It’s a slow start in Istanbul. When I get off the plane I walk past the visa counters, as I had organised my visa in Aus, so I thought I’d be close to the front of the queue. But the queue for immigration winds back and forth around barriers, worse than waiting for a ride in a theme park. It moves reasonably quickly, however. Nearly at the desks, a young British man yells at an older man and woman:

“Oy! Ow about you go to the back of the queue like everyone else, then!”

The woman is taken aback, then says: “I’m sick.”

“I’m Turkish, anyway,” the man says. “I’m just here to be with her.”

“Does that give you the right to jump the line then?” the British guy asks.

They just ignore him and the British guy lets up.

I walk the length of the baggage hall before I find the carousel with my bag on it. I look for what’s allowed through customs but everything is in Turkish and we weren’t given any instructions on the plane (at least not in English.) I have fruit in my backpack, but I don’t know the rules about it. There’s a door with a sign “Nothing to declare” that everyone seems to be going through, so I follow.

Out in the hall there is a huge crowd of people standing watching, most with signs saying someone’s name. I don’t spot my name first time round, so I walk up and down again, people calling to me to look at their placards. Still no luck.

I remember I need to get Turkish Lira so I go to a machine and withdraw some. Then I scan the names again, back and forth. No luck. I stand aside, pondering what to do. I turn on my phone, but it doesn’t work. I try to connect to wifi but it doesn’t work. I see there’s a phone shop nearby. Maybe I could buy a simcard.

I walk up and down again, and eventually spot my name on a piece of paper stuck to the barrier. I point to it and a man behind the barrier says:

“Which one?”

I point again. “Please come around here,” he says to me. “It belongs to my colleague. He will be here soon.”

I trundle around. He asks me to point out my name again. “Please wait.” he says.

In a few minutes, he takes the piece of paper off the barrier and gives it to a bald man with narrow hips and points at me. For the next 20 minutes or so, the man with the narrow hips beckons me to follow him, asks me to wait at a spot, goes away and comes back with 3 German women, beckons us to follow him, asks us to wait at a spot, goes away, comes back, beckons us to follow, wait, follow, wait, and then directs the German ladies into a car. Eventually he directs me to a car and I’m on my way.

It’s hot and humid and twilight, almost dusk as we leave the airport and drive in crazy traffic along the edge of the water. There must be more than a hundred ships I can see out on the water. There’s a thick pall of brown smog settled over the city. There are modern buildings but tucked around them are mosques with slender minarets rising around them. At one stage we drive through arches of what is unmistakably an ancient wall.

My driver is good. He tells me it will take 30 minutes and he keeps a good distance from the cars in front. He toots regularly to warn cars or trucks that we pass close to or that are drifting towards us. When we are nearly there he turns into narrow streets, narrow like mediaeval towns, and crowded with people. He toots and edges forward. The people are drinking outside a bar and they move aside to let us through. A few more turns up narrow streets and he stops the car, opens the door and gets out my luggage. It’s just a narrow backstreet, lined with cafes.

I get out, bewildered, but am soon reassured when a young man approaches me and introduces himself as Berkay, Bec’s friend. He shows me a doorway, next to a cafe. (Bec is my niece, who has travelled extensively and now lives in another part of Turkey. She recommeded Berkay’s apartment, 212 Istanbul Suites.)

“You enter through the cafe,” he tells me, “but after midnight, you come through here and enter the code: 0003. That is, 3 zeros then 3.”

He directs me up metal steps to the first floor, the lights coming on as we go. Using an electronic card, we go into the apartment. It is spacious, L-shaped, open-plan, timber floor. A lounge, a double bed, a kitchen, with the bathroom leading off from it.

“Sit, please sit,” he motions me towards the lounge. I drop my gear on the coffee table and sit, then remove my gear from the table and put it on the floor as he starts to show me things he has on the table: 3 tourist guide books for Istanbul, a brochure on tours and attractions, some Turkish Delight in a glass bowl with a glass lid that he takes off to offer me. He shows me around the apartment, where everything is, gives me translated instructions for the washing machine ,other general instructions. He tells me the room is not serviced every day unless I request it – just let him know the day before. He says they don’t normally come into the apartment unless we ask for service.

I decide to book tours there and then. I thought I’d do a tour tomorrow, then look around myself. But he suggests I look around the local area, which is modern Istanbul, and do a tour on Saturday. He tells me there are protests planned in Taksim Square for Saturday, so I should be away from this area. He says he will ask the tour company to drop me at his hostel in the old area afterwards until he knows it is safe to go back to the apartment. I decide to do a tour Friday and a Bosphorus Cruise Saturday.

Berkay also shows me a brochure about a whirling dervishes show. I’ve heard about whirling dervishes, a ceremony connected to Rumi the 13th century poet. A story I read some time back which I think was a fictionalised version of Rumi’s life was, if I remember rightly, written by the same author who wrote the Bastard of Istanbul. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Istanbul, along with Bec’s raves about Turkey, was because of descriptions that I read in The Bastard of Istanbul. So I ask to go to the whirling dervishes show. Berkay tells me this is not like belly-dancing, it is a cultural show. He would book it for me for the next evening.

He tells me not to drink the water from the tap. Ooops, this is a problem. I’ve totally run out of water, and I’m already thirsty. I ask him where the nearest supermarket is so I can buy water. He tells me he will show me. He also tells me how to get to the main street, Istiklal St, and how to remember how to get back – there’s a McDonalds on the corner that I need to turn at.

So we walk up the cobblestoned street to the supermarket and he says goodbye. He lives just a couple of streets away himself. I wander into the supermarket. There’s a big bottle of water, so I grab that and put it in the trolley, not even thinking about how heavy it will be to carry. I need some washing powder, but, shit, everything’s written in Turkish. Which ones are washing powder? I take a bit of a guess and pick up a bottle of liquid. What else do I need? I add some sliced cheese, some tomatos and a lettuce to the trolley, none of which I end up eating. I look in all the fridges for milk but can’t find it. It’s around 9:30pm here and the man starts closing over fridges and turning off lights. Finally I ask “Milk?” The shop owner looks puzzled and I’m contemplating mooing but not really in the mood for animal noises. Luckily another customer points to cartons right next to him. Oh, must be long-life milk. I thank him, take some and go pay.

Already I head off in the wrong direction and find myself on Istiklal Street, which is lined with shops and teeming with people. That’s OK, I’ll walk until I find McDonalds, turn left, then 2nd left. After I turn off the main street, there are cafes lining the alley and I am invited in to 1 of them. Someone else offers lewdly to help me as I trudge uphill with the big bottle of water. Reaching the cafe under my apartment, I walk across it and up the stairs. I’d love to look around, but maybe it’d be better to wait till morning.

Instead I pull the bags of dirty clothes from my suitcase and try to work out how to run the washing machine. The instructions Berkay pointed out are for a different model, so I do a lot of random button-pushing until the machine sounds like it’s filling up. I start to look through the guide book but tiredness sets in and I go to bed.

Istanbul Day 2

I wake late. It’s after 9:30am. I drag the washing that I’d done the night before from the machine and drape it all around, then get dressed and go downstairs to the cafe for breakfast. I really feel like I should have a Turkish breakfast (whatever that is) but am a creature of habit and ask for a Hong Kong breakfast – muesli, yoghurt and banana – and a cappuccino. (It seems like cappuccino means the same thing in every country, so at least I know what I’m getting.) It’s exactly what I want, but huge, so I can’t eat it all. I try to get my head around attractions in the local area by browsing the one guidebook that’s in English, but decide it’ll be easier to just head down the main street.

I decide to try to get a Turkish simcard, have a look at Taksim Square, which is nearby, and maybe buy a cooler longsleeved top. Already I’m cooking in my stretchy purple top and I’m not yet sure whether it’s acceptable to wear low cut singlets in a Moslem country. Istiklal St is busy, but not as teeming as last night. A single-carriage red tram, packed with people, with children hanging off the back step, runs slowly up the middle of the street.

Almost immediately I see a shop with interesting T-shirts. I end up browsing the full 5 stories of the shop and leaving with a T-shirt and a longsleeved cotton green shirt. Prices are not expensive. The Turkish lira is worth 50cAU yet clothes prices are in TL what you’d expect in AU.

A couple of shops further on is a TurkCell shop, one of Turkey’s mobile phone providers. I tell them I want a simcard, prepaid and they seem to understand and I ask them to put it in for me, which they do. They keep saying: “In 10 minute, enter code,” and point to the code on the card the simcard has come from. I say I want data too and they say: “data extra”. I say OK.

I pay using my travel visa, and enter the code. They ask me to do it again, and I assume that’s the extra. Then they ask me to do it again. “But I did it already,” I say.

“Didn’t work,” they tell me, so I enter again, and apparently this time it does.

I wander up to Taksim Square. Like most squares, there is a monument in the middle, looks like people in combat. There are also lots of pigeons pecking at the ground, and there seems to be seed sprinkled around. Along one side are flower stalls selling fresh flowers and fake garlands. As soon as I approach, the stall owners stand up and walk towards me, so I back off and take photos. At the far end of the square is a park. Near Istiklal St corner are several kebab stores emitting heat and the smell of cooking meat.

Ten minutes later I enter the code and the carrier shows up on my phone. But I can’t get data, so I return to the shop.

“I can’t get data,” I tell them.

“Data extra. Data extra,” they keep saying. The lady demonstrates that the phone works by calling her mobile.

“But I paid data already,” I keep saying.

Anyway, in the end they say: “60 lira phone only. No data. Data extra.”

So I put an extra 25TL on my card and then I have data. Yay!

I’m really hot by now, so I head back to the apartment to change into my newly-bought cooler clothes. As I mount the stairs I see the door is wide open. What the….? I continue in and there is a young woman in the kitchen. Clearly she is cleaning, so I relax.

I duck into the bathroom and change my clothes, then sit on the lounge and check emails & fb. Meanwhile the cleaner strips my bed and changes the sheets. I’d made the bed myself before I went out because Berkay had said they only service the room if we ask for it. Somehow the communication must have gone awry.

I receive a text from Berkay. He has booked the whirling dervishes show for me for 7pm. I look up the location on google maps. It’s 3 km away, according to googlemaps, 35 minutes walk. When I look up public transport, it comes up with nothing. It’s the other end of town and over the bridge. Well, I figure I can work my way down to that end of town during the day, go to the show, then walk back.

I set off down the main street. It’s getting busier, and somehow the mainstream seems to be opposite to the direction I’m heading. I try to keep right to dodge people. I go into another clothes shop, attracted by a T-shirt that says “Istanbul In Love” on it. The shop is busy, with a huge long queue feeding 8 registers. I emerge with some T-shirts for myself and others, including the “Istanbul In Love” one.

I meander down the main street, diverging into side streets and markets every now and then. At intervals there are carts selling crusty donut-shaped sesameseed-coated bread, and (I think) roasted chestnuts. The aroma of burnt chestnuts is one of the smells I keep coming across. I suspect the sewerage system is not the best, because a faint aroma of sewer is another of the predominant smells. There is also the incessant smell of smoke. Everywhere people smoke cigarettes, but at cafes there are also hookahs that are continually refilled by waiters. Cafe life seems to be a part of the culture, with people just sitting, chilling, drinking tea, and smoking.

There are stray cats everywhere. They slink around, hide under cars and chairs. Further down the street I come to Galata Tower and I go up sidestreets in search of coffee. I find a kitten and its mother cuddling together. At a cafe I ask for cappuccino but they have only Turkish coffee, so I go back to a “Best Coffee” shop opposite the tower and have one there.

A young muslim woman, in black hijab, sits next to me with her husband. She catches my eye and smiles and I smile back.

“Where do you come from?” she asks, as she unwraps her scarf and rewraps it again, which appears to me to be a gesture of friendship.

I tell her, and assume she is local. She asks me if my family is with me and I tell her I’m travelling alone. She asks about children and a husband and I tell her I have 3 grown-up children and am divorced. Her English is very limited, but her body language says, as she gestures towards her husband “I wouldn’t mind getting rid of him.” She indicates that changing husbands after 10 years would suit her. She has 3 children, 2 boys and a girl. The oldest is 11, the youngest only around 2, and she says her mother is minding them, which is good, but she misses the baby.

Communication is fairly difficult but I realise she, too, is on holidays. I think she worked somewhere, that she’d been to University but that she wasn’t using her qualifications. It’s a bit hard to understand.

My coffee is long finished so I get up to leave and we say goodbye and smile goodbye some more times.

Past Galata Tower the street name changes and there is a string of music shops: gleaming brass instruments in one, drums in another, stringed instruments in another. Amongst the modernness there are overflowing bags of rubbish grouped at intervals along the street. There are occasional cars and motor bikes tooting their way through the stream of pedestrians and the streets are cobblestoned and rough.

I am in sight of the Bosphorus (or maybe it’s the adjoining Golden Horn, the strip of water that was once a river) now, the wide waterway, and the Galata Bridge. I sit on a retaining wall to rest my legs and watch the world go by. Parked adjacent to me is a black car with a man slumped backwards against the driver’s door, an arm resting across the steering wheel, like he’s been shot in the stomach and floundered backwards. There are no obvious wounds. I watch him for a while but he doesn’t move. I wonder if he’s dead. The blinkers on his car are flashing.

Eventually he wakes up and drives off.

I look for a way to cross the road, and find an underpass. There are shops in the subway, too. I emerge into what looks like abandoned roadworks, then make my way down to the edge of the water. There are restaurants all along.

The Galata Bridge has 2 levels. Cars go across the top and along the bottom are restaurants. As I walk along the bottom, waiters try to lure me into their restaurants. I see a bucket tied to rope being lowered into the water from above, then hauled up again. There are fisherman above, all along the top of the bridge. (The next day, my Tour Guide tells me some of these fisherman sell their catch to the restaurants under the bridge.)

At the other side of the bridge is an overpass. I’m trying to work my way to the Hodja Pasha Dance Centre, an old bathhouse where the whirling dervish show is on, so that I know where it is for later on. I come across the train station and sit inside in the cool for a while. Another thing I find out later is that this station is the one where the Orient Express used to end. Further up the street and down an alley I locate the Hodja Pasha Centre.

There are hole-in-the-wall “restaurants” lining the narrow alleys, most of them with only 4 tables. I allow one of them to lure me in and order vine-leaf rolls, some yoghurt and a coke, and linger for a long while as I slowly eat them. The owner hovers, asks me several times if I’m all right. Finally I get up to leave and pay and he suddenly remembers I’d asked for a different type of yoghurt. He makes out his wife forgot it, she looks embarrassed, but it’s obvious who forgot.

I still have hours to fill in and I really don’t want to walk back to my apartment, so I decide to look at the nearby “new”mosque, which is a mere 400 years old. I go into the courtyard and watch men washing at the taps. I found out the next day that it is the custom to wash face, hands and feet before they go into the mosque to pray.

I suss out what tourists need to do and pull out the scarf I’d brought and put it on. I’m already covered from shoulder to knees, so that’s good. I take my shoes off and put them into a plastic bag supplied at the door, to carry with me. Inside there’s a cordoned off area, ostensibly for prayer, but as well as people praying there are children running wild on the large carpeted space. Behind the cordon, tourists sit on the floor, while others walk around taking photos. There are pretty tiled patterns all over the inside of the roof domes. I’d love to get down in the prayer attitude myself, to bend my knees and stretch my back after all the walking. But I know that, with my hips, to get up off the floor I’d practically have to do downward dog, which is not a pretty sight, so I resist the urge.

The spice markets are just next door, so I wander in there next. It’s crazy crowded. There are stalls selling spices, nuts, grain, fruit, jewellery, knickknacks and a heap of other stuff. I try to buy a small bag of cherries but the guy will only sell me 500g so I don’t buy. Instead I buy some pistacchios.

Back at the Dance Centre people are already filing in. I follow, and explain at the desk that I’ve booked, showing them Berkay’s text with the booking reference. Upstairs where they give me my ticket, they offer a free drink of juice, water or tea. The theatre is round, made of stones, and not very large. By the time the show starts, just about all the seats are taken.

We are told that it’s not appropriate to applaud or take photographs during the ceremony.

It starts with traditional music that I don’t really know how to describe. It is eery, and if it followed conventions of western music it would definitely be in a minor key, with a sadness about it. At times it developes a beat that you almost felt like tapping to. And while the singing is not like ours, you can tell that the men have beautiful voices.

Then the whirlers come in, 5 of them I think, mostly young men, one a little older. They come in solemnly, take off their black cloaks to reveal white robes and do lots of bowing. Then, essentially, they spin around to the music, flaring out their robes, for pretty much an hour. Don’t know how they manage to do it without getting hopelessly dizzy. The spiritual significance, as I understand it, is to free themselves of worldly longings.

It started out being cool in the theatre, but by the end it is hot and stuffy. Next to me, a young boy about 10 years old sits patiently and finally falls asleep against his mother, who cradles him lovingly.

We all file out silently, with no applause for the musicians or whirlers.

I hadn’t been looking forward to the long walk back but as it turned out I love being out at that time of night, just as it’s beginning to get dark. There are lights on the boats and the bridge and the mosques are lit up. Magical.

Down by the waterfront I pass a stall frying fish. It smells good and I’m hungry, so I buy a “fish kebob”, which is really just fish, onions and lettuce on a bread roll, but it’s good. It’s only later that I see men cooking fish on a rocking boat and remember it’s those that Bec talked about in her “must see/do” list for Istanbul.

