Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Festive Season travel plans

Just thought I'd add a post to update everyone on what we'll be doing and where we'll be this christmas and new years. We decided early on that we'd already done a London christmas last year, and just incase this is our last one here, that for this one we'd be trying to do something a bit different.

So below are our plans for the coming month of December:

Thursday afternoon December 8th
Fly to New York for 8 days in the Big Apple, and 3 days in Boston.

Monday morning December 19th
Arrive back in London from Boston at 6:30am, and straight back to work

Thursday night December 22nd
Depart London on overnight bus to Edinburgh with friends Pete & Sueanne

Friday morning December 23rd
Arrive Edinburgh from London, then depart Edinburgh an hour later on a 6 day tour of Scotland and the highlands, with christmas day/night in a castle!

Wednesday afternoon December 28th
Return to Edinburgh from Scotland tour

Thursday night December 29th
Depart Edinburgh on overnight bus to London

Friday morning 30th December
Arrive back into London
Collect hirecar and depart London at lunchtime to drive out to Newquay, Cornwall - Staying in the seaside town for 2-3 days, including New Years night with Daniel & Sophie and friends.

Monday afternoon 1st January, or Tuesday morning 2nd January
Drive back to London to meet up with brother Mike and Rebecca


The last part of the trip will be hectic to say the least - we will be travelling from Edinburgh, Scotland.. all the way down to London and then westwards to Newquay, Cornwall, England in under 20 hours! But the travelling will be worth it for the fancy dress party we've been promised in the small town on new years night!

But first of all we have New York to look forward to, where we are meeting Carly's parents for the New York part of the trip. We both can't wait for that in just over a weeks time now! So much so I think the packing begins this weekend..

Then once we return to London in the new year, we have visitors again - this time my brother Michael, with his now fiancé Rebecca on their way home after their mammoth European tour.

Note to those back in Australia:
Most of the time we're away we'll be on e-mail & the web, and with the exception of international roaming in the U.S. between the 8th and 18th, we'll be contactable by phone.

-shane

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Trip with the Fanatics supporters to Leeds

This trip came about as a result of Carly's compulsive obsession to enter every web-based competition advertised in the TNT Magazine here. And her efforts were rewarded with an e-mail saying that we'd won a trip for two with The Fanatics to watch Australia play NZ in the Tri-Nations Rugby League grand final match in Leeds.

So yesterday morning at a rediculous and very cold 7:30am we boarded a coach at Paddington Station with 200 other yellow-coloured Fanatics and began the 4 hour road trip from London to Leeds. After watching some very aussie videos on the coach for entertainment (what else but The Castle, and The Geatest Moments in Grand Final Rugby League), we arrived in a very cold and dreary looking Leeds just after lunch, dropped off (of course) outside of the Walkabout Pub.

We gave the pub a miss for a while, and I showed Carly around the centre of Leeds which Dan and I had visited late last year. The shopping up there is pretty impressive for a regional city, and the Victorian-style arcades have all of the big fashion names within some very well regenerated Mews-style buildings just off the main Mall.

But we weren't up here for shopping - we'd come for the footy! So we walked back to the Walkabout to have the first of many Snakebites and Vodka-Red Bulls for the afternoon, and watch New Zealand play Scotland, and England play Samoa in the Rugby Union on the TV during the afternoon. Dan rang us from the England vs Samoa game where he was at Twickenham in London, to warn us that he would be standing out on the side of the field as the English players ran on, and to keep an eye on the tellie. He was there coaching kids from his school who'd played the warm up match, and sure enough, as the players ran out of the tunnel, there was the mug standing there at the end of the row of school kids as the camera followed the players out! We couldn't beleive it!! As we sat there in Leeds watching Fox Sports Live, we could see him at the bottom of the screen in his grey jacket/jumper. We could even see it was him as he took photos of the players from close-up! Not exactly setting a good example to the students!!!

After those televised games were fnished, it was time to rug up and head to the game in a cab. When we got there and found our gate, we discovered that the ground was a dry-ground for League games - we were absoltely gutted, how were we going to keep warm for 2.5 hours!!

We soon found our seats with the others that we'd travelled with, and The Fanatics began their chanting and cheering as the game began.

