"It's your captain speaking. We'll be landing shortly at London Stansted airport. Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts...."
Finally, we will be reaching London after 14 hours of sleeping, waking, day dreaming, eating and sleeping again...The time is 4pm (UK time). In a daze and excitement, we passed through immigration, baggage claims and slowly observing the airport area to look for the coaches that could take us to Liverpool street in London. We took the National Express which is ￡17 for return fare. Soon after we bought the ticket and looking for our platform, we noticed another coach more cheaper ￡14 for return fare...aikss....haiz...nevermind... I couldn't find the brochures that I brought home on the train fares but it's definitely more expensive than the bus fares. Okay, off we hopped on the bus (55 minutes) to Liverpool street to meet a friend of ours. The bus stopped at Stop G, which was just a few steps from the Liverpool street train station. Met up with our friend and bought underground tickets to King's Cross St. Pancras. We were staying at the 'Clink 78' hostel in that area. Checked in and back out in search of our dinner for the night. In actual, didn't even felt hungry but we ate something nonetheless. Went back to our hostel as we were quite sleepy even though it's just around 9pm.
Awoke the next day, full of energy. Had breakfast in our hostel, chatted with some of the other backpackers, and off we went to our first destination. The National Gallery. We bought an underground day ticket for ￡6.60. (Other option is you could buy the Oyster Card) The stop to reach Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery was 'Charing Cross station'. (From King Cross station, just take the Victoria line to Warren Street station and change Northern line to Charing Cross station.) A lot of paintings in the National Gallery to be seen, but I've no artistic blood in me, so it was a breeze walk through with some sit downs on the many chairs provided inside. Outside, the blue blue sky was more interesting than inside the gallery :p We then went to St James Park which was more lively and colourful with the venue being dotted by sunbathers, families, birds, ducks and lovely colourful flowers. The park was just within walking distance from the National Gallery and also near the Buckingham Palace.
After walking around the grounds of what was to be the wedding venue of Prince William and Kate Middleton in a week later, we walked or was it took a train to St Paul's station (can't remember), we reached the St Paul Cathedral. Along there, we walked across the bridge over Thames River and found ourselves at the Borough market which had a variety of food, fruits, veges, cheeses and desserts. We bought something and sat at a nearby park to eat our lunch. The potatoes and pickles cucumbers top with cheese and pepper is especially delicious. We then took the underground train to Tottenham Court Road Station and visited the British Musuem. You could spent a few hours here as there's a lot to see in this musuem.
Later at night, we met up with a friend at Chinatown (took underground train to Leicester Square). Had a great dinner of roasted duck rice and chinese food. The first day in UK and we were already missing chinese food. We walked to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament after our dinner. Good for digestion after a full meal. We saw a splendid night view there and also the London Eye which was just opposite the river. Still full, we walked along the river towards London Bridge. From the London Bridge, we had a great view of the Tower Bridge which was lit up in lights over the river. It was quite windy and cold then, so we retired early for the night.
It was a fine beautiful day on our third day in London. Oxford Street was packed with a lot of departments stores of branded goods. We walked along the stores to Regent Street which was also filled with lots of shopping stores. Shopping wouldn't be complete without visiting the famous Harrods which can be reached by underground train to the station 'Knightsbridge'. Lots of people were there when we walked in there. The security guards advised us to put our bags in front of us to avoid being pickpocket. We came out with only freshly baked breads from Harrods.
Hyde Park was just within walking distance from Harrods and we sat there for hours enjoying our lunch, chatting endlessly and just people watching under a cool shading tree. It was a very satisfying feeling just sitting on the grass relaxing and chilling out with friends. Later, we took the underground train (thanks for the guide and training provided by Mr C on how to read the map of London's underground tube) to Tower Hill. Our destination was the famous Tower Bridge which was often mistaken as London Bridge. A sunny day still, even at 4pm in the evening. As we were feeling quite hot and exhausted walking along the bridge with tons of people, we retreated to coffee and ice cold drinks at Starbucks. Later after that, we got to a platform where we could get a good view of the Tower Bridge and we waited until the sky gets dark and watched the Tower Bridge being lit up with night lights.