The crowds are out in droves. It seems night time is when Istanbul really comes alive. At intervals all along my walk back to Taksim there are street buskers, crowds gathered around them. I stop and watch for a while at each one. Don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but they seem to set up with graffitied walls as their backdrops.

I’ve reached McDonalds and turn up the alley. As usual the restaurant owners try to entice me in. I’m trying to shake them off when someone touches me on the arm from behind. I whirl around, to see Berkay.

“Sorry, sorry,” he says. “I come to the apartment to find you but you were not there.” He came to tell me he’s arranged the tour for me tomorrow and says he’ll pick me up at 9am.

By the time I get back to the apartment I’m exhausted.

Istanbul  Day 3

I’m expecting a pick up for my tour at 9am, so I go downstairs for breakfast around 8, only to find the cafe all closed up. Oh well, I wander down the street to find something else. I really want a coffee, not Turkish coffee, and I’m not sure if the cafes down my alley serve our type of coffee, so when I spot a Starbucks I go in. I order a coffee and chocolate muffin for breakfast and sit down and do some writing. When the coffee doesn’t come to me after 10-15 minutes I look up at the people serving and they are standing around chatting. So I walk back to the counter and they push a coffee towards me. Guess they don’t call you, or bring it to you here.

“Muffin?” I ask.

They quickly put one in a paper bag and push it towards me, then the guy takes back the coffee, tips it out and makes me a new one.

“Cold,” he may have said, or indicated.

I don’t have much time to have it now, and eat the muffin hastily. My phone rings, and it’s Berkay.

“Are you at the apartment?” he asks.

“No, I’m at Starbucks just down the road. Shall I come back?”

“No, I’ll come to you. Which Starbucks are you at?”

“Down on the Main Street, on the opposite side,” I say, unsure if that’s directions enough.

He finds me OK, and I pack up my coffee and walk with him a couple of blocks, where we meet a car. I think it’s the same driver who brought me from the airport. He takes me across town to the Old District, parks the car then walks with me to a large busy square. Suddenly he spots a man, who is holding up his arm and waving, and heads across to him.

The waving man introduces himself. I think his name was Morat, because I thought of Borat (not that I ever watched the movie, only heard about it.) Morat is maybe 40, and has long hair tied into a ponytail. He introduces me to a young German couple, who are also doing the morning tour.

Morat talks first about the Roman Hippodrome, a huge stadium that once stood on this site. I don’t see any ruins of it, but I think he said there is part of the wall remaining. Apparently it was there in Roman times, was used for chariot races and the like, and was larger than any stadium in existence today, in terms of the number of people it held. It was gradually dismantled and the stone used for other buildings. He shows us 3 different victory monuments, one of which is a single piece of pink marble, which was transported from Egypt or something. I can’t remember the figures, but it was a massive weight, and it is still a mystery how they managed to move it.

Morat takes us to the Blue Mosque. He shows us where the men wash and tells us some of the customs. Good muslims pray 5 times every day, and Friday is a special day for prayer. He says that, while most of Turkey is muslim, most of them, like him, don’t put in that much effort. To me, it sounds similar to Christians, or in particular Catholics, The Blue Mosque is closed for prayer until 2pm, so we can’t go in. He will bring me back this afternoon, but the German couple will miss out and can only admire it from the outside.

Next we go to Hagia Sofia, which is only a short walk away. It was originally built as a Greek Orthodox Basilica in the 6th century and was later converted to a mosque, and more recently, to a museum. It’s architecture is Byzantine and it has massive domes.

Because we’ve booked a tour we don’t need to join the long queue for tickets and Morat takes us in almost immediately. Inside is huge and amazing. Some of the paint on the ceilings is looking shabby, and there is a large scaffold set up in one area where restoration work is taking place.

A healthy-looking tabby cat wanders around. This cat has its own website, Morat tells us. Apparently when Barack Obama visited, he patted the cat and it instantly became famous, so someone decided to make a website for it. Morat reaches down to pat the cat, and I do too. It comes eagerly to me and I give it a rub.

“Oh, you know how to touch cats,” Morat says. “Do you have one?”

“No, two.”

We follow Morat as he points out features and answers questions. When the church was converted to a mosque, the pictures were covered over, as Moslems do not allow images in their mosques, only patterned tiles. These have since been uncovered, so it is again recognisable as a Christian cathedral. I’m fascinated by the gallery around the top and Morat tells us we can have some free time and go up there.

This is the best part for me. Instead of steps, there is a wide ramp sloping up to the gallery, through an enchanting tunnel that turns every so often at a landing.

Later, we meet at the cafe and I buy myself a freshly-squeezed pink grapefruit juice. Yum! I hear Morat telling the Germans about how to catch public transport. Seems like you can either use tokens or get a card that you can put money on. You use one token each time you get on or change, but if you use the card it costs less than the cost of a token.

The German couple have only booked the morning tour. I see the guy slip some money into Morat’s hand as he shakes it and Morat thanks him heartily.

Lunch is included as part of the tour, but it is still early, so Morat suggests we go to Topkapi Palace first. It, too is in the area, and now it’s only him and me. I’m afraid I can’t remember a lot of the history he tells me about the palace, only that the sultans had many wives (hundreds), who came from all over the world. Most of them were happy to come because they were looked after and given a good education. If they were not happy, it was up to the sultan to decide whether they could leave or not. They lived entirely with women and a few eunuchs who looked after them. (Sounds like hell to me!)

I go to look in the chamber of justice. The sultan had a window from his living area that looked into the chamber, where he could watch proceedings. If a person was found guilty, they were beheaded, and Morat pointed to the place of execution. I ask how they were beheaded. With a sword, he tells me, then, possibly thinking I have morbid interests, directs me into another room where I can view weapons.

The weapons are pretty scary. I can just imagine people being bludgeoned or hacked by them. I go to take a photo, but as I raise my camera, a guard is immediately at my side telling me not to. Ooops.

There are about 4 more rooms to view different museum pieces. There are jewel-encrusted all sorts of things, and I wander through, every now and then taking a break to sit for a while on the seats thankfully placed in the middle of the rooms. There is a humungous diamond, surrounded by other large diamonds. It is about the size of one of the large crystals that Vince and Carmel put on the end of sun catchers. A couple of pieces that catch my eye: magnificent jewel-covered candlesticks, and a gold, jewel-covered ceremonial cradle. It wasn’t a practical cradle. It was too narrow, and the baby would easily roll out, but it was very pretty.

I also wander through the religious relics section, seeing ancient books, and a piece of Mohammed’s beard.

By now I’ve done enough walking and collapse next to Morat in the courtyard. He tells me that the agency has told him that the Bosphorus Cruise is no longer possible tomorrow, that the Government has banned boats due to the planned protests. So they propose that I do it today as well as the other parts of the tour, and they’ll give it to me for half price. Now this is a problem, because the idea of doing the boat cruise on Saturday was to be away from Taksim Square while the demonstrations were on. So I call Berkay and ask him to speak to the guide. Berkay confirms what Morat said, but says that instead he’ll bring me over to the Sultanamhet district tomorrow to the hostel he works at. So I agree to do the cruise.

There are 2 people who are also staying at my apartment who want to do the Bosphorus Cruise this afternoon, so we need to meet with them. I’ve already told Morat I need to use the loo and I don’t want to do too much more walking, so he says we’ll use the loo at the museum and we’ll catch the tram to meet them. As we walk through an opening in a stone wall, I’m startled to see a guard either side each holding a big machine gun.

We are almost at the tram and I remind him about the loo – he’d forgotten. So he ducks into a restaurant and talks to them, and directs me downstairs. Talking of loos, don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but the custom here (and in parts of Asia that I’ve visited) is not to put toilet paper in the toilet, but instead to put it into a bin next to the toilet. I find this unpleasant and a very difficult thing to do. I keep forgetting and sometimes am able to retrieve the paper before I flush, if it goes on a ledge and not directly into the water, but sometimes I just have to flush and hope for the best. Too much information? I leave the restaurant feeling conspicuous but more comfortable.

Morat swipes his card and we hop on a tram, go a couple of stops, and get off next to the Galata bridge. Here he buys me and himself a “fish kebab” from the boats cooking them by the side of the dock and we squat on little stools to eat them. This one is not as good as the one I had the other night. It is chock-a-block with little bones that I have to keep picking out of my mouth. In the end I give up and ditch half of it. Morat also buys some honey-soaked “morsels”, a pastry a bit like donut dough. We wolf these down quickly as he gets word that the other people have arrived.

The other people are a couple: Caroline from England and Eamon from Ireland. Caroline is frecklefaced and lively. Eamon has a smoothly shaved head and face, and they are both, I’d be guessing, mid-forties, though Caroline could be older and Eamonn could be younger. They both work in Qatar, for a telco. Oosomethingoo. It’s one that keeps swallowing up other companies and wants to become an international name. Caroline is working on their intranet – sounds pretty much like she’s a technical writer.

Caroline says Qatar is a terrible place to live, but the money’s good. The politics are awful and they are very racist. People who come from a sheik’s family are privileged and saving face is the most important thing for them. Status, apart from belonging to the sheik’s family, is all about having expensive things and people are always showing off. Caroline relishes being in Istanbul, where she can wear a top that reveals her shoulders, which she is unable to do in Qatar. The rules are really strict in Qatar, and if people who are not married are known to be living together, and someone dobs them in, they can be deported. She has been there, I think, around 4 years and does not intend to stay. Eamon has lined up a job in Oman in the Middle East starting in October, which is a lovely place, and she aims to follow him there next year. They’ve been together for 2 years.

They didn’t tell me all this immediately – it’s stuff I found out over the next day or so. What they do tell me is that the trip to Istanbul for the weekend is a surprise present for Eamonn’s birthday, as he has always wanted to go to Istanbul and is obsessed with its history. He didn’t know where he was going until he got to the airport. Caroline also tells me he had a special razor shave this morning, a specialty in Turkey. I say he looks rather smooth, but he says it doesn’t shave as close as his electric shaver.

Morat buys tickets for us for the Bosphorus Cruise, which leaves from the wharf we’re on by the side of the Galata Bridge. It’s 15 minutes before the boat leaves but we board anyway and grab seats on the top deck. Two Japanese girls are sitting near us, taking photos of each other. Morat asks if they speak English and they say a little. He says that if they want to know about anything they see, just ask him, he is a tour guide.

“Free of charge,” he says.

“Oh, free of charge,” they echo, their eyes lighting up.

“Except maybe for a small tip at the end,” Morat adds.

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak English,” one of them says.

When the boat leaves it ducks under the bridge. It looks to me like it’s going to hit, and I brace myself, but it slides just under.

“Is this tidal?” Caroline asks Morat. “We just barely fit under the bridge.”

“No,” he shakes his head. “And it’s about this much,” he shows with his hands about a metre apart.

We motor past palaces, palatial homes, lovely homes, mosques, stacks of units and out-of-place hotels, one of which looks like it has a barn stuck on top of a square highrise building.

The weather changes. A cool breeze whips up and suddenly the stifling heat has turned to cold. Luckily I have that green cotton top with me, which I’d brought along in case I wanted to go into a mosque. Caroline doesn’t have anything else so she cuddles up to Eamonn and I see him running his hands over her and squeezing her bum.

I decide to go to the loo on the boat while there’s one handy, though I’m not desperate. First I go to the counter downstairs and buy a bottle of water. I head towards the back of the boat where Morat had indicated the toilets were, and there is Morat, so I ask him. There’s only one working, he says. The symbol on the ladies toilet is scribbled out and so I wait for the men’s. When a man emerges, I start to walk in but a strong stench of urine hits me. The floor is very wet, and it’s one of those toilets without a basin, just 2 spots marked with feet and a hole in between. I baulk and back out.

The next sight on the tour is the spice market, where I went the day before. But I’m happy to browse again and we agree to meet in half an hour. I discover a section selling seed and live birds. Amongst the tittering I recognise the cheerful chirp of a peach-faced lovebird and find a cage of them amongst all the cages of budgies.

Walking through other parts of the market people are continually calling to me in English, trying to get my attention. I get fed up with this and go outside. A storm has arrived and it’s raining, so I shelter under a tree until it’s time to meet again.

Morat calls a car to take us to a (supposed) carpet manufacturer. In the car, I find that Caroline and Eamonn are planning on going to a Turkish Bath this afternoon, so they will stay in the area and not come back to the apartment at the same time as me. I’ve read about Turkish Baths and I think they are brave to be going, getting totally naked and scrubbed vigorously all over by a stranger. Caroline has been to one before – she travelled the world a lot when she was younger, often on her own.

Arriving at the carpet shop we are offered Turkish tea, which I enjoy. We sit while we are shown carpets and told the difference between handmade and machine made. Handmade show a different shade depending on the angle you view them. They last much longer, but they can take up to 18 months to make. Each carpet has to be completed by the same girl, so that the tension doesn’t vary and put the carpet out of shape. We manage to escape without too much of a hard sell, each of us careful not to encourage them by asking the price.

When we get out, Eamonn asks Morat what the carpets typically cost. A goodsize handmade one (wool, not silk) can cost US$4000.

The next place Morat takes us is the agency shop, where, just because we’ve walked in the door, everything is magically half price. But half-price is still expensive and Caroline walks out in disgust. Later Eamonn tells me she went back in and negotiated on Turkish Delight and got a much better price.

“So you’re finished now,” Morat says to me outside the shop. He calls me a car, I do the sneaky handshake that I saw the German guy do, with a tip slipped in, and the car takes me back to my apartment.

I’m buggered, but I’m still drawn out to the busy street. I browse looking for somewhere to eat and come to a shop that has yummy food displayed that you select cafetaria-style. I choose some meat, beans and tomato, a rice-stuffed tomato and something else. I enjoy it all.

There was a sweets shop that I’d passed, so I go to that next and select a decadent cake, which they package up for me in a plastic container and their own branded paper carry bag. All right, so it is a bit expensive. I take it back to my apartment and let it sit for a while while my other food goes down.

Berkay calls by and asks me about my day. I can’t tell him much, I’m still overwhelmed. He says he’ll pick me up at 9am tomorrow and take me to the Sultanamhet district. There are other people from upstairs that he’ll be taking as well.

I finish the day by eating the decadent cake and go to bed totally stuffed.

Istanbul Day 4

I’m up early enough to go out for breakfast and I look again to see if the cafes in my alley sell cappuccino. As a young waiter approaches me I ask him, and yes! they do. So I sit and order a cappuccino and ask about muesli. No. So I ask about pancakes. No. The waiter suggests ham and cheese on toast so I decide that will do.

I have my iPad with me and sit and type away. At a table diagonal to mine, just one behind, there are some young men clowning and laughing. I ignore them, but then they move a table down, sitting right next to me.

“Excuse me, do you have internet?” they ask.

“No,” I tell them, and turn back to my typing. I notice they are speaking in English, but they have a heavy accent. They are saying something loudly in English, which I don’t catch, then they turn to me and say “It’s true. ”

I wonder why they’re speaking English and end up talking to them. Two of them are Portuguese, doing contracts around the world with Vodaphone. The other is a local, also working for Vodaphone. They say working in Istanbul is good compared to other places they’ve been, like East Timor. They ask where I’ve been and they tell me I missed the best country – Portugal. By the time I have to leave to meet Berkay, they’ve given me the address and website of the hotel their mother works at in Portugal, which I say I’ll visit next time I’m in Europe.

Although I’m back at 10 to 9, Berkay is already there. There are 3 other couples he’s shipping over to the other side of town, and one of them is Caroline and Eamonn. Berkay orders 2 taxis (in Turkish they are taksis) and I catch the one with Caroline & Eamonn.

We pull up next to a hostel/hotel, which has colourful lounges on the footpath under an awning, and music pumping out. Breakfast is being served on the top floor and there’s a rooftop cafe. Caroline invites me to join them there for breakfast. Narrow, metal steps wind up to the 5th floor roof top.From the cafe there are water views out across the houses to the Bosphorus in one direction and the domes of Hagia Sofia in the other.

After a leisurely breakfast we are given directions to the square where the main attractions of the old town are ( the ones I saw yesterday) and I trail Caroline & Eamonn up the hill, then go to find the Grand Bazaar. When I ask directions I’m told to take the tram 2 stops.

I watch a woman put coins into the turnstiles, but they keep dropping back out the bottom. Another woman, already on the tram platform, sees her and explains that she needs to use tokens, not coins. The tokens can be bought from machines across the road, and cost 3 TL each. After eavesdropping, I now go over and purchase the magic tokens. They are little red plastic ones, like play money.

The tram comes a couple of minutes later and I hop on. At the first stop I ask an older man if this is the stop to get off for the Grand Bazaar.

“There are 2 you can use,” he says, “but this is the best one. I’ll show you.”

I follow him down the street. He takes me all the way to the entrance. “This was the first commercial building like this in the world,” he says proudly, as he leaves me.

Now the Grand Bazaar is huge. There are thousands of shops in it. I look at some jewellery, hoping to get some silver and turquoise earrings. But the prices are like $80AU so I decide against it. I have plenty of beautiful earrings. But when I say no, the shopkeepers keep lowering the price and insisting. Every time I pause to look at something, the shopkeepers try to drag me into their shops.

I’m careful to keep track of where I’ve walked. I don’t want to get lost in here. I do a couple of aisles then decide I’ve had enough. On the way out a boy selling perfumes walks alongside me, hounding me, despite me saying several times I don’t want any.

