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Martin & Sue

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Europe 2011

 

Cruising in tropical waters in Thailand and Malaysia is all very well – but every now and then a sailor needs a dose of terra-firma.  Luckily, just as we started researching land travel options, Air Asia advertised specials to Europe that even humble yachties could afford.


England

 

  So it was that in early September we found ourselves lost in inner London and contemplating our arrogance in thinking that after navigating thousands of miles of ocean surely we could find our way from Stansted to Kent without the benefit of a Sat. Nav (after all, at 10 pounds a day extra it doubled the cost of our VW Polo rental car)! And, had we been too long at sea we wondered as we negotiated the motorway – watching with trepidation as another truck overtook us at dangerously high speed as if we were standing still – despite the fact that we were sitting on the 70mph speed limit!
     
We eventually found our way to Uncle John’s house where we enjoyed a whirlwind 3 day visit, for we would be coming back to stay with Unk for a week after our touring. During this time Unk tried in vain to convert Martin to “flat, warm ” English Real Ale!  
     
 

We then headed north to Yorkshire and Halifax to visit an old friend from teaching days.

Seeing Ross emerge from his original bluestone terrace with a glass of red wine in hand, we knew not a lot had changed in the intervening 25 years since Maryvale teaching days!

He and his wife Chris made us thoroughly welcome and in between plying us with good food and wine, treated us to a grand tour of the area where we were won over by the quaint villages nestled amidst the bleak, windswept moors of Yorkshire.

     
Below: After a serious night of catching up, we all needed to take in the fresh air to clear our heads and make room for lunch! - and yes the weather was a bit chilly
   

 
     

 
Above: We were amazed at the bleakness - yet beauty of the Yorkshire Moors
 
Above: 'Down at Mill' - Yorkshire, like most other parts of England, has very strict building regulations that helps to preserve the historic architecture of their villages
     
 
Above: After a great morning touring we just had to stop at a pub for a great feed of Lamb Shanks
 
Above: rain coming during a walk around the neighbourhood
     
We would have loved to stay longer with Ross and Chris. It was great to catch up after so many years - and to stay in their lovely 3 storey original mill house. But unfortunately time was pressing so we headed off towards the North and into grey skies and rain. We chose to follow the B roads in an effort to see more of the countryside but it was slow going for every few miles we passed through another village - plus the roads were quite narrow and tend to wind around original farmland.
 
Of course, to Aussies, everything in Europe seems old and we had to start rationing which ancient ruins we visited otherwise we would never get to Scotland. At Whitby, the stamping ground of our own Captain Cook, we came across the ruins of this amazing abbey (see Right). The only down side was that, being perched on top of a hill, the gale force winds almost blew off the door when we attempted to exit the car (courtesy of a hurricane over the US).  
 

Just shy of the Scottish border we came across the amazing Lindesfarne castle – built atop a small rocky outcrop and accessible only at low tide via a causeway – its 600 year old history reinforced the insignificance of our own tiny imprint in time. 

 
 
Above: Lindesfarne Castle - a feat of engineering
 
Above: It was sunny but very windy as we walked around Lindesfarne Castle and Abbey
 

Scotland

 

During a prior visit to Scotland (30 years previously) the horizontal sleet had made sightseeing impossible (and that was in mid-summer!) – so this time we were hoping for better weather as we headed north towards the Scottish Highlands. Things were not looking promising as our small car was buffeted about in the strong winds and, thinking we were still on the boat, we found ourselves flinching every time a wayward plastic bag blew across the road in front of us in case it became caught around our prop!

     
For our tour of Scotland, we planned to stay in bed and breakfasts but given that it was late in the season we had not pre-booked any accommodation. This proved to be no issue as every second house in Scotland seemed to have a vacancy board out the front and nearly all were of exceptional quality, being tastefully restored original cottages. At around 60 pound a night they were good value – especially considering that the size of the fully cooked breakfasts meant we could skip lunch. We did, however, have to draw the line at eating the haggis and black pudding! 
     
 
Above: One of the Bed & Breakfast's we stayed in Scotland
 
Above: Black Pudding and Haggis for Breakfast?
 

The weather continued to be kind to us as we wound our way up through the ruggedly picturesque highlands and across to the Isle of Skye. The island was a lot larger than we expected and we drove around for several hours taking in the spectacular scenery before finding a B & B with views across the mountains.

