Rescuing Cats and Hats Salzburg, 22 august 2010

We successfully discharged our cat-sitting duties in Haarlem with a dramatic flourish. Wolletje, our elderly cat , decided to demonstrate that age and kidney problems have not slowed him down entirely. He confronted the Black Cat, that young pretender, in the neighbour’s garden but failed to plan his escape route. Hannah, one of Wolletje’s devoted staff, had just returned home from a Cambridge summer school and she and Geoff came to the rescue with the help of two ladders.

Hannah hands Wolletje to Geoff

We are now in Salzburg and miss Wolletje’s funny ways already. He was a definite highlight of our time in the Netherlands.

Another highlight was birdwatching with a local expert bird watcher found via www.birdingpal.org. Peter, who chairs the Dutch Society of Ornithologists, took us for a wonderful tour of waterbird habitat in North Holland, including flooded fields that are used later for growing flowers. Chris's head was spinning as she met fifteen new birds and as many familiar ones in the space of a morning. Geoff was kept busy as her scribe and research assistant with the aid of the bird books on the iPod. So the avocet and the red-necked phalarope are now on the bird list. Have a look at the new photo albums of feathered and furry friends while you're there. You'll find there a shot (albeit fuzzy) of the great-crested grebes, which lived in the neighbourhood canal in Haarlem. Just before we left, these striking birds appeared with young chicks hitching rides on their backs.

Chris learns about scopes from Peter on the birdwatching expedition

Another duty we discharged was voting in our national elections. The Australian embassy is in a modest office building just around the corner form the magnificent Peace Palace in The Hague. There were no queues at this polling station to speak of nor were there any cake stalls and sausage sizzles but there were lovely parks and gardens to explore in this international city. We've spent a lot of time exploring green spaces on this trip, from urban woods to national parks and beaches, and have been surprised by the extent of green spaces in and around European cities.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, home to the International Court of Justice and a little more grand than the Australian embassy around the corner

In Utrecht, it was time for us to prove our fitness. In the company of our student friends Anja and Daniella, we climbed the Dom, the highest church tower in a very flat country. This was a good vantage point for spotting some quirky Dutch architecture. We’ve decided that Dutch designers have a sense of humour. See our website for other examples that tickled our fancy.

Is it only birdwatchers who think this building looks like binoculars?

Yes, we did visit Amsterdam and enjoyed a day trip there wandering along its canals and through its flower market, but it is Haarlem that we will remember as ‘our Netherlands’. It is where we got news of the birth in Melbourne of our great-niece, Adelaide; where we enjoyed numerous fine organ recitals and several choral evensongs at St Bavo’s; and where we learnt to look for bicycles as well as cars every time we crossed a road.

One of Haarlems’s wonderful array of cycles (note the young passenger) upstages a wedding Rolls Royce

The day came, however, to board a train again and we headed east to a small German town called Mering, between Augsburg and Munich, for a small break on our way to Salzburg. This town seems to have as many residences for cows as it does for people. This left us wondering about German farming practices. Do these cows live all year indoors? What about all those lush green pastures? The roofs of the large barns are interesting too. Many are completely covered with solar panels in a way that leaves Australian efforts in the shade (so to speak). Our own residence, a pension in Mering, raised other questions. Why were its echoing spaces devoid of other guests, and its ‘reception’ desk of staff, information and equipment? Why did the woman we just happened to meet in a cleaning cupboard also collect our cash with no mention of a receipt? Why did she have no knowledge of our reservation? Happily, the bed was clean, the water was hot, the pizza place next door did good Indian curries and the bakery down the road fed us wonderful breakfasts. Our time in Mering was comfortably quirky, just like its community library.

Geoff checks out Mering’s library

We made day trips from our country abode to Augsburg and Munich. The Fuggerei in Augsburg, the world’s oldest social settlement, was fascinating. It was established in the sixteenth century by the wealthy Fugger family for the needy. Some of it was bombed in World War II along with much of the city and it was sobering to visit its bunker, now a museum. Augsburg was a target due to its munitions and machinery factories. (The ‘MAN’ you see on trucks stands for Maschinefabrik Augsburg Nürnberg.)

Another eastward train journey and here we are in Salzburg enjoying our friend Glynthea’s hospitality. We are learning the ropes before she leaves us to housesit while she goes on holidays. We all spent Saturday afternoon glued to the internet, following the Australian election results. Will it be a hung parliament?

And what was that about rescuing hats as well as cats? Chris has become expert in retrieving Geoff’s signature hat from restaurants and just-departed buses and so has accumulated a good store of brownie points for the rest of our journey. We are halfway through, in time if not distance.

We hope , as always, that this finds you safe and well, as we are. Before we go, two travel tips for you:

Travel tip #3: Take a pocket compass, especially if you are changing hemispheres, where north becomes south.

Travel tip #4: Take a spare hat.

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