Krakow

Poland

The trip to Krakow (Poland) by shuttle was a long one, only broken up by the stop at a McDonalds on the side of the motorway. This Maccas was absent of the usual “fast” food efficiency – our group’s orders meant a 20 minute wait for us at the back of the queue.

Some of the smaller Polish towns along the way exemplified the “other” kind of European architecture – plain communist square buildings in grey – with the odd splash of colour (via graffiti mostly) or some other kind of subsequent attempt to make the place feel slightly less depressing. The Communists might have been more successful if they had someone like Hundertwasser designing their buildings, to make everything seem a little rosier.

Unlike some of the bland 2 and 3 star hotels we’ve had, the accommodation in Krakow was excellent. One minute’s walk from the largest Medieval square in Europe, the hotel was a converted 18th century building with enormous apartment rooms.

Krakow has a great vibe and the people are very friendly. The Old Town is home to some 400 odd restaurants and bars – the whole square is lined with them – making eating and drinking very easy and very pleasant. Tour leader Vivian picked out some good restaurants for the evenings we were there.

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Googled this aerial shot of the Old Town Square

In the Old Town Square, the bell of the St Mary’s Basilica chimes every hour. The bell is then followed by a guy playing the trumpet from the top of the tower. He plays a tune that was a warning for Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. The tune breaks off mid-stream in remembrance of the original trumpeter who was shot by an arrow in the neck whilst blowing his trumpet. It is played every hour, 24 hours a day. Snapping photos of the trumpet guy is very tricky – he moves around to different windows, so you have to run around trying to figure out where he is.

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The Square has a number of market stalls – some of which actually sold stuff we wanted to buy. Being a true romantic, I bought Em a rose from one of the stalls on her birthday. It lasted two days of travelling.

The old part of Krakow has some interesting buildings, as it was largely untouched during WWII. There is a castle at one end with some great views. At its base is a memorial to the Katyn massacre, which in turn has become a place of remembrance for the plane crash which killed the Polish president, top officials and families of those massacred on their way to commemorations in 2010. (You can google for more information!)

The daytime temperature in Krakow was well into the mid thirties. Firemen hook up their hoses to the hydrants in the public squares so that the kids (and some adults) can cool off. Fortunately a big ice cream was only 3 Zloty, about 80 cents, and there were stalls in abundance.

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On night one we ate Bigos, a Polish dish, with pork and sauerkraut in a bread bowl. Em ordered a side of vegetables (rare on menus) and became very animated about having broccoli, given broccoli (and most other vegetables) had been largely absent from our diets since we left home.

Day two was Em’s birthday. Em was stoked to hear from her nieces, Ella and Lily, in the morning via Skype – their happy birthday rendition is coming along very nicely. It was a bit sad not to have any family around for this birthday, so to cheer up Em we made a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines (about 25 minutes out of Krakow) with a few others from our group.

The Salt Mines no longer serve any other commercial purpose other than tours, but they were once a major operation and produced table salt until 2007. They are 327m deep and over 300km long.

Our female tour guide had some great punch lines emphasised by the drawl of her Polish accent. Our favourite line was at the statue of Copernicus (who studied his astronomy in Krakow in the 1400s): “Please do not lick Copernicus. With one million visitors each year, if everyone licked Copernicus, there would be no more Copernicus.” As everything in the Mine is made of rock salt, licking stuff is popular.

There were lots of cool statues in the mine, but the the highlight was the massive cathedral (made of salt), complete with chandeliers (made of salt) and a big statue of Pope John-Paul II (made of salt). Incredible to think that the cathedral is 135 meters below the surface.

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Disco party in the gnome cave

We had lunch in the Old Square – Gwen the Aussie bought Em a little pavlova as a birthday. Then we found a Pirogi shop selling the Polish specialty to the locals. We instantly became big fans of this dish and ordered a second plate.

