Thursday 18th July Dubrovnik (Croatia) – Berlin (Germany)
We’re flying to Berlin today, on Easyjet (A$131 each) for a one-week houseswap. The last time we were in Berlin was 1976, and we were in our beat-up old Citroen 2CV, and we’d got the ferry from Gedser in Denmark to Rostock in East Germany. We then had to get a transit visa to drive along the transit corridor to West Berlin. In West Berlin we were able to stand on a viewing platform where we can see over “The Wall” into East Berlin, where we could see Hitler’s bunker, barbed wire and tank traps, and all around the wall on the East German side it had been cleared, and was just a wasteland with rabbits on it, and we could see guards in rooms at top of buildings watching us.
We’d then gone into the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which showed all the ingenious methods for escapes, but also about those escapes that weren’t successful, and, thoroughly spooked, we’d then driven across the border into East Berlin about 9pm where there was no street-lighting, we had no map, and we had to find the camping area about 30kms from the city. We imagine this time Berlin will be a bit different!
We have an early start, and are across the road in the car park waiting for the taxi that Alan has lined up for us. We fly at 10.25am, and need 3 hours at the airport, and it takes an hour or so to get there, so have ordered the taxi for 6.15am. We wait hopefully while time ticks away and a variety of vehicles come and go in the street to the parking lot where we wait. Eventually Dianne heads back to our hotel to get another taxi, which we had been told would only take 10 minutes to get there. Meanwhile a man comes walking from the large hotel nearby, and asks Murray if he is the Pryor booking. Murray manages to run far enough to signal Dianne, and she is able to abort her mission. The driver is apologetic, but says the pickup was arranged to be from the big hotel, not the car park. Fortunately we are in good shape, even though we know the airport is a long way away, as the traffic is only light.
In spite of the EasyJet being changed for a contractor plane, we leave on time, and get some pretty good views of Dubrovnik from the air, and can see the Old City, our hotel and the headland quite clearly. There is cloud over much of the flight, but it is reasonably smooth, and we get to Berlin’s Tegel Airport without incident.
A$1 = 0.62 euros
We arrive on time at 12.30pm, get through the formalities without incident, and follow the instructions Dianne has to get a bus to Alexanderplatz. In typical airport style, most of the information points toward the more expensive transport, but we walk far enough to find the BGV Public transport bus. Buying a weekly or daily ticket is too hard at the airport, so we pay on the bus (A$4.50 ea. for one trip, A$11 for a day pass). Our instructions are to get off the bus at the Hauptbahnhof, catch a metro to Alexanderplatz, and then another to Eberswalder Strasse, but we notice that the bus actually stops at Alexanderplatz, so we cut out one leg and get off. From the bus stop, the entrance to the U-Bahn is not obvious, but we keep dragging our bags till we see a subway sign. There is no lift or escalator, so we drag our bags down the steps to find ourselves on the platform, with no barrier between us and the train. We look in vain for a ticket booth and finally talk to a woman who points out a ticket machine. Like all such machines, it takes a fair bit of sorting out to accept our credit card, but we get tickets, work out how to validate them, work out which direction we need, and travel the four stops to Eberswalder Strasse (only later we find out our original ticket is valid for two hours, and we could have done a free transfer).
The U-Bahn is underground for most of the way, but rises above and has moved onto an overhead trestle system by the time we arrive at Eberswalder Strasse. We alight, miss the later-obvious lift and lug the bags down two sets of steps to ground level. Following directions, we walk the way we arrived, under the trestle, but find it hard to cross the busy street, and retreat to a pedestrian crossing at a big intersection. The entrance door to the apartment complex is pretty anonymous, as it is a street of mainly restaurants, but we see the right name on the intercom and check-in. We are pleased to see Lena is home, and she lets us into. We walk through a passageway, then out into a large courtyard, with our apartment on the far side, up more stairs, but we are getting expert at sharing the weight of each bag, with multiple trips. The position is great, as the apartment is in a very quiet position, but very near to restaurants, shops, U-Bahn and metro.
Since Lena and Abe were in Australia, they have increased the size of their family from 2 to 3, with a son, Nikolas, possibly conceived in our bedroom. We are given an orientation tour, instructions on watering the indoor and outdoor plants to save them from the hot weather, a warning about music noise levels from the apartment below, and then are left to our own devices.
Our first move is to go to a supermarket, selected from the possibles on the map we are given, and, about 4.30 PM, walk down Schonhauser Allee to a well concealed, but very large supermarket in an enclave of historic buildings which were originally a brewery, and is now called The Kulturbrauerei, with shops, clubs and a movie theatre. We sort out the basics from a completely unknown range of products, take them back to the apartment, and settle in to unpack, make a late lunch, and sort out the washing and hanging frames, and do an enormous wash. As advised, the noise levels from down below are pretty savage for a while, but they tone it down later. The bed is a bit strange, being a long way off the floor, and moves around a bit on the base, but works OK, once we sort out the thickness of coverings.
Friday 19th July Berlin (Germany)
We have another late start, now that we are “on holiday” and are walking down Eberswalder Strasse, heading into town to see what we can recognize. Stop to look at interesting chairs from recycled tyres, period buildings and then side-track to see the famous Zionskirche church where subversive literature was produced during the post-war partition.
We’re amazed at how good our homeswap position is. We are in the district of Pankow, and either in, or bordering on, the suburb of Prenzlauer Berg, which during the Communist era had a diverse counterculture, but has gone through rapid gentrification, but is still a bit “edgy”. Around our apartment is known for the best restaurants and nightlife in Berlin.
We continue walking, past the church to the Wochenmarkt Arkonaplatz with a farmers market in progress, then south to the Volkspark off Brunnerstrasse, with a pond in the middle of a large park with lawns and large trees. From here we walk to Alexanderplatz, looking for reminders of our 1976 visit, finding the TV tower, the Fountain of International Friendship, the Neptune Fountain and the major churches. This area was in East Berlin, and we looked around here after crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. There is a continuous fair set up in Alexanderplatz with buskers, jugglers, and a mechatronic dragon and we have a look, but try to steer clear of crowds. Fortunately we locate a modern toilet complex in the square, as not long after, Dianne waits by the International Friendship Fountain while Murray contends with an upset stomach, and has to visit in a hurry. In his haste, he sees an open toilet door and hastens towards it, only to be asked by a guard if he is a man or a woman. At this stage, he doesn’t care, but looks at the signs, concedes his birth gender, and survives the delay of finding the male section.
Back in action, we walk past the Neptune fountain, past Saint Mary’s church and onto Museum Island after crossing the bridge across the Spree River. On the Island we pass the Berlin Cathedral, and the interestingly named Lustgarten. We then cross the Spree Canal, and are on the Unter den Linden, one of the well-known streets of the former East Germany. It starts to rain heavily so we duck into the German History Museum. Consider having a meal at the museum’s cafe, but there is none open, so we look at the sculptures in the foyer, and wait out the rain.
After the rain eases, we cross the road and walk towards a U-Bahn station we see on the map, and catch the U-Bahn home. For the evening meal, Dianne decides to try a meal at the Vietnamese Restaurant right outside our front door, which is exactly what she wants after all the reasonably bland Balkan food. Murray has a soup, taking care of his upset stomach.
Saturday 20th July Berlin (Germany)
Today we are taking the Alternative Berlin Free Tour, and are down town early to have a look around first, starting at Potsdamerplatz, for a look at a display of the Berlin Wall sections, as well as a photo, graphics and text study of the history of the Wall. Just off the Platz, we see the ultra-modern steel and glass cone of the Sony Centre, then head for the Museum of Terror, encountering a convoy of Trabants, the old Eastern bloc equivalent of the Beetle. These should always travel in convoy, as the world’s worst motor car, and very prone to breakdown. The Greens might object to the single cylinder two-stroke engine, but they would have to love the masonite body.
We have a quick look at the Museum of Terror, which includes a lot of Wall sections, and a large glass-walled museum. We don’t have time to give it a good look, and hurry on for a quick look at the Checkpoint Charlie replica, finding it fairly familiar. There is a U-Bahn station close by and we use it to get to the Free Alternative Berlin tour starting outside the Starbucks in the base of the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz. There are about twenty starters, a lot of them from the USA. Our route combines walking and public transport, and takes us first to a nearby railway line supported on a series of brick arches. The guide explains the graffiti, sculptures and artwork on the brick. One feature is graffiti done on paper, so it can be complex, yet quickly pasted up, and not all that hard to remove. The police are not particularly concerned with graffiti if it is not destructive. One feature is a Russian Bear mascot sodomising Mickey Mouse. Another writes Fuck Wars in the same style as Star Wars. A steel sculpture is chained to a grille, partly to stop theft, partly to show the sculpture is a captive. Most of the work is political comment rather than just self-promoting tags. Some of the work is photographic, and of a high standard. Other works include a bas-relief TV screen with a face extruded from the screen. From here we go to a co-operative in Dead Chicken Alley, an old building with a long narrow alley covered in large artworks, mostly bizarre, but well executed. A multi-coloured faceted face dominates the main wall and depicts a well-known philanthropist. Over the door is a large rusty steel sculpture of a lethal looking bat/dragon hybrid. We climb the narrow, dark staircases, which are covered in graffiti, to see what the co-op is doing upstairs, but are asked not to take photos, which we think is pretty strange coming from people who think they should be free to put graffiti wherever they want, and squat in other people’s houses. They expect others to obey their rules, but don’t want to obey others rules. We have no inside photos – what does that say about us?
We take the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor (known as Kotti) in Kreuzberg. This area is where a lot of Turkish have settled, so there are lots of doner kebab shops, but around the station is known as a hangout for drug addicts and alcoholics, and you need to keep your wits about you, which is why we have taken this tour. We want to see the different sides of Berlin, but would never have come here on our own. Kreuzberg is also known as a night-life area.
Look at a modern apartment building, about ten floors with an unusual round fluted construction, then move on under an overhead railway to a building with a large, white, blank wall which has been expertly painted with a series of geometric patterned pictures down the middle of it. Another has the same style of geometric tiles down the edge, and an expertly painted cosmonaut doing a spacewalk in the middle. This is recognized as one of the most popular pieces in Berlin, and has been here since 2007. It was painted by Victor Ash. Some of the bottom of the wall has been vandalised by a spray of something black from the ground. Across the street is a shop with cannabis plants painted on either side.
We pass through a few streets where various famous nightclubs are, then move on through a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood to a large park with a centre fountain devoted to firemen, and there are three bronze firemen. They have large noses, as a tribute to their ability to smell smoke, and bronze hoses spouting water. The park is in front of what was the Bethanien Hospital, which is undamaged because it was preserved as a landmark for bombers in WW2. It was used as a squat in 1971, but is now an art space. We have a look inside, but nothing much to see. Next to it there are a lot of squatters living in mobile homes and ex-army vehicles, with tarpaulins covering part of the vehicles. They all look like they are covered in mould, and have been there for quite a few years. We were asked not to photograph them, which we suspect is so that they can continue to have the tours pass with no problems. That is one photo we would definitely like to have taken, because even when we googled, we can’t find out anything about it.
Further on, we come to a curious triangle formed by intersecting roads. In 1983, when the wall was still standing, Osman Kalin, a Turkish immigrant, decided to use the no-man’s land which was on the West German side, but belonged to East Germany, with the wall running on one side of it, to grow vegetables. He built a tree house here which, like topsy, continued to grow, and provided a home for his entire family. People are still living here, and they are sensitive to having their photos taken, but it is OK to take the house, so we take a photo of an information board, and the fenced-off home and garden from a distance. The path of the wall here is fairly well defined by a linear park which leads to the river.
Across the Spree River we can see the chaotic buildings of YAAM Beach Club, our final destination. YAAM (Young and African Arts Market) has been around for about 15 years. There is graffiti on the river walls, one saying “refugees welcome” a large building under construction behind the beach, an interesting powered party pontoon full of partiers, a quaint Dutch-looking building, a distant view of the TV tower down the river, boats on the river, and a railway station. We cross the river to enter the Beach, but are not sure if an admission if required. We’re let in anyway (not sure we would have been if we hadn’t been on the tour, as we are not in the main demographic). The collection of buildings is covered with bizarre artwork and graffiti, and the vibe is African plus Bohemian – very funky! We say goodbye to our guide, and give him a good tip. Once again we’ve had great success with a “Free” Walking tour where you tip what you want. We’ve found most of them are better than the tours who supposedly had a professional guide, and today we’ve seen what we wanted to see in Berlin – not the usual museums and churches, but something a bit different. We walk through the site and down to the riverfront, and along a bit, Murray looking for the beach. There is no actual beach, but there is a lot of sand spread around to approximate one. We sit for a while taking it in, then Dianne goes to the bar and buys drinks. This is also a Reggae/Dancehall/Hip-Hop Club, but nothing is happening at present other than recorded music. After we finish, we go looking for a U-Bahn to take us home as its now about 6.30pm and surprise surprise, we’re tired. Walk through a park in front of some interesting old brick buildings, find the U-Bahn in a shopping centre, and plot a course home with the least line changes with long, underground treks between the different lines.
Dianne has another Vietnamese take-away meal and Murray fills up on bread and Vegemite, courtesy of our Tasmanian (male) host.
Sunday 21st July Berlin (Germany)
We get a late start, as those with a week to kill do. Get on the U-Bahn at 12.30pm, bound for Charlottenburg Palace, via Alexanderplatz and the #100 bus. If we play our cards right, we can get a double decker, but they seem to be pretty thin on the ground, and we have to settle for a single. On the way we pass the Humboldt University, the round copper dome of St Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Brandenburg Gate, the “Pregnant Oyster” Kongresshalle and The Tiergarten (Berlin’s most popular inner-city park with the zoo and the towering Victory Column with its winged in the Grosser Stern (Big Star) Roundabout. We continue on to the “Broken Tooth”, the preserved remains of the steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was heavily bombed in the Second World War. This was one of the landmarks of our 1976 visit, so we decide to break our journey to have a look.
We don’t remember the hexagonal waffle concrete tower on the east side of the church, with the big Huawei sign on it, or the stumpier octagonal waffle concrete block which is the replacement church, but the site information indicates they were there in 1961 (our 1976 diary does say – “modern church made of cracked, coloured glass bricks –didn’t like much” so our opinion hasn’t changed in 43 years). The arched lower levels under the tower are well reconstructed, with colourful possibly mosaic floors and ceilings, and text and photo displays of the history of the remnant building. Outside the damaged sections have been made safe, but have not been rebuilt. The gilded faces on the clocks have been restored, and they seem to be telling the right time. There is a fair bit of construction going on around the church, mainly road works, and it takes us a while to realise the barriers are not construction barriers, but anti-terrorist, anti-bomb, and truck attack barriers. This is the only place we have seen these, and wonder why they are here, and who has got it in for the church, so we take a lot of photos of the church and the barriers.
We consult the street map and find where to catch the ongoing bus – takes a while to nut out. Get another single decker, continue toward Charlottenburg Palace and are let off a block from the palace.
From the outside, the palace is a long, pale cream two-story building facing a large park, and has a central tower and copper dome to lend it a bit of character. We’re not near the entry, and the palace does not look all that flash from the outside, so we decide we’ll just look at it from the outside, and walk around the gardens, which are well kept and extensive. The Palace grounds extend to the Spree River where there are canal boats moored, and thick woods on the bank. The sun is out and the views across to colourful apartment buildings, and upstream to the bridge are pretty good. We take a path through the woods, finding a bridge with long views of the Palace beyond the lake, then walk down along the lake, passing a flock of sheep-mowers. There are a lot of visitors on the steps at the end of the lake, where the formal gardens and fountains start. We take photos of the central tower of the palace, have a look in through the windows and call it a visit. The return bus takes us back past a very large church on Otto Suhr Allee, then back to near the Zoo, where we have to get off, so decide to have something to eat in a local fast-food place. We then catch the #100 bus in reverse. We decide to get off at the Brandenburg Gate, getting good photos of the Gate and a better shot of the “Victory Column” looking straight down the avenue from this end. There is a lot of tourist action here with hire bikes – a strange 6-pedaller three wheel heavy duty vehicle, and a collection of the original motorised bicycles with the two-stroke front wheel friction drive. We walk through the gate and down Unter den Linden, past the US and Russian embassies, as far as the Humboldt University then turn right to pick up the Hausvogteiplatz U-Bahn and make our way home by 5pm, once again exhausted.
Later in the evening we decide to explore our immediate area. Nearly 8.30pm by the time we go out, but it is still light. Head out of our place, and go left instead of our usual right, then take the first left again, and walk down Topstrasse, next to a park which follows where the Wall was, past a sports ground area, and through a park between the terminal loop of the tram and the Sports Stadium. Beyond the tram circle, we are able to turn right into the Mauerpark (meaning Wall Park), referring to its status as a former part of the Berlin Wall and its Death Strip. It’s a large open area incorporating the sloping bank behind the stadium, and they have a flea market here every Sunday. The flea market has gone, but there are still hundreds of people relaxing on the slope, listening to music from boom boxes and even portable disco setups. There has been a lot of drinking in the afternoon judging by the piles of bottles collected for recycling, but, apart from one incident, defused by friends of the offender, the atmosphere is very friendly, and a bit alternative.
There is a market beside the park, but it is not active today. We walk from here down Oderberger Strasse, which is supposed to be one of the best streets around here, past a number of bars and restaurants, and many cars parked at 90 degrees. We have a quick look at a children’s park inside the void between the apartment buildings, then continue on to Kastanien Allee, past the Prater Garten, a classic German Beer Garden, where we have a quick look, but aren’t in the mood, and finish the day with another Vietnamese takeaway.
Monday 22nd July Berlin (Germany)
Today we have a booking, arranged from Australia, to visit the Reichstag building roof terrace and dome at 2.30pm, and hope for a better result with this booking than we had in Bucharest at the Palace of Parliament. We were lucky to get these, as it was closed for maintenance from the 15th to 19th July (this is a regular occurrence every few months).
Our morning is made more interesting when we look out the window about 7.30am and see two policemen come into the garden area. They opened a couple of doors near the front entrance, then went into the area to the left of our place. After a while they came out, and opened the front door, and soon after THREE firemen came with a box of tools. After a while the firemen left (the police were still there) and a bit later another workman arrived with a toolbox. They all disappeared back into the left side area. Eventually they all came out and left, and that was the end of it – this all took about 2 HOURS!
We tried to work out what it was all about. At first we thought it was a welfare check – someone had been reported as maybe suicidal, but then we remembered seeing all the red flags (material) hanging out the windows on the outside of that side of the building when we went for a walk yesterday, and thought it might be connected to that.
We had tried to work out what the signs meant – Stoppt Walfang Jagt Miethaige (or something similar). At first we thought it meant “Stop Whale Hunts”, but then we googled a bit more, and thought it could mean – “stop slum landlords (landlord sharks)”. A couple of months later our curiosity was satisfied when Lena told us that the police came because there was a water leak in a flat, and the owner was away. Only firemen are allowed to enter the apartment, not the police. The red flags had nothing to do with it, and we were basically correct about this – landlords were doing up apartments, and then putting the rents up – rent had almost doubled over the last six years.
We are down at Checkpoint Charlie by 12.49 PM, and find it very interesting, particularly the free presentation at the nearby intersection, about the history of the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. Some of the photos, taken before the checkpoint was expanded are very familiar, particularly the tar-paper roofed administration office. We are running out of time, but take a quick look at the “Topography of Terror” museum on the way to Potsdamer Platz, before catching a 100 bus towards the Brandenberg Gate. We miss the right get-off stop, and have to catch another one back from the Grosser Stern roundabout, and make it in time for our 2.30pm booking at the Reichstag Building.
The building was opened in 1894, but severely damaged in 1933, and it fell into disrepair. A full reconstruction, led by British architect Norman Foster, was completed in 1999, and it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament –the Bundestag.
Outside the building proper are barriers and temporary security buildings. We are able to avoid the long queues because we have a booking, but we still have to be put through security, show our passports, and wait till enough independents assemble into a working-sized group for the visit. We are allowed to enter the building through an armoured glass airlock, with the outer doors closed before the inner doors open. The Bundestag (the German Parliament) is in this building, which explains the tight security.
We are herded into a lift which takes us up to the podium level where the modern glass and steel dome has been added. We hop out of the lift, pick up our free audio guide, then walk up the inclined walkway which spirals around the inside of the dome, taking photos of the structure and the inverted reflective cone in the centre which channels rain water into a recovery system. We stop at various places while the audio guide explains what we are looking at. The dome itself is very impressive, and the views of Berlin from here are fantastic. The spiral walkway levels off at the top, then continues downward so there can be one-way traffic all the way up and down. This applies to most people, but there are the odd few who go counter-current.
Around the base of the inverted cone is a circular display of photos and documents about the rise of Nazism, but the amount of reflection from the sky and the reflective cone make them difficult to read. Outside on the terrace, we take photos of all the monuments and landmarks around a full circle, then take the lift down to repeat the air-lock exercise.
Outside in front of the building is a very strange square tent-like exhibit with a written rant about the failure of de-Nazification. The fact that it is allowed to be there says something about the degree of freedom Berliners enjoy. We walk away from the Reichstag, up a street on the right hand side to find where we took a photo of our yellow 2CV back in 1976, and take a photo from the same place, then walk down to the river where there are memorial crosses and plaques for people who died trying to cross over to the West. We walk past modern government buildings and along the river/canal to the Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station and make our way home about 4pm.
In the evening we decide it is time we tried out the tram system, and catch one, making our first selection going east then south on Danziger Strasse, as far as Frankfurter Tor, getting off to take photos of the twin buildings representing a gate, and a very colourful full-wall mural of a giant bear riding on top of a bus. Find there is no tram connection west from here, and only a questionable bus service, so we reverse our course back to home base, and decide to keep going where Danziger becomes Eberswalder Strasse, only to find that this tram terminates at the Stadium, and continues as a bus service. We decide to give it a go, as far as the Hauptbahnhof, seeing on the way a park that continues for quite a few blocks, which follows the course of the wall, with a lot of symbolic vertical bars, sections of the wall, a modern church, and quite a few information boards, and snatch a few photos from the bus, and decide we’ll come back tomorrow and see it in more depth. At the Hauptbahnhof we take photos of the impressive steel and glass modern station, and hop back on another bus to take us back to the stadium. From here we walked down to Kastanienallee, and back home via the Vietnamese Restaurant for more take-away.
Tuesday 23rd July Berlin (Germany)
Today we decide to do more public transport, this time as far as the now obsolete Tempelhof Airport, so plot a course, U-Bahn to Potsdamerplatz, then U2, then 104.
On the first leg, we pass the usual landmarks, but on the second, we are in new territory. Finally manage to get seats at the top front of a double decker, but the views are mainly suburban/industrial, with a fair bit of the route on a motorway, but we do see some points of interest: a steel lattice faux-Eiffel Tower; an ultra-modern conference centre with curved aluminium cladding, hopefully fire proof; a street sculpture of two Cadillac cars embedded in a concrete tower: modern steel and glass commercial buildings; a colourful 5-story abstract tapestry stretched out on a building wall; a block of classic 5-story survivors of WW2: a tall brick church with three very tall and sharp copper towers; from a railway overpass a long block of modern bright red apartments; and finally the curved facade of the Tempelhof Air Terminal. We walk into the park in front of the terminal where there is a curved concrete memorial tower for the airmen who died in the Berlin Airlift, and rest in the park before taking a closer look at the terminal.
The airport, which is enormous, was built by the Nazis between 1936 and 1941 on the site of a much smaller existing airport. The original grand plan for the airport was only ever about 80% completed, but the existing buildings are still pretty impressive. The Americans occupied it from 1945 to 1993. At one point 2,000 US military personnel were based here. On June 24, 1948, the Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access to parts of Berlin that were controlled by the Western Allies. The United States and United Kingdom responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied airbases in Western Germany. They did this for nearly eleven months. One plane landed every minute at Tempelhof, and about 2.3 million tonnes of freight was flown into the divided city. Almost 80 pilots died in crashes.
We walk right up to the entrance to the public area of the terminal, but it is all locked up. Other parts of the terminal are occupied by commercial interests and possibly Art co-operatives, and there is not much security, but Murray doesn’t see much of an exit if we walk in, so we skirt around to the west to find the public entrance to the airfield proper, which is a vast open area where people kite surf, rollerblade, jog and bike ride among plenty of other activities. Without bikes to explore, we walk far enough in to see the curved facade facing the airfield and a DC-4 aircraft similar to what were used in the airlift. On the airfield are isolated groups of people, some container-offices, but nothing close enough to investigate, so we find the nearest U-Bahn and make our way home.
In the afternoon we take the tram/bus combination towards the Hauptbahnhof, but get off at the long park we saw yesterday, along Bernauer Strasser and centred on Akerstrasse. The park includes the long line of vertical steel bars which mark the line of the most recent form of the Wall, outlines of a church which was demolished to make way for the cleared strip along the wall, lots of information boards, and a large photographic mural on the blank wall of the building on Akerstrasse on the edge of the cleared ground, showing masons constructing an early version of the wall with locals looking on. We return on the bus to the Stadium and walk home via the Vietnamese Restaurant, opting for sit-down rather than take-away as it’s our last night in Berlin.
Back at the homestay, we pack our gear and start the cleanup process for departure tomorrow.
Wednesday 24th July Berlin (Germany) – Angers (France)
We are heading to our homeswap in Angers, France today. We are flying to Paris at midday, then getting the TGV train to Angers (A$38 each when booked three months in advance – a great deal). We were expecting to fly with Easyjet, but we ended up booking with Air France as the price was about the same (A$109 each), and the times were better.
We definitely don’t want to miss this plane, so, by 7.40am, we are taking final photos around the apartment, and head for the lift at the station, which we have located previously, and get out of the U-Bahn at Alexanderplatz. We have arrived here before on the airport bus, so, theoretically it should be dead easy to find it again, but we can’t see anything familiar, and maps.me, while it tells you where you are, doesn’t tell you where to go. We do a broad circle around Alexanderplatz, looking at bus stops, but they don’t look right. We see another couple pulling luggage, and, together, zero in on the Airport Bus. We have plenty of time, so are not too worried, but it is nice to be in the right bus heading for the airport with plenty of time.
The bus takes us through new and now-familiar territory, with parks, monuments, historic buildings, rivers and canals to arrive at Tegel Airport just after 9am. We have been warned by SMS that there may be some delay with our flight, which is a bit of a worry, as we only have one and a half hours to get our bags, get through customs, and find our train. There is some sort of problem with getting our flight onto the board at the gate, which doesn’t make us very confident, but we end up getting away more-or-less on time. The sky is pretty clear and we get good photos of Berlin, the heavily farmed countryside of Germany and France, and the compact rural towns set among the fields, rivers and canals.
At Charles de Gaulle airport, signage to the TGV terminal is present, but not particularly clear, and we find ourselves down on one of five platforms with little information on which one we need. Dianne goes back up to the departure floor and finds which one is the right platform, then comes back to get Murray, and we use the lift to take us and our baggage back up.
We go back down on the escalator for what may or may not be our train, check with the conductress and hurriedly find our carriage. There is plenty of room for the bags, but find ourselves facing backwards. Photography is not all that flash from high speed trains, but at least, when you are facing forward, you can get ready when you see something interesting ahead. As the TGV route takes us across country, we see a lot of freshly-harvested wheat, low hills and towns in the distance, but not too much in the way of classic French villages and towns, or Chateaux. Getting on and off the TGV takes a bit of planning, as the stops are very short. We are in the foyer early, but still manage to get a fair way back in the queue when getting off.
We are being met by Karine, our homeswap lady. She and her husband and three children stayed at our place last year, and it was organized we’d stay at their place this year. In October last year we corresponded, and she confirmed their place would be available after the 22nd July, and we confirmed we’d come then, but didn’t organize the actual dates. We then went ahead and did all our planning – lining up the flights, the two tours, and the Berlin homeswap. I then wrote to her in March this year, ready to finalise the actual dates, and she told me her place wouldn’t be available during that time because she’d just organized houseswaps with two different Spanish families! I told her our whole trip had been planned around the date she’d given us, and she was most apologetic, and set to work something out. The end result was we’d spend two nights with their family, and have dinner with them, before they left on their holiday in Spain, and the Spanish couple, who had a 4-year old, were happy to share the house for the rest of the week. As it was a large 4-bedroom house with two bathrooms, this was not a real problem for us. We will still have the car we were promised (they used ours) as the Spanish couple are coming with their own car. It pays to be flexible when you travel!
In the waiting room, we are recognised, although we have never met, and are led to the car. We’re a bit worried that, although it is savagely hot (about 38 degrees –Europe is having a heatwave), our hostess does not use the AC, and the windscreen is hard to see out of –may make for some uncomfortable driving during the week. The drive to our homestay seems to be a long way, certainly beyond walking distance, but we assume this is because of the placement of the TGV station.
On arriving we are shown to an attic bedroom on the 3rd level, which is seriously hot, as they are having a heatwave here at present. There are three bedrooms on this level, one for each boy in the family. There is no AC, but Karine does bring us a Dyson fanless fan. The bathroom facilities are either a share ensuite off the master bedroom down one level, or one another two levels down. The kitchen and living area is three levels down, set about a metre below natural ground level. The swimming pool is at natural ground level, with a concertina cover for safety and temperature control. All these levels are connected by stairways and steps with interesting height variations. The house is a combination of old and new, and has probably grown like Topsy.
The yard is triangular and quite large with a driveway which loops around some trees in front of the house with a side access to the two-car garage. There is virtually no grass where you would expect lawn, possibly due to the extreme water shortage, but there is a large, circular trampoline. There are three roof-water tanks, and we have instructions on using these to water the more sensitive of the plants.
We meet the rest of the family (husband Thomas, and Theo, Oscar and Eliott) and have drinks and nibbles, then all sit down for dinner together, outside where it is cooler. Have a very enjoyable meal, with lots of travel talk, as they have done a lot of travel with their children, just as we did when ours were smaller. They give us lots of hints on what to see and do in the area. Now that the ice has been broken (with everyone ignoring the “elephant in the room” about the foul up with dates) we can see that this new arrangement is going to work OK. Hit the sack fairly early, with the fan on and the windows open to catch any cool breeze. Negotiating the steps for loo visits in the night is “interesting”.
Thursday 25th July Angers (France)
We are up and about at 9am and are given a run-down on the peculiarities of the car, then head out away from town on minor roads to get the hang of the car, coming back via the local Supermarket and shopping centre, where we pick up milk, cereal, fizzy drink and wine, and bread from the nearby boulangerie. After depositing stuff in the fridge we decide to bite the bullet and drive ourselves into town (about 4 kms away) to have a general look around at the historic centre. Angers, in the province of Anjou, has a population of about 150,000 and is about 300kms southwest of Paris. It was the cradle of the Plantagenet dynasty (also called the house of Anjou or Angevin dynasty). The Plantagenets held the English throne from 1154, with the accession of Henry II, until 1485, when Richard III died in battle. . The old medieval centre is dominated by the massive chateau of the Plantagenets.
