Articles tagged with "europe"

A day in Amsterdam

A day in Amsterdam

I had 12 hours between flights in the Netherlands. It was still dark when we landed at Schiphol at 7am, so I hung around in the airport until it was daylight and then got a train into Amsterdam.

I like getting out into a city for a few hours between flights. It feels a bit risky, leaving your bags behind somewhere in the bowels of the airport, and trusting that you can get back in time for the next flight. And I always have the temptation of leaving everything behind anyway, ditching my luggage and my plans and starting a new life as a permanent traveller.

But I just went to Amsterdam. It was a cold grey December Sunday and everything was quiet at first, but later on the town centre filled up with Christmas shoppers. I wandered randomly, stopping for lots of coffees. At some point I passed a monument to the murdered Jews of the city. I thought back to the fake guns of Wai’an, 6,000 miles away, and thought about the unbelievably horrific scale of the second world war.

After a long wander through the grey streets, I headed back to the airport and flew to Paris. There I had a few more hours to kill but I’ve seen Paris enough times not to need to go there for a couple of hours on a dark winter’s evening, so I just waited for my Chile flight. 48 hours after I’d left Taipei, I was crossing the Andes and descending into Santiago.

Bellinzona

Bellinzona

We went to Bellinzona for an afternoon. We went to one of the castles; Bellinzona has lots of them. This one offered a tour which started with some kind of video about the history of the place. Probably it was very informative but I wasn’t in the mood at all after a late night the previous night, so I sneaked out and left all my fellow astronomers in there to listen to it for me. A couple of them followed me out after a few minutes, and we went up onto the castle ramparts to check out the views over the valley and some of Bellinzona’s other castles.

Over Switzerland

Over Switzerland

ESO’s last minute flight booking antics meant that instead of a nice easy direct flight from London to Zurich, I had a horrific 6.40am flight connecting in Paris. After a last night out in London I got to a cheap hotel near Heathrow at 2am, then had to get up at 4.30am to get a bus to the airport. So I was not feeling too fantastic when I arrived in Switzerland at 11am.

Switzerland has many awesome travel memories for me. It was the destination for my first ever overseas holiday at the age of 6; I stopped in Zurich on my way to China when I travelled from Beijing to London by train; and I’d crossed the country on my way from Liechtenstein to Monaco a couple of years ago. I crossed it again today, this time from north to south. In grey skies and drizzle I arrived in Locarno, and headed to the conference venue.

Back to London

Back to London

When I moved to Chile, I didn’t know when I would be back in London, but I didn’t expect to be away for a whole year. For most of the year, though, one of my spinal discs was slowly giving way, and I spent months in excruciating pain. Travelling home was a distant dream. Then came successful surgery to remove the disc, followed by physiotherapy and rehabilitation. And finally by September I was capable of crossing continents and returning to my homeland.

And so I found myself landing at Heathrow on a dark autumn evening. The strangeness of the familiarity was hard to grasp as I got on the underground and headed into my city. I’ve never seen London quite like I saw it that night, as I rumbled down the piccadilly line, disorientated, tired and happy to be back. I checked into a hostel, because I’d always wanted to see London as a tourist, called some dearly missed friends, went to a pub, and got back to the hostel at midday the next day. It was an epic return home.

City twilight

City twilight

Picturesque as it was, Luxembourg was not a great place for a solo traveller. The demographic here was pretty different to the one I inhabit, and I wandered the streets for a while seeing few signs of fun nightlife but plenty of expensive restaurants. Not wanting to spend large quantities of Euros on my evening meal, I ended up getting a crêpe from a cafe, and then spending the evening walking around the high parts of town and watching night fall.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg

I’d kind of been to Luxembourg before, passing through at the age of six on the way from the UK to Switzerland on my first ever trip outside the UK. But it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what the place was like, would not recognise a picture of the place if I saw one, and yet it was only 300 miles away and very easy to get to.

So I bought some Eurostar tickets and went there. A high speed journey took me to grey rainy Brussels in less than two hours. I got a coffee and pastry for breakfast in Midi station, then got on the much slower train to Luxembourg. The clouds cleared and the sun was shining as we passed through the snowy forests of the Ardennes.

I can’t imagine ever getting bored of arriving in a place I’ve never been to before, especially one so close to home but so completely obscure to me. I was in a good mood as I walked out of the station and into the city. I walked randomly towards the centre, crossed a soaring bridge over the Pétrusse valley, and then found myself on the Corniche, a narrow road along a cliff edge over the Alzette valley. I was wondering why I’d never, to the best of my recollection, seen even a single photo of this town. Later, as the sun was setting, I went to the ruined fortifications of the city and headed up to some viewpoints as the lights were coming on.

Observatorio del Teide

Observatorio del Teide

After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. We headed up there in a little minibus and it was a lot like the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in that the driver drove too fast on the winding road and I got to the top feeling like I was going to die of carsickness.

It was a calm and warm day. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface.

Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today.

Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going not from nearby Tenerife North airport, but Tenerife South, 50 miles away at the other end of the island. I leapt into a taxi and sped off. I picked a good driver, we made excellent time and in the end I easily made the flight. Next time I’m here, though, I’ll check my bookings a bit more carefully.

