ON a sassy Southampton Saturday evening, I am stalking screen siren Sophia Loren. Let me repeat that. I am stalking Sophia Loren, the acclaimed Italian actress. Sure, it’s not my usual Saturday night, back in Brisbane, clutching a bottle of shiraz and what’s left of my dignity while I watch Disney movies, but life as a travel writer sometimes takes you to the most unusual places, where you are plunged into the most unlikely scenarios, and on this particular Saturday night, this is precisely where I find myself.
I am in the UK, at Southampton Port, to be precise, covering the launch of the world’s newest cruise liner, MSC Bellissima which claims to be the most beautiful ship in the world. And I am sitting front row of the media throng, on the dock, having just watched Andrea Bocelli and his son Mateo perform on stage. The gargantuan ship sits in the background, attempting to provide a buffer from the gale-force winds that have whipped up on this evening. But just as Ms Loren is about to appear on stage, and cut the all-important ribbon before a bottle of champagne is smashed against the hull (a waste of plonk, in my humble opinion), all 2000 guests in the marquee are told to urgently evacuate themselves back onto the ship. The winds have become wicked, and a little dangerous in this tent, and so we “Brexit” back onto the boat. I am reminded of one of Ms Loren’s famous quotes: “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti”. We have so much in common.
Amid the confusion, my new Kiwi mate and I make some swift decisions. Turn left and we follow the confused crowd. Turn right, and we are in a mad mosh pit of VIPS. We take a sharp right, and walk straight past a waiting Mercedes Benz. The windows are dark but we know who is in there. It’s Ms Loren, but we have no time to loiter as the crowd shuffles us in the rain and wind, back onto the boat. We snatch a champagne from the bar while we contemplate our brief brush with fame. Meanwhile the heads of this Italian shipping company, bless them, rise to the occasion.
“Everybody, have a drink,” they declare as only Italians (and possibly Aussies) in an emergency can, and 2000 people scatter among the ship, awaiting details on what to do next. I stand with my Kiwi mate, hoping to catch a glimpse in the distance of Sophia and strategizing as only two desperate Antipodeans can, on where we think she’ll do the launch.
I am dressed to impress, in a faux fur I’ve bought online from China. But I was no longer worried about embarrassing myself. The previous day, I locked myself out of my cruise cabin wearing nothing but my QANTAS pyjamas. Shoe-less and bra-less, I complete the shuffle-of-shame to the ship’s lift, descend five decks below, and saunter through a bar full of well-dressed Europeans to reception to order a new key. In order to stop my breasts from jiggling, I cross my arms over my chest, as if I’m about to abandon ship and jump into the seas below. Hell, who needs a bra when God has given me two perfectly good arms? What was I thinking all these years?
On this evening of Ms Loren, I am wearing a bra, shoes and my fur and impressively, in less than 15 minutes since the disruption, the show is ready to resume. If you can judge a cruise company on how it handles an emergency, MSC comes up trumps. I am pondering all of this when something spectacular happens. Inexplicably, I turn around. And right behind me, within hugging distance, there she is, in all of her Italian glory. She’s 84 and as elegant as ever, in a shimmering gold gown and giant crucifix. I frantically snap shots as she saunters past. She sashays and steals centre stage, mid ship. The “godmother” of MSC Cruises, she makes some comments about the beauty of cruising, before she heads back my way. I want to reach out and touch her, tell her that Australia loves her, but I simply stand there in giddy adoration. A month before, a fortune cookie I had eaten during a Chinese New Year celebration in Sydney had predicted “Your life will soon be graced with the presence of stardom.” And there she was.
One day, when I’m 84, the age that Sophia is now, I’m sure I’ll be telling these tales to unbelieving ears. By then, I’m pretty sure I will also be wearing QANTAS pyjamas full time and locking myself out of my room on a regular basis. Who will ever comprehend that I flew to Europe for less than a week, jumped aboard the world’s newest cruise liner, and bumped into Sophia Loren? Such is the crazy life of a travel writer. Amid all of the fog of jetlag, those long, lonely hours on the road, the anxiety of deadlines, the uncertainty of where the next word or pay cheque may come from, come these magical moments. A good mate recently reminded me that as travel writers, we have a backstage pass to the world. And if my job has taught me anything, it’s this: just like this ship launch on this wild, windy evening, life never works out as you had planned. But sometimes, it can be better. So travel as much as you can, turn right when you should turn left, and wait for the wonderful.