Angers developed at the confluence of three rivers, the Mayenne, the Sarthe and the Loir, all coming from the north and flowing south to the Loire. Their confluence, just north of Angers, creates the Maine, a short but wide river that flows into the Loire several kilometres south. We head out again toward town, having a pretty straightforward run all the way in to the Chateau and Centre Ville. We decide not to use the above-ground parking at the Castle and Tourist info, as we’re not sure exactly what the conditions are, so go looking for an underground parking station that was recommended, and get lost in the maze of narrow streets, many of which are one-way, with a variety of restricting signs. We have a confrontation with a bus on our side of the street and have to select the tricky reverse to get out of his way. At first we think we have done the wrong thing, but the bus is on our side of the street getting past a double-parked truck. Beyond this, we come to a T-intersection with no way to go, until we notice the entrance to an underground parking station right in front of us. By now we are pretty flustered, particularly as it is very hot, and the aircon is not working, and it is with great relief that we drive in. We find parking on the second level down, take photos of our position, set our timer after confirming there is one hour free, and take the stairs to emerge at the corner of a large square with the immense historic Grand Theatre building right in front of us. We take photos because the building is impressive, and also to remind us where we parked, and set off under the directions of maps.me to work our way back to the castle. We take photos of streetscapes, a notable half-timbered building and the back of the Cathedral. Maps.me takes us via a path which is marked by a blue-green strip, interspersed with bronze wheelchair signs, past notable buildings and to the Tourist Information. We get information on local attractions, bike paths in both the Maine and Loire valleys, including maps which were long on description, but a bit short on actual road information. We decide it is not the right day to lay out big bucks to visit the castle, so walk past the three exposed sides of it, taking photos. It is quite impressive, and is ringed by moats, 2.5 metre thick walls, and seventeen massive round towers. It also has a beautiful formal garden on one side. We then head for the Maine River. Murray is thinking of crossing the bridge to the other historic part of town, but it is stinking hot, so we take some river and bridge photos and find a way down to the Angers side of the river bank, where there is some shade. The grass along the river bank is very brown and dry, so we have a quick look in the river, then walk to the steps at the historic bridge upstream. We take photos of the historic Verdun Bridge, then cross the main road to where some children are playing at a pop-up fountain. Dianne decides to join them, wets her face and hat, then is caught by a sudden spurt of water and gets wet all down her front. In the extreme heat, this is a bonus, and gives her enough strength to climb the multiple steps leading up to the front of the Cathedrale Saint-Maurice. Like most churches, this one is undergoing renovations, and it looks like there are workmen in the foyer. We have a quick look on the outside, and one of the men invites Dianne to have a look inside – turns out he’s just found a good spot to show tourists the way in, and earn a bit of money with tips, which we’re happy to give. Murray follows, and we are allowed to look over the whole church, which is rather plain by the standards we have seen this trip, but has some impressive 13th to 15th century stained glass, and a major organ. The main theme of the windows seems to be the Apocalypse.
We are in familiar territory at the Cathedral, and we find our way back to the car without incident. We are well over our free hour, so have to negotiate the automated payment and exit system. We manage to pay 1.50 euro, and get a receipt, but our ticket hasn’t been stamped, so we have no idea how the exit gate will recognise our payment. We are careful on the way out not to get in a line of traffic so we don’t hold up the system if we have to back out. We follow another car, and get a message to proceed through the open gate, so we do without dallying. It is possible our ticket with its super-bar code has related the payment to our number plate, and let us through.
Exiting the parking station, we don’t find ourselves with too many options, and end up down on the river front in an area of roadworks, when we want to go the other way. We are forced to head upstream, right away from where we want to go, until we find a right turn, but this puts us in a loop, and we end up back in the same place. Fortunately we spot that what we see as a prohibited one-way street ends a block up the hill, and we are able to turn left into it then right where it becomes one-way and we get going the right way. Our troubles are not over, and we cross a fair bit of the inner city before finding a road towards home. Our troubles are STILL not over because, on a multi-exit roundabout, we turn off one too early, and find ourselves on a divided highway, leading generally toward where we want to go, but with no obvious exits. This takes us past our home, and looks like it will take us to the next town, but we get a turnoff, and take it, ending up in semi-familiar country not far from home. Fortunately we have a Nelson Mandela Centre, probably a conference centre, fairly close to home, and it is well-signposted. After this nerve-racking morning we decide we’ll get the bus into the city in future, and spend the afternoon taking it easy, with Dianne going for a swim in the fairly-cool pool, and hanging out until it is time for our second night of dinner with the family – tacos and some of the Italian Prosecco Dianne has bought from the supermarket.
We have another hot night in the top-floor room, but with the fan and both the standard window and the roof skylight open, it is bearable, even getting a bit cold towards morning, signaling the end of the heatwave.
Friday 26th July Angers to Brissac-Quince and return
We are at the north end of the Loire Valley, where we haven’t been before. We were in the South east in 1976, so decide we’ll concentrate on exploring this north section. Decide we’ll head for our first castle today, Chateau de Brissac, about twenty kilometres away. Say goodbye to the family, who are off to Spain for their holiday.
We are having late starts, partially to give the family time to finish their breakfasts, and partially due to flu-induced inertia, as Murray has had a hacking cough for a few weeks now, and Dianne now has it as well. We get away about noon, heading for the road that runs south, parallel to the express way, with Dianne navigating on the iPad using maps.me, which is having its moments with slow response due to our speed, and inaccurate placement of the arrow, well off the road we are driving on. Murray thinks we are going the wrong direction, but we persevere, coming to signs indicating we are on our way to Les Ponts-de-Ce. Local legends say it was planned to be Ponts-de-Ceaser, but the stone mason died on the job before he finished the last word. The village is interesting and the roads very narrow. We come to the first bridge, over a wide but seasonally dry tributary of La Loire. See at the far end an interesting historic guard house, but we cannot stop, because the roads are too narrow, but the building is interesting enough for us to circle around a roundabout and come back, to find a parking spot with no obvious warning notices. It is raining lightly, but Murray gets out for a photo, starting a process which leaves us pretty wet for the whole day. We have no choice but go back over the bridge to find somewhere to turn around, which is rarely easy in village France, but manage with a multi-point turn in a side street.
The Renault Scenic we are driving has a lot going for it, including relatively small size and seven seats, but as in our Mitsubishi Nimbus, this comes with a very large turning circle. The car also has interesting quirks such as keyless starting; automatic, but not particularly effective handbrake; and mysterious and not particularly effective AC/heating/Demisting. It seems impossible to stop the car briefly without shutting the engine down. The locking system is interesting as you have to lock the car and move far enough away to prevent the keyless system unlocking the car while someone checks to make sure it is really locked. Classic example of IT masterminding what should be simple mechanical problems. In spite of all the whizz-bang, there is no time delay to allow you to close the electric windows after you stop the car.
We carry on to the second bridge which is over the main river channel, and pull into a parking lot just before the bridge for more photos in the rain. The bridge looks old, but has sheet piling reinforcing the bases of the arches, and may be a concrete structure with a skin of limestone. The river looks clean, and has a good flow of water over rapids just downstream of the bridge. There is a large sandbank on a side channel downstream. These sandbanks are a feature of the river in the current summer low-water season, with this year being hotter and drier than most.
The parking lot we have driven into has no outlet back onto the main road, so we have to follow the river bank downstream, so stop at the Les Trois Lieux Restaurant, recommended by our hosts, for Dianne to have a look and get opening times, for a possible later visit. Wend our way through back streets to get back to the main road again.
We cross the third bridge which crosses Le Louet, another side channel of La Loire, this time with water in it, but not a lot of flow. Just after the bridge we get a turnoff to the D748 toward Brissac, which looks easy on the map. By now we are following road signs rather than maps.me alone, but still manage to end up on the motorway for a few miles before we can get off onto the country roads. We get into serious wine country, stopping at a winery on a dead end. From here we can see what must be Brissac, but it is a long way on the maze of minor roads. One of these is the Route des Vieux Moulines (Old Mills), a narrow road beside the expressway, and we actually find one of the mills. Murray is expecting a water mill, in spite of the road being on a ridge, but it turns out to be a windmill, of a type not previously encountered. The now missing rotor and sails are mounted on a timber enclosure which rotates on top of a masonry tower. It has a large timber backstop which braces the mill against a large circular base. The mill is in serious disrepair, but the main structure from masonry using the local slate, is largely intact. Once again, Murray gets pretty wet taking photos. The heatwave is definitely over!
We drive on to Brissac-Quince town, circling around the centre and finding parking outside the main church. There are no signs, and the angle parking is divided by white lines, so we decide to give it a go and take a walk around the village, this time with umbrellas. It is more-or-less lunch time (about 1.30pm) and the place has that village-of-the-damned look about it, with nothing or no-one moving. We find the Belvedere, with views over what is probably the main residential part of the town, but not the Chateau. We decide to leave the car and walk towards where we know the Chateau is, finding it down in the valley beside a stream, rather than up on the high ground where fortresses are usually placed. We are suitably impressed with the chateau, and when we arrive at the main entrance, decide to give it a go for the full 10 euros each (A$33 for two) which includes the grounds and interior. There is a free tour in 30 minute, but it is in French, so we decide to tour the grounds while the rain is light. We walk to the stables, where there is a display of racing equipment and a gallery of winners of major French and English races, together with famous owners. From here we climb to the family Mausoleum taking photos of the Chateau and grounds on the way. From here we descend to a landmark known as the Pont Rouge across the stream which runs through the grounds. Apart from having red handrails, the bridge also has a covering of luxuriant artificial grass. We walk back to the Chateau in rain which is becoming heavier, and find we can tour the Chateau on our own, so start at the bottom at the toilets and the wine cellars, which have a number of passages and separate rooms with barrel vaulted roofs.
On the ground floor, there is a kitchen which, while not being modern, is functional. The large dining room is characterised by a musician’s gallery and a forest of deer antler trophies (have never seen so many deer antlers in the one place!)There is a Grand Salon with paintings of Brisssac family members current and past, and in another niche off the entry foyer is a large chart of family connections to Royalty all the way back to medieval times.
On the first floor is the Grand Gallery, running almost the length of the Chateau, with a patterned floor of large white limestone flags with corner insets of blue. The walls are decorated with tapestries and racing related portraits. The beamed ceiling is highly decorated with paintings and a lot of gold leaf. At the far end is the Louis XIII bed chamber with red walls, a red four poster, and classical tapestries. This room is where Marie de Medici and her son Louis XIII were reconciled in 1620. There is another bed chamber called the Hunting Chamber in recognition of the elaborate hunting scene tapestries on the walls.
In the Portrait Gallery were numerous paintings of Brissac family members, including 13 Dukes and 4 Field Marshals. In place of honor at the end of the gallery is a painting of Veuve Clicquot, the actual woman, who, as a widow, inherited the wine making business and made it famous and profitable. As well as being a proficient business woman, she was also a horsewoman, and holder of the first woman’s driving license, and the first speeding fine. On the second floor is a fully operational theatre seating about 170 people, and plays were regularly presented, and still are.
Dianne is still looking for the missing medieval kitchen, which we find outside and down on a lower level with the boutique and wine tasting room. The medieval kitchen is set up for cooking serious amounts of food on an open fire, and has in-kitchen seating for over 30 people, presumably staff. At the Wine tasting, Dianne manages to taste all three of the local offerings, a bit like Goldilocks, finding one just right, but deciding against buying any.
We walk back to the village in the rain, finding the boulangerie open for business. We have tried the local filled baguettes and found them really good, so select one, but have trouble with the language, finally working out that the woman is telling us there is canard (duck) in the one we select. In fact there is a lot of canard in it, and is pretty tasty.
