Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Travel update number three

Just to update people as to where we’ve gone now since finshing our cross-Europe trip, here’s a very quick sum up:

After our very busy two days back in cold and rainy London we travelled to Cairo via Zurich. We spent a manic day walking around Cairo, before our 2 week tour started the next morning with a visit to the Saqqara and Giza Pyramids. Something Carly had been waiting to see close up for years – and so there we were finally standing at the base of these wonders of the world.

The tour then took an overnight train trip south to Aswan to visit the first of many temples and sites we are planning on seeing in the south of the country. We spent a few days in the Aswan area, seeing the nearby temples and other sites, taking a relaxing sailing cruise on the Nile, and taking a very long day trip south towards the Sudan border to the stunning Abu Simbel temples. A definite highlight!

We then travelled back up to Luxor stopping at two different but amazing temples on the way. The temples in Egypt were like nothing we’ve ever seen anywhere – the Egyptians paid so much attention to detail, and the walls and walls of murals and scenes, plus endless colums of hierglyphics are all like something out of a school history textbook. We are simply amazed at each one we visit, and no two are anywhere near the same which is great! At Luxor we visited the two Temples in the city – the larger one being the largest temple site of its kind in Egypt and had some amazing columns and etched artwork. These two temples were previously the home of the obelisks that now sit in Paris, and the other in Istanbul – and we’ve seen them both!!

Just for something different we took a dawn hot air balloon flight over the Valley of the Kings right on sunrise so we could see the sunlight as it hit the Nile Valley and the mountain range to the west of Luxor. The view was spectacular, and hopefully the photos almost as good. I felt like Yann Arthus-Bertrand for an hour pointing my camera and long lens at the world below! It was something we’ll never forget.. After we landed we toured the Valley of the Kings and the best of the underground tombs there – these were brilliant! What still remains there of the tombs is mind-blowing – all hidden until recently in this beautiful desert valley. I had a look around the very touristy town of Luxor, and with camera in hand got away from the tourist strip and got some great photos in the locals market and shopping streets, followed all the time by either inquisitive local kids or harassing hawkers. Not the nicest town despite the sights around it.

So from Luxor we headed to the coast, and then after a break embarked on a gruelling overnight bus trip across/under the Suez Canal, then through the very barren Sinai Peninsula, through the Taba Heights, to the beachside town of Dahab. Because of our intention to visit Syria and Jordan, we only had a short day and night there, before we traveled to Damascus. A shame really as we liked it more than we thought we would – we’ll have to come back with Dive tickets and see why the Red Sea diving is so renowned.

So we were driven from Dahab, to a boat leaving Taba from Egypt to Aquaba in Jordan at the top of the Red Sea gulf, before continuing through Jordan to Amman, then from Amman to Damascus. On the way we had a short stop at the Roman city ruins at Jeresh – very impressive although because of transport delays we had nowhere near enough time to see enough of it. We then crossed into Syria with ease and onto the bustling city of Damascus.

Our first full day there and we headed off very early to the north-east, parallel with the Iraqi border to Palmyra in the north of the country. According to some eerie road signs we got as close as 150km to the Iraqi border which was pretty exciting. Palmyra itself just blew us away. It is a massive ruined city with Roman origins and Islamic and Christian influence, set on a huge date palm-covered oasis in the desert, and previously a strategic location on the old Silk trade route between east and west. We visited some impressive stone towers that were used as tombs for whole families in a cemetery-like area just outside the town, like nothing we’d seen anywhere. And even better is that there is absolutely no-one else around compared to the crowds of Egypt, so you virtually have the sites to yourself.. there are very few tourists in Syria at the moment - the guides and drivers say it has something to do with some 'crazy Bush' fellow... We got back to Damascus after sunset. We’ve done so much driving, the distances are just huge and the road conditions and traffic don't help. Both of us are pretty exhausted given the schedule we are on to see what we can in the given time. We spent the next day in Damascus, touring the old town and its very interesting buzzing markets, and then though the huge city mosque. We also visited a stunning old palace with Islamic carvings and decorations, and amazing ceiling paintings and carvings. At the end of the day we traveled back over the border to Amman in Jordan where we are tonight.

