Waka Waka …….It’s time for Africa

‘London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, …. and Balule’

Blasé it may sound, and rightfully so. I have seen and travelled to stunning cities through Europe in the past 18 months and have enjoyed every one of them. However, you reach them all on tarred roads! Some times you need back to basics, back to dirt roads, under stars and in nature; wild nature where beasts roam free and spaces are open and wide. I was hungry for the kind of basics that doesn’t exist in city streets and built-up rural Europe.

 ‘I had a dream, a dream of bushveld braais, game viewing, friendship en early mornings in the veld’

Southern White-faced Scops Owl
Southern White-faced Scops Owl

I organised such a trip with family and friends and headed off to South Africa for a three-week holiday recently. When living abroad, you cannot just pitch-up at OR Tambo and announce you’re here. It’s important to plan seriously what should happen when, simply because there are so many people to see and chat to, it gets hectic. Vacation planning to neither me, nor Heleen comes naturally. In our minds a good holiday is setting up location and then having nothing specifically to do, and having the whole day to do it in. But we have learned the value of planning visits back home by now, to get the most out of our time, and to get the most out of friends and family. We also have the enthusiasm and help of a sister-in-law to make it happen which proved invaluable when more than 20 people festively showed up at her place for ‘our’ Sunday welcoming (okay, I must probably admit that there also was a 60th and some other birthday which added as motivation for all to attend) ‘braai’, even a little rugby, plenty sunshine but no Chevrolet. To my few European readers, let me repeat, ‘plenty of sunshine’. Two pairs of grand parents and a wide spectrum of friendship complimented a perfect Sunday braai where all were simply dressed in shorts, t-shirts and bare feet, because they could. It has been a long cold winter in the north. But I’m sentimentally digressing.

We saw this leopard about 3 km from the Timbavati picnic site
We saw this leopard about 3 km from the Timbavati picnic site

 Balule (named after the Tsonga word for Olifants river) is very close to heaven (at 24°03’12,79”S, 31°43’59,83”E). Balule is very centrally located north of Satara and lies on the banks of the Olifants River, in the true bushveld savannah of the big five sanctuary in the Kruger National Park. It has very basic facilities, no electricity and a lowish, thinnish fence, which means you really get the best of that wild exposure only Africa can provide with hyena and hippo frequenting the fence. This was to be our base for the week from where we would recce every little dirt road, every little river loop and every picnic site within a day’s travel from Balule. And we did.Leopard

Struggling to chew those sinewy bits
Struggling to chew those sinewy bits

To speak about Balule and not sharing the Kruger National Park info to provide context (again for the few European readers, and to be read in conjunction with the ‘sunshine’ remark earlier) will simply not do justice to this world class, nearly 2 million hectare tourism destination.

 The Kruger National Park was established in 1898 to protect the wildlife from us! And unfortunately, we are still struggling to protect them as the 618 rhino’s that were killed in 2012 and 203 in 2013 (up to 3 April only) show.

Facing the true brutality of survival is a humbling experience
Facing the true brutality of survival is a humbling experience

 The Kruger is home to an impressive number of species (http://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/), which includes 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals. Also included are bushman rock paintings and two majestic archaeological sites, Masorini and Thulamela.  So, its obvious that from a conservation point of view the Kruger is setting the pace. I’m proud though, to also say that from a tourist point of view, it must be one of the best destinations in the world where one can get back to nature without having to fork out hundreds of rands, euros, dollars, pounds or zillions of Zim dollars. For a campsite you will pay a mere R210 for the first two persons on that site; that’s a mere €17.6830192 for two persons per night!

'Dik gevreet'  That drowsiness after a big Sunday lunch
‘Dik gevreet’
That drowsiness after a big Sunday lunch

Enter at Orpen Gate in the Timbavati region and you immediately recognise that you are now in the real deal. In 115 years there were no cattle grazing, no ploughs and tractors or any other civilized activity on this beautiful bush landscape, except for establishing the excellent infrastructure to allow us to enjoy the bush. This is where God’s original creation is still intact and driving at 30km/h with windows down with birdsong and bush scenes engulfing you, I confirmed to myself, ‘it indeed was time for Africa’.

Photographers
Photographers

The bush, and nature as a whole, is not predictable and this is not a zoo where you can simply stare through cage barriers to tick off your list animal sightings. Man is the foreigner here and you should find the sights for yourself, not as the Aussie tourist I met around the campfire in Lower Sabie many years ago unwittingly suggested, ‘its too difficult to find lions. They should have a few cages at each camp where they keep the important animals for people to see them easier’. Duh!

European Roller enjoying his last few days of African sunshine before heading of to Eurasia
European Roller enjoying his last few days of African sunshine before heading of to Eurasia

However, we were extremely lucky this time around not only with the big five ticked off successfully (and I’ll let the few photos and video-clip confirm that) but also a few gems such as honey badger, jackal, civet and close to 80 bird species positively identified. The highlight though was the stunning leopard sighting near Timbavati as well as the 12 lions that killed a giraffe 2 km’s from our camp’s gate. We were provided with ample photographic opportunity and by the end of the week even the stench of the decomposing carcass to fulfil all the senses of the brutal reality of the African bush.

Purpose number one of the Kruger Park is obviously nature conservation with educational, natural and travel enjoyment a definite second on the list. A huge part of the tourism aspect is the opportunity to share experiences, share time and share anecdotes, jokes and simply ‘saamwees’ (togetherness) with close friends and family.

Black backed jackal
Black backed jackal

Sometimes not all can make every trip, and that was unfortunate that a few friends and family members could, due to personal circumstances, not make this trip. We rented two-way radios to enhance the experience and communication, as we were a group of 26 in 8 vehicles and this proved to be a great success. We were able to chat the whole day while driving, share sights and annoy those who forgot the coffee flask at Balule. I truly believe every person in the world should at least once enjoy the African bush in all its glory. It is here where people still take the time to slow you down, look you in the eye when you hastily order a Cadac ‘skottelbraai’ for your ‘urgent’ breakfast, and calmly say ‘Hello, I am Joel. How are you?’ before delivering on your blunt request, making you realise you have ample time, stop rushing.

All is not always well, though. The Kruger Park is located in a malaria area, and it is always strongly advised to take malaria medication as precaution.

White Rhino Disaster in progress with increasing poaching
White Rhino
Disaster in progress with increasing poaching with 27 Rhino killed in the Kruger in the last 10 days!

As all medical advice will say without exception, ‘there is no debate, take the precaution and be safe’. I stopped at The Moot Hospital in Pretoria to get a prescription to buy the malaria tablets. We are a family of four and the verdict at this hospital was, just for the doctor to write the prescription each person will be charged the R700 consultation fee! Fortunately we made the call to walk away from these money clowns and stop at our old service provider, Intercare in Southdowns where the doctor did not hesitate to give us the prescription for free for all four, ‘since the medication is already very expensive’. Thank goodness for common sense.

Eastern Free State beauty
Eastern Free State beauty

I was, after the bushveld fortunate enough to also have a few days with my parents in the Eastern Free State’s sandstone haven around the Sterkfontein dam and Golden Gate National Park. This, as opposed to the warm savannah bushveld where I spent the previous week is the grasslands and sandstone Maluti mountain area of exceptional natural beauty. This is where one can find the bearded vulture (which unfortunately still evades me) and breath-taking rock-face and flowing hill scenery. A vary valuable lesson I’ve learned when travelling is to enjoy the moment, that Carpe Diem cliché, and this surely paid off. Again set in awe inspiring natural beauty and in the company of my appreciative parents I toned down on pace, stopped frequently to take pictures and share with them the beauty, enjoyed ‘roosterkoek’ in Clarens and chatted nostalgically about so many things we hardly get time for in our hasted everyday life.OosVrystaat1

Two world-class natural and tourist destinations, and add to that the friendliness of Pretoria and the passion and clinical athleticism displayed at the two rugby venues, LC de Villiers and Loftus Versfeld which I attended during my South African visit made me realise again what a great place South Africa is. If only those in power would realise the potential of the assets they already have in their hands, and positively optimise that.OosVrystaat3

For the sake of future enjoyment, I have drafted the following list of things to do when planning a similar trip:

  • If you plan to attend the Varsity cup semi-final (and this proved true for the final too), support Tuks
  • Buy your meat at Toits butchery
  • Rent a strong diesel powered microbus if you plan to tow your off-road trailer. Hyundai’s H1 bus is ideal, but their 2l petrol engine might just add a day to your travel time!
  • Have your beers very cold when you pitch camp in 38° Lowveld sunshine
  • Ensure your iPod interfaces with the vehicle
  • Take anti-malaria medication, but choose wise where to go
  • Choose wise who joins you on a trip such as this. Basic camping always is hard work. My friends and family comes with high recommendation, contact me if you want to ‘lend them’
  • Do bird watching
  • Take photos
  • Take good wine
  • Take it slow
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously

‘Kölle Alaaf’

‘Cologne above all’

Carnival happyness
Carnival happiness

It’s the first week in February and Cologne is in a buzz. In the workplace, meetings are rescheduled to create available time for the next few days, behaviour seem to develop a ‘dodging the responsibility’ flavour, and funnily dressed people start to appear on the streets. Even the rubbish removal schedule is changed. Something odd is going on, but to be more accurate, it has been going on since 11 November, its now simply climaxing.

The ‘fifth season of the year’ begins on 11 November at 11:11 when carnival is officially declared open which indicates the start of the festivities. It’s a nearly three-month period; of which the tempo is fairly low key until ‘Weiberfastnach’ (Shrove Thursday), the Thursday before ‘Rosenmontag’ and when the highlight of the crazy time in the Cologne Carnival kicks off in earnest. As far as I could determine, the larger Cologne area is the German ‘Mekka’ (Iz it againzt ze rules for me to use that reference in this context?) of German carnival celebrations and has become a major tourist attraction too.

Music and masks
Music and masks

There are contrasting views on the origin of the word ‘carnival’, but for the sake of my narrative I like the one where it is believed that the word ‘carnival’ comes from ‘carne vale’, which means ‘farewell to meat’ and which leads into the Lent and the 40 days of Jesus’ fasting in the desert. The Cologne carnival is almost as old as the city itself. The Romans and Greeks celebrated cheerful spring festivals in honour of Dionysus and Saturn with wine, women and song. The ancient Germans celebrated the winter solstice as homage to their gods and the expulsion of the evil winter. Later, the Christians adopted into the heathen customs. It is traditionally held in areas with strong Catholic and Orthodox roots, while Protestant communities do not have a carnival celebration per se.

Medievel Italy is probably the real original carnival with specifically the masked parades in Venice being well known. From Italy the celebrations spread first to the predominantly Catholic nations of Spain, Portugal and France, who in their turn took the custom across the world to their colonies.

Colour
Colour

From France, it was introduced to the Rhineland area of Germany, where, in 1823 the first worldwide carnival took place in Cologne. Thus, this first week in February has been a huge babelaas (babelaas is afrikaans for hangover) for Köln for 190 years. I wonder if I’m up for the challenge to witness the celebrations in ten years time?

But now, it’s the first week in February 2013 and Cologne is in a buzz. The Germans, more specifically, I presume the Kölsch and all visitors to Köln during this week however don’t care and don’t think about the origins, I can assure you. To them it’s about the costumes, the beer, the bratwurst and the song and dance, which accompanies all parties of this public nature.IMG_3316IMG_3429

My limited experience of street parades, public fancy dress, floats and street chaos is the so much a smaller scale varsity rag (jool in Afrikaans) and which is done for a complete different reason. By the way, a little useless trivia, the Afrikaans term ‘jool’ is the acronym for ‘jou onbaatsigtige opoffering vir liefdadigheid’, which means its primary objective, is to collect funds for welfare. But in Cologne it’s huge and certainly not limited to students. IMG_3465Old people, young people, family people and single people all dress up, whether its just a funny hat, a full lion suit or the full-monty aristocrat costume, you are aware that its carnival where-ever you go. And these costumes are not only worn on Rosenmontag, but for the entire crazy period, from Thursday through to Rosenmontag.IMG_3250

Spectators in costume too
Spectators in costume too

Rosenmontag then, arrives with many a hangover still well embedded while the fancy dress for the new day is carefully decorated to the body. This is the big official day with the floats and parade the main attraction. The route of the parade is a full 6.5km through the main downtown parts of Cologne, while the length of the parade itself is nearly 6km long. Spectators line the entire route for the duration of the parade, which can last up to 4 hours to proceed past a specific spot to gaze with awe at the sights and sounds around and in font of them and of course, to collect sweets. ‘Kamelle, kamelle’ are the cries from begging spectators with the occasional ‘Kölle Alaaf‘ (Cologne, above all) chant to draw the attention to you, because hands full; no buckets full of sweets are thrown into the crowds. Understand me well, its not that every parade participant has a few hands full of sweets to hand out, there are actually motor vans full of sweets in the parade from where bags are continuously distributed to the participants to throw to, and some-times at, the crowds. We arrived home with more than a large shopping bag of sweets.

Hands full of sweets thrown into the crowds
Hands full of sweets thrown into the crowds

‘Wechseln zu: Navigation, Suche

Kamelle steht für:

Bonbons aus Karamell

and then the scramble to get as many as possible
and then the scramble to get as many as possible

And then, because its February and still so very cold outside, as soon as the parade passes, you head for the bus to get back home and out of the cold. IMG_3511But there in our own little town of Rondorf we stumble upon the local parade just getting ready to start. Its much smaller, its much more localized, with the local farmer, baker, and church music group etcetera parading their stuff and with much more families with small children lining Hauptstraßse enthusiastically chanting their ‘kamelle, kamelle’ pleas. It seems most of the smaller towns in the Cologne area have their own parades late afternoon.

IMG_3460Fittingly to German efficiency, the last float procession is the AWB (it’s the cleaning contractors in Cologne, not the right wingers from SA) with their equipment, cleaning the streets as the procession passes, leaving hardly any traces of the chaos and fun that was had just half an hour previously. Except for this evening’s party somewhere with friends or in a bar, the crazy days are over for another year, and babelaas permitting, tomorrow will be a normal productive day again. And thoughts will probably already wonder towards the planning of next year’s costume to wear.

photo

Cleaning as part of the parade
Cleaning as part of the parade

‘London calling’

‘London calling to the faraway towns

Now war is declared and battle come down…’.

The call by punk rockers The Clash in 1979 was now very relevant. A war was declared, with the Springboks and the Roses (doesn’t sound too intimidating a war to me) agreeing to fight it out on the battlegrounds of the former cabbage patch, Twickenham, plus I was based in a faraway town across The Channel. I was in ideal circumstances to slip over the Channel for a quick London sightseeing invasion. Furthermore, my Marmite stocks were completely depleted and I had to heed to the call to refill this life essential provider of happiness. ‘It’s marvellous what Marmite can do for you’.  I was thrilled to see that even the London Christmas lighting honoured this delicacy which was always so part of my life.

Marmite
Even in the Oxford Street Christmas lighting the legacy of marmite is alive

It felt a little bit like ‘home’ driving the rental car out of Gatwick as here too, as in South Africa, they drive on the right side of the road; the left side. I must admit, or boast, that the switching of driving sides is no problem anymore and even driving the manual Astra felt very familiar and comfortable. As a matter of fact, the whole familiar feel of England ito language, food, sport and everything else all contributed to make this very short weekend a delight. I grew up in Durban and thus the ‘English’ feel was rather nostalgic. Never nostalgic enough to support the English in sport, though!

In my 8th blog post ‘Rome’ I mentioned our friends from England who committed us to that delightful weekend in Rome. It was them at it again who organised the test tickets for Twickenham and though Jenny could not make it, it was a real pleasure to have a few beers with Dave, meet Rob and enjoy some test rugby on probably the headquarters of world rugby even though the rugby itself was a dull affair.

Twickenham2

I suppose the mere fact that the Bokke ended their end of year tour unbeaten makes it aTwickenham success in the books, but I’m still seriously worried at the way they do their business. Fortunately, the English were so far behind in terms of self believe, creativity and structure that the Bokke could scrape through. I just wish these guys will realise kicking is for karate, while running is for rugby. I suppose I should have posted this criticism before this past weekend, when the ‘poor’ Roses beat the ‘mighty’ All Blacks as I suppose the Roses made me eat my words of earlier in this paragraph. Luckily for me I’ve already written them.

I believe whatever statics quoted on the number of Saffas in London is wrong by 53.27%; there are many more. On the Underground after the game it was coincidentally funny when Oom Jan from Hartswater, Northern Cape chatted up two young guys from, wait for it, Hartswater, Northern Cape and who have been staying in London for the better part of 8 years. Oom Jan was on a weeklong rugby-supporting trip all the way from this little town so many miles (oops sorry, kilometres) away and here in London on the same coach he bumps into two guys from his hometown, and who knows him. They did find it hard to swallow though when Oom Jan showed them his son, a little further down the coach, as it seems this poor guy had much more hair and less kilograms when they last saw him! Tip to all South Africans out there, always watch what you say, there’s always someone nearby who can understand you, maybe even knows you.

Taussauds
I am sure I can see the worry in Madiba’s eyes at what will go down in Mangaung in two weeks’ time, and wishing he was 30 years younger to get them back on the right track

On all my previous visits to London I’ve always declined visits to Madame Taussauds, as it seemed to be such a lame artificial place. But it turned out to be one of those experiences where, once you drop your bias, it becomes an exciting outing to pose for photos with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Lionel Messi, Nelson Mandela or Spiderman, even though they have all had feet of wax. The highlight was a delightful 4D show of the Avengers super heroes, even though the lady who sat behind me probably didn’t sleep for the next week, so tensed up and scared was she by the realistic in-your-face effects. I was already out of the theatre but I could still hear her sighs and moans of relief that it was over, and amazement at what she just saw, heard and even felt.

I like things to be understood in perspective. So ‘small’ and thus accessible is Europe that London by car from my Köln house is a mere 580km (512km if the Easyjet flies) while Durban from my Irene house in SA is 607km. It’s just as easy to visit London now than it was to visit Durban, and just think of all the cheeses, waffles, chocolates and types of sausages amongst many more things to see, taste and photograph while traveling through Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium to get to England. It’s just that tunnel under the sea that’s kept me from driving there!

Kersmark
Not all are equally interested in the Christmas markets, especially if Tom Clancy has your attention

Viva la vida, and then dance me to the end ….

‘Viva la vida’

 First we ruled the world, we lived life. We were probably the oldest people there, but it was good, it was fast and rocking at the speed of sound, the clocks stood still for a while and Chris and the boys gave as life in technicolor for one evening; it was paradise.

It was a long and warm September evening, the venue was Rhein Energy stadium in Köln and it was full, so full. From the stands we were watching and they, the band, did not freeze. They rocked. They jumped and danced. They sang.

Each and every person in the stadium had an armband like this which was controlled by radio frequency and integrated with the digital choreography; stunning effect

The stadium was full of energy and the technicolor armbands handed out at the entrance were all responding in syncronisation on the radio frequency orders transmitted to them by the show engineers. Flashing, multicolored armbands strapped to each person’s wrist became part of the choreography and was responsible for a spectacle of note.

The previous rock show of this magnitude I saw was U2’s 360° tour in Soccer City, South Africa and its understandable that the likes of these giants such as Coldplay and U2 can put together spectacular productions which include the full Monty of digital effects and no limits on volume control. We were on the stand a full soccer pitch away from the main action, and still the youngsters in front of us attended a rock show with earplugs deeply squeezed into there ears. Sissies!

As can be expected from German organisers, I was mightily impressed by logistical ease of getting to and from the stadium, with plenty of extra trams scheduled, the easy entrance into the stadium and the many food- and drink stalls serving the thirsty rockers. However, what I cannot understand living in the so-called first world is how far behind they are to South Africa on a health and consideration-for-other-people issue such as no-smoking rules in public areas and in presence of children. This is one really important area of community enhancement where most of Europe are still years behind South Africa.

‘The maestro says its Mozart, but it sounds like bubblegum ….’

And then, two days later, we were probably the youngest groupies at Hockeypark, Mönchengladbach for another brilliant show, but this time at completely different pace, to nostalgically get carried away by that master Leonard Cohen. Leonard was born 78 years ago in 1934 but he still gives a performance (including a singing voice of unmatched caliber), which is remarkable, and adding the timelessness of his music, it made for a perfect nostalgic outing for Heleen and me.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Leonard and believe that the poetry in his lyrics is already worth raving about, and then he adds his voice. This was proved to be correct at this show too. Many of the people around us were not English speakers at all, but from the singing and pure joy it was evident that they all new every word of every song Leonard performed. I was taken back to Heleen and my visit to Budapest way back in 1994. We stayed in the real local suburbs after we brokered an accommodation deal with Kati at the Budapest train station after arriving early morning from Vienna. The added advantage of this accommodation was that it meant we could go to the suburbia local restaurants, far away from the known tourist areas. That night in that restaurant it was not Leonard Cohen, but Chris Rea’s ‘The road to Hell’ playing over and over again, with the waiters singing along in perfect English. However, when we ordered, it was clear that they did not understand one word of English; not even ‘one’ and ‘yes’ was understood. The result of the evening was a stunning outing with good music and excess excellent food. I ordered a whisky, Heleen and Lizette ordered wine, I ordered goulash soup and Heleen ordered salad for starters, we received three of each! After our amused giggles the waiter and us learned and we all ordered the same main dish, schnitzel, and we only received three dishes for three people. They were humungous, but delicious. Talking about that night, I wonder what eventually happened to our R10 note, which we donated to their collection of international currency behind the bar, counter.

‘I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time,

walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme

you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,

……………

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’

But this time it was Leonard and the Germans and Dutch singing happily along in very good English, especially when ‘we take Berlin’.

Leonard, you’re a legend!

‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this

The fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah’

 

Viva España! But this is not España?

That well-known, and more than once used by me, saying ‘traveling broadens the mind’ is just so true that I cannot but use it over and over again. I love it so much when paradigms are shifted, and so much more when it’s my own. What I thought will be a two-week visit to Spain turned out to become a two-week visit to a few of the ‘Spains’, consisting of Aragôn, the Basque country, Navarra and La Rioja, Cantabria, Asturias and Catalonia and no Spain at all! Thus, I will somewhere in the future have to spend time in Spain. One simply cannot fit so much to see, so much history, conflict, culture, restaurants, roads, art, architecture, photographic potential, beaches and people into two weeks.

However, let me start at the proper beginning. To do a road-trip, one has to be equipped well, and I have learnt on this trip that the most essential piece of travel equipment to ensure a successful road-trip is an integrated iPod system, though if you allow the wrong family members to influence the playlists too much, you will end-up ‘clubbing’ down the highways in the early hours of the morning in tune with the Pitbulls, Iglesias’ and alike.  With roughly 4000 songs just a finger-click away its easy to let ‘die kilometers vlieg verby, with a wicked wicked back-beat’; that is if the traffic conditions allow you. I have also learnt that one of the best reference books on Europe, its history, cultural differences and happenings must be Goschiny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series.

Traffic is still the same, after all these years

Each and every car owner north of the Pyrenees is heading down south to the beaches of southern France and Spain, as was the case when Asterix and Obelix went to help Huevos y Baçon and Pepe against that rip-off maestro Julius (why does this now have a South African ring to it?)and a 350km drive took us in excess of 6 hours with many occasions the highway coming to a complete standstill. At Bordeaux I decided enough is enough; I have a GPS and ventured onto those scenic small little roads closer to the coast. I don’t know whether its actually faster, but at least we moved and we saw some pretty awesome scenery.

Some-one’s not telling the truth

Spain is not at all a single country. The different regions all have their own and very strong identities and this adds to some serious confusion when visiting them. I mutht thtill figure out when to uthe ‘th’ for the etheth ath in Barthelona, Than Thebathtian, Thergio Ramoth and whether to thank thome-one with a grathias or gracias.  Furthermore, I have learnt that ‘ll’ is pronounced ‘jj’ as in David Villa is actually Dahveed Veejja and Seville is pronounced Sêwiejja (take note Chris de Burgh, you’re not saying it right). ‘Actually’ is always pronounced actually and never ever actuajjy, though.

But I’m dwejjing, I mean dwelling, so let me get back to our first destination, a rural retreat in the mountains of the Basque area, where Basque is spoken and not Spanish, and foreigners apparently not often seen, as the shepherd remarked when we had to wait for him on a tiny little mountain back-road to herd his flock of sheep past us, ‘we don’t often see English people around here’, in pretty OK English, I must admit. We were so in awe with the scenery that we completely forgot to take a picture of us being surrounded by sheep. Hotel Rural Mañe proved to be a stunning little Basque country hotel where part of the farmhouse is converted into a beautiful little inn, complete with home cooking and La Rioja wine for dinner. And to cake it all, from the premises they also run a commercial bakery, which means breakfasts too are a delight with various pastries, salamis and jamons for the taking. Furthermore, the friendly and easygoing manager Naiara with their one-year old daughter on the hip and her husband Miguel running in assistance complements the true homely atmosphere and we thoroughly enjoyed our two-day stay.

Hotel Rural Mane

Basque is said to be the oldest language in Europe, not from Latin origin and thus totally different from anything else spoken in Spain. This was very evident even on the road-signs where plenty of ‘x’s’ occurs in the place names, which sometimes even provided some Xhosa feel to the names, though ‘only in my mind.’ The Basque country is an autonomous community within Spain and many towns are indicated by their Basque names on the information signs. The city San Sebastian for example is known as Donostia, which is important to know if you thought you were searching for San Sebastian on the roadside directions. Neighboring the Basque country are the kingdoms of Aragón, Navarre and La Rioja, and in all my travels this was the most pristine example of the medieval kingdoms I have yet seen. Driving through the countryside and observing the castles, houses, monasteries and towns, I could imagine that the movie ‘Ladyhawk’ was taken straight from this scenery. Visiting the exceptional medieval town Olite (pronounced Olite) and its castle with the view across open land towards Ujue (pronounced Ogoeje) in the north, it’s very easy to lose yourself back into the days of King Carlos III aka ‘The Noble’ in the early 15th century who went for broke and built the magnificent castle, with its hanging garden, exotic trees, elegant galleries, and towers. Incidentally, Navarre, Aragón and Basque are the only parts of Spain that was never ruled by the Moors from North Africa. Here they did not ‘just swallow their pride but they fought back’ and retained their own land.

They say you should not live in the past, and thus, just to keep the balance we also stopped by at Durban and enjoyed a calamari lunch. Durban is the restaurant of Javi Martínez, the Spanish international footballer now playing for Bayern Munich (formerly from Athletic Club Bilbao) in the town Ayegui (I don’t know how to pronounce it) who opened the restaurant after the 2010 Soccer World cup and named it ‘Durban’ in honor of his ‘pleasant experience’ there. Durban (KZN) is a nice town if I may say so, I grew up in Durbs, plus this is where Spain beat Germany 1:0 in the semi-final through a Puyol header in the 73rd minute in 2010. I suppose Durban makes more sense in Navarre than Moses Mabhida.

And then you stumble onto and into these gems of destinations that are probably deliberately kept secret for the exclusive use by the locals, such as Donostia (San Sebastian) and its festival. Our idea was to stop, look around, have a light lunch and venture further down the coast towards the west.

Traveling can be extremely thirsty work

One look at the down-town old part of the city made us look for accommodation immediately, and I saw that if you stand back and leave some things to your kids, their natural initiative simply comes to the fore. Stean saw the little inn, and with Cara’s Spanish skills the two of them secured a four bed single room in the middle of the old-town hub of San Sebastian. I was initially worried that we will not be able to change our minds in the room, so small was it, but eventually we managed.

We unintentionally stumbled straight into the heart of the town and it was the week when they have the town festival, probably the best week in the year to be in San Sebastian. That afternoon, as part of the town festival, it was the annual float race in the harbor and bay of the town. The young people of the town build their own floats with crates, planks, blown-up pillow type thingies and similar megafters, then enter the water and try to stay afloat while drinking, rowing and trying to tip the vessel next to you; one mega big town jol!

One big jol …
… and even Paul was there
Donostia main beach and bay

Back to our accommodation! They say ‘location, location, location’ are the key indicators when considering accommodation, and this we did. However, we did get a little more than we bargained for. We were the proverbial 5 minutes’ walk from everything important when on vacation; the beaches, the restaurants, the shops, the Spanish ROCK SHOW, (which continued until 01:30), the street parties (that never stopped) as well as the municipal city cleaning services and deliveries who start their days just after 04:00 in the mornings. ‘Location, location, location’ clearly does not have anything in common with ‘sleep, sleep, sleep’! And that was not the end of our surprise for the day. When we went to get the car from the parkade, there was this little note at the ‘casse’ stating that ‘due to the festival and a cycle race, the parkade was closed until 19:00! We were locked in and (un)fortunately had to spend another day in the festive streets of Donostia! More time utilized on sun, beach, sea-kayaking, whale hunting museum and a typical Basque lunch with ‘sardinas’, paella, fish and wine.

We unpacked our tents, inflated the mattresses and went camping!

Pitching accommodation

Such is the beauty of this part of the world, that if you don’t force yourself to stay in the car and drive, you will not progress more than, say 43km per day. We did stop over in Bilbao to fit a Bilbao Athletic stadium tour into our schedule (its clear how football has become part of our travel criteria). Did you know that to this day the Bilbao club is Athletic (English, since it was the English dock yard workers who established the football club in 1898 and which became Athletic Bilbao in 1903) and not Atletico as is the other similarly name clubs and that Athletic Bilbao still holds the record of beating Barcelona 12:1 (1931). Athletic Club Bilbao still maintains the rule of only playing Basques in their team.

What fascinates me is how this part of Spain is not Spanish at all and when reading and digging deeper, the most interesting political tales comes to the fore. It was noticeable that it was not the Spanish flag flying outside buildings, except for official government institutions, but the Basque ‘national’ flag. Even to this day the separate identities continue to strive and one should not make the mistake to think a Basque or Catalan is a Spaniard. One of the most despicable acts of modern warfare was the bombing of Gernika in the Basque country. On 26 April 1937 German and Italian fighter planes bombed the town of Gernika in a three-hour raid on the town. According to our travel handbook, the Footprint Travel Guide on Northern Spain, it was the market day, which means so many extra people from the surrounding countryside were in the town. And not only were the bombs dropped, but for maximum effect, the fleeing people were machine gunned down. To put this into perspective, remember that this was 1937; it was the Spanish civil war and not yet World War II. General Franco, the leader of the Nationalist forces denied that the bombing ever occurred and claimed that the damage was caused by Basque propagandists. The Basques resisted the advance of Franco’s nationalist forces and Franco offered the Luftwaffe the proving ground of their troops for the war that was to come. Herman Göring, at the Nurmburg Trials had this to say, “I urged him [Adolf Hitler] to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.” Though Germany did officially apologise in 1999 (yes, that’s 62 years after the event), Spain has not said another word about the incident. Pablo Picasso produced a painting by the name Gernika after the incident to commemorate it.

Venturing further west through Cantabria and into Asturias brings even more stunning and rugged coastline with plenty of old-pretty-fishing-town after old-pretty-fishing-town scattering the coastline. The flexibility of two three-man tents and inflatable mattresses we now used for accommodation enabled us to change plans and venues on short notice and it proved to be the perfect travel solution for scenic destinations such as Northern Spain. You see a town, you like a town and you find the camping spot, as easy as that. We ended up for a two night stay in Comilla and then two nights in a ‘nature’s valley’ like Playa de España some 10km out of Gijon resulting in four days of a blissful summer, sun, beach type holiday, reminding of my summer holidays at Scottburgh on the Natal South Coast in years gone by.  Both me and my teenage son will obviously profoundly protest and deny  any hint whatsoever that we particularly enjoyed the beach holiday that little bit extra due to the very tasteful beach attire of the Spanish girls. It was purely because we are so starved of proper sun and surf after two consecutive winters and 11 months living in northern Europe and not the Spanish beachwear (or lack there-of).

The difference of camping in Europe is that there’s not a braai in progress in front of each caravan at night,

Delicious

but rather pedestrians roaming the streets scanning little restaurants, their Asturian paella and stews (which for some bizarre reason I missed out on), jamon iberica, sardines and other seafood delicacies. The looks on the kids’ faces were not always that impressed when a huge pan with crab and other seawater kreepy crawlies landed on our table amongst the huge quantities of rice to complete the paella.

Not just for show, there’s method in this madness

Interestingly in the Asturias is that the main drink is cidre and not beer or wine. It has its own ceremony when ordered. Asturian cidre is ordered by the bottle and then decantered in a very specific semi show-off way, to the uninformed onlooker, that is. The waiter lifts the green bottle as high as possible with the one hand and then pours into the glass held as low as possible in the other hand, without looking at the glass. They do spill, and you have to mind your feet not to get them covered in cidre, but that’s just part of the ritual. The idea is that the height of the drop must create bubbles, which are an essential part of the drinking process. The drinker has a short little window of opportunity where the bubbles remain in the glass, and it must be drunk within this period.

As Chris de Burgh so eloquently describes in The Storyman when he sings ‘take me back to the places I’ve never seen’I can also plea to be taken back to northern Spain as I have missed so much in Cantabria, Asturas, Navarre, Aragon, La Rioja and Basque. A week is far too short. We did, for example drive through the Cantabrian Picos (picos de Europa), but it is one of those destinations where you should have the time to venture off-road, up the mountains and into the valleys. Though its in the middle if modern day Spain, there are still Cantabrian brown bears and wolves roaming the remote peaks. The Picos de Europa is a magnificent mountain range roughly 20km inland and apparently derives its name from the fact that it was the first sight of Europe for those early day sailors returning from their pleasure cruises in the Caribbean or around Africa.

The stunning Picos de Europa

Once through the Picos, we headed east to Zaragosa as a sleepover before hitting the sights, sounds, sun and soccer of Barcelona. But that’s another story.

So, where do you go to, my lovely

Could it be as clichéd as ‘to a fancy apartment, in the Boulevard St Michel?’

The Boulevard Saint Michel

Yes, for sure, that’s exactly what Heleen organized for us as a celebratory weekend away after we returned from a three-week visit to South Africa. How cool is that? to go away to celebrate that you’ve just returned!

‘Tell me the thoughts that surround you’

I’m still in awe that, for the same effort and distance that we used to apply back in South Africa to enjoy a weekend away to say, Bloemfontein (for something special, I must admit such as the England vs Germany 2010 Worldcup soccer game) I can now see Paris, Berlin, Prague, Munich or Amsterdam.

Heleen found us a ‘fancy apartment on the Boulevard St Michel’, as well as pre-booked entry to the Eiffel Tower and tickets for the pre-season game between Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona at the Parc des Princess. Just the return to Parc des Princes after our previous visit in 1994 was a lovely sentimental experience, though that day it was 5 Nations rugby and the Irish being hammered.

Parc des Princes, line-up before kick-off

This time around it was soccer, summer and most of the great names of Barça graced the pitch, as well PSG’s newly signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Attending sports events in Europe poses great new insights into how perceptions may often skew reality. The Parisians showed great ‘gees’ (South Africanism meaning ‘spirit’) with plenty of interactive singing and chanting between the two stands at opposite ends of the pitch, as well as great supporting song. However, I can proudly state that Europe is still miles behind South Africa as far as no-smoking rules and non-smoking courtesy goes and though these guys often have reason to ‘look down’ on Africa, this is definitely one instance where they can learn a lot from Africa.

‘When you go on your summer vacation’

Paris in high summer is bustling and queues at the major tourist venues are obviously intimidating. With a little bit of homework and the Internet, one can pre-book entry to the Eiffel Tower for a specific timeslot and this we did. Amongst the irritated looks from the people standing in the standard queues taking the shortcut entry initially poised a slight feeling of moving ‘in high places’ until the ‘high places’ struck me straight in the guts.

Looking up isn’t half as scary as looking down

I’m afraid of heights! I had to bail out on level 2, 115m into the air while the brave three of my family headed all the way up to level 3, 274m from the ground level. I think I’ll attempt Level 3 in the winter, as the tower shrinks 15 cm in winter! I used the opportunity to take my eyes off the height by focusing them through the camera lens with satisfactory results, as well as into a strong Café au Lait to sooth the nerves.

Did you know that there are 2,500,000 rivets in the Eiffel Tower, its 320m high, weighs 7,000 tons and has 1710 steps. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), a French engineer and was completed in 1889 for the Paris world exhibition. It was built in two years by 132 workers and 50 engineers and was sold twice for scrap by a con-artist in 1925. When it was completed in 1889, it was the tallest building in the world.

The view from Level 2 towards the Trocadero
And the view to the other side

The other notorious Paris queue is that of the Louvre, but for the informed there are short cuts as well. While most people flock to the famous and controversial glass pyramid main entrance, there are no-queue-at-all side entries as well. I know, not being an art fundi, that the idea of visiting an art museum can seem to be a waste of people-watching-while-having-a-glass-of-wine-time, especially if it means crowds of other people will compete for space. However, I have found that there is great personal satisfaction in wondering the corridors of renowned museums such as the Louvre, staring down the works of greats such as Raphael, da Vinci and many others and simply lose yourself in the paint brush strokes or perfect chiseled sculptures which are obviously in abundance.

 

One should never become blasé about traveling and should tick those mainstream tourist destinations when they’re on your doorstep. It should be just as an important item on your bucket list as those exotic, adventurous, far-away-from-mainstream items we all seem to pursue

A view from the Louvre towards Eiffel

 

‘with your carefully designed topless swimsuit’

Europeans love the sun.

Beach scene on the Rover Seine

The banks of the Seine in summer is a very popular venue for leisurely sitting around and enjoying the sun, to such an extreme extent that they have actually established a beach, complete with sand, deck chairs and a beach bar, on the concrete river bank. Having grown up in Durban, with its many sandy beaches, these man-made beaches in Europe at first seemed very sad and pathetic to me, but having experienced the weather and city living in Europe for nearly 10 months, I start to understand the method in the madness.

Enjoying the sun in Jardin de Luxembourg

 

‘I want to look inside your head, yes I do’

Knight Ulrich von Becks, our wirehaired dachshund is rapidly becoming a very well traveled dog with cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich and Firenze already behind his name.

Becks at the Notre Dame des Paris

He accompanied us to Paris this weekend and though Quasimodo was not at home when we visited the Notre Dame, Becks did enjoy many of the other sites and eateries. Traveling with dogs is fairly common in Europe and restaurants have no problem at all to allow dogs; most even have permanent water bowls for the four-legged customers. Where South Africa is one up on Europe as far as non-smoking goes, this certainly is an area where Europe is miles ahead. I must admit that I have on more than one occasion wished that I could read Becks’ mind while we drag him along on a river cruise, cathedral or into another street café.

 

 

‘and you sip your Napoleon brandy’

I have often referred to eating as part of the travel experience. I remember ‘where we came from’ when we were younger and travel was just much less affordable than now, 20 years down the line.

Fondue Bourguignonne and Fondaue Savoyarde

In those days we use to live mostly on picnic dining in parks with baguettes and take away beer, while saving up for that one treat of sitting down for a ‘plat de jour’. We are not really into the Napoleon brandy style when traveling, as café dining and local wine in my mind makes up a large portion of the explore component of travel. I do enjoy the ‘plat de jour’ (menu of the day) concept as these mostly include home cooked style dishes such as stews of which I am a huge fan. On Friday evening we found a stunning little French restaurant specializing in fondues in Rue Gregoire de Tours where we shared the Fondue Bourguignonne (meat) and Fondue Savoyarde (cheese) while Heleen preferred the lamb ‘côtelettes’ in the company of the delightful Greek lady restaurateur who shared her lovely and hugely amusing animated views on topics from European politics and economy to German impersonation with us.

‘and remember just who you are’

And then its Sunday, the weekend is rushing to its end and we need to start thinking of returning home. It will be a week at home before our summer vacation arrives. A summer vacation of two weeks driving down to Spain’s northern areas with focus on inviting names such as Cantabria, The Asturias, La Rioja, Basque Country, Navarre, Cataluña and Aragon. We need the week to fresh out for the next travel leg of the kids’ summer extended break.

To kick-start the day

For the love of The Game

Cricket is not big in Germany, well; even that is probably an overstatement. To say the truth, I expect there are actually plenty of Germans around who have never heard of the game. And if they have, they probably have no understanding or interest in understanding the game. Come to think of it, I often wonder what I see in the game when a match labours on and on with little chance of an outcome and why do I want Stean to continue playing it. But then you get the opportunity to sit and watch and soak up the sun in anticipation for that next wicket or boundary; then I again remember the total relaxation this splendid game provides, and so much more when it is in such an unlikely venue as Bonn, Köln or Hamburg.

‘I don’t like cricket, I love it’

I do like the game and now living in Köln I found a nice cricketing fraternity where I can enjoy and relax next to the cricket oval.

It is mostly at the international schools in the area where a few enthusiasts have taken the responsibility to educate the kids on the finer points of the game and these dedicated guys are doing a sterling job at it too.  So it happened that Stean was invited a few weeks ago to partake in a cricket tournament at the Bonn International School. He represented his school’s team (St George’s International School, Köln) at the trials and the eventual purpose was to represent his province at an upcoming tournament.

Beautiful setting with the river Rhine in the background

Cricket is a summer sport and I’m used to the entire sunhat, sunscreen and cooling down water-spray rigmarole when attending cricket matches. The sun has burnt me worse next to some cricket ovals then at Durban’s beaches! But my first two matches I attended in Germany, both next to the Rhine in Bonn, was much more like attending those mid-winter primary school rugby matches in the Natal Midlands, where you play in the freezing cold early mornings with frost icicles still clinging to the kikuyu leaves, stinging your every tackle and fall while the mist is so thick you cannot see the poles on the other side of the field. Here, even the occasional drizzle of rain was simply tolerated and the matches continued, for it was such a marvellous occasion to have three nearly full cricket teams willing to combat the elements and opponents on the stunning setting next to the Rhine with the hope of making it into the North Rhine Westfalia provincial team.

Magnificent Rhine river boat in the background

And then the team is announced and my son’s name is read! It was worth the getting wet in the rain, freezing your toes in the cold but surviving on garage-shop coffee and he needs to travel to Hamburg the next weekend for the northern Germany play-offs.

 ‘Yes, another good reason for a bit of road-trip!’

Hamburg is just over 400km from Köln and a stunning harbor city, though it’s not located next to the sea. An amazing 45km cruise from the North Sea down the river Elbe navigates those incredibly large container- and other vessels to Hamburg. We arrived late Friday evening, by car, not by container ship that is, and Heleen and I ventured into the Portuguese restaurant area of Hamburg for a late dinner in a lovely little café, enjoying the real Portuguese tapa style platters and cerveza.

Not the mass support I’m used to, but enjoying the lovely weather in Hamburg

That clichéd hobby of people watching and observing behavior from a distance is really a favorite of mine, and so much more when it’s the youth with their ‘love life’ attitudes being watched. This cricket tournament consisted of three under 18 teams, one from North Rhine Westfalia, one from Hamburg and one all the way from Dresden, which included Berlin (how is that for regionalism? Dresden and Berlin is 200km apart but make up one team for the sake of getting 11 boys together for a game of cricket). The boys arrived, all dressed up as if going to a hip teenage party, and then got dressed in their cricketing whites and played some magnificent cricket in what can be described as South African summer weather. This time around it was true cricketing weather. It was a long day of cricket and the sun was beating down to bless us with bright red knees and arms the next day, but it was good! After the long day in the sun, and the last match of the day, the cricketing whites disappear and voila, those hip teenagers are back, all cool and suave with not a hint that they’ve been running, bowling and sweating the entire day long. Gotta luvit!

In my previous blog, The road to Gdansk, I did mention that sport and music makes the world turn. This time, it was cricket, which brought together diversity in Germany, which is worth mentioning. At this great occasion of cricket in Hamburg there were players from South Africa, Australia, Germany, England, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan of which I am certain. Furthermore, we were served a true traditional curry and rice for lunch, which did remind me of my early days growing up in Durban, South Africa, where similar spicy, and full of flavor curries were in the order of the day. And such was the enthusiasm that my personal take-out from that day is that we have now become part of a unique little cricket fraternity in the middle of the non-cricketing Germany that will in future present us with many happy hours next to the cricket oval; an exciting prospect.

Mark Boucher, allow me this opportunity to convey my sympathy with your injury that ended your career prematurely, even though it already did span more than a magnificent 15 years. Your name will remain in the annals of cricket forever and you personally provided me many happy cricketing moments for many years. May you recover soon.

The road to Gdansk

For someone who grew up in the southern parts of Africa in those dark global political days of the sixties, seventies and eighties, places such as Gdansk, Poznan, Donestk and Warschau were so far out of reach that I never thought that I may one day visit them, let alone see some brilliant soccer (football to the uneducated rest of the world) in one of them.

‘The road is long
with many a winding turn’

Furthermore, who would have thought that it will be to watch soccer that I will travel many many kilometres to watch as I grew up in South Africa where real men played rugby. We did not dive onto the grass pitch in agony if someone came within half a meter of you, clutching your ankle while looking to see if the referee actually believed your near Oscar winning performance!

And then you have kids and your whole world changes forever. We attended two Confed cup games in South Africa in 2008 as the pre-run for the Soccer World Cup 2010 and were hooked on this soccer thing. Both kids simply embraced the soccer and started to become real enthusiastic supporters and followers. In 2010 we watched 11 games in total and by this time the family was clearly divided between Spain and Germany, with me fighting for my rightful place in the rugby seats every now and then. Obviously we were Bafana supporters too, but they were sort of in the B-league. I mean, its due to the treatment Bafana received from officials and Suarez that still has me completely put off from this brilliant Uruguayan striker. Against the calibre of i.e. Torres, Piqué, Puyol, Xavi, Müller, Podolski, Schweinsteiger, Heuer (to name a few) even the likes of Matfield, Habana, Steyn (Frans), Bismarck and Hoeha (Hougaard according the Stuart Barnes on Sky) seemed to fade away.

So now Euro 2012 arrived and Cara obtained two tickets for Spain versus Ireland to be played in Gdansk.

Two tickets, great experience

The GPS is a wonderful little device and it’s hard to think back to those old days of travel, where I was driving and Heleen instructing from a Road Atlas. I can boast that I have driven the streets of Paris before the days of GPS and survived to boast about it!

With the GPS, you never get lost, though you still don’t always know where you are!

With our Gdansk trip, it was a little bit of that. We entered Poland and suddenly we were on this magnificent brand new piece of highway (tolled at 31 zloti for the 200km odd to Poznan – 3.4 zlotis buys you 1 euro) with a speed limit of 140km/h. ‘Easy peazy’ I thought, we’ll be in Gdansk soon. However, when the highway ends, you are thrown onto anyone of a few small roads where you have to do the next 200 plus kilometres at 50km/h, then 70km/h and sometimes the luxury of 90km/h but hardly ever for more than 8 to 10 km stretches though. It was late at night by then, I already had the better part of eight hours’ driving under the belt and this was not fun anymore. We did fortunately twice see foxes on these small stretches and seeing wildlife is always a huge delight to me, thus looking back; it was still an enjoyable drive.

It was 00:30 when we reached our campsite at Sopot and lights out an hour later after pitching the tent and relaxing with a hot shower.

Gdansk is a lovely port city on the shore of the southern Baltic Sea with the little spa beach resort town Sopot bordering its western flank.

Free city of Danzig

When Poland regained its independence after World War 1, Poland hoped that Gdansk would again be a mayor port harbour for them. However, according to the stipulation of the Treaty of Versailles, and since the majority of the Gdansk population were actually German natives, Gdansk did not fall back to Poland, but instead became a sort of quasi state called ‘The Free city of Danzig’ with its own constitution, anthem and even postal service, which, though the Poles had free use of the port, it caused tension between the neighbours.

My good old buddy, Henk back in the eighties and its share of political turmoil often used the phrase that its sport and music that makes the world turn!

‘Boere Spanjaarde’

And this proved so true in Gdansk last week. With all political tension of the past simply forgotten and all attention festively focused on singing, drumming, probably small amounts of beer and soccer the ‘Dlugi Targ’ (Long Market) were filled with fans enjoying themselves and the diversity amongst the crowd.

The local brew

Spaniards and Irish with plenty of Poles and three South Africans (we did notice one other Saffa trying his best to blend in with the Irish supporters wearing his similarly-than-the-Irish-attire green coloured Proteas cricket shirt) in-between them, simply absorbing the atmosphere in great anticipation of what lies ahead in the PGE Gdansk Arena later that evening.

Irish support in Long Market

And then it was stadium time!

Cara at the PGE Gdansk Arena

Before I say anything more I need to say to all those out there who is so quick to criticise the Spanish players for not singing along with their national anthem, ‘their national anthem has no words! You can’t sing along to the Spanish anthem, you can at best hum!’

There were probably three times more Irish supporters than the Spanish and nothing ever silences them! Not even a first goal in less than 4 minutes for Torres, who at long last again had an excellent game. Though he personally only had ball possession for 38 seconds during the match, he had 5 shots at goal of which 2 were successful. Welcome back El Nino!

No uncertainty who is supported

The Irish were brave and though the score-line was hugely in favour of Spain at 4:0 in the end, it was a great game of football with the Irish always competitive and threatening when they obtained possession. And on the stands they were the ones never stopping to sing and chant their support to their ‘men in green’. However, the sheer class of ‘la Roja’ was too much and in the end it was an emphatic win for the current Europe and World ‘campeón’.

The atmosphere with the traditional drumming of the Spanish support and singing of the Irish made me realise just how much that droning of vuvuzelas took away from the great traditional supporting singing and drumming at the World Cup in South Africa 2 years ago. In hindsight, they should definitely have been banned from the stadiums.

Sopot camp site

The alarm clocks were set for 07:00 the next morning to start the 1300km journey back home, but due to the very short nights in this part of the world in summer, the cold sleeping in our little two-man tent and the continuous stream of singing and shouting Irish supporters returning from their ‘nights on the town’ we were up at just after 04:00 and started to pack-up.

 ‘The road was long

With many a winding turn

That leads us who knows where, …’

 It was a short and intensely packed visit to Gdansk, driving through stunning Poland rural areas with grain fields and forests as far the eyes could see. We had just one day to look around and see the Sopot beaches and the stunning old part of the city of Gdansk, which included a magnificently preserved medieval port crane. I did however see enough to realise this is a stunning destination to spend more time in if the opportunity arises again. It will make for great summer vacation. Though there is simply no way you can understand any Polish with just English or Afrikaans as background, there seems to be more young people able to speak English, even than in Germany?

The Sopot beach, where the daily catch is sold and where you can leisure in the sun, with plenty cafes and bars at hand

And one should never underestimate the good for a country, especially the not so wealthy countries, which comes with hosting events such as a World Cup or the UEFA EURO 2012. It’s evident in infrastructure and hospitability of people all around you. And if managed correctly after the event is gone and dusted, it can lift a country to that needed next level to sustain and grow on what was achieved due to the event. I sincerely hope both Poland and the Ukraine will experience that.

Thanx Cara, I had a great trip.

Under the Tuscan sun

Never lose your childish enthusiasm and things will come your way’ Een van my fav quotes uit die movie. Julle leef nou “in many directions’ – Laurette on ‘Under the Tuscan Sun

The kids had a mid-term break last week and we decided to head south, all the way south to the stunning idyllic and warm Tuscany in central Italy. Due to some work commitments, we had to drive via Munich, which added kilometers to the already packed itinerary, but to the bright side also added to the places to see. To get to Italy from Germany driving you have to go over/through and many kilometers under the Alps, with it’s majestic ‘chocolate box’ picturesque scenery of mountains, lakes, farmhouses and villages spread on the mountain slopes. Though the Austria scenery is well known to most people it’s well worth to note that the dolomites of the Italian side are in a certain sense more ‘stunning’. It’s rougher, more rugged by nature and scattered with vertical cliffs and rock face, as opposed to the green green grass slopes of the north face.

Since there was a long weekend in the week that we planned, I did book us accommodation for three nights, which meant we had options open for Tuesday, to find a suitable stopover. I’m never sure whether we are really lucky in stumbling upon these gems of destinations, or whether we are still just in awe with the variety and beauty of Europe, but once again I found a gem, the stunning little Riva del Garda on Lago di Garda (lake Garda for the language ‘slow’ readers). Riva is on the northern shore of the lake and reminded me very much of the Margate or Mosselbay type setup back home. Large caravan parks packed to the brim with campers, caravans or motorhomes while the rest of the town is scattered with holiday apartments, small hotels and trattorias, bars and coffeeshops.

A trattoria is less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria.

We popped in to the nearest trattoria enjoying the perfect weather under the clear skies (with daylight well after 21:00), as well as the very funny continuous conversation of an elderly Italian gentleman at the table next to ours, babbling along in Italian. He’s obviously been sitting there for a while, appreciating the ‘vino blanco’ and large heap of prawns, but hungry for conversation. It was a pity that we speak no Italian whatsoever, and he no English, nor Afrikaans. However, we chatted away and he made sure that the waitress looked after us. So beautiful was the evening that we strolled along the shore of the lake after dinner, had another glass of wine outside at another establishment as well as more coffee.

Coffee! Its probably worthwhile to spend a minute on the topic of coffee. In Europe coffee is generally good and you’ll never be disappointed with a brew. However, you need to know what you want when you order and where as most Saffas will frown when you order a coffee in Italy and you get half an espresso you will never be disappointed with the flavor.

The look of a great Italian brew
The tower provides all kinds of creative poses

While you’re in the vicinity of something great, you must use the opportunity and see it. This is why I decided to take a stunning scenic long road traversing the Apennine mountain range between Parma (yes, of the ham fame) and La Spezia on the Mediterranean and then tilt south to stop and lean over for a few photos and late lunch at the Tower of Pisa. Some things and places are just so well known that it’s difficult to say creative things about them, and that’s why I normally try not to state the obvious. However, some of these clichéd tourist destinations are so magnificent in grandeur and laced with history, that it would be a sin to brush them aside.Take the (obviously leaning) Tower of Pisa, for instance. Construction started on 8 August 1173! That’s 839 years ago! The tower was built in three stages over 177 years, and already began to sink and thus tilt during phase one of construction in 1178. This was due to a foundation of only three meters deep and soft soil underneath. I know a couple of civil engineers, and I hope you guys take note of this flaw; as the Bible also tells us, build on rock, not on sand! Fortunately war broke out, and the construction was stopped for nearly 100 years, which gave the soil time to settle before construction was continued. The slant today is 3.97° or 3.9 meters from the vertical. That is huge and clearly visible, and that exact fact is why, if you are in the vicinity, you simply have to tick this destination from your ‘to do’ list.

The tower to the Cathedral

The accommodation in Tuscany I found was through the Italian farm accommodation system ( www.agriturismo.net) in a restored farmhouse a few kilometers outside the small town of Panzano in Chianti called Agritur San Clemente.

Agritur San Clemente, our accommodation near Panzano for three nights

It’s a stunning huge house and we had it to ourselves! Arriving there after 22:00 proved a bit of a problem though, as the owner had our arrival for a month later, and thus the place was locked up and dead quite. I found his mobile number (cellphone for the guys back home) but this old Italian ‘omie’, though very nice and extremely helpful, does not speak one word of English (again nor Afrikaans!). I took comfort from his ‘pronto, pronto’ though and waited. He was there in an Italian efficient ‘pronto’ (not everything happens quickly in Italy, but when they drive, it does happen in a flash) and we could get into our accommodation. Communication from thereon was via his computer and Google translate though I did understand his question of ‘café?’ in the mornings.

Tuscany is not just beautiful yellow grain or purple lavender fields and stone farmhouses. Tuscany actually has stunning large areas of naturel forest and small mountain roads crisscrossing the entire province. The farmhouses are all architectural masterpieces in their own right and mostly built of rock. (Marita, you must come here and enjoy their inspiration, and we’ll join you!) The result of the forest being so well preserved is that there is also abundant wildlife left in Tuscany and driving at night is just as dangerous as in the bushveld of South Africa with especially wild boar (those wild boar Obelix are so fond of) being a major threat. After midnight, we heard a crash and looking out of the window saw that a car actually struck and killed a boar outside our house. The car sounded in pretty bad shape when the guy drove off and the dead boar was left next to the road. Not 15 minutes later three small cars pulled in and with the girls giggling after a night of partying they loaded the ‘road kill’ and drove off, some 130 kg of fresh ‘cinghiale’ for all those lovely Italian dishes.

The next day we explored some stunning little towns, including Volterra, which has a well preserved, walled old town and which is an important location in Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight series. In the books, Volterra is home to the Volturi, a coven of powerful and ancient vampires. Fortunately we didn’t come across any of the Volturi! Maybe now I must try to watch one of these Twilight stories.

Strolling the streets of Volterra
Volterra street

We ventured all the way to the coast at Bibbona where my family even had a swim in the Mediterranean while I leisured on the beach.

And then there was Firenze. Firenze (Florence sounds so English for such a magnificent Italian city) is where the Duomo (third largest cathedral in the world) and the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) are the largest attractions, but the city in its entirety is something special. Due to its artistic and architectural heritage, it has been ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the city is noted for its history, culture, Renaissance art, architecture and monuments. The Palazzo Vecchio (or city hall) overlooks the Piazza della Signora and it’s in the entrance of the Palazza Vecchio where Michelangelo’s David stood from its completion in 1504 to 1873, when it was moved to the Accademia Gallery. We unfortunately we missed out to enter the Accademia Gallery due to the long queues. Some things I should definitely plan better in the future.

Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge arching over the Arno river in Firenze. Great pic Heleen

We did not miss out on the stunning views of Firenze from the Piazzale Michelangiolo on a small hill just outside the city though.

The Duomo in Firenze.
‘Dance me to the end of love’
While a few couples dance the night away, we enjoyed the stunning view of Firenze and Heleen really did good work with the photography

Heleen and I have been in Firenze together in 1994 and experienced one of those magical ‘wow’ winter Sunday afternoons then. After long hours of train travel in 1994, we headed out to this hill to just catch our breath. It was winter, cold and we have been backpacking through a very cold Europe for a few weeks already when we sat down on the steps, just enjoying the sunset over the stunning Firenze skyline with the Duomo standing out majestically from the rest of the city when a young guy started fiddling on his guitar and lazily singing along. Ever since that Sunday afternoon, Firenze has been a special memory for Heleen and me and I was a bit hesitant to spoil that with our visit now, in summer, with a family and driving up there in a car. It seemed so different. But the view was the same, the steps are the same and there were two guys producing acoustic music suited to the occasion as well. The steps filled up with people sitting around, sipping wine and listening, and my kids appreciated and enjoyed the moment just as much as we did, thus completing another memorable visit to Firenze.

Music on the steps

It was time to start heading home, but not before we enjoyed the tiny little town square (rather town corner) of our host town Panzano

Tuscan scenery of Panzano

and a stroll through the markets of Greve in Chianti. Chianti is the main wine producing area of Italy and though the general drinking wine in the day to day drinking price range from Italy is, in my taste, inferior to the Cape wines, when you fork out a few euros more, you do get the good stuff. I suppose it’s to be expected that they will have quality too, as they have hundreds of years more history and experience in this time consuming art of wine making. One of the other delicacies and products is the olives and it’s oils, and judging from the many many olive orchards on the hills, you can really tuck into into these, as they will not run out of stock any time soon.

A Panzano farmhouse

It was a long drive home and we broke it with a last treat of a sleepover in the little town Beckenreid on the Lake of Luzerne in Switzerland, which provide further stunning views of the Swiss lake and Alps amongst greenery and rain clouds.

It was a 3020 km trip safely completed in a five days. Just to put it in perspective, it’s the same distance as travelling to Cape Town and back from Pretoria. This, however, is through four different countries and enabled us to see highlights such as the Alps on the Swiss/Austrian side as well as the dolomite side of Italy, the stunning Lago di Garda, crossing the Apennines, venturing through much of Tuscany including Pisa, Firenze and smaller towns as well as the rural splendor of Tuscany and driving through many tunnels of which the longest was the 19.9km Gotthard tunnel.

We came to Europe to travel and see things. This was a great few days.

…. And then we take Berlin

‘They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

for trying to change the system from within …’

Leonard Cohen, that poet songwriter and singer is to the road trip what sweet green figs are to a good Roquefort, and don’t discard the Ratafia Haute Cabrière to finish it all off.

I’ve often thought of these words of Leonard Cohen when I think back and sometimes they really feel true, but now my emphasise is definitely on the ‘then we take Berlin’ phrase. A two-day break-away just became a week trip and no-one minded as the six people, a dachshund and plenty to see and talk about (plus that magnificent little Apple iPod with amongst 3749 other songs some great Leonard Cohen as well)had us all in pretty good spirit to build the anticipation for that magnificent world city, stooped in history which would be our base for the next four days.

Over the Afsluitdijk to Berlin

Berlin was the Headquarters of the Nazi ruling party in World War 2 and the scene of many World War atrocities. My interest is however more on the Cold War period after World War 2, that period of communist’s ideology and how life was for the everyday citizen during those dark years. Furthermore the fact that these things happened in our lifetime! I’m not talking dark ages, I’m talking recent times, our parents have been born, and that, my dear friends makes it so much more incredible to ponder, and to wander the streets where the Berlin Wall once stood. Its not all doom and gloom though, as the good part of this story is that we did come to our senses, freedom in the end did win, both in Germany and in many more places across the globe including our own wonderful country. The challenge remains to maintain this newfound freedom in a sustainable way.

From our flower trip in Lisse, crossing under a part of the Ijsselmeer at Amsterdam and the over the Afsluitdijk at Den Oever we ventured through the province of Groningen, the city Groningen and stopped for bratwurst and beer (I’m sticking to the ‘alkoholfrei’ when driving – some brews actually have a version they call ‘drive’) in Hamburg before arriving in Berlin. It is notable to see that the countryside in this northern part of Germany, which was previously in Eastern Germany, is less built-up and seem to still have a larger part that is unspoilt. Larger parts are still natural forest and the farms houses are more remote than in the southern and western parts. I will have to come and venture on the ‘little’ roads of this area soon.

To really appreciate Berlin, one needs to know a little bit about the history of the city and Germany in the past 60 to 70 years. Therefor, focus for the next few minutes and grasp my layman’s and very shortened history lesson, as it really is fascinating stuff.

When the war was over in 1945, the allied powers, consisting of France, the USA, Britain and Russia, divided Germany into four administrative regions that were then governed by administrators or High Commissions from each of the allied countries. Since Berlin was the capital, it was divided into four regions as well, even though the city fell slap bang into the Russian sector of the country.

Berlin was locked-in by Eastern Germany. West Berlin was part of the West, though

This is an important concept to understand. Shortly after this dispensation was put in place the proverbial pawpaw started to enter the fan. Josef Stalin started to impose the socialist ideology on his eastern sector and Eastern Germany and the east block was borne. As a deliberate political stance the other three of the allied union stood strong and never gave up on the western philosophy, even though the pressure was huge.  Remember that Berlin was now a landlocked city surrounded by the GDR (imagine that, Eastern socialist Germany was called the German Democratic Republic). I can still remember how I sat fascinated in front of Riaan Cruywagen reading the news (the real news, not as Haas Das!) in the seventies and eighties and talking about stuff such as the Airbridge. At that time I didn’t fully comprehend what that was and what that meant! The United States Air Force and the United Kingdom Air Force flew more than 200 000 flights in one year into Tempelhof Airport, West Berlin with supplies. That translates into 548 flights per day or 22 per hour around the clock to deliver up to 4700 tons per day of necessities! Some Supply Chain lessons to be learned there!

During the fifties, close to three million refugees emigrated from East Germany to West Germany, most of them through the relative easy loophole created in Berlin, where the West was so near! Life under the commies wasn’t that lekker and people wanted better lives and futures. This caused a huge embarrassment to the Soviets and their socialist ideology. On 15 June 1961 the Chairman of the GDR still proclaimed in an international press conference, Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!”‘ (No-one is thinking of erecting a wall’). Nevertheless, in the early hours of Sunday 13 August 1961, temporary fortifications were erected at the western sector borders! West Berlin was now seriously fenced in and families and relatives were in many occasions split up. This armed blockade lead to many attempts to escape and many people lost their lives – 192 to 239 is the number of deaths on The Wall I could find.

GDR border soldier Conrad Schumann flees to the West on the corner of Bernauer Street and Ruppiner Street on 15 August 1961. (post card scanned)

Walking in streets such as Friedrichstraße where that famous Checkpoint Charlie (and still is though now as a commercialised tourist attraction), and Café Adler was leaves one both cold and awed with thoughts of what transpired here in the decades before the evening of 9 November 1989 when the crossing points were opened and The Wall in effect came tumbling down! In a weird sense its nearly romantic with visions of Michael Caine or Sean Connery or even Tom Cruise sipping something fancy in Café Adler and ‘spying on the east’. I’m sure I saw Dolf Lundgren ‘spying back’ from across the street!

Checkpoint Charlie in Friedrichstraße (postcard scanned)

On my previous visit to Berlin in June 2007, Café Adler still existed, though as a newer coffee-shop type café. We were seriously disappointed this time round to see that it disappeared with all that history and was replaced by a Cafe Einstein.

Just a block away from Checkpoint Charlie, on the corners of Wilhelmstraße and Niederkirchenstraße a 90 odd meter of The Wall was kept intact and serves as a museum/monument of the monster! Elsewhere in the streets, the path of The Wall is visible in the tarmac and pavement where it was paved in.

Paved markings indicate where the wall was

There are however, two other pieces of The Wall, which is still in tact. The one is known as the Eastside Gallery as it is used as an art mural nowadays.

Madiba features in the East Side Gallery

Just a block away from Brandenburg Gate, a memorial for the holocaust victims was built. It consists of various grave-like structures of different sizes and heights with paths like a maze between them. Though it’s a real sombre and devoted place, it was amusing to see the majority of tourists just couldn’t stop themselves from using the play

Playful at the holocast memorial

opportunities the architecture provided, to the great frustration of the German caretaker trying his best to stop people from jumping and running on the monument.

Learn from the bad but focus on the good is always good advice, and this applies in Berlin as well. Since The Wall came down and the city united into one is a mere 23 years, but in those 20 years the city has become a world class modern city with the once barren Potsdammer Platz changed into a magnificent modern shopping area, the Berlin Hauptbahnhoff an ultra modern glass and steel structure which serves both as a five level train station and shopping centre.

Brandenburg Gate, then
Brandenburg Gate, now

Oupa Cas and Stean in particular lost themselves in the Deutsches Technik Museum where several floors of aeroplanes, boats, trains, computers and many other industrial megafters are on display, while Ouma Koekoe and Cara enjoyed the enormous Berlin Zoo. Heleen and I headed for the DDR (Deutsches Democratisches Republik) museum, where life in Eastern Germany is excellently displayed.

An interesting claim by this DDR museum is that the German preference for nude swimming actually stems from the era of socialism as a way of proclaiming individuality amongst the people. I think I’ll stick to jeans and t-shirts.

Leaving Berlin on the Bundesautobahn 115, we passed a strange sight. Next to the highway is an old stand, as if we were driving on a racing track of some sorts. Curiosity killed the cat, they say, but it also solves many questions, and after a quick iPad search while driving Heleen confirmed that indeed we were on the ‘Automobile-Verkehrs- und Übungstraße’. It was indeed a public road, also used for motor racing, though its not been in use for that purpose since 1936. The 1927 Berlin Grand Prix was actually held on this piece of road. Amazing, the spectator stands are still there, right next to the current highway.

There’s been a chain email doing the rounds of the Magdeburg waterway with the ships crossing it and though some people denied it being true, I can now personally say its real. We stopped there en route back to Köln to take the pictures. Standing under the incredible piece of civil engineering of one waterway crossing another in mid-air I couldn’t help thinking bemused how I struggled to waterproof my 2×1 meter fish pond, while these guys have a huge canal ‘hanging’ in the air, and not dripping!

So, our planned two-day flower trip to Keukenhof turned into a great seven-day 2000km circular trip that included too many sights to report on here. Something I have learned is that one should never try to compare sights, as each one is magnificent in its own right. Traveling is about seeing things, visiting places and experiences people, culture and foods. The two main attractions, Keukenhof and Berlin that we visited are both highly recommendable, though for me personally a visit to Berlin for the sake of the learning this city provides is a bucket list must!

Thanx Oupa Cas and Ouma Koekoe for your visit, we already miss you.