26 countries, 5 continents and a whole lot of memories. We are currently hurtling back towards the UK on Eurostar 6 months after leaving having done a full lap of the globe since Christmas.
Leaving Italy we made a b line for Northern Europe, watching the sunset from our sleeper train cabin we headed towards the alps hoping for some respite from the heat in our poorly ventilated carriage. It didn’t get any cooler and eventually the train manager decided enough was enough and moved the entire carriage to the following wagen which had air con (and for some reason was empty) much to delight of everyone.
After a change of trains in Munich we arrived in Berlin realising we had left the sun in Italy, rain as been more common during the last week as we’ve crossed Northern Europe with at least one shower in every city it has been a grim reminder that we have been getting ever closer to home. After a soggy walk from Berlin’s station we avoided any more rain in the German capital as we headed out on a free walking tour the following morning taking us past the Brandenburg Gate, Hitlers War Bunker, the Holocaust Memorial, check point Charlie and what is left of the Berlin Wall. It quickly became apparent that, compared to other European Cities, Berlin for obvious reasons doesn’t have as many historically important sites, but the ones it does have left are overflowing with significance. I think the most impressive place was the Holocaust memorial and museum. The memorial, above ground, is a powerful monument to the horrific crimes and our tour guide did an excellent job at eliciting strong emotions from it. The museum, underground, fantastically demonstrated the scale of the atrocities through sheer numbers and personal stories. We ended a days exploration with 14 Nuremberg sausages (between us) and some sauerkraut.
The next day we headed west, towards the English Channel, to the German city of Düsseldorf. Suzanne spent the entire train journey nervously twitching as we were going to suprise her mum and sister both competing in a triathlon. After a delayed train, we dumped our stuff at the hotel and jogged across town to the marina where they were staying. Reception scuppered our plan to suprise them in their room as we weren’t allowed up without permission but the concierge did call them and request that they came down to reception. The few minutes of hysterical suprises relived any irrational fears Suzanne had that our visit might have disrupted race preparations and we were able to spend a few hours trying to condense as many of our stories into the conversation as possible before we headed back to our (much less posh) hotel ahead of early starts the next morning. Rain didn’t put the many competitors off a swim in the Rhine followed by a bike and a run around Düsseldorf, surprisingly, and both lady’s did very well and were worth their free bottle of non-alcoholic beer given to them at the finish line (if someone had offered me non alcoholic anything after all that I would have been kicking off) and a big meal later on. We spent the rest of the afternoon exchanging more stories from the last 6 months before we had to head off again to catch another train.
It was raining so hard when we arrived in Amsterdam that on the walk from the station to our hostel we got so drenched my shoes were still drying out two days later. The good news was that the rain was forecast to stop the following moring, the bad news was that we got lost looking for our hostel and when we did eventually find it I had to go back out into the weather to get some cash out as they didn’t take card. Nightmare. Amsterdam didn’t stop with its nuisance there either. Accommodation was pretty expensive throughout the city centre so we were in a stuffy hostel for a pretty poor nights sleep. The next morning we were both agreeing perhaps we should have just done Amsterdam as a day trip on our way from Düsseldorf. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Fortunately that’s when the Dutch capital started behaving, as we walked around the pretty streets and canals we went in search of Amsterdam’s notorious local culture. Even though it was lunchtime, the red light district still seemed to be open for business. Literally in some cases where Roxanne and her mates stood behind glass doors while their red lights flickerd. It was a new experience for the trip and we had certainly come along way from Bible Belt America!! On the advice of a couple of guide books we visited the cities last remaining peep show. We paid 2 euros for two awkward minutes of peeping before the lights went out and we were encouraged to pay more. We didn’t.
Amsterdam’s other notorious libertarianism, its coffee shop culture, was easy to find if you followed your nose. We popped into one later on for two coffees, some apple pie and a brownie where we were served by an extremely laid back waitress. The coffee and the apple pie were very nice although the brownie was a bit stale. The remainder of the afternoon seemed to float by with nothing memorable other than a few good jokes before we got on the train again.
Amongst all the sillieness in Amsterdam we did do some genuine sightseeing while in the Dutch capital. We visited the remarkable Ann Frank house finding it hard to believe people could have survived there , hidden from every day life, for so long! We also saw the Westerkerk, the reformed church were Rembrandt is entombed. Running out of time we didn’t get to visit any of the museums but we did stop for the obligatory photo opp at the I AMsterdam sign in Museumplein along with, seemingly, every other tourist in holland. After a whirlwind 24 hour, we were off and in Paris before midnight.
With 3 nights in Paris booked the thought of not having to move our bags again for a few days was so exciting. That dream almost came crashing down around us though when at 2 am we were woken by someone trying to get into our room using a key card multiple times. Luckily we had locked it from the inside as it turned out that the guy on the other side of the door had a key that worked on our lock too! Somehow the hotel had allocated our room twice and we were the second people into it that evening. I wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t asked me to look under the bed where he had left his bag before going out to eat! When we went down to reception to try and sort out the mess we were able to stay where we were so didn’t have to pack our bags up and I presume our new freind was put some where else. We didn’t see him again mind. After the nights excitement we set about exploring Paris, in between rain storms, all the classics were ticked off: queuing for the Eiffel Tower, scrummaging for the Mona Lisa, Arc D’Triumph, Champs Elysees, Notre dame and even the Moulin Rouge. We had hoped that some of the rain showers would have reduced the queues to go up the Eiffel Tower but they were still pretty long at the 3 open pillars. We decided to plug for the stairs only queue which funnily enough was shorter than those for the lifts. We clambered up all the flights of stairs as far as the second floor where we were able to queue again for a lift to the very top. The views were worth it though and the rain held off just long enough for us to take it all in. The one glaring problem with the view from atop the tower, however, is that you cant (obviously) see the Eiffel Tower itself. So after descending the amazing structure, this time in lifts all the way to the bottom, we headed in search of an un interrupted view.
An uninterrupted view was much harder to come by of the Mona Lisa, no matter how hard you push there always seemed to be someone with a longer selfie stick or bigger in the way. It’s interesting, in such a grand museum with so much other beautiful art, it still draws such a large crowed all the time. I’m sure its small size doesn’t help, but there is definitely something about it that makes you want to get closer for a better look. The Louvre building alone is enough to draw in the crowds, for me the most fascinating part was the exhibit of the original castle walls and moat beneath the surface and its transformation from castle through palace to full museum, but most people just seem to be happy looking at a glass pyramid.
If we saw all the sights, then we also ate all the food, three French breakfast complete with croissants and cafe au lait in three different cafes on the 3 morning we were there. To avoid the rain on our first day we had a lunch of wine cheese and apple tart in a French brassiere and to avoid the sunshine on our second day we had a lunch of macaroons and taut (why aren’t the French fatter?!) we completed our French food bingo card with beef bourguignon on our final evening.
Reluctantly leaving Paris we spent our 181st and last night in Brussels after an afternoon exploring. Passing the imperial and royal palaces and the European Parliament, which was much less grand and probably wont last the test of time like the other two, we reached the Royal Galeries of Saint Herbert where many chocolatiers were doing business. We soon figured out that if you hung around long enough in a shop they would give you a free sample, not sure if it was to try and tempt you to buy (as if you needed more temptation) or to try and get rid of you, either way we weren’t bothered and got to have at least half a box of chocolates each over the course of twenty minutes. To end a brief afternoon we had a few drinks and some food, Belgian cuisine was always going to struggle to compete with the past few weeks but we had a nice meal along with some lovely Belgian beer in the sun before it set on our trip of a lifetime. Do we really have to go back to real life?!