The next morning, we woke up early to get to Stansted Airport for our flight to Amsterdam by 'Easyjet'. It was a holiday in London as we got to know from the taxi driver, a Bank holiday...hmm... Ok, it was abit quiet during 7am in the streets of London that day. After an hour and a half of plane ride, we reached Amsterdam Schipol Airport. Took the train to Amsterdam Centraal station and from there we dragged our luggage to the city centre to find our hostel. We walked past 8 alleys and finally saw our hostel with the owner sitting in front of the entrance. Luckily he helped us with our luggage up the hostel's steep and narrow staircase. We freshen up abit there and started looking at the map to get to Anne Frank Musuem. Earlier we bought the online tickets to the musem as we heard it could get quite crowded and long queue. Luckily we did, as the queue to the Anne Frank Musuem was very very long. We skipped the long queue and get in the fast lane for online tickets. I read about Anne Frank during our literature class in secondary school and the story remains with me since. A truly captivating and sad truth about a young Jewish girl and her family in hiding during the war. Been wanting to come to her musuem ever since I found out about it and finally I've been able to walk through their original hiding place. Although most of the original placing of the items and furnitures in the house was no longer there, but it still gave one the feeling of how Anne and her family lived by during that two years by some short video clips in every room and glass cases showing the orginal diaries and personal belongings of the families. Wooden panes creaking when one walked on it reminded me of how old the building already was. No photos were allowed inside the musuem. The musuem is located along the canals of Prinsengracht.
Being in Amsterdam, it's never complete without visiting their famous red light district. No photos were allowed here too unless you want your camera being flung down to the canals. All along the district, there were lots of sexy women posing in front of full length windows trying to attract customers. There were also shops promoting live sex show and shops selling all kinds of sex related items. There was a sex musuem in the city centre which was only €3 per entrance.
We visited Rijksmusuem and also the famous 'I AMSTERDAM' big letters nearby the musuem. While on our way to the Magere Brug, we got lost and asked for directions to the place. That's how we came to meet a nice lady who invited us to her house for a cup of coffee later in the evening. We agreed and came back later to her house after we done sightseeing around the area. Her house was warm and cosy with a nice view of the canal in front. She told us about the life there and her adventures travelling around the world. We chatted for a few hours and later bid our goodbyes. Wonder if we had the chance to meet again.
On her advice, we changed our last destination which was suppose to be 'The Stolen Windmill' to another place also with windmills which was called the 'Zaanse Schans'. We took a train from Amsterdam Centraal to 'Koog-Zaandijk' station. The windmills were just within walking distance from the station. There was a free map of the place outside of the station. This place was indeed very beautiful and we didn't regret coming here one bit. Walking further along the bridge towards the windmills, the scenery was more countryside. It's best to go around by bike.
One thing I noticed about Amsterdam was that the people here were especially friendly and helpful. They helped without us even asking for it. Once we took the wrong bus and look lost with our map and all, the passengers there helped explain to us the place to take the right bus to our destination and even helped us to speak to the driver to get us down at the right place. The lady who invited us for coffee was another example of the friendliness of the people there. And another couple whom we met near the canals although not sure of the directions of the place that we asked but helped us nonetheless with using their handphone to search for the place. Well, there were many nice people but also some bad apples even. Just be careful with who you are trusting with.
We made reservations for sleeper train to Vienna, booking a 3 bed compartment. I'll definitely remember the incident of how we thought we lost the sleeper train tickets and when we tried to buy the train tickets again, it was already full. Looking lost and down all day, we tried to cheer up on our day trip to the windmills and came back to the train station to search our luggage again before deciding what to do next. LUCKILY, we manage to find the tickets in one of our luggages and we were almost jumping with joy. The worst case was we either had to look for another hostel or sleep at the train station for a night before heading to Vienna the next day...but we are on schedule and Vienna...here we come!!!
The 3 bed compartment in the train was quite small after loading our luggages in. The compartment even had a small washing basin and mirror. All three of us was sitting on the train floor with the bed as our table to eat our dinner. We bought salads, bread and ham from the train station. After opening our salads, we realised it didn't provide any forks or spoons...Okay, so we ended up eating the salads with our bare hands :p It was quite gross but it was fun and enjoyable and we were laughing all through our dinner.
