AMSTERDAM: LAST BUT NOT LEAST

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Wednesday June 13, 2018

WE ARE, AS YOU’VE PROBABLY GUESSED, HOME … and I feel duty-bound to wrap-up this Baltic blog before you totally lose interest.

Three days ago we ended our Baltic & Norwegian Fjords Adventure right back where we started, saying goodbye to the Koningsdam and its friendly crew at the cruise terminal in Amsterdam.

This remarkable Dutch capital is built across 70 islands … connected by 1000 bridges … and famous for its bikes, dykes, canals, bridges, houseboats, windmills and cheeses. Amsterdam is a tourist’s dream, with endless things to do. So we spent our final day in Europe doing some of them.

With hats on our heads and bags in storage under our coach, we ventured forth … visiting first a tiny ‘hidden’ Catholic church (hidden when the Protestants took power) … and touring the WW2 hiding-place of teenager Anne Frank (whose moving memoire of the Nazi’s reign of terror is second-only to the Bible in print-numbers and translations). We then roamed the stunning Van Gogh art museum (Van Gogh’s brightly coloured paintings include some of the most recognised masterpieces in the entire world – Sunflowers, Almond Blossoms, Irises to name just three) … visited a farm that specialised in cheese and clog-making … and, lastly, climbed aboard a glass-covered boat for a leisurely canal-cruise along tree-lined waterways, past houseboats, old crooked warehouses and steep-gabled mansions.

And that was pretty much that! Our fabulous Mad Midlife cruise was over … the “fat lady” had sung … … and the only thing left to do was catch a plane at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport for Godzone or parts unknown.

We’ve had a BALL, we truly have! We’ve seen so much, done so much, learned so much, and laughed so much that we don’t know where to start! We’ll never forget our lovely long weeks in Northern Europe … and we’ll never forget each other.

IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?

YOU BET YOUR LIFE WE ARE!

PEOPLE-NEWS: One last chubby Pink Pig left the pen in Amsterdam and took up with its new owner …

  • MAX earned himself our ‘Flower Show Award’ – for walking around Amsterdam with his fly open. An unsubstantiated rumour has it that, as he passed by a Dutch florist, a lady rushed out and offered Max five Euros for his dried arrangement.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. Our upcoming 2019 TOURS are filling nicely, but there’s still room for you. Why don’t you join us?

  • in March 2019 we’re off to Vietnam & Cambodia for a tour plus luxury river-cruise: MIDLIFE MADNESS ON THE MEKONG – ending at the fabulous temples of Angkor Wat.
  • in May 2019 we’ll enjoy a grand top-of-the-line tour through the historic lands of flamenco paella, sangria and tapas: MIDLIFE MADNESS IN SPAIN & PORTUGAL
  • in Sept 2019 we’ve scheduled a train-ride through the spectacular Canadian Rockies and a luxury cruise up the glacier-clad shores of Alaska: MIDLIFE MADNESS IN ALASKA

For more details and a free Tour InfoPack, phone Glen (our bookings manager at House of Travel Ellerslie) on 0800 323 333 … or email info@midlifemadness.tours.

NORWEGIAN FJORDS #2: GEIRANGER & BERGEN

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Saturday June 9, 2018

OH BOY! THURSDAY WAS THE ICING ON THE CAKE … the froth on the coffee … and the cream on our Baltic donuts! Glorious, picture-perfect GEIRANGER, with its kaleidoscope of teetering peaks, plunging waterfalls, mirror lakes, meandering streams, cosy farmlets, tiny villages and panoramic views-to-die-for, turned it on for us Kiwis and wowed us like you wouldn’t believe!

We’d been warned: our coach-tour of this unique, not-to-be-missed location would involve lots of tight corners. So we took a deep breath, buckled up our seatbelts, and held on tight!

We motored first up the zig-zaggy Eagle Road – around 11 hairpin bends carved into the mountainside – for photos of the deep green waterway and the famous De Syv Sostre (Seven Sisters) Falls. Then we twisted and turned up another winding mountain road at the end of the end of the fjord, past the glassy Lake Djupvatn (deep lake), climbing higher and higher all the time to the summit of Mt Dalsnibba (1500 metres above sea level).

