My Stories

Final Thoughts On My European Adventures

Nothing like “Home Sweet Home” when you’ve been away but as I went through Duty Free in Sydney and stocked up on whiskeys before I picked my luggage up, Van Halen’s “Take Your Whiskey Home” came to mind. I guess I prefer to stumble and fall after all.

So as soon as I got inside my house, I started summarizing our Euro Adventure.

So here are my thoughts on my European Adventures.

Berlin

We just touched the surface of what Berlin had to offer. It’s definitely a city I would like to return to (Barcelona is also in this bucket as we only touched the surface of what Barcelona has to offer in 2016) and explore a bit more, especially the villages outside Berlin like Spandau and it’s Old Town.

I was comfortable with the drink prices but believed that the food in restaurants was a bit expensive especially when you have a family of five eating and drinking, but it was easy to communicate as the places always had an English speaking worker.

The public transport was the best in Europe I’ve seen so far (I’ve heard Switzerland is the top one but I’ve never been there, so I can’t comment on it and when we did Barcelona two years ago, we didn’t use the public transport, so I can’t comment on that either) and the way the train stations are situated, everything is within 2 to 5 minutes walking distance. Plus you can buy those one day cards or five day cards that allows you unlimited travel.

I just hope they fix their airports up and finish off their various capital works projects as it makes the city look like a construction site. Then again Sydney has the same problem with construction sites causing mayhem.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen was a rip off. It didn’t matter where we stopped, everything felt like it was super inflated and it left a bitter taste. The only bitter taste allowed is alcohol.

But the city is good to see even in the wind and rain. Most of the shops had English speaking staff and like all European cities it had construction sites set up around some of their old buildings. Plus their public transport system is excellent and we had no worries navigating.

I wanted to go to the Carlsberg Factory for a tour but time ran away from us.

Tallinn

It was windy, cold and rainy on day one and just windy and cold on day two. Then again it was towards the end of September.

We did Old Town and some of the shopping sites around it, like the train station mall/market like shops and an actual three story shopping centre that I believe was underneath a Hotel.

I felt the prices were okay for food and drink but any clothing price was extremely high which I found strange.

A local store worker told me the beaches are great when it’s summer and to come back to experience it, but I’m biased towards Australia and the beaches we have. Our beaches are fantastic, clean, well patrolled and for those who don’t know how to handle waves, currents and rips, very dangerous.

St Petersburg

It was very show offy like, here is a statue of a previous leader who crushed this country in this war and this statue was made to commemorate the victory and here is a statue of that same leader on his horse, stepping on the Danish snake after this war. And this dogma goes on and on. Here is a palace, here is a weekend Palace, here is a Palace with a Garden, here is the Post Office (which looks like a Palace) and so forth.

Everything is grand, everything has gold and every attraction has fantastic ceiling paintings/murals about some religious event/interpretation. Even the underground train stations.

Communication was difficult as the store workers didn’t have a great grasp of English and doing this city via a tour is totally worth it. There is a “Like A Local” tour via SPB that a few friends did that was highly recommended and it included drinking a lot of vodka and eating Russian style food.

Skopje, Bitola, Ohrid and Struga

The price of food and alcohol and cigarettes is dirt cheap. When it comes to food basically everything is made from scratch. There are no additives and preservatives added. The produce is grown organically with no spraying. The mountainous climate must help in some way. Check out this Vogue article that sums up the food side perfectly.

One Euro gets you 62 Denari or in my case, one Aussie dollar gets you 38 Denari so when you compare that beer is more or less between 30 to 80 Denari and a Macchiato is 30 Denari it’s pretty cheap.

Eating out for five people cost me on average 2500 Denari which comes to about $65 Australian. We had salads, entrees, mains, a lot of beers, soft drinks and sparkling water. For what we had, in Australian I would have paid close to $300 dollars. And because you had so much food you more or less ate one big meal and that was it.

And Ohrid had this ice cream place close to Lake Ohrid that was excellent. We visited that place regularly.

But the hotel prices are the same like Australia, ranging from 70 Euros a night which equates to about $120 Australian. And to hire a car, it cost me 25 Euro a day.

It’s pretty easy to drive here. Just need to watch for tractors on the road who don’t even try and give way or people walking on the road and refusing to move to the side. Otherwise all okay.

But it’s polluted. Everyone just burns shit like the crops they harvested or their rubbish.

Funny thing we arrived in Macedonia and left with the Government getting enough votes to change the constitution for it to be Northern Macedonia.

Visiting this place got me interested to check out the other countries that used to make up Yugoslavia like Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Helsinki and Stockholm we didn’t end up doing due to bad weather, which meant our Cruise ship couldn’t dock, but I made a vow to fly there direct and spend time.

So maybe I already have the embryo of my next trip in mind already. We’ll see what transpires for 2020.

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My Stories

The Roma People

Roma Gypsies are all over Europe. They set up their shanty corrugated tent houses/cities along a water source and in most cases it’s right at the entry of a large city.

It’s sad in a way because it gives the city a garbage dump look.

They are not registered, so basically if no paper exists to say they where born then they do not exist.

They cannot gain proper employment, but a very small percentage do gain work however they are paid very low.

They cannot have access to medical services as they are not registered as citizens so their illnesses are treated by their own shed doctors and their children are born in those same sheds.

The Government has no idea how many they number, but what is known is that they are growing.

However the main rule of law for the Roma Gypsies is to beg for money and if that yields no money, they scavenge for throwaway materials or they end up stealing.

This is a general European problem. Every nation has them. For all the wealth the people of Europe flaunt there are millions of people who are not even recognized.

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My Stories, Stupidity

More Macedonia

We stayed in Skopje for a night.

The City Centre is fantastic.

Back in the day, the previous VMRO Government borrowed heaps from the EU and started building monuments and statues on a project called Skopje 2014. The opposing SDS Government kept saying that the costs for the project are excessive and they wanted to see the accounting for it.

In the end, the Skopje 2014 project generated controversy because there was no clear transparent accounting with various estimates for the cost. In other words, people took a lot of monies for their themselves. For example, if the monument would have cost 500,000 Euros, the Government would have claimed it cost 1 million Euros. That’s half a million Euros for the pockets of Government ministers.

When the SDS Government came to power they announced a halt to the project and set up a Commission to investigate the possible removal of some of the monuments. The same deal applies here regardless of who is in power. The Commission might cost 20 million Euros and the Government will show that it cost 21 million Euros. That means another million lost which will somehow end up in the bank account of Government ministers.

Regardless of the Government corruption, Skopje for a tourist looks grand.

Macedonian Gypsy Roma people are everywhere in Skopje. The men are hassling you, trying to sell you anything from fake perfumes, watches, wallets and sunglasses. The women are there begging with little babies, while the children who are able are ready to pickpocket you. Let’s put it this way. They are well organized. But we ignored them and they went away.

And the Old Bazaar is brilliant. Cobblestone lanes weave their way through it. It’s on par to those bazaars you see on the Amalfi Coast in Italy which we got a chance to walk in 2016, or even Old Town in Estonia which we saw with this trip.

The drive from Skopje to Struga was interesting. Based on the kilometers to travel, the drive should be between 90 minutes to 120 minutes. But on the current roads it’s between 180 and 210 minutes.

We passed towns with Albanian flags flying high. I asked the driver why is that. He said it’s because the towns are predominantly Albanian Macedonians. And the pollution surrounding Tetovo, an Albanian town is toxic. The Copper Smelter Plant just spews gasses out into the air. The Government wants the Smelter Plant to put filters on. The Smelter Plant says the Government should pay for it. The Government says the Smelter Plant should pay for it. And no one is paying for it and the air quality is poor.

When you hear these kinds of stories, those green house emission targets and pollution agreements in place between large nothings mean nothing to these countries.

There is history there as well with Albanians in Macedonia wanting to merge with Albania. There is history even further back when Macedonian was part of Yugoslavia and the Serbs at the time came down with an iron fist to any Albanian resurgence. It’s just a melting pot and religion is the furnace.

We passed uncompleted roadworks that were meant to have been finished this year. But they are two to five years behind and the Chinese contractor is requesting an extra 150 million Euro to finish them.

The roads that got built when the country was in Yugoslavia are still in service today. Some are getting resurfaced by the current SDS Government and some are just that bad they have turned into rubble and are not getting resurfaced because the other new road is meant to be in service.

As our driver said, these road works are on an old contract that the previous VMRO Government started and it was well funded at the time but somehow the funds went missing. 150 million of them went missing. So when the new SDS Government came in, they put a halt to the project to investigate the missing funds and in the process broke the contract with the Chinese company which meant the Macedonian Government/People had to pay penalties to the Chinese company.

It’s obvious the country has a lot of other issues and the name dispute is just one of many.

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My Stories

NCL Norwegian Breakaway

Being on a cruise ship is hard to explain.

If you want to stay connected and have internet access, you need to pay $280US for the 8 days, plus a one off connection fee of $3.75US. Seriously after ripping you off for 8 days, they also want a connection fee. Bullshit times three.

And if you want to use it briefly, they have a 99c for 1 minute option. Bullshit times 4. It’s the same rate my phone provider offers, but on the seas I have no service.

And you feel like a prisoner on it. A prisoner who paid for the experience.

It’s shit because NCL cancelled Helsinki and Stockholm stops. They used weather as the reason but it happened three days before we are meant to dock. The call was a bit premature.

There is a general feeling that NCL cancelled because most passengers had independent shore excursions organized for those places and since NCL had a small amount it wasn’t worth docking there.

But the big secret that NCL doesn’t tell you is that the ports at Helsinki, Nynashamn (Stockholm) and Warnemunde (Berlin) are piers which cannot accommodate big ships.

In order to try, the ports have extendable piers. So if the weather is perfect, in other words, no winds, the ships will dock, otherwise it will not dock. A lady on the cruise ship has had two Helsinki stops cancelled, while another has had two Stockholm stops cancelled. And the weather was windy.

But NCL promotes these trips. This trip was on my radar because of those stops. In the end all we saw was Tallinn for two days and St Petersburg for two days and three days of sailing.

Also when we docked in St Petersburg, 70% of the ship had independent shore excursions organized and guess what, they made us wait until the NCL organized shore excursions went first. We didn’t start our tour until after 11am.

The shit thing is how NCL did it. NCL said in a note to our room that all independent shore excursions need to get a time slot for a passport check in the Breakaway room on Level 7.

But it was just a stall to get us out later. The passport checks happened at the docking port with the Russian Authorities.

But there is food galore. Some good, some bad.

So what was the point of the trip.

For the $9K I paid to be on the cruise I didn’t get the value I expected. I would have been better off flying to these countries and staying a few nights there.

I did a Royal Caribbean cruise two years ago that totally blew this one away and Norwegian Breakaway did a great job making sure I never cruise with them again.

In the end, the Breakaway captain did what was necessary to keep the crew and passengers safe. It’s a shame his parent company NCL doesn’t have the same ethos and use manipulative marketing practices to trick people.

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My Stories

Estonia

We got up at 4.50am on Monday to catch a flight from Berlin to Copenhagen. I started to feel nervous as I never questioned the email of the cruise departure point change. I started thinking it was a hoax email.

It was an uneasy feeling. So in my mind I started formulating a plan B. Just in case the ship wasn’t there.

The cab ride cost 50 Euros from our hotel to Schönefeld Airport. I made sure I got a receipt. I’m surprised at how tiny the two Berlin Airports are.

An hour plane ride later and we are in Copenhagen and catching another cab to the cruise terminal. This one cost 550 Danish Kroner. Another receipt in the wallet for the claim back.

And thank god, the ship was there and all the people who went to Berlin to board the cruise where also there. Hell this guy from a Berlin Starbucks that I was talking too a few days before was also there.

Everyone responded to the change.

Once we checked in, we went straight to the food. We were starving. Then after the safety drills, I sat down and started enjoying my Heineken’s. The next part of the journey was beginning.

One of the things that shits me is gratuities. I paid em all for the cruise before hand and also organized the Ultimate Beverage Package (UBP) for my wife and I. So I order a Cappuccino and a bottle of water and I’m told I need to pay for it, because Cappuccinos and bottled waters are not included in the UBP. Sodas and alcohol are, but not water and coffee. What bullshit?

And I pay gratuities again for the coffee. Bullshit times two. We sailed all day Tuesday and on Wednesday we docked in Tallinn and man, it was cold and wet.

Our tour guide, Piret spoke about the history. There is a lot there. The Danes, the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians all ruled the Estonians.

It’s only a small country. 1.2 million people all up.

Estonia was independent from 1918 to the start of WW2. When the USSR annexed the country, the current government ministers were sent to Siberia and killed.

The Russian rule is unpopular. The Russians tell the world they liberated Estonia, while Estonians saw it as oppression. Woman were separated from their children and sent to Siberia. Men were separated from their wives and children and sent to Siberia.

Check out a YouTube movie called “The Singing Revolution” if you don’t believe me. But the shops sell Russian Dolls even though it’s got nothing to do with Estonia. And it’s got this massive Orthodox Church built by the Russians that doesn’t resonate with the Estonians.

The Old Town in Tallinn is UNESCO listed, and is presented as it was in Medieval times. And even back then there was the haves and have nots. The rich lived up on the hill and had walls and gates put in place to keep the poor from the lower side out at night.

The first flag ever created happened in Estonia and it was the Danish flag. The legend has it that it came down from the sky into the court yard.

The Estonian flag is blue, black and white. The blue represents the sea and sky, the black represents the hardship and the wars fought and the white represents hope.

And as the day went on, the weather got worse. For that there was no hope.

And the weather went really bad after we boarded the ship, so it was no surprise that we got a Captain Announcement that due to 4m wave forecasts and severe storms for the Gulf of Finland, St Petersburg was on the verge of flooding, so the authorities closed the dam door to keep it safe. This dam closure also meant that no ships could enter St Petersburg. So we remained in port at Tallinn.

Thursday morning we woke up in Tallinn and we got another Captain message that we are going to sail for St Petersburg this afternoon and from there we are going to sail back to Copenhagen.

What the fuck?

No Helsinki, No Stockholm.

I’ll rather be safe than not but this cruise trip has seen more changes than a Motley Crue concert.

So we did our own thing today in Tallinn. And the weather was blue skies with 60km winds. We’ll take it.

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My Stories

More Berlin

My Saturday began with my wife waking me up at 5.30am.

“Pete, we have a problem”, she said.

“What is it?”, I replied back.

“I just got an email and they’ve changed our cruise departure point from Berlin to Copenhagen.”

“Okay I’ll deal with it later”, I said without really comprehending the situation.

In my head, I’m thinking, what the fuck. The cruise company didn’t just change it, they moved it to another fucking country.

Five seconds later I was fully awake, so I asked to see the email. And it’s true. Due to adverse weather conditions forecast for Berlin, which is actually a port called Warnemunde, three hours away from Berlin, NCL, the owners of Norwegian Breakaway moved the departure, with a goodwill gesture to reimburse us up to $300US for any extra costs.

So at 5.35am, I’m booking flights to Denmark and spending an additional 476 Euro for 5 tickets.

I haven’t had a trip to Europe without a hiccup.

Today was our public transport day in Berlin. We did the old West Berlin City Shopping Hub and caught a Bundesliga game between Hertha Berlin and Borussia Monchengladbach with 51,800 other people. Hertha won 4-2.

The atmosphere was electric.

One thing that Europe does well is their public transport system. It’s so easy to use and everything is located close to the train stations. Australia is a mess when it comes to public transport.

However, one thing that I find ridiculous in Germany is the need to pay to use a public toilet. In Australia, we don’t have this problem.

Sunday was our walking day. Actually on Friday, we did 13.9km of walking, on Saturday we did 11.4km of walking and today (Sunday) we did 13.3km of walking. As I type this, my legs are aching and my calves are super tight. I’m getting too old for these kind of trips.

Today we did Alexanderplatz, Nikolaikirchplatz and the Wall Memorial. At Alexanderplatz, they are gearing up for Oktoberfest. One thing I like about Germany and Europe in general is that beer is available everywhere. Australia is not like that. But we have toilets everywhere and for free.

And on Sundays a lot of things are closed. They don’t tell ya that in the guides. Maybe I’m used to Australia and everything being opened 7 days a week.

I wanted to do a lot more in Berlin and explore more of the older settlements a bit further away from the city however time is short and tomorrow we depart to catch our cruise in Copenhagen.

Let’s see if the cruise ship is there waiting.

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