IndieRail is well under way, though we have travelled as much by bus, plane and taxi as we have by train. This week we divided our time between Faro and Düsseldorf, and we have just arrived in Berlin.
Monday 17/9: We had to make an early start in order to get to the station in time to catch a 10.30 train, but our host Jorge kindly sped up our journey by giving us a lift to the station.
The trip to Faro was shorter than we’d expected, but we both managed to get a fair amount of work done — trains are a lot easier to work on than buses! On arrival in Faro, we hopped on a bus heading in the direction we wanted, but the driver told us we’d be better off catching a minibus rather than his large one, because the minibus was cheaper. It was true: €0.65 versus €1.90 per person. Strange, though.
Since we hadn’t been able to find a couchsurfing host, we decided to try AirBnB for the first time — it’s similar to couchsurfing in that you stay with a local, but you pay for it. Our host, Kateryna, welcomed us and showed us around the place, then went to her room to study.
After a couple of hours’ work, we headed out to explore the town, heading first to Carmo Church, where there’s a chapel decorated with human bones. It was a lot smaller than the one we saw several years ago in Kutna Hora, in the Czech Republic, and sadly not as well cared-for. However, it was definitely worth a visit and the €1 entrance fee; the skulls higher up the walls were well preserved and on the whole it was a striking sight.
We wandered around town a bit then headed home via the supermarket, and got a fair bit of work done before a light dinner and bed.
Tuesday 18/9: Both of us needed to get some work done, so we spent the morning at home before heading out in search of lunch. We came across a small but popular restaurant offering a menu del día with a choice of meat or fish, we chose one of each then watched in amazement as plate after plate of food arrived. First we were given olives, the bread and oil. A large salad and a plate of potatoes was delivered next, followed by my two whole fish. Craig was given a platter containing two large pieces of meat, plus rice, chips, and a tomato garnish; and a carafe of wine was levered into the middle of it all. We’d just made a start when the waitress came back with two more entire fish and two more pieces of meat — we loosened our belts and settled in for the long haul. When we’d finally finished (after the restaurant was closed), we were given coffee and cake — and all this for €7.50 each.
After passing by the port, we headed to the cathedral. For €3 each, we climbed the bell tower for a good view of the city, then visited the cathedral itself and the cathedral museum as well. Outside, beside a small chapel, we found Faro’s other “bone church”, though this one was really more of a small altar, and was in very bad condition. Not one of the thirty or so skulls was whole, and it looked as if people had been stealing pieces of bone for some time.
We spent the afternoon back at Kateryna’s place, working: I managed to finish and upload the seven videos I’d made about Portugal, and Craig did all sorts of things.
In the evening Craig kept working but I took a break to speak to my friends Luis and Julian on Skype. It was great to catch up with them again; Juli and I realised that we hadn’t spoken for nine months.
Wednesday 19/9: It was another early start; we had to leave the house at 9am to get to the marina in time for the start of our tour with Formosamar, a guided walk of the nature park just out of town. The guide, Barbara, gave us all binoculars and explained the history of the area and how the process of harvesting salt works. We saw an incredible amount of birds and learned a lot about the area.
The other couple on our tour, Rachel and Nick, invited us to join them for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant they’d found in their guidebook, so we chose an outdoor table and enjoyed the buffet of soup, salad, and various hot dishes.
After lunch we visited the municipal museum, which is housed in an old monastery, complete with cloisters. The exhibits varied from a modern art display to a feature about Muslim women, it was all very interesting.
There wasn’t really time to head home after the museum so we found a cafe, where we had coffee and a slice of carob cake — delicious. Our final activity of the day was a traditional boat trip, with the same company we’d gone on the guided walk with in the morning. It was nice to be out on the water, but with a name like “the walls of the old city” we’d expected a bit more commentary. In fact, when asked how old the walls were, the guide replied, “I don’t know, but they’re definitely old.” Not particularly insightful.
Back home, we packed up and started thinking about our next destination: Düsseldorf, and failed to go to bed at a reasonable hour in preparation for our early flight the next day.
Thursday 20/9: The alarm went off at 5.45am, which is an hour I never like to see. Despite our drowsiness, we managed to get up, get packed, and get into the taxi within 50 minutes, which is very impressive for us.
Since it was a Ryanair flight, we spent a lot of time standing in line, but apart from that things went extremely smoothly, and we arrived in Weeze airport right on time ten minutes late — just long enough to avoid the ire-raising “we’ve arrived on time!” announcement Ryanair likes to inflict on its passengers.
Luckily, we were in time to catch the 1.15pm bus to Düsseldorf city; the next bus wouldn’t leave for two hours and Weeze airport didn’t look like it offered much in the way of entertainment.
On arrival in Düsseldorf, we stopped into the tourist office to pick up the information pack that our contact Stephanie had kindly put together for us, then grabbed a sandwich for lunch and caught a train to our accommodation. We were couchsurfing with a lovely couple called Mina and Kerstin, and Mina welcomed us in and chatted with us until Kerstin came home a couple of hours later. We were talking about going out after our tasty vegetarian pizza dinner, but instead decided to stay in and chat, and we all went to bed quite early.
Friday 21/9: The girls both had to start work super-early in the morning, but we stayed in bed until a more reasonable hour and did some admin before leaving the house at about 11am. We managed to misjudge which stop to get off the tram, which meant we had to walk through a nice park to get into the Old Town, where we started the City Rally.
The City Rally is a city-centre treasure hunt that the tourist office has organised. You wander around the city finding the answers to questions printed in a small brochure, then use the indicated letters to complete a word puzzle. It takes about an hour and a half, and since we only had an hour before our appointment with Stephanie, we didn’t quite finish it before lunch. It was fun, though; we learned all sorts of things about Düsseldorf and even got to try mustard.
Stephanie took us out for lunch at a popular local restaurant that focuses on soups and salads; we chatted about travel and Düsseldorf while eating our delicious soups. After lunch, she walked us back to the old town tourist office, where we joined a walking tour.
The guide took us around some of the main sights in the old town, explaining the monuments and telling some of the stories behind what we were seeing. Since most of the participants were German speakers, the guide mostly spoke German, and gave us an abbreviated version later — I wish I could have understood the German version!
Part of the tour was a boat trip along the Rhine, with commentary in German and English. The best part was seeing the awesome Media Harbour complex, three buildings by architect Frank Gehry.
After the boat trip, we quickly finished the city rally and stopped in at the market in Carlsplatz to get some vegetables for dinner. We’d arranged to meet Mina at the Burgplatz steps, so we headed there next before going to the first of our brewery-bars for the night.
Düsseldorf is famous for its altbier (“old beer”) that is brewed at the pubs themselves. Apparently there are five or six of these pubs in the city, but Stephanie had recommended three of them to us, and we decided to visit them all.
The beer at the first (“the Fox”) was my favourite, but the service left a bit to be desired. Maybe it was because we sat inside and had a bite to eat rather than spilling into the road like the other patrons. We learned our lesson, and after picking up Kerstin from the U-bahn station, we headed to the Key and made sure to stand outside. The beer wasn’t as good, but the service was fantastic — our enthusiastic server kept placing new glasses of beer in front of us, which we sometimes managed to refuse.
Our last stop was at Uerige, where the beer was the strongest of the three, and the pub seems to be the most popular — it takes up two large shop spaces and has spread across the road, where there’s an outdoor terrace.
We were feeling pretty hungry by this point, so we decided to eat out rather than go home and cook, and headed to a Japanese restaurant. I chose sushi and spinach, but Craig picked a “Japanese curry” which tasted a lot more German than Japanese. It was tasty, but certainly not like any Japanese food we’ve ever eaten.
Next, we stopped in at a kiosk to buy something to drink on the steps (more altbier for me and Craig) and Mina and Kerstin explained how to read the digital clock on the Rhinetour tower.
Our final stop of the day was at Show Off, an exhibition of Rankin’s photography. There was some really stunning work, mostly of celebrities but also of ordinary people.
We were pretty tired after such a busy day, so we headed home via underground and bus, and went straight to bed.
Saturday 22/9: Stephanie had organised us some Düsseldorf city passes, and we’d been using them for public transport, but we hadn’t been to any of the museums included in the pass. So we got up early and hopped on a bus to the city, checking opening times as we travelled. Unfortunately, two of the museums we were interested in weren’t going to be open at all on a Saturday morning, and the only one open at all at 10am was the aquarium. We hadn’t planned to go, but it was that or nothing! Luckily the public transport connection was excellent: the bus dropped us at the U-bahn station and the U-bahn dropped us right at the entrance of the aquarium.
We spent about half an hour wandering around admiring the displays. As we entered there was a penguin enclosure, and later on there was a mini jungle complete with caymans. I really liked the exhibit which showed when certain creatures appeared on the earth.
Next, we caught the U-bahn back to the central city and visited the film museum, which featured costumes, displays of shadow theatre, and lots of old cameras. We could have spent hours there but I wanted to drop into the ceramics museum next door before meeting Mina and Kerstin for lunch.
Lunch was a vegan buffet which I found delicious and filling, but Craig wasn’t quite satisfied. After lunch we hopped on the train to Schloss Benrath, where we wandered around the grounds doing a geocaching challenge. It was really well prepared, we had to visit several locations and answer questions, and the answers led us to three more caches, which directed us to the final one. Unfortunately the coordinates of the final cache had changed, and we all got very frustrated before we noticed a note on the site giving us new directions. And then we discovered that we didn’t have a pen and couldn’t write in the log book! It was quite annoying.
After that, we headed home for dinner then went out to a Couchsurfing party not far from home. Craig and I bailed after about three hours since we needed to pack and sleep in preparation for our journey the next day, but the girls stayed for a little longer.
Sunday 23/9: We managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 7.30ish, and left the house an hour later. Our train wasn’t until 9.50 but we needed to get our Eurail passes validated and we didn’t know how long the lines would be at the station. However, it turned out that our passes were already validated — we’d suspected so but hadn’t wanted to run the risk of hopping on a train with an invalid ticket.
The trip went well, though we were annoyed to realise (on scanning the Eurail timetable booklet) that the German rail website hadn’t told us all the train options available to us, and that we’d taken a slower connection than was necessary. It was all right though, we both got a lot of work done and we made it to Berlin at around 3.15pm.
We’d arranged to meet a listener of ours, Tina, at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, as she had spent the weekend in Berlin and was leaving by train at around 5.30. We spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting and eating ice cream before waving her off and trying to work out how to get to Frankie’s place, where we are staying while we’re in Berlin.
Since we had the Eurail passes, we didn’t want to pay for a bus, and the ticket attendant suggested a roundabout route. However, we worked out that we could take the regional train to its first stop, then catch the S-bahn back in the direction we’d just come, and we’d be exactly where we wanted to be. It actually worked, and we made it to Frankie’s within half an hour.
We met Frankie on the Stray Asia hop-on hop-off bus trip we did a couple of years ago, and we got on really well. So well that she invited us to stay with her. And it seems that we still get on well, because we spent the next five hours chatting, with just a short break to eat tasty order-in pizza.
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