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:

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Week 2 - Venice!

Well hello again, everyone!

Right now I'm in a place called Winterthur, just near Zurich, Switzerland, where my friend Anna lives. Being put up in luxury, I might add!

Campanile of St Mark's and two of the Four Tetrarchs
It's been quite a week and a half. As many of you know, I've been to some place called "Venice", so this update should be a bit more "travel story" and less "Mark's food blog".

So, rewind to Imperia. After a day on trains, we arrived in Venice sometime in the afternoon ("we" being myself, my aunt (zia) Meme, and her friend Anna).

St Mark's in the rain
After catching a Vaporetto (ferry) to St Mark's square, we were met by the fellow who was to take us to our accommodation. He was pretty much a dead ringer for Freddie Mercury, which did nothing to alleviate the sense of surrealism I was experiencing. In fact, it took quite a few days for the whole "holy crap, I'm in VENICE!" thing to start wearing off; which is how it should be of course.

St Mark's square from the Basilica
Anyway, after making it to our accommodation, which turned out to be quite close to the square, we had a quick look around (with me in a daze of course) and then a nice quiet pizza (the first of many) in a back street.

Classic Venetian vista
Saturday we spent wandering, which is one of the best ways to spend time in Venice; there is an enormous amount to see and do. Just walking around is a visual feast in itself – the architecture, bridges and canals are incredibly pretty, no matter where you look; up, down, sideways – it doesn't matter. Then there are the smells and sounds.

One minute you are shuffling along a narrow street, crowded with tourists, peering into shop windows filled with everything from Venetian masks (mostly cheesy tourist versions), fake Murano glass, ridiculously overpriced handbags, and wearable, fashionable dead animal skins.

Then you turn a corner into a side street and suddenly you're wandering alone down a narrow, dank alley that smells like a mixture of dog piss, swamp, rubbish and delicious cooking all at once.

Classic Venetian architecture
Just when you think it's a dead end, you turn another corner and there's a pretty little courtyard with a restaurant and a gondola on the nearby canal, ferrying around well-heeled tourists (or lovers) while some guy blasts away on the piano-accordion.

And that's just on the outside. Once you start going into places it gets even better. On the first day we visited the famous church of the Frari, which is quite insanely large and ornate.

Meme and Anna also spent a lot of time window-shopping on the streets, which isn't normally my favourite pastime, but in Venice there's always something amusing to see.

After an afternoon nap, we finished the day with a lovely dinner, and then went down to St Mark's square, where I finally took my first Venetian pictures (I just wanted to look at things for the first day, knowing that I'd be there for a week. This was great, from a photography point of view it's complete overload when you arrive).

myself, Zia Meme and Anna

On Sunday we headed off to an exhibition of famous Italian photographs. There's a bit of back-story to this. Some of you may know that my Italian grandfather, Carlo Cocquio, was a painter, and spent a lot of time painting in Venice (see attached pic). A great friend of his (and his brother in law, as it happened) was a guy called Paolo Monti, who was a pioneering Italian photographer.

Rio Delle Lavandaie, by my Nonno Carlo Cocquio
In 1948 he and some other photographers founded a photographic society in Venice called "Circolo Fotografico La Gondola", which is still around today (see

Zia Meme, being Paolo's niece, appeared in quite a few of his works and so she is somewhat of a (reluctant) celebrity in these circles, and knows a few people in the society (I met Paolo too when I was very little – he took some pictures of me; I'll attach one for a giggle).

Portrait of yours truly, aged about 2, by Paolo Monti
Thus - not only were we given a grand tour of the exhibition, along with a group of other interested folks - we also were invited to have dinner with the chap from the society (whose name escapes me much to my embarrassment).

I certainly remember his dinner though – home cooked prawn and porcini risotto plus and roasted fish in a Venetian flat (remember how I said it wouldn't be a food blog? I lied). The whole experience was very special, despite the fact that he talked at a million miles an hour and my brain almost melted trying to follow even a small amount of the conversation.

As an aside, it is interesting trying to follow conversations in a language you don't speak much of. It's a mixture of keywords, with a lot of educated guesswork based on the emotional flow of the conversation (which is an odd thing to follow when you have no idea what is being said).

Anyway, after dinner we got rained on going home. So now I can say I've been soaked in Venice.  Which is debatably romantic.

The famous four bronze horses
I had one last day with Meme and Anna after that, and we went and explored more. There was a great ferry ride around the city, and gelato and some amazing works of art by Tintoretto. And then there was the inevitably teary farewell the next morning when it was finally time to travel on my own.

I spent the next four nights at a hostel not too far from the main square, but far enough that it was in a nice quiet spot.

During the day I went exploring as much as my legs would stand, taking the odd picture, and trying to get purposefully lost (so as to see new places).

I would return to the hostel in the afternoon for little rest, then head out again for a nice dinner by a canal somewhere, followed by a slower amble around to take more photos or just watch the world go by. I took the guitar out one night and played a bit here and there, just because I could. Walking home through the empty streets late at night, noodling away on the guitar is a rather nice memory. :)

Café Florien from the Campanile
I left most of the main tourist attractions right until the end of my stay really; they weren't going anywhere. But eventually I covered all the bases, touring the Palace and St Mark's cathedral (which are both very touristy, but are both also totally amazing). I also went up the campanile (bell tower) and got the usual great overhead pics, as well as being deafened by the bells, which was quite cool, as it also happened to us 25 years ago when I was there as a kid.

I actually made a recording of said bells, as well as a little stroll around the square at night. I'll be trying to take little audio pictures as I go around, just to be different. You can find them all at

For my last night in Venice I treated myself to a live Vivaldi concert (with some Pachelbel and Back thrown in), in the very church where Vivaldi used to debut his new pieces. This was also pretty  special because my parents took us to the same spot 25 years ago, for the same sort of thing, and I still remember it being magical.

Quiet back street by night
And that was it for Venice. Except for once last walk from my hostel to the train station, which turned out to be rather a long one, as I went via the square and fed the pigeons along the way. The pigeons of
St Mark's square are, of course, incredibly tame, and will quite happily sit on you, eat out of your hand, and generally swarm around if you encourage them. Which is really cool, unless you are ornithophobic (hi Alex!).

One last observation about visiting Venice: The swarms of tourists are quite insane and intense at first, but if you can find a good spot to sit, it is really quite nice to just people-watch. Because everyone is happy – they are on holidays, in Venice. Being silly, and happy, and excited. It's remarkably therapeutic. So I'll leave you with that thought – if you're a bit down, go somewhere touristy (especially one of the wonders of the world) and watch people.

Hopefully everyone's well, and no-one died of starvation reading this. I'll see you all in another week or so, with some Swiss and maybe even German antics. 

Edit: My complete set of pictures from Venice are now up on Flickr, to view click here:

Moody back street tunnel