Friday, September 21, 2012

Wonderful and Affordable Egypt

People told us we were crazy to go to Egypt at this time. They were wrong. Despite the fact that Egypt has been in the news lately; first with the Arab Spring and now with some protests about depictions of the Profet Mohammed, it is important to remember that these problems have not involved the major tourist areas of Giza, Aswan, Luxor and the Red Sea. Even in Cairo the few demonstrations that occurred since the Arab Spring have been in Tahir Square, a location that can easily be avoided if necessary.
Barring new developments, which are easily monitored on national trip advisory web sites and on current individual travel blogs, I wouldn’t hesitate to return with the assistance of a tour company.

Egypt is a lively, colourful place where modern day technology mixes with traditional ways. Where else does one see cars, trucks and motorcycles sharing a four lane highway with tuktuks, (small three wheeled taxis), donkey carts and camels? I enjoyed people/traffic watching as much as I enjoyed Egypt’s rich historical and cultural sites.

We always felt safe and comfortable on our recent two week visit in August. As a matter of fact, this was one of our most enjoyable trips. The best part was that we received amazing value on the Egypt portion of the trip with Memphis Tours. This was my first experience with this company and I have only good things to say about them.
I have no affiliation with any tour company but I strongly believe that when visiting a country that is so different than your own, it’s a good idea to go with a tour company that knows the ins and outs as well as the language. In our case, this was vital because our eldest son has life threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish.

My husband and I went to Trip Advisor and looked up the top three recommended customized tour operators in Egypt. We sent all three companies a list of everything we wanted to see in our two weeks. Memphis Tours had the best price and we were impressed with the patient, thorough and professional way that Yosri (the tour coordinator), answered our questions, dealt with my son’s dietary challenges and was flexible with our tour plans.

In Egypt, Memphis Tours consistently surpassed all our expectations for service, accommodations, meals and sight-seeing.

On arrival, Hussein Zakaria, our Cairo guest relations representative, met and expertly navigated our family of four through the airport to our waiting van and on to the gorgeous Oberoi Mena House Hotel and Resort. We loved staying in this hotel located at the base of the Giza pyramids. It was wonderful to go onto our private balcony and watch the sun rise over these amazing structures.

Throughout the trip, on most days Memphis Tours organized a private tour guide and driver for our family.
In Cairo, Maha Mahmoud El Halwagy was our English speaking tour guide. We loved her candor, humour and knowledge. She was a joy to work with, (and a great photographer).

We were surprised to even have our own body guard when we went to the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, Coptic Cairo and the Market. Although I didn’t think we needed a guard, our tour company took no chances.

The charismatic Sayed Selim was our tour guide for Upper Egypt. He skilfully guided us through Abu Simbel, Aswan, the Temple of Philae, Komombo, Luxor, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings are more. Besides being knowledgeable, he was personable, a lot of fun and went out of his way to connect with all members of our family. He also partied with us on the cruise.
In Upper Egypt we stayed at the immaculate Movenpick Resort in Aswan and enjoyed a three day cruise on the luxurious Sonesta St. George cruise ship. The service on this ship went beyond our expectations. Not only was the staff fabulous but our suites were spacious, beautiful and comfortable. We even had a whirlpool tub with coloured lights in our washroom…and individually packaged natural loofah sponges.

Sayed always kept us well stocked with bottled water and saved the day when ironically, I suddenly had digestive issues (pharoah’s curse), during our tour of the Valley of the Kings... possibly brought on by eating salads or consuming ice cubes. This experience accentuated for me the importance of being with someone who knows where the clean bathrooms are when an occasion like that arises.

We next moved on to Hurghada where the capable Aziz Kotb was our guide. A true test of a tour company is how they react when a glitch arises. Aziz passed with flying colours. When our resort could only accommodate my son’s allergies for breakfast, Aziz went out of his way and quickly came up with a solution which worked for everyone. Realizing that our teenagers were missing their junky food, he ordered lunch to be delivered by cab from McDonald’s. The boys were ecstatic.

Our time in Egypt passed much too quickly and our family will always remember the wonderful sights, the hypnotic history and the wonderful, warm-hearted people.

Although we found Egypt to be safe to visit, tourism is still down as are the crowds and the prices. It is rare to receive the type of value for our money that we received by going to Egypt during the off season, (August and Ramadan) and travelling with Memphis Tours. If you ever dreamed of seeing this amazing destination, don’t wait. Jump at the deals that Egypt has to offer while they last.

For more details of our Egypt experience, check out our trip's daily posts on Travel Addict on a Budget.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Final Day of Amsterdam, Sunday, September 2, 2012

Final Day of Amsterdam, Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sunday morning and the streets were quiet. It was overcast but in the low 20’s as we walked over to Mike’s Bike Tours. Actually, great biking weather.

We decided to take a four hour bike tour into the Dutch countryside. The tour guides were quite funny. After making sure we could all ride and that we knew the rules, we were off.

We had to drive through the city first. Thank goodness that it was Sunday morning and very quiet.

We first stopped at a windmill before heading to a cheese farm that also makes wooden shoes. I bought a number of cheeses. They were so good.

The countryside was very flat and green. There were all kinds of sheep, horses, cows, geese and more. We drove past the Olympic stadium. We also drove through the city’s main park, Vondel Park. It was packed with people. Since living spaces are small here and not many gardens, people spend more time in public parks and squares. Apparently, after dark it is legal to have sex in the park…who’d have thought?

After the tour we walked around Amsterdam, ate and dropped the kids off at the apartment.

We poured ourselves a couple glasses of wine and sat out beside our canal, saying our goodbyes to Amsterdam.

My legs and hips feel like they should be in a body cast…am I really that out of shape?

Our flight to Canada leaves at 8:30am tomorrow.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Saturday in Amsterdam, September 1, 2012

The sun was shining, it was warm. It seems everyone in Amsterdam was out on the streets, biking or soaking up some sun in a sidewalk café.