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That night, Viv had picked out a great restaurant which looked after us very well for birthday dinner. She managed to get everyone wearing party hats and there was champagne and cake. One of the ladies had even bought a necklace in Prague as a present. After dinner we had a drink in the Old Square, but were too knackered to do much else.

We had planned to get to the Oscar Schindler Museum (i.e. “Schindler’s List” – his factory was in Krakow), but ran out of time the next day, so we just enjoyed wandering around.

Would certainly recommend Krakow for a three night stay if you are ever in Poland. It would be one of our favourites of the tour. Some birthday pics:

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Taking a moment

Poland

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There’s not really an adequate way to describe Auschwitz. Words don’t come close to explaining the shock and sobriety of seeing the calculated construction of rows of buildings for imprisonment, judgment, medical experimentation and murder…The small square of light coming into a gas chamber where Zyklon B was dropped in from above. The doors to the incinerators next door, where bodies were loaded en masse to burn – in groups because cremation ‘took too long otherwise’. The sickening sight of mountainous piles of human hair encased in a massive glass room, recovered after the liberation in stacked bales ready for the Nazis to sell. Thousands of shoes from infant to adult piled high, only a drop in the ocean from the one pair per person already burnt or sold by the soldiers. The shoe polish carried in their small amount of permitted luggage, because moving in the hope of ‘a better life’ meant clean shoes would be needed for a new job. The outdoor spaces with gallows, hooks or walls where spectacle was made of hangings or shootings. Seeing the blanked out windows of the buildings where female prisoners were mutilated or killed for the sake of autopsy. And to think that all of that is only touching on the extent of the horrors.

Seeing the sheer scale of the Birkenau camp from its watch tower was literally jaw-dropping, with the rail tracks leading inside its confines to unload the passengers expecting a ‘better life’, who were then stripped of their belongings and lead straight to the gas chambers. The buildings beyond the fence were vast and windowless – the prisoners kept enclosed and unseen any time a train arrived to maintain the guise of a new home as the new arrivals were rushed as quickly as possible to ‘get clean’ before they suspected otherwise. The number of foundations and chimneys mark the beginnings of the forced destruction at the camps by the Nazi soldiers as the impending liberation of these camps threatened the operation. Buildings were razed, along with mountainous piles of prisoner belongings, documents and hair – yet still such a huge amount was recovered.

The extent of the operations and documentation was shocking – the building of crematoriums required resources quoted for by companies and noted in letters; quotes were received for the purchasing of human hair and gold from teeth, to be made into items like carpet underlay and fabric. Was it without question of source? The few illegal photos taken by working prisoners which were recovered show the original method of open air burning of people, before ‘mass’ means were found. The names of soldiers who undertook executions of people on certain days are listed and signed off on recovered documents. To think that those people have generations of family to look back at their history, as we have grandfathers who fought against it.

I took all photos in black and white in a small attempt to convey that this is a place for remembrance, not colourful tourist snaps. It seems that the number of Jews, gypsies and others killed at Auschwitz have become simply that – a number – until you see the evidence of these horrors and the inhuman operation pieced together in front of you. It’s such an important trip for people to make, and one can see why the survivors wanted the sites retained in such a way. It really wasn’t all that long ago, and how easily it occurred on such scale should never be forgotten.

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Prague and Teplice

Czech Republic

We travelled from Cesky Krumlov to Prague by bus and then underground – good opportunities to see some more Czech countryside – lots of farms and grass like home.

Once in Prague, we had a three hour walking tour of the city with a local guide. The good thing about these walking tours is that you can quickly cover the “must sees”, like the castles and cathedrals. If you want to explore them in more detail, you can come back later. We saw St Vitus Cathedral, the Old Square and Astronomical Clock, the government buildings, castles and changing of the guard.

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One for Nicky – David Cerny’s sculpture of St Wenceslaus riding an upside down horse

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To be honest, we never became particularly fond of Prague during our three day stay. The architecture is incredible, but the enormous number of tourists (it was a weekend in peak season) and the often grumpy locals (when compared to Berlin and Vienna) took away much of the charm. It was a lot dirtier or grungier than we expected.

Day two we wandered and then found this small vineyard next to St Vitus Cathedral, overlooking the city. Five hours later and following coffee, cake and red wine, we finally left there.

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That night, Viv (our 25 year old tour leader from Hungary), Clint (the 25 year old Aussie who was in the army), Steven (the Scotsman who lives in Dubai) and I headed to one of Prague’s infamous night clubs. This place was crazy – five stories of night club with DJs playing different genres on each level. The downside was the number of tourists (we weren’t helping that ratio) and there were too many misters and not enough sisters (weren’t helping that either). But the drinks were dirt cheap and the music was ok, especially on the “Golden Oldies” floor (it’s scary that music from the late 90s fills up this category).

Perhaps more exciting than the night club, was walking home through central Prague at 4 am. I walked home with Steven the Scotsman. We both agreed that there is no equivalent in NZ (or any place Steve had been to – and he lived in LA for 10 years) to the seedy side of Prague at that time of night. By all accounts it was similarly seedy earlier on at 11 or 12 pm as well.

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Following the night time adventures, we were pretty slow the following day. There was a gay pride parade going on near our hotel (the anti-gays were there as well, complete with shaved heads, boots and Rottweilers), but we made it to the National Museum showing the collection of gigantic Mucha paintings. Czech artist Mucha painted these for the city over the course of 18 years. There are 20 canvasses in his “Slav Epic” collection, the largest of which measure 8 x 6 meters, with intricate detail throughout. The museum itself is huge, and we managed to get through most of it – lots of Picasso, some Van Gogh, Monet and other big names. On the way home, we picked up takeaways and sat on the roof of our hotel where we caught the sun setting over the Cathedral.

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Em’s camera mastery

All in all, Prague won’t go down as our favourite city, but it has an interesting history and we were pleased to have gone there. We were also lucky to have a young Canadian with a History Masters in our group. He was pretty much reading one history book for each place we visited, and was a wealth of information on just about anything you wanted to know. Quite impressive.

Swapping big for small, we caught three trains to get to Teplice Nad Metuji, which is a tiny village still in the Czech Republic, but close to the border (they speak German there). The trains were very “Eastern Block” – probably how it would have been in the 60s – and one of them dropped us pretty much onto the tracks to wait for another. The train staff were less than friendly.

Once in Teplice, the thing to do was a two hour walk to see all these bizarre rock formations. We did that, and they were bizarre. The highlight was climbing up a long series of vertical steps and steep ladders to the top of one of the rocks, where we had amazing views.

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Here I have spotted a Ninja Turtle – we saw some of their artworks in the gallery in Prague

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Checking out Cesky

Czech Republic

After a short train and a two hour shuttle trip (during which we sat silently as the drivers yabbered in Czech), we arrived at a dubious looking hotel perched over Cesky Krumlov in the south of the Czech Republic. Said hotel turned out to be fine inside (anywhere with free wifi is always more appealing) and the UNESCO World Heritage area below it would turn out to be very memorable.
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We arrived late afternoon, and after the group had withdrawn some Czech dosh we walked down our road to the old town. The little cobbled streets and colorful buildings sucked us in instantly as we got our bearings with the group leader. There was a small amount of time before dinner, so the group split up with Alex and I choosing to pay the small fee to climb up the castle tower to get an aerial perspective of the town as the sun went down. The first night was capped off with a hilarious group dinner, including birthday cake for one of the ladies.

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The group

The next morning we were booked onto a rafting trip. A river (the Vtlava) winds its way through the Cesky old town, making rafting or canoeing the most popular leisure activity. There were all shapes, sizes and levels of seriousness taking to the river when we arrived at the launching site 15kms away from the town. Dividing into three rafts and handed our paddles, Alex and I set off with three Aussies into the chilly shallows.

Fortunately, we made a pretty good team. Alex chose not to show off his paddling skills and took the (all important) job of steering at the back, while the weaker of us paddled and drifted along. The best bits about the river were the ‘raft-up’ bars, which sold the locally popular mojito, and the man made chutes which created rapids for us to tackle along the way. They provided a good thrill on what was an otherwise tame waterway. It was great to get out and do something different, and fortunately our crew were all still speaking to each other at the end…
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The food and drink stalls in Cesky were great, as were the restaurants. The local sweet rolled and toasted bread was pretty tempting, along with the market stalls of freshly cooked paper cones of potatoes which had been shaved into chips on what looked like a milkshake machine stick. Alex demo’d an entire cone of these in minutes, while I was distracted by the lady who had made her own slabs of peanut brittle, coconut ice and also had the hugest wheels of cheese I’d ever seen.
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The chip guy

The second night we dined by the river in a very cool little place. Alex went for the big plate of ‘Bohemian feast’, which had a wide array of meat and various forms of potato or dumpling. Very tasty by all accounts. After seeing the state of the river we had traveled down that day, I’m not too sure why I chose that night to order rosemary baked trout. The tiny whole fish that stared back at me made me doubt both its legality and edibility, but once I got into it and searched my way through the bones it was pretty tasty. It was the second birthday of the trip for another of the Aussie ladies, so more singing and cake was dished out at the end.

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The bohemian feast

The following morning, Alex (most enamored by Cesky and attempting to become a photography guru) got up at sparrow’s fart to snap more pics before we headed off on a public bus to Prague. The results were well-worth his early alarm clock, as hiking to the other end of the town got shots of the buildings under great light, as well as the lack of tourists at that hour. He was stoked.

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Art for art’s sake

Austria

Vienna was where we picked up our tour group to begin our Eastern Europe travels. The tour included only one day in Vienna, so we made sure to get there two days early. Here is a map of our tour, which takes two weeks until 26 August (due to the delay in posting this we are now half way through – more posts to come).
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We arrived on Friday night and spent Saturday morning breakfasting and wandering around the Naschmarkt, not far from our hotel. The Naschmarkt was probably one of the best markets I’ve been to. It’s spread out over two rows. One row has 120 different stalls selling pretty much everything – cheese, hummus, bread, meat, fish etc. The other row has cafes and bars. The Viennese aren’t normally big on breakfast apparently, but on Saturday morning the Naschmarkt seemed a popular place to catch up with friends and family – great atmosphere.

Fueled up, we wandered further towards the Inner Stadt to the MuseumsQuartier. Here we found three of the popular galleries and purchased a bulk ticket. We ventured into the Leopold Museum to find six floors of art, mainly by Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. With little art knowledge, both were new to us. This chap Rudolf Leopold amassed a huge collection of Schiele paintings and sold the whole lot to the Austrian government for €160m. The collection would now be worth €600m.

To be a great artist, it seems you have to be bonkers, and these two were no different (Schiele, a protege of Klimt, got in a bit of trouble for exhibiting erotic drawings with children around when he was in Cesky Krumlov – our next stop). Klimt and Schiele broke new ground with their work, which was considered to be grotesque and pornographic at the time. You can see why – it takes a certain kinda guy to do nude self portraits. His “style” meant that he drew slightly larger than normal hands and feet. I was a little confused as to why he didn’t apply that style to his other bits in his nudes?

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading about Schiele – a young guy having the balls to do something which was pretty offensive for Austrians in the early 1900s, especially when it was a version of him on the canvas!
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Next door is the MUMOK gallery (a big grey box), housing pop and fashion art. Most of it was beyond us (i.e. the cardboard boxes stuck to the wall), but some of the Andy Warhol stuff was very cool.
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Emmy the art critic

Excellent Viennese Vietnamese for dinner again – it’s what you want after all the stodgy meals.

Day two and more art in the Kunsthisoriches Museum quoted as having “one of the finest collections in Europe”. We had probably done our dash with art, so we focussed on a few of the more famous – Caravaggio, Rubens, Raphael and Rembrant. The place is so huge, if you spend too long there the art just becomes a blur of Jesus’s and ginger Adam & Eves.

So, for something different, we went off to find some Hundertwasser, the Austrian artist / architect who became a NZ citizen and moved to the Far North in his later years. The first thought I had when we found his building was of the toilets in Kawakawa (for which he is also responsible). It’s amazing that the style is so recognisable. Not a straight line to be found.
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We met the tour group in the evening – 15 people: two Brits, three Canadians, eight Aussies and us, ranging from 23 to 66 years of age. Our guide is Hungarian.

The next day was one of our best. It included a three hour walking tour of the city with a local Viennese guide. We then ate schnitzel and cream strudel at Cafe Central (where Lenin and Trotsky had their coffee). In the afternoon, we stopped back at the Naschmarkt to pick up some blue cheese, bread, hummus, olives, bread and macarons and took them out to Schloss Schonbrunn. This insane place is the summer palace of the Habsburgs and second only to Versailles as a show of enormous wealth.

The gardens stretch for miles and they were a popular spot for evening exercise (the Austrians prefer to walk with poles – not their neighbours from Poland – walking poles – maybe they feel like they’re skiing when there’s no snow – sorry this blog is pretty dry, even for me). We walked up the hill to the Gloriette (pic below), sat on the grass and gazed towards the Palace with Vienna in the background. Not bad.

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The Gloriette snapped by Em

Deutschland

Germany

We had wanted to make at least one stop in Germany, and some cheap flights out of Birmingham meant Berlin would be it from 6 to 10 August. A lucky find on the internet also meant we could enjoy relative luxury of a great hotel in the central city (with a pool for a couple of mornings of laps). Perhaps the most interesting discovery for Alex was that I could read and speak a small but useful amount of German. It certainly helped with navigation and payments somewhat.

After arriving late the night before, we used the first day to visit Berlin Zoo. It has the world’s largest collection of animals with over 1500 different species. The grounds were pretty much destroyed in WWII (91 of the animals survived) and the grounds were fortified as part of the last Nazi resistance (from what I understand!) You could get quite a bit closer to the animals or cages than Auckland Zoo – and I didn’t see a single ‘no touching’ or ‘beware of getting your fingers bitten’ sign. Highlights were the great viewing of jaguar cubs harassing each other and their mother, and watching a huge lion within touching distance lazing on his back, with paws in the air like a domestic pet.

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The zoo also provided our first currywürst experience, which may have sounded slightly more glamorous than the reality of a large frankfurter doused in curried tom sauce and slapped next to some pommes frits. We tarted it up with a side salad.

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We found what would become our regular breakfast haunt the next morning. Cafe Einstein was where the previous German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, had his morning coffee. While this meant little to us, the fact the coffee was “the best” and we could get a good selection of tasty brekkie was perfect.

A short distance from the cafe along the relatively famous Unter den Linden was the impressive Brandenburg gate – the symbol of Germany and site of the Nazi torchlight procession. It was completely bustling with people snapping pics and watching street performers who played a segment of Aloe Blacc “I need a dollar, dollar…” while pressuring for tips at the end. Bit different…

20120818-130259.jpgBrandenburg Gate

20120818-130538.jpg German parliament building – Reichstag – which played a part in Hitler’s political tactics after it was destroyed by fire pre-WWII. It was only fully restored and the dome added in ’90 after the reunification

Whilst we couldn’t spend any money on the fancy clothes or electronics, we still had a fun evening in Europe’s biggest department store KaDeWe. We drank cocktails in the middle of a floor at an Appleton’s stand, treated ourselves to some Godiva truffles and had dinner at a cool buffet on the top floor where you selected your stir fry ingredients and a man cooked it in front of you. A plate of vegetables was heaven!

Berlin has done quite a good job of appropriately marking some of the darker parts of its history. Checkpoint Charlie (one of the crossing points between the American quarter and Soviet quarter during ‘walled’ Berlin) was somewhat touristy and token, though the nearby museum did have some interesting and informative detail about how that time operated. It was seriously crammed with reading though, and air conditioning never seems to exist in such places! The best sites to visit were the less famed Topography of Terrors, and the path of the wall itself.

20120818-131653.jpgA double line of cobblestones mark where the wall once divided Berlin

Topography of Terrors lies on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. The buildings where torture and wartime planning occurred have been torn down, with only a shell of the basement remaining.

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The outdoor exhibit of chronological panels depicts the rise of Hitler through to the erection of the post-war Wall. It was honest, graphic and sombering, despite the number of people making their way along it in the late evening. It was perhaps even more effective that it was in the shadow of a remaining section of the wall, and that the surrounding land has been left as grey gravel. I would put it down as a must-see.

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What was surprising about Berlin was how young or new that it felt – it has such immense history and historical buildings, yet the wall only came down in 1989, meaning the city as it exists today has only been reestablishing itself for a relatively short time. It is, and will be for some time, a construction zone. But it’s clean and easy and pretty much everything that people suggest it is – including the guide who apologized on behalf of her countrymen for having zero sense of humor. Well worth the detour.

Proud kiwis and hospitable Brits

Olympics

1-4 August 2012 were great days to be Kiwis at Dorney Lake. We witnessed three gold medals (Men’s Pair, Double and Single) and two bronze medals (Women’s Pair and Men’s Lightweight Double).

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Each morning we were up around 5 – 5:30 am (except the first day which was 4:30 am) to drive from Banbury down the M40 to the park and ride at Bray Wick Park (close to Maidenhead) – a one hour trip. Hundreds of double decker buses were on hand to deliver spectators from the four different park and rides to the main entry to the Lake. We never had to wait more than five minutes for a bus and they were never full.

The bus took around 15 minutes and delivered us to the Royal Windsor Racecourse on the other side of Dorney Lake. We then walked across the Racecourse and the river to the grandstands, via the airport security scanners run by the army and the ticket check. The walk was probably 15 – 20 minutes. Hundreds of volunteers lined the walkways to greet everyone. One morning we counted over 20 “good mornings” from the volunteer ‘Games Makers’. If you had a question, five of them might descend, all eager to provide the answer. The logistical organisation was very impressive, but you did need to allow plenty of time to make the journey.

Dorney Lake is a man made lake, privately owned by Eton College, who spent £17m developing the site. It really is a world class facility – would’ve loved a tour of the boathouse!

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Once at the grandstand (by the finish line) we would walk down to the 1000m mark to find the least busy stalls selling coffee and sausage. The prices were ridiculous and so were some of the queues – the English seem to love a well formed queue, and there were plenty of volunteers to keep everyone in formation.

Getting there early meant plenty of time to sit in the stands sipping coffee and observing the crews doing their morning rows. This was the best opportunity to see the different techniques and rhythms of various crews and countries – a favourite pastime if you’re a rowing nut. Needless to say, I thought Hamish and Eric in our pair were the best to watch. I also liked the rhythm of the Australian four (they claimed a silver medal behind the Brits).

In terms of the crowd, a large portion were English (lots of kids and families) coming for one day of racing. The ‘friends and family’ of the athletes were mostly in the stand on the other side of the Lake, but there were still lots of people supporting particular athletes over our side. The NZ supporters were easily spotted, sporting t-shirts in support of either Mahe, the Men’s Pair or the Women’s Pair. We recognised a few old faces from the club rowing scene. There was a notable increase in Kiwis at the Lake on Friday for the Men’s Pair and Mahe. Most seemed to be Kiwis living in London – they picked a good day.

The racing began with semi finals and/or B to F finals, with the A finals at the end. Unsurprisingly, the crowd was loudest when there was a Team GB crew coming down. The crews described the noise from the grandstands as a “wall of noise”. With four golds, one silver and two bronzes (from memory), they had plenty to cheer about. The crowd tended to be more subdued when there was no GB crew in the hunt for medals, altogether they did clap politely. The small Kiwi contingent was particularly vocal and the cheers for “GB” sounded very similar to “Kiwi”. My voice was pretty much done when the Men’s Double came flying through for a win. It was totally gone by the last day.

The way tickets were allocated meant that there were pockets of Kiwi supporters dotted around the grandstands. One day we sat with Nathan Cohen’s Aunt. But even if the other Kiwis were total strangers, a medal meant high fives, hugs and handshakes. The best moment was when Mahe won, capping off two golds in 39 minutes. Not since Rome have we won two Olympic golds in such a short space of time. Hearing our national anthem, watching the flag go up, and seeing our medalist crews with their hardware made us remember all the best things about our little country and how we punch well above our weight.

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Proud Kiwis

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Juliette Haigh hugs Mahe’s mum as he crosses the line – taken by Em from the other side of the Lake

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Also taken by Em

We were very lucky to be able to stay with our cousins close to Banbury and Oxford. They have the most fantastic house, being a 17th century Grammar School House. It is rather large (especially for NZ standards) and although it has been altered and added to by its owners over the years, it still has its original walls and oozes history at every turn. We took a tour of the house (clutching champagne glasses in celebration of the day’s Olympics!), learning of its history, alterations over the years and previous owners. My favourite was probably the cellar…and the fireplace…

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We also did a garden and town tour. The garden is stunning, with a large lawn, clever planting and plenty of homegrown veges (beetroots were the highlight and the classic lawnmower was pretty good as well). There were other fine examples of old houses and architecture throughout the town.

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“The big house” down the road

Helen and Elizabeth took us on a tour of Oxford. The university and college system is fascinating and rather complicated. We saw Christ Church College, Oxford – notably its Quad, Cathedral and Hall. Christ Church is a very wealthy college founded by Henry VIII and was where Lewis Carroll studied and taught.

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The Hall has become a popular tourist attraction after the Harry Potter movies were filmed there

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The Tom Quad

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Elizabeth in the middle and Helen on the right

We were spoilt with the tours and tasty home cooked meals using fresh veges from the garden. After being on the road for a month, it was luxury to have some space, home cooking, a washing machine, good conversation and plenty of wine and cheese! We were extremely grateful.

London, Banbury and the Olympics was a little brief, but we have lots more of Europe that we are keen to see. Now in Berlin having a ball – will post on that soon.

The making of a champion

Olympics

On 9 August 2003, our NZ Under 19 Rowing Eight finished sixth at the Junior World Champs in Athens.

The crew was disappointed, but headed out to party once the rowing was over. There was reason to celebrate as Nathan Cohen had won a silver medal in the single scull.

However, one member of the Eight didn’t join the rest of the crew to party that night. Hamish Bond, our quiet two seat from Otago Boys, stayed in his room and contemplated the events of the day. Of course everyone in the crew was disappointed with our result, but it seemed to affect Hamish more than the rest of us. He knew he was capable of much better.

The following year, Hamish was again part of the U19 Eight and he suffered further disappointment. However, as he had left school by then, he was able to focus solely on his rowing. By the National Champs in 2005 he had taken 23 seconds off his 2km erg score since the Athens campaign and comfortably won the Under 21 single scull.

Over the next few years, Hamish was selected for an Under 23 Four and then quickly progressed to the Elite Four. With every season that passed, Hamish shaved seconds off his 2km erg time. He seemed to make big gains by doing a large amount of cycling during the winter and improving his aerobic base fitness. His 2km erg score became one of the best in the squad – it now sits around 5:45.

With the lower erg score, Hamish was able to develop a very effective rhythm. He tended to have a higher stroke rating than most, but developed a unique ability to pick the boat up at exactly the right time. With a lot of crews, even some very good ones, you can see the stern of the boat “stop” momentarily during the stroke. Crews stroked by Hamish don’t “stop” at all. His pace is very consistent from start to finish, and his crews often “negative split” – where the second half of the race is faster than the first. This means that opposition crews tend to drop away gradually in the third 500m.

At the 2007 World Champs, Hamish stroked the Elite Four to a gold medal with a blistering last 500m sprint. However, there was enormous disappointment for that crew when they were relegated to the B Final at the Beijing Olympics a year later.

This was the making of the incredible combination with Eric Murray. After the disappointment of 2008, Eric had thoughts of giving up. Hamish already knew that their pair combination was fast, as the Four used to regularly train against each other in pairs. So he convinced Eric into giving the pair a shot and the rest is history.

Hamish has that magical rhythm. Everyone who sits behind Hamish in a boat goes fast, whether it be a pair, four, or eight. Hamish has won the Premier Pair at the National Championships every year since 2008, with several different partners.

It’s a bit cliche, but you can’t help but look at how many disappointments Hamish had to suffer before getting to this point. Most of the squad would describe Hamish as disciplined and focused. That unwavering focus and determination has today produced an Olympic gold medal.

Unbeaten in international competition for four years. Incredible!

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Gold

Olympics

Well you may know that Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan won an Olympic gold medal today in emphatic fashion. It might have made the papers.

They backed up two victories at the World Champs.

My memory of Joseph Sullivan’s rowing career follows if you are interested:

– 2003 – third in the U19 Pair at Maadi Cup for Queen Charlotte College
– 2004 – GOLD in the U17 single, U18 single, U18 double and U18 Quad
– 2005 – can’t remember
– 2006 – silver in the U21 single behind Nathan Cohen and in front of me and I think some other GOLDS at that regatta
– 2007 – GOLD at the U23 World Champs in the single
– 2008 – GOLD at the U23 World Champs in the single
– 2009 – GOLD at the U23 World Champs in the double
– 2010 – GOLD at the World Champs in the double
– 2011 – GOLD at the World Champs in the double
– 2012 – OLYMPIC GOLD in the double.

This is the rowing highlights of a guy from Picton who is closer to lightweight category than most heavyweights, and well under six foot. But the one way to describe Joe is that he is as tough as they come. When I trialled for the double with him, I couldn’t get my head around his rhythm – it was so different to how we rowed. He gives every race absolute death and he is a fierce competitor, but a great guy off the water and very popular with other rowers.

Nathan is extremely deserving of the gold medal. A brilliant single sculler and also a tough nut like Joe, Nathan has had to play second fiddle to Mahe since 2005 (although he did beat Mahe at one Nationals). If Nathan was in the single at the Olympics he would probably medal. There were times a few years ago when no one thought he would be able to form a successful doubles combination, as he had been categorised as a single sculler.

Then he found Matt Trott and formed a successful doubles combination, which just didn’t quite have the horsepower to win world championships. Then he had Rob Waddell at the Beijing Olympics where everything was going well and they were favourites, but finished in fourth.

Joe first sculled in international competition with Nathan when Matt Trott was sick or injured (can’t remember which) and was flown over to race with Nathan. The rest is history.

In their final today they knew they had the big finish up their sleeve, but that was far bigger than anyone would have expected… except them.

Brian (coach) sometimes said that if anyone beats you, they ought to be world champions. So my bronze in the U21 single behind two Olympic champions probably isn’t too shabby (Em says I’m living in the past).

Big day tomorrow and not much voice left after today’s efforts. Will write more…

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