I’m already tired and hot and indulge in another one of those hand squeezed ruby grapefruit juices.

I decide to check if I can see inside the blue mosque today and go back on the tram to the main tourist area. On my way in, a handsome man asks me where I come from and offers to help me.

“No, I’m fine, I don’t need any help,” I tell him.

“Free of charge,” he insists.

“No, thank you, I’m fine,” I tell him.

I sit in the courtyard for a while and watch people going in and out. The same man comes to me.

“You need to go in quick,” he says. “Mosque closes soon for prayers then you won’t be able to go in for 2 hours.”

As I start to rise he tries to help me up, but I pull away with bad grace, and he looks offended. “I don’t need any help, ” I tell him.

“Would you like to look at carpets when you are finished?” he asks me.

“No!” I tell him, and now he is really offended.

At the entrance to the mosque I am redirected around to the side.

“Tourists to the left,” they say, as if it is a dirty word.

I join the queue at the side, take off my shoes, put on my scarf and slip through the narrow archway.

“Hurry, hurry, mosque closing soon,” someone keeps repeating.

Like the other mosque, inside there is a cordoned off area where there are worshippers praying, and children running wild. I look around with wonder at the beautiful patterned domed ceilings, until we are hustled out again.

“Time for prayers, please leave.”

As I leave the courtyard another man walks beside me. “Are you Australian?” he asks. “Would you like to see some carpets.”

“No thank you,” I say. I really don’t want to be rude. I was mortified in Rome when some of my fellow travellers on the bus were rude to the hawkers, telling them to “Get lost!” or “Rack off!” I figure at least they are trying to make a living, not just begging.

Still the man follows me. “Can I give you my business card?”

“No! ”

My legs are tired again and I decide to head back to the hostel. Easier said than done. I have a map, a GPS, I know it’s downhill towards the water, and I know we followed the ancient wall up. Still, I’m having trouble orienting myself, and head first in one direction then the other, to see if my gps says I’m getting closer. Either way I seem to get further away, and I wonder if my gps is responding correctly.

I ask someone and they give me directions, but it just doesn’t feel right. There are some workers planting annuals in the gardens lining the street, and when I show them the map they have difficulty understanding it and identifying where we are.

A man sees me studying a map and offers to help. He asks me where I’m from, tells me he lived in Australia for 7 years at Lane Cove. Do I know Linley Point? He used to run a pub at the Rocks, but his father doesn’t like him selling alcohol. He has an Australian wife, they are just here visiting family, still living in Australia. I’ve got it all wrong where I am. I need to head in a different direction, and he’s going that way, he’ll show me. He takes me back uphill. Just then his phone rings.

“It’s my wife,” he says, then talks into the phone. “Hullo, I’m just bringing an Australian lady up to meet you.”

I can hear the voice on the phone and it’s speaking English.

“You must come in and have a tea with us,” he says.

He goes to turn into a jewellery shop, but I pull away. “Come and meet my wife,” he says, and indeed, there is a blonde woman standing in the shop, who sees me and starts to come out from behind the counter.

“Come in and have tea with us,” she calls with an English accent. “Oh come on! Did he tell you what I do? I design jewellery.”

“Just tell me how to get to the hostel”, I say.

“But why?” he asks. “Come in and have tea with us.”

“I’m really tired,” I say, and it’s the truth. I also don’t want to be harangued to buy jewellery.

“You take the next right and follow that,” he says, and I hot foot it away.

I’m sure you don’t turn right, and instead follow an alley in what feels like the right direction. I find a group with a tour guide and ask the guide. “I don’t know that hostel, but follow this wall down and that’ll put you in the vicinity,” he says.

Finally the hostel is in sight. I stumble in and collapse onto a lounge.

I order a coke and a salad and tap away at my iPad. On one side of me a young fellow drinks beer after beer and sucks on a hookah. On the other side an older man and a younger African man sit and smoke. The younger African tries to make conversation, but I don’t encourage him.

I hear a “hello again,” and Carolyn and Eamonn flop onto the lounges beside me.

I’m pleased to see them and tell them how I was fooled by the jewellery seller. They are exhausted too, and ran out of time again to have their Turkish Bath. They need to leave for the airport in 45 mins so I have their company until then.

When they leave, the African guy tries to talk to me again. I get the feeling he is trying to crack onto me and feel uncomfortable. I can’t really understand what he is saying except that he says the Hagia Sofia is crap and makes finger-down-the-throat motions. I tell him I think it’s great. Finally, I’m blunt and say “Sorry, I just want to write.”

He finally gets the message and stops talking to me. A little later, he and his mate get up and leave and I breathe a sigh of relief.

After a while I try to make conversation with a French guy who’s sitting on his own. He’s on holidays for a week, does something to do with music, and is on his own because friends couldn’t get time off work at the same time as him.

At a cafe across the road, a man does a trick, stacking 3 full beer glasses, with coasters in between, on top of his head and wiggling his body around. We cheer him on. Then the French guy goes off walking too. I notice the African guy is back again, but this time I avoid eye contact and it seems he is doing the same, thank God.

I go looking for Berkay to ask for news and am told he’s asleep. I feel like I need to move around. I’ve been sitting there for ages. Carolyn had said there was a nice restaurant up the road, so I go for a walk. The problem is, there’re lots of nice restaurants up the road, and lots of nice men trying to entice me into them. I’m not game to stop and look at their menu boards, so I return to the hostel and order dinner and a bourbon and coke there. The dinner, kofta, turned out to be really tasty and was served with rice and salad.

My dinner is finished and I’m chilling, when a group of about 8 burly guys pause at the front. They are welcomed in. The only space where there are enough seats is all around me. A couple of guys sit down but the others hesitate. The guy next to me, a pom, starts talking to me. They are all from the military and are going on an ANZAC memorial tour. The other guys come and sit down, one of them saying ” we ‘re not trying to hem you in”, but that’s exactly what they’ve done. I chat a bit longer with the pommy guy then say “I’ll leave you to your boys night,” and weave my way out.

I go inside where I can sit on a lounge next to the power point and charge my iPad. It’s getting late by now and I’m tired. I can’t get any news off google – I suspect it’s being blocked by the government. I’m talking to Jas via SMS, as she’s doing a shift at the ABC. At first there’s no news then she sends me a cryptic message: eartay asgay. I puzzle over it for a while then the penny drops: tear gas, in pig latin. I’d told her to be careful with the words she used in case the government scanners picked it up.

Later, I see Berkay again and he calls the cab company to see if they’re getting through. They aren’t, so I decide to stay at the hostel for the night. I tell Berkay I’m happy to pay for a room. By now it’s about 10:30 and I’m dropping dead on my feet. My hips and legs are killing me. My muscles have frozen up with all the walking and my left hip aches like hell. I’m given a key and stumble my way to the next building and up 2 floors. My simple room with a bed and a lovely ensuite looks like heaven. I shower, put my dirty undies and t-shirt back on and fall into bed. I toss and turn all night.

Istanbul Day 5

I wake around 5 am, hearing the call to prayer ringing out. My legs are aching, so I get up and do my stretches, which I should have done the night before. That feels a bit better and I go back to bed and doze for a couple of hours. I start to hear movement around the hostel, so I get up and do my stretches all over again.

I check the news and now I can see one from the SMH. It says protesters tried to storm the square, but police stopped them. They say no one was killed and just a couple injured. Another site shows photos of injured protesters lying on the ground in awkward poses, and one of police officers holding up a woman affected by tear gas.

I get dressed and comb my hair – good thing I brought a comb with me. It’s raining outside. Down at reception, the chairs are still all packed up. I ask about breakfast and the same guy who was on reception until late last night is there. He directs me up to the rooftop cafe. Of course.

It’s a typical simple buffet breakfast. I help myself to a bowl of muesli and yoghurt and a coffee, clumsily dropping a big dollop of yoghurt onto my shoe and the floor. I ask the girl working there for some tissues and she hands me some but tells me she’ll clean it up. “No,” I tell her. “I made the mess, I’ll clean it up.”

There are people from all over the world there having breakfast together, mostly young, but some older people too. I don’t feel out of place.

Back down at reception I ask if Berkay is around. “He will be here soon,” the guy tells me. I settle down into a lounge, looking out at the rain wondering what “soon” translates to in Turkish. A man goes up and down the street selling umbrellas – he offers them to me 3 times. But in about 10 minutes Berkay appears, neatly groomed and professional as always.

“What happened last night at Taksim?” I ask him.

“Nothing,” he says. “I talked to the guy in the apartment on the 5th floor and everything was OK. There was not violence. The people try to get to the square but the police stop them.”

“Last night I couldn’t get any news about it on the internet,” I say. “Is that because the government blocked it?”

“I don’t know. Probably,” he replies. “Are you ready to go?”

He calls a cab and we set off in the rain.

“It’s unusual to be raining,” Berkay says. “This would be better if it was raining last night – stop the protesters.”

“What’s your opinion on it?” I ask him.

“We don’t have a good Prime Minister,” he says. “Last year I supported the protesters. But now it is too political. They take it too far and I don’t support it anymore.”

(Actually, Caroline had told me that Berkay said one of his customers insisted on going back to the apartment during the riots last year, so Berkay went with him. The guy was a New Zealander and off his face drunk. He started doing the Haka on the street and police fired tear gas at him and Berkay. So Berkay was determined to stay away this time – he’d had enough of tear gas.)

“But didn’t the Prime Minister get voted back in?” I ask. “If he’s bad, why do people vote him in?”

“Actually the country is 50/50 divided. Many people love him because he goes out into the country and buys votes by giving them things. So half the people want to keep him, half don’t.”

I ask about his work. He owns the apartments where I’m staying at Taksim, and works at the hostel. He also has another business importing cocoa, for which he travels sometimes. I’m guessing he’s about Bec’s age, and he’s a good looking guy.

“Do you have a family? Are you married?” I’m curious.

“No, no wife. Not enough time, concentrating on the business.”

He’d be such a good catch. He has a lovely gentle way about him, and his business arrangements seem to work like clockwork.

Back at the apartment, he goes upstairs to see the other people. He tells me he has called the cleaner, and she will be here soon, as he has someone else going into the apartment. Oh, damn, guess that means I need to get out soon. It’s close to 10 am. He also tells me they’ll pick me up at 1pm. We shake hands and I thank him for looking after me so well.

I hastily pack up my stuff, then look at myself in the mirror and decide I need another shower and my hair needs a wash. So I risk it and duck in. The cleaner is still not there when I get out. I empty my loose change into the tips jar and put my bags near the door. Then I go out looking for a coffee.

At the same cafe as yesterday, the young waiter greets me with a smile and I sit down and order a cappuccino and type away on my iPad again. I feel a bit peckish and ask the older man, probably the waiter’s father, if they have baklava.

He shakes his head. Then says “Baklava? Baklava?”

I repeat it after him and now he nods.

I’m amused to see him dispense his son off down the street with money in his hand. Sure enough, he appears 5 minutes later with a package, and soon 4 pieces of baklava are brought out on a plate. I hope I have enough Turkish Lira left to pay the bill.

Yep, I have just 5 to spare after I’ve paid (which is worth about $2:50.)

A car is pulled up outside the apartment and the driver is just about to make a call.

“Airport?” he asks me.

I rush upstairs for a pee and grab my luggage. Now the cleaning lady appears. I’m having trouble managing my suitcase and the cleaning lady bends down and lifts the other end and we take it slowly down the stairs and I pass it to the driver. Berkay suddenly appears from upstairs and we say goodbye and thanks again and I get into the car and head for the airport. The queues at the airport are interminable – to check in and to go through passport control, but I’ve allowed plenty of time.

I’m still feeing exhausted from the day before and feeling uncharacteristically homesick. I just want to get back with my family and with Col and where everything is familiar again. It’s been the most incredible experience, one I wouldn’t have missed for anything, but I do love my home and my work and my family and friends.

I will definitely want to go again, but next time I think I’d travel with someone. It’s too hard on your own, especially being female and not as agile as I used to be. But boy! what an experience!

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Return to London

Return to London

There are a few people leaving the tour in Amsterdam, not returning with us to London. Steve is one of them and we say our goodbyes the night before, and I don’t see him in the morning. Oh well, I see he has at least accepted my Facebook friend request and we can keep in touch.

The weather today matches my mood. It had rained during the night and it’s cloudy, gloomy and drizzly. Halfway through the morning we stop for a toilet break, but I’ve barely left the bus when everyone starts heading back as the toilets at the servo aren’t functioning. We pull up again a little further down the road and have a coffee & pee. I’m not really watching the time, and we’re the last back to the bus, Ashley making “run! run!” signs at us as we approach. He’s worried we’ll miss our ferry across the channel.

But we make it. There are no other buses in front of us when we arrive and we all file into the British immigration office, with our passports and our completed arrival forms, to have them stamped. We drive onto the ferry, leave the bus and climb the stairs to the upper deck.

There are schoolchildren out the back on the open deck where I go to take photos, and schoolchildren in one of the lounges.

I buy a sandwich and find a quiet spot away from the noise and anyone else on our tour, stretching my legs out across a window ledge and working on my journal. Some teenagers come to sit by me for a while and I make room for them – they aren’t very noisy – and they go away after a while.

Merv sees me and asks me to come join them, but I tell him I need a break from the group. Later he comes and sits with me, holding a handful of cash. I’ve often sat with Merv and Ros but hadn’t asked about Merv’s work before. He’s retired now, but used to be a lawyer for an insurance company – Alliance, if I remember correctly, or, at least it was one of the big, well-known ones. With my usual (lack of) tact, I let him know I’m not too fond of insurance companies.

“Oh, don’t worry, I didn’t like it either. I wanted to get out of it, even resigned several times. But they’d talk me back into staying, and the years went by, and I ended up staying. Now I’m retired, it’s wonderful.”

Ros wanders past, her usual grin on her face.

“Where are you going?” Merv asks.

“I’m just going to have a look in the gift shop,” she says.

“Ohhhh! Blimey!” Merv expostulates.

“Just looking,” she sings as she keeps going.

Merv looks at the wad of cash he’s holding.

“Oh, you’ve got the money,” I say.

“No, she has a card,” he says as he tucks the cash into his pocket.

That reminds me and I go to get some British Pounds myself, but my card is declined. Maybe I didn’t push the card in right, or maybe it’s because my folders in my bank account are in the wrong order – to pick Euros first – but I decide not to try again, since they said it would cost me 3 pounds to get 50 pounds out and I was having second thoughts about doing it anyway. Here’s hoping I don’t have any trouble when I get to London.

Back on the bus and travelling in the dreary weather towards London, even Nada is quiet for a while. I’ll need to get off at the first stop, then catch a cab to my hotel. Flight Centre told me that the hotel I booked was the one used by Trafalgar, but that was incorrect, so the bus won’t drop me there. Nada and Mayra are also going to Russell Square, but to a different hotel, so we organise to share a cab.

We pass through Blackwall tunnel, built way back in 1898. It’s very narrow – just 2 lanes and not much space at the side of the bus – and a bit creepy. There’s a strong smell of fumes and I wonder how well it’s ventilated. I’m glad when we emerge.

Closer to London, the buildings get more interesting and Nada jumps up and starts taking photos. She’s hyperactive for sure. I wonder how her mother managed her, but it sounds like her mother was hyperactive too.

We pass an amazing building that looks like it’s built from stainless steel, like a number of tanks welded together offset and stacked on top of each other. Unfortunately my camera is in my bag and I don’t have enough time to get it out. I start to take more interest myself, waking up a bit, and thinking about the few days of holiday still ahead of me.

I hate goodbyes too, and decide I’m just going to wave rather than run round and kiss everyone. I’m surprised that most of the people are getting off at the same stop. I hug Aurora and a couple of others, and Hollywood (Graham) makes a point of coming to say goodbye and give me a kiss, and I jump off. It’s a bit of a rush and a scuffle to get our suitcases from the luggage compartment. I manage to say goodbye to Mossimo and touch his hand, and give Ashley a hug. I kiss Jenny and Deb goodbye – they hadn’t realised I wasn’t staying at the same hotel – and before I know it I’m left standing on the footpath alone with Nada and Mayra. The bus has gone and everyone else has crossed the road to go to their hotel.

At least I get to ride in an iconic London cab. We don’t need to wait long before one comes by. There are seats along the back and open space for suitcases, as well as extra jumpseats that are folded up. We haul our suitcases in as Mayra notices there’s a sign saying they don’t take credit cards.

“Let’s get in first and then worry about it,” Nada says, sensibly.

“I have a little bit,” I say. “It just depends how much it is.”

“Do you take euros?” Mayra asks.

“No,” answers the cabby, who sits behind a screen, talking to us via an intercom.

“That’s unusual, not taking credit card,” Nada says.

“Only about 3 cabs in London accept credit card,” the driver says.

“I have 10 pound,” I say. “How much is it likely to cost?”

“You’ll be lucky if it’s even 10 pound,” he replies.

Nada digs out euros to give to me as their share. Their stop is before mine. After they leave, the cabbie starts to talk to me.

“Are they friends of yours?” he asks.

I explain the situation, and we chat about his trips to Europe.

The hotel looks quite grand at first, but it is tired and slightly shabby grandeur. The French girl who checks me in is lovely, offering me the option of a quiet room at the back of the hotel, or a front room with a better view. I opt for the quiet room and take the lift to the 8th floor. The carpet is water stained and faded. My room is typical of the small hotels we’ve been staying at – small, a single bed, but clean and comfortable.

I sit down and make a list of what I need to do this evening to be ready for tomorrow. I check how to get to Luton by public transport but it looks like rather a lot of changes. I have a brainwave – maybe they have an airport shuttle.

On my way out to look around I ask at the porter’s desk. Yes, there’s an airport shuttle. But no, not to Luton. A cab will cost me a good 40 pound. I could walk to St Pancras station if I didn’t have too much luggage. Or I could get the bus to St Pancras. He gives me directions for walking, and I listen carefully to the first part of them and set out in the drizzle, dodging puddles and wishing I still had the umbrella that I carried around for half of the trip and which then went missing. It’s that time of day when people are finishing work and rushing home. I’m out of place, conspicuous with my meandering walk, stopping to consult my phone or take photos.

Of course I don’t find my way as directed. I stop, set my gps and try again. I come to an impressive elaborate building that is St Pancras Hotel. On the map I can see a Kings Cross St Pancras Station and a London St Pancras station. I check out the Kings Cross St Pancras station and head back towards the hotel where I’m staying.

I pass a shop called King of Felafel and go in there to buy a wrap. When I’m in sight of the hotel I cross the road to see Russell Square, a lovely park with huge trees, luscious lawns, and a small fountain in the middle.

I’ve had enough sightseeing and hunker back in my room. My felafel wrap surprises me with how good it is. The bread has a freshly-toasted crispness and the filling is felafel with hommous and roasted vegetables, way better than the typical wrap we get is Aus.

I go carefully through my luggage, clearing out any brochures and paperwork I no longer need and consolidating souvenirs into my suitcase, before I set my alarm and go to bed.

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Amsterdam Day 2

25 May

Our first stop today is a cheese and clog-making factory in the countryside. We get a rundown of how the cheeses are made, then shuffle through to the clog-making area. A young man carves away at a chunk of wood as he talks, bit by bit fashioning it into a wooden clog. He tells us they are working shoes, for keeping your feet warm, dry and protected. I guess they are the Dutch version of steel-caps. What I find hard to believe is that they are comfortable and when I ask, he quotes figures for how long they’ve been used and how many people still wear them. He lifts his foot to show he’s wearing them, too. He does concede though, that it takes about a week to wear them in.

Of course, next we walk through their shop. He’s impressed me sufficiently to try on a pair of the modern version, with a wooden sole and leather upper. They look nice, feel comfortable, and seem to grip well, so that they don’t slap like thongs. Yes, I can’t believe it, I actually buy some clogs for myself.

Out in the farmyard, there are 3 ginormous rabbits in a hatch. There are a few chooks pecking around and a big rooster, who crows for us.

“That’s a good size cock,” I say to Ros, who tells me I’m disgusting.

Steve, typical male, is fascinated by a tipping trailer he notices in the yard. It is lifted by a hydraulic ram in the centre and can be tipped in any of 4 directions, depending on which ball joint you latch up. Clever.

We go to a little fishing village next, which Ashley says serves great seafood from the stalls along the waterfront. It’s a lovely seaside town, only it’s not really the seaside, it’s a lagoon, kept below sea level by walls further out, and the weather is glorious yet again.

One thing Ashley said about the Dutch is that they are passionate about neatness, and having things “nice”, leaving their curtains open so you can see how lovely their houses look inside. The fishing village was a good example. The houses were pretty and gardens neat. A big dog lounged on a seat outside one cottage, like a holidayer at the seaside. When we called to him, he flopped off his chair and came over to the fence, but gave a warning bark when someone tried to pat him.

Steve doesn’t eat seafood, so we stopped at a cafe and just had a coffee. We had a wander and a quick look at souvenirs, stopping at a statue of an old lady to take a photo of Steve throwing a leg over.

The next stop was a diamond factory.

“Do you want to duck off when they go to the diamond factory?” Steve asks me.

“You bet,” I say. Diamonds don’t impress me. I love things sparkly, but a good crystal sparkles just as well, so why pay thousands for something that is indistinguishable from a crystal?

We wander around the local area, sussing out the shops. There are shops openly selling marijuana seeds and all manner of paraphernalia for enjoying the evil weed. We go back to the diamond factory and reboard the bus. It drops us in front of the station, our meeting place for later.

Some of the people are keen to have some dope. While in Amsterdam, they want to do what the Amsterdamians do. I’ll be a bit vague with names, to protect the non-innocent. I’m not interested in having any. I know I don’t like dope, but I go along for the fun of it, and figure I can look after them if they need looking after. A group of us head for the Sailor’s Quarter and some go into a sex shop and emerge with brown paper bags.

We pass some of the special coffee shops, but Steve reckons they are seedy and not a good place for all of us ladies to go into. Steve has become the protector of the ladies. He’s usually the only guy, surrounded by the single ladies, and, young and old, they all love him. Somebody says someone told them the coffee shop Betty Boop is awesome, so I look it up on google maps and we attempt to walk towards it. Trouble is, I’m not very good at orienting myself, so I’m not certain whether we’re getting closer or further away.

After a bit of wandering, we see Ashley again, and ask him to point us in the right direction. A couple of streets later, Deb is fed up with walking. We decide that any coffee shop will do and head into one.

Steve was right about them being seedy. Inside is dark and smoky and a handful of people sit around the edges of the room, smoking and vegging out. I’m feeling suffocated by the thick smoke, and when we’re directed upstairs I’m relieved that it’s not so thick up there. Linda decides she can’t manage the stairs and says she’ll wait outside. In any case, we’re stopped at the top, and told we can’t go further unless we buy. And they don’t serve food or coffee.

By now I’m starving. We ask about cookies, but the guy says (with a sneer in his voice) that the places that sell cookies don’t open until later because it’s too close to the school. He relents and tells us that the biggest coffee shop in the area is just up the road and they may have them. So Steve dashes off to check it out, a couple of people stay upstairs and have a smoke, while the rest of us browse the nearby shops.

When we’re all together again, we find a normal coffee shop (called a cafe to distinguish it) that actually sells coffee and food, and I finally get to eat – yummy (normal) waffles  – while certain other people nibble on the special muffins that Steve has brought back. The ones who had the smoke are clearly affected, quiet, red-eyed and gone within themselves.

By now the weather has turned to rain. It is sprinkling when we leave the cafe, but when we reach the meeting point it begins to pour. Luckily there is a temporary shelter set up on the wharf that is a few steps down from the footpath so we all huddle down there until the bus arrives.

There’s time for another rest, or snooze, back at the hotel before we go out for the “last supper”, our last meal together. As we pull up in the pouring rain next to a restaurant, we dodge traffic as we step from the bus, then wait on a crowded pavement as around 50 people pour from the restaurant. They from are another Trafalgar tour and tell us the food is excellent.

We file up a narrow set of stairs, someone wondering aloud how we’re going to get back down them when we’re drunk. The we go up an even steeper, narrower set of stairs into a dingy room decorated with old tiles carefully stuck, misaligned, over the walls.

We are given a shot of liqueur to start with and we wait impatiently to down it all together. When no one gives the cue, I decide to give it, and the people at our table toss it down. A couple of minutes later, Ashley proposes a toast, so we drink the toast using wine, which has now found its way into our glasses.

My first course is ham and melon (watermelon the waiters call it, but it’s honeydew melon.) I’m not a huge fan of ham but the others love it. For main course I have grilled salmon with lobster sauce, and it’s delicious. Dessert is crepes and ice cream, also delicious. We’ve barely been served dessert (some are still waiting for it) when Ashley begins hurrying us up – some problem about the bus having to go pick up another group after us, so we need to be out by 10. We grumble a bit about not being able to get written off on our last night together, but cooperate and go carefully down the 2 flights of stairs.

Back at the hotel, Steve says he doesn’t like goodbyes and he’s just going to duck off. He’s leaving the tour in Amsterdam, not returning to London as he’s going to hire a car and visit a friend in Germany. We all disperse to our rooms.

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Rhine Cruise & Amsterdam Cruise

24 May

After leaving Hockenheim, we soon join the Rhine River and drive alongside it. It is pretty country, with grapevines growing on steepsided hills sloping to the wide, fast-flowing river. We stop in a little town and board a large ferry boat, sitting out on the back deck. When the boat turns 180 degrees, Steve and I move to the front deck, so that we can take photos without the glare of the sun.

We pass a statue of the Lorelie, the legendary maiden who lured boats to their demise on the rocks by her beautiful singing. “What a bitch!” Steve mutters, but for some reason I find the story enchanting.

It is peaceful cruising through beautiful scenery, a castle appearing every so often high on a hill. But it seems everyone is in a photo frenzy. As always, Mayra and Nada are continually taking photos of each other, and Aurora is on a mission to have photos of herself in model poses with everyone on the trip. I click off a few photos, too, catching Steve kissing Mayra on her hair as he snuggles up with her against the gorgeous scenery backdrop.

The cruise is almost finished when Steve says we should get a group shot of everyone on the tour, with the shot taken from the top deck looking down. He’s right, it would make a great photo, but by now we’re getting close to our destination, and I certainly don’t have the inclination to round everyone up, so his suggestion goes unheeded.

The bus picks us up further along the river. It’s a long drive to Amsterdam, and we sit back and doze as the bus leaves the hilly country and continues onto the flat plains of the Netherlands.

We have yet another language to learn – Dutch. The first word is easy: Hello. I make an unsuccessful attempt to learn the word for “Thank you”, but since we’re told the Dutch just about all speak English, I give up. All over the bus I hear people clearing their throats as they try to imitate the gutteral sounds. I’m just thankful they don’t spit out what they dredge up.

We drive past canals and stop next to a token windmill. There are not too many around these days. The spinning bit is not in the ideal position for a photo, turned at an angle, so we troop down the road 50 metres so we can position the windmill as the backdrop. Ashley takes a group photo with us straggled along the road. There are red tulips (or are they poppies?) growing wild in the grass beside us.

We arrive at our hotel, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, near the airport. It’s a huge hotel, with several wings radiating from a central lobby. We have  about an hour to relax before going into town for the optional excursion. On the way out to the bus, I see little baby rabbits hopping around the garden.

I’m feeling a little disinterested as we drive into the centre of Amsterdam. It’s yet another glorious day, a Sunday, and people are out in droves, huge masses of them teeming down the streets. But what is really amazing is the number of bicycles. They are everywhere, parked against every rail, wall, canal, building, and flying along cycleways, cutting across footpaths, going crazy.

Our local guide, Leneike, tells us we have to be careful of them. She points out that people don’t have beautiful new bicycles, they have old ones. That way, if they get stolen, they can just steal another one. There is even a 3 level parking station for bicycles, with them crammed in tight against each other.

We board a long open-topped boat for a canal cruise. The canals are lined with 4 or 5 storey buildings, all jammed next to each other. Because Amsterdam is below sea level, the land is not very firm and houses are built on piles driven into mud. Even so, they sink, and we see several buildings higgledy-piggledy leaning against or away from each other. Even more delightful, lining the insides of the canals are houseboats, many and varied, some charming and neat, decorated with flower pots, others charmingly neglected, and old tyres on the waterline filled with sticks and rubbish where waterbirds build their nests. But the thing that really lifts me out of my torpor is the party atmosphere. The boat up ahead is having a party, and they burst into song each time we pass under a bridge, the sound magnified by the echo. On the smaller boats that we pass, people are sipping wine, drinking beer, eating cheeses and having feasts. Hanging over the rails, and sitting on the edges of the canal are more people enjoying the sunshine and many of them wave and cheer. A young guy wearing a funny beanie and lounging in a tinny makes peace signs at us and we make peace signs back. I’m sitting there waving and wishing I was slogging a glass of wine myself.

When we get off the boat, Leneike takes us for a walk through the “Sailor’s Quarters”, the red light district. As you may be aware, prostitution and marijuana are legal here, and they make quite a tourist attraction out of both of these. We pass “coffee shops” that sell dope to smoke and marijuana cookies, the unmistakeable smell emanating from the doorways.

We also pass windows where prostitutes in bikinis strike sexy poses. Leneike tells us that the Dutch have very liberal attitudes. They believe it is a needed profession and that by making it legal and open, they can protect the girls better and prevent rape. The girls are behind a locked door and can choose whether or not to open it for a customer. They also have regular health checks. Their time is sold in 15 minute increments – 50 Euros for 15 minutes. We’re told that the average time that they are with a customer is 6 minutes!

We walk past a church and Leneike shows us a sculpture of an old woman who used to look after the girls. She also shows us a metal sculpture of boobies, with a hand holding one, set into the pavement in front of a church.

The biggest hazard when walking through the area is bicycles. I’m still not used to them coming from the left, and they fly across intersections, regardless of who’s in the way. Aurora nearly gets totalled by one when we’re crossing the road to get back on the bus. The thing I love about Aurora is she doesn’t whinge like some of them. When someone was about to commiserate with her about the crazy riders, she says: “No, it was my fault – I didn’t look.”

Back at the hotel, we have another hour’s break before the included dinner, which is a buffet. I’m a bit confused about where to go for dinner – it’s on the 4th floor – but I see Rafael, and we find a lift and hit button 4. When the door opens, we find we’re in the kitchen, so we go back down again. I ask someone and they direct me to another lift. I look for Rafael to tell him but he has disappeared.

There’s a queue at the buffet, so I wait patiently with Jenny. The food is running out and the waiter directs us to the other side, but it is nearly empty too, and we see he’s started to fill up the side we were originally on. Anyway, I don’t want a big dinner.

I take my tray to sit with Steve, Nada, Mayra, Ros & Merv. I buy myself a glass of wine and buy Steve a beer. They’ve finished eating, but sit and talk. Wish I could remember the conversation. It started off somehow with Merv saying to Ros “Come on fatty, it’s time to go,” and me saying “that’s not a nice thing to say to her” and Ros saying “I don’t want to go, I want to stay and have fun,” and then several other people chipped in until we were all laughing our heads off, tears running from our eyes. This continued, one after another, until we were the last people left in the restaurant, still howling with laughter. I’m sure the waiters thought we were all high as kites. We were, in a way.

While we’re waiting for the lift, Ros says “I want a group hug” and someone else says “let’s wait till we’re in the lift.” So when we all cram in, I spread my arms and call “group hug” and we all huddle together and everyone squeals all the way down until we reach the lobby and the doors open.

We all then head off in different directions to bed.

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Switzerland France Germany in One Day

We make an early start from Giswil, through alpine scenery and more tunnels. Shortly after we get going, Steve does his usual trick for ironing clothes: he removes his jumper. He figures if he wears a jumper for the first part of the day, his body heat will iron out the creases in his shirt. He assures me it works, at least that it looks better than it did when he first put it on, but it doesn’t exactly look freshly pressed.

When we make a pee stop, Ashley explains the system: you pay one franc or euro and go through a turnstile, where you are given a ticket. After you use the loo, you can spend the value of the ticket on something in the shop. At the first stop, I buy some chocolate and use the ticket (plus more money) to pay. At the second stop, Rafael, Aurora’s brother-in-law, stands outside the turnstiles collecting the tickets as we leave. I then see him on the bus eating a wrap he’d bought with the proceeds.

Since we are passing close to the area where the Swiss, French and German borders meet, Ashley offers us a diversion into Colmar, a town in the Alsace region of France. He hasn’t been there before, so he’s not certain about parking and toilets, but we agree to take the risk and go for it. This area has been untouched by wars, unlike most other areas of France.

Arriving in Colmar, we circle the block a few times to locate a spot, then pull up next to a lovely park. We hop out and go walking up a cobblestone alley to a square, where Ashley gives us an orientation. He points out an area called “Little Venice” and the shopping streets, and gives us a meeting time.

Steve and I and a few others hotfoot it towards “Little Venice.” By now we’ve given up trying to round up the other girls for sightseeing. All they seem to want to do is shop. (I hope no one is expecting presents. I don’t seem to have the stomach for shopping.) The houses are gorgeous Tudor style timber and masonry, painted bright colours, all of them with flower boxes in bloom. None of them are perfectly straight, and many seem to lean into the street.

We come to a picturesque canal, lined with restaurants and outdoor tables and chairs. We explore a little further, but it seems there is only one canal, though we maybe didn’t go far enough. We pick out a cafe and sit down next to the canal. A petite energetic young french woman comes to take our order.

“Do you speak English?” we ask.

“I speak just a leetle bit of Eengleesh,” she tells us.

Steve had seen a pizza-looking thing that people at another table were eating and we decided on that before we even saw the menu. We asked about it and she said it was bread with cream, spec, and cheese. Steve has a beer and I order a water.

“Do you want it wiz gas, or wizout gas?” she asks.

“Wiz gas,” I tell her, thinking I’m speaking French, but suddenly realising I’m not.

The food is delicious, the bread very thin and crisp. While we are eating, Aurora, her sister (I still don’t know her name) and Rafael wander by. I press them to have a slice of my “pizza” but only Rafael accepts before they walk on.

Steve points out the large fish in the canal. While I’m looking at the water, suddenly an animal like a very big rat swims past. I point it out to Steve and we rush to take a photo. It is way too big to actually be a rat and seems to have a wider, less pointy face. Later, when we ask Ashley about it, he suggests it could be a marmot.

We check the time and still have 15 minutes, so don’t stress when we have to wait a while for the bill. On the way back to the meeting place, when Steve wants to have a quick look in a souvenir shop, I say I don’t think we have time. He looks at his watch and realises we should be at the meeting place already. They are all there waiting for us, when we arrive. I say we’re late because Steve led me astray.

We return to the bus, via a walk-through fountain. Rafael is now wearing a peaked Swiss hat. He strides straight through the fountain, emerging dry on the other side.

We travel some more, out of France and into Germany. I’ve tried to learn some German while we were in Austria and Switzerland, but I’m a lost case. About all I can manage is guten morgen and danke schon. I just can’t get the accent and nothing I pronounce sounds right. It’s lovely to be back in France, where I feel more confident with the language, albeit clumsy.

Our next stop is Heidelberg, a student town, with, as usual, a castle perched above it. By now we all have sensory overload. The girls want to browse the shops again, so Steve and I go for a halfhearted wander. One interesting thing we see is a church that has stalls all around it against the outside walls. The Church, originally a Catholic Church, changed hands a few times over the centuries between Catholic and Protestant, at one stage even belonging to both of them, with a wall down the centre. We wander back via the river, looking across at expensive houses. We find when we return to the meeting place that most of the group have simply taken up residence at the pub rather than going sightseeing.

We continue to our hotel in Hockenheim. Tonight our dinner is supplied and it’s at a local pub a couple of minutes’ walk away. Ashley advises us that he’s asked for water for the tables but they told him we have to book that 2 weeks in advance. Nonetheless, it arrives at the tables 10 minutes later. We are also told we need to order drinks before the food comes.

Looking around, it really is a lovely decor. There are 3 large copper kettles (or tanks) at one end, and 4 large stainless steel ones at the other, in which they brew their own beer. Myra tells us there’s a cat and a dog in the restaurant, so I go in search of the cat, which is sitting on a cushion by the fireplace. It’s a grey striped moggie and condescends to let me stroke its head. When I rub its tummy, it gently fights me, but soon becomes rough, and I return to the table.

Ros goes to the kitchen and tells them she’s starving and can we have some bread, but they tell her the dinner won’t be long. She tells them she doesn’t want to know how long dinner will be, she wants bread. When she tells me I must look horrified.

“You think I’m terrible now, don’t you?” she asks.

“Ahm, no, I just think you should probably go through Ashley.”

“Yes, you’re right,” she says. “I feel terrible now.”

Ashley comes to tell us that the main meal is pork schnitzel and those who don’t eat pork will be given turkey. Ros is one of those people.

“Ros, that means you get served last,” I tell her.

A huge grin splits her face as she says “I feel like hitting you.” (I heard someone say they call Ros “the smiling assassin.”)

Entree is a plate of mixed lettuce with french dressing (and nothing else). Ros’s dinner actually arrives first, and looks better than what we were given: a dry schnitzel with a thin slice of lemon, and potato chips. Everyone asks for sauce, and packets of tomato sauce and I drown mine in mayonnaise. Dessert is strawberries and cream – yum!

Almost everyone gets up together and walks out, leaving me, Aurora, Ros and Merv to talk and joke a little longer.

As we stroll back to the hotel, we pass several well-dressed people, a church, and little boys kicking a ball around. Somehow Rafael has found a Spanish-speaking family with a cute baby in a pram and he chats to them in Spanish, like they are old friends meeting on an afternoon walk.

My room has 2 single beds and overlooks a courtyard, from which I hear voices and revelry. But I pay no attention to them, check emails and facebook and go to bed.

So this day we had breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in France and dinner in Germany.

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Liechtenstein Lucerne & Mt Pilatus

21 May

We spend the night in the tiny alpine Austrian town of Igls. The hotel is a family hotel that has been added onto and added onto over the years. Like all the buildings in town, it is quaint alpine style, painted white with brown timber trimmings. Opposite is a little yellow church surrounded by a small very well-kept graveyard with flowers on most of the graves. Forests surround the town, and above them, all around, rise steep rocky snow-capped mountains. When I go for a wander the air has begun to cool after what has been a hot day, and there’s a light breeze. I come across a tram station, which must have been the end of the line, as it loops around past the platform. I’m told it links Igls and Innsbruck, which is 15 minutes away.

In the morning, leaving Igls we drive through more alpine scenery and many tunnels through mountains, including the Arleburg tunnel, which is 14km long.

We cross into Liechtenstein, a very small country, but larger than the Vatican or Monaco. Liechtenstein is one of those countries that make money out of being a tax haven and apparently the people there are paid very well. This also means that prices are exorbitant.

We stop in the town of Vaduz for a lunch break. Several people take their passport to a little office to have it stamped with Liechtenstein, but it costs them 2 euros. I don’t bother and am glad I didn’t  when I find the stamp says “Liechtenstein Tourist Office”.

There’s a quaint old castle perched above the town, and another castle-looking building on another nearby mountain. It’s a pretty town, once again with impressive buildings. The beggars here seem to be young and not very pathetic or aggressive. In fact, I suspect some of them are actually fellow tourists, trying out their luck sitting on the ground holding a cup.

I have a brief look in a souvenir shop but am feeling hungry. The girls keep browsing the shops but I’m bored with that and wander off checking out cafes. The typical price for a main course is around 35 Swiss francs. I’m thinking of going to the supermarket, for a simple sandwich, but Steve catches up with me and says the girls have sat down at a restaurant. When I mumble about the expense, he says he’s accepted that’s just part of the experience. I go back to join them and find they’ve ordered entrees. That seems like a reasonable compromise, as I have some nuts in the bus that I can munch on later if I’m still hungry, and I need to use a loo anyway.

After lunch, Steve & I dash off to catch a few sights before we leave. It’s hot and I’m wearing jeans, but we scoot around in a hurry looking at buildings and squares. At one stage, when I walk ahead Steve urgently calls me back. A group of young people start rolling balls out from around the fountain and running, with a dog, towards a castle-looking building. I think “what the….?” then realise they are filming and I was about to walk through their set. Wonder what the story was…

There’s yet another church and it’s open, so we decide to go in. When I open the huge timber door and step inside, it’s suddenly cool and quiet. Looking around, I practically lose my breath.The entire inside of the church is painted white, except for just a few ornamental decorations and paintings. It’s clean and uncluttered, unlike the overly ornate churches we’d seen to date, and just magnificent. As I walk down the centre aisle, a woman comes in behind me, and I hear her sigh with awe as well, as the door closes behind her with a gentle thud.

Back on the bus, we leave Liechtenstein and continue into Switzerland. One of the interesting things  Ashley tells us about Switzerland is that, although they managed to stay neutral during the world wars, they are renowned fighters and have a reputation as mercenaries. They have 2 years compulsory military service (I’m assuming for boys only?) and approximately 10% of the population belong to the army. However, they like to be discreet and not show off the military presence. Their military runways tend to look like a strip of asphalt in the middle of a farm, with their fighter jets hidden underground. We drive past one of these runways and Ashley points out a barn-looking building that leads to underground hangars. The Swiss have reportedly also booby-trapped tunnels and bridges for activation should they be invaded.

We pull into Lucerne and the first place we go is the Lion Monument. This monument makes me want to weep whenever I think about it. It was created as a memorial to Swiss fighters who were slaughtered when they were protecting the king somewhere or other. The lion is depicted as dying and the pain on its face is incredibly evocative. To make it even more so, a young busker plays sad music on a violin. I have to throw him a few coins.

The bus transports us just down the road near a river and a jewellery shop, where we all go in to use the loos. Then, with our vox machines on, we follow Ashley as he walks through the shopping district pointing out the best places to buy Swiss watches, Swiss Army knives and chocolate.

We come to a rushing river, the mountains rising behind, with an ancient wooden covered bridge crossing it. We follow Ashley over the bridge and back along the other side, heading upriver. Another covered bridge, called the Chapel Bridge, crosses the river. It dates back 400 years, except that about 20 years ago a drunk threw a cigarette butt over the edge into a boat, it landed in rags, set fire to them and the boat, the boat drifted under the bridge, set fire to the bridge and destroyed 2/3rds of it. It was reconstructed to be original, except that I notice the new part has concrete pylons, not timber ones.

Near the railway, the river flows from a huge lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

We continue on to the village of Giswil, where we are staying the night. The hotel is made up of 3 buildings and is like a ski lodge. We are given keys attached to heavy lugs. I’m in the main building and, because the lift is not obvious, I walk up 2 flights of stairs to find my room. It’s like the tiny bathroom was built into the room later. I throw open the windows and a breeze rushes in. I have a lovely view overlooking chalets and mountains.

I’d elected not to go to the optional experience that night. It was a yodelling and oom-papa experience by the sound of it, and I’m not fond of that type of music. Besides, I need to cut out something to manage the budget.

Steve isn’t going either, so we decide to find a local pub for dinner. After the others leave for the excursion, we wander downstairs. Aurora is there and we invite her to come with us, but she declines. When we dawdle in the foyer she changes her mind and asks if we’ll wait a minute.

It’s become overcast and is beginning to sprinkle with rain as we start out. On the way into town we’d spotted a nice-looking pub but it was a fair walk away. There’s a closer one, however, and it has a sheltered veranda on the side that looks attractive. Inside, we’re directed towards a dining room.

“Can we eat out on the veranda?” I ask.

“You can iv you vish,’ the waitress tells us. “It ees a leetle bit more expensive, but of course you can iv you vish.”

I look at my companions. “We don’t need expensive food, do we?” I ask them.

“No, no, I just want a beer,” Aurora says, so we go into the dining room, which is a little too warm.

Aurora gets her beer all right – a towering 500ml glass. Steve has the same while I have a glass of house white, which is way better than Spanish wine.

Aurora initially wasn’t going to eat. The menu offers half portions, but the full portions aren’t double the price, and Aurora agrees to go halves with me. The waitress is perfectly happy to bring us one serving and an extra plate. She asks where we are from and when Steve and I say we’re from Australia, her eyes light up. Six months ago she’d been to Australia and had toured around extensively.

As I may have mentioned in earlier emails, Aurora is on the trip with her sister and her brother-in-law, Rafael. She tells us they have all lived in California all of their lives but her sister and brother-in-law don’t speak English.

Aurora and her husband run a trucking business, carting materials for making concrete. Her husband didn’t come on the trip because they can’t leave the business that long, and her husband is training their son to take it over. At one stage their business was running 100 trucks, but with the GFC, they cut back to around 60. She gets involved in the admin of the business, plus manages their investment properties. They are secure money-wise for the rest of their lives and she wants to stop chasing money and start enjoying their lives more. She plans to come back to Europe next year with her husband and daughter.

Aurora is 50, but you wouldn’t know it. She is a gorgeous black-haired, sexy latino woman with a positive outlook and bubbly personality. She loosens up as she finishes her beer and orders another one.

Outside, the sky clears as we enjoy our meal. When we decide to leave, the waitress obligingly makes up separate bills, then recalculates to convert them from Swiss francs to euros, since that’s all we had. She is grateful too when we leave her reasonable tips. The rain returns as we leave and we rush back to the hotel in the rain.

22 May

It’s again overcast and drizzling the next morning, and surprisingly cool. I had been used to getting around in singlets, but I definitely need long-sleeves this morning. When we are all settled on the bus, Ashley, looking very pleased with himself, tells us our itinerary for the day has been swapped around. The forecast is for rain in the morning, clearing in the afternoon, so he has rearranged for the trip to Mt Pilatus to be on in the afternoon, and instead we’ll spend time in Lucerne in the morning.

They drop us off by the jewellery shop again. In Liechtenstein I’d seen some Swiss watches that I liked that were not as outrageously-priced as others, and I’d noted the brand (Jowisson or something) to check if they’d be better prices in Switzerland.  I’d seen a shop selling them when we went to the Lion monument, so Steve and I head up there first up to check them out. Steve is contemplating buying a new watch and is checking out Swiss Army knives to buy as presents for friends. The prices of the watches are no better than in Liechtenstein, so I decide I don’t need one. Steve buys a sharpening stone for his knife for 2 euros.

We have a map of the town and decide to check out the old city wall. I make use of Steve’s sense of direction and we go uphill until we find it. The rain has stopped and the day is clearing and it’s hot climbing, so I stop next to a wheelie bin and take off my jacket. When we reach the wall, the street opens into a square and a fountain and I reach for my camera, but it’s not there. Ooops! Steve gallantly runs back down to where I’d removed my jacket and finds my camera, sitting atop the wheelie bin.

I ask Steve to stand up on the ledge of the fountain and take a piss, so he obligingly climbs up and takes a pose, with the water streaming out from the appropriate spot while I take a photo.

We walk over to the wall and find a little wooden door that leads into the wall. Inside we are able to climb up to the ledge that runs around the outside at the top of the wall and provides a stunning vista of the city. Following that along, we come to a tower where we can climb the steps inside to the top. Inside, closed off by clear panels, are the workings of a huge old clock. At the top, the rough hewn stone steps are steep, and I have to haul myself up them. The view is worth it.

By now I’ve had enough walking and am hanging for a coffee. Steve navigates us back down to the  river and we sit and have a quick coffee. We then go to the shopping district and Steve buys a fancy watch, before we rush back to meet at the required time.

We follow Ashley across to the lake and onto a boat, where we are advised that we’ll get the best view from the top deck. The weather has cleared but it is cool enough to button jackets and then we are snug. We motor out across the large lake, surrounded by rugged snow-capped mountains. Swiss music is pumped out of speakers, but people become quiet, awed by the scenery.

The captain announces that we can come down to the cabin for photos of us driving the boat and a few people go down. I’m not too interested, but Steve, sitting on the opposite side of the boat signals to me to go for a photo so we go down and take snaps of each other, wearing a Captain’s hat.

Up the end of the lake, we pass under a bridge and go upriver a short distance before we dock and walk over to the railway station. On the steepest cogwheel railway in the world we see a red carriage that’s tilted at an angle. We pass through turnstiles and board. Some people, afraid of heights, keep their eyes inside as the train rises up the mountain. Sometimes we pass through tunnels, the walls just wide enough to fit the train carriage. The scenery becomes ever more spectacular. I can see a goat track that zigzags up the mountainside. We’ve risen maybe 2/3rds up the mountain, when I hear some cheering. Outside the window are a young couple walking the goat track, cheered on by people on the train.

At the top we emerge into a large tourist building, complete with souvenir shop (of course) cafeteria, and, up the stairs, a viewing deck. From the viewing deck, steps lead up to the 3 separate peaks. Steve tries to round up the 2 Jennys, Linda & Deb for a walk up to one of the peaks, but they have their heads in the souvenir shop and so I say I’ll see them up there.

It’s not too much of a climb and I’m only slightly out of breath when I arrive at the top. The path diverges halfway up, so I select the one that looks the highest. At the top there are bench seats and Japanese tourists. Black birds with yellow beaks swoop around the peaks. I marvel at the view for a while, then sit down to eat the bread roll that I’d made up at breakfast time and wrapped in a napkin.

A few minutes later, Steve arrives, out of breath. The others had all copped out, and he’d run up to the other peak first before coming up this one. He eats his bread roll and we enjoy the view then take photos of each other with stunning backdrops. A bird lands on a rail nearby and strikes poses for photographs.

We meet the group back down near the entrance to the gondola which is to take us down the mountain. There are too many people for the first gondola, so we wait with Marlin, the Filipino Mum & her 3 sons and the 2 sisters and go in the next one. We pass down the mountain, high above tall pine trees, heading towards Lucerne.

Ashley had said something about not getting off at the first stop, so when it docks halfway, we tell them we have to stay on, but the gondola man tells us to get off.

We do as we are told and board a smaller 4 person gondola with the sisters.  It stops halfway and some people get off but we realise that was where we had been instructed to stay on. We meet the group and go back to the hotel. There is another optional excursion planned, leaving in an hour’s time, a horse and cart ride, but thankfully, I hadn’t signed up for that one.

In my room I write a bit of this journal then set my alarm and sleep until dinnertime at 8pm.

After the included dinner, (salad, soup, chicken and mushrooms with fried potatoes, then creme caramel) I leave my friends in the foyer drinking Tia Maria and engrossed in the internet, and go up to my room for shower, writing and bed.


18 May 2014

After leaving Venice and driving towards Austria we begin to encounter mountain scenery. How can I describe it other than to say it is majestic? We have nothing like it in Australia. What we call mountains are like rounded anthills compared to what I’ve been seeing, and especially what we are surrounded by now.

Austria used to be an empire and a major world power, with a lot more territory, until the end of the First World War. They were blamed for their substantial part in starting the war, and when it ended, so did their empire.

When we were planning to go to New Zealand, people told us that at every corner, we’d stop and go “Wow!” It was true, but it is even more true of my whirlwind tour of Europe. Having so much more history than Australia, and with so many different cultures, I find each city awe-inspiring, but then I find the next one equally stunning. Vienna is filled with beautiful buildings and they are so clean and well-kept and elegant. In contrast, Rome was ancient, even the more modern buildings having a patina of dirt and history clinging to them, creating a different kind of charm.

The hotel in Vienna is ideally situated, with a supermarket next door, a chemist next to that, a laundromat a block away, and, (I found out unfortunately too late to use it,) a public swimming pool within walking distance. The rooms are a good size, too.

After driving for the day, we are late arriving, so have just 45 minutes to get ready for dinner and a Viennese concert. We are supposed to dress up for it but I have a limited wardrobe. I end up wearing black pants and a cream top with a shawly sort of cardigan, then dress it up with the lacy aqua scarf I’d bought at Burano. I’m ready with time to spare. For the first time, Steve is last to the bus. He’s lost track of his camera (but found it again the next day).