We still have left in the rest of the week a day at the Rose City of Petra, a visit to the Dead Sea, and an overnight camping in the desert at Wadi Rum. All this before a long bus trip back to Cairo and a visit to more inner-city sights there. We get back to London on Sunday night, and begin finishing off the last few things in London before we leave for Brisbane.

We’ll need a holiday after all this!!!


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Travel update number two

As planned we left the beautiful city of Florence, but not before we took a recommended walking tour which explained the city’s history through Roman times, it’s lead role in the Renaissance enlightening, and the following domination of the region by the powerful families such as the Medici’s. It was a great wrap up to the city and explained so many things we had been seeing.

But after glimpses of it out the train window from between Pisa and Florence, the Tuscany countryside was beckoning!! We caught a bus to the small hilltop town of San Gimignano for a few nights, which was one of several Tuscan towns that I have been dying to see since seeing a slideshow of an old boss who toured the region years ago. We filled the days strolling the streets, and spent a full day hiking around the surrounding vineyards stopping for a picnic overlooking the town and surrounding valleys dotted with villas, farm sheds, and endless rows of grape filled vines. Picture perfect.

Next we headed to Siena, home of the famous twice-yearly Palio horserace. The town itself was brilliant so we settled ourselves here for 3 nights giving us time to get a good look around the town, and also hire a scooted to spend some time out in the surrounding central and southern Tuscan countryside visiting small villages and hilltop fortified towns, some amazing churches and monasteries, and never ending scenery like something out of a picture book. We spent so much time stopping to take photos that in the end we were nearly late getting our trusty bike back to the shop. The city of Siena was so rewarding to walk around. Narrow streets, friendly people, surprisingly good shopping, and an impressive Cathedral constructed in competition with rival Florence. The view from the top of it was breathtaking - plenty of photos of the countryside.

We moved south from here, travelling in one terrible and very forgettable day from Siena to Rome, then from Rome to Naples, then from Naples to Salerno, and then with one final hair-raising bus ride along the Amalfi Coast we were in Atrani just next to Amalfi. A nice enough town on this spectacular coastline to spend a few days day-tripping from, but we were pretty disappointed with our accommodation. So we found and moved to a great pension northwards in ritzy Positano where we spent another 4 days lapping up the sunshine and the spectacular Amalfi Coast and its sights. While based here we spent a very long day walking around Pompeii which was brilliant – such a huge site to take in, we actually never got around the whole lot while we were there. So much of it remains intact that you can easily visualise how the Roman city must have operated and how its citizens lived their lives. A must do for everyone.

Having spent nearly a week on the Amalfi Coast, it was time to say goodbye to relaxation and head to fiery Sicily – a place that we’d long had on our list of destinations to get to.. for me, it was for Mount Etna, for Carly, the Sicilian red wines!! We trained it down to Catania on the east coast of the island, via a ferry which transports the boat over the passage from the mainland. We got a good taste of Catania on our walk from train station to B&B – traffic madness, plenty of action on the streets, this place was a madhouse!! And being a uni town it had a great late night scene too. Exactly what we were after following the somewhat bland tourist havens on the Amalfi. Amongst this small rabbit warren of small back streets and alleys not far from the main square we found streets overrun with milling groups of young people, tables and chairs spilling out from bars simply taking up the now pedestrianised bitumen – these people knew how to do it. So on several nights we found ourselves amongst this area, working our way down a list of Sicilian wines our B&B host had written up for us to seek out. The food was good too. Excellent seafood here, and cheap - all coming from the brilliant daily produce, meat, and seafood markets that get going early amongst this small area in the old part of town down the road from our B&B. As for Mt Etna, it took two trips to the mountain before I was satisfied – the first was as part of a 4x4 tour which was to take us around 3 sides of the mountain, visit a river carved into the volcanic rock which originates in the snow and water from the mountain, and take us to a viewing point to see the peak of the mountain from a reasonably close distance. Everything was great except for the last part – by the time we got up there the entire mountain was shrouded in cloud, and we couldn’t see a thing. I was gutted.

