After two days, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is officially one of my favourite places in the world. Day time, night time, the beauty of this unique city is breathtaking.
Approaching the city is like seeing a fairy tale become reality. The colours, the architecture, the vibrancy and the history made me feel as though I was stepping into a children’s story book. It could only have a happy ending.
We landed at the airport at lunch time and had a taxi drive us through the city to Hostel Elf – where we were greeted with friendly faces and comfortable beds. The afternoon was spent relaxing in the hostel’s beer garden, drinking massive AUD$1 beers and meeting some of the other guests. We didn’t move – there was no need – until retiring to bed at around midnight.
The following morning we caught the bus into town, where we began the day with a 200 Crown (about AUD$10) cruise along the River Vlatava.
The history of Prague is traced back to around 500BC, with a Celt tribe, Boii, the first known inhabitants. The Boii named the region Bohemia and it remained this until the Czech Slavak tribe came to the area in 500AD. It later became part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austrian Empire and later the Austria-Hungary Empire.
The city was built up, and rebuilt again after a great fire in 1689. In the 1700s the economy boomed, with rich merchants building a host of palaces, churches and gardens and creating the Baroque style now known world-wide.
Prague was the centre of a particularly epic journey in the 20th Century. This began with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian king Francis Ferdinand d’Este, which led to World War I. The war ended with the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
For most of history, Prague was multi-ethnic – particularly Czech, German and Jewish. When the country was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939, and into World War II, most of the Jews were killed or fled. In 2006, there were just 1600 Jews registered as living in Prague – compared with 50,000 before the war. After World War II, the German population fled or were expelled. Many were held in concentration camps or killed in massacres.
Czechoslovakia was under control of the USSR and in 1948 Prague became a centre for a communist coup, until “Prague Spring” in 1968 – a period of political liberalisation which ended when the Soviet Union invaded the country.
It wasn’t until 1989 that Czechoslovakia finally freed itself completely from communism and Soviet influence with the Velvet Revolution – a series of peaceful demonstrations held between November and December that year. Up to 500,000 people attended one demonstration and finally, the Communist Party relinquished power.
Slovak aspirations strengthened until on January 1, 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak republics, with Prague remaining the capital of the Czech Republic.
Prague is now one of the world’s most popular destinations for tourists – not only for its beauty, but also for the known fact that everything is so cheap.
We continued on our cruise which took us under Charles Bridge – the most beautiful sculptured bridge I’ve ever seen. The bridge was first constructed in 1357 and connects New Town to Old Town. Old Town bridge tower is one of the most bewildering gothic-style buildings in the world. There are 30 bronze statues lining the bridge, most of which are Baroque-style, including a St Christopher, said to make wishes come true.
During the day, the bridge is littered with Arts – painters, craftsmen, entertainers. At night, the bridge is a stunning backdrop for the nightlife of the city.
We sailed on for an hour, admiring the breathtaking views of the castle and cathedral on the hillside, passing by museums, casinos and monuments.
Afterwards we walked to the Jewish Quarter where we saw an old Jewish cemetery, founded in 1478. The cemetery is small and people are actually buried on top of each other because there wasn’t enough space. There are around 12 layers and more than 12,000 gravestones. More than 100,000 people are buried in this small space. The most famous tomb here is that of the Maharal – Judah Loew ben Bezalel – who served as Prague’s chief rabbi from 1597-1609. He is considered one of the greatest Jewish scholars in Prague’s history and his grave has become a pilgrimage site.
We weren’t able to enter the cemetery – it’s said to be bad luck – so we took photos through the gate instead. Goosebumps tingled over my entire body.
We walked into Old Town Square, in the Old Town quarter of Prague, which dates back to the 2nd century. The streets were filled with tourists, markets and gorgeous architecture, including the gothic Tyn Cathedral, baroque St Nicholas’ Church, and Old Town Hall.
I ate some horrible battered chicken then we caught a Martin Tour bus for a two hour journey throughout the city. The ride took us through the Old Town, back to the Jewish Quarter and across the bridge to New Town, which was founded in the 14th Century and is a vibrant mix of colours, teaming with spectacular buildings and the most famous landmark – Wenceslas Square, a centre for commerce and tourism.
On to Prague Castle - the largest ancient castle in the world. It was built in the 9th Century and is a mix of styles – as each ruler added their own additions throughout the centuries. It’s had four major reconstructions and alterations continue to this day, but it keeps a classical 18th Century look. The Castle remains the seat of the head of state and also holds the crown jewels, along with relics of Bohemian kings, Christian relics, art treasures and historical documents.
Crowds are drawn to its monastery, the Royal Garden, basilica of St George and the gorgeous gothic St Vitus Cathedral. The present-day cathedral dates back to the 14th Century, although it was not completed until some 600 years later. It contains the tombs of many Bohemian kings, patron saints and archbishops, and is the largest church in the country. The minute details on the outside of the building are astonishing and I would liken them to the work of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, although not near as complex.
From the castle, the views of Prague are spectacular. There is so much mixed history in the city and every building shows character of its own, dating back many hundreds of years - the mosques, Jewish cemeteries, bridges and cathedrals. But the one thing that fascinated me the most, and which made being in Prague feel like I was in the middle of a fairy tale, was the colours. Rows of buildings line the streets like a rainbow … pastel yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks and creams. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before – and it is the most vibrant city I’ve ever seen in my life.
After we finished the tour, we walked through the markets in Old Town Square, along the river where I bought some fabulous paintings of the city for around AUD$2 each, and to Charles Bridge where I made some wishes on St Christopher.
For dinner we went to a local pub to try some Czech food then back to the hostel for drinks with the other guests and a pub crawl into town.
From the hostel, we walked for hours, stopping at every pub or club along the way. We drank and danced our way through the city. The night started with 25 of us, people from a variety of countries and cultures around the world, and ended at 6am with just five left – my brothers and I, and a brother and sister from Canada.
Worse-for-wear the following morning, we had to check out of the hostel and waste time before our flight to Paris in the afternoon. We headed back in to town for some lunch and a final look around.
We decided to go up into the Old Town Hall Tower to view the city from above. The Hall was established as a symbol of the town self-administration in 1338. The most striking feature is the astronomical clock, mounted in 1410 and completed over many years. The central astronomical-astrological part is based on the geocentric conception of the planet motions and represents the chronology methods of that time.
The Hall was damaged a number of times throughout history by windstorms and wars – however, the most devastating event was when the Town Hall burnt down in 1945 in the Prague May rising. It was restored within three years. The view from the Tower is impressive – 360 degrees of the historical city centre, the suburban districts and outskirts of the city.
I left Prague with a heavy heart and vowed to one day return. Even Shane had tears in his eyes as we drove along the mountain-side on our way to the airport.
It’s a city that has gone deep into my heart and I will never forget the impact it has had on me. Prague has been noted in my book of memory.
The drive from St Malo through Normandy was beautiful, but the roads were hell. French people play a game of “one for one” – they look after themselves on the road and have no concern or respect for others. Along with this, we were constantly lost on massive round-a-bouts and even more often frustrated at road signs which made no sense - no matter how well I could read the map.
By the time we arrived at Brussels, eight hours later, we were beyond ready for a beer.
Brussels is fascinating, with a dividing history and culture between French and Dutch. The capital of Belgium, the border between the two is noticeable – stepping into stores on the south-side, French is prominent; but as you head out of the city north/east-bound, Dutch takes over.
Ruud had come by train from Tilburg to meet us and was already waiting at the hotel. We went straight to the bar and then into town for a walk around the main square, Grand Place, the central market square – its Gothic buildings lit up for the night. It was beautiful and after a night out hitting the pubs, we returned the following morning to sit and admire the architecture while stuffing our faces with waffles.
After breakfast we walked to the most famous statue in Brussels – Manneken Pis – which, as the name subtly suggests, is a statue of a boy peeing. The sculpture is a small bronze fountain, with the boy peeing into its basin. Although there are a number of legends behind the statue’s history, the most famous is one about two-year-old Duke Godfried II of Brabant. In 1142, troops of the Duke were in battle and put the infant into a basket hanging from a tree. From there, the Duke urinated on the opposing troops, who eventually lost the battle. I guess they saw this as good luck and decided to commemorate the moment.
Costumes are sometimes used on the statue, changed according to whatever ceremony is on at the time, and alcohol has even been used instead of water for celebrations. With Ruud as our guide we finished our visit with a tourist drive through the city, passing by Palaces and Museums, then onwards to our next port of call, Düsseldorf in Germany.
We drove through the Netherlands, via Maastricht and Vaals (the three points). It’s the third time I’ve been to Vaals but it’s still an interesting experience and Justin and Shane couldn’t believe it – they could be in three different countries at the same time.
After leaving here, we drove into Germany along the autobahn, where speed limits are non-existent, although it’s recommended not to exceed 130km/h. Typical of a male, Shane had to test the limits and sped up to 170km/h, simply for photos sake.
We drove on to Düsseldorf, on the River Rhine, called in at our hostel to drop our bags off and went out for schnitzels for dinner.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, the odd farming or fishing settlement was found here. From this, Düsseldorf grew into the economic centre for Western Germany and now there are more than 500,000 people.
We went searching for a pub, but being a Sunday night we didn’t really expect to find much. We were psyched to be proved wrong.
We watched a band play in this mental little bar called Engel, where brass lights hang from the ceiling so you can bash them when you are happy - something we learnt from a man who seemed like a sweet, ordinary grandfather until the moment he started bashing – his gaping smile warming the venue. We guzzled steins of beer, banging them on tables for a true German cheers, beer spilling everywhere.
We downed shots of Jager and watched as beer barrels disappeared into the bar to be replaced by fresh ones soon after. We ended up dancing on the bars and tables with the locals and when we were kicked out of there at 3am closing time we went with a group to another place where the beers and shots continued, and where I ended up playing strip foosball with Ruud and two German guys. As it turns out, I’m not very good at foosball.
Sunday night out in Germany finally came to a head at 7am when we returned to the hostel for a few hours sleep before check-out. We went into town for a quick look around (the scenery is nothing compared to the nightlife) and then headed to the Netherlands.
We spent a night in Tilburg feasting and drinking at the local Irish pub, catching up with friends of mine, and catching up on lost sleep. The next morning we left Ruud behind and headed for Amsterdam, via Kinderdijk, so I could show my favourite windmills off to my brothers.
We stayed at a hostel near Central Station and after the rat-infested hostel of Penang; it was the worst place I’d ever stayed. The stairs leading to our room were so narrow it was either me, or my backpack. We couldn’t fit together, so I took my time pulling my bags up behind me. Our room was two flights up, small, with six beds, and it seemed the house cat had decided to choose our room to make a bed for itself – typical considering my brothers and I are all allergic. Thankfully the cat stayed on one bed all night and it wasn’t one of ours.
We spent the afternoon walking through the streets so the boys could experience the typical tourist aspects of Amsterdam – the Red Light District, a Peep Show, the sex museum. Walking through the RLD was really strange – of course I’ve been here before, but this time I noticed so much more, in particular – the drug dealers. On every corner we were approached by people who would slyly walk past and whisper their deal to us. We were surrounded by “cocaine” “heroine” “speed” – and amazingly, one guy even offered Justin some “Viagra”. It was actually the scariest environment I’ve ever been in.
That night we spent a few hours having some quiet drinks at an Australian pub. It was quite dead, but we weren’t too bothered considering we were still hung-over from Germany and we had to rise at 6am, drag our bags back down the narrow staircases, to catch our flight to Prague.
The Netherlands is famous for its windmills and centuries ago, there were more than 10,000 throughout the country. Today there are around a thousand of them.
The best place to see them for a true Dutch experience is Kinderdijk, a small village 16km from Rotterdam, where 19 mills remain preserved.
The history of the windmills is imperative to the history of the country – for without them, the Netherlands would not exist. Even now, 25% of land in the Netherlands remains below sea level.
In the area around Kinderdijk, problems with water became prominent in the 13th Century. Excess water was building up in the polders – low-lying land – and long canals were dug to move it. These are the canals which are found in almost every town throughout the country.
The canals worked well enough for a few years, but when the ground continued to sink and the river rose, something more was needed to save the land and so began the history of the windmills.
The mills were built to pump the water into a reservoir (dike), which worked, but complete control wasn’t possible and the country still suffered more than 30 massive floods.
The most severe was in 1421 when “Elisabethsflood” was caused by a heavy storm, which broke the dikes, allowing water to rush into the polders. Legend is that Kinderdijk was named during this event after a cradle with a child was caught in floodwaters and stranded on the slope of a dike; hence, Kinder (child) dijk (dike).
In the 19th Century, the windmills operated via a steam mill were replaced by a diesel pumping station in 1927. In the ‘70s a new diesel station was built, which still operates today. At full capacity, 1350m3 of water can be pumped through per minute. The windmills are now on stand-by and can be used in the case of an emergency, but predominantly, they’ve become a symbol of the country’s past.
During the summer months, one of the windmills at Kinderdijk is fully operational and open to the public. For just 2.50 Euro you can tour through the five-storey mill to get an idea what life was like living and working there hundreds of years ago.
Life wasn’t easy. The millers had large families, with up to 12 children, and were self-supporting with their own vegetable gardens and own livestock. Fishing was a popular and easy source of food, with nets placed behind the scoop wheel of the mill, pulling up fish as the wheel turned through the water.
One of the most surprising things about the mills is the low door openings. Walking around the Netherlands today, and as is known throughout the world, the Dutch are generally a tall people. In the early days of the mills, however, the diets of the families were not as sufficient, causing them to stay small. At 5ft 7in, I had to bend to enter through the doors.
Walking through the mill, it was hard for me to imagine what life could have been like for the families who lived here. The musty smells, the heat in summer and I could only imagine how freezing it would be in the middle of winter when the canals are frozen over - only the first two levels of the mill are heated.
On the ground level is the under wheel – part of the mechanism – and the living room, which is also a kitchen and bedroom for the parents and youngest child.
The bedrooms for the children are on the second floor. The beds are called closet beds and are about 1.6m long. As the name suggests, they look like a closet and are built into the wall, with doors that close around the bed – good, and it seems essential, to keep the cold out in winter.
The next floor is the Smoke Attic, where fish would be smoked. The walls are black from the smoke of the past and the chimney also ends on this level to prevent sparks from an open fire setting the thatched roof alight.
Next is the Grease Attic, where most of the mechanics are - the brake, upper wheel, rollers which allow the top floor to turn 360 degrees, and the king shaft. The top floor rotates and would have once provided a fantastic view of the area, but now it has been closed down to the public due to vandalism –stupidities which have taken a part of history away from those who really care.
Kinderdijk Windmill Park is open all year round, but the windmill itself and canal cruises through the area are only open for six months around summer. I saw the windmills in all their glory, in both summer and winter – with the shining sun gleaming from the canals and the light snowfall resting on the mills thatched roofs.
More modern windmills are found throughout the Netherlands, particularly at Zeeland, a coastal region in the South West of the country. Zeeland is a delta – with one-third sea and two-thirds filled with small islands. Zeeland has a rich history, with architecture dating back to wealthy traders of the 16th and 17th Centuries.
As with the rest of the country, water has always had a major impact on the region. The disastrous floods of 1953, in which 1836 people and thousands of cattle lost their lives, led to the implementation of the Delta Works. Although this has made the area safe and provided good road connections, disadvantages are also becoming apparent as algae flourishes in the lakes sealed off by the dams. With less water flowing in and out with each tide, the salt marshes and mudflats are disappearing.
The region is extremely popular in summer, with thousands of tourists – particularly Germans - flooding to the area for water sports. The drive there and around is extremely beautiful landscape-wise and definitely worth the visit.
Nearby, the Hague, or Den Haag, is the administrative capital and is in the province of South Holland. A major misconception people have is to call the entire country “Holland”, rather than the Netherlands, but Holland is actually a small region in the Central-West of the country with two provinces - Amsterdam sitting in North Holland, The Hague in the South. It’s hard for most people to differentiate between the two, especially when the majority of people living there actually call it Holland themselves.
Hundreds of years ago, Holland was an independent country with its own “Count”, currency and measuring units and time. In the 16th Century, it allied with the Northern and Southern Netherlands against the Count (also the King of Spain) because of religious differences, tax disputes and brutality of people under his power.
The Southern Netherlands was the first to give up the fight and it remained occupied by foreign forces until 1830. This is now Belgium.
The Northerners fought on to win and become a free Republic, now known as The Kingdom of the Netherlands and ruled by Queen Beatrix.
The Dutch royal family, and parliament, are in The Hague, along with all foreign embassies and government ministries.
The older parts of town have wide and long streets and houses are elegant low-rises. Unlike the rest of the country, there are almost no canals as most were drained in the 1800s.
Walking through the streets, some of the most interesting things to see are Mauritshuis – a museum constructed in the 17th Century; The Old Town House – built in the mid-1500s it contained the offices of magistrates, bailiffs, aldermen and majors; Palace Gardens and Royal Archives; Prins Tavern – a pub used in past centuries by members of the royal household; and the Historical Museum.
Modern art is also prominent, with sculptures and exhibitions throughout the city – including motion sensor speakers hidden in trees so when people walk under the tree, laughter begins. After a little paranoia, it took Kelly and me about 10 minutes to find where the laughter was coming from.
The Hague is the largest Dutch city by the North Sea, with two distinct beach towns - Kijkduin in the southwest and Scheveningen in the northwest, which is extremely popular for tourism, with around 10 million visitors a year. It’s a modern resort with a long sandy beach and a pier, and there is even a nudist section about 1km to the north.
To me, it was like visiting the Gold Coast of another country, but it was much more unique. Massive, expensive hotels line the foreshore, where no cars are allowed and cafes litter the beachfront, built on the sand right on the shoreline. Unfortunately the beach isn’t as nice as an Australian one, the water is freezing and the crystal blue colouring is replaced by deep blue/green.
Between Scheveningen and The Hague is the miniature city, Madurodam, modelled on Dutch buildings and landmarks and a scale of 1:25.
Madurodam was built in 1952 and named after George Maduro, a student who died in a concentration camp in World War II and whose parents donated the money to start the project.
The city has its own Mayor, elected from a youth municipal council made up of 25 students from local schools. It has the character of a real Dutch city – with the canal houses of Amsterdam, the Alkmaar cheese market and parts of the Delta Works just some of the more traditional displays.
Windmills turn, aeroplanes taxi along the airport runway, ships sail through the canals and trains travel around the city on the world’s largest miniature railway.
Like any real city, Madurodam is constantly developing and each year new buildings, people and other features are added or redeveloped.
All models, the railway system and decorations are made at Madurodam. Some of the models, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each, have taken more than four years to build.
A walk through the city was like a glimpse at the Netherlands from the air. Everything seems so real - the people so lifelike, the buildings a perfect replica of the real thing, some even complete with scaffolding, and you’re able to get close to many aspects of the Netherlands you wouldn’t otherwise see in a short visit to the country - even the Textile Museum of Tilburg, The Efteling, Anne Frank House, and of course, the windmills.
Tilburg is in Noord-Brabant - the southern province of the Netherlands - and is the 6th largest city in the country.
The city is first mentioned in 8th Century documents but it wasn’t proclaimed a manor until 600 years later. Manorial rights fell into the hands of several Lords whose income came from taxes, fines and interest paid by the villagers. In the 15th Century, one of the Lords built Tilburg Castle. In 1858, however, the castle was demolished to make way for a factory and it can now only be seen as a picture on the city arms and logo.
The city grew around a “herd place” – three-cornered plots where a number of roads met, pasturelands for flocks of sheep. Farmers started to weave wool themselves, which was the beginning of a textile enterprise, with as many as 145 textile mills in the late 19th Century. This tradition continued until the industry collapsed in the mid- 1900s and the mills closed down.
King William II (1792-1849) once said of Tilburg - "Here I can breathe freely and I feel happy here". He invested a lot of his time and money into the city; improving sheep breeding, building new farms and founding a cavalry barracks. In the 19th Century, a palace was built to be his home, but he died before it was finished and it’s now part of City Hall.
Today, the city is teaming with young people. The University of Tilburg is one of the most prestigious in the country and thousands of students flock to attend each year. With so many students, it’s no wonder the streets in the centre of town are filled with pubs and clubs.
Tilburg prides itself on its beautiful parks and gardens – particularly Leij Park, just around the corner from Carla’s. I spent many summer days here, sitting on the lush green grass under the shade of the trees, writing in my diary and simply breathing in the fresh air and beauty.
Beekse Bergen on the outskirts of town is a safari park where wild animals roam free on the plains. The reserve has more than a thousand animals, including lions, rhinos, hyenas and zebras.
Drunense Duinen is around 10km north of Tilburg. The “Dutch dessert”, it is one of the largest areas of drifting sand in Europe. A third consists of bare sand hills and plains, while the rest is overgrown with pine-forests and bushes. It formed when the inhabitants of the region cut down the trees for firewood. Walking among the sand dunes was relaxing, but I kept expecting to see the ocean.
In July, I was treated to the annual FunFair, or Kermis - the largest in the Netherlands. We went first on the Monday, or Pink Monday, a special day of celebrations for gay men and women. The tradition is for all festival goers to wear pink and pink parades charge through the streets to the sounds of techno music, whistles and clapping.
In February, Tilburg comes alive again with its annual celebration of Carnival. Held the weekend before Lent, Carnival – meaning “without meat” - is a traditionally Catholic festival held in the south of the Netherlands.
It’s a weeklong event, highlighted by three main days of partying, singing, dancing and dressing up. Everyone takes part in the festivities, no matter what age.
Carnival in the Netherlands has a long history, believed to date back more than 3000 years, but it was modernized after World War II. Today, with changing times, the celebration is not so much religious-based, as it is simply a party where everyone in town is expected to forget their troubles and have a great time.
Each city has its own colours to mark the festivities, and the town and people are decorated in these colours. For Tilburg, the colours are green and orange. Everyone dresses up for the occasion.
On the Sunday afternoon, a parade was held through the city. The parade focussed on Tilburgse traditions – specific to the province - including dialogue and folktales. I couldn’t read any of the signs in the parade, though my Dutch was quite good by this time, my Tilburgse was not. The difference in language is extraordinary, and even my Dutch friend Ruud was unable to understand it.
Carnival as a whole was an awesome experience. The entire city shut down for those few days and nothing seemed to matter except having fun. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
In Tilburg, I always felt welcome. Although the architecture is completely different to Australia, the warmth in the smiles of people around me was not. I was welcomed into the homes of strangers and treated as though I was one of them. It gave me a true sense of belonging and in my heart Tilburg became my second-home and the people my second family.
Living in the Netherlands was not like anything I expected. I set up home in a student city in the south of the country called Tilburg. Staying with my friend’s family, my first thoughts of the city were there it was nothing like I expected. It was a lot larger and I was surprised to see high rise buildings, shopping malls, a large train station, hotels and entire streets lined with pubs.
I had expected a small town of about 5000 people with small brick houses still in ruins from the war, the grass-like roofs wilting with the years of rain, snow and sunshine.
With Germany just an hour away, I wondered how the country had survived World War II with the enemy so close.
I was living in a country smaller than my “region” back home, just a step away from other countries, where the people do not speak my language. But life was the same, and that is what I loved so much about it.
The language barrier was rarely a problem, especially as I become more used to theirs.
Life was not completely different. The work hours were the same, pub hours the same, generally the music was what I would expect at home and most people drink beer, smoke cigarettes, dance and enjoy themselves – just like Aussies!
Working life was similar – although it seemed extremely laid-back. I could understand why Australians were generally seen as hard workers throughout Europe.
The housing in the Netherlands was completely different to anything I’ve ever seen before. Their “houses” are actually what we would call townhouses. Entire streets are made up of one building, with many homes. Most are only about 5-10 metres in width and stretch 2-3 stories high. The bottom level is generally the lounge, kitchen and toilet; while the second/third levels are bathrooms and bedrooms. Yards are virtually non-existent, and so is privacy. With neighbours so close, you can hear and see everything.
Compared to the comfort I have grown up in, with large backyards and huge open-spaced old Queenslanders, I felt a little claustrophobic. The only actual houses I saw were on farming properties. These are beautiful homes, some fashioned with the grass roofs I sought, setting a spectacular scene amidst the green pastures surrounding the home. This was the “Holland” I’d imagined, but this is a rare sight.
Much of the food is either deep-fried, or Indonesian-based, a reflection on the large number of Indonesian immigrants who moved over here in the early 20th Century from the Dutch-East Indies.
Another major difference was the transport. In Australia the majority of people have a car and society generally looks down upon you if you don’t. Here not many people have ever driven a car, let alone own one. Their preferred mode of transport is bikes - pushbikes, scooters and mopeds.
I guess it helps limit the amount of pollution, since the country is so small Pushbikes are also good exercise, which is a great combination with the diet considering the amount of olive oil they use in their cooking. Mopeds are really cheap to run and I bought one for myself after I became more settled. It cost around AUD$7 in petrol a week and gave me some independence.
As winter approached I anticipated the first snow fall. I’d never seen snow before Europe and the first time in my life I felt a snowflake fall on my skin, I was riding my moped to work. It was December, -7 degrees, I was freezing cold with numb hands from the wind and the small lakes along the roadside were dressed with a sheet of ice. I remember looking at them in amazement – I’d never been in such cold weather before – and wishing I’d had my camera. It was at this moment, the flakes began to touch my face.
I stopped the bike, took off my helmet and gloves and stood with my face up to the sky, welcoming the tiny drops falling from heaven. I never imagined nature could make me feel so special and for the next few months, each time it snowed, I preferred to be outdoors, breathing it in, rather than watching from a closed window. Often, I would lift my arms up to the heavens and twirl as snowflakes hit my face and hands. I imagine I must have seemed crazy to my workmates and friends who constantly saw me doing this, but I’d never experienced this world before and I wasn’t going to let it go without enveloping it in my heart first.
As winter continued, the snow fell. It was never enough to cover the ground in inches and often it would melt as soon as it touched a surface, but I couldn’t stop myself from walking into it, arms outstretched, mouth open to catch the flakes.
Summer is a fantastic time to be in the Netherlands. The fact that the sun shines is reason enough for everyone in the country to move into celebration mode. The parties and barbeques every day when it’s not raining; sitting on the terrace every afternoon basking in the sun, drinking beer; festivals are held every weekend all throughout the country; celebrations are constant and everyone is in a great mood.
Living in Australia, I’ve never known summer to be such a celebration. For me in Queensland, we have gorgeous weather most of the year – its generally 20+ degrees in the middle of winter. In Europe, when the sun is shining and the temperature is higher than 18, it’s time to party. Everyone is completely happy for these few months of the year, which is a nice comparison to the misery most people show when winter begins to rear its ugly head.
I arrived in Amsterdam early and so on my first day I experienced the best possible re-introduction to the country I’d once called home.
I’d always wanted to see the tulips in full bloom, but I’d always missed the season by one or two months. This year, I’d planned my trip around it. I wasn’t going to miss out again and made of sure of it on my first day. I was staying at my friend Ruud’s house, and we left Amsterdam for the hour drive to Keukenhof – the most famous tulip park in the world – stopping at tulip farms along the way, where I took the opportunity to bask in the sunshine and “tiptoe through the tulips”.
Keukenhof is in Lisse, a small town south of Amsterdam, and is the world’s largest flower garden. It’s only open for two months every year, and the garden was originally part of an estate belonging to a castle ruled by the Countess of Holland in the early 1400s. She used part of her estate as an herb and vegetable garden – the name Keukenhof actually means Kitchen Garden. Development of the park began in the mid 1800s and was further developed into the 32-hectare park that exists today. It’s one of the best-known attractions in the country and one of the most photographed sights in the world, with more than 700,000 visitors a year.
Stepping into the grounds, there is so much colour and beauty. I couldn’t believe it had taken me three years to see it. This was truly the Netherlands at its best.
Returning to Amsterdam, the shining sun was cause enough for a truly Dutch BBQ dinner with lots of sate and fake burger patties. The next day, May 4, we went into Dam Square for Remembrance of the Dead where we watched as Queen Beatrix laid a wreath on a memorial to commemorate those who have died in wars or peacekeeping missions since the outbreak of World War II.
Another day; another holiday.
May 5 is Liberation Day, mostly celebrated at Wageningen, in central Netherlands. The city is now most famous for its Life Sciences University on the north bank of the Rhine River, but it was in Wageningen that the Peace Treaty was signed – marking the end of German Occupation during World War II. We spent the day downing beers at a music festival of Dutch bands and veteran parades.
With sore heads the next morning, we headed back to Amsterdam, stopping first at Militair Ereveld Grebbeberg – a military graveyard. The grounds are peaceful and well-kept with perfect white gravestones and tulips growing throughout the grounds. I imagine it has come a long way since it was established during the occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, when German and Dutch soldiers were buried here. After the war, Germans were reburied elsewhere and the cemetery held the graves of around 400 Dutch soldiers. Since 1946, soldiers killed in other parts of the country have been reburied here and the Field of Honour now has more than 800 graves.
We continued towards Amsterdam with a visit to nearby Flevoland – a province in the centre of the country. The province was only established in 1986 – not so long ago the entire region was still an inland sea.
In 1932, a dam was established to close off the South Sea (Zuiderzee). More land formed around already existing islands and the Sea was renamed IJsselmeer – a lake. The first part of the new lake to be reclaimed was the Northeast polder, followed by the southeast and southwest some years later. While draining these polders (with the use of windmills), aircraft wrecks from World War II and fossils of Pleistocene mammals were found.
The lake has now been separated into two sections – IJsselmeer and Markermeer and functions as a major fresh water reserve for agriculture and drinking. In 1986, the municipalities on the polders reclaimed from the IJsselmeer voted to become a separate province – Flevoland.
Our final stop was Naarden, in North Holland, which officially became a city in 1255 and is fortified with walls and a moat – both still in excellent condition. To see the city, you need to walk carefully along cobbled and narrow streets. Naarden is famously known as a Star Fort – a style of fortification that evolved during the Age of Blackpowder, when the cannon dominated the battlefield.
It was then back to Amsterdam for another BBQ, a good night out in the city and a trip to Volendam the next day to try and costume spot in the small seaside village famous for the locals still donning traditional clothing.
The characteristic small houses painted green and white, along with the canals and drawbridges, form beautiful scenery as you walk easily along the cobbled stone paths from one side of town to the other.
Volendam is also famous for its fishing industry and I feasted on a large plate of freshly cooked seafood for lunch, though I’d recommend taking plenty of money if you wish to do so. Most places weigh the seafood up and charge by the gram. So you don’t have any idea how much you’re spending until you’ve already been served. But even though the cost was high, so was the quality and taste.
Although I didn’t see anyone in traditional dress, I was amused to watch as huge buses made their way along the narrow roads – often blocking cars or buses coming the other way. It was a battle of the beasts as I watched a bus driver and van driver – both refusing to back up to the end of the road to let the other through. In the end, the van driver had no choice but to reverse the entire length of the esplanade strip to allow the busload of tourists to continue. Amusing as it was, I was disappointed to see the effect tourism was obviously having on the town’s uniqueness.
We drove on to Zaanse Schans – a popular tourist spot with windmills, cheese factories and clog makers.
On the banks of the river Zaan, green wooden houses, thatched windmills stylish gardens, bridges, workshops and shops complete the area. There are two main working windmills – The Cat, which crushes chalk into pigment; and The Seeker, which grinds nuts into oil.
It has become one of the top tourist destinations in the country, but right on arrival I knew I wouldn’t like it. The windmills are brightly painted – giving the area a fake-feel. It’s also inundated with American tourists and seems to have been constructed for this reason. It’s just not the “real” Netherlands – and I found it gives nothing to the country’s true history like Kinderdijk does.
The next day we drove out to Ruud’s mother’s house near Tilburg, in the small city of Oistewijk. It’s been a city since 1230 and has two nature reserves – the forests and lakes; and Kampina. From all my visits to the Netherlands, this was my first experience of staying in an actual house, similar to those I grew up in, and I felt at home in the large surroundings.
After two nights with Ruud’s family, I went back to Tilburg for my first visit in 15 months. The city hadn’t changed and my friends were all still there, and with perfect weather I enjoyed many days sitting on the terrace drinking beer and enjoying the sunshine.
Aside from enjoying nights out at the local pubs, I also joined Ruud for another day trip – this time, across the border and into Belgium, to Antwerpen.
Antwerpen is most famous for its diamonds, but also has one of the largest ports in the world. The port was the scene of an international news headline the day we were there, after a Dutch cargo boat capsized on the Scheldt River. Police were everywhere on the land and in the water. We watched as a massive crane attempted to lift the boat from the river, as a search began for two missing occupants. As it turned out, the massive boat has been capsized after being struck by a wave from a passing ship. The captain of the boat survived, but his wife and brother-in-law were feared drowned. Their bodies were found two weeks later down river.
We took a short walk around the city, which got its name from a legend involving a mythical giant called Antigoon. The story goes that the giant took a toll from those who wished to visit and if they refused, the giant severed one of their hands and threw it into the river. Eventually a young man, Brabo, was the hero, cutting off the giant’s hand and throwing it into the river. The name Antwerpen comes from the Dutch for hand-throwing. There’s a statue of Brabo and Antigoon in front of town hall, as well as different sculptures of hands throughout the city to enhance this significant part of the city’s history.
Being in Belgium, by true Tara-tradition, we spent the rest of our day at a pub in the centre of town, drinking Lindemans Kriek (cherry beer) and eating Belgian chocolates. A visit to Belgium wouldn’t be the same without them.
After two weeks in Tilburg I went back to Amsterdam.
The capital of the Netherlands, the city lies on the banks of the IJ bay and the Amstel River. Founded in the 12th Century as a small fishing village, it’s now the largest city in the country. It’s hard to imagine the city without its numerous canals around the city centre, but these were only dug around 400 years ago. Many houses and warehouses were built along the canals – one of the most famous of course, being the house where Anne Frank and her family hid during World War II.
I spent days wandering around Museumplein – taking in the external views of the Stedelijk Museum, Rijksmuseum and Concert Hall – Concertgebouw; and admiring the post-impressionist artworks at the Van Gogh Museum. Featuring the works of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, it was amazing to see the different contrasts of his paintings – from the beginning of his career to the end of his life. The different styles and colours of each painting reflected his stage of life, including his insanity; from bright oranges and yellows, to drab blues and blacks.
From here it’s a short tram ride to Dam Square – the historical centre of the city, near the famous red-light district, de Wallen. The district is a network of alleys with hundreds of one-room apartments rented by legal prostitutes (predominantly female) offering their services from behind a window – lit up with a red-light. The area has existed since the 14th Century and is also filled with sex shops, sex theatres, peep shows, a sex museum and coffee shops.
A walk here during the day can be amusing; a walk a night terrifying as drug dealers and pimps approach every passer-by without hesitation.
Leidseplein is a short walk in the opposite direction, full of bars, restaurants and the Leidsepleintheater. I spent many nights sitting on the terrace outside various pubs and clubs here, watching the locals and tourists of Amsterdam go by.
On the edge of the centre of city is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world – Hortus Botanicus. Behind its 300 year old gates, the city disappears and a world of plants opens up. In the 1600s, the Hortus was a medicinal herb garden but it quickly expanded in the 17th and 18th Centuries with the help of the Dutch East India Company ships, bringing exotic ornamental plants. It now contains more than 6000 tropical and indigenous trees and plants, including a 2000 year old agave cactus and an Australian Wollemi pine – one of the oldest and rarest plants, dating back to the dinosaurs.
When I first went to Amsterdam three years ago I hated it. My first and second visits were to the Red Light District, coffee shops, a peep show, live sex show, pubs and the sex museum. Typical young tourist things to do, but I didn’t have the chance to experience the true beauty that lies beneath these. Finally I saw another side to the city – the beauty, the history, and the people. It’s a busy city, but not bustling. Tourists are everywhere, which I wasn’t used to seeing in the Netherlands. But, mostly I loved just wandering around the streets, getting lost, looking at the buildings and canals, thinking about what had brought me here and trying to find my way back through the twisting streets of my life.
Courage... strength... inspiration... heartbreak...
These are the words that come straight into my mind when I think about Anne Frank and her diary.
German-born Anne is probably the best-known victim of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. She and her family spent two years hiding from the Nazis in a secret warehouse annex in Amsterdam, protected by non-Jewish friends. Her diary tells the true story of a young Jewish girl whose life dramatically changes within the course of three years.
Anne had received the diary as a present from her father, Otto, for her 13th birthday on June 12, 1942. It traces the lives of her Amsterdam-based family as they are forced into hiding. As Anne grew older, she went beyond mere description and wrote about more abstract and philosophic matters, such as her belief in God and human nature.
In 1933, when Hitler came to power, Anne Frank's father, Otto moved the family to Holland. After the Nazi occupation of Holland on May 15, 1940, the lives of Jewish families like the Franks became severely restricted. When Anne’s older sister Margot was called up to go to Germany on July 5, 1942 for relocation to a work camp, the Frank family’s lives changed forever.
The family faced arrest if Margot did not comply. But her parents, sensing the impending call-up, had already organized a secret hiding place, an empty section of Otto’s office building at 263 Prinsengracht. There was enough room for themselves, as well as Hermann van Pels, Otto’s co-worker, his wife and son, Peter, and Fritz Pfeffer, an acquaintance of the Frank family.
I first read the diary when I was in primary school, and again when I was in high school. Ten years later, I knew what it was about, but I couldn't remember the emotions I felt reading it. Perhaps I had been too young.
Before I left Australia, I decided to read the diary again, which is also praised for its literary qualities. I knew I would be visiting the house in Amsterdam, and I wanted that experience to really mean something. I spent my mornings and afternoons on the train to and from work, reading about the life, and death, of Anne Frank. I was once again captivated by her innocence, the terror she experienced and the trauma of her family and her life underground.
I put myself into her place and lived the moments in my mind, imagining what I would do in certain situations. I also allowed myself to feel emotions towards Anne and her family. I got angry at her mother, I admired her father and I loved Peter Van Pels as she did. I wanted the moment that I stepped into her house in Amsterdam to be truly unique. It was.
The house is located next to a canal, just a short walk from the Central Station. Standing outside, I looked around at the street Anne and her sister Margot stared at through closed curtains. I saw the road where Anne had described seeing soldiers patrolling and Jews fleeing, terrified, to escape the war.
Where she saw friends and neighbors taken away by the army, marching towards certain death, I saw people dressed in clothes Anne dreamed of owning, faces as beautiful as the pictures she cut from magazines and posted on her walls, laughter and smiles as friends shared stories and tourists scoured the streets in search of history.
As Anne looked onto these streets during the heartache of World War II, she could never have imagined the happiness the people are blessed with today. The streets were filled with traffic — cars, buses, bikes — taking people to more destinations of enjoyment. On the rare occasions Anne was able to sneak a look outside, the only cars she saw were military; buses were full with Jews on their way to concentration camps; and those on bikes were simply there in a failed attempt to escape.
But looking at the streets outside the house was nothing compared to being inside — as I'm sure was the same for Anne and her companions.
The house is built in two sections and is four stories high, with an attic. The back section of the two top floors became the secret annex, where Anne and her family, the Van Pelses and Fritz Pfeffer spent 25 months of their lives.
They lived there until they were captured in August 1944, when the annex was emptied of its furnishings by order of the German occupier. It was an anonymous telephone call to the authorities which led to their whereabouts. While it will never be known for certain who reported them, two theories have surfaced. One alleged the betrayer was Anton Ahlers, a Nazi and business associate of Otto Frank. The second theory pointed to a Dutch cleaner named Lena Hartog-van Bladeren, who worked in the office in front of the annex. But the true identity of the betrayer will never be known. Those hidden were all deported and sent to extermination camps, where all but one died.
Otto Frank, Anne's father, was the only survivor (Anne died from typhus and deprivation in March 1945 in the northern German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. She was just 15 years old). Otto was found by the Russian Army at Auschwitz and upon recovery, learned of the death of his wife and children. After the war, Anne's diary was found strewn across the office floor, where it was picked up and hidden away. It resurfaced many years later and was given to her father.
The annex has remained in its authentic state. It was officially opened as a museum in 1960, and in 2004, recorded almost one million visitors.
I was speechless as I walked the same corridors and staircases that Anne and her family had walked. I had tears in my eyes as I stepped through the worn bookcase, which served as a secret door to the annex. And my heart pounded as I made my way into the make-shift bedrooms. Although empty now, I was able to picture what they must have looked like, and I couldn't comprehend how each person survived for 25 months in such extreme conditions. I guess it was nothing compared to life in concentration camps.
Even now as I think of it, I shudder at the image of the small room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer — the pictures she had pasted to the wall to cheer her up, still there, faded and torn. A reflection on a young life — long lost.
Had I walked into the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family lived without reading the book beforehand, I don't think I would have truly understood what it meant to be there.
I would never have felt such despair walking into the rooms that served as the kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms; I wouldn't have cared that there was barely enough space to fit a desk, let alone two or three beds; and I wouldn't have felt my heart pound as I remembered how scared Anne had been as she wrote about the view from the window or listened to the news on the radio.
As I walked through the annex, I thought about how hard it must have been for Otto Frank to pack up his family and hide them from the world for more than two years. To stop his daughters from going out to play — from even looking out the window to feel the sunlight on their faces. I can't imagine how painful it must have been for him to watch as the shine slowly faded from the eyes of those he loved the most, knowing he was unable to help them.
I thought about Peter and Margot, and wondered what might have happened to them had they survived the war. But mostly, I thought about Anne and how she experienced hell first-hand, yet through her diary — and sadly, her death — she has made so many people smile.
She was a young girl who dreamed of becoming a journalist, but she lived and died in an unfortunate time. Her writing has since inspired hundreds and her words have touched even the hardest of hearts.
Through her adversity, the world has learned that life is sometimes cruel. Hopefully, we have also learned that although at times life may be tough, we should appreciate what we have, because there will always be people who live their lives in a secret annex.
Amsterdam was the final stop on the tour through Europe. It lies on the banks of two rivers – the IJ and Amstel - and was founded in the 1100s as a small fishing village and is now the largest city in the country with a population of around 750,000 in the city itself, and 1.5 million in the district.
The city is noted for its museums, including the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt House Museum and the Anne Frank House. It is also extremely well known worldwide for its red-light district and “coffee shops” – legally selling cannabis.
Amsterdam was my first experience in the country that would become my home away from home. The visit to Anne Frank’s house had a lasting impact on me and it was a fantastic introduction to the extraordinary history of the Netherlands.
Outside, the clouds are closing in on me as the plane soars higher and higher. I am holding my breath, fearful of what is about to happen — but it is too late to turn back.
As I make the jump, my heart pounds as though it is trying to reach through my chest to escape. At first, I feel so heavy — then weightlessness. I am plummeting toward earth, my body falling through the clouds.
The wind pushes my cheeks back, exposing my teeth to the brutally cold air — even though it is a hot summer day. My goggles are frosting over, and below me I see snow on the highest peaks of mountains. On the ground, it is 30° C, but up here it is so much colder.
I scream, but no sounds are heard except the pounding of the wind in my ears. Suddenly I am lifted, with great force, toward the heavens. For a brief moment, I think this is what it must feel like to be a bird — completely free.
My heart slows as I drift downward. I am no longer plummeting to my death, but am floating with the breeze. I can breathe now — the ground doesn’t look as scary as it did just seconds ago. I have the chance to sit back and enjoy the ride, to view a part of the world with new perspective.
I look above at the blue-and-yellow striped parachute, wondering what it must look like from the ground. When I look beyond, I can see through the clouds. I recall thinking, as a child, that clouds were so heavy you could jump on them, and I smile at the lost innocence. I imagine this is what the view is like from heaven.
“Am I really still alive?” I wonder.
Thousands of feet below, the Austrian Alps provide a magnificent reality. I am suddenly aware of the instructor strapped to my back and turn around, a huge smile on my face.
“How do you enjoy your first skydive?” he asks me, but I can’t speak — my mouth is dry from the force of the wind, and I have no words. My smile tells him I am ecstatic.
The glide to the ground seems to last forever. I am drifting in every direction, savouring the beauty of the land below me. From the pale greens and dark browns of the farm crops to the contrasting grey of the rocky mountains, touched with angelic white snow on their tips, the Austrian Alps set an amazing scene for the adventure.
I had arrived in St. Johann, in Tyrol, the previous day in June. Centrally located between Munich, Salzburg and Innsbruck, St. Johann is an alpine village at the base of the famous Kitzbüheler Horn.
Famous for its mountain trails and ski runs, the chalet-filled village has just over 8,000 residents.
Upon arrival, I was greeted with clear blue skies contrasting against lush green meadows, the fresh smell of the forests and the warm smiles of the friendly locals who waved to me as I passed by them on our way through the town.
It was the day before my 24th birthday and I decided to treat myself to an afternoon white water rafting in the freezing waters which had come from snow melt in the nearby mountains, including Wilder Kaiser and Kitzbuheler Horn. One of my main fears is drowning, so I was terrified as I stepped into the raft, particularly when the group I was in were all made to stand on the sides of the raft as it roared through the rapids. It was inevitable that we would fall and at one stage, we all did. As much as it was terrifying it was thrilling and an extreme adrenaline rush.
That night, I headed to Bunny’s Pub, which opened in 1986, and has been operating under an Australian theme since 1996. It was a great taste of home with its paintings, sports memorabilia and, most of all, my cherished Australian beer, Victoria Bitter. While there the manager of the pub promised he would take me skydiving the following day – as a birthday treat. As he was far from sober, I didn’t take him too seriously.
The next morning I woke to the sound of tractors on their way into town, as St. Johann’s locals celebrated the Tyrol Oldtimer Traktortreffen (Oldtimer Tractor Gathering).
The annual event, the finale of the weeklong Tyrolean Mountain Spring Festival, which welcomes the shift from spring into summer, begins at 8 a.m. with the owners of more than 100 vintage tractors meeting in the centre of town before parading through the streets.
The men and women were traditionally dressed in trachten, which consists of a skirt, bodice, shawl and blouse for women, and leather shorts, suspenders, breastplate and hat for men.
They smiled and waved to the crowds as they paraded down the street in their flower-bedecked tractors, before heading to the Pointenhof Inn, where they listened to music, drank beer and enjoyed the sunshine.
It wasn’t long after that the manager showed, to pick me up to go skydiving. I couldn’t believe it! After an hour of trying on suits and learning what to do and what not to do to ensure my safety, it was time to go...
Just another hour later I was on my way back to the hostel, a smile permanently etched on my face.
Whether it is because the sun was shining or simply because everyone is having so much fun, the beauty of Tyrol is something special — especially from 12,000 feet.
The tour moved on to Florence, the capital of Tuscany, on the Arno River. Walking along the river is beautiful, but in the beginning of summer – a stifling 37 degress – the stench coming from the water was as unbearable as the heat itself.
The Romans built many of the bridges that cross the river, with one bridge being particularly unique – The Ponte Vecchio – which has a number of small shops built on it. This is also the only bridge in the city to have survived World War II intact.
Florence is the birthplace of Italian Renaissance and is most famous for its art and architecture. The most well known palace is San Lorenzo; and the Santa Croce church has monumental tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo and many others. Legend actually says Santa Croce was founded by St Francis himself.
After a brief stroll through the church, I returned to the palace. Standing outside I had my first taste of real Italian pizza and, at AUD$7 the most expensive can of Coke I’ve ever bought. I imagined the pizzas would be more elaborate than we have in Australia, but in comparison, they were very bland – most were topped with only cheese, pepperoni and different sauces.
Despite the elaborate cost and the horrible heat and stench, Florence was a nice introduction to Italy and the following day I boarded an overnight ferry which took me to Greece. I spent the next three days sailing, drinking cocktails and sunning myself around the island of Corfu.
Corfu is in the Ionian Sea, off the coast of Albania, and is considered one of the most beautiful of the Greek Isles.
On arrival, our tour was separated into groups of five or six and given a run-down of how to sail. We’d each have a turn of controlling the boat throughout the next couple of days. We stayed docked for the first night, just sleeping on the boats and then set sail early the next morning for Plataria – a small resort town on the Greek mainland. The journey took us all day in soaring heat, but we were thrilled each time we stopped for a swim in the clear waters. We docked for the night and treated ourselves to cocktails after dinner.
The following morning we sailed to Petreti, Corfu, again stopping for swims throughout the daylong journey. We docked and sailed in the morning back to Ipsos. Arriving mid-afternoon, we again were treated to more cocktails before catching another overnight ferry back to Italy.
Our return into Italy took us to Rome and Vatican City – home of the Pope.
Rome is on the Tiber and Aniene rivers, near the Mediterranean Sea. Its history dates back around 2,800 years and the city is littered with Roman ruins from as far back at 100BC.
A tour of the city took me to see all of the tourist highlights; the Spanish Steps – a monumental stairway built in 1723-25 to link the Bourban Spanish embassy to the Holy See; and Trevi Fountain –the endpoint of an ancient aqueduct which originally supplied water to Rome – where we tried out the age-old tradition of throwing a coin over our right shoulder into the fountain. The legend is that throwing one coin will ensure the thrower returns to Rome, two coins ensures the thrower will fall in love with a beautiful Roman woman or handsome man, and three coins ensures the thrower will marry in Rome. I threw just one coin and only time will tell if the legend comes true for me.
The ruins of the Colosseum are certainly a sight and were originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre and used for gladiatorial combat. Construction was initiated by Emperor Vespasian and completed by his sons between AD 72 and AD 90. It’s said 9000 wild animals were killed in the 100 days of celebration for the amphitheatre’s opening. The arena floor was covered in sand, presumably to allow the blood to drain away.
The Colosseum hosted large-scale games that included fights between animals, the killing of prisoners by animals and other executions, naval battles, and combats between gladiators. It’s estimated several hundreds of thousands died in these games.
My final stop was at the catacombs of the Capuchin Monks which were certainly unique. The catacombs date back to the 1599 when the Capuchin monks of Palermo removed some bodies from their graves and discovered they had undergone natural mummification. Realising the religious potential, local priests mummified the body of a holy monk, Brother Silvestro, for public viewing.
In time, locals wanted their relatives remembered in this way, and the catacombs filled up rapidly. Some people even wrote wills requesting which clothes they’d like to be mummified in. Some were placed in open-view coffins, others simply hanging from the walls, placed on beds, and the remains of two children are even seated together in a small rocking chair.
Social stratification is respected, with separate areas dedicated to Priests, Monks, Men, Women, Virgins, Children and Professionals. A wall devoted to women's corpses is distinguished by the presence of hoop skirts and parasols. The professional section contains bodies of professors, doctors, lawyers, painters, officers and soldiers; some men still sporting glasses. Some of the corpses are complete skeletons, but others have mummified flesh, hair and eyes.
The method for embalming included dipping the bodies in arsenic or lime, however the most common method used was dehydration, by placing the bodies in cells along the passageways – the bodies were taken out of the cells after around eight months and washed in vinegar.
The last corpse to be placed in the catacombs was that of two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo in 1920. She was nicknamed Sleeping Beauty and her body is still completely intact, including her wide-open greyish-blue eyes.
Its creepy walking through halls filled with hundreds of dead people – most of whom, with and without their eyes, seem to be watching you from ‘the other side’. It’s an image that can never be erased from memory, but one that hopefully won’t haunt a person.
My second day in Rome was a Wednesday - the day the Pope addresses the public in Vatican City. I’d gone to see the sermon, but had been told he was too ill to attend that morning. However upon arrival mid-morning, large crowds and massive security proved otherwise.
I squeezed through the crowds of tourists and dedicated Catholics, first taking time to peruse the square in which I was standing.
Vatican City is a landlocked enclave in Rome and is the smallest independent nation state in the world. The Pope is head of state and he rules along with the heads of government, secretary of the state and governor of the city.
The area itself dates back to before Christianity, with the first church built in 326 AD over the supposed site of the tomb of St Peter. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that Vatican City became a state and Roman Catholics received special status in Italy.
The population is around 920 and consists mostly of clergy – high dignitaries, priests, nuns and the Swiss Guard (a voluntary military force); and cardinals.
The Vatican City also has great cultural significance, with buildings such as St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel - home to the works of artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo.
But of course, nothing is as popular in the City as the Pope himself. Today, this is Pope Benedict XVI, elected on April 19, 2005, just three days after his 78th birthday.
When we arrived in Vatican City, however, we were to stand before the late Pope John Paul II – who passed away on April 2, 2005 as one of the most respected men in the history of the world, Catholic or otherwise.
Pope John Paul II reigned as Pope for almost 27 years and he is credited with his opposition to communism and as one of the forces that brought the fall of the Soviet Union. He was the most-travelled Pope in history having visited more than 100 countries; he spoke eight languages; and attracted the largest crowds in history.
In 1981, an attempted assassination caused a lasting impact on his vigour. The years following began his slow decline and in the late 1990s he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His fight and determination against the various diseases ailing him were seen as a display of courage.
All of this was evident in the man we saw – his illness and his strength. We were about 50 metres from him, but there were massive screens throughout the complex, zoomed in on his face so every expression was completely evident. His weak frame seemed supported by his robe, rather than the other way around. He spoke soft and slowly, at times hesitating for a minute at a time to catch his breath. But he lived up to his reputation as The People’s Pope, and though he was extremely ill, he sat in the soaring summer heat to provide the faithful, and the tourists, with a lasting memory.
The City of Canals was the next Italian stop – Venice. A full day’s drive from Rome, the city itself is obviously very old and extraordinarily beautiful.
Venice stretches across more than 100 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon along the Adriatic Sea in northeast Italy.
My day began at St Mark’s Square, the town square. The Square originated in the 9th Century in front of the original St Mark’s Basilica. It was the location of all the important offices and is dominated by the Basilica and Doge’s Palace, along with the Grand Canal, St Mark’s clock tower, the Procuratie Vecchie, Procuratie Nuove (both mostly occupied by cafes) and the Biblioteca Marciana. The last of these buildings were completed under Napoleonic occupation in the 18th Century.
The square is dotted with photographers and tourists who must calmly share the space with thousands of pigeons who call the square home. The pigeon is as sacred as the buildings and there are said to be large penalties to pay for harming them.
St Mark’s Basilica is the most famous church in Venice, constructed between the 9th and 12th Centuries. The original basilica was built to house the remains of St Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, Egypt – believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark.
St Mark had preached the Gospel throughout Egypt and was killed in Alexandria in 68 AD by those who are said to have resented his efforts to turn them from worship of their traditional Egyptian gods. An attempt to burn his body failed and it was removed from the fire by Christians and buried in a church. In 828, Italian sailors stole relics believed to be the body of St Mark and transported the remains from Alexandria to Venice. It’s believed they covered his body in pork, to deter Muslims from trying to steal the body back.
Nearby is the Rialto Bridge, which spans the Grand Canal and is the oldest bridge across the canal; along with Doge’s Palace, a gothic palace constructed in the 14th and 15th Centuries.
I was treated to lace making and glass blowing demonstrations, and then of course I relaxed with the traditional and typically-touristy gondola ride along the canals, before continuing to walk along the canal to the various markets, where the major sales attraction was masks.
Masks in Venice have traditionally been used to celebrate Carnival in February. Carnival has its roots in many traditions, dating back centuries. In the 1800s the parties, entertainments, masks, theatres and public gaming house associated with Carnival became a tourist attraction for the whole of Europe. During the last days of carnival the city teems with people in masks. It’s possible to see every kind of costume, from 18th century noblewomen to the incredible modern costumes.
At all times of the year, no cars are allowed in the city. The only “roads” are large footpaths and, of course, gondolas are the preferred mode of transport for tourists. Locals prefer their motorized boats. Though small dirty-looking canals surround the city, and we wandered in 40-degree weather during the heat wave of 2003, the smell was miniscule in comparison with Florence - perhaps because pollution is low with no cars.
Many of the small islands are just big enough for a few houses, some of which are now abandoned with their ground levels underwater – a result of the sinking of Venice.
The buildings in Venice are constructed on wooden piles under water. Although often threatened by flood tides, the major problem began 600 hundred years ago when Venetians protected themselves from land-based attacks by diverting all major rivers flowing into the lagoon, preventing sediment from filling the area. In the 1900s when many artesian wells were sunk in the lagoon to draw water for the local industry, Venice began to subside. Artesian wells were banned in the 1960s in an attempt to save the city – which has sunk about 7cm a century for the past 1000 years, although this increased to 24cm in the past century.
In 2003 the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi inaugurated the MOSE project, which will lay a series of 79 inflatable pontoons across the three entrances into the lagoon. When tides rise, the pontoons fill with air and block the incoming water.
This project is expected to be completed by 2012. Without it, the beauty that is Venice could completely disappear in the future and become a modern-day Lost City - just another page in history.
As soon as you drive into Switzerland, you’re immediately aware this is a country completely unlike any other.
Entering through the motorways, watch for holes in the ground with covers over them, similar to the manholes you see on the streets in your home town, but these are patterned together in groups of around 20 in rows of 3-4. These can be found at every entry into the country, at major tunnels, at the bottom of mountains and at the entrance to major castles or other places of importance.
While they look harmless, they’re actually mines ready for explosion.
If the country is ever invaded, the mines can be detonated, closing off the entire country from the outside world and, if necessary, even destroying it.
Switzerland is a small country, around 41,000km2, with a population of 6.6 million. It borders Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein.
It’s well known throughout the world for its chocolate – Nestle is its largest company; its watches – it has a 90% share in the world’s quality watch market; banks – with 1700 banks and 4500 branches; cheese; pocket knives; and pharmaceuticals – Ciba-Geigy, Hofmann-La Roche and Sandoz - in 1943 Andreas Hofmann, working for Sandoz, discovered and was the first man to take LSD.
Switzerland has been a neutral state since 1815. The only involvement in World War I was with the Red Cross and in World War II, the country acted as a money launderer for Nazi Germany. Its borders were closed to refugees trying to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, and after the war ended, while the rest of Europe was trying to rebuild, Switzerland was able to expand.
The country is not part of the European Union however the government leaders had applied in 1992 and were rejected. While they haven’t reapplied, the law is gradually being adjusted to that of the EU for future application.
The mines, located at all points of entry into the country, are just some of the most fascinating features in the country’s highly developed defence system - deemed imperative in order for Switzerland to remain independent.
If the country ever had to use the mines as protection of its people, there is enough food and raw materials stockpiled underneath the mountains to keep the population alive for many years.
In a further attempt to keep the country neutral, the Swiss military has trained some of the finest soldiers in the world. Every adult male owns his own army rifle, ammunition and a gas mask. National service begins at 20 years of age and includes four months intensive training after which he is eligible for call-up until he’s 32. From 32-43 years, he remains in the reserves.
If there is ever a threat of invasion, within 48 hours 400,000 men can be mobilised throughout the country. All buildings built since World War II have air raid capacity, the entire population can be sheltered underground and emergency hospitals have been established to operate beneath ordinary hospitals.
After a short drive through the tunnels, and over the open land, I arrived at Lauterbrunnen, in the Interlaken district. The name translates into Bright (Lauter) spring (brunnen) and the Staubbach Falls waterfall and the river Weisse Lutschine highlight the town.
My arrival was followed by a train journey to the Top of Europe – Jungfraujoch – the highest point in Europe accessible to transported people, with a railway station at an elevation of 3454 m. As the train rose around the mountain’s edge, we were greeted with breathtaking views of the valleys below. The summer air cooled as we neared the snow-covered top of the mountain. Although it was 30 degrees on the ground, at this height, the snow was metres deep.
It was my first experience with snow. Having grown up in the “Sunshine State” Queensland, I’d never seen snow before so it was an extreme thrill simply to see it. This thrill soon overcame me as I walked and slid through it, built snowmen, threw snowballs and rode a plastic-bag toboggan down the slopes.
The Jungfraujoch is also home to an atmospheric research station. The high altitude, clear air and easy access are ideal conditions for scientific research by astronomers, geologists, physicists, meteorologists and hydrologists. It’s also a small village with an Ice Palace, Ice Gateway, Sphinx observation terrace, plateau for hiking, as well as a restaurant, ski and snowboard park, husky-drawn sled rides, and Europe's highest post office.
The visit was an example of the true natural beauty that exists within Europe, and Switzerland itself gave an astounding awakening to the differing political and economical standpoints that exist throughout the world.
I’m still amazed that a country, which exists right in the centre of World War II domain, could have remained untouched by war and prejudice. Perhaps it should be a lesson to the rest of the world that it’s not impossible for a government to stand on its own feet, to control the country without interference, and to simply remain impartial to all the bad that exists in the rest of the world. Let everyone else fight their own fights – and simply look after your own country and its people. After all, they’re the ones who will lead that country into the future.