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Carly in front of the field with her Fanatics shirt on; and with some of the other Fanatics

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Our very yellow section of the crowd; and Anthony Minichielo underneath the goals just in front of our great seats

But it wasn't to be a good result. The Aussies ended up getting flogged by 24-0 by a very impressive NZ team which had the support of every Australian-hating English Rugby League fan in the ground at Elland Road. Our small but vocal 200-strong group sitting behind the goals at one end, down at the front right near the dead-end line didn't stand a chance!

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Carly and I with our crowd of Fanatics

Still with heads held high and flags still waving we ventured back to the meeting point for the buses, and began the 4 hour trip back down to London, arriving back to Paddington at 1:30am, and home a little bit later on the Night Buses. A very long day to be beaten 24-0.

-shane

Friday, November 25, 2005

Our new camera

Today, I have finally got back into one of my loves - SLR photography

A few of you may remember the years of joy I had with my beloved Pentax SLR (and 70-300mm lens stolen from Pricey!), which I brought in 1999 and took on many memorable trips such as Indonesia, the Sydney Olympics, many 21st birthdays and parties, and a few camping trips and other adventures - that thing chruned out some fantastic shots which I am still very proud of. But it was somewhat short-lived as it had a tragic death in my alcohol-affected hands in 2002, when I dropped it onto a timber floor at James Smith's 18th birthday party, and it just never came back to life - lessoned learned, expensive cameras do not bounce!

At that time, with our expected travels nearing, we decided to change to the digital world and buy our current Canon IXUS 400 compact digital camera. In the 3 years since we got it, that thing has now been everywhere with us - from the snow fields of Victoria in Australia, across European cities, up to 3500m in the French Alpes, and all over the UK. With 7000+ photos taken with it, I just cannot seem to kill it!!

So.. with our big trips planned in the coming months to some very photogenic places, I decided it was time to buy a digital SLR to make the most of my photographic opportinities.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you my newest toy - The Canon 350D Digital SLR



This thing, despite being at the bottom of the range of Canon's dSLR's, cost us an absolute packet! - but I think its definitely worth it (though I think I will have to convince Carly with the photograhic outputs!). With some timely pre-christmas specials going in UK retailers and a significant cash-back offer from Canon available at the moment, it was good timing to take the plunge now so that we can use it in the U.S. in a few weeks time, in Scotland over Christmas, and on various winter trips we have in mind for early next year.


One of the first shots from the camera - unpacking the Canon goodies in the lounge room

At this stage I only have the basic kit lens which comes with the package (Canon 18-55 mm EF-S lens f3.5-5.6), but with some travels coming up that will warrant a longer zoom lens, I will be looking at getting some 300mm glass in the near future.

But for now i'm very content with this fantastic camera, the outputs of which you will see appearing on the blog from now on. As for the baby IXUS - yes, it is far from gone, and will perform a critical role at parties and nights out when the dSLR isn't allowed anywhere near me after a few pints!

-shane


P.S. So Coxen, I once again have a better camera than you! - and no crappy Sony Cybershit is going to knock this thing of the top perch.. I think you might have to consider buying a real camera next time you smash yours and need a replacement (as this happens quarterly, that must be scheduled for next month!?). And no-one cares that it can take videos.. that's what video cameras are for! Ha!!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Another spargo betrothed!

We got word during the day today that my brother Michael and now fiancé Rebecca Brown got engaged in the very romantic medieval town of Bruges, in Belgium, while on their European travels at the moment.

There aren't too many details yet about how it all happened this morning as they don't have a phone we can call them on, so everyone has just had a quick phone chat with him today when he rang to spread the news - but apparently there was a series of well planned-out surprises as Bec was lead around the beautiful town on the trail of a series of notes he'd left, leading up to finding Michael waiting for her in the markt square (I think!?) with the big question - and she said yes!!.. I was so excited to hear about when I got the text message, I got him to call me at work to tell me the details before I came home. I called mum when I got home so we could trade stories of what we've heard from him.

And from what he said there isn't a ring as yet, as they plan to get it when they return home early next year. And with their busy year next year going head-long into his big pharmacy business plans in Toowoomba, we are hopeful that there won't be a wedding until 2007 so we won't be called home again.