The concert is held in a very elegant building, with magnificent chandeliers in a restaurant with large round tables. For starters I have a traditional Austrian dish of beef in jelly, which is surprisingly light and delicious. This is followed by a beef consomme soup then grilled salmon for main course. The wine is excellent, too, and I lose count of how many glasses I drink. Only dessert is a little disappointing – some sort of shredded pancake.

After dinner we ascend the marble staircase to the concert hall where an orchestra with impeccable timing plays music by Strauss and Mozart. There are also 2 opera singers and 2 ballerinas (a guy and a girl – do you call guys who do ballet ballerinas?) who do amusing but classy skits. At intermission we go out to the balcony for a glass of champagne, but I’ve already had more than enough to drink and don’t end up finishing it.

The bonus of these night outings is that you get to see the city at night as well. Driving home through the beautiful city was really lovely.

19 May

I’ve booked the trip to Schonbron palace for the next day, so have to get up early. Sylvia, who speaks English very clearly, with a charming German accent, is our local guide who tells us all about the palace.

Schonbron Palace was the winter residence for the Emperor, and was decorated by the only female Emperor Maria Theresa. As well as ruling the Empire, Maria Theresa had 14 children. Her husband amused himself by painting pictures and taking other lovers. Schonbron Palace has over 200 rooms, some of which are now let out for private rental. There are huge rooms with patterned timber parquet floors, huge chandeliers, (which seem to be ubiquitous in this part of the world,) wonderful detailed portraits, and intricate gilt decorations everywhere you look.

Even though I know there are gardens around the palace that I want to see, I get distracted in the gift shop, which of course you have to pass through to get outside, and find some T-shirts imprinted with some of the elegance of the palace.

Outside I see Anne (one of the sisters), and we take photos of each other in the garden. There are long rows of rose bushes covered in flowers, neatly shaped hedges and lawns, fountains and statues. We run out of time to explore properly, rushing back to meet the bus for the tour through the city.

We get off the bus again at the main palace, which is even more extensive. This time we only get to walk around the outside. There are many horses and carts that clip clop around the town, providing rides for tourists, and adding to the old world charm. We have time in the city for lunch and Steve & I sit outside at the Mozart cafe. Sylvia has told us about specialty cakes and coffee with whipped cream, so I was already salivating. Since I wasn’t having a big dinner, I ordered goulash, which Jassie tried when she was in Europe and raved about, and it was excellent. I topped it off with a coffee with chocolate and whipped cream, by then being too full for cake.

We have free time back at the hotel after our sight-seeing tour and I lug a load of washing up to the laundromat. I have elected not to go to the outing that evening, since it is just a dinner with entertainment, so I have plenty of time. I muddle through trying to work out the system for the laundromat, aided by pointing from a woman doing her washing, who spoke no English. It is only later while I wait for my load to finish that I see clear instructions written in English. The good thing is that I am able to put all my washing in one load and for 10 euros it washes and dries it all.

I’ve taken along my iPad to try to catch up on my travel journal, but I haven’t been there long when Nada comes in and sits with me and keeps me company until her load is finished. Later, I buy a large tray of strawberries, some bananas, nuts and have some of them for my dinner, a welcome change from the huge meals I’ve been eating.  I spend a pleasant evening in my hotel room, working on my journal.

Venice by Day

On the bus we go to the same wharf we’d been to the night before, and board the boat. This time, it takes us to the Murano Glass showroom on Giudecca Island, where we are shown a glass-blowing demonstration. A master glass-blower pulls a glowing ball of glass on a long hollow tube from a furnace. He shapes it by blowing through the tube, and pulling it with pincers and by holding it against the surface of a bench. In a couple of minutes, he has shaped a cute little vase with handles. He sets it down while he begins his next creation.

Our host, dressed in a beautiful suit, explains to us that the glass pieces need to be tempered and gradually cooled over several hours, otherwise they shatter. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the vase cracks and falls to pieces. Also, they have only a limited amount of time to shape the glass before it cools too much, so they have to work very quickly.

The craftsman’s next piece is a prancing horse, which he shapes in about 2 minutes. Very impressive!

Unfortunately we are not allowed to take photos in the showroom, due to “copyright.” Pity, I was hoping to get some ideas for Carmel.

The showroom is spectacular. They have the most amazing elegant works of glass art – beautiful fat swirls of liquid paused in time, opulent chandeliers, prancing horses, serene zebras, colourful dishes, exquisite intricate glasses moulded with gold – how I would love to take a set of those home. They also have pretty but very expensive glass beads and glass jewellery, just like what I can get from Carmel at a fraction of the price.

A couple of people from the tour splurge on some pieces, but most of us just admire them, and Steve jokes about ordering a chandelier for his place in Brisbane.

We reboard the boat and motor out to the main part of Venice, where we’d been the night before. Now we can see what the crowds are like. There are people everywhere. Even getting across the footbridges requires dodging and weaving. Ashley lead us up to St Mark’s square, where he leaves us to wander and fill in time for a couple of hours. We are advised to get lost, then find our way back to the square by following signs.

I team up with Jen, Linda (mother and daughter) Jenny, Debbie and Steve. The first thing we want to do is get coffee and food. We figure the cheaper cafes will be away from the square and away from water views, so follow Steve, our navigator, up, down and across alleys until we find a cafe that sells bread rolls and coffee. We all order coffee and the others order breadrolls, while I order tiramisu. My tiramisu is disappointing – frozen in the middle, just like the one I was served for dinner the night before. Life’s hard.

The other girls aren’t interested in exploring, but I’m keen to make my way to the Rialto Bridge, so I split from them and go walkies, following the signs. Making my way anywhere is hard going, hindered by crowds. It’s a hot day, too, and silly me had brought a big jacket with me that I carry around the whole time. I reach the bridge and have a half-hearted browse of the markets. Back in Florence, I’d seen boxer shorts with the boy parts of Michelangelo’s David printed on them, but when I saw them we were rushing for the bus, so I didn’t have time to buy. I fantasise about boarding the bus wearing them over my jeans, but alas, I can’t find any in Venice.

Finding a loo in most of the cities we’ve been in has been an ongoing bother. There seem to be very few public toilets, and those that are available you have to pay for. The other alternative is to buy coffee or food in a cafe or restaurant and then you are entitled to use their loos. But if you don’t need food, it’s a problem.

I’m tired of walking and go to our meeting place with time to spare. I need to pee and spot some signs “W.C.” painted on the pavement, with an arrow. I follow the signs along the promenade and down a number of alleys until I find a public loo. A bit like a treasure hunt. I pay Madame Pee Pee (not sure what they call her in Italy) and gratefully relieve myself. I find my way back to the dock and sit on steps on a bridge while I wait for the boat.

Our next destination is the island of Burano. Burano is famous for lace-making and colourful houses. Apparently it’s a tradition for all the members of a family to paint their houses in the same colour. If they move house and someone from a different family moves in, they repaint it in the new family colour. This makes for a delightfully colourful village. The houses on Burano are very pretty, painted with random bright colours and flower boxes and washing hanging from windows and in the streets, sometimes even amongst shops.

We follow Ashley past the shops selling lace tablecloths, scarves, masks and other tourist trinkets, down the street and over a bridge to a restaurant where we are to have a late lunch. We go right to the back of a long restaurant where we sit at long tables and are served a multi-course seafood lunch. The salt and pepper calamari is to-die-for. Jen says the battered fish is, too, but I’m too full and pass mine off to her. I was considering not drinking since wine puts me to sleep in the daytime, but I taste the wine and it is so nice I indulge in a glass. We have some time for shopping and I buy myself an aqua lace scarf. Feeling very full, I go back to the wharf. A wind has whipped up, and finally I put on the jacket I’d carried around all day.

When we return to the hotel, I’m still very full, and exhausted. I hang out in my tiny room with the single bed, sorting out my iPad, until I finally go to bed around 10 o’clock.

Venice, the First Night

In Rome, my camera battery goes flat, so I take photos with my iPad until it tells me it’s full. To make more space I delete some old videos and continue taking photos. I leave my iPad in the seat pocket on the bus, but when I returne and turn it on,  a message says it’s disabled. Seems it spat the dummy!

Searches on my iPhone indicate an iPad can become disabled if the password is tried too many times. Well, I haven’t done that, so I assume it’s something to do with overloading it. I send messages to Noah asking what I can do, and he sends me back links with ideas to try. But I have no luck. It seems my only option is to connect it to iTunes and restore. Bugger! It means I lose some of my travel journal, but not too much. The only ones I haven’t sent on to friends aren’t that uninteresting anyway.

We arrive at the hotel on the outskirts of Venice around 4pm, so there’s time for a break before the included dinner at the hotel at 6pm. Steve offers to lend me his laptop and is happy for me to install iTunes and do my restore. So, before going out for the evening, I hook up my iPad to his laptop and begin the iTunes download.

We’re back on the bus by 7pm. The mainland part of Venice is not impressive. It’s like any old town, a bit industrial. As we approach the docks it appears even more industrial, with smokestacks in the distance. Parking at the wharf, we board a boat and step down into a covered area with seats. A huge ship is docked across the bay. As we motor away from the docks, I climb the steps to the open area to look out, and spray hits me in the face. The tanned Italian driving the boat indicates to me to duck behind the windshield, so I stoop down to avoid the spray. As we near the islands of Venice, we turn away from the wind and the driver indicates that I can pop up again.

Across the lagoon I get my first glimpse of Venice: houses joined together set back from the waterfront, a domed church and clock tower, canals leading back from the waterfront, spanned by small bridges.

There are only 2 ways of getting around in Venice, we are told: by boat or on foot. There are no cars, motorbikes or even bicycles. This is different to everywhere we’ve been. Even in the narrow cobblestoned streets of the old towns, you still come across cars that someone has managed to manoeuvre in.

It’s still light as we pull in to a wharf, get off the boat and gather around Ashley. He tells us that there are hardly any people here at the moment. I look around at the crowds but he assures us that it’s far busier in the day time. We trail him to the spot where we board the gondolas, up over footbridges that span the narrow canals, pausing to gaze with wonder at the buildings lining the canals, the water lapping at their walls.

We are organised into groups of 6 and I join Joy, Ray, Jenny, Debbie and Dory. Joy and Ray get the “love seat” and before we even board, Debbie is taking photos of them kissing. The Italian men around here are all tanned. The gondolier grips our hands tightly as we step onto the gondola. After Joy & Ray get settled on the end seat,  Jenny & Debbie sit facing each other, with a knee jammed in each others’ crotch in the narrow boat, both of them squealing with laughter about it. I sit next, facing sideways and thankfully have enough space for my knees, and Dory sits at one end seat. The gondolier, of course, stands at the other end paddling the boat with his long oar. He skilfully guides it away from the wharf and into a canal, following another boat. More gondolas follow us, one of them with musicians playing traditional Italian music. To be honest, I am so wide-eyed looking at the buildings, that I barely notice what instruments they’re playing, but I’m pretty sure one of them is a squeezebox.

Debbie & Jenny joke and intermittently roar with laughter – I especially love Debbie’s laugh, so infectious. Ray & Joy shamelessly put on a display of kissing for the keen photographers. Using Jenny’s tablet, Dory takes a great photo of us in the boat. We float slowly down the canals, under bridges. Each time we pass under a bridge, Jenny calls to the gondolier to watch his head.

“Oh,” he scoffs, “I do this for 35 years.”

A window opens from one of the buildings lining the canal and a woman looks out and waves to us.  We wave back, calling out buona sera. Gondolas glide past in the opposite direction.

Sitting in the gondola, drifting through the canals, it occurs to me that this my be a little corny, a tourist gimmick, but somehow that doesn’t matter. I can’t be cynical – the atmosphere is amazing.

About 20 minutes later we arrive back where we began. We must have done a lap of the block.

Once we are all back on the promenade, we follow Ashley up to the square where he directs us to a restaurant with tables outside. The people I’m with sit away from the group at the outer edge, since Jenny and Linda are smoking. It is almost dark and there’s a cool breeze, but I’m dressed warmly in my wind jacket. Lamps come on and the buildings around light up. Opposite is a grand white building, a palace I think.

We are given a drink each as part of the deal, and I enjoy a glass of bubbly. Closer in to the restaurant a trio plays music. All I can really see is a man playing a grand piano and another playing a violin. When they play the theme from the Titanic I’m mesmerised. They play it so beautifully, with such depth of feeling. It’s a cliche to talk about the romance of Venice, but the ambience all comes together. When I was a kid I was told about Venice, and it seemed amazing, like a fairytale, to hear about the buildings on canals, and the gondolas. I can’t believe that now I’m here, and it really does have that amazing atmosphere.

I leave the smokers’ group and go to chat to Ros & Merv. They are on this trip as part of celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Ros always has a mischievous smile on her face, yet she seems so guileless. She asks me if I heard the laughing earlier. She says she didn’t realise the musicians don’t like people taking photos of them. When she did, one of the guys in the trio took out a camera and took a photo of her. She just posed and smiled and everyone laughed.

I don’t want to miss the music, but Ashley had told us the bigger square was further down, so I wander off to look at that. I’m not disappointed. It’s a much larger square, lined with attractive buildings, lit up subtly. Restaurants and gift shops line the square and there are groups of people gathered around ones on opposite sides of the square where there is live music. In the middle of the square people are constantly moving, and lights are propelled up into the sky and falling down again. An Indian guy approaches me to try to sell me one of the lights. He asks me to watch as he stretches back a rubber band to launch it, urging me to try it myself. When I refuse, he launches it himself and urges me to watch it. Ashley had warned us that this was a ploy to pickpocket while we were distracted, so I won’t even look up at it. He may have just been trying to sell it, and I would actually like one, but I’m too paranoid now about having my gear stolen.

I meander around, looking into shop windows at the glass artworks, before I return to the restaurant, which is near to our meeting point. During a break in the music, I ask the cost of their CD, and joyfully buy one from them for 20 Euros.

Next we board a boat similar to the one that brought us here and seat ourselves inside. Rafael, Aurora’s brother-in-law, (who everyone is calling Zorro tonight since he’s Mexican and dressed all in black) goes up to the deck, and urges Aurora to come up. Aurora then urges me to come up too. I had forgotten that now we were going up the Grand Canal, the main “street” of Venice. I am so glad she did – the sight is awesome, motoring through beautiful Venice lit up with lights.

We arrive back where we’d left the bus and board again to return to our hotel. I give Ashley the CD to play on the bus and I relax and listen, barely believing I’ve just been to Venice.

Arriving back at the hotel around midnight, I’m delighted to see my iPad greet me with “Hello”, rather than “iPad Disabled.” However, when I try to restore, it tells me it can’t reach the server. The  laptop is flat. I delve into the bag and find a power cord, but when I plug it in, nothing happens. Tired after my exciting evening, I decide to go to bed and worry about it in the morning.

After lying in bed for 10 minutes, I suddenly have a brainwave. The power cord I was using had been coiled up with a twist tie around it, so maybe it was the wrong one. I turn the light on, jump up and fish around in the bag. Yes! There’s another one that fits, and this time, the laptop comes alive. I stay up and continue with the restore before going to bed around 1:30am.


12 May 2014

It’s been a travelling day today, on our way to Cannes. Along the way we pass the mountain that Cezanne painted many times.

We pass by our hotel in Cannes and drive into Cannes itself so that Ashley can show us the way for a walk in this evening. Nothing too hard about it. Keep the Mediterranean Sea on your right going in, and on your left coming home.

Avangari Resort looks promising: a large gold building one road back from the beach. A free night tonight, and I can’t wait to get off the bus and away from the larger group.

I’m allocated a room on the 5th floor and am handed a package – my long lost phone has arrived! The hotel lobby is pleasant and, as usual, the elevators are tiny. It’s a battle to fit 5 or 6 people with hand luggage in. Whenever I hop into one with a group of people I can’t help thinking how crook it would be if they broke down, with us all breathing down each others’ necks.

When I get off on the 5th floor, there is colourful carpet, a dresser painted gaily and dusk pink velvety wallpaper. My room is right at the end of the hall. When I walk in, I’m delighted. A floor to ceiling window looks out onto my veranda. Half of the window slides open and from my veranda I’m overlooking a large hotel pool, a railway line and then the Mediterranean Sea. The room itself has shelves just inside the door, a bathroom (with heated towel rails) to the left, and what looks like a cupboard door opens to a separate toilet. The expansive bed has white covers and pillows and a pretty red overlay across the foot. Gorgeous! I drop my gear, use the loo, rip open the package and verify that my phone, credit cards and licence are intact then rush back down to the lobby.

Ashley had offered to walk into town to lead the way if people wanted to follow him, but I’m really over playing follow the leader and instead team up with Steve to walk in on our own.

We set off down the road towards the beach, pass under a railway bridge and cross the road, (where I’m narrowly missed by a motor bike that toots at me) to the promenade that runs along a sandy beach. It’s a lovely warm evening. There are tiny waves lapping on the sand. I’m busting to feel the water, but reluctant to remove my joggers. I hurry down and lean over to feel the water – it’s cool but not impossibly – and soak my shoes at the same time.

As we climb the steps and begin to walk along the promenade, a man strolls towards us, rubbing his nipples with his fingertips.

“Did you see that?” Steve asks, after he passes.

“You mean the guy twiddling his nipples? Yeah, I wonder what that was all about?”

