Category Archives: Europe

Remembrance Day

On the 11th of November at 11AM, we stop to remember the men and women who have given their lives in the service of our country.

This year marks 96 years since the Armistice was signed between the Allied Forces and the German forces on November 11 1918, ending the Great War.

A wreath of poppies on the wall of the National War Memorial of Scotland
A wreath of poppies on the wall of the National War Memorial of Scotland

Armistice Day, as it is called here in the UK and Europe, was commemorated with the traditional two minutes silence at 11AM.

The National War Memorial of Scotland
The National War Memorial of Scotland

Later, as part of our visit to Edinburgh Castle, we spent some time paying our respects in the National War Memorial of Scotland and learning more about the Scottish experience of war in the National War Museum.

Lest we forget.

Paris Museum Pass Challenge – Day 4: Rodin, the Orangerie and the Palais de la Découverte

The Paris Museum Pass gives you free access to over forty museums and monuments in Paris and the surrounding region. We decided to purchase a four day pass, thinking that with our planned visits to the Chateau de Versailles, the Louvre, the Towers of Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, we would eventually come out ahead after paying the 56 Euros per pass.

Musée Rodin

The gardens of the Musée Rodin
The gardens of the Musée Rodin

On my first orientation tour of Paris in 2010, my tour guide pointed out the back of Rodin’s The Thinker as the bus sped past. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to visit the Rodin museum – and since it was listed on the museums and monuments that were part of the Paris Museum Pass, I grabbed the opportunity.

While darting from statue to sculpture in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, and deciding that the estate could be added to the shortlist of houses that I could live in, we began to worry – we couldn’t see The Thinker anywhere.

The Thinker at the Musée Rodin
The Thinker, the famous statue at the Musée Rodin

It turned out we had taken the longest way around possible. As we had gone through the entrance and stood facing the chateau, we had headed left all the way around the gardens and then through the house. The Thinker was just to our right!

Palais de la Découverte

The grand foyer of the Palais de la Découverte

The grand foyer of the Palais de la Découverte

For a break from the traditional sightseeing (and to get more value out of our Paris Museum Passes!), we headed for the Palais de la Découverte, a science and discovery museum housed in the Grand Palais. We were hoping for a French version of the Investigator Science Centre that we grew up with back in Adelaide. While there were some interactive games and exhibits (including some computer quizzes in English), there was a lot of reading to do as well and it wasn’t as hands-on as we were expecting.

Note: Entrance to the Planetarium (3 Euros) was not included in the Paris Museum Pass.

Musée de l’Orangerie

The Musée de l'Orangerie
The Musée de l’Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens

Another museum that was on my list to see was The Orangerie. I had wanted to go there to see Monet’s waterlilies paintings, but was surprised to find that they were not my favourite art pieces in the small gallery. I far preferred the Renoir portraits tucked away amongst the work of other renowned artists.

Is the Paris Museum Pass worth it?

Cost of Paris Museum Pass: 56 Euros
Entrance costs from Day 1: 18 Euros
Entrance costs from Day 2: 31.50 Euros
Entrance costs from Day 3: 9.50 Euros

Cost of entry into the Musée Rodin: 7 Euros
Cost of entry into the Palais de la Découverte: 9 Euros
Cost of entry into the Musée de l’Orangerie: 9 Euros

Verdict: 28.00 Euros ahead

The four day Paris Museum Pass was worth it for us, though admittedly some of the places we visited, such as the Palais de la Découverte, we only went to because it was listed on the Paris Museum Pass.

We didn’t feel any pressure to visit as many sights as we could to make our money back. There were many other museums and monuments we could have crammed in if we had really wanted to, but we took it easy and still managed to come out ahead of what we would have paid visiting all of the sights separately.

Since we visited Paris in autumn, we had no chance to be able to ‘jump the queue’ with our Paris Museum Passes, but having this ability would be very useful during June, July and August, when tourist numbers in Paris are at their peak.

