Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

A week in Spain

I have decided that I would like to move to Spain for six months or so to learn Spanish (and to avoid the Belgian winter). As I am planning to move back to Australia in mid-2011 I am running out of time for more European experiences. Therefore, the plan is to move to Spain in January 2011, but I was unsure exactly where to go.

As you will see from previous posts I have been to Barcelona a couple of times and I really do love it. It is a great combination of old medieval centre and modern city. It’s not too big and not too small. It’s also by the beach and has great weather. But the fly in the ointment is that they speak Catalan rather than Spanish. Of course everyone can speak spanish as well but it’s not what you hear on the street and I think that will be detrimental to the immersion learning experience. So I ruled out Barcelona which basically left Seville and Madrid. And here I am on holiday for a week to check them both out.

I’ve already had a couple of days in Seville and I can report that it is a very pretty city with an unusual mixture of Islamic and Catholic architecture, often bizarrely intertwined. The main cathedral has a Moslem minaret from the time of the Moors but it is now a catholic cathedral and the minaret has a new bell tower on top. If only religions themselves could coexist so harmoniously.

Seville is supposedly the warmest place in Europe and it didn’t disappoint. I was out in a tee shirt with just a light jacket and it was sunny and warm. The city is completely flat so the best way to see it all is by using the city bicycle scheme which I did. Once you have joined you can take a bicycle from any of the hundreds of depots and then return it to another one. If you take the bicycle for less than half an hour it doesn’t even cost anything. I used this extensively and it saved my poor feet.

After a day and a half I think I had seen most of what there was to see. It isn’t a large city after all. So I bid adieu and boarded an AVE train to Madrid, 550kms to the northeast, in the centre of Spain. These trains are wonderful, smooth highspeed trains complete with movies like an airplane and the trip took only 2 hours and 30 minutes. I was also impressed that it departed and arrived on time to the second. Not consistent with my mental image of Spain at all! Japan yes, Germany maybe, but not Spain. I stand corrected.

The central plateau of Spain is very arid and there is almost no vegetation or features. It is, as scenery goes, quite boring. Luckily i had the movie and my iPad to entertain myself.

Madrid pops out of the desert quite suddenly. Unlike most cities, particularly in the US and Australia, there are no sprawling suburbs of McMansions. Instead it is featureless desert and then, right on the outskirts, high-rise apartments. I’m told that Madrid has virtually no detached housing. As a result the city is quite compact and it took only a few minutes to travel from the edge to the centre.

Immediately I could tell that this was a much bigger city than Seville. It has large boulevards and a lot of traffic all going very fast. It also surprised me with the size and grandeur of the buildings. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Spain did have an empire after all but I had always thought of it as a poor cousin to France and Germany. Not so. The buildings along Gran Via would rival and in some cases surpass what Paris or Berlin can offer. I will post photos in a future blog when I am back at my PC #iPadlimitation.

I’ve spent a few days in Madrid now and I have walked miles. It doesn’t seem to have a bike scheme and it is quite hilly anyway. There is an excellent metro but i haven’t used it much because you can’t see anything down there. I’m staying very centrally in the bohemian Chueca area which is convenient, and delicious, lots of little restaurants.

I think it is safe to say that Madrid has won. There is a lot more to see and do here compared to Seville and it also seems to be a little easier for the non-Spanish speaker to get by. I even have the potential to pick up some work here.

So there’s the verdict. Madrid in January. I hope it doesn’t snow…

High-speed double-decker Mercury train

Mercury train

This is awesome. Don’t just talk about it. Build it. Immediately. I will come to Britain just to ride on it. Thank you.

In Bruges

This past weekend I had some friends over from London. It was their first visit to Belgium so I planned a little itinerary to try and show them the highlights during their short stay. On Friday evening I collected them from Brussel-zuid railway station, the Eurostar terminal, and we drove the 40 minute drive to Antwerp. Most people don’t realise quite how small Belgium is and that the major cities are close to each other. Driving from my house in Melbourne to the airport is about the same distance as driving from Antwerp to Brussels.

Zonnebloem, Berchem

Saturday was dedicated to sightseeing in Antwerp and we were blessed with glorious weather. I showed them around the old city centre including the Kathedraal (Cathedral), Grote Markt (Town Square), Stadhuis (Town Hall), the amazing Station Antwerpen Centraal (Antwerp Central Station), and I also took them out to Berchem, one of the inner suburbs, to see the famous Cogels-Osylei. This is a street filled with an eclectic mix of mansions built at the beginning of the 20th century when the rich moved out of the centre of Antwerp because it had become dirty and polluted. This street is most noted for its magnificient Art Nouveau houses amongst other neo-styles. If you are interested in architecture this street and the surrounding streets are a must-see!

The 7 Trappist Beers

Saturday evening I took them to one of my favourite restaurants that I frequent very close to my apartment. It is called De Arme Duivel (literally the “Poor Devil”) and serves quite traditional Flemish cuisine and a nice range of Belgian beers. The best dish and the one I usually have is Stoofvlees met frieten. It can best be described as a rich beef stew flavoured with beer and seeded mustard. It comes with excellent thick French fries and mayonnaise and is extremely hearty and delicious. All my visitors get to experience this dish. It is best accompanied by a Trappist beer such as a Westmalle Dubbel or a Chimay.

Sunday the weather was not so good unfortunately as it was raining. Not to be daunted however we set off for Bruges (Brugge) in the western province of West Vlaanderen. This is a famous Belgian tourist destination and is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North. As the nickname suggests it has beautiful canals and little streets and alleys criss-crossing the old town. The historic city centre is ringed by a large moat and is largely unchanged from centuries ago, part of the reason it is a prominent World Heritage Site of UNESCO. We were lucky enough that by the time we arrived the rain had stopped and the sun even came out. Below are some photos taken as we wandered around.

After our walk, a few souvenir purchases and the obligatory chocolate shopping it was time to take my friends back to Brussels for their return train to London. It had been a very pleasant weekend and I was pleased to have had an opportunity to explore Bruges in depth, something I hadn’t done before as I usually go to Gent, another beautiful Flemish town. I look forward to the next visit so I will have an excuse to explore somewhere else!

Train travel in Europe

I’ve recently advocated the building of a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, currently one of the busiest air routes in the world. I feel that I should qualify this a little more by sharing some of my own experiences of rail travel around Europe, both high-speed and standard.

High-speed rail has become very popular in Europe and on some routes has virtually wiped out the competing air traffic. There are no flights from Brussels to Paris anymore for example. In fact, if you are flying on Air France out of Charles de Gaulle Airport your plane ticket includes the high-speed train trip from Brussels and you can check in your bags at Brussels South Station. C’est incroyable!

The first high-speed rail lines in Europe were built in the 1980’s beginning in France. In 1981 the LGV Sud-Est line from Paris to Lyon opened and the famous TGV started running. France now has the most extensive high-speed network in Europe with lines radiating out in every direction from Paris. The TGV network now extends into Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK and in 2007 a TGV test train set the record for the fastest wheeled train with a speed of 574.8 km/h!

I have had the pleasure of quite a few different train trips whilst living in Belgium, mostly to London but also to other destinations. My main experience is with the Eurostar service from Brussels to London which is slightly different than other train trips around continental Europe so I’ll comment on this first.



Eurostar began operating in 1994 following the completion of the Channel Tunnel. I have used it many times to travel between Brussels and London and find it very convenient and generally hassle-free. I’m not known for my patience and the idea of queuing for anything, particularly airport security, fills me with horror. Because the UK has not signed up to the Schengen Agreement there is still passport control which you pass through at your departure point. There is also security similar to airports due, I suspect, to the Channel Tunnel being a likely terrorist target. However, unlike at airports, this check goes very quickly and I’ve never taken more than 15 minutes from arrival at the station to boarding my train. That I can live with.

The trains themselves are very comfortable and quiet and they travel at up to 300kph once they are out of Brussels. This is particularly noticeable when another train passes going 300kph in the opposite direction!

St Pancras International

Now that High Speed 1 line in Southern England is complete the trip takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes and you arrive at the recently refurbished St Pancras Station which is amazing. The interiors of the trains are a little dated but they are clean and comfortable with plenty of legroom and big windows. On a couple of occasions when I have caught a special deal I’ve travelled “Leisure Select” which is what they call first class. Even bigger seats and a decent 3 course meal served at your seat with wine for only 15€ extra! If I book far enough in advance I’ve usually managed to get fares for between 60 and 90€ each way. I don’t believe I could fly for that little and regardless, I would rather pay more for the point-to-point convenience.



I’ve also travelled between Brussels and Paris several times on Thalys, an international joint venture between the French SNCF, Belgian NMBS, and German Deutsche Bahn. This hasn’t always gone quite so smoothly, mostly due to the belligerence of French railway staff and their propensity to go on strike. However, aside from a particularly bad experience last Christmas, partly due to bad weather, the experience has been good. The Thalys trains are newer than Eurostar and also travel around 300kph. One bonus is the availability of WiFi at a reasonable cost so you can work if you’re not on holiday. The train from Brussels arrives at Paris-Nord which is right in the heart of Paris and connects you to everywhere easily via the Metro. It only takes 1 hour and 20 minutes from Brussels. I drove to Paris once and that took over 3 hours and I was faced with the horror of driving my new BMW amongst crazed Parisian drivers and the impossible task of finding a parking space. Never again.



German trains are the coolest, mostly because they are sleek and white and called ICE (InterCityExpress). I had the pleasure of travelling on one of these a couple of years ago from Köln to Brussels. These trains travel at up to 320kph and, like the Eurostar and Thalys they are very quiet, smooth and comfortable. The other bonus with travelling within continental Europe is that there is zero security so you just turn up at the station and get on the train. The trains have a dining car so you can purchase snacks if you get hungry.


Whilst most of Western Europe uses the systems developed for TGV, Germany is slightly different which limits the trains that can cross their international borders. For this reason there are two types of TGV train, domestic and international. The international (ICE 3M) trains are able to cope with changes in voltage experienced on different networks. ICE trains are also the only ones able to run on the Köln-Frankfurt high-speed line because of the steep 4% incline.

There are still differences between the various high-speed systems used across Europe but these are slowly being resolved as a Trans-European high-speed rail network is being realised. Railteam is an alliance of 7 European high-speed rail operators whose aim is to offer integrated rail travel between major European cities in different countries. The aim is that services will be better co-ordinated to offer shorter connection times and more integrated booking. For a great overview of high-speed rail across Europe check out Wikipedia.

Deutsche Bahn

BMW on train (DB Autozug)

In addition to high-speed rail there are of course still plenty of slow trains. In 2009 we decided to go on a driving holiday around the northern half of Italy. However, because it is 1,000kms from Belgium to Italy we weren’t so keen on driving there. It would have used up 4 days of our holiday, cost us 4 nights accommodation, and put 2,000 unnecessary kms on my new car. But we wanted to drive my car when we were in Italy as a rental car would have been expensive and probably not very exciting for zooming through Italian mountain passes. So we booked ourselves on the Deutsche Bahn Autozug, a sleeper train with a car carrier at the back, the perfect solution. The Autozug leaves from Düsseldorf (which is only an hours drive from Antwerp) in the late afternoon, travels overnight down the Rhine Valley, through Austria and the Alps and arrives at 9am in Verona, Italy. Because it was summer it didn’t get dark till after 10pm so we had some very picturesque views of the Rhine Valley out the window of our sleeper.

The train was certainly not fast and it was pretty rattly but with the help of a sleeping tablet I got a good nights sleep while we meandered across the continent. This meant that the first day of our holiday started in Verona and no time was wasted driving there. Two weeks later we were back in Verona for the same trip in reverse. I highly recommend it.



Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen (National Railway Company of Belgium) is the Belgian National rail operator and, given that I live in Belgium, I’ve spent a fair bit of time on their trains. I’m inclined to believe that they are fairly typical of a continental European train operator in that they are very good. Belgians will complain about their trains but then I think complaining about the trains is a national past-time in every country. My experience has been that they are clean, mostly modern, and generally on-time. Of course there have been occasions when I’ve been inconvenienced by a cancelled train or late one but those have been the exception to the rule. Certainly if you want to travel between Antwerp and Brussels the train is the fastest way. A lot of the trains even have power outlets by the seats for your laptop.

Antwerp Railway Station

By far the best aspect of Belgium’s rail network is not the trains however, but Antwerp railway station. Constructed between 1895 and 1905 it has a vast dome above the foyer with an enormous iron and glass trainshed covering the platforms. According to Wikipedia it was voted the 4th most beautiful station in the world in 2009.

Antwerpen Centraal

It was originally a terminus but has recently been renovated and extended underground so that now a new tunnel continues right under the station and emerges north of Antwerp City. This will allow future high-speed trains to continue through to Amsterdam. So even if you don’t arrive in Antwerp by train, I highly recommend checking out the train station.

Metros/The Tube

The Tube

In addition to overland trains I’ve also experienced the underground system in a few cities, namely London, Paris and Barcelona. They certainly have their flaws but for getting around these big cities quickly, they can’t be beaten. The Tube in London is often crowded, very hot, and some of the stations have endless stairs. Also, for some reason your snot always ends up black after 5 minutes down there… But there is no better way to move across London due to the congestion above ground. The Paris Metro is more modern than the Tube and the stations seem to be better designed as a result. Again, it is the fastest and most efficient way of getting around. The Metro in Barcelona is not as extensive as the other two cities which means you have to walk a bit further to the stations but it is still a good way of getting around. Beware pickpockets though!

So there you have it. As you might have guessed, I quite like trains, particularly the fast ones.

Highspeed Rail – Melbourne to Sydney

Air routes worldwide

Which air routes do you think would be amongst the busiest in the world? London to Paris? NYC to LA? Atlanta (world’s busiest airport) to Philadelphia? Nope, wrong. It’s Sydney to Melbourne in Australia with 950 flights per week, beaten only by Barcelona to Madrid and Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. Interestingly, Sydney to Brisbane is only slightly further down the list in 9th place with 590 flights per week. This is impressive for a country with a total population of only 20 million people but can be largely explained by geography. Australia is a country of vast distances with the population almost entirely focussed on 5 major cities around the circumference.

Wikipedia states that “The busiest air routes in the world appear to involve pairs of large cities in close proximity, but which rely more on air transport due to a lack of viable transport infrastructure for other modes, and the distance is large enough to discourage car driving.


Well Melbourne and Sydney are certainly too far apart for driving on any regular basis. Not only is it a good 10 hour drive but there is next to nothing in between, such is the nature of the Australian Outback. So, you might think, at least you would be able to drive fast given the emptiness of the surroundings and the straightness of the highways? Ah no, not recommended. The speed limit of 100 or occasionally 110kph is rigorously enforced and penalties are harsh.

Both cities are certainly large at between 4 and 5 million people each and there is an enormous amount of interaction between them, both business and tourist. This explains why 9 million people made the trip in 2009 and why that number is expected to rise 70% by 2020. The populations of both cities and Australia as a whole are predicted to increase dramatically in the next couple of decades.


As for the lack of viable public transport… well, you can take a train but it takes about 11 hours and stops dozens of times. Or a bus. Which isn’t any quicker. Needless to say those options aren’t very popular when the flying time is only 1 hour.

But what is wrong with flying you might ask? You’re kidding right? Setting aside the environmental impact (shifting most passengers on the route from air to rail would save at least 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year), flying has become a harried, stressful, and often-times, inconvenient means of transportation. Anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously glancing nostalgically back to aviation’s romantic past, not the present (or they can afford to fly business class…). A quick analysis of the benefits of high-speed rail over flying is needed:

  1. Melbourne & Sydney airports are far outside their city centres. In Sydney this means an expensive taxi ride or metro ride. In Melbourne it’s an expensive taxi ride or a cheaper but still not inexpensive bus ride. Due to the lack of foresight of the Kennett government there isn’t, and likely never will be, a train link to the airport. High-speed rail as experienced in cities like London or Paris on the other hand, will take you directly into the heart of the city. No need for a separate transfer.
  2. Long queues to check in at airports, generally not at train stations.
  3. Long queues at security. There often isn’t any security for trains or it’s a lot less stringent.
  4. Don’t forget to remove your laptop from your bag at the airport. Not at the train station.
  5. You need to be at the airport early to guarantee you can check in, go through security, and make it to the gate lounge in time to wait the obligatory half hour or so. In my experience with high-speed rail in Europe it has been more of a case of turning up and getting on the train, usually not earlier than half an hour before departure.
  6. On a train you can leave your electronics turned on all the time including your mobile phone.
  7. You have more room on a train than you do in economy class on a plane and more freedom to move around.
  8. Trains cannot be delayed by fog, volcanic ash or other weather-related events (except fluffy snow – I’m looking at you Eurostar).
  9. Travelling by train you can watch the scenery out the window as it whizzes by. From an aeroplane you aren’t likely to see much at all.
  10. And, for most travellers, the most important aspect is the time taken, probably the reason not many people endure the current 11 hour trip. In Europe, Japan and China journeys of up to 800kms city centre to city centre are faster than air travel. Up to 1,000kms remain competitive. It’s 713kms as the crow flies between Melbourne and Sydney.

Bombardier High-Speed Train

The reasons for travelling by high-speed train instead of flying seem compelling so why hasn’t the infrastructure already been built? Obviously this would require a sizeable investment in infrastructure, around $15 billion for the line and the initial trains based on the French experience. But even at this cost a one-way economy fare of less than $150 and a business class fare of less than $300 should be possible. This compares very favourably with airfares, particularly when you take into account taxi rides to the airport or the cost of parking your car there.

Based on existing train technology a centre to centre journey time of less than 3 hours is possible. This could certainly not be matched by flying. And a single train can carry 900 passengers compared to around 160 passengers in a typical short-haul jet such as a Boeing 737. High-speed rail lines can safely accommodate 1 train in each direction every 15 minutes. So there is ample capacity for present and future demand.

In other cases where cities have been connected by high-speed rail the air services have virtually disappeared which demonstrates that passengers really prefer the hassle-free, point-to-point nature of rail travel. For example, since the Eurostar between Paris and London opened more than 70% of travel between them is by train, even though Heathrow is a European airline hub. So this is certainly a case of “build it and they will come”. All we need to do now is find the political will to make it happen.

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Nürburgring! No longer a virgin…

Well yesterday was certainly a milestone in my life. My first, long-anticipated ride around the Nürburgring and it was in a Ferrari 355GTS no less. And it wasn’t exactly being driven cautiously… It was one of the most exhilarating rides I’ve ever had and that’s saying something…

The Nürburgring is a motorsport complex that consists of several tracks including a Grand Prix track (GP-Strecke) located in Nürburg, Germany. The most famous track is the Northern Loop (Nordschleife) which is open to the public most days and is a Mecca for petrol heads from all over the world. At 20.81 kms long it is one of the longest racetracks in the world and with 154 corners it is certainly the most complex and challenging. Most of the corners are blind as the track is on the side of a mountain and there are constant crests, dips and even a couple of potential jumps. It’s not called the “Green Hell” for nothing. It’s fantastic.

I’d been twice before as a spectator so I thought I knew what to expect. I’d also spent a fair bit of time on racetracks back in New Zealand so I was feeling quietly confident. I was in for a wake-up call. This track is not at all like the short, flat, sparsely populated tracks I’d driven on in my Subaru. This is an extremely fast, intense track with chicanes, dips, crests, uphill, downhill, blind corners and it is too long to commit to memory without many, many laps experience. Combine this with constant pressure from Porsche 911’s and BMW M3’s coming up behind me at high speed, not to mention the Ring Taxi, and there was a distinct possibility that I would be reduced to a dribbling wreck.

Ferrari 355 GTS

I drove from Belgium to Nürburg in convoy with a few other people in a Porsche 911, a BMW 3er Touring, and the Ferrari 355. Through Germany this was extremely highspeed at around 220kph so I was well warmed up by the time we arrived. My friend has much experience of the ‘Ring so he took me out first in the Ferrari to experience the track and see what I was getting myself into. This was a very fast lap (I don’t believe we were passed by anything) and initially I was mildly terrified. However, I was able to relax after the first couple of kilometres when it became apparent that my chauffeur knew what he was doing. I’m always happy in the hands of a competent driver. The most amazing aspect of this lap was the grip that Ferrari had through the corners. Barely a wriggle or tyre squeal as we barrelled round the bends. Put that down to very large tyres, low centre of gravity and a wide track. Oh, and the fact that it’s a Ferrari!

Once that lap was completed (in less than 10 minutes) we took a little time to wander around and check out the merchandise in the carpark. Gorgeous sunny day and much eye-candy as you can see from the photos. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches of every flavour, BMW M3’s, Corvettes, and, the highlight of my day, a Mercedes SLS AMG Gullwing! This Swedish-owned masterpiece in red was being driven round the track along with everything else.

My BMW 123d coupé

Ford Focus RS and Mercedes SLS AMG

Chevrolet Corvette

Ferrari 599

Porsche 911 GT3 RS in Gulf livery

Then came time for me to do a lap in my BMW. It is a 123d coupe and was probably just about the cheapest car in the parking lot. Nonetheless it is still too expensive for me to crash so this was going to be a cautious lap. That and I’d optimistically bought myself 4 laps so I wanted to get my money’s worth. Following a seating position check we set off with my friend in the passenger seat to give me instruction – very useful! I very quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be anything approximating fast as I was quickly passed by a procession of much more exotic machinery but that was ok. I just wanted to survive the first lap with the shiny side up. I’ll freely admit I was pretty terrible initially. Braking in corners rather than on the straight, changing gear mid-corner upsetting the weight balance, missing apexes, I did it all. Even managed to lose the back end about quarter of the way through the first lap although it was masterfully caught and corrected (not by me – clever BMW electronics…). However, with gentle but insistent prodding by my co-pilot I started to take the instructions onboard and remember them.

We continued straight through for a second lap which turned out to be a little messy. The track was quite busy and I was feeling a little flustered. But there was promise showing and the occasional well-executed racing line amongst all the dodgy gear changes and muffed braking points. So I exited the track after the second lap for a break and to take stock. The BMW had done well given that it was entirely road-spec and I hadn’t done anything to prepare it for its track debut. The brake pedal went a little soft but the brakes never faded and it was still braking strongly even after two continuous laps. Bear in mind that’s 42 kilometres! The steering in the 1er is electric so there was no hint of the problem which used to plague my old Subaru, namely the power-steering fluid over-heating. The only component that really let it down was the tyres. They over-heated and I could really feel the grip going out of them. This was my fault for not pumping up the pressure – didn’t think of it – next time.


We then had some lunch – tasty burger – after some of the guys had been for hot laps in a KTM X-Bow! One of them was an F16 fighter pilot and even he came back ashen-faced from the sheer brutality of that machine under braking and cornering. I actually didn’t want a ride – figured the Ferrari was enough pant-wetting exhilaration for one day. While we were lunching the track was unfortunately closed due to a serious Porsche v Armco incident. The Porsche left on a truck and the driver left in an ambulance – hope he’s ok. Happily for me though, I was one of the first through the gate when the track reopened which meant I had a relatively clear, traffic-free lap. This enabled me to focus more on what I should be doing without worrying so much about all the shiny objects in my rear-view mirror. I’m happy to report that my 3rd lap was much tidier than the previous 2 and I was able to concentrate on braking before the corners, turning in and holding consistent lines without upsetting the car’s balance. This lap probably wasn’t that fast either as this time I didn’t have a navigator to tell me what was coming up over the blind crests.

I continued straight through for a 4th and final lap and I believe this was probably my best because now I was starting to remember the track so I could anticipate what was coming up and not brake unnecessarily. There was more traffic than the previous lap but this actually gave me the opportunity to pass a few people, albeit very slow people. (Who takes an X5 SUV on a racetrack anyway!?) There are some lovely chicanes at one point on the track where you can just shoot straight through the middle with the car dancing lightly first left and then right. I enjoyed that bit. And there’s the dipper with a big hump on the way down over which one would get serious air if one wasn’t prepared. That would not be recommended as directly after the jump is a rather serious right hander. Hard to brake or turn corners when your wheels aren’t touching the ground!

I could feel as this lap came to an end that my front tyres had seriously had enough. Grip was reducing and there was beading on the left tyre causing some vibration. Good time to end then. The BMW did well and, despite enormous room for improvement, I don’t think I did too badly either. The BMW is built for the task (M-Sport package and all) and I’m not! Just don’t go to the Nürburgring thinking it will be fun to casually drive round it. It’s a serious racetrack filled with serious drivers piloting serious machines and it doesn’t suffer fools.

Following my 4th lap I exited, rendezvoused with the Ferrari and we set off back to Belgium. Needed a small fuel stop on the way before another high speed run up towards Aachen. Two and a half hours later I was safely home in Antwerp with slightly less brake pads, a lot less tyres, and quite a bit more sunburn. And as for fuel consumption, the BMW 123d endured 5 hours of high speed autobahn, 84 kilometres of Nürburgring thrashing, and still achieved 7.6litres/100 kilometres. Nice.

Home safe

BMW 123d coupé – my other mistress

In addition to the much-maligned Citroen DS that is currently undergoing some restoration I also have a BMW 123d M-Sport coupé. I bought this car new about 18 months ago after a huge amount of research and indecision. Being a fairly low volume model I ended up having to wait 6 months from the time I ordered it until it was delivered. A very painful experience!


Based on the BMW 1 series hatch, the coupé is slightly longer overall and offers excellent front seat accommodation and adequate back seat accommodation for anyone under 6ft. Mine is the top-spec diesel with a 2.0 litre twin turbo 4-cylinder producing 150kW (204hp) and 400Nm (295lb/ft). It will accelerate to 100kph in around 7 seconds and has a top speed of 250kph, not bad for a 2 litre diesel! The huge amount of torque means that motorway cruising and passing other vehicles is effortless, even on high-speed German autobahns. And yet it uses a small amount of fuel, admittedly more than the claimed 5.2l/100kms, but certainly under 7l/100kms.

I went a little crazy with the options to the detriment of my bank balance. Here are the highlights:

Sedona Red Metallic | Black Boston Leather | Brushed Aluminium Trim | Tinted Windows | M-Sport Package | 6M | Comfort Access | Heated Seats | Professional Navigation | Park Distance Front & Rear | USB | Bluetooth | Voice Control | Rain & Light Sensors | Xenon Lights

Since I’ve had it I’ve circumnavigated most of Germany, most of Italy and most of France and I’ve been all over Belgium and the Netherlands. Immensely enjoyable car to drive. I look forward to hearing others’ experiences of the 123d.

Side view

Rear 3/4

4 days in Barcelona

Barcelona, or Barkeno in Levantine Iberian script in ancient Iberian, certainly lived up to it’s reputation for fabulous food, wine, sunshine & culture all served up with a pinch of chaos for the 4 days I was there.

I arrived at BCN on a Transavia (budget airline of KLM) flight from Rotterdam which could only be described as uneventful, exactly how I like my flights. It’s unfortunate in a way that one’s first impression of Barcelona is likely to be its airport but I guess this is the case for many a wonderful city (I’m looking at you London Heathrow). In this case the airport was clean and appeared to be functioning as intended but the layout is dreadful and I was forced to walk literally from one end of the terminal where the plane arrived all the way to the other end of the terminal where the baggage claims are, a distance that can’t have been far off a kilometre. Then, to add insult to injury, if one wishes to take the train into Barcelona, one must walk all the back to the other end of the terminal (on the lower level now) where my plane was still sitting before crossing a long bridge to finally arrive at the train terminus. This was a good 20 minute walk! And signage was sorely lacking. Anyway, enough whingeing. My luggage arrived unscathed and it is true that BCN is undergoing a major renovation and extension so perhaps these issues will be solved in time.

Train into city. 3€. Bargain. This was my first visit to Spain so I was eagerly looking out the window as we headed into the city. My first impression of the countryside was that it looked very hot and arid which I suspect is exactly what it is. We travelled through industrial sites before reaching the outskirts of the city so it wasn’t the prettiest outlook and, like most large European cities, the suburbs are crammed full of large Soviet style apartment blocks. After a long and somewhat fraught change at Passeig De Gracia on to the Metro I arrived at Jaume 1, the closest subway stop to our apartment. I emerged blinking into the sunlight, got my bearings via iPhone and began the short walk to the accommodation. I quickly realised that, like the Romans and the Parisians, Barcelonians are impatient (ahem) drivers that make full and unbridled use of their horns.

For me, the booking of accommodation, be it hotel, apartment, chateau, is always an act filled with trepidation. I freely admit that I am intolerant of noise on a pathological scale and so, given that this is difficult to judge when making the booking, I was nervous that sleep would be in short supply as our apartment at Plaça d’Antonio López 6, Barcelona, Spain is near a busy road. I needn’t have worried. The apartment is sensibly arranged with a double height lounge/kitchen at the front of the building and then the bedrooms, cave-like, nestled at the back, one on the lounge level and one on a mezzanine level, both with bathrooms. It was a high quality apartment with few faults and I can report that I slept like a baby for the 4 nights I was there. You can book the same apartment via Friendly Rentals.

Our apartment building

I arrived in Barcelona an hour or so ahead of my friend Caroline so had already made my way separately into the city. On the way I was feeling extremely paranoid having been warned about pickpockets due to the fact I had 1000€ in my wallet in order to pay for the apartment. Accordingly my wallet was in my front jeans pocket which would have required a pickpocket of extraordinary skill to extract it. Or some blatant groping. Either way, my wallet was not stolen and I was able to check in and pay for the apartment and the security deposit. Caroline didn’t fare so well. I received a text that a guy had extracted her wallet from the pocket of her suitcase on the stairs of the metro and would have got away with it if not for the intervention of a little old lady and her handbag. Apparently said little old lady witnessed this ruffian stealing the wallet and started screaming and bashing him round the head with her handbag. Naturally this attracted some attention from other passers-by who came to assist. Long story short, the wallet was retrieved and the robber scarpered. Crisis averted.

Given the state of Caroline’s nerves after the fraught metro trip our first point of call was a wine bar. I consulted the Lonely Planet guide on my iPhone and found a wine bar on Placa de Santa Maria called La Vinya del Senyor. It is located right in front of the Santa Maria del Mar Church and has a huge selection of wine and tapas. Unusually they offer quite a few wines by the glass giving us the opportunity to sample different Temperanillo’s without having to buy full bottles. As recommended by Lonely Planet we sat upstairs in the window which gave us a commanding view of the piazza and the Church – extremely convivial and the travel tribulations were soon forgotten. I direct you to Caroline’s blog for a more detailed analysis of the wine and tapas.

La Vinya del Senyor opposite Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona

The next day, Friday, was the wedding of Chan and Neasa, an Irish/Sri Lankan/Kiwi wedding in Barcelona. Perfectly sensible. Again, I direct you to Caroline’s blog for photos and an account (mostly of the wonderful food). All I want to add is that the setting was amazing, the food delicious, the company hilarious, the dancing Irish, and the happy couple delightful.

On Saturday morning we were up early(ish) to make the most of our 2 remaining days in Barcelona. We started with a quick coffee (almost always exceptional in Barcelona) and a bikini (not what you think it is…) before heading to the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, supposedly the best market in Europe. Of course with such a grandiose claim it is easy to be sceptical but I have to say I left feeling fairly convinced. It was very large and stocked with the most luscious and well-presented fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and cheese I have ever seen. There were even stalls where you could choose eggs from different varieties of chicken! We stocked up on some delicious jamon (parma ham), cheese, strawberries, and olives. I would happily shop there on a weekly basis if I was a Barcelonian and certainly many of them appeared to be.




More Meat!





Caroline and I were with our friends from Wellington/Stockholm, Nick & Rachel and their 2 kids, Ollie & Alice so after the market we wandered down La Ramblas to watch the street performers some of whom were very entertaining, others, not so much…

Street Performer on La Ramblas

La Ramblas terminates at the waterfront so we wandered along looking at the sights in search of a paella. After-all, one could hardly visit Barcelona without having paella at least once, or in our case, twice. Coupled with a rosé from the Penédés region the first time and a crisp Gessami Muscat Alexandria Sauvignon Blanc the second time the paella was delicious and fulfilling. And the setting for our Sunday lunch was magnificent, sitting on a terrace looking out across the beach to the Mediterranean.

No visit to Barcelona would be complete without viewing a selection of Gaudi’s works. Given the shortness of our visit we were only able to visit  La Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell but they are arguably the most famous and spectacular. Sagrada Familia is a Roman Catholic church that has been under construction since 1882 and is still far from complete. It is both mad and amazing and there is nothing else like it in the world. I highly recommend a visit and it is worth paying to see the interior.

La Sagrada Familia

We took a taxi to the park and thankfully he asked us whether we would prefer to go to the top gate or the bottom gate as the park is very steep. It was a very hot day and we were extremely pleased not to be trudging up the thousands of steps unlike most of the other tourists. Instead we were able to meander down with an amazing view of Barcelona spread out before us. The park really is quite mad and there are amazing mosaics and sculptures everywhere.

Parc Guell

We spent the rest of the day exploring the Gothic quarter and basically doing some shopping. It was refreshing to find small independent shops that were unique to Barcelona and not chain stores that you see in every international city in the world. I managed to buy myself a trilby hat and a bright green satchel with a Vespa on it. Can’t decide if the bag is too camp or not but I really like the hat!

That’s about all I have to report on Barcelona. It is a fabulous city and I wish I had had longer to explore it further. I will certainly be back soon.


Waiting at gate to board my flight to Barcelona. Very grateful for aforementioned healthy time buffer as traffic round Rotterdam was appalling. Was starting to sweat but made it in good time. Amused to discover that Rotterdam Airport could more accurately be described as a shed in a paddock. I’m waiting at gate 8 of 8 and gate 1 is only about 15 metres away. They even share doors to the tarmac! Reminds me of Palmerston North airport.

My plane is waiting so hopefully we leave on time. I was going to attach picture but not sure if that is possible from iPhone app. So if u find a picture, it is. If you don’t, it isn’t.

Next blog from Barcelona!

Ready for Barcelona Citytrip!

Tomorrow will bring my Spanish debut. I am off to Barcelona for a long weekend and am very excited. This is a city I have long fantasised about visiting.

So, bright and early tomorrow morning I shall drive from Antwerp to Rotterdam (giving myself a healthy time-buffer due to awful traffic in that region) in time for a 10:45am flight to Barcelona. I’m flying on Transavia who I had never heard of but they offered the cheapest (admittedly last minute) price and also the most civilised flight times.

Will certainly make a Barcelona posting soon!