As we approach the town, there are restaurants lining the road. We come to a large cinema, with people queueing to go in. We decide it’s time to find a place to eat and figure they’d be better-priced one street back, so hook into a side street and pick out a pizza place. The only table outside is squeezed between 2 others, similar to the place where I’d eaten with Catriona in Paris. Women on the table right next to the vacant one tell us they will be smoking, but we decide to sit there anyway, and they leave soon after.

We order a pizza to share and a glass of wine each. The chardonnay is the first decent wine I’ve tried in France so far. The others, being part of package experiences, were house wines. whereas this one is bottled wine by the glass, so maybe it’s not that French wine is bad, rather that we’d been given the worst of it. (Even the white I had with Catriona in Paris was pretty featureless.)

Steve tells me a bit about his life while I eat more than my fair share of the pizza, drink my wine and eye off his wine, which he is sipping slowly. (I don’t start on his wine too, though I’m tempted.)

I look up and see a group of people from our tour standing on the foot path and yoohoo loudly to them, causing the people at the tables around us to look at me.

“We already saw you,” someone says, and I also hear murmerings about “they’re on a date.” They knock back our invitation to join us.

So, shrugging our shoulders, we continue with our meal and our talking, then follow it up with dessert. I have a delicious tiramisu and Steve has chocolate mousse.

As we walk out of town, back towards our hotel, the streets are almost deserted and Steve looks around nervously. There are some young men idling by the beach and some people behind us on the other side of the road.

“They’re from our tour,” Steve says about the people behind us.

On our way in I hadn’t paid attention to where we’d come onto the beach, but Steve says there was a walkover bridge nearby. However, when we go up the road next to the overpass, it doesn’t look right. The other people catch up and we confer with them and continue on.

Back in my beautiful room, it is hot & muggy, so I open the door to the veranda to let in fresh air and the sound of the ocean.

13 May 2014

I wake sometime around 5am but go back to sleep. Next thing I know it’s 9 o’clock and I think I hear a gentle tapping on the door. I had slept totally naked, so I don’t investigate, expecting it is probably housekeeping wanting to do the room. Pulling on some ‘jamies, I pop the “do not disturb” sign on the door, then take my time getting dressed. I take the sign off and go down to breakfast.

It seems most of the group has woken at a similar time and are all there having breakfast.

“I came to get you,” Steve says, “but you didn’t answer.”

“Oh, was that you? I’d just woken up,” I tell him.

It’s another glorious day, so of course we’re going to go swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Graham and Vicki are planning to come to the beach, too, so, after going back to our rooms to get into cossies, and grabbing towels at reception, we head down together.

A slim girl with pert breasts walks topless along the shallows. I only have my speedos with me, not very glam for the occasion, but I strip off my shirt and shorts and feel the water on my feet. Not exactly warm.

“That’s freezing,” Steve says, wading in a little way in board shorts.

I work my way into the water a bit at a time. Yes, it’s cold, but gloriously refreshing, and I gradually adjust. Eventually I’m right in. Graham and Vicki just want to sit on the beach, and Steve goes in only up to his waist. Then Nada waltzes down and comes straight in and we frolic for a while until she decides it’s enough. We talk about going into town – we have to be back by 1:30 for the optional excursion, and think we have enough time to make it. Steve, Nada and I agree to shower then meet in the lobby.

I’m not very quick, and am just about to go down when Steve knocks at the door. He’s changed his mind, and so I do too. It would be a rush, and I can get by without the toiletries I’m low on for a bit longer. We look for Nada, but she’s nowhere to be found. We find out later, she’s given up on us and gone anyway.

So instead we lounge around drinking coffee, him sorting his photos, me getting onto skype with Jas. She’s been watching the budget and gives me a rundown on it. She shows me Willy, too, who comes meowing at her window while she talks to me. And she assures me Aaron didn’t forget Mothers’ Day. Obviously he has something planned.

I’m running about a minute late for the excursion leaving at 1:30, and the bus is nowhere to be seen. Someone else is running late, too, and we race down the street towards the yard where the bus was parked earlier in the day, but it’s not there. Just then, Ashley comes round the corner, looking for strays. He makes some kind of remark about us being late and we climb thankfully aboard.

Our first destination is the town of St Paul, a small, walled town perched on a mountain top, just within view of the ocean. We have to park the bus and walk up the hill and through the arch into the town. The pavements are inset with pebbles and the streets, of course, are narrow. We follow the leader up through alleys lined with gift shops. But the gifts, rather than being cheap trinkets, are beautiful works of art. There are amazing sculptures, carpets, silk and glass. At the top we look out at the view, then go to look at a graveyard where someone famous was buried. We wander around, buy an ice cream and I buy myself a little necklace with a blue twisting glass serpent, and a sparkling glass perfume bottle for Rachael.

The bus winds down the coast to Nice, and Nice is more than nice. The Promenade des Anglais runs along the beachfront. At one end of the town is an airport, where private jets are frequently parked. On the pebbly beach are fenced-off areas with deckchairs where you pay to sunbathe. On the opposite side of the road overlooking the Bay of Angels are elegant  “belle epoch” hotels, such as the Negresco, which has a smartly uniformed doorman always loitering outside. It’s a gorgeous town. No wonder it’s a favourite hang out of the rich and famous.

After passing through Nice, we follow the Corniche Road higher and higher up mountains bordering the sea. The scenery is magnificent.

Finally we stop at a little restaurant perched up high on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. During our drive, the weather has turned cold. Some people are in shorts and light tops, but luckily I am in jeans and have a long-sleeved top with me.

Wine begins to flow freely as we eat our meals. We’d been given the menu 2 days before and chosen what we wanted. I start off with a salad then have a risotto with roquefort cheese, a rich blue-vein. It is so rich and so filling that I can’t eat it all, even though it’s delicious. Dessert for me is chocolate mousse with toffee sauce. It, too, is really delicious, but so sweet it induces a sweat. I shouldn’t eat it all, but I do.

I see a young girl wandering around early in the meal, and later, a little boy is asleep on the lounge on the other side of the restaurant. Obviously a family restaurant, and the kids just have to hang around.

Things are pretty rowdy by the time we leave the restaurant. Ashley starts to sing over the microphone as we drive back around the coast in the dark, then Ray takes the microphone and keeps the singing going. I don’t know the songs they’re singing (but I’m sure Colin would), until they start on silly ones like “Old McDonald” and “10 Green Bottles.” Arriving back at the hotel, we all go happily to our rooms.


Saragoza and Flamenco

Zaragoza & Flamenco 10 May 2014

We head off for another day on the road, towards Barcelona. The locals pronounce it Barthelona because someone important (a king or something) had a lisp and couldn’t say Barcelona, so he decreed that everyone say Barthelona. Aurora, the latino Californian girl who sits next to me, tells me that the people here say grathias for thank you, too, whereas usually the Spanish say Gracias.

As we leave Madrid, we drive through hilly country with some forested hills, some grassy hills, with small olive groves in pockets, and occasional streaks of red-orange poppies. As we continue, the hills become barer and rockier. At one stage we are surrounded by wind turbines – you could reasonably call it wind farming. We also pass sun-farming: a collection of solar cells covering the hills.

Nada had complained about the long driving days, stopping only at servos for breaks. She thought we should do stuff in the early part of the day, then drive through the afternoon, arriving at the hotel later in the evening. Possibly as a way of placating her, Ashley decides to change the itinerary slightly and make a diversion to Zaragoza for lunch.

We pull up outside a cathedral and pile out of the bus. It’s another gorgeous cathedral, but what is even more gorgeous are the ceremonies going on around it. There are first communions and baptisms and someone said there was even a wedding. I enjoy seeing children reaching for water in fountains, and little girls in elaborate white dresses, posing on podiums for photos. To be honest, I think the interior of the cathedral is overdone, just too elaborate – nothing like the grandeur of the rose window at Notre Dame, Paris.

The hotel we’re staying at in Barcelona is on the edge of the city, pretty much in an industrial area. But the bonus is, it’s actually a really nice hotel, with lots of marble, large rooms and kingsize beds. We arrive tired, but the joy of not being squeezed into tiny rooms is revitalising.

I quickly shower and get ready for another night out, then dump my washing into the bath, fluffing it up with bath gel.

It’s Saturday night and Barcelona is buzzing. The street the restaurant is on does not usually allow buses, but the restaurant had obtained a pass for us. The entrance to the restaurant has intricate timber carvings, which are continued inside on walls and ceilings. We’re ushered to tables and quickly directed to the buffet.

This is the best food yet. Salsa, avocado, potato salad, noodles, other salads, fish, chicken, paella………..the list goes on. Then for dessert: creme brulee, creme caramel, chocolate truffles, banana wrapped in pastry and rolled in cinnamon sugar, cream puffs…..yes, luckily I’m wearing stretchy jeans. I try to be restrained but stuff myself full, then head for the bathroom.

By the time I emerge, everyone has left the tables and moved to the theatre, seated ready for the flamenco show. I hurry in and sit down, chatting with an American couple, who were not part of the Trafalgar group, before the show begins.

Six young men are gathered casually along the back of the stage. One sits on a seat that seems to have drums inside and taps lazily on it. Another two play guitars while 2 girls with stunning figures wearing velvet dresses with layers of frills around the bottom edges, tap out rhythms with their shoes. The tempo increases, the girls moving faster and stamping harder. The men start singing and clapping. Well, I guess you call it singing, but it’s more like wailing. Another woman comes out and starts wailing in earnest. The girls dance on, dance off and there’s more wailing and metaphorical gnashing of teeth. The wailing, guitar playing and dancing becomes ever more dramatic and frenetic, the bored drum player even getting excited and drumming up a frenzy. The girls dancing look angrier and angrier and I think, shit, they sure wear the pants, you wouldn’t dare cross them.

A very cute young guy in a suit and beard comes out and dances and stamps and looks lustfully and playfully at one of the girls in particular. When one scene finishes and the lights went out, I see him put his arm around her as they go backstage.

When it all finishes, they come out for a final bow and we’re allowed to take photos. Yes, it’s dramatic and spectacular, even though at the beginning I thought they looked rather bored. I suspect they do 2 shows most nights, as we heard a show happening while we ate dinner.

I want to have a go at tapping and stamping myself, and when I get back to the hotel I do a little tap and stamp as we gathered waiting for the lifts. It got a few laughs, and one of the young girls (who has been quiet all the way) does an experimental stamp too. I would have liked to practice in my room, but unfortunately they have carpet and it doesn’t have the same effect.

Monserrat & Barcelona, Spain

11 May

 Think I’m getting used to going out every night, though I’m running late for breakfast this morning aMonserrat in the distancend I still can’t get used to having a big breakfast. I’m running late because Noah, God bless him, remembers it’s Mother’s Day and sends me a message asking when he can ring. So I have a chat to him on skype before going down to breakfast.

 Today we have an optional excursion to Monserrat, a monastery high on a jagged mountain about an hour out of Barcelona. A local guide named Mar, which is the Spanish word for sea (or perhaps it is Mer, pronounced Mar) arrives on her scooter and boards our bus. (She tells us she has a brother named the Spanish word for Sun.) Mar has a sense of humour and is more like Agatha, our guide in Paris.Housing on the way to Monserrat

We had seen the mountain of Monserrat on our way into Barcelona the day before, and we see it on the skyline soon after leaving the hotel. The bus meanders up a winding road as Mar tells us about Monserrat. There is a monastery, which still has a selective school for boys who sing in a famous choir, and a basilica near the top. On the way is a convent as well, which she points out as we approach. She tells us there is a secret underground passageway between the monastery and the convent.

The bus parks a short way from the monastery and Mar leads us up to it, giving a commentary on the little walkie-talkies we’d used before. She points out a steep railway car to the top, called a funicular, but advises us it takes 20 minutes up and Lookout at Monserrat20 minutes back, so we have to make sure we allow enough time to get back by 11. Steve, Jenny and Aurora and me decide we want to go up to the top. Jenny checks with Mar, if it’s OK to catch the one that arrives back at 11, and Mar is cool with that, saying they’ll wait a couple of minutes for us to walk back to the bus.

We have a quick look in the basilica and it is magnificent. We then race over to the funicular and buy our tickets, but have to wait while the driver has a smoke break before it goes.

The view at the top is amazing. The mountain of Monserrat has these exposed rocky columns that stand vertically, forming unusual shapes. It’s a little hazy today but we can still see Basilica at Monserratfor miles.

The funicular is late going back down, so we have to rush like crazy to the bus. Steve takes off like a rocket to ask them to wait for us. Aurora follows, and Jenny and I bring up the rear. Jenny is older than me, and looks to be in fantastic shape. She is slim, well-groomed and good fun but she says her lungs operate at only 65%. I tell her I have good lungs but crook hips so we just go as fast as we can. When we make it to the parking area, in our fluster we race past the bus and have to backtrack.

View from the topLooking down the funicular


The bus is late now but Mar doesn’t seem too worried. She does look worried, however, when we arrive in the centre of Barcelona, expecting to meet up with Ashley, our Tour Director and the rest of the people and there is a road block due to a parade. Police divert the bus, and we sit in traffic, watching horses, carts, donkeys and piles of hay parading down the streets where we want to go. Mar is madly ringing Ashley, and at once stage hops out of the bus to argue with a policeman, trying to convince him to let us go down a particular street, but he just shakes his head obstinately.

Chaotic parade Eventually we reach the meeting spot and Ashley and the people who didn’t take the Monserrat tour board the bus. Ashley, ever the diplomat, is clearly displeased and, in a very nice way, whinges about how we’ve lost an hour. Mar is pursing her lips and shrugging her shoulders and I hear Steve speak up to take the blame, explaining that the funicular was late returning, even though we’d asked about timing before we went.

 After things calm down, Mar tells us more about the architect, Gaudi, who designed the famous Sagrada Familia Church. We had heard about Gaudi and seen some buildings designed by him in Madrid. Gaudi, though famous, dressed casually and did not live a high life. The poor fellow was run over by a motor car (in early 20th century, before there were many cars on the road) and it was some time before he was identified. Sadly, he died a couple of days later.

Sagrada Familia 1By now we are running late. Everyone is hungry and dying to pee, but Mar ushers us off the bus and down the street to walk a few blocks to Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Church. This church, the first part originally designed by Gaudi, is still not finished. There are 4 towers built but there are 10 more planned. One side of the Church represents the birth of Christ, one the death and another the resurrection. The 4th side is the main entrance. Gaudi died before the design was finished, so the remainder has been designed by other architects. Gaudi is truly unusual in that his designs are organic, rounded, representative of nature. Some people refer to him as gaudy, and yes, I could probably agree with that. It seems he goes over the top, even plopping carvings representing fruit on the top of points, “for decoration.” Unfortunately Sagrada Familia is inconsistent, a mish mash of styles, marvellous, but not what I’d call elegant. With the poor economy in Spain, the completion of it will be dependant on donations.Sagrad Familia Gaudis Influence

Sagrada Familia other influences

An amazing fact that Mar tells us: there are more tourists that pass through Spain than the population of Spain. And unemployment at the moment is around 24%


It is just a quick look at Sagrada Familia, rushing around following Mar’s “lollipop”, her blue flag on a stick that she waves above her head as she marches.

Back on the bus, they take us to the old quarter for a look around. By now everyone is even more hungry and bursting to pee, as the time allocated for a pee stop at Sagrada Familia had been used up. Luckily Mar agrees to delay the tour of the old quarter for 20 minutes while we grab a bite to eat and use the toilets of the places where we buy food. I just buy an ice cream, so that I don’t have to wait for food, and use the toilet of a restaurant anyway.


We meet again, look at a cathedral built in the 14th century (I think) and many other old buildings. We pass street performers playing unusual instruments, and the ever-present gift shops.

After the tour we have the option of staying in town for a couple of hours and Steve asks if I want to hang out. I’m glad to have the benefit of a male’s sense of direction – I get lost as soon as I turn a corner.Musicians

Just a few others take up the option. I want to go back to where there were musicians playing and listen to them some more. It is lovely peaceful music – a trio playing a harp-like instrument, a flute or saxaphoney thing and a strange metal instrument like an upside-down wok. They are offering a CD for sale and I’m still deciding whether or not to buy one when I’m further up the alley, then go back to ask the price. Jenny & Deb say they’ll continue on and maybe we’ll catch up with them later. The musicians are just packing up and I snaffle a CD for 10 euro. We wander in and out of gift shops and each buy something to take home. We come to a square with tables outside of coffee shops and look around for a table. All of them are full but one is being vacated.

“Someone’s already got it,” Steve says as I point it out. But there are people leaving another table and I move quickly towards it. Not quickly enough, though. A woman with a child pushes a trolley in front of me, blocking the way and claiming it for herself and her husband. I could duck around and beat her to it, but I’m not going to fight and graciously leave her to it. I’m rewarded for my graciousness because people vacate Noooo woman no cryanother table at the restaurant next door, and the chairs at this one are more comfortable.

Steve and I look around at the food that other people were eating and spot a basket of nachos.

“Let’s share a basket of nachos,” I suggest, and he agrees.

A duo are playing guitars and singing reggae music (Noooo woman, no cry, bomp bomp bomp-bomp, noo woman, no cry) and we relax with the locals on a Sunday afternoon, eating nachos and, for once, drinking good coffee.

