Monday, 29 August 2016

Albania and the Greek Islands

We sailed late afternoon on Thursday from Venice, and with a first full day at sea, we had time to explore the ship and find our way around then on Saturday we arrived in Albanian waters, and this stop was the substitute for Ephesus in Turkey which had been cancelled due to political unrest. It was a mystery to most of us – only being open to the world in the 1990s after the fall of Communism. We were taken by coach across country to an old fort – built 1804. (There seems to be a complete disregard for road rules here especially when parking!) It was quite interesting and picturesque however the country has a long way to go before it makes even two star tourism status.

Sunday the 7th – Corfu. Only a couple of hours sailing and we were docking in Corfu. This sightseeing tour took us diagonally across this beautiful island to a Monastery situated high on the clifftops by the sea. Only problem we had with this trip was the very serious guide. She had a very strong accent and a sing-song voice with ”a” added to every word. Very difficult to listen to for long stretches, and sadly, she tried to fill every second of the three hour trip! Ah well.

Monday, 8 August – Olympia (Katakolon) – Great excursion today, with an excellent good humoured guide.
We had about a half hour coach trip to the ancient Olympic site with its excavated ruins. Despite the heat, our guide directed us to the best shady trees – those with some excavated remains just right for sitting on. He pointed out the uses of the various buildings and stadiums and told some extraordinary stories from ancient writings about the actual games in those far off times. So different from the modern games. 
We were taken next to a restaurant and as well as traditional Greek lunch we were treated to four traditional Greek dancers showing us the old folk dances of their land. Of course, there was the ‘Zorba the Greek’ music and dance although we were told this is not a traditional Greek song/dance. One of the dancers even enticed Peter to join in, sadly the ancient Greek gods were on his side as my camera chose that particular time to run out of battery ‘juice’. His lucky day.

Tuesday, 9 August – Nafplion – We began with a walk around the old town, then went by coach about an hour’s drive away to the Corinth Canal. The tour included a boat ride through the very deep and narrow canal built back in the 1890s.
It must have been a wonder of its time, and cut about 100 miles sailing around the bottom of this big peninsula. Today’s ships, though, are too big to make use of the narrow canal and so it seems it is only used for tourism.

Wednesday – Athens. This was to be a 7 hour excursion and with the temperature predicted to reach the high 30s we were not especially looking forward to the climb up the Parthenon. However all went well and we managed the climb despite the heat and the crowds of other sightseers.

 The views were superb and the Acropolis and other nearby temples were awe-inspiring. By the time we made it back down and found our coach, we were ready for lunch. Not yet though – we had an hour’s guided tour through the National Archealogical Museum and I must say it has some absolutely wonderful gold exhibits from the very earliest times of the Minoan Empire as well as stunning Greek – and a few Roman – antiquities.

One that absolutely amazed us was this jaw-dropping one of a leaping horse with a small african slave mounted on top

Lunch was provided for us at a Radisson Hotel and it was lovely to sit and eat Greek food and chat to our fellow passengers. Our excursion ended with an hour’s shopping time before being taken back to the Oosterdam and cool air-conditioned relaxing bliss.  

Mykonos – Another very hot day and not one we were looking forward to surviving. It was, though, quite a lovely relaxing morning being driven around this island and hearing its history and stories. All houses (no higher than ground floor and an upper floor) are painted white with woodwork trim in a different colour but usually blue. Very simple architecture but really lovely to see when sited on the dry, and rocky hillsides with the very blue sea below. Inviting beaches with many beach umbrellas and sunbeds – unused at the early time we were there but very popular later in the day. We visited yet another monastery but this one now only used as a museum as the last monk departed this life several years ago. In the nearby square we were invited to sit and enjoy a glass of Ouzo and a plate of Greek savouries at a shady restaurant while chatting to fellow passengers. While I liked the savouries, I must say I didn't take to Ouzo - reminded me very much of a cough syrup my mother used to give me as a child - but good to try different tastes of the country you visit.

Nearly at an end to our Greek Odyssey now - Next episode we visit Rhodes and Santorini before we venture into Italian waters.

Thursday, 18 August 2016


We found it curious that there wasn’t a direct flight from Malta to Venice. We flew Malta Airlines to Rome then had a ‘lovely’ 4 hour stopover at Rome airport before changing to Alitalia for the second flight to Venice. I must say that the Alitalia staff at the airport were superb – good humoured and very helpful, so after checking in for the second time in a day we wandered off to have lunch while waiting for our flight. What else should we have but pizza and a delicious gelati icecream?

Venice was our embarkation port for our cruise and we arrived a day early and so had time to wander around this amazing city. 

Our small hotel – Hotel Ala – was quite close to St Mark’s Square and again we were so lucky with our choice. The staff were most friendly and helpful and the morning breakfast was just wonderful. Couldn’t have done better.

We had last visited Venice in 1973 and I must report that we were not too impressed back then. It was overcast, drizzly rain, the tide was very high so we had to walk across St Mark’s Square on duckboards, the buildings all looked like they were crumbling and needed restoration and finally piles of smelly garbage were everywhere including in the canals! 

This time however – it was just magical and we enjoyed the narrow walkways between the buildings and watching the gondolas passing by. Again, we had the good luck to find a great restaurant and I enjoyed a most delicious lasagne followed by a dreamy tiramisu. It had to be a totally Italian meal – nothing else would do!

Embarkation was not until the afternoon, so we continued with our Venice sightseeing visiting a most beautiful old chapel used as a lacemaking centre. Stunning handwork and I bought a small piece of traditional Venice handworked lace.

Browsed a few shops as the queues for St Marks and the Doge Palace were miles long. Several cruise ships had arrived so you can just imagine  the crowds.

