Wednesday, April 30, 2008

That grin...

Still hasn't worn off!

Yesterday we'd moved on to Hill Country, TX and some classic biking roads. There's a loop route of three roads - the 335,336,337 that are sweet (according to a t-shirt we saw someone wearing the 3 roads are called 'the 3 sisters' and it's a very well know biking route), We took a ride in of about 300 miles. A great way to get used to the bike a bit and help with that 'running in' thing. Hill Country is just gorgeous. This is actually the 3rd time we've visited (the first time we had no bike, the second I was ill so Chris went riding the route by himself). There's a whole bunch of exotic animals living in Hill Country (at times the scenery it quite African looking. We saw giraffes and plenty of exotic hooved animals with fancy antlers - not your regular white-tailed deer that's for sure!) I was most excited by the kangaroos!! (At least I think they were - they had the whole bouncy thing going on but were quite small - what's a wallaby? could it have been them?) Anyway, Cute and all chilling out under the shade of a tree in the heat of the day! There's so many rivers and the contrast between the lush greeness and the bright blue sky was wonderful. We ate roadside BBQ at a bikers joint and kept the jackets open-necked to let the breeze in - it was a hot day!

Before leaving Austin we stayed with some other friends - Marty and Tom. They were fantastic tour guides who gave us an 'Austin in 8 hours' tour! Boy we crammed in a lot, it was great! We toured the capitol building (with a 4 floor building set underground next to the original domed building) and the senate & house of represenatives and into the Governors reception room. We went by Lake Travis (Another of Austin's lakes that was dammed), We saw their new house, had lunch at their new neighbourhood restaurant and finished off the day at the University of Texas Club in the Longhorns Football Stadium (the Longhorns are the College Football team of the Univeristy of Texas Austin). It was a great day out - thanks Marty & Tom!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A new addition to the family, Donkey is put out to pasture and Happy Birthday Chris!!

Well what a busy couple of days. It's all change in the Mills-Backhouse household. After nearly 3 years of loyal service Donkey (or 'The Donkster' as he was more recently known as (hey - it was a Buell we had to make him a little more hip and cool y'know?!)) was put out to pasture - to see out his days in a more relaxed and better place than hanging off the back of the RV for about 35,000 miles!!

And of course y'all know better that Chris isn't saying goodbye to one motorbike without welcoming in a new one! Yes we welcome a new (as yet un-christened) motorbike - a Honda CBR1000RR (Fireblade). To me it's a large shiny red and black thing. It has a higher pillion seat making it more difficult for me to clamber on and off but it IS much smoother ride, less vibrations and it sounds nice - much less like a Harley, much more my thing. Chris, well he's just spent the last 24 hours wandering around with an ear-to-ear grin - it's beginning to look a little scary, you know - village idiot look!

It wasn't REALLY that planned an event. He'd hankered after the 2007 model Fireblade since last November just before we left Texas when he saw they'd been discounted over $2000 on the new price (there's a new model out now which he prefers less). I reigned him in at that point but there'd been various mutterings over the past months and finally I suggested he phone round the Austin dealers 'just to see' if they still had any in stock in his colour choice. So all we'd really gone into the showroom for was to see what kind of trade-in price they'd give us on Donkey. He'd had a hard life, several scuffs and all and we'd been offered just $1000 last November which was a joke. When the guy looked at the bike and offered us considerably more than what we'd even hoped for we didn't even look at each other (we just knew it was good!), and pretty much signed on the dotted line right there. About 45 minutes later Chris rode out the door on the new bike!! I got all upset about Donkey - poor old thing. I was probably more fond of him than Chris (being the underdog, and I never really appreciated all his faults and shortfalls than Chris found so frustrating). That was all yesterday. I like to think that it was his birthday present - that's what I'm saying anyway - because that makes me sound like a really cool, understading wife!!

Today we're staying with friends John & Michelle and their kids Kate & Callum in Austin. Started the day off watching a VERY exciting little league Baseball game that Callum was playing in. This is WAY more interesting than grown-ups baseball and I even totally got the hang of the scoring, along with a little screaming and cheering! John & Michelle took us out to lunch for Chris's birthday. It was a scorchio day and what better place to be than down near the water - Lake Austin to be precise. There was a great Hawaiian themed place called 'The Hula Hut' (though I'm sure most of the food was TexMex) right on the water and we sat out drinking cold beer and margaritas on the deck before eating a late lunch.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Back in the USA!!

Oh it's so good to be back. We had an OK journey back from Gatwick, via Philadelphia and into Houston. At least this time US Airways served something vaguely edible!! We had a 4 hour stop over in Philly but just as well as we spent some time chatting to the folks at immigration. Of course we're nice people and once they realised this they were more than happy to stamp our passports and see us on our way. But that only left time for our first American junk food meal (in the form of Chick-Fil-A - it could be worse!) before boarding for the second leg of the journey. By this time I was quite frankly cranky. I'd worked out we were fast approaching the 24 hour-with-no-sleep time and I still had to drive from the airport back to the Storage facility where Harvey was parked. Things looked right up when we ended up landing 3/4 hour earlier than we'd expected. We're still not sure whether we'd got the times wrong or the pilot just drove fast!!(Oh - you know how we always moan about England. Can I just point out the America charges $3 for a trolley at the airport (compared to free) AND the bottles of water at the airport were more expensive than England. Now don't say I never say anything nice and complimentary about my place of birth!!) The hire car place was empty so we were through that in a flash. They had no compact cars so we've ended up with a monster of a 7-seater MPV - it's SO embarrassing - someone might think I've got children!! I set to the drive with new and renewed energy and we even zombied our way round Walmart to stock up on some immediate essentials. We were in bed at 12.30am local time - just 25.5 hours after we'd got up in England the previous day.

Harvey had no power or water that night. But everything looked good by torchlight. The lady from the storage facility had come by and opened the windows for freshness but I'm sure it still smelt of the air freshener I'd blitzed 5 months previous! We had a surprisingly good nights sleep and and when we came to move next door into the campground Harvey even started on the 2nd try - no dead vehicle batteries!!! And everything IS GOOD. Harvey is great. A small hiccup with some rain through the roof but nothing we didn't know about. Still confused as to why our plastic sunflowers are in a vase full of water???....(I'm sure there wasn't THAT much rain come through the roof!!!)

Tallinn, Estonia - last days in Europe

OK. So it's been awhile. Once we got back to the UK we had just 6 days to get our gear in order before heading off again to the USA. It's only today that I got to download the photos from our last days in Eastern Europe!..

Our final stop was Tallinn in Estonia. We couch-surfed here for 2 nights with a wonderful host - Marion (thanks!!). Her apartment was just minutes walk from the old town. She took us out to eat at a great restaurant - Kompressor. They did enormous stuffed pancakes and were a bargain price. Apparently EVERYTHING in Estonia gets served with sour cream - and Kompressor didn't let us down - I had a garlic sour cream with my cheese & mushroom stuffed beast! (It was so good we wound up here on our 2nd night too!) She also gave us a private guided tour of the Old town theatre - the Linnatheater. It's in a beautiful old building (or rather several buildings on the same block). The facades are all classicly old and inside it's a wonderful higgildy piggidly maze of rooms, backstage areas, workshops, dressing rooms and stages. There are 3 stages, all only seating a few people (maybe 100-150?) Somehow it's all been fused together inside even when each building looks so 'separate' from the street. Sadly the weather in Tallin was terrible. I guess it was the most north we went on our 3 week trip and it's on the Baltic Sea (now doesn't that just seem to shout COLD/WET at you?!?!?) We still did a walk round the old town cobbled streets and buildings but it was inter-jected with a darn sight more cosy coffee shop stops than usual!! (Check out the spire of that church - you can't even see the top it's so shrouded in mist!!) There was a particularly great coffee shop right on Raekoja plats (the main town square). It had rough, uneven stone floors, low ceilings, cosy soft lighting and comfy old sofas in the corner AND they served a great hot cocoa and mulled wine (not together!) and cheesecake - what more could you ask for?!

So after 3 weeks and 1 day we flew back to the UK. Sad for our short trip to be over but had a brilliant time visiting 7 different countries. We travelled by plane, train, bus, underground, tram, fenicular, foot & cable car!!

Monday, April 07, 2008


This was Riga. In Latvia. Great place. We spent 2 nights here staying in a great hostel right in the centre of the old town. A small old town area and very easy to get around by walking alone. Sadly already overpopulated by drunk English who have already made a name for themselves (we were there on a Saturday night so at it's worst). But then, where Easyjet go, the drunk British yob will follow...

This trip we've seen more cobbled streets than you could shake a stick at. Also since getting to the Baltic countries we've seen a LOT more rain. (and there's something quite lovely looking about wet cobble-stones glistening in the neon lights of an evening!)

From Riga we took a bus ride about 50km out of town to Sigulda. It's a town of castles. 3 in fact. Pretty old - around 800 years. 2 are in serious ruins but the 3rd - Turaida castle is in pretty good shape with the help of some restoration! It was a great place for some hiking along the Gauja river and in the woods. We took a cable car across the river valley in one direction then walked (And got lost!) before finally making our way to the castle. At that point the heavens opened (lucky we weren't still walking) so we took refuge in the castle until it eased off!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Happy Anniversary to us!! in Lithuania!

6 Years and counting!! We celebrated our 6th Wedding anniversary today in our 6th different country! Yahay!! A fun tradition that crept up on us a couple of years back and so far so good!! This year we were in Lithuania! We were staying in the city of Vilnius. It was lovely (though didn't quite live up to my expectations of old world euro capital - I must admit I've been somewhat spoiled for choice of late!!) It was a small city and so ideal for us to just stroll around. We had some great food and yet more of the wonderful European beer and visited the Museum of Genocide victims (housed in the former KGB headquarters!). It was a great museum, with excellent displays and plenty of English langage info. In the basement were the old cells and exocution chamber.

From Vilnius we took a 4.5 hour coach journey to Riga in Latvia. Now this is far more my idea of classic, old world quaint European city....

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Auschwitz & Birkenau

Today we took a day-trip to the Auschwitz & Birkenau State museum - about 1.25 hours from Krakow.These are such famous names they need no introduction.
The Auschwitz site is much smaller and was the original camp - many of the original buildings remain. Once they outgrew that and needed more gas chambers and crematoria they built the Birkenau site about 3km away. This covers approx 1 square mile, and although the retreating Nazi's tried to cover-up the horrors that had taken place by destroying much of the place some barracks, the railway lines, the unloading dock and perimeter fences remain. It truly is a vast place (there were over 300 barrack blocks here, 4 gas chambers (holding up to 2000 people at one time) and crematoria.

Because so many of the deportees arrving at Auschwitz were gassed on arrival and were never registered (as many as 70%) it has never been agreed exactly how many people perished at these camps. However it is estimated that the figure is in the region of 1.5 million; 90% of which were Jews. It was an insightful day...