Travel Blog – South Germany

20 10 2009

After leaving Maastricht we finished the days drive to Frankfurt where we were going to be staying with Alyona’s friends Barbara and Rafael. They are both really nice people and amazing hosts and cooked a delicious dinner for us although Rafael had to pop out at one point as he is a volunteer fire fighter and had to go for a final interview in his new district (so altruistic too ;-).

After dinner we had a few drinks including some excellent polish vodka and Rafael even treated us to an authentic Chinese tea ceremony as he travels there for business…

Barbara & Rafael (f4.0 1/10 24mm)

Barbara & Rafael (f4.0 1/10 24mm)

Later we took the train into town to check out a ‘night at the museum’ style event where all the museums along the river got together and put on music and beer tents to drum up local interest. We managed to catch the tail end of the event and had fun threading our way through the crowd, drinking beer, and listening to a variety of music styles. Once that shut down we walked around the city center a bit and eventually got tired and took the night bus home.

We slept the night at Barbara and Rafael’s and enjoyed a lazy morning relaxing and talking more.

Later in the morning we drove further south to Heidelberg to meet up with Vivi, the same friend we met up with in Singapore. Heidelberg is the very picture of a Southern German University town with a large river passing through the middle, an old medieval town center with a castle on a hill and a university that dates back 600 something years.

Vivi took us up Philosopher’s Way which winds its way up the hill opposite the town before breaking open into a magnificent view of the city across the valley. Turns out that the research facility Vivi works at is actually located in the forest behind the castle which seems like a ridiculously picturesque location to work.

We then made our way down to the river and crossed the bridge into the town proper buzzing with people enjoying the sun (including the obligatory beach bar with imported sand). The town is quite an experience as it is a completely car free zone and while Alyona will hassle me for going on about the old stones it really did make it feel more like an old medieval city, just with ice cream and Christmas ornament stores instead.

Downtown Heidelberg (f4.0 1/2000 50mm)

Downtown Heidelberg (f4.0 1/2000 50mm)


And teaming with tourists like ourselves…

We then walked up the other side of the valley and around the back of the castle into the grounds. It turns out that while it may cost for entry into the castle proper during the day it is completely free after 6pm so we bided our time till that rolled around.

Vivi took this shot of us on the path up to the castle gardens and I really do like the perspective:

The castle on the hill (f8.0 1/160 35mm)

The castle on the hill (f8.0 1/160 35mm)

On the way up we ate wild strawberries on the side of the road and strolled through the forest. The castle grounds seemed less expansive than in other places (read: France) but that is probably due to its location on the side of a hill and that it did serve the purpose of proper fortifications in its own time..

Wild Strawberries (f8.0 1/60 24mm)

Wild Strawberries (f8.0 1/60 24mm)

Despite the ground’s size there were still the normal accompaniment of fountains, manicured grass and gardens. One in particular looked rather god-like in its repose so warranted a bit of a parody.

A god-like repose (f8.0 1/50 24mm)

A god-like repose (f8.0 1/50 24mm)

On the way into the castle proper we came across a columned arch engraved with vines and woodland animals. The story goes that the master of the castle made the columns for his wife when he went away and she had to find all the carved animals before his return.

Searching for the animals (f5.6 1/15 24mm)

Searching for the animals (f5.6 1/15 24mm)

The castle was one of the most impressive and large I’ve seen and probably the oldest as, while it has been destroyed and reconstructed over time, it originally dates from the 1200’s (the town itself from the 500’s). It wasn’t possible to go inside the buildings themselves but is still impressive to walk around the grounds and the view over the city is amazing.

When we got back down to the city we walked around a little more and did some souvenir shopping. Vivi left early to start preparing dinner while Alyona and I walked around the university grounds and past her old apartment from when she worked here. On the way back to Vivi’s we bought cake by the slice for dessert (they do that here) and saw how the walls of the castle turn pink in the setting sun.

The pink castle walls (f5.6 1/250 55mm)

The pink castle walls (f5.6 1/250 55mm)

We had a very pleasant (and delicious) dinner and evening hanging out at Vivi’s place and even went to the next town over to go Salsa dancing. Have to admit I was feeling a bit too tired for a dance-off but we had a lot of fun nonetheless!

In the morning we had an early start but somehow Vivi still managed to get up earlier and put on a wonderful breakfast of pancakes and fruit. After which we started the very long drive to Berlin. We had to drop the car off by 6pm which made it a hard deadline for the 500km journey and, through the magic of driving 190 whenever possible, managed to get there just in time. Although not without stopping at a sex shop on the old border between east and west Germany which I was told exists at every border crossing up and down the country.

I think the final drive through Berlin city was by far the most stressful part of the trip for me and I was glad to finally end up at the hotel.

Travel Route

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Travel Blog – Bruges to Maastricht

13 10 2009

The trip from Bruges to Brussels was uneventful and relatively short compared to previous efforts but because we had spent so much time in Bruges we still arrived in the early evening.

The apartment we stayed in was amazing, very close to the city center and on the 5th floor (no elevator) and it was really designed for longer stayers but we certainly enjoyed our one night. The decor was very retro-chic and I think both of us thought we could definitely live there.

View from our apartment (f8.0 1/1600 24mm)

View from our apartment (f8.0 1/1600 24mm)

One thing we found driving in was that navigation in Brussels is made interesting because all the signs are in both Flemish and French (the two major languages). It took a while to work out that when looking for a particular street you had to figure out first which language you had the street name in then break down the sign into the two different languages and finally compare the relevant half with what you’re looking for.

So with this in mind after settling in we then went for a walk to either Grote Markt or Grand Place depending on your choice of language. The place was really cool and looked like it was gearing up for a major sporting event as they were setting up screens and a crowd was gathering. The atmosphere was what really made it and while I think almost everyone there was a tourist it still made the city feel like a bustling and historical center.

Grand Place (f8.0 1/30 28mm)

Grand Place (f8.0 1/30 28mm)

(One of Alyona’s ones I believe, sometimes I can’t remember which ones she has taken but quite a few of those I post are really by her…)

The next stop on our walk was the very famous ‘Mannekin Pis’ … aka tiny statue of little boy pissing. Amazingly underwhelming and as you can see Alyona wasn’t even really bothering to look.

Mannekin Pis is *that* interesting (f8.0 1/8 58mm)

Mannekin Pis is *that* interesting (f8.0 1/8 58mm)


I really like this shot and how everything in the background is blurry making Alyona stand out even more :-) A lucky combination of people moving and her standing still I guess.

Supposedly there is a complementary statue of a little girl peeing somewhere in the city but it isn’t advertised in any of the tourist guides so we didn’t find it.

After returning to the square we found one of the many souvenier beer shops. These places are packed wall to wall with interesting sounding beers from the common to the very rare. I think the strangest one I saw was one that was ‘smoked Manuka’ flavoured but was made with Manuka imported into Belgium!

Boutique beers (f8.0 1/6 24mm)

Boutique beers (f8.0 1/6 24mm)

We bought several souvenier bottles as well as one large chocolate and one large strawberry beer to try that evening and, with these in hand, headed back to our apartment.

The Brussels Skyline (f8.0 1/60 28mm)

The Brussels Skyline (f8.0 1/60 28mm)

After dropping the beer home we went in search of food but there was seriously nothing in the area except financial firms and closed cafes so settled on the first Turkish place we came too.
I think this had to have been one of the worst and weirdest kebabs I’ve ever had to the point it even had fries in it. Alyona was not impressed at all but there was nothing else on offer so we made do and washed it down with our boutique beers and watched some IT Crowd.

In the morning it was once again time to pack up and head off with the idea being that we would stay the night at Alyona’s friend’s place in Frankfurt. This is a rather long drive (400km) so we left early to not have to rush.

It was a very picturesque drive though and when it neared lunch we had to decide which town to stop in. The two main contenders were Maastricht and Cologne but Lonely Planet said “you haven’t really seen Holland unless you’ve gone to Maastricht” which made up our minds for us.

Maastricht (f8.0 1/1250 24mm)

Maastricht (f8.0 1/1250 24mm)

Only problem is the Lonely Planet doesn’t really know what it is talking about and while nice, Maastricht is a bit of a bore and marked more by construction and barriers than any really interesting stuff. But we had a laugh at the “steep hill” signs on the way into town (the rest of Holland being flat I guess they get a bit taken aback when there is a gradient) and a nice lunch before getting on our way again…

Travel Route





Travel Blog: Amsterdam to Bruges

10 10 2009

In the morning Tony informed us that he had set up a meeting between Alyona and his boss for lunch. Of course he had failed to tell us the night before so that we got to relax and enjoy Amsterdam which was pretty cool :-)

So we met Ha again in Amsterdam-Amstel, (a suburb on the Utrecht side of the city) for lunch and so that they could discuss different projects that the company had under development and to see if Alyona’s skills could be used.

Was a very nice lunch and it was interesting to hear what ideas they had (although I don’t pretend to have followed it all).

Later Tony headed back to work and we decided to head the rest of the way into the city. We spent a couple more hours of souvenier shopping and last-minute sight seeing before heading back and picking up the car again from Tony’s work.

That being done we drove to his apartment, picked up our bags, and hit the road again with just a hotel reservation in Bruges to aim for…

We didn’t stop till we crossed the border into Belgium and by the time we got to Antwerp it was definitely dinner time and we decided to head into the city center. This ended up being quite a mission and then more so to find a carpark in an area that looked like it would be reasonable for dinner. But we did and after a short exploration it turned out we were right in the center of town and so enjoyed another lovely meal of mussells beside the cathedral.

Antwerp Cathedral (f5.6 1/13 24mm)

Antwerp Cathedral (f5.6 1/13 24mm)

Then followed a mad dash night drive across Belgium to the far west and to the town of Bruges, which might sound an impressive drive till you realize that the entire country is only 300km or so across so it isn’t that much of a feat ;-) I will say though that Studio Brussels is a really good radio station and I was kind of miffed when we lost it a couple days later when entering Germany. I swear “2 many DJs” was on at one point…

We arrived just before 11pm and only just managed to get the car parked in the parking building before it shut for the night. I think the proprietors of the hotel were a little worried about us arriving or not and had been trying to ring but my cell wasn’t working in Belgium. But it all worked out and instead we enjoyed a late night beer to calm down from the drive and chatted with a couple of locals who were lamenting the size of speed camera fines you could get in Belgium. But he did have to admit he was caught doing 90 in a 50 zone…

Now the hotel is a thing to discuss! It was a building from the 1600s and while internally it had been renovated a couple times since then it still had a lot of the character one might imagine and was absolutely gorgeous (Hotel Salvador if anyone is interested). It was right beside the city center and one of the larger cathedral in Bruges.

Saint Salvatore's Cathedral, Bruges (f4.0 1/8 24mm)

Saint Salvatore's Cathedral, Bruges (f4.0 1/8 24mm)

The room itself was huge and even had a jacuzzi style bath which we both enjoyed before settling in for the night. In the morning we had a great breakfast buffet on site with cheeses, meats, and waffles. What was more interesting was that while packing there were a group of tourists who, among all the other sites, had stopped to look at our hotel!

Our hotel from the 17th Century (f4.0 1/1600 24mm)

Our hotel from the 17th Century (f4.0 1/1600 24mm)

When it hit afternoon we packed up and headed out to see the city a bit before moving on. One of the first things we came across was a statue of this dude Simon Stevin in a prime location in one of the market squares. Now guess what he invented (or copy paste him into google if that is more your style).

Simon Stevin (f8.0 1/125 24mm)

Simon Stevin (f8.0 1/125 24mm)


NB: You can see him over Alyona’s shoulder

Pretty ridiculous right, a huge statue to the guy who invented the decimal point!

A bit later we entered the main square with the palace on one side and the huge watch tower on another that anyone who has seen ‘In Bruges’ will be able to recognize. The place was crowded but still very atmospheric. And no, we didn’t see any over sized American tourists :-)

Bruges Main Square (f8.0 1/800 28mm)

Bruges Main Square (f8.0 1/800 28mm)

We spent a good couple hours walking around the city, visiting the fish markets and lace shops using Alyona’s Russian tourist guide to catch the best parts. There was also a constant stream of horse-and-carriages going around the city but both times we visited the main square the line of people waiting was huge so we never did manage to go for a ride.

Romantic Horse & Carriages (f8.0 1/400 24mm)

Romantic Horse & Carriages (f8.0 1/400 24mm)

Finally we stopped for a late lunch before leaving the city and, as is appropriate in Belgium, had frites, mussels in a white wine sauce, and beer. Absolutely delicious and it was a shame to leave when it was over.

Alyona & Mussels (f8.0 1/20 24mm)

Alyona & Mussels (f8.0 1/20 24mm)

And yes, that is decimal point guy over her shoulder again… he does get around…

Travel Route





Travel Blog – Amsterdam Again

7 10 2009

Unfortunately the next day Tony had to go back to work so it was just Martin, Alyona and I for the day. And as Alyona had yet to see Amsterdam we decided it would be a good idea to go in for another look around and see the sights but this being us it took us a while to get going and it was the afternoon before we got there.

Because Martin had to leave that night from the airport he had brought all his stuff with him to the train station and so dropped it off in the left luggage area of the train station before we set off to see the city.

Martin & Alyona (f8.0 1/160 24mm)

Martin & Alyona (f8.0 1/160 24mm)

We took a slightly different approach the second time around and while we saw most of the same sights we explored more of the back streets and went a bit further out into the suburbs. Even to the point of finding a random market full of t-shirts, second hand clothing, porn and police academy era films on VHS but struggled to find somewhere that sold pancakes like the first day (which was our real mission).

Despite it being a Tuesday afternoon the streets were still crowded and it was quite cool to see such a bustling, alive city. Narrow streets and tall buildings crammed with cafes and shops were everywhere and the atmosphere was very cool. And very different to New Zealand.

Typical Street in Amsterdam (f8.0 1/15 88mm)

Typical Street in Amsterdam (f8.0 1/15 88mm)

Eventually we found a nice little cafe that fit the bill: pancakes, coffee, and a canal and sat down for lunch outside.

But not without drama of course! The tables were small and so it was necessary to pull a chair from one table around to fit the three of us. Not too difficult but the waitress then rushed out to inform us that we couldn’t do that and in Amsterdam they can get fined (by the Police no less) for not having their tables set out just so. Instead it was quite alright for her to bring another chair from inside so I’m still not sure what the fuss was all about.

We were very lucky though and as soon as we sat down under cover it began to rain which cleared the air and kept people running in front of us as we enjoyed our meal.

Hoodie by Hurley (f5.6 1/8 24mm)

Hoodie by Hurley (f5.6 1/8 24mm)

After lunch we engaged in more shopping and Martin purchased a very daring long sleeved shirt (daring in that it was either Hipster or had enough bright pink to indicate a different sexual preference).

We also made it to the flower market which was full of beatiful tulips and grow your own kits for what whould most definitely be illegal here. The only shame was that they shipped to every country in the world, except Australia and New Zealand. Shipped the tulips that is.

Eventually the time moved on and as it approached 5 we had to head back to the train station to pick up Martin’s bags and see him off on the way to the airport. Which kind of sucked so we had ice cream.

On the way back to the train station I spotted a parking building for bikes. This thing was 5 storeys high and was simply filled with bikes. It really seemed like something that could only happen in Holland. Especially when you compare it to the 10m^2 area the University of Auckland has for bikes…

Parking for bikes (f8.0 1/250 105mm)

Parking for bikes (f8.0 1/250 105mm)

At the station Martin got his stuff and was on his way but not before we took the following shot which I’m quite proud of. Not entirely in focus but a cool concept.

The three of us - Tony wasn't far away (f5.6 0.3s 24mm)

The three of us - Tony wasn't far away (f5.6 0.3s 24mm)

The good thing was that less than an hour later Tony came in and met us in Amsterdam having been dropped off by one of his colleauges so we could continue our adventures.

We walked around a bit more including another pre-evening stroll through the red light distict which was as low-key as the first time. We did kind of look at the outside of some of the shows but I don’t think anyone was game enough to go in, and as Tony said the first 5 minutes are normally shocking and then it becomes just blase and boring.

Saying bye to the night (f8.0 1/320 24mm)

Saying bye to the night (f8.0 1/320 24mm)

And yes, that is KFC on the left of the picture, it infects everywhere!

Now as the plan for the evening was to do absolutely nothing again the story ends here except to say that we did end up going to the red light district again while taking Tony’s ‘less than direct’ route to the train station and while it was a bit of a blur and I can’t claim to remember much of it (due to being worried about other stuff) it was very surreal with scantily clad girls everywhere who were calling out or negotiating with potential clients. Weird.





Travel Blog – Den Haag

4 10 2009

The day started with the only real plans being that we were to pick Alyona up from the train station as she was returning from Germany. Admittedly we were still feeling the effects of doing absolutely nothing the night before but I was indeed alright to drive so it was ok.

Our first destination was Rotterdam which, apart from the interesting name, had a cafe that Tony knew about down on the water which we decided to check out. Not far off the most direct route to Rotterdam was the town of Gouda and it seemed stupid not to stop there.

Gouda (f4.0 1/800 40mm - Photo courtesy of Martin)

Gouda (f4.0 1/800 40mm - Photo courtesy of Martin)

We drove straight in and stopped in the main square in the hope of finding some breakfast but the town was dead and nothing was selling so we had to settle for a coffee instead.

Gouda Town Square (f8.0 1/500 24mm)

Gouda Town Square (f8.0 1/500 24mm)


(Shame about the top of the building but I just couldn’t go wide enough)

Walking around a bit we did find a specialist cheese and wine store that sold baguettes for 2 euro so we had freshly sliced cheese and homemade honey mustard for breakfast before hitting the road for Rotterdam once more.

We made it to the place Tony knew through a little guesswork and it turned out that it was a cool little hotel a bit out of the city center but by one of the main areas of the harbour. We had a second coffee and beer and laughed at the evidence of the nothing we did the night before.

Photos from the night before (f8.0 1/100 32mm - Photo courtesy of Tony)

Photos from the night before (f8.0 1/100 32mm - Photo courtesy of Tony)

So once again a nice relaxing morning in the sun (spot yet another pattern?)

Tony looking cool (f8.0 1/200 24mm)

Tony looking cool (f8.0 1/200 24mm)

After a short walk which really didn’t do Rotterdam justice we headed to the city’s famous port to see how big it really was. Well, turns out it is HUGE and after driving past it for kilometers and kilometers we reached the end of a peninsular.

We did see some fairly serious model planes being flown and a lot of Dutch enjoying a day watching the ships pass by. After a while though we realized that we were late to pick Alyona up from the train station so rushed back to the city center. We were 15min late so Tony ran in to try to find her while Martin and I tried to find a park.

Going past the train station we ended up at a huge roundabout that to go the whole way round again required going through 7 traffic lights … 6 of which were red. Finally we found the ‘kiss and ride’ area where Martin stayed with the car while I ran in to try to find Alyona and Tony.

In the ends it turned out her train was a half hour late so the running around thinking we had lost her was all a bit more dramatic than necessary and everything worked out fine in the end.

The plan for the evening was a few drinks and dinner at Den Haag. You’d be forgiven for wondering why we wanted to spend that much time at the International Court of Justice but for the Dutch (and for Tony) Den Haag seems to be more closely associated with the beach. When you reach the shore it is a typical European beach resort with crowds, beach chairs and old dudes wearing far too little.

Typical European Beach (f8.0 1/125 105mm)

Typical European Beach (f8.0 1/125 105mm)

We walked down the (long) line of restaurants on the beach and finally settled in for a beer at one of the slightly quieter ones that professed to have mussels.

Three musketeers (f5.6 1/50 24mm - Photo Courtesy of Alyona)

Three musketeers (f5.6 1/50 24mm - Photo Courtesy of Alyona)

Dinner and beer were the order of the hour while the sky got darker and the tourists slowly went back to their hotels. Before leaving we had to go see the court which is of such a large historical importance but otherwise we just left the city.

UN - Den Haag (f6.3 1/20 16mm - Photo Courtesy of Martin)

UN - Den Haag (f6.3 1/20 16mm - Photo Courtesy of Martin)

On the way home we had great fun taking photos of the cars passing by and of the glorious sunset in the rear view mirror.

Sunset in the Dutch Countryside (f4.0 1/400 40mm - Photo Courtesy of Martin)

Sunset in the Dutch Countryside (f4.0 1/400 40mm - Photo Courtesy of Martin)

We parked the car at Tony’s work so we wouldn’t have to deal with it the next day (or pay parking) and took the tram the rest of the way into Utrecht. The rest of the night was quiet and we had a few drinks outside under the stars and watched comedies on Tony’s laptop.