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.

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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…


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.


Glacier Express

March 31, 2010

Glacier ExpressOne of the highlights of our time in Switzerland will be a trip on the Glacier Express, advertised quaintly as “The Slowest Express Train in The World”.

This train travels through the Rhine gorge between the mountain village of Zermatt, (which nestles at the foot of the Matterhorn) to the celebrity strewn mountain resort of St Moritz.  We are travelling about 75% of this journey and will be getting off at the town of Chur [famous for being the birthplace of H.R.Giger who inspired the creature in the Alien movie series].

Glacier Express Route

The reason for terminating at Chur is that we want to be in Luzern by the end of the day [and, truth be known, we didn’t see ourselves fitting in at St Moritz].  We leave Zermatt at 10:00 AM and arrive at Chur at 3:15 PM.  An hour in Chur [with maybe a visit to the Giger Bar] and then its on to Thalwil before changing trains again to head to Luzern.  Our expected arrival in Luzern is at 18:25, 8 1/2 hours after leaving Zermatt.

We will be travelling 2nd Class, but from all accounts the only difference between 1st and second class is the size of the seat.  And as you can see in the advertising photo the views are just as spectacular.  As we have purchased a Swiss Rail Pass, the cost of the journey is covered, however for this train, there is a reservation charge of 33 CHF each plus an extra 44 CHF for a 3 course meal served at your seat.

This will definitely be one of the days we will be looking forward to.


London to Paris to Bern legs booked

March 2, 2010

Have now booked the London to Paris and Paris to Bern legs of our trip.  In both cases, I relied heavily on advice from The Man in Seat 61 [www.seat61.com].  I’ve said before and I’ll have no hesitation repeating myself that this site is an excellent resource for anyone contemplating train travel through Europe.

London to Paris

We are travelling on Eurostar for this leg.  The trip will take us about 2 and a half hours.  Leaving London’s St Pancras station around midday and arriving Paris Nord at around 3:30 PM.  I was quite impressed by the Eurostar.com online booking site which even gave me the option of choosing which seats I wanted in which carriage.  By booking this trip 120 days in advance we managed to get 2 adult seats for less than 90 Euro.

And no, we didn’t choose seat 61.

Paris to Bern

We are travelling via Lausanne for our trip to Bern from Paris.  We leave Paris at around 8:00 AM on the TGV Sud-Est, change trains in Lausanne around midday to a Swiss rail intercity train and arrive in Bern around 1:30 PM.   We booked the tickets using the French site [The Man in Seat 61 helped again here with excellent instruction here].  By booking direct and 90 days in advance we were able to get 2 adult tickets for less than 100 Euro.

Now that those two trips are booked the only rail booking left to do is our Swiss rail pass and any Swiss rail trips that require reservations.

Note: the fares mentioned here are based on non-refundable tickets.  Given we know exactly which days we are travelling, this was the cheapest option for us.