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We did the usual tourist things in Hong Kong – we shopped and we ate too much at the All You Can Eat Plus More Breakfast Buffet.  The shops price their goods to entice us to buy more, with bigger discounts as more purchases are made.  It is only the thought of struggling on to an aircraft with far too much hand luggage that constrains my buying urges.

I feel sad for the quite serviceable pair of joggers that I left behind in the hotel room rubbish bin, having replaced them with a new and far more glossy pair from the Nike Factory Outlet Boutique.

We fronted the check-in desk at the airport, prepared to return to Brisbane via a slow and indirect route through Sydney.  But the very helpful check-in man was able to re-route us direct to Brisbane, saving each of us about six hours of wasted time.  Maybe he was impressed by our neat and clean appearance, unlike many others in the check-in queue.  Is it too much to expect that people travelling on airplanes should wear shirts with sleeves and covered footwear?

We didn’t score another upgrade, but the plane was only very lightly loaded, and we each managed to stretch out across four seats all the way to Brisbane.  It was nearly as good as Business Class.  Another quick smooth flight, and only minimal queues to get through the airport arrival formalities.  Mike was there to meet me, and we were soon on the road to Paradise Waters.  It rained during the drive – the first actual wet weather that I’ve seen in the past five weeks.

Now, the bags have been unpacked, there is a heap of washing to do, trinkets have been distributed, and a final blog post is almost written.

My thanks to Garry and Zung for their companionship and for putting up with me.  We have been to some places that remain mostly unvisited (and for good reasons, too!!).  We have seen some unforgettable sights and some people who may be best forgotten.  And thanks also to my blog readers for their interest and their comments.  It’s nice to know that somebody actually reads this stuff.

To Hong Kong

We got smart in Dubai and discovered that the Metro would deliver us from our hotel to the Airport without the hassles of negotiating the details with a taxi driver, and at a fraction of the cost.

We fronted to the Cathay Pacific check-in counter, and discovered to our very pleasant surprise that we had each been upgraded to Business Class for the flight to Hong Kong, rather than the Premium Economy for which we had paid.  We were given the chance to refuse the upgrade, but none of us did.

The only drawback was that this was the shortest overnight leg of the trip, so we would have the least time to enjoy it.  Even this proved to be optimistic, as we landed in Hong Kong a full one hour early (at the most unhospitable time of 4.00am!).  The flight itself was very good – smooth, good service, good food and a lie-flat bed to stretch out on.  We would have happily stayed there for hours more, if possible,

When we landed so early, there was no-one to drive the aerobridge up to the plane, the Airport was almost empty of people, finding a cab took some time, and getting in a door of the Novotel Hotel was pretty difficult too.  I don’t think that hotels take too kindly to people who arrive at 4.30am and expect that their room for the next night will be available and that there will be no extra charge.  Rather than hanging around roomless until at least 10.00am, we negotiated an upgrade to the Executive Floor (ie we paid the hotel an extra fee), and found ourselves showered and in bed shortly thereafter.  No sense spoiling the ship for a halfpenny’s worth of tar, as they say.  The Executive Floor contained some other enticements too such as buffet breakfasts, free wifi, late check-out and Club access with an open bar and free food from 6.00pm to 8.00pm.

Thus Saturday became a very lazy day for us, sleeping, shopping, eating and drinking.  And not necessarily in that order.

 

 

 

To Dubai

We departed from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on Wednesday afternoon, transiting through London Heathrow, then an overnight Qantas flight to Dubai, where we have a 40-hour or so stopover.

Dubai is what I expected it to be, and not much more.  It’s hot, humid and dusty.  There is lots of traffic, and crossing the street (even with pedestrian signals) is a potentially life-threatening exercise.  There are glossy shopping malls, a very good metro and a fancy airport, but it’s hardly a pleasure oasis.

A station in the Dubai Metro.

A station in the Dubai Metro.

A street scene in downtown Dubai.

A street scene in downtown Dubai.

The local Emirati men rule, and foreigners and women come a distant second in Dubai society.  We have found pleasant, friendly and helpful guest workers in our hotel, but they are doing the job for money to support their family at home, and not for a lifestyle.

The gorgeous Dubai view from my five-star hotel room windows.

The gorgeous Dubai view from my five-star hotel room windows.

Imported labour is cheap, and there was a small army of cleaners about to enter into our Airbus A380 aircraft after it landed this morning.  In the airport terminal, there were numerous young men dressed in the local flowing white robes, looking busy and important, but doing not very much.

A Qantas Airbus A380 takes off into the Dubai dust haze.  Taken from my hotel room windows.

A Qantas Airbus A380 takes off into the Dubai dust haze. Taken from my hotel room windows.

Our flight itself just confirmed to me my own prejudices about the A380 and the decline of Qantas in recent years.  The flight was only half full, but there is no such thing as a comfortable sitting/sleeping position in Economy Class.  I think all airlines publicise their first and business class offerings, while the vast majority of the passengers slum it in economy class.  Ever conscious of their perceived need to cut costs, Qantas have pared back the economy class service to about the very barest minimum.  There are now no hot or cold moist towel anytime during a long flight, a refreshment during the night, or an edible breakfast.

I expect that the recent tie-up with Emirates and the switch to the Dubai hub will see a further decline in Qantas’ passenger numbers, as people vote with their feet for Asian airlines and Asian stopovers.

We leave on Friday night for Hong Kong, flying Cathay Pacific.  I’ll let you know how that flight compares.  I know already that the airport and stopover in Hong Kong and the hotel in Hong Kong leaves the Dubai offering for dead.

 

Keukenhof and the Rijksmuseum

Not so much text today, but plenty of photos as I share our visit to Keukenhof yesterday, and my visit today to the recently refurbished and reopened Rijksmuseum (the Dutch National Art Gallery) in Amsterdam.

Keukenhof is an annual event, running for about two months, and located near Leiden, about 25km from Amsterdam, out past the Schiphol Airport.  Canberr’a Floriade is modelled on Keukenhof, but is much smaller and lacks many of the permanent elements that make Keukenhof so famous.  The Keukenhof gardens cover 32 hectares, with more than 7 million flowers in bloom.  The event has been running annually for 64 years.

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Keukenhof features mostly tulips in its displays, but there are other flowering bulb plants and some non-bulb flowers also.  I won’t caption the pictures, as it’s pretty self evident what they show.  There were thousands of people there yesterday (a Monday), many of them apparently unable to read simple signs such as ‘Please do not walk on the grass’.  Enjoy the pictures (remember, too, you can click on each picture a couple of times to enlarge it).

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The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is one of the most famous and well-stocked art galleries in the world, and the newly reopened and refurbished building makes it a joy to visit.  I have visited previously and enjoy returning to see some of its many famous pieces, the most well-known of which is the Rembrandt painting known as ‘The Nightwatch’.

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The Rijksmuseum contains not just works of art, but important historic artifacts also.  In 1616, the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed on the coast of Western Australia, and left behind a pewter plate, with the details of his visit.  Some 80 years later, the plate was retrieved by another Dutch explorer and returned to the Netherlands.  The plate is the oldest European object ever found on Australian soil, and is now on display in the Rijksmuseum.

 

116Tomorrow, we leave Amsterdam to commence the long journey home, punctuated with stopovers in Dubai and Hong Kong.

 

Cologne, then to Amsterdam

Our short one-night stay in Cologne was intended to be a resting period between the possible rigours of the cycle trip and our final European destination, Amsterdam.  I had been to Cologne several times in the past few years and Garry thought he might have been there many years ago.

Lots of people in Cologne, in the square in front of the Dom (Cathedral)

Lots of people in Cologne, in the square in front of the Dom (Cathedral).  A beautiful bright blue day, too.

It was Saturday and the city was abuzz with tourists, football supporter crowds (supporting either the local team or the visitors), and with groups of young people on bucks and hens party excursions.  I don’t understand all the details of the latter groups, but it appears to involved a themed t-shirt uniform, a costume outfit for the prospective bride or groom, lots of alcohol and lots of noise from singing and chanting.  And it’s much the same for the football crowds too.  All pretty harmless, and no great nuisance to others.

A buck's group, with the groom-to-be dressed in a fat suit, outside the Fruh brewhouse.

A buck’s group, with the groom-to-be dressed in a fat suit, outside the Fruh brewhouse.

On Saturday night we dined and drank at the Fruh brewhouse and restaurant, not far from the Cathedral.  It’s very convivial, very German, very good fun and very satisfying in all respects.  It’s currently the white asparagus harvesting season in Germany, so we each had White Asparagus with Veal Meatballs and béarnaise sauce, and boiled potatoes with melted butter.  And a couple of beers each.  It was great!!

Herr Rod enjoying an ale at the Fruh brewhouse.

Herr Rod enjoying an ale at the Fruh brewhouse.

White Asparagus and Veal Dumplings. Yummo!!

White Asparagus and Veal Dumplings. Yummo!!

We stayed at the Ibis Hotel attached to the main railway station, and located adjacent to the Dom (the Cathedral).  It’s a great location, so close to everything, and so convenient for travellers.

The Dom, illuminated at night, seen from my hotel room.

The Dom, illuminated at night, seen from my hotel room.

On Sunday morning, we travelled by German Inter-City Express train to Amsterdam Central.  The trip was OK, about half an hour late arriving in Amsterdam and with no ticket control for most of the journey.  We don’t mind paying train fares, but we object when freeloaders take advantage of poor train management to travel for free (and in First Class!).  Occasionally there can be a Magic Moment when the interlopers get turfed out, but it is not a frequent-enough event.

The Amsterdam City Hall, and sometimes Royal Palace, the scene of a recent Dutch royal event.

The Amsterdam City Hall, and sometimes Royal Palace, the scene of a recent Dutch royal event.

In Amsterdam, it was a five minute walk from the Central station to our rooms at the Accor M Collection Convent Hotel.  The hotel is in a group of three former houses, including a former convent, restored, modernised and converted into a four star hotel.  The rooms have a traditional look to them, but include all the usual modern hotel features.  Unlike some old houses converted to hotels where I have stayed in the distant past in Amsterdam, there are no narrow and steep staircases, tiny rooms and antique bathroom fittings (especially the old fashioned Dutch toilets, with the ‘inspection platform’ inside them).

Foundation engineering wasn't too good in the past in Amsterdam, and many buildings have taken on a decided lean.  (This is not the Convent Hotel!)

Foundation engineering wasn’t too good in the past in Amsterdam, and many buildings have taken on a decided lean. (This is not the Convent Hotel!)

We returned to the Hotel late yesterday afternoon to find a gift from the management for my Platinum level Accor Club membership – a half bottle of French Champagne (Laurent Perrier) on ice with two glasses, some chocolates and other assorted goodies.  Very nice and unexpected.  Of course, we three made short work of the bubbly very soon afterwards.

How to suck up to one of your loyal customers!!

How to suck up to one of your loyal customers!!

I’ll end this blog update here, and the next posting can include details of our visit today (Monday) to the tulip gardens and displays at Keukenhof, about 25km out of Amsterdam.

A peek at the next blog post from Keukenhof.

A peek at the next blog post from Keukenhof.

 

And another sneak peek.

And another sneak peek.

 

From Russia with Love, to Frankfurt and Mainz, and on to Koblenz..

It was an uneventful journey for us on Air Berlin, from take-off in Saint Petersburg, via Berlin, to Frankfurt.  The aircraft were both new B737-800s, with an efficient crew and good cabin service.  We had some hours to wait in Berlin for the second flight, but we spent the time drinking beer, chatting to some Austrian people and watching the world go by.

Arrival in the European Union gave us a stamp in our passports, but no computer record or electronic passport control.  I guess they thought that if we had been into and out of the Russian Federation, our credentials would be in order.

We happily paid the modest train fare from the Airport into the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and reunited ourselves with Zung who had flown in from Brisbane, Singapore and Dubai a few hours earlier.  By then it was near midnight and we were all tired from our travels.

Monday morning.  Up early for a nice hot shower.  Not possible.  A small problem with ze hot water, will be fixed in an hour.  Have a free breakfast with our compliments.  It was not until after lunch time that the hot water came back on.  We went exploring whilst unwashed, eventually had a shower, then made the most of the rest of our day in Frankfurt, exploring the old and the not so old parts of the city.

The Rat Haus (City Hall) in Frankfurt, dating from the early 15th century.

The Rat Haus (City Hall) in Frankfurt, dating from the early 15th century.

That night we dined at a very old, tourist-oriented restaurant in the heart of the city, the Café Hauptwache.  It used to be an old coach house at the city wall, but is now a restaurant and bar, serving mainly German food.  The food was OK, the service (?) was haphazard.  When the bill came, it had the message TIP IS NOT INCLUDED THANK YOU’ printed in English, at the bottom.  The bill was otherwise in German.

Revenge will come in time.

Revenge will come in time.

We now know that by law in Germany, bar and restaurant prices must include all taxes and service charges, but some greedy operators have gone a step further when serving unsuspecting foreigners.  They reason that a tip is not a service charge, and try to extract further payment as a tip from foreigners.  We handed over a further Euro5, which seemed to satisfy the waiter, but I will bag the place mercilessly on TripAdvisor to extract my revenge.  As they say, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold…’

On Tuesday 30 May, a short local train journey to Mainz, where our cycle trip down the Rhine River valley was to commence.  Mainz is one of those picture postcard German towns, neat as a pin, nothing out of place, everything is most satisfactory there.  The hotel was good, our bikes were waiting for us, the luggage pick up was on-time, and the weather was cool and almost moist.  (Actually, great cycling weather – not hot, not windy, not raining.)

Three intrepid cyclists, taking a short break.

Three intrepid cyclists, taking a short break.

On Wednesday morning we set off at about 10.00am for Rudesheim, another smaller picture postcard German town etc etc, on the other side of the Rhine, about 35km downstream from Mainz.  There was a separate cycle path almost all the way, well signposted, quite flat, with good riding surfaces.  Our rented bikes had electric power assistance, as well as gears, so the riding was relatively effortless.  The only slightly negative factor was the large numbers of locals out walking, cycling, partying, exercising etc for their May Day public holiday, which made for slow cycling at some points.  Rudesheim was packed with tourists, mostly Germans, it seemed, and the town was very oriented towards meeting their needs for food, alcohol and souvenirs (in that order).

The Rhine is a very busy river.  There is an almost endless stream of passenger boats, ferries and cargo barges moving both up and down stream.  We saw some examples of the cruise boats that cater to Australian travellers.  You know the ones, for people on their post-retirement, pre-pension spend up, with all beer, wines and soft drinks included etc.  So boring.  We saw some of them stopped at a town for 10 minutes, then all back on the boat.  The passengers see little and experience even less.

The Rhine is a busy working River.

The Rhine is a busy working River.

All beer, wine and soft drinks included in your fare.

All beer, wine and soft drinks included in your fare.  So boring.   

Thursday, on to St Goar, another 35km or so down the river.  We passed the famous Lorelei corner, where the siren(s) lured sailors onto the rocks.  Our bikes held true to their course.

The Loreley (Lorelei) Rocks are conveniently labelled for modern tourists.

The Loreley (Lorelei) Rocks are conveniently labelled for modern tourists.

The hotel in St Goar turned out to be about 3km further downstream and out of the town somewhat.  But it was a Wine Hotel, and we had no need to pedal our way (upstream) to the town.  It was all very German, including the regular speeding trains on the lines on both sides of the river, all through the night.

The Rhine, near Koblenz.

The Rhine, near Koblenz.

On Friday, to Koblenz, the end of our cycle odyssey.  The tight-a**e fancy Mercure Hotel did not provide free internet access, and the town itself was almost devoid of free internet too.  Wake up, mein Damen und Herren, it’s 2013!!  Otherwise Koblenz is another picture postcard German city, located at the junction of the Mosel and Rhine Rivers.  It was another day of easy cycling, helped by the electric assistance and slight downhill gradient of the river valley.  The day had commenced with the threat of rain, but none happened and we finished our entire cycle trip as dry as a bone.

The cycling tour was a great experience, and cycling is certainly a great way to see the sights of the Rhine valley.  On Saturday, to Cologne (Koln), but that is for another blog post.

 

Saint Petersburg

My guide book tells me that the Tsar Peter the Great wanted a city that was like the great European cities, and not like a Russian city.  Thus, Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703.  And from appearances, he seems to have achieved his objective.  Saint Petersburg looks more like Paris, or Venice, or London, than having any resemblance to Moscow or other Russian cities.

Nevsky Prospekt.

Nevsky Prospekt.

On Nevsky Prospekt.

On Nevsky Prospekt.

Saint Petersburg has more or less canals than Venice and the Gold Coast,

Saint Petersburg has more or less canals than Venice and the Gold Coast,

The city is flat, so walking is easy, and the footpaths appeared to be well made and well kept in the places we walked.

We toured the State Hermitage Museum, comprised of the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Large Old Hermitage.  In total, an enormous space, with a wide range collection from Egyptian antiquities, Greek and Roman, and European art and sculpture, and furnishings up to almost the present time.  I don’t think it is known for any treasures like a Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo, but you could wander for ages and find much of general interest there.

The courtyard entry to the State Hermitage Museum.  No photos inside, of course.

The courtyard entry to the State Hermitage Museum. No photos inside, of course.

Across the Square in front of the State Hermitage Museum.

Across the Square in front of the State Hermitage Museum.

The next day we went to the Peter and Paul Fortress, located on an island across the Neva River from the city.  It includes the usual military buildings, a prison and a cathedral where many of Russia’s royalty, including the Romanovs who were killed in Yekaterinburg in 1918, are now buried.

The Cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress (undergoing restoration).

The Cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress (undergoing restoration).

Inside the Cathedral.  Too much gold, I think.

Inside the Cathedral. Too much gold, I think.

The Romanov family grave.

The Romanov family grave.

On the walk back to the hotel, we discovered a ‘shop’ on Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg, called the Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall.  ‘Shop’ is hardly the word for it – it’s a cross (on a smaller scale) between the food halls in Harrods, Galleries Lafayette, Fauchon, Hediard and a Laduree tea and coffee shop.  It was founded in 1902, languished during the Soviet period, and was refurbished, expanded and reopened in 2012.  We thought the service was good and the prices were reasonable.  I was going to say that I thought the average Russian would be shocked by its luxury, but having seen the displays of wealth shown by some in Russia, the masses would probably not blink an eye at it.  The shop has a grand piano with an autoplay mechanism – very nice, but the western Christmas carols and Auld Lang Syne being played were just a bit out of season.  What would the Soviet rulers think of it?

Decadence inside the shop.

Decadence inside the Kupetz Eliseevs shop.

More decadence.

More decadence.

On our third day, we travelled 25km south from Saint Petersburg to visit the Catherine Palace at Pushkin/Tsarskoe Selo.  This was something of a feat for us, because we had to master both the underground Metro railway and the local minibus services (in both directions!) to get there and back again.  Despite my lack of Russian language skills and semi-understanding of the Cyrillic characters, we managed to find the correct Metro stations (if you ask me, some of the different station names are barely distinguishable from others!) and we travelled there and back for about $4 each, compared to quoted tour prices of $100+ per person.  We also had more fun, being probably the happiest-looking people on the Metro, by far.  We played the smiling face game frequently, and it wasn’t hard to win.

Exterior view of the Catherine Palace.

Exterior view of the Catherine Palace.

Inside the Catherine Palace.

Inside the Catherine Palace.

The Amber Room, the most famous room in the Catherine Palace.  Photography is not allowed in this room, so I took the shot from the adjacent room.

The Amber Room, the most famous room in the Catherine Palace. Photography is not allowed in this room, so I took the shot from the adjacent room.

So Saint Petersburg is where the Tsar succeeded and failed.  He created a European city, but the Russians have taken it over.  Glum faces, rudeness and indifference rule!

On our last day in Saint Petersburg, we again faced the Metro and minibus systems to get to the airport.  No worries so far.  We made our way from the minibus to the airport building, which was equipped just inside the door with baggage X-ray equipment and metal detectors, and prepared to do the usual.  A helpful guard informed us this was the Arrivals Building and we needed to go some hundreds of metres back the other way.  A simple sign on the building in Russian or English might have helped, but no signs of any type were to be seen on either the Arrivals or Departures buildings.

I suppose it should have been apparent to us!  The Departures Building was far more chaotic, with queues to join the queues.  We used our Qantas Silver status to join a priority Air Berlin check-in queue, much to the distress of a horde of elderly Germans who were without priority in the priority line!  (I know it sounds unbelievable – Germans in a queue in Russia, and were able to jump the queue!  Woo hoo!!).

We queued multiple times, and had our Boarding Passes inspected and stamped multiple times.  We fronted up to Comrade Olga Stalin at Passport Control, then went through another X-ray and scanner process, then had a full-body frisk by another male comrade.  One guy (neither of us) who said his belt would not be a problem learned the hard way that it was going to be a problem.  He may still be there arguing his case….  It’s hard to get in to Russia, it’s even harder to get out.

Eventually, we boarded the plane, and then we took off.  After a while, we watched as the flight map showed that we were finally above Poland, and hence safely out of the Russian Federation.

In our three weeks, we saw more of Russia than most tourists would see, we probably saw more of Russia than most Russians would ever see, and we saw more of Russia than we ever want to see again.  It wasn’t all bad, but it fell a long way short of a pass mark for me.