Thursday, November 30, 2006 Germany Germany

Dachau memorial

Dachau memorial [Enlarge]

We took a tour from Munich to the nearby town of Dachau today: specifically the infamous Konzentrationslager Dachau. Our guide from Radius Tours was a very friendly and knowledgable Irishman called Brendan, who is in Munich teaching English but is also an accredited Dachau tour guide.

Nothing more to say other than it is a very powerful experience and if you ever get the chance to go there or to any of the other WW2 concentration camp memorial sites, take it.

Our photos from the tour are here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 Belgium Belgium / Germany Germany

Brussels to Munich

We changed trains at Köln so we had a brief walk around the city centre and sampled the local Bratwurst. [IMG_0267]
Köln Cathedral [Enlarge]

Brussels was a pleasant surprise, as we had expected it to be a bit bland. However it is an expensive place and so we needed to move on quickly.

As expected from the capital of Europe, we had plenty of choice when it came to choosing our next destination. Neither of us has been to southern Germany so we decided to pay Munich a visit. This is a convenient day's train travel away and well into central Europe.

We boarded the 08:28 Thalys service to Cologne at the Gare du Midi, which proved to be fast, comfortable and on time, as expected. We had an hour to wait in Cologne, which was ideal as we had a photo to take. On 18th May 1945, ten days after the end of the war in Europe, Glenn's grandfather was a passenger in a very low-flying photographic reconnaissance aircraft, and we have a slide taken by him that day of Cologne Cathedral. We have always been awe-struck by the extent of the damage to the city in the war and we wanted to see the area for ourselves.

The cathedral turned out to be as impressive as we had imagined. Unfortunately time only permitted a few snaps and a quick bratwurst from one of the stalls in the square nearby.

While finishing our delicious snack, standing next to the cathedral for shelter against the November wind, a German pigeon decided to take a crap from a great height on Glenn's shoulder. Maybe it felt like exacting some sort of revenge for the bombing suffered by its ancestors sixty years ago or something. Luckily the sausage remained unspattered or the day would really have been ruined.

Map of Day 004

Day 004
Brussels to Munich

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, November 27, 2006 Belgium Belgium

First night in Brussels

This alley, and several others nearby, were packed with restaurants with touts in the street competing for our business. [IMG_0256]
Rue des Bouchers / Beenhouversstraat [Enlarge]

For our first meal in Brussels we had one thing on our mind: Moules Frites (Mussels and chips) and Belgian beer. We were wandering around the centre of town half-looking for a suitable hostelry when we stumbled upon the Rue des Bouchers. It is a tiny alley packed with small restaurants. Despite the fact that it was a northern European November evening, the tables were still set up outside with heaters warming them from above. Each restaurant had an awning, which almost touched a similar awning on the restaurant across the street. It all looked like a typical tourist trap but we decided that although we probably wouldn't end up eating here, we would walk through and have a look.

At about the third restaurant—we discovered later that there are over 70 restaurants packed into four short, narrow alleys—we were accosted by a tout standing outside the front door. He proceeded to give us in fluent and lightning-fast English, a comprehensive list of reasons why we should stop right here and come on in for our meal. When we showed a hint of indecision he promised that our first and last drinks would be on the house. We were tempted, especially since we probably only wanted two drinks each anyway. However we sensed that there was more to this quarter of the city to discover so we moved on, having thanked him very much and taken, at his insistence, his business card.

We quickly discovered two things: (1) that almost every establishment had a tout in the street who had a similar long list of great reasons why his or her kitchen / ambiance / value for money was better than the other 70-odd in the area, and (2) that many restaurants had real Belgians in them, which we took to mean that maybe the whole setup wasn't just there to part the tourists from their cash. And the food arranged on the stalls outside the windows did look and smell delicious. We decided to go for it. But how to choose?

We finally settled on a restaurant which looked just busy enough. Its tout was a very friendly man from Southern Spain or North Africa. His long list of reasons to come in was no longer or better than any of the others, but somehow he won us over.

Inside we were shown to our table and a complimentary glass of Kir Royale was placed in front of each of us. A basket of bread soon followed. We looked through the menu, provided in a helpful variety of languages, and settled without much deliberation on the €12 set menu of fromage croquettes, moules frites and an unidentified "dessert". We also ordered a Hoegaarden, Belgian witbier, each.

The first beer disappeared very easily and we decided to push the boat out and order another to accompany the main course. There was a bit of a delay after ordering and Glenn eventually caught the eye of the maître d' to find out what the problem was. Two beers were hastily poured for us and we then witnessed the maître d' reprimanding a waiter for having delivered "our" beers to the next door table. We had wondered why they'd looked so surprised to received them, but they didn't hesitate to drink them. Prehaps they thought that the clever Belgians had invented telepathic drink ordering.

After a delicious meal (the mystery dessert was a very tasty chocolate gateau, by the way) we navigated our way back to our room for our first night of hostelling.

Sunday, November 26, 2006 Belgium Belgium / France France / United Kingdom United Kingdom

Leaving the UK

View from the back of our ferry to the Sea Cat and the White Cliffs of Dover. [IMG_0241]
Leaving the UK [Enlarge]

We met our coach at Dover Eastern Docks at about ten past ten. We were the only ones to board at Dover. Everyone else had been on the bus since Victoria Coach Station in London a few hours earlier.

The bus made such slow progress through the port towards the ferry that we could have walked it quicker. We all had to get off for French passport control.

Eventually we made it on to the ferry and set off to find the prime spot on deck to get our "White Cliffs" photo. Even in the shelter of the port the sea was fairly rough and in one of the lounges we walked through the metal ceiling panels had fallen in. We found a position on the deck at the back of the boat and watched the car ramps being raised ready to sail.

It was incredibly picturesque looking back at the Kent cliffs gleaming in the sun. A huge flock of gulls followed the boat out of harbour diving to pick up the fish that had been churned up in the ferry's wake. If it hadn't been so windy we would probably have stayed on deck for the whole crossing, but the forward deck was closed due to the high winds and big waves so we went inside to spend our few remaining Sterling coins in the café and shop.

Back on the coach, waiting for the inevitable two lost passengers, we had the opportunity to compare the advertised service with the reality: the no smoking rule didn't seem to apply to the moustachioed German driver, and had there been a "no smelly food" rule his würst would no doubt have been exempt as well; there was no evidence of air conditioning and we couldn't get Glenn's seat belt to work. But these minor things aside it was cheap, punctual and only half full, and we'll undoubtedly face far greater hardships in the next few months.

Driving out of Calais into Northern France, towards the first stop at Lille we were struck by how like the East Anglian fens the Pas de Calais is. There had obviously been quite a lot of rain and there was standing water on some of the fields, but the sun continued to shine through the bus windows.

We made rapid progess along the A25 towards Lille. It was surprising and refreshing to see that in this part of Europe the shops still close on a Sunday. We also noticed the prevalence of English language slogans on the advertising hoardings. With 8km to go to the centre of Lille the traffic got heavier, and the walls which lined the road became progressively more graffiti-covered. We picked up three new passengers at the Gare de Lille Europe, a low, curvy, glass building under the shadow of a huge apartment block. Ten minutes later we had crossed the unmanned border into Belgium.

Apart from the fact that the road number changed to E17 (only the European road-numbering classification will do for the Euro-mad Belgians), nothing much changed. There were European flags everywhere, but hardly any Belgian ones. You have to hand it to them, they practice what they preach about European unification. The coach pulled into Brussels Gare du Nord coach station at 16:30, and there was a big changeover of people—it was continuing on into Eastern Europe after a 30-minute layover. Using the GPS, which handily contained the location of the Sleep Well Hostel obtained from Google Earth a few days earlier, we navigated straight to the door, about a kilometre's walk away. We had arrived.

Map of Day 002

Day 002
Dover to Brussels

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Saturday, November 25, 2006 United Kingdom United Kingdom

On the road at last

A typical November day at the meridian line at Greenwich. [IMG_0234]
Starting line [Enlarge]

Intermittent drizzle, torrential showers and strong winds. The UK in November. It's a good job we're leaving the country.

Our journey officially began at 10:41 GMT today at Greenwich, East London, standing on the meridian line at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. The observatory is completely shrouded in scaffolding at the moment, so maybe we will see it when we return.

From Greenwich we got a lift with Isla's parents down to Dover, because we wanted a photo of the famous white cliffs as we left on the ferry (we are already stocking up on cheesy clichés!). We stopped at "Fab's Diner" on the A2, where Glenn lamented that he was having his last Full English All-Day Breakfast for a while. We'll see.

We were locked out of our guest house in Dover for a couple of hours because we had arrived early, so we spent the time watching the Christmas lights being turned on, and stocking up on a few final supplies. The day finished with a toast to the start of our trip: a glass of the disgusting but prudent Dukoral cholera vaccine (mmmm, raspberry flavour). Thankfully this was our second and final dose.

Tomorrow the ferry to Calais and onward to Brussels by coach.

Map of Day 001

Day 001
London to Dover

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006 At Home

All our stuff

Apart from what we will be wearing, this is everything we're taking on our trip. [IMG_0233]
All our stuff [Enlarge]

We decided to do a trial pack today, now that we have bought everything. This is all we are taking, apart from the clothes we will be wearing. It's scarily little, but great when you find that the bags are actually light enough to lift.

We are taking: Malarone antimalarials, Ciprofloxacine antibiotic, 50% DEET insect repellant, Hand cleanser, Sunblock, Gorillapod, Isla's underwear, Isla's silk sleeping bag liner, First aid kit, Glenn's T-shirt, Isla's T-shirt, Glenn's silk sleeping bag liner, 2 silk money belts, Glenn's underwear, Hair clippers, Soap in soap dish, Dental kit, Passports (including old passports), Washbag (standard contents, not shown), Sterile needles kit, Passport photos for visas, Spare high-capacity AA rechargable batteries, Ear plugs, Iodine, Chlorine tablets, Travel towel, Vaccination books, Thread, Sewing needles, GPS, Elephant tape, Bath plug, Wind-up phone charger and torch, Phone, AA battery charger, Another travel towel, Inflatable globe, Playing cards, Velcro, Penknife, USB keys, Combination wire lock, Notepads and pens, Zip-lock bags, Spare glasses, Sunglasses, Carabiners, Torch, Comb, Universal phrase book, Washing line, 1GB memory cards, USB card reader, Carbon monoxide detector, Sun hats.

Sunday, November 12, 2006 At Home

Power Trip

Since leaving work and moving out we've been staying with Glenn's parents in Scotland while we do the final planning for our trip.

Thanks to a power supply fault we haven't been able to get as much done as we wanted. The power was out most of the day last Wednesday for planned maintenance. Fair enough, it happens. But then on Friday at around lunchtime it went off again, this time without notice. We called the automated faults reporting line ("Your call is important to us") and began the long wait in the cold. The house is entirely dependent on electricity for its heat, and thanks to the super efficient modern combi boiler, it doesn't have any hot water storage tank. So when the power fails on a typical Scottish November day, it gets cold and stays cold.

Power cuts always remind us of just how reliant we are on electricity, but the timing was particularly annoying since we are spending most of the time on the web at the moment, researching, planning and shopping for the last few bits and pieces. When the power went off we were just about to order the shoulder bags we will be taking with us, aware of the fact that they have quite a long delivery lead time. We managed to piece together the order codes we needed from the browser history and phone the order through. The power came on again around 5 o'clock. OK, it's a remote-ish area, it's a bit windy, the power went off, it's fixed now, get over it.

Yesterday we woke up, had breakfast and hit the web again. And then the power went. More waiting and staring at the comatose router. We considered trying to hook it up to the car's power supply via an inverter, and got as far as wondering whether we had a telephone cable long enough to reach back into the house, before realising that such an action would be an admission of the seriousness of our addiction to our always-on connection. So, as it was quite stormy outside and the waves were crashing over the rocks we decided to go to the beach, find a rock to sit on, face into the wind, and get soaked. (This is a pleasure that Glenn has occasionally enjoyed at this same spot since childhood.) We came back around lunch time and shortly afterwards, the power came back on. Excellent. We had something to eat and resumed the planning—this time we were trying to book our first night's accommodation. And then the power failed again. Time to put the phone on redial to the hotline.

Two engineers fix the fault which has been the cause of three days of power supply woes. [IMG_0197]
Please make our power work [Enlarge]

This time was quite annoying, especially as the day turned to night and the candles came out. And then around 8 o'clock, the house sprang into life again. We discovered that coffee machines and laser printers get very excited when they have power restored suddenly. Never noticed that before.

This morning we woke up, had breakfa… no; no time to have breakfast before the power went off. And on. And off. And on. And off. Lost count, but we reckon this happened about half a dozen times before it finally settled in the "off" state.

The problem—a major short up a telegraph pole quite near us—was eventually found and fixed a couple of hours later and so far since then we've remained firmly in the 21st Century. We knew that this trip was going to give us some lessons in just how lucky we are and how much we take for granted, but the first one came considerably earlier than we thought.

Sunday, November 05, 2006 At Home

Why does buying travel insurance have to be so hard?

(Come to think of it, why does buying any sort of insurance have to be so hard? But that's a topic for a whole blog in its own right.)

We spent eight hours on the web yesterday looking through the small print from as many backpacking/extended travel insurance policies as we could find. Every one has all sorts of headline-friendly cover that we don't need. Example: "Your valuable items are covered!" (which typically translates in the small print to "we only cover the first £125 ($232) of each valuable item, and there's an £85 ($158) excess, and we make a deduction for the age of the item, and you need to provide us with a police report, and full purchase receipts, and …"). Anyway, why would anyone take anything of any real value with them on a backpacking holiday?

Most policies, on the other hand, do not cover something that we think is absolutely necessary: terrorism. The risk of being caught up in an attack are incredibly small, but then so is the risk of getting caught in an Ebola outbreak, and that's covered. We believe that's exactly what insurance is for: the low probability but high consequence events. Not stolen alarm clocks. If we find ourselves being blown up by a crazed loony who thinks he's going straight to paradise, we want full cover to put our bodies back together and get us the hell out of there (not necessarily in that order). We do not want to have to start re-reading the small print of our insurance policy and preparing for an argument over semantics.

The British government has recently confirmed that we can forget about getting any support from them in the long term if we are attacked while abroad. But the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does suggest that the local embassy will at least help us out with immediate medical needs in an extreme case.

And why do most providers force us to say how long we're going to be away for, and refuse to cover us for longer than some arbitrary time (usually 12, 13 or 18 months)? We don't know how long we will be away. The whole point of this trip is to slow down, take time to discover the world, and see what experiences come our way. We don't want to be hurrying home because our insurance is about to run out.

It turns out that the backpackers' perennial favourite, World Nomads, looks promising initially because it is reasonably cheap, fully online (perfect for when you're on the road), and it can be extended as many times as you want during the trip. But whatever you do, don't be in a country when it decides to have a terrorist incident because you won't be covered. Unless you're an Aussie or Kiwi, in which case you might be, but not for cancellation costs. Confused? You will be if you start trying to read the Aus/NZ small print. Even World Nomads' staff don't seem to understand the finer points of their contract, although they are very friendly. We emailed them to ask about why the Aus/NZ wording provides some cover for terrorism but the UK wording does not. They denied that this was the case, saying that terrorism is never covered. Make your own mind up—here's the relevant wording:

The Aus/NZ wording:

We will not pay for any of the following losses: […] 8. A loss that arises directly or indirectly from an act of terrorism. The exclusion only relates to section; 2a Cancellation Costs [our emphasis].

The UK wording:

You are not covered for anything caused directly or indirectly by the following, unless You have contacted us and we have confirmed in writing that You will be covered: […] 16. any consequence whether direct or indirect of war, invasion, act of foreign enemy, hostilities (whether war be declared or not), discharge, explosion or use of a weapon of mass destruction whether or not employing nuclear fission or fusion, or chemical, biological, radioactive or similar agents, by any party at any time for any reason, terrorist activity [our emphasis], civil war, rebellion, revolution, insurrection, blockade, military or usurped power.

ACE Travel Insurance also looks good because it is cheap and it covers you for terrorism! As long as the martyr who chooses to make an example out of you plays nice and doesn't use nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. So by all means get attacked, but please stick to conventional means.

In the end we decided to go with Insure and Go's Backpacker Bronze policy. It is one of the cheapest policies we found, does not come with unnecessary cover for personal effects and luggage, and the exclusions do not mention terrorism at all! On the down side, their website doesn't quite work on the Mac. In such cases we normally close the window and find a product from a standards-compliant competitor, but in this case we had to just get over it. Also we won't be able to extend the policy, so we will have to switch to World Nomads if we're still travelling when the term runs out.