Thursday, July 31, 2008

All over Europe

The Trip

We thought we were going to Bavaria to see some castles ... so we were a bit surprised to find that we were staying in Austria, and visiting castles in Bavaria (Germany), but also dropping into Italy, and spending a couple of nights in Belgium!

Catching the right bus

We were a little worried about catching the bus at the right time and place - we even did a practice run the week before to make sure we knew where to go. But then, what could go wrong - it's not like we'd get on the wrong bus or something. Would we?

The taxi got us there a little earlier than we planned, and we stood around outside John Lewis with a number of other people with suitcases, waiting for our 'feeder bus' to join our tour.

A "Shearings" bus turned up, and the bus driver came over and approached the passengers.

"Shearings?" he asked.

"Yes," we replied.

"What name?" he queried, looking at his list.

"Wickham," we answered.

"Okayyyy ..." he said, piling our bags into the bus. "But only 'Mrs Wickham' is listed ..." and, when we looked a little concerned, "but that's okay. Hop on."

After we had been on the bus for a few minutes, a lady got on claiming to be a "Mrs Wickham", and the smiling driver waved her on too, without even a glance at us.

We began to feel worried. He hadn't even looked at our tickets. Realising the bus was about to leave - a few minutes earlier than our expected departure time - Peter got off the bus and approached the driver, who was loading the last bags into the back.

"We are going to Dover, aren't we?"

"Dover? No! This bus goes to Eastbourne." (Not that there was any indication of that on the outside of the bus!)

We pulled our bags off the bus and stood around a few more minutes until a much bigger Shearings bus arrived ... nope, not our bus either. And then another bus rolled up and the driver said, "Mr and Mrs Wickham?"

"Going to Dover?" we asked. Oh yes! Not that he looked at our tickets, even then.


The ferry terminal at Dover was all new to us - I was glad that we weren't trying to drive a car across to France, because it looked pretty complicated. Shearings have their system all worked out, and we were shunted onto the right bus with our baggage all handled out of sight. The bus went onto the ferry, and we climbed off - being careful to take note of the colour and number of the stairs nearest our bus.

We met up with our friends - Crosby and Susanne - at the ferry terminal, and soon we were all enjoying the brisk winds on the outside deck.

This part of the deck was a little more sheltered - but it was the designated smokers' area.
So we watched the white cliffs drift away, and I tried to come to grips with "panning" using my new camera!

We wanted to find a similar deck at the front to watch Calais appear, but there wasn't one.

In fact our first view of France was really from the starboard side. The trip was an hour and a half, but we seemed to run along the coast of for about half an hour.

France and Belgium

We felt quite excited about being in a new country ... but it didn't really look different, other than driving on the wrong side of the road.

And, of course, it was raining - could just as easily have been the UK!

We slipped from France into Belgium - no fanfare, not even a border sign. We were headed for Liege, in Belgium, for the first night.

It was Saturday, and they had told us on the news some million or so Brits were leaving the shores one way or another over the weekend. The traffic on the continental motorways was all jammed up, and we didn't reach our hotel in Liege until nearly 10pm. A long day on the roads!

Liege, Belgium

Our stay in Liege was nothing to write home about. The hotel was the Ramada - had recently changed its name.

This was the view from our sixth floor window. In the foreground is the old burnt-out convent chapel - the hotel is built in/on an old convent which is really evident only in the beautiful dining room in the old cloisters.

European facilities

The most interesting parts of the long drive were maybe the periodic "comfort stops". All of the motorway services have facilities provided by the same company or department. So a trip to the toilet cost us each 50 Euro cents - that's one Aussie dollar!

But you get one of these nifty vouchers, which you can spend in any of their shops or restaurants! We had to make sure we used them all up before we left the continent ... which, of course, meant spending more money.

On into Austria

That blue sign with the stars is the only indication of a border crossing these days.

On Sunday we travelled on into Austria. Our driver / tour guide was talkative and interesting, telling us about all sorts of things. He pointed out that the trucks have to be off the road for twenty four hours from 11pm on Saturday night, and indeed we could see hundreds of trucks parked off-road all along the way. Despite that, the traffic was heavy - aggravated by areas of roadworks - and we ended up being stuck in traffic again for a couple of hours.

In the evening we were relieved to arrive in the village of Lechaschau, near the town of Reutte, in the valley of the river Lech. This would be our base for the next five days. We were to stay in the Goldene Rose Hotel.

It was really quite a pleasant spot. The food was pretty basic - but not as bad as English food! Our room was bright and clean, with a view of the mountains.

A view that changes every day.

Mind you, you'd be hard pressed NOT to have mountain views from your window in Lechaschau!

Our room was spacious and comfortable - we hadn't been very impressed with our room in the Ramada in Liege, supposedly 5 star! One of the things that bothered us in Liege was the tiny pillows on the beds. Not only were they thin, but they were small, like half a pillow each.

In Lechaschau the maid liked to arrange the doonas and pillows slightly differently each day. But those yellow pillows with the pointy ears and the crunk in the middle are cloud soft - no substance to them whatsoever. But we did get a little scatter-cushion each for good measure.

Obviously some sort of 'continental' thing we don't really 'get'.

(Peter was still not feeling well at this stage, having come down with the 'flu a few days before we left ... I managed to come down with it on the Thursday.)

It's all about the castles

Neuschwanstein Castle

By the way, I didn't take this picture (it's off a postcard), it's impossible to take a picture from this angle without a hot-air balloon or something.

Our trip was called "Fairytale Castles of Bavaria". The bus had 42 seats, but there were only 20 of us doing the tour - we were very relieved that they hadn't cancelled, that would have been messy and frustrating. The trip included 3 castle visits, and two other optional visits.The optional ones required extra payments, but with the group being so small we were quite pressured to take part otherwise they would be cancelled.

The first castle, Neuschwanstein, is "the ultimate fairy-tale castle".

As we arrived in the village, we could see the castle up on the hill in the distance (left). We had several choices to get up there: walk, ride most of the way in a horse-cart, or travel in a packed bus halfway to where we could get some excellent photos. We decided on the bus going up, and the horse coming back down.

Getting a good photo of the castle meant stepping out onto this tiny bridge across the gorge - a prospect which some tourists found quite daunting.

Looking at the castle from the bridge - we then had to walk to it from there.

We could not take photos inside the castle, but we could take photos through the windows. This is looking back at the bridge from the castle.

Quite spectacular scenery. Our bus driver warned us that for some reason some people had difficulty gaining admission with their ticket. You have to put the ticket in, wait a moment until the light turns green, then pull out the ticket and walk through.

Crowds gathered around the ticket admission machine

Unfortunately these warnings made some of our more elderly group members even more nervous, and sure enough several of them just froze at the moment when the light turned green and stood there until it was red and they were stuck.

Here's another view from one of the castle windows. Down there is the car park where we started, just to the left of the other (yellow) castle.

The castle was delightful inside. "Mad" King Ludwig built it but barely got to live in in. In fact parts of it have never been finished as he was found mysteriously drowned - along with his psychiatrist - in the lake. The castle is not that old, being built in the late nineteenth century, and so everything was still very bright and fresh-looking.

The church in the meadow

After our tour of the castle and a ride back down the hill in a pony-trap, the bus tour took us to see the Wieskirche, Germany's best-known pilgrimage church.

Our bus driver told us we would go "Wow!" as soon as we opened the door, and as this was the first church we had seen in the area he was 100% right.

I have absolutely no chance of giving even a fair idea of the splendour of this place; maybe when I get my movie pictures edited I can give some idea.

All white and gold, with natural lighting, and paintings on every wall and ceiling area, not to mention the statues and marble columns. It was, of course, full of tourists - and children ... but even they could not distract from the awesomeness.

More later

So I'm going to publish this first section, and continue with a new post ...

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