We spent the whole day walking around the city, along the canals and through the markets.

It seems that lots of markets pop up on Saturday morning in Amsterdam. If you close your eyes, you can practically tell where you are, be it flower market, fish market, or walking past a coffee shop.

We are trying to find out what the XXX means on Amsterdam souvenirs or flags. If any one knows, please email me.

The bicyclists were out in full force, many with there families. There all seemed to be a number of stag parties, hen parties or frosh week events going on since there were a number of crazy characters around.

Did I mention that parking spots for bikes can be difficult? This afternoon, an older couple tried to park their bikes in a busy area. You could see the man’s face fall when first his, then his wife’s bike, then bike after bike after bike went down. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap….. just like a long row of dominoes. Poor couple, as we continued to walk on they were trying to right each bike, one at a time.

People were partying down the canals as well. Often boats would pass with large groups of people singing or in strange costumes. At one point, a boat shaped like a beer barrel zoomed past.

In our neighbourhood, the streets were blocked off and there was a big food festival going on.

The boys were tired, so we dropped them off at the apartment, and my other half and I went out for a boat tour of the canals. It was quite funny when the tour leader said that the canals are made of one metre mud, one metre stolen bikes and the rest water.

We got thai food at the food festival and ate it while sitting beside the canal. The boys went out for pizza. The boys decided to still stay in so we walked around Amsterdam at night. It really comes alive at night.

What a fabulous city.

I am feeling a little bummed that tomorrow is our last day in Amsterdam. We head back home to Canada on Monday.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Amsterdam, August 31, 2012

The last day of August and the day started out being dull, drizzly and 16 degrees. Yikes.

This morning we were at the Ann Frank House by 10:00am. It opened at 9:30am and we had to wait in line about 10 minutes to get in.

The museum is really well done, clear, concise and really brings the story home. I was glad that I had read the diary before hand. Also, with seeing many other holocaust sites/museums/locations in the past (ie Auschwitz, Berlin memorial, Washington Museum etc), this added another human piece to this very ugly puzzle.

When we left the museum over an hour later, the line was much longer. I am glad I took my friend Sheila’s advice and went early.

Despite my boys protests, we next took a slight detour to the Mephisto shop which (miracle of all miracles), was actually open and I found a choice of two colours in my size. I did show restraint and only bought one pair. I always buy my Mephistos in Europe because they are half the price of what I would end up paying in Ontario.

We next wondered around, in a few different directions (my husband checking the map and changing course a few times) before eventually arriving at the Rijksmuseum. I have learned not to ask directions when my other half is following the map because it makes him think that I do not have faith in his navigational abilities.

The Rijkmuseum is under renovation but they still had a very good tour of their dutch masterpieces. Actually it was fabulous with a large collection
of Rembrandts, but I have to say, my favourites were still the Vermeers. The museum took about an hour and a half to see. When not under renovation, the collection would be bigger.

In an art frame of mind, we moved on to the Van Gough museum. I loved this museum, not only did they have the largest collection of Van Goughs but they also had a paintings by a number of the artists who he was inspired by. (I especially enjoyed the Pissaro pieces).

The museum did a really good job of taking you through his life and art by different periods, and places he lived. It was really beneficial to have gone to some of Van Gough’s different important locations (ie Montmatre in Paris, Arles, St Remy and the hospital he was in in the south of France).

We then just explored the city, especially enjoying the flower market.

I could just sit and watch the bicyclists all day. They come in all ages and sizes. When it rains, many of them hold an umbrella in one hand while steering with the other. Bikes are all over, not only zipping past you on the streets (they have their own lanes), but parked everywhere you look. Cool.

After making a supper at the apartment, my husband and I let the boys stay back while we walked around Amsterdam at night.

I think tomorrow, we might take the big plunge and rent bikes.

Gent to Amsterdam, Thursday, August 30, 2012

Before we left our hotel in Gent, I had to take a picture of the vending machine that sells Belgium Beer along with the coke.

On our way to Amsterdam we stopped at Kinderdijk which is a town in the Netherlands that has a 19 windmills in one small area. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.

We spent a few hours there. We all toured one of the windmills (ok, I panicked and didn’t do the whole thing because the steps were steep).

We next drove to the Amsterdam airport and dropped off our rental car before taking the city transit train to central station where we walked to our apartment.

Our apartment is in the middle of everything and is in a 200 or 300 year old building. It is small and quite quirky with floors that slope in many directions.

My husband and I walked a half hour to a Mephisto Store only to find out that it had closed at 5pm. I saw the pair of shoes I wanted to in the window.

There are bikes parked EVERYWHERE. I’ve never seen so many bikes.
Amsterdam is gorgeous however the bike traffic is crazy, its like Cairo on bikes. We even see families riding bikes, people with baby seats and wind screens in front of them and baby seats behind them. It is quite common to see one person riding and one person looking quite relaxed sitting on the back. When it started raining, people would be riding with one hand, holding an umbrella with the other. Of course, there are a lot of people biking and talking on their cell phones. You can tell that people here are practically born on wheels. I think its great.

Many of the old buildings actually lean on an angle because they are so old…quirky but gorgeous buildings.

It is raining out a lot tonight and is supposed to be cool (16degrees) tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Vimy Ridge and the Somme, Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How can you describe this day. It was not just the sites, but a veiled glimpse into the

realities of war.

We crossed the border into France and visited the Canadian Memorial at Vimy. You could see the memorial from miles away. At shortly after 9:00am, the day was sunny and we had the memorial practically to ourselves except for some hawks that hovered nearby.

It was peaceful…so peaceful. As were almost all the sites we visited today it was quiet with the only sound coming from the breeze in the trees or (at other sites) in the cornfields.

We next drove a short distance to the visitors centre. This war site and memorial are fully staffed by Canadians.

The now grassy area was pockmarked with shell and mine craters. Most cratered parts are fenced off due to concerns of undetinated explosives. Herds of sheep graze in these areas…the sheep are not large enough to set anything off and they keep the grass short.

