INDEX – Europe 2015

WordPress lists things in “newest first” order – it makes sense while on the holiday, but not when you’re looking at blog after the holiday is done.

Here’s the whole trip,  in order from start to finish.

There’s still a lot of pictures missing because when I migrated from my old travel blogging platform to this one, it lost all the pictures (thanks for that!) – but I’ll slowly add them back in over time.












And then we came home. The end.

And then we came home. The end.
Sydney, Australia

Sydney, Australia

Currently, I’m writing this on the first leg of our trip home – my laptop is set up on this ridiculously large dining table, with plenty of room for my iPad and phone to keep it company if required. Probably enough room for dinner too. I’d seen videos on youtube of what it was like in Emirates First Class, but I have to say now I’m experiencing it, all my preconceptions have been quite blown away. It really is one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that you don’t think would ever come true.

The “suite” is much larger than I though it would be. There’s so much legroom my feet have no chance of touching the wall ahead of me. I had to move the seat forward about a foot so I could comfortably type on the laptop at the table. Poor me, I actually had to stretch to read the basket of free snack bars and lollies they kindly placed on the shelf in front of the telly. To be honest, I can’t stop grinning like a loon, this is quite amazing.

To my left is a little shelf full of drinks that rises up with the touch of a button. In front of me is a massive TV screen, a table lamp, and some orchids in a little vase. Also embedded in to the little shelf is a pop-out drawer with a writing kit hidden within. It’s just crazy. Not forgetting the popup vanity mirror with lights around it, and a selection of skin care products as well. There’s buttons a-plenty, including one that will shut the doors on my suite for extra privacy. Mind you somehow we’ve managed to score Row 1 of the plane, so there aren’t people walking by. And while I’m typing this, the sun started streaming into the windows to my right, so some little sun-shades have automatically come down over the windows to reduce the glare. Behind my little pop-up drinks bar is a little iPad-like device – it controls all the functions of my suite – and it’s detachable so I don’t have to twist around to use it in its little home.

My phone and laptop are plugged in to the on-board power, so I don’t use any battery while I busily tap away writing this blog entry which, I freely admit, is pretty much 100% gloat. However, there’s no wi-fi, I know, how dreadful, however will I cope. There are dozens of other little details but I’m sure that’s more than enough already.

Unsurprisingly, the service is amazing. One of the cabin crew is from Picton, always nice to have a familiar accent. As soon as we sat down we were offered newspapers, magazines, drinks, snacks – and a lovely touch was a large date with an almond within, served with a (skilfully poured from a height) cup of arabic coffee. Dinner and a show!

It’s all a bit surreal, and I have to keep convincing myself that someone won’t soon come along to tell me I don’t deserve to be here. This might sound strange but much of time it doesn’t feel like we’re on a plane at all. Between Perry’s ‘suite’ an mine, it’s almost the same size as the room we had at the Z hotel in London, believe it or not.

The stopover in Dubai felt like it passed very quickly – that sure is one huge airport, just the First Class lounge where we were had to be at east two football fields long… with ************e in it.

The second leg from Dubai to Sydney was in an A380. Surprisingly, the fit-out of this cabin is a bit older than the one in the 777 we took on the first leg. It looks almost identical, and let’s face it, it’d be churlish to whinge. However the little touchscreen you use to control everything was very slow to react compared to the prior one. On the plus side though, this one has wifi, so that was pretty cool.

We received a goodie bag with slippers, pyjamas, Bvlgari amenities and other odds and ends. And another ‘fast track’ card to get to the fast queue at customs. Nifty. The food again was unbelievable – and was at this point that it struck me – you don’t see a single trolley on first class. Everything is hand delivered, not just flung at you outta the trolley like in economy. It’s another one of those things that makes you almost forget you’re 40,000 feet up in the air. This plane has showers, but I wasn’t game to try it … I can just imaging how much fun it would be if we struck turbulence… though we’ve hardly had any so far. I had heard so much about how quiet the A380 was … but to be honest I haven’t really noticed the difference compared to the 777.

Still, it’s been a try amazing opportunity, and I’m forever grateful we have been able to try it. Even if has spoiled us for every future flight in business or economy! I think this will be the first time I’ve ever left a long-haul flight feeling refreshed, rather than frazzled.

— some time later …—

Sure enough, I stepped off the plane in Sydney feeling like I’d just had a 90 minute flight from Melbourne, not a 15 hour flight from Dubai. Amazingly, we made our way through the airport very quickly hardly even stopping to breathe. The bags were there as soon as we walked to the baggage claim, we used the automated gates an immigration so no delays there, and since we had nothing to claim we went through customs without any queue either. There’s something to be said for arriving at Sydney late at night. As soon as passed the “G’day. Welcome home” sign, our chauffer was waiting for us at Arrivals, so straight through to the car who delivered us home. All part of the Emirates First Class service, and it was first class it certainly was.

Home was just like we left it – and call me a spoilt child but after everything we’ve seen and done I can’t say I was thrilled to be there. But as Perry said, there are much worse places to be, and that’s very true.

How can I summarise six weeks into a paragraph or two? There hasn’t been a bad day the whole trip. The Netherlands was beautiful – the charm of all the narrow houses in Amsterdam, and the wonderful opportunity I hd to catch up with family and see the old houses where Dad once lived a long time ago. Santorini was unspeakably, gobsmackingly beautiful, with views I shall never forget. Mykonos had a resort to be reckoned with, a lovely relaxing part of the trip, with a fun day spent at the party atmosphere of Jackie O on the beach. Then there’s London, what can be said about a city with so much history, yet so much modern energy? And tons of great west end show? Brighton was a bit of a faded glory (or maybe it just seemed like that due to all the rain), but I’m sure she’ll bounce back. Bristol was big surprise – but bigger and more energetic than I thought, it was a wonderful city with a great vibe, that I’d happily go back and visit again. Cardiff was great, not just for the novelty of driving across to a different country, but a nice city with tons to see especially if you’re a mad Dr Who nerd like I am. Then there’s Stockholm, beautiful and ancient, another real surprise of a city, theres much much more to it than ABBA and IKEA – what ended up being a visit on a whim to get a cheap flight home, proved to be a fantastic (and too short) couple of days.

