28.01.2014 - 24.02.2014
We have learnt the hard way about regularly spending time writing about our travels to keep this blog going, so find yourself a cosy spot and settle in because there is a lot to catch you all up on.
Last time we left you we were heading off to Amsterdam: famous for its open-minded, everything goes attitude and home of bikes, dikes (of the water management kind) and ‘coffee’. It is also perhaps the only city where you can walk down a street and within 50 metres see a kindergarten, scantily clad ladies in red-lit windows and a 800 year old church (the oldest building in Amsterdam)! Sorry in advance for the lack of photos in Amsterdam, we lost the photos taken on our good camera and only have the ones taken on our phones.
The first thing that one notices when arriving in Amsterdam is the plethora of bicycles - Amsterdammers travel everywhere on their bikes! The city is well equipped with wide bike paths and traffic lights specifically for cyclists - as cycling advocates ourselves we were very impressed! Interestingly enough, people on bikes seem to get right of way over traffic and pedestrians, they run red lights, talk on their phones, weave in and out of traffic- all without helmets! The cyclists all appeared comfortable criss-crossing over each other, pedestrians and other traffic some with three people on a normal bike!!!
The bikes themselves are pretty cool, some of the people here have attached carts between the front wheel and the handlebars which they load up with groceries or small children and pets. Bike theft is as common as bike-riding in Amsterdam so there is almost a competition to have the worst looking bike (on average a person living in Amsterdam can expect to have their bike stolen once a year) and as a result the bikes look very old worldly (low seats and high handlebars) and are quite rusty. There is a convenient loophole for thieves who steal bikes, where the fine for littering (i.e. throwing a “borrowed” bike in a canal) is significantly less than being caught with the stolen goods. As a result, approximately 25,000 are dredged from the canals each year which is estimated to be about a quarter of the bikes stolen annually.
We were very keen to explore the city by bike and luckily our hostel rented them for 12Euros a day. It was lots of fun riding over canals (even though the water reminded us quite a bit of the Yarra) and through Vondel Park, though we did have to keep thinking about riding on the right side of the road (particularly when turning corners off main streets). It would be lovely to ride around Amsterdam again during warmer months.
Now, everyone knows what Amsterdam is most famous for – its ‘green’ reputation. During a walking tour of the city our guide explained the historical circumstances that have led to the current-day ‘tolerance’ of recreational cannabis use. In years gone by Amsterdam had a serious problem with hard drugs – predominately heroin – and the associated crime. It was identified that the issue was being exacerbated by the incarceration of many recreational cannabis users who were exposed to harder drugs during imprisonment. In an effort to curb this evolution of cannabis users into consumers of harder drugs a decision was made to effectively “turn a blind eye” to cannabis use. This has evolved into the current-day tolerance.
Amsterdam now has a relatively low cannabis use within the local population (only 6%). The vast majority of use is by tourists (no surprise there) and this contributes a significant amount of revenue to the economy. Although the sale and use of cannabis is still illegal in Amsterdam there are a limited number of ‘Coffeeshops’ currently licenced to sell cannabis. There are strict controls relating to these licences and any breaches result in licence forfeiture. There has been a move to reduce the number of Coffeeshops and so current licences are not being renewed and no further licences will be issued.
While we were in Amsterdam we saw the main sites, enjoyed some cheese tasting, ate the most amazing gourmet burgers and even saw Amsterdam’s smallest house (which is about as wide at two doors)! Historically Amsterdam was a merchant city with trade occurring along the canals. As a result, waterfront property was in high demand and properties were taxed based on their frontage. To minimise tax, property owners constructed very narrow, tall buildings. Glancing upwards around the beautiful city one notices that many of the buildings appear to be leaning to one side. The city of Amsterdam is situated on an extensive area of swamp-ground. To prevent sinking, all buildings in the entire city are balanced on an extensive network of wooden stilts that are set deep into the ground. Newer buildings are set on steel stilts but this is very costly so not many new buildings or homes are constructed in Amsterdam.
We decided to go to the Van Gogh Museum while we were in town. It was great to see the world’s biggest collection of Van Gogh’s artworks and learn more about the Dutch painter who became famous after his death in 1890. The museum was set out in a chronological manner so the progression of his works and life as an artist could be seen.
On our last day in Amsterdam we headed off to the “Secret Annex” which is in a really beautiful part of town that obviously has a dark past. It was really interesting to walk through the secret rooms in which Anne Frank spent over two years in hiding. Seeing the images Anne had pasted on the walls of her bedroom to make it ‘more cheerful’ and walking through the small cramped living areas gave us a surface glimpse of how difficult it would be to live there in fear and secrecy without leaving. The museum included video interviews with Anne’s father Otto Frank and a childhood friend of Anne’s who like Anne, also went to the Bergen Belson Concentration Camp. It was a worthwhile experience and we highly recommend it.
After a week in the Dutch Capital it was time to head back to the even cooler climate of an alpine region in Austria- St. Anton! We arrived at our alpine accommodation – Gafluna - to be met by our lovely hosts Eric and Andrea. Eric walked us through the ins and outs of the ski resort, setting us up for a great week of snowboarding. Josh had a fantastic week in the snow but unfortunately Juli took a pretty bad stack on the third day and was too sore to go back out again. During our stay we met lots of lovely people and we will be catching up with two of them in Cologne. While we were in St. Anton we decided our next move should be to explore some main German cities where we would both like to live, so our next stop was Stuttgart!
We took it pretty easy for our first few days in Stuttgart so that Juli could rest some more, venturing out for the occasional coffee and to the local supermarket so we could make dinner at the hostel. The one major thing that we did do was visit the Mercedes Benz Museum. The museum comprises 9 floors of vehicles and Mercedes Benz history, starting from the invention of the automobile in 1885. It was interesting to see the development of the vehicles over time and learn about the involvement of Mercedes Benz in the Nazi period. The Mercedes Racing Simulator was definitely the highlight of the visit though!
Frankfurt – the financial centre of Germany (aka “Bankfurt”) - was home of the next stage in our little expedition. Our hostel was located in an interesting part of town (the red light district) which made for notable people-watching over breakfast. The “Frankfurt on Foot” walking tour on our first day took us through many of the historical sites of this city. We spent most of our time wandering around the friendly city with our new friends (Em and Tom – from Foster, NSW). It was great to meander through the flea and fresh produce markets – eating bratwurst in bread and very tasty Vanilla Berliners.
One great contrast between European cities and Australia, which particularly stood out in Frankfurt, is the acceptance of all kinds of doggies in shopping centres, cafes and restaurants! It’s just great to have a friendly little Dachshund-cross come to say hello while one is enjoying a coffee and some Apfelbrot.
During our stay we mentioned to Em and Tom that we were heading to Cologne and Hamburg after Frankfurt. They were already thinking of heading in a similar direction and were keen to join us!
After four nights in Frankfurt we travelled north with Em and Tom to Cologne (it smelt nice). We took a tour of the Köln Cathedral (of which construction commenced in 1248) and then climbed 533 stairs to the top platform for a beautiful view of the city. Joy and Kathrin (who we met in Innsbruck) gave the four of us a night tour of their lovely city and we went to a funky Italian restaurant for dinner. Night times were spent meeting other travellers in the communal kitchen and playing card games. Another Aussie traveller that we met in Köln had plans for an epic journey. Dale - a true Aussie - is planning to buy a motor bike in England and ride his way down to South Africa this year – which we think is equally brave, cool and scary (he said that his travel insurance was through the roof so he didn’t get any). Included is a photo of Debbie who we met while having a coffee, Josh in the Lego shop in Köln and a few photos of our day trip to Dusseldorf.
Next stop was Hamburg. Once again we thought the best way to get a feel for the city was to go on the free walking tour. The morning started out beautifully with blue sky and sunshine but unfortunately it turned around quite quickly – not that it dampened out spirits. Interestingly enough on the tour we learnt that Hamburg has more bridges than any other European city and also has the oldest door handle in Europe, dating back to 1342 – just in case anyone is thinking about going on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
We decided to go to go to the #1 attraction in Hamburg according to Trip Advisor: “Miniatur Wunderland”! A little sceptical at first, yes, but it didn’t fail to impress. The model world comprises 1,300 square metres of terrain and over 215,000 figurines. The amount of detail is incredible with everything from aircraft taking off and landing to firefighters doing their thing and people making the most of the sunshine on the nudie-beach. The official video will give you some insight as to the feel of the place. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ACkmg3Y64_s
After we finished in Wunderland we had to return to the real (‘ly big) world. There is quite a big shipping port in Hamburg and so we took to the seas (on a ferry), channelling Klaus Störtebeker (a famous Hamburg pirate) and braved edging out to the bow to re-enact the timeless scene from Titanic.
As we were in Hamburg there was one thing that we just had to do and no doubt you can guess! After Googling “best burgers in Hamburg” and a scary walk through a dodgy part of the city we arrived at our dinner destination. It turns out that “Best burgers in Hamburg” is their slogan and not a statement based on any real evidence! The four of us didn’t like the look of the place as we approached but after our long walk through a series of dark alleys we were happy to find somewhere well-lit to escape to! In the end the burgers were quite good and after a solid feed we chose the train as our preferred method of transport back to the hostel.
Yesterday after our ritual morning stop at Lohas Coffee we went for a stroll through a beautiful big park in the city and had lunch along the Binnenalster.
Today we say goodbye to our awesome travel buddies Em and Tom and head off to Copenhagen for a few days before flying south to Italy for (you guessed it) more snowboarding!
Ta-ta for now,
Josh and Jules