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There are already some excellent Tour Tales on this tour on the Board (and I definitely referenced them prior to my trip), but I promised to post my own, so here (finally) it is.

Jeanie

Arriving in London

Monday 15 September

My BA flight to Heathrow goes without incident. It arrives pretty much on time (about 1740). I stroll through the terminal to the baggage claim area, hoping that my suitcase will be prompt in appearing on the carousel. From what I’ve read of Heathrow, luggage delivery seems to be rather hit-and-miss. Hopefully mine will hit – my experience of ‘making do’ with the contents of my carry-on for 30+ hours in Copenhagen makes me more anxious about this. Hence, my carry-on is crammed with the must-haves for my tour – cameras, laptop, batteries, adaptors, power board, complete change of clothes, book, I-Pod, travel documentation, waterproof jacket, toiletries.

Finally my bag is there. (Phew!) I pull the yellow cardboard Insight luggage tag out of my carry-on and put it on the handle of my suitcase. I try to stick the fluorescent Insight sticker on my shirt. Guess what, Insight, it doesn’t stick very well. Sighing, I keep it on display in my hand as I wheel my case down the terminal, trying to look conspicuous to any Insight representative who may be here to collect me. I’m not surprised when I reach the dot-to-dot desk without being intercepted: how many of my fellow Insight tourists would be joining the tour from domestic flights? (I’ve just spent several days in Scotland with friends.)

I front at the desk, introduce myself, hand over the appropriate Insight voucher then, following their instructions, take a seat in the waiting area in the middle of the terminal. After about 20 minutes, one of the girls catches my eye and leads me out to my transport. I’m the only one on the transfer in a 12 – 15 seat minibus.
Things flow along quite smoothly till we get towards London city itself. There, the authorities are digging up lots of roads to lay fresh pipes, so this has caused traffic delays. Plus, navigating around London clearly requires lots of ducking and weaving.

Finally we’re at the Crowne Plaza St James. A doorman greets me, and relieves me of my suitcase. The porter advises as I approach reception that he will see my bag to my room.

I hand over the Insight ‘voucher’ as I report to reception. As she processes everything, she hands an Insight envelope to me. Within I find more paperwork – a (useful) letter from Insight, plus a brochure on London tours. I groan as I read the contents of the letter – essentially, wakeup call 0415, luggage collection 0445.

Other Insight documentation instructs me to meet the tour director in the hotel lobby at 0530. (It also includes instructions to ‘confirm’ with the Insight Vacations Reception Centre upon arrival at the hotel. I dutifully try to phone on my mobile phone, before realising after several unsuccessful attempts that the office hours are 0500 to 1900 and it is well after closing time. Oh well.)

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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I like Dragon's summary for his recent Tour Tale, so have copied the layout here:

European Explorer
16 September to 5 October 2008

Tour Director: Raymond Row (Australian)
Driver: Ciro Amoroso (Italian)

Insight Optionals:
Amsterdam - Canal Cruise and Aalsmeer Flower Auctions (€30)
Dutch dinner and 'Old Sailors Quarter' (€55)

Salzburg - Hitler's Eagles Nest (€45)

Vienna - Treasury and Crypts of the Hapsburgs (€36)
Elegant dinner and Concert of Strauss & Mozart music (€89)

Venice - Magical Venice - St Marks Square, Cafe drink and Grand Canal Taxi ride (€43)
Guided tour of hidden back streets (€21)
Seafood dinner at Fisherman's Island of Burano (€65)

Rome - Introduction to Rome - guided tour (€31)
Classical Rome - Guided tour of Vatican, Sistine Chapel & St Pauls (€62)
Roman dinner, Trevi Fountain & Michelangelo's Campidoglio (€57)

Florence - San Gimignano (€31)
Tuscan Dinner at Certosa (€57)

Nice - 'Provencal lunch' and 3 Corniche Drive (€64)

Lucerne - Happy Hour cruise on Lake Lucerne (€30)
Horse carriage ride (€43)
Swiss Folklore show, dinner and drinks (€63)

Paris - Scenic Seine Cruise and Paris Illuminations tour (€39)
Guided Tour - Louvre and Notre Dame (€49)
Parisien Cabaret and dinner (€113)

Group Photo (€12)

(See attachment at end of tour tale for more detail on optionals, approximate AUD conversion at time, and my rating)

Hotels:
London - St James Crowne Plaza
Amsterdam - Sofitel
Mainz - Hilton
Nordlingen - NH Kloesterle
Innsbruck - Hilton
Vienna - Hilton
Venice (Lido) - Quattro Fontaine
Rome - Sheraton
Florence - Florence Sud Sheraton
Nice - Hotel Massena
Lucerne - Pax Montana
Paris - Marriott Rive Gauche


Travelling Companions:
There was one coach with 39 passengers:
5 Singles (2 male, 3 female)
Australia = 24
New Zealand = 5
Canada = 4
USA = 6


Day 1
Tuesday 16 September
London to Amsterdam
Call: 0415
Bag/Breakfast: 0545
Meet: 0530
Bus: 0545

I’m generally regarded as an ‘early bird’, but 0415 is an effort, even for me. My alarm goes off, and the wake up call comes through on time. My bag is already packed and goes promptly outside the door, with an inward prayer that it will be collected.

I pick up my breakfast box from reception– croissant with small pot of jam, apple, tetra pack of OJ, yoghurt, snack bar. Tea and coffee are provided in the foyer, but I elect to take my food back to my room and have my cup of tea while watching the news there.

At about 0520 I make my way down to the foyer, noting that my suitcase has disappeared (a positive sign). My fellow tour mates are gathering around the foyer, mostly in pairs. We regard each other curiously and introduce ourselves to the people standing closest. It is a reasonable assumption that we must be part of the tour group: who else would be standing around the hotel foyer at this ungodly hour?!

Carrying a blue Insight Vacations clipboard, Tour Director, Raymond Row, makes himself known. He explains how he would like things to proceed. On this occasion, the porters have brought our suitcases to the lobby, rather than to the bus. Each suitcase will require an Insight tag, identifying it by our tour number. Raymond will read out the list and distribute the tags. We will each affix the tag to the handle of our own suitcase, wheel it out to the coach, then climb aboard. In this way, we can be sure that the porters have brought down our luggage, and also be assured that it is now safely on board.

The luggage tag is a white plastic oval shape, with the Insight Vacations logo on one side. Below it, a number (in my case, 38) is written on in permanent marker. Looped through a hole at the top of the tag is a plastic gel band about 10 cm long. It is strong and slightly elastic. Raymond demonstrates that we are to loop the free end of the band around the handle of the suitcase then, gently flexing the tag, slide it through the loop so that it is firmly secured.

Soon people are responding to their names, Raymond is distributing their tags, and they are searching out their suitcases. There is one moment of confusion over names and pronunciation when the Sirois inadvertently take the tags for the Sewells, but that’s soon sorted out. In the meantime, the foyer begins to clear.

Finally there’s just a handful of people: the ‘singles’ on the tour. There are five of us: two men and three women. Somewhat disgruntled, I am the second last to board the coach (‘single supplement’ already being regarded as second class citizens?) One of the other singles is sitting about four rows back on the left hand side. There is a vacant seat beside her. I stop and ask “Is anybody sitting with you?” When she answers “No”, I ask if she minds if I take the seat. Again she answers “No”. So, I have a seat. My bus buddy is Christine, from Queensland. She is travelling with her work colleague, Di, and Di’s husband, Jeff, who are sitting in front of us. (Which also explains how she came to be sitting relatively close to the front of the bus.)

Raymond leaves us in peace as the bus negotiates its way out of London towards Dover. (He has explained that this will not be our coach – or driver – for the duration of the tour. We will meet up with both when we arrive in Calais after the ferry crossing.) It was an early start for us all, and the bus is quiet. I’m savouring the fact that I am now safely on tour – no more need to worry about travel arrangements.

Well into the drive, Raymond talks to us about himself, the tour, expectations, etc. He also mentions Optionals, but indicates that he will be discussing them in greater detail further down the track. He suggests that providing a proportion of the cost of the Optionals in cash will aid him in making the arrangements, and suggests about €200 per person.

Ferry

Our prompt departure from London was in pursuit of passage on the 0825 ferry. We arrive at Dover in plenty of time for that departure, but Raymond discovers that the ferry has been cancelled. We therefore have plenty of time to stretch our legs, ‘have a coffee’ , etc.

We meet outside the cafe, collect our tickets from Raymond and walk on board the ferry. On board, there’s a lot to do and see: cafeteria, duty free stores (jewellery, bags, cosmetics, alcohol, chocolate), amusement arcade, etc. I’m keen for some photos as we leave Dover, but there’s no clear deck space on either side of the ferry (only narrow walkways with views largely obscured by lifeboats, pipes, etc.) There’s no way from the side decks to the stern of the ship. Fortunately one of my tour mates gives me the hint – I need to go through the amusement zone and the door is around to the right side. I get my shots and return inside, finding a seat so that I can people-watch and read for a while.

We disembark and find our tour coach (a white Sordilli Tours coach, with the Insight banner on both sides) CP332YF and driver, Ciro, waiting for us. Our luggage is being loaded into the coach’s bays from trolleys.

At 1210 French time (France is one hour ahead of the UK) we’re on the motorway. Raymond synchronises watches with us and introduces the concept of ‘Raymond Time’. Raymond Time is five minutes fast on conventional time. This strategy may mean that we get to locations a few minutes ahead of rival coach-loads, etc. who left on conventional time.

At 1235 we cross the border into Belgium, then the border into the Netherlands at 1435. At this point, we’re about 90 minutes from Amsterdam. At 1440 we stop for a ‘comfort stop’ at a service centre, La place du Monde. It offers a range of food items in a self-serve environment. I opt for an apricot Danish (€1.95) and a bottle of water (€2.00). We are introduced to the concept of paying for the loo: 30 cents. We leave at 1510.

Gassan Diamonds
Raymond demonstrates his flexibility in the way he presents the itinerary by taking us to the ‘diamond demonstration’ at Gassan Diamonds once we reach Amsterdam. The Gassan building is attractive, but discreet - not particularly flashy, nor emblazoned with Gassan Diamonds signs. The Royal Delft (porcelain) store across the laneway is associated with Gassan and offers free coffee facilities.

We are marked with blue stickers in the foyer of Gassan, then escorted up into the building by our hostess. She stands in the middle as she takes us through the processes of diamond cutting. (Valuing diamonds is on the basis of the “Four Cs” – Carat, Colour, Clarity and Cut.)

Two diamond cutters are at work along one side of the chamber, behind perspex screens (so we can see what they’re doing). On the other side of the chamber is a display of the finished products, with an impressive array of ‘glitters’.

After that, there’s the opportunity to see some ‘real’ diamonds. We are escorted into a small room where our hostess demonstrates the impact that three of the Four Cs has on the value of diamonds by showing us four different examples (unwrapped ceremoniously from special envelopes, and placed with tweezers on a sheet of paper on the table in front of her). Some of the stones are so brilliant that our cameras have difficulty in focussing on them!

After that show-stopper, it’s then time to flog the product, as our hostess and a colleague produce about twelve display cases of earrings, rings and other diamond jewellery. We’re invited to try any pieces on. Most of the women in the group swarm forward. The men recoil in horror.

After a while, those of us who are only casually interested in the diamonds are allowed to leave the room. But when we go downstairs, the only exit is through the showroom. It’s not exactly subtle, is it?!

I go across the street to the Royal Delft store and buy a few souvenirs – average price about €3 for little things like Royal Delft pens, 7 cm statues, ceramic fridge magnet, etc.

Finally we are on our way to the hotel. Our Amsterdam stay is in the Sofitel Amsterdam, (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 67) “a classic 17th century building with a long and intriguing history. Inside, of course, modern amenities abound in 148 deluxe furnished rooms…located in the very heart of the city.” I am in room 235, which offers a comfortable bed with top and bottom doonas, big fluffy pillows, tea and coffee facilities, TV, safe and hairdryer.

