We said goodbye to Mum at Amsterdam airport boarded our plane to Canada! I was ready for the cold but nothing could have really prepared me for it. In words said more than once it was "f***ing freezing" or as the french say "Il fait frette"!
Anyway we were greeted by our friend and host Vanessa!
She took us up to her place in Sainte Adele which was about an hour north of Montreal. We had a great catch up and compared travelling stories over some wine. We met Vanessa in Nepal in 2015 and spend a total of five days with her paddling down a river. It's crazy how life works, we never thought we would be sitting in her lounge 2 years on. We were also pretty pleased her English was far superior to our French otherwise it would have been a quiet week!
The next day we tried a new sport and strapped on some snow shoes to tackle Quebec's biggest mountain. I was a bit nervous, until i realised that mountain in Quebec is more of a hill Mt Tremblant was smaller that Mt Te Aroha. Not that it was an easy day, snow shoes take a bit of getting used to and it was a fresh -18 °C outside.
The scenery was great, there was so much snow decorating the trees. From the top we had 360° views of the arear which was pretty cool, although we didn't enjoy it for too long as the wind was turning that -18 °C into a -40 °C.
That evening we met some of Vanessa's friends Sebastian and Ben and shared an evening of laughs and Chinese Fondue (which is the greatest thing!)
The following day on the way in to Montreal we went to Omega Park, which is a Canadian animal park. It was pretty much like a safari. So much fun, we had all the animals coming to the car and eating our carrots, we saw deer, elk, caribou, moose, ibex, bisson, wolves, fox, turkeys and pigs. The bears were hibernating (will have to go back).
It was really funny. One ibex even tried to enter the car through the window!
That evening we met up with some more of Vanessa friends and went to a pub which played traditional Quebecois music, I even got forced onto the stage and danced to a song I learnt the night before! Such a fun night!
We then ventured to Quebec City with Natasha (Vanessa's sister) and Jeremy. Quebec was colder and deeper in snow than Montreal (a feat I thought to be impossible), but we had a blast!
We got involved in the Quebec festival which had us throwing axes, riding a mechanical moose (which looked like a hippo), visiting an ice castle, dancing to lots of music and a fantastic parade.
We went dog sledding which was a load of fun. The huskies were awesome, the place had about 180 in total and there were 6 pulling our sled. We learnt a lot about the dogs and how they work and train them. Our huskies were the kind that were mostly used for pulling loads and aren't all that fast, but we also saw the kind that pull sleds for racing and reach speeds of 50km/hr!
We ate at a Sugar Shack, where they make maple syrup (oh god I love that stuff), put on an ongoing meal (where the food keeps coming and maple syrup was poured over everything!) and provided entertainment in the form of a traditional band.
We had a blast tubing at Quebec's biggest tubing park, and we did it in style by trying out the retro gear we have collected for the Big White Wedding. Tubing was so much fun and we had an exciting day... Jeremy got a bit excited at one point and swung his tube around and knocked over a small child! Oops, lucky the kid was a tough nut and just walked it off!
Here we also visited the ice hotel which was pretty cool too.
In the evenings we sampled the local brews and particularly enjoyed the maple cream (similar to baileys) and the maple whiskey.
A really great dish we tried was the Poutine (chips with gravy and cheese). I could eat that stuff all day! We also had the yummy maple onion rings (Quebec wasn't great on the waistline!)
On our last day we headed back to Montreal, stopping at a waterfall on the way, which was partly frozen over and which people were climbing on the side.
We headed back to Vanessa's parents place which was closer to Montreal and had a lovely evening with them celebrating Lucie's birthday and indulging in cheese fondue which was also very yummy (but once again not great on the old jean size!)
A MASSIVE thank you to our fabulous friend Vanessa who went above and beyond to ensure we had a great stay in Quebec. We had the most amazing week and are so happy to forever have those memories with her! Merci beaucoup Vanessa!
We headed up to Berlin, where we met Sue, Stacey's Mum who will join us for about 3 weeks.
We had generally avoided war related history until now, as it was something Sue wanted to see with us. Berlin is possibly the best place to start, as no city reflects the effects of the war quite like Berlin. They are not shy to admit the wrong, and are very open to all cultures now. Peace is the one word that would present itself most in Berlin. Starting at the large Tiergarten, a huge park 210 ha where usually "old & smelly" German men walk around naked. Unfortunately as it was a crisp winters morning, the only nudity was on the statues. Tiergarten has a history of about 500 years, originally a hunting park for noblemen.
Throughout & immediately surrounding this huge park you find the usual Impressive and huge European things:
A Victory Column, 67m high with a bronze statue of Victoria (Ancient Roman goddess of Victory)
A Palace, where the President lives (Germany has a president and Chancellor) & the Parliament, where Hitler made all other political parties illegal, abolished freedom of speech, and implemented many extreme policies.
A huge gate, where the ancient defence wall of the city opened.
Everything in this park is impressive. Countless historical events happened here, including the famous moment when Michael Jackson hung his baby out the window (the hotel is by the Gate).
The most notable thing is that this is the area that Hitler ran the war and genocide from. Just beyond the reaches of the park is the underground bunker where Hitler killed himself. It is now a carpark with a little sign.
There is no hiding what happened in the 30's and 40's, and appropriately the monuments remembering the millions murdered are located at the most important location of the city.
The Hollocaust memorial being the largest, was designed in a way that the interpreter would see something that meant the most to them when they though of the war (It could be a destroyed city, mass tombs, etc).
After the Soviets decided the war was over (they really won the war), Germany was divided into east and west. Additionally the capital was also divided east and west, so there was now a unique situation where the soviet union surrounded a small bit of western controlled land. An unhappy german soviet citizen could simply step over the border, seek asylum and leave the east for the west.
As the west provided so much and the Soviets were very rough on the Germans that were now under their control, as many as 3.5 million left the east prompting a problem. In 1961 over night a wire fence and soviet armed military surrounded west Berlin, keeping the soviet population out of the "Fascist NATO controlled west" it wasn't long before the fence was 2 walls complete with death zone and snipers and mine fields. Basically the iron curtain has closed and you are here to stay.
It remained closed until the East Berlin spokesman Schabowski was announcing new regulations in November 1989. He wasn't part of the team that made the regulations, and didn't have all the information, but basically told people they were free to leave effective immediately, when that is not what the East had intended at all.
Beyond the war and the wall history, Berlin has so much to offer. We enjoyed many things, but can't stay forever.
A day on the trains got us from Berlin to the capital of the old large polish empire (about dating back 500 years) of Krakow.
A walled city, Krakow was the political center of Eastern Europe and Sweden, until the king accidentally burnt down half his castle (apparently in 1595 he was trying to make gold with alchemy, and the castle caught fire) then he moved to Warsaw, or so the story goes.
The walls were successful in defending attacking armies, and in the center of town a watch tower over the church gave a trumpeter the ability to warn the town of imminent attack. Every hour a trumpeter plays his tune, and as the story goes one trumpeter was shot with an arrow before the tune was complete which explains why the trumpeters song ends so abruptly.
That's not the only folktale from krakow..
Under the castle is a cave, and in the cave lived the Smok Wawelski (the Wawel dragon). There are many stories, but the most popular is that in the 15th Century King Krakus had a problem. The Dragon ate young girls, eventually the only young girl left was his daughter (the princess), so he offered her hand in marriage to any who could kill the dragon. Many failed attempts the king was getting restless, preparing to flee. However a Cobblers apprentice devised a plan of taking a dead sheep, fulling it with Sulphur, leaving it for the dragon outside its cave. The dragon ate the sheep whole, became thirsty and went to the river to drink. The thirst could not be quenched so the dragon kept drinking until it exploded. The cobbler's apprentice married the Princess and lived happily ever after. Nowdays there is a statue of Smok Wawelski that still is fire breathing (every 5 minutes).
Another awesome thing we excitedly rediscovered in Poland was the goulash and Bison vodka..
We also had more war history, including the German occupation, and the concentration and Death Camp Auschwitz - Birkenau.
Being the geographic centre of Europe, and having such a Jewish population nearby, Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau was a key part of the Nazi's Endlösung der Judenfrage "final solution to the Jewish question". About 1.2 Million people were murdered here during the war & Hollocaust. At the extreme 12,000 people per day were sent to the Camp.
Upon arrival a Doctor would determine if the "prisoners" were fit to work. If yes, they lived and were sent to work camps where they were underfed, living in extreme conditions where temperature can go to -20 °C, and worked until death. The remaining 3/4 (not fit for work) of prisioners were lied to, told they would be showered and deloused, and so proceed to the showerblock. They were told to undress, enter the shower room. Cramed with about 1000 people, the SS threw in Zyklon B. It didnt even take 20 minutes. Later the SS started chopping off all the hair (which the Nazi's resued as material for textiles), removing jewerly & gold from teeth and then burning the corpses. No evidence remained.
The beginnings of Auschwitz was horrible, but not on the same industrial scale. Polish prisoners (anyone of power or high education) were sent there to the original Auschwitz Concentration camp. Food rashons were so bad most were lucky to last 3 months. Naughty prisoners were generally murdered, either shot, gassed, or most horribly locked in a room and set to suffocate, sometimes taking days.
Seeing this has made us realise the horrible nature of humans that can exist. What's worse is the realisation that this repeated itself in Cambodia only 30 years later. Also, of the 7000 SS troops that run Auschwitz, only 12% were convicted of war crimes.
The Czech Republic has a interesting history. As Hitler liked Prague, he basically left it damage free. We stayed in an apartment which was above the local Indian takeaway. I was keen to go out for a Czech beer (ranked #1 beer drinking country in the world) and find traditional goulash or pork knee... Stacey and Sue after the trip from Krakow only had eyes for one thing so butter chicken it was.
Ohwell. I got my goulash, pork knee and plenty of beer over the next few days.
Prague was busy, full of tourists, locals and culture.
Most interesting is the famous astronomical clock. Apparently it is the oldest still working, and has some very quirky features, and worth seeing (or watching on youtube here
We treated Sue to Ice hockey, where the local team lost (although the spirit of fans was impressive).
From Prague we ventured to Karlow Vary, a famous and pretty spa town in the west of the republic. It turns out they drink the spa water, not so much bathe in it. Ohwell gave it a go and we have been magically healed of all ailments (this is me drinking from a traditional ceramic cup thing).
The next day found us in Nürmberg, Germany. The home ground and HQ of the National Socialist party (the NAZI's).
Nürmberg is an interesting braviarian city, full of bier, würst and history, so appropiately we drunk, ate and explored.
Currywurst and Beer. Perfect day.
The next day we found the appropiately named "dokumentationszentrum reichsparteitagsgelände".
The Nazis were mental. They had their own army before they were legally recognised as a political party. They built a massive rally ground (dokumentationszentrum reichsparteitagsgelände). They unified Germany, unsettled from WWI with extreme policy and propoganda, eventually illegally taking over the country and then well you know the rest. The rally ground was to be the center of the Nazi world. Massive stadiums for the puropse of propoganda. Back then the Nürmberg locals seemed fond of the propoganda, as the Nazi's seemed to convince them that they would restore Nürmberg to the center of the new Empire, something that historically they had been.
After Nürmberg we ventured west some more to Cologne. Famous for giving its name to Eau de cologne, the first thing we did was visit the original cologne manufacturers shop, who was an Italian man with a French name living in Germany, Johann Maria Farina, who in 1709 made his famous concoction.
It wasn't easy getting there, as we had a nightmare on local transport, tickets come by way of coins or local eftpos cards, so our notes and Visa's left us about 4km away from where we wanted to be. Ohwell, we managed, and after some time learning about the cologne, where to next? We had to satisify Sue's sweet tooth so the Chocolate factory it was. Stacey laughed as she found Sue at the free samples and me watching the machinery.
Cologne has a massive church, with amazing stained stained glass windows, and is also where apparently the three wise men are buried. As our latin and german is rusty, we can say we think we know which tombs were theirs. Above the Church is a huge belltower (157 m tall). Offering the best views we ventured to the observation deck, about 100m up. Spiral staircase, steel steps and creaky noises made us wonder if the once tallest building in the world (1880-1890) would stay standing while we were up so high.
Also, apparently the busiest train bridge in Germany has an odd problem, too many padlocks are starting to add too much weight...
From Cologne we headed more west to the open minded Amsterdam.
Boats, Bicycles, the Anne Frank haus, museums with Rembrant and Van gough, pancakes and tradional dutch food saw us through.
We ventured around on bicycles, where Sue showed us how to fall off in most entertaining style.
Sue also dragged us though the famous red light district.
From the dam we picked up a car and headed over the massive Afsluitdijk dike. No, we didn't make up the name by pressing the keyboard randomly... Its pretty cool... heres a link to see more on Afsluitdijk.
We also visited uncle jack, my Great Uncle who was killed in WWII, who's plane was shot down over the Netherlands.
From Uncle Jack we headed back to the dam, on the way stopping at a pretty town called Giethoorn, famous for not having roads...
On to Brussels, our last stop before we fly onto Canada. Belgium beer, waffles and chocolate.
Off to maple trees and moose! Canada here we come!
We were relieved to leave the frosty Budapest, and venture to the capital of Austria where it was only -2 °C. Such warmth! We arrived in Vienna to snow. After dropping off our bags, we went for a traditional meal at a pub down the road. Weiner schnitzel! With Austria being the home of performing arts we checked out the State Opera House and jumped in line to get a ticket to that nights show which started in a couple of hours! All the fancy seats (like on Pretty Woman) were sold out so we only had a standing option which was a steal at €3 or €4. Being the high rollers that we are, we opted for the €4 tickets and went on in.
The inside was far more glamorous than the outside, and in our hiking boots and ski jackets we stuck out like dogs balls. But anyway, they happily robbed us at €7 for water. The show was actually a ballet which was cool. They had a full blown orchestra and a big cast. We estimated probably 50 people performing in total. Luckily Tim could keep up, cause at the first interval I had no idea what was going on. I must say, that while I admire the talent and dedication of the ballerinas, I probably won't be rushing back. But in all we both (yes even Tim) thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
The rest of our time in Vienna was spent exploring the city and learning a bit of history. Found the Art institute which declined the application of Adolf Hitler twice in his youth. To quote the local we were with "I think the world could have coped with one more shit artist". Anyway not much we can do about that now. We saw the palaces and walked the beautiful grounds. Had coffee and apple strudel (pretty much locals), met up with Klem who we had spent new years with, had a stein and visited an Irish pub (naturally).
From Vienna we took a (very scenic) train to the stunning town of Hallstatt.
Set at the base of the mountains and right on the lake this has to be the most picture perfect place we have visited! The houses looked like they had been iced, if I were Hansel or Gretel I probably would have tried eating them! We stayed a very peaceful (and pricey) two nights here and it was like being on holiday, the snow made it so quiet.
Regretfully, our budget forced us to move on from Hallstatt and we headed for the living hills of Salzburg. We really enjoyed it here, the compact town was beautiful and scattered with images of the Sound of Music. Of course we rewatched the film and went in search of the sites! It was a bit chilly for a picnic in the mountains but we sang and danced over the bridges (well Tim did).
On recommendation we visited the Augustine brewery and beer halls and had a stein. Such a cool place which was obviously very popular with the locals.
Our next stop was Innsbruck but only for a couple of hours of which it snowed the entire time.
We actually stayed up in the mountains about 20km away in a wee town called Fulpmes.
This town was at the bottom of the ski resort called Schlick2000. With a name like that, it was sure to be fantastic. So we hired gear and got a day pass. With a base ski level of very average and a break of over 2 years, naturally I was bloody fantastic and totally up for when Tim took me 'off piste'. It went ok at the start, and I enjoyed watching my skis disappear under the fresh snow, but i did come out at the bottom (a considerable amount of time after Tim) covered in snow.
Anyway, I actually had a fab day and even got some mean air in my first jump! Yee haaaaa. Look out Canada I'm going to be carving those slopes like a boss!
All in all a great time in Austria, up to Germany now where we have picked up a stray!
After new years, we decided to head south, trying to extend our daylight hours, as we are missing the Vitamin D that we got so much of in summer.
First stop was Riga, Latvia.
Latvia and Estonia are in our eyes very similar, both had Soviet control for a long time, inbetween Germany and Russia meant a heavy wartime history. The Estonians made the claim of the first Christmas tree, and in a typical NZ vs Auz competitive style, Lativa had the first decorated christmas tree...
The old town was full of old Zeppelin hangars, christmas trees (yes still after new years) and more beautiful old buildings.
It wasn't long before it started to snow, and didn't stop for a few days, which gave us 2 things, lots of awesome photos, and the realisation that we don't really carry much heavy winter gear (so most our photos feature us in the same clothes).
From Riga, we kept on heading south to Warsaw.
Warsaw was cold. Very cold. The snow had kept falling, and it was getting colder. We enjoyed the sights, sounds and tastes of Poland, as well as the central European tradition of relaxing for hours in coffee houses.
As we are meeting up with Stacey's mum soon, we didn't stay in Poland long because we will be back!
Next stop, Budapest , the Hungarian capital.
Arriving at 6am, we thought wow it is cold... it wasn't until about 3-4 hours later that we found out it was -13 °C!!! We rugged up and explored, then went to the popular traditional Hugarian thermal bath. A nice experience, air temp of -6 °C and water of +35 °C meant that we we warm but had icicles in our hair... With no clouds, we finally found the sun we have been craving, too bad that it was so cold that we couldn't work on our tans, but hey, we tried.
That night the air temp dropped to -24 °C. No snow, just clear crisp skies. We almost witnessed a once in a lifetime event of the freezing of the Danube river (really big river that has 4 capitals on it and flows through 10 countries).
Hungary has a rich history of politics, and most recently through the world wars. There were numerous Jewish and Soviet related heritage, and unfortunately many places mourning loss. On the river front was sculpture of the shoes that were forced off the WW2 prisioners before they were executed/murdered and thrown in the Danube.
Hungarian goulash, and sheets of ice flowing down the Danube river sums up Budapest!
So to Helsinki we went for (what we thought would be) a guaranteed white christmas!! Exciting!
We arrived on the 23rd and were quickly advised to stock up on food and drinks as evrything would be shut on 24th/25th. No problem, it's lovely to be cozied up indoors when it's snowing outside.
We wandered into the town and found more fantastic fairy lights and busy streets...we began to wonder when the snow would come down (christmas is only 2 sleeps away!!)
We slept in on Christmas eve. This is the big day in Finland, it's the day when families all get together, they have the big meal and open presents. Hence, everything is quiet and shut down. We opened the curtains quietly hoping that there would be a blanket of snow over the ground, we would go for a lovely stroll and throw snowballs. We got this ...
Rain, rain and more rain. So we figured there was only one thing for it!
Bubbles, cheese & crackers and sauna (no pictures allowed).
Saunas in Finland are very similar to in Sweden, but in Finland you hit yourself with tree branches as well (not really sure why).
Christmas day was much the same to be honest, we opened our presents (didn't take long), went for a stroll to the beach had a very tradition meal of chicken burritos and popped back to the sauna!
All in all, it was very relaxing!
The next couple of days we wandered around the city and kinda didn't do alot! Helsinki is a neat city, with lovely buildings and we enjoyed the atmosphere of christmas there.
We caught the overnight ferry down to Tallinn, Estonia. It was aprox 30mins before we departed that it started to snow in Helsinki!! Unbelieveable! The ferry was interesting because we got on (it was kind of a cruise ship) at about 6pm and we had arrived in Tallinn by about 10pm but we had to stay on the boat till 9am. We guessed it was a money making scheme because the ship was kitted out with nightclubs, shopping, bars and restaurants.
We checked into a hotel (oh la laa - thanks Kevin and Jackie!!) in Tallinn and went for a walk into the old town. We were immediately struck by the beauty of the buildings and the cleanliness of the city. Estonia has a very interesting history as a country who has been constantly under foreign rule. It is now a country who believes more in witchcraft than any religion, but they still celebrate Christmas, in fact they were the first country in the world to put up a christmas tree.
We had a great time wandering the streets, checking out the christmas markets, eating meat with our hands, drinking vana tallinn (a yummy liqueur), exploring the old city walls, looking at the beautiful buildings and wandering some more. We met up with the lovely Amy and Klem on the 30th and did more of the above with them. As well as escaping from an escape room!
New years eve was spent at an Irish bar (we are all about traditional), before heading out to the town square to join the local action!
Happy 2017 everyone. Get excited because 2017 has snow!!!