Moscow, Russia 27 March 2017
All in all, we had a bad day. It started off OK with a taxi out to Saigon Airport without the usual fight over the fare. We found the check-in for Aeroflot to Moscow only to find the line stretched halfway to Hanoi. Christine had to restrain me after I blocked access to a Russian family running up the line. “We are with our friends,” they claimed, pointing to a couple who had actually reached the line to the counter. “I growled but got the recall from the wife and just stood around looking like an angry Aussie in a sea of Russians.
The flight itself went well, taking off on schedule. The plane was comfortable and we were well catered for in the food department, with two full three course meals and an icecream over the 10 hour flight. Aeroflot plays it safe with alcohol, serving a wine with a meal only and not dishing out loads of free vodka, in fact no spirits at all either free or paying. Perhaps experience has dictated this policy. We watched three new release movies each, more than we usually watch in ten years. A regular check of the flight map suggested that we were taking a zig-zag route to avoid some of the higher mountains to avoid turbulence, a wise move because every time we did get close the turbulence started to cut in. However, as the flight wore on, the deviations started to count and we arrived in Moscow 45 minutes behind schedule.
Exiting the plane gave us around 5 minutes to get to the Frankfurt flight, although I figured it would be unlikely that our luggage would follow. We hit the transfer desk in a state of panic to be told that our flight would go tomorrow. We looked down at our T Shirt and shorts, and across to the windows and the outside world of zero degrees and piles of snow. “It’s OK,” we were assured. “We give you hotel in airport and meals.”
Armed with vouchers for accommodation and meals, we sat down for a while to regroup and log on to the airport Internet so we could inform the Ibis Hotel in Frankfurt that we were no-shows. While we were getting organised, we heard “Last Call for Frankfurt” announced. We hot footed it to Gate 6 and explained the situation. Sure enough, our plane was waiting. However, on checking the documents, it appeared that the deed was done and our luggage had been withdrawn for tomorrow’s flight.
While walking past all the duty free shops in the airport, we figured we would make up for the lack of access to wine in Vietnam over the past two weeks and buy a bottle of duty free Italian wine to drink in the hotel. We didn’t have any Roubles but we managed to use Euros so the deal was done. The room wasn’t available until 10pm so we decided to sit and have a beer in a bar to kill the time and relax. As I took my backpack off, the bottle of wine somehow released itself and crashed to the floor, leaving a large puddle of blood coloured issue to run between the chairs and tables. I’m not sure who was more pissed off, me or the cleaning lady.
As we booked into the hotel, we met another couple who had the same experience as us , being rescheduled for a flight they could have made, except theirs was from Romania and going on to England. We also saw a large group of angry Norway bound passengers who were having to accept that not everyone would even get home tomorrow. I think this will be our one and only Aeroflot experience.
We woke to a spectacular sight. The airport was carpeted with more snow and a light fall continued. In truth, this is the first actual snow fall we have ever seen, our previous encounters with snow being after the event rather than during. The sight of all the ice covered planes was sobering, recalling all those “airtime disaster” docos we have seen that involve ice on the wings. There was no need for worry as the plane visited the de-icing team before take-off and we hit the skies shiny clean and covered in anti-freeze solution.
Frankfurt, Germany 28 March 2017
The arrival into Frankfurt was amazing. The airport is one of the World’s biggest and there were planes, terminals and runway everywhere. Landing on one of the four runways is a bit surreal because one looks out the window at the neighbouring runway flashing by, producing the feeling that the plane is about to miss its landing. Just controlling the taxiing aircraft would be a major job in itself, let alone the take-offs and landings. We taxied around for ages before finally finding our spot to park.
Processing through immigration was very slow, mostly because almost everyone bar us on the plane was Russian and the immigration police spent quite a long time interviewing each person. It was quite fascinating watching them engage people in seemingly casual conversation yet continue to probe about the nature of the visit to the EU. When we finally got to the front, the process was quick with a question about where we were visiting then a cheerful “Have a nice visit.”
We picked up our bags, relieved to see them after the missed flight debacle in Moscow and headed for customs. An ATM just before customs gave us the chance to stock up on Euros, so we took advantage then marched through into Germany, out the front door and straight on to the Terminal 1 transfer bus. Easy! Oh Oh! Christine found she had left a backpack at the ATM, on the other side of the Customs Barrier. I ran through to the door but it could not be accessed in reverse. Images of the bomb squad surrounding the bag ran through our heads before we managed to locate a very nice woman who had the power to take Christine behind the scenes. She emerged victorious, although the fact that the bag was still sitting unattended did upset the helpful woman a tad. It seems it should have been detected by the three customs guys we saw chatting together about 15 metres away.
With all bags in our possession, we re-boarded the shuttle bus, found Terminal 1, found the S-Bahn train to Frankfurt Central then navigated the 700m out of the station and down the road to the Ibis Hotel. The room afforded excellent views across the city and the Main River and the Ibis is very well located to explore the delights of this very pretty city. All around us is an amazing blend of 19th Century German grandeur and post war utilitarian box architecture. Trams glide across the nearby bridge and people move around with ease on the relatively empty pavements. The city is open enough to provide many excellent vistas, especially further along the river in the main shopping areas where numerous medieval buildings and some glorious churches add character. Most of the medieval buildings are either recreations or reconstructions of the originals, the city being largely destroyed during WWII. These provide a welcome relief from the bland structures of post war development. The more modern sky-scrapers are generally spectacular, and spaced far enough apart to be able to be fully appreciated, with some amazing glass and steel creations. Frankfurt is Germany’s only true high rise city, housing 14 or the 15 sky scrapers in the country.
The weather was perfect, with daytime temperatures in the low 20s, which actually represented unseasonable heat with the daily average maximum for March being around 11°C and the record at 24.7°C. The local population obviously believed in the average because we were the only ones walking in shorts and T-shirt. The rest had jackets, scarves and even beanies. We covered more than 10km of walking each day and just soaked up the visual delights of Frankfurt, as well as the food and drink (goes without saying). Along the way we booked a bus to Genoa, not because we love bus travel, but because the trip was 62€ as against 270€ for the train and over 300€ for a flight.
Christine found a Birkenstock shop and showed signs of lapsing into a shopping panic before settling down and buying only one pair. We bought some classy thongs from a Croc store and shopped for nibbles in Aldi, which proved to be a bit of a disappointment with fewer choices and lower stock levels than back home in Australia. The clear skies also allowed for a fantastic ever-changing mural in the sky produced by the endless jet-trails as the continual parade of aircraft from all parts of the globe flew far overhead. There are at least eight flights visible at any one time and another two or three local aircraft taking off or landing at Frankfurt Airport.
Frankfurt is very cosmopolitan, with 25% of residents being foreign nationals and 40% from a migrant background. These statistics are certainly reflected in the food on offer, with every type of cuisine being readily available in restaurants and street stalls. Besides the obligatory frankfurt sausage and beer lunch, we ate a few Turkish meals, including a pizza that had decidedly eastern flavours, and sushi. Korean restaurants were also common, with Frankfurt being home to Europe’s largest Korean community.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Frankfurt, a delightful and restful city. From here it is a bus trip south to Italy.
Bussing South – 31 March 2017
A Eurolines coach took us from Frankfurt to Munich, via Nuremburg and along seemingly endless motorways. The Germans definitely know how to build these things and how to drive fast on them. The route took us through a large area of forested hills, interspersed with farm lands, light industry, tiny hamlets and the occasional larger town. The villages looked like Lego towns, with quaint little churches and steeply pitched roof lines on the houses. Spring is only just showing itself and most trees are still bare of leaves, giving the forests a stark appearance, except where the pines dominated. The pasture fields were lush and a gorgeous shade of green while preparations are underway for seeding of various crops. Strangely, there was a complete lack of livestock in the areas we drove through.
The bus was modern and very comfortable, with a toilet, wifi connection, 240v power outlets and lots of leg room. We were happy about that because the total length of the journey would involve some 17 hours.
The bus left the motorway for a stop in Nuremburg and picked its way through very heavy traffic to the bus station. Nuremburg looks very interesting, with a large walled city forming the core of the central city, still very much intact. It could be worth a visit.
We reached Munich just before 7pm, giving us a three and a half hour wait for the connecting bus to Genoa. One option was to check the bags into a locker and explore the city centre but night was falling so we just opted for dinner at a bus station kebab shop. We tried to buy a couple of beers but were told that we could not buy them if dining in, only with take-aways. It seems that street drinking is the only acceptable way to go. Instead, we were forced to pay 2 euros for a small bottle of mineral water.
Our experience so far suggests that bus ports in Europe are a poor cousin to the train stations, lacking in facilities such as seats and displaying large amounts of rubbish, ugly puddles of various body fluids and groups of very strange looking people. It was like we had already left Germany, with most people speaking a language of Balkan origin. We seemed to be the only people on the bus or at the bus port that weren’t smoking and a pall of cigarette smoke hung over the place. As people prepared to board a bus, they furiously chain smoked to stock up, usually in company with the driver.
The night drive from Munich to Milan was better than we thought it would be and we both managed to get quite a lot of sleep. For some strange reason, we only had one driver so he stopped every hour and a half for a nap, which was a good thing, but added to the length of the trip. It would have been better to have done this part of the trip in daylight because it took us over the Alps, through Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein and into Italy. At times the view out the window showed the lights of a town far below us, sometimes almost straight below us, suggesting a sheer drop on one side. Perhaps it was better that we couldn’t see. Sometimes, the bus stopped at a roadhouse, a good chance to stretch the legs. Unfortunately, hitting the cold air turned our thoughts to the toilet and all the places seemed to charge exorbitant fees for toilets. They ranged from .50€ to 1€ (75c to 1.25) and over the course of the trip we racked up a bill of around 6€ just for going to the toilet. This was crazy seeing as there was a toilet on the bus but somehow the urge never took us while actually moving.
Once in Milan, and facing the final couple of hours, the driver suddenly singled us out as going to Genoa, rather than the final destination of Nice and made us swap to another bus. This one was full to overflowing and we had to squeeze our way to the back seat. The route took us across the Po River floodplain, with beautiful views to the snow covered Alps in the distance, before winding up and over the Ligurian Appenines to Genoa. When we bought our ticket we were offered two drop off points in Genoa and we opted for Via Fanti d’Italia because it was next to the main rail station. Instead, we were ejected, after much protesting, at the Piazza del Vittoria. So we loaded up our packs and walked the streets before finding someone whole direct us to Brignole Station. Fortunately, it was not as far as we had feared and we made it in one piece, purchased tickets for Ovada and got ourselves an Italian Vodaphone SIM card. Then it was onto the train for the last hour and a bit of our long journey.
As promised, Rob and Yvette were at the station to greet us and introduce us to Trisobbio, our home for the next three weeks or so. After so much preparation and high expectations, it was wonderful to finally join the Piscicellis and commence the Italian part of our trip.