Dinner tonight is in the hotel. We meet for drinks in the bar beforehand, then adjourn into the adjacent dining area. The tables are set in groups of six. The buffet offerings include:

Soup:
Vegetable (?) with julienned carrots and parsley
Salad:
Cucumber, pickled gherkins, tomato, corn kernels
Hot:
Cod, beef, rice and savoury potato thing
Dessert:
Custard/cream slice with fruit salad.

The nice, if largely unimaginative, meal is teamed with lively, interesting company. Eventually, however, everybody starts to take their leave and head for their rooms.
Photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Day 2
Wednesday 17 September
Amsterdam sightseeing
Call: 0630
Breakfast: 0700
Bus: 0745
Position: 3rd row, LHS

I am determined to make the most of my opportunities in Amsterdam, so by the time the wakeup call comes at 0630, I’m already showered and dressed. I head out the door to explore. It’s still dark, which is a little disconcerting and there are few people about. I don’t feel uncomfortable until some guy approaches me as I negotiate a side street and asks me if I speak English. I answer warily “Yes.” He then asks if I can spare the money for a cup of coffee. I tell him “I’m not carry any money at this time of morning” as I keep walking. How naïve does he think I am?

I end up in Dam Square and take a few photos. As the sun isn’t yet up, it’s not exactly a satisfying exercise. I return to the hotel disgruntled and join my tour mates for breakfast.

Today we’re up for a busy day of sightseeing activities. We’re waiting on the bus for our local guide, Ingrid. Raymond tells us that she has just phoned him from the hotel where Insight usually stays in Amsterdam. So, she is on her way to us, on her bike. We watch eagerly for her arrival, intrigued by the whole concept of travelling as a matter of course by bicycle. Raymond greets her and offers to stow her bike in the luggage bay.

Aaslmeer Flower Markets

Our first stop is at the Flora Holland flower markets at Aalsmeer. This is one component of an Optional Highlight Excursion described as “Scenic Canal Cruise and the World’s largest and most colourful Flower Auction: “Aalsmeer” (€30). The Aalsmeer facilities cover about 150 hectares. During any one day at Aaslmeer, 55,000 transactions will be undertaken, covering 20 million flowers and 2 million pot plants.

Ingrid guides us into the Flora Holland facilities and onto a walkway about 6 metres above the warehouse floor. It is quiet and there is no activity - the workers must be on a break. Soon, Ingrid says, the activity will be as frenetic as ants. Sure enough, soon there is movement. Aluminium carts are stacked with up to five shelves of flower pallets (depending on the size and height of the flowers). Up to 20 carts of pallets are towed around by workers on small tractors. On some parts of the floor carts of pallets sit undisturbed, elsewhere, carts are slowly rotating into the auction rooms (each auction takes 1 minute). At the far end of the walkway, we can watch a seemingly endless flood of laden carts arriving from distribution points. It is amazing!

From Aalsmeer we’re on our way back towards the centre of Amsterdam. We pass the stadium used for the Amsterdam Olympics in 1932. And haven’t the Olympics come a long way since then? In this day and age the stadium would probably be regarded as paltry by even a local football team, let alone an Olympic audience!

Canal Cruise

Onwards we go through the city to our Canal Cruise (the second component of the Optional Highlight Excursion). As we clamber on board the enclosed cruise boat, I ask Raymond “which side has the best views?” He offers a neutral (and unhelpful) “either side”, so I elect to sit on the left (port) side. I soon regret this choice: as we get under way, most of the commentary relates to sights on the starboard (right) side! (But, I did choose the correct seat in one respect – by facing backwards, I am beside a window that will slide open. If you face forward, the window is fixed. Moral to the story: sit on the right side but turn so you're in a seat facing the rear of the vessel.) There are some beautiful buildings, very typical Amsterdam architecture on both sides.

Early on in the cruise, we pass a sight (on the right hand side, of course) that emphasises the extent to which Amsterdam is a bike city. It is a multi-level parking facility, absolutely cram-packed with bicycles! To fans of the reality TV show, Amazing Race, it is familiar: a few seasons ago, contestants visiting Amsterdam had the option of searching this bike-park for particular bikes! (I was relieved that, having missed getting photos on the way out, I did get another opportunity, as we came back along the same canal to return to the cruise dock.)

Apparently the approximately three-quarters of a million people living in Amsterdam own about 600,000 bicycles. Bicycle theft is a problem. There's an old Amsterdam joke: if you yell out “hey, that’s my bike” as a large group of cyclists ride by, about five people will jump off “their” bikes and start running. Hence, many of the bikes racked around the city are very basic models.

About seven minutes into the cruise, the commentary points out Anne Frank’s house (shock, horror, it’s on the LEFT side.) The door frames are painted in a dark green, and there’s a little plaque to the right of one door to indicate that it’s Anne Frank’s house. It is inconspicuous – the commentator identifies it by pointing out the red awning of the café next door. As we cruise further, we see a queue to visit the house extending to the corner of the street and down the block. Tourist entrance to Anne Frank’s house appears to be via another building, about two doors up.

About 15 minutes into the cruise the commentator advises us to be ready to photograph the most recognisable scene of Amsterdam. It is a view down a canal where you can see five successive bridges.

There’s a plethora of houseboats of varying sizes and in varying conditions moored along the canals. Houseboats are owned by their occupants and are not available for lease. Owners pay fees to the city for their anchorage. This form of accommodation is very much in demand.

We see an enormous floating Chinese restaurant. I think it’s called the Sea Palace. It has three levels, with green awnings and roof, edged with gold, and red columns. I wonder, idly, if THIS is the Chinese restaurant about which previous Insight tourists on the Board have turned up their noses sight unseen when offered as part of an optional excursion (“who wants to go Chinese in Amsterdam”)?? I’d be happy to go here for the views alone!

There’s this amazing piece of modern architecture that dominates its environment. Nemo, as it’s called, is shaped like the green-blue bow of a great ship jutting out into the waterway. (Later, from the road we see that the structure also straddles roadway, with under-river tunnels descending beneath it.) In front of it, a replica sailing boat, Amsterdam, with elaborate carvings on bow and stern, lies at anchor. (An interesting juxtaposition of old and new.)

Volendam

After the cruise, we’re then on to an included part of the tour – to Volendam. This village is part of the commune of Edam, lies on the IJsselmeer. It’s a popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands, purportedly renowned for its old fishing boats and the traditional clothing still worn by some residents (though I didn’t see any). The women's costume of Volendam featuring a high, pointed bonnet, is one of the most recognisable of the Dutch traditional costumes. (The closest I got to seeing one was a life-sized statue on the waterfront.)

Once we reach Volendam, Raymond walks us down the main street to point out a few lunch options, then cuts us loose, with instructions to be back at the coach by 1345.

One of the food options suggested by Raymond is Dutch Pancakes (“Poffertjes”). I pop into one of the places identified by Raymond. “Hollandse Markt” is a peculiar mix of souvenir shop and ice-creamery, with Poffertjes also on the menu. It has a red awning and is located next to the De Koe (Cow) restaurant/tea-room. The Poffertjes are offered with different sauces (e.g. ice-cream toppings, maple syrup, lemon, etc.) for a range of prices. I order one serving with chocolate sauce. The cook starts on them straight away, brushing his pan with oil, ladling mixture into a measuring device, then filling up eight holes on the pan. It takes a while before they are cooked on one side, at which point he flicks them over with a fork to continue the cooking process. Once done (probably ten minutes all up), he forks them onto a plate, pours on my choice of chocolate topping, then smothers the plate with a generous storm of icing sugar. Cost €5.00. Verdict: Yum! (Though I got icing sugar everywhere – and even inhaled it!)

There are public toilets at dock level in front of the main tourist strip. While I am prepared to pay, there is no-one around to collect money. Hey, a freebie!

I walk around the town, even venturing away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist heart. Most of us are hanging around near the bus by the time 1345 rolls around. We clamber back on board and Raymond goes through his counting routine.

On our way out of Volendam, Raymond stops the bus at a spot where we can get good, undisturbed photos of a windmill. It is positioned next to small access roads beside the motorway (so Ciro can stop the bus out of the traffic flow). In front of the windmill is a small canal filled with water. Running along beside it on one side is another water-filled canal along the edge of a field, maybe a metre lower.

Clog and cheese making

After a short photo-stop, we’re back on the bus and on our way to another ‘included’ aspect of the tour - the clog and cheese making demonstrations. These are at one location – a small place called Irene Hoeve. (The lady – maybe “Irene” - who greets us is apologetic that her English is not great. Her explanation of the cheese-making process is straightforward, her English better than she gives herself credit for, and we are impressed by the array of cheeses drying on the shelves around her.

Next it’s on to the clog-making demonstration. The young man conducting the demonstration tells us he learned the craft from his grandfather. Learning the trade of clog-making takes four (I think) years. He starts with a piece of a small log, strips off the bark, then uses a range of tools to shape the outside of the clog and gouge out the inside. He keeps a running commentary as he goes, explaining the use for clogs (clogs can be certified for industrial use), the significance of the patterns, etc. He teases us that locals can identify a tourist by the noise they make when they walk in clogs. He demonstrates his dexterity with his tools (and keeps us alert) by ‘accidentally’ flicking wood chips at people in the audience while he works.

Dutch dinner and Old Sailors' Quarter

At the end of the demonstration we are free to try on the clogs in the show room and make a few purchases. Then, it’s back to Amsterdam for some free time before our Optional dinner – “Our Welcome Dinner: delicious Dutch cuisine with drinks and the ‘Old Sailors’ Quarter’ (€55).

We meet in the hotel foyer at 1815 and Ciro quickly drives us to the restaurant, Haasje Claas. Raymond tells us that this restaurant is where a lot of Amsterdam people would bring visitors to their city for dinner. As he has described the menu with a true foodie’s lip-smacking appreciation in advance, the menu doesn’t present any surprises:

Drinks included
Aperitif:
Dutch Gin

Starter (Choice of)
Dutch fish plate (smoked herring, etc.)
Capacho with Amsterdam cheese (thinly sliced beef)
Smoked ham and melon
* Pea soup with sausage (Raymond raved about this)

Main (Choice of)
Sauteed salmon with lobster sauce
Fillet of pork in pepper sauce
Vegetable lasagne
* Hotch potch (“a bubble and squeak type thing with meat and potato”)

Dessert (Choice of)
Cinnamon ice-cream with raisins in brandy and egg liqueur
Fresh fruit salad with ice-cream
* Pancake with ice-cream, orange liqueur and cream

Our group is seated in a wooden panelled room with a low, ceiling and various bits of Dutch bric-a-brac displayed on the walls. We take up four parallel tables in groups of eight. The room is quite small, shared with a couple of other tables at right angles to our own. Once in your seat, there is little chance to get out again until everybody else does.

I’m not a particularly adventurous eater but I decide that some of Raymond’s raves sound pretty good. When he cruises around the tables to check how we’re going, he looks pleased to see some of us trying those items. His endorsement of the Pea soup is spot-on – it’s delicious – thick, with big chunks of sausage, and fortunately not ‘pea green’.

My main course, the Hotch Potch, arrives, and I regard it curiously, remembering Raymond’s off-hand description of ‘a bubble and squeak sort of thing’. At one side of the plate, there’s some chopped bacon, piled next to some pickled onions, gherkin (it looks just like the bits that kids take off their Junior Burgers at McDonalds) and a slop of mustard. In the middle, a big mound of mashed potato et al create a dam against the braised beef on the other side of the plate. To complete the work, there is a sausage aligned along the top. I set to work, pretty much ignoring the pickley things on the left of the plate - I don’t like pickles … or mustard. I eat some of the bacon as an afterthought. The rest – the mash, sausage and beef – is delicious. The mash in the middle is quite sweet - I’m not really sure of the ingredients. It does, however, remind me of the mashed vegetables (potato, pumpkin, carrot) that we used to have as kids. Verdict: Yum!

I opted for the Pancake dessert. It comes with the pancake folded into quarters in a splash of orange sauce, with a piece of orange on top. A small, neat block of ice-cream forms a peninsula into the orange puddle, providing sanctuary for a blob of cream and a small, round, crisp cookie. Yum! I don’t see the fruit salad, but the Cinnamon ice-cream with raisins (Ray, at our table, has this) is presented in a similar fashion. The tangram block of cinnamon ice-cream holds centre position atop a pile of raisins and a drizzle of sauce. On top of the ice-cream is a blob of cream, holding a cookie on top. (Can you tell? I like dessert!)

We seem to sit around in the restaurant forever. Some of the tourists linger over glasses of wine, while others (like me) are impatient to be up and about – and even on to the next stage of the adventure, our ‘Educational walk’. (Unfortunately, I’m a fast eater, who doesn’t drink and therefore has little reason to linger over my meal – and it is getting late! The wake-up call is scheduled for 0600 next day!)

An 'educational' walk

Raymond leads us off on our ‘Educational Walk’. There are lots of people about. A sure sign that we are entering the ‘Educational’ zone is a particular shopfront, the Condomerie. Its bright and breezy window display features condoms of all colours, shapes, and sizes, even flowers made by tying air-filled condoms together. “Someone can’t spell condominium”, Raymond tells us. (Ha ha.) We keep walking until Raymond stops us en masse out of the traffic path, across from the oldest church in Amsterdam, to give us some explanations.

As we are listening to him, a guy walking in the other direction hales him. “Hi Raymond. Sasha said to tell you she’s looking forward to seeing you in fifteen minutes for your usual appointment.” The guy, with his own tour group sauntering along behind, is grinning from ear to ear. So is Raymond. Pulling pranks to embarrass their TD colleagues in front of their groups is apparently common.

As Raymond continues to talk, we notice an elderly lady looking at us from her second storey window in the building beside us. She has a decidedly baleful expression on her face. We’re almost wondering whether we should be expecting a bucketful of water (or something else) to descend on our heads!

Raymond tells us that there is a clear (but peculiar) distinction between cafés (which are licensed to sell alcohol) and coffeeshops (which sell weed and hash). To clarify the distinction, most coffeeshops also bear signs –or have names – which suggest being high, flying, etc. One example we see is the “High Times Coffeeshop”. Its neon sign bears an image of some strange entity flapping its wings amongst four little blue clouds. The use of palm tree images is also, apparently, a sign that weed or hash is sold. Really no room for confusion, is there?! (Huh?!)

With a reminder not to photograph the girls, Raymond leads us into one of the alleys where ‘window prostitution’ is prevalent. My first (inconsequential) thought is that it’s not so much a ‘Red Light’ as a Pink one! My next is just how confronting this is. The alley is narrow – with room for maybe two or three people to walk abreast. The prostitutes display themselves in their windows along both sides of the length of the alley. At first it is hard for me to look without feeling really weird. I don’t want to treat these women as sex objects, but equally I’m uncomfortable with regarding them as a tourist attraction. There is no place else to look, so I start to observe the girls in their places of business. The window reveals a neatly made bed along the side of the room and a washbasin. Many are wearing white outfits, which show up as almost fluorescent beneath the ‘red’ lights. Some are seated on stools in front of their window in provocative poses, others standing, some holding their doors invitingly open and smiling with allure at passers-by. They’re attractive girls – certainly not the stereotypical prostitute that we think of - the downtrodden junky who turns in desperation to prostitution to finance a habit.

Traffic down these alleys is heavy – mainly groups of young guys – though I’m not sure how brisk business is. Maybe cruising the red-light district is a young Amsterdam guy’s version of window shopping. A curtain slides across the front of the window and door when the girl has a client. There are a few closed curtains, but not many. One girl is talking in her open doorway to a young man, another is interacting in a light-hearted manner with a group of young adults (men and women) standing outside her window – maybe she’s bored.

I’m not sorry to leave the alleys. We stand in the middle of a bridge, where I am able to take some pretty photos of the lights (including pink ones) cast across the canal. We stroll back to the hotel. It’s been a long day and we have an early start in the morning.



Amsterdam sightseeing photos at Flickr

Photos of Optional Dinner

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
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Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
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Day 3
Thursday 18 September
Call: 0600
Bag/Breakfast: 0645
Bus: 0730
Position: Front, LHS
Amsterdam to Rhineland

We’re well into the routine of coach travel by now. We walk out of the hotel at 0725 to discover that an artistic local has decorated the side of the coach with graffiti. Great!

We’re on our way to the Rhineland today. “Busy day today”, Raymond tells us, allowing us some ‘sleeping time’ while we’re in transit. There will be five stops:
Photostop at Arnhem
Border – comfort stop
Koln – lunch
Boppard – cruise
St Goar – post-cruise (then on to the hotel at Mainz).

There’s a pretty view of a windmill in the soft dawn light as we drive through Amsterdam. We leave via the Piet Hein Tunnel.

Arnhem and a 'Bridge too far' (but not the original)

We stop at Arnhem, site of “a bridge too far” for a photo stop at about 0910. The spot where we park is beside the river (so nice views of the bridge), and next to a park containing a small display of images and items from the WWII campaign, including a piece of heavy artillery, shell, helmet, etc.


At 0945 we have a ‘comfort stop’ at a small service centre. We spend far too long here, in my opinion, but with only one person handling the cash register, it does take a considerable time to serve everybody – particularly when there are three of our sister Travel Corp coaches here at the same time (3 x Trafalgar)! We’re back on the road at 1010…

Koln

Onwards, then, to Koln (Cologne) for our lunch stop. As we enter the city, and drive along beside the river, we can see the spires of the Cathedral rising over the city – they’re something like an impressive 515 feet tall. The coach pulls up in the centre of the city, about ½ a block from the Cathedral, and Raymond takes us back to the Cathedral to set us loose for lunch. We are due back by 1245. By this stage, ‘toiletten’ is rather a priority. Ray, Julie and I set off in search of a lunch venue with WC. As we walk further away from the Cathedral, the shops look more like we’re in the fashion strip. We’re a little disconcerted, so turn back for the familiar … McDonalds for lunch. At least there we KNOW there’ll be toilets – and a known menu.


I order a Big Mac meal (medium – €8.50, I think), don’t even attempt to describe it in German. It’s not a problem. I ask if the toilets are free. The staffer says they are. We sit in a vacant booth and eat. When I go to the toilets, there’s a queue of women, and a young man collecting 50c from each person. Huh? What happened to free? He clearly has some authority over the toilets, as he is bossing a young female cleaner about (and she’s letting him). I hand over my 50c.

There is an underpass to the railway station that goes under the road, so we don’t need to negotiate the traffic lights – and even an escalator up on the other side. We make our way towards the entrance of the cathedral. In the square outside, there’re a couple of ‘street artists’ looking for donations. Their costumes are impressive, their skills less so. If they’re meant to be statues, they’re not very still!

Wow!!! The scale of the cathedral is amazing – and even more so when you consider its age – all this construction was done without the benefit of modern machinery, tools, resources, processes. There’s a statue outside the cathedral which demonstrates the scale of the building – this piece, which is the same size as those on the top of the spires stands about 25 feet tall – and all the fancy work in the rock was hand-carved!

Ray, Julie and I go into the Cathedral together, but somewhere along the way we get separated. Having taken my interior photos, I head out, running into Ray. “Have you seen Julie?” we ask each other simultaneously. “No.” We decide we’d better look for her, so each head in different directions. I have the meeting time in my head and figure that I’ve got time to look for her and even buy my souvenirs before getting back to the meeting place in time.

There is no sign of Julie (or Ray now), so I head back for the bus, thinking it’s better that we not all be lost and that I still have to buy my Koln souvenirs. I am strolling complacently across the road when one of my tour mates, Kelvin (I think), barrels towards me. “We’ve been looking for you. You’re late!” he announces. I look at my watch: “No I’m not!” Then I look at the time that I’ve written on my hand – the time to which I didn’t refer because I thought I had it in my head. Oh shit! I AM late – woefully, pathetically, inexcusably late. I got the time wrong, and compounded that by searching for Julie, thinking that we would round her up and be in plenty of time. If it’s possible to slink speedily towards the bus, I manage it. I apologise to Raymond, answering his query by saying I don’t know where Ray is. When I climb on the coach, making audible apologies, Julie is already there. Ray arrives later. The silence is deafening as we leave Koln. My face is burning.

A 'chat' on punctuality

After we’ve settled into the drive, Raymond decides that it is an appropriate time for a ‘chat’. While he stresses that it has not been prompted by the actions of anyone in particular (that there have been a number of instances since the tour began), it’s clear we’re going to get the ‘punctuality is key’ lecture. Shit, shit, shit.

Raymond tells us that our departure time was calculated so that we would beat the other tour buses (at least three other TravelCorp tours) out of Koln and thus be able to claim the best positions on the Rhine Cruise boat on which we would all be travelling together. Instead, we have departed AFTER all three Trafalgar buses. He doesn’t have to spell it out. (On an excursion highlighted in the Itinerary, we will end up with the crappiest seats. Maybe they’ll be in the engine room. Just great!)

It is NOT to happen again. If it does, punishment will be calculated according to how late the person arrives. For two minutes tardiness, they will be required to stand at the front of the bus and sing a song for their tour mates; for four minutes, they will have to dance; for six minutes, a song and dance. Over that and it’s “bye bye”.

Rhine River cruise

We get to Boppard and board the Cruise boat. The other tour groups have grabbed all the spots on the open decks, so we have little choice but to make our way into the cabin area. The windows don’t open so any photography will be through perspex. Julie, Ray and I find a vacant table on the right side of the cabin.

The cruise on this busy waterway is lovely. We are fascinated to pass camping grounds and caravan parks absolutely packed to capacity. I’m afraid I don’t get it. There’s no sign of pleasure craft (tinnies, dinghies, yachts, etc.) nor people swimming in the river, which is clearly a commercial shipping lane. We are passed by several barges chugging along the river. What possible pleasure could there be in living in your allotted several metres of space next to strangers? What does one do all day? Yes, the river is beautiful but does that warrant more than a day trip? Weird!

We sit on the right, so most of the scenery is, of course, on the left side. During the cruise, we pass a number of picturesque small towns, and about six castles. Insight describes this as a cruise of “the finest stretch of the Rhine River”. I guess I’m now curious to know how they define ‘finest stretch’. Are they talking about the river itself, the scenery along the shore, or what? The six castles vary in size, some are large and quite spectacular, but I’m a little underwhelmed. I had anticipated that we would cruise past that postcard castle (is it Count Ludwig’s?) and is six castles really that many in an hour and a half?


We have some time to look around the town of St Goar. It has a cuckoo clock shop that is the home of the ‘largest free-hanging hand-carved cuckoo-clock in the world’. The clock is decorated with autumn-hued leaves, branches and birds. The pendulum is decorated with a leaf. Very pretty.

There’s a curious building in the town which houses quite diverse businesses. Downstairs there’s a shop that sells all sorts of tankards and beer steins. The ‘free toilets’ are through a door and down the stairs from this store. Otherwise, if you go up the stairs, you end up in a café.

Mainz

After a pleasant interlude, we’re on our way to Mainz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers. It is the chief wine town in Germany, and the home of Gutenburg who invented the printing press. The Hilton Hotel Mainz is a curious one: Reception, restaurant and some rooms are on one side of a major road; there is a major block of rooms on the other side, linked to the other building by a walkway. I am in room 187, which I am to discover is located at the furthest reach of the hotel. I nickname my room ‘outer Siberia’. It is the definitive ‘single supplement’ room – worst location, small room, single bed, one square pillow. While tea and coffee-making facilities are provided, I am granted ONE black teabag and a bunch of ‘weird fruity’ teas. Hmm. The Hilton shampoo and conditioner offerings are, however, better than the usual detergents.

Dinner is a buffet in the hotel tonight. (The items offer a linguistic challenge as they are labelled in German. I’m able to work out a few things by using logic.) We appear to have:

Entrée:
Thin broth/Mushroom soup

Salads:
3 types of lettuce, red cabbage, various mixed salads

Hot:
Chicken kebabs
Pork steaks
Vegetable lasagne

Accompaniments:
Curried rice
Potato wedges
Sauerkraut
Potato

Dessert:
Fruit salad
Chocolate mousse
Tiramisu
White chocolate mousse
Stewed cherries.

As I’m checking out the food, one of my female tour mates stops me pointedly: “How’s the voice?” she asks. Okay, I’m thick – I don’t initially understand her question. I ask her what she means.

“You might be needing to do some singing,” she suggests.

Now I get it – it is a dig at my tardiness at lunchtime. I respond: “I sing in tune. What does that matter? This is the first time in six tours that I have ever been late. It won’t happen again.”

I walk away. What a cheap shot! I hope it made her feel better – it made me really mad!

Dinner was pretty average, I thought, though the desserts were delicious.
After dinner, I trudge back to ‘Outer Siberia’.
Amsterdam to Rhineland photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Day 4
Friday 19 September
Rhineland to Nordlingen
Call: 0630
Bag/Breakfast: 0715
Bus: 0800
Position: 2nd row, RHS

I’m intrigued about the time it takes to walk from my hotel room to reception, so this morning, on my way to breakfast, I film the stroll on my digital camera. At a steady, reasonably brisk pace, it takes me 3½ minutes to walk from my room to reception!!

After my little ‘issue’ with Koln, I’m paranoid about being on time … though I usually am, anyway. The time designated for the coach to leave today is 0800. After a quick stroll along the river, I’m back in the lobby and waiting probably ten minutes early (admittedly, with my hotel room at the ‘Upper Siberia’ limit of the hotel, I wasn’t going back to my room after breakfast).

At any rate, the coach doesn’t leave until about 0815. Despite its impressive size and that Hilton brand, there’s only one porter on duty this morning. It takes a considerable time to load our suitcases. Raymond is running around like a mad thing, organising Ciro and then dashing off to his room to retrieve his own luggage.

Heidelberg Castle

Our morning stop is at the beautiful Heidelberg Castle. We have a little over an hour there from about 0930.

Heidelberg Castle is perched on a hilltop overlooking the town. Raymond leads us through to the castle wall for spectacular views down over the town and Neckar River. Wow! He explains some of the history of the castle, and leaves us to do our own thing.


We have the opportunity to check out what is purportedly the ‘world’s largest wine vat’. The Heidelberg Tun (German: Großes Fass), is found within the Heidelberg Castle cellars. It was made in 1751, with a capacity of approximately 220,000 litres. It is said that 130 oak trees were used in its construction. It has only rarely been used as a wine barrel. The Tun has a dance floor on top, which can be accessed by a narrow staircase along the barrel’s right side.

Despite Insight (presumably) paying an entrance fee on our behalf, we are still expected to pay €0.50 for the privilege of using the toilets.

Though our departure time is set for 1040, about half the people get on the bus at 1050. There’s no mention of tardiness.

Rothenburg ob der Taber

We arrive in Rothenburg ob der Taber in time for lunch. It is a town on the Romantic Road about halfway in between Frankfurt and Munich. As Raymond leads us through the town, we’re passed by a truly vintage car from the beginning of the ‘horseless carriage’ era. The black body work and gold detailing is exquisite, and there’s even a little gold statuette of two horses (is this to indicate its power?) on the … uh… handlebars (?). Very cool.


When we get to the town square, Raymond points out some of the interesting sites and the way to the extensive gardens. The building in the town square containing a clock is the Ratstrinkstube. Wikipedia says the clock ‘re-enacts the historic meistertrunk daily. According to legend, the meistertrunk commemorates the event in 1631 when the walled town was under siege by the Imperial forces of Count Tilly. On a lark, Count Tilly told the city that he would spare them if anyone could drink a tankard containing about one gallon of wine in one draught. Mayor Nusch took the challenge and was successful, and the city was saved. The clock re-enacts the event hourly from 11:00 to 15:00 and 8:00 to 22:00.’

We walk through the town to the gardens, and admire the view from the wall. There are a few horse-drawn carriages trundling tourists around the town, but we elect to remain on foot, even if we do decide against taking the walk to the valley below. (The walk back up is a distinct disincentive.) We visit the Kathe Wohlfahrt Weihnachsdorf (Christmas Shop). The array of Christmas decorations is daunting – and not cheap. I buy several small wooden decorations for around €10 each. A Rothenburg fridge magnet costs €7.75. Small postcards are reasonably priced at €0.30 each.

I’m with Julie in the town square at 1400 to see the clock do its thing, then we search out the toilets, around the corner from the town hall. They’re clean – and free! I keep expecting a stern-faced fraulein to pop up with hand held out for my toilet fee! After a prompt escape, we appreciate the scenery, cruise through some of the more interesting souvenir shops and look for some lunch.
Schneeballen (“Snowball” I think) are a local Rothenburg delicacy. Many of the Rothenburg bakeries have window displays featuring their Schneeballen range. They are balls of strips of short pastry, about the size of a softball, deep-fried and then dusted with icing sugar. They come in a range of flavours, such as cinnamon, chocolate, strawberry, etc. One of the descriptions I read in the window of a bakery mentions a ‘generous dose of Prune Schnapps’. They look delicious, but very rich, even decadent. I decide on a cherry Danish instead (€1.00). (At least, with a semblance of fruit, I can pretend that it’s healthy!)

Most of us are back at the designated meeting spot just outside the walls on the path to the coach park before time.

Nordlingen

We depart Rothenburg at 1545 on our way to Nordlingen. A traffic jam slows us up at about 1615, so we arrive in Nordlingen at about 1700. It’s another pretty walled city, population about 20,000. We’re staying at the NH Klosterle Nordlingen hotel tonight. According to one of the Insight Tour Tales I’ve read, the building once housed a monastery. My room, number 016, is definitely more comfortable than a monk’s cell. It’s on the same level as the reception desk. (Which, by the way, has a big bowl of fruit lollies on the counter. I grab a couple as I go to my room.)

There’s time before dinner in the hotel tonight to do some exploring. I head out, camera in hand, meeting Ray and Julie on the way. We do some tentative exploring, admiring some pretty buildings – lush window boxes, along with those distinctive decorative timbers, are common. Julie goes into the church for a look, but is deterred by a rope barrier inside the door, so doesn’t venture any further. The town is quiet – there aren’t many people about. We’re pleased to discover a small shop open, selling souvenirs and beautiful toys. Its window displays some marvellously detailed wooden toys – doll houses and pirate ships! Oh for an infinitely expandable suitcase … and a luggage allowance to match! I’m sure I could find some kids at home who would love these toys! We buy some Nordlingen postcards, Ray finds a souvenir spoon, and we continue our walk around the town.

A couple of young guys cruise past slowly in a black car. Their windows are wound down and, incongruously in these beautiful, historic surroundings, ‘doof doof’ music is blasting from the car speakers. Sigh… it does somewhat ruin the ambience! About ten minutes later, the car passes us again, still ‘doof-doof’-ing. Obviously they’ve done an oh-so-cool circuit of the town. A pity if we were the extent of their appreciative audience!

There’s an interesting fountain in the courtyard near the hotel. The installation is a construction of over-sized baking pans and utensils. A giant-sized metal funnel is upturned with oversized flan, pie and cake tins over the top of it to provide levels in which water can cascade down to the pool at the bottom. Other over-sized pieces – basin, flan dish, funnels - are strewn across the courtyard. It is intriguing. We’re a disappointed that the fountain isn’t working!

Dinner is “straight ahead, left” from 1930. The room has a definite monastic refectory feel about it, with thick white-washed stone walls, dark wooden trim and ceilings. On offer:

Entrée:
Beef broth with pancake strips

Main:
Fried pork steaks with sour cream and salad (iceberg lettuce, cucumber and tomato and potato wedges

Dessert:
Chocolate mousse with cherry sauce

It’s a simple meal, though the service is somewhat slow. We don’t finish until about 2130.

After dinner I return to my room to retrieve my postcards, hoping that reception might have stamps for sale. The night-staff receptionist isn’t terribly proficient in English, my German is non-existent beyond ‘danke’ and ‘aufwiedersein’, but we somehow manage. I pay for the stamps and hope that they will arrive at their intended destinations.

Rhineland to Nordlingen photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Day 5
Saturday 20 September
Nordlingen to Innsbruck
Call: 0600
Breakfast: 0645
Bus: 0730
Position: 4th row, RHS (just in front of stairs)

Day 5 already, and there’s cause for celebration for some. There’s a toaster and the makings for toast at the breakfast buffet! Toast fans are now sated as we travel south on the bus.

Our lunch destination is Munich (“Munchen”).

An Optional History

Once we are underway, Raymond gives us some context for consideration of the ‘Optional Highlight’ program with a truncated ‘history of touring’. We’ve come a long way from the first group tours conducted by Thomas Cook, which really were ‘all inclusive’ – all meals, accommodation, etc. Over time, companies have tried different strategies to meet the potentially differing interests of their clientele. Including all possible extras in the tour price levered the price far beyond that of competitors, and left people with little flexibility. Including them in the listed price also meant that the booking travel agents got their 10 to 15% commission on these items, pushing the price up even more.

The Insight ‘Optional Highlight’ program, Raymond believes, offers us the best combination - a series of opportunities to enhance our touring experiences, at a reasonable price. Offering the Optionals once we are on tour also means that travel agent commission doesn’t come into calculations. Compelling arguments, yes, but Raymond offers more reasons for opting for the Optionals rather than ‘going it alone’ (possibly cheaper, though this is debateable once the cost of door-to-door transport, escort is factored in):

• The excursions are designed to ensure they are “enjoyable and fun for you”;
• “Group dynamics make this possible”;
• “You’ve saved to come over here, not come over here to save.”

He hands out the two-page Optional Highlight program, and takes us through the intended program, which integrates the Highlights with the included sightseeing. It’s a somewhat autocratic approach, I think. Not all the Optionals listed in the documentation received from Insight are included. Several of the Optionals listed on Raymond’s program are not available. This, Raymond informs us, is because he has exercised his professional judgement on whether they can fit into the itinerary, are value for money, etc. For example, the ‘Motorboat cruise along the French Riviera’ is not being offered because of the lack of reliability of the vendors who offered this item. His previous experience had shown that they accepted bookings, then changed times without consideration for the impact on our itineraries, were tardy, or even cancelled bookings at the last minute. Not worth it.

To my disappointment, three of the excursions I’d identified as ‘must-do’s’ are not on offer – The Sound of Music tour around Salzburg, the Moulin Rouge and Versailles outings from Paris. Raymond has already talked up the ‘Paris Cabaret’ option, explaining that it is a more intimate, bona fide Parisian style Cabaret, and the food is better. It, he says, offers better value for money than Moulin Rouge. While I accept these arguments, the fact of the matter is that, when I tell people I went to a Parisian Cabaret, they will expect it to be Moulin Rouge. It’s the only one that anyone’s ever heard of! And, to turn Raymond’s argument back on him, “I saved to come over here, I didn’t come over here to save”!

The form comes with a spiel saying “For a relaxing, put your name (sic) in neutral, decision free holiday, please indicate with a tick the box opposite to join all highlight tours and dinners.” There are 21 items, coming to a total of €1035. This is no great surprise for me – when I calculated the cost of the Optionals listed on the Insight website for this tour, it was about this. (It’s certainly worth doing your homework!) I tick the box. Where it isn’t stuff that’s on my ‘must do’ list, dinner is included – one less worry!

The others have the opportunity to mull over their decisions during our ‘comfort stop’ at 0945. It isn’t exactly very comfortable… The two toilet cubicles in the Ladies are both fitted out in (cold) stainless steel. It is the first time we’ve come across an automatic flushing system – it operates when the door is opened.

During the stop, I take up Raymond’s invitation to question him about Optional choices. I ask about the absence of the Versailles option, though I’m pretty sure I know why it’s been excluded. Raymond confirms – it’s a lack of time. In a crammed itinerary, there just isn’t the time to get to Versailles and back with sufficient time to appreciate it. Fair enough.

Munich

We’re back on the road towards Munich at 1010. We pass the Olympic Stadium, home of the 1972 Olympics. The stadium had a capacity of 77,000, and its roof cost $63M. At the time of the Olympics, the Olympic Park stretched over 21 acres, with an athletes’ village composed of 4,700 apartments housing 12,000 athletes. Unfortunately, despite some outstanding performances during the Games (Mark Spitz, Shane Gould, Olga Korbut, Lasse Viren, to name a few), the Munich Olympics are often remembered for the massacre of Israeli athletes taken hostage by Black September terrorists in the Olympic Village.

By 1030 the bus is making its way into the city centre. Raymond has Ciro stop (illegally) at a local bus-stop to allow us to quickly disembark. He points out a metal sculpture as our post-lunch meeting place, then leads us off on a disorienting ‘orientation tour’ of Munich. We head to the Hofbrauhaus, site of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. There’s not much time to contemplate this historic site – we’re on our way back in the other direction, heading for Marienplatz (St Mary’s Square).

Raymond gives us instructions on our meeting time and location, toilet locations (there are some through the arch directly below the clock tower) and points us in the direction of the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus) and clock tower. The tower contains the Rathaus-Glockenspiel – which is why we’re waiting here with hundreds of other tourists, gazing up expectantly. According to the website aviewoncities.com : “At 11, 12 and 17 o'clock each day, visitors can watch the famous Glockenspiel or carillon. The figures perform the Schläffertanz or cooper's dance, which was originally performed in 1517 at the Marienplatz to commemorate the end of the plague.”

Once again, Raymond has got us where we need to be in comfortable time. The glockenspiel starts an extended introduction of chiming bells. Then, in the top level, there’s movement as a group of heralds, jesters and flag bearers circle clockwise in front of a raised platform holding the king and queen (?). A similar group then starts to cavort anti-clockwise behind the first. Once they’ve done their laps, the entertainment shifts to a joust, with a knight in gold armour bearing blue and white colours taking on an opponent in silver armour and red and white colours, once again in front of the royal (?) pavilion. The gold knight, travelling anti-clockwise, unseats the silver knight, who reels back on his horse. (Funny!) The celebrations move on to the lower level, where a series of male dancers, in black knickerbockers, white shirts, red sashes and jackets and green hats, pirouette slowly (alternately clockwise and anticlockwise), while all moving across the glockenspiel clockwise. Behind them, there’s a guy in a clown outfit waving his arms up and down, holding a blue and white striped candy stick in one hand… Gosh, these guys really knew how to celebrate, didn’t they?! LOL! It is interesting to note that the only woman featured in the glockenspiel is the queen, standing passively in the background…

Verdict: The glockenspiel is quaint, cute, and goes for about five minutes.

After the excitement of the glockenspiel, we all disperse to get a taste of Munich. Ray, Julie and I buy our lunch in Woerner’s Confiserie and Café. I choose a small roll with ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato (€1.50). Julie tries a piece of onion pie. Ray defies sensible dietary habits and embarks on a luscious piece of chocolate cake. We stroll along as we eat, amazed by the flow of people around us.

We walk along the pedestrian mall, away from Marienplatz and continue towards the city gates, people-watching and sight-seeing as we go. Julie buys some organic white grapes from a stall (€2.50 for 500g). We note the number of people walking around the crowded mall with dogs on leashes. One guy in particular draws my attention. He is nattily attired in leather pants, vest and hat. His fox-terrier dog is wearing a red bandana. I watch in amazement as he takes the dog into a shop. There’s not even a thought of tying the dog outside. Can you imagine the reaction in Australia?

We continue to be puzzled by the number of people around: heaps of young people, many attired in what looks like football supporters gear, with jerseys, team shirts, even scarves, and men walking around unselfconsciously in traditional dress – with the leather knickerbockers (Lederhosen??). What IS going on? Is there an international football carnival going on?

How dense are we? When we ask Raymond back at our meeting place, he looks incredulous. It’s the start of Oktoberfest. Of course! (Okay, I admit it: I didn’t know that most of Oktoberfest happens in September. Obviously that’s why it’s called Oktoberfest! As a non-drinker, there’s no great attraction for me in being in Munich during this festival).

We’re quickly on the bus again at 1245 (not sure whether Ciro’s stop was strictly legal) and inching our way out of the Oktoberfest mayhem. By 1500 we’re driving into Innsbruck.

Innsbruck

We pause briefly at the Wilten Basilica for a photostop. As we pull up, we see that a wedding is about to take place. The bride and her father are standing outside the doors with the photographer. Raymond consults with a church official, who gives us permission to take photographs from the back of the church as long as we do so quietly. The officiating priest has not yet arrived, so we will not disturb the ceremony. I’m sure Eva and Philipp (the bride and groom) are relieved that we don’t remain to witness their special day. We quietly leave the church as the priest walks in, thanking Raymond (tongue in cheek) for arranging another special photo-op for us!

We drive closer to the Old Town, and Raymond guides us to our meeting place, opposite the Swarovski shop. The street offers a view towards the Golden Roof, with a mountain, half-obscured in cloud, rising up behind it.

Raymond distributes cards for a ‘free gift with any purchase’ from Swarovski and encourages us to check out the winter wonderland display. Ray is a collector of Swarovski crystal pieces, so he’s in there like a flash. Julie and I are curious, but not quite so obsessed. The display offers an opportunity for Swarovski to stunningly showcase some of their pieces. There’re glittery tree branches, large crystal lighting fixtures, an almost wedding-cake looking display of clear crystal reindeers, swans and penguins. The display is so sparkly that the pieces don’t photograph well. I buy a few pieces of jewellery and a key-ring, negotiating the frantic gatherings of Japanese (?) tourists in the shop. Each costs around €30 - 40. The ‘free gift’, a pin with a small white crystal, is included in the bag. I run into Ray on my way out of Swarovski, so team up with him to check out some of the sights nearby.

First, the Golden Roof (Goldenes Dachl). After subjecting the Golden Roof to our photographic scrutiny, we make our way to the Dom St Jakob (Cathedral St James). It has a similar exterior design, with twin towers, to the Wilten Basilica, but is a natural stone colour. It is described as ‘baroque’. The interior sees more lavish use of marble, decorative plasterwork and muralled ceilings.

We meet up with Jeff, Di and Christine and decide to join them in climbing Stadtturm to witness the views over Innsbruck. After climbing a couple of flights of stairs, we find ourselves in a foyer where we buy our tickets (€3.00) to climb the rest of the stairs to the walkway.

The staircases change in character and width as we get closer to the top. 173 steps doesn’t sound so bad, but I’m breathing hard and my knees are complaining long before I get to the top! Once there, I have to say the views are definitely worth it! We can see Innsbruck spread out around us and we’re looking down on most of the buildings, including the Golden Roof. We have clear views of the mountains surrounding Innsbruck, and there’s a shot of the Innsbruck Ski Jump.

Once safely down the stairs, we venture further afield for a look at the Hofburg (Imperial Palace).

We meet opposite the Swarovski shop at 1715. The plan is to walk to our Hotel. Many streets around Innsbruck are blocked, as there is a sporting event (fun run or maybe a triathlon) going on. We walk south along Maria-Theresien-Straße towards the Triumphpforte (Triumphal Arch) (built in 1765 to mark the marriage of Archduke Leopold and Spanish Princess, Maria Ludovica).

We arrive at the Hilton Hotel Innsbruck at about 1730. My room 517 offers a lovely view over Innsbruck towards the mountains. It also offers a view of the park where the sporting event concludes. I can hear excited commentary over the PA system as runners finish the course.

Dinner tonight is in the hotel dining room – another buffet. On the menu are:
Entrée:
Pea soup

Broad range of salads

Main:
Penne pasta with tomato and olives
Roast pork
Baby potatoes
Green beans
Curry chicken with rice

Dessert:
Chocolate mousse
Apple strudel
Sponge roll with orange filling

I head for my room and tune the TV to CNN. By 2140 I’m negotiating my way through an Austrian ISP offering reasonably priced (an hour for €5) WIFI Internet access, while listening to the sounds of a rock concert (probably in conjunction with the end of the running race/triathlon) in the park below. The web page offers an English version, but once you get to the page where you have to pay, it’s all in German. I’ve been feeling a little lost without access to Australian news, so I persist.

Nordlingen to Innsbruck photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
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Day 6
Sunday 21 September
Innsbruck to Vienna
Call: 0600
Breakfast: 0645
Bus: 0730
Position: 2nd row after stairs, RHS

Wow! A veritable glut of toast – it’s available at breakfast again!

Today, Raymond tells us, we will be travelling along the Inn Valley and then on to Salzburg.

The scenery is beautiful, and we spend time driving along beside the river (maybe the Inns River), which has those beautiful aqua tones of a waterway fed by snowmelt. By 0850 we’re back in Germany and noticing that there is fresh snow on the Bavarian Alps. At about 0930, we have a ‘comfort stop’. Prices at the attached service station include Diesel €1.35, Ultra €1.47, Super €1.36. Phew! We’re back on the bus at 0945.

Salzburg

We arrive in Salzburg a little before 10.00 and meet up with local guide, Manfred, for our included sightseeing. Raymond has never worked with Manfred (his guide of choice is not available today). When he arrives, Manfred is well- and conservatively dressed, except for the walking cast on his foot! It does not, however, inconvenience him.

Manfred leads us into the Mirabell Gardens, giving us some history of the gardens palace and gardens. They are lovely. There’s a fountain in the middle. (Did I read somewhere that this is the garden around which Julie Andrews and the children cavorted in Sound of Music?) I also read somewhere that “Do Re Mi” was filmed in the garden. There are statues on either end of the small tree-lined path into the gardens – these featured in the movie, with Julie and the children mimicking the statue’s postures.

Manfred leads us on, first to see one of the houses where Mozart lived (“Mozart Wohnhaus”). It is a two-storeyed salmon-coloured building with a black slate roof and an attic. We move on to cross the Salzach River. There are heaps of other tour groups around, so it is a challenge to find a spot for our group to stand without encroaching on others, or impeding pedestrian traffic flow. On the other side of the river, the Hohensalzburg fortress looks down protectively on the town from its strong strategic position at the top of the hill.

After crossing the river, Manfred points out the shopping street (“Geitreidegasse”). The buildings on either side, in keeping with the historic character of the area, have decorative wrought iron (“guild”) signs above their doors. Apparently garish and neon signs are forbidden. It does look funny to see the McDonald’s Golden Arches inside a particularly ornate fixture held in a wreath by an eagle’s head, with a lion holding a crown nearby.

Next stop is the home where Mozart was born (Mozart’s “Geburtshaus”) in 1756. The family lived on the third floor from 1747 to 1773. The five-storey (plus attic) building is painted a strong mustard colour, with white window frames. It now houses a Mozart museum.

We walk past the Salzburg Opera Building. We walk along the side of the building to view the gigantic stage doors which stand about 10 metres tall, with four metal door panels. Obviously they have to be large to allow the passage of huge pieces of equipment for the stage. Alongside the Opera Building a tunnel is hewn out of the rock – this is now a parking garage.

We continue onwards, across the courtyard of the former monastery, quietly through the cemetery, then back to the main square, the “Mozartplatz”. There’s a festival in progress, St Rupert Festival (?) and the area is cram-packed with people, stalls, and amusement rides, even a side-show alley. Now we’re free to find some lunch and do our own exploring. We have to meet at the Mozart statue (the only one in Salzburg) at 1230.

After a loo stop, Ray, Julie and I wander around rather indecisively. We’re not really sure what we want for lunch. When we see some of our tour mates embarking on a plateful of potato wedges, we decide they look good. (€3.00) The day is the coldest we’ve experienced on tour yet, overcast and grey, so something warm is definitely welcome.

We buy some souvenirs in one of the shops close to the square. I hand over a €20 note as it’s the smallest I have. The shop assistant absent-mindedly hands me back the change for a €10. I look down in surprise. “I gave you a twenty,” I point out. Ray, behind me, confirms. She apologises and hands over the rest of my change. I’m not sure if it was a deliberate attempt to fleece me, but it is a good example of keeping track of your money!

We’re back waiting near the Mozart statue in plenty of time. This is also the spot where the horse carriages and their drivers wait to pick up passengers. They’re well rugged up while they’re standing idle, and most of the horses are happy for a little distraction in the way of tourists having their photos taken or giving them a pat.

Eagles Nest

Raymond does his customary body count and joins Manfred in escorting us back to the bus at 1245. We’re on our way to our Optional, Eagle’s Nest (“Kehlsteinhaus”), this afternoon. The Eagle’s Nest was built, on a mountain top, as a retreat for Adolf Hitler, in time for his 50th birthday. (With true Teutonic efficiency, it was completed about a year early).

By about 1315 we’re getting off the bus in the coach parking area. At this point, we have to take a special shuttle bus higher into the mountains. They are, apparently, equipped with strong brakes to better handle the steep windy road. Raymond has booked our group to depart at 1330. The indicator above the ticket office says that the current temperature is 7ºC. (!) The shuttle buses arrive, disgorge their return passengers, and then we climb aboard. I sit on the left side. Of course, as we get underway, I decide that this is the wrong side (invariably!). As the bus winds its way up the mountain, there are spectacular views to the valley below. Our tour mate, Bill, has a decided ‘thing’ about heights and really doesn’t appreciate this at all!

The trip up the mountain lasts about twenty minutes, and takes us through about five tunnels and around a hairpin bend. As we climb, the conditions are getting colder, and the weather looks to be closing in. Once we get to the top, will there be anything to see?

I’m becoming quite pessimistic as the bus reaches the car park below the Eagle’s Nest.. As we enter the tunnel, the place is becoming shrouded in fog. The tunnel is the only way to access the Eagle’s Nest and extends 124 metres into the rock. At the far end is a brass-plated elevator to take visitors 124 metres up to the Eagle’s Nest. The lift was specially designed for Hitler. The shiny brass surfaces offer bold reflections which were thought to minimise feelings of claustrophobia. In Hitler’s day there was a comfortable chair in the lift. These days it’s standing room only as the lift operator guides us to the Eagle’s Nest. There are buttons for the door, the lift and a small black telephone receiver inside the door to the left, and also a brass analogue clock.

When we reach the top, we move into a small side room to await the arrival of the rest of the group. Once we’re all together, Manfred takes us to the Photo Gallery. This, apparently, is where Hitler and Eva Brun would sunbake on a sunny day. It seems hard to believe, as the fog closes in around us. The space now provides a gallery of historic photographs of the Kehlsteinhaus.

Elsewhere in the building there is a formal dining area, with wood panelled walls and ceiling. Beyond it, the meeting room is set up as a café. The red-marble fire-place was a birthday gift from Mussolini. This room was, apparently, the setting for some momentous meetings during the course of WWII.

The weather has closed in drastically when I walk outside. Visibility must be down to something like ten metres. It is now snowing, light beautiful sugar-like powder, and the temperature gauge on the side of the building shows that it is 0ºC. While the fog is disappointing, the conditions are quite pleasant (provided you’re appropriately rugged up). It’s not windy and the powder dries as soon as it falls on you, so you don’t get wet. It’s actually quite enchanting!

Manfred has suggested that we should get the elevator back down 15 minutes ahead of that time, in case there’s a queue, to ensure that we’re back in time for our scheduled 1335 shuttle bus. I take advantage of the (free) toilets and then descend with just a couple of other people in the lift. There is only one guy waiting at the bottom to go up, so I manage to get a photograph of the interior of the lift with him casting interesting reflections on the walls around him. Most of us are wandering aimlessly around the departure point by about 1325. Of course, as we are on the point of leaving, the weather starts to lift, so we can now see the beautiful panoramic views of the mountains and valleys around us.

On the way back down in the shuttle bus, I enjoy sitting on the left side so that I get the more spectacular views. Manfred points out a distinctive, horse-shoe shaped building with swimming pool down the valley. This is, apparently, the Intercontinental Hotel, nicknamed “Hitler’s Hotel” as it was built near the site where Hitler had his summer house. As we travel through rural areas, Manfred also draws our attention to some cows in a paddock near a house. He is surprised that they’re there – he has already told us that the cows generally go up into the hills for the summer and are rounded up to be returned to their winter pasture. “Maybe,” Manfred suggests drolly, “they did not take them for summer vacation.”

We drop Manfred off, near Salzburg. Like many of my tour mates, I’m a little distressed that we don’t get the opportunity to express our appreciation to him and tip him. (Some had taken the opportunity to tip Manfred at our last stop and came away with the feeling that he didn’t expect to be tipped.) I really enjoyed our time with Manfred – he was knowledgeable, paced his talks well, and had a good sense of humour. Oh well.

Raymond has decided that we will have an early dinner at a service centre on our way into Vienna. So, at about 1730 we stop at a Rosenberger Markt truck stop. The Rosenberger offers a delicious range of food, both hot and cold. I opt for a middle-sized salad (€5.20), a Ham and salad roll (€3.20) and a piece of chocolate torte (€ 3.35). Ray and Julie opt for similar meals, and we are seated, halfway through our meals while some of our tour mates are still waiting on the hot dishes that they’d had to order.

Hilton Vienna

We’re back on the coach by 1815. At 1830, we’re a little worried about the prospects for the tour when it starts to rain. We arrive at the Hilton Hotel Vienna at about 2040. My room, number 326, has tea and coffee facilities (with English Breakfast teabags!), minibar, safe, ironing board, hairdryer, a luxurious double-bed with fluffed up doona, and a surround-sound wide-screen TV(!) I’m a little disconcerted to hear voices in the bathroom when I’m there, until I realise that it’s the TV sound coming through! A slightly weird ‘luxury’, I think!

Hurrah – finally – a two-night stop – time to do some washing!

Innsbruck to Vienna photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Day 7
Monday 22 September
Vienna sightseeing
Call: 0630
Breakfast: 0700
Bus: 0745
Position: 4th row after stairs, RHS

Schonbrunn Palace

It’s our Vienna sightseeing day today, and our priority is to get off to a good start with a visit to the Schloss Schönbrunn (Schonbrunn Palace) – the summer palace of the Hapsburgs. Our local guide is the charming Ilsa, who tells us that she was named after Ingrid Bergman’s character in the movie "Casablanca".

As we drive towards the Schonbrunn Palace, Ilsa points out a few of the sights and tells us about her city. Vienna is the largest city in Austria with a population of 1.6 million. (The second largest city in Austria has a smaller population than Canberra!) It is regarded as a very ‘green’ city, with over 800 parks and the Vienna Woods. (But Ilsa points out that Viennese regard “eleven trees and three benches as a park”.)

There are golden eagles perched on massive stone columns on either side of the entrance as we enter the gates. There’s an attractive symmetry about the palace, with external stair cases leading up to the first floor in the centre of the building, and wings extending on either side.

Ilsa encourages us to get our photos of the building and the massive, cobbled forecourt, now “before the Japanese invasion comes!” We hurry to do so, then follow her to the tourist entrance. Unfortunately cameras and videos are not allowed. It’s understandable, as the paintings and fabrics are particularly sensitive to UV light.

Ilsa shows us around, while updating us on Austrian history, and the complicated family connections of the Hapsburgs. The rooms are incredibly ornate and beautifully preserved. In one room, for example, the walls are covered with Chinese (I think) silk tapestries. There are protective Perspex shields around the edge of the rooms so that curious tourists can’t touch the treasures, and rope barriers through the room which sound an alarm if you step too close.

Once we’ve toured the rooms, we’re free to explore the gardens at the back of the palace. Once again that beautiful symmetry is on show. The formal gardens are laid out with a wide pathway down the middle, leading to an elaborate fountain. Further up behind it is the “Gloriette”, an ornate structure which, these days, is put to use as a restaurant. Tree-lined avenues branch off from the garden, leading to artworks and fountains. Schonbrunn is also home to the world’s oldest zoo.

Ilsa tells us that Schonbrunn was included on the UNESCO World Heritage in 1996. There are 1441 rooms, with the site covering about 400 acres. At the time of Marie Therese, there were 2,000 people at court. Nowadays, an average of 7,000 people visit Schonbrunn per day.

Vienna sights

We’re back on the bus by 1000 and Ilsa’s pointing out the sights. We pass some apartments designed by Otto Wagner in Art Nouveau style. There’s the ‘ornate yet functional’ Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Pavilion, a city tram stop, also designed by Wagner.
The Secession Building, with the enormous golden ball on the roof, is striking. At the time it was opened, the Viennese regarded it with derision, and had some derogatory names for its golden ball feature (e.g. “Golden cabbage hat”). They have since come to appreciate its beauty.

Once we’re on the Ring Road, Ilsa tells us “It’s like watching tennis … left, right, left, right.” Our heads are swinging from side to side as she identifies – the Opera House, Museum of Fine Arts, City Hall, Votif Church, Ministry of Defence, Strauss Monument … It’s hard to keep track!

Treasury and Crypt

By 1045 Ilsa’s walking us towards our Optional excursion to the Treasury and the Crypt. Those who elected not to do this excursion will have free time before an opportunity to be transferred back to the hotel at 1400. Along the way, we see the Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School), built in 1572.

The Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer) is located in the Neue Hofburg. Also known as the ‘Secular and Ecclesiastical Treasures’, it contains the Hapsburgs' collection of jewels, crowns, and other valuables. There are 20 rooms of priceless treasures, including the Austrian imperial crown, the crown and insignia of the Holy Roman Empire, the golden cradle of Napoleon’s son, and jewellery once worn by Hapsburg empresses and princesses. The detail on some of the robes and murals is incredible!
We finish our tour of the treasury at about 1145 and head across to the Kauzinerkirche, - the site of the Kaisergruft – a mausoleum housing the tombs of generations of Hapsburg royalty.

The tombs reflect the individual styles and personalities of the … uh… occupants. The first tombs to be housed in the mausoleum are quite plain, with decorative feet and ends. The tombs get progressively more elaborate. In a separate chamber, the largest, most ornate of the ‘resting places’ is positioned behind a simple rectangular box with a cross to decorate the top. It looks like an old-fashioned travelling trunk, and makes some of the ‘final resting places’ of other members of the Hapsburg clan look obscenely overdone!

Perhaps the most touching point of the tour is the plaque commemorating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. They were assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, precipitating the first World War. Their remains are buried elsewhere – theirs was a love-match, and Franz Ferdinand had decreed that as his wife couldn’t be buried in the Hapsburg Crypt (she wasn’t royal), he was to be buried with her.

After we leave the Crypt, there’s some free time, with a bus pick-up scheduled for 1400. We can meet the bus, or walk back to our hotel at our leisure. With Ray and Julie, I lunch at Rosenbergers, having been more than happy with my meal the night before. I have a ham and salad roll again (€3.20) and a delicious piece of apple strudel (€3.10).

At about 1430 we elect to walk back to the hotel. We stroll back along the shopping street (past several Mostly Mozart souvenir shops – must be a chain), pass Stepansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral – currently being restored) and turn right at the pizza shop.

I’m reassured when I can see the Hilton building in the distance ahead of us. While the female proprietor regards us suspiciously, we take photos of a colourful display in front of a flower stall with the same thought in mind: were these flowers at Aalsmere a few days ago? It’s very busy inside the Hilton. There’s even a team of TV cameras in the lobby, and that looks like Soccer supremo, Seth Blatter, being interviewed. Apparently Vienna – and the Hilton in particular – is hosting some sort of UEFA (Soccer) conference. We search out the notice board and write down our ‘times’ for tonight and tomorrow.

I head for my room, intending to write some postcards and sort out my suitcase, only to be sidelined by the maid, who is about to do my room and clearly expects me to vacate. So, off I go for an unplanned walk, reluctant to venture too far as it looks like rain.

I give the maid about an hour and return to my room to (literally and figuratively) recharge batteries (mine and the camera’s) before our Optional excursion this evening.

Elegant Evening

We meet for the so-called “Elegant Evening” in the side foyer of the hotel. The bus drops us off at our venue but, as we’re a little early, Raymond takes us for a little walk. We admire the view in the park where the Johann Strauss statue is situated. Some in the group are interested in the work of a street artist who has his (unpriced) works displayed on easels under an umbrella next to a park bench. He is reluctant to nominate prices, instead asking what they wish to pay. As it’s largely curiosity, rather than a desperate desire to have any of the artworks, the conversation goes round in circles, with one of the Aussies commenting that it’s just like bartering in Bali!

The Kursalon Wien is our venue for the evening. We walk into the restaurant, “Johann” to be guided to tables of eight. On the menu:

Aperitif
(No idea what – it looked like watered-down cough mixture to me)

White and red wines

Entrée (choice of)
* Beef carpaccio with plum chilli salsa
Alpine salmon (smoked) with lemon pepper

Soup (choice of)
Frothing soup of parsnip and walnut oil
* Clear beef tea with dumplings

Main (choice of)
* Crispy fillet salmon trout with Sardinian vegetables and roast potato
Pink roast beef with mushroom dumplings and leak vegetables

Dessert (choice of)
Plum vanilla parfait and nuts
* Chocolate mousse with passionfruit jelly
Coffee, tea

A delicious meal, indeed! At about 2005 I meet my table mates in the foyer on my way back from an excursion to the toilets (down two flights of stairs and around a couple of corners). We’re on our way upstairs (groan – more stairs!) to the concert hall. We seem to be the last group to enter the room - the ushers are pointing us to blocks of seats on the outside edges like they’re trying to fill gaps – two here, three there, six or so there… I’m directed to a seat on the end of the third row.

Professor Udo Zwolfer is the musical director and our host this evening. He is in the number one violin seat – there is no conductor. He introduces each of the pieces in both German and English, and asks that we don’t take any photographs while the performances are going on.

Well, what can I say about this evening? I love music, but am sadly ignorant about classical music! According to the programme, the “Salonorchester Alt Wien” was founded in 1999. Its musical make-up enables it to play without a conductor. “The way the musicians listen to each other’s playing and their constant musical dialogue create a joyful energy which is communicated directly to the audience in the concert hall. This special style of music-making goes right back to the time of Josef Lanner and Johann Strauss, who both led their orchestras from the position of first violin.”

The musicians (five violins, two clarinets, double bass, cello, trumpet, piccolo/flute and piano) were magnificent and seemed to enjoy what they were doing. During the “Sigh Galop” there was a moment when they all gave heart-felt sighs, and then we in the audience had to sigh on cue as well. They cut loose with a jazz medley as their encore, with the double bass player even spinning his instrument with a flourish!

I enjoyed the singers: Heidi, the soprano, elegantly gowned in a gorgeous red satin gown with long red gloves, was wonderful – passionate, engaging, with a true, powerful voice. Dieter, the tenor was charming and engaging, though his light voice was somewhat shown up by Heidi’s sheer power. They did, however, perform very well together. Their duet after “A Little Night Music” was very enjoyable – a spousal argument, with Dieter’s character unsuccessfully trying to get back on the good side of Heidi’s character. Dieter responded to some feedback from a (planted?) member of the audience and invited the gent to engage with Heidi while he took the seat in the audience. The gentleman looked bemused as he took the stage. Very funny!

The male and female dancers, however, were less engaging. I guess they were rather hamstrung by the narrow corridor in front of the stage in which they performed. The female dancer was competent and graceful (though not exactly waif-like…). The most noteworthy aspect of the male dancer’s performance was that he had his eyes closed most of the time. It looked most peculiar, and he looked bored, as though he was going through the motions.

The performance finishes at about 2200. We are prompt in returning to the coach, but unable to move because we’re blocked in by an empty bus in front of us. (Its passengers have not arrived, but the driver won’t move forward to allow Ciro to get our coach out.) We finally get back to the hotel at about 2230.

Vienna sightseeing photo set at Flickr

"Elegant Evening" optional photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Day 8
Tuesday 23 September
Vienna to Venice
Call: 0600
Breakfast: 0645
Bus: 0730
Position: 2nd last row after stairs, RHS

We have an early-ish start today, with a long travel day as we head to Venice. As we leave, the sky looks overcast, and the clock at the front of the coach indicates that the outside temperature is a paltry 12 degrees.

Arrangements for the 'dine-around' dinner

Raymond needs to get some paperwork out of the way – he distributes the menu choices for the Rome “Dine-Around” Dinner. There are menus from four restaurants. The idea is that you choose the restaurant based on the menu. Three of the four offer pasta as the entrée and a main of hot beef with salad and potato. The other offers a bruschetta entrée and spaghetti or pizza with salad as main. All four offer gelato as dessert. Raymond discourages us from choosing the restaurant offering the bruschetta and spaghetti/pizza, suggesting that he wasn’t happy with their recent efforts. For me, then, the choice comes down to mushrooms (which I don’t like): as they feature in two of the remaining three restaurants’ offerings, I go with the other, restaurant 2.

Our first stop is at the small town of Kinderberg. Raymond tells us all about Café Fritz (owned by Fritz, son of Fritz). I try a chocolate éclair (€2.80). Yum!

We’re back on the road at 0930. We notice a lot of fortresses along the route. As Raymond explains, we’re following a trade route, which meant that towns which engaged in trade would require protection. Armies also followed the trade routes.

We reach our lunch stop – a Marché Restaurant near Worthersee. The ‘raststation’ is beautifully situated, with the restaurant offering a terrace looking down on a beautiful lake. The lunch options are okay, but nothing really takes my fancy. I end up spending €5.80 on a cinnamon scroll and a piece of apple strudel. We sit on the terrace, enjoying the crisp sunshine and the beautiful views. We leave Worthesersee at about 1230 after a ¾ hour stop.

As Raymond explains, we are heading south, with one stop mid-way between here and Venice. At the stop, he warns ominously, we will be exposed to the Italian-style truck-stops. They are “completely different in style to the Germanic ones”. He also gives us a run-down on how he’s scheduled our Venice visit.

Italy

At 1300 we cross the border into Italy.

We travel through Dolomites, one of three mountain ranges in Italy (the others being the Apennines and Alps). At 1430 Raymond describes the Northern Italian flood plains as we drive through the area. The alluvial silt from snow melt on the mountains has made for an extraordinarily rich growing environment. Amongst other crops and plantations, there are poplars which are used in making paper.

At 1500 we pass through our first Italian tollgate. Fortunately Ciro has a Telepass, so there is no delay. Shortly after, we take on our first Autogrill stop. An attendant in the toilets charges 20c for the loo. My deliberate strategy is to avoid the confusion of orders, tickets, gesticulation for coffees. (I really don’t need a hot drink during the day – particularly when it involves this convoluted process.) Instead, I buy an ice-cream – a White Chocolate Magnum - for €1.70.

Venice car ferry

After 15 minutes or so, we’re on our way again. We drive aboard the 1600 ferry on schedule. Another Insight bus is in front of us. This one has the name “Angelino” on the rear. Raymond tells us that there will be three Insight Groups on Lido – the Sunday Departure of Romantic, Italian, and us.

We’re quickly off the bus and upstairs to observe the views. For me, this is probably THE moment of the tour to date. We’ve been to some beautiful places, but I never imagined myself in Venice. I’m standing at the bow of the car ferry, pointing my camera in fifteen directions at once, thinking “Wow, we’re coming into Venice!”




As we get ashore at Lido, Raymond has a strategy. Our hotel is quaint. It doesn’t have any lifts, and our luggage may be slow in getting to our rooms. Dinner is not included tonight, so the plan is to drop us off in the main street of Lido to fend for ourselves as far as dinner is concerned. This will enable Ciro to get the bus to the hotel and the porters the chance to distribute our luggage before our arrival. This would seem to be the most efficient use of our time

So, at 1645 we’re cut loose in Lido. Ray, Julie and I walk the length of the main street, sussing out our options and just enjoying the scenery. We walk past the Ausonia & Hungaria Palace Hotel, the other place where Insight tours stay on Lido. Its façade is very decorative, with patterned tiles and a frieze of cherubs holding up garlands of flowers on a sky blue background. At the end of the main drag there’s a sculpture of a bull rolled on its back. Beyond, there is the Lido beach with its row upon row of little bathing boxes. Have we stepped back into the 19th century?!

As we retrace our steps, we meet some of our tour mates and acknowledge a problem: Virtually none of the restaurants are open for evening trade. Coffee – fine. Gelato – fine. But if you want something more substantial, there’s an issue. We opt for toasted rolls (Mine is “Prosciutto, pomadora & insalata €3.50” – i.e. Ham, cheese and salad). It’s bunged into a café style sandwich toaster to warm and crisp the roll. We’ve quite happily eaten our rolls when we come across Sandra and Robert, still in search of some food. We point out the café from which we purchased our rolls. Sandra is dismissive – she’s paranoid about how long the rolls have been sitting there.

Albergo Quattro Fontane

I’m looking forward to seeing our hotel. Raymond has provided us with some tantalising titbits about the Albergo Quattro Fontane, variously describing it as “Our interesting hotel… no room numbers, no lift … a little eclectic… In some rooms the beds are a little short …if you drop the soap in the shower you’ll have to go outside to pick it up.”

When we get there, our room “numbers” are distributed. If your room has an actual number, it means that the room is in the main building. Otherwise, a set of letters means the room is in the building across the courtyard. My room is SSP. I’m a little disappointed that my ‘single’ buddies are in the main building.

We collect our keys from reception. My room, is the “Santo Spirito”, accessed by walking across the garden, through the foyer, up a small flight of seven or eight steps, turn left and it’s the first door on the right. The ‘key ring’ is the size of a door knob – certainly not something that you would misplace in your bag!

The room is charming. It looks more like a guest room than a hotel room. My first impression is ‘green’. The floor tiles are jade green, the bedspreads and curtains a pastel mint shade. There are two single beds in opposite corners of the room. One has a wooden bed head, the other is brass. Beside them are antique-looking wooden cabinets. There’s also a small, low writing desk with an antique-looking chair (will my bum fit in that?). The wooden-framed windows have simple locks and bi-fold shutters opened outside them. I can see into a tiny, odd-angled courtyard in one direction, and over a fence into a cobble-stoned lane in the other. The bathroom IS small, but serviceable, with shower, toilet and wash-basin.

The only immediate problem is that the power points look extremely peculiar. My ‘European’ adapter definitely won’t fit. Some points have one small, round connection (which looks more like something that’d go into a computer). The others have three parallel holes in them. I pull out plugs at random, hoping that I might find something more useful. Nothing! Eventually, in desperation, I check out the bathroom. The ‘electric shaver only’ point has the usual multi-fit configuration. I warily plug in my ‘European adapter, Australian power board and battery recharger, wondering if I’m going to short something, or blow up my techy toys! The recharger offers an encouraging red light. Okay… so far, so good. Plugged in, my mobile phone displays positive messages about ‘Battery recharging’. Good. I disconnect it and plug in my laptop. It also starts recharging. Phew! I balance the array on top of the little bathroom stool and push it under the sink, hopefully away from any random splashing.

As I leave for the ‘Magical Venice’ optional, I retrieve the batteries for my camera, and leave the mobile and the laptop charging.

Magical Venice

We walk around the corner from our hotel to the small wharf where we will take our private launch across to Venice. It’s 2020. The seats in the launch are tightly packed together, and there’s a supporting pole on either side of the cabin at about the third row of seats, holding up the roof. It means wriggling through a narrowed gap to get to the seats in that row, prompting suggestions about ‘pole dancing’. I just glad I don’t get stuck!

Our trip over to Venice takes about 20 minutes. Once ashore, we walk over three bridges to get to St Mark’s Square. From one there’s a view of the “Bridge of Sighs”. Unfortunately it is surrounded by hoardings – Raymond mentions restoration work – but I’m not sure whether this is on the bridge itself or the buildings surrounding it. Whatever the case, the hoardings are stark and modern, presenting images of blue skies and puffy clouds.

Venice is quite peaceful at this time of night. There are some people about as we walk into the famous St Mark’s Square, but there is room to move, stand and admire, without risking anyone’s ire. Around the edges of the square, café tables and chairs are set outside cafés. There are also small bandstands. The waiters are elegantly attired in white tuxedos.

Raymond guides us to tables in front of the Caffe Lavena. We have a choice of a wine, coffee, hot chocolate or soft drink. Ray nominates the hot chocolate, and remembers to ask for extra milk (as Raymond has warned us that it generally comes so thick that it’s more like a pudding). The spoon won’t quite stand up in it (we try). Julie and I go for orange juice.

To prevent an awful cacophony of sound, the bands take it in turns to play a set. People can sit at the cafés and order a drink while ‘their’ band plays a set, or wander around listening to the other bands in turn. (Drinks at the cafés are VERY expensive – Raymond said anything up to €16 – 18!!)

The Caffe Lavena band is made up of two guys on violin, a piano accordion, double bass, clarinet, and a lady on piano. They play a jaunty "My Fair Lady" medley. Some of their other sets are probably musical medleys, but I only recognise a few songs, so can’t identify the set (e.g. they play "Yes Sir, That's my Baby").

As we’re sitting there enjoying the music, a little girl of about 4 starts to dance in the space alongside the bandstand. Soon the people sitting close to her are encouraging her. She dances for a while, then scurries back to the table where her parents are seated, then scurries back to continue dancing. It’s charming. When the band segués into a piece that is slower (and less danceable), she is clearly unimpressed. Between pieces, she approaches one of the musicians, I guess asking them to play something faster. Unfortunately, with all eyes upon her, she then goes shy and won’t dance. It was, however, a very cute interlude!

We take water taxis along the Grand Canal with groups of about ten people in each. In ‘my’ taxi, some are disappointed that there’s no commentary on the trip. Today Raymond distributed the “Whispers” (small radio-frequency receiver and ear phones) for our local-guided tours in Venice, Rome and Paris. They thought we should have used these tonight (though I don’t see, logically, how that could have worked).

After a long day, we’re back in Lido at about 2300. Our water taxi drops us off at the wharf and roars off into the night. There is no sign of the other taxi as we head back towards the hotel. It’s a little disconcerting to discover that somebody has been in my room (which I left looking like a bomb had hit it) in my absence: the bed’s been turned down, the rugs laid out, the shutters closed, and a couple of chocolates placed on my pillow.

Vienna to Venice photo set at Flickr

"Magical Venice" optional photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Day 9
Wednesday 24 September
Venice sightseeing
Call: 0645
Breakfast: 0730
Leave: 0815

Today is likely to be a full-on one. It’s our ‘Venice sightseeing’ day – time to see, as Raymond describes it, “the city between the sea and the sky”.

At breakfast several of the other tourists mention their turned down beds from the night before. There was, as they describe, a Lurch-like guy hanging around last night, so they figure it was probably his little attentions to the rooms. Nice, but unnecessary … and slightly unnerving!

At 0830 we board a launch for the trip across to Venice again. This morning we really get a feel for the busy waterways – there’s all manner of watercraft around us, and it feels as though the launch pilot really wants to take on the enormous Minoan Lines (Greek) car ferry that is lumbering past. Instead, our craft slightly changes direction and we sweep across in its wake, having to dodge around a large black tug boat, which is being towed (backwards) by the ferry. (Maybe a pilot on board the ferry will somehow transfer to the tug once it’s clear of the traffic channels.)

Backstreets of Venice

At this time of morning, Venice is only starting to wake up. There are black garbage bags awaiting collection. The gondolas are tied up, covered with blue tarps. There’s no sign (yet) of the purveyors of handbags and sunglasses. It seems even the pigeons have yet to start their day!

We meet up with Anna, our local guide, for the “Optional Guided tour of the hidden backstreets of Venice; hear of the Venetians’ Casanovian lifestyle”. Anna is an older lady, tiny, and extremely energetic. She gains our attention with a catch-phrase “Yoo hoo”. Soon we are all mimicking her with delight.

As we walk the streets, along little lanes, over bridges, through little courtyards, it’s hard to do justice to a description. I quickly learn that it is important to be close to Anna to get the clearest reception on the “Whispers”. The further away you get, the greater the interference and less than distinct reception.

The tour provides us with an interesting perspective of local Venetians getting on with their lives. There’s a guy reading his newspaper on the tiny balcony of his apartment, oblivious to the world around him. Elsewhere, workers are man-handling trolleys through the narrow streets. Their only warning is a call of “Attenzione!” as they barrel on. There’s a work boat, heavily laden with white fabric bags, like big pillow cases. Anna suggests that these might be the dirty linen from a Venice hotel or restaurant. There are fruit stalls with hand written signs offering three bunches of hot chillies for €5, a kilo of white grapes or white peaches for €2.50. As one elderly lady makes her purchases, her Shi tzu dog sits patiently at her feet.

In one little courtyard, a little wicker basket has been let down to street level on a length of rope. This, Anna tells us, is probably so that the occupant can retrieve mail, newspapers, etc. without having to make the trip down to street level.

We move on for the best known view of the Grand Canal, from the Rialto (?) Bridge. There are heaps of gondolas tied up along the canal, the demarcation of green and blue barber poles, cafés with al fresco dining. With a beautiful, clear, sunny day, it is, indeed a sight to behold. In a small square nearby, we come across some gondoliers in their winter uniforms – the striped shirts covered with a black jacket, brimmed blue -ribboned hats.




Glassblowing demonstration

1030 sees the end of the Optional tour with Anna. St Mark’s Square is now bustling with activity. Our next stop is a glassblowing demonstration cum sales pitch. We go through a doorway off St Mark’s Square, along a corridor, only to pop out in a laneway, to be taken up five or six flights of stairs. At the top of the climb we’re led into a small demonstration room. A single glass blower gets his gather, blows on the glass, heats it in a kiln, and then uses tongs to quickly shape the molten glass into a cat ornament. The demonstration is over in about five minutes, then it’s sell, sell, sell.

We’re shown the ‘specials’ in the three display rooms – glasses, goblets, glasses, jewellery. The products range from simple, mass-produced necklaces to exclusive glass artworks worth thousands of Euros. There is nothing there that really takes my fancy, and I am all too aware that even if shipping to Australia is included in the ‘special’ prices, there will be a price to be paid in the shape of tariffs and customs Duties when the items reach Australia. (These are charged on the total price, INCLUDING shipping.)

By 1100 Julie and I cut ourselves loose from the glass showrooms and head back down to street level to do some exploring. Raymond has distributed maps of Venice to us all, with the two important meeting times marked on them –for the gondola ride and the Burano Optional.

I’m probably more confident than Julie about finding my way, having noted that many of the streets are marked with signs pointing the direction to St Mark’s Square (“Per S Marco”). We’re reluctant to go too far away from the areas we know, for fear that we might get lost.

Having passed it on our tour with Anna, we head to McDonald’s for a quick, handy meal (and free toilets). I have a Big Mac meal (€7.60). It’s an interesting experience, as there seems to be a constant flow – especially of teenagers - in and out of the restaurant. There seems to be a lot of them on the loose in Venice at the moment – we noticed a big group on Lido yesterday. The toilets are clean, but the back of the toilet door is covered with graffiti. We wander further afield, eventually walking back along the canal front area, checking out the artists and the souvenir stalls. With the cobblestones, the bridges, the masses of people, and the lack of seating, Venice really is very tiring.

Prominent in St Mark’s Square are signs making it clear that Venice City Police Regulations “forbid:
• Walking around the city bare-chested or inadequately dressed;
• Causing wilful damage or defacement
• Sitting in areas not explicitly designated for the purpose, sitting in public areas to consume food and drink
• Dropping litter
• The use of bicycles and roller skates and the playing of sports and games that can cause annoyance to others
• The use of stereos, radios, etc. at high volume.”

In case that failed to get the message across, the garbage bins are marked with a more straightforward message:

“FORBIDDEN
1) To seat and lie on the ground
2) To eat and drink sitting down
3) To soil and leave rubbish
4) To swim and bath in the lagoon
5) To wear swimwear.”

There are a few benches along the promenade, though many are taken by artists displaying their works. Julie and I are lucky enough to find a seat in the shade so we can watch the world go by. There’s a water fountain nearby where we can refill our water bottles.

Gondola ride

We meet up with the group around the designated time of 1350 at the column with the lion on top. Raymond walks us further along the waterfront for our gondola ride. We are to go in groups of five or six. Julie has elected not to do the gondola ride, as she is not sure that she will be able to climb into or out of the low boat. Boarding a gondola is accomplished strictly one at a time, filling from the stern first. I am last to board a gondola with Graham and Kath, Phyllis and Ian.

We are content to quietly watch our surroundings. Our gondolier is disinclined to talk, let alone sing. (The singing gondolier seems to be an endangered, if not extinct, species.)

Our gondolas travel a short distance along the Grand Canal before heading into the smaller, less busy canals of Venice. We wave at tourists as we pass under bridges, watch the canal-side entrances of homes and hotels glide by. In some narrow canals, the gondoliers push off the walls of the buildings, where there are special little steps jutting out, to keep the boats moving forward. There is only one brief moment where all that we’ve read about the ‘smelly’ canals comes back to haunt us. For the most part, however, smell is not an issue.

As we head back towards the Grand Canal, we come across some gondoliers on board their craft. Several are resting, lying back in the seats. Others are preparing for work, taking the tarps off their boats, polishing and cleaning. One guy is accomplishing all this with his little dog on board for company. (I wonder whether the dog goes out on gondola rides!)

Too soon, it seems, we’re back to our starting point. I manage to get off the gondola without incident. We have plenty of time till we meet for our Burano Optional, so we stroll to the meeting point, then wander around nearby. It’s rather warm, so we’re standing in the shade down a narrow side alley. The young black guys with their designer bags are out in force, with their inventory spread out on sheets. When we see them moving past us, gathered up sheets in hand, we figure the police must be nearby. Sure enough, as the young blokes disappear down one end of a narrow alley, the police arrive in pursuit at the other.

Burano

Our 1530 launch to Burano takes about 35 minutes. As we approach the dock, we notice another ‘leaning tower’. This one, Raymond tells us, has a 3 degree lean. We all agree that there’s no way we would be buying the properties in front of the tower! Our launch pulls up parallel to another, and we have to walk through the second launch to get onto the dock.

Raymond walks us towards the centre of the town, and cuts us loose so that we can explore briefly before meeting near the restaurant. With Ray, Julie, Jeff and Di, I head off towards the canals, in search of some picturesque views. The houses in Burano are renowned for their bright, distinctive colours. Apparently these distinctive paint jobs were created so that fishermen, coming home to their families in fog, could correctly differentiate between the houses.

There is no doubting that Burano is relaxing after Venice, though there are plenty of tourists on the streets. In our canal exploration, our way is blocked by construction works. Fortunately some locals cheerily point us back to the main square where we meet the rest of our tour mates.

The menu on offer tonight is a seafood one, though there’s a non-seafood option available (thank goodness)!

Seafood option:
Entrée:
Seafood pate spread over golden rusks

Main:
Seafood risotto, seafood lasagne, calamari

Non Seafood option:
Entrée:
Tomato and cheese with a drizzle of olive oil

Main:
Spaghetti and lasagne, mixed grill – chicken, steak, pork – and chips

For all:
Salad (grated carrot, tomato, lettuce)

Dessert:
Almond toffee and biscotti
Bowl of fruit

Bottle of Amaretto
Tea/Coffee

It’s a delicious meal! After the meal, we take a leisurely stroll back to the dock. I buy some glass jewellery pieces from a store – I don’t think they’re ‘real’ Murano glass (not very expensive), but they are pretty. We’re back on the launch and headed for Lido by 1845. The launch captain is annoyed with Raymond, as he says we’re late. The sun is setting as we head back towards Lido. Wow – gorgeous!

We walk back into the hotel at about 1920.

Raymond has come up with a strategy to address the challenge of getting away at a reasonable hour in the morning. We are asked to have our suitcase out by 2200 tonight. The bus will be loaded in time for Ciro to queue for the early ferry. We will have a more relaxing start, getting a launch across to join Ciro and the coach at Mestre.

Venice and Burano photo set at Flickr

This message has been edited. Last edited by: jeaneeem,


And the sun is shining, This road keeps winding ...
I'm alive and I'm free:
Who wouldn't wanna be me? (Monty Powell/Keith Urban)
 
Posts: 318 | Location: Canberra, Australia | Registered: 10 February 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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