#22 Amsterdam again … or into every great holiday a little shit must fall

August 22, 2012

Here’s our review posted to airbnb for our “Rent your own houseboat Amsterdam” experience … says it all really …


Not the scenic view from our houseboat.


Admiring the architecture, while wondering what to do about our accommodation.










Houseboat is too generous a description for this accommodation.
It is not so much a house as a caravan, and a primitive one at that. There is no electricity, no running water and no flushing toilet, some facts I believe Justin should make clear on his listing. And the “neighbouring” boat for the shower is across a public car park.
We were prepared for gas cooking and kerosene lighting and a camp toilet after asking Justin specifically for these details, but the “potty” is right in the middle of the living/sleeping space, opposite the sink (which no longer drains on to the floor but runs via a plastic pipe through the side of the boat) so there is no privacy whatsoever.
And given the state of the rest of the site we were not sure how well the camp toilet had been maintained, so weren’t game to use it.
The boat’s blinds are broken, the main window near the bed is broken and patched with perspex and ply, the window in the entrance door is covered with paper.
The gangplank is narrow and would be treacherous in the wet, and the boat itself is moored behind a bank of weeds next to some dirty public toilets. The cobbles of the carpark as you approach the boat are littered with toilet paper.
So while the location itself is great, just near central station, there is nowhere you can sit and enjoy it. There is no deck on the boat and nowhere to sit nearby.
There is no wifi available on the boat, as advertised … you have to stand in the carpark to log in to a nearby hotel’s network. And it is difficult to cook as there is no refrigerator, little bench space and very few utensils supplied. Certainly none of the homey offerings and assistance we have come to enjoy from other airbnb hosts.
As a consequence we stayed away from the boat as long as possible, returning only to sleep … At least the bed was comfortable.
We seriously considered moving shortly after we arrived but decided we didn’t want to spend our one full day in Amsterdam arguing over accommodation and trying to find another place to stay. And as Justin was out of town we were dealing with his neighbour, who appeared a little embarrassed by the whole episode.
In hindsight I wish we had gone elsewhere as it did sour our Amsterdam experience. I wish we had seen Christopher’s review before we booked.
We were prepared for an “authentic” experience and have stayed on friends’ boats in Australia. But “authentic” does not need to be Third World.
We would never stay here again and would not recommend it at all, especially at this price.

I also messaged Justin (the boatman) directly expressing our disappointment and asking him to consider refunding us one night’s accommodation. Haven’t heard anything back yet and don’t expect to.
The experience did spoil our return to Amsterdam, despite our best efforts … But not our love of Amsterdam. Reason enough for another visit, perhaps even another houseboat stay.


I am(still)sterdam despite our dreadful houseboat experience.

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#21 Wonderful, wonderful Roskilde

August 14, 2012

Arriving in Denmark on the ferry from Sweden.

The song goes “wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen …” and I’ve been singing it in my head for the past few days, although I can’t remember any more of the words (*must google that).
But we reckon Roskilde, about half an hour away and home to our friends Lene and Carsten and their kids, is even more wonderful.
I enjoyed seeing the little mermaid statue, a tribute to Copenhagen’s favourite son Hans Christian Anderson, even if the tourist brochures warn it can be disappointing. And I was reminded that HCA also wrote one of my favourite childhood stories, the Ugly Duckling (*must read that again).

The little mermaid statue, Copenhagen.

The rest of Copenhagen was like many of the other European cities we had visited, but not as grand as St Petersburg or as romantic as Amsterdam. Sadly we found it to be quite dirty, with loads of rubbish, broken glass and general filth on the streets. We arrived the morning after the city’s gay pride parade but that should be no excuse. There were no teams of cleaners as I would expect in Sydney after mardi gras.
Roskilde, on the other hand, had large green parks, a fjord with a beach and a swish new marina and a fascinating history. The city was Denmark’s original capital and all Danish kings and queens are buried in its cathedral; then some years ago a stash of Viking ships were discovered scuttled in the fjord, which triggered a rebuilding project that makes for a great tourist attraction. Our main reason for visiting, however, was to catch up with Lene and Carsten.
We first met during our family holiday to central Australia some 16 years ago. They were living in Adelaide at the time and were having car troubles when we struck up a conversation in the Uluru campground. We spent a few days together visiting the Olgas, stopping to peer at lizards on the roads, and watching the sun set over the rock. We have a photo of our kids (Liz, Sam and their two boys) perched on the roof of our old Jackaroo.
Now our kids have grown, they have another child, a daughter Josefina, and they are well and truly settled back home, near their families, in Denmark.
The years, though, melted away as we shared stories and memories over delicious home-cooked meals, including some traditional Danish pickled fish. Quite tasty really. Lene and Carsten were as gentle and funny and friendly as we remembered.
We enjoyed a wonderful evening celebrating a family milestone, 25 years of Carsten’s sister and her husband sharing a communal home with another couple (and all their children).
And spent another glorious day and evening at another sister’s holiday house on Mons island, about an hour away to the south. We visited Mons Klint (chalk cliffs) with Carsten and Josefina, searched for fossils on the flint beach, and then came back to the cottage to eat blackberries picked from the garden hedge with fresh-cooked pancakes. Yum.
We are inspired to grow more of our own veggies, use more fresh produce in our meals … and return to spend a week just relaxing and appreciating the beauty of nature in this chilled-out country.







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#20 Norway

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August 9, 2012 There is more to Norway than fjords. There are cities and towns and industry and farms and ski fields and glaciers. But the fjords and the soaring mountains that define them will be the reason we return. … Continue reading

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#19 Moose bagging

August 8, 2012

We meet Raul, another motorcyclist on the ferry from Finland to Sweden. He’s an English-speaking Spaniard living in Helsinki who’s married to a Swedish-speaking Finn who was working in Spain. The world is a small place.
He and Graham talk bikes and swap travel yarns while I catch up on some facebooking (and then have to go sit quietly somewhere to calm the seasick feeling).
The ferry is nowhere near as flash as the one we caught with the Daskos to Holland. We have to tie our own bikes down and the seating areas are packed.
We arrive near midnight into Umea. No idea why the ferry runs when it does … wouldn’t it make more sense to go late afternoon and arrive in the early evening? Graham and I figure it’s a conspiracy by the two port towns to force people to spend money with them.
We have spent several hours in Vaasa’s McDonalds (free wifi) and must now stay overnight in Umea. We were a captive audience. It is raining when we leave Finland but dawns clear if a bit cloudy in Sweden.
We notice the accommodation has already become expensive and, looking ahead to Norway, realise we aren’t going to find a hotel room for less than $180 a night in this part of the world. We were warned.
Sweden is pretty and friendly and safe, however, which makes it a pleasure to visit.
We noticed in the centre of Vaasa, a sizeable city, that bicycles were left unlocked on the street. There’s very little theft, Raul tells us, right through Scandinavia.
Roadside cafes offer free buffets if you buy a main meal and it all works on an honour system. No one seems to abuse it.
We wend our way up through the hills and forests, dotted with red and yellow and white houses and fields so green they hurt your eyes. Follow an international symbol for coffee stop and happen upon a working art studio with a pottery lesson in progress.
Then on through more forests and fields (even the Swedes joke that their country is boring) and find an international symbol for moose … the sign actually says “moose-kissing”. We’re in. Like Flynn.
The term moose farm is a bit generous. The property has three moose: a 5-year-old alpha male, a 7-year-old female and a young stag who’s just turned one.
But the guide is fantastic and answers all our moose questions. Yes, they are the same animal as elk. Elk is the European term and moose is American. An elk in America is a large deer.
They are typically solitary creatures and roam vast areas to find enough food (leaves and small branches) to satisfy their enormous appetites. The males grow antlers, which turn into bone and fall off after the “rutting” season. The size of the antlers indicates the strength of the beast and it’s the biggest and strongest that have the best chance of mating.
At this moose farm they cut off the antlers each year, to avoid the fighting that could injure or kill their stock. Even so they often have to hunt away wild males that come calling.
Hunt is the key word. Moose could live until 18 or 20 but their life span in Sweden is only 5-7 because so many of them are killed by hunters each year. The government sanctions a cull of 80,000 annually.
Apparently they can be pests, a danger on roads and damaging to forests (that are being grown for timber).
But we fall in love with these gentle giants, part cow, part horse, part camel. We get to feed them leaves and potatoes. Only the big male and the youngster come down to the enclosure. The female, we’re told, is picky and will not show if she doesn’t feel like the food.
The guide leaves us for a few moments to greet more tourists and it’s just Graham and me, alone in the paddock with the moose. This is surreal. Take a photo for Michael and Marita. Bagged it.





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#18 Finland has it all

August 5, 2012

I leave St Petersburg somewhat reluctantly. I have enjoyed this city, and our apartment, and would like to spend more time exploring the Russian market we have only just discovered at the end of our street, and visiting Catherine’s Palace, out of town, and the many museums and galleries of the Hermitage.
I am also worried about getting out of the country safely. We have tempted fate without insurance, not even the third-party insurance we read was compulsory. We have no idea what the road will be like on the way to Finland (as it turns out it’s much better than the road in from Estonia).
And I don’t have much of a plan for Scandinavia. I haven’t yet studied the Lonely Planet book Jeannie gave me for my birthday. My focus had been on the Baltics and Russia. Time to get organising again.
The general idea is to get into Norway as quickly as possible and then give ourselves time to play around the fjords and glaciers.
Since Glenn won’t be in Helsinki we’ll skip the city route and keep to the country.
So it’s across Finland to Vaasa, the late-night ferry across the gulf to Umea in Sweden, then across the mountains to Trondheim, where we’ll start our Norwegian adventure.
I pick Trondheim not just because of its location but because it features in a Monty Python skit about the Trondheim Hammer Dance. Makes me smile.
Graham and I have already been singing Monty Python’s Finland song “the country where we most like to be” as we ride into green fields, neat farms, red timber houses and excellent roads.
Heli and her husband and son greet us warmly. We have their whole guesthouse to ourselves. It’s Heli’s old family home, built by her grandparents after they were forced from their land near Vyborg when that part of Finland was handed over/taken by the Russians in the 1940s.
There is the family’s traditional Finnish sauna. Would we like to use it? Yes please!
It’s not so much a sauna as a bathing ritual. Graham, the sauna master, tends the fire and we strip off and wash ourselves in the warm water and soak in the heat and gentle steam of the sauna house. So relaxing and refreshing, good for the soul as well as the body. We vow to build one at home.
We spy sauna houses at almost every property as we ride on through the countryside.
The Finns are fantastic builders (the world’s best we were told in Tallinn) and it’s evident everywhere we look, but especially in the bridge-building. Beautiful timber formwork that’s an art in itself … and finally, after so many countries, a workforce that looks like a team, in uniforms and safety gear. Not like the road crew in thongs we saw in Estonia or the plasterers in T-shirts in Riga.
We find most people here speak English, the food is becoming bland, the beer expensive.
But we discover a delicious Finnish sweet treat at a roadside cafe, where the couple are friendly and talkative. She is off to a music night and he’s a keen motorcyclist who tries to get away for a trip each summer. He’s been to Nordcap.
He is retired he tells us, although he looks too young for that. Bad heart, he says, as he sucks on yet another cigarette. The smokes are still cheap.




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#17 St Petersburg

August 2, 2012

Dear Peter and Catherine
Great work. You created a city that is grand and elegant, historic and vibrant, that doesn’t just rival the other great cities of the world but rolls their best into one … New York, Paris, London. St Petersburg. You obviously liked things big. Bigger than big.
Your palaces are so enormous I cannot imagine how you filled them.
Possibly the collections of weird and wonderful animal specimens you gathered from around the globe. Or the magnificent artworks you admired and acquired.
The giant parks I know were places to display exotic flora, nurtured with individual heaters until they matured.
And the huge streets, that seem to stretch to the horizon? Well, I guess you needed them to give all the huge palaces an address.
Although Peterhof? Seriously? 140 fountains? That was a little over the top don’t you think. Spectacular, with some serious gold bling in the reception rooms to rival Versailles. But hardly necessary.
I admire the way you showed such foresight, though, in sponsoring academia and the arts. And even tried to put an end to serfdom.
The colleges of the university are still standing, with their own gardens and statues.
In fact we stayed in an apartment near the Academy of Arts, which remains guarded by the pair of sphinxes taken from Egypt in the early 1800s.
And while you, Peter, encouraged a few too many public executions for my liking, I acknowledge your expertise in warfare. The fort in the middle of town is impressive, as is the artillery museum it now houses.
And I appreciate your dedication to your passions. Anyone who refused to build bridges because they wanted people to use boats instead gets my vote.
Fortunately much of the grandeur and even opulence of your city survived the Communist Soviet era.
I don’t know how but the mosaic-laden Church on Spilled Blood, the shiny St Peter and Paul’s Cathedral and the massive St Isaac’s (yes, we climbed up to the dome) are still standing and have even been restored. Perhaps it’s a sign of the strength of your legacy even now.
There’s no doubting St Petersburg residents are a strong bunch. We heard how they survived the German blockade of the Second World War … for almost four years they resisted invasion, without food or heating through the dire winters. So many perished. But they would not give in. No wonder you see so few older people smiling.
But we found most to be friendly and helpful … the exuberant van driver who almost stopped traffic to yell out hello and find out where we were from; the man in the supermarket who helped us weigh our fruit and veggies; and our friend, whose name we never discovered, who looked after our motorbike while he was working on renovations in the building behind our apartment. Oh, and his friend, Dmitri, who said it was ok to park there.
You’ll be pleased to know, Peter and Catherine, that your city is being renovated. And I think you’d like how it’s coming along. Thousands of tourists are visiting, many like us bringing in their money from overseas.
It’s tough getting in and out across the borders and the roads need fixing. But your St Petersburg is worth the journey.











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#16b Crossing the border part II

August 1, the afternoon

For the first time on our trip we have no gps. Buying a map of Russia for the Garmin had proved difficult … it was a huge file and expensive and we would only be using such a small portion. We opted out.
Instead we thought we’d go with a paper map, just of St Petersburg. But when we get to Narva we can’t find one. What to do. We devise a cunning plan.
The night before our crossing we punch our destination in to the Garmin anyway, to see what will happen, and get a pink line and a flag. No road detail but we hope it will at least be a guide to whether we are on track.
Then we punch in our destination to google maps on the iPad and get turn by turn instructions, which we write down on a piece of paper. No idea whether we’ll be able to understand the signs but we’ll give this a go. I can read them to Graham when we get to the city.
Except now it’s raining, pouring, and as soon as I pull the paper out of my pocket the ink starts to run.
We take refuge in a fuel station and decide to tuck the paper under the clear plastic of the tank bag. Graham will just have to try to read the directions and negotiate the traffic. And we are already freaked by the Russian roads and drivers.
We leave the border crossing believing if we stay on the main road it will take us all the way to St Petersburg. It’s the E6/M11, a highway.
This road though is no highway. There are potholes and corrugations, diesel spills and piles of grass where farm trucks have spilled their loads.
And while there are nominally two lanes, one each way, no one seems to pay attention.
While we are travelling as fast (or as slow) as safety allows, we have old Russian Ladas and new Audi 4wds overtaking on the left into oncoming traffic, and the right into bus lanes. Just move over a bit and we’ll all fit.
Then, did that sign say turn left for St Petersburg. I don’t know. A few kilometres on, thankfully, there’s another sign. Clearer. Yes, turn left.
As we get to the city outskirts the traffic becomes worse. Taxi buses are stopping in front of us with no warning, cars and trucks form four lanes where there should be two, left-hand, right-hand turns, no indicators, just do it. Push in.
At speed. Tailgating. Aquaplaning. We see the first of four accidents on our way into the city. And all the while it is raining.
Our waterproof gear is failing. We are wet through. Amazingly, our google maps directions work. We take the first exit on to the toll road into the city centre. I have no roubles, but they take Visa, for the equivalent of 60 cents.
We turn left just before the canal, then first right over the canal, we’re almost there.
While we’re stopped at traffic lights and in traffic jams I can stand up and read the directions over Graham’s shoulder.
We lose our bearings momentarily but Graham can use his pink gps line to get us back in the right area.
Is that a bridge in front of us? Yes! We’re on our island! Is it the right island? The chequered flag is showing on our gps now. We’re close.
We stop and ask directions from a friendly uni student. We find the street. But which apartment?
I have a phone number. It’s in the iPad. We are no longer worried about the rain. We are as wet as we can possibly get. But I find shelter under a small awning to protect the iPad. Find the number, dial it on my phone. Rauf answers. He is next door, waves from the balcony. We are here. Relief.
It is almost 6pm. We left our hotel at 10 this morning.
But we are here.



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