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Our European Tour

During May and June, 1997, Dianne and I travelled to the United Kingdom to visit our son, Mark, in Oxford. We later toured the UK and Europe in several stages. Some of the highlights are covered below:

We arrived in England on the last day of April, and were met by Mark at Heathrow. We all travelled to Oxford on the Oxford Tube, a bus service providing a connection direct to Oxford from Heathrow.

We spent several days in Oxford, and Mark showed us around and took us to a number of places of interest, both in Oxford and close by, including Blenheim Palace, Woodstock and Bladen.

We stayed at a B&B in Cowley, a suburb of Oxford, for the first week, and then we went on a bus tour of Britain. After that finished, we returned to Oxford and stayed in one of the guest rooms at St. John's College, where Mark had booked us in between the tour of Britain and our European tour.

One of the highlights of our stay in St. John's College was dining in Formal Hall, with the pomp and ceremony of gowned staff and students being served by liveried attendants.

We left Oxford after three days and headed to London.

On the eve of our European tour we stayed in a hotel in London - the "Four Seasons" in Gloucester Place - just off Marylebone Street (near the corner of Baker Street, where the fictional character Sherlock Holmes lived).

Mark stayed with us that night, and in the morning Dianne and I said goodbye to him and took a cab to Heathrow. The cab driver dropped us at the wrong terminal (which often happens according to the bus driver at the airport). That might not sound too bad if you don't know Heathrow, but our terminal was a 20 minute bus ride away at another of the four terminals at Heathrow. But we eventually caught our flight to Rome.

If you wish, you may scroll down the page and read about the tour in the order it happened, or you may choose some of the main countries visited from the menu below. After reading about that country, you can return to this menu or scroll through the document, as you choose.

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After organising a transfer from the Rome airport on a bus (Mark had told us that the Italian cab drivers were suicidal lunatics), we booked into our Italian hotel, the Hotel Villa Pamphili. We had an excellent meal at a special Italian ristorante that evening, near the main railway station, which included wine and live entertainment. Afterwards we saw the Trevi fountain and the Spanish Steps, but it had started raining and we got thoroughly soaked - not a good way to finish the night.

Next morning our sightseeing started with vistas of the beautiful Piazza Venezia and the Roman Forum; we visited the Colosseum and heard about gladiatorial combats and early Christian martyrdom; afterwards we proceeded via Circus Maximus and across the Tiber to Janiculum Hill where we saw a panoramic view of Rome, and finally visited the monumental St. Peter's Square and Basilica. We went to the Sistene Chapel, and couldn't believe the extent of the paintings on the walls and the ceiling of the Chapel - we had seen photos of the ceiling, but it was just so much more impressive in real life. Michelangelo's work is unbelievable!

That afternoon we left Rome and headed towards the Pope's summer palace, Castelli Gandolfo, in the hills south of Rome, where we had a wonderful meal in a little restaurant in Frascati - the home of Italian white wines. It was really a memorable evening, with live singing and music and a real insight into the rural Italian life style.

We passed through a kaleidoscope of Italian landscapes on the way through the fertile Italian plains. An interesting detour took us off the highway into the vine- and olive-clad Tuscan hills, home of the popular Chianti wines. When we got to Pisa we saw the famous leaning tower. It is so much more impressive in real life - I couldn't believe that it could remain upright at that angle! Dianne bought a leather handbag from a little market stall in Pisa.

After an early start, we drove to Florence, cradle of the Renaissance, and saw the magnificent Santa Maria del Fiore, Giotto's Bell Tower, the Baptistry's heavy bronze "Gate of Paradise". To top it off, we admired Michelangelo's celebrated David in the Gallery of Fine Arts. We also checked out the shops, with Florentine leather goods and gold jewelry everywhere. After a lunch break we headed north towards Venice.

We started the day early, and after catching the bus to the main port area, we travelled in style on a private boat which took us through ancient canals to meet our resident local guide.

On our walking tour we visited St. Mark's Square and the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark's Basilica, saw over the lavish Doge's Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs. There is nothing romantic about the Bridge of Sighs - it was a very dark, dreary covered bridge along which condemned prisoners were escorted from the court in the Doges palace to the primitive cells where they were to be imprisoned. We also watched Venetian glass blowers fashion delicate glasses and ornaments. Later we walked around Venice at our own pace, but found it dirty, noisy and crowded. We were glad to leave and return to the hotel.

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We travelled through the scenic Semmering Pass, through stately Styrian crossroad towns, Carinthian lakes and resorts, which provided an ever-changing Alpine backdrop to our journey through some of the loveliest parts of Austria as we headed towards Vienna. It is unusual travelling in the mountains in Europe - we didn't seem to be climbing, and we didn't take roads over and around the mountains - we went straight through them in huge long tunnels. We had lunch at a little town called Arlberg, near the end of a 14 kilometre long tunnel through the mountains - it was one of the loveliest spots we had seen.