That night we met up with friends Richard and Jenna, who we’ve been meeting up with at various points on our trip (so far Prague, Florence, San Gim, Positano, and now Sicily). They were yet to go up the mountain having just arrived. Jarvo had a plan. I got a call on the mobile early on our last morning in Catania, with Jarvo deciding that they were going to hire a car and make the trip to the nearby mountain. So we hurriedly joined them and managed to get to the southern access to the mountain just as the cloud was clearing, leaving the slopes to the top of the cable car visable from the Etna Sud Refuge. So Jarvo and I made the long 1.5hr climb up the rocky and barren prepared ski slopes, and from the top of the slope we were able to see, hear, and feel the erupting peak of the volcano still kilometres away and another kilometre above us in height, but it was close enough to experience the force of the mountain. Just a fantastic experience that after watching the mountain on plenty of documentaries and news articles, I have finally had the chance to see for myself.

After our long day up the mountain, and then having the negotiate Catania’s traffic on the way back to town, we said goodbye for now to Jarvo and Jenna and we headed to the coastal town of Taormina for a few more nights amongst the fantastic Sicilian people. This place was obviously a bit of a tourist mecca, with plenty of t-shirt shops and nowhere to hide once the buses arrived at the gates mid-morning, but it was a complete contrast to the pace of Catania so we enjoyed the break. The town overlooks the spectacular coastline along here so we spent an afternoon down at the beach opposite the beautiful Isola Bella, and another part day looking around the Roman Theatre which remains here cut into the hillside with Mount Etna as the backdrop for the audience seated in the impressive horseshoe-shaped theatre. The rest of the time we just strolled the streets and the gardens of the town.

We said goodbye to Taormina and Sicily, and boarded a horrific overnight train to Rome. Arriving in the capital at 6am, we then embarked on a very busy day of first doing some very necessary clothes washing, and then a 12 hour walking tour of Rome, taking us to our favourite café, sights, gelati store, bar, and then pizzaria we had visited in our trip there in 2004. Getting back to the hostel after midnight wasn’t the best move, as our flight to Spain the next morning had us leaving Central Rome at 4am. It was worth it to do the reunion tour of my favourite city.

So we headed to Spain after our fantastic month in Italy. Valencia was the first destination, where we simply relaxed for most of the first day in the hostel lounge room after cooking up a huge brunch with supplies from the nearby buzzing produce markets where you could get absolutely anything!! Valencia was a good place to get back into Spain following our previous visit to the south in 2005, and we spent 5 enjoyable days here just hanging around. We spent a day out at the coast having Paella, some quite late nights amongst brilliant tapas bars in the Carmen barrio in the old town, and a few days just strolling through the city visiting sites and enjoying the way of life here. One morning we took up position to watch the weekly ‘Water Court’, which is one of the oldest courts of justice in Europe. It is setup to adjudicate and rule on any water irrigation disputes between local farmers, and is all conducted with presiding judges from each of the surrounding farming regions in a public open forum off of one of the main squares. The locals seem to love it judging on the crowd that it pulled – however once the judges appeared and the head bloke called out the crowd if anyone had a dispute, and none appeared, it was a fizzer! The judges simply stood up again and walked back into the doorway they came from! We loved it anyway..

