Wednesday, December 31, 2008

carlton little sparrows

this afternoon i was having coffee at threshman's bakehouse in carlton. it was a bit windy, so i took my routine seat inside the cafe. i like the seat because it is in a corner behind a huge window. so i can watch all the birds, dogs, and humans outside the cafe. my favorite birds are little sparrows. they are very agile and strategic. they can always get a piece of bread from a big crowd of pigeons, and i almost never saw any casualties of them (there are a lot of road kills here, and pigeons often have injured feet). today i saw quite a few sparrow chicks. i can tell because they are still not fully fledged. so interestingly they look bigger than their mums. they seem not be able to stand upright, so it looks like they are sitting on the ground. one chick looked disoriented and she was shivering a bit in the wind. i hope her mum will come back to her soon. but other chicks are learning very fast. they can already get on the table to have a bite of cakes or fruits left by humans. i think they (and birds in general) are healthy and quite smart because they never go for the toppings on the cake, even it looks yummy and tempting.

Monday, December 29, 2008

melbourne is so good

after a long flight, we finally landed in melbourne early in the morning. the weather was extremely good for this time of the year. usually it was quite hot (but dry) around xmas and new year's time. in some years, it was made worse by bush fires. but now it is around 20 degrees during the day time, with some cool breeze. the air is crystal clear. the drought seems to have subsided as mama's garden turns green, and many plants are flowering.

the next day, we went to lygon street in carlton, an italian precinct famous for its endless italian restaurants, to relax under the sun with a hot latte and a piece of tiramisu. the coffee tasted especially good, in particular comparing to coffee in europe which is twice as expensive and half as good. the streets were quiet as most humans are taking holidays (even at its busiest time, it feels much more spacious as comparing to europe), but still felt lively as they perfectly dissolved into the nature. aussies are casual and genuinely friendly as usual. melbourne at its best.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

confusing signs in munich

munich was overall the most pleasant stay during this eurotrip except for its confusing signs.

story 1: airport train

munich airport was awarded the best airport in europe in 2007. it was indeed very impressive, in particular comparing to the paris airport. we have used munich airport twice before. this time our plane landed at terminal 2. the train to the city is at terminal 1, so we were looking for the sign of the train after the customs. the sign of terminal 1 was very clear, but no mention of the train. to be safe, we asked the information desk and was told to proceed to terminal 1.

there were ticket machines on T1 train platform, but only in german. and there were more than 10 different types of fares, classified according to zones and groups. we only found out later that the zone map and explanation were on a different board next to the ticket machines. mama decided that a more efficient way was to go to the ticket office upstairs, although we still don't understand why there was no ticket office at terminal 2.

story 2: bayerstrasse

the train took about 45 minutes to the main station (hauptbahnhof). our hotel was located near the station on bayerstrasse, and on the map it was just one turn from an exit. it looked so easy that mama didn't check googlemap, and was just looking for the street sign after we got off the train. what we didn't expect is that at a particular exit, signs only show immediately adjacent streets. we had no way to tell which direction led to bayerstrasse. we took a nearest exist, and hoped to find a direction board on the ground. but nothing was there. and it was getting dark. so we walked towards what we thought could be the main exit. still no map, and all street names looked unfamiliar. mama had to go down inside the station again to look for maps and she finally found one. it showed that our street was just around the corner of where we stood. unfortunately, we walked away from our hotel. only later when we had a city map we found that bayerstrasse became neustrasse after the intersection, and we actually turned to neustrasse and reached karlstadt. we had to take a train back to hauptbahnhof. this time we directly looked for the main exit (still no sign says bayerstrasse) and the information desk, and were told to go upstairs. when we went up to the ground level, we immediately saw the sign of bayerstrasse. when we walked out, we saw our hotel just 20 meters away on the left. The lesson: always bring a detailed city map with you in munich.

story 3: hertie's department store.

we online booked a tour to the royal castles. the website told us that the tour departed at hertie's department store at 8.30am. so we decided to find hertie's the night before. hotel staff told us that hertie's was just opposite the main station. but as we walked across the station, we only found karlstadt opposite the street. maybe the department store was inside, so we walked in. but no hertie's. maybe it was on the other side of the station, so walked a full round of the station, but still couldn't find the department store. it was raining and cold, and we felt quite miserable. we went for help at the information desk inside the station. a lady told us exactly what the hotel staff told us. we thought we might have missed it, so went on searching again. no veil. we were getting increasingly frustrated. then papa saw another tourist office and went to have a last try. when we mentioned hertie's, an old man smiled and told us that hertie's was taken over, so the name was no longer there. but it was exactly where karlstadt is now. we decided to ask grey line (the travel company) to update the meeting point so that no more tourist would have to go round and round to find a place that no longer exists.

story 4: xmas tram

the ad on the train told us that the xmas train was at soderlinger tor. so we took a train there. after we got off the train, we saw a sign of the xmas tram. we followed the sign until we saw several exits. we looked for the xmas tram sign, but this time it was not there. we took an arbitrary one and went up. it was wrong. so we went back to where the first sign was. it had a street name. well, it was unfair to say that they didn't put a sign at the critical point. we just have to remember the street name. after we took the right exit and walked ten meters, we saw the xmas tram sign again, as if confirming that we were on the right track which we already knew. anyways, we didn't miss the xmas tram.

the royal castles of linderhof and neuschwanstein

last time when we visited munich, we missed the tour of royal castles by king ludwig II. the castles were build on the alps. the most famous one is neuschwanstein castle, which is the real cinderella castle. i have seen some incredibly beautiful pictures of the castle (but later papa said they were computer generated). so we booked the tour very early before we left australia. it was a day tour operated by grey line, including two castles of linderhof and neuschwanstein and a small alpine town oberammergau famous for its wood carving, richly painted houses and passion play.

our tour bus left hauptbahnhof at 8.30am, and took the autobahn to linderhof. there is speed restriction on buses. we drove at 100km, which felt very slow as other cars kept overtaking us. some must have driven at 200km because they passed like a bullet. the tour guide told us that it had been snowing for the past few days, so we would expect a lot of snow on the alps. it was raining on the day, and i regretted that i didn't bring enough warm clothes, so i decided to stay in the bag, and let dandan take pictures.

the linderhof castle is situated in a valley. it took us 10 minutes to walk from the car park to the castle. we passed by a beautiful lake, and saw three swans and some duckies. they didn't seem to mind the cold at all, even with their bare feet. berrie was a bit surprised because she thought only penguins could withstand such cold. the road was very slippery, and a lady from kiwiland fell on her head. she had to have a couple to stitches but was back to the tour later. poor human.

the linderhof castle is small, but inside the castle it is extravagantly decorated using gold. it is too ornamental for my taste. it just doesn't feel like a place to live in. the most interesting design is the infinite horizon of the space created by two opposite mirrors in the living room. although the castle itself is small, all rooms have beautiful views of gardens (125 acres) and alps. unfortunately they are closed in the winter.

our next stop is oberammergau. we took a short walk around the town. it was very quite. we didn't even see a dog. dandan and her apprentices found a good spot and took pictures of themselves. an old man next door must haven't seen such tourists. and he was very friendly watching us.

after the short break, we continued our journey to the neuschwanstein castle. the castle was built on a hill, and the tour guide told us that it took about 40 minutes to walk from the car park up to the castle. somehow i thought we had to climb the swirled staircases, like in the cinderella movie. actually it was a smooth road. but some humans chose to take horse carriages. every two horses carry 12 humans. i don't think they like the job. when two horses passed us, we started to race with them. because we were light, soon we were ahead of them. but horses have more stamina. in the last 100 meters, they overtook us and won the race. they were happy to let us take a photo of them in victory.

there were many humans visiting the castle, even though it was not good weather. each ticket into the castle was give a specific time slot because it was a language specific guided tour lasted half an hour. we arrived early, and had to wait for one hour outside the castle. so we were taking pictures from every angle. dandan found a bridge opposite the castle across a large gorge. under the bridge was a waterfall. we saw two humans standing on the bridge. we were quite curious how they got there and whether the bridge led to a secret entrance to the castle.

the castle was very big comparing to the linderhof castle. we had to climb hundreds of steps to go to the top. most rooms have breath taking views of the surrounding alps. from one window, we could see an alpine lake and another castle (hohenschwangau) near the lake. the mist on the alps gave the whole place a fairy tale touch. the most grand room is a concert hall which was dedicated to wagner, and still used today.

the lake we saw from the window was surrounded by the mountains. we were there before climbing up. the water was even more clear than the water in swiss lakes, perhaps due to the cold. there were three duckies swimming in the lake. they were very round. we guess they are also distantly related to dandan. we had some bread, so we gave it to them. they seemed to like it very much, and played with dandan afterwards.

overall, the linderhof castle and the alpen lake are the highlights of the tour. the neuschwanstein castle is a bit over rated. it would be nice if we could visit the castle at night when there are fewer tourists.

munich christmas market

on our way back from the olympic park, we saw a poster of the christmas tram on the train. mama knows a bit deutsch, so she was able to check the venue and time of the tram. the tram ran from 3.30pm to 7pm at half an hour interval, and today (23 dec) was the last day.

a tourist guide told us the tram was more for locals, and it turned out to be a crowd packed event. when we arrived at the station at 3.30pm, we could only book the tickets for 4.30pm. the christmas tram was actually called "christkind" tram in deutsch, so it was just for us. there were also a lot of humans bringing their kids on the tram.

when the tram started to move, some humans around the station waved to us. this is the same tradition as with puffing billy in australia. berrie stood in front of the window, and she immediately attracted all the attention of humans. indeed, this was expected from a star penguin.

the christmas tram decor was very cozy. german christmas carols were soft and warm. the tram passed through main streets of munich, the 2nd to last stop was marienplatz where the christmas market was held. the market was a sea of lights and humans. we couldn't wait to go there.

a full circle took half an hour, and we went back to sendlinger tor, where we took a train back to marientplatz. we were there during the day, but the night market felt very different. the christmas atmosphere was overwhelming. all stalls were beautifully lighted. the air was filled with the aroma of sizzling sausages. a sausage of half a meter long costs 4 euros, which was very tempting to papa. there were many menus but all in deutsch, which was beyond mama's comprehension. but most humans were trying hamburg with sausages, and a special cheery smelled hot wine. a lot of shops were selling handicrafts. some were also selling fluffy friends. we felt sorry for them because it was the last night of the christmas market and they were still waiting for humans to take them home. but we were glad to see some were being rescued.

i have to say that the market was attractive because of its christmas feel. the items were not particularly unique, and food were actually not very healthy. the market was not very big, if comparing to those in taipei and seoul. but to locals perhaps this is the most important time of the year, and they just want to enjoy the atmosphere. it would definitely feel different if we were there hanging around with local friends.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

short days in london

we heard london heathrow airport was quite bad, so we prepared for the worst. but it was surprisingly ok, quite tidy and orderly. when we exchanged money, the lady introduced us the dot2dot service. it took us directly to the hotel in 20 minutes, and cost about the same as heathrow express that we planned to use. we will recommend this to all friends who will visit london.

it was a cloudy day when we arrived. we were told it just stopped raining in the morning. so we felt quite lucky. when we settled down, it was about 4pm. to our surprise, it became very dark. by 5pm, it already felt like 9pm in australia. but we had travelled for almost 24 hours and were quite exhausted, so we just had an early night.

the next day was still cloudy. when we walked out, i felt very cold, perhaps because of the humidity. so i stayed in the bag. acting bear didn't mind the weather at all. after all he is a polar bear. we went to the buckingham palace, but could only watch from the outside. i think the austrian emperors' schonbrunn palace is a much nicer place. but i like st jame's park very much. there are a lot of birdie friends, and squirrels too. a squirrel came to talk to us, but we didn't have more macadamia nuts left. next time, we will bring more.

we were expecting to see a lot of pigeon friends at the trafagal square. but surprisingly we didn't see any of them. there were four lions. it cannot be that the lions scared them away. acting bear tried to talk to one lion. but the lion stood too high and didn't hear him. hakuna matata!

the third day was a fine day. the sun came out, and immediately we felt our mood lifted. we went to the westminister pier to take a city cruise to the tower bridge. the guided tour was very informative and funny. for the first time i knew that big ben was not the clock, that what was wrong with the wibbly wobbly bridge was not the bridge, but the way london people walked, that the london bridge was going to be sold to aussies in another 50 years, and why the movie sales was referred to "box office".

tower hill was our final stop before we headed to paris. it was a very pleasant place (with the sunshine and blue sky). there was a fish and chips shop. until papa told us, i didn't know fish and chips was originated in uk. very nice indeed.

on our way back, we boarded on a train to wimbledon. i really wish i had time to go there, but we had to get off. next time. it's on my must-visit-list.

coming from a place where the sun rises at 5am and doesn't go home until 8pm, we felt short of time here. the effective time for use is only a few hours in the afternoon. maybe summer will be a better time to visit europe. but the london tube is so far the most efficient we've ever experienced. for two things, first, we never waited for more than one minute for a train; second, we don't need to look for different platforms for the same line but different directions. but what we don't like about the tube is its poor ventilation.

oh btw one thing that we couldn't figure out about the metro is the way people stand on escalators. in uk, people drive on the left, which is the same as in australia. cars/people overtake from the right lane. so in australia, we stand on the left of the escalator, but here the sign says "stand on the right". isn't there inconsistency?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

north stradbroke island trip

this was the last free weekend before we travel, so a group of us (from left to right except grey bear, pavarotti, berrie, pp, paris, me, and kermmie) went to north stradbroke island. we need to drive 45 minutes and take a ferry for another 45 minutes. there is a ferry next to us called big red cat. we didn't take that one because it sounded a bit scary.

the water surrounding the island is home to around 1000 bottlenose dolphins. they live within 1.5 km of the shore. berrie was very sharp to spot a group of about 15 dolphins. i never saw them in the wild, so was very thrilled. they seemed very happy. we followed them but they swam further away from the shore. as we looked towards their direction, we saw two whales. they must be feeding because there were a large group of seagulls near them. they looked like a mother and a baby. they must be late because most whales already passed this water and were close to antarctica at this time. i hope they never came across any japanese whaling ships.

it was 34 degrees, the hottest day in brisbane this summer. it was too much for berrie, so we didn't go to beach in case she got sun burnt. there is a very beautiful lake in the island, and we spent most of the time there. the lake is called brown lake because its water is brown color. but the water is very clear, perhaps because it has unusual sand bank. the sand on the beach is as white and fine as snow. kermmie found a lot of tadpoles in the water. but they were too small to understand they and kermmie were related.

we also saw a dog who was too scared to swim. her friend was a good swimmer, and tried to get her in the water, but all attempts were failed.

in a week, we will leave the summer behind and go to experience the true white christmas in europe. i hope my winter clothing is warm enough.

more pictures on