We saw the lavish terraced gardens of Prince Eugene's Belvedere Palace, and then went for a drive along Ping Boulevard, past Emperor Franz Josef's Hofburg Palace and the State Opera. Next we saw the Prater amusement park with its giant Ferris wheel, featured in Orson Welles's classic film "The Third Man", and later saw where the ultra-modern United Nations City lies on the banks of the Danube River. We visited St. Stephen's Cathedral, and saw the midday parade of historical figures at the musical Anker Clock.

Just after lunch we were looking for one of the Mozart museums, where he used to live and where he wrote the famous opera "Figaro", and I found 150 schillings. There was nobody around at the time, so the money came in handy - it was used for lunch and to cover the cost of the Figaro Museum.

On the way back to the hotel we saw the golden statue of Johann Strauss in the memorial park.

That night we went to a famous restaurant near Grinzing - on the Marchfeld Plain - in the Heuriger wine district. There was live entertainment and the food and wine was excellent ... a memorable night.

We left Vienna early in the morning, and the bus drove through the "Sound of Music" lakeland of the Salzkammergit, by lovely Lake Wolfgang as we proceeded towards Salzburg. After a morning stroll through the historic center of Mozart's hometown, over a shaky footbridge to where we admired the exquisite Mirabell Gardens and the Baroque Horse Trough. We also saw the Great Festival Hall, St. Peter's Churchyard, and the monumental Domplatz, and after a short lunch break we visited Mozart's birthplace in the charming Getreidegasse.

After leaving Salzburg on our way to Switzerland we travelled to Innsbruck, Austria's Olympic resort in the Tyrolean mountains. We enjoyed a pleasant walk through its quaint medieval lanes to see the balcony where Emperor Maximilian's Golden Roof is situated. It was a religious holiday there, and we saw a parade of almost everybody in the city in their native costumes with bands and singing and chanting. Many of the town's shops were shut. This is not unusual on a religious holiday, apparently.

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After we left Innsbruck, we took a lunch break in Vaduz, capital of the quaint, pocket-sized principality of Liechtenstein, where we were able to get our passports stamped. This seldom happens today to the same extent that it did in the past, due to the breaking down of barriers by the European Economic Community. Liechtenstein is a very small place, but immensely rich with beautiful scenery. In the afternoon we took the scenic route through the mountains as we headed towards Lucerne.

I liked Switzerland. It was a clean country with friendly people and spectacular scenery - it really is just like the photographs and films you have seen, only more spectacular - pictures are no substitute for the real thing.

We arrived in Lucerne to find that there had been a mix-up with our hotel bookings. When that happens, the tour company is obliged to provide alternative accommodation "of equal or better standard". This meant that we were moved to the most expensive five star hotel in Lucerne - the Palace Hotel, shown here.

One of the things which we saw while sightseeing in Lucerne was Thorwaldsen's Lion Monument, a memorial to the Swiss guards who lost their lives during the French Revolution. They were employed as bodyguards by the French king, and were trying to protect him from the people as they swarmed the palace. The Swiss guards were literally torn apart by the French mob. Mark Twain once visited Lucerne and referred to the Lion Monument as "the most moving piece of rock in the world".

Another well known feature we saw was the famous covered wooden bridges which date back to the 12th century, and ornate patrician houses of the walled Old Town. Afterwards we browsed through shops looking at Swiss watches, cuckoo clocks and Swiss Army knives. I chose a knife from a huge range of about fifty on display. While some of our companions climbed a local mountain by cable car and took a cruise on the fiord-like lake, we had lunch and a folklore party at a local restaurant, with yodeling and alphorn blowing and folk dancing and other forms of alpine merrymaking.

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A scenic day! On the Swiss border, at Schaffhausen, we took pictures of the thundering Rhine Falls. We had a short break here, and it was possible to catch a boat and land on a small island near the falls, or to tour around almost underneath the falls themselves. It looked very spectacular from the boat, but it was impossible to take pictures from the boat due to the amount of spray generated by the falls.

Later during the morning we travelled through the lush valleys and pine-clad hills of the Black Forest, where we visited Triberg, renowned for its cuckoo clocks. At the place where we stopped, there was an actual working cuckoo clock the size of a small house, and on the hour dancing figures appeared, a chimney sweep popped out of the chimney, and animals capered about. Everybody on the tour bus just stopped and stared - it was a real cuckoo clock, not just a look alike as we had thought when we first saw it.

In mid-morning we boarded an excursion steamer and cruised on the romantic Rhine, past castle-crested cliffs, terraced vineyards, and trim, half-timbered towns. Later, during a lunchtime break in Cologne, we visited the awesome twin-spired Gothic cathedral, and had a pizza at a little kerbside stall. It was very busy and crowded, and we were glad to leave.

Quite late in the afternoon we arrived in Heidelberg, and were able to take in the sweeping views from the terrace of Heidelberg's red-walled castle. Inside the castle we saw the largest wine vat in the world - it was so large that it had a dance-floor and seats on top of it, and we climbed stairs to stand on it. I immediately thought of some of my colleagues back at Aberfoyle Park (Mal, John, Bob, ...). The views from Heidelberg Castle were spectacular, but it was very hectic and crowded, and we were glad to get back on the bus at the end of our stay there. We passed through the Dutch region best known as the locate of "A Bridge Too Far" on the way from Germany to Amsterdam.
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We arrived in the Netherlands and went straight to Amsterdam, where we watched the cutting and polishing of precious stones at a major diamond factory, and then enjoyed a leisurely Dutch-style sightseeing cruise aboard a glass-roofed launch, gliding through the city's maze of canals. After a lunch break in the heart of the city, we took an optional excursion in the afternoon to the small fishing village of Volendam - it was wonderful ... so quaint.

The houses in Volendam were all out of plumb and at odd angles. It is a much more relaxed pace and more enjoyable once you get out of the larger cities and into the rural areas.

After returning to Amsterdam later that night, we went to the famous red-light district of Amsterdam. It was unbelievable. One of the ladies of the night came up to us, recognising us as tourists, and asked where we were from. We told her that we were from Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, and she said "You probably know John Gregory then."

Next morning as we left Holland, heading for Belgium, we drove past the busy seaport of Rotterdam - the busiest in the world, apparently.
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Brussels is the proud capital of Belgium and the European Union. Our orientation drive passed by the Atomium, a futuristic structure built for the World's Fair (like the Eiffel Tower was in France when it hosted the same event years earlier). The tour ended in the Grand Place with its Baroque guild houses and Gothic Town Hall, and world-renowned Mannekin-Pis. When we saw the famous statue, it was only a fraction of the size that we expected it to be, and tucked away on a corner with tall buildings all around.

In Brussels, everything which looked gold was gold, our tour director told us - money was no object when they built these buildings. We had a lovely lunch of genuine Belgian waffles and cream in a little first floor restaurant near the Mannekin-Pis.

I would have liked to spend longer in Brussels.
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I'm afraid that we had a preconceived idea of what Paris would be like from listening to other travellers who had visited there years ago. However Dianne and I found it to be a large, well laid out, elegant city which gave us the feeling of space.

We stayed in a hotel on the Rue de Vaugirard, and from our window we could see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. Next day we visited the tower and took the lift to the first level, and then clambered around taking pictures of the tower and from the tower. Unfortunately it was a rather hazy day, and the views were not at their best. The French have placed stuffed effigies (which look like mountain climbers and maintenance workers) in various positions on and around the tower. It was an unexpected feature of the tower, which is a brown colour and much more impressive in real life than it is in photographs - something which we found all over the UK and Europe.

Twice a day, teams of French cleaners swarm all over the streets and footpaths, and flood the gutters and sweep the footpaths. Paris is now a very clean city - something which we were not expecting. We really liked Paris, and the French people we met there were polite and courteous, which we had not expected from reports we had heard.

Dianne and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Paris, and although it was fairly crowded, because it is a big city on such a grand scale, we didn't feel hassled or cramped as we did in Venice and some of the other places we visited.

After two days in France, we took a bus to Calais and boarded the HoverSpeed Ferry to Dover. It was reasonably rough that day, but the hovercraft went flat out and made the trip in just over thirty minutes, and we didn't even notice the waves once we were underway. The ferry was very like an airline flight in that duty free goods were available and many English people make the return trip to buy cigarettes and alcohol, which they can do on each leg of the trip, with a view to selling it on their return to cover the cost of the trip and still make a reasonable profit.

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After a couple of weeks on the continent, it was strange to hear English spoken as the main language and to see cars driving on the left of the road, but we were glad to be back in England.

We spent one night in a hotel in Hammersmith, near the flyover, and every minute another aircraft could be seen out of the hotel window ... literally lined up on their approach to Heathrow. The hotel windows were not able to be opened, and they had triple glazing to keep the noise out - very effective on that score, but very uncomfortable for Aussies not used to central heating.

Next morning we caught a cab to Hyde Park, near Speakers' Corner, from where the Oxford Tube bus service leaves every half hour, and we arrived back in Oxford after a comfortable ninety five minute trip in a modern touring coach.

Mark had arranged for us to stay in the guest room at St. John's College again, and that was only a matter of three or four hundred metres from the bus station. The college oozed wealth and tradition ... we have little idea of real history in Australia, with a relatively short time since the first settlement.

The guest room was on the first floor after passing through the doorway seen in the photograph and turning right. The stone stairs to the room have been worn down over hundreds of years by the thousands of people who had climbed them since St. Johns was first established in the 1400s.

Several years ago, an old scholar of St. John's College died, and in his will he left one million pounds (about equivalent to $Aus 2,300,000) to the college on the condition that it was used to stock and maintain the college's wine cellar.

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It was about a week later that the three of us set out from Oxford on our tour of Spain. This tour was not an organised tour through a travel agent - we arranged it ourselves, and booked flights, rail trips, transfers to hotels and bus tours ourselves, which meant that we could do things at our own pace. Spain was not covered to the same extent by the organised tour companies (like Globus and Cosmos).

We flew from Heathrow to Barcelona, where we were booked into a luxury hotel in the heart of the city. We were able to walk to most of the places we wanted to see from the hotel, but we caught the underground and occasional cabs when that was not practicable. The cost of cabs and public transport in Barcelona was extremely reasonable.

The architecture in Spain is quite different to what we saw in other countries in Europe. In Barcelona particularly it was quite avant-garde, with buildings designed by the famous architect, Antoni Gaudi - words cannot describe his works, which are scattered all around Barcelona. His Sagrada Familia church, which is still under construction some sixty years after his death, is breathtaking. There were several Gaudi buildings within only a few hundred metres of the hotel where we were staying.

Another of Gaudi's better known works is the PARC GUELL ...
Gaudi's ideas on urban planning and design were quite ahead of his time - his use of bright coloured mosaic tiles and flowing curves and lines imitating nature typify his works. It was not enough to be functional and robust, but everything that Gaudi designed and built had to be artistic and aesthetic. Traffic and pedestrians were separated, and no buildings were permitted to block another's view of the sea. Only 60 percent of the available land was built on, with the rest remaining as public parks and gardens.

We walked all over Barcelona, and near the coast we found a statue of Christopher Columbus, celebrating his departure from Barcelona on his historic voyage of discovery.

The statue points towards the New World and America, which he is credited with discovering during that famous trip in 1492.

Barcelona was a marvellous place, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it there. The Spanish have a zest for life and their climate is so similar to ours - I wondered what our Australian life-style would have been like if the Spanish had colonised Australia instead of the British. Their food and music and life style in general appealed to me.

We never felt uneasy or unsafe in Barcelona, although it was reputed to be somewhat dangerous before the Spanish authorities cleaned it up for the Olympic games.

Mark knew several Spanish students at Oxford, and they had told him what to see when we got to Madrid. Apparently one of the MUST SEE features of Madrid is the Crystal Palace in the main public gardens in the middle of the city. We went there, but the Spanish authorities must have heard that we were coming, because they had dismantled the Crystal Palace for repairs and sent all the panels away for cleaning and maintenance, so all we got to see was the framework behind the fence (see the photo below).
We had often joked about not being able to see the cathedrals and buildings in many countries because they were obscured by scaffolding while undergoing restoration, but the Crystal Palace was different - it seemed more like a scaffolding depot. We will just have to go back another day and see it at its best.

The weather in Spain was extremely hot and dry, and we were reminded of our Australian summer weather while we were there. The cost of transport in Madrid was considerably more than in Barcelona, and we didn't take cabs very often, preferring to use the underground and buses to get around. The traffic in Madrid was fairly hectic, and the noise continued day and night, keeping us awake some nights. The Spanish don't get going until about 9:00pm, when they dine and then party on until the late hours. That is fine if you manage to get a siesta during the day, which they did, but as visitors we didn't.

The three of us decided to take a bus to Toledo for a day trip. Toledo was formerly the capital of Spain, and is a very old fortified city showing the influence of the various people who conquered it over thousands of years.

We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Toledo - it proved to be one of the highlights of the time we spent in Spain. The streets and buildings were steeped in history - it was so different - so old and interesting. (In Australia we don't really have much idea of history, since the east coast was settled in 1788, and South Australia was only settled in1836)

Toledo is famous for its metal work - handmade damascene plates, brooches and ornaments inlaid with silver and gold, and the famous Toledo knives and swords. I bought a Spanish peasant farmer's knife to remind me of our trip to Toledo - it is made of excellent Spanish steel and maintains a razor sharp edge. I didn't think that the Australian Customs Service would let me bring a genuine Toledo sword back to Australia, or I would have bought one of those instead.

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