On the way back to the car, we take photos of the Chateau beyond an interesting ivy-covered building in the town, and a photo down a narrow side street showing cultivation right up to the houses. We don’t seem to have been booked for parking, so set a course for the scenic cliffs along Le Louet at Murs-Erigne, finding them after some electronic and observational navigation, and pull up at a monument right on the edge of the cliffs. We note the warning signs, so approach the edge carefully and take photos up and down the river far below. This is Le Louet, and has minimal flow at this time of the year, but does not look stagnant.
Our return home is pretty straightforward, and we stop at the local Supermarket to try the limited selection of frozen food for our first solo evening meal. We are both feeling pretty wet and cold, and can expect our colds not to get any better. Dianne tries another bedroom to separate our coughing spells.
Saturday 27th July Angers (France)
We have a quiet day on our own catching up on sleep, washing and diary, nursing our coughs and generally waiting for our prospective Spanish housemates to turn up. In the afternoon, we bite the bullet and get back in the car, past the town, to have a look at the far side of the La Maine River, stopping at the waterfront in what we hope is legal parking, to take photos of the canal-boat dock area and across to the Chateau and the main town of Angers.
We have a plan to have a look at the Etang Saint-Nicolas, which is a historic slate quarry turned into a lake, wetland and park with lots of walking tracks. We pass through up-marked suburban areas to find the park, walk through it, down a steep bank to the water, and around over a couple of bridges. There are a few locals walking and mountain-biking, but generally it is pretty deserted, apart from a few ducks and other water birds.
Seeing we are out-and-about, we decide to head for the countryside to find the recommended Chateau du Plessis Bourre. With a certain amount of navigational difficulty, on the way we find ourselves in the suburb of Aveille, near the nature park, Terra Botanica, and decide to have a look at it. It is obviously popular, having a massive car park which is mostly full. The information board shows a massive park area with lots of walkways, waterways, restaurants and Disney-like entertainment. It is late in the afternoon, and it’s about to close, so we don’t have to decide if we want to spend 15 Euros each to have a look.
We find our way across la Mayenne river, then head north on the D107 minor road in Les Basses Vallees Angevines, basically the Loire/Maine flood plain, taking a leg toward the river to find extensive hay fields with numerous hay rolls and a wide canal with a lone canal-boat moored. We check it out to make sure it is not Bateau Douggie (Murray’s Australian mate from Newcastle) steering it, then carry on, negotiating minor roads and detours to find the Chateau du Plessis Bourre. It is now 7pm, well past closing time, but there are a lot of cars parked on the road, so we ignore the notice board with opening times and walk up the long drive through lawns and large trees to find a wonderful classic castle in the middle of a lake, with a multi-arched bridge leading to a draw-bridge. We take a lot of photos from the shore of the lake before venturing inside the gate house to find there is a wedding going on. We decide not to wedding-crash or try to get onto the bridge, so take some final photos and leave. Maps.me shows a walking path around the lake, which we were hoping to use, but there is a bridge with a locked gate. Back in the car, we pass a service road with an open gate, but it looks pretty private, so carry on to do a long loop around the castle through pretty French rural countryside, stopping to take photos of a landscape very much like that where we stayed at another houseswap in the Lot et Garonne area, and another photo of a hen quail with a dozen chicks running down the tar road.
We cross Le Loir which joins La Sarthe, and La Mayenne and becomes the very short La Maine through Angers to the junction with La Loire. We stop at the supermarket to get supplies for dinner, only to find it is closed, as is anything else which may sell food. We definitely haven’t adapted yet to French closing times, which are much earlier than ours. We look forward to a very sparse dinner. Back at the house, the Spanish couple, Dani and Conchi, and their young daughter Neila, have arrived, and we introduce ourselves. They are in the middle of cooking dinner, and invite us to join them, which we happily accept, as it is a good way to solve our foodless problem. They are really nice and friendly, and we have an enjoyable dinner. What started as a problem about having to share the house with the owners and the Spanish has actually turned into a positive rather than a negative. Travelling always brings up the unexpected, and it’s amazing what happens when you just go with the flow.
The weather has gone from being stinking hot, to being a bit cool, but it enables us to get a reasonable night’s sleep.
Sunday 28th July Angers to Chinon and return.
We’ve planned a big day for today, driving south alongside the La Loire, checking out all the sites. We get away to a late start, taking the D952, which is a pretty straight shot from our local supermarket, on main city streets to the river flats of La Loire, and down to run right along the east edge of the river for most of the day’s excursion. We stop to take photos of the river, which is at least a couple of hundred metres wide here, with sandbanks and islands, and is flowing quite strongly. The road runs on top of the 6-metre high levee bank, has occasional pull-offs, and small villages built into or onto the levee structure. Even small villages have massive churches, and we stop at the first one, La Bohalle, which features Eglise Saint-Aubin, a large church, plus a park with a fish sculpture, about 5-metres long, in polished stainless steel, and a plaque about the career of Jean Bohalle who was instrumental in constructing the levee back in 1450.
We do a walk around the village and find some interesting things, including self-service refrigerated lockers for fruit and vegetables, and another self-service vending machine for baguettes. These are an obvious reply to the very annoying French shopping hours. This is obviously on the route of the self-guided bike rides of the Loire, as we see quite a few pass by. We’re glad we didn’t do one of them, as we imagined it would be a separate bike path, but they are actually on the same road as us.
Our next stop is at Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire, not that much further on. Check out the church and circulate through the back streets, then park and walk around, then carry. Stop to take photos of Abbaye Saint-Maur de Glanfeuil, a large historic complex across the other side of the river, then pass through Les Rosiers-sur-Loire, checking out the port area on the river, the suspension bridge across the river, and the massive Town Hall (Mairie).
We then cross La Loire to the other bank, and to the large town of Saumur, and find the right street up the hill to the parking area above the very impressive Chateau de Saumur. The parking seems to be free, so we walk towards the drawbridge to the Chateau, taking photos over the grape vines of the Chateau and the large church below it. Inside the walls of the Chateau, we find that the admission charge to the Chateau proper is pretty steep, but access to the grounds seems to be free. As we are a bit over Chateau interiors, we are happy to walk the grounds and take photos of the exterior and over the river, the bridge, the town and the church, all far below the ramparts. From the Chateau, we walk up the hill to the Belvedere for more distant photos of the Chateau and the town and river. Upstream from the town we can see the railway bridge and a tourist vessel on the river.
From Saumur we manage a quick exit through a tunnel down to the river and continue up the West (left) bank of the river (the opposite side to the first part of the trip) stopping for a quick look at the village of Souzay-Champigny. In the parking area there is information on the historic troglodyte homes and wine caves in the village, and we decide to have a closer look, walking narrow alleys through the village to find the start of an extensive complex of caves and caverns, some natural and some excavated. It’s all very interesting, and we get some good photos underground, and photos of houses with regular frontages attached to the cliffs, with habitation rooms cut into the cliffs behind.
We move on to Turquant, another troglodyte village with an emphasis on commercial and artistic development in the caves. After a look at what is on offer in the touristy shops, we climb the cliffs on a brown sheet-metal winding staircase, then walk through the fields, woods and village streets above, with views of vineyards.
Back on the road, we continue on to the village of Montsoreau, which has a recommended Chateau, but find the road along the river appears to be one way, and very narrow, so we decide to go back inland and back onto the heights above the river, and find another way down into the village. On the heights we see a windmill, of the same design as the derelict one we saw on the way to Chateau de Brissac. This one looks intact, with the beams of the sails in place, but it is a long way off, with access only on farm tracks.
Approaching the top of Montsoreau village, the street becomes narrower and steeper, more like a pedestrian path, to the extent that Murray doesn’t want to continue, and we give up on Montsoreau for the time being (we’re coming back this way) and head back to the main road, and on towards Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, a famous 12th century abbey complex. There is a simple church there with gisants (funerary effigies) of four illustrious Plantagenets – Henry II, King of England from 1154-89, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (who retired to Fontevraud following Henry’s death); their son Richard the Lionheart; and Richard’s brother King John’s wife, Isabelle of Angouleme. We have a drink at a local restaurant in the main square, before carrying on to the Abbaye. The complex is large and well-maintained, and unfortunately fully enclosed, so you can only get glimpses of the inner buildings. In addition, the special chapel is completely covered in scaffolding, so we don’t feel the need to pay for admission.
Back on the road we head across country for Chinon, on the La Vienne River, a side river of the Loire, where there is a major chateau, as well as a nearby nuclear power station we have seen on the horizon all day. We stop across the river for photos of the Chateau, which is so big it dominates the town, and won’t fit on one frame of a wide lens photo. We drive up through the town to the parking area above the Chateau, and walk up a ramp to the Chateau, only to find the grounds are open, but the chateau is closed for the day (it’s after 5pm). We take photos from the grounds of the drawbridge and the Chateau then take the walking path around the base of the towering walls and towers of the chateau. We have a false start, and run into a wire fence, and have to backtrack to a lower level to reach the gate to the medieval town below. We see a notice offering Visite et Degustation at the Cave of M. Plouzeau, Chateau de la Bonneliere and decide to have a look. We are amazed at the dimensions of the cave, walk in about 50 metres, right under the Chateau, with a vertical tunnel going a long way up, finding a tourist group being addressed by a woman. We wait around a while, with the intention of tasting and buying a bottle or two, but encounter the Gallic disdain we thought had disappeared from France, so carry on looking at the extent of the cave then beat a retreat.
The medieval town is pretty authentic, with narrow streets, half-timbered buildings leaning into the street, and views up to the towers of the chateau. At the chateau we have seen directions to the ascenseur, (lift) and track it down at the lower level, getting a free lift up to the base of the chateau for more photos over the river and the medieval town, then walk through the grounds again back to the car, having done a complete circuit of the castle. On the way back to the bridge, we stop by the river for photos up to the chateau, of the medieval town, and down to the river with the bridge, and traditional boats.
Heading back down the river, we make another attempt to get to the Chateau de Montsoreau, trying to find a way without using the narrow, one-way street on the river bank. We have a false start when the road once again becomes more of a pedestrian path than a road, then decide to have another look at the river bank again, and find it is in fact a two-way road, with only one lane and priority arrows, which we manage to negotiate and find a park right at the Chateau. The Chateau is interesting, being very tall and narrow, and situated right on the river bank. We walk around it, past the cliffs we decided not to drive down, past the houses built into the cliffs, to the front gate of the Chateau, which is about to close for the night. We get some photos then walk through narrow streets and stairways back to the car. We find a place to turn around and brave the narrow road back to the centre of town, getting photos of traditional boats and carry on to Saumur.
