Saturday 17 November 2012

Cairns 2012 total solar eclipse!

Hello all!

So, last week I left you with my Spanish story, written once I got back to Australia. But it wasn't time to stop having adventures - I had one more up my sleeve, with the potential to be a real doozy.

After one day of very good sleep and one day of none at all, I hopped on a plane with my friend Jenny to head up to Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, and a date with a total solar eclipse.

This event had been on my radar for a very long time; probably since about 2001 when I was eyeing off the 2002 Ceduna eclipse. I eventually decided not to go, and to wait for the next Australian one instead. Well, this was it.

My return from Europe was actually based around being back for this, so it's fair to say that I flew half way around the world for it.

So after a nice squishy plane ride (I'm so loving those lately, please, give me more…) we arrived in Cairns and settled in with a dodgy hostel voucher dinner (don't trust them when they say the cheap food is "huge". It's still cheap), and a few "good" old Aussie beers (I think Europe has made me even more of a beer snob than I was).

We were picked up by the dive shop guys at 6:15 the next morning. By now I was well used to being a jetlagged zombie with no sleep, so the early departure wasn't excruciating. Plus – diving! Did I mention there was going to be diving? I mean, it's not like I could go to Cairns and NOT dive. In addition, I know what Cairns can be like – cloudy. I figured that there would be a better chance of seeing the eclipse from out on the reef – and I chose wisely.

The weather was pretty questionable on Tuesday morning though. Rain squalls and nasty SE winds whipped up a neat old swell on the way to the reef, which had a few of the boat's 30+ visitors feeling queasy. Me, I've never gotten seasick. The closest I've come is a bit of a knot in the stomach but it always passes.

On this trip though, the alarmist supervisor insisted that everyone would get horribly ill, and I decided not to second guess myself and took a pill beforehand. I suspect I would have been fine without it. As it was, I had a nice snooze while some of the others fed the fishes from the back of the boat.

Turtle having lunch
Once we got to the shelter of the reef, things calmed down a bit, and we got on with the serious business of world-famous diving in lovely 27 degree water. The vis (visibility) was reasonable, at about 10-15m, which is to say bad for the location but still pretty good for diving overall.

Jenny normally dives with me, but unfortunately she's busy re-enacting my ACL injury/knee surgery/long recovery adventure from a few years ago so it was just snorkelling for her. Instead I got teamed up with other random dive buddies. Luckily the sites are very easy - no real depth, decent vis and no current – so you can find your buddies again when they take off without you. ;)

The diving was great, and we got into the usual pattern of dive/rinse/eat/drink/rest/repeat. After two dives on Milln reef we moved to nearby Flynn reef and had our last afternoon dive there, followed by dinner and a night dive.

Night dives are awesome. All sorts of things come out to play and it's like diving in a big black cave, full of eels and things with lots of legs and tentacles. Some people would probably find this terrifying, but I love it.

Then it was early to bed, and fingers crossed for the morning weather. I slept well (I always do on boats, the rocking is soothing), but had various dreams about the upcoming eclipse, mostly of the anxious-about-the-weather variety.


If the weather really was terrible, my plan was probably to go diving, just to see it get dark underwater (and, in fact, a couple of the people on the boat did – more about that later). However, we woke to fairly clear skies, with just some thin high clouds and a few lower puffy ones drifting through. Excellent!

It begins...

First Contact

It looks like the moon! Oh wait, it is the moon! AND the sun!

Then it was eclipse time! It was… really quite indescribably awesome. Extremely moving. One of the most amazing things I've seen in my life. Well worth flying home from Europe for (and sorry Europe, this shat all over your best cathedrals).

The lead-up, as the moon crept in front of the sun, was very cool. It got gradually darker. It looked more and more surreal. At one point I remarked "hey, it looks like the moon – oh, well, it IS the moon. AND the sun!". Hah. Duh.

About a minute from second contact (just before totality) a little cloud came through and we had to scare it on its way with some bad language, but it heard us and drifted off, and suddenly there was the flash of the diamond ring and the sky went dark in a matter of seconds.

Going, going...

