Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Day 41 - Leaving Europe... again

Ще се видим София ("See you Sofia")

I had excellent WiFi at the Best Western hotel in Sofia so, having had a nice breakfast I used the opportunity to catch up with internet stuff and then it was time to check out and get a taxi to the airport.

It was an unexpected stay in the Bulgarian capital but, in the end, a very pleasant and enlightening one. I am now keen to explore Bulgarian wine much more and I want to sample more Traminer, Mavrud, Melnik, Viognier and blends thereof and I picked up a bottle of a mavrud from the duty free.

I like to enjoy the relaxing feeling of having hours to do nothing at an airport, especially after such a holiday packed with travel and some stress. So it was great just to go on-line and Google and have a bite to eat and a glass or two of wine.

The flight was due to depart at 6:45 pm and the passengers were all gathered at the departure gate with ten minutes to go when I received an e-mail telling me the flight had been delayed by 50 minutes. No announcement had been made yet and the departure time on all the displays remained the same. Then, we were told the plane was ready for boarding and we all got aboard.

It was only then, when the doors were all closed that the captain told everyone about a massive storm that had hit Vienna an hour earlier and although it had now cleared, we had to wait at least half an hour to make sure before we could take off. There was also going to be a back log of flights from Vienna and a lot of passengers were anxious about connections.

After the time had passed the plane was cleared for take off and at about 7:40 pm I finally left Sofia to continue my journey home.


So, it was back to Vienna for a further 3 hours to while away. I am currently here at a bar that has now closed drinking Heineken. It's not great, but it is beer. Sometimes, when I'm hungry I eat MacDonald's and sometimes, when there's nothing better, I drink one of the mega breweries' beers.

The plane to Bangkok is due to leave at 23:30 pm so I'll sign off here. Most of the rest of my trip will be on the plane - two legs, the final one back to Perth, arriving Thursday morning, so I'll use this blog entry as a signing off.

Euro 2016 Summary

This trip has exceeded all expectations for me. It surpasses even Brazil, which I thought was unbeatable. I am so lucky that I had the time and opportunity to do this, and that Leb is so kind to let me go and do these sorts of things.

Final Match Summary

51 games were played in total. I went to 11 and saw all but 7 of them somewhere or other. I watched an estimated 75% of all the football played.

Here's a list of all 51 games in chronological order. Highlighted games are the ones I attended. 27% were drawn after 90 minutes and there was an average of just under 2.1 goals/game - quite a low scoring tournament.

Modal no of goals was 2
There were 5 goalless games, 13 with just one, 16 with two and 12 with three. So over 90% of games had three goals or fewer.

I gave 5 games I saw a 5 star rating.

Here they are in ascending order of my opinion of how good they were.

5th England 2 Wales 1
4th France 5 Iceland 2
3rd Hungary 3 Portugal 3
2nd France 0 Portugal 1
1st Wales 3 Belgium 1

Best 7 Days

1. Sunday, 10th July - Day of the Final
The best day was really the last day of the tournament for me. Leaving the dive of a hotel and going to Anna's to drop my bag off started the day well. Pottering around Paris' famous Eiffel tower was awe inspiring and then going to the Museum of Man gave an intellectual component. After that, I went to a great brewpub, had some nice beers whilst watching Andy Murray win Wimbledon. But the massive slab of icing on a great big juicy cake was getting a category 1 ticket to the final at less than a third of the face value price and watching the closing ceremony before watching a pulsating, dramatic final next to some interesting fans. Then, a couple of beers and back to Anna's. Thje only thing that went wrong that day was the frustration finding an ATM with cash but in a way it just added to the tension and the climax of actually getting in. Wow! What a day!

2. Thursday, 7th July - Semi Final: France 2 Germany 0
The second best day, would have to be day in Marseille I saw the semi-final. Of course watching France beat Germany in such a magnificent stadium with such an atmosphere was great but there were other great things that day too. There was the bike ride to the old port and back. Meeting Keith and Chris again and their mates, David, Graeme and Steve. Let's not underestimate wearing the beret again and walking to the stadium and the great chat I had after the match to the locals about Brexit and how I love Marseille.

=3. Wednesday, 6th July - Day in Marseille and Fan Park with Keith and Chris
There are several days that all come close after the top two, so I'll list a few as joint third. The day of the first semi-final, although disappointing because Wales lost, was full of fun too. It included my first bike ride along the coast, meeting Keith and Chris before the match and the fantastic walk up to the Bascillica to Notre Damme de Garde.

=3. Thursday, 16th June - England beat Wales and then Northern Ireland beat Ukraine
Another great day was the one spent with Gerry and Simon in Lyon. Getting to the stadium early by tram and finding Mr McGoo's cafe to watch the game was an adventure in itself. Watching England win in the last minute was brilliant and then walking to the stadium to watch Northern Ireland beat Ukraine was special.

=3. Wednesday, 22nd June - Hungary 3 Portugal 3 with Jake and Dougie
Another great day in Lyon was spent with Jake and Dougie. We watched one of the games of the tournament and certainly the most dramatic day which left England with the seemingly easy round of 16 draw with Iceland. This was followed by watching Ireland dramatically beat Italy reserves to also get the last 16.

=3. Friday, 1st July - Wales 3 Belgium 1
Another fantastic day soaking up the pre-match atmosphere in Lille followed by a walk to the ground to witness Wales' greatest football triumph, a fantastic quarter final victory against Belgium.

=3. Monday, 13th June - Cave Painting Museum, views of the Rhone, Journey to Lyon
Finally, another day I'd include was when I woke up in the car by one of France's many fantastic walled towns. The views of the valley to and from the cave painting museum were spectacular. The mad drive to Lyon to try to get there in time for the Ireland v Sweden game and then discovering The Wallace pub were all great.

Worst 3 Days

1. Friday, 24th June - UK vote to Leave EU
Despite the day being great in lots of ways - meeting Dary in Bordeaux in the morning before heading off to San Sebastian and settling in there for the first of two nights and having a good look around. The gloomy feeling induced by the UK voting to leave the EU ruined it for me.

2. Monday, 27th June - England Out to Iceland
Again, despite a lot of very nice things happening that day, like the morning in Montpellier and then driving to Nice, swimming in the Med. and seeing Italy beat Spain, the sheer gloom of watching England fail in a major tournament yet again, and especially the manner of their defeat, has to make this a bad day overall even if it was hearty warming seeing how happy the Icelanders were at the end.

3. Wednesday, 8th June - First Day Grief
My last day in Sofia and first in France was also one of the worst, although still good overall. Smoking taxi driver to Sofia airport followed by a very uncomfortable wait on the floor of Sofia airport early in the morning followed by SIM frustrations in France at Beauvais and then the terrible traffic in Paris after the fact that the trophy display was cancelled made it a bad start, but even here there was still a few good things like the wonderful trip to Orleans.

So that's it. This is Aljice, signing off. I'll try to upload more photos/videos later but no more posts.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Day 40 - Last Night in Paris and an unexpected stay in Sofia

Stress in Beauvais

It was as smooth as it could be getting from Anna's to La Gare du Nord and onto the train. All was going well until we approached the town of Beauvais and I began to realise that the train was going to take me to the town center and not the airport directly. Oops! When I did a Google Maps Search from Gare du Nord to the Airport it indicated I'd get off the train and walk 300m to the airport. Something wrong there.

Anyway, the train arrived in Beauvais at 7:20 and the plane was due to leave at 8:40. I'd already done a web check-in and had no baggage so, according to the documentation that would be enough time, assuming it was a 300 meter walk.

Not a 300m walk...
So, now I had to get a bus. Fair enough. I looked at the map and it wasn't far. Ten minutes max. Should be ok. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the bus started heading in the opposite direction and was stopping every few hundred meters to pick up more passengers, each of which had to shuffle through their pockets to get the right change to pay the fare! Eek! Eventually the bus did change direction and start to head towards the airport, albeit in a meandering path.

Waiting at the bus stop to go to the airport
I was pulling my hair out, so much that not even one selfie was taken at this point! I seriously considered jumping off the bus and trying to hail a taxi. The bus finally arrived at the terminal at 8:03! I jumped off and headed straight inside. Luckily I saw the Sofia check in desk was almost queue-free and although it said "Closed 8:00am" the girl was still dealing with someone, so when she finished with him, she seemed happy to deal with me. There was no shocked/worried look on her face. She took my passport and gave me a boarding pass straight away. The line to go through security was huge so I asked a member of staff if I could get through quicker "Sofia?" she asked, and approved and pointed me to a much shorter queue.

Anyway, amazingly, I boarded an international flight that almost left on time having just arrived at the airport 37 minutes earlier!