At Saumur, we get photos of the bridge, the large church below the Chateau, and more traditional boats on the river. We were going to return on the left (West) side of the river on the way home, but it’s now 7pm, and we’ve done enough sightseeing for the day, so decide to go back the way we came. We cross the bridge, see a Pizza restaurant which is open, and stop, because we’re not even sure the supermarkets are open on a Sunday, and we don’t want to go home empty-handed again. Dianne notices a Chinese restaurant nearby, and decides to go that direction, while Murray walks the river banks taking late afternoon sun photos of the Chateau, the City, the bridge and the boats on the river. We eat our Chinese dinner by the river, then carry on home, taking more photos of the Abbaye Saint-Maur de Glanfeuil across the river, plus a random medieval tower rising above the forest.
Back at the house, we exchange details of our day with Dani and Conchi, finish our Chinese meal, and have another reasonably cool night.
Monday 29th July Angers
Seeing we’re in the Loire, famous for its food, we decide we’d better have one special meal, so Dianne uses the phone to try and book a table for later in the week at the recommended Bistrot des Ducs (1 of 410 on Trip Advisor). There is a long and very rapid message in French on the answering machine, which she can’t understand, but she leaves her name and booking request and hopes for the best. We’re going into the city today, so will call in and confirm.
We leave pretty late as usual – catch the #2 bus into town to explore further. Decide to stay in the bus as long as it is on the main road and get out near the Botanical Gardens. There is an interesting newish high rise low-rent apartment building beyond an archway, but with two layabouts laying about on the steps, we decide not to push our luck, and walk into the Botanical Gardens (Jardin des Plantes d’Angers.), which was started in 1790. Can’t believe how lovely they are. Considering the hot, dry weather we have been having, the lawns in the gardens are incredibly lush and green.
We see some interesting trees and plants, including a very wide-spreading weeping conifer, with horizontal branches propped up at intervals. We walk downhill to the interesting historical Church Saint-Samson which now houses gardening supplies, and across to the large duck pond, then out into a street down at the lowest level of the city. From here it is all uphill, passing a section of the newly-laid extension to the tram system, to the Place Louis Imbach, with the large red and white striped Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, with characteristic scaffolding. Walk through now-familiar narrow streets, across the square in front of the Opera House, then into the restaurant streets to find Bistrot des Ducs, which is a restaurant for Dukes, not one serving ducks. Unfortunately our telephone request for a reservation has fallen on deaf ears, as a notice posted on the closed grill says they went on holidays yesterday, and won’t be back for a month. Classic French holiday problem! Decide to give up on fancy restaurants. Continue past the Cathedral and on to the lookout beside the Chateau, which has closed for the day. We want to see the recommended Sound and Light show, when they may or may not open the gates for free, depending upon which information you read. We take photos of the walls and bastions, a photo of the drawbridge from the now-closed main door looking out, photos of the river, bridges, and cathedral on the far side of the river before deciding that the Sound and Light isn’t going to happen early, as it is still quite bright, even though it’s now 8.30pm.
We walk away from the city toward the large Eglise Saint-Laud, then on to the railway/bus station where we look for evidence of a Flixbus stop, as we’ve booked tickets to Paris on it. Find a row of longer distance bus quays, one of which has a Flixbus plaque, and an obsolete timetable which does not show our departure time, but at least shows our route number. We have seen some parking quite close to the Chateau, and there is not too much traffic, and we’re worried about getting home by public transport after the Sound and Light, so decide we’ll get the bus home, and come back in the car.
Walk back to the #2 bus stop, only to find we are too late for the last #2 bus, and will have to wait 45 minutes for the night bus, so hurry back for a quick look at the sunset at 9.30pm. We get the night bus OK, go home and talk to Dani, who told us the Sound and Light was pretty late last night, with the last show starting about 11.15pm, so we have a quick bite to eat, then back into town in the car, parking in the main street just up from the Chateau. When we arrive at the car park in front of the section of the Chateau wall they are using as a screen, the first show is just finishing so we take some photos, then walk back to the lookout for some night photos of the river and various lit up buildings.
We return to the car park to watch the next Sound and Light, an audio-visual using laser projectors, about the life and times of Le Roi Rene, apparently a good king who did good works, but may have had some difficult women in his life. The sound track is all in French so we don’t pick up a lot of the story, but the visuals are excellent, so take a lot of photos and some videos. When the show finishes, we walk through back streets to the Cathedral to see what other buildings are lit up, then back towards the car, taking a final parting shot of the Chateau wall with the title shot of the Balade de Roi Rene still showing at 11.40pm.
Although the drive into town was straight forward, on the way back we turn off one street too early on a large oval roundabout, so have to navigate the back streets and one-way streets to find the correct route, managing to annoy a few French drivers who find roundabouts excellent places to pass slower drivers.
Tuesday 30th July Angers (France)
Today is the day we’ve allotted to explore the castle and various museums in Angers, and were going to buy a 24-hour City Pass today (A$25 each), but unfortunately it’s raining. We set off for the bus at midday, taking a photo of the wasteland behind our house on the way. We take the #2 bus, get off one stop past where we got the night bus last night, walk in the rain through a pedestrian area where the massive tower is located, then proceed to the Tourist Bureau to buy our 24-hour Museum pass then cross to the nearby Chateau where the gate at the drawbridge open, and the Chateau available to visitors with the Museum pass.
It is overcast, windy and threatening to rain, so we do the outdoor parts of the Chateau first, passing through the formal gardens, past the end of the large chapel to the famously eccentric non-symmetrical gatehouse to the internal courtyard/keep. Inside the gatehouse the wall is decorated with the house insignia of the ancestors and successors of Rene 1er d’Anjou, the local favorite and all-round good guy.
Inside the keep, we take photos of the gatehouse, the white limestone block chapel and the colourful living quarters which have stacked slate walls and white limestone window and door details, plus limestone block corners, and slate roofs, all typical of Angers style. The chapel interior is rather plain limestone block work, with a large stained glass window, and a bas-relief triptych of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, a tapestry depiction of angels killing a many-headed mythical beast and a large map of Angers dating from about the 12th century. There are spiral staircases leading from the chamber, but they don’t take us to anywhere interesting.
Back in the yard, we climb to the top of the only tall bastion, the others having been cut back to improve the field of fire of canons on the walls, and walk along the wall past the gardens planted on a mezzanine level, and the tops of the remaining bastions, where there are steps up to viewing platforms for photos over the town, the moat, the interior structures of the chateau, vineyards and herb gardens.
In increasingly heavy rain and strong wind, we shelter in the lee of the walls for a while then climb to the high point of the walls and walk the southern side of the walls till we find a descending staircase to get us out of the wind and rain. We proceed to a modern building which houses the famous Apocalypse Tapestries, which was originally woven between 1373 and 1382 and was originally 133 metres long, but during the French revolution it was cut into pieces for its protection and given to different people. After the Revolution most of the pieces were recovered, and they now have a series of six tapestries each 6 metres high by 23 metres long. There are 42 imaginary scenes of Angels fighting mythical monsters and other activities encompassing the end of the world, finishing with a New Jerusalem floating in space. The tapestries have been repaired and cleaned up, but are a little faded, and the artwork, although dramatic, is not particularly expert. The modern air conditioned building they are housed in is enormous, but a lot of it is hidden under the courtyard of the keep. In the attached tourist shop (fancy that!) we buy some overpriced French-flavored souvenirs for the grandchildren. We check out the parts of the Chateau we haven’t seen, including staff quarters, the remaining wall of the Great Hall, the tunnels and staircases in the south east corner bastion and Yard Gate.
Back outside, we are too early for the ride in the Petit Train, which is a bit touristy, and not something we would normally do, but we will try it as it is part of our Museum Pass. Hang around for a while before boarding the 3pm train for a circuit around the city and the rest of the city across the river. We find a good spot in one of the carriages near the front, but are relocated to the rear carriage which has the recorded commentary in English. This carriage has an acrylic windscreen and panel on the left hand side, which is good if the rain comes back, but not so good for photography, but at least the acrylic is quite clean.
The Petit Train, painted white with red trim, is quite cute but a bit cringe-worthy, but it takes us safely across the river and into the old city on the far side, which has some interesting buildings some with stories behind them, and narrow streets, which the engine and three carriages manage without problems. Some of the buildings would probably be worth investigating further if we were staying longer. Our return takes us along the river for good views of the city, then back across the river on the Stone Bridge and up through the narrow streets of the city, past the landmark half-timbered building and the ornate Cathedral Residence. The trip was definitely better than we expected.
After the Petit Train, we look at what the Museum Pass has to offer, and decide to try the Galerie David d’Angers first, but the woman at the till can’t get the electronics working, and asks us to come back later, so we slip out the side door into the Jardin des Beaux Arts which leads to the long staircase to the terrace of the Musee des Beaux-Arts, which has a brilliantly coloured fibreglass statue of the Serpent Tree, with multiple open-mouthed snakes radiating from the top of the trunk.
In the museum, our card is recognised and we get tickets and are directed upstairs, past an interesting sculpture using a stack of spiked newspapers some 2-metres high. The paintings on display are interesting, historic, but do not represent any well-known names, so it doesn’t strike too many chords with us. There is an interesting historic painting of Angers with a broken stone bridge; a modern map of 12th Century Angers; a large painting of the circumcision of the infant Jesus, with blood being caught in a bowl, with a dozen onlookers well dressed in medieval style; a large painting of cherubs doing science projects and discussing learnedly; a painting of Joan of Arc on the pyre (fairly significant, as this area was her home ground). After checking out the many levels of the museum, we went back to the Galerie David d’Angers, where our cards are finally recognized. Checked out the scores of plaster models made by David for translation by craftsmen into scaled up sculptures in bronze or marble, and the Galerie, which was a church until bombed in WW2, and now the roof has been replaced by a steel and glass structure which gives excellent light into the Galerie. The sculptures are all very well executed, although the proportions of some seem a bit extreme, (a bit like the Michelangelo statue of David) but may be to compensate for scaling and the height of the pedestal they will go on, although it is not impossible that the subjects had large heads and small bodies. Of particular interest is the bust of Joseph Louis Proust, French Chemist, who Murray reckons would pass for Bob Hawke’s brother. David d’Angers most famous work is the pedimental decoration for the Pantheon in Paris (1830-1837). We both really like this museum, both for the building and the sculptures inside.
From here we move on via the administration building for the province, and the tower, to the Collegiale Saint-Martin, one of France’s best preserved Carolingian Monuments (The Carolingian Empire (800-888) also known as the Empire of the Romans and Franks).This is considered a major building in the history of architecture in the West of France, and is now the property of the Conseil-General de Maine et Loire. When we enter a theatre group is rehearsing a performance and we circle around the outside so as not to disturb, taking photos of the building and some very well-done polychrome sculptures of biblical figures. This may have been an important building, but it looked pretty ordinary to us. As it’s now 6pm, and the museums are all closed, we decide to head for home.
Back at the bus stop, we are waiting for the #2, but the #10 comes along and we give it a go, as we’ve been told it also goes near our place. We know that it eventually ends up at our bus stop, but it also takes a roundabout route. This route takes us right past the train and bus station where we know the Flixbus has a stop, so we are pleased to know we can take the #10 with our baggage when we depart, and end up at the bus station, rather than having to drag it for a few blocks. Home for a fairly ordinary dinner.
Wednesday 31th July Angers (France)
Our last full day at the houseswap. Today we have to fill the car with petrol, but we still have time on our City Pass, so decide to go to the Musee de l’ardoise (Museum of slate) in the nearby suburb of Trelaze, only a couple of kms from the house, but tucked away off the main road. Slate was a very important industry in this area, and the slate was considered the best slate in the world. The first quarry here was in 1406. This explains why there are so many slate roofs in this area. In fact, at one stage it was law that you must have a slate roof. We arrive just on lunch time, and the demonstrations of slate splitting and cutting will not be till after lunch when the time has run out on our pass. The woman in charge is unable or unwilling to stretch the time, so all we get is a look through the slate museum and to see a couple of videos, one in English, and she will allow us to look around the site after the museum. This is better than nothing, so we cop it sweet, seeing interesting information on worldwide slate production, the reduced state of the industry in Anjou, with slate production confined to work on Government and historic buildings. This still employs a work force of 180.
The films show the increasing mechanisation of the industry, with splitting and cutting to size mechanised, but still far from automatic. As well as the movies, there is a model of an historic slate works where the slate was hauled up from the mine on a conventional mining headframe, and the raw slate was distributed to a number of workers in a large yard. The workers were provided with portable timber lean-to’s for protection from sun, wind and rain, but it was still a tough job, and life expectation was not high. The slate is shown to be quite tough, and can be cut with steel-bladed saws or in guillotines without cracking. The slate splits remarkably clean and straight across the grain when cutting a slab to size. The museum shows a lot of hand-operated machines were developed before the advent of electric or hydraulic power. Hand operated presses with custom-shaped blades were used to cut slates for decorative purposes.
Models of complex slate roofs and a complete model of the Chateau d’Angers showed how versatile slate could be, from stacked structural slate to conventional pitched roofs to the classic coned towers, domes, curved roofs, patterned roofs and slate for step treads, lintels and slate for signs and grave covers and headstones.
Back outside we take photos of the pretty structural stacked slate cottage with a slate roof, slate steps and a slate pathway which houses the office. We walk into the yard to look at the stacked slate workshops with piles of raw slate slabs, a variety of splitting and shaping machines, and photo boards of scenes in actual slate workshops. The place is deserted, but we stay well clear of the workshop, take photos of a pond on the property which was doubtless a slate mine, and could be 50 metres deep. We walk to the top of a mound next to the pond, which has a circular stacked slate structure then on a path around the mound, to find three workers laying a new pathway. They grudgingly let us past and we followed the path according to maps.me till we come to a locked gate and have to walk around the pond to return to the office. Before leaving we take a photo of what must be a high pressure diaphragm hand pump, made by Ingersoll-Rand, still a well-known industrial brand. Outside in the car park we take a photo of a bronze statue of a worker with a big hammer and chisel splitting a block of slate held between the padded knee length boots traditionally worn.
The map shows us near a park with waterways, so we drive to a parking area and get out for a walk around the park and the lakes, probably old slate mines. We encounter people with badly trained dogs off the leash, but just get menaced, not attacked. Across a main road we see a sign for an artisanal baker and cross to buy a large baguette so we will not go hungry.
We now have to fill up the car with petrol, so head back toward home where the map shows a servo on the main bus route. We pass the location, but all there is there is a car showroom, and no sign of a servo. We drive back past it, still cannot see a servo, so drive on back to our supermarket where Murray has seen an associated filling station across the road. Unfortunately it is un-manned and has automatic pumps which need a credit card. The instructions are all in French, and after we think we have it worked out, try the credit card, but it is rejected. We ask the middle-eastern woman in the queue behind us for help, and she gives it a go, but the credit card is rejected again, so we give up, and search the map for a different servo.
We find another servo at a Geant (Giant) Casino and shopping centre, fairly close to the town centre, but with a turnoff from our bus route, and track it down. It is more like a real servo, and has a cashier, but still has auto pumps set up for credit cards. We think we see a line in the instructions which mentions cash, so we check with the cashier, and she tells us to just fill up normally, and come through to the boom gate and pay her at her kiosk. This sounds good, so we proceed, putting in about A$84 worth of petrol. About now, we realise that we don’t have that much cash! Dianne negotiates us back to a credit card purchase which we do at the kiosk, and our card comes good, so we leave, greatly relieved.
The Casino/Shopping centre is in a large spaghetti junction of roads, and we take the wrong one which leads us into the centre of town. Fortunately it is on our bus route, which we know, but as we approach where our bus takes a left turn to get onto our familiar road, we see a no-left turn sign, and have to carry on down as far as the bus station before we are able to plot a course back to our familiar bus route, through a maze of small and sometimes one-way streets. This is all on the day that Murray had planned a day of minimum, no-risk driving, but we manage to get home safely and go through the routine of packing the bags and cleaning up the car and the part of the house that we have used. We set alarms for the morning, not too early, and hope to get some sleep before our departure.
Thursday 1st August Angers to Paris by Flixbus
Our Flixbus to Paris is not till 1.30pm, but we’re a bit anxious about it as the bus stop is not very obvious, and we’ve read a couple of reviews where people were not picked up, but we have booked it nevertheless, as we are interested to see what Flixbus is like (not to mention the fact that it is pretty cheap for a last-minute booking, unlike the TGV). We breakfast and sort out what food we are taking with us, bid farewell to the Spanish, manage to leave all the keys behind in the right place, and head off with all our baggage for the bus stop to wait for the #10 bus, which is a lot less frequent than the #2. We have just missed the early bus, so Murray has plenty of time to go across to the award-winning boulangerie for supplies for the bus trip, but finds it too is now closed for the holidays! Fortunately the SuperU market is open, so he buys a large baguette, halves it and squeezes it to fit both halves in the short bag the French are fond of.
We manage seats for ourselves and room for our bags in a 2×2 facing seats group, as the bus is pretty empty, and are ready to get out when we see the bus station, but push the button one stop early and have to apologise to the lady bus driver (of African heritage), and get out right at the long distance bus quay. We are very early, and there on our own, so we settle down to read, and wait on the structural steel bench, which is pretty chilly on the bottom without a couple of layers of Good Weekend. We kill time checking out the railway station and waiting for an early bus to turn up and confirm we are in the right place, but have no luck there. While Dianne is taking a break, Murray is joined by a local woman who may or may not have Downs Syndrome. She is going to Paris by Flixbus too, so we look to be in good shape.
By the time the bus turns up ten minutes early, about twenty people have come out of the woodwork, and there is a bit of a press at the bus door. Murray puts our bags in the Paris compartment while Dianne organises our booked seats, but there is a hitch, because the bus is a replacement bus with a different seating scheme. We have paid extra to get the front seats but one man has a booking for the same as one of our seats, and the other front seats have been commandeered by a middle-eastern man with one son with a broken leg, who can’t or won’t move.
There are two jump seats beside the driver which we think we can use, but the driver refuses, so we are stuck with negotiating with the man who has one of “our” seats, and also has a reservation. He graciously concedes the seat and moves to the back, while we set up right in front of a now-clean massive windscreen with no obvious sun shade that will be pulled down. This all seems pretty ideal, but we have not counted on the size of the French divided highways, and most of what we can see from the front is the two divided roads with countryside and villages off to the side. The side windows are so heavily tinted as to being almost opaque to the camera and are highly reflective, so our photography options other than in the town, are pretty limited.
We do get some good shots of Angers, the French countryside, and the distant towers of Chartres Cathedral. We have our only stop at the bus station in Le Mans, which might have a good race track, but it is a pretty ordinary city. Of interest on the way is a massive toll station with 38 toll booths, a trailer with two enclosed recumbent tricycles which have headlights which make them look like clowns, distant early view of Paris, massive complexes of very ugly power transmission towers, road signs to romantic destinations, lucky shot photos of Sacre Coeur Cathedral sitting on its hill, and photos of traffic on the Boulevarde Peripherique.
Earlier we saw a broken-down bus being towed on the opposite direction freeway, and traffic backed up for kilometres on the main road and roads joining it. We have a pretty good run into Paris, disrupted by giving way to a couple of emergency vehicles. We cross a major railway complex and the Seine to pull into an un-remarkable tunnel beside the Seine at Bercy, entering a massive underground bus station with about a hundred Flixbuses angle parked, and people everywhere. Unfortunately we didn’t take a photo.
We recover our bags OK, try to find a signposted loo without luck, and head out into the park outside to get our bearings. The map indicates our target, Gare de Lyon further along the Seine, so we walk on through the park, but can’t see a way to get out of it except by re-entering the Flixbus Depot. As luck would have it, we enter near the end of the depot right next to a set of loos, so are able to carry on in a more relaxed frame of mind.
Dianne’s information has the “Le Bus Direct” airport bus stopping at the eastern end of the Gare, with specific instructions where to exit the station, but we manage to muddle through and find the right corner of the station. The fare, at 18 Euros each is pretty savage seeing which just paid 19 euros each for the four hour journey from Angers, but the RER fare is 11 euros, so we opt for the devil we know, and wait for the bus.
There is a bit of frenzy to get the bags into the right compartment, and a youth of African heritage, who has been standing around.gets stuck into loading, including one of our bags. He doesn’t ask for a tip, and Murray doesn’t have any cash, so we don’t know if he is a casual employee of the bus company, but he certainly expedites loading, The bus route takes us to la Bastille, an area we are reasonably familiar with, but we don’t see a lot that rings a bell, even after being here for two weeks only a couple of years ago.
There are not a lot of landmarks on our route, but we manage a few representative snaps, just missing a clown truck driver putting up his hands in mock surrender when Murray points the camera at him.
We have booked the Penta Hotel (A$119 per night) because it is close to the airport, is one of the more reasonably-priced hotels here, and it has a shuttle from the airport to hotel and return. At terminal 2, we are looking for the TGV station as the first clue to finding our hotel shuttle, but find we have to take a train shuttle to a different part of Terminal 2, then walk, then use a lift to different levels, and finally find where the hotel shuttles collect. We wait where the hotels own shuttles stop, but can’t find a mention of the Penta Hotel. We have been told to look for the gold shuttle. While we are waiting we see a full-size bus on a parallel road with a Hotel Shuttle sign. This one is pink, so we know it isn’t ours, but when another one, this time black, turns up, we rush across to quiz the driver, who says, yes, he can take us to the Penta. We can now relax, but the trip covers a lot of hotels, including one where a car with no driver is stopped at a boom gate and the bus can’t get past. The driver returns, and after a few minutes of fiddling with the boom gate ticket machine, our bus driver gets the car driver to move, but not far enough for us to do a U-turn, and after a few more minutes, he gets those staying at this hotel to get their bags and walk in. We have more trouble doing a U-turn, but eventually get to the Penta, which looks a bit like a party hotel, with the bar doubling as the reception desk. It is pretty busy, but we are checked in and on our way to a very comfortable modern room.
After settling in, we conclude the bar food we saw downstairs would do for tonight, and order French fries with truffle oil and a nachos, plus soft drinks (A$39). The fries are only fair, but the nachos were much better than we expected, and were sufficiently large for both of us to get enough to keep the wolf from the door. We haven’t unpacked a lot, so can set our alarms for 5am in time for the 5.20am shuttle.
Friday 2nd August Paris to Doha (Qatar)
We are up before the alarm, finish packing and go to the lobby, just missing the first bus and nearly missing the second as it stopped on the far side of the road when we were expecting it to stop at the front door. In spite of only being a couple of kilometres from the airport, the spaghetti junction of roads around the various terminals meant it was some time before we arrived at what we thought was the Terminal 1 departures, but was only the drop-off point for taking the train shuttle to Terminal 1, which took a bit of sorting out with the missing and misleading signage, but we eventually found the shuttle and Terminal 1.
The terminal itself was pretty confusing, being set up as a large circular building with multiple curved concrete tunnels crossing the internal atrium to reach the various satellite boarding gate hubs. Through security we take the tunnel under an aircraft taxi-way, with one actually passing over our heads. There is Wi-Fi available, but the Microsoft operating system will not let the computer join, whereas Dianne’s Apple system has no problems. We kill time with Murray doing photo and diary related work, Dianne reading her dwindling supply of Good Weekends.
As it’s a day flight, and we don’t want to sleep, we use our now popular split three-seat arrangement, with Murray on the aisle, someone in the middle seat and Dianne on the window taking some photos, but we have mostly cloud all the way on the 6 ½ hour flight to Doha.
We have a four hour transfer in Doha, and are expecting to go directly to the gate, but all 500 plus people on the plane have to go through security before going to the boarding gates. We find charging power ok at the gate, kill the time pretty well, talk to a couple from the central coast who end up one row in front of us. As this is a night flight, we have two seats in the centre of the plane – one aisle seat and one beside it. We board on time – 8.35pm Doha time.
The flight is surprisingly bumpy, but we are right down the back in row 80, and most of the movement is sharp and sideways, inducing a touch of nausea.
A family is having problems with the seating. A man is travelling with his wife (who is wearing a burka), a baby and a toddler about two or three. They only have two seats together, the middle one and the window seat, and the middle one in the row in front. The man on the aisle seat is asked to move to the middle one at the front, but refuses to, as he specifically wanted an aisle seat which is what he booked. When he stands up we understand why – he’s about six foot six! We have a spare seat beside us, but are not prepared to move as Murray also wants an aisle seat (which is why we booked it in advance) on this 14 ½ hour flight with his 76 year old bladder. Their problem could easily be solved if the man was prepared to let someone sit next to his wife, which he wouldn’t do. In the end his wife sat next to the window, he sat next to her and nursed the baby, and they put the two to three year old on his own in the seat in front of them with two adults he didn’t know. To them this was better than letting his wife sit next to another male.
The spare seat beside us is soon occupied by a woman (who was sitting between the Central Coast couple) who is experiencing trouble with her audio, and is transferred courtesy of the hostess. The woman is there for 7 or 8 hours, but doesn’t watch much video anyway, as she sleeps most of the time. When she eventually wakes up, she is upset by Dianne’s non-stop coughing (so is Dianne!), and queries her about it. When she’s told it lasts five weeks or so, she says she can’t afford to get sick, and quietly transfers back to her original seat, doubtless to the chagrin of the central coast couple. Dianne now regrets not coughing earlier, but now manages some sleep with her feet on Murray’s lap, now that she has an extra seat. Murray gets little sleep sitting up, but watches a few movies he would never pay admission for at a theatre, and at least has easy access to the loos, which are rarely all occupied. The food and service are both reasonable, and in spite of several episodes of sharp sideways shaking, the flight is as good as one can expect coming east all the way from Paris.
On arrival back in Sydney, we are mildly inconvenienced by a lack of Australian customs forms which are not in Arabic, but the electronic passport system works. Dianne’s bag arrives early but Murray’s is one of the last. We are through customs, down at the rail station with Murray through the barrier, Dianne following, thinking we are on our way when Dianne gets a phone call from someone who thinks they have Dianne’s bag. A quick inspection shows that the bag we have lacks the orange and rainbow ribbons we use to identify it. As the person who has our bag is game enough to take our bag through customs, Dianne goes back to make the exchange. To complicate our life, there is track work going on in the City Circle and our train terminates at Central. We have to lug the bags down and up surprisingly long staircases to get to the right platform, and we have to run for our ferry, only just managing to catch it after the crewman redeploys the gangway. We arrive home about 8pm local time, after being on the move for nearly thirty hours.
Summary of Our Thoughts on Berlin and Angers Homeswaps
Revisiting Berlin after forty three years was really interesting. Our homeswap position was perfect, and the place had everything we needed (except a microwave – don’t know how anyone exists without one these days). The public transport made it very easy to get around, and it was really interesting to see the changes that had taken place since the Wall had come down.
Our Angers homeswap also turned out really well. Sharing the house turned out to be a positive rather than a negative. The position, outside the main centre, was a bit of a nuisance, but the fact we had use of a car more than made up for that, and there was public transport in to town. It was interesting exploring this end of the Loire Valley.
- Exploring Souk Wakif in Doha
- Exploring the waterfront and dhow harbour, especially on Friday late afternoon when it is cooler, and everyone is out enjoying themselves.
- The wonderful National Museum of Doha
- The Falcon Souk- Not exactly a highlight, but interesting
- Veliko Tarnova, Bulgaria – the view across the valley to the Fort, the Old Town, view across other valley to the Assen Dynasty monument with its former leaders and their horses, and the excellent restaurant
- Plovdiv, Bulgaria with its Roman theatre and historic Old Town, though not as impressed as we’d expected from reading about it
- Bansko, Bulgaria -a ski-ing village, with an interesting Old Town
- Walking in the very attractive Pirin Mountains, Bulgaria but not the chairlift to get to them
- The surprisingly interesting Homestay in village of Gorno Draglishte, Bulgaria including dressing up in national costume, and the singing of the hostesses
- UNESCO-listed Rila Monastery, Bulgaria –interesting complex, beautiful setting, and interesting ceremonies with a big group of priests
- The great “free” Balkan Bites food walking tour in Sofia, Bulgaria
- The wonderful fields of sunflowers in Bulgaria
- Skopje, North Macedonia -the wonderful, over-the-top statues, interesting Old Town and fortress
- Prizren in Kosovo – the Old Town, the good restaurant and the views from the Fort after a very steep and hot climb
- Boat ride, caves and walk in Matka Canyon, North Macedonia
- St John the Baptist (St Jovan Bigorski) monastery on way to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia
- Lake Ohrid, Macedonia – with its lovely old stone churches, its waterfront setting, interesting boat ride to Bay of Bones, and original Gutenberg press
- The thousands of igloo-shaped concrete bunkers all over Albania
- Berat, Albania – a complete surprise. Wonderful Old Town with black and white Ottoman houses, and very long, steep climb to Castle of Berat with wonderful views.
- Tirana, Albania– the surprise of finding it much livelier and more pleasant than we expected, including its very fashionable Artigiano2 restaurant in a wonderful setting
- The BunkArt2 nuclear bunker museum in Tirana with lots of interesting information
- Kruja, Albania – with its castle, Old Town and interesting Ethnological Museum
- The impressive view of the lake, fields and fish traps from Rozafa Fortress near the border in Albania
- Lunching at the Konoba “Makina Vucinica” restaurant in Montenegro, high over the coast with magnificent views of Dobra Voda and the coastline
- Kotor, Montenegro –its magnificent setting on the bay, the UNESCO-listed walled Old Town, and the walls extending all the way up the mountain to the Fort, and the spectacular views once we made the strenuous climb
- Our speedboat tour in Kotor, especially entering the concealed WW2 submarine bases dug out in the cliff
- The fantastic setting of Restoran Stari Mlini at Dobrota, Kotor (though not necessarily the food)
- Dubrovnik (Croatia) – the spectacular view of the town from the lookout above it, walking the wall and the streets of the UNESCO-listed town, our last night’s dinner on the waterfront with views of the partial eclipse and the town.
- The excellent position of our homeswap, complete with great Vietnamese restaurant at front
- Retracing our steps to where we visited in 1976, especially Checkpoint Charlie, and seeing the various Wall museums and displays
- The great Alternative Berlin “Free” tour going to places we’d never visit on our own, especially YAAM Beach.
- Seeing the alternative culture at Mauerpark on a Sunday afternoon
- The Dome in the Reichstag Building with its interesting architecture and great views
- Meeting and dining with our homeswap people and Dani and family from Spain
- Exploring chateaux and countryside of the Loire – especially Chateau de Brissac, Chateau du Plessis Bourre, Chateau de Saumur, troglodyte homes and caves in Souzay-Champgny, Fontevraud-lÁbbaye, Chinon Chateau and town and Chateau de Montsoreau.
- Exploring the town of Angers – especially the Chateau and its Sound and Light Show, the Galerie David dÁngers and the Botanical Gardens.
- The Museum of Slate in Trelaze, with lots of information on slates interesting history here
SUMMARY OF TOTAL COSTS
Qatar Airways – Sydney/ Doha/Bucharest-Paris/Doha/Sydney
2 @ A$2,490 each 4,980
Easyjet Dubrovnik- Berlin 2 @ $131 ea 262
Air France Berlin-Paris 2 @ $109 ea 218
Total airfares 5,460
Intrepid Travel -8 night “Eastern Europe Express” trip – A$1,660 each 3,320
Intrepid Travel -11night “Western Balkans Uncovered” A$2,925 each 5,850
Accommodation for 10 nights – averaged out to A$102 per night 1,021
Miscellaneous expenses itemised (meals, transport, entry fees,tips etc) 2,132 Miscellaneous expenses not detailed (A$20 per day) 861
TOTAL SPENT FOR 44 DAYS $18,644
= A$424 per day (for two) including airfares
= A$299 per day (for two) excluding airfares
Daily rate reduced by fact that had housewaps for two weeks with no accommodation costs, and could cook at home instead of eating out all the time, plus had free use of car for one of those weeks.