To find out whether it is worth it for you, take a look of the list of museums, palaces and attractions that the Paris Museum Pass grants you entrance to, and work out which ones you want to visit and whether you have the time to see them.

A complete list of the museums and monuments can be found on the Paris Museum Pass official website.

Paris Museum Pass Challenge: Day 3 – The Arc de Triomphe

The Paris Museum Pass gives you free access to over forty museums and monuments in Paris and the surrounding region. We decided to purchase a four day pass, thinking that with our planned visits to the Chateau de Versailles, the Louvre, the Towers of Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, we would eventually come out ahead after paying the 56 Euros per pass.

The Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe
Climbing the Arc de Triomphe is included in the Paris Museum Pass

After a lazy morning exploring Montmartre, we headed for the Arc de Triomphe for a 360 degree view of Paris and one of its busiest roundabouts. I enjoyed looking out along the straight avenues that lead to the Place de l’Étoile and watching the chaos on the road below as cars tried to navigate their way on to and off of the roundabout.

We ended up spending the rest of the day window shopping along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, before making our way up past the Palais Garnier to end the afternoon at the Galeries Lafayette. It was nice to have a day where we didn’t feel like we had to rush around to get our money’s worth out of our museum passes, and by the end of the day we had broken even. Anything we visited on Day 4 would essentially be ‘free’.

Want more information on the Arc de Triomphe?
Address: Place Charles de Gaulle, 75008 Paris, France
Website: http://arc-de-triomphe.monuments-nationaux.fr/
Closest metro station: Charles-de-Gaulle-Etoile

Is the Paris Museum Pass worth it?

Cost of Paris Museum Pass: 56 Euros

Entrance costs from Day 1: 18 Euros
Entrance costs from Day 2: 31.50 Euros

Cost of entry to climb the Arc de Triomphe: 9.50 Euros

Verdict: 3.00 Euros ahead, one day left

Paris Museum Pass Challenge: Day 2 – The Museums

The Paris Museum Pass gives you free access to over forty museums and monuments in Paris and the surrounding region. We decided to purchase a four day pass, thinking that with our planned visits to the Chateau de Versailles, the Louvre, the Towers of Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, we would eventually come out ahead after paying the 56 Euros per pass.

Museum Day

The grey Parisian sky was threatening rain, so we decided that the second day of our Paris Museum Pass challenge should be spent indoors as much as possible. We singled out a number of museums that people had recommended to us, such as the Musée National du Moyen Âge, as well as the iconic sights of the Louvre and Notre Dame. Armed with our Paris Museum Passes, we headed for the first stop on the list.

Musée National du Moyen Âge (Musée de Cluny)

The entrance to the Hôtel de Cluny
The entrance to the Hôtel de Cluny reminds me of a chateau

The Musée National du Moyen Âge is a museum housed in the Hôtel de Cluny. The museum is known for its collection of the six The Lady and The Unicorn tapestries, which I had wanted to see ever since reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name. The Musée National du Moyen Âge also contains a collection of artefacts from the Middle Ages, from illuminated books, stained glass, ancient statues and sculptures, decorative boxes, to religious objects and artwork, as well as having third century Gallo-Roman baths.

The Lady and the Unicorn - 'Taste' tapestry
One of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée National du Moyen Âge – ‘Taste’

Want more information on the Musée National du Moyen Âge?
Address: 6 Place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris, France
Website: http://www.musee-moyenage.fr (in French only)
Closest metro station: Cluny – La Sorbonne

The Towers of Notre Dame

The view over Paris from the towers of Notre Dame
The view over Paris from the towers of Notre Dame

After visiting Notre Dame de Paris and admiring the beautiful stained glass rose windows, we joined the queue for the Towers climb. This was definitely easier to do in the off-season. We only had a wait of thirty minutes queueing along the side of the cathedral – much better than the two hour waits I’ve endured to climb the Towers during July and August.

By the time we climbed up to the top of the South Tower, the sky had cleared, giving us beautiful views over Paris.

Want more information on the Towers of Notre Dame?
Address: Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame, 75004 Paris, France
Website: http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/spip.php?article477
Closest metro station: Cité

The Archaeological Crypt of Notre Dame

The Roman foundations of Lutetia in the Archaeolgical Crypt of Notre Dame
The Roman foundations of Lutetia in the Archaeolgical Crypt of Notre Dame

Maybe I’ve read too many ghost stories, but whenever I hear the word ‘crypt’, I think of dark chambers full of tombs and decaying bodies. However, the Archaeological Crypt of Notre Dame, which is accessible from the courtyard in front of the cathedral, displays ruins of Roman foundations from when Paris was known as Lutetia.

I’m not sure if I would have visited it if it hadn’t been part of the Paris Museum Pass, but that’s one of the good things about the pass – it allows you the freedom to check out a museum you might not otherwise have gone into, since it doesn’t cost you anything more.

Want more information on the Archaeological Crypt of Notre Dame?
Address: 1, place du Parvis Notre-Dame, 75004 Paris, France
Website: http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/spip.php?article477
Closest metro station: Cité

The Musée du Louvre

The Venus de Milo at the Louvre
The Venus de Milo, one of my favourite exhibits at the Louvre

How is it that on my fourth visit to the Louvre I still end up getting lost and it is my brother who, on his very first visit, figures out how to get us to the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa? I will never understand why the Louvre makes me feel so disoriented.

Want more information on the Musée du Louvre?
Address: Musée du Louvre, 75058 Paris, France
Skip the lineup outside of the large pyramid by entering via the Galerie du Carrousel entrance on the Rue de Rivoli
Website: http://www.louvre.fr/en
Closest metro station: Palais-Royal–Musée du Louvre

Is the Paris Museum Pass worth it?

Cost of Paris Museum Pass: 56 Euros

Entrance costs from Day 1: 18 Euros

Cost of entry into the Musée de Cluny: 8 Euros
Cost of entry into Notre Dame de Paris: free
Cost of entry into the Towers of Notre Dame: 8.50 Euros
Cost of entry into the Archeological Crypt of Notre Dame: 3 Euros
Cost of entry into the Louvre: 12 Euros

Verdict: 6.50 Euros out of pocket, two days left

Paris Museum Pass Challenge: Day 1 – Versailles

The Paris Museum Pass gives you free access to over forty museums and monuments in Paris and the surrounding region. We decided to purchase a four day pass, thinking that with our planned visits to the Chateau de Versailles, the Louvre, the Towers of Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, we would eventually come out ahead after paying the 56 Euros per pass.

Buying the Paris Museum Pass

The first challenge we faced was where to buy the pass. The stall by Notre Dame where I had bought them before was closed, so we wandered over to the Louvre, having read on the Paris Museum Pass website that they could be bought at the attraction’s ticket desks or online. At the Louvre, we were directed to an information office halfway between the inverted pyramid and the information desk at the Louvre. They sold passes as well as memberships to the Louvre, and were very helpful.

To Versailles!

Armed with our Museum Passes, we caught the metro to Gare Montparnasse and then hopped on a suburban train to Versailles-Chantiers. It took about fifteen minutes to get there, and the way from the Versailles-Chantiers train station to the Chateau de Versailles is well signed.

The Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles

The displays at Versailles had been updated since I was last there four years ago. There were audio visual presentations about how the chateau had been extended over the years, which seemed to be new.

Versailles is one extravagant room after another, culminating in the Hall of Mirrors.

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles
The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

On this visit, we also went in to the Mesdames Apartments, which with their white walls and ceilings, were a good antidote to the wall-to-ceiling paintings of the state apartments (I especially liked Madame Adelaide’s library nook).

The Gardens of Versailles

It was a beautiful day for strolling around the gardens. Blue skies and bright sunshine made me forget it was only 12 degrees!

As we walked through the gardens from the chateau to the Trianons, we had fun getting lost in the maze of terraced gardens. Unfortunately, because we were there in November, the statues all had protective covers over them in preparation for winter, and construction and restoration works were taking place on many of the fountains, so the walk through the gardens and along the Grand Canal lost some of its idyll.

The Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet


I could happily make the Petit Trianon and its grounds my home. The rooms inside are cosy and not too grand. (The theatre was closed while we were there).

The Petit Trianon
The Petit Trianon – I could see myself living here!

This visit I had more time to wander around the hamlet and look at the buildings. My brother asked me what the purpose of it all was. When I told him it was Marie Antoinette’s place to escape and pretend she was someone else, he thought it was made for her when she was a little girl. I corrected him, and when I asked him if he could imagine me at the same age having a place like this, he admitted that he could!

The Grand Trianon

It was 4:30pm by the time we reached the Grand Trianon. The sun was already beginning to set, but the lights hadn’t been turned on in any of the rooms, making them dark. I think that the reason that I struggled to like the Grand Trianon during my last visit was a combination of the rooms being dark, there being no real information about the rooms or their historical significance, and the fact that as the last place you visit during your time at Versailles, you are genuinely tired.

The Cotelle Gallery and the portico were still my favourite parts of the Grand Trianon (and you could walk through the Gallery – the last time I visited it was roped off).

Overall, we were very lucky with the weather and had a near-perfect day to visit Versailles!

Is the Paris Museum Pass worth it?

Cost of Paris Museum Pass: 56 Euros
Cost of entry into Versailles, the Gardens, the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon: 18 Euros

Verdict: 38 Euros out of pocket, three days left

An Afternoon in Ghent

We had a quiet morning this morning. The rain and grey skies of yesterday had disappeared, and we wandered the streets of Bruges while seeking out breakfast.

Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges
Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges

We then headed to Sint-Janshospitaal, one of the four early hospitals in Bruges where the poor and the sick would come to receive medical treatment and have the nuns who ran the hospital pray for them. Medical knowledge was limited prior to the sixteenth century, and barbers would often be brought in to help patch up people! Within the hospital museum were old records, books, religious paintings and relics, and medical implements that looked really painful to be on the receiving end of!

Afterwards, we made our way to the train station and caught the train to Ghent, which is only a half hour away from Bruges. I have to admit that our real reason for going to Ghent was because it was where the fictional character Rodmilla de Ghent, the evil stepmother to Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella in the movie Ever After, came from.

From the train station, Ghent looks bigger and a lot more modern than the picture perfect Bruges. It took us half an hour to walk from the train station to Ghent’s old quarter, but we slowly saw the tessellated façades of the older buildings.

We made a beeline for Gravensteen Castle, which was once owned by the Counts of Flanders. It was a large castle with rooms displaying enough suits of armor, weaponry and torture devices to keep Ryan entertained (one of the swords was taller than him!) and enough history and ambience to please me. The views over Ghent from the top of the keep and the castle walls were worth the entry itself (although restoration works were being carried out while we were there, to fix part of the fortress which had become dilapidated).

Gravensteen Castle in Ghent
Gravensteen Castle in Ghent

Once Ryan had pulled me away from the castle, we had a cheap and cheerful lunch at Hema, before spending the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets of Ghent, taking in the gorgeous sights of the houses along the canal, and visiting the Belfry and Cloth Guild, and Saint Nicholas’s Church, Saint Jacob’s Church and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, where the altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb is kept.

The weather was far nicer to us today, with mostly clear skies but chilly with a maximum of 12 degrees Celsius! At times during the day, I regretted leaving my gloves back at the hotel!

Ghent was easy to do as a day trip from Bruges. The Old Town was really pretty and it is off of the tourist path, away from the tour groups who frequent Brussels and Bruges.

We caught the train back to Bruges just as it was getting dark – at 5pm, and settled down for our last night in Belgium.

What you need to know:

  • Gravensteen Castle: Entrance to Gravensteen Castle costs 10 Euros per person for a self-guided tour that lasts between 1.5 and 2 hours
  • The train from Bruges to Gent-Sint-Pieter train station takes about thirty minutes. A round trip ticket can be purchased for around 16 Euros. If you’re not keen on walking to the old part of Ghent, there are frequent trams which run from the train station to the Grote Markt and Gravensteen Castle.

In Search of Puffins

Looking over the cliffs towards Dyrhólaey lighthouse
Looking over the cliffs towards Dyrhólaey lighthouse (Dyrhólaeyjarviti)

My mum asked for one souvenir from Iceland: a photo of a puffin.

I must admit that I didn’t want to leave Iceland without seeing one, either. My original plan for going on a puffin and whale-watching tour out of Reykjavik had been eclipsed by the opportunity to go inside of a volcano, and I wondered if I had missed out on being able to see a puffin altogether.

On my mum’s birthday, our tour guide took us along the southern coast of Iceland, stopping at cliffs that overlooked the rough sea. Rock formations jutted up out of the water in shapes that reminded me of London Bridge and the Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road back home.

The 'London Bridge' rock formation
I’ve named this formation at Dyrhólaey lighthouse ‘London Bridge’, after the collapsed London Bridge rock formation along the Great Ocean Road

Each time a bird flew past I’d peer at it through my camera’s zoom, hoping to see that distinctive red beak and a flash of white underbelly, but all I saw were gulls. Our tour guide was not optimistic: the previous tour they had only seen three puffins. It was quite likely we wouldn’t see any.
 
The next stop was ostensibly to walk to another lookout for a view of some basalt columns, but it was also a well-known spot for puffins. And just a few steps away from the car park, there they were, sitting perfectly still, posing obediently while we scrambled to take photos of them.

Puffins
The first sighting of puffins, perfectly positioned

Our guide marvelled at how many there were. I like to think he knew they were there all along, and wanted to build up the suspense and surprise us!

Puffins
Puffins are such unique looking birds

 
We tore ourselves away from the puffins and carried on towards the next stop: a black sand beach with basalt columns (it was easy to see how the columns had influenced the design of Hallgrimskirkja back in Reykjavik).

Basalt columns at Reynisfjara Beach
The basalt columns of Reynisfjara Beach

Here, we were being truly spoiled: there were puffins galore floating on the water.

Puffins floating in the ocean
What an amazing sight! There were so many puffins floating in the ocean (and I was worried I wouldn’t see any)!

Later that day, still excited by having seen puffins, I sat in the lobby of the Puffin Hotel, wished Mum a happy birthday on Skype, and e-mailed her her present.

Puffins
Seeing puffins on Mum’s birthday made these photos a birthday gift rather than souvenirs

Going beyond Skogafoss

Skogafoss is just one of the many waterfalls along Iceland’s Ring Road. Most people see this waterfall from below, standing next to the river that it crashes down into. However, there is more to Skogafoss if you’re feeling adventurous and want to explore.

Skogafoss
Skogafoss, one of the many waterfalls along Iceland’s Ring Road

Next to the waterfall there is a set of stairs that snakes its way up the cliffs to the top of Skogafoss. Even though I was out of breath by the time I reached the top of the falls, it was completely worth it because the view was spectacular: you can look out over the rugged green hills and watch the river as it cuts through the plains below and winds out to the sea.

The lookout from the top of Skogafoss
The lookout from the top of Skogafoss – from here you can see all the way to the sea

While this lookout has a fantastic view, you can venture further up the river. If you climb over the stile by the lookout (be careful – it had just been raining when we reached Skogafoss, and I slipped off of the stile and into the mud!) you will find yourself on the trail that heads through Laugavegurinn and Fimmvörðuháls Pass.

The top of Skogafoss
The top of Skogafoss, where the river plunges down the cliffs

While we didn’t venture too far up the trail (we had a guided tour of the Skogar museum that we needed to get to), the scenery above the waterfall was even prettier than the landscape below.

