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Welcome to my travel journal. [Jun. 15th, 2014|02:34 pm]
Golders Green
Scroll right down to the bottom of the page to begin with my first entry, Scotland - Nov. 4th, 2005.

Scroll up for each subsequent entry, in chronological order, culminating in the most recent and final entry, Ireland, Part 2: Wicklow Mountains - Jan. 26th, 2007.
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Ireland, Part 2: Wicklow Mountains [Jan. 26th, 2007|05:13 pm]
Golders Green
The next day, Sunday, we were on the road early, headed for the Wicklow Mountains National Park, travelling south of Dublin then inland from the east coast of Ireland, the focus for our hike being the Glendalough area (Gleann Da Loch: the valley of two lakes).

We explored the ruins of the ancient monastic settlement (monastic city) of St. Kevin's, founded in the 6th Century by St. Kevin, a deeply religious Christian hermit who was attracted by the area's remoteness. Followers followed, as they do, and a monastic city eventually sprang up, in its heyday one of the greatest religious universities in Ireland. Among the interesting things to see here is St. Kevin's church, built of stone and still standing today at well over a thousand years old, its roof of overlapping stones intact. There is the Round Tower, one of many ancient round towers throughout Ireland, although the Round Tower of Glendalough is considered the most finely constructed of them all. It is still complete and stands just over 30 metres in height. There is some debate over what the towers were actually built for, although one theory is they were used as a place of sanctuary for the religious leaders in times of invasion, and a place to stash religious treasures and books (the doorway to the tower is high up and a ladder could have been used to enter, with the ladder then being pulled in). There is also a giant Celtic-style cross which, legend has it, will grant a wish for you if you are able to encircle it completely with your arms. And yes, we gave it a go.

Once on the ascent we passed the lovely Pollanass (Poulanass) Waterfall then up through trees to eventually join a boardwalk. Much of the hiking here is through beautiful forests, with a wide variety of trees. We saw Douglas-fir (pine), an import from the United States; old oak, like those originally in Ireland; firs from Norway which are used as Christmas trees in Ireland; and birch and holly. The boardwalk, as I recall, was made of railway sleepers, laid lengthways in pairs (side-by-side), and covered with netting that was stapled to the wood. Eventually we broke out into a clearing, having climbed to around a thousand feet above the lakes.

There are two lakes in the great valley here, the Upper and the Lower. The Upper Lake is the biggest and further to the west. From what I remember, there was only one huge lake way back when, till alluvial deposits from the river caused a division and created the two separate lakes that exist today.

It was really misty up where we were, and things in the distance seemed ghostly, like apparitions. The lake, which we could barely make out far below us, was no exception. On sunny clear days the view, we understood, was spectacular. Because of the conditions on this day, everything we saw had a different quality altogether. We were not going to get those views, but said conditions gave the ruggedness of the mountains another kind of appeal.

The walk flattened out for a while, and we were lucky to come across some feral goats. They had huge horns which grew out very long and curved. I don't remember them being scared of us at first, but once we got too close they disappeared into the misty forest. Along this trail we were very high up on the mountain, with dense forest to our left and quite a drop to the valley and its lakes below us to the right. There were a couple of points where I could carefully peer between the rocks and see quite a steep drop. If somebody slipped at these places, they would slide away and not stop till they hit the bottom.

We were headed west into the prevailing wind with mist rolling in. Here there were many things of interest, including: heather, a little drab at this time of year; bracken, tough ferns that had died back to a red colour for the winter; granite rocks and boulders, of which we were to see a lot more soon enough; and mica schist (mineral-laced rock) which is soft in comparison with the granite.

Due to the fog, there wasn't much to see of the valley when we reached the formal lookout, so we left the boardwalk and turned in to follow a creek bed in a steep climb that would take us much higher up the mountain. This creek bed, for want of a better term, cut through some rugged country which I think was made up of very tough grasses growing in peaty soil. The temperature dropped as we got higher until it was very cold and I started to see clumps of pure white snow on the ground.

At the side of the rocky creek bed we stopped to examine some peat, which is, as I have noted elsewhere in my journal, an important ingredient in the production of scotch. There was an awful lot of peat where we now were, the harsh countryside consisting of blanket bog, or peat that covers the land like a giant blanket. Well, actually, it IS the land, to a certain depth anyway. A few thousand years ago, Ireland's heavy rainfall caused the leaching of minerals from the soil which formed a layer that water could not penetrate. The soil above this layer became waterlogged, and peat as we now know it began to form. Apart from being mostly water, peat is the partially decomposed remains of plants which have been laid down and accumulated over the ages. A list of the plants would include grass, heather, and moss. The roots of trees and even partially-preserved animal remains can be found in the bogs due to the high acidity and lack of oxygen in the soil. Peat is always increasing in depth, albeit very slowly, because there are tough plants that can grow in the bogs, and when they die away, they, too, are laid down and become peat. I think the peat we looked at (where the creek bed had carved away part of the land giving a sort of cross-section or cutaway view) was a metre or so deep, but peat can be a lot deeper than that. In Ireland, as in Scotland, people would cut the peat (ie. dig it up), dry it, then use it as fuel. Once the peat is gone, it's gone, and in modern Ireland it is the focus of conservation efforts.

We kept climbing, the temperature continuing to drop, with more and more snow appearing on the ground. It became extremely cold and the ground levelled out, and I remember looking in awe at this mist-shrouded alien landscape. It was ethereal and timeless. In my terminology the ground beneath our boots was swamp, and we had to watch where we walked. A couple of intriguing things we saw up here, besides the peat, were sphagnum (beautiful light green bog mosses) and peat hags (sort of large, ugly pits in the bog). Eventually the ground underfoot became a little more solid, the grasses became longer, and we sat on some rocks to have hot soup and eat. It was too cold to sit around for long, though, and we were soon on our way again.

The land became a little more friendly, and we came to a very steep and grassy descent. The air was warming up as we got lower, and soon I was leading the way down through grasses littered with rocks and badger holes. We couldn't yet shake the mist. Part way down the giant slope, I thought I felt or heard the presence of something, then saw indistinct shapes in the distance. I had to look hard, but I realised I was looking at wild deer. As soon as they got wind of me they were off and literally disappeared. Apparently the deer are a hybrid of Irish Red Deer and Japanese Sika.

At some point while moving across the land we crossed an energetic river by footbridge, with water crashing over boulders and slabs of rock. I can't be sure, but I think this must have been the Glenealo River, and, certainly, after this point we were in the Glenealo Valley. We left the fog behind to breathtaking views of where we were now headed: down the Glenealo Valley towards Glendalough Valley and the Upper Lake. We walked along the valley whose steep sides were made of giant granite boulders, slopes that rose way up and disappeared into the fog layer at the top of the mountains. We were ants. A long way up, on the big rocks, and too far away for the camera, I picked out wild goats who must live amongst the rocks and no doubt eat the sparse vegetation.

Shortly before reaching the Upper Lake, we passed through a derelict miners' village. Lead was mined here till the late 1800s, and there are still the remains of some of the buildings. Working here was so hard, the view east down the valleys (where we walked) is nicknamed Van Diemen's Land after Tasmania, because the miners thought it was just as harsh as being exiled to Australia, as many Irish people were for punishment in those days.

On the flat again, and walking alongside the Upper Lake, we could see in the distance across the water a small cave set in a precarious position in the rock wall above the surface of the lake. The cave is called St. Kevin's Bed and legend has it St. Kevin slept here and used it for a retreat. By all accounts it isn't easy to get to, and many visitors to the area have run into difficulties on the rocky slope during the attempt and have had to be assisted by Mountain Rescue. This was the final part of our hike, along the northern edge of the lake through a beautiful plantation of Scots Pine.
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Across the Creek to Deira [Jun. 2nd, 2006|01:04 pm]
Golders Green
With the pitch blackness of the desert all around us, we sat on hard cushions at long, low tables in a Bedouin-style camp laid on for the tourists. It was fun and allowed us to experience a safe and sanitised version of an Arabian camp way out in the middle of nowhere under an amazingly clear starry sky. There were plenty of cold drinks, and we enjoyed a feast of grilled meats cooked right there in the camp, along with salads and desserts. To round off the night we were entertained by traditional music and a belly dancer.

It was a long drive through the black emptiness of the desert to the highway, then we were back in the city by about 10:30pm where the traffic was still heavy and congested, even at that hour. Jamahl made sure everyone remained wide awake with his aggressive, kamikaze driving.

The next morning V. and I went for a walk from the hotel, across the Al Maktoum bridge, then along the opposite side of the Creek to Deira. Our long hike that day took us through the international business centre of the city, and into the bustling streets and alleyways of the marketplaces.

That afternoon and evening, dictated by the company's timetable, we had booked ourselves on a formal city tour with a guide, but as it turned out the tour revisited many places we had already been to by ourselves, and the guide's diction was very poor. The tour was still well worth it as we went to a few new places like mosques, old merchant houses, a beautiful beach on the Persian Gulf, and the ancient Al Fahidi Fort which is now the Dubai Museum. After crossing the Creek by abra (water taxi) to the Deira side, we did a little exploring of the marketplaces, the main attractions being the gold souk and the spice souk. The spice markets were amazing, with spices in their raw states from all over the middle east, including big sticks of cinnamon, peppers, cloves, frankincense, dried flowers and mint, you name it, along with beautiful fruits like dates, figs and sultanas, plus much more.

I felt like a drink before dinner, but our hotel didn't serve alcohol, so I went exploring and checked out the Ramada Hotel a couple of blocks from where we were staying. I went back to collect V. then we chose one of the restaurants inside the Ramada. A cold beer never tasted so good. For dinner I had a perfectly cooked lightly-peppered steak, and our waiter Mustafa received a tip for his great service.

Flying out the following morning, we were headed for London.
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The Desert [May. 24th, 2006|03:46 pm]
Golders Green
We joined the Creek then strolled along the bank on the Bur Dubai side, part of which is a sort of promenade that leads to a more congested, busier section of town where the street markets are, and where people catch the abras (water taxis) travelling to and fro across the water. We were headed in the direction of the Gulf and the Al Shindagha tunnel, but of course we were drawn into the bustling "old souk" area with its busy streets and labyrinthine markets, some of which are covered over and resemble tunnels.

At one shop I bought a shirt for 55 United Arab Emirates Dirhams, and I think at that time V. figured a Dirham to be worth about 40 New Zealand cents. In the streets and amongst the markets, though, we mainly just explored and looked and listened. Beginning at around midday, praying was broadcast across the city through powerful loudspeakers and every shop and stall closed up, reopening at 4:00pm.

Arriving at the tunnel we figured it was time to start heading back, and we also decided that the following day we would walk across the Al Maktoum bridge to see the city from the other side of the Creek and to explore Deira.

On the way back along the Creek, not far out from the street markets, I could see a middle-aged couple approaching who were obviously tourists as we were, and the lady came straight up to me and asked if I spoke English. This was the first of many times on our travels I was asked for directions by strangers; I suppose it became something of a running joke between me and V. It's a small world after all, as they say, because the lady and her partner were from Christchurch like us, and she owned a business in New Regent Street just around the corner from my old work. She was very nice and wanted to know the way to a money exchange.

By late afternoon we were in a Toyota 4WD headed out of the city, driven by Jamahl and shared with four other passengers: an Aussie girl in the front passenger seat; an unattractive couple in the middle seat, he from Singapore, she from Taiwan; and alongside them an attractive, petite woman. V. and I were in the small seat at the back.

We drove for a while along desert highway where the speed limit is 120km per hour. The highway was lined with pale green vegetation that certainly wouldn't flourish there naturally; irrigation piping is laid all the way along it, watering the plants regularly. Our destination was the desert, or, more specifically, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the outer edge of which lies 45km from the city. The reserve is essentially a 225 square kilometre national park with strict rules in place for its protection.

At a point along the highway, and well out into the desert by this stage, we stopped at a small gas station so everybody could make sure their bladders were empty. The attractive woman who had been in the middle seat alongside the couple offered to swap places with me as I was a bit cramped-up in the small rear seat, so when we drove on again she was beside V. in the back, and I had more leg room.

Eventually leaving the road behind, and after passing through a perimeter gate manned by a uniformed guard, our vehicle joined up with some other 4WDs at a place where we stopped to stretch our legs and have a look around. The late afternoon sun was shining and it was very warm. The Arabian climate really agreed with me; it was hot and dry and very pleasant. Looking around I saw beautiful golden sand for as far as the eye could see, dotted with scrub and the odd tall tree, but this was only the beginning.

As part of a convoy of similar vehicles we went on an extended 4WD journey deep into the desert, driving up and down and across the dunes. Jamahl was a good driver and took things to the limit, leaving our stomachs behind many times. Despite the crazy driving, the Taiwanese woman took several mobile phone calls and was blabbering away much of the time. We came over the top of one of the dunes and saw that another driver in the convoy had taken a spill. The vehicle was on its side, crunched up with the windscreen shattered into a spiderweb pattern. They had been a bit ahead of us, and another couple of 4WDs had already stopped to assist, helping the passengers out through the doors which were now facing directly skyward.

It might seem a destructive pastime, four-wheel-driving in a conservation reserve, but things are strictly controlled. The reserve is broken up into four conservation zones, number one being an exclusion zone, no people allowed, and number four being for limited tourist safaris like ours run by registered operators along certain routes. The fees charged for entering the zone are put into conservation.

One of our stops out in the desert was at a working camel farm which was comprised of very old corrals, some Arab farmers, and the camels themselves. The men were catching ahold of each camel in turn so an old man could rub them down with some unidentified substance.

We had several stops way out in the desert so we could walk through the sand and over the dunes, and watch the sun go down. In every direction there appeared to be sand and nothing but -- just rolling dunes, and occasionally a bit of sparse scrub. It looked simply endless and quite beautiful.

The desert seems barren, but in fact it's inhabited by many species of animals. In one of the museums I was amazed to discover that hedgehogs (not unlike our own) live in the desert. There is a large variety of lizards, different species of wild cat, Arabian red foxes, the Arabian hare, and gazelles. There are also more than half-a-dozen different types of birds of prey, including kestrels, falcons, and eagles.

All this, and a belly dancer too.

(More later...)
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Bur Dubai [May. 12th, 2006|02:36 pm]
Golders Green
I left the hotel at 6:00am on Friday to go for a walk and to buy some coffee. The city was waking up and there were a few people around. On Mankhool Road I found a Choitram supermarket and bought a jar of coffee, a bottle of Almarai cow's milk, some Extra gum, and a box of New Zealand muesli bars.

V. and I were keen to go exploring on foot, so after breakfast we found our way back out to Mankhool Road intending to reach the Dubai Creek. Dubai is built around a natural inlet from the Gulf, artificially deepened and widened into the creek they have today. The Creek is about 10km long and divides the city in two: on one side is Bur Dubai where our hotel was, and which appears to be an older part of town; and on the other is Deira which, looking from the Bur Dubai side, seems more like the modern metropolitan business district.

Turning into Khalid Bin Al Waleed Road we headed in the general direction of the Al Maktoum Bridge, which links Bur Dubai with Deira. On the Gulf, where the Creek begins, the undersea Al Shindagha Tunnel also connects the two districts. We had something of a plan to walk through town to the vicinity of the bridge, then along the Creek to the tunnel.

Generally speaking, the men in the street were well-dressed, but we saw few women outdoors. There is no street crime in Dubai, and both men and women can walk unmolested at any time of the day or night. This emirate is very tolerant of the ways of tourists, but the advice is still given for women to dress modestly.

The natives only make up about 20 percent of the population, the rest being visitors with permission to live and work in Dubai, so there is a real mix of nationalities. Someone in Dubai told me all the city's cab drivers were from Pakistan and I thought he had rocks in his head, but after I learned more about the place it didn't seem so strange.

(More later...)
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Lift-Off [May. 7th, 2006|08:16 pm]
Golders Green
There's still a bit to do here. The journal started with Scotland, but there were things we saw and did way before that which deserve an honourable mention, and I think I've yet to write concluding parts for Florence, Krakow, and Ireland. With Ireland, it wasn't the day we spent in Dublin I liked so much as the next day's hike in the Wicklow Mountains National Park.

More than a year ago we started out on a mid-afternoon Emirates flight from New Zealand to the United Arab Emirates, with transit stops in Melbourne and Singapore. The long-haul flight was made more bearable by the Emirates personal entertainment system, a little TV screen and headphones for each passenger, with a very big selection of movies, music, and TV shows under many different categories.

During the stretch between Melbourne and Singapore I watched Bad Day at Black Rock, an old Spencer Tracy film which I really enjoyed -- the best movie I'd seen for a very long time. The next stretch was from Singapore to Dubai, and during the lights-out, with everyone else in the cabin snoring, I watched another cracker of a movie, The Incredibles. I had such a good time watching it while trying not to wake the other passengers with my laughter.

We had flown out of New Zealand at 3:10pm on Wednesday and touched down in the United Arab Emirates at 4:55am, also on Wednesday. I can't recall anything we did after checking in to the Savoy Park Hotel in the city of Dubai, so we may have gone to bed early that morning and slept for some of the day.

Dubai is also the name of the emirate that encompasses the city, an emirate being a political territory (maybe we would use the loose term "state") within the Muslim country United Arab Emirates. In fact, there are seven emirates that make up the country, including Sharjah and Ajman which we visited. Dubai is right on the Persian Gulf, with the United Arab Emirates next to Saudi Arabia as part of the Arabian Peninsula.

On Thursday we had decided to join a proper tour, an excursion that took us through two of Dubai's neighbouring emirates for some sightseeing and visits to sites of cultural and historical interest. In Sharjah we stood and admired the King Faisal Mosque; from the outside only, unfortunately. We spent some time walking through the Blue Souk, a market of somewhere around 600 shops housed inside a beautiful building comprised of two long sections joined by raised tunnels that resemble covered bridges. The hundreds of shops showcase gold, jewels, lingerie (I'll come back to that), rugs, antiques, electronics, and clothing, plus much more, along with all manner of curiosities from various exotic countries.

One of the most incongruous things I saw that day were women fully clothed in burqa and black robes chatting merrily to each other in the lingerie shops while looking through the merchandise.

Crowded along the busy waterfront of Sharjah's Creek, which is quite a large stretch of water, were dhows (traditional wooden vessels), rough-and-ready trading boats that travel to and from the neighbouring countries bringing all sorts of goodies for locals and tourists to buy, with motley crews made up of no nationality in particular.

I noted that alcohol is entirely banned in Sharjah; you can't buy any there and you aren't even allowed to bring some in for personal consumption. On the positive side, Sharjah is a relatively inexpensive place to live, so a lot of people reside there and commute to their jobs in Dubai. From what we experienced, however, the road traffic can be chaotic, with much congestion and the constant tooting of horns, so I can imagine what it might be like during a typical rush-hour.

In Ajman, the smallest of the emirates, we visited the Ajman Museum, once a fortress but now home to displays showing the ancient heritage of the region, including the traditional professions and lifestyles of the people. Mannequins act out scenes from the past such as men relaxing in a coffee house smoking pipes, and men working their trades. I was drawn to an exhibit of weapons, including handguns, with the usual Arabic/English dual-language signs having some wayward translations such as "capable of shooting four ballots" (bullets) and "Smith-Waison" (Smith & Wesson).

(More later...)
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Ireland, Part 1: Dublin [Apr. 29th, 2006|07:43 am]
Golders Green
V. and I walked from Wood Street to Walthamstow Central where we took the Tube to Tottenham Hale, and from there caught the 05:37 Stansted Express train. At Stansted we looked around the shops a little and V. bought a very nice top at Ted Baker.

Seated in the aircraft cabin and waiting for takeoff I noticed the Ryanair jet had no seats numbered 13. The rows skipped directly from 12 to 14. Our flight attendant was a very attractive, dark-haired Latin woman called Manuela whose sultry voice was a pleasure to listen to over the PA system.

From the airport in Dublin we sat on the upper deck of the No. 747 bus and took a ride into town. Disruptive and unsightly street improvement works were in full swing along O'Connell Street, a major renovation project that apparently will result in new paving and wider footpaths, rows of trees, and a new central median, all with better street lighting.

After checking into our hotel we went for a walk around the town and I bought a neat little city guidebook from the visitor information shop. I was getting hungry so I had a coffee on Abbey Street and we looked through my book while I waited for a Govinda's across the road to open for an early lunch. Lasagne with broccoli and a Greek salad made me feel better then we walked along the River Liffey to visit the Guinness Storehouse.

The Storehouse experience is basically a giant marketing exercise for the brand, but it's also very informative and I enjoyed it. I liked the section devoted to the old Guinness promotional characters and cartoons, the work of the highly talented artist John Gilroy, although this part of the otherwise busy Storehouse was deserted except for V. and me. A favourite postcard of mine, drawn by Gilroy, shows the "Guinness for Strength" man carrying a girder. Guinness is a stout, a dark ale so-called because it is a stronger and darker (ie. stout) version of porter, also a variety of ale. It is actually dark red in colour, and was first brewed in 1759 by the revered Arthur Guinness.

At our hotel restaurant that evening, naturally I ordered a pint of Guinness; but in a town most proud of its native tipple, and with a proliferation of Guinness pint glasses in the local shops, why was I served my drink in a Bulmer Cider glass on a Budweiser coaster?

(More later...)
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Florence, Part 4 [Mar. 4th, 2006|06:06 pm]
Golders Green
Saturday brought us a beautiful sunny morning and we were out and about early. We went for a walk around the relatively quiet streets and stopped in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio to soak up the sunshine and admire the river. Here there is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, the great sculptor and goldsmith, protected by a wrought metal fence. The fence is bristling with dozens of padlocks, the result of a romantic tradition whereby lovers will attach a padlock then throw the key into the Arno.

Around 8:30am we met up with our guide for the day and our itsy bitsy tour group which consisted of me and V., two female nurses from the Canadian military, and Miss L. from Singapore. Miss L. had slept late and hadn’t yet arrived so the five of us went to a cafe bar to wait for her. The guide did explain why we ought to wait for the tardy Miss L. although I would have been perfectly happy to leave her behind. She didn’t hold us up for too long however, and we were soon on a bus to the ancient town of Fiesole to begin our exploration of Tuscany.

Apart from the bus ride up to Fiesole we spent the day on foot, and we began by learning about the Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of the country, and their settlement in Fiesole long before the arrival of the Romans and the establishment of the Roman colony Florentia (now Florence) in 59 B.C.

Our walk took us way into the hills of Tuscany, amongst the olive groves, with magnificent views of Florence down below in the distance, and through the beautiful woods of Monte Ceceri. This is a great forest, dominated by cypress, with rocks and cliffs and walking trails. Michelangelo spent time in these hills, and it is generally believed that Leonardo tried out his flying machine here.

Coming down out of the forest but still in the hills, we walked along some back roads to the Fattoria di Maiano (Maiano Farm) and more great views. On the way we passed olive trees right by the road that were hundreds of years old and still producing, planted on tiers cut into the slopes like the ones we had seen while hiking along the Cinque Terre. The Maiano Farm is around 330 hectares with a third of its land area devoted to growing completely organic olives. There are 18,000 trees producing the olives which are picked by hand in November and December and then pressed on the farm a few hours after being harvested to make high quality extra virgin olive oil.

We left our backpacks at the farm’s shop and, accompanied by a black and white dog from the farm, walked to the Villa di Maiano (owner’s residence). The diminutive Miss L. held us up again while she dithered about whether or not to take her gloves or some such nonsense, and I’m afraid I had a little growl at her. We went through the gates of the old villa and the black and white dog started a fight with a yellow dog, then a peasant came and belted the yellow dog before dragging it off somewhere. We had the place to ourselves and went on an interesting tour of the house and wandered around the garden, from which we had good views of Florence a few kilometres distant.

Back at the restaurant behind the shop, which is basically an upmarket delicatessen showcasing the farm’s products such as olive oil, wine, and meat (plus other foods like fruit, vegetables, and honey), we sat down to a delicious lunch that included meats, oils, breads, and olives. It was washed down with the local Chianti, and our guide took us through a proper wine-tasting lesson.

(More later…)
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Krakow, Part 4 [Feb. 26th, 2006|12:59 pm]
Golders Green
From Auschwitz I the bus took us the three kilometres to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the largest part of the Auschwitz complex where most victims of Nazi extermination were murdered. This had been the village of Brzezinka till the Germans evicted the Polish people who lived here and destroyed their houses to make way for the death camp. We got off the bus and walked into the camp through the guardhouse building. The lower part of the main watchtower is the Gate, and despite a heavy snowfall we could still make out part of the railway spur which brought the trains in from the main railway lines outside. Prisoners of all nationalities were brought into the camp through the Gate. Those of Jewish extraction were immediately divided into two columns, one for men and one for women and children. After a selection process, around three quarters of the new arrivals would be sent to the gas chambers.

We were able to walk around the camp in the snow and go inside the barracks where the prisoners had been kept. The living quarters and communal latrines remain as they were back in the day. The brick barracks were built in haste and set onto the swampy ground without foundations or floors. The wooden barracks were originally stables designed to accommodate 52 horses; after scant modification, each building was used to house several hundred and sometimes up to a thousand prisoners. We also went up into the main watchtower above the Gate from where we could look out over much of the camp.

By the time we got back to Krakow it was late in the afternoon. At our hotel we freshened up then went downstairs for a drink or two before dinner. The service in the hotel restaurant was too slow so I made a formal complaint then left to find somewhere better. Looking around the town we decided on Wierzynek 1364 and it was a good choice. This is the most famous restaurant in the city, so-named because in 1364 the Polish king Kazimierz the Great invited monarchs from all over Europe to a gathering, ostensibly to celebrate his granddaughter’s wedding, but mainly for political purposes. The King asked a rich merchant, Wierzynek, to play host and take charge of the festivities, and the banquet Wierzynek laid on at his own house for the King and the guests has passed into legend. V. and I walked in off the street to be met by an elegant young lady in period dress. There are about half-a-dozen separately decorated dining rooms within the restaurant, and the girl led us upstairs to what I think was the Pompejanska room which has frescoes on the walls. She handed us off to a waiter and from then on he looked after us very well. Our table was right by the window looking down into the square. The food was superb and we really enjoyed our meal.

I gave our waiter a tip then we went for a late-night stroll around Krakow.

(More later…)
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Krakow, Part 3: Oswiecim [Feb. 19th, 2006|12:22 pm]
Golders Green
Once on the bus we headed out of town and through the snow-bound countryside where people with snow shovels were clearing snow from the driveways of nice homes. The snow had stopped falling but the sky was overcast and the land was completely white for as far as the eye could see.

We got off the bus in the town of Oswiecim which was renamed Auschwitz by the Germans in late 1939. Around this time, mass arrests throughout occupied Poland had caused overcrowding in the existing prisons, and the Germans needed to create a concentration camp. Because of its relatively isolated location, its railway junction, and its deserted pre-War Polish barracks, they decided on Auschwitz in April 1940, with the first Polish political prisoners being brought to the camp in June 1940.

From the outside it looks pretty much as it did back then, but it’s now a state museum with exhibitions inside many of the buildings, each looking at a different aspect of the horrors that took place here. In the first room of the first block is the camp’s memorial, simply an urn containing a handful of human ashes. Going from room to room and building to building, it’s possible to gain some appreciation of the magnitude of the crimes committed.

In this first block we saw large photographs taken by the SS at Auschwitz II – Birkenau during the extermination of Hungarian Jews. There is a detailed model that would fit onto a large family dining table of a gas chamber and crematorium showing the stages people passed through, from undressing for a shower to having their bodies dragged out to be burned. We saw a huge pile of empty Cyclon B (chemical used to produce poison gas) containers behind a window and an open container with the deadly crystals on display under glass. When the Soviet Army liberated the camp in January 1945 they found approximately seven tons (7,000kg) of human hair packed into bags. Human hair, mainly women’s, was sent back to Germany to be used in their textile industry, and it turns up in parts of Nazi uniforms, among other things. The hair is on display along with bolts of cloth the Germans made from it.

I can only scratch the surface of what we saw in Auschwitz. There are many thousands of personal effects on display, usually in great piles behind protective glass. With the approach of the Russians, the Germans attempted to destroy the evidence of what they had been doing, and part of this involved burning down the warehouses which contained the belongings of the murder victims, but much of the personal property survived. The second block we went to contained toothbrushes, shaving brushes, shoes, and suitcases with the names and addresses of the rightful owners written on them. The room containing artificial limbs is staggering, yet it’s all only the tip of an iceberg.

We learned more about the extent of the prolonged tortures suffered by the prisoners, which included Poles (and other Slavic peoples), the Gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and many others the Nazis hated. The bizarre experiments conducted in this place by Mengele and various other Nazi doctors, without any form of anaesthetic, are especially horrifying, including: the gynaecological torture of hundreds of women; obsessive experimentation on twins, with such madness as trying to create Siamese twins from two normal twins; and all manner of terrible injuries and diseases deliberately inflicted on the victims.

The “Death Block” was also a place where the Germans carried out torture and murder to a highly efficient degree. Through the snow we walked along the courtyard between this block and Block 10 to the back wall where prisoners would be stood to face the firing squad. Thousands of people died against this wall, mostly Poles, and we were advised not to talk while in this courtyard. Where I stood in my boots thousands of others had stood in bare feet in terror. On the ground floor of the block we saw the room where the Gestapo court would be held, deciding the fate of prisoners. In any one session they might well issue over a hundred death sentences. I found it hard to grasp the need for a court because I got the impression an officer of the SS could shoot anyone he liked at any time on the merest of whims. Moving through the ground floor we saw the horrible place where the prisoners, both men and women, would have to strip naked, which was compulsory for anyone being led out to be shot. I suppose it was one last humiliation that could be imposed. After examining the ground floor we went down into the cold and dingy bowels of the building, to the concrete cellars where single and group torture was carried out, and also where experiments in killing en masse were conducted, leading to the development of the gas chambers and the use of Cyclon B. I really couldn’t imagine being down amongst those cells and chambers for any length of time, whether voluntarily or otherwise, and I was glad to get out into the open air.

We stood in the snow in Assembly Square where the camp’s emaciated prisoners were forced to stand for hours in bare feet and dressed in rags during roll-calls. Sometimes hangings would be carried out in front of the assembly. From here, walking directly down the street and outside the main fenceline of the camp, we saw the gas chamber and crematorium of Auschwitz I. To the right a small distance away was the commandant’s house where Commandant Rudolf Hoess (Hoss) lived with his wife and family. We didn’t approach the house but we learned a little about its former occupant. Hoess was a good commandant (camp commander) for the purposes of the Nazis, and he played an important role in developing the systems used for the mass murder of the Jews. After the War he was captured in 1946 and handed over to Poland. Between the crematorium and the house is the little gallows where they hanged him in 1947. After a look through the remains of the gas chamber and reconstructed crematorium we went into the museum’s movie theatre to watch a short film about the liberation.

(More later…)
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Krakow, Part 2 [Feb. 12th, 2006|01:57 pm]
Golders Green
V. had booked a couple of seats on a bus to Auschwitz and we went out early on Saturday morning to meet it. They had told her to catch the bus in the market square. V. asked them for more precise directions, and they said when we get to market square the Florian Gate (Brama Florianska) should be behind us and the bus will stop on the right hand side.

From the hotel window I could see the snow falling heavily, and after breakfast we wrapped up warmly then strolled through the streets and around the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), with the city’s big snow-ploughs trundling along the roads and the shopkeepers shifting snow from in front of their stores. Atop one of the taller buildings in the square, two workmen were shovelling snow from the roof, tossing it out over the eaves so that it fell into the street below.

Laid out in the 13th Century, this is the biggest medieval square in Europe. Like all civilised public squares it features pigeons and food vendors; in the case of the latter, little wizened-up old ladies selling pretzels. It wasn’t too cold, minus one degree celsius perhaps. We saw a miserable-looking pigeon on its last legs; I tried to feed it but it was dying and wouldn’t eat.

We’d had time for a look around, but with no sign of the bus by 9:00am we had started to wonder whether or not we were in the right place. It turned out we weren’t. We left the Market Square and walked up the Ulica Florianska (essentially, Florianska Street) which is lined with 13th and 14th Century townhouses now converted into shops; through the Florian Gate which dates from around 1300; and around the beautiful Barbakan (Barbican), a circular Gothic bastion built in the 15th Century to help protect the Florian Gate and the approach to the city. Originally connected to the Gate by a walled passage over a moat, the Barbican has brick walls nearly three metres thick and 130 loopholes (gaps through which soldiers could shoot bows, small arms, or cannons) on different levels in the turrets.

Crossing Ulica Basztowa (Basztowa Street) while dodging trams that reminded me of the ones in Amsterdam, we entered what is known as Plac Matejki (Matejki Square), once part of the ancient marketplace in a settlement called Kleparz just outside the city walls. Towards the end of the 18th Century Kleparz officially became part of Krakow, and in the 19th Century it was divided into two squares, one of which is Matejki. This square now sports an impressive group of statues, the Grunwald Monument, celebrating a great Polish military victory, so I won’t comment on the wisdom of telling visitors to the city to catch a bus in market square, meaning here.

It was just before 9:10am when we reached the bus stop and we were pretty sure we had missed the bus. V. found its timetable on a street post and I could see its last stop in Krakow listed as 9:30am at the Sheraton before it headed out of town to Auschwitz. We went back down to the road and I hailed a taxi in Basztowa Street. True to form, the cabbie was a middle-aged man with a black moustache, and he drove us to Sheraton Krakow, a five-star hotel on Powisle overlooking the Vistula (Wisla) River, by way of Wawel, which was our first look at the castle. We would be returning to the area of the castle and the river on foot late that night, but for now we alighted at the Sheraton in plenty of time to intercept the bus to Auschwitz. In fact, we were several minutes ahead of the bus so we went into the warm lobby of the Sheraton and sat down.

(More later…)
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Krakow [Jan. 28th, 2006|08:29 am]
Golders Green
Booked on an easyJet flight we were delayed two hours while sitting in the aircraft because of an engineering fault. It turned out the engineers didn't have a necessary replacement part to hand, so we had to disembark and get onto another plane.

Flying into Krakow Balice at night was something of a surreal experience. There was quite a lot of snow on the runway, and only a small part of the airport was lit up. It was very cold and a bus was provided to take us the relatively short distance from the plane to the terminal. A combination of black night, white snow, and limited lighting made everything claustrophobic, as if we were on a small but sophisticated movie set.

We took a taxi to our hotel in the city. The taxi driver (like all the cabbies in Krakow) was a middle-aged man with a black moustache, and he drove aggressively at high speed through the snow-slick streets, zipping wildly around other cars and taking liberties with both man-made and natural laws.

The Polish are a fortunate race in that their women are so attractive, and we encountered the first of these on duty at the hotel desk: a very pretty young woman with long blonde hair. V. filled out the register while I picked up a little complimentary street map from the counter. The blonde woman took a different map from out of a cupboard and gave it to me with a smile, saying it was a much better one.

We went to our room then down to the bar where I ordered a double scotch. The woman behind the bar poured me two measures but the drink was actually a quadruple, so now I've learned that a Polish single is equivalent in volume to our double. We didn't feel like going out anywhere that night so we had dinner in the hotel's restaurant, and it's the first time I recall seeing a dumbwaiter (food elevator). On the way back to our room we heard "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House being piped through little speakers set into the hallway ceilings. Playing on the telly was an American film called City Slickers 2 but it wasn't dubbed in the usual fashion; the original soundtrack in English was audible, with one man's voice speaking in Polish over the top of it, describing what each character was saying (as far as I could tell).

Early the next morning we were scheduled to visit Auschwitz and Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

(More later...)
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Amsterdam [Jan. 15th, 2006|10:01 am]
Golders Green
The heart of the Red Light district was home to me and T. for three days. Our hotel was on Oudezijds Achterburgwal, amongst the old canals of Centrum.

On the journey from Schipol Airport to Centraal Station we sat upstairs on the double-decker train then took an early morning walk to our hotel along the cobbled streets of this ancient section of the city.

We had breakfast at a greasy spoon then went exploring. There were a few working girls on display behind the windows of their booths even at that hour, but generally speaking the streets were pretty sleepy and quiet. By the middle of the day unkempt men were starting to shuffle along the alleys and collect in small groups on street corners. T. was keen to drop into one of the coffee shops and I think the first one we went to was Hill Street Blues. We bought coffee and T. lit up his first joint of the trip.

It was cold of course, but not unpleasant. There had been some bicycle riders out and about in the morning, but by the afternoon there were lots of them, rushing this way and that, and I quickly learned to listen out for their little bells. We passed through Dam Square, with its WWII National Memorial, several times over the three days, and I was amazed at the sheer number of bicycles chained up in this square, many laying one against the other like rows of tipsy dominoes.

Sitting upstairs in Rick's Cafe on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, T. smoked marijuana while I drank scotch & coke (each to his own), then we had dinner after dark when the old district was really coming to life.

We thoroughly explored the Red Light district, leaving no cobblestone unturned. On the streets we were offered cocaine and ecstasy wherever we went by slovenly black men. The dealers sometimes worked in isolation, but were often clustered in little gangs on the street corners or down the narrow alleyways. In fact, my hotel window overlooked one of their prime spots. The hotel's 24-hour bar was at ground level, and my room was on the second level up, looking out into the very narrow alley. The mouth of the alley was just to the left of my window, with the canal just beyond that. Directly below me was a small gang of men doing drug deals all through the night, and slightly to their right I could see working girls in the windows of their red-lit rooms.

As far as I know the street dealing is illegal, but even though we saw cops on bicycles from time to time, the little gangs were pretty much left alone. I did see a couple of female police officers walking along late one night and I pointed them out to T. They were stocky girls and looked quite formidable with their big truncheons and handguns on hips. No doubt they could have earned a fortune moonlighting in some of the fantasy parlours.

Quite late on our second night we walked past a man who started setting off fireworks on the corner of a street beside a canal. He started with a huge pile of the smaller ones that go rat-a-tat-tat like a machine gun. Giggling away to himself he let another pile of them go, then he started setting off the skyrocket ones that shoot high up into the sky with a high-pitched whine before exploding with an almighty bang, sending bright sparks everywhere. The smell of the gunpowder from the smaller fireworks hung in the air and was quite nice, but by the time he set off his second skyrocket T. and I were wondering why the police hadn't turned up. There were hardly any people around as we were a little bit out of the tourist area, but there were tall narrow buildings all around us. We walked on and left him to it.

Even though our hotel had advertised breakfast as part of the deal, we went out to eat each morning. Their "breakfast" was laid on down in their threadbare and chilly basement and consisted of a big plate of sliced sausage meat covered with gladwrap, a coffee machine that almost tore a gear trying to cough up half a cup of something lukewarm, slices of bread to be put in the malfunctioning toaster, and a pile of those little margarine and jam packets that you need a chainsaw to open. I sat there for a minute and watched the attendant trying apologetically to get the toaster to toast the bread, then I bade him farewell and went upstairs to tell T. we were going out for a Full English.

I made a point of visiting Anne Frank House, and T. came along with me even though it hadn't been on his itinerary. I read Diary of a Young Girl many years ago, and it was amazing to visit the warehouse and offices, go through the secret door behind the bookcase, and look around the living quarters in the annex where Anne hid with her family and friends from 1942 till their betrayal and arrest in 1944. This was the highlight of my trip.
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Florence, Part 3: Friday [Dec. 26th, 2005|11:47 am]
Golders Green
In the Piazza della Signoria I was immediately drawn to the Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air gallery of sculpture. As soon as I saw it I thought it was depicting a rape, and the bronze relief panel at its base confirms this, but in fact the sculptor Giambologna had more symbolic intentions, only deciding at a later date to have it represent the rape of the Sabine women. It's a powerful piece of sculpture.

We had already walked back and forth across the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno river early in the morning before the shops had opened, but now, with the gold and jewellery merchants having opened up the shutters, it was a different experience altogether. No one knows when a bridge was first built at this part of the river, but its history goes way back, possibly even to the Roman colony of Florentia in 59 B.C. Originally the bridge was made of wood, but it was washed away during a flood in the 12th Century and rebuilt with stone. The Arno rose up in the 14th Century and wrecked it again and it was rebuilt in 1345 to the design we see now.

In the 16th Century the private corridor over the bridge was built by Vasari for Cosimo de' Medici so he could come and go without having to mingle with the great unwashed. The corridor, which passes over the Arno and through various buildings along its way, is reportedly lined with great paintings and works of art which the public has only recently been able to have a look at. We would have liked to go through of course, but the waiting list is apparently two years long.

The day wouldn't have been complete without a good look inside the Duomo. For a modest fee we were able to go right up to the interior of the cupola (dome) and walk around a narrow viewing platform with the frescoes just above our heads. Then we started climbing, up steep steps and ladders, inbetween the cupola's doubled walls to emerge into the open air at the very top to great views of Florence. (On the way up we were, in effect, sandwiched between the outer wall of the cupola that you see from outside the Duomo, and the inner wall, on the underside of which are painted the frescoes.) It was quite a privilege to stand atop Brunelleschi's engineering masterpiece.

Before heading for the Accademia Gallery and the Master's most famous sculpture, we had to warm up with hot minestrone at Zio Gigi's restaurant a block from the Duomo.

(More later...)
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Berlin [Dec. 24th, 2005|06:20 pm]
Golders Green
We spent a wintry weekend in Berlin, flying into Tegel on Friday and staying the night at Hotel Orion in the West. The next morning V., my sister and I took a walk to Kurfurstendamm and the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm church and had a look around while we waited for the markets to open. For once in my life I didn't mind going into a shopping mall (nice and toasty), and we had drinks in a cafe. My sister said she felt ill so she left us to go back to the hotel.

V. and I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring the streets and shops, and looking around the outdoor Christmas market. I sampled the famous Gluhwein several times, my favourite being the one sold by M. & B. Roden; their mulled wine was richer and hotter than others I tried.

That evening we had dinner at the Hotel Mondial restaurant along the Kurfurstendamm.

The following day was much more active, and it began at Zoo Station which takes its name from the nearby Zoological Gardens. We took the S-Bahn overland train with its good views of the city to the old Jewish sector and started a half-day historical walking tour. We visited and learned about too many amazing places and their histories to list here, but highlights would include: walking on an icy bridge over the River Spree; the architecture of Museum Island in the centre of the city; Berlin's singular memorial to victims of war at the Neue Wache; an open-air rink where children were ice-skating with Lennon & Ono's sanctimonious Christmas song blaring through loudspeakers; the Bebel Platz memorial at the site of the Nazi book-burnings, a slightly opaque window set in the ground through which we could see empty subterranean bookshelves; Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing between East and West; the notorious "death strip" and the remains of the Berlin Wall; the carpark on top of the bunker where Hitler died; the controversial Holocaust memorial by an American architect that opened this year; the Brandenburg Gate in Pariser Platz and the famous Reichstag (parliament building); Unter den Linden and the Victory Column.

There was much more besides...

You could almost be forgiven for thinking the rich history of this city is composed of tragic human conflicts and little else, but it depends on how you look at things.

Finishing the tour mid-afternoon, we retired to il Punto right across the road from the Reichstag and warmed up with Gluhwein, then caught a bus back to the Kurfurstendamm.
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Florence, Part 2: Friday [Dec. 14th, 2005|11:26 am]
Golders Green
As EnidW said, Florence can be (and I quote) "a bit of a sensory overload". There are many amazing things packed into a small area, but after being there for a little while and doing some exploring, it all starts to seem quite manageable.

Our day started at the Piazza della Repubblica, the public square that was traditionally the heart of medieval Florence, and which became the centre for merchants and their trading. Around this was the part of town known as the Jewish quarter or the "Ghetto," and which got itself into such a sorry state they demolished the whole slum and put up an inscription to celebrate its destruction. I wrote down the inscription: L' ANTICO CENTRO DELLA CITTA DA SECOLARE SQUALLORE A VITA NUOVA RESTITUITO, which means something along the lines of: from squalor the ancient centre of the city has been given a new lease of life.

It was interesting to contrast an asymmetrical, slapdash medieval building with a Renaissance palace like the Palazzo Strozzi. The frontage of this palace was pleasing to the eye, and we also had a look inside and stood at the central courtyard which was a feature of this sort of rich family home. Back in its heyday the courtyard would have been a private outdoor space with maybe fountains and greenery, although when we saw it some workmen were making a mess. Across the street and a little further down was another, smaller Strozzi home which they used to house guests who had come for a visit. In the front of this second home, and looking for all the world like a cat door (cat-flap), was a hole in the wall through which the occupants of the house would push their leftover food into the street after dinner so the poorer people could have something to eat. We also learned they often used to give wine out as well, in this same manner.

The main point of interest for me in the Church of Santa Trinita was seeing and hearing about the frescoes, including a very famous one whose image I'd seen many times in books. This was Adoration of the Shepherds by Ghirlandaio which is a feature of the Sassetti Chapel, one of the beautifully decorated alcoves inside the church. I already knew how frescoes such as these were created, but it's an entirely different experience to talk about them while they're right in front of you rather than looking at pictures in books.

The next ancient church we visited was Orsanmichele, originally a granary and grain market built in the 13th Century on the site of the San Michele monastery's garden. Somehow or other a building for storing grain became the focal point for religious devotion, and in the 14th Century the open arches were closed up with cement so it could be used as a church. This didn't mean it was no longer a granary, however! Space in Florence being at a premium, the grain was now stored in the upper floors, dragged upwards by ropes and pulleys, and returned to ground level when it was needed by being poured through vertical conduits in the pilasters (support columns). V. and I were lucky to be able to walk around inside Orsanmichele because it has been closed to the public for several years and had just been re-opened in the last week or so.

I had an espresso in a cafe at the corner of Piazza della Signoria.

(More later...)
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Underground literature [Dec. 13th, 2005|12:09 pm]
Golders Green
Last night on the way home from work I took a seat in the Tube station so I could read my newspaper while waiting for the train. On the seat beside me there happened to be a book. I took it home. On the front of the book there is a sticker. The sticker says:

I'm not lost!
Please pick me up,
read me, and help
me with my journey!
(See inside)


There is another sticker on the inside front cover. This sticker says:

Guten Tag!

I'm a very special book.

You see, I'm traveling around
the world, making new friends
wherever I go. I hope I've found
another friend in you!

Visit www.bookcrossing.com
and write a brief journal entry
with my BCID number (below).
Then keep my dream alive:

Below this is a 10-digit number and the code name of the person who left the book on the seat in the Underground.
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Florence [Dec. 13th, 2005|11:36 am]
Golders Green
Flying out of Stansted around the middle of the day, we arrived in Pisa at 3:30pm. The bus ride to Florence took 70 minutes, and by the time we got there it was pretty dark. We checked into the Hotel Aldini right on the corner of the Duomo piazza (square), and from our room I could see the campanile (bell tower) and cupola (dome) of the cathedral. We only went for a short walk that evening and I'll always remember my first look up at the Duomo; I'm glad I first saw it at night. We had dinner at "Buca S. Giovanni" on the other side of the piazza, so-named for the Bapistery of San Giovanni I suppose. The restaurants open at seven and that's almost a cause for distress in a person who likes his first aperitif around five. This restaurant was downstairs below street level and seemed to be intended more for the locals and friends of the proprietor than tourists. The food was passable but we had a good waiter, a grey-haired man of around sixty, who made us welcome and brought me a beer promptly each time I asked for one.

(More later...)
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Nuts in a dog-eat-dog world [Dec. 3rd, 2005|05:05 pm]
Golders Green
V. put out some food on a plate for our resident grey squirrel and we watched from the upstairs window as it picked up and examined various nuts and seeds, nibbling at some and taking others away to bury in the lawn. It took some of the food quite far afield to stash in the backyards of our neighbours. It would do this quite quickly before bounding back to the plate to see what other morsels were on offer.

Before very long, and while the first squirrel was a small distance away burying something, another squirrel started nosing around the lawn and approached the plate almost right away. (Grey squirrels have a keen sense of smell.) The first squirrel charged over and chased the newcomer away from the plate. Naturally enough the interloper gave the plate another try, and was chased away even more aggressively. In fact, the first squirrel made a decided effort to run the newcomer right out of the backyard altogether!

If this seems a little mean, it was made worse by the fact that the first squirrel was very plump and looked strong and robust, whereas the other one was small and kind of thin. The thin one was no coward, however, and was determined to stay in our yard -- but it was forced to sit nearby and watch as the fat one stayed beside the plate and ate to its heart's content. Once or twice fatty would stray from the vicinity of the plate to bury something, then skinny would make his move, but fatty had eyes in the back of his head and would tear back to chase skinny away once more.

V. was having none of this and marched downstairs to get another plate which she took out onto the lawn. Fatty and skinny scattered; even fatty was no match for V. Now we watched from upstairs again, with half the food on one plate and half on the other, as the two squirrels returned. The plates seemed to be so far apart that we figured skinny couldn't fail to get something to eat, but now fatty was even more determined and wouldn't let skinny near either plate.

Things got uglier still when a scuffle broke out between the two of them and one of the plates was upset and the food spilled onto the lawn.

Ultimately, however, skinny missed out entirely.
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London Eye [Nov. 26th, 2005|08:29 am]
Golders Green
We took a flight on the London Eye. Can the experience really be called a "flight" if you're connected to the Earth the whole time? -- this is how British Airways refers to the experience anyway.

The Eye really is an absolutely stunning piece of engineering. Anyone terrified of heights could just stroll alongside the Thames to admire it from the ground. The Eye was conceived and designed by two London architects (husband and wife) who then went into partnership with British Airways and other companies to get it built.

It looks to me like the hybrid of a giant ferris wheel and the Queenstown gondola. The passenger capsules, however, are not dangling down under the influence of gravity, but are rotating within circular rings that remain on the outside of the giant rim. This gives the London Eye a very distinctive (and attractive) profile. There are 32 numbered capsules with each one able to hold 25 passengers. The irrational among us will be relieved to hear there is no capsule number 13; it has been missed out and replaced by a capsule numbered 33, just in case.

From a distance, the giant wheel looks as if it's rotating very slowly, but right up close it seemed kind of fast to us. In fact, it's rotating at 0.26 metres per second. Each passenger capsule, within its mounting ring, is rotating at the same speed as the wheel, only in the opposite direction, ensuring the capsule floor is always level.

Our flight took 30 minutes, and at the highest point we were 135 metres above London with a view of 360 degrees. There wasn't much we couldn't see from up there, but the notable landmarks and places that interested me included: the BT Tower, Cleopatra's Needle, and Waterloo Bridge towards the north; St Paul's and the Gherkin to the east; the Treasury, Ministry of Defence, Downing Street, St James Park, Buckingham Palace, and Nelson's Column towards the west; MI6 and MI5 headquarters, Westminster Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben to the south.

It's possible to see 40 kilometres in any direction from the highest point, but, despite us having a sunny day with blue sky, the very distant parts of the city were partly obscured by some grey winter smog.
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Scotland, Part 5: Friday to Sunday [Nov. 20th, 2005|03:47 pm]
Golders Green
I was the first one up as usual, drinking coffee while looking at a grey and drizzly dawn. Two of the skinny-dippers I mentioned in Part 4 were hard to shake out of bed, but we were soon on the road again.

Standing at the water's edge of the famous Loch Ness we learned about the largest body of fresh water in Britain. In fact, this loch contains more fresh water than all the lakes and rivers in England and Wales combined. It looks long and thin on the map and it is: about 37 kilometres long and somewhere between one and two kilometres wide. At its deepest it's an astonishing 230 metres or more, with the bottom of the loch being pretty much smooth and flat. Because of its massive volume of water, Loch Ness never freezes over. The top 30 metres or so of water changes temperature according to the prevailing weather conditions, but down below that it never alters from around five or six degrees celsius. If the water at the top approaches freezing point, it sinks and is replaced by the warmer water below.

A few in the group went wading, but I was content to cup some water in my hands and look at pebbles.

Then it was on through Lochend and into Inverness where we had a brief stop before arriving at the Culloden Battlefield, where the last military battle on British soil took place, and which is something of a national shrine. Culloden is where the Duke of Cumberland (Prince William Augustus, the son of the King), leader of the British forces, faced Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart, the man who wanted to be King) and his army of Highland rebels.

The Duke was a gifted and very strict military leader, highly respected by the men under his command. He prepared for the coming confrontation with the Jacobites by giving his men several weeks of special training. His army was very well equipped, in contrast to the Jacobites who had a motley collection of weapons and barely any food. The Highlanders, however, had no lack of courage or aggression. Unfortunately, their usual method of fighting, the Highland charge, ran into terrible difficulties, not the least of which was Bonnie Prince Charlie's choice of battleground, a boggy and uneven moorland. Growing dissatisfaction with some of Charlie's tactical decisions, leading to temper tantrums and infighting amongst the Jacobites, didn't help the situation.

The Duke made short work of the enemy, while Bonnie Prince Charlie made his escape from the disaster. In the aftermath of the battle, the Duke had practically all the enemy survivors -- including the wounded -- killed in cold blood, a decision that earned him the nickname The Butcher. The Battle of Culloden sounded the death knell of the Jacobite uprising.

Our guide wasn't his usual self during the time we spent exploring the battlefield and looking at the monuments. He became almost solemn and I don't think the significance of this place could be overstated.

From here we headed southeast to Tomatin and the Tomatin scotch whisky distillery where we attended an interesting tour given by a very deadpan girl who explained how their scotch is made. I really enjoyed the visit to one of their many warehouses which held wall-to-wall barrels of scotch. A row of barrels in front of me contained scotch dating back to 1965! The inside of the warehouse smelled faintly of whisky fumes; a small percentage of scotch is lost from the barrels every year due to evaporation. The 1965 barrels, although full 40 years ago, are now only half full because of this evaporation. I didn't leave the distillery without buying a couple of bottles of 12-year-old single malt. (Perhaps I should have stuck around to get a bottle of the 40-year-old, which was soon to be bottled.)

We had a leisurely stop for lunch at Aviemore then a long drive back to Edinburgh. We made a brief stop or two on the way and our guide pointed out some things of special interest, including the incredible Forth Bridge.

That evening in Edinburgh we said our good-byes to our guide and to the tour. I don't think there was anyone who wasn't sorry the trip was over and that the group was breaking up. Most of the tour group (including me and V.) came together again that night for drinks and dinner at one of the pubs in the Royal Mile. Over the next couple of days a few of us spent some of our time in Edinburgh together, sightseeing and meeting up for dinner, etc. I also used the famous black cabs a few times in Edinburgh and I was no less than impressed.

On Sunday afternoon we took the train back to London. During the journey I read and enjoyed My Life by David Lange.
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Scotland, Part 4 [Nov. 19th, 2005|03:59 pm]
Golders Green
We left the Isle of Skye in the afternoon to keep an appointment with a fisherman at Stromeferry on the shore of Loch Carron, just north of Kyle of Lochalsh. The early Vikings made their mark on this area, and it also has the obligatory history of violence between the clans.

A small group of us went out onto the saltwater loch with our fisherman guide in his boat. The afternoon was sunny and calm, and the scenery was beautiful. Way out on the loch, and using a winch-and-net mounted at the back of the vessel, our fisherman brought up a shellfish catch from the deep and we helped him sort the pile into two different sizes. The biggest ones we kept and the smaller ones we put back over the side.

We were amazed at the many large starfish and other creatures like crabs that came up in the catch, which we handled and examined before putting them all back in the loch. Our fisherman was mainly after scallops, but there were also mussels and various other types of shellfish. With a little knife he deftly opened up scallops for us to eat. They were delicious raw, and I had quite a few. The girls, it must be said, seemed to be squeamish, so he cooked them some scallops with butter in a little frypan right there on the boat. I, too, became squeamish when it came time to eat a freshly-opened raw mussel. Never again. The fisherman also brought up a separate catch of very large red crabs.

This was one of the highlights of the whole trip, and we were sorry to leave the boat. While the second half of our party went out with the fisherman, the rest of us had hot drinks, played pool, and read books in the nearby lodge.

With night approaching, and all back on dry land, our guide bought some of the huge freshly-caught crabs from the fisherman for our dinner that night. We were headed for Loch Ness, but we stopped on the way to have a look around the famous Eilean Donan Castle which is illuminated at night. The castle sits on a small island in Loch Duich and is joined to the mainland by a footbridge.

The castle, destroyed in the 18th Century by English warships, is now beautifully restored. Back in the day, the Jacobites I mentioned in Part 2 enlisted the help of the Spanish in their plan to overthrow the British government and take the throne. The Spanish force that was supposed to invade the English mainland limped home with its tail between its legs, while the Spaniards sent to join forces with the Jacobites in the Highlands established a garrison at the castle. The government sent frigates and made short work of them.

The 20th Century restoration of Eilean Donan Castle had a strange twist: Farquhar MacRae had a vivid dream, a vision, of what the castle had once looked like, and it was this vision that guided the rebuilding. The old plans for the original castle, later discovered in Edinburgh, confirmed his dream was pretty much spot-on, so the castle we have today looks like the original.

We stopped at a late-night service station to stock up on a few things (mainly beer as I recall), then it was on to Loch Ness and our backpackers hostel for the night, situated in the general vicinity of Lewiston. Our half-crazy guide had got it into his head that he wanted to let off fireworks, but none were to be had in the village, so he went for a drive to buy some. (I later found out he'd been all the way up to the city of Inverness and back!) We walked away from the hostel across a field in the dark and, for a short time, disturbed the nighttime repose of the villagers with our fireworks.

We went to the pub with a few of us staying on till closing time, then we went back to the courtyard at the backpackers and drank beer and talked till the wee small hours. Three of our number then went for a walk to go skinny-dipping in Loch Ness. I decided to get two or three hours of sleep before we headed out later that same morning. We had a thing or two to learn about the famous Loch Ness, and we also had to spend some time at a revered battlefield where the doomed Jacobite rebels under Bonnie Prince Charlie met their awful fate.

(More later...)
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Scotland, Part 3 [Nov. 12th, 2005|07:44 am]
Golders Green
Our next day kicked off with a walk into the hills of Uig, including the ascent of a lofty pillar of rock from which we had great views. Our guide and I tramped a bit further on, then squatted on the crest of a hill and talked while watching the shenanigans of our fellow travellers in the distance. One of the same girls as before slipped down another muddy hill and had to change her trousers. On the road we took in the views of Uig Bay from where the ferry leaves to take you to the Outer Hebrides. This part of the Trotternish region is also well-known for its fishing and the Skye Brewery, home of the Black Cuillin ale.

Heading north, and enjoying our guide's unique driving style (speeding around hairy corners while looking down at his iPod), we arrived at what's left of Duntulm Castle. This strategic location was once home to Vikings and their fortifications before they were chased off by the Celts. Once fought over by the clans, it now seems bleak and uninviting. It's the windiest place I've ever been, with some in the group having trouble walking or even standing up. The castle itself is just ruins, although there is a window, or hole in the wall, where you can look out to sea (I saw a photograph of this window on a number of postcards) -- and also a small dungeon where one of the MacDonalds was imprisoned for a year and a half. This poor man was fed salted beef and tormented with water jugs filled with sand. He went stark raving mad. I went into the dungeon through a small opening in the rocks. It's a very cold, damp, and dark stone room with a little gap in the rock where you can see daylight. MacDonald's fingernail scratches can still be seen around this gap. Another unfortunate incident at the castle involved a nursemaid accidentally dropping the baby of the house out the window to its death on the rocks far below.

Driving around the northernmost point of Skye then onto the eastern side, we stopped to see Kilt Rock, so named because the cliff face resembles a pleated kilt, and its waterfall. The sun was shining, and the view out over the cliff and across the sea was breathtaking.

We had a longer stop, and a hike around, at the famous Old Man of Storr, a huge pinnacle of rock amongst many jagged and rocky hills. From a distance it reminded me of the menhir Obelix carries around on his back.

Having worked up a healthy appetite we drove into the lovely little town of Portree. V. and I went to the pub where I had a Guinness and a hot roast beef lunch. It was sunny so we went for a stroll around the town, and I mailed a postcard to my Dad.

(More later...)
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Scotland, Part 2 [Nov. 5th, 2005|06:19 am]
Golders Green
Our first port of call on Wednesday morning was Glenfinnan at Loch Shiel where Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), the grandson of King James II, attracted 1200 Highlanders to his cause: to take back the British throne. They were known as the Jacobites, and at a later date we learned of their eventual fate during a visit to a sacred battlefield.

Next we took a breathtaking hike up to Steall Falls, Glen Nevis; through forests, up rocks, and across streams, all the while amazed at the waterfalls and the power of the river. Here we learned about the Broonie, a sort of elf or sprite, which isn't very nice to look at (and doesn't like to be seen anyway). The Broonies, legend has it, may do good things for people if they are not mistreated.

On the road again, we stopped for a short time to take in the view at Loch Garry, then it was on to the Isle of Skye. We reached Skye by driving across the controversial bridge that replaced the ferries in the mid-'90s.

In the pouring rain, and surrounded by very rugged mountains, some of us followed our guide's example and dunked our heads in the river at Sligachan, a seemingly crazy act which, if repeated daily, is said to lead to robust health and long life. And here, standing with rivulets of water running down our necks, we learned the tale of two legendary warriors who shook the mountains with their epic battle.

We climbed a very wet and muddy hill to examine the remains of a Broch, a circular fortification from the Iron Age. By this time the inadequacy of some of the women's footwear was becoming painfully obvious. During the descent, they redeemed themselves in my eyes by (involuntarily) sliding back down the hill on their behinds, which amused me no end.

After checking into the hotel at quiet little Edinbane, scrubbed clean and wearing dry clothes, we found we had the pub to ourselves. Our guide and I tried the dark ale, and later on I discovered an appreciation for the local scotch. Not long into the evening two young men came in, one medium-sized with short blond hair and the other large-sized with long black hair. They picked up musical instruments and very quickly became the centre of attention. Blond was the virtuoso, demonstrating his skill throughout the night with several different instruments, starting with the bagpipes and moving onto guitar and piano. Black, who could strum a guitar and sing quite nicely, especially in accompaniment to his friend, had the personality and wit. As far as I know, they were not professionals, merely two local lads who had dropped in, probably more for the company than anything else. An old man came in later on to play with them, and they were much appreciated by our group.

We were also joined for a time by a couple of strangers and their dog. Blond & Black and these two strangers had never met before, but they were soon making music together. The woman was in her thirties with dreadlock-style hair and exceptionally beautiful skin. She came in carrying a saw -- a saw like the one your dad keeps in the shed for cutting up planks of wood. She also had a large rosined bow, of the type you might expect to see a violin player using. She expertly used this saw and bow, bending the saw this way and that, to accompany Blond and Black on all manner of songs and instrumentals. She seemed to be able to attain any note at will. Her boyfriend was a tall and very thin man in his twenties with a bumfluff beard and a camcorder.

We slept in the rooms over the pub.

(More later...)
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Scotland [Nov. 4th, 2005|04:22 am]
Golders Green
- Proverb inscribed on the Canongate Wall in Edinburgh

Back from a week in Scotland.

On a Monday night we travelled up from London to Edinburgh on the Caledonia Sleeper train and headed off in a minibus towards Stirling on Tuesday morning. On the bus were 16 backpackers and one fanatically patriotic Scottish guide. I was the only Kiwi. There were nine Aussies, including V., two South Americans, and four girls from the United States. Before long we were all getting on very well indeed.

We took a bracing uphill walk to Abbey Craig in Stirling to admire the Wallace Monument while our guide regaled us with the stirring story of William Wallace. We stood where Wallace had stood and gazed down at the famous battlefield while learning how and why, on this occasion, his followers had been so successful against the heavily-armoured and mounted English.

After a stop at Callander it was on to Balquhidder to stand at the gravesite of the larger-than-life Rob MacGregor (Rob Roy) and learn about his tumultuous life. The gravestone tells us MacGregor died aged 70, but apparently he was around 63.

Lunch was at Killin. At Tyndrum we had a whip-round on the little bus and bought a bottle of Tamdhu single malt scotch. As we passed more-or-less officially into the Highlands, we stopped for some fresh air and to stretch our legs. The bottle was opened and started doing the rounds. V. had the honour of first swig. Once back on the bus the bottle continued to be passed around till the last drop was gone. Might seem a slightly sacrilegious way to drink a good whisky, but, despite the presence of a few philistines, it was enjoyed by all -- and that's what counts.

Now well into the Highlands, we went on a good long hike in the rain through the forest at Glencoe, up to Signal Rock to learn about the massacre of the MacDonalds. We stood on the rock where the fire was lit early in the morning as a signal for government troops to betray their hosts (so the story goes) and start slaughtering the MacDonald clan. It's also said, because of the complicity of the Campbell clan: "Never trust a Campbell."

In the evening we did our shopping for groceries at Fort William and had drinks and dinner at the backpackers hostel. We had a whole section of the hostel to ourselves, complete with kitchen, TV room, and dining room. I shared a dorm with nine women.

(More later...)
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