Martin Village Shop - Now Open!

Over the last couple of months I have assisted Beth and Janet from Martin Village Shop, prior to their grand opening this morning.

The shop is an extension of the work started by Future Farms in Martin, so will sell their own fruit and vegetables and meat, but complementing this with a range of groceries and non-food products for people to buy. There is also a strong emphasis on goods produced in the immediate local area, so this means chutneys and jams from Damerham and biscuits from Sandleheath to give just two examples.

My role has been to act as a retail advisor, covering a huge range of subjects from how to display goods on which shelves to which wholesalers supply which products. I have also offered access to our suppliers who have a high minimum order which often excludes small retailers ordering from them - I know that was the case when we opened Abbey Stores.

The opening hours for now are Monday to Friday, 9am to 11am and 5pm to 6pm, with Saturday morning 9am to 12pm. The shop is manned entirely by volunteers from the village and the surrounding area and is located in a purpose-fitted room at one side of the village hall - apparently the former chair and table store!

I wish the shop every success for the future and hope it thrives and prospers. The more village shops that are trading successfully the more popular they will come, to the detriment of the supermarkets and their all-pervading penetration of the retail market.
The crowds gather before the ribbon is cut.

Its been a long time...

since my last post and also since I last drove a long motorway journey. So it is fitting that I should celebrate both with an "incident" on the M40 and a blog post to explain all.

On Tuesday, when I arrived into work at Coombe Bissett at 7am to open up, my tills were not working. This was obviously a big worry becuase we rely heavily on our EPoS system, not just for stock control but also for cash management, customer accounts, VAT calculations and returns, sales figures and so on. So with some trepidation about what I might find I went briefly into the office where the main server is kept to find a Windows BSoD. That is, the Blue Screen of Death that denotes the fact that your machine, the one you rely on, has just crashed out of doing what it is supposed to do and now needs major surgery and attention. Deep joy.

By this time I had a stream of customers also needing my attention so switching over to the trusty sheet of A4 and a pencil I started to write down every item I was selling for later inputting to the system when it finally came back into the land of the living. A time consuming exercise but without this we would have no record of what had been sold when the system was down.

Over the next couple of hours staff arrived to help and in due course it was diagnosed by the supplier that the server's hard drive had failed in the night, it would not be possible simply to fit a new one as there would need to be data installed on it first such as the EPoS software and databases, etc etc. Therefore the only option was for a courier to collect the dead server, take it back to Nottingham where the offices are, for the work to be done and then deliver it back to CB.

By my reckoning it could easily be Thursday or Friday until we were trading properly again, during which time we would still need to either write everything down or possibly trade from a single, reserve till point. This was set up during the morning but is not really enough in a busy shop when there is added pressure from needing orders generated - things normally done in the back office.

So I decided to take the van up to Nottingham to the supplier's offices, have the work done, and possibly be back that night or certainly the following morning. Shaving a lot of time off the problem and getting me out the shop for a few hours as an added bonus. What could possibly go wrong???

Friday afternoon cool sounds

I have just been sent a link to a lovely flash based website that needs sound; it allows you to set up your own background sound which is just right when working indoors on a lovely day like today.

Try it here:

BIrthday celebrations at Coombe Bissett Stores

Look at what has just arrived on my desk, courtesy of Jill and Mary, for my birthday:

Because of the strawberries (freshly picked this morning at Bake Farm) I can safely consider this low fat and enjoy it with a clear conscience. Incidently, having weighed around 125kg this time last year I was down to 105kg yesterday morning so something must be going right!

So the obligatory scoffing picture:

Return of the Driving Licence

After a long 11 months of buses, bikes, lifts and the occasional taxi I finally received my newly printed driving licence in the post today. I am very grateful to everyone who has supported me while I have been off the road and also for the kind messages I have received this evening.

Another month and then I shall be back in the saddle, although I am very keen to avoid the temptation of driving everywhere and instead continue to enjoy cycling to work and seeing the countryside at a slower pace. However, for work and for seeing friends and going to gigs etc being able to drive will be a great help.

Midnight Walk Sponsorship total

A huge thank you to everyone who donated sponsorship for my Salisbury Hospice Midnight Walk fundraising.

I am really pleased to say that the final total was £304.00 which is brilliant and with £269.00 of that eligible for Gift Aid the charity will be able to claim a further 18% on top.

Thank you very much to all those who donated.

Oak Class Visit Coombe Bissett Stores

We have just enjoyed a lovely visit from Coombe Bissett School Oak Class learning all about baking cakes. After looking round the shop at possible ingredients the children found eggs, flour, smarties and baking powder in order to spend the afternoon baking some fine cupcakes. We of course offered our services as chief cake testers and are looking forward to seeing the end results.
 (the permission of the school has been sought prior to the publication of this image)

Nicolas the Wine Shop closes in Salisbury

Following the sad and sudden news that my former place of work, as known as Nicholas Wines, is closing I am pleased to announce that Abbey Stores will shortly be filling some of the gap.

Prior to the French chain Nicolas taking over this was where I first started working in retail, back in 2001, when it was known as Oddbins. Little did I consider then that 9 years on I would be running 2 shops and selling a wide range of products - anything from mouse traps to malt whisky! The closure of this business, as covered in this week's Salisbury Journal here:

means that Abbey Stores will now expand its range of wines and whiskies. Up until now we have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Nicholas since if they were asked for a product they didn't have, the referral would come to us. Likewise customers to Abbey Stores would be sent round to Nicholas for their expertise with fine French and other Old World wines.

I am very sad that an established and well-run shop such as Nicolas should close "just like that" especially with no warning given to the two members of staff . While I understand all too well the commercial pressures of business, especially in connection to building rents, I am shocked at how quickly this has come to an end.

Andrew and Gareth are considering now how to open up their own wine shop in Salisbury and I sincerely hope that this happens both for their sake and because Salisbury cannot continue to lose city centre businesses.

Salisbury Hospice Midnight Walk 2010 - Complete!

After 13.1 miles, 3 hrs 15 minutes, 2 blisters and stiff legs, neck and shoulders my walk is complete. Of around 450 starters I finished in the top 50 or so and then cycled home, arriving around 3.45am this morning and falling asleep very soon afterwards.

 Sitting at Salisbury Leisure Centre having just enjoyed
a sausage bap after finishing. Yummy!

The crowds gather at the start line

A good sight, unfortunately taken down when I arrived back at the end!

I have not yet totted up my sponsorship total but think it is in the region of £200 which is brilliant - I had honestly expected to be chucking £50 in the pot myself but I have been really chuffed with the generosity of customers, friends, family and even strangers who have put something in. I will post again when I have the final figure.

Around a year ago I couldn't walk upstairs without getting out of breath. I was drinking like a fish, smoking 5-6 cigarettes a day (or more) and never walked or cycled anywhere. So I am really proud of myself having lost around 15kg, quit the fags, cycling 50+ miles a week, occasionally swimming and now having completed a walk that is longer than I have ever walked before in a decent time. However, I am not sure I would rush to do it again - I don't feel that walking is the best activity for me and so I think my next challenge will be to do a decent cycle ride. London to Paris has been suggested before now and I might just consider it. Watch this space!

Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me already and it is not too late to do so now if you haven't, my online page is at:

5 days to go!

With not very long to go I am beginning to have the first butterflies in my tummy...can I really walk 13 miles in one hit? Can I do it in the middle of the night? and can I do it in the inevitable pouring rain?

If you are not sure what I am referring to, I am taking part in the Salisbury Hospicecare Trust Midnight Walk on 5 June, 13.1 miles from the Leisure Centre to the Hospice and back again.

I am pleased to say that sponsorship and donations are rolling in despite me competing at Coombe Bissett Stores with Carol my colleague, who got me into this in the first place.

People have been extraordinarily generous and my target of raising £100 has I think long been beaten which I am really chuffed about.

Thank you to everyone who has donated or pledged so far and keep'em coming - I am looking forward to the walk and am just hoping for a dry night.

If you haven't contributed and are feeling an overwhelming desire to do so, please click here (this goes direct to my page):

JustGiving page is finally ready!

On 5th June (less than ten days!) I am taking part in the Salisbury Hospicecare Trust Midnight Walk: 13.1 miles in the middle of the night. It sounded like a good idea when I signed up but now I am now sure I can walk that far and I'm not sure I can stay up that long (I normally go to bed at half past nine!).

Anyway, I have built a JustGiving donation page in case anyone is minded to put some pennies in the pot for the Hospice. All donations gratefully received.

Find the page here:

Campaign to Stop the cuts to the BBC

Can i urge anyone reading to visit this page:

and sign the petition. Even if you don't listen to the stations in question, or use the BBC website, please lend your support to those that do (I use the website daily and often enjoy BBC 6Music).

Cycling home

What a fantastic evening coming after a stunning run of great weather. This has meant I have been able to cycle to and from work at every possible opportunity. I don't mind cycling in the sun, or the mist, or the cold, or even the snow, but rain...well, I really don't like rain and the spray that goes with it.

I also don't like car drivers who think it is OK to cut past so close that I can pretty much reach out and touch their inside wing mirror, especially when there is no oncoming traffic. Now, I don't expect a passing driver to fall into the opposite verge, but please, give me a bit of space. The road-edges around here are atrocious and there are many holes and rough bits that I may need to swerve to avoid. Or hedges that are not trimmed back and are flicking in my face.

Behind the wheel of two tonnes of metal I understand that these are things a driver does not worry about, and why should they. But the cyclist, who is doing something for their health and general well being is very concerned with them and also the possibility of being tipped off into the path of the car behind.

So, the plea for tonight is give the cyclist a bit of space. A bit of air. Room to breathe and all that.

Rant over.

I cycled home tonight from Coombe Bissett along the Stratford Tony Road, up to the Race Course, then down on the Wilton Road, through Quidhampton, onto the Town Path (dismounting where appropriate*) then along the Harnham Road and back up to Ridings Mead and home. It took around 40 minutes, which was quicker than I had expected, and I felt and still feel fantastic when I arrived home.

The views as you see when dropping down off the Race Plain, looking towards the Cathedral over the water meadows was truly stunning and it was nice then to ride across that view, as it were, on the Town Path. Unfortunately I didn't stop for a photo but this is on the doorstep of anyone in the Salisbury area so come and have a look for yourself.

*The Town Path is causing a bit of contention at the moment due to its cycling path status. The path links Harnham to Crane Street in Salisbury and is well used by walkers, joggers, runners, people admiring the views, and cyclists. The bridges at either end of the Path are currently "No Cycling" which seems fair, as they can be crowded and especially at the Harnham end are very narrow. In between, it is a joint cycleway/footpath, and tonight I slowed or stopped a couple of times to let people through but was able to cycle the majority.

Unfortunately there have been a number of accidents with cyclists crashing into pedestrians (or possibly the other way round) and to add fuel to the fire Wiltshire Council are now trying to interfere but much to the disgust of some of the pedestrian users, rather than stop cycling altogether they are proposing to make the whole path a cycleway, including the narrow bridges.

Now, I cannot see why they need to meddle at all, and if they are determined to do something then some narrow bollards on the bridges (or a chicane-gate) would mean cyclists are forced to dismount and I think this might solve a lot of the problems.

However, they have proposed the exact opposite, something to do with maintaining an unbroken cycleway from somewhere to somewhere else.

So, it is contentious, I feel that cyclists should all do better to improve our image (3rd party insurance in case of accidents, always wear a helmet and high-vis clothing, behave responsibly when on the bike and stop if you think you might hit someone). In turn, we would hopefully be viewed with more respect by the public and in turn given a better deal when we are on the road. See my plea above.

I would be interested to read other people's thoughts on this issue - just leave a comment below.

Fabulous scientific comedian

For anyone with an interest in science, especially physics:

Definitely worth 20 minutes of your time.

Salisbury Hospice Midnight Walk 2010

Now that I have been back at work for 6 days and back in the swing of things, my thoughts have turned to something I signed upto before my holiday.

On 5 June 2010 I am taking part in the Salisbury Hospice Midnight walk, which is 13.1 miles leaving from the Five Rivers Leisure Centre at Midnight. The hook, the thing that convinced me to sign up, was the promise of free bacon butties on arrival back there once the walk is complete!

So, although I am back to cycling and have indeed cycled to and from work every day this week, and although I can obviously take myself out for walk in the evenings, I know I would be more motivated to becoming accustomed to walking 13 miles in one stretch if I had a training partner.

So, if you, or someone you know is also doing the walk or is already a walker who could give me some company once a week or so over an increasing distance between now and June please let me know and I will look forward to the first walk. (I would also like to do some longer bike rides with someone else, so any offers?)

The final wrap-up

So, its nice to be back for sure but I'm not at all looking forward to cycling into work tomorrow morning - 2+ weeks of eating big portions of good food have not done my waistline much good at all!

I have totted up some thoughts here which will perhaps remind me for next time and may even inspire someone else to follow in my train tracks!

Time spent in Europe: 17 days
Distance covered, approximately, had I driven all the way: 5200km
Number of countries visited at least once: 8
Number of trains used (not including Eurostar or the trains home from Harwich): 19
Number of sleeper trains: 2
Ferries: 1
Buses: 3 (Two of them in England as "rail-replacements")
Segway tours taken: 2
Segways fallen off: 1
Places stayed in and explored: 9
Best bunk to sleep in at a Youth Hostel: bottom
Best bunk to sleep in on a train: top
Nicest place I visited: Krakow
Most horrible place visited: Birkenau
Vehicles driven: 1 (Trabant)
Km walked: Lots and lots!
Money spent: I really don't want to think about this one...
Nicest meal: The Mexican restaurant in Krakow
Worst food: Currywurst in Munich for Breakfast
Split of hostels/hotels: ~50/50
Best beer of the trip: The Winter Special in Prague, in the Castle.
Worst beer of the trip: 3 pints of "Jupiler" in Amsterdam - tasteless chemical muck.

Thats all I can think of for now, so thanks for reading posts and I hope you have enjoyed them. Please feel free to comment or let me know if you have any questions.

Who knows where I shall travel to next and I know for certain that I will not be going away again for a while yet - Penny who has held the fort while I was away will not let me!

Amsterdam - Antwerp - Rotterdam - Ferry - Home

Well, I've made and am back home after a really good night's sleep and an ecstatic welcome from two of the happiest cats I will ever meet.

On my way out of Amsterdam I broke my first rule of travelling - don't visit old Churches. For sure, the architecture is stunning and the sense of peace and quiet in a bustling city is always welcome, but to be honest there are only so many old graves and sweeping naves that I can take.

So, ignoring my heart I had read at length about the church in the heart of the Red Light District in Amsterdam and even ignoring my annoyance at having to cough up E5 to get in I went. I really should trust my instincts more as the church is currently being restored so half of it is fenced off to visitors and the other half is virtually empty of displays or anything else of interest. And it is no longer a church but instead used for exhibitions and to cap it off, standing in front of a newly replaced stained glass window (very nicely done, by the way) is a glasswasher of all things - the sort that I have at work and slave over after running event bars. This is why I don't visit old churches anymore.

Luckily the rest of Amsterdam is not so disappointing. I spent a good half day walking around and visited the Houseboat Museum which is really worth seeing. If you have wondered what it is like to live on the water, or indeed fancied it yourself, the museum in a former houseboat tries to answer a lot of the questions and is run by a really nice Dutch guy who can sell you a coffee, welcome you on board in at least 3 different languages and tell you about life on board.

Not too far away I found this former barge, now converted to be a houseboat. Apparently there are no longer any free berths in Amsterdam, just boats that are already berthed. The purchase price is typically about the same as a similarly sized house, with berthing fees, higher insurance, etc etc on top, and steel hulled vessels have to be pulled from the water every 3 years for rust proofing and hull inspections. Concrete hulled boats don't need this, but are much more square and to my mind ugly.

I think these buildings are halls of residence but as the rain was beginning to spatter I snapped the photo and moved on - I had a date with a beer.

A Citroen H Van - I think it belongs to a nearby record shop. There is something about these vans that I have long loved, although according to The UK HVan website costs of ownership can match those of an elderly Jaguar, so that sounds as though owning a Land Rover is relatively cheap in comparison. I never thought that would be true!

Just to prove I am not totally against churches, I did spot this tower peeking out from behind some houses.
This picture has not been photo-shopped - I saw a few of these driving around and they are single seated, or have two narrow seats, and look brilliant for negotiating crowded cities. The top speed is around 45kmh or 30mph.

So moving on from The 'Dam, I decided on a whim to go to Antwerp. I have visited once before, on a trip organised by Off Licence News, and I remember enjoying it immensely although that could be down to the huge quantities of sponsored beer we all took on board. There is also a working port and I quite fancied a trip out on the harbour if possible, and supposedly some other interesting sites.

Unfortunately I came away (after spending a night there) that while there is nothing wrong with Antwerp, and I'm sure it is a nice place to live, it is not somewhere I shall be revisiting for a while. To be fair, I did not go inside any of the six or so nice churches that are dotted about - see my comments above. The picture shows a nice Medieval alleyway "hidden" off the main street - hidden that is apart from the guided walk going through there which I followed.

But in the main the harbour tours don't start for another couple of days and the rest of the city seemed a bit quiet. I was also hacked off by the attitude of the waiter who (didn't) serve me in a reasonable restaurant in town - while I understand entirely that the pretty girls at the next table will always receive more attention from 2 waiters than the bloke on his own, they could have remembered my existence a little bit.

Finally on leaving the city I did enjoy the refurbishment of the Centraal Railway Station - cleverly the wonderful arches of the glazed roof have been kept and restored and the station has been expanded by adding extra layers.

You can see in the first picture that main station clock which just looks superb and then in the second the arrangement of trains on 3 levels, with shopping areas in between. I know that is is not unique - the Berlin Hbf and even St Pancras to name just two do something similar but I liked the old/new arrangement here very much.

From the top, there is a platform, then a layer of shops/coffee places, then another train (you can just see it), then I think another layer of people, then right in the depths are the platforms that handle the trains to France and The Netherlands. The same is repeated on the other side.

So, moving on I headed for Rotterdam. There is one comment I have to make about Belgian and Dutch trains: they are slooooow. I know both are small countries and therefore fast trains would fall off the edge, over the boarders, and I know that one can take the Thalys train which is essentially a TGV that runs from Brussels to Amsterdam stopping a couple of times en-route, but I wish the normal services could go a bit faster!

Rotterdam was my last stop, I arrived at around lunchtime and left early evening for the ferry. This was just enough time to walk into town from the station, have an excellent lunch, grab a tour of the harbour and walk back to the station.

I enjoyed Rotterdam. It seems a lively city and although I have no idea what else is going on there is a huge maritime museum in the old harbour which I would love to have a proper look round and there is a pleasantly wide street with fountains and small lakes that leads you into the city centre and looks really welcoming.

At the end of this however is a giant gnome holding what looks to me like a giant sex toy! Now, I know that the Dutch are relaxed about such matters but perhaps they intended this to depict an ice cream or something!

Given that I had missed out in Anrwerp I naturally headed for the water and a harbour tour. Unfortunately this was of the canned-commentary, entertain the coach loads variety and as such was rather dull, but I did spot my own ship pictured here (my initials are CGM).

Rotterdam is blessed with this stunning suspension bridge over the river and although I ran out of time to walk over it (next time) it really provides a centre piece to the city, with considerable redevelopment work both completed and ongoing around the bridge.

In the shadow of the bridge, at the "Water Restaurant" which is part of a sleek, modern hotel looking over the port area I enjoyed one of my best lunches of the trip - a spring salad with lovely fresh and crisp leaves, crumbled goats cheese, caramelised onion and finely chopped tomato with a nice dressing.

Served with a couple of freshly baked bread rolls it should have been lunch in itself, but I had not realised this and ordered the XXL Burger as a main dish! Of course the frites were superb - properly double-fried and served with lots of mayonnaise, and the burger was juice and tasty and with bacon and with cheese and with a lovely salsa it time for lunch yet?

Feeling like a balloon ready to pop I headed back to the station to catch the final (Interrail) train of my journey to Hoek Van Holland Haven - about half an hour away.

My arrival on board the Stena Britannica was notable only because I was the first foot passenger to board, and I soon found my way to cabin 9611. On overnight sailings cabins are compulsory, and I had opted to pay the extra £6 to have a window.

The berths are really comfortable and I slept like a log. I had pre-booked an (all you can eat) evening meal & and breakfast knowing that it would save money on board, but not knowing how filling my lunch would be. Still, I managed to force something down (having a choice of stir-fry ingredients that a chef will then cook for you was good) and it would have been a shame to waste the meal booking!

Breakfast was served at 0530 and it was nice to get outside a full English after eating the flacid ham and cheese with a roll that is available on the continent.

My journey home was relatively painless although buses were used on two portions of the journey from Harwich - amazing how I could complete my entire trip without a replacement bus in sight, but you get to England and they're everywhere. Still, I didn't have to wait any more than 15 minutes anywhere for a connecting train (or bus) and arrived in Salisbury to be met by a real train which was nice.

So, there we are. I will consolidate in the next post, but overall it is a great way to travel and really nice to look at a map and think "yes I can go there, via x, y and z", and just do it. Sure, I did a bit of booking ahead, the occasional hostel, sleeper train or trip, but everything else was done there and then.

For me, this is the sort of travel that suits me best - the thought of spending 2 weeks on a beach somewhere fills me with horror!


I'm back, shattered, will do a final update tomorrow for Antwerp, Rotterdam and the ferry home.


Don't bother at this time of year - no one about, nothing much to see and the blasted harbour cruises which I was actually looking forward to doing don't start until 3 April. Doh!

So, off to Rotterdam tomorrow, to kill time before getting the ferry at 8pm ish from Hoek Van Holland.

Krakow - Berlin - Hamburg - Amsterdam

Crikey! Writing that title makes me realise how far I have travelled in the last few days.

The sleeper train from Krakow to Berlin was much better equipped than the previous one from Prague to Krakow (a much newer carriage) and I was hoping for a better sleep, but in fact since the train kept stopping through the night and another passenger joined us around 1am I felt rather shattered on reaching Germany.

Here is a top tip now for anyone following in my footsteps: when you switch from the Polish train to the DB train (German operated) at some God-awful hour in the morning after a broken night's sleep, make sure you have enough Euros in your bags for a coffee on board because the guy operating the on-board restaurant does not accept Polish currency or anything else!

I was only in Berlin really to break my journey up to Hamburg but I felt that spending a night there would be worthwhile and I'm glad I did. The city is huge though - walking from the Hbf (Central Station) down into the area where I was hoping to find accommodation took around 45 minutes but on the second attempt I found a bed for the night. However, despite needing a shower and a coffee and ideally 3 hours sleep, I was not allowed into the room until 3pm (it was now around 9am) but I could dump my bag, grab a breakfast and a city map and decide where to go next.

I took the opportunity to walk down to Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror exhibition next door. Checkpoint Charley is a tourist trap but there is an informative series of bilboards that surround the site and give some excellent views and descriptions of life in East Berlin, seperated from loved ones and neighbours overnight by the Berlin Wall. There is also a 200m section of Berlin Wall there preserved by a fence (how ironic?) one of the few sections left in the city. 

The Topography of Terror exhibition is an outdoor site on the former grounds of various buildings occupied by the SS and the Gestapo. In due course there will be an indoor museum but for now you can read about the building and their uses and see some excavated cellars from the Gestapo Headquarters.

Around the corner is the starting point for the Trabant Safari tour company, where a group can hire upto 6 of these magnificant vehicles and follow a guided tour, driving around East Berlin while a guide tells you what is what on the radio from the lead Trabbi. This company seems to have collected more Trabbis in one place than I have ever seen before (and a couple of Ural 375 ex Russian trucks for good measure). One to do if in Berlin in a group.

That night I dined on The Place To Be in East Berlin it seemed, with Ferrari's and other exotic motors cruising past (a distinct lack of Land Rovers, though) and even a few tarts to see if I wanted a good time (I needed my dinner too much)! My main meal was a kebab of various sausages with onions and peppers and large dollops of mayonnaise and ketchup, sitting enjoying the night sights and the warm air. The waitress told me that the winter had been "fu*king cold" (said in English with a German accent it sounds very funny) and it was only in the past week that the tables had come outside again for the spring.

The following morning I arrived at the base of the TV tower for my second, and hopefully more successful, Segway tour of my holiday. And so it proved: A proper introduction of how to ride a Segway, no alcohol allowed which in hindsight is a bonus, and a good overview of the main sights and sounds of East Berlin. Really enjoyable and I managed not to fall off! With more time I would have taken the guide's advice to revisit many of the sights and explore them more thoroughly such as the Jewish memorial.

However, I had a train to catch, to Hamburg, which was my main reason for being in the area. Not a bad trip although the train was running 30 minutes late and by the time we pulled in to Hamburg Hbf it was chucking down with rain. I used the Tourist Info at the station to book into a Hotel in the Reeperbahn (Red Light area) as there was little other choice at such short notice. Unfortunately and typically it was another dump - expensive and a room that stank of stale tobacco smoke, with rude reception staff. However, at least it was a private room and living in mixed dorms is cheap but not a good place to rest, so there we are.

My main reason for coming to Hamburg was the Minatur Wunderland, situated in a converted warehouse in the old docks. Visited by 6 million people so far it is a wonderful depiction of imagined scence from both Germany and further afield, in tiny scale. Basically, think of a huge model train set with exquisitely detailed scenery and 100s of thousands of little figures and vehicles at every turn. I cannot really describe it properly, but spread over 3 floors it occupied about 3 hours and could probably have take longer, had it not been so crowded on a Sunday afternoon.

My photos don't do it justice, but if you click to enlarge them you can see a little of the detail that has gone into this, and is still ongoing as more scenes are added.

The rest of Hamburg was pleasant and I enjoyed a harbour cruise which took us up close and personal with some of the commercial ships docked and unloading which was interesting. There was also a huge funfair in town for Spring which I wandered around on Sunday Evening, marvelling at the portable bars serving beer and spirits (you would NOT be allowed to do anything like that in the UK) and some of the rides which were truly terrifying. Unfortunately there were intermittent showers which were keeping the crowds away and you could tell the stall holders were looking forwards to closing for the night.

So, onto Amsterdam. My train for some reason was delayed by an hour when reaching the German/Dutch border so I was able to switch onto the slow, stopping, change-train-every-five-minutes local network, but pulled into Centraal Station around 7.30pm, on a journey that should have lasted 6 hours but actually took nine. Thankfully I have been to Amsterdam 2-3 times before and could easily navigate to my hotel, avoiding the places selling city maps for 3 Euros (when they are available for free everywhere). Now, my hotel is in the Red Light area and you might have noticed a pattern developing here, but I promise you this is only because I need cheap accommodation and not for any other reason, honest!

Last night I had an early night, but today I have done some laundry, visited the Torture Museum which is rubbish, the one in Ghent is much better if you like that sort of thing, yomped around the city for a while and also visited the Museum of Dutch Resistance. This is pretty good, tucked away off the main drag but worth a look as it neatly covers the time of German Occupation in the Netherlands.

I have also now managed to book my ferry home, I had hoped to travel back overnight on Thursday arriving in Harwich on Friday but for various reasons have had to slip this for 24 hours, so have now got an extra day to fill here. I may well pop down to Brussels or else take a look around Rotterdam, not really sure yet.

Hamburg very quickly

I am in Hamburg and leaving for Amsterdam tomorrow.

Nice city but another lousy hotel (why do I find them?), went on a harbour cruise today and also visited the Minature Wunderland which James May visited and I have wanted to see ever since.

Unfortunately the weather has turned to heavy showers which makes walking around looking at stuff much less fun. And. I have not found any decent food to share with you!

More soon when I have a better wifi connection (ie one I don't have to pay for).

Krakow - Nice city.

My sleeper train to Berlin leaves tonight at 7.30pm so I have a couple of hours spare to type up my thoughts about Krakow.

I came here really because of wanting to visit Auschwitz and not because I had any other expectations of what I would find. In fact, I really like this city and while I have only been here a couple of days I know that I would like to revisit in the future. There are loads of things I have not explored (there is a huge salt mine that is open in part to the public and I have not been to the castle or inside any of the historic buildings) but I have found everyone to be very helpful and friendly and luckily have also found some good food along the way.

The photo on the left shows my starter last night in a lovely Mexican restaurant situated about 5 minutes walk from my hostel. Beef Carpaccio, marinated in rosemary and garlic, served with a spicy salsa and tortilla chips. Fantastic.

I did also eat some more typical Polish food - this shows a dish of my own assembly, that is pierogi with meat with a salad of mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. Just the thing for a light lunch.

The centre of Krakow, the Old town, is rather touristy but there are plenty of good places to eat and many sites of interest to keep you busy. The castle is just off the main square to the South and although I have not been inside it occupies a big site, which one guide claims would occupy you for most of a day.

About 10 minutes walk from the main square, again to the South and on the banks of the River Wista is the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, where I am staying. Here there are many historical buildings, narrow streets and interesting sites which unfortunately I have just not had time to explore properly. According to those in the know (two lads in my dorm at the hostel) some good nightlife is situated around here as well.

If, like me, you find that after a while the older historical sites tend to blend together, you can take a trip out to Nowa Huta which was created by the Communists to supply a workforce to the enormous steelworks to the East of the city and also to act as a model town under Communist ideals. I was lucky to be shown some of the highlights of Nowa Huta as part of an afternoon tour operated by "Crazy Guides" and chauffered around in an elderly Trabant (which at the end of the tour we were allowed to try and drive, on a disused airfield). Highly recommended with a good guide and great fun.

This morning I have taken a trip out to the Aviation museum on the edge of the city which is large and slightly chaotically laid out but allows the visitor to wander around at their own pace, taking in a variety of aviation exhibits from around 1918 onwards. Unfortunately this former RAF Jaguar, pictured left, has seen better days. There seems to be a lot of building work going on at the site and a new building appears to be in the final stages of construction, so I guess in the future the displays and featured aircraft will be laid out rather more logically. They might even have reassembled the Jaguar by then!


I'm now killing time in the Prague hostel before my sleeper train leaves at 2132 for Krakow in Poland.  The architecture is stunning to look at (see the photo of the Opera House - the decoration is not unique to this building by any stretch) and the history of the City and its key components can be traced back over hundreds of years. I have enjoyed myself here immensly and would like to revisit in the future. Unlike Ljubljana, where having a companion is obligatory, here I have had a good time by myself but couples are extremely well catered for as well.

Last night, leaving at 7pm, Myself and two other punters indulged ourselves with a Segway tour of the city. For those who are unsure, a Segway is a two-wheeled device which one stands on, and its motion is controlled by your weight shifting. That is, if you wish to go forwards you lean forwards, backwards you lean backwards, and to stear you move the handlebars left or right. Clever electronics and gyroscopes handle the rest. After only 1 minute of tuition and a few minutes practice we all became confident and were able to whizz around the city, scattering pedestrians in our wake. The tour takes around three hours and setting off at dusk gave us stunning views of the city and also meant the streets were much quieter.

Unfortunately my mobile phone camera does not do these scenes justice so I can only tell you that the view from Prague Castle, overlooking the city on a clear night is simply brilliant. At the top of the hill, after looking at the castle with its various palaces (at 5 sq km the largest castle complex in the world) and with our machines needing a charge we pulled into a microbrewery for a couple of glasses of their 6.3% abv Amber Special which washed down their goulash extremely well.

At this point everything was going well, but in typical clumsy May fashion a combination of beer, a steep downhill gradient, lack of concentration and over confidence conspired to tip me off my stead and fall flat on my face! I am now sporting a grazed hand and chin and a nasty graze on my left knee. Hey ho, these things happen, I proceeded rather more cautiously to the bottom of the hill.

The tour takes around 3 hours to complete although last night with the meal break and me doing a faceplant we actually took around four. Fantastic fun, highly recommended and well worth the cost. Click this link if you are going to Prague and want to know more: Segway Prague

I have spent today mooching about in the sun, drinking perhaps a little too much beer at lunch time but enjoying the bright sunshine and warmth. Wearing just a t-shirt in late March, a slight breeze but nothing more, on the banks of the river, with a large glass of Urquell in hand, this is a lifestyle I could get used to! Apparently Prince Charles is in town and although he has not come to say hello yet I did see Camilla being driven past in a motorcade. She looked most hacked off being driven around on such a lovely day, but she did manage a wave as she passed.

So to sum up, Prague is lovely, it is a good time to come as the main tourist season is still 2-3 weeks away so while the city is busy it is not overcrowded. The weather is lovely, apparently only 3 weeks ago it was around -20 degrees centigrade with deep snow clogging the streets. However, I have found the cost of living to be pretty expensive - for a two course lunch and a single beer for one expect to pay around £20.00. At least it seems safe, the people are friendly and the food generally good. The beer, of course, is excellent!

Wien (Vienna)

Despite wanting to go to Ljubljana for a long time, and despite planning my holiday around starting there, and despite travelling for 2 days to get there, I never really felt at home either in the City or elsewhere in Slovenia. On the train today I decided that for me, Slovenia is one of those countries where there are lots of places to enjoy a loved one's company and not so many places or things to enjoy by oneself. Take for instance the castle overlooking Ljubljana - this offers fantastically romantic views over the city and lovely courtyard dining, but not much else in the way of exhibitons or history of the building to entertain the loan visitor.

The picture shows Union beer, brewed in Ljubljana and not a bad drop.

This is Stallion Steak, on a bed of rocket, with grilled cheese and roast potatoes. Now, I ordered Stallion Steak expecting to receive Ned the Horse, and maybe I did, but it sure tasted like beef to me. Maybe that's intended...whatever it was, it was very nice.

Take also Lake Bled - widely rewiewed in the guidebooks as "the place to visit" when in Slovenia, but in fact while the views and tranquility are stunning the place itself is a bit , well, dull for the singleton.

So today's adventures didn't come off as planned in any way. The plan was to catch the early train to Lesce Beld which is 2 miles from Lake Bled, get the bus to the lake, check into a friendly and inviting hostel on the lake, dump the bag, catch to bus to Planica and watch the Ski Flying for a bit, then bus back to the lake and watch the sun go down over a cold beer or three. Tomorrow I was going to go back to Lesce Bled, catch the train to Villach (Austria) then onwards to Prague.

Funny how things work out. I missed the early train by 2 minutes, so spent 2 hours waiting for the next one. The bus to the lake was fine, but having followed the driver's directions to the centre of down I discovered that not only was it pretty much closed (still low season) but also any hostel that might be open was back up the hill, past the bus station where I had been dropped off. So I trudged back up the hill, found a deserted hostel where the owner wanted E15 for the night without breakfast/facilities/pleasantries. So moved on, tried one other that was shut and decided at that point that Lake Bled was not for me, and to be honest neither was any more Slovenian (lack of) hospitality. The hostel in Ljubljana was also lousy (dirty, uncomfortable and unhelpful) but I had thought this was a one-off. As for the ski flying, no one locally had the first idea of what it was or how to get there, buses where infrequent, etc etc. Enough was enough.

So, bus back to Lesce Bled, wait 2 hours for the next train to Villach and get on it. Luckily the sun was shining and the bar on the platform was open, so I did get my beers in the sunshine afterall. The journey to Villach takes about an hour, hopped off the platform there and straight onto an Intercity going to Wien. Not that I really cared at that point.

Funny though how I had felt really quite down while leaving Slovenia but much more cheerful as we emerged at the end of the Alpine tunnel into Austria. Must be the different kind of scenery or something.

The Intercity to Wien was pretty dull, although livened up by a dining car serving both good beer (Paulaner) and properly cooked food, pictured here. At long last we pulled into one of the 4 City Stations, I found a Tourist Information Centre still open at 9pm (beat that, Salisbury) and eventually stumbled into a Youth Hostel which had one bed left. Its mine now!

Tomorrow, as of now, the plan is to go onto Prague in the morning. There is a train at 9.30am which gets in at 2.30pm ish. This would give me time to fine a hostel and perhaps have the luxury of choosing a room/bed rather than the last one available. The, onwards to Krakow, then Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Home. The original idea of taking in the Swiss mountain railway will have to wait for the next trip - it would eat up too much time getting there and back.

Gilbanica (the National pudding)

Just the one photo from today - the perfect pudding I think. (Its about 4" in all dimensions and actually not as rich as it looks, but does take a good 10 minutes to enjoy).

My guidebook describes it as "layer after layer of poppy seeds, walnuts, apples, raisins and cottage cheese fillings separated by flaky dough, with a biscuit and honey base" A national speciality and who am I to disagree?

An otherwise uneventful day spent exploring the city, writing postcards, sitting in the sun wading my way through the above. I'm off to dinner now and off to Lake Bled in the morning where I am hoping to find a bit more life - Ljubljana is very quiet at the moment and although that is nice in some respects I would like there to be a few more people about - eating in empty restaurants is never appealing.

Ljubljana from Munich

After a much needed night's sleep the train to Ljubjana departed Munich at 0827. En route to the station I chanced upon the ideal breakfast - takeaway currywurst freshly made with a dedicated sausage chopping up machine in a local cafe. It is pictured left and yes I did eat all of it, no I wasn't sick and yes it was as disgusting as it looks!

The journey through the Alps was nowhere near as scenic as I had hoped, just long and tiring especially after yesterday which really was shattering - up at 0530, travelling all day, don't go to bed until gone 10pm then up again at 7am to carry on. I did wonder whether to stay in Munich for an extra night and on reflection I should have, but there we are. Perhaps later in my trip I will be glad not to have "wasted" a day, although I can hardly claim to have "done" Munich.
So I am now ensconsed in the old town of Ljuljana which is very pretty but looks as though it is waiting for a few more tourists to arrive. In some ways, with the cobbled streets, pretty river and frequent river bridges it reminds me of the old town in Gent and that too suffers a bit during the off-season. However, it is not cold, not raining, I have been up to the castle this afternoon which was somewhere I wanted to visit and I have some ideas for tomorrow. There is a brewing museum which I might wander out to and also a railway museum, or I might explore a bit more of the city.

From here I plan to backtrack towards Austria, possibly stopping off at Lake Bled and/or Planica and then heading up into the Alps proper. There is still some snow lying around here and noticeable on the way through and I even spotted some skiers some hopefully I will find some proper snow at some point. After that I expect to hit Prague, before going on into Poland, then Northern Germany, then The Netherlands, before catching the Harwich ferry.