So 2007 now potentially becomes a very big year! Possibly two Spargo weddings and a whole lot more!!

Congrats guys. We are so happy for you!!

-shane

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Australian Socceroos are going to the World Cup!

Just moments ago, we got the news off of the web that the Australian Socceroos, had won a penalty shoot-out against Uraguay, and by winning the 2nd leg of the double-header had one the final place in our qualifying group and a place in the 2006 football World Cup! The biggest sporting event tournament in the world, just over on the continent in Germany throughout June/July next year - and Australia will be there!! Everyone here is just so excited about it, as we haven't been there in 31 years!

To give you an idea of the excitement and tension, below is the transcript from the Football Australia text commentary which streamed over their website as it happened at Stadium Australia. We all kept an eye on it from work here at the LDA throughout the long morning as Australia went from a 1-0 lead at full-time - thereby making it a 1-1 all draw overall after the first match in Montevideao. The game then went through extra-time, with still no change in the score - so then we were on to penalty shots. Below is how we saw it happen (read from the bottom upwards)..


John Aloisi puts the final and decisive penalty into the back of the goal!!

Mark Schwarzer has relived 1993 all over again with two memorable saves in the shootout.

This is one of the proudest saves of my life, the crowd is going
absolutely beserk.

John Aloisi - goal YES WE ARE GOING TO THE WORLD CUP - 4-2
Marcelo Zalayeta - saved 3-2
Mark Viduka - miss 3-2
Fabian Estoyonoff - goal 3-2
Tony Vidmar - goal 3-1
Gustavo Varela - goal 2-1
Lucas Neill - goal 2-0
Dario Rodriguez - saved 1-0
Harry Kewell - goal 1-0
Australia will start off
Its going to be heartbreak for one team in this most cruellest of ways.
120' It's down to penalties.
119' Schwarzer is able to grab a Zalayeta header that looks
goalbound.
117' Morales shot across the face... that was close.
116' Skoko volley goes well wide.
115' Cahill cross, Lugano great tackle to deny Viduka.
114' Skoko wins corner... but foul called on Cahill.
110' Australia sub - Emerton off - Skoko on
....


From what i've read on the web this afternoon, the two saves by Australian (& Middlesborough) keeper Mark Schwarzer saved the day - however unlike in 1993 when Schwarzer made the required saves and our strikers could not find the net, this year they found their mark..

So once we find out about the final draw on December the 9th, we'll be trying to get ourselves over to Germany next year to be in the same city when one of their Pool matches is played, and you never know, maybe into the final rounds as well!!

-shane

Monday, November 07, 2005

Liverpool, The Beatles, and Spargo at The Cavern Club

With James in town, it seemed like an opportune time to head to the North and finally visit the City of Liverpool, and the home of The Beatles.

Carly had been flat out with work during the past few weeks, so organising this weekend trip hadn't exactly gone to plan.. even on the day we were meant to pick up the hire car, we were still trying to secure somewhere to stay for the Saturday night we would spend there. But, apparently because it is renowned as a bit of a weekend party town in the North, this was proving more difficult than we ever expected. But at the last minute very late on the Friday night we decided to give it a shot regardless, and we went out to Heathrow and collected the hire car, ready to leave early the next morning.

We hit the road at 8:30am on Saturday with a 4 hour drive ahead of me. This would be the first James would see of England outside of London, and with the miles of M1 motorway to cover he would be seeing a lot of it! Carly was on the mobile for the first half-hour of the journey trying to get some accommodation from a list of possible phone numbers - and in usual Smithy fashion she got very lucky and scored a cheap 3-bed room at the YHA, following a cancellation just minutes earlier!! So we were on our way, and we wouldn't have to sleep in the car!!

After a few stops at Services for coffee etc, and some very fast driving along the M6 toll road which bypasses Birmingham (yes Jen, I drove as fast as I could while near Birmingham for fear of having the hubcaps stolen if I stopped!!), we made Liverpool just after lunch and found the YHA.

We checked in and then walked straight into town, as we had booked ourselves on The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour, which would take us around all of the major Beatles sights in the City and suburbs. We got on the fantastic and very authentic MMT bus, and headed off with our excellent tour guide mad Eddie and the driver (can't remember his name!!), who we soon found out both actually went to school with some of the Beatles lads, and knew absolutely everything there was to know about their lives and music.

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James and Carly on-board and outside The Magical Mystery Tour bus

As the bus toured many of the sites immortalised in some of the most famous songs the world has ever heard, the tour guide would put the relevant cassette into the bus tape player, and the songs would blast out of the dodgy speakers and we'd sing along. As we went, many of the song lyrics were explained to us as we saw the various sights, and when he then played the song you could actually sit there on the bus, looking out the window at the exact scene or building that Lennon/McCartney had written about.

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Carly, me, and James at the Penny Lane street sign

An excellent example of this was the drive along Penny Lane, where we were able to get out and get some photos with the street sign. We then drove along the street and had the lyrics explained to us, and as we neared the end of the 'Lane' we could see buildings such as the hairdresser/barber shop:

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he's had the pleasure to know.
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello.



Next to that was the now renovated bus shelter, and before that we saw the hospital where the 'pretty nurse' would have worked:

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And tho' she feels as if she's in a play
She is anyway.



And there was also the bank still there on the corner:

On the corner is a banker with a motorcar,
The little children laugh at him behind his back.
And the banker never wears a mack
In the pouring rain, very strange.


This stuff was just brilliant to be seeing in person, and this tour was the best way to have it all explained - after my old QR manager JC recommended it to us, we've already been recommending it to everyone we know!

After Penny Lane we visited the original homes of all of the Beatles, which have since become properties of the National Trust - this mightn't seem that interesting as I write it here, however as an example when we visited the family home of Paul McCartney and were shown the window of the bedroom where he and John Lennon wrote so many of their songs, there was definitely a certain sense of aura when you considered the creative magic that must have happened in that very room! We went past the schools they attended, the various venues where they played in their early days in other bands (such as the Quarrymen), and we also went through the Docks area beside the Mersey River and heard about the music and bands inspired by the Ferry across the Mersey.

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The McCartney house, and the window to that famous song-writing bedroom; me and the bus

We also travelled to the Strawberry Fields childrens home, which was just near John Lennon's old family home. Just before that was the church where some of the inspiration for the song 'Eleanor Rigby' originated - we returned there on Sunday to find what we think was the grave of this lonely lady, although we think that was more coincidence than anything.

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James at the gates of Strawberry Fields

This brilliant tour finished up back in the City, at the world-famous Cavern Club, where The Beatles playes some 292 times, and Paul McCartney and other world-famous names many times since then. Since reading some of Ross Smith's Beatles books about the band, i'd been dying to see this place and catch some live music there, so earlier in the week i'd checked their website and gig listing for that weekend. I couldn't beleive what I found!

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Carly and James at The Cavern Club

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Mathews Street, the scene of much destruction later on that night

Amongst some other bands from Manchester etc. there was an Australian independant band listed to play that Saturday night, called Spargo! I did some research on the web and discovered thay were a 4-peice group from Melbourne, and had released an EP and were currently promoting a second EP on a summer/autumn UK tour. This was definitely the right weekend to be in Liverpool - a Spargo getting to see a band called Spargo in the Cavern Club!!

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The gig list for the week at The Cavern Club, including Spargo from Australia!!

So after visiting a few other bars along the famous Mathews Street were the Cavern is, we headed home to have a quick shower and get back into the City for a night out. Starting at the Weatherspoons for a quick pub meal, I made James have his first British warm ale, which I really don't think he enjoyed (based on the observation that it took him twice as long to get it down that he normally drinks a pint!!).

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James and his first room temerature English ale

After that we went straight around to the Cavern Club to make sure we would get tickets to see the bands that night. We got in and got a spot up the back and then hit the bar for what would become a very messy session indeed!

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The Beatles performing on the old stage at The Cavern Club; and a DJ on that same famous stage on the night we were there!

Coming on 2nd last meant that we'd had an absolute skinful by the time Spargo hit the stage.. I went straight up and said hi to the band when they came on stage, and the lead singer (Lach) told me they had a few of their new EP for sale after the set. They are a bit hard to describe, almost a bit like the Waifs except all blokes and a bit more 'bluesy' rather than 'folky'. Here's a link to a few interviews they've done where they discuss their music, and are also asked to explain where the band name comes from!! You can also here a sample of their songs at this site here..

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a few shots I took of Spargo on-stage at The Cavern Club

We thought they put on a great set, playing the songs from the EP, and also a few others. The intimate crowd in the venue seemed to enjoy it, and it was fantastic to hear their strong Aussie accents as they introduce themselves and talked to the crowd.

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the cover of the Spargo EP - Sunday Morning

After the set I went around and got myself an EP, and had a chat to them and laugh about the name coincidence. Later on with their gear packed up they said hi to Carly and James, and then came up again and said goodbye before they left - absolute top blokes who can be assured they have fans for life, and also a couple of people who've been recommending them everywhere since!!

But the night was far from over. The Mathews Street area is part of the buzzing Liverpool nightlife scene and the 'Scousers' know how to have a big night. So we headed down the street and found ourselves in succession going into a 70's bar, and 80's bar, and a 90's bar! Only in Liverpool I guess! Each of them played music from that decade, and in some of them, you'd swear a few of the patrons had been in there wearing the same clothes since the respective decade!! Some scary sights!

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Doing the YMCA on the way out of the Cavern Club (beleive it or not, the DJ was playing it as we left!!) - very embarrassing

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I have no idea which of the 'decades' we were dancing to, but needless to say the music was terrible, and it was messy - and how about those fluro Pints!!

With the three of us pretty messy by about 2-2:30am, we headed home and to bed, not before a few mid-street YMCA recitals and dance routines.

Thankfully, our accommodation included a greasy breakfast fry-up in the morning, which a couple of us struggled to keep down. After that we went back into the City to see the rest of the town - I was itching to see the famous Lime Street railway station (James and Carly were a little less interested in that), and sporting ugly angovers we also wandered around the interesting backstreets around the newly-regenerated CBD area.

We also went up the hill to see the huge Liverpool Catherdral. But despite its impressive external facade and enourmous scale, it was a bit disapointing inside.

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Liverpool Cathedral - big, but boring

Time was running out and with a long 4 hour drive back down to London we got in the car to leave Liverpool, but not before we took one last drive around some of the route that The Magical Mystery Tour had taken, just so that I could drive along Penny Lane with my new Magical Mystery Tour CD (i'd just brought at Virgin Liverpool) playing out loud.

All of us thought it was a great city, and all three of us were very glad we didn't just take the easy option and spend the weekend in London. There'll be plenty of time for James to see more of the Capital when he's back over here again soon.

-shane

Friday, November 04, 2005

Hotel reviews - the trials of booking travel accommodation

In planning our trip to Liverpool this weekend, we hit our usual Hotel review site when comparing accommodation options before making any bookings - TripAdvisor - to see what we might be getting into when selecting where to stay.

One such option we were looking at today, was a B&B called The Antrim Hotel. The quaint family-run establishment looked ok for our weekend stay when we checked the price, but that was until we read the reviews on TripAdvisor. What I found was some of the funniest reviews i've seen written on the web.

Now normally you expect people to have a differing of opinions, and even the best accommodation we've stayed at in our travels so far has received at least a few bad comments and reviews (usually always from whinging Americans mind you!).. BUT! the comments for The Antrim were a cut above, and worthy of an entry here..

Click here to see the full listing of reviews, however here were a few of my personal favourites:

"Fawlthy Towers"Jun 24, 2003: A TripAdvisor Member, Mandal, Norway

Antrim is the most terrible hotel i have ever been to. We got a room for five persons. With no shower, no toilet, no place to wash up and brush our teet, filthy beds and floor. The lock in our door did not work and we had to use a screwdriver to get in and out from the room. The manager was so drunk he could not speak when we arrived. We had to go to next floor to find a toilet and when we got there there was water (or something else????) on the floor so we had to wear rubberboots to keep dry. Fawlthy Towers for real. We travel from Norway at least once a year to see football. But never again to Antrim!


"WOnderful little Place" May 9, 2003: A TripAdvisor Member, Dublin, Ireland

We stayed in The Antrim, a couple weeks back. Its dead in the city Centre and an excellent venue for stag parties. (Theres hookers nearby) The Rooms though not the ritz, are clean, modern and have a nice refreshing smell. The Hotel is full of charcter, i particularly liked the period hole in the wall, where someone had kicked it in, probably back in the middle ages. Kelly wanked into the daily sport and left it for Gordy to find! Did'nt have breakfast in the hotel, as i did'nt want to develop a third nipple. The oul daw, Flo is a bit rough, but well up for a bit of slap and tickle. But be warned, she murdered her husband. Be warned thouh also, there is a sneaky wee afgan hound who works behind the bar, complete prick. They will look £28 a night off you, don't pay them. £15 tops, or do what i did and do a runnerThere was some fat guy with a belfast accent running around the hotel naked, i'm still having nightmares!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


"Romance of Hotel of Antrim" Nov 10, 2003: A TripAdvisor Member, Moscow,
Russia

I vent to ze hotel in the Christmas of last. My lover Albo took me as surprise for ze birthdays. He booked this best room for the special occasions. I wear my best dress and we have the meal in bedroom. oh I remember I have ze fish and chip, so famous in England yes! Albo my lover had plant the ring in the fish for my present! The wonderful feeling of the shock and surprise. I have luck I do not eat zis ring! We go back for the honeys Moon in teh next year.

Needless to say, based on this, we won't be staying at The Antrim this weekend!!!

-shane

Guy Fawkes in Barons Court Road

While James has been visiting, we have been hearing and seeing the fireworks season get into full swing, firstly with the Dwali Festival fireworks last week and this week, and then this weeks lead up to Guy Fawkes this Saturday night. Coincidently this year is the 400th anniversary of the attempt to blow up the English Parliament.

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Many of the locals in our area have been firing rockets from the street and rooftops, and earlier tonight someone just down the street let loose with some spectaular rockets shot over their terrace house roof, exploding above our street just a few doors down. This is the best I could do with my camera and without a tripod.

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Not quite as brazen as last year's drama's when we fired some off our own 8th floor verandah and into the Thames, but still exciting to watch all the same.. And it gave James a good idea of what he can expect from this very English celebration if/when he moves here next year.

-shane

Thursday, November 03, 2005

James Smith in London, & we go see the Stereo MC's in Camden

We've hardly recovered from our three days in Berlin, and then Carly's brother James arrives back into London for a week's stay as part of his first European backpacking trip!! He dropped in a few weeks back just for the night, on his way to starting his european adventure, so this time would be his first real experience of London life, and a good sample of what he'd be in for if he follows through with plans to come and live here next year.

So during the day while we were at work, he made his own way around town, making full use of his off-peak Travelcard to well and truly cover most parts of the West End and parts of the City. Each night he'd return home with more famous sights crossed off his lost, and stories of how he'd been very happily just getting lost in all the backstreets of the town, and then just finding a tube station and making his way home..

To give him a look around some different areas of London, and a taste of what we get up to here, I got some tickets to see a mid-week gig of a favourite hip-hop group of Carly's - the Stereo MC's - at a venue in Camden last night. So after work we travelled across town to Mornington Crescent tube, and went straight into the venue to enjoy a great live performance and a few tasty mid-week beers while we watched the show - James had developed a liking to the extra large cans you get over here!! Because of noise restrictions and the like, the show only went until just past 11pm, so we then headed home afterwards on the bus, travelling via Kings Cross and the West End.

(left) Carly's new Stereo MC's t-shirt purchased at the gig

This weekend we have some vague plans about going up to Liverpool. We have a hire car booked for the long drive, but at this stage we have been struggling to book any accommodation in the town as it gets very popular for weekend trips. Fingers crossed we can organise something, otherwise we'll be staying in the capital, which isn't such a bad thing anyway.

-shane

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Berlin

Berlin. Another city I've been itching to get amongst. So without hesitation we booked some cheap Ryanair flights out of London Stansted, easily convinced friends Peter and Sueanne to do the same, and the four of us headed to Berlin for a long-weekend. Coincidently, and without any forward planning, we had timed our trip to exactly when my brother Michael and girlfriend Rebecca would be visiting the city on their 3 month European backpacking tour, so we made plans to stay at the same accommodation.

We opted for an 'early' Saturday morning flight, meaning that to avoid sleeping at the airport the night before (on the floor!!) we'd have to take Sueanne's work car and face the long drive across the city at 4am to get on our 6:30am flight - but it proved worth it when we returned late on Monday night, and were able to walk out of the terminal, and hop straight into a car and drive straight home, avoiding all of the usual dramas of the train or bus back to West London. You don't realise how rubbish that train/bus trip can be, until you don't have to do it!!

We arrived into Berlin on-time, and faced a very crisp cool morning. But at least the weather was fine. We made our way to the East Berlin hotel we were staying at, and after ditching our bags we headed straight out in search of big beers and bratwurst - we were not disapointed!

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The travellers, and the amazing buildings in the square on museum island

Very soon after we got off of the plane and began the journey from the airport to the city on the train, one key theme began to emerge - EFFICIENCY - everyone jokes about the Germans being efficient, on-time, and a bit serious.. however it was very obvious as we made our way around the city that this was all pretty much on the mark - everything was on-time, everything seemed to have and be in its place, the way things were layed out and designed oozed efficiency. This undercurrent continued throughout the whole stay, making us laugh each time we came across yet another example of things being just right.

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Amazing buildings and features on some of the old palace-style buildings not far inside East Berlin

As we began to explore the eastern side of the city around Alexanderplatz, we walked straight into a street market on our way to the museum island area and Pete & I were able to sample our first of many german sausage/bratwurst snacks for the trip. While we indulged, the girls walked through the markets at Hackescher Markt. We then found some fantastic funky clothes shops in a great street just around the corner and carly indulged a little, taking advantage if the pound-euro conversion.

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Our first crossing through Brandenburg Gate

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Some of my shots of the Reichstag German parliament building; and me and Peter with my 'loaned' 10D Canon dSLR

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The unique office and residential architecture, sitting alongside the parliament building area; and the East Berlin pedestrian crossing signals

We then pretty muched lapped the main part of East Berlin, from the amazing square on museum island, around and up to the Brandenberg Gate into West Berlin, and then past the Reichstag, following the river back into East Berlin and to the square next to the station at Hackescher Markt, where Pete and I indulged in our first 1 litre beer.

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The first of the 1L beers!

After just one of these monsters, the cold got the better of us and we headed back to the hotel to meet brother Mike and Bec, and then head out for dinner.

Finding somewhere to eat with 6 people isn't the easiest thing in the world, so I took on the unfortunate task of picking somewhere - stupidly I looked to the Lonely Planet, which, despite letting me down in the past, I trusted to take us across town for some very traditional German faire beyond the Potsdama Platz area, in yet another area previously split in two by the Wall. We eventually found the very full restuarant, and on finding it to be fully booked and unable to accommodate us, we had to start the search again. Mike did the job this time, darting into a Holiday Inn Hotel to get a recommendation for another restuarant in the area, and we were on our way again - but with some success this time.. We got a table at this German resturant and surveyed the menu for the most traditional dish we could find, and tucked into some great food and beers. After our very early start we headed home soon after for some sleep, in preperation for what was to be an epic day on the Sunday.

My mate Dan had told me about the 8+ hour walking tour offered by Brewers Berlin Walking Tours, and it seemed like the best way to get the 6 of us around the city without arguments of what to see etc. So after a fantastic breakfast of meat, cheese, and more meat at the hotel, we headed to the start point of the tour, to meet our fantastic tour guide Barnaby.

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Residential buildings - Communist pre-fab East Berlin-style!; our group on a display section of the wall near an old crossing point

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Brandenberg Gate, this time with Mike and Bec with us on the walking tour; and the path of where the wall once stood near the gate - now traversing traffic

The tour was brilliant, and we're all guaranteed to recommend it to anyone else we know going to the city. We saw everything we wanted to see and more! Barnaby's knowledge of the city was beyond impressive, and we were taken to some of the most imporant sites in 19th and 20th Century history, including several key points of where the Berlin Wall once stood; the Brandenberg Gate and the parliament building - the Reichstag; stood above the bunker of Adolf Hitler; an amazing open air display/museum in the basement of the former SS headquarters - the very confronting Topography of Terror; the recently constructed monument to the jewish victims of the holocaust; the site of the U.S. Checkpoint Charlie; many of the cities major chruches, monuments, and memorials; the amazing(?) architectural designs of buildings in communist East Berlin including actually visiting the inside of an apartment restored to its former cold war glory; the square containing the site of the famous 'book burning' incident; many of the major sites of Nazi and Cold War Berlin.. basically the list is endless because every 5 minutes over the 9 hours of the tour we'd stop and hear some quirky tale or amazing historical fact about the site we were looking at. At one stage of the tour, we were standing in an area surrounded by impressive modern buildings, and were told by Barnaby that actually nothing stood here not 15 years earlier because we were in no-mans-land where the Wall once stood - Berlin had undergone a massive re-building program at the end of the Cold War divide, resulting in massive debts for the city, but some amazing feats of construction and restoration work. Even now there are still cranes, scaffolding and barricades everywhere, which to our shock was much worse 5 years earlier at the height of the regeneration work!! Even more than usual my camera got an absolute work out shooting some of the most impressive architecture i've seen in Europe so far.. I even got to loan Sueanne's Canon 10D digital SLR to get some high quality ones of some buildings I loved.

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The controversial monument to Jewish holocaust victims - a very confrunting piece of art..

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The site of Hitler's bunker, buried far beneath this non-descript car park

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A former communist party building and the old and new murals on display; and a 'still-standing' section of the wall at sunset

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The signage at the old U.S. Checkpoint Charlie - the scene of many Cold War tank stand-offs

At the end of that day we were absolutely spent. We made it back to the hotel, by which time it was very dark and getting very cold. But, a quick shower and change and we were on the pavement again, looking for dinner in an area of bars and restuarants in the Prenzlauer Berg area in east Berlin, recommended by Barnaby that day. We found a great contemporary restuarant where we were able to fuel up with some impressive schnitzels (3 out of 4 of us ordered the same!), and sample a few more German beers. The restuarant was fantastic and the suburb very much like Fortitude Valley back in Brisbane (it even had its very own Apple reseller store with a Classic in the window!). The six of us spent most of that night discussing what we'd seen during the long day on foot, and figuring out what we were going to see on our final day. Friends Peter and Sueanne also enjoyed spending dinner finding out a bit more about Mike and I as brothers, fuelled on by contributions by Bec and Carly.. Mike & Bec told us plenty about their huge European tour so far, and a heap of funny stories about people with walking sticks and strange moustaches to name a few funny situations.. they also talked about what their big plans were for their return to Queensland in the new year, and the exciting things they have ahead of them. We also placed a mobile call from dinner to Mum back in Brisbane, wishing her a happy birthday for the 31st of October, which it already was on the other side of the world.

The next day was the last one for us and Sue and Peter, however Mike and Bec were staying another 2 days in Berlin - so they moved hotels to be closer to the city centre. We met them mid-morning at the Reichstag, and walked back along some of the previous days tour to the Topography of Terror museum display at the old SS headquarters building, right next to the longest remaining section of the wall.

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Mike and I at the Wall; and Carly and I

After going through the display, we headed to the centre of old West Berlin to see the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church near the Zoologischer Garten train station. This momument is a church which was heavily damaged by bombing in World War II, but has been stabilised and retained in its damaged state as a memorial to the mindless destruction of war. You can still walk through the remains, however it is in stark contrast to the modern westernised buildings around it that remind you that you are in what was always West Berlin.

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The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in West Berlin

From there we looked around what was actually the pretty uninteresting area of the main business and shopping area of West Berlin (of course in comparison to what we'd been experiencing in East Berlin), and after that we headed to back to the East for a few final monster 1L beers and something to eat (Pretzels and Bratwurst again!) before we would have to leave for the airport.

Mike and Bec met us here for a drink after they had a longer look around west Berlin while we collected our bags from the hotel, and after that we said goodbye to them until they return to London on the first day of 2006. With a few litres of German beer under our belts, we then headed to the train out to the airport, and our late flight back to London.

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End of the trip, outside Berlin-Schonefeld airport

An amazing city with some amazing history.

-shane