Category

World Tour

Category

You will have seen photos, you will have seen documentaries, you may have been taught in school. Some people will be compelled to visit here, some feel they must, but perhaps everyone should do so that the horrors of yesterday never again become today. A place where 1.1 million people, mainly European Jews were systematically dehumanised, tortured, experimented on and murdered. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. 40 miles west of Krakow, Auschwitz Birkenau is now a UNESCO world heritage site, a museum, a memorial, with a meaning.

Auschwitz gate entrance. Work sets you free.

 

It’s a museum of two parts, from two of the remaining camps. Our tour guide takes us through Auschwitz 1 camp and it starts with the sign above the gate entrance; ARBEIT MACHT FREI – work sets you free. Horrendous irony that meant exactly the opposite for those who came here, a site where the greatest mass murder in history took place, genocide, the holocaust.

We are reminded that Auschwitz was originally a Polish Army Camp at the village of Oświęcim, the layout, the barrack blocks remind me of my former RAF sites. But what happened within the electrified fences of this concentration camp was state sponsored slave labour, slow death, starvation, shootings, worked to death,  hangings, gassing, suicide, torture, disease, destruction and death.

Auschwitz electric fence

 

It might be difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the savage destruction as you are guided around but the barrack blocks now house the exhibits, the stories and the material evidence. Zyklon B canisters used to gas people, mounds of shoes, children’s shoes, baby shoes, suitcases, spectacles, human hair. Early on, before the number got too large, the Nazis kept a record at Auschwitz, the walls are lined with photos of those that were murdered by being worked to death, their name, nationality, birth date, deported date, their death date. The faces of Auschwitz.

 

We’re taken to Block 11, the block used solely to torture, starve, the isolation cells, and where the first attempts to gas using Zyklon B were made. 600 Russian prisoner’s of war and 250 Polish prisoners were crammed into the basement where Zyklon B was released. At 15-20 minutes, not a quick death but an efficient one for Nazi purposes.

 

We walk past the house where the camp commandant Rudolph Hoss lived, the same house where Rudolph Hoss’s wife stayed after he was back in Germany and which his wife described as paradise while on the other side of the fence was exactly the opposite. And not far from where he was hung in 1947. Just a few metres away, the gas chamber and the crematorium. We get to go in, we look up to see the holes where the Zyklon B was dropped through.

The 2nd part of our tour takes us to Auschwitz camp 2, Birkenau, the death camp, the extermination camp. Birkenau is at the end of the train line, and the very last stop for 900,000 people. Its bleak and barren, the buildings and guard towers punctuate the flat landscape.

Birkenau train tracks
Birkenau

 

It was here where people arrived from all over Europe.  Arriving off the cattle train, they walk on to the The Ramp. This is where selection took place. The elderly, the infirm, those under 15 walked with their mother walked straight to the gas chamber. They didn’t know they were going, it was orderly. Once there, they stripped for a shower. A shower that never took place. They were gassed, hundreds at a time. After, the Sonderkommando, were forced to clean up the chamber. shave the hair and remove gold fillings and false teeth.

Today the gas chamber and crematorium buildings remains as they were found, partially destroyed by the retreating SS. Our last stop is Block 25, the block of death where female prisoners deemed unfit for work were kept until they were sent to the gas chamber.

Something to remember as the right wing rhetoric and nationalism that builds up here and across the world where people are rejected by politicians building up walls and fences. Never again.

We’re in Poland’s second city spending four days in the quaint, cultural, crazy Krakow for city break. A curious mix of communist, medieval and modern buildings wrapped around an old town square. It’s hard to miss, old town is dominated by St Mary’s Basilica where the bugle calls out each hour and the old town splays out from the Cloth Hall to old streets.

We had a hotel (Hotel Maksymilian) that was a 7 minute stroll from the centre than we then explored the city from. We’ve had to dress for the November weather, we’ve had snow, mist, fog, rain, clouds and its been freezing everyday and even I have sworn we’ll go somewhere warm for once. Krakow is not a massive city centre but we certainly clocked up some kilometres that we broke up with regular food and drink stops. Initial impressions are that its very much like Budapest and Prague, perhaps too similar to each other.

 

The main square was gearing up for Christmas with lots of work going off and in a way we were disappointed we were a little too early for the Christmas market but then again, I suppose it would have just been the usual fair of tourist tat. With its very own fire breathing dragon, Wawel Castle is a busy junction with views over the Vistula river a hilltop castle. The castle is a mish-mash of medieval, Baroque and Renaissance. Its free to enter though there are some areas you have to pay for but it’s cheap.

 

No visit to Poland is complete without sampling the food and drink. Seems rude not to engage in the national Polish drink so tried Vodka at Wódka vodka bar, beers in The Tram Bar. On a a cold winters day when the cold air has bitten, a plate of Pierogi, fried or baked Polish dumplings, from U Babci Maliny restaurant is a great comfort food.

 

We also managed to squeeze in a few other things including a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and shooting guns including an Uzi and an AK47!  Its easy to become crazy in a Krakow city break, its cheap as chips and we much preferred being there mid week. Our last day was Saturday when the tourist hordes descended in large numbers making the streets and bars a very busy Krakow city break.

Under siege. That’s how I would class any visit to Prague. A city of a hundred spires and home to amazing Gothic architecture untouched by the grubby hands of Communist block buildings and now under siege from stag do’s and tirades of tourists. According to most people we know, we were probably the only people on the planet who have not already visited. So in case there are any other hermits hiding under rocks and do want to go, Czech out the top picks of Prague.

Old Town Square

In some kind of twisted tradition, every major attraction we end up visiting (Trevi Fountain in Rome especially) seems to always have scaffolding draped over it. In this case, we made our way top the cultural capital of Prague’s old town square to see the Teutonic decadence of the astronomical clock. Completely covered and under repair. The streets around are of a forgotten age and much better explored.

The Charles Bridge

A pick pockets dream destination as you fight your way through the crown to the other side. Instead, head up the 14th century old town bridge tower for a sweeping view of Prague.

prague chalres bridge

Prague Castle

We enjoyed a slow walk around Prague castle taking in Golden Lane, St George’s Basilica and St Vitus Cathedral which dominates the high point. We were lucky enough to hear the tannoy alert system blaring out as though “air attack red” was underway as we were walking up the castle area. Straight out of the 80’s Cold War era but minus the wave of cold war bombers.

Admire the Art

I’m not quite sure I’d call the John Lennon Wall art, but there will be approximately one million people trying to Instagram the shit out of it while trying to look like they’ve just stepped off the cover from an 80’s album. Yes, someone with a guitar will rock up and play The Beatles. The Crawling Babies are freakishly huge with a slot for a face and will have kids climbing all over them. The Hanging Man is Sigmund Freud hanging on by one hand, probably fed up with the boozy Brit brigade. The Head of Franz Kafka has a mesmerising quality to it as it rotates through but not nearly as much as the controversial statue called ‘Piss’ which has two men taking a piss on the shape of the Czech Republic.

Beer

The Czech’s are the biggest beer drinkers in the world and you can get pretty pissed in Prague quite cheaply with conclusive proof that 20 pints the night before is great for a hangover the next morning. Hell, you can even have your beer delivered by train and I have absolutely no shame in admitting we ordered more drinks just for the kick of it, lost track of how many we had. Choo choo cheers I guess. The bottom of a beer glass is not the only sight though.

 

St Wenceslas Square

The half mile long 14th century St Wenceslas square, named as in the good king who looked out on the Feast of Stephen as the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Though I suspect he lounged around to gawk at the improbable number of shops, strip clubs, hookers and hotels that adorn the place before giving alms to the poor.

The Prague Sex Machines Museum

There is a whole separate post on that here. It might make your eyes water though.  Some of those items might look like they’ve been stolen from a back alley sex shop, not that I’ve been in one…

Nick Cook - Sex Machine

 

In summary, Prague has been lovely but we’ve probably made too many comparisons with Budapest which we thought was just as pretty and cheaper. Not that Prague has been expensive, you can eat cheaply or expensively and we paid beer prices from 35 to 79 CZK, which is a good job because Mrs Cook can knock the booze back better than anyone I know.

Another top pick of Prague has to be the transport system, it’s a breeze and far from the unfriendliness of the UK. When you land, go to the yellow kiosk at the airport and buy a ticket for 80 minutes of travel costing 32 CZK which is £1.12! (you can pay by contactless card). Prepared to be squeezed on the 119 bus to the last stop which is the metro station at Nádraží Veleslavín and hop on the green metro A line to Staroměstská  (Old Town Square). Prague has a very easy to use, cheap, efficient, reliable public transport system (take note UK government). An Uber back to the airport only cost us £11.

nick and sam cook in prague

Cheers Prague!

If you liked our top picks of Prague, you may also like…. The Creative Contraptions at the Prague Sex Machines Museum

You read that right, Prague has a sex machines museum. How nice of Prague to name a museum after me, sex machine is my middle name. The saucy shenanigans and coitus contraptions for sexual stimulation are enough to make your eyes water and certainly enough creative copulation contraptions of salacious sin to make even Ann Summers blush.

The erotic establishment just off Prague’s old town square is a collection of over 320 deviant devices, electrical erotica, mechanical masturbation machines from drill powered dildos to steam powered penis pumps. It’s another example of the weird and wacky and reminds me of the curious cock collection of the Icelandic Phallological Museum.

Size matters, which is why the owner has spent many years curating a collection covering 3 floors of filthy paraphernalia and ludicrous lovesticks. All manner of medieval mischief, Victorian vice, electro rumpy-pumpy, BDSM ball breakers, sex racks, love chairs and fetish face pieces await inside for you and your mischievous mistress viewing pleasure. Though these days its more likely to be a pixelated porn webmistress.

Complete with a old time peep show cinema or old erotic film, the Prague Sex Machines Museum is not everyone’s cup of tea, but at only 250 CZK, it’s worth a splurt.

You may also like… Top Picks of Prague

Just back from a 3 day trip to the ridiculously under-priced eastern Europe, this time in Hungary for a Budapest city break. Savvy people that you are, or for those that have picked up a guide book (yes that was us) I am sure you are aware the Budapest is actually two cities that straddles either side of the Danube River, the hilly and green Buda on one side and the more modern Pest on the other. This is our rather rough guide to a Budapest city break. Rough, mainly because I’ve still got a hangover from the cheap booze and rich food we’ve gorged ourselves on.

Hungarian Parliament Building from the Danube

What we got was a city of unexpected elegance, grandeur and cosmopolitan culture. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Budapest has had its fair share of visitors from Romans, Magyars, Turks, and the Soviets all leaving their mark.  Today, the tourists are its visitors to stunning architecture and beautiful baroque buildings.

A view of the Danube and Pest from Buda Castle

The journey could have gone a little smoother, a late night trek across some very busy roads from Stanstead’s medium stay car park to the airport hotel and an inappropriate joke about fireworks being anti aircraft artillery when waiting for a flight with your wife who doesn’t like flying and who isn’t sitting with you, doesn’t always go down to well. Further frustration followed by a delay to the fight caused by 3 rabbis not sitting down despite multiple intervention from the cabin crew, Unhappy at not sitting together, they worked their way down the plane asking others to move to suit them. 25 minutes later…..

After unceremoniously stepping out of cattle class by Ruin Air, some call them Ryan Air, we made our way onto the bus where we were sandwiched in like sardines and forced to smell the underarms of other travelling passengers who smell worse than a can of sardines for the 40 minute drive to the city. It’s at this point we wondered if it was worth investigating the species of taxi driver that Hungary has to offer, we had heard that they feed off tourists.

Little Princess and Buda Castle

The language is impossible, and I can only assume that Hungarians must be absolute masters at playing Scrabble with the amount Z’s they use in their language. Apparently Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to learn. We managed to get along in English just fine. Which was a good job really considering that when we first landed in the bustling and busy Pest city centre, we had no idea where to go. Phone data doesn’t work, you have to rely on hopping on WiFi signal from various shops and bars like we had to in Reykjavik. Might be an idea to download Google Maps offline before you go next time.

After dropping our bags off at the hotel we venture into the city centre to arrive at a rather Christmassy market that had the most fantastic looking food which of course we dived into with a drink. A walk around to get some bearings with a walk into the Jewish quarter to visit the infamous “ruin bars” of Budapest. Called ruin bars because they are often in old buildings, turned into pubs with a bizarre set up of rooms, indoors and outdoors with a mish-mash of decoration. We spent more than a few hours in Szimpla Kert getting ruined. We were forever trying to work out if anything was expensive due to the crazy currency notes. In the end, eating and drinking was very cheap.

Although the 48 hours hop on hop off bus is (relatively) expensive, it’s also probably the best way to get around. This took us all around the city and included multiple boat trips on Danube. The Danube is supposed to be blue if you are in love, so I’m expecting at this point that Mrs C  needs her sunglasses ‘cos the blue is so shiny – it never happened. A trip on the Danube at night is a must, the Gothic parliament building lit up at night is beautiful.

Hungarian Parliament Building

When we got to the hilly Buda area after Chain bridge, we found that there wasn’t any need to ride the funicular up to Buda Castle as there was an easy set of steps up instead. The Buda castle area, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion are all fine buildings and give a pretty city view with a sweeping vista of Budapest and the Danube.

We walked from Heroes Square down the famous Andrassy Avenue to the House of Terror that was the party headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party and then the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party. As if  being invaded by the Nazis wasn’t bad enough, the Soviets occupied and stayed with conditions getting much worse. The House of Terror is a now a museum that commemorates the victims of terror. Greeted inside by a huge Soviet T54 Tank that once trundled down Andrassy Avenue, and the faces of those who lost their lives under terrible dictatorship. Sadly, most Britons have very little idea of how it was for lots of Europe.

House of Terror

It is the last few rooms that are the most memorable, the cells, torture chambers, and the gallows. It’s a sobering reminder that we must never let right-wing nationalism or extreme left-wing rise again. Open up a history book of Europe from the late 1930′ to the mid 1950’s to see the devastating impacts and the parallels in modern times with politicians building walls and barriers craving nationalism. Remember that the next time you see people being labelled as dissenters in the papers being labelled as unpatriotic or not carrying out “the will of the people.”

We’ve had a great time with our Budapest City Break. The people of Budapest and Hungary were awesome, very pleasant, helpful and welcoming.

 

Top o’ the morning to ya, what’s the craic? Thanks to a four leaf clover in my pocket and the luck of the Irish, we find ourselves in the Emerald Isle in the Fair City of Dublin (and all said in an Irish accent) as the locals gear up for St Patrick’s Day.

Temple Bar area
Temple Bar area

To escape the madness that is Brexit, we’ve popped over to Ireland on a city break. My knowledge of Dublin is rather limited, I do know that Dublin was founded as a Viking settlement and that it means “black pool” in Gaelic, that’s about it (of course I know that, I’m a geek).

The Custom House, Custom House Quay
The Custom House, Custom House Quay

What I am expecting to see is leprechauns, shamrocks, U2, Celts, Irish bars, Paddy, Guinness hats, potatoes, gypsies, a horse riding a lift on a council estate, everything else in The Commitments and other insensitive awkward cultural stereotypes from a right wing English press (save the Guardian and Independent thankfully).

Yet despite my own family’s Irish ancestry, I’m still finding it hard to leave the clichés behind even though that once upon a time, Irishmen were the butt of Englishman’s jokes. I guess with the Brexit result, we are now the butt of everyone’s joke in Europe.

The Long Room at Trinity College
The Long Room at Trinity College

We’re stopping in a hotel in the financial district looking over the River Liffey like a leprechaun straddling a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, which coincidentally was needed to pay for the hotel. Dublin is bloody expensive, it’s nearly Dublin the price of everything back home (…geddit!) thanks to the lack of value of the pound (blames Brexit again). There’s no escaping that Dublin, like most capital cities is expensive, but it’s not quite in the leagues of Norway or Iceland yet but judging the building work, they’ll be the benefit of a Brexit boom when we go Brexit bust.

A pint of Guinness at The Stag's Head
A pint of Guinness at The Stag’s Head

From some, the craic involves being squeezed into the touristy Temple Bar area where trillions of tourists in engage in rowdy drinking while my wife does the worst Irish impersonations. The people are great though. Slightly further afield will take you to other great pubs like The Stag’s Head which feels about as Dublin and traditional as it could get.

While Dublin is as guilty as many major cities with creeping globalisation and homogenised high streets of multinational shops, it does in places retain some individuality and charm even if some of it is missed as people fail to remove their face from their smartphone.

Oscar Wilde statue on Merrion Square opposite his former home
Oscar Wilde statue on Merrion Square opposite his former home

Trinity College Library is one of the worlds great research libraries and since 1801 has had the right to a free copy of all British and Irish publications. The main chamber in the Old Library is the beautiful Long Room, 65 metres in length and housing 200,000 old books. Trinity College is also home to the beautifully illustrated 9th century monastic manuscript Book of Kells, hand drawn and painted on vellum (scraped calf skin) it somehow survived Viking raids where 68 monks did not. Today, it’s on display for a small sum and you can’t take a photo. A different page is on display everyday, we saw Folio 27. It’s hard to believe the staggering detail and besides, a photo won’t do it any justice.

The Famine Memorial to commemorate the Great Famine of the mid 19th century. Approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%. The cause of Famine is blamed on a potato disease commonly known as potato blight.
The Famine Memorial to commemorate the Great Famine of the mid 19th century. Approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%. The cause of Famine is blamed on a potato disease commonly known as potato blight.

You can see other old books, prints and very old pages at the Chester Beatty Library for free at Dublin castle. Much older stuff can be found at the fantastic National Museum of Ireland Archaeology department and four remarkable iron age bog bodies including Clonycavan Man, seeing the hair on his chin, his hairdo, manicured nails and the brutal manner of his ritual sacrifice.

Clonycavan Man
Clonycavan Man

We managed to see more recent bodies with a tour of the crypt at St Michan’s Church. Rather strange to see the caskets and coffins, skeleton bones of mummified bodies of the nun, the thief with his missing right hand and the 6 1/2 foot tall crusader. Unfortunately you can’t take a photo of these, I guess to preserve the dignity of the dead, or as I suspect, to make some money out of it. But you could take a pic of the perfectly preserved coffins of the Sheares brothers, executed in 1798 for rebellion and the death mask of Wolf Tone.

Dublin’s a blast and it’s great for a city break. It was only 40 minutes on a plane for us and a 30 minute bus ride, we couldn’t have made it any simpler. Cheers!

 

You can read about our trip to the Guinness Storehouse here.

 

 

I’ve been accused in the past of not being able to organise a $iss up in a brewery, so what better way or better place to prove them all wrong by organising an actual $iss up in a brewery and beating the queues with pre-booked tickets to the Guinness Storehouse Tour. This had better be the best pub experience of my life. Even if I don’t like Guinness*

Turns out that the Guinness Storehouse is the most visited tourist destination in all of Ireland. The Guinness family must be laughing all the way to the bank. It feels like it, this place is teeming, the St. James Gate Brewery Guinness sign has swathes of selfie shots. Do not expect a very British queue of people waiting in turn.

Guinness Storehouse sign

It’s a self-led tour of the Guinness Storehouse over multiple floors, which is shaped around an atrium of a huge pint glass, a fully immersive experience of the black stuff, the black custard, the Irish champagne. Entry is through the gift shop with an introductory talk about the 9000 year lease and then working your way through 7 floors. Except you don’t see any Guinness being brewed.

Guinness bottles through the ages

Starting with ingredients, run your hand through a pit of barley, chuck a penny in the waterfall and then head up to the next levels of cooperage and various video panels which in all honesty is very underwhelming. After that you can use your complimentary pint in the Tasting Rooms or the Guinness Academy on how to pour the perfect pint. Having been a in a few pubs in my life, I’m guessing this is select a Guinness glass, adopt 45 degree angle and aim for the harp, stop at 3 quarters to let it settle for two minutes and then top up and finish with a shamrock.

The next flight takes you to sparsely laid out advertising and marketing area and at least here you can have a mess around with the photo booths placing yourselves in iconic advertising material to upload to Facebook.

Guinness photo booth classic adverts
Fun at the photo booths with Guinness classic adverts

The final level and the high point of the Guinness Storehouse Tour is the Gravity Bar to drink your complimentary pint with a 360 degree view of Dublin. It’s busy but we didn’t have to wait around too long to get a seat at the edge and a fine view of Dublin, all the way to the distinctive Aviva Stadium.

"A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"
“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”

The Guinness Storehouse Tour should take you around a 1 and a half hours according to the  which I’m sure it would if you watched the videos but there’s far too much of a reliance on them. I’m sure the tour is great for a Guinness or beer enthusiast. *Alas to say, that pint was my first and last Guinness.

You can see the rest of our City Break in Dublin here.

Day 3 and the last day in our short trip to Iceland and we’re feeling the need to see something in a more natural environment, certainly more natural than some of the ‘curiosities‘ we saw yesterday in Reykjavik. We’re off to explore the wilds of Iceland on the Golden Circle tour, Iceland’s most popular tourist route, one you will inevitably be sharing with hundreds of others and for good reason. Bubbling hot springs, geothermal lagoons, tectonic plates, gushing geysers and mighty waterfalls all wrapped around the stark beauty of giant lava boulders and volcanic fields. We’re off to see ‘the big three’ in Iceland’s Golden Circle of Thingvellir, Gullfoss and Geyser.

It’s a full day out on a bus with a fully guided tour or a fair few hours driving. Either way, you’ll see some stunning sights and either way, you should be prepared for the weather. Did we bring the waterproof clothing we’ve got, did we bring the waterproof camera we’ve got. No. I don’t think we’ve been ever so wet in our lives. It chucked it down the entire time out and it killed our DSLR.  If you are in doubt at the amount of rain, just look how wet we are in the photos. We were soaked at Thingvellir, the first stop on our travels, which set the scene for the rest of the day, you can only get so wet and by that time you’ll no longer care.

Thingvellir (Pingvellir)

Thingvellir
Thingvellir

The first stop is at Thingvellir (Þingvellir), a national park and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. For those of us not from Iceland, Thingvellir is more famous for its geology where a fissure zone runs through Iceland. There’s not many places in the world where you can see evidence of continental drift and Thingvellir lies on the junction of two tectonic plates on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. These plates are clearly visible where you walk between two tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia moving apart at around 2 cm per year and see rifting of the Earth’s crust.

Thingvellir is also one of Iceland’s most important historical sites with parliament founded here in 930 AD with the Law Speaker reciting the laws on the Law Rock.  Those who attended the the general assemble at this parliamentary site were immune from vengeance and vendetta but not everyone was so lucky. At least 72 people were executed here, 18 of them were women who were drowned in the pool of water you walk past.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss
Gullfoss

No words can do justice to the sheer beauty and amount of water at the mighty Gullfoss waterfall which you will hear before you see. Misty water vapour rises up past the valley floor before you eventually see the mighty crashing of water which is staggering. Gullfoss is actually two waterfalls, the upper waterfall is 11 metres and the lower one is 20 meters with a total height of 31 metres. The Gullfoss gorge is 20 metres wide, approx 2.5 km in length and up to 70 metres in depth, was formed by flash flood water that forced its way through cracks in the basalt lava layers. It delivers a ferocious water flow of 140 cubic metres per second that outdoes Niagara Falls, all of which you can get right up to.

The top viewpoint is windy and the lower platform right by the water is very wet as you get blasted by misty spray when you walk down.  It’s worth popping into the cafe for lamb soup and free refills to warm up after, at at £21 for 2 cups of tea and 1 bowel of soup, thats’ a bargain in Iceland. Gullfoss is wet, wild and wonderful.

 

Geysir

Strokkur
Strokkur

Talking of wet wild and wonderful, I get a geyser shooting its hot load all over my face, which I loved and recommend, not something I thought I would ever say, I’ve even filmed it. We’re in Haukadalur, home of hot springs, Geysir and Strokkur and the last stop on the Golden Circle tour. Geysir is the original geyser and what all other geysers are named after. Geysir is a high temperature geothermal area within the volcanic zone and approx 3 square kilometres with hot springs up to 100 degrees C. Geysir is the old Norse word for gush, which is exactly what visitors do when it erupts. Geysir itself stopped erupting some years ago but we do get to see the magnificent Strokkur geyser erupt approximately every 8 minutes and rises to 15-20 metres.

Its certainly something, a few bubbles, the water moves slightly and then from nowhere, this big blue bubble forms up and throw as a mighty column of hot water into the air. What comes up, must come down, and down it comes, hot water and steam all over unsuspecting tourists. It’s at that point you realise why the other tourists are stood where they are. But trust me, you wont care. This is the gem in the Golden Circle tour.

 

 

 

I don’t care if the Golden Circle tour is super touristy, if you see nothing else in Iceland, see this. Iceland is cool. Sometimes cloudy, sometimes wet and sometimes freezing but definitely cool.  We may not have seen the Northern Lights this time but that’s OK, it gives us another reason to come back here!

Links:

Iceland – Reykjavik

Iceland – Icelandic Phallological Museum

 

The jokes are endless, the giggles a plenty, the museum unique. Feeling a little flat from yesterdays walking, it’s time to perk up and be proud as we pound the pavement with a visit to an art gallery with a difference, The Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland. You heard that right.

Sam (Mrs Cook) at the Icelandic Phallological Museum
Sam (Mrs Cook) at the Icelandic Phallological Museum

 

A curious cock collection, this house of homo erectus, this penis palace is full of dicks, and I’ve never felt more of one in my life. All you need to do to enter the erection section is hand over a few coins to the cock curator. While some museums can feel quite stuck up and stiff, this one proudly displays it and pulls it off quite nicely.

A fine phallic collection
A fine phallic collection

 

Appearances, I often tell my wife, can be deceptive, this place on the outside looks like a shop, if you ignore the large phallus symbol and words ‘The Icelandic Phallological Museum.’ But come inside and see a fine phallic cock collection, the worlds largest collection of penises and penile parts, not including those who visit and feel like one. Displayed with pride are pickled penises, well hung, well endowed and whale endowed male memorabilia.  And Mrs Cook is feeling quite cocky with her hands all over them.  I’ve never felt so inadequate in all my life, but that’s OK, because at least Mrs Cook has also felt my inadequateness.

 

This collection started in 1974  and soon swelled to 282 specimens from 93 different animals. Coming face to face with the biggest penis I have seen, and quite likely to ever see, I can see where a sperm whale gets it name. There’s also 56 specimens from 17 different whales, polar bears, seals, mammals and home sapiens. Some are pickled, some are sculptured and shafted into shapes and some scrotums have been skinned into lampshades.

 

Judging from the giggles, Mrs Cook has enjoyed herself, but claimed it was all over too quickly, again.

Feeling a dick outside the Icelandic Phallological Museum
Feeling a dick outside the Icelandic Phallological Museum

Links:

Iceland – Reykjavik

Iceland – Geysers and Gullfoss in The Golden Circle Tour

Iceland, land of of fire and ice, volcanoes, Vikings and visitors. Thousands of them, including us.  All to see the sights that the original visitor who came here didn’t see. Floki Vilgerdarson came here from Norway in 870 AD but was disappointed because all he could see was ice. A practical man, with his incredible powers of observation, he named the country with intuition and called it Iceland.

Sun Voyager
Sun Voyager

Sitting just below the Arctic Circle, I’ve booked a holiday slightly warmer than the last one where we were in the Arctic Circle. Based on our visit, we would have called it “Very Heavy Rain Land” but we can’t control the weather so we don’t try to worry about it, even if the rain killed our DSLR camera and any chance of the Northern Lights. This is a holiday with a difference, one where my own shield-maiden Sam, gets her hands wrapped around large specimens and where I get a hot geyser shooting its hot load all over my face, which I loved and recommend, not something I thought I would ever say. First up though on our Iceland trip is Reykjavik.

 

Hallgrimskirkja Church
Hallgrimskirkja Church

Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly capital, a small city centre with a laid back attitude and cafe culture (with WiFi in every bar) where half of the countries population is currently sitting or getting wrecked during the renowned Reykjavik nightlife. God knows how they can afford to though, it is horrendously expensive for everything. 2 beers, 2 soups in a bread bowl cost us £37, our cheapest meal, this is not a budget travel destination.

 

We’re based at Hotel Fron on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street, smack bang in the centre of town and its a short walk from one end of the city centre to the other and you’ll be guaranteed whichever way, that you’ll come across some talented and vibrant street that adorn the sides of buildings. In the UK, this would just be some tatty tag mark, but here they put as much effort into it as they do in getting wrecked.

 

If you thought that the food cost is monstrous, that is nothing compared to the 73 metre high phallus shaped concrete monster that is Reykjavik’s most famous landmark of Hallgrimskirkja Church, visible from almost everywhere in downtown Reykjavik. You can ride the rocket shaped tower to the top viewing platform for some splendid panoramic views of Reykjavik and surrounding scenery. Outside the entrance to Hallgrimskirkja is the statue of the viking Leifur Eriksson with his Danish war axe, discoverer of America, looking majestically over the city.

 

Of course, no visit to Iceland and Reykjavik is complete without a compulsory visit to vikings and what better place is there than the Saga Museum. In an old fish factory near the old harbour, this museum brings the Viking age to life with the Sagas a huge part of Icelandic culture. With realistic silicone figures dressed in specially crafted weapons and authentic garb, like Westworld in miniature and not unsimiliar to Jorvik in York.  The information boards cover from the late 800s onwards with 17 scenes from sagas.

 

You get an audio guide to accompany you round while you marvel at the wanton bloodthirsty characters. Seems our Nordic cousins decided to populate Iceland during the settlement age by popping off to Britain along the way for a smash and grab as over half the women during the settlement age were of Celtic blood. Before you exit, you get the chance, its almost compulsory, to to try on the chain-mail and pose as a Viking warrior. Throwing on the chain-mail weighs a ton, and I may have enjoyed this dressing up a little too much as I start to get comfy with it.

The Long House at the Settlement Exhibition
The Long House at the Settlement Exhibition

 

For a more sedate museum experience, we head to the Settlement Exhibition, Landnamssyningin, to see how the first Icelanders lived. An underground, purpose-built museum around the extensive ruins of a Viking-age farmhouse excavated in 2001. With the oldest relics of human habitation from 871 AD (+ or – 2 years), the finds include a 10th century farmhouse which was inhabited from 930 to 1000 AD, with the hall 20m long and 8m wide, not so much of a fan of the animal backbone stuffed into the wall for good luck though. The settlement of Iceland was easily dated due to a layer of ash from an enormous eruption in the Torfojokull area in 871 AD which can be dated to a degree of accuracy because traces of this have been found in the Greenland ice cap which forms annual layers and can be counted back.

 

It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the coolest light show on the planet, the Northern Lights, cancelled for each of the 3 nights we were there, we did see them briefly earlier in the year while we were in the Arctic Circle in Norway. I guess this just gives an excuse to visit another Nordic country next year.

 

Links:

Iceland – The Icelandic Phallological Museum

Iceland – The Golden Circle Tour

Our final day in Norway and Tromso sees us carted off into the snowy backdrop of Tromso on the island of Kvaloya (whale island). We are here to see other dogs behind our own dog’s back (he’d be heartbroken if he knew) and go husky sledding in Tromso.

This is our final excursion via Hurtigruten and we’ll be dropped off at the airport straight after, might as well finish on something good. The weather is perfect with fresh snow and sunshine making for a super Sunday.

Husky sledding in Tromso
Husky sledding in Tromso

 

Making our way round to the husky block, you think your dog smells bad, but multiply it several hundred times, now breathe it in. There are over 300 huskies excited, howling and barking, all pleased to see you, it means they are getting exercise, they love it, the noise is unbelievable. The dogs are very affectionate, get excited as they jump at you, play and paw at you, they can’t wait to take you out. We’re free to wander around and fuss all the dogs and these dogs like sure like a fuss. The sights and sounds of 300 smelly huskies is a sheer delight but the smell will hit you first.

 

Surprisingly, they all sleep outside, they have kennels, but often sleep on top of them no matter the weather. They have very thick coats, you can’t see their skin its that thick which gives them the advantage to be able to sleep outside even if it could get down to -50, although in Tromso it doesn’t get anywhere near that even deep winter. They think nothing of sleeping outside on top of their kennels covered in snow with their nose poking out. These Alaskan Huskies, although they are not a pure breed, are great for sledding, muscular and strong as we are about to find out.  They don’t tire easily and can do this 7 times a day and more than happy to cover 100 miles each day.

Mush! Husky sledding time!
Mush! Husky sledding time!

 

Climbing in to our two man wooden and string sled, Sam is at the back with the higher view and I am at the front, almost lying down, draped with a thick blanket over me, although our guide Martin assures us will not stop us encountering lots of snow.  The dogs are raring to go, howling and baying, so eager they have to be anchored down. Then the anchor is set free and Mush! We are off, lucky enough to be at the front and husky sledding in Norway through the quiet countryside of the Arctic Circle.

One of the 300 huskies at Tromso Wilderness Centre (Tromsø Villmarkssenter ) that likes being fussed.
One of the 300 huskies at Tromso Wilderness Centre (Tromsø Villmarkssenter ) that likes being fussed.

 

Our pack of 8 huskies, the strongest two are at the back (and usually female) are leading us through the still countryside over soft snow and ice,  Its gentle at first and as they build up to speed, snarl and jostle before they star to run along in unison with a command from our musher of Ha! and a Gee! to guide them left and right. Hurtling through the wilderness sitting at the front does have its disadvantages, I’m covered in snow and my legs feel every bump, lurch and crash. We don’t mind though, we’ve loved it, rolling along through soft fresh snow is serene and soothing.  It’s a different kind of dog walk for sure. Husky sledding in Tromso may not be an extreme sport but it sure is fun.

You can find our Norway and Arctic Circle trip here.

You can find our Snowmobile Safari in Kirkenes trip here

Kirkenes is at the north-eastern end of Norway, 10 kilometres from the border with Russia and 400 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, further east than Istanbul and St Petersburg.  Kirkenes is not a charmingly attractive place at first glance, a frozen shore with functional buildings and plenty of snow.  Everything looks pretty new, no surprise given that during World War 2 it suffered 320 air attacks, second only to Malta, having been occupied by Nazi Germany, used as the main supply base for the Murmansk Front and then occupied by the Red Army of Russia.  The Russians are still here, road signs are in Russian, plenty of boats in the harbour, all in good and close relations.  We however are here for a snowmobile safari in Kirkenes.

Snowmobile safari in Kirkenes. Our view looking back from our Snowmobile.
Snowmobile safari in Kirkenes. Our view looking back from our Snowmobile.

 

Our guide, Ulf, is a charismatic Norwegian constantly cracking jokes, he wants people to have a good time with Barents Safari which we booked via Hurtigruten for our Norway Arctic Circle trip.

Snowmobiling in the Arctic Circle on a frozen fjord leading to the Barents sea sounds cold but with the suit they give you and the heated handlebars of the snowmobile you don’t feel a thing.  The weather went from wonderful sun to white-out in seconds, just follow the snowmobile tracks to avoid any unpleasantness of crashing through any weak ice. Ice road truckers never had it so easy.

 

Sliding and skidding along the snowy surface gives you a great feel for the far north, the remoteness and middle of nowhere feel you get from the Norwegian Russian border gives a beguiling tranquility of silence rarely glimpsed in modern life.  It’s not technically challenging but it is fun, our Go Pro filming can confirm that. If you get the chance, go for it. Sam loved it, I need to convince her to get a motorbike now.

Finishing off the snowmobile safari with a warm up in a Sami lavvo tent with tea and a snack. Ulf confesses the key to surviving in Kirkenes is with this snack, it’s his version of Norwegian viagra, Reindeer heart. Of course, he doesn’t tell you that until after you’ve eaten it. Sorry kids, we ate Rudolph, Christmas is cancelled.  If it makes you feel any better, it tasted disgusting.

Find out trip to Norway and the Arctic Circle here.

Find our Husky Sledding in Tromso here.

In some mad moment of wanderlust we booked a wild, windy, winter wonderland on the frozen fjords of Norway in the Arctic Circle in Winter. Land of Vikings, Midnight Sun, Northern Lights, majestic mountains and gorgeous glaciers. We’ve booked with Hurtigruten on their Arctic Highlights coastal route from Tromso to Kirkenes with the entire journey in the Arctic Circle.  It’s what’s billed as a once in a lifetime trip and the cost will be a life time credit card hit.

Heading north with Hurtigruten on the MS Kong Harald
Heading north with Hurtigruten on the MS Kong Harald

 

From East Midlands airport, we fly direct to Tromso, the legendary gateway to the Arctic to board our boat.  Our cruise in Norway, and cruise is an optimistic word, is aboard a coastal ferry with Hurtigruten, the recently refurbished MS Kong Harold.  This is no tux or tiara type trip, its bundles of base layers and blubber for this boat trip. Bare skin could be a disaster and besides, you wouldn’t want to get undressed in this climate and assumptions would be made about “masculinity,” lets not forget that we are in the Arctic Circle.

There's a Polar Bear behind me isn't there? Hammerfest Tourist Information Office / Polar Bear Society.
There’s a Polar Bear behind me isn’t there? Hammerfest Tourist Information Office / Polar Bear Society.

 

The spring equinox is fast approaching and I was worried that our trip with Hurtigruten to Norway might not have enough of the white stuff.  Dispel any thoughts of not being enough snow, there are tons of it.  It’s a sharp contrast to Britain where at the point of approx 0.01 mm of snow falling, Britain descends into panic and its a near on national emergency. Just the threat of snow is enough to shut airports, close schools and jack up shop prices despite snow actually yet to fall. 4×4 drivers slowing to a snail’s pace, tank commander ice drivers, an instant blaming of a cold snap during winter as a reason for imminent triple dip recession and other fucknuttery lapsing in a dose of common sense. Any terrorists wanting to screw Britain up only need to throw a few snowballs on the ground. When Britain had an empire it must have only invaded warm countries.  In Norway, sling on winter tyres and chill out.

Our voyage in the Arctic Circle takes us from Tromso to Kirkenes stopping along the way to various places including Skjervoy, Hammerfest, sailing through Magerøysund, to Honningsvåg at 71° North, Vadso and Berlevåg.   Kirkenes is the furthest we are going to get on  our trip, the North Pole, a little less than 1400 miles away and one of the most northerly points in Europe.  Some of the places we visit on the way seem so remote, usually because they are, and some so inhospitable.  It is cold, bleak, barren and it is also undeniably stunningly beautiful in places. It feels, looks, and with the wind howling, sounds the like the remote end of the world. This feels like the Arctic.

North Norway, the Arctic Circle
North Norway, the Arctic Circle

 

Tromso is not unpleasant, it’s not exactly big or the Paris of the North as some sites have referred it to, its weather is relatively mild, we certainly thought so as munched on ice cream in sub-zero temperatures next to Ishavskatedralen, the Arctic Cathedral, by the Fløyfjellet Mountain looking across Tromso towards the Tromsdalstinden peak. Tromso is known as the gateway to the Arctic.  Roald Amundsen must have thought so too, there are statues of him everywhere, even though he flew from here to his death on the Arctic icecap in 1928.  With this in mind we head off to the old wooden warehouse of the Polarmuseet (Polar Museum).

View from Tromso quay towards the Arctic Cathedral
View from Tromso quay towards the Arctic Cathedral

 

If macabre displays of stuffed seals, bloody skinning and whale hooks and other trappings from the Arctic are your thing, knock yourself out. The larger display is about Svalbard with archaeological finds from an old Russian whaling station and nearly a whole floor devoted to Roald Amundsen and Isbjornkongen, the Polar Bear King, Henry Rudi who spent many a year bludgeoning and bashing polar bears.  It’s easy to look at whaling and the cruelty of hunting without context of life in the Arctic Circle back then.

The Gulf Stream protects Tromsø from the extremes of Arctic weather, it still gets cold (for us Brits) but things are different as we move north, this side of the land in Kirkenes – we certainly feel the difference.  To give you some idea of how cold these places can get, the ice planet Hoth scenes in The Empire Strikes Back was filmed in Norway, below the Arctic Circle, and we are way above the Arctic Circle. Its real cold with real snow. The chances of either one of us becoming a case of spontaneous human combustion, lit from the spark of all the fleece we are wearing seems remote. Chilled to the bones, thermal underwear has never been so attractive, wanted or needed. Wind-chill on deck can be a stunner. My natural layers of blubber i.e. fat, has not helped me withstand the cold chill.

Stunning scenery on our Hurtigruten Arctic Highlights trip
Stunning scenery on our Hurtigruten Arctic Highlights trip

As the ship edges northwards and towards the Barents sea, snow and ice accumulate on deck.  One part of our savage winter sojourn was snuffed out when the roads were closed to the North Cape cancelling our excursion and the ports also closed,   Force 8 on the Beaufort scale is no fun.  There may have been 350 covers for dinner that evening, but only 100 made it.  I and most other passengers remained in our cabins where we recreated scenes from the Exorcist with projectile vomiting and making best friends with the toilet.  This is not the gentle swell of the sea.  My seafaring days are well and truly over.

On deck, when the waves have become bearable, the scenes are spectacular.  Heavy grey skies and sea smog obscure and surprise with craggy snowy mountains, and mountains of snow, that rise majestically either side of the boat, rocky waves crashing shores where you are sure that no one can live and in the middle of nowhere, Norway has its surprises with the odd house seemingly plonked down in the middle of nowhere.  No jetty, no road, no access. Perfect. Beauty is everywhere in desolation.

Our Husky Sledding trip can be found here.

Our Snowmobile Safari in Kirkenes can be found here.

Frozen Fjords and cloud top mountains of Norway. Taken from the plane with mobile phone.
Frozen Fjords and cloud top mountains of Norway. Taken from the plane with mobile phone.
Chilled to the bone.
Chilled to the bone.

 

Honningsvag
Honningsvag

Spending our Honeymoon in Rome in the romance of the most ruinous ruins of the ‘Eternal City’ in the republic of Rome.  With traditional British gusto, we’ve managed to curse at an early flight but get 3 whole days when it’s uncomfortably hot.

Catching the Terravision bus from Fiumicino airport to the termini station is considerably cheaper than hailing a taxi and being taken for a ride in a foreign city.  I will assume the bus service is called Terravision due to the look of horror that follows on the faces of British travellers as their orderly queues are disintegrated as the bus pulls up and you are expected to rugby scrum your baggage into the hold yourself and then jostle and shove your way onto the bus.

Do not expect any assistance or crowd control.  How on earth these guys in their toga and Centurion outfits managed to conquer the world I do not know – they can’t even queue for a bus.  On reaching the termini station, it’s a frantic few minutes as you attempt to rescue your luggage while others are trying to load theirs at the same time – it doesn’t work.  I’m pretty sure that UK Police would have deployed horses at this point.

Wheeling our luggage behind us and clutching a map in hand, we’ve decided to walk to the hotel quoting the mantra of the guidebook that everywhere is walkable in Rome.  The hotel is supposed to be a stones throw away from the Trevi Fountain, I just hope the travel agent didn’t mean a stones throw away by a ballista.  Google says it’s walkable in 20 minutes.  That’s 20 minutes if you follow Google maps and don’t take a slight unplanned detour past the official residence of the President of the Italian republic at Quirinal Palace.  There we were thinking the armed guards and reporters assembled outside were there to greet us.

It would also have been a little quicker If we didn’t have to keep consulting the map with Sam asking “is that the Trevi Fountain?” every two seconds when stumbling past some sort of old marble monument.   Eventually we arrived at our hotel being lucky enough to have a private veranda but unfortunately no ballista was provided to throw stones at the Trevi Fountain which really did end up being only a stones throw away.

Off we trudge to the much talked about Trevi Fountain.  You know that scene in the film La Dolce Vita when Anita Ekberg decides to frolic around the Trevi Fountain?  Well, it looks nothing like that. It’s currently hidden behind tons of scaffolding and what looks like 2 inch thick bulletproof plexiglass (maybe some was left over when they made the Popemobile).  There isn’t even any water.

The whole thing is undergoing restoration although you are able to examine the scaffolding close up by walking across the gangway.  We didn’t even toss a coin in, throwing a coin in is meant to guarantee a return to the ‘Eternal City.’  To be honest, it’s a little underwhelming so we have an ice cream that immediately drips and stains my pristine white shirt.  I feel right at home.

It is easy to wander around Rome, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and before long you’ll happen upon something old or ruinous.  Your feet will soon become ruined at the amount of walking.  Not everything old is in ruins though, the Pantheon is an impressive structure especially when you consider its 2000 years old.  While Britons were mucking about with wattle and daub, the Romans built this.  Not sure we’ll be saying that about a Barratt house in 20 years time.

One thing you can’t help but notice is that these Romans like to pose, everywhere you turn there is a column or statue, even that bloke from Gladiator managed to get himself a column with intricate carvings depicting his military victories in northern Europe. It appears ‘selfies’ have been happening for a long time.

Looks like the god squad didn’t spare much when it came to painting their houses.  Stumble into one of the many churches to see amazing baroque and renaissance art that adorn the walls and ceilings.  I’m thinking of doing something similar to the bathroom ceiling.  Popping along to the Vatican to be greeted by the sight of billions of tourists snaking along in a massive giant queue on St.Peter’s Square queuing to get in the Basilica.  The size of this queue is definitely unholy and crucifying slow in the baking heat.  Unfortunately the secrets of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel would have to wait for another trip.

Instead, we opted for the mausoleum of Hadrian, the Papal stronghold of Castel Sant’Angelo which give great views of Rome.  It’s also the place where Tosca from Puccini’s opera got a great view of Rome before she flung herself off, probably at the thought of joining the queue for St Peters.

Staying on the theme of queue’s and death, we popped along to the Spanish Steps.  It’s busy during the daytime with every nationality resting their weary travel-worn feet plonking their bum down on the steps to eat their gelato, have a rest and soak up the sun.  Maybe they’re just queuing to get on these steps for later.

If we thought the Spanish Steps was busy by day, that’s nothing compared to nighttime where there isn’t a spare seat to be found and hordes of nationalistic young Europeans are seemingly intent on out-singing each other.  Quiet it is not.  The romantic poet John Keats came to Rome to help recover his health and ended up in a house at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.  It comes as no surprise to find that he ended up dying here at the age of 25, no doubt pissed off with all that singing.

At least food in Italy is a simple delight, apparently you can’t eat badly in Rome and we can attest to that, but Sam was disappointed that food we ordered wasn’t riddled with garlic.  Simple and tasty dishes, the hardest thing to complain about is how to pronounce bruschetta, it really doesn’t matter if you say it with a ‘k’ or with a ‘sh’ the waiter always understands you.  Very cosmopolitan like most other homogenized western capital cities.

The only off-putting thing is when you order seafood pasta and your dish ends up staring at you throughout the meal.  Sat down at one restaurant to find it was occupied almost exclusively by honeymooners.  If you fancy a little more romance, pop along to the Pantheon to witness a waiter singing opera style as the restaurants put up their prices while you are distracted.  When in Rome I guess.

Of course, no visit to Rome is complete without a trip to the ancient part of Rome including the Forum and the Colosseum.  The forum and the surrounding area can best be described as a load of old republican rubble and ruins.  Mentally project every film you’ve seen of ancient Rome with senators squabbling and you’ll soon get the idea.  Now these Romans love a bit of violence, so we queue to the Colosseum, the Flavian Amphitheatre,  to get slaughtered in the sweltering sun.

Totally unprepared for the hustle of water sellers, ticket jumpers and others dressed up as the Roman Legion.  They were lucky they didn’t get their Gladius snatched and shoved where the sun doesn’t shine.  Once inside, we managed to get on a tour of the place, the types of gladiators and informed of how criminals were dispatched to the lions.  I’d do the same thing for the ticket jumpers personally.

You might fancy your chances as a gladiator, nice fancy outfits and always paired against another gladiator that offset strengths and weaknesses.  These Romans used to insist on a sense fair play, if you can call invading your country and selling you as a slave as fair play.

It’s definitely worth a trip and a Honeymoon in Rome felt special. The main sites are walkable although your feet may not love you for it after 3 days though.

Burnt, broke and back from Benalmadena on my Stag Do on the Spanish south coast where I’ve baked, blistered, bathed and binged on the booze.  Some might say that starting drinking at ten to five in the morning at the airport is setting your stall out for the weekend, I say it was never in doubt about what the Stag Do weekend involved.  The Costa Del Sol and Benalmadena’s 24 hour square lived up to its name.  Now looking like a radiation clean up worker from Chernobyl, I’m sporting the traditional glow in the dark lobster look that Brits do only too well after blistering for a few hours in the sun under the influence of cheap bargain booze.  To counteract this, I’ve covered myself in enough Aloe Vera gel to be mistaken for a swarfega accident.  Lets hope the shine factor shimmies down a little for the wedding in two weeks time.

View of Bendiorm from hotel
View of Bendiorm from hotel

Shipped out like sardines by Ruin Air (Ryanair) to that cultural capital on the continent, Benidorm, for Dave’s stag-do of sun, sangria, sea, shots and shenanigans. A holiday in the hi-rise hotels from hell, classy its not, Blackpool in the sun it is. No pretensions about this place, its cheap booze and generous measures. Now I’m back and suffering the kind of sunburn that thermo-nuclear bombs could deliver from aircraft of the British V bomber force. My skin’s like leather, I look like a crocodile, you could make a suitcase out of me. Starting to peel and looking like the singing detective. Don’t even mention Sticky Vicky “magic show,” I’m still traumatised. Decorum prohibits me from listing her show here.

I appear to have woken up in a foreign country this morning, apparently I was in Amsterdam this weekend? I cannot lay any great claim to a cultural weekend of sightseeing this weekend, unless you count sightseeing through the bottom of a pint glass. After all, it was a boys weekend in old Amsterdam for Dave’s 40th. But there were plenty of pint glasses and plenty of sights, especially as our hotel was in the middle of Amsterdam and 10 seconds from the Red Light District. Dutch courage indeed for some of the sights you can see, stunning girls that look like they’ve stepped straight from FHM magazine, to big mamma’s and she-males. Whatever floats your boat I suppose.

Of course, Amsterdam is known for its somewhat liberal and tolerant attitude. Everything you’ve probably heard about this place is true, it doesn’t leave much to the imagination and it hasn’t changed since my last visit. Bars, booze, girls, sex shows, peep shows, sex shops, sex swaps, red lights, rude bars, push bikes, pick pockets, coffee shops, cannabis, clogs and canals. It is what it is. If you need a rest from the packed crowds, have a seat in one of the many bars and if you’re like me, end up smelling like a mini-bar. Don’t look too hard at the buildings, yes, they are wonky, not the fact you’ve had too much too drink or spent too much time in wacky backy coffee shops.  As I said, viewed through the bottom of a beer glass.

This, dear reader, is a small summary of a road trip in the South West United States, a few photos from our driving holiday.  Travelling the tourist traps including Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. A couple of hints for you not found in any tourist book…

  • Romantic visions of driving on Route 66 have been completely dismissed by how mind numbingly boring it was to actually drive a part of it.  Even the signs on Route 66 urged you not to stop but just carry on.
  • Gas stations in America are the greatest source of food and fizzy pop.
  • Friendly dogs at gas stations will follow you across 6 lanes of main interstate traffic, mainly because you are the greatest source of food.
  • Americans cannot make tea but make up for it with corn dogs.
  • It is easy to get particularly sunburned in Monument Valley where there is no shade.
  • American customs, immigration and TSA officers obviously think a pasty faced sunburned Englishman looks like a terrorist and should be searched at every opportunity.
  • Flagstaff (Lowell Observatory) has great dark skies.
  • Las Vegas is over rated.
  • Meteor Crater is better than expected.
  • The Grand Canyon is big, really big.
  • The Hoover Dam is an impressive engineering marvel.
  • British Awfulways, formerly known as British Airways, will forget to feed, water and entertain you, either that or they just don’t care.  I am not yet sure which it is.

Saying that, the South West United States has a lot to offer and absolutely should be on your travel bucket list.

A visit to the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA.  Founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell to study Mars, Lowell Observatory sits atop Mars Hill, Flagstaff, at an elevation of 7, 246 feet. In 1930, the dwarf planet Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory.

Percival Lowell used the main 24″ Clark telescope to map what he thought at the time were Martian canals carrying water from the polar ice caps.  This later in turn inspired HG Wells and The War of the Worlds.  Canals on Mars were disproved by NASA in the 1960’s with the Mariner missions.

As this was an evening visit there were several telescopes outside for viewing. Using a 15″ Dobson, we were able to view M13 The Hercules Cluster, M27 The Ring Nebula and M31 The Andromeda Galaxy. With the 10″ SCT we viewed the Moon and Jupiter. Unfortunately due to the high levels of humidity we were unable to view through the main 24″ Clark telescope although I was allowed to operate the dome. Well worth the $9 fee to the Lowell Observatory.

Links:

Lowell Observatory

50,000 years ago, a huge iron-nickel meteorite weighing several thousand tonnes approx 150 feet (45 metres) across travelling at 26,000 miles per hour slammed into the Arizona plains. Today it leaves the worlds most famous and best preserved bowl shaped impact crater 550 feet deep (165 metres), 4000 feet across (1200 metres) with a 2.4 mile circumference. Meteor Crater is located 35 miles east of Flagstaff, 20 miles west of Winslow, in Arizona, USA.

Meteor Crater
Meteor Crater

You may think there isn’t much to see here at Meteor Crater, or Barringer Crater or Canyon Diablo Crater as its also known, just a hole in the desert.  Well there is that, its that big it doesn’t fit into single photo, its quite a view.  When this chunk or rock got nudged in space in the asteroid belt and came under Earth’s gravitational influence, the amount of disruption and devastation this impact caused is tremendous.  Evidenced by the house sized boulders that sit on the crater rim.  Even the non space nerds of the family i.e. everyone else, enjoyed the visit.  In the centre of the crater there is a fenced off area with a cutout of an astronaut for size referencing.  You probably can’t see this on the photos.

NASA and the US Geological Survey team provided training for the Apollo astronauts under supervision from Dr Eugene Shoemaker for sampling techniques for when they went to the moon.  Also on display is an Apollo test capsule named Boiler Plate 29A.  A Boilerplate is a non functional craft to test systems.  Boilerplate 29A was used for drop testing to ensure capsules float upright after splash down.  The American Astronaut Wall of Fame lists each astronaut that achieved space flight.

Links:

Meteor Crater

Lowell Observatory

%d bloggers like this: