Going Our Separate Ways

Wow what an amazing year we have had! It feels like only yesterday we arrived back home after our pic overland adventure from London to Melbourne. So in honour of being backa year we have reposted our blog from our arrival back into London in 2014!

 

What an amazing journey the last five months have been. From London to Beijing then back to Delhi all overland by train, then some incredible memories through Myanmar, Australia and the Philippines. Sadly however all good things must come to an end.

For ‘The Smart Way Round’ that means it is now time for Natalie and I to go our separate ways.

Wait a minute, didn’t we just celebrate our first wedding anniversary living it large around London? We certainly did, going our separate ways simply refers to heading back to work. For Natalie that means back down to Somerset to start work again in the office for Oasis Overland, while for me, I fly out to Munich to take my first group of Guests around Central Europe for Trafalgar Travel.

Now I know what you are thinking, both working for travel companies and Dean running around Europe having an awesome time, that doesn’t really sound like work does it?! After five months together 24/7 it will certainly not be easy and getting back into a structured routine will take some time.

With us back in Europe The Smart Way Round is also going to change a little. We will be dropping back to one blog a week now, we still have some great stories to share about the London to Melbourne adventure, and Natalie will be posting a summary of all the statistics relating to our journey, but work kind of gets in the way right? We will also be sharing stories from Europe and introducing a new category of our blog called ‘Hometown Tourist’ sniffing out all the cool, quirky and different things to do around London. So really this is not the end of The Smart Way Round but only the beginning!

Exploring new places in London

Exploring new places in London

Thanks again for everyone’s support, comments and love over the last five months, because of you The Smart Way Round has grown bigger than we could have possibly imagined.

– Dean

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Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines: RAF Museum London

We continue our Home Town Tourist series with a look at one of London’ s unique historical museums a little out of the city centre.

London is full of museums, and the best thing about them is most of them are free. You can marvel at dinosaurs a the Natural History Museum, discover the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and even explore London’s oldest prison in the Clink Museum (you do have to pay for this one). However, one of our favourites is the RAF Museum in Hendon.

 

The entrance hangar with numerous pre-WWI planes

The entrance hangar with numerous pre-WWI planes

Originally a RAF airbase in North London, the museum now houses over 130 aircraft tracing the history not only of the Royal Air Force but also of aviation in the UK.

From the early years of flight up to modern day fighter jets, the RAF Museum has it all

From the early years of flight up to modern day fighter jets, the RAF Museum has it all

Split across four hangers all interconnected the museum contains loads of audio visual information, a chance to sit in several of the aircraft, flight simulators and air traffic control simulators, all designed to bring the various aircraft to life.

One of the greatest military aircraft of all time, the Submarine Spitfire

One of the greatest military aircraft of all time, the Submarine Spitfire

There are several highlights of the collection including the Battle of Britain Hall showcasing the famous old war birds, the Spitfire and Hurricane that helped defeat Nazi Germany in the Battle of Britain. A Lancaster Bomber and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress take pride of place in the Bomber Hall as well as the cold war nuclear deterrent the mighty Vulcan (our personal favourite).

The enormous Lancaster Bomber taking pride of place in the 'Bomber Hall'

The enormous Lancaster Bomber taking pride of place in the ‘Bomber Hall’

A special mention must be made of the Canberra Bomber, which my Grandfather was one of the chief engineers on. There is an amazing sense of pride I feel every time I see her, and was a real buzz visiting with my Dad last year when my parents came over to the UK.

The Canberra, the plane my Grandfather worked on.

The Canberra, the plane my Grandfather worked on.

It is easy to spend several hours wandering through the hangers marvelling at everything from early RAF Bi-planes, to modern day search and rescue helicopters. There are several free 30 minute guided tours throughout the day to help bring alive the amazing history and is a fantastic museum to visit with family and children. The RAF Museum in Hendon is a must for military history buffs, for pilots and aviation fans and also the perfect big boys toys museum.

For opening times to the RAF Museum Hendon click here

For directions and location please click here.

-Dean

 

Hometown Tourist: Mind The Gap, Fine Dining on a Victoria Line London Tube

Ask any Londoner and everyone has an opinion about the tube. Increased travel costs, tube strikes, signal failures and closures due to maintenance works, we have a love hate relationship with the world’s oldest underground system. However fine dining on the tube? You have to be joking!

Well, Alex and the team at Basement Galley turned a disused London icon into an amazing pop up restaurant experience.