 
 
Above and Right: The Isle of Skye is well worth a visit
 

 

 
 
Above and Right: Restored Crofter's Cottages. Crofters were the Scottish equivalent of a tenant farmer
   
 
 
Above and Right: The Isle of Skye, like the rest of Scotland, has a lot of Lochs!
 

It was here that we visited .... castle and read original letters written by the clan chief to his crofters, starving after a second crop failure, recommending they catch a boat to Australia. This was during the great potato famine and passage was being offered for free as long as the entire extend family agreed to immigrate – and that they promised to send back the cost of their passage (once they had become established in the new country) so that additional free passages could be provided to other poor souls. 

     
 
Above: Dunvegan Castle is still the hands of the Clan McDonald Family after several centuries
 
Above: the same castle from across the water
     

As we ventured further north we gained a new appreciation for the hardiness of the ancient occupants of the highlands for the rugged, mountainous terrain would have made for a very remote and lonely existence – especially during the harsh winters. This impression was reinforced when the weather closed in for a day and the isolated cottages, viewed through a filter of sleeting rain, looked even more uninviting.

     
 
     
 
Above: The Highland Cattle are well equiped to cope with the cold - and so are the sheep...
     


 

 

 
Above: This restored castle was still home to the descendents of one of the original Scottish Clan Chiefs.
 
Above: In contrast, this castle was rather neglected but in the days of clan warfare it had position, position, position!
 
 
Above: Scotland has a lot of Wind Farms - and there is certainly enough wind for them!
 
Above: Approaching the Orkney Islands after the 30 minute ferry crossing
 

The Orkney Islands , on the very top, northeast corner of Scotland, are a place we have always wanted to visit. However, given the distances in Scotland, we had not expected to have the time to visit them during this trip. So we were very pleased when the sunny weather and the good roads made it possible for us to cover the necessary miles and actually make it to the Orkneys.

     
 

We chose to join a guided tour for our trip around the Orkneys and we were very pleased that we had, for the islands are steeped in history dating back to Neolithic times and it only with a guide that you can really appreciate the significance of the sites.

We visited several standing stones - the mystifying man made rock circles that historians have still not been able to fully explain. Unbelievably these irreplaceable relics were used for driving practice by the armed forces during WW2! In fact, the Orkneys have played a very significant role during wartime, mainly because of their strategic position in the North Sea. Today, you are able to drive between the islands courtesy of a causeway constructed during the war to prevent enemy craft sneaking in from the East to sink allied shipping.

Unfortunately one submarine did make it through and succeeded in torpedoing a troop carrier which tragically resulted in the loss of a great many lives.

 

Above: The standing stones - .....
   
     

However, without a doubt, the stand out winner in the neolithic sites contest was the amazing Scara Brae.

This stone village, dating back to neolithic times, was uncovered by accident during a massive wind storm at the end of the nineteen century. Subsequent excavations uncovered an amazing collection of earth covered stone houses incredibly well preserved. Everything was made from stone due to lack of trees in the area, even the furniture inside these ancient dwellings was reminiscent of an episode of the flintstones. In particular, the stone dressers used to store cooking implements and nick nacks were amazing.

   

 

 
Above and Right:: Internal shots of the stone-age dwellings showing cleary the 'flintstone' dressers, the bed compartments on the side of the central hearth which would have been filled with heather.
   
     
 
Above: this is not a joke! it really is a four horned goat, only found in the Orkneys!
   
     

Many of our friends in Australia have a soft spot for the Scottish Highlands - and we can now understand where they are coming from. The scenery is so majestic yet at the same time can be overwhelmingly bleak, especially if the weather is overcast. It is certainly a place we will gravitate back to in the future if we ever get the chance, for there was still a lot left unexplored.

     
 
Above: The North sea on a reasonably calm day
 
Above: Unusual mix of occupations!
     
 
Above and Right: We did find some time to visit a few Scottish towns as well and we were won over by the architecture and impressed at how well preserved the old houses were
   
     

Too soon it was time to head south and drop the hire car off ready to catch the ‘chunnel’ train to France.

