Belgium: Brussels Choc, choc and more choc

August 31, 2006

I now wake up and have to think where I am in the world…I have now been travelling for about 5 weeks now and it has been truelly amazing. I am loving all these adventures. Each trip has been very unique and so special. The countries are becoming a little bit enmeshed within eachother but I’m trying to savour each moment!

After Cinque Terre (if you haven’t read all about Mich and my trip to CT, you need to do that NOW!!!), I stayed with Mich on Sunday and Mon nite ( we had the most delish homecooked dinner – fig and rocket salad is the best) and then Tues morn, Mich and I took a tube into town. Can you believe, that that was the day that the train people decided to strike so George had to drop us at the tube station rather than us taking a train.

I got out at6 WAterloo and boarded the Eurostar to Brussels. What a pleasure…no popping ears, use of cellphones throughout, quiet, effecient and speedy – what a way to travel!! Within 2 hours, I had arrived in Bruxelles Midi. I met Eric at the station and we got conned by an evil taxi driver who charged us 26 Euros for taking us a block or two (he definitely went a round about route). Our hotel – St Nicolas – was very central – not exactly the Hilton but at 65 Euro a night, you can’t really go wrong. The only problem was that the one window was halfway up the wall so there was only a tiny slither of light and fresh air coming into the room.

The most amazing thing was that Lara Nicolson lived in Belgium for 3 years and then her and her hubbie, Roger, moved to the US. I was most upset that I never got to experience their professional tour guiding in Belgium. BUT…as it happened, Lara, Roger and there gorgeous little girl Erin, happened to be holidaying in Belgium at the same time we were there!! So Lara met us at the hotel and she took us around the city (started off with frites (chips) at a traditional Belgium pub), Grande Place, Royal Gallery shops, Mannekin Pis (the little weeing boy statue which is pretty tiny) and the SAublon area with the most yummiest choc shop – Pierre Marconi.

Talking about choc shops, I am amazed how many chocolate boutiques there are here….I am in heaven. Can you believe, that I may actually be chocolated out after 3 days of Belgium choc (Shock, horror, can it be possible!!!). There are some of the well known choc houses like Godiva and the ones I haven’t heard of – Neuhas, Leonides and tons of others. We’ve tried many pralines in shapes of mice, Egyptian mummies, shells and flowers.  The drak choc here is very yum.

Other gourmet specialities include really yummy waffles ( we got our best one from a waffle caravan), hot chips with mayo and fruit beer (I tried cherry flavour called Kriek). Belgium beer is plentiful and you get a glass branded with the beer that you ordered. We past a pub which boasted serving over 100 Belgium  beer varieties…there glass collection must be amazing.

In the night we tried a Moroccan restaurant recommended by Lara..called Casbah – very sultry decor and good food (tagines and couscous).

The next morning, we took an hop on- hop off bus and got off at the atomian…which is this giant structure made up of 9 silver atom things joined together. It was built for the 1958 world fair and they only have just reconstructed it. You can visit 5 out of the 9 atoms…with the one being reserved for private functions and another for school kid sleepovers (I was keen).We then took a high speed lift to the top atom where we had a snack with a great view over Brussels.

We then took the bus back to town and we treated ourselves to a rich hot choc and a luscious choc cake. We also walked around the shopping areas and went into one or twi stores to take a closer look.

The Belgium people are generally pretty friendly and all seem to speak English (a relief after Italy)…..

Next episode….Bruges


Cinque Terre – what we actually got up to (Part II)

August 31, 2006

Thank goodness, there are some good opportunities to exercise after all those Italian carbs. Just to put things in perspective, the names of the towns are (in order from West to East): Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riogomarre.

The first thing we did was put a Cinque Terre pass for 3 days (which gives you permits to do all the walks and ride the trains) for 13 Euro. We then took a train to Corniglia, only to discover we had to climb something like 300 (yip, that’s THREE HUNDRED STEPS) to the top of the town (hectic!!!). We were rewarded with a drink at the top and had a quick walk around. All the houses are pastel-coloured in pinks, greens and blues and clustered together..a little shabby from the outside but very quaint and villagey.