Next we went to Madrid, the capital. And on walking out of the subway station near out hostel we certainly knew we were in the thick of it. Just like Rome or London, this place was busy. And it seemed to be the capital of very late nights as well. Even though we had started to acclimatise to the late starts of the Valencian nightlife, Madrid was a step above. We spent each night in a different area ranging from the heaving area around Sol where we’d go between Tapas bars just grazing for dinner; to the Gay district of Chueca on Halloween night which was packed with people in costume spilling out of fantastic bars and clubs that were only just beginning to open by the time we were headed home. During the day we found Madrid to be very interesting, with heaps to see and plenty to walk amongst as we filled in our 6 days with visits to markets, museums and a new favourite art gallery, and the large always busy shopping area. I could just go on and on about Madrid – such a great place!

But the La Rioja region to the north was calling. So we boarded a bus and found ourselves in the busy town of Logrono, where we had a great night eating and drinking around the old town – the prawn and garlic Tapas mushrooms where a hit, so too was the very cheap local Rioja wine that we first encountered here (LAN for 0.60c a glass! Can’t beat that!!). We then travelled onto the tiny hilltop town of LaGuargia, which overlooks the Rioja grape-growing valleys on all sides, and with only 1100 people living there it was a great relzxing visit. We then went to Haro - again, great wine, people, and food. And surrounded by the best of Rioja’s wine producing companies who base themselves around the town. From here we travelled to Bilbao, capital of the Basque region where we spent a great 4 days walking the city, taking plenty of photos of the outside of the strikingly cotemporary Ghery-designed Guggenheim Museum, and we also made a visit to the oldest Transporter Bridge in the world near the mouth of the city’s river on the coast – this was somewhat of an infrastructure nerds ‘Mecca’. Bilbao surprised us, the old town which we stayed in was busy and always full of locals at all times of the day, but also the new town hadn’t disconnected itself from the old town and performed a function of connecting the City. We really liked it there.

But time ran out and we headed to San Sebastian. We’re not sure what it was but we liked Bilbao more than San Seb. We spent 3 days here, although we’d expected to be here for up to 5. Sure the place had a fantastic old town and some great tapas bars and restaurants, but Bilbao was more our style. We spent our days here walking around the huge crescent-shaped bay which is lined with a stunning gold sandy beach, and is overlooked at each end by two fantastic headlands which give you views over the city to the stunning inland mountain ranges. The temperatures were still so warm that the beach was still attracting a fair few swimmers, seemingly out to catch the last warm days before winter was expected to arrive with a blast any day. Several locals actually told us that it was unseasonably warm even though it was now into November – but we weren’t complaining given the perfect weather we’d had for the last 2 months. There’s plenty more to see in the Bilbao-San Sebastian area, so we will definitely be back to explore the coastal ranges just inland and to do some hiking up there, but not on this trip.

So we moved on to a day and night stop over in Pamplona,, to check out the town now famous for the ‘Running of the Bulls’. We never got to be in the town for this mad festival – too much going on in London to let us get away, but it was still good to see the route of the run marked out along the streets, and see plenty of photos hanging in bars along the way. We had a fantastic meal in one of these places, and actually found the town to be quite a buzzing place with locals everywhere, even though it was a weeknight.

We took an early bus on the last leg of the trip, towards to coast and to our last stop – Barcelona! We met Richard and Jenna here (as they were beginning their time in Spain), and had a brilliant 6 days winding down after the hectic past 2 and a bit months. Even though we had some lazy days just wondering the streets shopping and eating, we got out and experienced some of the renowned nightlife in both the old town and the new harbour areas which were regenerated as part of the 1992 Olympic Games. We took a paella cooking class, took a walk up and around the Olympic stadium to see the Olympic stadium and the torch which we the world had watched being lit by an archers arrow, and spent days walking the city in search of Gaudi-designed buildings which seemed to be everywhere. We also spent a few good hours admiring his legacy/work in progress project – the Sagardia Familia Cathedral – which is a mammoth project scheduled to be finished by around 2020, though this is scoffed at by the locals. I think we preferred Madrid to Barcelona, given the tourist-laden La Rambla and side-streets, or maybe it was the waves of opinionated annoying Americans who seemed to pass through the hostel every day, complaining about what time the restaurants and bars opened. But it was a great fun city with fantastic locals, and some stunning sites which made it a great place to finish of our long trip. So at the end of the last day we put on our packs, walked to the Metro, and trained it out to the airport for our flight back to dreary London.

But Egypt and the Middle-East beckons, so within 72 hours we’ll be on another plane and another trip begins.

We’ve got pages and pages of handwritten travel notes of things that happened on the way, jotted down in two very tattered A5 spiral notepads.. so we’ll see how busy we are over xmas and I’ll try and get the blog finished off with all of those handwritten tales.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Travel update numero uno

Yes we're still alive! Just having too much fun to be bothered trying to post our handwritten 'blog' diary entries online - so here's a quick summary.

We've made it to down to Florence, and are absolutely loving being back in Italy.. But the past few weeks in Poland, the Czech Replublic, and Austria have been brilliant!

Looking back on it all this is what we've done: we flew into Krakow only 3 weeks ago, though it feels like it's been months! - Krakow and what we saw of Poland really surprised us, and our visit to the Auswich-Birkenau camps was a moving experience.. from there we travelled to Prague which was a lot of fun (meeting up with friends Jarvo & Jenna) and a very impressive city to explore, but all those beers and late nights meant we relished a few nights relaxing in the beautiful southern bohemian village of Cesky Kromlov in the southern Czech Republic.. after that we moved over the border, saying goodbye to the old Communist bloc and opening our packet of Euro notes as we entered Austria - here we met up with Carly's mum Jen, auntie Tess, and brother James for 3 nights of classical Vienna which was a big beautiful european city to experience.. Note: at this point the price of beer and coffee tripled.. Not good.

Then with James coming along for the ride we went west to Salzburg and soaked up 'The Sounds of Music' for a few nights. We then left Austria and travelled (via Milan) to the stunning northern towns along the edge of Lake Como (yes, it is amazing Willow!) in far-northern Italy.. From there we went back to Milan and spent a long but great day walking the buzzing streets of the fashion capital Milan, before hoping out to the coast and a long awaited visit and stay on the beautiful Cinque Terra.

After dragging ourselves away from there yesterday afternoon we arrived here in Florence last night, and after getting a great cheap meal and vino and walking some of the city late last night, it looks like we'll be here longer than planned. James heads off tomorrow to Spain to continue his trip, while we travel southwards in a few days time to immerse ourselves in Tuscany-proper. We can't wait!!

Sorry there isn't really much detail or commentary in there about each of the places, but we have been putting pen to paper and keeping a diary of-sorts of all of our little adventures, although with so much to see, do, and taste everywhere we go it's unlikely we'll be spending the time in web cafe's to add much detail until the end.

Ciao for now.. the sounds of all those Vespa's buzzing past on the streets of Florence are calling us.

-shane & carly

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tying loose ends

The last 2 weeks and a bit has been nothing short of chaotic. Just as we did almost 2 years ago we are packing up our lives and moving around the world, except this time it is with a lot more certainty than I think I can say I had when we arrived in England early on the morning of the 15th of September 2004, almost 2 years to the day since I am writing this.

We have moved out of our fantastic flat in West Kensington, and to Pete & Sueanne's place at Eastcote before we jet off to Poland on Thursday - since moving in here and taking over their spare bedroom we've spent our time sorting through all of our possessions, dividing it up into what we'll take back to Brisbane, out of that what we'll take travelling, and what is going straight in the bin or to the charity shop. Not an easy task when you've been accumulating stuff for two years from all over the place. But when you only have so much space to pack it into for the plane trip, you have a big challenge ahead of you when your better half wants to take home 15+ pairs of shoes!

Between sorting, packing, and cleaning over the past weeks we have also been getting out and seeing some particular areas and sights we hadn't been two yet, such as the backstreets of Chelsea, some more bars around Hoxton we hadn't been to, and yet another afternoon session at The White Horse at Parsons Green to farewell London friend Andrew who is heading to Melbourne. Not to mention my first Arsenal Premiership match at Emirates Stadium on the weekend which I'll be bragging about for years to come..

We spent the last few days cleaning our flat before handing over the keys to the agent yesterday - closing the door on the flat was very hard to do.. while it might have only been our home for 8 months, the times we had there were some of our most memorable in London - i'll never forget that roof with the couch and table & chairs on it (and I probably won't let anyone else forget it either!), shish-kebabs on my little coal-fired BBQ, and many sunsets spent chatting away watching the twilight across the chimney tops. Oh, and then there was also watching the planes fly over heading for a landing at Heathrow - oh I will miss all the planes!

I think today summed up how much we have loved living here, and how the big city just makes you love it despite all its challenges, quirks, and differences. We had made plans to meet some friends at a favourite pub at Knightsbridge, and then onto a GBK for some dinner - so having arranged a time to meet at Green Park, Carly and I headed across town from where were both doing different things, only to find our Tube journeys delayed with various problems (Carly's involved her Tube train actually running over someone while she was on it at Hyde Park Corner!). But yet we soldiered on, making our way to the meeting spot by other means, cursing TfL for the delays and closures but all the while enjoying the challenge of getting around the big city despite adversity - in the end, after facing a second series of peak-hour delays and dramas we all met up and had a great night with Pete, Renee & Chris as we ended up in Chiswick.

We both love this town, and it has been both sad and exciting to realise that we are now definitely leaving.

I guess all that's left is to zip up the bags and head out to Gatwick for that first flight of our European adventures - we'll be keeping notes of what we get up to, and hopefully along the way I can get some late-night spare time to keep up the blogging.

More to come from on the road.

Ciao ciao!


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Last day at the LDA

Yesterday I finished up my job at the LDA, and said goodbye to some great people who only added to what was a great working opportunity for me in London. The development policy team I worked in comprised of a small group of planners who under some great leadership from newcomer Lucinda, seems destined for some exciting challenges and new types of work under a new structure which is just commencing - sadly, this happens just as I leave the team. That's how it happens sometimes I guess..

But my time there has been great, and should put me in a good position to utilise the big city experience in whatever I venture into in Brisbane. I guess we'll see what that is come December this year.

After work we went up from St Katharines Dock to The Pride of Spitalfields pub where I was promised a traditional East-end boozer and the best English Ales (a.k.a. beer) I could find - the bosses recommendation didn't disapoint! After a few there, a few of us went to the Truman Brewery complex fronting Brick Lane where we relaxed in a bizarly out of place sandy beach area where you could sit ack in a deck chair and stair out across to the Gherkin. Carly met us here and I introduced her to some of the work crew. When the group had thinned out a bit more we went down Brick Lane and stopped in the Exit bar for a cocktail nightcap, before dropping into what is a Brick Lane insitution - the 24hr Bagel shop for a fresh 'Salted Beef' (Mum/Jay - read 'Corned Beef'! yum!) bagel with mustard, and a cream cheese bagel to save for breakfast if I could stop myself from eating it on the way home.

It was a great night, and I will miss the job and the people very much. It isn't the same when you leave a job and go to another one in the same city - this time I won't be able to just catch up with these guys for lunch or a beer to see how things are, which is a bit sad.

But I certainly won't forget the year and a bit I spent working at a desk overlooking the Thames river, where I could see nearby Tower Bridge opening for the tall shipping, and each day walk into work around the outside of the always impressive walls of the Tower of London. It will be tough to beat that..

So if anyone in south-east Queensland is seeking a qualified town planner with 6 years experience for a senior role in project or development application management starting in December, then drop me a line over the next few weeks!


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Notting Hill Carnival, Round 2

Last year we excitedly went to the Notting Hill/Ladbroke area and got right into the Carnival - watching the parade, drinking a lot of Red Stripe lager, sampling some of the food stalls, and strolling around the southern part of the Carnival area listening to the various sound systems setup. In hindsight we'd probably had a pretty tame day, not really knowing what was happenning.

But this year I wanted to get well and truly into it. So after a few invitation emails during the week, a small team of us met up yesterday morning for a solid breakfast at our favourite Greasy Spoon - the Caffé Caffé next to West Kensington tube - then after loading up with beers from our little corner off-licence we headed up there on the No. 28 bus. Very classy indeed!

We started off at Notting Hill Gate, and walked our way through some of the same areas and same sound systems we were around last year, then across towards Ladbroke Grove, and then northwards up Portobello Road towards the Westbourne Park/Southern Row area of the Carnival where some of the big sound systems are. On the way we came across some amazing streets lined with smoking food stalls cooking all sorts of Afro-Carribean foods to eat on the go, all sorts of free flags and stuff for Carly to collect, drinks vendors with wildly varied prices for cold beers, and some fantastic DJ's and which often kept us dancing in the street amongst the crowd for a while before we pushed onto the next one.

Good Times indeed

We never made it this far north last year, and we were not disapointed with making the effort to get all the way to Norman Jay's 'Good Times' sound system on Southern/Western Row. The street intersection was jammed when got there, but we managed to find a space near the bus to watch the crowd, soak up the music, and have a bit of a dance around enjoying the Good Times sounds that he has been playing at Carnival since 1980. The music they played was the best we heard all day, eminating from the top deck of the bus to the massed crowd. It was definitely the place to be for Carnival! (And this year's Good Times 6 CD is a must-buy, along with the one I got last year)

That's for you Matt!; and, Me and Pete heading home

With the Mas Parade still winding its way around the route and the sun starting to get low, we opted to head back towards Notting Hill to begin our trek home. The streets were even busier by this stage, the soundsystems still entertaining the dancing crowds, and the beer prices even higher by the time we made it back to Portobello Road and then eventually onto the bus for a recovery pub dinner back near our place.

So yes, we had topped our previous Carnival experience, and were very glad that we'd made the effort to do it again.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Haggis farewell

Last night was the last hurrah for what is affectionately known as 'The Haggis People' or 'the boring Haggis couples & Pip' - our group of friends we met on our Haggis Christmas tour of Scotland last year is finally splitting apart as the first of us leaves London to move elsewhere.

So to celebrate what has been a great 9 months meeting up and having some great times, we met in a pub in Mayfair to consume a lot of wine and many many beers while having a good laugh and catch up since we've last all got together.

(photo coming soon)
l-r: Pete, Sueanne, Trish, Santana, Toni, Vaughan, Carly, me, Jenna, Richard, Pip

They're a great bunch of people which we'll really miss getting together with - but I think everyone will try their best to keep in touch as we all spread ourselves across the globe after our time living here together. Pete & Sueanne are of course staying in London for a while longer, after some Europe and U.S. travels Trish and Santana are moving back to New Zealand ("back to where the sound of Te Awamutu has a truly sacred ring" I recall Trish!!?? Ha ha!) but then in January they're coming to live in Brisbane which will be great, Vaughan and Toni are hanging around London for a bit longer, Pip too is staying in London for now, Richard and Jenna are heading back to Perth after some European travels like us, and of course we're Brisbane-bound later in the year. So it was the last time for a while that we'll all be together like that.

Goodbye for now Haggis crew, but no doubt we shall meet again soon.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Happy Birthday Jay

Today is my youngest brother's 16th birthday. I spoke to Jay on the phone last night our time before he dashed off to the train to school, and again this morning before he went out for some italian dinner with the parents. It sounds like he had a good day..

