Engines of the North

[15 Dec 02] Casting my mind back over the year and an eye back over the archives, I notice a bunch of things I never got around to writing about here: exhibitions visited, movies seen, books read, and, in a couple of instances, places visited. Two of the latter were home to genuine engineering marvels of the new millennium: the Falkirk Wheel and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Both worth mentioning, even if three months late.

Falkirk Wheel Gateshead Millennium Bridge

Millennium Engineering

The Falkirk Wheel stands upriver (or, more accurately, upcanal) from the Scottish town of Falkirk, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Prior to its completion, Falkirk's main tourist attraction was the Antonine Wall, the turf rampart that pushed the Roman Empire north for a few decades. Since the wall is now more of an Antonine Ditch, which doesn't have quite the same draw, the need to build a giant rotating engineery thing to lure visitors was obvious.

And what a giant rotating engineery thing it is. Its ostensible purpose is to reconnect the canals running from Edinburgh to Glasgow to make the entire length traversable again, so that in theory I could hop on a boat a block from my place and end up drifting helplessly towards Ireland. But its actual purpose is to give visitors the chance to climb into a boat at the wheel itself, be lifted upwards verrrrrrry slowly, think "gosh, we're up high", and then be gently returned to where they were just ten minutes before.

The marvellous thing is that it all runs on the same amount of power it takes to boil a kettle. Although, given that, it'd be even more impressive if instead of a giant wheel it was a giant kettle, filling the canals between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde with Earl Grey. That really would have been a fitting British commemoration of the millennium. But never mind; the Falkirk Wheel is certainly the most enormous mechanical nodding bird in Christendom.

Meanwhile, the home of Earl Grey himself has been linked across the Tyne with neighbouring Gateshead by the equally impressive Millennium Bridge. Newcastle is an attractive place, with a Georgian centre replete with aforementioned tea magnate perched high on a stick, and enough medieval and Tudor buildings to break up the post-war landscape. The Millennium Bridge, along with the new Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (housed in a converted flour mill on its Gateshead side), gives the whole place a contemporary, forward-looking feel. We were lucky enough to see it just as it was being raised in the middle of the day to let boats through; the whole thing pivots on two large cogs, lowering the main arch and raising the curved footbridge to form a second. I don't know whether it uses less power than it takes to draw a pint of Newcastle brown ale, but no matter. Along with the imposing Angel of the North on the A1, it's given the region a morale boost, even if it isn't at peak use yet.


Homage to Barcelona

[30 Nov 02]

Sagrada Familia La Rambla Markets Gaudi's House Sagrada Familia Interior Barcelona Cathedral Street Tiles by Gaudi Sagrada Familia Ceiling Gothic Quarter Shop Window



[27 Nov 02] I forgot one thing in my roll-call of things to remember about Barcelona: travelling down in the lift one morning and hearing an Iberian-looking couple speaking a language that sounded like none other; it couldn't have been Russian, or Hungarian, or Finnish; it had to be Basque. And it really does bear no resemblance to any other European language; not a single recognisable word. It's like listening to a human version of machine code.


Things to Remember About Barcelona

[22 Nov 02] The glorious weather on our first and last days, as warm and clear as the hottest day of summer in Edinburgh (24 degrees), staying warm into the evening. The leaves were just starting to turn brown; back home, they're all gone.

The stone turtles at the base of the columns on the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's most impressive legacy and Barcelona's most famous building. I could still remember them from my first visit in 1986, and of course they're still there, patiently enduring the noise and dust as construction on the cathedral enters its thirteenth decade. It's inspiring to contemplate a project spanning not just years but lifetimes, like the great cathedrals of the past. When it's finished, the Sagrada Familia will be as great as any: the projected central spire will be almost twice the height of the eight flanking towers that currently exist. In the space between them, dozens of new tree-like columns branch upwards to support the tower still to come. I hope I'm around to see it.

The diamond-shaped squares at the intersections of the gridded streets of L'Eixample, the 19th century expansion of Barcelona. I remembered these, too, not for their shape but for the way the locals park along each edge of each corner (in designated 90-degree parking spots), then double-park and even triple-park each other in, neatly filling in the diamond and turning it into a normal intersection. Bad luck if you're in the middle.

The narrow streets of the old city, near-deserted in the bright glare of the afternoon, when the shops shut for three hours. And the shops themselves, like the one selling masks for 18th-century-style balls and quirky finger puppets.

The graffiti. It stands out all the more for Barcelona being so clean and elegant—and for the graffiti being so distinctive (it was even carved into the prickly pears on the hill above Parc Güell). There's the occasional hip-hop tag on the alley walls, but those look uninspired next to the sort of stuff that could only come from the city of Miro and Picasso.

Speaking of whom: the Miro Foundation was better than the Picasso Museum, but they're both worth a visit. The latter is strong on Picasso's early years (it's certainly impressive to see him master and then move beyond the traditional and experimental styles of his day before he'd reached his mid-20s), but there are glaring gaps where all his best work should be. The Miro is more even, and seems to better match its location—especially when you emerge afterwards into the blue early evening and look up at a full moon that could have come straight from one of his paintings.

The National Art Museum of Catalonia, full of church interiors removed (for conservation purposes) from the small country towns of Catalonia in the early twentieth century, and now set into its white gallery walls. I was in two minds about this: the relics were amazing to see, but how much more amazing they would be in their original locations, which now have only reproductions. But then, many Catalonian churches were burnt out in the Spanish Civil War, so perhaps this saved them. And what treasures worth saving: not just the sophisticated gothic paintings of the 14th to 16th centuries, but the bold and colourful Romanesque frescoes of the 11th and 12th, full of biblical images that seem strange indeed to the modern viewer: angels with six wings, each one dotted with open eyes.

Trying to remember a few words of (Castilian) Spanish from two weeks in the country half a lifetime ago, and failing. Remembering how much less English is spoken in southern Europe than in northern. Remembering that half of what people are saying is in Catalan anyway.

The tallat, or cortado in Castilian: a shot of espresso with a little milk and a lot of sugar. When I was 18 I thought it was the best coffee in the world. I've drunk a lot of coffee in a lot more places since then: Melbourne, Seattle, San Francisco. The tallat is still the best coffee in the world.

Small balls of syrup-soaked cake coated in toasted honeyed pine nuts. Malaga grape-flavoured gelati. The 'Restaurant Tipica' that looked chintzy (bulls' heads on the wall, saddles on the stools in the bar downstairs) but turned out to be genuinely tipica, full of locals and good food. The breakfast buffet in the hotel like a cake-shop, full of custard-filled pastries, with a slice or two of tortilla (the classic Spanish potato omelette, not the Mexican flat bread) as the token savoury item.

The way the people of Barcelona stroll en masse in the warm evening air, families and friends cruising the shopping streets of the Gothic Quarter before heading to dinner at 9 or 10 o'clock.

Their meticulous fashion sense. In the Metro on the way to the University of Barcelona one morning, it was hard to believe I was sharing the train with students—they looked as if they'd stepped straight off the catwalk.

A typically small Spanish dog sitting quietly inside a canvas bag on the lap of its middle-aged owner on the Metro.

The ridiculous number of commercials on Spanish TV. We counted 34 in one ad break. Even at fifteen seconds a spot, that's way too many—and many were longer than that.

The fresh food markets off the bottom of La Rambla, Barcelona's main street. More varied and lively even than the Vic markets in Melbourne, with piles of quinces and dried Malagas, bags of snails and racks of pheasants, one man carrying a sack of live crabs and another carrying a slaughtered pig over his shoulder.

Rows and rows of red devotional candles in the city's gothic cathedral. The rain at dusk collecting on its roof and pouring through the mouths of gargoyles to shower onto the polished flagstones of the alley below.

Parc Güell, Barcelona


South to the North

[ 3 Nov 02] While the site was on ice I was at ICE, three days of stimulating papers and good company in the fresh air of the northern Lake District. Volunteering to help drive the shuttle bus to and from the train station gave me the chance to see a bit of the countryside (and almost bag a few slow pheasants), and to take a few photos of the scenery—click around to see them:

Higham Hall Lawn Higham Hall Lawn Higham Hall Bassenthwaite Water

The Lakes

A good conference helps to get your own ideas flowing, and thanks to this one I think I've finally found the right ones to frame some of the subjects I've been chipping away at over recent months, which was a welcome result. The after-dinner quiz was a result, too, because I won one of these. A brain full of net trivia comes in handy at last.

Good thing there weren't any questions about English surnames, though. As I stood admiring a painting of a stout colonel hanging on the wall, particularly his polysyllabic surname of 'Fetherstonhaugh', one of my colleagues put me to 'the Australian test' and asked me how it was pronounced.

"Featherst'nhaw," I guessed.

"Fanshaw," he corrected me.

That's ridlous.


Tearing Down the Wall

[18 Sep 02]

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall, 14-15 September 2002. We spent the weekend walking 4-5 hours a day along its central stretches, from Carvoran Roman Army Museum to Sewingshields Crag, taking in Vindolanda and Housesteads along the way; about ten or twelve miles in all. Clean air, silence, and sweeping views of remote Northumbrian countryside. The paths that were once patrolled by Roman centurions are now patrolled by incontinent cows, so you have to watch your feet, and the best views are at the top of the steepest hills, so you have to use your feet, but it's well worth it.

Hadrian's Wall


Goodbye to Berlin

[30 Jul 02] Now on DVD and VHS, all six episodes of Berlin, the documentary series by acclaimed bloke Rory Ewins, as seen on Speedy TV. The critics rave: You little beauty! - Shauny; A damned fine entry - Ed; I want an all-Rory BBC/PBS series - Bill; I must eat your brain - Tom.

Watch it again and again on this lavishly prepared compilation, now with hidden extras* and director's commentary.** Never scroll backwards through an archive again!

*View source to reveal hidden extra HTML tags.
**He didn't have much to say, really.


6. Aus in Europa

[29 Jul 02] The train from Vienna back to Berlin, on the morning before our flight home, ran a couple of hours late, and Jane and I ended up talking with the young Austrian couple sharing our carriage...


5. Kultur

[26 Jul 02] The major art galleries of the West are often billed as 'museums', and, in many cases, its major museums are full of art: art that has been dug up, art that has been hauled half-way around the world, and sometimes both...


4. Kunst

[25 Jul 02] Anyone without a taste for castles, cathedrals and canvases is going to find European tourism pretty dull; and since Berlin has few of the first two, that puts a lot of pressure on the paint. Fortunately, the city has museums and galleries galore; even better, a €10 pass buys you three days' entry to all of them. We had seven days in Berlin, three of which Jane spent at a conference, leaving me free to see anything I wanted. As usual, I wanted kultur und kunst...


3. Alt und Neu

[24 Jul 02] Crossing the vanished wall in early '98, it was easy to tell where it had been eight years before. The solid buildings of Mitte, once the centre of pre-war Berlin, still spoke of forty years of the DDR: their lines recognisably modern, but their line of descent tilted slightly askew. The clear winter skies challenged my Western stereotypes by painting blue where I half expected grey, but the buildings compensated for that. East German architecture was intended to exalt the People, but people seemed to shrink in these streets, in numbers and into themselves. They huddled in their leather jackets and strode rather than strolled, keen to be somewhere else. There wasn't much to do in Mitte but look around, and Berliners had already looked...


Rory Planet's Nottingham on a Shoestring

[24 Jul 02] It seems a shame to overshadow poor Nottingham with these entries on Berlin and fail to mention it completely, so here's my quick guided tour. Nottingham looks like a pleasant place to live (for my friends, at least), but even though everyone has heard of its notorious Sheriff, there isn't actually much to see there. In fact, because most of its medieval buildings turned into slums in the industrial revolution and were subsequently demolished, there are Four things to see there.

1. Medieval Nottingham was home to one of the largest, grandest castles in all of England, sprawled over a hill in the middle of the town. So large and grand that it was a stronghold for Charles the First in the Civil War. Who lost. The castle was demolished by his enemies, and replaced by a modest baroque manor, now a local museum and art gallery. Key exhibit: mannequin in Home Guard kit and gas-mask.

2. Medieval Nottingham was unusual for the large number of cave dwellings carved out of sandstone rock by the locals. A few of them are still in use as pub cellars (including a couple of the oldest pubs in England, dating back to the Crusades). It's possible to tour one of the main cave complexes, linked together during World War Two to form air-raid shelters. The historic buildings above these caves were demolished by their enemies, and replaced by a 1970s shopping mall; the entrance is actually in the mall itself, and part of the tour features its attractive concrete foundations. Key exhibits: war-time sign advertising 'Doctor Carrot, the Children's best friend', and life-size baby doll in full upper-body gas-mask suit. (Gas-masks would have been handy for us, too. One cave was once a tannery, and a sampling box let us learn what a tannery smelled like. Since the tanning process involved steeping rotten hides in dog dung and urine, this was one lesson we could have done without.)

3. Elizabethan Nottingham was the site of Wollaton Park, the biggest Elizabethan stone mansion built out of stone in an Elizabethan park that was big. No enemies demolished this building, which consequently still looks quite impressive. Today it's a natural history museum. Key exhibits: various stuffed animal heads bagged by previous owners now recast as part of a 'Green Trail'.

4. Medieval Nottingham was not home to Sherwood Forest, which is some miles away, but that hasn't stopped Modern Nottingham from honouring the original Boy in the Hood at the quiveringly scary Tales of Robin Hood. This knuckle-biting thrill-ride is guaranteed to scare the pantaloons off anyone aged six to sixty (months) with its uncannily unconvincing animatronic figures. Marvel at the arrow-like sound effects, the stuffed-animal-like wolves, the emaciated papier-mache horse, and the world's only animatronic jelly (in the feast scene at the end). Leave none the wiser about Robin and his Merry Men, but, in the finest outlaw tradition, several gold pieces lighter.


2. Die Neue Welt

[23 Jul 02] I was twenty-one when a wall came down on the far side of the world: the defining moment of a year already of moment, already defined by the blood on Tiananmen Square. The political plates were buckling, the fault zones heaving and shaking. Sitting together on the wall that November, East and West Berliners dangled their legs in the possibility of a world free of divisions, free of Evil Empires and Banal Bureaucracies, a world of movement and freedom of movement, thought and freedom of thought. A new world, before there was a New World Order...


1. Eingang

[17 Jul 02] I've been trying to think my way into talking about Berlin, and it's difficult. I doubt there's a city on Earth that carries as much disturbing mental baggage for English-speakers, even (or especially) those who've never been there. Trying to overcome that, to unpick the threads of twentieth century history that weave through its streets and look at it as new twenty-first century cloth, is not only a daunting task but one that carries substantial risks of being misunderstood. And with a city of so many layers, not neatly stratified like sedimentary rock but twisted and folded together by tectonic historic forces, it's hard to know where to begin...


The Austro-Hungarian Empire Strikes Back

[12 Jul 02] I can't claim any credit for this, apart from keeping out of the way as Jane rotated around to take the photos, but her panorama of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna is great. (She later considered doing one where I didn't sidle out of shot, but instead was duplicated half a dozen times like a touristic Jango Fett; but her compact flash cards were getting too full.)


Honk if You Love Football

[12 Jul 02] Berlin and Vienna ruminations coming soon, but first a photo or two. By coincidence, Jane and I both took photos of this guy in the midst of the celebrations in Berlin after the World Cup final. For me he captures the happy chaos of that evening... [click to see a 62K close-up].

World Cup Celebrations in Berlin


[ 5 Jul 02] Hmm. Glad that paper presentation is over. I wrote too much, ran out of time trying to cram it into 25 minutes, and had to drop whole chunks of the second half and skip to a diminished ending. Out of practice...

But it's fun thinking about the Pacific again for a few days. And Wien gets better and better: watching a free open-air film of Karajan conducting Beethoven's Ninth after dusk in front of the Rathaus last night was great. (Rathaus = City Hall. Further evidence of the Germanic roots of English.)


The Third Man

[ 3 Jul 02] A postscript to that footnote on Germany's World Cup semifinal win: the celebrations were as nothing compared to those by Berlin's Turkish community after their homeland's third place win, or by the many Germans determined to use up their beer, firecrackers and Deutsche flags even after coming second to Brazil. Cars jammed the length of Kurfürstendamm and all around Zoologische Garten, horns and explosions filled the air, and the Polizei looked on in bemusement.

We're now in Vienna, and despite the shared language and even historical experience (like Berlin it was once divided into British, French, American and Soviet zones), it couldn't be more different from the German capital. Tourism keeps Wien's old town in a perpetual state of 18th century Mozartification, although the enormous palaces left over from the Habsburg empire may also have something to do with that. Strange that Baroque architects designed all of their buildings to look like elaborately iced cakes... unless... hang on...

The museums charge like wounded schnitzels—the best part of twenty euro for the pair of us to see several rooms of old masters—but when you can experience delights like the original Sacher Torte at a table outside the Hotel Sacher, or a fresh box of himbeeren (raspberries) from a stall outside the U-bahn, or a lazy meal in an 18th century courtyard beer garden on a warm summer night, it's hard to feel ripped-off for long.

We missed the end of the Staatsoper season by one day, though. That was a shame; standing room tickets are only a few euro each.

The poem below, by the way, is Based on a True Story, or at least on the experience of lying on a couchette in the Berlin Charlottenburg to Wien Westbahnhof overnight train listening to the Tourist Who Wouldn't Shut Up. I decline to mention her nationality on the grounds that at least some readers will suffer acute patriotic embarrassment.


Ode to a Noisy Tourist on a Train

[ 3 Jul 02]

Henrietta Maria Boyce
Loved the sound of her own voice
From dawn each morn she'd start to chatter
Settling in for a lengthy natter
Up and down the carriage halls
Her strident tones would shake the walls
As she explained—and never quiet—
All about her brand new diet
And TV shows she used to view
And every goddamn thing she knew
About the world and its travails
Do y'like the colour of her nails?
Exploring each and every angle
'Til everyone would want to strangle
Her. But they never would
'Cos human beings are far too good.


Ich Liebe Berlin

[26 Jun 02] Berlin is one of my favourite cities anywhere: the history of the last century written in stone and glass. It's four and a half years since our last visit, and it's like a whole new city. The cobwebs of the East around Mitte have been swept away; the souvenir sellers beside the Brandenburg Gate are gone, and the Gate is wrapped in a sky blue shroud for renovations; new Bundestag buildings have taken over several streets, and the Reichstag looks beautiful under its new glass dome. The Museumsinsel along Unter den Linden is transformed, with many museums that were closed now open, and many that were black now the colour of new stone. Potsdamer Platz has only a handful of cranes left, and a whole string of glass towers, looking nothing like America, everything like the techno future. The streets throughout Mitte feel alive and buzzing, and the whole city is green—at last it feels like summer.

Buzzing, that is, except for yesterday afternoon from 1.30-3.30. It took me a while to figure out what was going on—until I saw the crowd around a cafe bar, staring at the television inside. A few minutes later the streets echoed with cheers, car horns and fireworks, which continued on and off through the afternoon and night.

Travel tip of the day: normally there are long queues to visit the dome of the Reichstag, mostly full of Germans themselves, but the wise traveller will visit a few hours after Deutschland beats Südkorea 1-0 in the semi-final of the World Cup.



[12 May 02]


Brussels Leuven Bruges Brussels Leuven Bruges

Brussels, Leuven and Bruges, April 2002.


If It Isn't Tuesday, This Must Not Be Belgium

[27 Apr 02] Being Part the SECOND of an Account of their recent Sojourns.

What we didn't know when booking all of our flights back in January was that our jobs would serve up a few of their own. Within 48 hours of leaving Ireland I was flying out again for two days of meetings in Leuven, a university town half an hour out of Brussels. (No, I hadn't heard of it either. No reason to, I guess; the university has only been around since 1425.) Jane joined me there for the weekend.

I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad for not knowing anything about Leuven, because like most non-Belgians I didn't know much about Belgium itself, apart from the usual touchstones of chocolate, waffles, beer, frites, Poirot, Tintin, Ypres, Waterloo, the EU, and a certain statue of a piddling infant (Euro nation, indeed).