The SquareWhen it’s approaching 5pm, we head back to the large square where we’re meant to meet the bus. I would be hopeless finding the right place, not having my phone with GPS, but Steve knows the way. The square is full of people and full of pigeons, but without the quantity of pigeon shit that you’d expect. We’re not 100% certain which end of the square we’re supposed to meet, so Steve reviews photos he took earlier and pinpoints the spot. There’s no one else from the bus waiting there.

When the bus arrives and we hop on, Ashley wanders up the road looking for the others. Then we drive around the block looking for them in case they are on the wrong corner. We are just about to give up when Ashley spots Jenny and Debbie. They look like the happiest people on earth when the bus stops and waits while they run towards us.

“Oh, thank goodness!” they say. “We didn’t know what we were going to do. We’ve been waiting since 4:30, we’ve been trying to ring Ashley, a cab wanted to charge us 70 Euros, and we were just about to cry.”

Ashley again laments the chaotic day, which happened all because the coach didn’t leave  Montserrat at the agreed time (the fault of our little group), which meant that by the time we got to the city the streets were closed for the parade, which made us even later.

That brings us to dinner, an included one, where I decide to buy a bourbon and coke. The girl at the bar looks like she’s new, unsure of what she’s doing. When she pours the bourbon in, she keeps pouring, and pouring, and pouring, then eventually she stops and adds a little coke. Lucky it’s a strong drink, because I need it once she tells me the price (after she asks someone):  it’s 9 euros. But they give me a little saucer of nuts to go with it.

I take it back to the table and offer the nuts around and Aurora teases me about getting drunk when I tell how much bourbon they put in.

We’d made our menu selections earlier and I have salmon for main course, which is quite nice, a small portion, just right after all the food I’ve eaten in the last few days. Lots of people, however, complain about the meal, as the spaghetti they chose was pretty tasteless. I leave most of them still sitting at the table, hoping for an extra course, while I retire to my room to write.

Madrid and Toledo

8 May 2014

I’m rather pleased with my French skills. More and more words come back to me  from my school-girl French lessons and I think I communicate rather well when buying stuff and even helping other people buy stuff. But I’m dismayed this morning when I realise I can forget French for a few days and start to learn Spanish.

Aurora, sitting next to me, is Latin-American, so she schools me this morning with some basic phrases. Some of them we know from cartoons, and some I learnt from South Americans (Patricio & Julio) that I used to work with at Pizza Hut when I was a student. So I can say good morning, good afternoon, good evening, hello, please, thank you, sorry, and I can ask for water, white coffee and the toilet. And I can count to 10.

We leave the hotel at 8:30 this morning and have been on the road ever since, except for a morning tea stop and a lunch stop, both at servos.

Unlike the almost constantly flat landscape we saw in France, we pass hills and mountains in Spain. Still it’s very green, and we see alternately wooded hills and farmed fields, with the occasional rocky outcrop. Every so often we pass through tunnels under mountains, the road itself remaining relatively flat. Sometimes we pass valleys filled with tidy industrial areas. We also see lots of wind farms lined up along ridges.

We have wifi working on the bus, but it’s very patchy. I enjoy the fruit and pistachios that I picked up at the market yesterday.

It’s been a warm day and we approach Madrid late afternoon and check in at our hotel. Nothing really remarkable about the city so far, but we’re going out to look around this evening. The room is barely big enough to swing a door, let alone a cat, but it is cosy and comfortable. I jump in the shower as soon as I get to my room. Luckily I’ve kept some undies in my hand luggage so I can at least put new underwear on while I wait for my bag. (Pffeeew, I know you don’t want to think about that.) It’s still not there when I finish my shower, so I get dressed, don’t worry about shoes, and pad barefoot out to the lift to hunt it down.

A young Spanish porter is lugging suitcases out of the lift and lining them up against the wall. He asks me to watch my feet as he lines them up against the wall, or at least I’m guessing that’s what he says. I keep thinking he’ll pull my bag out next, but it’s not there and he goes back down for another load. When he unloads the lift again, still my bag’s not there.

“Your room number?” he asks me.

“Siz, zzzzero, siz” I tell him.

He goes down again and finally, next time the lift opens he emerges with my bag.

“Gracias!” I exclaim, and he laughs as he unloads the remainder.

The main boulevard in Madrid is wide, treelined and we repeatedly pass fountains with statues. There’s Christopher Columbus of course. Ashley points out magnificent buildings, which I’m less impressed with now that I’ve seen London, Oxford and Paris. But they are lovely. Everywhere there seems to be polizio – mostly young men in fluoro yellow shirts that we’d mistake for construction workers in Australia, except that they are young, handsome and neat, and wear caps, and seem to enjoy hanging casually around town in groups of 3 or 4.

We come to a truly beautiful white building that takes my breath away. There are people milling around on a veranda up high and I’m stunned when Ashley tells us that it was originally the Post Office, though now it is a hotel. Apparently Spain has had great wealth in the past, when many beautiful buildings were built, but right now it is in serious recession. We don’t see much evidence of recession. There are people everywhere, especially later in the evening (and the next evening) where they sit at cafe tables on the street drinking glasses of wine.

We get off the bus and walk to Plaza Mayora, the main square in Madrid. It’s surrounded by beautiful buildings, one of which is painted with murals of naked men and women, in weird positions, some with tails and horns, the men with velvety-looking penises. These paintings fascinate me. I keep going back to gaze at them, though we have very little time.

In the middle of the square is a monument with galloping horses, wonderful to stand under and look up at. Someone offers to take a photo of me with them. The people on the tour are great like that. They frequently offer to take photos for the people who have come on their own.

There is an unusual modern building that isn’t mentioned by the tour guide, but it commands attention. I found out the next day that it was built in the 70s or 80s (can’t remember which) but the man who built it ran out of money. I find that there are many buildings like this in Madrid, some of which remain empty due lack of money to complete the inside. The local tour guide obviously dislikes the building that I ask about. She says, with disgust, that it reminds her of the end of a power plug.

The traffic is heavy that night in Madrid. It gives us plenty of opportunity to look at the monuments and fountains. The huge railway station, with a metal structure, was designed by the same architect who designed the Eiffel Tower.

By the time we arrive late at the restaurant I’m feeling tired, and am sure my eyes are bloodshot. We’re shown downstairs to a long room shaped like the inside of a galleon, and lined in timber – a great ambience. I have a huge bowl of gazpacho for starters which is delicious. By the time the paella arrives, I’m just about full, which doesn’t bother me, because the paella was pretty ordinary, so I ate just a little.

The highlight of the night was when 3 musicians burst in, playing guitars and mandolins, singing heartily. They are shamelessly dressed in little pantaloons and navy stockings, and are clearly enjoying showing off their skills. We cheer and clap and they pass out 2 tambourines that people play with varying skill. Aurora and Mayra (also a Spanish speaker) stand up and dance at the back and make requests for Spanish songs. Jenny knows one of the tunes and sings along in English.

Next they bring in a table and place on it a large cake covered in meringue. They pour alcohol over, turn the lights out and light it with a flourish. Everyone is quite hearty by now and there is more cheering. The ice-cream cake is taken away and served up and CDs are offered for sale. I love their singing, such a happy sound, so I buy one to take home, having it signed by one of the musicians.

Friday 9 May

The next day a local guide boards the bus to show us the sights of Madrid. Julia talks incessantly and is not as easy to listen to, or to understand as Agatha was in Paris, and she definitely doesn’t have Agatha’s sense of humour. However, she has a wealth of knowledge and I pick up on snippets of it. Madrid has a varying architecture resulting from Spanish and Arabic influences over the centuries. The traffic is heavy again and we see many of the monuments and fountains by daylight that we’d seen last night. I am once again full of wonder at the beauty of the Post Office building.

We stop at a large square and get out briefly to explore. I think Julia said there’s a tract of forest from here all the way to Toledo.

Toledo is our next excursion. It’s about an hour’s trip and Julia talks almost the whole way. The scenery is not attractive. We see the word “muebles” on many signs on buildings. It means “furniture” and furniture-making is a popular industry along this stretch. There are also junk yards, like huge parking lots, not as untidy as our junk yards, and near them, huge mounds of crushed metal. Julia points out wheat fields. But they are not like the vast rolling wheat fields of Australia. Groups of apartments or townhouses are interspersed amongst them, “villages” as Julia calls them. There are also many industrial buildings. Occasionally we see a huge silhouette of a bull, mounted high on a hill, facing the highway. These were originally advertising for wine, but it became illegal to advertise next to freeways. (How good is that!) The company got away with painting them black and leaving them there. Occasionally we’d see patches of wild red poppies either running across the edges of the fields or along the highway. It’s a hot day and the sun beams in through the broad windows of the bus. We are weary of travelling, and of Julia’s voice, as we approach Toledo.

Toledo is a very old city, dating back to the Roman times (I think) and it has evolved with the history of Spain. There are architectural influences from the Spanish people and also from Arabic people who invaded at some stage. The streets are so narrow that cars can’t get through them, and certainly not big tourist coaches. Outside the city there are huge parking lots where people leave their cars.

One of the early buildings of Toledo is a castle. It’s an ideal position, because the fast-flowing river loops almost entirely around it, forming a natural moat. Large stone walls are built across the areas not surrounded by river. The population of Toledo is fast decreasing. There are strict building laws, such that, while people are allowed to build, they can only do so in keeping with the old city. It’s so inconvenient to live there that people are leaving in droves, and it is mainly old people who have grown up there that remain.

A road suitable for coaches circles the city and Julia tries to prepare us for the view as she talks in superlatives. When we stop and look, we are nonetheless filled with awe, looking at the amazing stone buildings all built close to each other. Here, I pull out my iPad to get a photo for Facebook.

The coach then takes us to the gates and we go up escalators into the city. Parts of the city are centuries old, other parts more recent, but it is difficult to tell which is which, due to the strict building laws. We start in a “square” which is quite small for a square, then wander through a maze of narrow cobbled alleyways past, you guessed it, souvenir shops and restaurants. This area is famous for a particular type of craft, with very pretty gold-stamped metal made into plates, earrings, chess boards etc. When the tour finishes, Steve and I go find a restaurant to eat in and manage to communicate via charades that we want to share a plate of paella. We have a little time for shopping, with Steve tempted by knights in armour on horses, and me by gold dangly earrings. We don’t buy either though. I am so indecisive. Steve dashes off to look at more shops. Julia counts everyone and decides we’re all there, but I know Steve is missing. Luckily though, he arrives before we leave the square – he’d found some fans to buy.

Returning to Madrid city centre, we are offered the option to spend more time in the city or return to the hotel, which I do. It’s lovely to have some quiet time to check emails, shower, and get dressed ready to go out again.

In the evening we go to a tapas restaurant. The wine is bad so I opt for Sangria, and the food is good. We begin with baby lettuces and slices of tomato with dressing. We have croquettes, potato pancakes, small servings of fried fish, salt & pepper calamari, chicken and at last, a really good paella. It comes in a huge pan and is  I’m sure there are other dishes too that I can’t remember, but I am totally stuffed by the end of it and unable to eat the fruit dessert (which isn’t terribly exciting.) By the time we finish dinner, Madrid is beginning to liven up and the streets and restaurants are filled with people. (We were told that people don’t eat until very late in Spain.) Some people from our tour decide to go walking but I opt out – I was ready for bed.


7 May 2014

We arrive in Lourdes late afternoon, a small town as far as permanent population goes, but with a tremendous stream of pilgrims constantly passing through. Although it’s been a fantastic day, driving from Bordeaux, via the seaside town of Biarritz, a walk around Biarritz, buying utterly delicious strawberries at the market, and pistachios to eat along the way, then a superb 3 course lunch near the ocean with 5 other people from the Tour Group: a traditional Basque salad, poached salmon followed by creme caramel, in spite of all this I’m not feeling overly cheerful, because I left my phone, with 2 credit cards, my licence and my Qantas card on the shelf of the toilet in the restaurant. Merde!

All is not lost. At least I have my iPad, and another credit card in the money purse I sling around my neck, tuck down my singlet and into the top of my jeans to protrude ungracefully over my already protruding tummy. It doesn’t work, this money-purse bullshit, with a backpack for the less valuable items. I need a handbag!

Another slice of luck (maybe I could call it good management, even though leaving my phone there is ridiculously stupid), when I couldn’t find it in my backpack, I remembered where I’d left it. It was such a convenient shelf to pop it on and I remember thinking I wish other toilets had such useful shelves. Then I rushed to catch the bus, and got distracted trying to tuck away the stupid money purse. And another slice of luck: I didn’t take the receipt with me, so I couldn’t look up the name of the restaurant, but one of the guys I was with had taken a photo of the restaurant and we could see it was called Bar de Napsomething, and one of the girls said it was Napoleon. To cut a long story a bit shorter, it has been located and should make its way back to me in about a week. I’m going to try and forget about it until then.

Soon after arriving at Lourdes, we set off down the street following our Tour Director, who had a microphone, while we all had little red walkie-talkies slung around our necks and turquoise earpieces in our ears. Along the way were various souvenir shops, bars, souvenir shops, chemists, souvenir shops, hotels, and souvenir shops.

We turned up a narrow lane, lined, totally, with souvenir shops. In them were various sizes of statues of the Virgin Mary, medals, rosary beads, other beads and bracelets, bottles to collect Lourdes water, and ubiquitous candles in ever bigger sizes. At Lourdes, the size of your candle matters.

The crowd are a mixed bunch. There are regular tourists like us, walking around with tour insignia, trailing each other. Then there are the pilgrims wishing for a miracle. Some of them are being pulled in little carts by people dressed as nurses, in white with little white caps, (essentially porters in fancy dress), some of whom look almost like they should be sitting in the cart. Usually someone else equally old but apparently less infirm tags along holding the back of the cart. Then there are people with bright yellow scarves belonging to pilgrim tours. I spot some with white scarves, too. There’s even a snake line of schoolchildren, one carrying a banner, leading the way.

The end of the alley opens to a square and overlooking the square is a majestic grey-stoned church with brightly coloured frescos on the front of it. At our end of the square, perched high above a rose garden is a statue of the Virgin Mary, representing how she appeared to Bernadette. People with yellow scarves look adoringly up at her, some of them tucking bunches of flowers into the fence.

From one of the souvenir shops blasts “Ave ave ave Maria” just like we used to sing at church. Suddenly in my head I can hear Mum’s voice singing it next to me and I no longer feel like laughing about the tackiness of it all. Instead I feel sad for the faith and trust and longing and hope that brings these desperate people to Lourdes wishing for a miracle.

Further along, by the side of the church is the grotto itself, where people are lining up to shuffle in and out touching the walls as they go. Of course, there’s another statue of the Virgin Mary residing in there.

I leave the group and climb the steps to the church. Inside are brightly painted frescoes, with gilded  decorations. There is also an altar where you can light a candle. Used to love to do that when I was a kid, though I’m not sure if the motivation was piety or playing with fire and melting wax.

Looking down the square from the top of the steps, a castle opposes the church in the distance. The castle, I hear, was there long before the church.

I duck into a souvenir shop, vacillating about whether or not to buy something religious for a friend, but feeling a bit fake about it. A couple of shops along I find a travel bag, and I buy it, a little candle and a box of matches. I’m going to come back tonight for the candlelight procession and relive a religious festival of my childhood.

On the way back to the hotel, I see a new level of tackiness. Like a little toy animated merry-go-round, an invalid cart runs around a circular track, as music plays. Jen, a girl from the tour looks at it at the same time, then turns to me, shaking her head with disgust. “That’s just wrong,” she says.

Dinner takes longer than expected, but there is still plenty of time to get back to the square before the procession at 9pm. On the way a gypsy man sits pathetically on the pavement, cuddling a little boy, shaking a plastic cup and looking pleadingly at passersby. I think about whether I have loose coins handy but think better of it. About 100 yards further down I am surprised to find what looks like the same man and boy sitting on the pavement in exactly the same position. Now I look around me and notice a gypsy boy and gypsy girl not far behind me. I cut over to the other side of the road and they casually do the same. I stop, turn and look at them, and they are looking at me too. After that, I keep a close lookout but don’t see them again.

There are hundreds of people milling about, most with lighted candles with paper shields. I pull out my candle, unwrap it, and light it with my box of matches with, you guessed it, a picture of Our Lady on the box. Two latecomers with unlit candles come and light theirs off mine.

The service begins. Someone speaks in French, then there’s a reading in English, then in another language. The parade of invalids begins: carts mostly pulled by one person, with another behind, dressed as a nurse, the invalid sitting unobtrusively inside, a blanket over their knees. They pour out of a side road, hundreds of them it seems. They start singing Ave Maria, raising their candles as they sing the chorus.

The walking infirm follow, then the general crowd, including me, surges forward to join the procession. They process down a loop like a racetrack, with readings emanating from the speakers along the way, interspersed with decades of the rosary in French and more renditions of the Ave Maria.

I see Nada and Mayra from our tour group. Mayra confides to me that it’s 32 years since she was last here, when she came with her mother. The girls sing the Ave, then Mayra steps up the gutter to take photos, then joins the procession again. I do likewise, asking Nada to hold my candle while I take a photo. My candle sets light to her paper shield, and she quickly shakes and extinguishes it.

I look for a way to cut across the track so I don’t have to do the full loop, but realise that if I do that I’ll end up amongst the invalids in carts, so I keep going. The procession intermittently stops and starts. Some children are walking along the left gutter and seem to be moving faster, so I fall in behind them until I can eventually leave and return back to the hotel.