Greatest of all though was to have the opportunity to experience all of this with Perry, indispensable, indefatigable, organised to the nth degree, couldn’t have (and wouldn’t have) done it without him.

Now it’s time to get the nose back to the grindstone, and look forward to 2017 – Canada and USA … here we come!

As we draw to a close

As we draw to a close
Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Today is our last full day in Stockholm, our last full day in Stockholm, and, after about 46 days, the last full day of the holiday. (If you don’t count 24 hours flying home) We tried to cram a lot in – Stockholm is a large and fascinating city, with much more to see than we had time in which to see it.

When in Sweden, how could we possibly miss visiting the world’s largest IKEA? We found the free bus (something cheap in Sweden, it does exist!) and headed about 20 minutes out of town, until there she was, her welcoming hues of Blue and Yellow saying “Hej!” to one and all. Yep it’s pronounced ‘Hey!’, and hearing every shopkeeper give a cheery ‘Hey’ as you pay for your goods, is every bit as friendly as it sounds. Apparently Sweden is not renowned for its outpourings of friendliness, particularly toward tourists, but so far pretty much everyone has been great.

The IKEA shop was huge – but it was surrounded by equally large shops in a massive park of ‘big box’ style stores, and a big shopping mall as well. The IKEA itself packed a few surprises. For starters, on this side of world, you go in and turn left, rather than right. Then the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen in an IKEA. Prepare yourself, I hope you’re sitting down… there isn’t The One Path You Must Walk to get through the store. I know. Shocking. Unimaginable. But true. There are times when you have a choice … most disorienting, but we managed. Most of the stock we’d seen before but there were a number of new things that hopefully will make their way to Tempe soon. We also noticed than in all but one of the beds, each double bed is made up with two single quilts… it’s the same in our apartment. I don’t know if it’s an IKEA thing or a Swedish thing, but tier way, it’s a really good idea.

The store also had a Cafe on each of its three circular levels – plus each level had a kind of sunken mezzanine in the middle, so it was almost like 6 or 7 floors of IKEA goodness. As always with the luggage being what it is, we only bought one small item, a souvenir.

Speaking of which, I’ll take a moment to digress, and help set some expectations… going away or 6 weeks, in both warm and cole climates, requires a fair bit of packing … so unfortunately nobody is getting much at all in the way of souvenirs, and if so, they’re really little. So brace yourselves (especially my nieces!) and allow me to apologise in advance, for any gifts we bring back with us will be pretty meagre, so please don’t get your hopes up, but we did our best.

After IKEA we popped in to the mall across the road, and then it was time to take the free bus (I’ll say yay again because Free really seems to be a special thing in Sweden!) back in to Stockholm, and jumped on the good old Hop On Hop Off bus again, to go to Skansen.

Skansen is the first open-air museum in the world, apparently A bit like Old Sydney Town was, but spanning multiple eras in history, showing examples of buildings of various times, and how it was the live and work. It was a real shame that we were quite pressed for time, as it was a huge place which much to explore, and would have been really interesting to learn more about Swedish life from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. So we just stuck to the zoo part of Skansen, checked out the Reindeer, Bison, Lynx, and such exotic creatures such as goats and cows.

Before we knew it, it was already time to exit and wait for the bus, which took us back into the centre of Stockholm, where we had a bit of a wander around while we could, before going back to the apartment, and then out for ‘the last supper’. We actually found a whole new shopping street running parallel to what we thought was the min one here in Gamla Stan, but there’s a whole ‘nother street, chock full of restaurants and shops and so forth. We found something we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Stockholm, a Thai restaurant, so that was dinner. I think it used to be the cellar where we wait in this ancient building, a big underground space with an arched brick building, that is probably many hundreds of years old. Just waking around on the way to dinner there was building nonchalantly stating ‘1472’ above its (rather short) front door. (And no it wasn’t the street number!)

That’s about it for our far-too-short stay in Stockholm. I’m sure we could have spent at least a week here – a very present surprised for destination that just ended up being chosen on whim, as it enabled us to get much cheaper flights home compared to leaving from Heathrow. Definitely a place that exceeded expectations, and not just because I had so little idea of what to expect. It’s certainly on the list for a return visit one day,

Tomorrow morning, we leave here and start our journey home. The less said of that the better, it’s too depressing to think about at the moment!

Buses and Boats and Bjorn and Benny

Buses and Boats and Bjorn and Benny
Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Good morning Stockholm, its lovely to be here. I think we were up and about before half (or maybe all) of Stockholm… and we weren’t exactly early. At about 9:30 we wandered out, since the hop-on hop-off bus started at 10. As an aside – I can thoroughly recommended all of the hop on’s we’ve taken throughout the holiday – do it on day one, get a good overview of where you’re visiting, so you know which bits look interesting and warrant a further visit.

The plan was to buy a bus ticket from the tourist information centre just a few doors down from our apartment. But at 9:30, it still hadn’t opened. Not to worry, there was another one down the long shopping street we visited last night. The bus tour was great – the first bus of the day was packed but we squeezed in, and saw some interesting sights. Less interesting was the rain that started to hit us on the open-top bus… but next minute, we learnt this bus was a convertible … a retractable roof winched itself into place and that was the end of that problem. We learnt a bit, too. The part of town we’re staying in is ‘Gamla Stan’ – the ‘old city’ in Stockholm. Hence, the palace, the monumental buildings, etc. The full loop ended up taking about 2 hours, a bit longer than anticipated, but we made it back to original stop. The timing ended up being perfect as there’s also a hop-on hop-off boat, which we hopped on to, and it took off about one minute later.