A few days turned out to be enough to cover most of these, which completely refute Belgium's reputation as the Most Boring Country in Europe:

1. Chocolate: You think you know Belgian chocolate. You've had the flat boxes of shells every Christmas, especially if you're the mother of two loving but somewhat unimaginative pre-teen boys (sorry, Mum). And they're pretty good. But they're Home Brand cooking chocolate compared to a box of fresh pralines. For one thing, you're supposed to eat fresh chocolates within two weeks—and how long does it take that box of shells to reach Australia? (Hint: Allow 6-8 Weeks Delivery.) Fresh Belgian chocolate is, quite simply, incredible. Switzerland, you have a hard act to follow. Cadbury Dairy Milk, don't call us, we'll call you.

2. Waffles: Again, a subject most would think they're familiar with; waffles are those styrofoam thingies you pull out of the freezer and heat up in the toaster. Except in Belgium they're sold fresh at street stalls ('Belgaufra: Probably the Best Since 1950'), are hot and custardy soft in the middle with just a hint of toffee on the outside, and are utterly delicious (cf. Chocolate).

3. Beer: Here's where I admit to being, in demographic terms, a statistical anomaly, or, in Australian terms, 'just bloody weeeiird'—I don't like beer. Never have. Ice cold or room temperature, stubby or pint, if it's got hops in it I won't drink it. (It may have something to do with cross-country training in a hop field throughout high school, but that's a bit too conveniently Freudian.) Okay, I drank a Guinness in Dublin, but only because it comes out of the taps there. They blood test you before you leave, just to make sure you've tried it: "Ah yes, this pint o' blood has a good head on it, 'tis Guinness for sure... oh wait, they're white blood cells. Back to the pub with you."

But on Jane's urging, I tried a wheat beer in Belgium. And it was decidedly un-bad: distinctly hop-less, quasi-bitter and semi-refreshing. Didn't go back for seconds, but I drank it all, and for someone whose first encounter with the brew led to an involuntary outburst of fine aerosol particles, that's saying something.

Still, from a work point of view it's lucky I wasn't a typical beer-drinking Aussie. Leuven is home to the Stella Artois brewery.

4. Frites, or, as the rest of the world knows them, French Fries: Invented in Belgium, double-fried to perfection, served in a paper cone, and doused with a thick splodge of mayonnaise. I ate my first coneful standing in a doorway in Brussels while sheltering from a rain shower. An old Belgian came up to me and started talking in French, something about frites avec mayonnaise french french french french, french? (I think he was hitting me up for a spare euro), until I could finish swallowing and say, 'Pardon, monsieur, je ne parle francais,' which was obviously true because I think I left out a 'pas' somewhere. 'Bon appetit,' he shrugged, and ambled off. And he was right.

5. Everything Else I Ate in Belgium: Was very good indeed.

6. Tintin: The eternal boy scout, one of the constants of my 1970s childhood, one of the reasons I draw cartoons (thinks: must draw more again), and one of the icons of Belgium. Hergé's creation is everywhere in Brussels: in the bookshops, in the tourist pamphlets, on posters, in museums. I spent a couple of happy hours in its gallery of comic art, marvelling at the range and depth of Belgium's comics artists. It's one of the few countries that gives comics proper billing as a medium and an entertainment; its bookstore equivalent of Border's, FNAC, has shelves and shelves of hardcover albums for sale, all beautifully drawn and produced.

7. Ypres and Waterloo: We didn't visit either, but how a country that was the front line for the Great War and the last stand for Napoleon gets called 'boring' is beyond me. Except for...

8. The EU bureaucracy: Okay, so this I get. Lived in Canberra, wore the suit, staged the daring escape; I know that civil service doesn't set the pulse racing. But it's not like Canberra is jammed full of ornate buildings from its days as part of the Spanish Netherlands; it's not like Canberra has an entire history and raison d'etre independent of its bureaucracy; it's not like Canberra is a couple of hours drive from four other countries, at the crossroads of Europe. If the presence of a large international bureaucracy makes a city boring, then so is New York.

9. Mannekin Pis: Is kitsch, not boring. And the only reason it's better known than the breathtaking Grand Place a few blocks away, with its elaborate stately buildings crowded around a cobbled square, is that you need a 360 degree fish-eye lens to get a decent shot of Grand Place.

10. Bruges: Not on my list above, because I didn't know much about it before last week. Once a bigger merchant city than London, Bruges was abandoned in the late 16th century when its river silted up, neglected for four hundred years, spared any damage by two world wars, and revived by the tourist industry. It feels like a time capsule, with little to remind you that it isn't still 1605 there apart from the crowds of visitors sharing your wide-eyed enjoyment. The whole city is a world heritage site, and rightly so.

So, no, not a boring country at all. Even Belgium's tangled language politics, with Brussels an island of French in Flemish-speaking Flanders, gives it an unexpected tension and added interest; the home of the EU is itself a microcosm of Europe.

But I see you're not convinced. You're waiting for that last piece of irrefutable evidence that Belgium isn't boring. It's all very well for a place to have a few interesting features, like its food, and shelter—but what about the mundane, everyday stuff? The stuff that's boring anywhere? Surely that might tip the balance?

But no. In Belgium, even the boring stuff isn't boring. Vous êtes sceptique? Voilà.


You Make Me Feel So Blue

[25 Apr 02] One of my favourite finds from last week's travels can now be found here.