Bizzarely, we had to return our hire car to Stansted airport for to leave it in London would have cost us an extra $200 for the privilege of dropping off at a different location. However, this did not really cause us any inconvenience as the bus from Stansted to the station where the Eurostar departed from was only a 45 minutes ride and cost us 6 pound - with the added bonus of allowing us to see some of London during the trip.

 
 

France

 

Another Country, another car, another navigation nightmare!!!

 
We arrived in Lille just in time for peak hour. Added to the stress was the continual self-reminder to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road ! Somehow our marriage survived intact and we eventually found our way out onto the correct toll road, bound for Normandy (after a few false starts and one way roads !!!)
 

Late September is certainly a good time to travel in France as all the Gites (French B & B’s) are heavily discounted. We were a little late arriving at our first Gite – a 16th century house in a small Normandy village – but the larger-than-life owner Jean-Marie (who we had wrongly assumed was a female during email correspondence) heartily greeted us with a bottle of local alcoholic cider (a drop that we were soon to become addicted to!)

 
 

 

Above: two very different examples of French farm houses - the one on the left being much the older and in a state of disrepair
   
 
The next morning over a breakfast of crusty baguettes and endless cups of coffee Jean-Marie gave us a rundown of the best places to explore. After a visit to the village to stock up on cider and cheese for our picnic, we headed for the coast to explore not only the coastline but also some of the very moving war graves from both of the World Wars.
     
 
Above and below:The English Channel - the way we want it to look if we ever venture across it!
 
Above:The first of many French Chateaus we were to stumble across
 
 
   
Above: Some of the smaller War Grave sites
 

After 2 days exploring historic Normandy (well worth a longer stay) we moved on to Brittany where we had booked 2 cottages - each situated at different ends of the region (we had booked these on a website called OwnersDirect which rents out holiday cottages owned by British people).

     
Below: Mont St Michel
  As we crossed the border from from Normandy into Brittany we sighted the amazing Mont St Michel's perched on a rocky outcrop across a causeway. The Mont is reminiscent of Lindesfarme (described above), but several times larger and a hundred times more touristy and pricey. We also had to be particularly careful how long we left the car as the tides are huge in this area and the carpark flooded from mid-tide. We certainly did not want to be caught out for we had been told that the tide rushes in faster than a fast horse can gallop!
     
Below:The mud flats surrounding the Mont - all underwater at high tide
 
Below: A nearby bay with the bilge keeled boats dried out at low tide
 
 
Like England and Scotland, France has done an excellent job in preserving their architectural heritage and every few kilometres we came across a quaint village where little had changed for the past hundred years. The narrow roads wind slowly around the stone houses and busy shops with barely enough room for 2 cars to pass (was that a car mirror we just clipped!) and the rather large speed humps and 30 km hr speed limit were certainly necessary if the local inhabitants were to avoid becoming road statistics.
     
Below: Typical road through the village with very little room to pass other cars
 
Below: Both the church and the stone house border the road making it a very narrow passage for cars
 

 


 

Oh, and to complicate matters, we were not initially aware of the 'give way to the right' rule or the fact that French drivers, being very pedantic over standing up for their entitlements, defend their right of way fiercely and regardless of danger. The problem for the non-French tourist is that is is difficult to know what is a priority road. Seemingly major roads will have a series of cross roads with give way signs followed by a tiny lane without a sign in which the cars coming out had right of way. Following a few horn tooting incidents and performances of French hand waving we learnt to slow down for each and every cross road or lane just in case!

 

Above: Most houses are adorned by flowers making the villages even more picturesque
   
     
We were blown away by the magnificence and age of the cathedrals/churches that nearly every village contained - many were from the 12th and 13th century. In most cases there were no people inside or around these architectural masterpieces and we spent many enjoyable hours reading tombstones and inscriptions and wandering down flagstone aisles that must have seen some interesting history over the years. The nice thing was that there was no charge to visit the churches (in fact, in most cases there was no one to be seen) - unlike St Paul's Cathedral in London which charges $50 for a visit (for 2) and this only gives access to the main chamber and not the underground crypts.  
   
Above: Typically the huge churches often bordered the central village square
     
 
Above and Right: many of the village churches had impressive interiors including magnificent stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings..
   
     

 
Above: an architecturally significant arched wall surrounding the church yard
 
Above: three 15th Century graves outside the weathered wall of an equally old church
     
As well as rambling through the smaller villages we visited some very well preserved medieval towns and spent many hours walking through the small cobbled lanes and partaking of the good coffee at sidewalk cafes.  
     
 
Above: Note the upper story hanging out further than the lower ! "Watch out below "
   
 

 

   
Above and Right: views of Dinan, Brittany
   
 

We also made time to check out the canals that often meander their way through villages and towns. The system of canals throughout Europe is very comprehensive and one of our major aims whilst in France was to check out the style of canal barge we may like to buy in the future

 
     

 


 
 
 

 
 
 
Above and Right: Different views of the canals and a couple of barges we spotted. The one on the left is more our style as the right hand barge is a 30 metre iron barge built at the turn of the century. It was owned by an Aussie couple who supplemented their income by taking on Amerian Tourists.
   

 

 

Luckily for us, during our entire say in France we experienced an ‘indian summer’ of fine, warm days of 24 degrees so we spent a lot of time just driving through the country lanes and admiring the scenery.

 
 

We were tempted to stay longer in Brittany but the lure of a week in a private house in the small French village of Charcenne (courtesy of friends Hilary and Emery) was too tempting and despite the long distance between Brittany (in the West) and the Jura District (in the East) we bit the bullet and paid the $70 in tolls on the amazing motorways as we headed towards Dijon and the Swiss border (although we did make a detour on the way to admire the chateaus of the Louire Valley).

     

 
     
The toll booths proved to be a bit of an issue. In addition to the obvious hassles involved in trying to find the right lane whilst trying to interpret the overhead symbols (to get in the wrong lane had noisy consequences as  impatient French drivers honked their horns and gestated wildly with their arms!)  we had one memorable experience when we exited the toll road at an unmanned exit and found that the booth would only take credit cards – but  not foreign credit cards! Unable to exit we had no alternative but to drive between the narrow bollards dividing the entry and exit lanes (lucky we had a very small hire car!) and re-enter the motorway in pursuit of a larger exit. 
     
We arrived at Charcenne (pop approx 300 people) at around 6pm and, manned with Hilary’s email with instructions on how to locate the house and the key, we drove through the small, narrow laned village several times before a family eating their evening meal took pity on us and the elderly lady of the house hopped into our back seat and proceeded to direct us via sign language. That set the scene for our whole stay in Charcenne where the locals were extremely friendly and helpful.  
   
Above: the view that greeted us when we opened the shutters on our first morning at Hilary and Emery's villa in Charcenne
     

Hilary had left the key with a neighbour and after finally locating Jean Pierre house – and the house we were to stay – he proved very helpful in explaining the intricacies of the hot water and heating systems (started via a boiler in the cellar). Again, most of this interchange was conducted via sign language as Jean Pierre spoke very little English and our French is very limited. He returned the following evening and very kindly invited  us to dinner at his house where his wife, Maryse, intended to cook the delicacies of the region.

Jean Pierre’s house was situated only a short walk from ours, but unfortunately during the intervening night Sue tripped down some steps (at 2AM) and managed to give herself a very badly sprained ankle. This meant that we had to drive to our dinner engagement as Sue was still a bit wobbly on her crutches.

On arrival we were warmly welcomed and before too long Martin was whisked off down to the cellar to sample Jean Pierre’s homemade wine. He returned half an hour later a little unsteady on his feet and with a big smile on his face! Sue was in good company with Maryse who spoke a little English (a lot more than Sue’s French) and the evening continued in the same vein with lots more wine sampling, wonderful food and great conversation/sign language!

     
 
Above: Our wonderful hosts Jean Pierre and Maryse
 
Above: a speciality of the region - Mont d'Or cheese with the centre removed and filled with white wine, then baked for 45 minutes. Eaten spooned over cold meats and hot potatoes. We can thoroughly recommend it!
     

Sometime during the evening we were given a rundown of the best places to visit and handed a TomTom Navigator to assist us with our touring. And before leaving (with Sue somewhat unsteady on her crutches) Jean Pierre promised to organise a private (after-hours) wine tasting and tour of the local winery where he worked.
What a wonderful evening – one of those encounters that remains in the memory long after the memories of scenery and churches has faded.

     

Our subsequent touring over the next few days was greatly assisted by the Tom Tom – despite the fact that it only gave instructions in French and tried to lead us astray several times, including one memorable incident where we ended up in a highrise carpark in Dijon!

     


  On one day we took advantage of our closeness to Switzerland and drove across the border for the day. We had wrongly assumed that Switzerland was part of the EU and so did not bother to take our passports. Crossing over to Switzerland we did not need to worry for we were on a very small country lane and the crossing was unmanned. However, later that day when we returned via a larger border we were very anxious when we encountered a manned checkpoint (this was when the penny dropped!) Luckily, seeing the french number plates on the car, the heavily armed guards waved us through!
Above: The view during our picnic in Switzerland
 
 
Above: We felt sorry for the poor cows in Switzerland carting around their massive bells
 
Above: during our picnic lunch, an inquisitive cow came over to investigate - the sound of the bell tinkering adding to the ambience
     

Oh, and yes, the winery tour of Vignoble Guillaume did happen and, yes, every type of wine they produced was sampled (generously). We were personally entertained by Xavier (one of the owners) who had spent some time in the Hunter Valley NSW during his youth and spoke excellent English. His wife and Maryse joined us later and the 6 of us relocated to a restaurant in the nearby village of Gy (where Jean Pierre insisted on paying despite our protests).

We consider our stay in Charcenne, and our interactions with Jean Pierre and Maryse, and with Xavier and Clare, to be one of the highlights of our visit to France and we still keep in email contact with our new French friends.

 
   
Above: Xavier takes us on our own personal tour of the cellar
     
 
Above: Sue and Jean Pierre ready to start the sampling
 
Above: at dinner afterwards - a merry affair which, of course, had nothing to do with how much wine we had sampled beforehand!
 

Too soon it was time to move on – next stop the Champagne district on route to Belgium to visit Hilary and Emery. The morning of our departure the weather suddenly turned from 27 degrees every day to bitterly cold. During the trip north Sue experienced pain in her calf (on the leg where the sprain was) and we briefly entertained the idea that it could possibly be a blood clot. However, given that the fall was quite a bad one, it seemed more likely that the calf was painful as a result of the fall.

 
Nevertheless, on arrival in Belgium at Hilary and Emery’s lovely house in the woods outside Brussels (only a km or so from the Battle of Waterloo) it was decided that a visit to the hospital was called for. The emergency department x-rayed the ankle noting the absence of a broken bone but confirming the severity of the sprain.  They put the leg in plaster from the ankle to the knee and told us to come back in a week. Our questions about the possibility of a blood clot were met with shakes of the head.  
   
Above: at dinner with Hilary and Emery in Belgium
 

  We had a great week with Hilary and Emery – and despite the plastered leg managed to see a lot – including Bruge which we can report to you now is NOT very wheelchair friendly!
 
Below and Right: a canal trip of Bruge
 
     
  A week later, when we returned and had the plaster removed, a blood clot was finally diagnosed ( on our return  to Australia we discovered that there were actually 3 large clots, the largest being 16cms in size). As we were flying out to London that day, a hasty consultation with a vascular surgeon followed and Sue was given the OK to fly as long as she wore a compression stocking and took large doses of injectable blood thinners (clexanne). The leg was also encased in an attractive black boot. Needless to say we missed our flight – but luckily British Airways could fit us onto a later one.
Above: Sue sporting her Orthopaedic boot!
   

So endeth the holiday! Well not really – but it did put a bit of a damper on the holiday atmosphere! We still had a wonderful week in London staying at Unk John’s (where Sue was very well looked after) and we really enjoyed catching up with many of Martin's other relatives. We also visited a few lovely English Pubs and sampled more of that English Ale that Martin still can't get a liking for.


 
     
 
     
     
 
   
Above: we thought we would just throw this one in - on an english beach with the family in 1980. Hard to believe, I know!
  Oh and we did manage to get into London for one day - and had a great Tapas dinner at Convent Garden with the parents of Nyree's English mate Simon (who stayed with us in Brisbane for a few months during his Aussie adventures).
     
It was a great holiday despite the health trauma’s – and confirmed our intention to eventually buy a dutch canal barge and continue our meanderings through Europe. But there will be a lot of water under Mandolin Wind before then!  
   
Above: about to leave Unk's house after being spoilt by John's hospitality
Link to next story: Cruising Phuket 2012