There were a few more people at the visitors centre and we took a guided tour through the Tunnels and trenches. The Canadian University students that work at the memorials are part of a Canadian government program; FSWE (Federal Student Work Exchange). They work for a 3 or 4 month period.

We were surprised at how close the Allied and German front lines were, about only 30 feet between the scout trenches at the Vimy Ridge area.

In Vimy we visited Mont-Saint-Eloi (a shelled church on the back lines), Cabaret Rouge Cemetery, La Targette Cemetery, The German Cemetery, Zivy Crater Cemetery Theius Cemetery, the Canadian Artillery Memorial, The French Memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette Church and many other cemeteries and memorials.

There are over 1000 cemeteries dotting Belgium and France. You can tell the British Commonwealth, French and German burial grounds by the grave markers. So many graves marked only as “A soldier of the Great War”. Most of the inhabitants of graves identified with names and ages were in their 20s. Some were as young as 14 and 16 because they lied about their ages to become soldiers (you were supposed to be 18). They thought this war would last a summer. It seemed like a big adventure.

Some of the burial sites were small but others were so vast that you couldn’t see the end. Most Canadian graves had a maple leaf emblem on them. We found the grave where the body of Canada’s unknown soldier had lain, (he now lies in Ottawa).

In WWI Canada lost over 66,000 soldiers.

That’s a big number. You can learn the facts and numbers of this war and read the books, but when you stand in these cemeteries you realize that each of those markers represents at least one person that was a child, a sibling, a friend or a parent. Many families lost all their sons. I do not want to even imagine how much horror, pain and suffering these soldiers and their families endured. Many of the bodies were never found; covered where they fell.

We spent the later part of the afternoon exploring The Somme. We went to the Canadian War Memorial and Cemeteries at Beaumont-Hamel. At wartime, Newfoundland was not part of Canada and they chose to fight with the British. Out of the 801 Newfoundlanders that left the trenches on the morning of July 1, 1916 only 69 returned, the rest were dead, wounded or missing.

We were the only ones on our guided tour at this site. We were also the last tour of the day.

The Caribou stag is the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and is the monument for this soldiers. The Caribou stag is also the emblem on their graves.

We visited more burial sites, the Ulster tower monument and the dramatic Theivpal monument and burial sites. As we walked through the markers, the town church clock struck 7pm. It was time to go back to our hotel.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Brugge, Tuesday, August 28, 2012

We finally made it into Brugge, despite having to change our course a few times due to road construction.

We started out in a gorgeous square. The architecture is just so gorgeous.

We first went into the Basilica of the Holy Blood. We watched a short service where they took out the holy relic.

We next visited the town hall which had a museum. The museum mostly consisted of a beautiful gothic style hall and paintings.

We explored the streets a bit and decided to look for my Mephisto Store (that I had found on the internet). Sure enough, we found it and miracle of all miracles; it was open. Unfortunately they didn’t have my size in any colour of the pair I wanted. I am now pinning my hopes on a store in Amsterdam.

We mostly spent the day exploring the streets, alleys and gardens of Brugge. It is a fabulous walking town. We went into a number of churches, including the Church of Our Lady before walking around the Lake of Love and going on a brewery tour.

We ended our day in Brugge with a meal of mussels. Ok, the boys had hot dogs and waffles.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Passendale & Ypres, Monday, August 27

Today’s weather was much improved. It felt like a warm fall day and we were comfortable in short sleeves.

Did I mention that there are a lot of cows in Belgium? Sometimes the cow’s fragrance wafts into the car as we drive by, causing unjust accusations that someone is let a stinker go.

Our first stop was at the Canadian monument at Passendale. It was so green, peaceful and silent except for the breeze whispering through the trees and our footsteps. It’s hard to believe that so much devastation had taken place there.

Next we went to the Tyne Cott Cemetary. There was an information area and speakers that named soldiers and ages one after the other after the other. Most of the ones I heard had died in their twenties.

We stopped at another Canadian monument of the Brooding Soldier. This is probably the monument that impressed me the most. At all the monuments there is a place to sign a book of memorium. At this one, there was someone named Marion from Oakville who had been there shortly before us today.

There was a really interesting Passendale Museum, once again in such a peaceful setting. We even were able to go into a replica of underground bunkers.

Next we went to Essex Farm Cemetary where John McCrae had written in Flanders Fields. Being here and going to all these sites, really gives a person a better understanding of the poem and the Flanders Fields.

This whole area is dotted with cemetery after cemetery and memorial.

We visited the Hill 60 Cemetary before driving down the lane to the museum. There are so many graphic pictures of the war scenes and death in the museum, taken at the time. Behind the museum we could walk through the actual Canadian’s trenches.

The lane going to Hill 60 is lined by Maple trees.

A short distance away was the Hooge Crater Cemetary. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go into the museum because it was closed on Mondays.

We drove into Ypres. We stopped at a store called The British Grenadier which is run by a Canadian man who moved here to record every single Canadian war grave and then after having lunch toured the “In Flanders Fields” museum (which is located in the rebuilt Grote Market).
This is one fabulous museum that really puts human faces to this war. We also climbed up the bell tower (which started freaking me out a bit as we climbed higher and higher, but I couldn’t turn around and go back because the stairs were narrow and only one way).

The view across Ypres and the countryside was amazing. During the WWI 1914-1918, this city was completely destroyed and they later rebuilt it the same as it was before 1914.

We closed the museum down at 6pm and then did the whole walk of the ramparts, visiting Ramparts Cemetary that had a beautiful location by the river.

We watched a choir practicing before heading down into the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony which takes place every night at 8pm. It was crowded. Tonight, they had a girls choir from Ottawa singing as well. They were wonderful. They sang that God and country hymn (it was sung at Princess Di’s funeral) and Abide with me. The ceremony ended off with “God Save the Queen” (which a number of British people joined in) and “Oh Canada”. There is something moving about singing along with our anthem in an instance such as this. Actually, the whole ceremony was moving.

One of the things that really impressed me today was that even though the graves are almost 100 years old, every one of the cemeteries was meticulously cared for. Not only was the grass perfectly cut, but all the graves were carefully planted and cared for and all the monuments were standing straight and clean.

In Belgium there are over 600 separate WWI cemeteries

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gorgeous Gent, Sunday, August 26

It was raining this morning and cold. It felt like the end of October.

Cameron had a tummy ache and was not in the mood for touring. The rain didn’t help his demeanour.

Church bells rang out around us in the pouring rain as we ran to St. Bavo’s Cathedral (Which has the Van Eyck brothers “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” alterpiece). Unfortunately, being Sunday morning, a service was going on so we couldn’t go in.

I kept peeling my eyes, but no Mephisto Store in sight.

We walked through the rain to the Castle of the Counts. It was a typical castle with turrents, a vocal pigeon hiding under the floorboards and a museum of torture devices and weapons. Somehow Cameron’s tummy ache had disappeared by this time.

The weather was starting to clear up when we left the castle. We walked past the old fish and meat markets. There are gorgeous old buildings everywhere you look. After wandering around the streets and checking out a few street markets we grabbed lunch and made our way to the Museum of Industrial Archaelology and Textiles.

We really learned a lot from the guy demonstrating the old printing presses.

When we left the museum, the sun was finally full out. After exploring more streets, we decided to take a boat tour of the canals. A boat tour is a definite must do when visiting Gent.

We decided to go back to St. Bavo’s Catherdral so that I could see the Mystic Lamb. It was open. We toured the church however couldn’t get in to see the lamb because it closed at 4:45. Ahhhhhhhhh!

Wandering down an nearby streets my eyes alighted on the much sought after Mephisto Store sign….but the store was closed. Ahhhhhhhh!

We still weren’t hungry so we all got ice cream and sat by the side of the canal and admired the gorgeous buildings. Unfortunately a really scruffy, unwashed guy with a guitar on his back and a store model naked torso of a woman (??!?) under his arm comes directly in front of us, hacking a lung out and picking up old butts from the ground. He is mumbling away…something about drugs and then coughs up a big goober and spits it onto the street. It just about put me off my ice cream.

As he finally walked away, the family discussed whether he had a wife or girlfriend. Graham seemed to feel that no matter how bad, there is probably some partner out there that would be interested in him. Still grossed out, I wasn’t so sure.

At that point, he ended up coming around again, this time coughing, spitting and picking up used cigarette butts behind where we were sitting.

When we finished our ice cream we walked to Pizza Hut for supper (not my choice).

The setting sun was still shining brightly, and I realized that I had forgotten to take a rubber chicken shot in Gent so we went back to the canal and who should we see?

The gross guy was standing by the bridge surrounded by four good-looking twenty-something year olds, trying to light one of his used cigarette butts for him. Then he pulled his guitar around and started singing…he wasn’t bad and the beauties were in no hurry to leave him. (I have pictures to prove this).

My husband took this opportunity to explain to the boys that even if you are really disgusting, if you play and instrument well and sing, you can still get the chicks. Hmmmmm.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Beautiful Brussels, Saturday, August 25

This morning we had breakfast at the hotel. It was a surprisingly well stocked buffet. All kinds of breads, meats, cereals, cheeses, yogurts, fancy coffees, juices etc.

The day was cool and rainy…too bad, because things always look better in the sunlight.

We parked in Central square area. When we walked into the Grand Place square, it was gorgeous, framed by huge, elegantly ornate buildings in all directions.

After gawking for a bit, we stopped for hot chocolate. This was not your usual hot chocolate, it was made with real Belgian chocolate, all thick and creamy.

Next we walked to St. Michael’s cathedral. It was gothic with the soaring arches and the ornate carvings.

Our next point of interest was the Royal Palace. I was surprised that there was no charge today to get in. What struck me most was all the crystal chandeliers, one after the other. These chandeliers were so big and so grand.

We took the subway to the Triumphal Arch where the guys and I decided to split up. The males went to the Military Museum (which they said was really good and free) and I went to the Museum of History and Art (which was 5 euros and good). It had a mix of everything from Egyptian to Canadian to European to Oceania.

The boys also had some Belgian waffles at the arch.

We couldn’t leave Brussels without checking out the peeing boy fountain. It was smaller than I remembered but there were still crowds there to see it. I grabbed some really delicious escargot at a stand across from the famous fountain.

Now the sun was coming out and things were even more stunning in the sunlight. We just happily walked the streets enjoying all the beautiful buildings and ambiance.

Ironically, we had supper at a Greek restaurant on a street that was completely filled with Greek restaurants. I had a delicious Cassis Beer (which the waiter said was women’s beer).

Before heading back to our hotel, we walked around the Grand Place square again and watched street performers and checked out the beer stores.

I forgot to mention, that yesterday when driving to our hotel, my husband noticed that the car driving in front of us seemed to have long dreadlocks hanging out of the driver’s window. I said that there is no way those could be dreadlocks, I thought it was a big rug.
We sped up and entered the lane beside the car and sure enough, the driver’s dread locks were so long that he had to hang them out of the window. Look out Rapunzel, there’s a new kid in town.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Travel Day, Berlin to Ghent, August 24

Today was cool and drizzly.

We left our apartment in Berlin at 7:30 and took the bahn to Alexanderplatz where we walked around in all directions, looking for the bus to the airport. Just as we were about to hail a cab, I looked to the left and found the bus just about to go. Luckily we got on at the beginning of the route. We got seats but soon the bus was packed to the gills.

The flights from Berlin to Frankfurt and from Frankfurt to Amsterdam went smoothly.
We collected our rental car at the airport and had no problem driving to our hotel in Ghent. (Ok, once we got to Ghent, we did have a few wrong turns before finally reaching our hotel).

We are having an early night before we start exploring Belgium tomorrow.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Berlin, Evening of Aug 22 and Thursday, Aug 23

Last night we decided to check out Berlin by night.

We went to an over-priced by nicely located restaurant on Unter der Linden by the Brandenburger Tor. Once again the waiter brought us 1/2 litre beers. Hmmm.

Then we walked around. Brandenburger Tor is gorgeous, all lit up at night. So is the parliament building.

Too soon, it was back to the apartment.

Today was our coolest day yet. Sunny and a high of 74 degrees. I could feel autumn making its way into the air.

The temperature was perfect for touring.

We first took the subway to the Spandau Zitadelle (Citadelle). Spandau is a gorgeous town just outside of Berlin but easily accessible on the bahn. I couldn’t stop humming “True” by Spandau Ballet today.

After we looked around the Zitadelle we went into the town. After numerous people consulted each other and discussed the situation, the pizzeria owner said they didn’t think it was safe for Graham to eat there because they use a lot of shell fish in their pasta dishes and on some of the pizza’s.

Graham and Cameron decided to eat at Burger King (gag) and John and I went across to a German place that a lot of locals were lined up at…always a good sign. Unfortunately, I couldn’t read the menu, so I ended up ordering the Currywurst and some kind of fried potatoes, onion and little chunks of bacon/sausage thing. The currywurst ended up being a sausage with ketchup on it but what made it good was that they sprinkled curry on the Ketchup. So simple but so yummy..who’d have thought. I also ordered a beer because it was cheaper than coke and you got more of it.

John ordered a bratwurst and something that ended in salat thinking that he was going to get a green salad, but it ended up being potato salad.

We went back to the Bahn….which is amazing. Berlin’s bahn is so extensive, makes Toronto’s look truly pathetic.

Next we went to the Tiergarten. It is an absolutely huge park that used to be stocked with wild boar and deer for the Prussian aristocracy and was then landscaped in the early 1800s. It is filled with bike trails, gardens, forests, fields, statues, creeks and more. In the middle is a 220ft victory column. We spent a large amount of the afternoon walking through it before ending up at the Brandenburger Tor (gate).

Before heading back to our apartment, we stopped into the store/museum called The Berlin Story.

Supper tonight was a hodge podge of leftovers from our kitchen”.

This is our last day in Berlin. It is a gorgeous city and there is still so much that we haven’t seen yet. I also didn’t find my Mephisto store….maybe in Belgium.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Berlin, Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Surprisingly, everyone was in much better form this morning and I was able to walk on my ankle with almost no problem.

It was the coolest day of our whole trip today with a high of 75 degrees.

We made our way to Potsdamer Platz where we looked at some more of the wall and checked out the Sony Centre with its really cool roof. Then John and the boys walked me to the Gemaldegalerie (2,700 European paintings from the 13th-17th century) and left me there…with plans to meet up at Potsdamer Platz clock in two hours.

Seeing the gallery was much more enjoyable without the complaints from the males in my party. Now if only I could lose them for a few hours of uninterrupted shopping…hope reigns eternal.

The gallery was fabulous, not surprisingly my favourites were the Boticcellis (sp?) but there were also some fabulous Rembrants, Ruebens, Frans Hals and more.

When we met up again, we went to the Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is made up of 2,711 concrete blocks. I’m not normally into these kind of modern/abstract monuments but when you see it, it seems to make a kind of sense. It is fitting.

Underneath the blocks is a very well done, information centre that successfully puts the human side to these horrific events.

From there we walked to the Topography of Terrors exhibition which follows the development of the Socialist SS and Police State (Hitler’s reign). Pretty informative. Hard to believe that something like that could actually happen.

Needing something a little brighter, we grabbed the bahn and went to see Viktoriapark and its pretty waterfall and gothic monument.

We’re home for a short rest and clean-up before we head out for supper and seeing Berlin at night.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Berlin/Potsdam, Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Today both Cameron and Graham were feeling under the weather and didn’t think they were up for any touring, so hubby and I went out on our own….don’t worry, the boys were in touch with us by cell phone.

Hubby and I took the bahn to Potsdam. When we got off the train, my other half said it’s a bit of a walk to the palace, so with my gimpy ankle, I suggested we grab a bus instead. And a good thing because it was about a 15-20 minute bus ride.

Sanssouci Palace is Germany’s answer to Versailles…just a little smaller.

We stood in line for a timed ticket to get into the palace. We had an hour before our tour, so we went to eat at a nearby outdoor restaurant. When we went in to order, it was all in German so we ordered the only thing we recognized, bratwurst.

Then it came to ordering drinks. An English speaking guide helped us out. Would you believe that the smallest size beer was a half litre? That’s what hubby ordered and so did the monk (dressed in full robes) who was ahead of us. I ordered a beer and raspberry syrup mixture…very yummy.

The tour of the palace did not take too long. The royal apartments were beautiful with all the gilding, silks and beautiful furnishings from the Rococo period.

Next it was out to the gardens which are very reminiscent of Versailles. Every turn or pathway you took, lead to another breath-taking view. You definately need a full day for this excursion.

It was perfect weather for walking around outside, high 70s.

Frederick Gross (the first owner of the palace) died at the palace and had wanted to be buried here but his body ended up being moved around to different places until he finally ended up in the palace gardens. There was a wreath and flowers on his grave and for some strange reason, there were also potatoes? Anyone have any idea what that was about?

At the end of many of the pathways are different palaces and other buildings such as one to house Frederick’s paintings and a Chinese tea house.

We explored all afternoon, finishing at the new palace before catching the bus back to the bahn station and the train back to our apartment.

When we got home, the boys were not feeling up to going out for supper so hubby and I went to the grocery store (one block away). It took us a good 20 minutes of staring at different soups to choose a can of chicken noodle soup.
We have found people in Berlin very kind and helpful with reading Graham’s allergy cards and making sure that what we are buying does not contain his allergens.

We just heated the boys meal up and it turns out we bought chicken stew by mistake…the boys are not very excited.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Berlin, Monday, August 20, 2012

Our first stop this morning was to the Berlin Zoo. What a fabulous place. I have never been to a zoo where the animals seem to be right in the wild. Our favourites were the aardvarks and the penguins.

On the way to the subway was the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche (big church). We walked back and forth about four or five times where we thought it should be until I saw a sign pointing into a boxlike building. It turns out that the church is under restoration and they built a box around it so it was a church in a box.

We went into one part that had displays but that was about it. The big attraction would have been the outside of the build. Oh well, next trip.

Next we were back on the bahn and we made our way to Schloss Charlottenburg which is a beautiful palace. Unfortunately, the old wing is closed on Mondays so we toured the beautiful apartments of the new wing (lots of Rococo). It reminded us a lot of the Schomburg Palace in Austria. We then toured the gorgeous gardens (also of Baroque design).

The boys were feeling tired so when we took the subway, they went back to the apartment on their own and my hubby and I went to the Bode Museum. I was really looking forward to the medieval sculpture….unfortunately it is closed on Mondays so we went back the the Pergamon Museum and checked out the Ishtar Gate one more time.

Next we toured the Berliner Dom…a huge protestant cathedral. It was very ornate inside. We went down to the crypt which was quite full of many large (and baby size) sarcophagi. Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn on the tour and instead of climbing up to the dome, we ended up exiting the building. We were so tired though, that we decided not to try and go back in.

I could barely drag myself back to the apartment after all the walking today. The leg that had the unfortunate camel experience is still really hurting. Cameron and I also have colds. Hopefully a good nights sleep will help.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see any Mephisto stores today. Maybe I will luck out tomorrow.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Berlin, Sunday, August 19

Cameron was feeling much better today.

We left the apartment at 9:30am and went directly to Museumsinsel (museum island) and to the Neues Museum. I love this museum, they have some amazing Egyptian artefacts. I could lose myself there. The most awesome piece is the famous bust of Nefertiti. She is absolutely gorgeous, perfect nose, beautiful lips and graceful neck. I could have studied her for ages. Unfortunately, I had some impatient males to deal with.

Travel Tip: If there is a place that you are really looking forward to seeing, do it first thing because then you have done it before the rest of your party have put time limits on your viewing.

The picture that I’ve attached is another sculpture of Nefertiti and Akhenaton’s faces. There are no pictures allowed of her famous bust.

The Egyptians have tried to get this priceless treasure back from Germany but to no avail.

We moved on to the Altes museum which displayed ancient sculptures. The highlight for the boys was the room themed with ancient love that highlighted numerous sculptures of the male member. Next we were on to the Altes National Gallery which mostly had 19th century paintings. My favourites were the Monets but there was also a painting in the gallery by Karl Buchholz….I wonder if he was some distant relative.

Everyone was getting tired so it was off to lunch. True to my word, I didn’t eat my main lunch at McDonalds (I had a street sausage hotdog), but the boys did eat there. Yuck….ok, I did have an ice cream there.

The weather was really, really hot. We decided to be lazy and have a boat tour. We were early getting on the boat so we had a choice of seats. Hubby chose carefully. Five minutes before we leave, a family of Russian tourists get on and take the seats in front of us. As the boat leaves the Russian guy opens a big umbrella for shade, blocking the view. Hubby was not happy and mumbling under his breath, moved somewhere else.

Despite the heat and bright sun, the tour was enjoyable. The commentating was in both German and English. It went something like this:

German: Das einfahrt, yadda yadda, Wetzenfahrt, unt das liederhausen, ein prosit, yah, yah, abfahrt, yadda yadda…….. this commentary would last about three or four minutes.

English translation: Over on the left is a house.

Ok, so I exaggerate a bit, but you get my drift.

We were all thoroughly hot and exhausted once we finished the tour so we went back to our apartment by underground and napped for a couple hours then had supper.

At 7:00pm we walked over to one of the longest stretches remaining of the Berlin wall. It is all painted now, almost like a street art gallery.

On our way back down Karl Marx Allee, some police on motor bikes passed, followed by a van blasting music then literally a few blocks worth of people of all ages on roller blades. Very cool.

When we first arrived from Egypt, hubby gave the boys a challenge. He offered the first person to spot a dead camel or cow floating in the river $20.00. So far no one has claimed the prize.

There are a lot of bicyclists in Berlin probably because it is so bike friendly here.

I really like Berlin. It is a gorgeous city.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Berlin, Saturday, August 18, 2012

Well rested, we left our apartment at 9am and took 5 steps (yes the subway is Right in front of our apartment building) to the subway (U-Bahn).

My hubby spent quite a while figuring out the automated U-Bahn, Museum pass ticket machine. I could tell he was thinking hard because his tongue was sticking out of his mouth…always a clear indicator of deep thoughts. We finally ended up buying the three day Welcome Card museum island pass which includes three days unlimited public transit, admittance to the island museums and discounts at other sites. For our needs, our best bet probably would have been the Berlin Pass but you need to order it in advance on line before you leave Canada.

We first made our way to the Brandenburger Tor (Gate) in Pariser Platz (square). This gate has had many commemorative and historical events happen around it since its beginnings as a tollgate in the late 1700s. It is very impressive.

From there we walked to Reichstag where Germany has the parliament. It’s another gorgeous building with a glass dome. You have to either stand in a really long line or book on line to get in. The boys didn’t want to stand in line so we admired it from outside before going down Unter Den Linden to the beautiful square, Gendarmenmarkt which is flanked by two twin churches.

Graham will never let me live it down that a guy came up to me speaking fast German and I said to him, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English.” Why do I always say these things in front of the children?

Next it was on to Check Point Charlie where we went into the museum. Although, very interesting, there was a lot of reading involved with the museum and it was quite crowded. The stories of methods or escape were unbelievable. It’s amazing what people will do when desperate.

Unfortunately the ubiquitous golden arches was situated directly across the street from the museum and the boys were hungry. Yuck. The boys are in seventh heaven now that they can get junky food again, but I am putting my foot down, no more McDonald’s in Berlin…at least not for lunches or suppers.

There was a man selling military souvenirs on the street and Graham bought himself a Russian gas mask which he is quite thrilled about.

We made our way to Museum Island (passing many McDonalds) and decided to check out an antique street market before going to the Pergamonmuseum which is filled with many large rebuilt buildings/rooms/gates from ancient civilizations including the Ishtar Gate and a gate from ancient Greece. These treasures are so huge, that it is hard to believe they can be housed indoors. Fabulous.

When we left the museum, a man was playing classical music on wine glasses filled at different levels with water. It was beautiful, even the boys were impressed.

With weary feet we walked through an outdoor art market then laid down and rested in the grassy square in front of the Berliner Dom (Berlin’s gorgeous Protestant cathedral). I think I actually dozed off in the grass for a good 20 minutes.

The boys still needed more restoration, so it was off to McDonald’s again for milkshakes. When away, I know that Graham is always fine with McD’s ice cream products…but I do still show them his allergy cards, just to be sure.

Refreshed, we walked through Alexanderplatz (watching our cameras etc because we told it is a place where people tend to get pick-pocketed). There were people sitting around and dancing on a stage and people gathered around the Neptune Fountain. There was even an area where Occupied Berlin people had set up hundreds of painted umbrellas.

The Rathous (city hall) is really gorgeous with its carved façade.

We ended our day of touring at the Nikolai Quarter with its twin towered church 9the oldest church in Berlin,started in 1200). This is a very picturesque quarter and I really loved the St. George killing the dragon statue. The boys were commenting that they felt sorry for the dragon.

Cameron was feeling really tired and complained about having a headache so we grabbed the transit and went back to our apartment.

Although keeping my eyes open all day, I didn’t see any Mephisto shoe stores…I am sure one will pop up and when it does…

Back at the apartment, we found that Cameron had a slight temperature 100.5 so hubby and I got groceries and we ate in. He is now sleeping (Cameron that is).

Now I am doing laundry while drinking German beer. I hate hand washing.

Berlin is really a gorgeous city.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cairo to Berlin, August 17, 2012

Wow it feels really cold here after Egypts 40+ heat but it is really only 23 degrees. I feel like I need a sweater. We are told that there is supposed to be a heat wave this weekend, 35 degrees. Hmmmm, still seems rather chilly.

We left our beautiful Mena Hotel and said goodbye to the pyramids this morning. The traffic was really calm, at least it was for Cairo. Hassan said it was because everyone is getting ready for Eid.

Our flight was uneventful, which is exactly what you want a flight to be.

Besides seeming cool, Berlin also seems very lush, green, organized, clean and quiet. All the cars drive between the lines, no excessive horn blowing or light flashing, no animals in the streets and there is not a speck of garbage in sight.

Our apartment is right in the centre of Mitt district, just above Strausbergerplatz U-bahn station. The apartment itself is quite large with its own kitchen, bathroom, livingroom and bedroom…the boys are on a pullout futon.

After moving in, we went for pizza and beer (boys had pop) then went grocery shopping. The grocery people were very helpful with Graham’s allergies.

This location is great; very convenient.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hurghada and our last night in Cairo, Aug 13-16

Early in the morning we left our boat and met our new tour coordinator/guide, Aziz. Then it was into the van and off to Hurghada.

It was a four hour drive through the desert to the Red Sea. We did stop once at a washroom in the middle of nowhere. I had to laugh because they had a light up neon sign on the men’s washroom of a guy peeing.

We did have a blip with food when we got to our resort, Mercure. They could only accommodate Graham’s allergy needs in the morning. I had one crabby, hungry kid on my hands and no where to eat. Aziz returned to the hotel and got everything worked out…take out McDonalds. The boys were delighted.

John said it was rather ironic that I told Aziz that the kids were tired and cranky because they hadn’t eaten when the poor guy hadn’t eaten since 3:30am and wouldn’t be allowed to eat or drink until 6:30pm (Ramadan fasting).

John and I sat by the pool and watched the sun go down. There were mostly Russian people at the resort. Aziz told us that more than 2000 Russian tourists come to Hurghada a day.

The resort is gorgeous very similar to what you would see in Mexico or the Caribbean. The Red Sea is beautiful with its bright turquoise water. It is also warm. Mmmmmmm.

August 14, 2012

The next day we had our buffet breakfast then sat by the pool and swam in the ocean until 11:45am. Hubby decided to stay at the resort and relax whereas the boys and I went on a Bedouin Desert Safari adventure at their village.

A van drove to our hotel to pick us up. When they flipped open the doors, the back was already packed with five other tourists. The most substantial occupant (in build) was an older Russian grandma who wore knee length socks with a pair of capris with her buxam chest practically bursting the buttons of her shirt. The Russian tourists spoke no English but seemed friendly enough.

We jumped in and the van tore off into the desert. We were soon accompanied by other vans filled with tourists and a guy wearing a black Chel (scarf) around his head and face was sprawled across the roof of one of the speeding vans filming the excitement. I kept expecting to see him hurtling off into the sands.

We were flying across the desert so quickly that I am certain there were times when all four wheels were airborn.

All the vans stopped to check out a mirage and a guy put on our chels (head scarves). I have to admit we looked like a rather sketchy bunch when we were once again packed into the back of the van. The Russian grandma looked especially imposing.

As Arabic music played loudly on the radio, we returned to flying over the desert towards some very dry looking mountains. I was hoping we would get there soon because my feelings of queasiness increased with every bump.

Finally, within the dry sand/clay mountains, we reached the Bedouin village.

We clambered out and refreshed ourselves with cold water (brought in from Hurghada) and snacked on bread and cheese/marmalade and Bedouin tea served by a very solemn boy dressed in a galabiya and turbin. He was a beautiful boy with big dark eyes and a very serious expression.

Next it was off to the ATVs. They were lined up bumper to bumper in four rows in a shaded area. Cameron was disappointed because you had to be 16 to drive so he rode behind one of the leaders.

After looking us over, they put Graham and I in the woman’s ATV line. When they turned on our engines, the lady behind Graham, accidentally hit the gas bumping him which then caused a domino effect with the bumps down the line. I heard Graham mumble something derogatory about women drivers.

Soon we all started off into the desert with our scarves covering our mouths for the dust. Quite quickly, a larger and larger gap grew between me and the ATV in front of me. I heard Graham yelling “Speed up Mom” and the leader instructing me to go faster.

Finally the leader had me pull over and everyone passed except another lady and the Russian grandma.

Fortunately, I was not the last to get to the destination (a desert canyon). I was already stopped and was able to watch grandma putter in. She certainly did strike a memorable figure with her sturdy form and headdress covered by a helmet. The scene was an eclectic mix of Easy Rider meets the Dictator.

After a break, we returned to the village. Numerous times I drove off the path and got stuck in the sand. The leader always got me out. I don’t think I was cut out for this.

Next experience was donkey riding. The donkey was small but strong with the gentlest, expressive eyes. We petted him for quite awhile after the boys and I had our ride. I swear I saw his eye bulge to twice their size when grandma lumbered past. Mercifully, she didn’t ride.

After a break, it was time for the Dune buggy driving. There were two people per buggy. I rode with Graham and Cameron rode with Aziz. I let Graham take my turn as well as his to drive, but I must admit, it was a tad scary because he was going pretty fast.

We learned about the spices and medicinal plants the Bedouins grew and some Bedouin women showed me how to roll and cook Bedouin bread. They were thoroughly covered from head to foot and didn’t speak. We also watched other Bedouins do sand paintings.

It was after that when I had my unfortunate camel experience. The camels lie down when you mount them but it is still pretty high. I swung my leg over and slammed my front lower leg, close to the ankle against the thing you hold onto on the saddle.

It is quite the experience when the camel rises. They straighten their back legs first which pitches you forward, then the front legs are straightened which pitch you back. Yikes.

Over all the camels were well behaved. However, an hour after I hit it, did my lower leg ever swell and I now have a pretty vibrant bruise on it.

We toured a Bedouin house then they took us to their make shift zoo of animals and reptiles of the desert. I still can’t figure out what an ostrich was doing in the collection along with numerous snakes and lizards.

Poor Aziz was really counting down the hours until he could have water and eat. It was soooooo hot.

Evening was approaching so a Swiss couple and my family were taken by our guides to another desert valley where we were all told to yell a word in unison. The echo was amazing.

We made our way to an open air circle surrounded by seating and tables. They washed our hands in flower scented water and we enjoyed a meal of grilled meats, rice, salad and bread (water and coke). Many people also partook of the sheesha pipes (apple flavoured) but the boys wouldn’t let me. We relaxed and enjoyed the Bedouin hospitality as the sun set.

As soon as 6:30 hit, Aziz and the other guide guzzled a bottle of water and dug into the food which they had already placed on their plates.

We were entertained by an Egyptian flute and drums, then a belly dancer and finally a fabulous whirling Dervish.

Once again we piled into the vans and took off into the desert, stopping in the middle of nowhere to go out and look at the star filled skies. They had telescopes and with no light pollution, the viewing was fabulous. I saw Saturn so clearly.

Back into the vans and to the tune of some wild Arabic song, we sped towards Hurghada. At one point, some animal ran across our headlights.

We slept well.

August 15, 2012 – Our twentieth wedding anniversary

After breakfast, Graham and I were picked up at our hotel for our snorkelling excursion on the Red Sea. My hubby and Cameron decided to just kick back and relax at the resort.

Hurghada is truly a tourist place; lots of resorts and shops. More prettied up but less real than the other towns we had been at in Egypt.

The marina is all brand new and beautiful. Aziz got us on the right boat and we went for about 45 minutes to a private island/beach area. The snorkelling even off the beach was great and it was even more spectacular from the boat.

I was almost the first one off the boat and after about a half or ¾ of an hour, I looked up and I was one of the last ones still in the water. This was just as good as Haunama Bay in Hawaii. The water was soooo vibrantly turquoise.

Graham had gone out with me but then after a while said his flippers were hurting him and that he was going to take them off and come back out. He stayed on the boat reading Ann Frank’s diary.

We returned to the private beach with its palm leaf covered umbrellas and restaurant. We had a lunch, including grilled chicken…lots of grilled chicken served in Egypt. Then after a nap under our umbrella it was time to head back.

When we returned, hubby and I sat by the pool until the sun set, then went to the hotel restaurant for our 20th anniversary dinner. It was a buffet and even had crabs. After we finished our main courses, about 6 staff came in clapping and gave us a whole cake that said Happy Anversay.

We watched the poolside dance show for awhile before heading back to our rooms to pack.

August 16, 2012

Aziz and the driver picked us up at 8am and we drove for 5 ½ hours through the desert to Cairo. The one thing about Cairo is that they do have a garbage issue that they need to deal with. There were two dead cows or ? in the canal by the side of the road.

After lunch at the Kleopatra restaurant, we returned to the gorgeous Mena House Hotel. Once again they gave us our exact same rooms except one floor lower. We have a fabulous view of the pyramids. Staff at both the restaurant and hotel remembered us from a week and a half ago.

When the worst of the afternoon heat subsided we all went to the pool for a swim, then risked our lives and crossed traffic to go to the boy’s favourite Shawarma place.

Graham pointed out that although there seem to be no traffic rules, there are not many accidents. He’s decided that this is because there are not many women drivers.

I feel really sad to be leaving Egypt tomorrow morning.