We had a rest in the beds provided and we reached Munich, Germany around 7am to change bus to Vienna. It took another 3 hours and finally reaching Vienna Westbanhof station. It was a short walk to our hostel. The lady at the reception was quite friendly, introducing to us the nice foods to eat in Vienna. Some of the foods she recommended are Wiener Schnitzel (deep fried beef / pork in bread crumbs), Gulash and Sacher Torte (Choco cake). The train in Vienna was very convenient, reaching most of the places that we wanted to go to. The highlight of our two days in Vienna was the Royal Palace (Schloss Schonbrunn). It was worth the visit. The place was so huge, you could spend a whole day there walking around the palace grounds.
Our hostel in Vienna was spacious. It was an apartment being equipped with a kitchen, refridgerator and all the utensils we needed. Our room can accomodate at least 5 people inside. However, being that big, it was a bit creepy too with the wooden plank on the bed creaking as we accidentally touch it or the heater that kept making some noise when it was used or NOT in used. We could even see the flaming fire that was used in the heater whenever we turned on the tap or shower for hot water.
Next of Vienna, we were then heading towards Salzburg....the SOUND OF MUSIC!!! We were excited and playing the songs in our mind even before we reached there.
After reaching by train to the main station, we found our hostel (International Youth Hostel) after going a few round in circles. This hostel was the most comfortable and clean of all hostel that we stayed in. We took the 4 mixed dorm room. The room had 4 lockers with each locker big enough to stuff our luggage and it's opened and closed using our door key cards. There's a female shower room at the 2nd floor and it had a lot of cubicles and hair dryers, so there's no worry of waiting a long queue for your showers. After finish settling in, we took their Sound of Music tour which is €33 per person. We were brought to another location to board the tour bus to be on our way to all the places and location scenes of the famous movie. Familiar music was played on the bus and the guide was explaining to us the places and views as we passed by each town and countryside. We stopped by some places and ended our tour at the Mirabell Gardens. Mirabell Gardens was one of the location scenes where Maria and the kids sang the Do Re Mi songs. Some of the other places we visited in Salzburg were the Nonnberg Abbey, Katakomben (lovely and beautiful tended graveyards), Residenzplatz and the Cathedral. Once while walking around the town, we were exhausted, tired and we just dropped down and sat on the pavement, oblivious to the onlookers, to have our packed lunch. Walking around the city and countryside of Salzburg during this time was an amazing feeling. The flowers were blooming, there were people cycling around, even the dogs were on a cheerful mood.
Venice, a place where people described it as romantic and enchanting was our next destination. However, the place doesn't gave us the feeling of what the people described it was. There were more of motorboats than gondolas in the canals and rivers in and around Venice. Lots of people were in this famous island too when we reached. Luckily we stayed on the mainland at 'Mestre' instead of in the island. I can't imagine having to drag my luggage up and down stairs and uneven walkways and not counting having to get lost in this ENCHANTING city. Okay...it's part of the fun to get lost in this city but not so when it's dark. We were lost somehow and together with a lost Japanese lady, we managed to find a way back to the main train station after a few round in circles. Well, not all is bad. We did enjoy the gelato ice cream there and walking through the maze of narrow lanes and bridges, discovering something new in each pathway we turned.
Train from Venice to Rome took four hours. We checked in at Alessandro Palace and Bar Hostel. It's just within 5-10 minutes walk from the main train station. We bought a day train ticket and first went to the Colloseum. As we were enjoying the Rome's greatest known monument, there were some ancient dressed gladiators putting their props on us and started taking photo for us with our camera. Unaware of their motives, we played along until they started asking for €20 for the photos taken. After some short dispute, we paid them €5 just to get them away from us. So a warning to all visitors to Colloseum or anywhere in Rome in fact, be wary of people trying to take photos for you with their ancient looking or costume as it is definitely not free. Most of anything in Rome is not free. After the ordeal, we proceeded to walk around the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The famous Trevi fountain was another main tourist attractions. It definitely attracted A LOTSS of tourists there. We were rubbing shoulders and bodies just to get to the side of the fountain to make our wishes.
The custom is to throw a coin over your shoulder while facing away from the fountain. First coin to ensure your return to Rome and second coin grants a wish. Other places that we visited in Rome included the Castel Sant'Angelo, Pantheon and Piazza Navona. While in Piazza Navona, it is interesting to watch the many artists at work, drawing potraits for customers on the spot. A nice relaxing place in Rome.
Vatican City is the smallest nation in the world with a population of 900. The Vatican Musuem was worth to visit. Entrance fees is €15 per person. It is advisable to book online with additional charge of €4 per person as the queue to this famous musuem can get quite long, especially during the peak season. This musuem houses an astonishing collection of arts and treasures inside an equally astonishing and beautiful building. We were in awe looking at the amazingly detailed carved ceiling and the central round staircase. There's a park inside the musuem. There was so much to explore here that one could take up a whole day here. The Sistine Chapel is a must visit in the musuem.
(Reminder: All trains in Italy need a reservation ticket. Even though we were using Eurorail Pass at that time, we still need to get a reservation ticket to board any train in Italy)
Our next stop was Geneva, but we made a transit in Milan. We had 5 hours of time in Milan and without wasting any of it, we took the city train to Duomo, the world's largest Gothic cathedral. It took 600 years to complete this cathedral.
Nearby the area, there was a shopping arcade, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where it housed some of the well known brand such as Louis Vuitton and Prada.
Arriving Geneva at night, we stopped by a restaurant for some food before checking in at our hostel (City Hostel Geneva). We slept one night here, packed a days clothes, left our main luggage at the hostel and headed towards Lucerne, which was about 3 hours by train.
Arriving at Lucerne, you will notice the best known landmark of this town, the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke). It is famous for its distinctive water tower and the fire in 1993 that almost destroyed it. The water in the main river of the town was crystal clear, you could see the bottom of it. Lots of swans and ducks dotted the scenery of this beautiful river. The weather was cold when we reached. We quickly walked towards our hotel (Tourist Hotel) which was facing the river to check in for the night. The next morning, we went up to Mount Pilatus by cable train. The view up there was breathtaking. IT WAS AWESOME UP THERE!!! There was an option of getting up here by the cable train or hiking 7-8 hours from downhill. After we took the cable train up, we still needed to climb up some steep stairs to some of the view points. Going downhill, we took the cable car to another stop which was another good location for families picnics and outdoor activities.
Back to Geneva for the night. Visited Lausanne the next day, a quaint and enchanting little town. We walked along the streets towards Lake Geneva. As our Eurorail passes entitled us for a free cruise on Lake Geneva, we boarded the ship and stop at Montreaux, which was also home to the popular castle by the lake, 'Chateau de Chillon'. We also visited Bern along the way.
In Geneva city, while we were walking along the bridge to Jet d'Eau, my friend was almost pickpocketed by some Brazilians who pretended to ask for the time. Saw their hands on my friend's bag and we quickly pulled him away from the ordeal. Feeling abit unsafe, we went back to our hostel early that night after dinner. Our last day in Geneva was spent touring the town by riding on their public buses. We stopped by at a morning market which was full with people while the rest of the other areas of town seems abit desserted as most of the shops were closed on Sunday. Later, it's time for our flight back to Manchester.
Reached Manchester in the evening. After a few change of trains and walking, we finally reached my friend's apartment. We had home cooked food of baked beans and rice, which was a relief of all the bread, pasta and flour meals that we had over the past 2 weeks. Our next few days in Manchester was spent relaxing around the town shopping and eating. We also visited York and Dunham Massey (a deer park).
Really thanks to our friend for accomodating us in his apartment, bringing us around, cooking all the delicious food and dessert, and for all the many many things that you had done in our trip for the 3 weeks that we were there. A big hug to you!!!
The blog I've written here is not enough to fully described the experience that we had, the chatter and banter between us, or the secrets that we shared. I really enjoyed my 3 weeks long break here, experienced lots of culture and food, got to know my friends better, meeting new people, learning new things, and it was quite sad to leave. However, I've recharged my energy to face more challenges at work back home. So, to my boss, can you please approve my leave if I were to take another long vacation... :p haha...
[Some of the photos above are masterpieces of Mr CCS photography skills]