The waterfall just up the river from Skogafoss
The waterfall just up the river from Skogafoss

There were more waterfalls and emerald green fields where sheep grazed. A collection of troll cairns surprised me – I had thought they were something that were only built in Norway, but obviously not!

Troll cairns
Troll cairns along the river

Heading back down the stairs I took one last look at Skogafoss, feeling the thick mist hanging in the air, before returning to the carpark. I felt glad that I had made the effort to get to the top of Skogafoss – it gave me an appreciation of just how beautiful and green the Icelandic countryside is.

So if you’re driving along the Ring Road, stop in at Skogafoss and take on those stairs – you won’t regret it!

Skogafoss
Me trying to keep out of the mist coming from the falls!

Stumbling across Lambeth Palace

One of the things I love about travelling to Europe is that it doesn’t take you too long before you stumble across another castle or palace, which is what happened when a wrong turn took me to the south bank of the Thames and instead of finding myself standing in front of The Globe Theatre, I came across Lambeth Palace.

Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury
Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury

Lambeth Palace is home to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was unfortunately closed to the public when I happened across it. It made me wonder – how many other palaces are tucked away among the streets of London?

Looking across the Thames towards Lambeth Palace
Looking across the Thames towards Lambeth Palace

Have you ever stumbled upon something or lost your sense of direction? Share it in the comments!

What you need to know:

Crossing the Devil’s Bridge at Rheidol Gorge

Devil's Bridge sign
Welcome to the legend of the Devil’s Bridge

Allow me to paraphrase the tale of the Devil’s Bridge:

Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived near Rheidol Gorge. She woke up one morning to discover that her only cow had managed to cross to the other side of the gorge and was stuck there, and she had no way of getting her back. As she sat, worried about her dilemma, the devil appeared.
“I can help you get your cow back,” he said. “I can build you a bridge so you can bring your cow home.”
Curious, the woman asked his price.
“The first living thing that crosses it.”
She agreed to the terms, but spent the night wondering what she was willing to lose – her cow as it came back over the bridge or her life as she went over to coax her cow home?
The next day, as promised, was a bridge spanning the gorge. The woman walked towards it, her faithful dog tailing her. Then, just before she stepped on to the bridge, her dog ran in front of her, and crossed the bridge. The devil was so angry that he had been tricked that he disappeared in a puff of smoke. The woman got her cow back and lived happily ever after.

And the Devil’s Bridge still stands today.

Over the years, rather than destroying the Devil’s Bridge (and perhaps incurring his fiery wrath?!), the locals have simply built over it. And when that bridge would no longer do, they built on top of it again. So now when you come to Rheidol Gorge, what you see is a history of bridges: three of them laid over one another!

The three bridges, including the Devil's Bridge
The three bridges. Built on top of each other, the highest was built in 1901, the middle bridge was built in 1708, and the “Devil’s” bridge is from the eleventh century

Besides seeing the bridges, there are two walking trails you can take through the forested gorge (there is a fee for each, payable at the entrance). The shorter walk takes you to see the Devil’s Punchbowl and a view of the Three Bridges.

The Nature Walk is longer, and takes you through the gorge, past spectacular views of the Mynach Falls and out across the Rheidol Valley, down the extremely steep Jacob’s ladder (I was glad I wasn’t climbing up it – down was scary enough!) and then back up the other side of the gorge past the Robber’s Cave and back up to the road.

Rheidol Valley
Looking out over the picturesque Rheidol Valley
The Mynach Falls
The Mynach Falls
Jacob's Ladder
Jacob’s Ladder – a steep staircase to take you down to the bottom of Rheidol Gorge

As someone who grew up with family walks to waterfalls, I liked the peaceful walk through Rheidol Gorge, and the glimpses of Mynach Falls through the trees as we circled our way around it, though the walk back up the other side of the gorge showed me how unfit I was, and left me catching my breath when we got back to the highest bridge!

Perhaps the woman was justified in bargaining with the devil for her bridge after all!

What you need to know: