Posted by: Daniel Golding | July 18, 2009

Another microupdate

We’re just arrived in LA and with ten minutes to spare and a free internet connection, so I thought I’d update you all on where we’re up to.

We’ve three days left of the whole trip before we fly home; between last you heard of us and now, we’ve camped in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, seen wild bears and tarantulas (really!), bet and lost a grand total of $4 in Las Vegas, and had one very exciting development happen that we’re not telling anyone about until we’re home…

I’ll try and do a major update before we get home, but I doubt I’ll get the time – but be sure that I’ll finish off this blog as soon as I can, if nothing but to keep a record of everything we’ve done.

Anyway, we’re off to Hollywood: see you all in the flesh soon!

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Posted by: Daniel Golding | July 9, 2009

Boston

Boston is one of the most historic cities in America: you don’t have to be an American High School student to know that. One of the major ports of the thirteen colonies under British rule, the Bostonians had their famous tea-party early on in revolutionary history and ever since then remained a hotspot for anti-British activity. As a tourist destination it has the distinct advantage of having preserved many of its major landmarks under the backdrop of a very modern, pleasant city. As a downside, Boston became our first introduction to the American fascination with the apparently momentous: everything of minor significance must be clearly marked as The First or The Biggest or The Greatest of its specific type. Every Church is the biggest remaining weatherboard church above the Mason-Dixon line, while every second house held a revolutionary figure and has a plaque and guide to say so.

This isn’t a particularly American fixation, certainly: on this blog I’ve made fun of the sixteen-thousand British pubs that all claim to be the isle’s oldest. Instead, then, it is a fixation that is particularly American: in other places, such claims are a mere statement of fact, a superior sniff at landmarks of similar type. In the US, these claims take on an aura; these places are a tangible part of history, and not just any old history, but THE history, the history of the United States. It’s at these places that history is alive in a mythic kind of way, forging a direct kind of connection between the visitor and the event which is supposed to have happened there.

It helps, then, that Boston has an excellent selection of historic landmarks so you might share in the local reverence rather than react against the cliche. Tea parties aside, Boston is where the first shots of the revolution were fired, when the British shot a handful of protesters at the Boston Massacre. Later, when the Sons of Liberty organisation was in full swing, subverting the British overlords, and the Red Coats came looking for them, a gentleman called Paul Revere went on a midnight warning ride after seeing a pre-arranged sign of two lanterns hung from a local church. It’s all pretty cloak-and-dagger, but I must admit that I am yet to fully grasp the significance and adoration of Revere. We saw the church, we saw where he began his ride, we even saw his grave. There is a fair bit of romance to the whole thing: what with valiant allies creeping stealthily past British troops to hang the warning lanterns and then escape out a back window. But I never got the meat-and-bones of the thing: everyone who retold the story stopped with the lines “and then Revere left for his famous midnight ride.”

Well, okay. But why is the ride so famous? Presumably all this backstory is just that: backstory, a scene-setting prelude to the major action. But we never got to the crux of the thing. It didn’t diminish our experience in the slightest – the historic sights were interesting enough in themselves, so the myth surrounding them could only increase our appreciation of them. It’s just a strange quirk of historic landmarks of the United States.

Before going to Boston, I have to admit that I knew it best as the setting for Scorsese’s The Departed. This was because I had studied it as a reworking of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, so inherently the change in setting was one of the most interesting points. Therefore, I knew Boston primarily as a working class city of blue collar Irish Americans with a bit of mob history in the 70s via Whitey Bulger and others. In the end, it isn’t such a bad preconception to have of the city: small for its prominence (only 600,000 inhabitants), Boston is full of thick-set Irish types who look like they work very hard for not much return.

Then there’s the regional accent: it’s noticeable even to non-Americans in films and on TV to the point where there is one sentence so widely mocked that it now graces t-shirts. Bostonians do not ‘park the car in the Harvard yard’, they ‘pahk the cah in the Harvard yahd.’

Speaking of your average American, our hotel in Boston gave us an interesting insight into a more regular American life that I don’t think we would otherwise have had. This was because our hotel, the Braintree Sheraton (Tudor inspired, of course) was so far out of town that the only nearby points of interest were the highway and a middle-of-nowhere shopping mall. On our first night, we had no real way of getting into Boston proper for food, and being too cheap to try the hotel restaurant and too respecting of our tastebuds to try the annexed ‘TGI Fridays’, we sauntered apprehensively across to our local beacon of capitalist endeavor.

I don’t think either Tash or I were quite prepared for Braintree Mall. Off-white fluro lighting and the types of carbon-copy chain stores found all over the world said nothing about this place: what made Braintree Mall so utterly depressing was the sheer emptiness of the place. No-one was there. It looked like the kind of mental picture you draw when you think of what abandoned malls must look like in their death throws, except this one was fully functioning and sparkling. One or two attendants per store and more for food counters were left staring into the white tiled floors as the only noticeable inhabitants of Braintree Mall – bored late teens – played loudly on the inbuilt toddler entertainment equipment. Even the hooded youths outside the mall didn’t bother to stare aggressively in our direction. Instead they gazed solemnly at their shoes, as if they had embarrassed their mallrat brethren by coming to Braintree.

It isn’t even like there is a reasonable justification for Braintree Mall to exist. There is no housing nearby, no attractions – nothing but a highway on the outskirts of Boston and a collection of motels. Who knows how the few customers there had arrived. Our food, from a Chinese take-out staffed by five or so workers desperately searching for customers, can only be described as insipidly tasteless. It was the kind of food that makes you wonder why these kinds of places can’t cut the second guessing out of the equation and serve a bowl of hot water as a meal. Of course, this particular bowl of hot water appeared to contain noodles, onions and broccoli, but serve it to a blindfolded taster and he might tell you it was a bottled of Spring Valley ’98.

Our short stay was completed with a half-hearted look into a videogame store and the kind of bookstore whose criteria for the World History section is roughly analogous as Baseball’s World Series. It was an interesting and enlightening stay in its own way; but only in the same way one might visit a high-security prison or politically troubled micronation. We saw another part of the universe, one quite different from our own and ultimately one that we hope will never become our own. And then we left.

Of course, Braintree is not Boston, and I shouldn’t confuse the two in closing. Boston really seemed like a very pleasant city, but above all, like one that would be very easy to live in. I must admit that early on in our visit I had wild hallucinations of moving there and studying in the Comparative Media department of MIT, officially the coolest University in the world. History aside, Boston’s skyscrapers aren’t obtrusive but are large enough to give the feeling of a serious city, the houses are quite beautiful and there is plenty of parkland. I just wish they’d shut up about Paul Revere.

For more photos of Boston, click here.

Posted by: Daniel Golding | July 9, 2009

New York

[We’ve now left the East Coast of America, and with good wireless access, fewer distractions and a less packed schedule, I will be making some serious attempts at catching up with our posts. We’re now in San Francisco, but before we left the East Coast we managed to get to Niagara Falls, Amish country in Pennsylvania, and Independence Day celebrations in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York. But more on that soon. For now, you’ll have to make do with my first New York post, our first post in a very long time.]

Arriving in New York is an experience that cannot be replicated in any other city or even continent. Many residents simply call Manhattan ‘The City’, without any other label or justification, and I don’t think any other name is more appropriate. It is The City, with capital letters: it is the World’s premier city, the original to which so many modern metropolises take their foundations and cues. If you were doing a worldwide tour of cities only – or at least, western cities only – then you’d only have to take one look at Manhattan Island to blow the rest completely out of the water.

We’ve been to some of – if not the vast majority – of major Western cities on this trip, but none of them outdoes New York City for sheer grandness, style, culture, or just that raw feeling of aliveness and energy that you get from big cities. London, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Dublin, Stockholm – none of them come close. Even Hong Kong, the one city in the world that outdoes New York on the skyscraper headcount, doesn’t quite feel the same. It’s intangible, but I’m certain that anyone who has spent any time in The City will feel the same.

We arrived in the USA late in the afternoon, and after customs, who took our photo and our fingerprints, we took the ‘A’ Train to our hostel at around sunset. We are situated a little out of the main hustle and bustle of Manhattan, but not too far not to be a short subway ride in. For those of you who know New York geography, it’s the corner of Broadway and 101st – so about halfway down Central Park, in other words.

All we wanted to do on our first evening was eat and then pass out – we were still on European time, and despite the early hour in New York, it felt about 1:30AM for us. So, we ventured out half a block and found the most stereotypical New York diner there was and settled in to a burger and fries each. Unfortunately, the real reason that I’m relating this otherwise uneventful story is that it was our first encounter with American food servings, which are routinely big enough to feed a small town during the Great Depression. On TV, later in our trip, I saw an ad for a reality TV program called ‘Man versus Food’, and I think a more perfect encapsulation of American eating habits could not be found. However, being used to making the most of the smaller European food sizes, I gulped the whole thing down in about three minutes and proceeded to feel extremely ill – and extremely full – for the next two days.

The next morning, thanks to the wonderful phenomenon of jetlag, we awoke bright-eyed and ready for the day at about 6:00AM. Jetlag really is okay as long as you are travelling westwards, and not crossing the international dateline: it just means you wake up really early. Travel the other way, however, means that you constantly lose hours and wake to find yourself with your face in your midday sandwich, and later feel ready for a bowl of cornflakes and a fair shake at the day at about one in the morning. Not to mention the Dr. Who-like experience of crossing the international dateline, where you can start on one side perfectly happy and end up arriving weeks later at your destination, grasping a calendar disbelievingly and wondering where all that time went. I hear it’s just like middle-age.

In any case, we decided to make the most of our newly-found earlybird status and join the rest of corporate-yuppie Manhattan in a jog around Central Park. That is, they jogged, and we Central-Parked. It seems like the pastime of The City’s rich and the aspiring rich is to go for a run around the Jackie O. reservoir between six and nine AM. It’s nothing if not interesting to people watch: some obviously do this all the time without any problem whatsoever; for these people, the jog is more of a chance to socialise, to display their obscene fitness, and compare themselves with their running-buddies. Then there are the dog walkers, who run/walk with steely determination as four canines – none of which they own – scuttle under their feet, making halfhearted attempts at local squirrels. Then there is the occasional guy who very clearly fits into the more-than-50% of Americans who are overweight, and who desperately need to run rings around Jackie O. in order not to depart for That Great City In The Sky at a very young age. We saw one of these that morning: dressed in the one sweatshirt in Manhattan that was very clearly living up to its name, and panting like a Gorilla trying to blow out a stick of incense.

After seeing the John Lennon memorial in Strawberry Fields, and pretending to be local and picking up a bagel and coffee for breakfast, we embarked on perhaps our longest day of walking so far. Before we succumbed to the temptation of the subway, we had walked all the way from our hostel at 101st (New York works like a grid, counting down the streets the further to the tip you get) to the luxury of 5th Avenue before catching the subway to Battery Park. On that first day we saw a fair chunk of Manhattan in an attempt to get us orientated: everything from the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Lincoln Centre, Time Square, Broadway, Wall Street, City Hall, Ground Zero, Radio City Music Hall and the Rockefeller Centre.

All were amazing, but no single attraction equals the sheer atmosphere of Manhattan itself. Just walking around the streets, where every turn reveals yet more huge buildings that cut off the horizon is impressive enough to warrant several weeks spent in New York City.

Late in the afternoon, when we were close to giving it in after nearly twelve hours of straight tourism, we caught the ferry to Staten Island and back. A ferry like this should be a staple of every city: free, and with great views of both the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan itself into the bargain. As we departed, the sun was just setting. It was beautiful.

The next day, we went to Harlem. This was the opposite of our first day in New York in many ways: not only is it on the other side of the island from most of the regular, first day attractions, but we also did less traditional tourism. Harlem, apart from anything, is a place of tremendous history and importance to American – and worldwide – culture. Literature, theatre, dance, film, but most of all, music, all owe a tremendous debt to this Manhattan suburb. As the centre of Black life in New York – and possibly America, New Orleans aside – it was home to blues, jazz, soul and funk during their formative years. Although there wasn’t much on when we visited, seeing the Apollo Theatre was inspiring, where so many artists took stage (including James Brown), and where only a few days later an impromptu crowd would gather to sing and dance and variously react to the news of Michael Jackson’s death.

Harlem has become gentrified over the last few years, which has greatly reduced both the suburb’s crime rate and its dangerous image, though I don’t think it will ever forget its past. Sidestreets still look like the setting of any given Spike Lee film, all wide-stepped entryways and bright colours, and there are still streets like Malcolm X Boulevard snaking their way through Harlem’s centre.

One of the most unique things we were able to do in Harlem was to go to the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture. The centre functions as a public research library, and as an exhibition hall of sorts, centred around the Black history of Harlem. What made the centre so interesting for us, or more precisely, for Tash, is that a large amount of the primary documents that Tash used for her Honours Thesis are held at the Schomburg Centre, so we visited in the hope of seeing some of them in the flesh. There were two exhibitions on when we visited: one on migration patterns of present-day Africa, the most moving part of which was a photo gallery focussing on African migrants in Europe; and a detailed exhibition showcasing the history of a Baptist Church in Harlem, which had seen the highs and lows of the suburb over the last 150 years. After we’d viewed the exhibitions, Tash bluffed our way into the special collections area to view some of the photos not on display that she’d used in her thesis. The woman on the desk was very helpful, getting her Tash a library card, giving a brief history of the Centre, and recommending some collections for Tash to view. It was pretty amazing, and a pretty unique experience for Tash to be able to physically view these original, 100-year-old photos of the Harlem Renaissance. She even had to wear white gloves to handle the photos.

That night we treated ourselves to dinner at a vegetarian place Lonely Planet had recommended in the suburb of Chelsea. The various suburbs of New York are nothing if not varied: if Harlem is even now a little dilapidated but elegant, with wide open streets and tall townhouses, then Chelsea is a huge contrast. It is very chic, with smaller streets and very well kept buildings with lots of greenery overlooking them. The dinner was delicious (and expensive!) but the experience alone was something to remember. We were greeted by exactly the type of distracted doorperson you see in Sex & the City, who summed us up with a quick glance and ummed and ahhed about whether they could possibly make room for us before eventually disappearing for a period and returning to say that we could indeed have one of the many empty tables. Then, a gentleman sporting a long pony-tail arrived, introduced himself as ‘Stone’ and informed us that he’d be our ‘server’ for this evening. He then wanted to double-check “if filtered tank water would be okay for you this evening?”, which of course it was.

Our food, of course, turned out to be wonderful. Their speciality was something called seitan, which I had never heard of before (and neither had many of the customers, judging by their questions), which is a protein not unlike soy but with a meaty texture. I must admit, however, that the best part of the meal was not the food but the beer I had. It was an organic beer from Maine, and despite being only a touch more expensive than a regular beer, was probably the best I’ve ever tried. There were so many flavours going on that it was really more like drinking a wine than a beer. It was incredible, though I doubt I’ll ever be able to find it again. It was, unfortunately, my first attempt at trying North American beer, which would not be so pleasurable once I later got on to the more mainstream stuff.

It’s about now that I should mention that despite food’s relative inexpense in the States, you can end up paying quite a lot more than you’d originally bargained on because of the double whammy of tip and tax. Tipping we expected in the States: an extra 15-20% of your bill for your server is expected – nay, mandatory. This is because service staff agree to incredibly low wages – sometimes $4 an hour – in the expectation that they will make quite a bit through tax. Incredibly, service staff are taxed on an estimated amount they will recieve in tips, so if you do not tip them, they are quite literally paying for the privilege of serving you. It’s a phenomenally bad system, but it is how things work over here: if you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to eat. Tax, however, is one thing we weren’t expecting. Tax is added to pretty much everything, but unlike every other country we’ve been to so far, it is not included in the advertised price. So while a $8 meal might seem like a good deal, in the end you can end up paying close to $15 between tax and tip. It’s irritating, to say the least.

On our last day of our first time in New York (we would return later in the trip), we checked out of our hostel and into our meeting hotel to begin our North American tour we had prebooked months ago. We had the rest of the day free, though, so after checking in and getting a much-needed haircut (neither of us had had a cut since before we left), we wandered around the city again. This time, we spent a bit more time in Time Square: on a whim, we went into the Toys R Us there, which is the biggest in the world. It’s phenomenal: so big it actually has a ferris wheel inside – not to mention an animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex and various Manhattan landmarks built out of LEGO. We had a celebrity spotting, as we saw Lawrence Fishburne, star of many films from a minor appearance in Apocolypse Now! all the way through to The Matrix. We also booked tickets to see West Side Story on Broadway when we returned for the 5th of July. The temptation to see a Broadway show was too great, and to see one written about New York in New York even greater.

Speaking of writing about New York: I think I’ve written about enough, considering there is still a second trip to New York in store. We obviously really enjoyed our stay in Manhattan; possibly, it is right up there in a tie with Istanbul. But now, it was time to journey up the East Coast of America, through some of the most historic cities of the United States to Canada.

For more New York photos, click here.

Posted by: Daniel Golding | June 28, 2009

Amsterdam and farewell to Europe

[I am now woefully behind in my posts. Amsterdam feels like an age ago, and to some extent it was. We’re now in Toronto, Canada, but between Amsterdam and now, we’ve been too New York City, Boston, Quebec City, Montreal, and Ottowa. I’ve even had a haircut! I’ll try and catch up more quickly soon, I promise.]

The so-called Low Countries have a lot of shared history. They were the one country until not so long ago, and considering that they are three of the tiniest countries in Europe, thrown together between the political and geographic behemoths of France, Germany and the UK, you’d think they’d have a pretty close relationship. And of course they do. But getting from Brussels to Amsterdam proved harder than we thought.

Our first problem was Thalys. I will go out on a limb right now and say that Thalys, the express train service that runs between Germany, the Low Countries and France, is the single worst rail company for the Eurail pass. It was Thalys that was responsible for forcing us to spend over one hundred Euro extra to get to Paris with our Eurail, and now, despite the fact that our Eurail guide said we wouldn’t need a reservation, and despite the fact that the Thalys express train to Amsterdam was more than half empty, we weren’t allowed on without a reservation. Completely absurd, of course, but by now we expected nothing less of Thalys.

So instead we had to catch the slow train to Amsterdam – which wouldn’t be a problem, as they leave every hour and still only take a short amount of time, except no-one could tell us where it actually was. Eventually, we got on a train to a little border town in The Netherlands, after being assured by the by-now more-than nervous conductor who can’t have been any older than us, that she simply had no idea where the train was going as she normally didn’t do this line.

“I didn’t believe what the French say about the Belgians, but now I’m not so sure,” a middle-aged jovial French woman in our compartment laughed. Neither Tash or I were quite sure what it was that the French said about the Belgians either, but at this stage we were sure we’d agree anyway. Being the French it can’t be good.

As it happened, the train to the border town terminated, surprisingly, at the border. Resignedly, we spent 30 minutes waiting on the platform before changing trains to one that ostensibly was going all the way to Amsterdam.

I say ostensibly, because although that was what was written on the side, an announcement shortly informed us that in fact, the train was only going as far as Rotterdam. This was because of a lighting strike that had occurred and disrupted the direct line to Amsterdam, so we’d have to change again.

It was at this stage that we gazed up at the clear and cloudless skies and wondered if perhaps our friends at the Dutch train service might actually be telling porkies. If they’d said that the train was unable to continue because an extra-terrestrial spaceship had landed on the lines, we’d have been more believing.

Maybe we caught them on a bad day. Maybe we didn’t. Most of our fellow passengers didn’t seem too phased by the whole thing, which could mean either that it happens all the time or never before. Either way it didn’t matter too much as we weren’t too phased either: despite being several hours late in the end it was still a short day’s travel compared to other trips we’ve done.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam isn’t a city that we can make a long and copious list of sights seen and things done. We didn’t have a huge amount of time in the city, and so for the most part we contented ourselves with walking around and taking in Amsterdam that way.

Describing Amsterdam is not difficult. Imagine one of the most beautiful cities in the world, overrun by masses of ‘Off Ya Tree’ type cheap, nasty and very tacky marijuana-themed gift shops. Canals and thin Dutch houses lie next to life-size aliens holding smoking devices, which in turn sit next to all kinds of sex shops. It’s awful. I’m not vehemently against the legalisation of ‘soft’ drugs like marijuana: there’s definitely a case that by doing so, you’re able to control its consumption much more safely than when it is illegal. But when I pictured Amsterdam and its smoking culture, and I think this goes for most people, I didn’t picture it to be full of exactly the kind of marijuana-themed shops that exist on the fringes of most cities in the world – including Melbourne.

The other famously liberal side of Amsterdam is its sex trade. This we encountered in much the same way as I expected. Though we didn’t go to the central red-light district, we stumbled through an area on the way home from dinner one night that strangely had all sorts of variety of ladies exhibiting themselves in the basement area of old houses. It was startling at first to look down at what you thought might be the basement entrance of a heritage-listed house and to instead see a half-naked woman staring aggressively back at you, obviously advertising her wares but also daring, I thought, any passers-by to laugh or judge. An unlikely event, I have to say: Amsterdam’s prostitutes are extremely well-organised and protected. According to our Lonely Planet, all of the workers have panic buttons in their booths, and if they are pressed, “it won’t be the police that come running.”

The other Amsterdam

Out of the most central areas, past the small doorways with red neon lights above them and the alien mannequins smoking dope, Amsterdam is a really pleasant city, and you can really start to imagine what it would have been like fifty years ago. The canals are incredibly scenic, surrounded as they are by the sinuously long and sometimes leaning Dutch houses. Canal-boats covered in flowers and pot-plants rest moored like they’ve been there for decades (very likely, all things considered), and small, chic businesses run out of centuries-old residential properties that are furnished in Scandinavian modernist style on the inside.

The major tourist attraction outside of the general mish-mash of ambiances in the town is almost certainly the Anne Frank House. The Museum, in the building that Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in until their discovery in 1944 is a touching and pointed memorial that I enjoyed very much. Particularly interesting was Anne’s room in the hidden annex; on the wall are many fashion drawings and photos of movie stars like you’d expect to find on the walls of any teenage girl, but one drawing in particular is personally significant as it is likely drawn by my Grandmother, who was a fashion artist in the early years of the war. It’s an interesting link, but I cannot claim that the museum would have impacted me any differently without it. Especially after having been to Nazi relics on such a large scale at Nuremburg, and on an earlier trip, to the camp at Auschwitz, seeing such an intensely personal memorial of the Holocaust is an antidote to the sometimes-incomprehensible numbers and figures you find at other monuments.

Leaving Europe

After more than three months of travel since arriving from Hong Kong, our time in Europe was over. On our final morning on the continent, we made our final Eurail pass use, traveling over the border to get to Dusseldorf airport in order to fly to New York City, and to start the second, and final section of our trip. The journey, thankfully, was uneventful, and we made our flight (on the excellent AirBerlin, who despite supposedly being a ‘budget’ airline, still serve free meals and show free films) without issue.

I think it is no overstatement to say that we’ve seen quite a lot of Europe. So much so, our European journey has now unconventionally encompassed three continents. We’ve gone from the North and Norwegian Seas to three different sides of the Mediterranian; from the Aegean Sea to the Iberian Penninsula; from the Aran Islands to Asia and Africa. We’ve been from Belgium, where the restaurants close at 10pm, to Spain, where they open at 10pm. We’ve sledged in Norway and sweltered in inescapable 40 degree Moroccan heat. We stayed in people’s homes, in bed and breakfasts, in pensions, in hostels, in even the occasional hotel. We ate tapas, couscous, crepes and wurst (we’ll, one of us has), and we’ve drunk French red, smoked beer and some Romanian thing that came in a shot glass and made me go very red in the face. We’ve spent an extraordinary amount of money – too much, of course, but that much was predictable – and we’ve sent home three weighty packages of clothes, souvenirs and presents.

Now, home is in sight, and I think we’re ready for it. But first, we have a month to fill in North America.

For more Amsterdam photos, click here.

Posted by: Daniel Golding | June 21, 2009

How to see Belgium in one day (and an evening)

Before I begin, I should note that arriving in Belgium from Africa should always hold some sort of a stigma. The King of Belgium, Leopold II, took the Congo as his private and personal property in 1885. By the time that it was stripped from him in 1908, twenty-three years later, it is estimated that up to 10 million Congolese had died as a result of his ruthless, destructive and tyrannical plunder of the nation for his own wealth and profit. You may note that that that figure is more than the number of people estimated to have died during the Holocaust. It should not be forgotten, as it is also a reminder of the influence that colonial Europe in general has had on the world, including Australia.

Anyway, on that sombre note, we re-entered Europe for our final few days before leaving for America. Taking travel time into consideration, we knew we had one full day and an evening in Brussels, and the same in Amsterdam, which would hopefully give us a brief snapshot of both.

As it turned out, in the short time available to us, we managed to see quite a miraculous amount of Belgium; so, instead of Brussels-in-a-day, I feel entitled to label our experience Belgium-in-a-day. Here’s how we did it.

On arriving and checking into the excellent Jacques Brel Youth Hostel in Brussels (named after the famous Belgian – not French, as many think – chanson singer), we immediately set off for a quick visit to the Comic Book Museum. I knew that Belgium had a strong generalised comic book culture, but I’d be lying if I said we went for anything other than Tintin. In fact, I immediately took a fancy to Brussels on arrival as the Midi Train Station has a giant frame from ‘Tintin in America’ painted to a wall. Anyway, our visit to the museum was not in vain, as it contained many interesting Tintin exhibits, as well as many, many other fascinating and striking other comics. The shop got the better part of our attention, though, and I must admit that it is directly responsible for the third package now making its way home via the post to Melbourne, as it contains my first (and probably only) extravagant purchase for the trip. Yes, nostalgia got the better of me and I bought a diorama of the cover of Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks (which hilariously in Flemish translates as ‘Coke en Stock’).

I should also mention something about Flemish here. Certainly, we’d just arrived back from chaotic and very un-European Fes that morning, but taking the bus from our cheapo RyanAir ‘Brussels’ airport (it’s really quite a distance out; in fact, it’s in Wallonia while Brussels is in Flanders. Still, being on the other side of the country hasn’t stopped RyanAir from calling Charleroi ‘Brussels South Airport’. Yeah, right. It’s ‘Brussels South’ in the same sense as Melbourne might be ‘Brisbane South’) was an illuminating experience. First of all, the countryside was about as similar to Britain as you could get without thatched houses, Indian takeaway joints sellling chips with every curry, and thirteen ‘Oldest Pubs in Britain’ every mile. Secondly, our bus driver sounded just like he was a Mancunian, or perhaps even a Liverpudlian – except that he was speaking something which sounded like English gone through a potato masher.

It’s really quite amazing. I’m told that Flemish is a close relative of English, being a Northern Germanic language (like English) and being influenced by French and Scandinavian languages (like English), but there is something just not quite right about it. The big sign thanking us for our visit to the airport even read something like English, like “Dank u for ur wissite.” This is obviously an approximation, as I can’t remember it, but it was definitely something like that, and certainly mutually intelligable to English speakers. Still, the written word might be one thing, but speaking is not, and unless English morphs to include the occasional desperate hacking sound, it will never be easily understood.

The next morning, we did our sightseeing of Brussels. Many people had disparaged Brussels to us before we got here; not least Bill Bryson in his book ‘Neither Here Nor There’. We were expecting a grey, ugly, unfriendly city that would only be a sleeping point for Bruges. Not so. True, we really didn’t stay for long, but from what we saw, we really liked Brussels. It seems like a really nice, relaxed city with enough culture and sights to keep things interesting and suitably European (especially given that it’s the headquarters for the EU). The central square is really lovely, with wonderful statues and buildings, and really, any city that paints Tintin murals en mass is fine by me. The old arcades are were also lovely; in all, it reminded me very much of what Melbourne might be like if it was in Europe and was a little more dull. Certainly, with Belgian restaurants closing at 10pm you’d be hard-pressed to mistake it for Melbourne, but there are definitely some similar other elements. I should probably also mention that little statue of a boy cheerfully taking a leak into a fountain, being Brussels’ international symbol and all, but I think you’d have to know very little about Europe not to know about him.

Then we enacted our central plan for the day, and our second city. We took a train to Bruges, and were there in under an hour. Bruges is a lovely city, but like so many we’ve been to, it’s just a pity about the tourists. For a city of such small size, there seemed to be far more of them than the locals, even on a sleepy afternoon, and most shop signs were in English, or even German and Spanish and French too, and blatantly aimed at tourists. Still, as a medieval town you can’t do much better, and I’m sure we could have spent some serious time lounging away in one of the parks, or at a restaurant. We also sampled some French Fries from one of the famous Brugeian chip-stands (fries are, believe it or not, a Belgian invention), which funnily enough tasted more-or-less like any other chips I’ve ever had. We indulged my ‘In Bruges’ (as in the recent film) tendencies and went to the top of the Belfry, which yielded excellent views but not quite as much suspense as the film. We also visited that funny old church which claims to have a phial of Jesus’ blood in it, which if it was in any other country than deeply respectable Belgium would probably be regarded with a healthy degree of raised eyebrows. I have to say that after Abraham’s walking stick from 7000 BC in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, this was nothing on the ‘grossly-unbelievable-historical-artifact’ scale.

After spending a fair bit of time looking at the many swans and signets that live in Bruges, and after a Belgian pancake for Tash and a Belgian beer for me, we took the 25-minute journey to the halfway point between Bruges and Brussels that is often overlooked by tourists – Ghent. Our feelings towards Ghent were much like Brussels, yet more so: it is a beautiful, beautiful, unrecognised city. What more could you want? It has lovely canals, a medieval district, beautiful churches, buildings, even a UNESCO-listed view from a bridge, and about as good a castle as you could ever hope for in the town centre, looking to all the world like a mid-1990s LEGO set. All it needed was a draw-bridge, and some scallywag with a feather in his cap clambering over the top to rescue a maiden, and we’d be set. In all, we didn’t spent nearly enough time in Ghent, and if we’d had the time over again I think I’d ever rather spend more time here than in Bruges, despite the headline-grabbing power that Bruges has over the tourist population of the known universe. Like so many cities we’ve been to on this journey, it feels like a place where you really just want to be; to relax and enjoy your time off the beaten path.

Finally, we returned to Brussels and our leftover pasta from the night before, but with the added bonuses of leftover Belgian chocolate for dessert and an excellent dark Belgian beer from the bar before bed. Though we were rushed, our Belgium-in-a-day had been good, and all three destinations had been very good to us. Belgium was never that high on the list of destinations for this trip, but after that day, we did wonder if we’d perhaps overlooked it unfairly. It almost made us want to cancel our next destination, and the subject of my next post – Amsterdam.

To view more photos of Brussels, click here.
To view more photos of Bruges, click here.
To view more photos of Ghent, click here.

Posted by: Daniel Golding | June 21, 2009

Fes

[As I said in the last post, we’re now in New York City. Today, we visited Harlem after a big day of sightseeing yesterday. I’m catching up on where we’ve been in the last two weeks since posting, so these are the first two posts of three or so before I can finally catch up to where we are now, more-or-less. We’ve been far too busy enjoying our time here in Manhattan, though, so apologies if these posts aren’t up to the usual prize-winning prose.]

Morocco by train

Leaving Marrakech turned out to be a more difficult task than we had imagined, true to Moroccan style with drama, suspense, and above all, heat. We had booked our train tickets the previous day, and were persuaded by the clerk to go first class for the first time on our entire journey. This was, he said, because it was a long journey (sure, we’ve done long journeys before) but mostly because the first class cabins were air conditioned, which would be a big help. Moroccan trains aren’t exactly expensive, so, why not, we thought?

Well, on arriving at the station at the appointed time, having checked out of our lovely Riad (and being presented with a free ash tray of all things! Actually, it’s very nice for an ash tray, as it is ceramic, and manages to look very nice before you realise what it is), we bought some food from a kiosk and waited for our train to turn up.

Of course, it never did, and before long, a Polish guy about our age turned up and informed us that it had been cancelled. He told us that a car had been hit, or something, which isn’t too difficult to believe given the driving we’d already seen (actually, Morocco has one of the highest driving-related death rates in the world, and it’s a serious problem). The train company wasn’t even sure if the next train would run in two hours. So, perhaps our only option was to taxi it back to the bus station and check if either there was a bus running or a grand taxi which would take us there. The train company, of course, would refund our money, so that wasn’t a problem.

Just as we were starting to move past our irritation and journey to the bus station, however, our situation was completely reversed, and the customer service lady ran out from her booth and beckoned us over, as the train was now arriving and would soon depart, only 30 minutes later than intended.

We never found out what the cause of this sudden turn around in our fortunes was, but we were soon underway and travelling the seven-and-a-half hours to Fes. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the payoff for this slice of good luck was that the air conditioning was in fact not working at all.

It was boiling in that compartment. In fact, boiling is a merciful understatement. It was the kind of heat where your every move reminds you that your shirt, clean only two hours ago, is now constraining you like a straight-jacket, melted to your skin with sweat. The kind of heat in which every breath you take is like swollowing a phile of boiling liquid. That makes you think that perhaps hell might be a well-ventilated day resort compared to the well-stoked fires of the Moroccan train system.

Fortunately, this was all made bearable by the fact that we were on the train at all, and also by a constant stream of very friendly and interesting fellow travellers. We first began with a Bangladeshi couple who’d been travelling around Morocco since the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes a few days beforehand. One was an architect, and the other lectured in Islamic Architecture at the University of Dhaka. They were really very interesting, and in the end offered us their card, asking us to look them up if we ever travel to Bangladesh. The other initial passenger was a Swiss-German living in Marrakech, whose job I didn’t quite catch, but involved setting up medical infrastructure locally.

This group left us at Casablanca, where we stopped for 30 minutes or so. I’m lead to believe that Casablanca is a very cosmopolitan city, but we didn’t see much of it from the station. I must admit that even having read about the modern city previously, I was still a touch disapointed that from the confines of our sauna cabin it looked much like any other city. Before we pulled in I still had romantic visions of Ingrid Bergmann and her French Resistance-worker husband dashing on to the train in an effort to escape the evil grip of Vichy-era Claude Raines, followed in turn by Sam, a White Grand Piano, and a man in a trenchcoat and fedora with a hard-boiled accent called Rick. At the very least I was hoping for some Max Steiner, or at rock bottom, the Marseillaise to be piped into the train, but alas, it was not to be. Sometimes I think it’s such a pity that the world isn’t a giant reconstruction of some of the best films ever made. So we journeyed out of Casa-Voyageurs Station and onwards towards Fes.

By this time we were joined by a Casa local, whose English was easily the best we’d heard in Morocco, and who was on her way to her graduation. She’d studied at what was called an American-style University, majoring in Communication, and very quickly we made good friends. Imane told us all about her Japanese food addiction (sampled every dish on the menu at her local, bar three, and now gets free rice and tea with every meal), her own travel experiences, and life in general. Most interesting were the details of her uncle’s recent wedding, which we heard all about, and even saw some photos and video on her camera. It was amazing: Moroccan weddings, or at least, this Moroccan wedding was quite different from anything we’d ever heard of. It lasts three full days, starting on a Thursday, with a rest on Friday, and the major ceremony on Saturday, starting at 8pm and not finishing until 7am the next day. There were at least four costume changes involved for the bride, and on the Sunday, the bride and groom are served breakfast by the bride’s family, with 30 or so other people and a dancing band in tow.

It all sounded incredible. I think Tash and I instantly warmed to Imane and hopefully we’ll keep in touch. If nothing else, it made those last four hours of sauna-on-rails bearable until Fes.

Fes

Of course, on arrival in Fes, nature decided that it had plainly overworked itself with all the heat and the heavens opened, with the kind of fat, sparse raindrops that you get after a really hot day has overdone it. Thankfully we got to our accomodation quite easily, despite our revolving door of taxi drivers (three on one journey! A miracle!) suggesting that it was really no good and they knew a much better place and would they like us to call and perhaps get us a room or perhaps we might like a guide for Fes tomorrow as he speaks really good English and would give us a great price. We politely declined. Or rather, Tash politely declined as even fewer people spoke English in Fes.

Our Riad wasn’t as nice as the one in Marrakech, though we still had a cheap, large room and a nice courtyard to look out on. Our host spoke very little English and was visibly relieved when Tash threw a ‘je comprend’ his way, opening a floodgate of French. It turned out the wifi advertised on the place’s website was a mystery to him (producing my laptop was little help, as he seemed more genuinely confused), which is another reason it has taken so long for us to catch up with our posts.

Fes is quite a different city to Marrakech. It still has a new part and and old, walled city, like Marrakech, but day-to-day life inside the Medina feels very different. The street our Riad was on opens up into a plethora of sights, sounds and above all, smells, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. There are many market-like streets in Fes (the city’s economy seems built on the souks), but this one happened to be the local’s source of food – or rather, raw meat. Walking up the higher end of the street eventually proved too much for my nose and I just tried to hold my breath: it smelt like death. Like the black death, perhaps. A hot, rotting, over-sweet smell that is impossible to forget. Not that the sights weren’t enough: sheeps heads, newly seperated from their bodies, with lolling tongues and fur; skwarking chickens, weighed live on scales against counterweights, a quick aversion of the eyes, a dull thud, and a too-curious backward glance showing nothing but twitching legs in a bucket; a hanging carcass with genitals still very clearly intact. Of course, the smells attract more than paying customers: mangey, uncared-for cats jealously regard anything edible in the area with unblinking stares, while tiny kittens of varying cleanliness play in the dust below. It sounds morbid and repulsive now, but then, even as a lifelong vegetarian, it was more interesting and matter-of-fact than anything else. It is just life in Fes.

We didn’t do much more than take in the sights over our three days in Fes. No grand summits were reached, no historic buildings were entered, and only a little shopping was committed. This was firstly because the sights are all you need in Fes, but secondly because it was just too hot. The prime of the day almost always resulted in us retreating to our room to read, only to emerge when the sun had begun to abate at 4pm. We might’ve gone further, but when you return after two hours in the shade and can see nothing but the huge patches of sweat where the straps of your bag have been, you’ve done enough.

The food in Fes was also something else. With the help of a girl from Berkeley, who helped us get un-lost on our first day, we found a tiny shopfront (only three tables for the whole establishment) that had been recommended by Lonely Planet, The Guardian, you name it. The place obviously knew it, too, as on arrival we were presented with a photocopied sheet of write-ups the place had had, and a pricey menu disapeared with a wink and a sly grin and was replaced with another, significantly cheaper, when it became clear that we weren’t up for an expensive evening. The food was great – vegetarian couscous with raisins especially. We also got into buying from local stalls in Fes. A large quantity of dates, rasins, figs and almonds that lasted us over two days cost little more than $5, while a wonderful mixture of fruit juices, a jus melange, cost a measley 3 dirham when made with milk, or 4.5 with orange juice. For a translation, that’s about 50 cents and 75 cents respectively. I had it three times over two days.

Our departure from Fes was uneventful, which considering just how eventful it could have been is quite a relief. We had calculated our money down to the last dirham, and knew that taxis had a flat fare of 120 to the airport, so when a helpful stranger offered repeatedly to show us to the taxis (which are a little out of town) for 150, we politely refused until the good samaritan returned to 120, which was quite literally all we had left. The taxi ride was a good journey out of the city, actually, so Tash and I had shared visions of the driver taking us to the middle of nowhere and dumping us when we quickly began leaving civilisation and entering a land of bare fields and badly-maintained roads. But again, we got there. There were two RyanAir flights leaving Fes airport that morning, and it must be said that the attitude of the officials remained set to ‘casual slash unphased’ throughout the whole experience. Especially as roughly 20 passengers for the flight prior to ours, to Marseilles, remained unprocessed by passport control as the other lucky, earlier passengers all boarded and their plane prepared to leave. Again, luckily, it didn’t happen to us, and we departed Fes for Brussels without a hitch, leaving our first wonderful experience of Africa behind.

For more photos of Fes, click here.

Posted by: Daniel Golding | June 20, 2009

A micro update

Just a quick update to say that we aren’t dead – just struggling to find time to blog. We’re out of Europe now, as it happens, in New York City. Between the last post and this one, we went to Fes, also in Morocco, then Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Amsterdam before arriving in the States yesterday. In any case, expect long and detailed posts that you probably wouldn’t want to read anyway to be appearing as soon as I can find the time to write!

Posted by: Daniel Golding | June 10, 2009

From Madrid to Marrakech

Now, as we lie in our mansion-like Marrakech Riad room, relaxing after a boiling 39 degree walk through the new town, we’ve completed the last major leg of our ‘European’ part of our trip and will only return for short detours to the Low Countries before flying to America. Europe has been amazing: but I will leave our final thoughts on the continent for when we depart for the last time. For now, I’ll recount how we traveled from Granada to here, in North Africa.

Madrid

After our breathless train trip, we arrived in Madrid uneventfully. Our hostel was luckily just across the road from the train station (and the Reina Sofia), so we didn’t even have to walk far with our packs. We were received by a little old Spanish woman who possessed no English whatsoever, but that was fine as we really just needed to be shown to our rooms and left alone. Although I will say that attaining the password for the hostel’s wifi was a little more difficult; we eventually discovered that in Spain, it is rather comically pronounced ‘wiffy’.

We were never expecting much of Madrid; everyone we spoke to reinforced that it is simply an anonymous, faceless metropolis that could be anywhere, and they were right. There is nothing wrong with Madrid, and I’m sure it is quite a livable city, but it certainly lacks any notable landmarks or points of interest to distinguish itself from virtually any other city on the planet. In fact, as we turned one corner and spotted a ubiquitous double-decker tourist bus that you’ll find the world over, it seemed like we could have instantly been back in London – minus the heat, of course.

The reason for our stop in Madrid was not the city, but what is near it. We were using it as a base for daytrips to Segovia and Toledo, much nicer historic towns which are both less than an hour’s train ride away. Which is another reason we were so close to the station. So after exploring Madrid on our first evening, we decided to travel to Toledo the next day, and Segovia the day after.

Toledo

Described by our Lonely Planet guidebook as ‘a corker of a city’, Toledo is a walled fortress of a town that boasts a long history of inhabitants, from the Romans and Visigoths to the Jews, Moors, and Catholics. It’s very scenic, true, but I don’t think either of us were amazed by Toledo. The small, winding cobbled streets are lovely, and the history of the place is astounding, but with all the tourists and the lack of clear attractions it is definitely a place to only spend an afternoon in. We snuck into the otherwise expensive church for free, and decided that we wouldn’t have paid anything for it anyway, and were lucky enough to visit the very interesting Synagogue for free, it being Saturday afternoon. But just as we were running out of things to do, the heavens opened up and it started to pour with rain. It was then a case of migrating slowly from bits of cover to others; I should also note that it was actually really windy and cold, too, and as everywhere else we’d been in Spain was boiling, I had no jumper with me so began to freeze. I was actually quite worried about catching a cold: regardless of the severity of a sneeze, it is not advisable, and sometimes even not possible to enter countries with an obvious cold/flu type thing at the moment. I would not like to complicate our journey to the States by catching a common cold. However, we both seem to be okay, which is a relief.

After spending quite some time in the shelter of a tourist information booth, and having whiled away as much time as we realistically could by pretending to be fascinated by its myriad of brochures on bull fighting and swords, we took an early taxi to the station and waited for our train home.

Segovia

When we got back to Madrid, we felt like we’d been rather unproductive for the day, so spent quite a late night figuring out our accommodation and plans for Belgium and Amsterdam, which included calling a hostel in Amsterdam at 11:55pm and pretending we were in a different timezone when we got a “do you know what time it is here?” response. We also went on a brief trip to an English-language bookshop called J&Js and swapped some of our sizeable traveling library for a pitiful 6.50 Euros of store credit and spent a good hour scouring their huge range of trash, rubbish and airport novels for something – anything – worth spending it on. I already mentioned that through this trip I’ve rediscovered reading, but I think it’s worth emphasising that as someone who had read one fiction book in the last two years or so, over the last three months I have read more than a dozen and have probably spent more on new books than Tash.

The upshot of all this was, of course, that we slept in the next morning, far too late to make a trip to Sevogia worthwhile. This was very unfortunate, as we’re told it is a beautiful city, but combined with our average previous day, and the fact that each way would cost us 11 Euro each even with our Eurail pass, we simply couldn’t be bothered. This is a brutal fact of traveling so intensely for such a period of time, and it might seem mystifying for anyone who hasn’t done so, but occasionally, even in Europe, in the most beautiful, historic and exotic surrounds, you must take a day to do absolutely – absolutely – nothing.

So instead of going to Segovia, we slept in, Skyped with Tash’s family for over an hour, and walked across the square for an afternoon of free entry into the Reina Sofia. The Sofia is confusing museum, as despite its huge size, it does not have any free maps of the floorplan. This made our trip quite a lot more like pot luck than any planned expedition, but we still saw some Dali, some Civil War-era art and photos, and Picasso’s famous Guernica.

In the evening we found a ‘Version Originale’ cinema and saw ‘The Boat That Rocked’, which was quite a lot like Curtis’ ‘Love Actually’ in that it had a completely muddled plot, a fair dash of sentimentality, a too-famous cast of British actors, and was a hell of a lot of fun. The soundtrack was really very good (though you’d be worried if it wasn’t, considering it is about 1960s British pirate rock and pop radio) and we’ll have to get hold of it when we get home. That makes it the third film we’ve seen while traveling (after Watchmen and Star Trek) which for us have been well-spaced slices of normality.

Marrakech

Instead of the original plan to make our way slowly down Spain and ferry across to Morocco, we took the infinitely quicker, and in all probability cheaper route of flying direct to Marrakech with EasyJet. On landing for our first time in Africa, we immediately discovered that Tash’s French would be far, far more useful here than in our time in Paris. Everyone here speaks French, while only a handful know any English, which makes things interesting for me, as hardly any transaction or even a passing heckle to purchase something passes without a short conversation. Indeed, before we were even at our Riad Tash had spoken more French than she did in Paris, with a full and long conversation with our Taxi driver.

Everything in Marrakech is unlike almost anything we’ve seen before: it is all one long and stunning sideshow. The main square of the Medina – the old town, where we are staying – is incredible in itself. For movie buffs like ourselves, it’s the square where much of the first section of Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ takes place. It feels like any carnival you’ve ever seen, but taken to a unique extreme. A journalist once said that listening to Bob Marley was like tuning in on a radio to a current that had always existed, an original as old as humanity. Well, if you take the same meaning, you can apply it to the main square of Marrakech: it is so alive and brimming with energy that it feels like any other carnival you’ve seen is a lesser copy of it. There are stalls, of course, selling jewellry, food – tagines, cous cous, orange juice, mint tea, snails, sheep’s heads – instruments, clothes, souvenirs, and appliances. But there are also storytellers, musicians, henna-tatooists, monkey-wranglers, and somewhat frighteningly, snake-charmers with draped pythons and dancing cobras. All of these people consider photo-taking to be a chargeable service and will vigorously pursue their revenue, so any photos we have are taken covertly, and thus are perhaps not as good as they might otherwise be.

Immediately, we spent an afternoon in the markets and spent far, far more money than we’d anticipated on souvenirs and gifts. This means we’ll probably have to get more out, as both our Riad here and our place in Fes, our next stop, only take cash. We’re staying in the best room we’ve had – and probably will have – on our trip so far. It’s huge, with high ceilings, a sitting area, and another, unused bed, while our own is big enough to warrant posts and drapes. We get a great breakfast in the morning served at our table by the Moorish fountain in the courtyard: and all of this for about AU$30 per night.



The whole city simply reeks of a wonderful chaos: the traffic alone is incredible. It isn’t like the Asian chaotic traffic, where as a pedestrian you simply have to be brave enough to step out onto the road, after which everyone will stop and let you through. Here, it is more like you have to step but still avoid cars and bikes, as they will only alter their course – or heaven forbid, actually stop – if there is certain, unavoidable death ahead. You can forget pedestrian crossings, also, as what few there are seem to be only colourful stretches of normal road to Moroccan drivers.

There isn’t that much in terms of general attractions here; like Granada and many other places we’ve been to, it is enough to simply be in Marrakech. To sit at a restaurant in, or overlooking the square, and watch a completely different world whirl by is enough. Yesterday, we tried going to a few attractions, such as the palaces and gardens, but were largely unsuccessful in much except getting lost. We were amazingly invited into a local’s home, an offer which we would normally have refused, but in this case, it felt rude as he seemed very nice and genial, and we didn’t have anything better to do. So we went in, were kissed on the cheek by his 7-year-old daughter, chatted for a while (or rather, Tash chatted, as he only knew French) and had some of his Berber tea, which was very nice and different from the mint tea they serve the tourists here. Eventually, though, it became clear that he very much wanted to sell us something – anything at all, really, from oils to spices to tea to necklaces. This made us quite uncomfortable, as we felt that having entered his house we couldn’t really bargain to a price we could actually afford – even if we wanted anything in the first place, which we didn’t. We made our excuses and left, which left him quite disappointed, unfortunately. I’m certain that it would have been polite to buy something, and fair, as well, but I don’t think that it would be often that backpackers as low to the bottom of our financial barrel would pass through Marrakech, so I don’t blame him for misjudging our level of spending power. We both felt rather rude, but it couldn’t be helped; it would have been just as rude to walk away in the first place, as at that stage, he didn’t seem to want anything from us except company.

Tomorrow, we leave on a seven hour train to Fes. We’re traveling first-class here for the first time on our entire trip, as it was quite cheap and we were advised that as tourists it would be much more advisable. Apparently, Fes has quite a different feel to Marrakech, which will no doubt be interesting, but is a touch more dangerous, especially after dark. We’ll see.

So, onwards and upwards for this African section of our so-called European trip: we’re off to find some dinner in the square and avoid, as best is possible, having a python draped around our necks. Until next time.

To view more Madrid photos, click here.
To view more Toledo photos, click here.
To view more Marrakech photos, click here.

Posted by: Daniel Golding | June 5, 2009

Seville y Granada

Our time in Seville and Granada was a sharp contrast to that of Barcelona. The south of Spain, particularly Andalusia, feels almost like a completely different country from Barcelona, and despite the hordes of tourists, even a little bit more authentically Spanish. Both our destinations were lovely, and we really wish that we could have spent more time at both – especially Granada.

Seville

Seville is very much a city whose reputation precedes it: tapas, bullfighting, and Moorish architecture are three big dot points that come up whenever it is mentioned as a tourist destination. And while the middle of those two points was definitely not for us, the other two were more than enough to make our Seville stay worthwhile. On our first morning in Seville, we took a free walking tour through the city, which took us to some of Seville’s most impressive buildings, both Moorish and Catholic. The tour itself was not terrific though (which was generally indicative of our hostel, actually: ‘Oasis Seville’ is big on promise, with the allure of wifi, A/C in each room, personal safes, etc, but did not deliver on most counts. The A/C was particularly wanting in the Seville frying pan heat; our receptionist informed us that it came on only at midnight, but it never did), so we abandoned it to guide ourselves around town. It truly is a beautiful city, with some amazing old quarters, and an impressive Gothic church built on top of a Mosque. We also visited the incredible Alcazar, which like most things in Andulusia, was a fascinating mishmash of the Catholic and Muslim eras. Some people complain of the Catholic reworkings of Moorish buildings as destruction, but to me, it makes it all the more interesting: it is like having your history writ large over every surface.

Tapas

The tapas, however, was what made Seville for us. For those who don’t know tapas and are unwilling to use Wikipedia, they are small, usually very cheap samples of main dishes. So instead of ordering one main for each person, a tapas meal will consist of half a dozen or more small samples of most things on the menu. It’s a very interesting approach, and one that I wish was more widespread. Our first significant tapas experience was at a local place recommended highly by our hostel and by wikitravel.com, called ‘La Coloniales’. For once, it was a place equally, if not more popular with locals than with tourists; so much so that they employ a blackboard waiting list for tables. Surprisingly, rather than irritating, this helps create a really amazing atmosphere that I haven’t felt anywhere else.

The usual routine is this: you arrive anywhere between 9 and 10pm, as southern Spanish eat late due to the siesta. You then put your name up on the blackboard, usually by this time, behind seven or eight others. You then go into the bar for a drink, and to wait for your table. The waiters don’t speak any English, and you don’t speak any Spanish, so you point at drinks and hope you’ve got it right, and they smile to themselves at this impromptu game of charades and laugh with you as they serve you the correct drinks after all. You then stand, and maybe talk with a similarly-bewildered English-speaking neighbor (we made friends with an elderly New York state couple on our second night there, helping them understand the system and figure out how much they owed the barman) while you wait, watching delicious tapas fly past, out the tiny window in the front to the hideously overworked, but so-on-top-of-things sole waiter out the front. Every fifteen minutes, this sole waiter bends in the window and shouts out the name of the lucky soul whose turn to eat it is. Sometimes, it’s an English name, and the waiter gets the pronunciation so horribly wrong that all the wait staff have a go at it, laughing as they all cry it out to no response through thick accents. Our New York state friends, on the blackboard as ‘Roger’, get ‘Rooohhherr’, but eventually get the idea. When finally it is your turn to go out, you present yourself, get crossed off the list, sit, order, and eat. All the food is good, and all of it is cheap. The second night, we had seven or so plates, bread, and a drink each, and paid 13 euro. It was wonderful.

Granada

Granada is perhaps unfairly famous for the Alhambra, the Moorish fort and palace complex which rests on top of its central hill. I say unfairly, because there is so much more to Granada than the admittedly brilliant Alhambra. Not only is Granada incredibly scenic, but there is an instantly relaxed feel to the town. We knew within minutes after arriving that we had short changed the city; two nights would not be nearly enough. Unfortunately, there was no changing things at this late stage, so we would have to make do. It is to a large extent a University town, and it has the overwhelming effect of making you want to find your own private bit of shade on the hill and relax for entire afternoons.

On our first night in Granada, we cooked at our hostel. This was, we are very ashamed to admit, the first time we have cooked since we were in Vienna – a shocking 34 days of our trip. Largely, this was because our hostels as we worked down to Istanbul and Greece did not have kitchens, but it was also because the food was very cheap and tasty. But it was with relish that we finally served up our own meal again. We shan’t lapse for so long again.

We also went out that night to a flamenco/jazz bar, and although there was sadly no bands playing, it was still a lot of fun. We went with an Israeli girl and a Texan girl we had met at our hostel, who were both very friendly and intelligent. Our Granada hostel was really very good, but above all, very small, which we have found creates the best atmosphere; like Budapest and Brasov. I had a local drink, which is a beer mixed with a third of a glass of lemon juice. It sounds horrible, but it was really very nice. I’ll have to bring it to Melbourne.

The next day, we went on another walking tour, which this time, was very good. We saw all the old town, and heard all about the history of the place, the Alhambra, the defeat of the Moors by the Catholics and the religious tensions even today. Later in the day, we visited the Alhambra itself, which is really quite incredible, though huge, and left us both exhausted. It is also fairly packed with tourists: apparently 6000 pass through every day, a number so large that they limit visits to the palatial part to a half-an-hour window detailed on your ticket. Ours was for 5.30pm.

After finishing the Alhambra, we came home and collapsed, which we needed to do, as we were going to meet Tash’s friend from high school, Bree, that evening. Bree is studying in Granada, and it was a huge relief to see a familiar face: something we haven’t experienced since we left Rune in Norway. We must say that we were hugely impressed by her: when she left Australia, she didn’t speak a word of Spanish, yet when we met up with her, only four months down the track, she was speaking like a local, and had even had a law exam in Spanish that morning. Very impressive, although it just reinforces how much I want to learn a language myself. Anyway, she took us to a nice local eatery, where we had more tapas, this time of a North African style. I should also note that tapas in Grenada usually have the distinctive advantage of being free: a lot of places include a tapas with every drink, which makes for an economical evening out. Another Spanish invention that should have made its way to Australia.

On the whole, Granada feels like exactly the sort of place you’d want to spend weeks and weeks doing nothing in particular: Bree has picked one of the best places in the world as a backdrop to study. Like so many places we’ve visited, we were loathe to leave, but we had an appointment with Madrid, and in turn, Segovia and Toledo.

A trip to the station

As the station is a bit of a hike from the city centre, we booked our tickets out of Granada on the day we arrived; so, we knew in advance that we had to be at the station early. Our hostel is quite difficult to reach by public transport; either there are two buses or a long walk and one bus. So to get here, we took a 5 euro taxi, which is roughly the same cost as two buses anyway. Very good. To get back to the station on the morning of our departure, we assumed we’d take the same route. We asked at reception what to do about a taxi. She could order one in the morning, and there’d be no problem, she said. All well and good. Miniature, distant, and ultimately ignored alarm bells rang at this point – we were catching a 9.45 train, and were planning on leaving at 9ish, which wouldn’t give much time for error. But hey, the only other time we’d caught a taxi from our hostel to the station was in Romania, at 6am, and that arrived outside our hostel quite literally in under a minute. It was a good precedent.

So, the morning of our departure arrives, and we patiently get up, have a slowish breakfast, involving several coffees for me, and a surreptitiously made sandwich from the hostel stores for lunch. Suddenly, by the time we get to check out, it’s 9.15. How that happened, we don’t know, but we now have 30 minutes or less to get to the station. Our new receptionist looks slightly alarmed when we tell her what time train we have to catch, and could we please order a taxi. She calls. She is put on hold. She stands there for several minutes, not talking into the handset. During this moment of silence and suspense, Tash reminds me that there are only two trains leaving for Madrid today: our one at 9.45am, and the second one, at 6.00pm. This is not a reassuring reminder.

The receptionist hangs up. She tries again. No taxis in the area. She explains that the taxi company sees their number when she calls through, and will just hang up if there isn’t an available taxi nearby. She calls again. She hangs up. There’s a taxi rank in town, she says, down the hill in the main square. If we go there, there’ll be a few taxis waiting. That’s our best bet as there is roadworks near our hostel anyway, and a taxi won’t normally be coming close.

Our the door. Down the cobble-stone, myriad-like streets, Tash’s suitcase-on-wheels that she bought in Istanbul machine-guns us along. We come close to flying with all our bags, like two tortoises surprised to find themselves in the 100 metre downhill sprint. Five minutes later, we’re at the bottom of the hill and at the square. Five empty taxis. We run to the first one. He doesn’t speak English, we don’t speak Spanish, but we communicate our destination. Quickly we throw our bags into the back. It’s 9.30. We pull out of the curb.

Into traffic. A dead stop. Two full minutes. We start forward, moving several body lengths before stopping again. The lights have turned red for the second time without us making it passed. Forward again. We round the corner – into more traffic. It is 9.35.

I’m sure that the taxi driver has got the idea that we’re very late, by all our sighing and moaning at every pause, but we show him our train ticket with the 9.45 departure time anyway. “Traffico!”, he says, with a lift of the shoulders and a wave of the arms. Not much he can do, we agree, but what we wouldn’t give for our Jack Brabham-style Athenian taxi driver now. 150 kph down the sidewalk would not be an unwelcome change. We stare mournfully at the bumper of the car in front.

Finally, a stretch of open road. Our driver floors it for at least 100 metres before running into more traffic. A detour is taken, off the main road and into back streets. This will surely get us there quicker, but as luck would have it, we round the final bend into roadworks. Full stop. Car horns. It is now 9.40. Five minutes. The train station is in visible on the other side of the workmen. The car at the front of the queue dementedly mounts the curb. The line starts moving. Our driver inches forward, turns left, and lets loose completely the instant there is open road in front. We’re at the station. 9.44. I don’t remember if the taxi’s wheels had stopped before we were out of the car. 10 Euros to our driver for a 5 Euro trip and into the station. We show our tickets to the concierge and we’re through the security gates, onto the platform, our feet barely touching solid ground before leaping onto the train.

It’s 9.45. The train slowly pulls out of the station, with us, its most unlikely passengers, on board. We breathe for the first time in 45 minutes. And on to Madrid.

For more Seville photos, click here.

For more Granada photos, click here.

Posted by: Daniel Golding | June 1, 2009

Barcelona

I write this, as I so often do, on a train, whiling away the hours between destinations by giving account of our last stop. It has almost become a ritual by now, and certainly kills two birds with one stone. This time, though, it’s not just any old train that I write you from. No, and much to our great surprise, the Spanish trains are something else altogether. Not only are they high speed (currently, we travel at 283 kph), but they feel more like planes than trains, without the inconvenience of flying.

On arriving at the airport, er, train station, you must go through baggage control, complete with x-ray machines (thank you, 2005 Madrid train bombings). You then check in at the entrance to the platform, which is the only time you show your ticket. After that, a stewardess stands to greet you at every carriage, and once underway, she (it has only been a ‘she’ so far) will walk up and down the isles handing out complimentary headphones for the in-flight, er, en-travel entertainment system.

On our train from Barcelona to Madrid, they were showing Asterix and Obelix at the Olympic Games, and on this trip, our connecting journey from Madrid to Seville (we aren’t staying in Madrid until later; more on that in a moment), which I write this on, it’s The Women. Unfortunately, both films have been dubbed in Spanish. While that wasn’t a huge problem for Asterix, as like the comic books, you can get the idea without following the dialogue, The Women requires a bit more concentration. Tash is giving it a go while I write this and listen to one of the train’s radio stations instead. At the moment, they’re playing Dizzy Gilespie, though earlier they were playing a variety of film scores, including John Williams.

I fear this may be the last blog post I ever write, as the passenger the isle over from us appears to be dying very slowly from what can only be diagnosed as swine flu. Every few moments, she cough-sneezes, a unique malady I hear only afflicts swine flu sufferers; a sort of AAAAACKK-HHHHMMMM! I expect she, and everyone within breathing distance will be dead within the hour. Goodbye, cruel world.

Returning to reality, I’m sure it’s actually only a common cold or such, but with all the paranoia and worry being sent to us from Australia, it’s difficult to think anything else. The Age website seems to have a pink fit about it every few days, but we would barely know it was happening otherwise. We’ve been watching BBC World News a lot recently, and I also bought a copy of The International Herald Tribune (the ‘World’ version of the New York Times) the other day, and neither have mentioned it at all. Perhaps Australia is one of the worst-affected countries? It’s difficult to tell from over here.

I also feel like I should thank the people who’ve commented on this blog. It’s not always easy to reply to each individual comment (preparing these ahead of time is easy enough, but replying takes actual time connected to the internet, which can be difficult), but rest assured that we read every single one of them, and that every single one of them is greatly appreciated. It’s very nice to hear from not only our parents, but from people like Jan and Jim Short, and Christina, who are not related to us and therefore not obliged to comment on every single post we make. Thank you.

Anyway, so to return to what you’re presumably reading this blog for: to see what we’ve been up to.

We left Paris nice and early, as I noted last post, and spent a sleepy five hours in Montpellier, where we had to change trains. In fact, those sleepy five hours were unfortunately spent within the train station at various cafes, as the station did not provide a left luggage service. This was, as the attendant told us, ‘because of terrorists’. Strange, then, that we could leave our luggage at Cologne station without hassle, because terrorists wanting to blow up Montpellier but not Cologne strike me as very strange terrorists indeed. So to cut a long story short (too late?) in Montpellier, we sat, read, ate, and drank coffees.

On our train to Barcelona, we met up with another Melbournian, a middle-aged man called Victor. He was traveling back over the border by train as his family had gone ahead to Barcelona, while he had stayed in France to return a hire car. But he’d forgotten his passport. So after spending a fair while talking to him about his problem, and what we were doing, and everything most fellow travelers chat about, he was carted off by the Spanish border police to an unknown fate. Miraculously, we ran into him the next day in Barcelona with his family: it turns out that they’d taken him over the border again, where he’d basically been forced to take an extraordinarily expensive taxi ride to Spain, getting him to Barcelona at 3AM. I guess looking on an experience like that makes us realise that the problems we’ve had haven’t been as nearly as bad as they could have been.

Barcelona itself was really a wonderful city. Compared with Paris, it was simply teeming with life and energy. We stayed just off the main street, Las Ramblas, which was a good idea as nearly everything was within walking distance. The two architectural halves of Barcelona – the Modernisme of Gaudi and the medieval Gothic – combine to make it a really interesting city to sight-see in. And the sights certainly are amazing: La Sagrada Familia in particular is quite something, a half-beautiful, half-ugly melted candlestick of a church crowning the city. But it isn’t so much the sights that make the city so enjoyable. When we arrived from Paris, a gentleman in the carriage behind us stepped onto the platform, threw his arms up into the air, leaned backwards and yelled “Barca!” with great relief, overjoyed at what I took to be a return to his native city. I can understand why you might do that after traveling Europe: Barcelona is such a laid-back city, where everyone is always energetic and the streets busy, but somehow the place retains a feeling of non-urgency, like there is no rush to be anywhere, see anything, or do anything. It simply feels enough to just BE in Barcelona.

Granted, it may have been livelier than usual in Barcelona, given that the evening before we arrived their football team won a small trophy called the European Champions League. The day we arrived, the streets were packed with fans wearing maroon and yellow, singing, chanting and generally celebrating. I’m not unhappy that we missed the night before, given that eventually, riot police were called in to quell the crowds and rubber bullets were used. But the city certainly had a party atmosphere about it. We should also mention that Barcelona has a better quality of busker than most other cities: I even bought the CD of one group, which featured an instrument I’d never seen before, a Hang, which looked to me like an inverse Jamaican steel drum, but which is apparently from Switzerland, and is hauntingly beautiful. I don’t have any way to play the CD until I return to Australia, of course, only having my disk drive-less netbook and an iPod with me. But on top of buskers, there are street artists everywhere, including those generally awful statue people, which seem to even be okay in Barcelona; people get made up in the most amazing costumes, from vampire fairies, ala Hellboy, to flamenco dancers.

We also had the inverse experience of buying train tickets than we did in Romania. In Barcelona, the server didn’t speak English, just like the servers in Brasov, but instead of taking a ‘woe betide ye who dotht speak my language’ approach, he took it as a humourous challenge to communicate with us. Needless to say we got the exact tickets we wanted.

We finally had decent access to the internet again in Barcelona, so every night after sight-seeing and exploring, we would come back to the hostel and look at an enormous list of train timetables, plane flights, hostel availabilities, and of course, our Lonely Planet bible. In the end, we sadly came to the realisation that there is simply no way to fit Portugal in to our trip, as the train links from Spain are terribly slow. Even if we got there at the expense of another part of our travel, we could only spent a few days in Lisbon at most. So, we agonisingly cut it out of our travels, which has now solidified into a concrete itinerary until we leave for New York on the 18th. It is as follows:

* 31st-3rd: Seville
* 3rd-5th: Grenada
* 5th-8th: Madrid/Toledo/Segovia
* 8th-11th: Marrakesh
* 11th-14th: Fez
* 14th-16th: Brussels/Bruges
* 16th-18th: Amsterdam
* 18th: New York City

As you can see, on the 8th we fly with EasyJet to Morocco, where we’ll stay for six nights before flying, with RyanAir, all the way back to Belgium. This is partly because we need to be in Dusseldorf on the 18th to fly to New York City, partly because it was one of the cheapest flights in that period to the Low Countries or Germany, and partly because I wanted to make it to Amsterdam on this trip. Bruges and Brussels are just bonuses.

And so, I will return now to the view of passing Spanish villas, castellos and gently rolling hills and will update you next when we’ve spent a bit of time in Seville. Our dying compatriot across the isles has appeared to have stopped cough-sneezing, though whether that is because she’s asleep or because she’s moved on to the next world is a mystery. She moves occasionally, though I just take that as an indication that Rigour Mortis is taking hold. Tash has made a mouth-mask out of her Hungarian shawl, and I guess the next word document I’ll type up will be my will. ‘Til next life…

For more Barcelona photos, please click here.

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