Author Archives: cheryljohn

Bruges

Bruges has always been a tourist town, and on a beautiful Saturday in late September it was a little overrun, but our guide managed to find two places I had not been to before, both of them oases of tranquility in what can be a busy place.  The first was an alms house, in off a lane near our hotel.  Gardens in the centre, small cottages around the outside and a peaceful atmosphere, these houses date to the sixteenth century and provided housing to those who needed it most.

 

The second place is the Beguinage. This is a separate community set up by women in the middles ages whose husbands had died, or whom were never married, but came from wealth.  They created a community of housing for women with a shared church, gardens and ensured that people who had less were taken care of.  This community still exists, and is closed from 6 pm to 6 am.  During the day you are able to visit and it is beautiful and peaceful.  The church is worth a look and the trees of the park are beautiful.  If you can time your visit to early spring, the park is a field of daffodils.

 

Bruges offers canal boat trips to see the sights of the city, and is a very walkable city.  Look out for the “old” bridge which is barely 50 years old,  and if you are looking for a snack, the chocolate shops will not disappoint,nor will the waffles – just look for the long lines outside to make sure you are getting the best freshly made waffles.

However you do it #visitbruges.

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In Flanders Fields

I spent a week as a guest of #visitflanders at the end of September visiting Brussels, Bruges, the Flanders fields area and finishing in Gent. Although I had visited the cities before ( a very long time ago) it was my first visit to the fields where so many very young Australia, New Zealand, British, Canadian, French, Belgian and German men gave their lives in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like for these young men in the trenches. We were very privileged to see an actual Australian trench that has been rediscovered as a result of an archaeological dig to find the crypt of the Zonnebeke church. It is only open for a few months and will be resealed in November. The neighbouring museum of Passchendaele (#passchendaele100) has a recreation of the trenches, but the real thing is different.

Cold, dank, slightly smelly, the corridors are streaked with blue clay and orange and yellow lines of the minerals the trenches were cut through. It is a bleak place. We were there in September on a lovely day – in the trenches in December mid winter would have been a freezing hell.

There are 600 cemeteries in Flanders Fields. Some are huge – Tyne Cot has almost 12,000 marked graves and thousands more names inscribed on a memorial wall. Far too many are inscribed “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.” Some are tiny – a few gravestones at the back of someone’s farm. Some you can see from the road, some you have to search out, as we did visiting Toronto Avenue (named by the Canadians but the only cemetery which is entirely Australian.) You walk through beautiful woods to the end and the cemetery is there, peaceful and beautiful.

We participated in the Menin Gate ceremony,and then were very privileged to attend the 100th commemoration of the Battle of Polygon Wood (#passchendaele100). Even the 1 am start for a 2 am drive to Polygon Wood did not dampen the sense of occasion. The walk through the wood along the path of remembrance took us on a journey telling us about the battle. We saw the short distance between enemy lines; people re-enacted soldiers bringing the wounded back to the dressing station and cooks in the mess tent. We saw Scott’s bunker, taken during the battle and then joined the service. There was music from the army band and a Queensland children’s choir, a viewing of a short film called The Telegram Man which was very moving, and readings from current servicemen about the men who preceded them so long ago, and how the VC winners won their medals. Everyone had their spine chill moment. For me it was the Spirit of Place when an Aboriginal man played the didgeridoo in the darkness, filling the space with a deep thrum from ancient times half way round the world, to bring those men home.

Belgium 448

I do not have a direct family connection to the fields of Flanders to my knowledge, but it does not matter. Anyone and everyone will respond to something about the fields of Flanders. It might be the sheer beauty of the gentle countryside as time has healed many of the wounds inflicted by war. It might be the sense of sacrifice seen in the myriad rows of headstones. It might be the Last Post at Menin Gate, held every night at 8 pm whether there are people there or not. This place is worth your time and your reflection. It might be the place to be on November 11th  2018 when the centenary of the Armistice will take place. Book now.

 

M is for Mauritius

 

For many people Mauritius is one of those destinations you may have heard about but really don’t know very much if anything about, let alone where it is.  So lets start with a few basic facts.

Situated in the Indian Ocean west and south of the Maldives, the next landfall west is Madagascar and then Africa.  The island has a temperate climate and is quite small.  With an exotic blend of African culture, French colonial influence, a visit from the British and quite a marked Indian influence, Mauritius has a richness of culture and food that will entice and enchant.

Whilst the indigenous fauna was delicious and consequently is now extinct, you can still see a taxiderm-ied dodo bird, and there are lots of souvenir options in the markets in Port Isaac the capital.  The island is all about coastline, water sports, relaxation and great food.  The French influence is particularly strong in the food offered in the very many resorts around the island – and the sauces are to die for.

For those with a sense of history, Matthew Flinders was imprisoned on Mauritius on his way back from charting the coastline of South Australia and Victoria where he ran into Nicholas Baudin the French explorer doing similar things.  And Mauritius is home to the second oldest botanical gardens in the world, and is well worth a wander. (You will have to go to Padua to see the world’s oldest botanical garden.)

The African influence can be seen in many resorts with thatched roofs and boma style meeting areas.

A tip – the island is influenced greatly by the prevailing winds at various times of the year, so be sure to check where the best side of the island is for the time you are visiting – and enjoy the spectacular sunsets on the western side.

Walk and dodo 004

Travel update

There have been a few developments at home while I have been focussing on destinations , so here is a brief summary of the good and the bad.

Bad news – but not very!  The Departure tax for Australia has been raised by $5 to $60.  As this is part of the taxes you pay on your airfare or cruise fare, you probably won’t even notice it – at least I think that’s what the Government is hoping for!

Good news – the reciprocity fee of USD100 for entry into Argentina has been cancelled, so that is a saving for anyone travelling to South America and visiting Argentina.

More good news – As of 01 July Australian travellers no longer have to fill in the green Outgoing Passenger cards.  That’s one less thing to do, and faster times through immigration.  But just ensure all passport details are entered into every international booking to ensure all goes smoothly.    No news yet on the incoming cards.

OPC 001

L is for Lichtenstein and Luxembourg

 

It’s a two for one today.  Lichtenstein and Luxembourg are two of what are known as the microstates of Europe, tiny principalities, duchies or city states that are quirky and fascinating to explore.

Lichtenstein, all of twenty five kilometres long, is a principality between Austria and Switzerland.  The capital and only main town is Vaduz where the Prince still lives in the castle – and no, you can’t stay there.  It would be like asking if you could stay in Buckingham Palace!  German speaking, lots of medieval castles and villages linked by walking trails, it is a delightful place to spend a little time getting to know.

Schlossvaduz. Lichtenstein

And like all countries it has its own postal system, so philatelists will love the chance to get their stamps.

Luxembourg is the Lux in the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.  A Grand Duchy, Luxembourg is 998 square miles and has a population of just over half a million.  Bordered by France, Germany and Belgium, and a stone’s throw from Trier, the city perches over two steep gorges and is famous for its Casemates du Bock, tunnels and caves now galleries, worked deep into the cliffs, and a lovely medieval town centre.  The Moselle river winds through the duchy and the Chemin du Corniche is a walk with beautiful views to enjoy.

Luxembourg

French is used for legislation, German and the local Luxembourgish are the most widely spoken languages. The French influence is in the fabulous patisseries to be found on almost every corner.

Get your stamps here too.

Along with Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta and Andorra these little gems are well worth the time.

 

K is for Kenya

If Africa is on your bucket list, Kenya may well be at the heart of it, and for good reason.

The annual migration between Kenya and Tanzania and back again sees literally millions of animals and birds follow the rains to fresh water.  It is a sight few will forget.

The main point of entry to Kenya is the capital Nairobi.  You can stay at the Giraffe Hotel and have these lanky giants pop their heads in the windows to join you for breakfast. The very long almost prehensile blue tongues will make short work of anything left nearby.

Giraffe Hotel Nairobi

Most travellers will head out quickly from Nairobi to explore the  Serengeti plain, and experience life as it has been lived for thousands of years.   The grass eaters – antelope, impala, wildebeest and zebra, to name just a few graze the plain and gather in the Ngorongoro Crater, and with them the predators.  Lion, cheetah and leopard  lie in wait and help cull the weak and old of the vast herds, strengthening the rest for the survival of the fittest.  And behind then come the scavengers, cleaning up the plains.

Ngorongoro crater

On the lakes enormous flocks of flamingos turns the blue to pink.

Flamingos Lake Nakuru

The Masai Mara have lived traditional lives on the plains of Kenya for thousands of years. Wealth is measured in cows, but water is the most precious gift of all.  Experiencing the red clad warriors performing their high jumping dances will remain with you.

Masai Mara

The migration follows the rains, but most likely viewing is between July and September.

Known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the wildebeest migration in Kenya and Tanzania will leave you awestruck, and amazed.

J is for Japan

Japan is a blend of eastern wisdom, culture, effortlessly enhanced natural beauty and style with technologies that lead the world and affect every aspect of modern life.  And it is in this blend that Japan fascinates and beguiles the traveller.

Temple Japan

Big cities can overwhelm the first time traveller.  Expect to get turned around in the Tokyo subway system and don’t be afraid to ask which way is where.  It is all a part of getting to know the city.  Be sure to take a hotel card with you – if all else fails grab a taxi and you will get back to your home base.  Tokyo offers imperial palaces, beautiful gardens and park areas as well as some of the craziest shopping you will experience in the Ginza.  It is possible to live for a week or more just from the vending machines, which will provide everything from pyjamas and toothbrushes and toothpaste to clean underwear and food, and drinks as well as just about anything else you might need.

Ginza

If big cities are not for you, the bullet trains will get you out of the city quickly, and you can explore the countryside and smaller towns which retain a deal of the old Japanese traditional life.  View Mt Fuji from the bullet train, explore the Hakone region, and maybe head south to explore more of the history of this country.

Kyoto was the capital before Tokyo and is home to beautiful wooden castles and graceful Shinto temples.  If you can manage your visit in spring the cherry blossoms are spectacular.

Kyoto also offers some very good ryokans – the traditional Japanese inns.  Not cheap, one night will give you a taste of this other worldly experience.  You receive a traditional Japanese dinner, sleeping accommodations on rooms defined by how many tatami mats it holds, access to the baths where you clean first and then enter the bath, and breakfast in the morning.  You may even get the traditional tea ceremony.

Tea ceremony

The cities of Nara, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are frequently visited as well, for heritage and for the latter two the World War 2 atomic bomb connections.  Osaka, a large and busy city is another gateway to southern Japan.

The trains will get you around safely and efficiently.  For travellers there are two kinds of train passes – the ordinary, which is really all you will need, and the green which is primarily aimed at tourists.  Railpasses come in a range of regions, from all Japan to the western and eastern  Honshu pass for the main island, and passes for each of the main four islands.

There is so much more to Japan than this – skiers will be well catered for in Hokkaido and also in the central mountains of Honshu.  Go find the baboons that keep themselves warm sitting in the hot springs as it snows, taste the noodle soups in the tiny restaurants all over the places – it is all there.

Oh, and practise your bows.