The Guinness Book of Kells

[24 Apr 02] Light deprivation does strange things to a person—like make them book trips out of town for every long weekend over the next six months. It's not too expensive, thanks to the cut-price airlines (BananaJet, as Jane calls them), and the over-valued pound helps—which makes a change, after years of converting A$ to sterling. So, thanks to a bout of winter cabin fever, we ended up in London in early March, Yorkshire over Easter, and Dublin a week and a half ago. Makes a change from the all-stops tours of the UK and Europe forced on Australians by long-distance airfares, where each city, gallery and cathedral blends into the next.

I first visited Ireland ten years ago, but for various reasons ended up spending only a day in Dublin, and a grey and rainy day at that. So I was pleased to see it again on a sunny spring weekend. Its Georgian buildings have been cleaned and painted up since 1992, and the place has a lively feel to it. Add a young population (nearly half under 25) and Guinness billboards and souvenirs at every turn, and walking around Dublin feels like one continuous Friday night.

As well as wandering the streets and enjoying the parks in bloom, we visited most of the sights: the National Gallery, with the usual range of old masters, skewered St Sebastians, 20th century and local works; the National Museum, with its spectacular displays of prehistoric gold and Viking artefacts; Dublin Castle, which is actually more of an 18th century palace (most of the original castle was blown up in 1684 to prevent a fire from spreading to its store of gunpowder and, erm, blowing it up); and the Long Room of Trinity College Library, which for my money (€7.00) is more fun to see than four dimly-lit pages of the Book of Kells.

My favourite discovery was the Chester Beatty Library, a terrific collection of Islamic, East Asian and European books and prints dating back to the time of Christ, all beautifully displayed and explained. Beatty was an American millionaire who moved to London after the war and to Ireland in the 1960s. It's amazing to see what one man can build with nothing more than an informed mind, impeccable taste, and astronomical amounts of money. Amazing, too, to contemplate the longevity and beauty of the humble page. If you're ever in Dublin, skip the queues for the Kells and see this for free.

But even 2000-year-old scrolls of the Gospels can't top Newgrange, a megalithic tomb an hour out of Dublin in the Boyne valley. It looks spectacular, with its petroglyphs and white quartz walls embedded in the hillside (a modern reconstruction, but then so is Stonehenge), and there's nothing quite like standing inside a burial chamber built in 3200 BC. Older than Stonehenge; older than the Pyramids. The oldest man-made space I've ever been in.



York Minster

[24 Apr 02]

York Minster

Approaching Looking up In the sun

Good Friday, 2002.


Full On

[ 6 Apr 02] Some readers won't have experienced the joys of the Full English Breakfast mentioned in passing in my account of last weekend's outings. Sadly, while spam is all-too-readily transmitted over the Internet, the same is not yet true of sausages, bacon, and boiling lard. So to help you recreate this gastronomic wonder in the privacy of your own home, Speedysnail is proud to present the Typical Full English Breakfast: all the wonder of a B&B without the international airfare and dodgy shower-fittings.

2 Eggs
2 Large Rashers of Bacon
2 Breakfast Sausages
1 Can Baked Beans
2 Tinned Romano Tomatoes
3 or 4 Medium-Sized Mushrooms
1 Half-Slice White Bread

Fry bacon and sausages until all the saturated fat has come out of them and the bacon is semi-crispy, while still remaining disconcertingly pink and porcine. Fry the half-slice of bread in the bacon fat until it's the translucency of wax-paper. Slice mushrooms and cook in the remaining fat. Stew tinned tomatoes in a separate saucepan, and heat the beans to lukewarm. Meanwhile, scramble the eggs in the frying pan until they're the consistency of dry breadcrumbs, soaking up the last remaining traces of fat; or fry until leathery. Pile everything onto a plate. Serve with toast that has been left to dry out and get stone-cold in one of those metal toast racks.

Northern English Breakfast: Add fried slices of black pudding. Yes, I know it's made out of congealed blood. Just shut up and eat it.

Scottish Breakfast: Add fried haggis. Porridge optional.

Welsh Breakfast: As English Breakfast. It's hard to work a leek into the whole Full Breakfast ethic, because it's just too damned green-vegetably.


Old York, Old Yorkkkk

[ 4 Apr 02] You realise just how far north you live when it takes all day to drive south to the 'Northern' city of York, about halfway between Edinburgh and London. The drive normally wouldn't have taken all day, except that twenty miles out of York and about twenty metres past a convenient turnoff we hit an enormous traffic jam on the A1, and another on the A59 into York itself. So we were three hours late in meeting our travelling companions (friends from Oz now living in London) on the steps of the glorious York Minster, and rushed around York's medieval streets in an attempt to make the most of the spring afternoon before driving back up to a B&B in Richmond.

The next day was another slow procession through the Yorkshire Dales, though at least the narrow roads with dry stone walls on either side were some explanation this time. The treeless green hills of the dales were beautiful, but even in cloudless weather were barely visible through the haze; a reminder that we were only a few miles north of Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, the heartland of the Industrial Revolution.

Wharfedale. Photo by Jane Ewins.

The road to Malham was more promising: a single lane wide and pretty lightly trafficked (fortunately; the stone walls either side meant much reversing when meeting an oncoming vehicle). At last we were getting off the beaten track, we thought... until we reached Malham, where rows and rows of cars filled a temporary carpark in a field. Malham is on the Pennine Way, and its walking paths were another traffic jam. The area is beautiful, no doubt about it, but the presence of so many people in the countryside was as foreign to our Australian eyes as the area itself.

On Sunday we toured the North York Moors, looping down from Richmond to Helmsley and back up to Whitby on the coast. Compared to the green dales it's an environmental wasteland (overfarmed in the Bronze Age), with bare hills covered in brown scrub, but the valleys retain their trees and their charm. We hopped from monastery to monastery—Mount Grace Priory, Rievaulx Abbey, Whitby Abbey—all ruined in the 1530s by Henry VIII. Spend a day doing this and you soon conclude what the English Heritage signs so coyly avoid saying: Henry VIII was an utter bastard. The Church of England owes its existence to a philandering warmonger who filled his coffers by looting other churches. Of course, an England without the Reformation would be a very different England; but one can't help feeling the loss in the presence of the quiet soaring ruins of Rievaulx.

We skipped the Captain Cook museum in Whitby, claiming diplomatic immunity by virtue of endless childhood social science lessons on Australia's early explorers, and skipped the garish side-show along its docks (another inexplicable mystery of English life). The town was attractive, but not so attractive to explain the sheer numbers of tourists. But who am I to complain? I was one of them.

The bad weather that had been predicted all weekend had still failed to materialise by Monday, so we walked along the river Swale to Easby Abbey (fine, but less impressive than Sunday's; we rated it two and a half Abbots on our five-Abbot scale) and then back to Richmond to see the Norman castle that had towered above our B&B the past few nights.

It's a magnificent sight, perched on a hill, with a keep at least three storeys high. The keep was built by Conan, Earl of Richmond; I wonder if he carried the stones on his shoulders and cracked one-liners in an Austrian accent. The castle was also a favourite painting subject for William Turner, and was once home to Baden-Powell of scouting fame, who lived there when it was an army barracks.

In fact, like anywhere in England, everywhere we saw had some connection to someone or other of note. Ripon, with its medieval cathedral with Saxon crypt (what a buzz, to stand in a room 1300 years old), was home to Lewis Carroll; Bill Bryson had lived near Settle in the Dales; Whitby was where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula; Fountains Abbey, which was definitely a case of saving the best until last (a big five out of five Abbots), was a favourite haunt of a certain recently-deceased royal. With so many people crawling over every tourist attraction in the land it's only a matter of time before every square inch has some association with somebody famous and the entire countryside is covered in small polished brass plaques. And if a town has no famous connections, it makes up for it by twinning with one that does—or, in the case of Whitby, by quintupling.

Speaking of recently-deceased royals, after noticing the castle flag flying at half-mast in Richmond it wasn't much of a surprise to guess who it was for—or to see the eulogies rolling out on TV like fog over the moors. Much-loved old stick who looked the East End in the face and all that, sure—but she was a hundred and one years old, people. Humans don't live to a hundred and one—tortoises do. If she'd lived much longer they'd have attached small brass plaques to her with the names and dates of all the relatives she'd outlived. Fortunately, after a burst of wrinkly-visaged front pages on the Sunday papers, the grief-stricken madness seems to have died down fairly quickly. Or maybe I'm just lucky not to have a telly.

So, a long weekend of beautiful countryside, historic vistas up to two thousand years old (stopped briefly at Chesters Fort on Hadrian's Wall on the drive down), insane Bank Holiday traffic and crowds, cholesterol-laden English breakfasts, and more sheep than we'd seen since New Zealand. Good fun.

A final anecdote. On the way out of Studley Royal (the park attached to Fountains Abbey, not the ancestral home of Dirk, Duke of Diggler), we saw four deer walking together on the far side of an artificial lake. One of them had only one antler, while the other three had none. One of us wondered aloud if the antlers grew back; none of us was sure. We watched the deer as they walked along the grass. Then the one-antlered one flicked his head, flicked it again, and his remaining antler flew off and fell into the lake.

His mates immediately started butting him—"You think you're so big and tough with that antler of yours... whatya gonna do now, eh? Eh?"—and then casually sauntered off, as if they saw antlers being shed every day. Which, come to think of it, they probably do.

We considered walking around and fishing it out; it had fallen in right near the edge. But on reflection, we agreed that none of us really wanted a damp, rotting antler that badly.


The New London

[10 Mar 02] Views of the changing capital, March 2002 (click images to see more).

Leadenhall Market The Other London Eye The City Walking Over the Millennium Bridge Canary Wharf Sculpture The Millennium Bridge The Great Court of the British Museum Great Court Roof




[ 5 Mar 02] After years of wandering the world I'm increasingly conscious of the need to qualify statements about where you've been with when you've been there, because this rapidchangingworld remakes itself behind your back right after you look away. So: London[1985-86], London[1991-92], London[1998], London[2000], and now London[2002].

This time I was able to walk over the Millennium Bridge, and, even better, to see the Great Court of the British Museum, which was still unfinished in 1998 and 2000. It's one of the most beautiful and tasteful expansions of a major public building I've had the pleasure to see; it makes the whole museum feel spacious in a way it used not to, and encourages the ever-increasing crowds to start their explorations at every point of the collection, not just at the Elgin marbles. I've been impressed with alterations to much-loved London landmarks before, but this really is something.

I'm finding that my sense of London is shifting; partly from staying in different areas over the years, from Bayswater B&Bs to places south, west and east, but also from exploring new areas and stumbling across 'new' things: Leadenhall Market; the Monument; dozens of outlandish and untouristed buildings in the City, Holborn and the Docklands. Every time I come back there's something new (old/new). It's an endlessly fascinating place.

As long as you don't travel everywhere by tube. Walking along its crowded tiled corridors gets old pretty quickly; almost as old as the tiled corridors themselves. Refurbishing the Great Court is impressive, but I'll be really impressed when they refurbish the Northern Line. Provided I make it to London[2063].


O Canada: The Movie

[21 Feb 02] It took a while, but I've finally put up some photos from our trip to Alberta last December. As with other instalments of Detail they'll take a while to download over a modem; there's thirteen images, totalling 1MB. (More Canadiana in the travel archives.)


[ 8 Feb 02] One of the oldest things on this site is a slide-show from my 1993 fieldwork in Tonga. After my recent experiments in large images those slides were looking a bit small and shabby, so I figured if they're going to take up two megs of server space I might as well give them a makeover. Now with improved colours, larger images, and 28 slides instead of 63 (on the principle that less is more): it's The 1993 Silver Jubilee of Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.


[ 1 Feb 02] Good article on being a twenty-something traveller in the 1990s (via World Hum, a good find in its own right):

Wherever we went, by the early 1990s the West and its popular culture--our popular culture--were fast encroaching upon traditional local cultures. Granted, in the antiglobalization era, this is hardly news. But it was news to us then. We were among the first young Westerners to witness this phenomenon, on the ground, as it accelerated around the world.... One of the things we invariably heard from the older travelers or expats we met in Asia was that we should have seen Kathmandu, or Varanasi, or the beaches of southern Thailand, before "the tourists" arrived. ¶ Everywhere we went, in other words, we saw ourselves reflected back at us.

I don't share the view that globalization is such a new phenomenon, though it's certainly newer in some places than others, but as a piece about the 1990s variety and its unwitting ambassadors it's an interesting read.


O Canada

[31 Jan 02] We spent most of December in Alberta, flying into Calgary, catching a bus up to Banff for a week's skiing and hiking, then catching more buses to the Edmonton area to spend Christmas with Jane's relatives.

It was my fourth visit to Canada, following visits to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and Edmonton from 1992 to '99. It's getting to the point where it feels familiar, but I'm still acutely aware of how little I know about the place. Canadian culture bubbles along of its own accord, a self-contained world rarely noticed by outsiders—much like Australia—and a few days wandering around its malls and mountains and watching CBC news do not a crash course in Canadian make.

Australians moan about being ignored by the rest of the world, but at least our physical distance from Europe and America is some reason for it: Canada is jammed up against the US, historically tangled up with it, is like a parallel-universe America seen through a window of ice with all of the intriguing similarities and differences that implies—and Americans still think of it as Minnesota with beavers.

Admittedly, parts of it do feel very American; Calgary is like a frozen Texas, with the same oil dollars and cattle culture. But Canada is full of fascinating details of its own. Like the loonie. And the Red Green Show. And nanaimo bars.

One of the chief fascinations for me on this trip was being able to experience a true Canadian winter for the first time. My last winter visit coincided with a freak once-in-a-century 'brown Christmas', which was great for seeing Albertan grain elevators against golden fields of wheat but not so great for seeing snow. Somehow it made the suspense of waiting for the inevitable Siberian cold front even worse. Surely, my Aussie common sense told me, no mere mortal could survive a transition from five degrees Celcius to minus twenty-five overnight? Isn't that how they snap-freeze baby peas?

But I hadn't figured on those oil fields and thirty dollar quarterly power bills; what Alberta lacks in natural warmth, it makes up for in decomposing dinosaurs. Central heating and polar-fleece quickly and efficiently turn Arctic conditions into a Bahaman beach party, but with Caesars instead of Kahlua. (A Caesar = vodka and Clamato = Bloody Mary with a clam squeezed into it.)

This time round, I was happily walking for hours in minus 23 degrees; the clear skies and still, dry air made it seem warmer than waiting for a bus in Edinburgh. Well, okay, there was that one time when the guy sitting next to me on the ski-lift at Sunshine stepped off at the top with a frost-bitten nose. But the instructor showed us how to swing our arms to drive the blood back into our fingertips, so everything was just fine... except that my glasses kept fogging up, and I had to ski down without them in near white-out conditions, and when Jane saw me at the bottom I had icicles on my eyelashes. But hey! Après-ski at the Burning Brontosaurus! Clamatos all round!

I never minded the cold, because it meant seeing amazing things I'd never seen before. The Rocky Mountains chewing the sky with their jagged black and white teeth. Pencil-thin pines dotted with clumps of snow set against a pure-white landscape, like relics of an ice age. Frozen rivers and lakes under buckled slabs of ice, with snow blowing over their surface like dry sand. Hoarfrost so thick that the leafless trees along Highway 14 looked as if they'd been dipped in icing sugar.

I'll put some photos up when I have time to do justice to them. Right now I'm still savouring the memories.


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