by pointing to the wooden ceiling and giving the thumbs up to show he liked it. According to the daughter who we saw the next day the mother thought Matt was asking if the roof was stable and not going to fall down on us. I think we’ll have to practice our charades more.

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We were surrounded by rolling hills and a paddock of goats.

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Zlatibor is a touristy town for Serbians especially in winter with it known for skiing, that may have been why we saw this guy practising on roller blades.
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The town has a feel kind of like Hanmer Springs, in the mountains with pine trees, people wandering about looking at the markets no one in too much of a hurry. We found a great dessert shop so decided to have molten chocolate pudding and banoffie pie for dinner.

We really enjoyed our time here in Serbia. Between the friendliness of locals and good summer weather to the very cost effective accommodation, food and drink what’s not to like.

Next destination, Montenegro.

Beautiful Lake Bled

Our drive into Slovenia towards Lake Bled started off as a nice drive along a river through lots of little towns. It was relaxing enough to stop for a drink and take in the scenery.

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This is where the simplicity of it ended as the second half of the drive wound through the mountains and seemed more like a 4WD track in places.  Matt was enjoying being in the drivers seat while Rach just had to hold on around all the twists and turns.  Never fear The Goo was up to the challenge of a 4+ hour trip to do 185km.

Once we reached Lake Bled we found our campground nestled at the end of the lake with a great view of the island in the middle which has a church taking pride of place on it. Very very scenic.

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There were heaps of boats for hire around the lakefront so we (Rach providing the manpower) took the chance to row out to the island and climb the steps to the church.

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But why take an ordinary boat when you can have a swan boat! We’re sure this made the rowing quicker.

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Early in the morning this end of the lake is busy with rowing training, the club is where some of the 2012 Olympic medallists call home.

The lake isn’t that large, it takes around an hour or so to walk around the whole thing. The town of Bled is at the opposite end to the camp and on the rainy day we had we decided to explore it. Of course we didn’t want to get too wet so thought we’d better stop for a piece of the famous “Bled cream cake” . Effectively a custard square with the filling half custard and half cream. Kind of felt like a piece of home.

Bled Castle is perched on the cliffs above the lake, we didn’t get up to it but it would be a great viewpoint to see the whole lake.
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We had a couple of sunbathing sessions on the lakefront, people took any space they could find, on the stones, grass or nestled amongst the trees. The water was really warm especially by NZ standard.

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We had a great time relaxing here, it would have to definitely be up there as one of the prettiest places we’ve been to. We’d highly recommend anyone travelling in this area to have a stop here.

Our next destination was a quick stopover in Croatia so we departed Lake Bled in the North West and drove across Slovenia crossing the border in the South East.

It was another reasonably long drive and due to the fact that we weren’t deterred when the gps (set to “avoid tolls”) said it had limited map information on this area, we ended up on a windy gravel road for a while. It seemed as though we passed through so many small towns, where there was a sign saying goodbye from one there was a welcome sign from another. Anyway we got to Croatia, had a very easy border crossing and finally got another stamp in our passports. First one since we flew into Denmark.

Duga Resa, a small town just south of Karlovac, was our stop. We had a neat campsite which had been awarded the title of Best Campground in Croatia for 2013. It was right beside the river which came in handy for a refreshing swim on the hot day.

This was a good distance to break up the trip and we could have certainly spent longer around this area but we had planned to head to Serbia so off we went with Rach at the wheel for the city of Belgrade.

Munich Munchen

We left Reutlingen with great expectations of our future camping experiences.  Of course we had to have a driving break along the way just to test out the gas cooker on a cup of tea.

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Our first camping spot was Munich and a camp ground that was pretty full but had good facilities.   We love that we don’t have to set up a tent every place that we go, just park ‘The Goo’ and we’re set.  Unfortunately one of our days here was pretty rainy but Rach was put to good use hand sewing some curtains for the back windows.

We had a few extra items to collect so our day in town ended up a where’s wally of the stores we needed.  We came away with the essentials though, a good fold up table and a chilly bin.

We didn’t get a good look around the town centre because it was just way too busy with summer holiday makers, not great for sightseeing when you’re shoulder to shoulder with other people.  
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We got a look at the town hall but may have to get back to Munich at some stage to see the Glockenspiel show and do a walking tour around the sights.

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Germany of course has many bier gardens and we stumbled across one not far from our campsite.  It wasn’t very busy but had good beer and frites.

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You could see that on a busy day it would be great.

We’d been told by a few people that we had to try pork hock so we went to one of the biggest bier gardens in Munich, the Paulina Bierhaus, for dinner.  

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Matt was keen for the pork which was tasty, just not sure about the stuffing/bread accompaniment.

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Rach went for the duck which was also tasty but maybe we should have ordered a side of veges.

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We decided to visit the Dachau concentration camp, not far from downtown Munich, which was the first concentration camp to be set up many years prior to WWll. 

It’s quite strange to walk by the foundations of lots of barracks each one built for 200 people but which ended up housing 2000+ people. 

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There was a short film that we watched too, which was produced by footage provided by the SS (no one else was allowed to take video/photos of the camp), and proved a glimpse of just how horrible the conditions were. 
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On a brighter note our initiation to camping proved a success so off we went to our next stop Italy.

Italian Sample

Travelling from Germany to Italy requires a quick trip through the Austrian Alps.  It’s a spectacular drive amongst villages nestled in the mountains.  Unfortunately we didn’t get much in the way of photos.

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It was pretty clear when we hit Italy, as the hills and villages were surrounded by grapevines, not the worst place you could find yourself.  

We needed a stopover on route to Venice and found ourselves in Malcesine on the shore of Lake Garda near Verona. The lake is a popular holiday spot for Italians so once again we were in amongst a lot of people, most were concerned with getting a prime spot for sunbathing the day away or getting out on the water.

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We nestled the van between the olive trees to settle in for a quick overnighter.
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The drive the following day led us around the lakefront which was beautiful then directly to Venice on the highway. 

Venice was somewhere that we’d (well at least Rach) had wanted to visit, it has that reputation of somewhere not to be missed.

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Because we were surrounded by water we thought we’d better have some seafood for dinner so decided to do it properly by getting 2 seafood platters.
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Mussels, clams, squid, prawns, sardines, scampi, scallops, we had all we could want and as you can see by the end result we thoroughly enjoyed all of it.

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We also appreciated having good coffee here too, the Italians do it well unlike many places we have been.

The alleys around the canals are good to wander around but after a few hours we felt like it was all starting to look the same and was turning into a bit of a maze.

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Also it is very packed with tourists all walking down the same paths at times feeling like you’re on one of those horizontal escalators at an airport.

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The next day we had had enough of it so hung our at our excellent campsite which included a neat pool area. The hardest thing for us was trying to buy ice for the chilly bin, according to the supermarkets you can’t buy it anywhere in Italy, tough when it’s 35 degrees, no clouds, no breeze.

Fortunately we were able to get some from the mob boss looking waiter at the restaurant in the campground. We thought he was really grumpy to start with but he was actually really nice, even if he did speak in strictly Italian.

So it was soon ciao to us and off to our next stop in Slovenia.

Reno in Reutlingen

With the big cities behind us for now we were ready to pick up our car that’s to be our home away from home for the next 95days.  So, it was off to Strasbourg, France to get acquainted with ‘The Goo’, via 320kph TGV fast train- too fast to look out the windows without feeling sick. 

The Renault Grand Kangoo was brand new (only 5km on the clock) and all set for a great European adventure, little did it know we had some alterations in store once we got accustomed to the heat – see third pic below.

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Luckily for us friends Dave and Kat were at the ready in Pfullingen, Reutlingen, Germany prepared to rope in help for the great transformation. 

The Goo started it’s life as a 7 seater people mover.

With some forward planning, a couple of trips to OBI (German Bunnings equivalent) and some hard work by Dave, and Kat’s Mum and Dad, the end result after just half a day was a 2 seater + bedroom / living area.  There is great indoor / outdoor flow with close access to the al fresco kitchen and dining area.

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Cannot thank German master craftsman Joheim enough, wouldn’t have had a chance without you – Danke Shun you did a ‘prima’ job.

We must say that the ‘Briscoes like’  Thomas Phillip’ store did quite well out of us when we were setting up with a mattress /kitchen utensils etc. It’s just a shame that our German wasn’t good enough to pick the difference between a double sheet set and a small duvet cover with a single pillow case, never mind the sewing kit we pocketed from Caesars Palace in Vegas came in handy.  Sorry Simon we assumed you wouldn’t be needing it. 

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Apart from the car reno we also got to explore some of the surrounding areas with Dave and Kat.  It was really picturesque area, awesome towns with great scenery every where. One day our trip was to Tubingen, where Kat studies.  

All of the German towns we’ve passed through are really cute and well kept and this is no different.

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We went up the spire of one of the churches which gave a great view across the city, from the old university buildings across the rooftops to the river. 

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There were also lots of people on boats out on the river trying to cool down.

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Another outing was to Hohenzollern  Castle which is perched on a hill about 40min from Reutlingen. 

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It was great to look through the rooms and imagine how people lived hundreds of years ago.

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The castle is still owned by one family and the rule remains today that if one of the family marries a ‘nobody’ they will lose their title and any entitlement to the family goods. 

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There are all sorts of things on display from swords and armour to porcelain dinnerware produced in the 1400’s.

It was a pretty hot day to climb all the steps to the castle so we thought we’d better cool down in the bier garden, not a background you’d get in N.Z. 

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German beer is outstanding, best we’ve had so far. Especially enjoyed the radlers (beer lemonade mixes) which taste a little bit similar, but somehow nothing like, the traditional Kiwi shandy.

Also the cost of food and drink in the area was super low- how about 1.79 euro for a 6 pack of (good as) beer from the supermarket – outstanding.

We’d got to sample all sorts of German cuisine while there including pretzels, meat salad with blood sausage, and lots of grainy bread.

We thought we should try a schnitzel before we left.  On our last night in Reutlingen the four of us headed to Onkel Ottos where the motto is ‘XXL-Schnitzelparadise’. Boys being boys both Dave and Matt ordered the XXL size, 600g of meat + fries.

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While Dave was defeated Matt gave a very valiant go at it with just a few fries left at the end. 

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Dave’s excellent chef skills kept us well fed and Matt also enjoyed using Dave’s charcoal bbq one night.

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Reutlingen had been having some strange weather around when we were there including tennis ball/baseball sized hailstones on 30+° days. A lot of cars and buildings were damaged but luckily we missed the worst of it. On the up side the stormy clouds made for beautiful sunsets.

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Big thanks and credit to Dave and Kat for making our stay so great, you live in a neat part of the world.

Bonjour Paris

Just lately we have been quickly skipping from city to city, just having time to see the main sights and unfortunately Paris is no different.

Although more time to sample french cuisine would have been great we only had 3 nights available before picking up our vehicle.

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Our accommodation via airb’n’b was great, our host Emmanuel was really helpful at suggesting the best way to see the city in the time we had.

We had heard some average reviews on Paris, dirty, expensive, packed with tourists, rude french people etc but no, what we found was a spectacular city.

On his advice, our first night we went up to Monte Marte and had a great view over the city from in front of the Sacre Coeur Cathedral. Ghost?

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This is also where we had our first taste of french crepes for dinner, very good but next time we’ll leave out the cheese.

It’s a great socialising culture, people don’t go out for dinner till late and the restaurants have all their windows and doors open so even the people who don’t get a seat on the terrace feel like they’re eating outside.

We headed out the next day, again following an itinerary from Emmanuel, to follow the throngs of other tourists around the city. The weather delivered a 37° blue sky stunner.

The area around the Louvre was nothing like we expected. We never realised there were so many grand old buildings surrounding the main entrance.

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We didn’t actually go inside the gallery, the line was huge and we weren’t that desperate to see the Mona Lisa, we’re not great art buffs.

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It really is a truly beautiful city to walk around, especially on the stunning day we had. Matt continued to make friends.

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We wandered through the gardens to the Champs Elysee but got peckish on the way so thought we’d better stop for a coffee and snack, Rach’s snack being a palmier bigger than her hand.  Good job Matt was standing by to help finish it.

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Next stop the Arc de Triumph then to Trocadero for a great view of the Eiffel Tower and the city around it before seeing it up close. Again because it’s right in the middle of the European summer holidays the lines to get up the tower were huge so we settled for finding a patch of grass to sit and relax for a bit. Not a bad way to spend some of the afternoon.

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Matt was trying to get on the cover of Vogue magazine.

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We wanted to go out for a nice french meal so set out that night with high expectations.  There were just too many places to choose from and trying to be savy we were looking for a good deal.  After walking around until our tummies were truly growling we choose a spot that was popular and picked the dishes we could partly make out, chicken and steak. 

We’ll we should have asked a bit more before we ordered, Matt got ‘Cobb n Co’ quality steak and chips and Rach got a chicken skewer with rice and green beans.  Not the culinary delight we were hoping for.  Hopefully if we can get back to France on this trip we can remedy this. 

To end the night on more of a high note we went back to the Eiffel Tower to see it lit up and even managed to time it right for the hourly light show. 

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Notre Dame and the Opera House were left on our to do list so we saw them the following day.