Cruising the Baltic Sea (kinda) for a few minutes, we disembarked at a very important stop in our travel plans – the ABBA museum. Or rather, “ABBA – The Museum”. I mean, who doesn’t love ABBA? (And if you don’t love ABBA, are we still friends?). Back in 2010, we had the good fortune to visit the “ABBA World” exhibition when it was at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. The museum was basically that same exhibition, but expanded upon with more information about the pre-ABBA days, and a little information about the post-ABBA days as well. But despite having seen most of it before it was still cool – seeing original costumes and that guitar from the Eurovision days. Two great features were the ABBA phone. Allegedly, if someone does Ring Ring the phone, it would deb worth answering as there are only four particular people who know the phone number… who knows if that’s actually true, but it didn’t ring the 30 seconds or so we hovered around it. The other thing I really loved the idea of, was one of the pianos in the recreation of Polar Studios (where they recorded many of the albums). It was linked over the interwebs to a piano in Benny’s house. So if he ever started playing at home, you’d hear him playing in the museum. Again, that didn’t happen in the 30 seconds we were loitering around that area, but still, a cool idea. One roo they didn’t have in Sydney was the incredible (and lengthy) wall of gold records that ABBA had been awarded over the years… amazing to see just how much they have achieved over the years. It was also cool to see the scoring part of the 1974 Eurovision. Every ABBA fan has seen them perform Waterloo at Eurovision plenty of times, but it was fun to see the scoring as all the votes just kept on rolling in for Sweden.

(Yes, I know, it takes a special kind of person to say that watching Eurovision voting is fun…)

The ABBA gift shop was of course in full swing, but we were very restrained, ever conscious of the fact that every singly thing we buy still has be lugged down that spiral staircase and then onward to Sydney. But of course it wouldn’t have been right to leave empty-handed.

The next step in our journey (and it wasn’t much more than a few steps) caused us to skip from modern history into not-so-modern history – the Vasa museum. The Vasa was a Swedish warship, built in 1628. Built as a flagship for the navy, it had over 700 wooden sculptures adorning it. It also had a relatively new invention of two levels of canon decks – making it one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. It’s ‘rear castle’ (the back end) rose up more than 14 metres out of the water, which at the time must have made it an impressive and imposing sight. Unfortunately, it also had a top-heavy design, not enough ballast, and an almost complete inability to stay upright. After two years of construction, including the aforementioned 700 ornate wooden sculptures, it has time for the maiden voyage. This maiden voyage lasted barely 1000 metres before a puff of wind, not much stronger than a breeze, caused the whole ship to capsize and sink in Stockholm harbour. All that work gone in an instant – along with the lives of 31 of the crew, in full view of thousands of spectators.
I probably had the wrong reaction to this – my first thought wasn’t for the 31 lives lost, 31 distressed families who knew there was someone they’d never be able to speak to again. No, my firs thought was actually ‘the poor sculptors!’. Imagine seeing 700 pieces of your work, of which you were undoubtedly proud, suddenly sink just a few minutes after their unveiling. Anyway, it must have been a pretty devastating thing for a good many people. After that it was mostly forgotten. Most of the cannon were retrieved not too long after, but the rest of the ship was left and forgotten about, until 1951 when it was again found. Fast forward another fifty-something years, and here it is, right in front of us, an amazing, impressive sight.

The people who recovered the ship itself have also recovered a good many artefacts from it as well. There were a few things working in the ships favour – the cold, brackish water of the Baltic Sea meant it wasn’t a good natural home to many of the underwater creatures such as woodworm that would normally have destroyed it. As a bonus (of a sort) Stockholm harbour was a heavily polluted place for quite some time, and that too kept most of the marine life at bay. Many of the sculptures also had a good time of it – the iron bolts and nails holding them on rusted through quite quickly, whereupon they dropped straight into the harbour mud, which kept them very well preserved. One of things that amazed me, is that 98% of the boat was saw was the original material from 1628. The other 2% has been reconstructed, in much lighter wood so it’s easy to see where the few reconstructed parts are.

Some further things that really brought it home and made it feel quite real, were some tiny details. For instance, they were able to retrieve sails that were in storage on one of the decks, they could tell from the seams and the threads hanging off them that these sails were brand new, and never had the chance to be put into use before the boat sank. There was also the contents of a chest belonging to one of the crew – which had remained unopened from 1628 until the 1960s. He had a hat, some coins, a lump of wax, some tools and spare leather for repairing his shoes… it was incredible how well preserved some of these things were – there was a jacket that looked like it could still be worn. I guess the purpose of many modern museums is to answer the question “What was it like?” This museum very much delivered on that – it wasn’t just a big ship, it was a (rather temporary) home to real people, and the museum could really connect you with the ship on a very human level. Perhaps too much – 16 of the skeletons are on display, a resting place that I’m sure the dead would never have dreamed of when they were still living.
But that is probably more than enough raving about it. Read more bout it on Wikipedia, it’s a fascinating story – seemingly borne of the age-old issue of not daring to say “umm, I don’t think that’s going to work”. However, had the ship not failed as soon as it failed, then those of here in the 21st century wouldn’t know of it at all, except perhaps as some footnote in the history of the Swedish navy, along with hundreds of other ships. It was a silver lining for the future, from a terrible cloud in the past.

Perhaps we could have stayed even longer, but Stockholm’s somewhat curious practice of stopping the tours quite early means we already missed the last boat, and was about the miss the last bus not long after 5pm. We made it to the bus, but the bus didn’t make it as far as our stop. Not to worry, it was only about a 10 minute walk, but we took a few detours, checking out a long (and modern) shopping street that we’d seen from the bus earlier in the day.

