Around Cherbourg

April 29, 2010

We woke up fairly early despite our long trip to Cherbourg and headed down to breakfast.  The breakfast at the hotel was fairly standard fare but included soft cheeses and a Normandie speciality that neither Glenda or I was game to try.  After breakfast we decided to see how far it was to the ferry port, so we set off.  The port ended up being quite a hike and we felt for those that had done the distance with all their luggage. We checked our booking at the Irish Ferries desk and made some enquiries re the best time to check in before our ferry departure.  After a quick tour of the ferry port, we headed back into town looking for a McDonalds which we had seen from the train station, but we couldn’t find it.  Walked the streets taking photos in particular of the church and generally just soaking up the town’s ambience.

We stopped for an early lunch but after being told in French that what we wanted was not available until midday [at least that’s what it sounded like], we had just a coffee and a pot of tea. Walked the streets a little more before we both hit the wall and decided to grab a taxi back to our hotel. Once back at the hotel we found out that there was a cafe across the road at the Cite de la Mer [City of the Sea], a combination museum, aquarium and experiential learning centre devoted to the marine environment. So we wandered over for lunch and a quick look around.  The Cite de la Mer is located in an old departure hall for the transatlantic liners such as the Queen Mary that used to ply the Atlantic between France and the USA.  After lunch we wandered down to see the Redoubtable a former French nuclear submarine, now included as part of the Cite de la Mer. While there, we noticed our ferry was docking so we wandered along the pier and took some photos before slowly making our way back towards the hotel.  Spent some time just sitting in the sun on the harbour walls and watching life go by before returning to our room.  We watched a little TV and had a well deserved nap, before heading down for dinner and an early night.

The next day, we had a late breakfast, packed up our luggage and then decided to go to the Cite de la Mer and pay to go in. 18 euros each and we were in.  First up we decided to get a closer look at the Redoubtable.  Grabbing an audio unit we made our way through to the entrance at the stern of the submarine. We made our way slowly through the submarine and marvelled at those that lived in the quite cramped environment for months at a time.  The nuclear power unit had been removed for safety reasons, but the rest of the submarine was pretty much as it was when operational.  Once the tour was over we wandered amongst the aquariums for a while and then amongst the exhibits devoted to the oceans before heading across to the experiential area for a virtual trip under the seas.  We joined a group of about 40 people doing the same thing and were split into 4 groups for the tour. Those of us that spoke English were issued with an English audio unit so that we could listen in English. First up was an introductory video hosted by a futuristic French woman who was dressed in a very 60s style outfit.  Then we moved through a series of ‘training exercises’ designed to introduce us to the different aspects of the voyage ahead.  After learning various hand signals for scuba training, being subjected to the darkness of the deep [accompanied by a little UV light for dramatic effect] and standing in a room that moved and tilted slowly to test our balance, we were sheperded into our submersible.  Like a sideshow alley ride, we were dropped into the ocean and came across sperm whales, giant squid, lantern fish and various other deep sea life before returning to the surface.  Leaving the submersible, we were besieged by virtual reporters eager to hear the story of our trip.  They then replayed our journey back through a “news report”  including lots of footage taken of us by hidden cameras as we made our way through the exhibit.  All a bit twee but good fun.

By the time we had finished the mission it was time to head for the ferry, so we returned to the hotel for our luggage and grabbed a cab to the ferry port.  We joined a lot of other travellers waiting for the ferry gates to open.  After sitting in the cafe for a bit, we joined the queue and got to talking to the couple behind us.  They [Con and Angela] had been caught in Spain by the volcano disruption.  Once the gates opened we went through immigration, onto the ferry bus, up the lift and then onto the ferry.  Our cabin on deck six was comfortable with two single beds, an ensuite and a small built-in table.  We dropped our bags off and went to have a look around the ferry.  It had 2 bars, 2 cinemas, a shop, 3 restaurants and a bistro.  We spent some time out on deck waiting for the`ferry to leave, but it was too cold so we went back inside for a drink.  When we got to the bar, we ran into Con and Angela who introduced us to two other couples also on their way back to Ireland after being caught by the flight disruptions.

When the ferry did eventually leave, we went back up to the outside decks to watch it leave the Cherbourg harbour and to watch the sunset.  Ironically for us, as we negotiated the outer harbour and were finally on our way to Ireland, we were farewelled by the sight of jet trails overhead.


Towards Normandy

April 26, 2010

We got up early on 18 April and had an early breakfast at the Hotel Ibis while we waited for our 7:45 taxi. The previous evening we’d gone for a walk through the suburbs around the hotel.  It seems to be a popular thing in Zurich to go for an evening walk.  We met several people out and about with their children or their dogs.  We found ourselves at the local Co-op and spent some time wandering the shelves just checking out all the different food s available. We left with a small variety of nibbles including, of course, some chocolate.

Our cab came early and we found ourselves at the Zurich main station well before 8:00 AM.  This gave us time to visit the pharmacy for some lozenges for my throat which had slowly been getting worse. We then found our train and settled into our second class seats which were very nice and far better than economy on the plane.  The train left dead on time thanks to Swiss railway efficiency.  The journey to Basel was uneventful and we soon found ourselves at Basel bahnhof drinking a coffee while waiting for our Paris connection.

The train to Paris travelling first class was very nice.  The seats reclined and had fold down tables, armrests and footrests and were very comfortable.  All up a very civilised way to travel.  The journey to Paris was again uneventful and we passed the time watching the countryside change.  The only indication of how fast we were travelling was the occassional jump from Glenda as we passed a train travelling in the other direction.

We arrived in Paris at Gare D’Est without incident and then had to find our way to the Metro. This was a little more challenging as the French don’t seem to have many escalators in the older stations and we had to lug our cases up and down stairs to get to the Metro station.  A little confusion over buying our tickets was our only real problem and we soon found ourselves on the Number 7 metro with a number of others with suitcases.  A quick change of trains at Opera with more stairs to negotiate soon found us on the number 5 Metro to Gare Le’zare.

Once there we spent a little time getting our bearings (ie we got lost) until we worked out we had to follow the Le Grande Lines signs. Doing so we soon found ourselves on the streets of Paris which were a little assault on the senses after the relative quiet of Zurich.  More steps awaited us as the escalator was not operating.  Glenda waited while I went looking for where we were supposed to go.  The information kiosk was closed so I resorted to reading the signs and worked out we had to follow the Pink line.  This was harder to achieve as it appeared as there was a lot of construction going on at the station installing new escalators.
We found ourselves negotiating our way around the construction zone and had to pass by several homeless people, one of whom was busily plucking and apparently eating raw a pigeon he had just caught.  While this was confronting, What impressed me least about this was the number of tourists who had stopped and were taking photographs.

We found our way to the platform without indicent, via yet more stairs.  Once there Glenda grabbed us a couple of seats while I went looking for an ATM so we could grab some lunch  The only ATM at the station appeared to be back where we had left the Metro, so I found myself effectively retracing our steps back to the ATM.  Grabbed a couple of baguettes and some drinks and returned to Glenda who had had some trouble keeping a seat for me.

When our train finally arrived, there was a mad dash of people for the train and we felt glad that we had booked seats.  That was until we found out that we had seats on Wagon 7 and the first wagon was wagon 8.  The conductor told us to get onto wagon 8 and we fought our way down the corridor and found seats 61 and 62 and were about to settle in when another couple said that they were their seats.  Confusion reigned until I decided to get off the train 5 mins before it was due to leave (and giving Glenda a scare by doing so) and talk to the conductor again.  This time a lady translated for me and I was told again that there was no wagon 7 and we were supposed to be on wagon 8.

As I got back on the train, there was an announcement in French that got everyone laughing. Or at least everyone that understood French.  The man who had taken seat 61 translated for us and told us that because of the rail strike there was no wagon 7 and the reserved seats for wagon 7 had been reallocated`to wagon 8 and we had to look for a ticket above the seats.  I did this and found our seats about 4 seats down the carriage.  This then involved persuading those sitting in those seats that we had them reserved.  All up we finally found ourselves sitting in our seats about 15 minutes after the train was supposed to have left.

This confusion was taking place all through the carriage as people were looking for their seats and asking others to leave seats once found.  It also turns out that there were people on the train without reserved`seats who were basically told to sit in seats that were unoccupied.  The train left well after it was supposed to and with people who couldn’t get a seat sitting in the corridors.  BTW The first class seats on this train were of a much lower standard than the second class seats on the Zurich-Basel leg. but we were glad just to be sitting down.

Sitting opposite us was a very nice French man and his Japanese wife who was visiting his father in Bayeux.  He gave us a running commentary about some of the places we were passing through and gave us a potted history of the D-Day landings which happened nearby.

Eventually we arrived at Cherbourg and after a very long walk down the platform, we found ourselves at the station forecourt with no idea what to do next.  We were not alone.  We had people asking us where the ferry left from.  All I could do was point them at the sign that said “Car Ferries” and hope I was sending them in the right direction.  We on the other hand were looking for a hotel, so we headed in the other direction looking for some indication of where they might be. Eventually we found a bus stop map which we used to gain our bearings and then used Glenda’s iPhone to locate the tourist info office.  So we set off to find it.

After a while we came across the Maison de Tourisme which was of course closed.  But it did have a map of the some of the hotels available outside which gave us an idea where to start looking.  We walked into one hotel which didn’t impress us but did give us a map of the town including a list of the hotels by rating.  At this stage we were so buggered that we decided that we would go for the Hotel Mercure which was the only 3 star hotel in the town.  The map said it was in map reference B11 and I am sure we walked every street within that square without finding it.  Eventually we asked someone in the street who wasn’t a local but was able to ask a local.  He pointed out that the hotel was on the other side of the harbour in the very tip of B11 that we hadn’t walked.  We considered a taxi but then decided that a little more walking wouldn’t hurt.  But first we rang to confirm that they had rooms which they did, so we then hoofed it around the harbour and down to the hotel.

The Hotel Marine (formerly Mercure) was in the middle of renovations, but we didn’t really care at this point, so we grabbed our room key and found our way to our room (with a harbour view). We spent about ten minutes trying to open the door until finally on the verge of going back to the reception, the door finally opened and we could collapse in our room.

Given the time [it was about 9:00pm] we decided to quickly freshen up and head down to the hotel restuarant.  I ordered the Grilled Beef Steak and French Fries and Glenda ordered the Mixed Grill.  These both were very delicious but it was the Double Chocolate Pudding with Mint Icecream that stole the show.   After dinner, we decided that we’d well and truly had enough and hit the sack.

Changing Ships Midstream

April 18, 2010

Well yesterday was a day of change. We both woke up bright and bushytailed at 4:00 am courtesy of maladjusted body clocks.  After watching the changing situation on CNN, we decided that we could sit around in Zurich until Tuesday and have probably a  40% chance that our plane would actually leave or we could look at alternative transport. We did some research over the web looking at train and ferry options and found that we could get a ferry to Ireland from Cherbourg so it would just be a matter of getting to Cherbourg.

Checking the French rail website, we found that there were trains available from Paris to Cherbourg.  So then I checked the Swiss rail network and found that there appeared to be trains available from Zurich to Paris via Geneva or Basel or Strasbourg.  But I could not book any of these online due to the date being too close.  We had also heard at the airport yesterday that it was possible to change airline flights for train journeys to the Swiss border, so we decided to check that option out.  So we went down to an early breakfast and caught the hotel shuttle to the airport early to see what we could do.

At the airport we saw that there was already a long queue at the Swiss Air desk, so we went to the information desk and asked re changing flights to trains and were told that that option was no longer available and that we would need to book trains ourselves.  We went downstairs and joined the queue at the train ticket window.  Halfway down that queue we realised it was for domestic tickets only and that the international tickets were around the corner, so we moved around to the next office and found ourselves in another queue.  When we finally reached the front of the queue we sat down and told the lady where we wanted to go and she said, “Yes I have tickets all the way through to Cherbourg. The train leaves the airport at 10:05”

I looked at my watch and realised that it was 9:40, and there was no way to get a taxi back to the hotel, get our bags, check out and get back to the airport in 25 mins.  So then we asked her for options for today.  She found a train from Paris to Cherbourg quite easily.  Then she found us a train from Zurich to Basel.  The Basel to Paris leg was the hardest and we eventually said that we would go first class if necessary and she then was able to  find us a train and booked that.  Then when she went back to book the Paris-Cherbourg train, the second class seats had all gone, so we had to go first class for that as well.  The Zurich-Basel train we got as 2nd class.

So we had our Zurich to Cherbourg train organised, booked and paid for.  It was then a case of trying to book the ferry.  We grabbed a seat in the airport coffee shop [which btw made the best coffee we had had since leaving Canberra] and started trying to book a ferry.  The Irish Ferries web site was sufferring from meltdown and was taking forever to change between pages.  I finally managed to make a booking, but then had major trouble trying to pay for it. I kept being told that my userid and password didn’t match.  I was able to reset my password numerous times through their reset password option, but the problem seemed to be in their payment part of the website.  Finally, after three beers worth of trying, I finally managed to get through their system all the way and now we have an overnight ferry booked and paid for leaving Cherbourg to Rosslare at 8:00 pm on the 20th.

At this stage we have no accommodation booked at Cherbourg but are leaving that till we get there, just in case we don’t get there.  Just to make matters worse, there is a railway strike in France that, at this stage, is not affecting our currently booked trains, but if it escalates, we may find ourselves in Basel, Paris or somewhere else for the night.

Our other concern was that Rosslare is quite some way from Dublin where we had planned to pick up our hire car.  We had this problem sorted when we rang the cottage owner to tell them when we were turning up.  Heather and David Lawson own the cottage and when we explained our predicament to Heather, she told us we could catch the train from Rosslare to Rathdrum and she would pick us up and take us to the cottage for the night.  Her husband works in Dublin and will take us to Dublin in the morning so we can pick up our car.

As I write this, we are having breakfast at the hotel.  We have a taxi booked at 7:45 to take us into Zurich for our 8:25 train.

Glenda and Chris’s excellent adventure continues…

Stuck on Zurich

April 17, 2010

Well it seems that we are going to be seeing a lot more of Zurich than originally planned.   Yesterday I mentioned that we had a flight via Frankfurt to Dublin at 10:30 … well that was to turn out to be incorrect.

But first I want to go back to yesterday…after checking into the Park Inn, Glenda and I had a very welcome shower and change of clothes, some lunch and then decided that we wanted to go for a walk to get some fresh air.  We’d been breathing processed air for so long, we’d forgotten what the fresh stuff tasted like.  Luckily the Park Inn lies near a bridle path running alongside a stream of sorts and that proved to be exactly what we needed.  We headed along that for a while before deciding to head to a church we could see from the road.  This took us into the village of Rümlang.  We wandered through the village noting all the little things that differentiated Switzerland from Australia.  The multi story houses, the shutters on every window, the prevelance of Mercedes, Volkswagens and Audis, the wildflowers growing in lawns, the flowers growing in every conceivable place, the totally foreign roadsigns and road markings, learning to look left rather than right when crossing a road, the lack of fences between houses which leads to a feeling of community, the wooden buildings, the familiar birds [blackbirds, sparrows, coots] and the less familiar birds [mallards, rooks, tits, robins and others I didn’t recognise] …  I could go on, but Rümlang was a very interesting introduction to the Swiss environment.

This morning we checked out and headed back to the airport with our luggage.  We took one look at the queue at the Swiss Air counter and decided to come back later.  We dropped our luggage off at the left luggage station and decided to catch a train into Zurich. After a few puzzled moments at the ticket machine we found our way down to the platforms with our 2 adult tickets plus an extra child ticket which we somehow mistakenly ordered.  The train into town was excellent and we soon found ourselves in Zurich HB.  Grabbed a map from the tourist bureau and then wandered down Bahnhofstrasse for a bit before heading across the river to the old part of town.  We strolled along the river bank towards the Grossmünster.  Once at the Grossmünster, Glenda sat and watched a choir performance while I paid 4 CHF to climb the tower. [Thanks for the suggestion, Prescott]  First off was a fairly tight spiral stone staircase which soon gave way to wooden stairs. The view from the top was quite impressive but would have been better if the sun had been out.

Once down we headed over the closest bridge to the other side of town and wandered through various streets marvelling [drooling actually] at the window contents.  All the while promising ourselves that we would be back in a month and so we would be good and not buy anything.  We then found our way back to the Bahnhof and caught the train back to the airport, grabbed our luggage and headed to the checkin area.  The queue did not look any shorter than it did when we had been there 5 hours earlier, but there was nothing to it but to join the queue and wait our turn.  We already realised that our flight had most likely been cancelled but we needed a change of flight and a hotel voucher for tonight.  After more than 2 hours in the queue, we finally reached the front and eventually managed to score a flight to Dublin on Tuesday morning.  We were also put up at the Hotel Ibis instead of the Park Inn.  After missing the first hotel bus by one seat, we finally made it to the hotel and decided to book our remaining 3 nights here as well.  Seems we were not alone in having to change hotels as we saw two others staying here that we had seen staying at the Park Inn.  The Hotel Ibis while having a much better reception and dining area than the Park Inn, loses hands down as far`as the rooms go.  But its a roof over our heads and at this stage that all that really matters.  More tomorrow.

Well that didn’t go to plan

April 15, 2010

As Robert Burns so aptly noted:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley [Often go ugly]

After a long and tiring 13 hour flight from Hong Kong to Zurich which at times seemed to be a rather convoluted loop through China, Khazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, over the Caspian Sea over Azerbaijan and then along the Black Sea probably designed to avoid Iraqi and Russian airspace, we found ourselves looking slightly dishevelled and in desperate need of sleep in an almost deserted Zurich airport.  Looking to find the transfer station, we checked the departure boards and noticed our Zurich – Dublin flight had a strange red German word next to it. A couple of seconds later that word changed to the equivalent English word.  “Cancelled”.  Our hearts sank.

There then ensued some almost frantic discussions with a couple of airport staff where we discovered that a rampant Icelandic volcano was doing its best to thwart our [and thousands of others] travel plans.  All flights in and out of Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia had been cancelled.

When we got to the transfer station we worked out where everyone had got to.  The queue at the transfer station rivalled the best that Sydney airport could ever hope to throw up.  There was nothing for us to do but join another 2 hour queue to finally get a new flight to Dublin [via Frankfurt] tomorrow.  So Swiss Air have put us up in the Park Inn near the airport for the night,  including vouchers for lunch and dinner [breakfast was included in the room charge].  This was very decent of them considering that the volcano had nothing to do with the airline.  For those that have ever stayed in Formula1 hotels, the Park Inn is a slightly upmarket version.

So what this all means is that we will be arriving in Dublin at 10:30 pm on Friday rather than at 9:20 am on Thursday.

Wandering around HKIA

April 14, 2010

Arrived safely in Hong Kong after a fairly uneventful 8 hour flight sitting in cattle class.  The only thing remarkable about the flight was the little inseat TV kept freezing or reverting back to the menu which was quite frustrating.  Eating on the plane hasn’t improved any.  Especially now that the food is more “gourmet’ .  Nothing beats the experience of trying to eat couscous elegantly with a blunt plastic fork while crammed between other passengers also attempting to eat the same thing.

Spent some time wandering around Hong Kong International Airport trying to decipher the various maps so that we could get our boarding pass. After getting some directions, we got our passes and went through security again to get to the departure lounge

Managed to get some Hong Kong dollars from an ATM and got ourselves some food …  two dishes of number 225, some steamed pork buns and drinks for $205 HKD. 

Now we have a 3 hour wait until our flight to Zurich, which we will probably spend browsing the shops or just chilling out in the lounge area.

So it begins…

April 14, 2010

Its 4:45 am … we were supposed to get up at 5:00 am but have been awake since 4:30. We are all packed and ready to go, and will be leaving in about an hour for the airport. We are looking forward to our trip but not to the 35 hour journey covering 4 legs of plane flight that starts it all.

It will be Canberra – Sydney [1 hour] with 2:30 hour layover then Sydney – Hong Kong [9 hours] then 5:10 hour layover then Hong Kong – Zurich [13 hours] then 3:20 hour layover then finally Zurich – Dublin [2 hours].

See you all on the other side of the planet.

Talk about the last minute …

April 7, 2010

We have made a last minute change to our accommodation in Luzern. We were planning on staying at the Tourist Hotel, but have now decide to switch to the Hotel Bellevue. The reason for this was two-fold. One, we worked out we had spent much less on accommodation than we had planned. And two, we decided that while at Luzern we would like to have a lake view, yet not be too far from the town. So based on reviews, the Hotel Bellevue got the nod.