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Again both are grand old buildings but with the lines of tourists out in force we enjoyed walking around the neighbourhoods more than ticking these off. 

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One place with a great view of the city for free was on top of one of the big shopping malls.   It was so hot, weather delivered hottest day of year so far in Paris – we didn’t last up there long but there were plenty of people laying about soaking up the sun. 

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The mall itself is pretty impressive too with a huge dome ceiling.

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We were used to seeing buskers in the subway but we weren’t the only ones to be pleasantly surprised to find a professional sounding orchestra playing in there one day. They sounded fantastic.

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Emmanuel was great to hang out with and he gave us lots of tips for the remainder of our trip too.

Other cities have their sights and streets and buildings – everywhere we went in Paris seemed like it was out of a movie- so many gorgeous old buildings, culture and life everywhere, not just the “sights”.

Probably the most impressed we’ve been with any European city. We really enjoyed our time here and would love to go back to see/experience more of it.

Amsterdam

Our time in Amsterdam was limited to 1 1/2 days so we tried to make the most of it.  We decided a guided walking tour was a good way to see the main sights so set off on foot to be shown around for 3 hours.

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Our guide Alex was really great at dishing out info about what we saw and threw in quite a few tid-bits of trivia that kept us entertained, like where the term red-light district came from. Many years ago the women would wait on the shore for the sailors, holding candles behind red glass.  A red light is the easiest light to see from a distance.

Whether this term originated in Amsterdam we don’t know but they’ve certainly put it to good use.  It seems strange to have such an open red light district close to so many churches but apparently the churches used to make quite good money out of it with people being inclined to pay penance for their sins.

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Part of the tour went past, not into, the attic of Anne Frank.  There were people lined up down the street and around the corner to get in, apparently a 3 hour wait.  We’re not that patient.

The city itself is beautiful with all of the canals running through it.  We didn’t realise that the entire city is built on piles, with redirection of waterways the city is actually below sea level.  Many houses look a bit wonky due to sinking.

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The smallest house in the city probably doesn’t have to worry about that, it’s got nowhere to move.

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It’s easy to see that cycling is big here just by looking at the number of bikes along the canals, and it’s also obvious that bikes are king of the road, they stop for no one, pedestrian or car.  We thought Copenhagen was the cycling capital but we saw far bigger bike parking lots here.

A road would go like this – there would be a pedestrian footpath, bike lane, 2 car lanes, train /tram lane, another bike lane then the other side pedestrian footpath.

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Cruises along the canal seem popular day and night, we couldn’t say no to the ‘unlimited’ wine and cheese candlelight cruise. Unfortunately taking photos at night while moving doesn’t give ideal results but we had fun and got to know an English couple who had done a lot of travelling so it was good to compare notes.

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The next day we popped into a place advertising a flat white which turned out to a be a barber / coffee shop owned by a guy who ran Matt’s old barber in the Guthrie centre in ChCh – small world.

Amsterdam was another neat city, main areas super packed with tourists which is never pleasant but definitely worth more time than we had there.

Now for our train to Pah reee.

Hanging in Hamburg

Our ferry from Lithuania docked in Kiel so we hopped on a train to get us to Hamburg (we declined a taxi driver’s offer of €110 to take us).

Hamburg definitely put on the weather for us, a couple of beautiful sunny days. Very nice city, not on the “tourist trail” and all the better for it.

We were lucky to be able to catch up with Dani, one of Matt’s old flatmates from early Barbadoes St days. 

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It was great to be able to spend time with her and get shown around the sights of Hamburg. It is so good not to have to think about what you’re going to do and see for a change.

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We walked under the river through a tunnel that also takes cars on certain days, you’d just have to time you’re trip right because its open for traffic one way from midnight to 12pm then 12pm to midnight the opposite way. It’s a good way to get a view of the city.

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These are the lifts to take the cars from street level to tunnel level.

After our exploring we needed a drink and a couple of icecreams to recover from the heat, no complaints here.

Unfortunately Dani already had plans for the evening but that was ok, we occupied ourselves at the Astra beer festival. Beer galore, live music, 1/2 metre meat skewers and of course bratwurst!

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The following morning we got to have a outstanding brunch at Dani’s house, a beautiful spot to eat outside in the sunshine with her and friend Sybille.

Thanks so much Dani we loved spending time with you, it was great to catch up on the last few years, and that homemade jam is delicious.

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Our time in Hamburg was too short but that’s because we wanted to squeeze in a couple of days in Amsterdam before getting to France, so off we went to the city of cycles.