Now if you can, take a moment to turn on the kitchen tap, see that water just flowing down the drain? Then turn the tap on a bit harder – and watch it all go with hardly even a chance to see it before it’s gone. Congratulations – you now know what it’s like to pay for things in Stockholm! We’d been warned it wasn’t a cheap place by any means – and those warning’s were spot on. It’s sometimes a little hard to tell since $1 AUD buys you about 6 Kroner… I’m not the sharpest when it comes to mental arithmetic. But to set a few examples – the average steak in a restaurant is about $40. Even a burger can be $30. At the ABBA museum we had a coffee, a coke, two cinnamon buns and a slice of a sweet pie – that came to $32.50. So yes, the money disappears surprisingly quickly – but the citizens do live with some extraordinary benefits. Parents get 480 days paid maternity leave, to be shared between them as they wish. Children’s education is from ages 7 to 17 (plus more after that if you like), and includes hot cooked lunch every day, all free of charge. So, to live hear can be expensive, but also such good value. Dinner tonight was around $80 – for two kebabs, a shared pizza, a bottle of water and a coke. So about average – but man, it was all delicious!

That was enough adventuring for today – tomorrow is already our last full day in Stockholm, so a visit the IKEA is a must!

Hello, Stockholm!

Hello, Stockholm!
Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

5:00AM. The alarm rings. A very bleary-eyed John stirs to life… half-life. He stumbles around, barely believing what time it is. He needs to know just one thing. Coffee. Where is it? Want. Need. Gimme!

So began the day – a very early (for me) wake up in Cardiff, as we’d been suitably spooked by horror stories of traffic, and after the drive from London to Brighton, I fully believed it. Even though our flight didn’t take off till 1:20PM, we were out of the house 6:00, just to make absolutely sure we would get that flight, with plenty of time so as to not get ourselves into a tizz at all if the traffic it.

Happily, all the sensible people in Cardiff were still in bed or at least, not on the road we we left town bang on 6AM. There was very little traffic in town at all, so it wasn’t a drama getting out and on to the motorway. Even the motorway was quiet, at the start. Watching to sun rise over the Welsh countryside was nice – except of course when it was shining right in my face and I couldn’t see a damn thing… at one stretch all the traffic slowed to about 30mph – but it didn’t last long. The traffic never turned too bad – we only came to a complete stop maybe twice, near Reading, where tons of people were all trying to join. At about 8:30, we were at Heathrow – the motorway goes practically all the way to the from door, it was, for once, a very sensible road setup. Dropping off the car was the easiest rental drop-off I’ve ever done, too, they really had their act together.

There was a free bus from EuRopcar to the Terminal – I wish we could have gone to the car park, as they had these very cool ‘Pods’, fully automated electric cars that drive you from the car park to the Terminal, then drive themselves back again. Very nifty.

We needn’t have worried about being late – we were in the airport and through security with about four hours to go before the flight. We whiled away the hours in the British Airways lounge, enjoying second breakfast, coffee, all sorts of good stuff.

As for the flight, it was another one of those rare opportunities to ‘turn left’ upon boarding. Once we did, though, it was a bit of a disappointment. On this plane, business class had exactly the same seats as economy, so it was a bit cramped. At least we had real glad and metal cutlery .. but despite being in row 3 (which was only the 2nd row), they’d already run out of chicken meals so I got to enjoy three prawns on a skewer. So not the best flight ever, but only two and a half hours so I shouldn’t be grumbling as much as I have already. It was uneventful, and we arrived safely, which is the all-important thing you want from any flight.

Getting through the airport was a breeze – i waited all of 5 seconds at passport control, and the bags turned up in about 10 minutes, not bad. Our driver was right there as we hit the arrivals hall, and whisked us along to our apartment.

First impressions – green, green, and more green. And lots of Volvos on the road! After about 40 minutes we arrived at the building where we are staying. A tall imposing front door creaked upon once we entered the magic code, and in we went. It’s an interesting building – housing a number of offices, including the Angolan embassy.
The two of us and our luggage barely squeezed into the ancient-looking lift, as it creaked and shuddered its way up to the 5th floor. We’re on the 6th floor, but the lift isn’t. We had to search a bit for the door – it’s disguised to look like a piece of wall – and this was just the start of the fun. (But fun in a good way, not a sarcastic way). Opening the door revealed a little spiral staircase, which lead us up to the room. And what a room! Cleverly squished into an attic space, it’s a little room, built around the original bits of the building, it’s fun, very quirky, multi-leveled, and (of course) mostly decorated with IKEA bits and pieces. I fell in love with it straight away – it’s just too cool! It has one downside in so far as Perry bumps his head on everything since there are big beams, low ceilings, sloping ceilings… but hey it’s all part of the fun. And the oval window up on the, I dunno, coffee terrace (?) has an amazing view out across the water, across the bridges, just beautiful. Moments after opening the window, there was distinct “toot toot!” of an old steam ship whistle, which somehow made the picture complete.

By now it was time for dinner, so we went off for a wander. Being very close to the Royal Palace, we’re more in the ‘big old monumental buildings’ district than the restaurant district, but we soon found a long street full of little shops, tourist shops, and restaurants. We settled on a place called Sally’s – it had food that wasn’t crazy-expensive. We had been warned that Stockholm isn’t exactly cheap, and that’s very true. Of the restaurants we walked pst, the average price of a steak was around 200 Kroner, or about $40 Australian. Happily, Sally’s had a menu probably just for the tourists, but the prices were good so we gave it a go. This being my first day in Sweden, of course I had to have meatballs with lingonberry. After this, I can probably never eat at Ikea again, it just won’t be the same. This must be the way it is meant to be done, absolutely delicious! One trend about this entire holiday, was every time we’d arrive somewhere, we’d end up having the most mazing dinner on the first night. Since this is (sadly) the last place, we have a 100% score for good places to eat on day 1. Even Brighton counts, when we ate at home 🙂

As a bonus – straight across the road was a Ben & Jerry’s, so that was dessert sorted straight away. That was enough adventuring for one evening, after such an early start today it was time to get back to the apartment, enjoy another lift ride – manually opening the closing both sets of lift doors (yep it’s old school), and calling it a night. It’s great to be here!

So long Cardiff, Bye-bye UK

So long Cardiff, Bye-bye UK
Cardiff, United Kingdom

Cardiff, United Kingdom

It was a very quiet final day in Cardiff.

The day stared very energetically – I had a big sleep-in, Perry enjoyed a mid-morning nap, a whole lot of nothing happened until about lunchtime, when we dragged ourselves outdoors and checked out central Cardiff itself. We took a cab, for the princely sum of £5 – which would’ve worked out cheaper and easier that leaving our carpark here, paying for parking in town, then paying for parking again back at our apartment.

We found our way to Cardiff Central Market – reminiscent of the Queen Vic markets in Melbourne. It’s about 120 years old, and the poor thing is starting to show it age a bit, but still has a degree of that Victorian charm. It was also the place we finally sampled some Welshcakes. I’m sure any Welsh person would hate me for saying it but they’re basically flat scones with dried fruit, fried instead of baked. Still very tasty though.

St David’s was next on the agenda, or rather, ‘Dewi Sant’ – it’s good to see that there is bilingual signage on pretty much everything. I did a quick bit of research (OK, I read on Wikipedia article) and apparently 73% of the Welsh population have no knowledge of the language. But, since 2000, Welsh has been a mandatory subject in Welsh schools, so all being well that number will increase in the years to come. St. David’s is a huge shopping centre, we had a good wander around and found a very cool shop called Tiger. It’s like an Ikea of small things – including the very Ikea-esque concept of only being able to walk one path through the whole shop. We still somehow managed not to buy anything though. Have a look at

In the last few days we’ve watched the first episode of Torchwood, and an early episode of the ‘new’ Dr Who, which were set in Cardiff. From this we’ve learnt that the building we’re staying in didn’t even exist 9 years ago, it was a carpark in Torchwood. It’s still fun seeing bits of Cardiff in the show, just so we can point and say “Been there!”

But as far as Cardiff goes, that’s it for us. We’re leaving at half-past-ridiculous in the morning to make absolutely sure we don’t miss out 1:20PM flight to Sweden. We’ve been warned to traffic we be pretty horrendous as we pass near Bristol, and of course it’s to be expected at Heathrow. So, we’re not leaving anything to chance, even it does mean getting up an unreasonable hour. It’s all good, we can nap on the plane.

So this was out last full day in Cardiff, and our last full day in the UK. The horrible realisation that the holiday is drawing to close, is starting to sink in. But I’m doing my best to ignore it – still have a few more days and one country left to explore. Let’s do that then!

Who’s who in Cardiff

Who's who in Cardiff
Cardiff, United Kingdom

Cardiff, United Kingdom

Up and at ‘em at the slightly un-holiday-like time of around 8:15 today… OK that is a pretty holiday-like time. But still, had to make sure we weren’t late for our appointment at the Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff, even though it was just a little bit down the road. The instant golden syrup flavour prodding bought from Sainsbury’s yesterday did a pretty remarkable job of actually tasting like golden syrup flavoured porridge, after just chucking in a bit of boiling water and giving it a stir.

Once it was time to head outside … it was bucketing down. Yay. But still we made it in one piece despite Perry’s umbrella not surviving the journey. We were a little bit early (wouldn’t have been anything to do with me really really looking forward to it, I’m sure), but luckily they had a cafe and a few things to look at while we were waiting. Surprisingly the menu didn’t take advantage of its connection to the show. I expected a Lime Lord milkshake, Custard Tartdis, Garlic/Dalek prawns … but no. Nothin’. Not even CyberMentos after dinner. We did share a lovely Bakewell tart though.

Despite the miserable weather, and the fact it was a Monday morning, there was a small band of fellow hardy Who-nerds there, ready to come along on the adventure. And surprisingly, there was a bit of an adventure to be had. The Doctor Who Experience sure starts with an Experience – it must be awesome for the kiddies, except we didn’t have any in the whole group. Basically we were led through series of rooms, following a story, with video inserts starring Peter Capaldi where our trust bands of adventurers had to help him on his quest. I thought it’d be an amusing five minute diversion in a room, but I think ti went on for about 20 minutes or more, through a whole series of rooms, each recalling parts of the show. It was very cleverly put together, really well done. Eventually our adventure concluded and was in to the exhibit proper.
For a massive Dr Who nerd like me, it was awesome. Tons of props from the show, going all the way back to 1963 which was cool – including all the Tardis consoles, at least half a dozen different styles of Police Box they’ve used through the years, Bessie the old yellow car, tons and tons of stuff. Really interesting. Of course it was heavily biased to the more recent series, but hey can’t complain. Really enjoyed wandering around seeing everything up close. I guess the only really surprising thing was I left the gift shop without buying a thing … there’s nothing the screamed ‘buy me!’ loudly enough to counter the other voice in my head saying ‘You’ll have to find a way of getting it home’. But it was a fantastic experience, one I was glad to finally have, having been reading about big Dr Who exhibitions in the UK ever since I was a little kid. Finally, finally, had the chance to see one for myself, so that was wonderful.

Next up was a bus in to Cardiff itself, for a bit of a look around, and an incredible lunch at the New York Diner. It was bit of a holiday within the holiday, being transported, at least food-wise, back to the USA, land of enormous sandwiches. When a brad roll comes with its own fork just so you can start on the fillings, you know it’s a big lunch. Delicious!

It was then time to take in some more history – Cardiff Castle. It has been a castle / fort / stronghold of some kind every since Roman times. There’s not much left of the Roman fortifications, though some parts of the castle’s outside wall are still built about the original Roman wall. The castle Keep itself is fairly small – a little over 23 metres across, with a tower that we were able to climb up. How anyone managed to regularly get up and down the spiral staircase is beyond me. The steps when selves would have been maybe 10cm deep at the edge … running up and down that in a full set of armour must have been a near-impossibility. Still, we managed, and it afforded a great view of the rest of the site.

The Castle had been owned by the Bute family until 1947, when they bequeathed it to the city. They didn’t live in the castle itself, what with the keep just containing a field of grass. Instead they lived in the house nearby. Nominally still part of the castle, being built within the castle walls, it was still a very stately home indeed, completely gutted and refurbished in the 1800s. We took a tour of the house. Ornate is a complete understatement. The decoration, as was the way with rich Victorians, ws completely overwrought, no patch left un-tizzied, at all. The Bute family made an absolute fortune from the Welsh coal industry before it was nationalised – apparently their yearly incoming was around £300,000 per year in the time where a maid could expect to make £8-15 per year. So they weren’t short of a dollar.

This incredibly decorated, overwrought, overdone, over-decorated pile was one of their holiday homes among their 150 properties, and was only used for six weeks of the year, if that. Even so, it was apparently the 3rd house in Britain to have electricity, and was quite modern in other ways. The maids / butlers were called not with pull-coords to ring the bells, but with electric buzzers hidden in the fine carvings around the perimeter of the room. The bedroom also had an ensuite, with hot and cold running water, a flushing loo, and a bath – practically unheard of back then, It was an interesting insight into the way ‘the other half lived’, back in the day. The whole house was covered in religious iconography, apparently the 3rd Marquess of Bute converted to Catholicism at age 21, and pretty much every aspect of the house had been redesigned to reflect his strong faith. To my un-religious self it seems a shame to spend an horrific amount of money on such a thing – but I guess at least the family gave to the home and castle to Cardiff, rather than the church. Looking beyond that though, the craftmanship in the work was undeniable, and in its own way, it could be seen as a kind of beautiful assault upon the senses.

Better pictures than mine are available on the house tour web page: /

Nothing too exciting happened after that – we hopped on the bus to get back to the apartment, and had an unremarkable dinner at a ‘world buffet’ – basically a chinese restaurant that’s trying to branch out, I think. Still, it wasn’t bad by any means, it was just no Za Za Bazaar like Bristol.

Tomorrow is our last day in Cardiff, and also our last full day in the UK. Trying not to think about the fact that the holiday is starting to draw to a close. But its not over yet. Phew!

Bore da, Caerdydd (Good morning, Cardiff)

Bore da, Caerdydd (Good morning, Cardiff)
Cardiff, United Kingdom

Cardiff, United Kingdom

Many months ago, when we booked the accommodation, we discovered our days in Cardiff coincided with the Rugby World Cup also being in Cardiff. It sure helped explain why accommodation was so hard to come by, but we always knew things could get a little hectic while we are here.

To be on the safe side, we left Bristol at the relatively bright and early time of about 8:30, to hopefully avoid the worst of the traffic. The GPS threw us a curveball straight out of the carpark – but it ended up being a blessing in disguise. All around Queens Square in Bristol, was some kind of meet up for classic car enthusiasts. So we ended going around the block seeing tons of beautiful old cards – Ford Capri’s, Cortinas, TVRs, a Lotus or two, old Porsches, Caterham 7’s … tons of cool stuff. As an extra bonus the road surrounding Queen’s Square is all paved with cobblestone, so I had no choice but to drive slowly and admire the view.

Fortunately the rest of Bristol was sensibly not on the roads, so it was a pretty smooth trip. Driving over the Severn bridges was so beautiful (maybe even moreso due a slight fog giving the whole thing a slightly ethereal feel), but not exactly cheap at £6.50. The traffic became thicker the closer we drove to Cardiff, but before too long we found our carpark near our Services Apartment. It was one of the ‘park and ride’ locations for the Rugby so the first attendant at the carpark thought the whole thing was booked out and we couldn’t use it (eek!) but his boss quickly set him straight and we were parked and good to go. Now all we had to do was while away about 5 hours until we were able to get in to the the apartment.

Cardiff Bay, where we are staying, is a relatively new thing. Until the late 80s / early 90s, the whole thing was a wasteland of disused docks, no longer needed after the end of Wales’ cool exporting boom in earlier years. Fortunately it has since been revitalised, most successfully I reckon. The new Welsh Millennium Centre Opera House is such an impressive building. Despite the captain of our boat (more on that later) calling it “That big copper armadillo over there”, it’s a huge, imposing, serious and wonderful bit of architecture. Unlike Stonehenge, it looks much much larger in real life than it does on the telly, towering over you with its massive, wordy facade. In English it says “In these stones horizons sings” and according to Wikipedia the welsh text translates to “Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration”. Nice!

Of course I can’t go on without mentioning Doctor Who – which has used this building, and the adjacent Roald Dahl Plass numerous times, especially early in the new series, as the production is based in Wales. It’s been the site of a time/space rift or something like that, plus the home of the Dr Who spin-off, Torchwood, located under the Water Tower. Apparently the whole Plass is also a bit of a flood mitigation device, the sunken ‘basin’ can apparently fill with water on extreme high tides. So in short the whole area is full of monument, dressed to impress, and sure does a good job of it.

To help kill a few of the hours we had to wait, we jumped on the Hop On Hop Off bus (yep it seems every city has one, they’re proving to be very handy) to get a quick overview of the city. Due to ongoing Rugby-ness, many streets were closed so we were lucky to get the final bus, as they couldn’t continue on after 12:30 in the afternoon. But we did get our brief overview of town, and pretty much everywhere you looked there was a sea of red – football fans absolutely everywhere in preparation for the today’s games. We also got a good look as the bus drove past the ‘Doctor Who Experience’ – which of course we’re visiting first thing tomorrow, and also of course I’m a wee bit excited about it, having read about Dr Who exhibitions in England ever since I was a young kid.

Lunch at Pizza Express (yay, more of their famous ‘dough balls’!) helped another bunch of minutes pass by, until 2:30 (it was meant to be 2pm) finally rolled by and we were ready and waiting to be checked in and shown around. This is a serviced apartment, basically in a block of residential flats, so there’s no hotel reception or anything like that, you have to meet somebody out the front who lets you in and tells you everything you need to know. One way to set a less than stellar first impression is to first deer you until 2:30, then turn up nearly half an hour late. Still, he did have a lot of people to ‘check in’ and it looks very much like he was a solo operator today. And it’s not like we were caught in the rain or anything, having to spend bit more time in Roald Dahl Plass and the Millennium Centre isn’t exactly a horrid le thing to have to endure. Our little studio apartment is nice, and will do a good job for the next few days. And it has the traveller’s best friend – a washing machine and dryer, in use as I type.
We took a little boat ride in the afternoon – it basically just went from one end of the bay to the another, there was no official commentary but the captain was chatting to a Welsh local sitting nearby, so we learnt a little bit here and there about the history. And also the part that is the Dragon breeding ground, and a whole bunch of other tall tales. I don’t know why he doesn’t do that as a proper commentary, but maybe the signs saying “boat and business for sale” could give a bit of a hint.

Next stop after returning to Cardiff Bay was the “Ianto Jones Shrine”. Torchwood, the Dr Who spinoff, was very much based in Wales, and Ianto was one of the popular characters, who was killed off in 2009. Apparently when this happened a few people went and left flowers down at a particular spot in the docks, where the fictional Torchwood office was. That soon grew into the ‘Shrine’ wall we saw today.
After a delicious dinner at Gourmet Burger Kitchen (best. milkshakes. ever!) I took a few night photos, the Millennium Centre was all lit up in pink, nice! Other than that,, time for an early night, gotta be at the Dr Who thing tomorrow by 10. Night!

Bridges, Boats, Balloons & Buh-bye Bristol

Bridges, Boats, Balloons & Buh-bye Bristol
Bristol, United Kingdom

Bristol, United Kingdom

Our last day in Bristol didn’t get off to the greatest start – Perry was feeling a bit under the weather, so he had a lie in, while I headed out for a bit of a wander. The first thing I came across was the planetarium in Millennium Square – a great big metallic sphere which was pretty cool looking. Cool in an entirely different sense was a small band performing country music nearby – as in music of the West Country. Yes, the song did actually contain lyrics such as “oo-er, oo-er, where’s me ciderrrrr”. Brilliant.

Next I headed up Park St, the main shopping street, and in Bristol’s find tradition of being the best/first/most of everything, it is apparently the steepest shopping street in Britain. Still, I somehow made it to the top, not before stopping for a good strong coffee and a sausage roll half way through. Having reached the top, or, ‘the triangle’, I checked the map and wandered along another 2km to the wonderful, famous, historic, Clifton Suspension Bridge. Along the way I walked across beautiful terraces (for Clifton is the poshest part of Bristol), a beautiful avenue of trees that bisected a cemetery, and along a street called The Fosseway. (What’s the only way to dance? The Fosse Way!).

And then there it was stretching out in front me – the beautiful, imposing, yet delicate, Clifton Suspension Bridge. Having been designed by Brunel, I was already a fan of it, and it had been great to see it from afar during the Hop On Hop Off bus the other day. But it was wonderful to see it up close, to walk upon it, and see just how high up it is – 101 metres above the water at high tide. Sure enough, it’s a long way down when you look over the edge. The Avon Gorge, which it spans, it just huge, building this bridge across it over 150 years ago must have been one hell of a job. Especially considering bits of it are second-hand – the chains that hold it up were taken from the Hungerford Bridge in London when it demolished to make way for a railway bridge. But enough of the fascinating (?) trivia… Just across the bridge was a Mr Whippy van (yay) selling ‘Cornish Ice Cream’. Now, maybe I’ no great ice cream connoisseur (though I’ve had a LOT of practice!),but dare I say Cornish ice cream tastes suspiciously like normal soft-serve. Not that I’m complaining…after all, it’s ice cream.

I hung around the bridge for a while just soaking up the views and the atmosphere, and watching a number of surprisingly cool cars go by – a TVR, a new Jaguar F-Type, a 1960s Alfa Romeo Spider … a reminder that it’s the posh end of town. Perry had stirred by this point, so I started heading back, this time through The Mall of Clifton town … very Paddington, dahlings – posh shops selling overpriced tat, you know the thing.

Returning to the hotel I stumbled across a market being held pretty much just outside the hotel, around our end of the Floating Harbour. Lucky I happened to look out the window because suddenly there were 7 hot air balloons decorating the lovely blue sky – nice! After all Bristol does the worlds biggest/first/largest/most-est (whichever you feel is most appropriate) Balloon factory, churning out a balloon every day. We left the hotel and went on a little boat cruise around the Floating Harbour for 45 minutes, to see some of the sights without too much effort. The commentary, yet again, had some more of Bristol’s first/most/greatest of everything. This time, it was world’s best / worst pirate Blackbeard, who was Bristol born and bred, apparently. After the cruise the markets were still going so we had some ‘real’ lemonade, delivered into our cups by the magic of solar power – yep, a solar powered lemonade stand, just the thing in a country that gets so much sunshine 🙂 Having said that today was really sunny, I think I even got a little bit sunburnt. It was a glorious day, and according to the forecasts, the last one there is for the rest our time in the UK.

Dinner was at The Stable, allegedly the best Cider Pies and Pizza in Bristol. It was already packed by 6pm when we turned up, so I figure it must be popular. We had a pie, pizza, and a 5 glass cider board sampler. They had about 80 different kinds of cider on offer, so trying 5 was the least we could do. So we quickly learnt a few things about cider – 3 of the 5 were served warm (well, room temperature) out of casks. Two of them were more of the cider I’m used to – cold and a bit fizzy. We both found two of them to be borderline undrinkable – bordering on bad-tasting apple wine vinegar. But three of them were nice, and one (yep a cold fizzy sweet one) was delicious. The pizza and pie, delicious. As was the massive Sundae and Waffles we had at the nearby Sundae shop… yum!

The only minor downside to all this food was that we missed the first few minutes of the brand new season of Doctor Who Yes, as an avowed Dr Who nerd it was great to watch the first episode live on the BBC as soon as it aired. Of course as is normal with Dr Who these days much of it didn’t make a lick of sense but I guess that’s why we have to tune in to all the remaining episodes.

That was about it for the day – now it’s time to re-pack everything and get ready to leave Bristol. If I had my time over again I would have taken one day off our stay in Brighton and added it on to Bristol. It’s a great city, with a great vibe, and of course it’s the first/best/most of pretty much everything, if you ask it. All that, and it’s a very nice looking city, too. I came here to see the SS Great Britain, but was blown way by how much more it had to offer. I can strongly recommend a visit if ever you’re somewhere in the nearby vicinity. Ship shape, and Bristol fashion!

Tomorrow we’re off to Cardiff, on the day of one of the rugby matches there (whoops). So get ready for another rant about traffic tomorrow as a bazillion people pile into town, including us two 🙂

Beauty, BC, Bath, but barely any Bristol

Beauty, BC, Bath, but barely any Bristol
Bath, United Kingdom

Bath, United Kingdom

Another day, another chance for fun and adventure! Today’s we got out of town a bit, braving the fun and games of the road system, where I learnt a few new things.

  • Sometimes, lane markings vanish for no good reason. This is a little disconcerting in the middle of three-lane roundabout.
  • Roundabouts interrupt motorways all the freakin’ time.
  • Just like home, if you dare to stick to the speed limit, people will hover right on your back bumper. Doubly so if its a Lexus driver.
  • ‘Tanks Crossing’ is new sign on the motorway. Didn’t see any tanks though.
  • There’s a road junction on the A36 called “Dead Maids”. Charming!

First stop (without too many traffic dramas): Stonehenge! The drive down was just beautiful. Heading through the Cotswolds in part, through the most amazingly green scenery, punctuated by beautiful picture-postcard towns that must have been centuries old… Quaint cottages, crumbling barns, real picture-postcard stuff, especially when the sun was shining through.

Stonehenge was .. well, it’s Stonehenge, what can I say? It was smaller than I anticipated, but still job gobsmacking to think that it was constructed around 3500BC, and, at least in parts, it’s still there. We took the bus from the visitor centre (places 2km away from the henge itself) to the site. You can’t get into/onto the stones themselves which is probably a good thing, but the fenced off area gets you a few metres away. Did it feel spooky / mysterious / spiritual / any of the above? Nah, it’s a bunch of rocks in a field. But just the fact they’ve been there for so long, and nobody really knows why, does make you think. Could be some kind of spiritual thing, could just be a calendar so you know when to plant your crops. Who knows. I guess speculation is part of the fun. It was well worth the drive out there, not just for the destination, but also the journey. I also learnt a few things – two of the stones fell over as recently as 1901, and one of the the stones that fell in 1797 was put back in place in 1958, with other stones having been cemented in place during the 20th century. I guess it’s a bit much to ask for a monument to stay put for 5000 years, so its inevitable that there’s going to be a bit of interference with it now and then.

We didn’t really stay all that long, as we had another site on the agenda – Bath. Again the drive was pretty pleasant, and we took advantage of the ‘park and ride’, where you can park 10 minutes out of town and get a bus in, to avoid the hassle of trying to get right into Bath itself. It worked a treat – the bus was right there and in about 10-15 minutes, bam, there we were right in the middle of Bath. First impressions – what a beautiful city! A very long high-street, a lot of which has taken on some of Bath’s Roman history.

Visiting the Roman Baths was amazing. The site has been built over and built over many times since the Romans created the baths, but through the museum they had recreations of how it would probably have looked back in the day, They also had tons (literally) of artefacts from the Roman times, which was just fascinating. Everything from the sculptures over the main entrance, to many many coins from different eras (I guess chucking a coin in a pool for good luck has been going on for many thousands of years), to still-fully-functional Roman draining systems. I never thought I’d be with a bunch of people, murmuring ‘wow that’s amazing’, while standing in front of a drain of all things. But when it’s been doing its thing for thousands of years, I guess it deserves a bit of a wow. They sure knew a thing or three about engineering, the Romans. There were also very ‘human’ things on display – quick ‘curses’ inscribed on little sheets of lead, thrown into the waters in the hope that the relevant god or goddess would address their concerns. Someone stole my scarf. Curse them! It brings a very small, personal feeling stretching across 20 or more centuries. I don’t know what happened to the scarf, though.

It’s a bigger complex than I thought – there were many baths, ranging from cold, to tepid (called the Tepidarium, so I guess we all know where we borrowed the word from), the main bath which was very hot. Also impressive was some of the rooms with underfloor heating – only the foundations are left, but it’s pretty amazing to think that rooms were centrally heated, with underfloor heating, 2000 or more years ago. No internet though, as far as I could tell. 🙂

We took a good walk up and down the high street, seeing such things as the Royal Mineral Water Hospital (spa water fixes everything?) before it was finally time to hop back on the bus for the quick trip back to the car. The drive home was in the middle of peak hour so it was a bit slow, with the now-standard ‘Huh I have to change across three lanes in 5 metres? Oops, missed it’ little detour around a few extra Bristol streets, but we did eventually get back to the hotel safe and sounds after a pretty amazing historical nice.

Za Za Bazaar because the restaurant so nice we ate their twice, so that was dinner sorted quickly and easily. Not sure yet what’s in store for Saturday, but as always, you’ll know about it once it happens. Nighty-night!