Total Solar Eclipse

The wind, which had been pretty much constant for days, dropped right off. It was only afterwards that we realised though, as everyone was busy hooting and cheering and jumping up and down like little kids (ok that last thing might have just been me).

We had about two minutes of totality. It went incredibly fast. I was taking photos frantically, but also trying to stop and watch and look around so I wouldn't miss it. It is hard to describe the feeling; I think overall I was just amazed that I was actually getting to see it, after all the journeying, planning, lack of sleep, bad weather, and so on… and the fact that it was just an incredible, special thing to see. I completely understand why some people chase eclipses, often at great expense, around the planet.

The Diamond Ring, or if you prefer, black eyeball of DOOM
People who know me know that I rarely get particularly excited. For those two minutes (and a while after) I was like a kid again - a kid who's just received something enormous and really fucking cool. Something that they have really really wanted, for ages.

The time of day and location were also perfect; the reef we were on was pretty much slap bang in the middle of the path of the umbra, and the waves and reflection of the sea made it fantastically pretty. If the sun had been any higher, the reflections wouldn't have been as nice. Like I said, perfect.

Anyway the moon sped on like it always does, and suddenly there was a flash and a diamond ring from the other side, and then it was like a great big dimmer switch got turned up again and it was over (well, apart from the other 20 minutes of partial eclipse, but we'd just seen one of those).

Post Eclipse reflections
The next big Australian one is in 2028, and runs straight through Sydney (can't win 'em all). I intend to be there.

Anyway, we were all pretty excited as we had breakfast. The three guys who went diving reported that yes, it got dark very suddenly down there, and that the fishes got a bit confused. Apparently all the eels came out to play and the little fish kinda had to run for it.

The rest of us hopped back in for a couple more dives before we had to head back. The water was a bit murky on the first dive and I nearly sat out the second, but in the end I had a "come on, you're on the bloody barrier reef, when are you coming back here?" moment and went in. I'm glad I did, it was one of those really lovely dives where everything just flows. The water was clearer and we spotted some cool stuff, like some barracuda and a white tip reef shark.

Then it was time to head back to Cairns, for one more night (there's no flying for a day after diving).

Flynn Reef
Then we had to dive on this

On the way back, we were given one final treat, when some dolphins appeared and proceeded to ride the bow wave of the boat. They put on a great show, leaping out of the water repeatedly. The skipper of the boat said that it was quite unusual for them to stick around for as long as they did. Perhaps they were running off an eclipse high as well.

Dolphin action
I spent a fair bit of the remaining journey swapping pictures with some of the other divers. The Gopro time lapse shots aren't mine. I've forgotten everyone's names already but thanks – it was great sharing the whole experience with you.

Happy Eclipse watchers!
Now I'm well and truly back home from this round of adventures. In time, I will get all my pictures up onto flickr (, in addition to the ones attached to this blog. I might even add some older travel stories from my 2010 Aussie road trip and 2010/2011 New Zealand adventures.
Or I might just go somewhere else exciting next year. Wait and see. For now though, I'm signing off. Enjoy the pictures!

P.S. You can also enjoy any strange videos I might make from time to time on youtube and/or vimeo. See and - and don't forget strange music and sounds at (notice a pattern in the URLs yet?)

Here's a timelapse of the eclipse - I have slowed it down for the totality part - you can't really see the sun, but watch how the moon's shadow moves across the sky! Very cool.

In time I will also embed an edit of all my diving videos from the trip here. I just have to make it first...

Edit: Here it is!

Ciao for now!

Sunday 11 November 2012

Week 6 - Sitges


So here I am - after seven weeks, five countries, five flights, 21 major train journeys, countless minor train journeys, four bike rides, three cable cars, two funiculars, one taxi and who knows how many kms walked - safely home... and sitting back in front of my gigantic screen in Brisbane.

(said ridiculous screen does look gigantic whenever I come home after travel – for about a day. Then I get used to it again)

Carl and Kai, view of Sitges
Anyway, my last European stop after Paris was in Sitges, Spain, where my friend Carl lives with his family. Spain had always seemed like a nice, warm, mellow(er) place to end up in after travelling for a while, and indeed it was.