We then took a stroll for 50 minutes and arrived at Manarola…our least favourite town (probably because we felt kinda ripped off by our 40 Euro lunch). We then continued along the Passage of Love (a tunnel with graffiti all over it…not very romantic really) to Riogomarre. A very lovely town with the same coloured houses, cute shops, tasty foccacia outlets and a beautiful harbour area. Along the way, we found some incredible places to swim…unfortunately we didn’t bring our costume that day and when we went back the next day, the sea was very rough.

The next day, we did the hour and a half hike from Monterosso to Vernaza. Now, we’re talking…this was more like those pasta-busting walks I was after. There must have been a billion steps. Everytime we thought it had ended, a new flight rose above us…Michelle moaned ALOT!!! But we got throught it and what a sense of achievement.

The final hike from Vernanza, I did by myself as Mich wasn’t feeling too well. It turned out to be the toughest with at least a TRILLION stairs. Everyone else must have known something I didn’t as they all seemed to be coming towards me from the opposite direction…hmmm. There were some tricky and narrow passages with hectic cliffs just a bad footing away…scary. But I was brave and I made it to Corniglia pretty unscathed.

Besides the walking, we also chilled by the beach (the guide book says Monterosso has the only sand beach in the area but it was more ground up pebbles than Camps Bay powder), went shopping (T-shirts, jewelry, sun hats etc) and ate (see previous entry).

Just below our hotel, was an entertainment square and each nite, they had a different form of show – a show band one night, a really badddd rock band the next nite, tango dancing and a children’s show on our last night. We fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing and music blaring down below.

It was sun for 5 days solid and it’s a place where real Italians go for holidays – as authentic as you get. I had time to bond with my very special friend and all in all it was a fabulous, relaxing holiday. The trip back was a but frustrating as we couldn’t get onto the later train and landed waiting at Milan airport for 5 days. By the time George (Mich’s darling man) picked us up from Stansted at midnight, we were shattered!! But would I do it all over again????? Oh yes, tomorrow!!!!!!!!

Cinque Terre…..sunny beach holiday

August 31, 2006

After 16 days of pure partying on Contiki, a fair share of drinking and latttte nights, I really needed to just relax. Thank Goodness 5 days in the Italian sun was just around the corner. Michelle and I flew to Milan (after a rather nightmarish check-in procedure at Stansted…no liquids, no lip balm, no nothing!!), took a shuttle to the station and then a 3 hour train ride to Monterosso in Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre is a collection of 5 quaint villages connected by hiking routes of various lengths as well as rail and car links. Cinque Terre (shortened to CT to make it easier for me to type) is situated on the North West Coast of Italy (embaressingly Mich and I only found that out where CT is situated after she arrived back at work and looked at a map).

We stayed at the  most hip ‘n happening of the towns.. in the most perfect hotel. It was called Hotel Paschal – a family-owned joint – which was right on the beach. We stayed on the top floor – which happened to be on the 6th floor. My only gripe was that the lift was apparently not very stable and we were discouraged quite strongly not to use it. That brekkie climb up 6 gynormous sets of stairs was particularly harsh.
Mich’s big gripe was Italian service. There were many a time where I had to physically hold her back from punching the lights out from some Italian service provider (well service in a very loose sense). The problem seemed to be that as soon as the restaurant owner discovered we were tourists (it didn’t take long), any kind of service levels dissolved into nothingness.

Food was all Italian. We discovered soon enough that the Italians are in love with Italian food. Just imagine having only South African restaurants in South Africa? It would get a bit monotonous eating boerie and bobtie everytime we went out for dinner. Well, here it was pizza, pasta and more pizza and pasta. Oh, and let me not forget the gellato. OK, I sound ungrateful here. I am not complaining. The ice-cream was yum (my fave flavour was melon and banana; Mich went for the more traditional pistachio and choc).

If you like seafood, you will love it here…it’s not cheap but every second restaurant was selling a variety of shellfish hotpots (Van, apparently you would have gone crazy for this!!). I stuck to the pasta with excellent pesto, we had a delish spag napolitana one night (what is it about Italian tomatoes that make them soo incredibly delish). We also discovered that Italians all have good figures because all their pizzas have thin crusts and very little cheese and toppings. One night, we had a pizza hut style pizza (a bit sacriligous to have here, we knew) and I could only eat 3 quarters. A few nights later, I polished off a traditional thin base no problemo.

Alcohol wise, we had many glasses of Italian champagne (brusecca, I think it’s called), Italian dessert wine accompanied by biscotti and the locale Cinque Terre wine. This often came with bowls of olives and these divine fresh caper- things.

Still to come…what we actually did

Contiki Day 3,4,5,6,7: Party

August 15, 2006

I guess it’s a good sign that I haven’t been writing in my blog – wayyyy too much of a party. In fact, it’s up there as one of the most fab holidays. Since I’ve written, we’ve done the Amersterdam sex show (that needs an entry in itself), St Goar, Switzerland and snow tobogganing, Austria and four days in Italy. It’s been action packed with lots of sight seeing during the day and some partying at night.

The 30 ozzies are clearly the bad drinking influence (eeek, is this what I am moving too 🙂 ) but they are such a fun group of people and I’ve met some great mates that I will hopefully catch up with in Sydney.

We’ve had a couple of interesting injuries – a blister which was treated with a plaster cast, a dislocated shoulder, and 3 people that left early for numerous reasons…
We’ve also had about 60% spluttering and coughing on the bus but thank goodness have stayed pretty healthy.

We’re in Florence tonight and are doing a Tuscan Hills dinner followed by a boogie at the Space Disco – apparently 5 other contiki tours will be with us…should be an interesting evening.

To Nice tomorrow for 2 nights – apparently that’s the relaxing part…definitely need it after 4 days of Venice and Rome (very hot!!!)

Munched on lots of delish pizza and pasta and yummy gelato – my lemon gelato almost bit through my tongue but was yum.

Anyway, had a glass of wine in the heat so my head is a little fuzzy so better end off now…will try and give more details next time..


Contiki Day Two: Amsterdam – Bikes & Dijks

August 7, 2006

Brekkie at 7:30am (cereal and hot cross buns) and then all boarded the bus at 8am. Actually we didn’t all board the bus – there were about 7 people who stayed in the hotel. Obviously had too much of the good stuff last night.

We headed off to the quaint country town of Edem (where the cheese by the same name comes from). This was the part of the tour that I was dreading…the cycle through Amsterdam. Helen assured me that it was easy peasy and since I had managed to ride a bike a few weeks ago in Pringle Bay, I thought I would give it a go.

The Dutch ride what are called Ouma bicycles…they don’t have any gears or hand breaks…if you want to slow down, you have to pedal backwards. Thank goodness they had a tiny bike for me. I got on board and we set off. Pretty smooth in the beginning and I was actually doing quite well…I wasn’t exactly taking photos while pedalling like most of the others – but I was more or less steady….that is until we had to cross a narrow canal on a bridge (chanting the mantra, I am not going to crash into the side and fall in!!) or when the cars came hurtling along (chanting the mantra, I am not going to crash into the fast moving car). Since the Dutch drive on the right side, I could never figure out where they were coming from. Slightly hairy really.

One of the South Africans was also struggling a little (she was wearing high heels though!!). But I struggled through and made it back to the “bike a Dijk” shop mostly unscathed, if not a bit traumatised (I have vowed to teach my kids to ride a bike the moment they can walk!!)

The others headed back to the bus while Kat, Lamps and I went to the bathroom. We then had to catch up and if it wasn’t for Lamps good sense of direction, we would definitely have been left behind.

Our next stop was in Gouda (lots of cheesy names) where we saw how cheese is made and a clog is sculpted…very impressive!!! The man who was carving the clog gave it to me as a souvenir.

We then drove off, only to have to turn around after about 5 mins when we realised we had left someone behind.

We then went to the Diamond factory and I oggled at some gorgeous diamonds (the 5 carat one was only a mere 9000 Euro).

We were left to our own devices and Kat, Lamps and I went to a nearby pub for something to eat. Then onto Anne Franks House, which was very moving. It was so unbelievable to actually be standing in the rooms where she lived. The area was just so small.

Then walked around the shops and back to  the hotel.

Tonight…the lived sex show – I’ll report back soon

Contiki: European Encounter: Day One – Amsterdam nightlife

August 7, 2006

So I was up ‘n ready at the crack of dawn, had my suitcase weighed (they are extremely strict – you’re only allowed 20 kg). I chatted to Kat and Lambros from Sydney (the ‘net mates) and we grabbed the back seat of the bus.

Tour Manager Helen then chatted to us for about 2 hours as we drove towards Dover and the ferry. She pretty much took us through her experience (she’s done something like 7 Encounter tours) and the do’s and don’ts. It was pretty apparent from the beginning that Contiki is a well-oiled machine, highly organised and very professional. I felt I was in good hands.

Our bus drove into this humungous ferry and we boated across to Calais…with a photo of the white cliffs of dover in the beginning (and yes, they are really white!!!!). The ferry had about 2 or three restaurants, clothes shops, perfume shops and many more attractions.

On the other side, we passed through Belgium (with the ubiquitous border crossing Contiki cheer) and then did a round of Contiki speed dating. We had about 5 minutes to chat to a person before moving up a seat. Unfortunately we didn’t get to chat to everyone but we got a good overview. I still have no idea how I am going to remember everyone’s names.

The breakdown of the people on board:

7 South Africans (it’s the most Helen has had on a tour)
30 Ozzies (typically)
8 Canadians
4 Americans
1 Brazilian

There are also 9 couples on the tour and most people came with some sort of partner (sibling, friend, cousin etc). There are only a handful of us who came on our own. But it doesn’t seem to be a problem at all as the couples seem to stick together so I am getting to know a much more diverse group of people.

We arrived in Amsterdam after about 8 hours on the bus (wasn’t as bad as I expected), checked in (the hotel is actually really nice – I had a single room with en-suite bathroom and a TV with 30 channels, one of which is HARD-CORE pore….of course, I didn’t watch it though 🙂 )

Then went downstairs for dinner at 6:30pm (shnitzel and veggies and ice-cream) and then boarded the bus to go into Amsterdam. We were bound for our 1st optional tour (the canal cruise – 26 Euro for the cruise with unlimited beer and wine). The cruise was magnificent…passing through the cosy canals. We were able to look at the lovely architecture and the quirky houseboats (there was even a floating port-a-loo). Beer was heineken (the boys complained that the glasses were too small) and I had a glass or two of pretty decent wine.

After the cruise, the bus returned and I went with some of the group to the  Grasshopper – a well-known tourisy coffee-shop (the cafes sell coffee, the coffee shops sell dagga – don’t get them confused). To protect the young and innocent, I won’t go into too much details as to what happened here but let’s just say that I had a couple of brownies crumbs..and they tasted pretty much like your regular brownies.

We then walked around the red-light district. What an eye-opener. There were windows which woman stood in, dressed in a variety of underwear (neon, leopard skin, etc) and sleazy looking men would emerge from these entrances….yuch! Most of the women were mostly attractive and they all had certificates on their doorways showing that they were free of disease.

Strangely enough, it was not at all as sleazy as I expected…probably not a typical family outing but it had quite a festive, surreal atmosphere.

We all hopped into a cab back to the hotel and was in bed by midnight.

Contiki: The Day before – the surprise roomie

August 7, 2006

And so…the cruise ends and the contiki begins.

It all started when I had to lug my suitcases up and down stairs all the way from Southampton to Russel Square (with about 20 tube changes in between…OK, I’m exagerating a tad but with all that heavy luggage, it sure felt like it).

I checked into the Royal National Hotel nearby the tube station. This seems to be the National Touring Hotel as it seems most of the tour companies cram their customers into here. It’s pretty mean, nasty but not so cheap (R445 a night).

We had a Contiki meeting at 6pm so I met one or two people on the tour (some of which I had already chatted to on the Contiki forum) and also met our tour manager Helen (an ozzie from Canberra).

Then headed out for sushi with Nolan and Anna at Camden Town (there are some very weird people in London – while waiting for N & A, the flamboyant characters that came out of the station could have been extras for some sort of Alien movie).

Anyway, when I returned to reception to collect my key, the concierge, told me that my mate had already collected it. My heart sank to my knees. “What the hell do you mean – I don’t have a room-mate'”. I started to picture all the stuff I had left strewn all over the room. After a brief argument, (I was sure the room had been booked as a single), I admitted defeat and trudged up to my room. I knocked and nobody answered so the concierge had to come up and open for me.

I asked him why the hotel has only one key per room. “‘That’s the way it is”‘ came the answer….oh well, so much for London service.

Anyway, my roomie (Wing, I think – from China originally) came in a little later, we chatted briefly and then went to sleep.

Her tour was leaving at 6am the following day, so at least I had some privacy to get ready as we only had to meet up at 6:45am.

It was a pretty rough night with music blaring from every corner and the room had an awful sleazy feel to it….oh well, it was only one night.