La Laguna

La Laguna

I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day.

I saw a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever do secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.

Terminal 3

Terminal 3

I went to the Canary Islands for a meeting. I keep on trying to go there by boat seeing as every airline I fly with there seems to be in some way appalling or incompetent. But I had no time and I was flying again.

My flight was very early. Somehow it often seems to me that it’s a better idea to stay up all night than to get just a few hours of sleep, so I went out, got back late, packed up and then headed for Heathrow. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I was unbelievably tired by the time I got to the airport not long before sunrise.

A Coruña

A Coruña

Everyone except me was flying back home from Santiago’s airport. I am prepared to go to great lengths to avoid flying with Ryanair, and so I’d booked a slightly more expensive flight from A Coruña. It at least gave me a chance to see another place, so I headed out after I’d said goodbye to everyone.

A Coruña is much bigger than Santiago, and seemed much less touristy. One very cool thing about it is that it’s surrounded by the sea and has beaches right in the city centre. I went and sat one one for a while.

I walked on to the main square, but I’d spent too long on the beach and I didn’t have time to make use of the cafes here. I got the bus to the airport, and even though my flight was then delayed by several hours, I did not regret continuing my Ryanair boycott.

Río Ulla

Río Ulla

We went white-water rafting while we were in Galicia. I’d never done it before so I was really looking forward to it. We got a train to Padrón, from where trips down the Río Ulla start.

The seven of us took a boat and a guide, and headed downstream. Four other boats were on the river, and pretty much the first thing all the guides did was to try and get us to fall out. I was very reluctant, but I guess it’s better to fall out first in the calm water before the inevitable spills in the rapids. So we all got soaking wet in the chilly waters, and then went paddling downstream for some rapid action.

The Ulla is not such a wild river, but the scenery was awesome and we had great fun. After the first couple of rapids, our guide got us to try them out with variations like going backwards, standing up, trying to paddle up one we’d just come down, and things like that. At the final rapids, he said “You don’t really need the boat for this one. Just jump out and swim.” I thought he was joking but he really meant it, so we all jumped out and swam over the rapids. Then we swam downstream all the way to the pick-up point. I’d never swum down a river before and I thought it was awesome.

We all agreed that the Ulla had been a little bit tame and it would be nice to try something a bit wilder. But none the less, we were all shattered, and our plans for a big night out clubbing fell flat as we were all too destroyed to stay out beyond 2am.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela

I have had many good times in Santiago de Compostela. This time I was going with a group of friends to celebrate an imminent wedding. We spent three days there, making good use of all the tiny bars in the historic city centre in the nights, and the cafes in the Praza da Quintana in the following mornings.

Millau

Millau

We drove from Durban-Corbières back to the UK, stopping off in Orléans on the way. I was happy that our route would take us over the Millau viaduct. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the bridge but it was still incredible to cross it. When we saw the tops of the pylons poking above the horizon from some distance away we could really appreciate how huge it is. We soared over the Tarn valley, and then stopped on the other side to have a look. We were there at the wrong time of day for good photographs, though, with the sun shining more or less directly at us from over the bridge.

Durban-Corbières

Durban-Corbières

I got a train to Narbonne, and then headed to Durban-Corbières, a tiny town in Languedoc-Rousillon. I spent a fantastic fortnight there with my family, relaxing in the hot sun, swimming in the pool, eating good food and enjoying a good life. I went for one moderately long cycle around the hills but otherwise did more or less nothing. My travel style is not normally like that; a holiday without uncertainty, hardship and fear is not really a holiday by my reckoning. But just every now and again it’s nice to actually relax. The view from our villa to the crumbling castle was more or less my only view of the outside world for two weeks.

Two weeks of slothful living passed very quickly, and all too soon it was time to pack up and go.

By the harbour

By the harbour

I finished my lap and went to the harbour for a while. There were lots of cafes near the water’s edge, overlooking all the decadent playboy’s yachts. I picked one and sat down. There was no menu and no prices, but I decided I was going to have a coffee by the harbour in Monaco regardless of expense. I was actually quite disappointed when it was only €1.70.

I bought some lunch and sat by the sea eating it. Monaco was all action, with traffic pounding around the narrow streets. I went into a Casino supermarket and bought some Monegasque chocolate and wine, and then headed back to Nice to catch the train to Narbonne. My microstates tour was over, and now the only countries in Europe that I still needed to visit were Andorra and San Marino.

Monaco

Monaco

Crossing Switzerland by train in a day was easy. My journey to Geneva required me to change at Buchs, Sargans and Zürich. At each stop, the gap between the trains was exactly enough for me to find the platform and go to it – neither more nor less. I watched the beautiful countryside sweeping past from the comfort of air-conditioned trains.

From Geneva I caught a TGV to Nice, and spent a night there, in a hot airless hostel. I walked down to the beach in the humid night and sat on the shores of the Mediterranean. I’d already come a long way from Vienna, and I was only half way to my destination.