On the flight I sat next to a French woman and, I presume, her grandson. Perhaps it was nerves but she never stopped talking to him once in the two and a half hour flight. Poor boy!

Goof Ups in Sofia

This trip's all gone pretty smoothly so far but I made two pretty significant mistake here. I was expecting to change terminals and fly straight off to Vienna and then Bangkok and then Perth but when I got my flight times sheet out of my bag I spotted the the flight to Vienna's not until tomorrow night. Damn! I'm not sure how that hapenned but I vaguely remember that I had originally intended to stay in Paris one more night after the final and catch the plane on Tuesday morning, except that Wizzair didn't do a Tuesday flight from Paris to Sofia. Anyway, I'd certainly not checked my itinerary for weeks and it was a surprise.

So I have to stay another night here in a very hot and sunny Sofia. Things could be worse, I suppose. I tried to get another AirBnB place as they have been better and cheaper, on the whole, but that also went pear shaped. First of all the taxi driver couldn't find the street. SatNav? What's that? It was quite comical. He'd drive a few hundred meters and then stop and ask someone and then drive a bit more repeatedly. Eventually we arrived at the street and it looked like a building site which puts me off straight away. When I looked for the No 7 promised, there was only a block of apartments. I wasn't told that, or the number of the apartment to ring. I tried a few but none replied. So I gave up and walked in the hot sun into the city to find a hotel which is where I now am.

Taxi Driver Leaves car running and legs it to find out where the street he is supposed to be taking me to is
Sofia taxi drivers can be frustrating
When we find it, it's not exactly what it said on the tin
After a nice shower and a change of clothes I wandered around the streets of Sofia reminiscing on where I met dear Jeffrey when the trip began at the start of June.

Back to Vitosha, where it all started with Jeffrey and Tony

Bulgarian Wines are Fabulous

Later, thanks to a recommendation of Malgorzata Danicka, the Polish lady who translated Elaine Morgan's books, I decided to try to sample some Bulgarian wines, which are the best in the world according to her.

Grape Central

Drawing on Professor Google I found a place called "Grape Central" which is right in the city center. As usual, it was a good decision. The co-owner of the bar, Jana, was fantastic and took me through a special selection of local wines (and a lovely beer). She is a wine journalist and has studied the subject in France and Austria. It was an education listening to her as her enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject shone through her eloquent English.

Jana knows her stuff

The guys at the end of the bar were sampling some whites and cheeses

I had three whites and three reds, a nice IPA and some lovely cheeses.

The first two whites

Onto the reds

Lovely Bulgarian IPA

This blend (including Melnik) was particularly nice

Later, I ended up sharing some very nice cheeses with the guys at the end of the bar who, it turns out, were all quite famous in Bulgaria. The guy on the right is a member of parliament, for example.

Fresh local cheeses

Hob-knobbing with Bulgarians

So, my night in Sofia was really pleasurable in the end.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Day 39 - Portugal Win Euro 2016

Back to Anna's

It was a relief to leave "Central Hotel" with its scary showers. Honestly, someone will get killed coming out of there one day. It's not really a good idea to put a shower on a stair case at the best of times, but add to that the extra components of it being dark, steep and windy and the door opens right out onto the stair case - dangerous! I got packed, got rid of some clothes, including my tatty England shirt (which I did feel bad about.) 

Bye bye Central Hotel. Never to return.

Then, first on the agenda was getting back to Anna's to drop my bag off. The metro system in Paris is excellent and within half an hour I was at Anna's. I didn't spend long there, and really just said goodbye to Felicity and "see ya" to Anna.

My plan, at this stage, was to try to get into the fanpark, have my iconic selfie by the Eiffel Tower and then meet Anna and Ahmed at Opera, where there is always good atmosphere for big matches.

Tour of Tour Eiffel 

You could spend a lifetime in Paris and still not see it all, so with just a few hours, it's tricky to prioritise. I decided on the Eiffel tower first, as that is where the Paris Fanzone is. I got off the metro at the Champs Elysees and walked over a majestic bridge towards the tower before stopping for a coffee.

I love the fruit shops in Paris

Fanzone right by Eiffel Tower

Coffee stop

Magnificent to see that at the end of the street

A couple next to me must have got up from their seats three times in half an hour to go outside for a smoke. It's incredible to me how nicotine-addicted the French seem to be.  

TABAC, TABAC everywhere

As I turned the corner from the cafe I got that fantastic sight of a French street with the Eiffel tower behind it. As I walked closer, there were more and more people, mainly football fans getting excited about the fast approaching final, milling about. As the fanpark didn't open until 4pm I decided not to bother going in and just strolled around under the tower itself before deciding on a plan.

What to do next? 

Musee de l'homme

A quick consultation on Google maps gave me my next plan. The Human Evolution museum in Paris used to be famous because it showed the original fossils of Lucy for a few years and as it was many years since I last visited and as it was just over the bridge across from the Eiffel tower, that was the obvious next destination. Also, I found that there was a brewpub just a few hundred meters the other side, so that sealed the idea.

Eiffel Tower - Musee de l'homme and then The Frog Brewpub - Parfait!
The museum seemed to have changed completely since my last visit. I loved the section on human languages. My only criticism was that is was presented geographically, with a very small sample of languages, instead of grouping them into families, which I think is the best way to get your head around them. Still pulling a tongue out of the wall to hear a substantial sample of speech of a language was a humorous way of doing it.

I liked the video showing the importance of DNA. It had hundreds of people swimming in formation to join up into the famous double helix shape.

The other item of particular interest to me was the (presumably) life size reproduction of the Laetoli footprints. I couldn't resist taking my shoes and socks off and stepping into one of the footprints. As expected, they were huge, compared to the human foot. Australopithecus the likely hominin that made the prints, was tiny but apparently had very big feet, even compared to our's. 

So many tongues

Amazing "smell dispenser"

Man Museum
View of Eiffel Tower from the museum

The Frog and Andy Murray is Men's Wimbledon Champion

Brewpubs are still quite rare but they're always good when you find one. It's even better when you find one close to where you already are. So it was a no brainer to head there next, just a few hundred meters away from the Trocadero.

The bar looked great and was full of people, again many football fans, who were watching the men's Wimbledon final. Blimey. I'd forgotten about that. Luckily the match hadn't been on for long and the second set had just started, Murray winning the first. So I parked myself at the bar, with a tely right in front of me and settled in for a couple of hours of drinking nice beer and watching sport. Bliss!

The Frog Brewpub

Great to watch the Wimbledon Final here - Two poor guys behind the bar worked to death 

The bar was packed and got progressively more so as the match progressed. Despite this, there were just two bar staff having to handle all the requests being thrown at them. 

The beers were really good and so was the tennis. Murray was continually challenged by the Canadian Milos Raonic, but always seemed to have another gear to switch up to and ended up winning in straight sets. 

Poor Andy found it a bit much emotionally and openly sobbed after winning.

Andy Murray emotional after winning Wimbledon

Great to see a British sporting success

As he lifted the famous golden trophy, I downed my last beer and set off.

Where to next?

Parc de France on a Whim

The final was fast approaching and I still didn't really know where I would be watching it. I'd pretty much knocked my original idea on its head. I really didn't fancy going back to the fanzone and standing in the sun for another few hours drinking Carlsberg but I still didn't know where I'd go. The idea of joining Anna and Ahmed at Opera was the default plan.

David Watson had been quite adamant the night before that I really should try to go to the match. He is much more experienced in these matters and showed me that on Twitter people were still trying to sell tickets at face value - a sign that it was a buyer's market.

He made the point that the French are not really as fanatical about football as the English and that in 1998 he managed to buy tickets for him and a couple of friends for the World Cup final versus Brazil just before the match.

His argument was that I'd already spent a lot of money on this trip. Here I was, in Paris, on the day of the final. Why not see what was available? It was a compelling argument, so I set off for St Dennis again, almost reluctantly.

I honestly didn't really think it was worth going but I went anyway, I convinced myself it would be good just to see what the stadium might look like on Final day. It was about 6:30 pm as I came out of the metro station and I must admit it felt a little flat, for such a big final. At about this time, I received a text from David who was already at the ground with Graeme. Basically, he told me that there were definitely tickets for sale and the prices were very good.

Stade de France on Cup Final Day
As I walked towards the stadium, I noticed a little boy holding a card reading "tickets for sale" shouting "half price!" Blimey, David was right. There really were tickets available. The trouble is, the prices for finals tickets is very high, even if you pay face value. Category 1 (the highest) tickets are in the 900 Euros range but the cheapest are around 100. I decided that I'd be prepared to pay around 250 so all I had to do was to get some cash out from an ATM.


This in itself proved to be a major challenge. First of all Google showed that there were no banks on my side of the stadium and as many of the streets were blocked off it took half an hour to get around to the other side. Then, as I got closer, I found that most of them were either closed for security reasons or else had run out of cash. Time was ticking and I began to think that this was going to be one of those ironies - tickets going cheap but I couldn't get the cash. Why didn't I have more faith in David's advice and get the cash out earlier?

Finally found a cash point with cash

Eventually, I did finally find an ATM that had money and so I set off back to the stadium with just about an hour to go. I walked past a few people selling tickets but they asked too much. An Asian girl wanted 300 euros for a category 2 and a German fan wanted 400 euros for similar. He looked a bit smug when I said it was too much, but I'd offer him 200. As I got closer to the stadium I sensed that some sellers seemed a bit less self assured. One woman wanted 300 euros for her category 3 ticket and I was trying to knock her down to 200 when I was approached by a shady-looking guy offering a "much better seat - look it's category 1, that one is no good". He wanted 400 euros. I said I only have 200.

He looked a little hesitant. 

"300" he offered, obviously not believing me.

"Ok, how about 250? That's all I have. This time I was being truthful.

He looked at his equally dodgy-looking friend, who nodded and the deal was done with a cheeky smile on his face.

The face value of this ticket was 895 euros, and I'd just paid 250. Could this be right? I still didn't believe it. As I walked towards the ground I started to feel a bit sick, thinking I'd been sold a forgery or something. I looked at it again and it looked perfectly fine, but what did I know?

Anyway, I got through one ring of security where they check and mark your ticket and then through towards my gate, U, which is where I was for the France v Iceland quarter final. As I approached the final barcode reading gate, I was still half-expecting it to reject my ticket but No!, it let me through!

I was in!

895 euro ticket for 250

European Championship Final. Thanks David Watson!

I took my seat, which was very close to the one I had for the quarter final and watched the very impressive Final Ceremony.

At this point it still hadn't really sunk in that I was about to watch the final but my excitement started to rise as the teams came out and I was totally up for it after the vast crowd sang the marseillaise.

Amazing closing Ceremony

Still can't believe I'm in

10,000 Portuguese

The Teams

France 0 Portugal 1

I thought it was a great final, even if the reports I've read since don't seem to agree. France flew at Portugal from the start and it seemed that the result everyone expected would happen.

Then, Payet clattered into Cristiano Ronaldo after about 10 minutes and when Ronaldo rolled around like a three year old seeking attention I, like everyone else, thought he was "simulating". Sure enough he got up and having had to go off to seek attention, came back on. But a few minutes later he went down again. When the guy to my left, from the Reunion islands, said "he's done for" I didn't believe him. I thought it was just more theatrics. But sure enough, Ronaldo was off and was replaced with Quaresma, a decent player, but (forgive me) certainly less quaresmatic.

Ronaldo injured by Payet, has to go off

Surely, France would win now. 

Portugal, however, somehow seemed to be lifted by the exit of their famous star and came back into the game and threatened a few times themselves before the break.

At half time I noticed, a few seats to my right were two English guys, one of which was taking notes. I asked him "do you always do that?" He pointed to his shirt, with its "PFA" logo and said "we work for the PFA (Professional Footballers Association)" so I went down to chat to him, and his colleague.

Apparently the PFA had many scouts working at the Euros, looking at players and tactics to help them in their coaching programs. We discussed how the finals had been generally good and close, even if there was a lack of goals. 

"What did you think of England?" was my obvious question.

"They just froze in the second half" was their reply.

PFA Scouts

As the second half started I soon learned that the big man sat next to me on my right was also a football big wig. "I am president of the Nigerian Football Association" he said. The very attractive woman he was sat next to gave me a clue he was somebody special and throughout the second half he impressed me with his knowledge. When Payet was replaced with Coman he said "that was the wrong substitution" and as the second half escalated into a brilliant end to end battle, he said "I think Portugal will win".

President of the Nigerian Football Association!
The game remained goalless and went into extra time. Bonus. When Griezmann his the post, my Nigerian friend said "Now Portugal will win. Nothing more certain." I was not so sure, thinking it was now likely to go to a penalty shoot out, but he was proved right when substitute Eder scored a brilliant winner with just minutes remaining.

There were great scenes of joy (from the Portuguese) and sadness (from the French) afterwards and it was an amazing privilege to witness it all.

First major trophy for Portugal

After the match I headed back to Anna's, having stopped for a crepe and a pint first.

Wow! what a brilliant day. The best saved till the last!

Last night in Paris