Sitges isn't far from Barcelona, but it's smaller and more chilled (at this time of year, at least. In summer it is apparently a bit of a Euro Gay Mecca party town, which amuses me greatly).

Anyway, there is a beach, with real sand and everything. There are almost even "waves", although I put the term in inverted commas so as not to confuse any hopeful surfers (the local bleached hair brigade, who don't know any better, still try to ride them).

I spent two of the first three days doing pretty much nothing apart from churning out blogs and enjoying the sunshine and a more relaxed pace of life. After busy Paris and not having a break for a while it was a welcome change. That said, I had four-year-old Kai and six-month-old Lily to keep me from getting *too* relaxed, but by and large they were perfect days.

The Thursday was a public holiday, and Carl's in-laws had us (and a bunch of other rellies) over for lunch. I was treated to proper homemade paella with some very nice 11 year old wine, followed by a most pleasant, almost bushwalk-like walk up the local hill.

Calçots – yum!
On Saturday Carl and I took off to a local winery, called Jean Leon. According to their usual "we love ourselves just a little bit" video, the winery's namesake made his fortune in America running a restaurant for the rich and famous, before returning home and starting the vineyard. It's owned by a big Spanish wine company now, but they have retained the brand and make smallish batches of select wine from their local plantations.

After the video we got a tour of the cellars (which were wonderfully musty, like a wine cellar should be) and had a generous tasting of their wines. We bought a bottle for about $25, which is a reasonable amount in Spain, but probably really corresponded to a $30-40 bottle in Oz.

These are graves
(Carl insisted we drink it before I left – not a hard task – and it was very nice, although not *amazing*. Aussie wine has spoiled me somewhat)

After the "serious" winery, we stopped off at a little market type place where they sell wine from big barrels for a couple of Euros per litre. You bring your own bottle/tub/bucket/whatever and fill it up. It's pretty young wine but it's perfectly drinkable as table wine, and it doesn't give you a headache (as Soni's father said when I first had it at their place – and he wasn't lying).

So, a taste of both ends of the spectrum.

For lunch we hit a local spot and I got to try Calçots, which are like small leeks or big spring oniony things (only actually nice – some of you know how much I detest spring onion). They barbeque them and you have to eat them in a specific way (see the photographic evidence below, complete with bib).

Sagrada Família (outside)
Carl and I also checked out the ruins of a medieval church up on a hill, where there are remains of a children's cemetery. They have actually carved little child-sized graves out of the rock. The bones are long gone, but the graves - which are mostly full of water - are still there. It's all a bit disquieting.

Sunday was a low-key family type day. Entertaining kids is always fun though. Carl, Kai and I went for a little walk along the promenade in Sitges as the sun went down.

Sagrada Família (inside)
On Monday and Tuesday I tackled Barcelona. Carl works there, so we met up for lunch on the first day, and beers after work on the second. Both occasions were excellent. In particular, the beer place was rather good. They had an enormous range, most of which were very strong (>7% alcohol). I found a rich, chocolaty beer called "Monk's Elixir" particularly to my liking – I think it was about 10%.

As for the days, I spent the first one checking out the famous Sagrada Família - the church designed by Gaudi. It is still unfinished, but nonetheless awesome. In construction for nearly 130 years, they estimate it will be completed in another 10-20 thanks to more modern methods.

The outside is impressive - a mixture of old and new (and cranes) - and the inside is quite unique. Gaudi used a lot of naturally inspired shapes in his work, and the church is no exception. Columns branch like trees towards the roof, and there are spirals everywhere. Pictures do not do it justice.

Sagrada Família (staircase)
My other Barcelona day was more of a tourist ramble. I walked down to the docks and took the cable car over the harbour, before wandering around the Gothic quarter and ending up in the Parc de la Ciutadella. I didn't realise quite how touristy Barcelona was until that day; the hordes wore me down eventually, so the beers with Carl were extra-welcome.

My last Spanish excursion was to Montserrat, a big lump of conglomerate about an hour by train from Barcelona. I took the – unfortunately packed – cable car up (have you worked out that I really like cable cars yet though?) and had a nice little wander around.

Noseless lady near Hotel Miramar
The mountain has been home to a monastery for a long time. There are also ruins and little shrines further up, and lots of paths to connect them up. This makes for some really easy walking, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself right up on top of one of the higher peaks with very little effort at all. I guess compared to Australia, most places like this have had people wandering all over them for years, so the paths are quite well defined.

All in all it was a really nice final "trip" within the trip, and a welcome relief after the craziness that was Barcelona the previous day.

Chapel up on Monserrat
I spent my final day wandering around Sitges looking for some nice whiskys to bring home (alcohol is so much cheaper in Europe), and for some ingredients to cook a nice risotto for the guys, who looked after me really well and put up with me for longer than anyone else in Europe. I'm pleased to report that all missions were successful <sips Caol Ila> and that the risotto turned out pretty well too.

Carl has suggested that I nominate Spain as the most awesome European country, but I do have Italian background, so I better not go choosing favourites. That said, it is worthy of the label "a pretty damn awesome place". Great food, (good) cheap wine, and a nice friendly culture. A bit like Italy, and similarly disorganised. Also – sun (although, to be fair, some of the other less sunny countries do have better weather at times too).

Really, at the end of the day, my little Europe jaunt has been very interesting, and incredibly enjoyable, and every country has had a lot going for it.

View from Montserrat
Many unexpected things have happened, almost all of them lovely. I've gotten a taste of at least five uniquely different cultures, with all their quirks. Europe is still so incredibly tribal, albeit in a refined sort of way. Exploring a slice of it has given me a lot more personal insight into all the history that I already knew, and the people I've met over the years from various countries.

Sitges sunset
It's not cheap though - I have to say that without the lovely free accommodation I had throughout, I would be coming home somewhat poorer. So thank you everyone, not only for the free B&Bs (and Ls and Ds), but also for taking me out, hanging around, and generally letting me be a part of your lives. I was exactly what I had in mind when I planned my little invasions – relaxed little snapshots of local life with a few select touristy things thrown in.

Stay tuned for another adventure next week!

Edit: The full set of pics are up on Flickr at last!

Friday 2 November 2012

Week 5 - Rheine and Paris

Time for another update!

Kirmus colour
So, after leaving Berlin I took a train to a little German town called Rheine, just north of Münster. It's not very well known, probably because it's small and nothing particularly momentous goes on there.

However, my old school friend Jenny lives there, and it was time for a visit, to catch up with her, her hubby, and finally meet her kids.

Horizontal pipe organ (shades of The Goodies?)
After the general hubbub of Berlin I was expecting a few fairly quiet days, but it turned out that my first evening there was also the last night of Kirmes, which is like a travelling fair that moves about German towns (as I understand it). So I ended up wandering around a noisy packed out carnival, with rides and music and food and people being suspended upside down and spun around, while I had a beer and caught up with Jenny. It was quite amusing.

Amelie with chocolate ice cream - perfect
In the end I opted not to be spun upside down, although it was slightly tempting, as to do that sort of thing at home you generally have to queue up for an overpriced theme park and then wait for hours. We did go on a spinning chair ride though, which turned out to be quite a fast, *high* spinning chair ride. Most enjoyable :) I also succumbed and finally tried a German currywurst. Quite edible, but not exactly a delicacy...

Anyway things settled down into the more expected routine for the next two days; basically hanging out with Jenny and her two girls, Amelie and Laila, and her husband Christian in the evenings.

Münster promenade
Laila with leaves
We spent one day visiting Münster, where we ambled around the town and had some lunch (and, more importantly, an ice cream). I also got to check out the house that Jenny and Christian are building in Rheine – construction in Germany is somewhat more solid than in Brisbane. I guess you need that when it can get down to minus-something-ridiculous in winter.

The weather was a bit grey again, but it wasn't raining, so on the second day Jenny and I hopped on bikes (with a trailer for Laila) and went for a little ride. There were autumn leaves and mist and deer. We finished the day off by stuffing our faces at the local Chinese restaurant. Later, Christian produced some single malts which went down extremely well.

So all up, Germany was pretty good to me. It struck me as slightly messier than Switzerland, but I think Berlin is a relatively un-German city. Rheine was certainly more sedate and organised. The people seemed relatively friendly too (as long as you obey the numerous rules – don't you dare disrupt the supermarket queue or stand on the bike path though!).

I'll definitely have to come back and explore more some day.

And then, I was off to Paris. I got there a day late due to the French deciding to have a rail strike. You have to love them – any country that throws up rioters who sets fire to cars in protest of having to work more than 32 hours a week gets the thumbs up from me.

Parisian skyline
Paris itself was interesting. I found it amazing and unforgiving at the same time. It's a big, fast city, and is definitely less relaxed than Berlin. Admittedly I spent more time on my own and less with a local guide, but nonetheless, it's a pretty fast moving place.

Pere Lachaise cemetery
I arrived in the afternoon and found the place I was staying pretty easily. Nick is an old friend of my sister's and he very kindly put me up for four nights. It turned out that his flat was practically next door to the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, so I went out for a look and took some nice moody photos in cool grey evening.

bumming around the Eiffel Tower hur hur hur
Later, Nick arrived home and we headed out for some drinks and dinner with friends of his. This turned into quite a lot of drinks which was just fine by me. The food was great too.

On Saturday I hopped onto the metro and found my way into town for an exploratory wander. I started near Notre Dame and ended up taking in a selection of Parisian landmarks, like the Louvre (from the outside), the Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe. I finished up at the Trocadéro and Eiffel Tower, both of which were quite photogenic in the failing light.

In the evening Nick's girlfriend cooked up a lovely curry, and on Sunday some friends of theirs popped over for a very civilised crepe-based brunch. In the afternoon we headed out to the cemetery again and this time we sought out the famous graves of Jim Morrison (boring) and Oscar Wilde (much less boring), before I headed off to ascend the Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel Tower – or IRON MAN?
The plan was to get up there at dusk but the queues were much longer than they had been on the previous day, so I was stuck in the cold wind with hundreds of others as the sun went down. I took the stairs up to the second level (unfortunately they don't let you walk up to the top – they should have a separate line for crazy fit guys who don't like crowds!) and had myself a nice cup of mulled wine as the lights of Paris came out. I thought about you all then. No, really, I did. It was like when a cat who has the cream sits thinking about all the other cats. ;)

Anyway, I took my time looking about the tower. Also I took my time ascending to the top, because there was another enormous queue on level 2. And I love big groups of people *so* much. The view from the top was spectacular, and the freezing wind bracing.

bum OF the Eiffel Tower?
All up it was an exhausting evening, but also awesome and well worth it.

I had one day left in Paris, and after tossing up various options I decided to visit the Louvre, because it would really have been a bit silly to visit Paris and not do that.

Paris by night
Unfortunately it was also French school holidays, so in addition to the usual droves of tourists, there were also countless extra visitors. As a museum, the Louvre is amazing. It is huge! And you walk around and run into famous things. I was walking through rooms of really nice Roman statues when I thought "oh hey, that one looks a bit like the Venus de Milo – oh wait, it IS the Venus de Milo...". Nice to know I can recognise at least one famous artwork.

Horus making shadow puppets in the Louvre
There were rooms and rooms of amazing sculptures, paintings, Egyptian sarcophagi and artifacts from all sorts of ancient cultures. And that was one wing of about five.

I was getting pretty tired of the crowds though. The Pergamon in Berlin was quiet, like a museum should be. The Louvre... was not. I had to resist the urge to strangle people more than once. Still, I figured I would explore one of the other wings and go see the silly Mona Lisa while I was there.

Perhaps it's an amazing work for all sorts of reasons that I'm not cultured enough to understand, but I've always found it underwhelming in pictures. Reality was no different. There was (for example) a cool painting of a lion eating a chubby infant, while the horrified mother looks on, waving her hands in the air, that I found much more interesting (and amusing, but that's just me).

Oh look here it is:,_Nicolas-Andr%C3%A9_-_Le_Lion_de_Florence_-_1801.JPG

(I can only imagine that the boob was sort of conveying that the infant had been torn from it, and not that the artist was being gratuitous)

Anyway, the crowd of sheeple queueing for the Mona Lisa was at least as diverting as the picture itself. When I went to take a picture of the crowd some silly security lady told me it was forbidden, and I got into a little war of words with her about it, such was my mood. It was a good indicator that it was time to go home, which I did.

Next time I think I will check out the hunting museum, which, in place of huge crowds, apparently has an animatronic talking pig.

Anyway all up, Paris has a lot to offer, but I'm so not a big city guy, and I doubt I could live there. Bonsoir, Paris! See you again sometime, preferably in summer when everyone has buggered off to the South of France!

Huge thanks as usual to my lovely hosts, Jenny and Nick! I'd be a lot poorer, culturally and financially, if it weren't for everyone looking after me here.

Update: the complete sets of pictures are now up on flickr.



Thursday 1 November 2012

Week 4 - Berlin

Hello again! It's time to break radio silence and bash out another update. Or two – it's been a while.

Things have been a bit busy and it's only now that I'm finding the time to stop and take stock.

Berlin - Festival of Light - looking away from The Reichstag
So, the last email was from Germany, relating Switzerland. This time I'm sitting in Sitges, Spain, and I'll start by rewinding to Berlin.

Festival of Light at Potsdamer Platz
As soon as I arrived at Berlin, John and Dai Meng collected me at the station and whisked me off to a nice Indian restaurant, continuing the good food safari part of the journey. From then on it was a week of all sorts of good things.

First up was Monday night when we hit the city centre to check out the Festival of Light (lots of pretty things projected onto buildings, not Fred Nile's caveman fundie Christian association). It was a good intro to Berlin and some of her little landmarks, like the Brandenberg Gate.

On Tuesday John and I saddled up and went for a nice long bike ride all around the town. The weather was great once again (*waves fist at Swiss weather gods*) and we explored the old Tempelhof airport and the Berlin Wall gallery, before looping around the city centre and heading home. This sounds like a full day in itself but John had other ideas and so we found ourselves heading out in the evening to shoot some tongue-in-cheek video for a music project he is working on.

Die toten wecken auf!
This involved three of us dressing up as zombies, and John donning a pink outfit and pig's nose. I could explain, but it's better to wait for the finished product.

John's current obsession with zombies has also led him to write an amusing little novella (zovella?) and publish it on Amazon. You can check it out at You might even be able to find a bit of the video we shot that night if he links it up.

Berlin wall mit Hawkins und girly bike
Righto, so anyway after the zombie shoot we wiped off the blood and proceeded to have an excellent German meal, where I ate something amazing that I can't remember the name of (it was not, however, brains).

Speaking of amazing meals, I was also treated to two home cooked specials by Dai Meng. One was a traditional Chinese spread, and the other a German sampler of various popular dishes, including sauerkraut, which I am still not entirely sure I like.

Moving away from the food again (for now), we also hit up some awesome museums during the week. John and I checked out the computer game museum, which was kinda cool but not great. Lots of nostalgia though, and we did get to play Pac Man with a giant Atari joystick (which is harder than it sounds).

Then there was the technical museum, which was full of old trains (Rik you would have loved it), as well as some really cool old film and photography gear. And, no doubt, other stuff, but it closed before we could check it out...

The standout museum for me though was the Pergamon, which I only explored half of unfortunately. They have rooms – big rooms – full of reconstructed bits of ancient cities. You could spend hours looking at just one or two objects there. It's all too much to take in in one hit, but it was still very cool.

Berlin evening outside the Pergamon
One other nice little outdoor activity that John and I did was to seek out and visit the old abandoned amusement park in the former Eastern bit of the city, at Treptower Park. It's totally overgrown, and full of sad old relics, like fibreglass dinosaurs (poor upside-down t-rex!) and bits of old rides. There's a cheesy little train that still runs around the outside of the park and for a couple of euros we took in a

Old animatronic ape at the amusement park
You can try to sneak through on your own but there are security guards there to keep people out. In times past the guards would make you delete your photos if they caught you in there at all, but now they sort of open up the entrance to make a bit of money on the weekend. Most of the park is still off limits though - if you stray into an off-limits area you'll soon get a "HULLO! <woof woof woof>" from a local trained dog and his guard-human.

Poor T-rex!
I should make quick mention of a couple of other nice Berlin meals too. There are Turks aplenty there, so you can get kebabs everywhere. What we call a kebab though is called something else and instead you get a sort of long bread roll with kebab stuff inside. The quality is enormously variable but John and Dai Meng had a favourite spot which was did a fantastic version.

Those two are mad about Latin dancing too, so on my last evening there we went off to a social dance (no I did not dance, are you mad? I drank a beer instead) and then headed to a Cuban place for another great dinner and 4 euro cocktails. Perfect.

Computer game museum - how many of these can you name?
All up, Berlin was great. Once again I was looked after and shown all sorts of cool things. The weather was also great and there was plenty of time for exploration and even some guitar in the park.

Bullet holes
Pergamon. I wanted to climb up and shout "wewease bwian!"
Of course, there's a lot of history in Berlin, but nothing quite hammers it home like seeing some older buildings riddled with bullet holes from the war. They've patched up a lot of the buildings, but have also left some as they are, perhaps to help with that national guilt thing that many Germans take so seriously.

I expected to be a bit ho-hum about a big city like Berlin, but everyone raved about it, and I can see why now. It has a nice laid back feel. Distinctly un-German I suppose, probably due to all those bloody artists and foreigners. It was also incredibly pretty with the Autumn colours and blue skies. Definitely somewhere I'll be back to one day. Thanks for looking after me guys!

I'm going to split this blog up now, or there will be too many cool pics to choose from!

Edit: the full set of pictures are now up on Flickr, click below to view them!

Thursday 18 October 2012

Week 3 - Switzerland

Lake Geneva
Hi all! Looks like I finally have a quieter day happening, so it's time for another travel update.

So, now I'm in Berlin, at John and Dai Meng's place. They're following the same pattern as everyone else and are attempting to spoil me with various outings, adventures and goodies, but right now it's time to rewind back to Switzerland, where I spent last week at my friend Anna's place.

Venice and Imperia were full of sunshine, but this sort of thing doesn't generally last (unless it is a Brisbane winter), and my time in Switzerland was a fairly rainy, overcast affair, for the most part. This didn't stop me form having a great week though.

Anna organised some great public transport passes, which allow you to travel the entire country all day for a fixed price. We spent the first day after I arrived touring the west and south of the country (which is very conveniently small compared to somewhere ridiculous like Australia).

We stopped off at Montreux and had some delicious crepes for lunch (seeing a pattern yet?), and then walked around on the pretty Lake Geneva shoreline for a while. There was no smoke – only some mist - on the water.

Then we train hopped to Berne (which I'm sure you all know is the capital of Switzerland) and had a little look around as the light disappeared. I really quite liked Berne, it has a nice feel and lots of interesting old architecture. All in all a great intro day to the country.

Bern at dusk
I spent the next couple of days relaxing and catching up on emails (and writing the last update). It's good to have these downtime days every so often when you travel otherwise it's easy to get burned out and cranky with everything. The weather was pretty lousy, but I did manage to get out of the house and look around Winterthur, taking a stroll through the main street, visiting a local photographic exhibition, and walking up the hill through a local park to (literally) smell the roses that grow up there.

On Wednesday it was time to head further out again, solo this time as Anna had to work. She did help me plan an excellent little adventure though; down south again, but this time into the Italian sector of the country (Montreux is in the French-speaking bit) - mainly because the weather sounded like it would be better there.

So, after an early start, various connecting trains, and some spectacular scenery, I made my way to Diavolezza, in the Alps (and not that far from St Moritz).

Pers Glacier from Diavolezza
The cable car took me up to about 3000m. It was still cloudy, but the fog lifted and I got a great view of the local glacier and mountains. I was pretty hungry by then, but decided to take a couple of quick pics, which was wise, because as soon as I went inside for lunch the fog rolled in and it snowed fairly heavily for the next 45 minutes or so.

After lunch (finished off with a delicious cafe con grappa) the fog was kind enough to lift for me again, so I went for a little walk and enjoyed the fresh snow, before I had to hop back on the cable car and commence my journey home via St Moritz (just to be different). All in all a great day, despite the weather.

Diavolezza Reflections (spot the dog)
On Thursday I took a shorter trip to Stein am Rheine, a touristy little village near the German border. The fellow in the burger place where I had lunch took a shine to me and I ended up with a free beer, probably just because he wanted to demonstrate the vast superiority of Swiss/German beer over Australian "piss-water" as he put it.

I have to agree. Compared to every single beer I have had over here, the likes of XXXX, VB, New and any of the other common cheaper beers are basically all shite. Luckily we can still get some decent beers in Oz, but we pay through the nose for them (alcohol is *much* cheaper in Europe – about a third of what it costs at home, generally speaking). Anyway, enough about beer for now - there will be more in my German update I'm sure.

Swiss Autumn Colours
I took in the Rheine falls quickly on the way home, and then had a nice relaxing day on Friday. We ate a lot of cheese and yummy things for dinner. This had become a pattern throughout my time there; earlier in the week, Anna had a friend over for dinner and we had a Swiss Raclette (basically melting various cheeses and then eating them with some potatoes and other bits and pieces). Sort of a perfect diet for me, as anyone who knows me well would understand. Cheese and wine for dinner? CAN DO.

On Saturday Anna was finally freed from work (something that the Swiss spend way to much time doing) and we headed out again to a nice "little" mountain spot called Rigi. It's a small hill that rises 1800m from the valleys and lakes around it. We rode the cogwheel train up there, and then took in the pretty scenery (including goats, see, had lunch, and walked rather speedily for a km or two to the cable car, which we promptly missed by about 30 seconds.

Swiss Autumn Shades
This wasn't so bad though, as the sun came out for pretty much the first time all week, and we were forced to sit in it for half an hour while we waited for the next one. Curses.

After that little interlude, we zipped down the mountain and took a ferry across the lake to Lucerne, an even more touristy town than Stein am Rheine. Anna had said it was a bit "meh" and I agree; I found Berne much nicer. I guess I'm just not one for overly touristy spots, unless they are exceptional (and then I prefer them without people).

And then that was it - the Swiss time was up and I headed to Berlin on Sunday. It was all a bit brief but I did get a nice feel for the country – a place I'd only visited small parts of in the past.

Three of the highest alpine peaks, all >4000m
Switzerland is really lovely overall. The scenery is spectacular just about everywhere. The food and wine are good, as you'd expect. Everything is pretty expensive though, and the Swiss themselves are an interesting bunch. Anna is fairly atypical, having spent far too much time in Australia (we met in Kununarra in 2005). In general, they're a fairly friendly, if somewhat reserved bunch. Only one person all week asked me where I was from, and in general the population seem to keep to themselves and concentrate on the important business of being Swiss (a terribly burdensome occupation from what I believe).
Traditional Mountain Fence

Still, they carry this burden well and run the country very cleanly and efficiently, in a low-key sort of way. Trains run on time – without exception – and even a small delay in transit to wait for another train to pass results in an apology over the loudspeaker.

Contrasts exist though – I saw more radical dress and hairstyles among some of the young people there than I have in a long time anywhere else.

Anna had picked up an amusing little book somewhere, called The Xenophobe's guide to the Swiss. I never quite finished reading it, but it did give me a few chuckles and a certain insight into Swiss mentality that often seems to be disturbingly accurate. Here's a quote:

"The diversity of the Swiss is apparent in the degree to which they worry. The German-speakers do little else. The French-speaking Swiss are great visionaries and philosophers with noble thoughts and global dreams. They worry that their Swiss-German compatriots do not share these dreams. The Italian-speaking Swiss are less interested in the solid values of work and have a terrible tendency not to worry nearly enough."

You can find it on Amazon at

Switzerland is a place I'll definitely come back to some day, in a less wishy-washy season (ie full summer or full winter).

That's it for this week. Hopefully I haven't forgotten anything important. So much happens and goes on in your head when you travel that it can be hard to remember it all in one go. That's a large part of why I write these emails - they're as much for me as they are for you :)

Island mountains from Rigi
Thanks again Anna for having me to stay! Stay tuned next week for tales of Germans, bullet holes, zombies, and who knows what else...

Edit: The full set of pics from Switzerland are now up on flickr here: