Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Poland - Krakow and environs

We have been living next door to a Polish family for over 20 years. Yet up to recently, we never considered taking a trip to Poland. But finally it happened - and we don't regret it.

It's only a short flight (1,5 hours) from Brussels to Krakow. We had a hotel out of the city center, but taking a taxi in Poland is not a problem. The countries once behind the Iron Curtain are still relatively cheap to us western Europeans. The taxi ride only cost about 25 €.

Just like Budapest, Krakau is quite an interesting place to visit. For starters, it's an old town, going back to the Middle Ages. And it's surrounded by places that you'll want to see. The most important one of those are the German death camps for Jews, Auschwitz and Birkenau. These are their German names, I can't pronounce the Polish ones. We did a guided tour there, and it was quite impressive. And the smell... Even after so many years, you could still smell the fear of those who were kept there.

Another place of iinterst is the salt mine of Wieliczka. This I know in Polish: kopalina soli. 380 steps take you down in the mine. There are several levels, and the deepest one is around 300 meters of depth. You can see (and taste) the salt crystals all around. I particularly liked the figurines the miners made in salt. They even carved out chapels. Pope John Paul II visited this mine (he was Polish, of course) and one of the chapels is named in his glory.

The Old Town of Krakow is worth seeing as well. Lots of old buildings and a cosy atmosphere. Churches and chapels galore, but also shops, cafés and restaurants. In all of these, you never pay too much. We dined a couple of times (and very well) for less than 50 € for two persons. Another place not to miss is Wawel Castle and its cathedral.

Also, I must say Polish people are very polite and friendly. When we rode on the tram, some young guys immediately gave up their seats for us. You don't see that happening in Belgium anymore! And in shops, pubs and restaurants we were always greeted warmly.

Our neighbor was right in saying Krakow was a good place to visit.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Slovenia - Lipica, home of the Lipizzaner horses

In 1983 (yes, I'm getting old!) Chris, I and four friends who were equally fond of horseriding, took a trip to Slovenia. In those days you didn't have Ryan Air, or any other price fighter, so the best option was to take a train. We started out from Brussels and boarded the night train to Milan. From there we had a connection to Trieste, which is not that far from the then Yugoslavian border (now it's Slovenia). We could reach Lipica by hired car.

Lipica is a stud farm, famous for its Lipizzaner breed. Originally, the horses from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna were bred here (1580-1915), before moving to Austria. But the Lipica farm still breeds the famous white horses which are so great for dressage. By the way, a Lipizzaner is born with a grey or black skin, which slowly turns white as the horse grows older.

We had an arrangement, which included taking riding lessons twice a day (two times 2 hours). You could switch one riding lessons for an outdoor trip (on horseback). We also had a day free of lessons, so we could explore the region. This part of Slovenia is quite nice, and if you have the time, there is enough to explore. We once took a day trip to Koper (a village near the sea) and also went to see some grotto of which I've quite forgotten the name...

But as I mentioned, most of our time there was spent riding. It's a dream to ride a Lipizzaner. It feels like sitting in your sofa and just relax. Those horses are so well-behaved they don't set a foot wrong even if you are just a beginner. Luckily for us, we had been taking lessons for years before, so we could join the advanded riders and even got to do some dressage.

After the riding lessons, you could also watch a demonstration of high dressage, just like in Vienna (and you didn't have to pay extra for it!). We just had a great time there.

When I had that young age, I often wished I could have my own Lipizzaner!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kenya - National parks and Mombasa

A long, long time ago, Chris and I made a trip to Kenya (1981). In those times, it wasn't usual to arrange the trip yourselves, so we had someone to arrange it for us. We flew to Nairobi via Rome (where a handsome customs officers tried to persuade us to stay in Rome for a couple of days... so he could show us the city). In Nairobi we were met by our guide and chauffeur, Daniel. A very nice guy, who was quite knowledgable.

Daniel drove us to the Amboselli Serena Lodge, where we could leave our luggage and start on our first ride through the reserve. It was quite something (remember, I was in my early twenties and my sister wasn't even 20) to see all those wild animals: elephants, zebra, antilopes, lions, .... The lodge stand in the middle of the national park, at the foot of the famous Kilimanjaro mountain. When we woke up the first morning, we could see the snow covered top of the mountain clearly.

Two days later, we left the Amboseli park and drove via Namangua to the Nairobi national park. We had a picknick in the middle of the savanna, not far away from a den of (sleeping) lions. I never felt afraid! After lunch we drove on to the Masai Lodge, in a mountaneous area, where you could use the blankets at night. We spent the night there and our trip the next afternoon, after spending some more time in the park. Daniel made a stop at Mayers Ranch, They have a Masai Manyatta (a place where young Masai warriors are trained). We watched some tribal dances and got a lot of attention from some young Masai, who wanted to buy our shoes! I remember it were linen shoes, white in color, and very comfortable.

Late afternoon we drove on to Lake Naivasha, where we'd spend the night in the Safariland Lodge. The next morning we made a boat trip over the lake to the bird sanctuary. After lunch, we set off to Masai Mara. It was rather a long ride, and we got into bad weather.  A heavy thunderstorm, which caused our jeep to nearly capsize. Luckily, with our help, Daniel could push it back on track.

In the Masai Mara national park, we stayed at the Fig Tree Camp near the Talek river. I had quite an adventure there. We had dinner there (quite tasty) but the next morning I was sick as a dog. I kept vomiting and accordingly to my sister I stank hours in the wind. The camp manager came to see me and said she'd call the Flying Doctors when my condition would not improve by noon. She gave me some parts of water mellon and told me to try and eat them. At first, they left my stomach as soon as they were in, but after a while my stomach seemed to calm down and I could eat more watermellon. The best thing? The next day we drove back to Nairobi and there I had a lunch of fries and steak! My sisters still cannnot believe it.

We took a flight from Nairobi to Mombasa, where we would stay another week at the Nyali Beach Hotel. Lovely! The sun shone hot there (which was a nice change from the rather cool temperatures on the savanna) and we had a great room. We also met a bunch of nice and interesting people. I remember two brothers from the Alsace region in France (they spoke a mix of French and German), the CEO of an oil refinery in Cyprus, the Dutch representative of Shell (there was an oil conference being held at the hotel during our stay), one or orther sheikh (who wanted to enlist us in his harem), and someone who must have been related to Richard Branson.

Of course, we also made excursions to the town of Mombasa, where we visited the old fort and loved to go shopping for small mementoes.

Those weeks spent in Kenya were really nice and will remain a great source of memories.

Monday, May 8, 2017

UK - The attraction of London

I don't know what it is about London, but it's a city I like to visit as often as I can. There are many things to see (major attractions, like The Tower, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, etc., etc.) There is also always something going on - a street festival, a fair, an exibition, a show, a film premiere, ...

If I had enough money, I'd probably buy a flat somewhere at the South Bank (love that neigborhood). Hard to believe Southwark once was the place where whores, sailors and noisy pubs were to be found. A part of the city some would not go to. Nowadays, there are building sites galore and every time you walk there you see somethig new. Great hotels, cosy restaurants, musea.

This time, we were there only for the weekend. We had purchased tickets for Carousel at the London Coliseum and we could switch in Hhonor points to have a room for free at the Hilton Bankside hotel. The hotel was - as always - more than alright and the show was great. An orchestra of 40 musicians, Alfie Boe, Katherine Jenkins and Nicholas Lyndhurst. Unfortunately, the weather was not as great, as you can derive from the picture. So cold, while you should be able to wear only a light jacket and a t-shirt.

At the stage door -, Nicholas Lyndhurst handing out autographs, as were Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe. And who came to congratulate? Nobody less than Michael Ball.

Btw, we also have tickets for the next musical at the ENO - Bat of of Hell. I always loved the music and played the album more than once.

An advantage for us Belgians also is we can get to London quicker than to other towns in our country. When we go to the coast by train, it takes nearly as long as the ride to London by Eurostar.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

UK - The Channel Islands

When I was a kid, I hardly knew there were several islands surrounding Great-Britain. I knew about London and Edinburgh, but that was about all.

Growing up and because our parents took us kids always along on their trips, we learned more about the world around us.

In 2004 we took our first trip to Jersey, the biggest of the Channel Islands. I remember this very clearly, because it was the first trip after a very difficult time for us and just leaving the plane and seeing the blue sky and sniffing the pugent ocean air made us feel better already.

Although Jersey is not so big, it is large enough to spend a week making trips and being active. We rented bikes and explored. We rode from one point to another (even through pouring rain at a time) and got to see most the island can offer.

All around, the coastline is different. You have sandy beaches near St. Aubin and lava rock at another side. There also are cliffs in the north. The language is English, but the local speak a sort of dialect that is a mix between English and French. This is because the islands once belonged to France, and another time to England.

In July 2014 we returned to Jersey. The first time we stayed in a hotel in St. Aubin, then we stayed in the capital city St. Helier.

The island is quite interesting, as there is enough to see and do. We visited Elizabeth Castle, which goes back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. It was mainly used to house a garrison and was quite active during the Napoleontic wars. Next we went to see prehistoric findings at La Hogue Bie, where there is also a dolmen with a burial chamber that can be visited. From there it is only a short busdrive to Gorey, where Mont Orgueil Castle can be found. This is a medieval keep, and some English kings spent time there.

We also went to see the war tunnels in St. Aubin and the local museum, and later on Samarès Manor.

I've downloaded the pictures from the camera and I can post some of them, to give you an idea of how the islands looks like.

This is a view from Elizathe Castle, one of the defences of the island. This castle was built in the 16th century and was named after Queen Elizabeth I. It served mainly as a military stronghold. In the barracks you can see how an 18th century surgeon treats the wounded, or how the sergeant fires the guns.

These are the Jersey War Tunnels. They were dug out by the Germans (well, in fact by the POW's they brought there) and they served as military hospital in the first place. These tunnels run for more than a kilometer underground and you could sleep there, send messages, put up your gear (there is even a sailing sloop docked), be treated as a patient, ....

Here I am in St. Aubin. Behind me is the picturesque marina, one of the many on the island. What is strange, is that these yachts and fishing vessels lay on the sand when the tide is low.

And this is Samarès Manor. It has always been inhabited by a noble family, and you can visit the house and its gardens. These gardens are very lovely, so a visit there is really worth the entrance money. The present owner has a nice collection of old carriages which he restorates himself.