Not willing to queue in the sun for two plus hours, we decided to try and remember the interiors from 43 years ago then we had a quick lunch before taking a water taxi to ‘our’ cruise ship – the Oosterdam.

Monday, 8 August 2016

To Malta

On Monday up packed and cleared our room (home for the past 14 days) and then said our final goodbyes to the staff – presenting an Australian War Memorial apron to the Belgium lass who came in do the breakfasts for those guests staying in Talbot House. She had been wearing it all week, so it had found a good home and she was delighted. After lunch we were driven to Poperinge Rail Station and very soon we were at Brussels Airport. After the horrific bombing several months ago increased security was to be expected and we were glad we arrived extra early. However, with no problems we were able to board the flight for Malta arriving quite late about 11.30pm.

Valletta looked quite magical at night, and it still seemed so next morning in the sunshine. 

The old buildings are massive built of stone quite a few hundred years ago and adapted through the years for modern living. 

Huge buildings – most with an enclosed balcony – built ‘cheek by jowl’ and divided by steep and narrow streets. Where our hotel was overlooking the harbour were 163 steps up (and down!) to the nearby centre of town where we walked to join the day tour of Malta. 

One interesting and very beautiful Valletta church we visited had a bomb dropped on it during the war. It dropped down through its dome and rolled across the marble floor – and didn’t explode. It is, of course, regarded as a miracle. Out in the surrounding countryside, the island is very dry. Very little rain falls and we wonder where all its fresh water comes from to support the massive population.

The tour included a quite good lunch before we continued on to Mdina – a fortress town where we visited an area which was formerly an airforce base but is now occupied by various different small craft factories – glass, lace, silver filigree, etc. 

The church of Mary Magdalene overlooking the sea was beautifully sited on the clifftop but the surrounding countryside was just so dry and rocky.

Back in Valletta and after an afternoon siesta, we headed out for dinner and up another long flight of steps we found a great restaurant with an outdoor area complete with a fantastic jazz combo to accompany our quite delicious meal. A  lovely way to end our brief visit to Malta.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Talbot House - Every Man's Club

Peter first visited Talbot House on a private battlefields tour about 13 years ago and volunteered as a Warden for 2 weeks four years ago. Duties included welcoming visitors and offering them tea or coffee and checking people in who wanted to stay in the B&B/hostel accommodation. He enjoyed the experience then but it was hard work. However last year he asked me if I'd like to do it with him. Only in warmer weather I replied. So here we are on the last day of our volunteer duty in the European summer, and yes, it has been hard work but also most enjoyable. The paid staff  take care of the cleaning, gardening and cooking the optional English breakfast, so we're left with the pleasure of welcoming hundreds of visitors through the museum and Talbot House itself. We've had great conversations with people from England, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa, America and Australians, too, of course. Peter says it is interesting to note that more and more Dutch and Belgium people are coming through, too.

We've had groups of English schoolchildren and cadet groups visiting, and in some cases, staying several nights in the rooms in the house which are set up as accommodation. The rooms are nicely decorated with two single beds - sometimes bunks - with their own wash basin. There are shared showers and toilets on each floor. A continental breakfast is included in the price - 47 Euros for a single room or 72 Euros for a double. Included in this is a Continental breakfast (assortment of cereals, breads, rolls, cheeses, cold meats, yoghurts, fruit, etc. and tea/coffee and juice). Good value!

The interior of the house is just beautiful (it is about 150 years old). It had been leased by England during World War 1 and then returned to it's former owner afterwards. However the family were continually pestered by ex-soldiers and their families wanting to see the place that offered so much comfort during the war and were very happy when eventually Lord Wakefield purchased the house as an ongoing hostel/museum. During World War 2, it was cleared out when the Germans invaded Belgium and it was taken over by them and, so the story goes, used as a brothel. We've had quite a few people who mention that their gt.grandfather had visited Talbot House during the war. Also had quite a few Belgium people who had family who had fled to England when Germany invaded, and lived out the war at Birtley in England - their purpose-built 'Belgium' town was called Elisabethville (after the Belgium queen) and many worked in a factory there making bombs.

The lovely kitchen with a massive AGA.

Some of the interior rooms.
Cuppas for all.
Large entry hall.
The Chapel - high up on the third floor. A special place with a special feeling.
As you can see it is a beautiful house. As honorary Wardens we are fairly much house-bound though with only Mondays off. We can take short trips out to the small Spar supermarket (where they are beginning to know me!) on the corner, or to the gorgeous bakery opposite. But with tour groups coming through from the Museum building (an old Hop Storage brick building), school groups, cadet groups - some of which stay overnight - and of course, small groups of people from many countries all wanting to see through the house and climb all the way up to the Upper Room (chapel), we are kept busy welcoming and making lots and lots of tea and coffee.

The first few days we were here it was quite hot but when the weather cooled a little I baked Anzac Biscuits, Banana Biscuits and an old fashioned Boiled Fruit Cake - all Aussie favourites. All went down well with the complimentary cuppa.

The Banana biscuits were such a hit that I printed out some pages with the recipe and handed them out - for a small donation to Talbot House. Winner!!

We also have next door's cat, Benjou, who  regards Talbot House as part of his territory and makes hmself at home wherever he likes.

Each Friday there is a market in the nearby square so we take turns to go for an hour's browse. Lots of clothing stalls, plus food stalls and small entertaining groups around. The local church bells chime a pretty tune on the hour before the usual dong, dong. Poperinge is very nice and we almost feel like locals now.

In spite of leaving tomorrow to continue our trip, we shall be quite sorry to leave Talbot House.

We've had quite a bit of work from early morning to early evening but the experience we've had has just been wonderful. Loved the feel of almost being a local - shopping at the local shops and talking to Belgium people - all wonderfully welcoming. Tomorrow we're off to Malta.