Friday, 2 September 2011

Vevey on Lake Geneva

Leaving Berlin, we caught a night train. Interesting experience. We had the top two of six bunks in a small 'couchette'. It's surprisingly easy to sleep despite the rocking and people getting on and off at anonymous stations during the night.

The Swiss Riviera is stunning, with brilliant blue Lake Geneva backed by steep mountains. It was too cold to swim in the lake but we walked around it for awhile and caught the train to nearby Montreux too, where Freddy Mercury apparently spent quite a few years. Charlie Chaplin lived in Vevey for a long time, so we visited his grave there.

We concluded that this area was perfect if you're retired, female and wealthy, looking for a lush resort town to spend your grandkids' inheritance. It was a little too expensive and resort-like for us but we were blessed to see such amazing beauty before our very own eyes, even for just one day.


Adrian hadn't been to Berlin, but he'd heard me talk about it for the last three years :) There's something captivating about a city boiling over with history, so much of it horrific, but with a determined will to move on and present a new face. But perhaps in fear of being seen to mask their dark history, they put it on display for the world to see. The result is a bizarre mix of old and new.

So you see tourists swarming around the remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall, 'beach' bars with pumping techno music, fences plastered with black and white images of the Wall and Death Strip, touristy Checkpoint Charlie and souvenir shops selling 'pieces of the Wall', Cold War symbols like the TV tower with its giant disco ball, a huge expanse of concrete blocks serving as a memorial to the Jews killed in WW2, and perhaps most amazing: an invisible line between East and West Berlin, where the wall once stood. Here the typical grey concrete apartment buildings of the East stop abruptly, and the less uniform buildings of the West begin.

We took an Insider walking tour led by an amazingly knowledgeable Czech/German/Swedish/Scottish guide. We spent our days seeing the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Hackescher Markt, Alexander Platz, the Pergamon Museum and the East Side Gallery. We ate currywurst and Adrian sampled the best (?) beers in the world. I got to use my German. And then we climbed on a night train bound for Switzerland and said a sad goodbye to Berlin.

Europe - Beginning with Denmark

It was my second visit to Denmark and Adrian's first. When I was 12 I found a penfriend on (remember that?) called Ditte. We wrote letters for many years, only stopping with the advent of Facebook! We met when I visited DK in '08. I was excited to be seeing her again, and her boyfriend Jacob, who visited us in Hobart a couple of years ago when he was on exchange in Australia.

The flight from New York to Frankfurt exhausted us, and then there was the connection to Copenhagen, then a train across the bridge to Sweden and overland to Ystad, where we caught a ferry to Bornholm, the island where Ditte and Jacob grew up. Tired. The sea was rough, which when compounded with sleep deprivation meant we were dying to get there, see our friends, and sleep. When we got off the ferry in Rønne, strong gusts of wind nearly blew us over and sideways rain slammed into our faces, waking us up nicely :)

Bornholm is a small Danish island in the Baltic sea, only about 600km2. Rønne is the main town, full of cobblestone streets and tiny conjoined houses, in terracotta and yellow and white. We spent a full day driving around the island, seeing beautiful white sand beaches, ruins on clifftops, medieval round churches, viking graves, gorgeous seaside towns and the work of local craftspeople. I loved the colourful Baltic sea glass.

We returned to Copenhagen for a couple of nights and spent a day cycling around in the rain, seeing the sights. Ditte and Jacob cooked us delicious Danish food. They were awesome tour guides and hosts, so proud of the gorgeous windswept island that they grew up on, and the beautiful city where they now live. We could see why.

Friday, 29 July 2011

And finally, NYC

Adrian's words:

From Boston we caught a bus down to New York City. It's the biggest city we've seen with more than 8 million people, but it's still very functional and easy to get around.

Highlights of our time here include time spent at Times Square, time spent on a large schooner cruising the Hudson river by Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. After a few nights we caught up with my friends Bethany and Paul who had travelled down from Chicago to see us. We went with them to see Mary Poppins on Broadway.

New York City may have been our favourite city in the US had it not been for the terrible service we received in a couple of places. It got us thinking, could a city be so big that customer service no longer matters? Those attractions will still receive several million visitors every year (e.g. the Empire State building), so what's the point in being nice?

Enough of that, I'll end this hurried post with another highlight of our time in New York. In Queens (where we were staying), we found a small Bolivian restaurant, and I was able to introduce Renae to my favourite Bolivian dish, the Silpancho! Queens is one of New York's 5 'boroughs' and apparently has a large Latin American community - I don't think the restaurant sees many English speakers!

Renae's words:

On our first night in New York, we went for a sunset sail on a schooner, where we relaxed with free wine and beer as they sailed us past the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan Island. The light was incredible at that time of day, and Adrian was pleased that a band was performing on Governers Island, playing trance music by Tiesto, his favourite. The music was so loud that you could hear it from miles away, right across the harbour.

New York was incredible for its sheer scale and the inevitable craziness that comes with it. Times Square at night was amazing. One night we sat on some grandstand-style seating in the middle of it all to take in the lights and sounds and it was just a sea of people. The crowd moves so slowly and each person is just focused on getting where they're going...

Central Park is huge! You can easily get lost. We saw people filming a new Tom Hanks/Sandra Bullock movie, but the stars weren't on site. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) was amazing. Not surprisingly though, the staff were super rude and patronising! Possibly the highlight of NYC for me was Mary Poppins on Broadway. Incredible. I think you go into a Broadway musical expecting incredible, and that's exactly what you get!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Going East: New Hampshire + Boston

We left our friends in Chicago and flew to Boston, from where we drove north to New Hampshire to see Craig, another of Adrian's Bolivia friends. Craig was the best man in our wedding. Driving into New Hampshire was as we expected - beautiful. The woods surrounding Craig's house were such a brilliant green, something like southern Germany or Switzerland.

It was lovely spending a few days with Craig and his family. We drove to the White Mountains and searched for moose, but even Adrian and Craig's moose calls didn't bring them out. We swam in a river that had natural rock waterslides - so much fun. During our time in New Hampshire we saw our first porcupine as well as some deer (I love deer). The place was gorgeous.

We also quite liked the state motto, 'live free or die'. New Hampshire people see themselves as free and independent, so they don't make it illegal to not wear a seatbelt and you can get away with various other things. Then you drive across the border into Maine and numerous signs detail all of the things you can no longer do!

We then drove on to Boston. Boston was packed with American history, which you probably needed a little more context to understand, but it was good nevertheless. We walked the Freedom Trail and saw Paul Revere's house and lots of important graves and buildings (can you tell I don't remember details? :P) Something that did surprise us about Boston though was the people. Compared to the west coast and Chicago, people in Boston were so direct, bordering on rude and brash. For example, when you're enquiring about something (to a customer service person) they will answer part of your question, get distracted and talk to another staff person, then turn back and answer the rest of your question, not making eye contact. I guess it's part of the culture. Is that an excuse though? It's not that hard to be polite. Another example was when Adrian got told off by a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln, when he didn't pay him money first. So he can now say that he was given a talking to by Abraham Lincoln. :)

By far the best part of Boston was our whale watching trip one evening. I've been a tour guide on a boat cruise that took people to see whales and I've studied them, but never have I seen so many so close. We had humpbacks breaching all around the boat. We also saw a minke whale (my first). And a beautiful sunset. It was one of the most amazing evenings!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Chicago and Ohio part 2

(Renae's thoughts) Chicago was an entirely different experience to other cities as we had the privilege of staying with friends. These were the friends that Adrian made in Bolivia, who I had not met before. It was the best way to experience Chicago - with great, fun people who can tell you about their experience of the city.

We arrived on 4th July and caught the wrong bus, so we missed the fireworks, but got a fairly unique experience out of it anyway when we got stuck out in some random neighbourhood! Highlights of our time in Chicago were the baseball game, trying Chicago style pizza (so cheesy but not too bad), going to church with Katie, sailing on Lake Michigan (and jumping into the water) and of course our last day in Chicago. This was Adrian's birthday, so we went to the 96th floor of the John Hancock building for cake, went to the zoo and saw a free concert in Millenium Park with our friends.

Chicago seems like a very 'livable' city, except for the heat! I don't think I could stand the humidity. Aside from this, it's a beautiful city and greatest of all are the people - so laid back and kind - which really made the difference.

We also took a side trip to Ohio to see Kristen. We stayed in Medina, Ohio and loved how green and pristine it was. So well cared for, with manicured lawns and American flags strung from nearly every house. It resembled the neighbourhood in Gilmore Girls :) We hung out with Kristen, met her family, saw an Amish community and ate at an Amish restaurant. Oh, and visited Walmart! We were also fascinated with the fireflies, which we'd never seen before. We caught a few and then released them and tried to video them flying, but weren't hugely successful.

And that was our time in the mid-west!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Chicago and Ohio part 1

Hi Adrian here again. Renae and I have different impressions of our time in Chicago IL and Medina OH so she may add to this later. For now, here are my Chicago highlights:

- Catching up with friends. It was so great to see the friends I'd made in Bolivia and to introduce them to Renae who they knew of in 2008 but had never met. They were all really generous in hosting us.
- A sail on Lake Michigan with friends provided a beautiful new perspective on the city we had been exploring.
- Chicago White Sox vs Minnesota Twins major league baseball. great atmosphere, great game that went right down to the final inning where the home team needed extra time to avoid a 10th inning. They got it!
- Cheesecake at the top of the John Hancock building. Sears was a bit expensive and we got a hot tip about free entry to the top of Chicago's 2nd tallest if you went to the lounge rather than the observation deck.

During our time in the Chicago area we also took a rental car down to explore Ohio and to catch up with another friend. We saw fire flies for the first time! We also went to Amish country and were able to meet our friend's family, so it was a great few days.