I made him take the above photo on his birthday and email it over, to compare it with the one below taken only 11 months ago when he was in London with me - he looks so different! He also informed me that he is now 1.73 cm tall. That now puts him only inches below me! Whatever happened to my little brother who could walk underneath the overhang on the kitchen bench and we could hide in cardboard boxes?! Madness!

One of my favourite photos

He told me that he'd scored a set of number plates for his birthday, which is a bit of a tradition in our family to get them on your 16th./17th birthday to put on that first car. So stay well out of the way of JAY-090 when you see it racing around Brisbane in the next few years. And in a big surprise for me - he's apparently recently got contact lenses, so the Harry Potter-esque glasses we all loved are gone!

those plates!

Happy birthday from us mate!


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Football is back!

Summer is fading fast, the days are shortening, and all of the teams have released their new strips for the coming season - yes, football is back to dominate the press and the office kitchen conversations..

This year the Arsenal have moved into their huge brand new stadium in Highbury, North London - Emirates Stadium - and have already played a friendly testimonial match there against Ajax to celebrate the retirement of Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp.

Emirates Stadium; Highbury, London (photos from

But last Saturday (Carly's birthday) the Premier League season began with the first Premiership match at their new home against Aston Villa, which ended in a 1-1 draw. We were away in Belgium for the weekend celebrating our birthdays so there was no way I could have visited the stadium and then watched the game in a nearby pub as I had hoped to do - but my workmate and fellow Gooner Andrew A. did go to the ground, and purchased for me a souvenir Match Book from the first Premiership match at the new stadium! I was well impressed when he gave it to me yesterday as it is a going away present to me from the big Ghanaian.

So it has been carefully wrapped for safekeeping for our trip home - and I've promised him that the included poster insert that came in the booklet will be going up in my back shed at Northgate.

It is going to be a long season trying to follow their matches from afar - no doubt plenty of late nights watching Champions League on SBS and streaming Premiership games on the web.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

off to Brussels

You just can't beat the Eurostar. It is one of my favourite things that I have done while living in the UK, and I will miss it terribly.

You book it a little in advance, and the non-flexible ticket is still a reasonable price compared to flights out of a London airport plus the cost of getting there. You take your travel bags to work on Friday morning making sure the house is locked up as you leave. Towards the end of the day you simply make your way across London to Waterloo station via the Underground. You arrive at the check-in area where you collect your tickets from a machine, swipe your ticket, clear security in a couple of minutes, clear both sets of Passport Control (for both departing the UK and arriving into France or Belgium at the other end, all at once), and then if your timing's right you can walk straight through to the train.

There's no long airport transfers, no need to get to the airport hours in advance, no long queues to deal with, no onerous security requirements which the UK has been implementing in the last week, you can use your mobile phone (except in the Chunnel), and best of all no annoying safety demonstration that you sort of feel bad about ignoring!

Potentially within an hour of leaving the office you are making your way up onto the Platform and boarding this sleek, impressive train. If you've thought ahead you've brought with you a nice bottle of Champagne or wine which is fantastic to have while the train trundles its way through South-east London and into the countryside - everyone around you is nice and jealous at this when they realise they should have done that too! This time around we had a fantastic french white wine I got from my work collegues for my birthday - it was damn good and the perfect way to start off the trip..

At the comparative time that you are racing across Kent and into the Channel tunnel, you would still have been waiting in the departure lounge at Gatwick or Stanstead, or possibly even still clearing security. You just can't beat it..

As I write we are travelling at what feels like full speed across the Belgian countryside towards Brussels Midi station, and our traditional weekend away to celebrate our birthdays. I'm really excited to be heading to what feels like the most under-rated city in Europe - only my boss at work, Richard, seems to really like the place, so it will be good to develop my own opinion of it over the next day or so. It seems a bit surreal to be heading to Belgium and its bars, which I am sure will be nothing like the mocked up Belgium Beer Café we used to spend a lot of time in in Brisbane.

More to come tomorrow after we have a night out tonight to see in Carly's birthday..