The White Cliffs of Dover–and DOVER CASTLE…with its WW2 secret tunnels, August 4

We set out early on Monday morning, August 4, in mixed sun and cloud to Dover, another coastal community but much more famous.  It was made so because of the song American singer Vera Lynn covered in 1942 called “(There`ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” that beckoned British (and other) WW2 soldiers back to safer shores from action in France or overseas: 

Image:  The White Cliffs of Dover, as depicted on the cover of the 1949 tourist guide to Dover.
The White Cliffs of Dover, as depicted on the cover of the 1949 tourist guide to Dover.
There’ll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

The shepherd will tend his sheep,
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep,
In his own little room again.

There’ll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.


Words – Nat Burton
Melody – Walter Kent
Published – 1941

To hear Vera sing this, with pics, go to:

Here’s a blurb from Wikipedia on the cliffs, detailing the music:

The White Cliffs look better from a distance. Indeed, the greater the distance the better it would seem. Nat Burton, the lyricist of their most celebrated song, who improbably put ‘blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover’, was an American who had not been within 3,000 miles of the place. But reality never bothered a good myth. The cliffs loom larger, whiter, and sturdier in the imagination than they do in fact.

‘(There`ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover’ is one of the most famous of all theWorld War II era pop classics. It became a sensational hit in 1942, as it reflected the feelings of all the Allies towards the British people in their brave fight against Hitler. Originally released in the U.S. by bandleader Kay Kyser, four other artists also hit the top 20 with this song that year: Glenn Miller, Sammy Kaye, Jimmy Dorsey and Kate Smith. The most well known version of the song on this side of the Atlantic is probably the one recorded by Vera Lynn in 1942. Other artists who`ve recorded this standard include: Connie Francis, Bing Crosby, Jim Reeves, and The Righteous Brothers. In June 1995 Robson and Jerome’s version went to No. 1 in the UK in a medley with “Unchained Melody”.


Yes, no doubt the cliffs look spectacular from the sea or from the air, but we were happy with the glimpses we caught from land as we approached the edge of them, then clambered over Dover Castle grounds. The castle harbours secret tunnels that played an amazing and perhaps lesser known role in WW2, and from reading Rick Steeve’s guide to Great Britain I knew I wanted to see the tunnels themselves and the apparently impressive ultra-modern audio visual tours through them.

The drive there wasn’t too bad–at least compared to Hythe itself. Larger roads, though lots of roundabouts. We started to get use to them. The drive up the to castle hinted at great views of Dover and the ocean, and as we arrived early we got right in, much to our delight. One secret we’ve learned (and Steeves told us about) is to PLAN BEFOREHAND and GET GOING EARLY to popular sites. Apparently many tourists sleep in, and group tours often don’t start till mid-morning 9 or 10 am.

Below: Here’s the view from the car as we arrived in Dover. See the roundabout sign (such signage helped a lot, though never quite enough because of the pace–we needed several signed in succession to process the right data, at times), and the castle on the hill. Later you’ll see the view back towards and over this town (and to the right, over the sea) from those square castle’s tower ramparts.



Following Steeve’s advice we headed straight for the Secret War Tunnels–obviously not so secret anymore! These things have an amazing story, and I love tunnels and secret passageways, as does Ken. (We wish manor homes and palaces would let us run through the servants’ passageways hidden in the room walls, complete with camoufluaged or artfully concealed doorways, because that’s much more interesting to us than just the usual fancy rooms.) So we caught the very first tour of the day of the Secret War Tunnel.  The entrances to the two sets of tunnels, the main one and the hosptial one (the one shown bellow) were indeed not obvious at all, though they’re made more prominent now for tourists. While the WW2 story is the current focus, the tunnels were first built in 1803 as barracks and storerooms for the garrison town of Dover. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars they were packed with 2,000 men, all sleeping, eating, sweating, and bathing (sort of!) within their dark, damp walls; it would have been rough. The tunnels are the only underground barracks ever built in Britain– probably because they were so awful to live in! Final note: the tunnels were used post-war as a potential bunker in case of nuclear war, but never used of course. And anyway, they later realized that the chalk in the cliffs wouldn’t fend off nuclear radiation.



Our tour was the story of “Operation Dynamo.” The event was called “The Miracle of Dunkirk” after Churchill anticipated heavy losses of life (his early words: “a colossal military disaster”) when Hitler almost surrounded about 400,000 British and French Allied troops during the Battle of France. The only hope was to get the men and support people onto boats and back to England, but that wouldn’t be easy under constant air fire and submarine torpedoeing. BUT Admiral Bertam “Bring Them Home” Ramsay–who is rememberd with a statue near the castle–pulled it off in an amazing rescue operation, and he orchestrated it under TOP SECRECY from deep inside the Dover Castle’s main tunnels 15 metres below the ground–though the ends of some tunnels poke out into the cliffs of Dover as windows to official’s daytime apartments and in some cases, washrooms. So, between May 27 and June 4, 1940, only nine days, 338,226 British and French soldiers waded or half-swam their way through the long shallow waters of the beaches of Dunkirk and clambered onto vessels of all descriptions–from British destroyers to fishing boats run by fisherman–and made it to the cliffs of Dover and safety in its harbour. A contingent of about 28,000 French soldiers held off the Germans in the final days of the evacuation to allow the final huge lots to get off safely. Those brave (and/or following orders) French soldiers were captured and made prisoners of war or killed by Germans soldiers.  Note: Sadly, about 68,000 men were NOT saved as part of the miracle of Dunkirk.

Our guides for the tunnel tour (which did include excellent and moving movies projected onto the curved tunnel walls, and sound and even smell effects [burnt cooking, disinfectant] ) said the German military no doubt knew about the castle and its age-old tunnels but it apparently never discovered that the massive Dunkirk rescue operation was being executed, and so wildly successfully, from within them. The tunnels were SO secret that even Churchill was once turned away from the entry point when he did not have the correct papers on him.

After the feat was achieved, Churchill called Operation Dynamo a “miracle of deliverance.”

Photos were not officially allowed inside the tunnels, but as usual, Ken and I figured out quiet ways to take a few–in this case, by hanging back at the end of the group tour. If you want, you can see more pictures and story details by going here:

IMG_4297 A long walk down and down on a steep slope to start, to access the tunnels.

IMG_4300This was the critical war room where officers would monitor the movement of ships and boats across the channel on the flat board, triangulate locations of any threats such as enemy submarines, ships, or aircraft, then phone the appropriate people to avoid or destroy the threat.

IMG_4305This was the communications equipment room where the essential equipent was kept and maintained.


Ramsay had his daytime apartments behind these windows, though likely slept deep in the tunnels in a safer place. Below were his views of the channel across to where thousands of men waited to be picked up by the ships and boats he would provide. The vessels would dock and unload their cargo in this protected harbour. Injured men went straight to the hospital, others were effeciently transported to inland checkpoints and from there… sometimes back into battle.



The exits at the cliff side of the tunnels, surely more camoufluaged in war time but now the gift shop!


Above: The top of an air supply for the tunnels used in the 1800’s days of the tunnels.

After the main tunnels, we toured the Annex, a set of tunnels dug on top of the deeper ones and used as bombing shelters and a filed hosptial during the war. Below was the entrance of that:




Then we left the darkness of the tunnesl for a tour of the castle grounds. We had a bit of rain for this, but it was still great.

IMG_4353  IMG_4364

 Above: A modern gun still used on special occasions. Right: Chain-mailed and other interpreter of the main royal quarters of the castle. Below, sheep outside of the ramparts!


 Below: A rare photograph of Ken in the kitchen.

IMG_4377IMG_4398IMG_4388IMG_4403 What a view to fend off invaders!IMG_4410

IMG_4421 IMG_4428

The British Heritage Society put $2.5 million into the castle to reburbish it the way it woud have been, and to add displays and exhibitions throughout–including some holographic charcters discussing the affairs of the household and who broke whose spears! 



Right: Chain mail–HEAVY! !IMG_4435 IMG_4434IMG_4438

I asked about the strangely bright colours in the rooms. The guide explained that vivid hues equalled wealth because dyes were expensive, especially reds. So nobility would lavish such colours around their interiors to display their might to both themselves and their guests.

The above bed is the King’s bed, recreated from records. Below is the kings…well, you figure it out.


IMG_4441IMG_4442IMG_4446  This is the King’s court, where Ken and I temporarily heard the concerns of the people and Ken, evidently, ordered “off with their heads!” Or something like that.


The royalty even had their own tiny chapel; after all, they rarely ventured outside of the castle walls. Also, there as an even tinier alcove next to the chapel where secrets were shared and who knows what cooked up.

IMG_4480 And we didn’t forget to look down, too!IMG_4514IMG_4521

This was the lookout over the sea during the war where officials helped guide all those ships in and out.

xx IMG_4539IMG_4541IMG_4545


A final buidling south of the castle on the way to the parking lot… and we were on our way to Cambridge, our first of two university cities on our itinerary.


 Next blog: Cambridge, August 5-6.


A day out in Hythe, England (Not Hythe, Alberta, Brennan Karl’s birthplace!) August 3

And so we launched full bore into our England driving adventure. After our first night at the Medieval house August 2, we decided to explore the tiny seaside village of Hythe Sunday, August 3. We drove nervously to a parking lot our host suggested, then just WALKED, which was very soothing on the nerves. Here are some pics from this delightful seaside community that many English people from the wider area enjoy with their families on such prime weekend summer days:


First, a chunk of the map of southeast England showing Hythe’s location. London is off the map at top left.


 The village of Hythe has water running through it upon which locals and visitors row real old fashioned rowboats!


Seaside restaurant! Great fish and chips… and dessert. Sigh.  ONLY fruits, vegetables, and lean protein when back in Edmonton! We PROMISE!!!



Not sure what you call the below activity–parasailing? Windsurfing? Single men hooked to a thin sail; they could really fly! The water was icy cold, though; only a few brave swimmers, and the men with the sails wore wetsuits.


IMG_4217IMG_4246 IMG_4207IMG_4206IMG_4248IMG_4250IMG_4254IMG_4255IMG_4261IMG_4266

This was a wonderful day, soaking up the sun, watching families at play, enjoying the sea–we both so love the sea–though it was not WARM by any stretch, just pleasant, and with a stiff breeze as you can tell from the waves. Afterwards we wound our way back to the car through the village, stopping at a pub to get some sandwiches to take home for a light supper. We missed being able to do a little exploring on ‘high street’ because it was closed up tight; England towns shut early and people disappear! But it was still pretty to walk through… and vow to return one day.


 Ah, the ubiquitous red telephone booth! (Brown bag sandwiches in my hand!)

Far less technology and cell phone presence throughout the England we were starting to see… except of course in London. All told we saw VERY FEW iphones, though we did see several very FANCY Apple Computer stores (but no little ones). Interesting.



Next Blog: August 4–on the road to Dover with its CASTLE and FAMOUS WHITE CLIFFS!





This is a Smoking Booth in the Vienna Airport! Very strange to us. Super air system, though; no smell or smoke at all walking by. Ken of course, does not smoke but can fake it.

WELL, we finally got to England—beyond the single night we spent here before zooming off to Germany at the very start of our trip, July 3. At this point, August 1, we found ourselves experiencing creeping exhaustion from the steady go-go-go pace of our continental Europe itinerary. So we were looking forward to picking up the rental car, arranged long ago from Edmonton and then upgraded, on Ken’s suggestion, while in Europe to an automatic, a $100 pound add-on that I initially resisted. I figured really, how hard can it be to drive on the other side of the road, and with Ken a confident driver, and with Peter L. and other having assured us we’d be just fine after a couple of hours. Very soon, though, I THANKED MY LUCK STARS that we got the automatic; it removed one big layer of distraction, and thus stress, from the hugely stressful driving situation. We had no idea what was about to hit is. Not literally—don’t worry, no accidents! We had no accidents! But we came CLOSE to having one at least several times, and we FELT CLOSE a hundred other times. The happiest moment of the 16 day driving trip, I’ll tell you now as you launch into this blog, was the day we returned the car, unscathed, to the Gatwick depot. The folks returning at the same time HAD damaged their vehicle, which made us realize that it was not just US who had trouble with English roads. Ah, but I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me back up to our more naïve and hopeful hours at the start of our driving adventure.

So we arrived late August 1 at the Gatwick airport, which is about 50 minutes southwest of London, and made the 15-minute hike to the modern hotel very nearby—great signage (“Marriot 10 minutes away” then “5 minutes away”…!) though almost pitch black all around.


It was wonderful to check into a normal hotel, no socializing, inconveniencing, or wondering about house rules as are part of the airbnb experience. Instead we just took the elevator to a lovely, generic room with everything one expects, and fell into a normal size, super comfortable bed with normal, soft pillows. Airbnb hosts serve up a wide variety of comfort levels and wee surprises! In fact we ended up liking it at this restful place so much that before we checked out we booked back in for the final two (instead of just one) final nights before our flight home August 28; we would need that come-down, we figured.

So, at about 10 am the next morning, after light breakfast in the hotel cafeteria and checking out, I stayed with the bags while Ken made his way to pick up the car—the depot was a couple of miles away but he grabbed a shuttle from the airport. The hours then dragged on and I got a little worried—had he crashed the car on the way back to get me?! But almost 4 hours later he arrived with a mid-sized 4-door black Volkswagon Golf (I was actually hoping for something smaller—knowing the roads would be narrow), smiling, and ready to go. Turns out there were just long check-out line-ups despite us having booked and paid in advance. THAT, it turns out, was just the beginning of incomplete or wrong data that we had for a situation. We got used to it over time. Poor Ken, who depends on correct data, just gave up. It was safer on his (and my, to some extent) nerves to simply assume that ALL information people gave us (such as hours of a pub, distance to a shop, time of a train, or availability of a certain item) was suspect. It MIGHT be true, but we’d best not count on it.


Ken in car setting out from Marriott

So, we were off. Finally! Sixteen days of freewheeling travel. We were now on our own schedule, which felt great. We would book our airbnbs as we went along, a night or two before—and that indeed worked well, though a constant scramble to find internet connection and get the right directions and fix arrival times on the fly. Bit stressful, that, but doable. Note to selves: Next time, make sure we have the technology for all our devices to be continually hooked to the internet for full communication at all times, both between us and with the larger world.

Ken programmed the Navigator, which we had on his iPhone from home—he’d downloaded good road map programs for England beforehand— for our first destination: Hythe. We just picked it because it was near the southern coast, seemed small enough to be picturesque and out of the tourist flow, and for me it had lovely connotations. Brennan, my eldest son, was born in Hythe Alberta, the last baby to be born on May 8, Mothers Day (how perfect!) in a little 16-room, white-painted frame construction village hospital (later, sadly, replaced with something more modern) with sun streaming in the windows as a little group of nurses urged me to “push, push, push!” So, nostalgia drew me to pick Hythe over several other possible places on the coast. We found an airbnb host there too, a fascinating-looking post and bean 12th century place billed as a “Medieval family home” on the edge of the village. The host, Simon, who turned out to be an accomplished classical singer who regularly sings in major English choirs and also for Disney films, mentioned a concert that night at a local church that we’d be welcome to attend. That sounded great! We felt that was a stroke of luck.

So we got onto the roads, and it actually wasn’t too bad. By the time Ken picked me up he had realized that the infamous “roundabouts”—England’s answer to both stop lights and stop signs (often replacing both) are EVERYWHERE. And he reported that they weren’t too bad after all. (Day 1: naiveté!) Unlike in Canada, roundabouts are completely unavoidable in England. Often there are several within several minutes of driving.


That was initially quite amazing (and nerve wracking) to Ken and I who were used to long stretches of straight roads (almost no such thing here, except on the major motorways) with time to think instead of rapid fire successive whirl-arounds demanding the fervent counting of exits (“number one, number two, TAKE THAT ONE!!) and semi-desperate all-direction shoulder checking by both of us (!) to get out of the circular flow and on the desired course. What a waste of time if we took the wrong one! And we did, of course a few times, the Navigator Lady in the Box with her Brittish accent (Ken chose that) intoning the dreaded: “Recalculating.”

Eventually we would both chime in with her on the last phrase as she said things like, “Continue one half mile” ….“AND ENTER ROUNDABOUT.” But I must say, that without that electronic navigator babysitting us every step of the way, we could NEVER have driven in England. Things are just too crazy, the roads too narrow, the stops, turns, and starts too sudden, the signage too different, the pace too quick, the margins of error too small, the landscape too unfamiliar, and the side we must drive on too wrong (!) to allow us the leisure and concentration to remove our eyes from the road and consult a paper map. NO BLOOMIN’ WAY! Interestingly, when Ken picked up the car, the clerk said that car rentals from foreign visitors were almost nonexistant in England before electronic navigator devices became ubiquitous. We very soon realized why.

Roundabouts are like traffic circles with the same rules, only of course you enter and exit on the left, from sitting in the car on the right. Disconcerting, but we got used to that (with a little continual reminding from me, “Remember to drive on the left,” I’d say, repeating what we’d seen a number of city signs saying, and pointing my finger,” as Ken made a turn onto a new street, for it was at that point “driftage” to the right was most likely to occur.


Overall, though, road signage was good, there often being white-painted road numbers or destination names (or abbreviations) right on the approaching lanes to guide us to the right lane for the right exit. Also, we also found excellent road-side signage before each roundabout showing the roundabout’s exits and where each led to. Very helpful, English road signs; we learned to read them fast. Another bit of good advice we followed when we remembered: “Don’t let anyone panic you about speed on the roads; just let them wait or pass. And if you need more time to figure out where to exit in a roundabout, go around again! No problem.”

So we drove to Hythe. Much of it was on a major motorway, which was great. But then Ms. Navigator slid us onto narrower and then even narrower roads, and the fun began.



These are NOT the best shots of the tiny roads of Hythe village — I was too scared stiff to photograph those. But here you see some common sights: stone walls and houses right next to the road (no shoulders), and cars parked on the lefts side of the road, forcing cars to cross the line and hope nobody comes. If they did come, the creative weaving, tucking in, and taking turns moving forward dance began. 


MAN, these roads are tiny! Swooping up and around as they got narrower, and as hedges, stone walls, and even actual stone buildings closed in (what were they thinking!) and other cars and (OMG) trucks hurtled towards us on the wrong side (to us) of the road, often appearing suddenly out of dip, we were thrust into our initiation-by-fire to rural English roads. Or lanes. Or carriage trails-converted-to-roads after-cars-got-bigger-and-the-fences-and-houses-stayed-put. By the time we zoomed past our accommodation…


…It was just as pictured but appeared way too suddenly around a corner, like everything else, frantically turned around, drove back, found nobody home, then slowly inched our way into the actual village of Hythe and squeezed our way, right and left as they do it, around cars, often bumping on and off sidewalks (everyone does it; there’s no choice!) and finally stopped, blessedly, to get out and stagger to a little restaurant for supper, we were a MESS! Does everyone here do this every day, no problem, we wondered? Of course the answer is yes. But for us, it really was traumatic. And in fact, the trauma only lessened over the 16 days; it never fully went away.


Here are some more pics of our medeival house airbnb near Hythe in southeast England:






Above: Our huge bedroom!

Below: The restaurant in Hythe where were we recovered from our first real dose of tiny English roads:






Above: The lovely meal that helped us catch our breathe from the road trauma–which was so bad I never dared take out my phone for a picture; I was gripping the side rails too hard. We had haddock and lamb; guess who had which one! (p.s. the vegetables are underneath! Artful presentations.

Thankfully, though, Hythe would turn out to be the WORST driving in all of our days driving in England and Scotland. Bloody bad luck (and ignorant planning?) for us to START our adventure with that. Or maybe it was best; after all, we did find everything afterwards easier. We were so shell shocked by that experience, though, that we constantly expected the same craziness in every other town, which made both of us “nervous Nellies,” plaintively asking each new host “and how is the driving to your place? How is the parking? Are the roads very narrow?” Like they’d know what we meant! Everything is relative. We must have sounded ridiculously anxious to some of them. But ah well. That’s just the way it was.

Anyway, I’ll now get to the salve on the open wound of First Time Driving in rural England: The small town Classical Concert orchestrated, literally, by our host, Ben Bevan. Location: Parish Church of St. Leonard, Hythe.


IMG_4108 Concert program

His wife Barbara is also a professional singer (she’s the middle aged, solo, blonde woman below), and they both sang in the choral group, accompanied at times (when not singing a cappella) by a dexterous organ player and a pianist. It was MAGICAL! A vocally amazing concert of locals, including two singing girls (twins) and several other local folk headed up by a few professionals (led by our host) and with a guest appearance by a quite famous, apparently, English soprano who had recently shaved her head for cancer and made thousands for that cause for doing so. Ken was impressed that she did not wear a wig. Here are some pics from this most amazing night (which turned out to be the FINEST music we heard in all of our travels).





Above: Church concert in Hythe; a fabulous surprise and treat, and the best music we heard the whole trip. Note the guest soprano with no hair–just shaved for cancer. And can you spot the singing twins?!



Afterwards we wound our way home on our own on pitch dark roads, managed to find the house again since it was all lit up for an after-concert party, and we toddled off to bed to the sounds of the crew occasionally breaking into song below (we didn’t mind at all, so good was it!)

In the morning we woke to discover various choir members from afar had bunked down in the voluminous home (it had many rooms, and odd corners) after missing trains and such late at night. An impromptu cricket game struck up in the sunny back lawn, which both our host and his (their) two kids, a very hospitable and friendly girl and boy of 9 and 11, and some guests, took part.


 Before we departed, Ken played the family piano while the host’s wife, a singer (see her near the centre in the group on stage), and her son, also a singer and piano player and composer (probably Aspie, we judged)  looked on.


NEXT BLOG: Our first days of actual auto-touring in England: Exploring the charming (when one isn’t driving in it) village of Hythe and its nearby beach (views of windsurfing! Enjoying seaside fish and chips!), and the following day’s drive to the White Cliffs of Dover (remember the song, and the cliff’s importance to returning WW2 soldiers and airmen?) and touring Dover Castle with its remarkable secret tunnels—and little known story.

Vienna, city of music, July 30-August 1


After our triply terrible (our 5 hours early arrival at station + 2 hours late train arrival in Vienna; awful ‘beds’; and enroute “jumped-in-front-of-train suicide) overnight train, we were ready for a gentle, easy, and even sweet time of things, and we got it in Vienna, the city of music.

We called our airbnb hosts, Simon and Deborah, from the train station track and told them of the mishap and late arrival, and Deborah, who is a nurse (and was off at the time) answered and urged us to come right over. We grabbed a cab and wound our way into downtown Vienna, where they were (we’ve learned to choose convenient locations when we expect to walk everywhere), and to their place, an old stone several-story habitation right on the street, like hundreds of others.


Arriving at Simon and Barbara’s Vienna flat.

This one was more upscale than others, though, with a lovely, sun-drenched winding staircase to their third floor flat. The usual tall, wide wooden doors everywhere.


We got settled into a lovely room which even had a piano! –though unfortunately not in working order.


When Simon got home, they invited us to join them for a “simple supper” as they called it, and we were so appreciative to have a locally cooked meal with our new friends. This was an unexpected perk and not usual for airbnb hosts to offer since in most cases they are just renting a spare room in their home and lead busy lives.


After supper, Simon surprised us again by offering a little local walking tour which we accepted, and then could scarcely keep up with him as he strode vigorously around the town’s main sites, talking constantly, for over an hour and a half! I grabbed a few pics and Ken desperately tried to pin (but alas, not label, which turned out to be a problem for us the next day) some key spots on his iPad map, but we mostly just submitted ourselves to the sensory-flooding experience of seeing and hearing so much so fast, everything from political and music buildings and stories to the Lipizzaner stallion training and showplace barns (hardly ‘barns’ in the usual sense; they’re all white marble, raked pathways, and not a speck of horse poop in sight). Aside: I would have loved to see the horses but turns out they were on holiday too! Just some views of the mares and foals and some minor training expositions for the tourists. We must come back for a proper show, and so much more.



The next morning we planned out some sights but promptly got lost, unable to find the excellent “old style Viennese café where you can buy a coffee and stay all morning,” that Simon had pointed out on the whirlwind walking tour. Ah well. After circling around getting more and more frustrated as we argued about the reliability of Ken’s technology versus my predilection to use paper maps and “the kindness of strangers,” we finally grabbed some food on the street and sat down at a fountain to eat. Incidentally, in Vienna the main language is high German, but most people seemed to speak English as well—especially due to the universities in the downtown area. That was sure handy, at least, for the few times I stopped to ask for help.

Fortified and determined, we decided to visit the famous St. Stephans Dome, a towering gothic church that is the hallmark of the city, the beacon around which most else revolves. It truly was amazing–if hard to photograph on the outside due to it’s height!



Then we found our way to a tourist booth and got oriented, plus we bought tickets to a “touristy” but apparently good show of “Viennese music and dance” at the famous Schoenberg Palace a short tram ride away, for the following evening. With a bit of time left before things closed, we went to Mozart haus (house), which closed at 4. This was an upscalish home Mozart lived in for some years in the 1790s after leaving his hometown of Salzburg due to stodgy old views about his ‘new’ music and intolerant audiences. Mozarthaus was an important pilgrimage for Ken and interesting enough for me. While Ken lapped up the numerous details about the music he wrote there, I got more out of the human history of the place though admittedly scant, since most rooms just had displays and replicas of music scores, not artefacts from his home and life. For example, I was able to examine the colourful ceiling he gazed at each night while falling asleep in his diminutive and imposingly painted bedroom decorated by a professional interior stone painter who lived there before him. That decorator had apparently created this space as a showroom to display his talents for making ordinary stone look like fancy marble! We were not supposed to take pics, but I snuck a few anyway; geez! I hate that rule.


The outside of Mozarthaus. 


This is my snuck photo of the ceiling in Mozart’s bedroom!

After Mozarthaus we wound our way to the truly excellent and modern Music Museum (recommended by our hosts, and photos allowed everywhere), which amazingly was open till 9 pm! Museums and sites often close way too early during tourist season, if you ask me, in Europe, such as 4 pm, or maybe if we’re lucky, 6 pm. So an important TIP is to get going early to site see and plan to shut down in late afternoon. This was SUCH an interesting place, beginning with visual representations of sound and the ear (see pic of the hairs on the cochlea that were wiped off by bacterial meningitis in Damian’s inner ear), including super-cool interactive sound spaces, and then finishing with fabulously and individually-outfitted rooms dedicated to several of the greatest regional composers including, of course, Bach, Handel, and Mozart. Ken and I even got to try out hand at directing the Viennese symphony orchestra using remarkable interactive computing technology and a giant videoscreen. Later, Ken was able to hear (and take home sheet music of) “his name” converted to a Mozart-style music piece –with mock Mozart looking on!


This is a amplified image of one of millions of hair cells in everyone’s cochleas; those hairs got wiped off by meningitis in Damian’s ears at three months of age.



Above: Ken inputting his name which got converted to a music score in Mozart’s style!


Above are Shubert’s effects in the Music Museum: a book and his eyeglasses.


Ken conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra!

Finally, Ken was delighted to discover that the piano in the public entry space adjacent to the museum was available for people to play (in keeping with the spirit of interactivity and music being for everyone)—so he got the key and did so, attracting a handful of curious and appreciative tourists who were drifting through that evening.


Ken playing piano in the lobby of the Music Museum.

We tripped home, happy, in the rain at 10 pm, stealing quietly into the flat (Barbara had kindly left some lights on) and falling into bed.

In the morning we set out for a full day of sightseeing. We’d sheepishly asked Simon the EXACT location of the “Museum Café” and we enjoyed a marvellous breakfast there, taking our time and watching Viennese café-business and tourists walking by over excellent breads, the BEST tea I’ve ever tasted, sublime coffee for Ken, and soft-boiled eggs served under little red hats! I sorely wanted to steal those hats, but restrained myself. What WOULD they think about Canadians if I had?!


Breakfast at the Museum café with red hats on the eggs.

After a little tooling about street markets and window shopping, we went back home, freshened up, changed into slightly more dapper clothing and headed off by metro to the Schoenberg Palace for an audio-guided tour of the main palace spaces followed by supper in a palace outdoor restaurant (exquisite food, not too pricey) then finally the classical concert in the Orangery. That’s the structure in which oranges from the gardens were collected and sorted, but also where summer tea parties, concerts, and such were once held. We were told that Mozart as a six-year-old played one of his very first concerts here, in this space, a command performance after which he had jumped forward and hugged the queen!

As happened distressingly often, though, in museums throughout Europe, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the palace. But also, like usual, we managed to grab a few surreptitiously. Apparently this no-pictures rule exists for security purposes, and possibly to keep everyone moving along, but really, it was depressing when we’d come so far (as had so many others) and just wanted to remember some beautiful things—there were so many. Photos without flash damage nothing, of course. Ken and I have concluded that it’s become an overdone habit to disallow pictures, perhaps another example of excessive security measures following 9/11? While perusing the palace gift shop later I wondered if part of the no-photography rule was to increase sales of pretty booklets full of interior photos which it conveniently offered in dozens of languages. Sigh. Note: we WERE allowed to take pictures outside, which I elected to interpret as looking out of windows, too! Nobody stopped me, anyway, though having the cellphone only as a camera was a plus; I could have just been checking messages, right?


Outside the palace I got to dance with a statue!


The palace’s amazing front lawn. The scale and lavishness of the place while learning how ordinary people were crushed into tiny places through which the plague and other health problems raced, left us feeling how wrong this was.

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Lovely supper — I had the best fish ever, on the palace grounds awaiting the concert. (I still have no idea what the whipped little yellow peaky things were… some sort of vegetable I beleive. Yum.)


And we shared the world famous apple strudel that was the star of its own ‘how we make it’ show every hour! Yes, it was sublime.


Above: The Orangery hall before the show started and before the orchestra took the stage. Right: Us at intermission.

The concert was, well, a little disappointing. The location, overall, was fabulous, and the chamber orchestra music itself was good quality (though our hosts had explained that most excellent music is just not available in Vienna in tourist season, the musicians being on holidays), but the whole setup felt to us just a bit touristy. We had to line up in a gift-shop like space to get into the hall, which was a flat area filled with chairs (not properly staggered, even, for sight lines) that stretched out (too far, to pack ’em in) towards a raised (thank goodness) stage on which the classical musicians sat (at the back) and two singers and two dancers alternated appearances for various numbers. The sound was good, the singers strong, but the dancers left much to be desired. Further, their tiny stage disallowed any serious dancing, either in tango style, waltz, ballet, or the bit of Viennese traditional dancing they did. And sad to say, the pair themselves did not really look or move like dancers, the fellow being very thin, bald, and unable to jump with finesse, and the woman having no discernable waist (Seriously! I don’t mean to be unkind at all; we were just surprised.) Summer students, perhaps? We’re glad that everyone gets the chance to dance and be on stage in Vienna, but for the billing and the cost, well, we expected a bit more.

Nonetheless, a very pleasant evening out. We’ll just have to come back to Vienna in the off season and buy tickets to professional musical concerts ahead of time. Simon (who is a classically trained singer and trumpet player besides being an accountant) and Barbara said they’d be delighted to help us plan that. Incidentally, we’d been accosted all day long at every street corner (they do that a lot here) by peddlers of another concert, one done up in Mozart-style costumes featuring, as part of the evening, a ‘little Mozart’ or child prodigy in wig et al, but we declined it, thinking that if we were only going to shell out for ONE show, that we should choose a REAL one. In hindsight we should have picked the flamboyant costumed event; at least we would have expected a full-on tourist experience had a great laugh in the bargain.

On our final day in Vienna August 1, and with a 6 pm flight to catch, we decided on an unambitious itinerary of two things: A church in which original frescos could be viewed using a lift installed for restoration purposes (a rare chance, certainly), and Haydn house, another wonderful (especially for Ken) and gloriously quiet experience due to relatively few tourists, being off the beaten path, and being out of the famous glare of Mozart—as well as a bit tricky to find, but YAY GPS got us there perfectly, walking. We loved finally being able to take pictures and getting hands-on with a piano that Haydn used. That was cool.



Haydn house.


Ken enjoys listening to music and commentary in Haydn House.


Ken illegally pretending to play Haydn’s actual piano!

After Haydn house we walked home, nabbed an ice cream cone and a sit-down in a park on the way, then packed up tightly (only ONE bag allowed on EasyJet) all our goods for the plane ride which was an expanding collection now including numerous fridge magnets, drink coasters, tea towels and other small souvenirs and gifts, said our goodbyes, and walked to a train station that took us to the airport. We were thrilled that this would be our FINAL SleazyJet experience of being treated like cash cows, so we could bear it. A couple of uneventful hours later we landed in Gatwick, Dear Old England, and made it through customs in only about half an hour for the start of our Britain adventure. We collapsed gratefully into our pre-booked slick and modern Gatwick Marriott hotel room bed a short walk from the airport around 11 pm. (THAT accommodation choice was an excellent decision, for sure.)

(A few more pics to be added here–such as from the inside of the church with the close-up friezes– when I get the chance!)

Next blog post: Our first experiences in England: getting the rental car and somehow managing to NOT DIE on the roads in our traumatic initiation to the crazy English roads and driving styles.

End of Florence, Night Train to Vienna

So, on July 29 we said farewell to busy, crowded, and gorgeous Florence and made our way (5 hours too early by mistake; sigh) to the train station for the overnight trip to Vienna.


As soon as we boarded the train our hearts sunk; this was not what we’d imagined. The beds had been made up by our 10 pm boarding time, and we were aghast to discover that we had to squeeze our way into a tiny cabin with four other people (six in all) all women except for one man on the top bunk. Six ‘beds’ facing each other with barely two feet between them and no curtains! Poor Ken, who hates to intrude or bother anyone. He immediately struggled to make the bed up in the dark with the folded linens on top (we had to do our own while the train began lurching forward) then contorted his way onto his bottom bunk and lay there fully clothed, not moving, trying to be inconspicuous, trying not to sweat or breath loudly.


In the end he never slept a wink and in fact got up and stood in the bright light of the aisle (where others were to be found, later, in the early morning or before their station call, cross-legged, eating breakfast, blocking the way so others had to step over them) in order to avoid falling asleep and risk snoring and disturbing the others in the cabin. (No, the train noise was not loud enough to be trusted to drown that out!) After Ken made up his spot and lay down, crammed head to foot on the barely 5-foot-five-inch length of ‘bed’ (which was just the hard seat of the train flipped down, sloping uncomfortably towards the back), I did the same. I’m pretty tiny and flexible, so it wasn’t so bad. But after I got tucked in I realized how bad this night was going to be. I watched the woman above Ken toss and turn, trying to keep the thin white sheet over her bare legs. Crazy! And then the train kept stopping at every little town, so nobody could really get any rest at all as passengers climbed up and down the ladder and opened and closed the sliding door (inches from my head) all night long.



OMG: Never do THIS again! We really never understood the details when we booked this all in a flurry back in Edmonton. I had recalled romantic and gentle images of cross-Canada travel with my mom 30 or 40 years ago; this was NOTHING like that!!! Next time it’ll be a private cabin with a bathroom (I won’t even START about the whole-train-car co-ed bathroom and its distasteful smells and wet spots on the floor; after all, the train moves and the men stand up….) or we will fly. Period.

Live and Learn.

Oh, but here’s the final amazing chapter to the overnight train saga:

At precisely midnight (Ken was awake so he felt it and heard the resulting ruckus), a man jumped in front of the train from a bridge and killed himself; a suicide. Ken felt the train shudder and jolt before it screamed to a halt, then there were swarms of flashing lights and frenetic jabbering as officials ran up and down the train searching for … body parts. Apparently they found the head on one side and the body on the other. In the morning the young male train concierge told us there are about 2 such suicides on European train lines per month; people choose this method, he said, snapping his fingers, “because it’s fast.” Wow. All we could think of later (after getting over the shock of the dead man and the fact that it happened on our train and the general sadness of the suicide and how it would affect families) was the trauma of the poor train conductor; he (and they) must constantly gaze out into the dark, their headlights flooding long, shallow stretches of steel rail, wondering “will it happen to me tonight?” They can do nothing; the train can never stop in time, even if the conductor sees a man standing on the track.


Needless to say the event was the talk of the train as people awoke, especially since it delayed the train almost three hours. That in itself didn’t matter to us, since we were on holidays and weren’t meeting anyone. But all around us people were cellphoning and scrambling to make new arrangements. And breakfast was delayed because the place they picked up the fresh buns was now hours away instead of 7 am! But that little detail paled as inconsequential next to everything else.


There WERE some beautiful views of countryside, including lonely churches, castles on outcrops, pretty buildings, and misty hills, though, that morning, as we swung closer and closer to Vienna.




Anyway, in the morning our crowded cabin cleared out and the last woman to wake, an experienced and friendly local, snapped the seats back into place, got our continental breakfasts of buns, jam, tea and coffee ordered, and the three of us had a nice chat about the events of the night as we balanced the trays on our knees. We talked about the realities of rain travel, and her country and family and ours before the train finally pulled into the Venice station.



It passed the time well. Another perk of chatting with her was that she tipped us off that the company would reimburse us 50% of our ticket price because the train was over 2 hours late. Ken felt wierd about that since the suicide was hardly the train’s fault, but I was happy to take advantage of the rules, so we did by showing our ticket at the station. No problem. For such a poor night (suicide aside) I felt we deserved a refund anyway.


 Next up: Vienna! We went through it too fast, (common theme on this trip), but it was wonderful.

Last hours in Florence in Duomo and on ancient bridge!

Just a short blog post to end our Florence experience. On the last day we visited inside Florence’s great and main church, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore which was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style and finished in 1436. It was amazing! Due to lineups for the tower climb that went all around the building (and fresh from being sick on the Pisa climb) we decided not to and instead had an “American” burger supper (not beef, though) and watched the line inch forward, so happy we were not in it! Then we wandered around, sat at a carousel, and noticed a painting on the top edge of the carousel (with a place name on it) of a wonderful scene of old buildings spanning a river. Ken looked it up on MapMe and we found it and went there. Turned out to be one of the prettiest places of the whole trip! We enjoyed the area for a few hours in sweet light before walking home and preparing to leave Florence and head to Vienna on a night train. Here are some pics:

Below is the Duomo. The first shot is of its bare skin police stopping all women who had bare shoulders or skin showing above the knee. They were sent back outside the gate to cover up with what they could find, or buy a silly green paper covering that really didn’t cover their knees at all. We never saw the price but maybe 2 euros? A money grab? Sigh. I do understand the respect thing… but we noticed they let some good looking women through who had short skirts. The girl below is running out of relief for having finally gotten through after shelling out for the paper frock.







Some art I bought on the street! The black spot is where I took my picture from.


And some fabulous street art by a busker of sorts, a woman hoping for spare change but really working for her cash! Can you recognize this picture?

The carousel:


Below: The Ponte Vecchio, dating prior to 1200s but rebult in 1345 after a flood, over the Arno near the heart of Florence. It was the only bridge not destroyed by German troops while fleeing the city as part of their retreat. Instead they blocked access by demolishing the medeival buildings on either end. There have been stores on the bridge since the 1300s and there are many tucked into every corner today with all manner of beautiful things. The shops close up with shutters every night which we witnessed as we took our evening passeggiata, or stroll.







And after crossing the bridge we walked back away from it along an ancient street…there was always wierd old stuff stuck into walls; fun to imagine what these iron devices would have been for. Hmm…


…And the World’s smallest delivery truck we saw on a side street. SOOOO CUTE! And SO suited to the crazy narrow roads.IMG_3106


And on to cross another bridge looking back at Ponte Veccio:


What a finish to our stay in Florence. Sigh.


Oh, and here’ a shot of Ken’s last shower in Florence. Just so you see how tiny it was! TIP: He is not actually naked in this shot, though it may appear so! We just did a mock up. Whew eh?!

Ending Florence: Bus trip to Pisa and Lucca!

Having learned from Rome about our desire for guided experiences rather than just on our own, we booked onto an air conditioned (oh how sweet!) bus to yes, the Leaning Tower of Pisa (how could we miss it, being so close?!) and Lucca (which we knew nothing about but came with the tour. It was an all day excursion, well worth it. Here are some pics:



We grabbed the best seat for viewing and pics— right front.


The area we drove through on the one hour to Pisa was a major nursery growing zone; fertile fields. See irrigation, rows of trees and plants. Apparently one quarter of all the plants in Italy are grown here.




Ok, a cliche shot. But why not?! When in Rome… er… italy…do what the other THOUSANDS are doing. Sigh. But fun. (ps. No idea why he made the fist, but I’m sure it means something not violent, I would think.)



The stairs upwards — 396 of them. A marble spiral that slopes from side to side as you go up. It actually made me sick on the way down, the feeling of almost slipping off, the sideways ever-changing tilting, the length, the turning… I had to sit on the grass for 20 minutes to recuperate. But still worth the view from the top.


The bells at the top–originals! From the 1400’s.


Vertigo! Gleep.





And we walked around Pisa then biked and walked around Lucca. But I must post now as we get on the road… so I may include a few more pics at the top of the next post!

Below: The streets of Pisa.


Here: the walls of Lucca.