Back into Switzerland

Today we left Liechtenstein in the morning and headed back across the border into Switzerland. This was only noticed ten minutes after the fact when we rolled past the first Swiss village, no signs had marked our departure.The plan was to head south along the motorway and then split off west along the 19 which ran through a series of small towns. Almost immediately after coming off the motorway, the land began to rise and as we followed a river valley, impressive peaks and ridges looked down on us from both sides. 


Slowly the road wound higher, broad arcs turning sharper as we gained elevation. With altitude came an intense sun and I felt the uneven heat of a driver’s tan on my arm. All around the land was an intense and vibrant green. Any signs of habitation blended perfectly into the surroundings and a distinct lack of litter made the country seem pristine and perfect.

Up ahead a weather-beaten sign marked the start of the Furka pass, and the road began to hairpin up higher into the mountains. With each sharp twist of the path we saw further out to the land below, the small towns becoming distant shimmers in the river valley. The drive was exhilarating. The roads were built to such a degree that I never felt unsafe, even on the tightest angles. Even so, as the car rounded the edge of a cliff and I saw the ground drop away just feet from my side, it sent a surge of adrenaline up through my chest.


Sometime later, after stopping to take plenty of photos, we had traversed the peak and reached our planned midway point – The Rhone Glacier. This primordial shelf of ice is slowly snaking is way down the mountain, its lower tongue melting away to form a pool that then cascades down into the valley below. Getting out of the car we made our way down to the edge of the pool, the summer heat had been replaced by a sharp chill which got only colder as we stepped inside a tunnel that had been carved into the side of the glacier. Ice melt dripped from the slick roof down our necks and the daylight soon submitted to the glow of fluorescents and we moved deeper into the tunnels. I can only imagine how long it took the curators to dig out this route with their chainsaws! 

Walking through this ice formed millions of years ago was a surreal experience, perhaps only topped when we exited the tunnels and took a walk on top of the ice shelf which we could hear creaking and cracking below our feet as it slowly inched along. 



Returning to our car we started off down the other side of the mountain and on to Interlaken where we planned to camp for a few days. A few twists in the road however and we plunged into the side of a thick cloud, the fog enveloping our car. Slowing right down we edged on carefully as a cacophony of motorcycle engines roared around us. As we punched out the other side we were in the thick of a motorcycle convoy also headed downwards. Slowly but surely the motorcyclists overtook and soon disappeared round the pass. We had a few minutes more of soaking up the scenery before black clouds rolled in above us and let loose a torrent of rain. As the rain came down it started to form a stream down the road, we pressed on slowly, keen to get to our camp before sunset. Up ahead a filling station with a small tin roof over the forecourt stood alone on the side of the road, sixty or so bikers huddled underneath for cover. 


Eventually the route straightened out and we approached Interlaken. Nestled between two lakes and surrounded by mountains, we set up the tent, eager to explore in the morning.

Luxembourg, Zurich and Liechtenstein

Bidding our farewells to Tom and Alice we hopped in the car and started the engine – well at least I tried. The engine wouldn’t turn over and I figured the battery was dead. Looking about the cabin I realised I had left my phone charger in the power socket and this must have drained it. Luckily Tom had jump leads and so fifteen minutes later we were waving goodbye as we made off down the road.
The road to Luxembourg was uneventful and before we knew it we had crossed over the border and approached the city. I had no mental vision of what Luxembourg was like, but was amazed to find it towered above the countryside, built as it were atop the sides of deep river gorges. Great mediaeval walls protected the core of the city and insightful city planning had left the area particularly green and populated with trees. 

Unfortunately it was a bank holiday, so we got to see little that was actually open. Mostly it was just a few shops and restaurants in the central square.

We stopped that evening for a meal at a local restaurant where I tried a local dish of ‘weinzozoss’ or sausages as I tend to call them.
The next morning we set off for Zurich. The drive was long and took us through France. We stopped at lunchtime time just outside of Strasbourg, but didn’t stay to look around. At this point I was raging at the French driving style and wanted to hit Switzerland as soon as humanly possible.

We arrived at the Swiss border and purchased the motorway vignette. This forty euro sticker is required if you want to use any of the motorways in Switzerland. While it’s possible to get about on the minor roads it takes significantly longer to do so as they go over the mountains rather than through them!
As soon as we left the border outpost the road plunged into a series of tunnels, the car emerging occasionally into the bright sunshine in order to blind us, before diving back down.

We got to the edge of Zurich at rush hour and slowly edged around the ring road. Our campsite was on the other side of the city, perched on the edge of a lake and we arrived just as the sun was setting. The tent went up in record time and we relaxed by the shore, taking in the azure waters as the firery sun reflected oranges and reds.

The following day we relaxed around the camp and took a swim in the lake. The waters were cold, yet the perfect remedy to the heat.

Everything in Switzerland is so clean. There’s no litter anywhere and the lake was no exception. The streams that fed the lake were crystal clear and although we were essentially still down on the plains, I got the impression they sourced from higher climbs. 
The next day we drove up to Liechtenstein. This small principality only runs about 20km North to South, and we were headed for the main town Vaduz (well technically Schaan, but I couldn’t tell where one finished and the other started). 

Walking around it quickly became apparent that we could not afford to stay here. This was the domain of the super rich. Ferraris, Astons and Lamborghinis prowled the roads and the shops sold watches that cost tens of thousands pounds. Still it was fun to look about and explore.

Nicole found a mobile phone on a bench, and seeing it was unlocked set about on a quest to return it to the owner. A few WhatsApp messages to the owners daughter later and a reunion was scheduled with the person who had left it on the bench many hours before and was currently touring neighbouring Austria! Apparently this country had one of the lowest crime rates in the world and I can well believe it. Nicole’s efforts netted her a small reward which bought a couple of drinks and we set off again fresh the next morning. 

Belgium

I’ve only ever driven in Europe once before, so driving off the ferry in Dunkirk and setting off for the Belgian border had me chanting a specific ‘right’ themed mantra. Luckily, the brain soon adapts to new surroundings and before I knew it I was happily cruising down the auto-routes and country roads. Our friends Tom and Alice invited us to stay for a few nights and so we headed to their digs in Wingene.

Tom – being a connoisseur of the finest Belgian beers, of course had some excellent recommendations to make. With the Perseid meteor shower blazing overhead we spent our evenings in the garden barbequeing and reminiscing late into the night.

Alice (a long-term resident of Brussels) was keen to show us the local landmarks, which include a collection of urinating statues. Legend has it that a small boy managed to frustrate an invading force’s war plans by wetting the fuses of their dynamite stash. This in turn immortalised the young boy as the city’s ‘Manneken Pis’. 

We also got to visit the Atomium, a vast structure commissioned for the world fair of ‘58. Built to resemble the atomic structure of iron, this unique building links exhibition spheres with escalators forming the bonds.


Opposite the Atomium, modern art collections sit in an impressive art deco museum which faces down the mall.

We also got to visit Ghent during our stay. While Brussels reminded me in some ways of London with its frenetic city life, bustling tube stations and hordes of tourists (ourselves included!); Gent reminded me more of Oxford with its old and impressive churches overlooking the river, while a young and vibrant student population fill the cafes and bars. That evening we were taken to the Amedeus rib house for dinner. With ribs and baked potato essentially the only item on the menu there’s no compromise in quality. When almost full to bursting after clearing my plate, a waiter came over to offer unlimited extra ribs (and potato). Result!

European Road Trip

Hello world, it’s been too long. 

Dusting off the blog and committing pen to paper feels strangely odd, as if I’m revisiting an old lifestyle; the last time I really got to talk about my adventures was back in Asia, so in some ways it is! 

The last few years have seen Nicole and I travel to Scotland, Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague and Portugal but all for just short stays. The sense of getting out of the grind and really traveling never set in, perhaps that’s why I never set aside time to write about these otherwise excellent places. But no more!

This summer we decided to cash in some holiday time and make a break for the Alps, in the car, our tent in tow. Working out the route was fun. Balancing driving with the hassle of putting up the tent and then getting enough time to see the sights made us revisit the plan a few times before finally setting our shortlist of countries and towns.

The plan is to visit Bruges, Ghent, Wingene, Brussels, Luxembourg, Zurich, Vaduz, Como, Interlaken, Geneva, Dijon, Epernay and Dunkirk. I’ll let you know how we get on.

Balloon Ride

Hello again world.

While the blog has been pretty quiet since we returned from our travelling, life really hasn’t!

Amongst my frequent forays into creating weird and wonderful beers (which I plan to start documenting here), I was also kindly given the opportunity to try my hand at some other brilliant activities. These ranged from a day Blacksmithing, through brewing workshops and theatre visits to riding a balloon over England.

With summer long gone, and the autumn in full swing, I had only days left to redeem my Virgin Balloon flight without needing to schedule for the following year. Given a choice of departure points, I opted for my local county of Oxfordshire and wondered if I had left it too late in the year to get the most out of it. After-all, Balloon Flights are traditionally a summer activity right?

Well I shouldn’t have worried as the day was warm and the environment staggeringly beautiful. We took off from just outside the picturesque town of Henley-on-Thames and floated North-East over the river valley. Our pilot kept the balloon low for much of the flight allowing us to skim the woodland canopy which was bursting with bronzed colours. We passed the small village of Hambledon which seemed like a small toy village from my childhood, and looked down on farm animals, horse riders and even rowers practising their form. I even spotted an Alpacca running full-pelt away from the sound of our burners, which cut through the quietness of the countryside.

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Melaka

Melaka is a port city a couple of hours south east of Kuala Lumpur. It is billed as the historic city of Malaysia and has the UNESCO status to prove it. Melaka has been inhabited and run by a range of people from the Malays to the Dutch and a whole host of others in between. The variety of inputs from the different countries and cultures give this small city an unusual feel.

Clock tower Melaka   Museum Boat Melaka

The colours of the buildings and placement of statues made the city feel almost preserved and a little like a model town.

Windmill Malaka      Water wheel Melaka

Hugh and I stayed in Malaka for a few days, enjoying the break from the bigger cities and soaking up the atmosphere. During in our time in Melaka we sampled a wide range of satay; all of it delicious. One place had a cook-it-yourself table. After only three weeks in Malaysia, I’m not sure we were quite ready to be let loose on it. The queue of people waiting to get in to one popular satay cafe were certainly amused by our DIY efforts.

DIY Satay   Rice parcels

There were also the mandatory Chinatown and Little India areas where we sampled some excellent dishes including dosa and thali. It also took us three weeks to figure out that pulled tea (teh tarik) is what the Malaysians call masala chai. I was confused when I could see people drinking it but was then told by the waiter they didn’t serve it. It did make me think they were keeping all the chai to themselves! and samosas just aren’t the same without chai…

China town satay Melaka   Thali Melaka

Malaysian Batik

While in Kuala Lumpur I decided to try my hand at batik. It is a traditional textile art found in many countries but styles differ. Malaysian batik tends to use large simple patterns and favours flower and leaf motifs. So that’s what I chose – a fitting reminder of my time in Malaysia.

Malaysian Batik

Stage 1 is the drawing of the design on to my chosen fabric – a white T-shirt – using a fabric pencil. Wax is then applied to the outline on the fabric using a ‘chanting’ (a little copper pot with a spout and long handle). This provides a paint and water resistant outline for my design.

Pencil and wax outline

Paint is then applied with a soft brush to fill in the design.

Painting the fabric yellow         Yellow flower completed

In the workshop they have tubs of ready mixed colours lined up ready for the artists to use. Malaysian batik uses brighter more vibrant colours than Indonesian batik. Although the colours are so striking on the fabric, they are dark and rich in the pot.

Pre mixed colours

A second brush dipped in water is applied in swirling strokes over the colour to achieve the graduated colour effect.

Orange flower     Graduted  colour green leaves

When the paint is dry the wax is heated to remove it, leaving a clear outline that creates a contrast between shapes and colours. For this design, a background colour is applied to enhance the outline of the flower shapes.

Finished paint and wax design

The fabric is left to dry overnight before the wax is heated and removed. Finally, the T-shirt is washed to remove the initial pencil outline.

The finished product:

Finished batik t-shirt

 

I had a few little mishaps with the paint but it was great fun and I learnt a new skill. I will definitely be trying this again.

Penang hill/Bukit Bendera

“If you haven’t been to Penang hill, you haven’t been to Penang!” The leaflet in our guest house made some bold promises and Hugh and I were keen to check them out. Penang hill or Bukit Bendera, was a one-time hill station and summertime retreat of the British during colonial rule. The weather had been unbearably humid since our arrival and we fancied some fresh air and a break from city life, up on the hill.

An hour’s bus ride from Georgetown and we arrived at Air Itam, the town at the bottom of Bukit Bendera. I had high hopes for this hill station and initially I wasn’t disappointed. The first sight that greeted me was the track for the funicular railway that cut in to the dense foliage. It was almost vertical. And long. The track seemed to stretch on forever. No problem. I’ve been up higher. Still. It was a long way up.

Funicular train

 

After purchasing our tickets we queued for the train for what seemed like forever. Reaching the front of the line I found out why; everyone had their picture taken theme park roller-coaster style before getting on the train. Now I was getting nervous. This was surely just a standard funicular rail ride to the top, right? Yes, I was right. Ten minutes later and we arrived safely at the top. The photograph turned out to be just the first of many visitor souvenir opportunities.

Penang from the funicular track

At the top it turned out this wasn’t like any other hill station we’d seen,  it was more like a children’s play park in the trees. Straight out of the train exit we were the focus of attention. Did we want drinks, ice creams, fruit juices, audio guides, plastic toys…? The smell of fried food was overwhelming. Hugh and I retreated to a corner with a fruit juice to get our bearings.

Owl museum

 

Strangely enough it seemed that the main attraction was an owl museum. That was a little too Alan Partridge for me so we headed out towards the trees to see what else was on offer. A Hindu temple, a mosque, several flower gardens that required an entry fee and bungalows-  Midsomer murders style country bungalows labelled as ‘convalescent’ that were occupied. Not too awkward. Moving away from the crowds, we went in search of a viewpoint. Despite the height, the hill was only marginally cooler than Georgetown but the air was remarkably fresher.

English post box PG hill

Rounding a corner, the noise quickly dissipated and we were surrounding only by trees. Following the path we found a viewpoint and it felt like the whole of Penang stretched out before us. We could see the skyscrapers, the bay and across to the mainland.

Foggy view of Penang

The path continued on for several kilometres through trees, zigzagging through the trees at ground and canopy Level. I looked carefully for monkeys, squirrels or any other animals that might be lurking in the trees but was out of luck. After a while we noticed there weren’t any other visitors around and it was getting dark so we wandered back towards the crowds.

Back at the visitor hub we had the opportunity to have our pictures taken with parrots, snakes and lizards but we declined. Instead we went back to the funicular railway and sped down to the bottom of the hill and back to the city. It wasn’t quite the hill station I was expecting and I wouldn’t say it was indicative of Penang but the view and canopy walk certainly made it worth the trip.

Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi. To most people this place name won’t mean anything. It’s a little town three hours west of Bangkok and the Mae Khlong river runs through it. Still not sure? The Mae Khlong was renamed the Khwae Yai river – home to the bridge over the river Kwai.

Our journey began when we boarded the train in Bangkok. It was a typical stiflingly hot day and the train crawled from station to station. As soon as the train reached the city limits it sped up, the skyscrapers turned to endless rice paddys populated by water buffalo and we clickety-clacked past scenes of rural life in Thailand.

I was enjoying the cool breeze and open country when the train pulled up at Nong Pla Duk station. There I saw a wooden signboard near the platform. It stated simply that this station marked the beginning of the Thai-Burma railway otherwise known as the Death railway. From here on we would be riding the railway built by prisoners of war during World War Two.

Arriving in Kanchanaburi, I didn’t know what to expect. I had read POW memoirs that painted a vivid picture of dense jungle, unbearable humidity, mosquitoes, snakes, scorpions and many other creatures. What I found was a pretty little town with winding back streets, cafes and a bustling night life.

In the centre of town, the river Kwai was hidden from view by the shops and guesthouses. Hugh and I were fortunate enough to stay on a river raft. From there we had an unspoilt view down river of the Thai countryside and a fabulous wat.

Raft View

The next day we set out early and visited the railway museum. Walking under a section of the original bridge, I entered the inner exhibition rooms. Displayed on two floors were stories, pictures and artifacts from the death railway period.

Railway Museum

Two hours later and my vague notions of this area had been cemented into understanding of how the railway had been built and how the POWs were treated. With every new story I read or picture I saw, the railway seemed like a feat of human endurance. Many of the prisoners looked like walking skeletons and had diseases such as cholera yet they carried on until the end.

Stories I had read prior to visiting the museum told of how the prisoners had been transported in metal cargo containers on the railways. This is something that can’t be comprehended until you’ve experienced the heat of Asia and then stood inside a reconstructed container.

Despite the stories of hardship, the exhibitions displayed artifacts that displayed ingenuity and a desire to survive in spite of the horrific circumstances. Prisoners fashioned radios to get snippets of news that would bring hope; diaries were kept even with the knowledge that discovery by the captors would mean instant death; wood and bamboo were used by prisoners to make game boards such as chess or backgammon.

At the end of the exhibition was a cafe and we were gratefully provided with a free cup of tea. Hugh and I sat at the window which overlooked the war cemetery, reflecting on the museum and the stories we had read. Soon after, we made the five kilometre walk from the town centre to the bridge and Kwae Yai river.

Kanchanaburi POW cemetery

Seeing the bridge for then first time was breathtaking. I had read so much about it and seen so many pictures of this iconic structure. On one bank there were souvenir stalls and refreshment stands; on the river itself were floating restaurants.

Bridge over the Kwai Yai river

The opposite bank was home to a temple with an oversized statue of a deity that reached above the tree line and towered over the river. It then became clear that the heat was the only similarity between the current day and when the bridge was built.

Temple by the bridge

I felt this area was almost touristy to the point of ruin until I stepped on to the bridge. Then I remembered how it had been built. Walking across the bridge filled me with a sense of gravity and the further away I got from the tourist attractions, the more I could appreciate what the bridge stood for. I walked to the end and stared off down the line.  The dark history contrasted with the sunlit tracks, which curved away from me and into the jungle. I knew this place had more of its story to tell but for now it was time to part ways. I turned around and headed back to the crowds of Kanchanaburi.

Thai-Burma railway