Neither words nor photos can describe the feast-for-sore-eyes that awaited us up there on top of the world: rocky-snowy-mossy slopes stretching away in the distance … miniature valleys, rivers and roads far below … and way, way off in the distance the tiny toy ships (including the Koningsdam) anchored in Geirangerfjord.

Fantastic? For sure! Everything the tourist books raved about!

THEN, YESTERDAY, WE MADE OUR LAST STOP in the Norwegian Fjords, at BERGEN – a one-time Viking seaport, founded in 1070 by nice King Olav the Peace Loving. Bergen is built around a magnificent, natural harbour, its shores lined with handsome medieval buildings, its hillsides dotted with tidy brightly-painted pointy-gabled houses.

We drove along the German Pier (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) for a peep at the Nordnes Peninsula (which bisects the harbour) … queued for a funicular ride up Mount Florien for a magnificent overview of the town … strolled around the bustling fish market … and savoured the atmosphere of ages past in the ancient Bryggen Quarter (with its unique wooden warehouses and homes straight out of the Middle Ages).

Did any of our Mad Midlifers splash out on a reindeer pelt for their bedroom? I haven’t heard. But the women, especially, have been shop-shop-shopping … and, collectively, we’re going home with enough stuff to open a souvenir-store!

COMING UP: Our floating hotel has pointed its nose south, and we’re now motoring back through the North Sea to the Netherlands, on the European mainland. Tomorrow we’re in Amsterdam for a few final hours before starting our long, long homebound flight …

PEOPLE-NEWS: It’s not too late, and two more chubby Pink Pigs have found new homes/pens …

  • JUDY, who obviously hopes to take home a breeding herd, won her third piglet – receiving our ‘Innuendo Award’, for buying what she thought was the Swedish equivalent of Panadol from a local pharmacy, only to discover she’d purchased suppositories instead. Whoops!
  • MARY was embarrassed to receive our ‘Would You Like to Rephrase That Award’ – for announcing over dinner last night that “I’ve never had a man before!” The comment was actually quite innocent on Mary’s part and had to do with something else, but no sooner were the words out of her mouth than, all over the restaurant, plates were being dropped and drinks were being spilled and elderly men were struggling to their feet to volunteer their services.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

NORWEGIAN FJORDS #1: EIDFJORD & ALESUND

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Thursday June 7, 2018

IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING TO KEEP TRACK of where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going next, don’t panic – because WE’RE struggling, too! The past few days have gone by so fast it’s not funny. But right now, in this the final week of our Grand Baltic Adventure, we’re in the NORWEGIAN FJORDS … surrounded by serene waterways, forested islands, plunging cliffs, snow-splattered peaks and colourful towns … in one of the most environmentally untouched, scenically gorgeous regions on the planet.

And I think I speak for all of our Mad Midlifers when I say, “We’ve kept the best till last!”

Take Tuesday, for example, when we woke up in EIDFJORD

Dwarfed by sheer mountains and white-water rivers, Eidfjord is often rated the most beautiful small town in this part of Norway. Located on a narrow neck of land between the Hardangerfjord and the Eidfjordvatnet (a large, deep lake), and ringed by charming farmlets perched on mountain ledges, it’s simply magnificent.

There’s been a settlement in these parts forever. Stone Age hunters used to follow the migrating reindeer to put steaks on their table – and apparently (although we never laid eyes on either a Stone Age hunter or a reindeer) large herds still inhabit the grassy slopes and mountain ledges around here.

Our coach took us through town, past ever-present, always ugly, trolls (they love them in this part of the world!), and along the fjord to a lookout photo-stop at Bu. Then, on our way to the village of Ulvik, we drove over the new Hardanger Bridge – one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.

The small community of Ulvik (650 in all) is famous for its fruit-growing, especially apples. And our next port-of-call was the Hardanger Juice & Cider Factory (located on Lekve Farm) where we were shown around the small, immaculate factory after first sampling the yummy results: apple juice, apple cider and apple brandy.

THEN, EARLY YESTERDAY, THE KONINGSDAM cruised ever-so-gracefully into ALESUND (pronounced ‘Orlisin’). Known far and wide for its beautiful Art Nouveau architecture – the turrets, spires and ornamentation which give the town its distinctive character – Alesund (population 41,000) is like something out of a fairytale. It was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1904 (which left 10,000 people homeless) … then totally rebuilt across two islands at the mouth of Stor Fjord.

Our tour took us from the pier through the centre of town with its amazing buildings and their fascinating façades. At the Sunnmore Folk Museum, we eyeballed a collection of very old ships (including an 18-metre-long Viking row-boat, dated 690AD, found smashed up and buried in a nearby marshy bog) … plus a collection of very old houses (their earthen roofs sprouting grass which, back in the day, goats used to graze on).

We then drove up to Mount Aksla for stunning aerial views of Alesund and the surrounding ‘skerries’ (rocky outcrops and islands).

COMING UP: We’re in Geirangerfjord, one of Norway’s most impressive sights, especially when seen from 1500 metres up a dizzy-making hairpin-bendy mountain-road! So, put on your snow-shoes, fasten your seatbelts, and stand by …

PEOPLE-NEWS: This group simply can’t get enough of our chubby Pink Pigs are now flying out the door/gate …

  • Two blokes, ROBIN T and JOHN B, were honoured with our ‘Sidetracked Award’ – for getting preoccupied up the top of a working windmill during our recent turn-around day in Amsterdam. The Dutch guide finally had to go and lead them back to the waiting coach where they were slow-clapped by Australians.
  • SANDRA, who clearly enjoyed her apple-brandy, won our ‘Senior Moment Award’, for leaving her handbag in the tasting-room. Then, as if further proof was needed, she was overheard telling someone on the ship that we’d been off drinking “cider-vinegar”!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

GERMANY’S LUBECK & DEMARK’S ARHUS

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Saturday June 2, 2018

ON THURSDAY, WE TRIED SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT. While hordes of Koningsdam passengers visited the German resort-town/port of Kiel, or toured the handsome city of Hamburg, we Kiwis enjoyed a 90-minute countryside-coachride to the Free Imperial & Hanseatic City of LUBECK – steeped in history and tradition, and once known as the Queen of the Hanseatic League.

We took to our feet along the quaint alleyways of the Old Town, with its impressive collection of medieval Gothic architecture, stopping en route at a one-time Seamen’s Guildhall, built 1535, the ceiling hung with dozens of ancient model-ships. (See Robyn’s photos, which turned out better than mine!) Lübeck’s proud old patrician houses and redbrick churches are a UNESCO World Heritage Site … its well-known Holsten Gate is one of the few relics of the original fortress … and its Gothic Rathaus (City Hall) plus its Heiligen Geist Hospital are among the oldest homes in Germany.

Given that we’d had nothing to eat for at least 30 minutes, highlight of the day turned out to be the Niederegger Café – where we sampled generous slices of gateau topped with the town’s famous marzipan. It was awful … (not)!

FRIDAY FOUND US IN A CHARMING DANISH CITY that few of us had heard of and none of us could pronounce. ARHUS – try ‘Orhoos’ (with the ‘double-o’ sounding like the ‘oo’ in foot) – boasts the second-largest university in Denmark … a virtual open-air museum, Den Gamle By (the Old Town), with a collection of half-timbered medieval houses … and quaint cobblestone streets crammed with Danish handicraft boutiques.

Our focus was actually out of town, at the not-much-left-to-see archaeological remains of an old Viking ring-fortress – built around 980AD by King Harald Bluetooth. (Yes, his name features today on our hi-tech phones and laptops.) In peacetime, the fortress with its four wooden longhouses (excavated in the 1950s) was more of a village in which warriors, craftsmen, women and children lived and worked.

We went from there to a recreated Viking farmstead, where we sampled the everyday life of Viking farmers from that period. Fun? For sure! And the ice-creams the ‘Vikings’ sold us were delicious!

COMING UP: We’ve got a leisurely day at sea, plus a leisurely day in Amsterdam, plus another leisurely day at sea. Lots of leisurelys. When you next hear from me, we’ll be in the drop-dead gorgeous Norwegian Fjords! Eat your hearts out …

PEOPLE-NEWS: After a quiet period in which barely an oink could be heard, our chubby Pink Pigs are now flying out the door/gate …

  • BETH ran off with our ‘Barbarian Award’ – for making a brief but unmissable appearance on the World Stage wearing her colourful Viking helmet (complete with horns) and scaring the daylights out of several more elderly passengers, who thought the ship had been overrun by pirates.
  • JUDY took away a breeding pair of young piglets – the first, our ‘Trump Award’, for making a less-than-complimentary comment about the US President while talking with some Americans, who promptly informed her that they voted for him (whoops) … and the second, our ‘Groping Award’, for mistaking the man she was standing behind in the ice-cream queue as one of the blokes in our group, giving him a two-handed tickle.
  • DIANNA sneaked off with our ‘Houdini Award’ for her now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t display at lunch the other day. Needing to leave the table, she discovered she was cornered by several other rather large guests and an equally large pillar; however, without a second thought, she escaped by dropping down under the table and crawling between random legs to freedom.
  • CATHY scored our ‘Weight-Watchers Award’ – for mistakenly thinking the electronic talking scales that appeared in the corridor on each deck were there “to help us control our eating – isn’t that thoughtful of them, Laurie!” The scales were actually there so people leaving the ship could check the weight of their bags. And when Kathy stepped aboard to check her increased kilos, the voice said, “One at a time, please!”

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

FINLAND’S HELSINKI & SWEDEN’S STOCKHOLM

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Wednesday May 30, 2018

IT’S SUMMERTIME HERE IN THE NORTHERN BALTIC, and we’re getting used to the weird lack of darkness. But winter in these parts must be equally weird, when the sun comes up at 10am, darkness falls at 2pm, temperatures drop way below zero, and everything freezes over. Which probably explains why every Finnish home worth its salt has a sauna – usually down on the water’s edge – so, after turning red like a lobster in the steamy heat, you can plunge into the icy sea and turn blue.

It also explains why HELSINKI builds more big-bowed ice-breakers than anywhere else in the world – to ensure its waterways stay open through the thick sea-ice.

The Finnish capital is loved for its striking architecture, wide boulevards, leafy parks, market square, fresh sea winds and open-air cafes – all of which make it a perfect stopover!

Our tour took us past Senate Square and the Sibelius Monument, the Uspenski Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and more. We then enjoyed a cuppa-plus-pastry-snack at a waterfront café near the Opera House – before walking through Hesperia Park to the Temppeliaukio Rock Church – blasted into solid rock and topped with a stunning copper dome.

YOU MAY NOT KNOW WHERE STOCKHOLM IS (check the map). But many first-time visitors to this Baltic capital are unaware of its most spectacular geographical feature: the Archipelago. This magnificent maritime landscape of more than 30,000 islands, islets and rocky outcrops is unique in the world – and, from the spacious decks of the Koningsdam, we Kiwis enjoyed it twice: early yesterday morning on the way in – and again, in the evening, on the way out.

Founded as a fortress in the 13th century, Stockholm encompasses several peninsulas and 14 main islands, interlinked by canals and bridges. After docking, we drove along the shores of Lake Malaren through several hard-to-pronounce districts – Södermalm, Östermalm and Djurgården – then boarded a motor-launch for stunning views of other hard-to-pronounce spots around the waterfront: like Fjäderholmarna, Waldemarsudde and Fjällgatan. (Go on – try them!)

We then walked to the cozy medieval Old Town (Gamla Stan) to chase down lunch – Mrs Cooney and I enjoying meatballs (a Swedish favourite).

Later, we crossed another bridge (or was it three?) and visited Scandinavia’s most popular tourist attraction: the Vasa Museet (museum). Here we were confronted with a sight-for-sore-eyes: a 17th century Swedish warship! This magnificent wooden vessel, boasting more cannon-power than ever before, took several years to build back in 1626, and was supposed to be the pride of Sweden’s navy. Instead, however, on the day she was launched in the city’s inner harbour, the top-heavy Vasa took just 20 minutes to roll over and sink.

Oh dear, imagine the embarrassment!

The story of Vasas amazing salvage in 1961 – after 333 years on the muddy bottom – is a story our Mad Midlife Kiwis will want to tell you when they get home!

COMING UP: We’re back in Germany, saying hello to the Free Imperial & Hanseatic City of Lübeck! What’s that, you ask? Stay logged-on and I’ll tell you …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)