As we continue to explore our hometown and uncover quirky and different experiences around London, Natalie had booked the Underground Supper Club and had cryptically only told me that ‘we are going out on Saturday night’.

Whilst we walked from the Blackhorse Road tube station on the Victoria Line, I wondered where Natalie was taking me. We arrived, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the treasure trove of the (currently) closed Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum awaited. A miss match of semi restored London Routemaster buses, fire trucks, Bedford lorries and old military trucks greeted us, and our restaurant for this evening, a former Victorian Line tube carriage was parked up ready for boarding. This was a playground to be explored!

Not your standard restaurant entrance

Not your standard restaurant entrance

I won’t lie, when we arrived at the barbed wire gates behind which sat the skeletons of these trucks, trains and buses and Natalie proudly announced ‘We’re here!’ I was a little sceptical. I truly wondered where she had brought me. However as soon as the staff greeted us, we could tell we were going to be in for a unique experience and a great night.

It was a beautiful spring / summer evening as we milled around nursing a G&T and explored the yard of old relics. Chatting to a local enthusiast, we loved hearing all about his restoration projects with two Routemasters taking all his spare time. One had been ‘rescued’ and when he found it there was a tree growing off the back platform – he had his work cut out!

One of the Routemaster London buses currently being restored

One of the Routemaster London buses currently being restored

At just gone 7pm,we were invited to ‘mind the gap’ and board our tube carriage. Head Waiter Chi welcomed us to the Underground Supper Club before Head Chef Alex introduced himself and explained some of the history of the Basement Galley and the idea behind their pop up restaurants.

The tube carriage set for dinner

The tube carriage set for dinner

What followed was without doubt one of the most enjoyable dining experiences we have had in London. Five courses of Alex’s finest creations, with each course raising the bar, all set in the unique ambience of the tube.

Dinner is served...

Dinner is served…

The menu for these evenings changes monthly, with refinements made each time they host evenings. It was one of these experiences, much like the Melbourne Tram Car Restaurant, where you sit back and ‘think how did they produce this in that tiny kitchen’! Alex’s small team were busy bustling away in the museum cafeteria. The results of which would not have looked out of place in a Michelin-Starred restaurant. The joys of a supper club mean, generally speaking, you eat a set menu and mingle with other diners. Out of five courses the only thing Natalie and I left on our plates was the duck bone. Alex is a graduate of the Le Cordon Blue School in Paris and trained with some of France’s top chefs. Fuse this French cuisine with some Heston Blumenthal style ways of combining flavours, and the results were magnificent. Whoever knew that Green Pea soup could hold such hidden surprises (I can’t spoil the surprise!), that Kohlrabi made a great substitute for mash and that strawberry and black pepper are a match made in heaven, to name but a few.   The whole package was just brilliant, and we loved Alex’s idea of teaming up with other local specialities and business such as coffee served from local Camden coffee company ‘Black Sheep Coffee’.

Local Camden coffee provided by Black Sheep Coffee

Local Camden coffee provided by Black Sheep Coffee

The one thing that struck us was the incredible passion everyone had for their job. From the drinks and wait staff who mingled, chatted and appeared so proud to be involved, to the amazing food Alex and Christelle (Sous Chef) had created in the primitive museum cafeteria kitchen. That love and passion really shone through.

Head Waiter Chi, Natalie, and Master Chef Alex

Head Waiter Chi, Natalie, and Master Chef Alex

Now I know what you are thinking, how do we experience this for ourselves? Sadly the Underground Supper Club is coming to the end of the line. In two weeks time Alex and the team host their final weekend in the disused carriage. Following this they have some other exciting projects up their sleeve and plan to ‘pop up’ in other new settings around London.  Never has the term, ‘quit while you are ahead’ been so true. We can’t wait for their next restaurant to ‘pop up’! Our advice, if you haven’t done so already, is to sign up to the mailing list. Who knows where we may meet and in what unconventional setting in the future!

–       Dean and Natalie

You all know how much we love trains

You all know how much we love trains

P.S At the time of writing there were still some seats available for the final Friday evening of their last weekend (30th May 2014). You can buy your Travelcard for dinner here.

 

Birthdays on the road

For me, celebrating a birthday on the road is always exciting.  It gives you the opportunity to celebrate with old friends and new as well as doing something different.  In 2006 I went out to dive the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand followed by celebrations at my hostel.  Then in 2010 I was lucky enough to celebrate by bungee jumping off the bridge in Victoria Falls (some would definitely say it was lucky given reports in subsequent years of what happened to one unfortunate jumper who thankfully survived), followed by dinner at a restaurant serving all sorts of different game meat.  Definitely not something I would have done in London!

Jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge

Jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge

For my 30th we spent the day driving down the Florida Keys in a convertible Mustang, so I have been lucky to have done some memorable things to celebrate.

Me and our wheels on my 30th

Me and our wheels on my 30th

January Birthdays in the UK are often met with little enthusiasm.  It’s just after Christmas, its cold, dark (and at the moment very wet) so outdoor parties are a no no.  I personally love having a birthday in January.  For me it’s the best month of the year!  Growing up I had some great swimming, bowling, ice skating, you name it parties so it’s always been a fun day for me and a day I look forward to.  Dean laughs, as for me it is a three day event.  Much like Christmas there is Birthday Eve, actual Birthday and then Birthday Boxing Day.  So this is being posted on Birthday Boxing Day – at the tail end of the celebrations.  The only problem with this Birthday malarkey is the rising age number, but there is not much I can do about that!

Dean feels a little left out, as his Birthday always falls during one of his busiest months of work, so he is often away.  I remind him though that I have tended to come out to see him so it’s not all that bad!!  Arguably his Birthdays are maybe more fun for me than him!

On January 14th 2014 we were in Kathmandu.  It doesn’t take much to work out that this is near Mt Everest.  Even though we had seen the mighty mountain on our drive along the Friendship Highway, we hadn’t flown over it.  The idea of a Mountain Flight had hatched as we drove to the station in London to leave home.  It was an idea that had stuck.  Mum and Dad had said they would treat me as a Birthday pressie so we booked the flight and eagerly awaited it.

We had a bit of a nervous wait as on the morning of the 14th Kathmandu was shrouded in fog…. However at 10.30 we got the nod and we led out onto the tarmac.  From that moment on I was treated like Royalty.  The small 16 seater plane took off with all its passengers having full view into the cockpit – a treat in itself.  Knowing it was my Birthday the cabin attendant spent extra time pointing out mountains to me, and the Captain wished me happy birthday over the speaker system three times!  We took it in turns to go into the cockpit to take pictures.  My turn came just as we approached Everest and made a U-turn.  She was there in full view and was amazing!  After this I tucked into the cake that had been made especially for me.  The Himalayan Mountain range was just incredible.

Mt Everest.  This doesn't do it justice as pictures don't capture how blue the sky was!

Mt Everest. This doesn’t do it justice as pictures don’t capture how blue the sky was!

This one is for you Mum - me and el Capitan!

This one is for you Mum – me and el Capitan!

Birthday cake by Everest

Birthday cake by Everest

Cake really was the theme of the day as we came back to our room to find yet another one there!  Yum!  The rest of the day was spent catching up with friends and family (including a FaceTime chat with my friend and her new new baby), a bit of exploration and a special dinner with my husband.

First steak of the trip.  I'm hoping the next one will be in Oz as my Mother-in-Law cooks the best Filet steaks!

First steak of the trip. I’m hoping the next one will be in Oz as my Mother-in-Law cooks a great steak!

It was an amazing day and one I will never forget.  Dean spoilt me with several pressies during the week all in the name of my Birthday.  A coffee table (don’t ask!), trousers, top, CD, prayer wheel, buff, bag to name but a few!

As for Birthday Boxing Day…. we learnt how to make ‘Momo’.  A kind of dumping made all over this part of the World.  It was an excellent cooking course and something a bit different!

Highlights of our cookery course

Highlights of our cookery course

Smart cooking

Smart cooking

Then we headed out to do some more sight-seeing, including seeing the biggest Stupa in the region.  Quite fitting really as it was where all the traders used to stop and pray before making the arduous journey to Lhasa through Tibet.

I really don’t think I can find a way to stretch my Birthday over four days… if anyone has any ideas then let me know!  Thank you to all of you for your messages and comments.

–          Natalie

From London to Irkutsk – The First Chapter

As we travel on the Trans-Siberian train its day two, there is a blissfully perfect wintery snowy scene out of the carriage window and its time to turn our thoughts back to all the amazing things we have seen and done on this adventure so far.  As we look back we find ourselves reaching for the brake pedal – slow down its going too quickly!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

The last few weeks before we went away were a whirlwind and before we knew it, we found ourselves on our first overnight train (just!).  For those of you that read Dean’s earlier blog you will know that it was a close calls that testing my ability to run with my backpack from the offset!!  Good job we had packed light!

When we woke the next morning we have travelled through three countries – from the UK through France, Belgium, Germany, and finally into Poland.  I remember Dean remarking that in many ways Poland was like the UK – full of Costa’s and Tesco’s!  I can’t deny there were definitely similarities, yet it had a character all of its own that was an amazing introduction to the trip.  Our day and night there would prove to be the first day where we walked our socks off and racked up the miles.  As we got off our train, we walked out of the station and were greeted with the mighty sight of the Palace of Culture – a big imposing building that welcomed us.  We discovered the ‘singing’ Chopin benches (that’s right – park benches that play Chopin music!), explored the buildings in the old own square, walked the Old City Walls, had a Costa coffee (why change the habit of a lifetime?!), dashed down to see the Jewish Ghetto Memorial as the sun was setting and eventually toasted our arrival with a Polish beer –  Nasdarovje!

The beautiful old town square

The beautiful old town square

Our next journey was by bus (double axel as Mum spotted in the pictures!).  It was possibly the poshest coach I have been on and came complete with cheesy chick flicks and aeroplane style entertainment system.  True to form I chuckled away at a naff film!!  After an 8 hour journey, next came Vilnius and our journey into Lithuania.  I had received many reports of what a pleasant city it is and it certainly lived up to that.  Our hostel was just outside the old city walls, so a short walk and we were down in amongst the beauty of it – you can certainly see why it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.  Lacking funds we had our first taste of noddles for dinner.  We had a full day to explore and again we walked and walked.  If this trip doesn’t tone my legs nothing will!!

The Green Bridge

The Green Bridge

We walked up the main shopping street and down to the river where we meandered along the banks and came to the Green Bridge.  Built in 1956 this is the only bridge in Lithuania that has statues on it.  Given the adornment of statues on bridges in other cites this fascinated us!  We then carried on and walked up the hill and went up the Gediminas Tower which gave us a brilliant view over the city.

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

All too soon it was time to leave.  On the way back to the hostel we came across this little local bar.  It was basically park benches outside, and I convinced Dean that it would be good to have a drink with the locals.  I was the only woman in there (apart from the lady behind the bar) but we paid our 50p and got our ¾ pint of beer.  It was so good that we thought we’d invest in the economy and have a second!!!  When we got on the train a couple of hours later, we were greeted with red velour beds and animal print blankets – it was almost like something out of a 1970’s dodgy film!!

Using up our last 50ps

Using up our last 50ps

It is fair to say that crossing borders on a night train doesn’t make for a very restful night’s sleep.  First our stop in Latvia and the Latvian border control where Dean got a stamp, and then an hour later came the Russian side.  At 4am we handed over our passport and hoped for the best.  To pass the time we had a midnight feast and tucked into our big bar of chocolate – bought to use up the last of our Lithuanian money and a great investment!  Finally we were stamped in and rolling again, and next came awesome St Petersburg.

Our cabin for the night

Our cabin for the night

We spent the next three days exploring everything from the Hermitage to St Peter and Paul Island, St Isaacs Cathedral, The Church of the Spilled Blood (my first introduction to the ornate frescos), Udel Naya flea market as well as going to an Ice Hockey game – go SKA!  We had planned to go to Swan Lake, but as it was too late in the season this made a nice alternative.  We ended right on the edge with the opposing team so we had to keep cheering for SKA so there was no confusion as to who we were wiling on!  It was no wonder the seats were both cheap and still available – no one else wanted them!!!  It was a mammoth couple of days full of taking LOTS of pictures (both day and night).  I couldn’t get over the amazing architecture everywhere – the buildings were just stunning and I was blown away.  Definitely a city to come back to!

In the Hermitage

In the Hermitage


Our last stop was Moscow before the journey onwards.  It had a lot to live up to for me as I’d loved St Petersburg.  We took one of the German built express trains between the two cities, and arrived into Moscow at lunchtime.  There is no denying that seeing St Basil’s for the first time is one of those real ‘I have made it moments’ and I was amazed by what I saw.  It is the most stunning building and really does stand up to every expectation you have about it.  We went inside and this amazed me too.  I expected a big wide open space in there, instead it’s essentially lots of smaller chambers with the most beautiful frescos and artwork.  Wow.  The next few days were spent paying our respects to Lenin (I was the first of the day in there and had it all to myself which was very eerie!), going round the Kremlin, visiting the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, riding the Metro (Dean was amazing at navigating and we managed to sneak a few pictures) and going out to the old Communist All Russia Exhibition Ground.  There was a really funky memorial to the Russian Space exploration out there which was quite unique.  We loved our afternoon out there exploring lots of the old buildings and architecture.

Wow!

Wow!

So as we got to the first of the ‘big train’ train journeys there was a small amount of sadness that we were saying goodbye to these amazing cities.  It had been the perfect start to our overland adventure, and we were well and truly on our way!

So what have we learnt?  Successful travel as a couple is much easier if you a:  tell the other person when you are hungry, b:  tell the other person know when you are tired, and c: tell the other person when you are struggling!  Follow these simple guidelines and you can’t go wrong!

Above all, in the words of an advertisement in Warsaw…. ‘Life’s Good’!

Life's Good!

Life’s Good!

–  Natalie

The Rehabilitation of a Four-Letter Word

Over the last 14 months there has been one dirty four-letter word that has been used more than most in our home. It has caused stress, distress, the occasional heated discussion, (not an argument), late night emergency phone calls, and two last minute mad dashes to Australia. Love it or hate it, every international relationship and adventurous traveller will have to utter it sooner rather than later.

That word is… VISA!

The word ‘Visa’ can elicit many different responses, and over the last year we have experienced them all.  This post is in no way meant to be a rant, but trust me, if David Cameron was reading this blog the tone would be totally different.

‘Visa’ became a regular part of our vocabulary after we got engaged in November 2011. We knew that to get married in England I would have to obtain my settlement visas.  Not one, but two visas, laying our relationship wide open for someone to go over with a fine toothcomb. The bonus of applying for my first visa was it gave us an opportunity to return to Australia to visit family and friends.

But then we submitted the application, and the waiting began. Waiting is the worst part of the whole visa process, particularly for one as important as a settlement visa. The longer you wait, the more self doubt and negative thoughts start to creep into your mind. It was close to two months before the UK Fiancé Visa was granted, and not before Natalie had booked last minute flights to return to Australia over Christmas, (Little did we know the visa was approved the same day we booked her flights out).

However this was only half of the process.  As soon as we were married we had to apply for the next visa. If you think planning a wedding is stressful try doing it when also trying to gather everything required for your visa application. In fact I was printing my application at 7am the morning of the wedding!! The Monday after the wedding we spent at the Home Office applying for and being granted my right to remain. So it was off on honeymoon we went safe in the knowledge that we wouldn’t have to think about that dirty little four-letter word for the next two and a half years, or so we thought.

Our Passports

Then planning for the big trip began, and that word resurfaced again. Since the wedding it was almost uttered with distaste and hatred every time we mentioned it

This time things were different, this time the mere mention of the word elicited a totally different response. Visas were talked about with almost a reverence, an excitement that once again our passports would look cool.  Russia, Mongolia, China, and India all requiring visas, however it was something to look forward too. Every time we received an email confirming that our passports were ready for collection, there were hugs and high fives, another one ticked off the list, travel plans finally confirmed, and excitement levels continued to build, the rehabilitation had begun.

There is something incredibly gratifying about receiving your passport back from an embassy with a new visa in it. It does not matter whether it is your settlement visa or a tourist visa you still get quite tingly when you open up to that page and see it there, shiny and new.

That is because the visa is like a promise.

A visa promises new experiences, new cultures, new adventures, and new beginnings. Many travellers are put off visiting a destination because of the need to obtain a visa. It is easy to be disheartened by the amount of paperwork, supporting documentation and standing in queues. Many people question is it all worth it, or perhaps file it under the too hard basket. To be honest this had probably happened to us over the last twelve months. To put it simply we had just forgotten the promise.

Every visa we have obtained in the last few weeks has made our big trip feel more real, that air of expectation ever increasing. The word visa no longer has the negative connotations of the previous year and the mention of the word certainly doesn’t create the sense of dread we had experienced.

When we cross over the border into Russia in two weeks time we will proudly hand over our passports, in two weeks time the promise of the visa will turn into the reality of the adventures that lay ahead. In two weeks time the rehabilitation of that four-letter word will be complete.