In the morning, I got a train along the coast to Monaco. I didn’t really have any plans at all to fill the few hours I had before I needed to catch a train to Narbonne. I emerged from the cavernous station to find myself in the extraordinarily familiar surroundings of Saint-Devote, the first corner of the grand prix circuit. It was really strange to be somewhere where I recognised everything, and had seen everything from many different angles, many times over the years, without ever having been there. There was only one thing for a grand prix fan to do at this point. I headed out for a lap.

The more I walked, the more I decided I really, really wanted to see a grand prix live here. The narrowness of the streets, and the steepness of the climbs and descents, was so much more dramatic in the flesh than it ever looked on television. Cars were having trouble overtaking buses, so how Formula One cars could ever do any overtaking was beyond me. I walked up the hill to the Casino, down through the Mirabeau and round the fantastic Loewes Hairpin. I thought of all the awesome races that had passed here, and looked at the marks they’d left on the kerbs.

I carried on, under the tunnel, and up towards the left-hander at Tabac. There is a chicane here called the Swimming Pool, so I’m not sure why I was actually surprised to see a swimming pool. I think they cover it over during the GP weekend so I’d always imagined it was some former landmark. But now I passed by it, nearing the end of my lap. I rounded the Rascasse and then headed into the final straight. I would definitely have to come back here to watch a grand prix.

Vaduz

Vaduz

I wanted to have a bit of a lie down before exploring the country, but the hostel wouldn’t let me check in until 2pm. It was 7.30am and the sun was shining, so I decided to head out. I walked down the road from Schaan to Vaduz, sat down on a bench in the empty town, and fell asleep. I woke myself up by snoring, embarrassed then to find that the streets were now quite busy. Feeling the disapproval of the passers by, I got up and staggered through the town. I found a small park full of trees, and fell asleep again in the cool shade. I slept for a long time, occasionally wondering if I might get arrested for vagrancy, but enjoying my doze far too much to worry about it.

Eventually I woke up and decided it was time to actually look around instead of just sleeping rough in various parts of town. It was a hot, hot, sunny day, and the little town was pretty much exactly as I’d imagined it, a street lined with expensive cafes, with a castle on the hills overlooking the town, and jagged mountains all around. I stopped in one of the cafes and had an expensive lunch.

I wandered up the hill towards the castle. Wealthy suburbs full of large, comfortable-looking houses spread out across the lush green fields. Not far away was the Rhein, and on the other side of that was Switzerland. Austria was behind me, over the mountains. Behind the castle, a forest stretched away. I relaxed in the cool shade for a while, before heading back towards Schaan.

The heat of the day was impressive, and the cool of evening was welcome. I went to bed early and slept deeply. Early the next morning I walked out of Liechtenstein and into Switzerland, to catch a train from Buchs. My next destination was Nice.

Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein

After the conference in Vienna, I was heading to the south of France to meet my family for a relaxing holiday in a villa. I could have flown, but I decided to travel at ground level and stop off in some countries more or less en route that I hadn’t been to. So I headed to Wien Westbahnhof, found the night train for Feldkirch and got on board. At first I had a compartment all to myself, and thought I might have a nice ride, but in the minutes before departure it filled to capacity. It would be an uncomfortable night.

We crossed Austria. I woke up in Salzburg and Innsbruck, and then at Bludenz, where the sky was beginning to brighten and we were not far from our final destination. By now there was only one person left in the compartment, and he also woke. He rubbed his eyes, looked around blearily, and slowly focussed on the station sign. In an instant he was thrown into a panic, leaping from his seat, grabbing his things and bolting. I saw him leap from the carriage moments before we started pulling out. I wondered just how long ago he’d meant to get off.

Not long afterwards, we arrived at Feldkirch, right on the edge of Austria. After a chilly half hour wait in the fresh morning air, the train to Buchs arrived, and I got on. It was going to be a beautiful day, and as we crossed into Liechtenstein, mist drifted over the fields and the hills. A few minutes later I got off the train at Schaan, excited to be in a tiny country about which I knew almost nothing. Tired and grubby from the night train, I walked out into the deserted town. I found an early morning bakery, bought an excellent coffee and a few pastries, and sat in the sunshine looking around at the country.

Danube

Danube

I didn’t have much time to spare in Vienna. I was giving the penultimate talk of the conference, so I spent the whole week preparing it and stressing about it. I went for a walk one afternoon when there were no conference sessions and wandered randomly around Vienna.

Vienna

Vienna

I went to Vienna for a conference. After an early flight and almost no sleep, I was exhausted when I got there, and I headed for a hostel and slept for a while. In the evening I got up and explored the city, randomly wandering the streets. It was hot and humid, and I stopped often for drinks and snacks.

In the evening, as I walked back to the hostel, I felt a sudden thud on my shoulder. I looked around, and found myself face to face with a grasshopper of terrifying size. Where he had come from, I don’t know, but I recoiled in horror, the confusion of the situation only getting worse as I realised you can’t recoil very far from your own shoulder. I slapped frantically and twitched across the pavement, getting rid of the beast but attracting confused looks from a passer-by.