The Global Goddess was a guest of MSC Bellissima – http://www.msccruises.com.au
THREE weeks ago I returned to Europe to explore the Royal and Imperial elements of Monaco and Vienna, tracing the footsteps of the Grimaldi and Hapsburg empires. Did I find my prince? No. But I did discover that despite all of the bleak news coming out of Europe in recent times – Brexit; the Greek Financial Crisis; the Refugee dilemma – old, stately Europe still exists. And it’s a Europe laced in luxury. Today’s photo blog pays homage to European elegance.
1. The sweets were sweet
2. And the suites were sweet
3. The summer flowers were in full bloom
4. The berries were bright and brilliant
5. You don’t have to be in Italy to stumble across a vibrant Vespa or two
6. The watering holes were cool and varied
7. And there’s nothing like arriving in style
The Global Goddess travelled to Europe Business Class courtesy of Emirates – http://www.emirates.com and stayed in Vienna as a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office – http://www.austria.info/au and in Monaco as a guest of the Monaco Government Tourist & Convention Authority – http://www.visitmonaco.com
PLONKED against the bar at 30,000 feet, I am most unreliably informed by an English woman that I have a British accent. And I can’t even blame the roar of the plane engine for her remarkably missing my distinct Australian twang. For I have the ultimate fortune of not only flying on the peaceful A380 aircraft between Brisbane and Dubai, but I am sitting among the rarified atmosphere which is Emirates Business Class.
Not for me the hoi polloi with whom I normally associate, seat 10K has my name written all over it and I intend to make the most of my 14-hour journey to Dubai. So excited am I by this unlikely twist of fate, that I scoot through security, haplessly leaving my computer on the conveyor belt. But Lady Luck is mine tonight, and I remember it just before I officially pass through Immigration. Not even the dour demeanour of Australia’s Border Farce (Force) Officers (is that a forbidden apple in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?) can dent my passion this evening.
Normally I sit among the Beryls and Darrens from Logan in an airline bar, observing with the same fascination one would a wildlife documentary, as they sink as much alcohol as is humanely possible. Bez and Daz then stagger onto the plane and it’s ultimately me and the scent of Bundy Rum seeping from their pores, in seats 70K, J and H to Europe. But not tonight. It’s privacy screens and Veuve all the way for me.
It’s challenging to stay cool when one is elevated above one’s station in life, but I handle it with all of the aplomb of the absolutely fabulous Patsy and Eddie combined. In fact, Emirates Business Class lounge is so ab fab, I could essentially live there nestled among the prawn canapes, but on I push, boarding the plane directly via an air bridge to the upper deck and straight into Business Class. My only regret is that I don’t get to see the stricken faces of Bez and Daz as they pause longingly at my lie-flat bed as they make their way to economy. I know that look, I invented it.
What to do first? Order from the five-course dinner menu? Sip a Perrier from the private mini bar in my seat? Select a program from one of more than 2200 on-demand channels of my 20 inch HD LCD screen? Paralysed by choice I dash to the bathroom to gather myself. And it’s not my fault, but at the back of Business Class, on the way to said toilet, sits Emirates’ Onboard Lounge. Yes, a sky bar. And while I did truly intend to simply go to the bathroom, I would be lying if I said I didn’t spot a bottle of Moet and settle in for a drink and conversation with the English woman to whom I referred earlier who mistook my Aussie accent for something far more refined.
I also meet two lovely women on their way to South Africa, such is the beauty of travelling on a world-class airline which flies through a major hub, but alas, the man of my dreams was not to eventuate on this particular journey. You’d think up here you could just open a bottle of champagne and, like a genie out he’d pop, but nothing. Not a puff.
But a lack of love is not going to destroy this magical evening and after dinner, a movie and a few more sneaky drinks, I sashay into my lie-flat bed and stare at the constellation-like lights on the Emirates ceiling. Permit me to make one small criticism, and that is while the beds are sublime, the Business Class bedding is not as good as some of the other carriers on which I’ve been fortunate to fly. The pillows are small and flat and it’s a slightly meagre blanket, rather than a plump doona, in this scenario. But the world-class service more than makes up for these tiny irks.
I arrive in Dubai refreshed and relaxed and head straight to the Emirates Business Class lounge where breakfast is being served. It’s my second brekkie for the morning, so I opt for a heart-starting Bloody Mary (or two) instead. I’m enroute to Vienna and then Monaco, researching Royal and Imperial luxury European stories, and it’s the ultimate start to a work trip. I have no idea where Bez and Daz were headed on this airline’s vast network, but knowing Emirates, even in its award-winning Economy Class, I’m sure they had a great flight too. But just for once, I’m glad I didn’t have share in every detail of their journey.
The Global Goddess travelled Business Class courtesy of Emirates – http://www.emirates.com and stayed in Vienna as a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office – http://www.austria.info/au and in Monaco as a guest of the Monaco Government Tourist & Convention Authority – http://www.visitmonaco.com
THIRTY years ago I experienced my first encounter with a European train and was instantly hooked. I had just journeyed some 36 hours from Australia on what was also my first ever plane ride anywhere, and arrived in Frankfurt to catch the train to Hamburg to meet what would be my new German “family” for the next three months. It was winter, I was wearing an entirely unsuitable pink tracksuit and ugg boots for a Queensland teenager who’d never even seen snow (I mean, who do you think introduced Europe to the ugg boot?). As I alighted the train they asked me about my journey. “I’ve been travelling for 36 clocks,” I declared, delighted to finally practice my high school German on real-life Germans.
Despite murdering their language, somehow they fell in love with me and I with them, as well as travelling by rail around Europe. The only other train I’d ever been on before then was the Ipswich Line from Ipswich to Brisbane, or the “big smoke” as we called it back in 1970s country Queensland. Apart from that, my transport options had been limited to the gold Kingswood family station wagon for our annual holidays to Coolangatta. Oh yes, we were living the dream back then. As the youngest of four children, I even got the best bed in our two-bedroom holiday flat…two seats pushed together. And they wonder why I’m bitter. So imagine my delight when not just one, but many countries I’d only read about in books instantly opened up to me with the flourish of a rail ticket.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, European trains have run late over the years, which isn’t great news when you are backpacker on a strict budget and need to snaffle that last hostel bed in Vienna or sleep at the station. Then there was the time back in the days Aussies needed visas to cross almost every bloody border in Europe, a conductor had unwittingly taken mine out of my passport as we nicked the corner of a country, only to attempt to arrive in the Czech Republic a week later to find not only did I not have a visa, but was considered a criminal. My passport was taken, I was forced to sit in a room for 12 hours without food, and I cried hysterically (yes, because crying always helps) until a train arrived late that night forcing me back into Poland that I had attempted to leave. Believe me, it was a long journey at midnight with a bunch of gypsies in my carriage asking for money every five minutes as the train headed towards Germany, and I was a little exhausted from all that crying. But it has become one of my best travel stories over the years.
And that’s what travelling by train around Europe is all about, as regular readers have seen in my most recent blog posts. It’s real and it’s romantic. Nothing used to beat the glee only an impoverished Aussie backpacker can feel at catching an overnight train in one European country (hence saving on a night’s accommodation), only to wake up in the next. One night, on a train journey from Munich to Hamburg, my boyfriend at the time and I even covered our backpacks with sheets and pillows and pretended they were two extra people in our carriage to ensure we had the compartment to ourselves.
And now, fellow Aussie bloggers have the chance to win their own Rail Europe adventure. Looking for creativity and inspiration? This is your big opportunity to unplug and daydream. Simply enter the #TailsOnRail competition at http://www.raileurope.com.au/deals/talesonrail and you, too, could be enjoying a trip to Europe. This is a great prize, which includes a flight to Paris, and a one-week train journey with Rail Europe from France to Switzerland. That’s right, flights, hotels, food and your rail tickets are included. Check it out, it could be your chance of a lifetime.
For those who don’t win, or are considering a trip with Rail Europe, here’s some benefits to travelling by train around one of the truly great continents. By the way, Australia is the top-selling country for Rail Europe tickets.
1. No check-in queues, meaning you can rock up 10 minutes before the train departs (unless it’s the Eurostar, which requires a little bit more time).
2. City centre to city centre connections – no expensive cab charges and traffic.
3. Comfortable and spacious seats in all classes plus lots of legroom.
4. Power points for charging electronic devices – tablet, laptop, camera or phone.
5. No baggage limit, meaning great for shopping, though it’s not advisable to bring on too much or more than you can carry to ensure a comfortable journey for all.
6. Exposed to Europe’s stunning scenery throughout the journey.
7. Go wherever, whenever – a lot of flexibility with Passes.
8. High-speed services often trump flying or driving (no traffic, no queues plus all of the other benefits listed here).
But wait…there’s more!
9. Cost efficient – tickets are cheap, especially when bought in advance – up to 70% off the regular price, bookable up to 120 days in advance.
10. Family friendly – certain trains have kid friendly carriages. In Switzerland, children under 16yo travel for free when accompanied by an adult and on the Eurail Pass, children under 11yo travel for free with a guardian.
11. Environmentally friendly – a lot less carbon emission than air travel or driving.
12. Convenient for day trips to neighbouring towns or wine region (no worries about drinking and driving!).
13. Travel overnight (save on hotel costs).
14. See Europe off the beaten track (with 240,000km of track, rail reaches to almost every corner of Europe that’s not accessible by road).
15. Great way to meet locals – Europe has an extremely efficient rail system used by most locals.
16. Good onboard dining services.
17. A wide of discounts and bonuses come along with the passes (check online).
To find our more, go to http://www.raileurope.com.au. All photos used in this blog are courtesy of Rail Europe.
SOUTHERN Germany is seducing me with a magnificent Monday afternoon. It’s uncharacteristically sunny, 14 degrees Celsius and t.shirt weather. And I am observing this all unfurl from the luxury of my First Class train seat aboard German Rail, part of the vast Rail Europe network.
The train winds its way south from Munich, along languid lakes flanked by gregarious Germans, who have flocked outside to sun themselves in the spring sunshine. It’s been a long, cold winter but Germans know a thing or two about being in the wilderness, not only literally but politically, the legacy of two World Wars still a part of the national psyche. But I’ve been travelling to Germany for almost 30 years, even before the Berlin Wall came down, and have had the pleasure of watching Germany blossom.
For nearly three decades I’ve discussed Germany’s politics and social issues with my close German friends – whom I regard as family – as well as strangers. Back in 1987 we were talking about the Berlin Wall, never imaging a few years later we would be discussing its welcome demise. We’ve spoken about the flood of refugees from the east into the west after this globally significant event, the social and economic implications of this, and the rise of neo-Nazism.
On my return to Germany in 2007 we waxed lyrical about World Cup Soccer, which Germany hosted in 2006 and in which they placed third, and I returned in 2014, the same year Germany won the World Cup. My friends told me for the first time they felt they could legitimately be proud to be German and had finally shaken off the shackles of the past. And this sentiment resonated on every street corner.
On this trip, we spoke about Chancellor Angela Merkel, terrorism and the Syrian refugees. And it’s a topic on the tip of almost every German’s tongue. Scratch the surface and while many admire their left-wing leader, there’s mounting concern about what to do with the flood of refugees in a country which already is bursting with a population of 80 million. Right-wing views also exist, with some strangers blatantly offering their opinions that refugees only wish to migrate to western Germany, ignoring the less wealthy east.
Even Merkel herself is said to be backing away from her open-door policy. Some admire her stance of bailing out the Greeks and their financial woes, when other countries have wanted to flee the problem, others says she is too lenient. German National Tourist Board CEO Petra Hedorfer, at an international press conference I attended on this trip, admits that challenges to the nation’s tourism include refugees (and the negative impact on infrastructure); border controls in the Schengen area (which allow free movement between European countries); and reassignment of hotels, trade fair halls and leisure facilities to immigrants. Hedorfer also says terror attacks, racism and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), also pose challenges.
My train journey takes me from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where I am writing some nature stories for a travel magazine, to Nurnberg, and north of Munich, where I have the delight of sampling Bavarian beer, for a major Australian news organisation, for the best part of a week. I visit Magdeburg, a former East German city, for the international German Travel Mart, before I again catch the train to Bremen, to visit my close friends, and then finally on to Berlin, to fly home.
German Rail boasts a reputation of being on time, but long-term travellers say its standards have slipped and on one of my tight connections, where I had just 10 minutes to spare between trains, my train arrived 5 minutes late, making for an uncomfortable race through the crowded station with 20kg of luggage. Days later, my train is 20 minutes late on my journey to Bremen. And then 30 minutes late on my last leg from Hannover to Berlin. Deutsche Bahn Head of International Sales Dr Tobias Heussler admits standards have slipped and for the first time since 2003, the company has made losses. This now-private company intends to invest 50 billion Euro by 2020 into infrastructure. But for the most part, it deserves its efficient reputation and is still tracks ahead of many rail systems around the world. (Queensland Rail, are you reading this?)
Even small train stations such as Garmsich-Partenkirchen have rail offices where you can request a print out of your daily itinerary, including the platforms from which your next train departs, which is extremely helpful when you have only short connections between some trains. While the smaller trains don’t offer a food or drink carriage, larger inter-city trains such as the ICE do. While the beer is good, the food leaves a little bit to be desired.
My train journey ends in Berlin, which is fitting as this is where my conversations about Germany began some 30 years ago. I’m staying for one night at the Hotel NH Collection Berlin Friedrichstrasse – part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group – which is one easy underground stop from Berlin’s main train station. This 240-room hotel overlooks the Altmarkt and captures the essence of Berlin with its funky art depicting city scenes and landmarks. It also offers a free “lazy Sunday” 5pm checkout. I’ve fallen in love with Berlin over the years and this brief afternoon is one of the world’s truly great cities is no different. From my hotel, which is smack bang in the centre, I easily amble in one direction along Under der Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate which epitomises historical Berlin. I then wander in the other direction past the Berlin Museum towards the city’s modernised quarter of Hackeschehofe, home to countless alleyways bursting with eclectic art. Around me, there’s an invisible line where the Berlin Wall once stood.
All too often, when Australians dream of travelling to Europe they speak of the “sexy” destinations like Italy and France. And yes, Germany has weathered its seasons of major challenges and will continue to do so while it remains one of the powerhouses of European politics. But history has continually proven that this is a strong, smart country capable of overcoming great adversity. Check it out. Spring is in full bloom and Germany is in the wilderness no more.
The Global Goddess travelled on a first-class German Rail Pass (5 days within one month) as a guest Rail Europe – http://www.raileurope.com.au. She stayed in the NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse, part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group (www.preferredhotels.com), thanks to the assistance of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. For more information on Germany contact The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel
I know you all think I’m all sleek sophistication when I travel…who am I kidding, NONE of you think that. So it shall come as no surprise that quite often, in fact, I stuff things up. Particularly when communicating in another language. Yes, foreign culture and communication are tricky business. Have a read about how I managed to mangle both on my most recent German trip.
I am a lover, not a fighter, so imagine my utter delight to discover that when I’ve been sprouting the phrase “Deutschland Uber Alles!” on not only my social media sites, but to a few German friends, it has mysteriously fallen fatally flat. What I thought was akin to “Vive la France!” turns out to be a phrase favoured by the Nazis. I only discovered this on my last day, when my German friend and I were making a video message of us to send to her elderly parents. And at the end, in some kind of triumphant punctuation mark, I declared: “Deutschland Uber Alles!” The video captures her turning to me horrified and saying “Don’t say that, that’s a Nazi phrase” and the terrified look on my face at this realisation. Good times. I also currently now have several neo Nazis following me on Instagram who believe I am a sympathiser. Awesome.
2.Read the Signs
Following on from my previous point, sometimes I get things wrong. Seriously wrong. There I was, checking into the gorgeous NH Collection Berlin Fredrichstrasse Hotel. The Guest Relations Manager admitted that the hotel was full, so he had most kindly upgraded me to a king suite. And just as we arrived at the door, I waxed lyrical about what a wonderful name my suite had on the door, pausing for several moments to purr, out loud, the word “Haustechnik”. Turns out I was standing in front of the “housing technology” or utilities cupboard and my actual suite was two doors down.
3.You, you or you?
In some ways, the German language is relatively easy to master, as many of its words are similar to those in English (eg: Bus and…well, Bus). However, there are certain specific rules that make it a tricky language for native English speakers. One which has been tripping me up for nearly 30 years is the word “you”. You see, Germans don’t have just one word for this, but three, and it depends on with whom you are speaking as to which one you should use. In fact, your entire manners are judged on this. Unfortunately, for me, my brain switches continually to the “impolite” or “casual” form which is “du”, which in my head sounds most like “you” and I am constantly offending complete strangers in the street and during business transactions. Essentially I am declaring to all an sundry I am a Brisbane bogan who eats with my hands.
Don’t wet your pants over this headline, as they don’t really exist. Despite asking this question many times to both strangers and friends, no one can give me a definitive answer on what, exactly, Germans do, when they need to go to the toilet when they are out and about. Remember that scene from the movie Bridesmaids where they ate the dodgy food and were all struck by a sudden urge? This happened to me twice in two weeks. After indulging in a stodgy diet of meat, potatoes and beer, constipation became my constant travelling companion, until my bowels made the sudden, and urgent decision to empty. The first time, I was “lucky” enough to be in a shopping centre, but fumbled furiously with my wallet searching for a Euro coin to enable me to enter. The second time, I raced into a café (this is apparently what Germans do) only to find a long line of people with similar issues. On a cold day in Berlin I broke into a sweat and started hopping from foot to foot like those slap slap dancers at the Munich Oktoberfest. Unfortunately, for me, no one gave the proverbial.
5.Magnificent Merkel and Awesome Obama
Australians have a bit of a love affair with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama, which, frankly, is pretty understandable when you see the successive idiots who have been in charge of our country. But apparently, not all Germans agree with our assessment of Merkel and Obama. In fact, both are a bit on the nose. So, if you’re thinking of befriending a few German strangers with a conversation along the lines of “how about that Angie?”, be aware she’s rapidly losing popularity among her own people for her lenient stance on refugees and for bailing out the Greeks. Obama was also in town when I was in Germany (coincidence? I think not), and his efforts to convince Germans to participate in a trade agreement was met with mass protests. On the plus side, if you’re looking for hordes of hot cops, head to any major train station during one of these protests.
It kills me to say this, but German humour kinda deserves its poor reputation, particularly the more you head towards the former east (where I’m also pleased to report that double denim is still all the rage). I was posing for a group photo in Magdeburg when one of the tourism representatives suggested a “funny phrase” to make us smile. “Say, double cream cheese,” she laughed outrageously. I told her I didn’t quite understand why that phrase was particularly funny. “It’s not just cream cheese, it’s DOUBLE cream cheese,” she said, slapping her thigh. Thus proving that some things have no translation.
Almost as flat as east German humour are German hotel pillows. They are like giant pieces of ravioli that someone has forgotten to fill. In order to have a decent sleep, you must first fold this pillow several times. The doonas are also a mystery. You don’t get one big doona on a double bed, but two separate doonas. In some hotels, they even remove one of the doonas if they know there’s just one guest in the room as if to sadistically point out that yes, you are single, and yes, you are all alone. Your empty life with your empty ravioli pillow.
8.We’re missing a Ms
So, I’ve spent the past two weeks getting all haughty with hoteliers who have insisted on calling me Frau Retschlag. I am not, nor have I ever been, Mrs Retschlag. It was only when I queried this phenomenon with my German friends that they explained there is no German equivalent of “Ms” and that any female over a certain age is automatically referred to as Mrs. Like a burqa in the Middle East, I guess I’ll just have to wear this one. Or find a husband…
The Global Goddess travelled on a first-class German Rail Pass (5 days within one month) as a guest Rail Europe – http://www.raileurope.com.au; NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse; and The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel