After Texel, I went to Heemskerk, where it rained all the time and I didn’t even take a single photo. Then I headed back to Hoek van Holland to get a ferry back to the UK. I stopped off for a few hours in Haarlem on the way.
Articles tagged with "architecture"
The most common way for me to be out and about early in the morning is if I’ve been out all night. But I was suddenly and unexpectedly five time zones west of my usual habitat so I got up at 6am and headed out into the city. The day started grey and drizzly, and I slightly regretted leaving behind London during its hottest April ever. But the clouds started to break up and the sun eventually appeared.
I wandered randomly and ended up at City Hall, which looked like some kind of alien launchpad. Temperatures were now soaring, almost to the high standards that I’d left behind in London, so I decided to head out to the Toronto Islands.
On a Thursday evening, I was gripped by a sudden urge to travel. It happens sometimes. I checked out flight prices, but it was Easter weekend and everywhere in Europe was absurdly overpriced. I looked down a list of flight prices, scrolling to ever higher prices in search of somewhere that was even remotely both affordable and interesting. And then I spotted a flight to Canada, for a very reasonable sum, leaving the next morning. Before I even knew what I was doing, I’d gone and bought the tickets.
And so only a matter of hours later I was touching down in Toronto, on a cold overcast April day. I headed into the city with no plan at all. One of the first things I caught sight of was naturally the CN Tower, once the tallest structure in the world. I went up and watched night fall over the city.
We went to the Pompidou centre and saw some modern art. It was another classic Paris thing to do that I hadn’t done before. We also, being scientists keen to communicate what we do, joined in at Paris’s first “Science Corner”, where people from various disciplines set up stands on the plaza in front of the centre, offering the public the chance to ask us anything they wanted to. Not speaking French obviously made it a bit difficult for those of us from the UK, but none the less we got plenty of interest. There were some press people there and articles later appeared in a few newspapers.
I flew from Iceland to Glasgow, slightly weirdly going via Manchester. Absurd security regulations meant that we had to leave the plane, go through security, and then reboard. The tub of skyr that I’d bought just before boarding my plane in Reykjavík could not be taken through security in Manchester, nor left on the plane, so it had to be chucked.
I was in Glasgow for the National Astronomy Meeting. I had bad memories of the city, having had a very stressful time here after NAM two years earlier when my ferry from Ireland was late. I had missed the night train to London, had to stay in an unpleasant hostel and then buy a new ticket in the morning at great expense. Apart from that I’d passed through a few times before, but never stopped. I now had a week to see if the city deserved the bad image I had of it.
I considered going to some talks on the first day of the conference, but I’d spent all night on an Icelandic volcano and in the end, tiredness won. Fortunately I got a bit more out of the subsequent days, presented some of my own work in Glasgow University’s Bute Hall, talked to a lot of astronomers, and generally enjoyed the Glasgow vibe. It was sunny and warm. By the time I came to leave, I’d almost forgotten just how unpleasant it had been to find myself on Central Station just after the last train had gone.
Early the next morning we headed down to the station to catch the train to Belgrade. I slept most of the way, waking only to see endless flat green fields occasionally. Last time I’d crossed a border into Serbia, the guard had been remarkably jovial considering it had been 2am. This time, it was the middle of a beautiful spring day but the man who stamped our passports was definitely not happy. He looked at my battered document with some disgust, but stamped us in eventually.
We got to Belgrade in the early afternoon and checked into a hostel. At first it seemed incredibly welcoming and cool. Over the next few days, though, we’d find that the Swedish owner was pretty weird, vaguely racist and generally a bit unpleasant to be around. Still, they made me a coffee and that made me happy, and it was good to be back in Serbia.
We headed over to the Belgrade Arena to pick up our tickets. Last time, I’d only crossed the Sava briefly, to go to a club on a boat, so I hadn’t seen Novi Beograd at all. Under clear blue skies I really liked it. It was quite quiet, and we stopped for coffees and snacks at cafes along the way to the stadium. We got hold of our tickets with no problems, and it was nice to actually have one this time. Negotiating my way past layers of security in Lisbon when my ticket never arrived had been challenging enough; I was glad I wouldn’t have to do the same in Serbia.
I must have been in a really bad mood in February. I’d spent two days in Leuven, it had rained all the time, and I would rather have been in many other places. I wrote bad things about the place in my journal and generally didn’t like it. When I found that I would have to go back in November, straight after the Rammstein gig, I wasn’t too keen.
Maybe my February mood wasn’t so bad, it was just that my November mood was so good. Whatever the reason, I had a great time in Belgium this time. I was there for work but we also had time to socialise and enjoy the good vibe that Leuven has, when you’re in the right frame of mind to perceive it. When our meeting was over, I was disappointed to be heading back to London.
The next day I met an Argentinian girl, Alexia, at the hostel I was staying at. She was a journalist working in Madrid, and was here for a weekend break. We explored Lisbon together. She had no qualms about speaking to locals in Spanish when we needed to ask for directions. I wondered if they found that rude, but they helped us out happily enough.
We went up to the castle for some great views of Lisbon. Alexia was a true Argentine; while we were up there she brewed herself a maté, having brought her gourd and a thermos of hot water with her. I’d spent a long time in Argentina but I’d never actually tried maté. I tried now, and quite liked it. As we passed the gourd, another Argentine happened to be passing by, and instantly recognised a fellow countrywoman.
We got a train to Belém. It’s famous for its tower and its pastries, and after we’d seen the tower we headed for the pastry shop. Then we went to the Centro Cultural de Belém. I didn’t even know it existed, but it contained a fantastic contemporary art gallery. Seeing a bit of contemporary art is one of my favourite things to do in any city so I was very happy to have ended up here.
At 6pm it was time for me to head off. Gig time was approaching.
The Eurostar used to come into Waterloo Station. The terminal there cost a vast amount of money to build, and was then only used for 13 years. The new terminal is at St. Pancras, which cost an even more vast amount of money, but at least has a good chance of lasting for more than a decade and a half.
We got the train back to Prague and got back after sunset. Near the hostel I could see the Žižkov TV Tower. It looked pretty ugly, but I imagined that the views from the top would be good, so I headed up there. It was disappointing, in the end: the viewing area was inside behind panes of glass, and it was all lit up so that the views and photos were all spoiled by reflections.
At the bottom, I looked back up at the tower, and noticed the spooky ‘baby’ sculptures crawling up its legs. It looked ugly from far away, but it was much more of a work of art when seen up close. I took photos as the clouds raced overhead.
I went to Sweden with Eldrik, who’s been there about a million times; this was only my fifth trip. We met at Stansted on a Friday evening, and flew to Copenhagen. A quick trip across the Øresund took us to Malmö.
This was my third visit to Malmö, after two earlier trips on hot sunny summer weekends. We walked from the train station to a hostel in the south of the city, past locations which we recognised from “Lilya 4-ever”, the most depressing film I’ve ever seen.
We didn’t plan to spend much time in Malmö. In the winter there was nothing to keep us here once we’d had a quick look at the Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia. We walked out to Västra Hamnen to see it spiralling up into the low clouds, then headed to the station for the short trip to Lund.
In the afternoon I headed out into the island. I went to Valletta’s main bus station, where I found a bus heading for Mdina, Malta’s former capital. It sits right in the middle of the island, surrounded by vast walls built by the Normans 900 years ago. I wandered through its narrow streets, past St. Paul’s Cathedral, to a viewpoint over the island to Valletta, Sliema and the Grand Harbour.
I knew that Malta was one of the most densely populated countries in the world (having previously not known it when I needed to), and here I could really appreciate it. The island wasn’t entirely covered in buildings but it didn’t seem far off. I also could see here just how small Malta is. I’d spent several pounds on a taxi from the airport to Sliema when I arrived, but I could have walked it in about half an hour.
I watched night fall over the island. One of the most surprising sights was the vast dome of the church in Mosta. It is the third largest dome in the world, and it looked ridiculously out of place on this tiny island.
I only spent one night in Bucharest. I spent the final morning of my trip walking from my hostel to the Palace of the Parliament, which is claimed to be the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. I could hardly believe the size of it. I wanted to go to a contemporary art gallery in the grounds of the Palace, and this involved walking along two sides of it. This took about half an hour, along shadeless pavements in the morning heat. I was then extremely disappointed to find that the gallery was closed on Tuesdays. I walked back to the front of the Palace, thirsty and lacking in cultural experiences.
On all this trip in these far flung parts of Eastern Europe, I kept thinking back to what I remembered of 1989. I was 11 years old at the time and I wish I’d been a bit older, and been able to appreciate the history a bit more. When Romania revolted in December 1989, I was in Jordan, and I vividly remember seeing an English-language newspaper on Christmas Day, 1989, carrying the news that Ceauşescu and his wife had been shot. It had only taken nine days from the first major act of the revolution to his final downfall.
On my final day in Kiev the temperature had dropped more than 20°C. It was cool and rain was falling. I walked down to Kreshchatyk again, which was pedestrianised because it was the weekend. I don’t know if it was a special event or if it happens every weekend, but the whole street was filled with people playing sports of various kinds. There was five-a-side football, badminton, volleyball, and pole-vaulting. It was a shame it was rainy but I really enjoyed seeing all this going on. The atmosphere was friendly and communal and I decided that Kiev was a city that I liked a lot.
After Kreshchatyk I walked up to Ploshcha Sofiyivska, where St. Sofia’s Cathedral stands amid heavy traffic. It cost a couple of hryvnia to go up the bell tower, to see the view over the bright golden domes to the grey rainy city beyond.
I’d have liked to stay in Kiev for longer, but my train ticket was booked, and so later that evening I walked to the train station with April. She got her train to L’viv, and then I boarded the night train to Odesa. We left Kiev at 10.15pm.
On my way back from China in 2002 I’d stopped for a couple of days in Warsaw. This time, I started here because flights were much cheaper than flights to Kiev, and I thought it would be nice to start somewhere familiar.
I only spent a short time in Warsaw. I bought a ticket to Lviv, departing that evening, so I just went for a tired walk up to the old town. I walked via the Saski Gardens and Castle Square under grey skies, and found the experience a bit like intense déjà vu.
At 6.15pm I got on the train to Kraków, from where I’d pick up a connecting train to Przemyśl and then another to Lviv. I fell asleep almost straight away but woke briefly to see a beautiful sunset as we sped south. On the train from Kraków to Przemyśl I met two other travellers and chatted to them as we headed east. At Przemyśl we changed trains for a sleeper, and I was happy to get a little bit of sleep. This was interrupted only by the border crossing, where my battered passport, already veteran of 24 countries, caused a bit of consternation. “What has happened to your passport?”, demanded the woman checking it, sternly. For the sake of brevity I skipped stories of Patagonian rain and Atacaman sand, and said I had accidentally laundered it. “Only once?”, she asked, with a raised eyebrow and a smile. With that she stamped my passport and I was in Ukraine. It was 2am.
We walked to the Sagrada Familia. Cranes and spires look like they’ve always been attached to each other and always will be. Work began in 1882, and is expected to carry on for decades yet. The church is already spectacular, and as long as it doesn’t collapse before it’s finished it will surely be one of the world’s most impressive structures.
Until Dave moved to Galicia, I can’t honestly say that I knew that the region had its own language. Even though Franco was from here, he still rescinded the region’s autonomy and discouraged use of the language. We went to the Museo de Pobo Galego and learned more about these things. The museum building used to be a nunnery, and the nun’s dormitories were reached via triple spiral staircases, allegedly to confuse rogue Galicians trying to visit the nuns during the night.
My guide book didn’t have a map of Plovdiv. It mentioned how impressive the old town was but gave no clue about how to find it. I wandered irritably around town and wondered if I’d have to leave without seeing it, when I suddenly chanced upon a narrow flight of steps which led up a hill. I went up, and found myself in what felt like an entirely different city, far from the concrete and traffic of the new town. Quiet cobbled streets were lined with grand restored buildings.
I found my way to the top of the hill of Nebet Tepe, where the old Byzantine city walls lie in ruins. There were people hanging around here playing music, painting, smoking and chilling in the hot sun. I sat on the walls and looked out over new Plovdiv below. Far to the south I could see the snow-capped Rodopi Mountains, with just a few rising columns of smoke from some city factories interrupting my view.
The next day was grey and cold again. John had arrived back in Istanbul from Denizli, and we went to look at the Aya Sofia. Although there was a lot of restoration work going on, it was still obvious what a spectacular place the building was. Its massive dome is 15 centuries old and it’s hard to believe it was possible to build things like that, so long ago.
For the eclipse, we’d decided to go to Side, almost dead on the centre line on the Mediterranean coast. So after a couple of days in Istanbul we got an overnight bus from there to Antalya, a tiring journey in part because overnight bus journeys always are uncomfortable, but also because a bunch of noisy Australians were on the bus as well. I cursed them all night, and then decided they were OK after all when we got chatting to them over breakfast in a cafe at Antalya’s huge and airy bus station. Our transient friendship lasted until they left to get a bus somewhere, while we got another bus to Manavgat, and then a third minibus to Side.
It was hot and sunny, and right outside Side’s small and dusty bus station there were some ancient ruins. The town has Greek and Roman ruins all over the place, and with a day to kill before the eclipse we wandered around and took in the vibe. We were far from the only people who had decided to come here to watch the eclipse, but the town didn’t seem too outrageously busy.
I had got back from South America on the first of February, and had spent a relaxing six weeks seeing out the winter at my parent’s house, the first time I’d been at home for that long for about ten years. While I’d been away, I’d spoken to John about possibly going to Turkey in March to see a solar eclipse, and after I was back we decided to go for it. John got flights to Istanbul, but I found some cheaper flights to Sofia, and decided I’d fly there, explore Bulgaria a bit, and then travel overland to Turkey. So I dragged myself out of retirement in County Durham and headed back south. I moved into a new house in Tottenham, and after a couple of days settling in there, it was time to hit the road.
I arrived in Bulgaria on a warm afternoon, and it was good to be back in the world of Cyrillic script, almost four years after my travels through Russia. I found a place to stay and then went out exploring. As night fell I walked along the cracked and crumbling pavements, barely lit by the dim streetlights. Bulgaria was a matter of months away from joining the EU, but it was clearly a poor country by European standards.
The next day I bought a ticket for the night train to Istanbul, and then explored more of Sofia. I walked down the city’s main street, Vitosha, to Yuzhen Park which contained a huge and crumbling monument, apparently commemorating 1300 years since the founding of Bulgaria. I walked on south, past an open air DIY market and the National Palace of Culture, eventually stopping exploring when I found myself amid motorway flyovers and grim-looking suburbs.
On a blazing hot weekend in June, I went to Santiago de Compostela to visit Dave, who used to be a physicist but is now an artist. John and Moh had gone out a couple of days earlier; Dan and I were more hard-working and only bunked a Friday off. It was 38°C when we arrived.
Our main plan for the weekend was to go out lots. Our Friday night was quiet. We went out at about 1, checked out a load of bars, and got home at 6am. We then spent Saturday doing the required tourist itinerary for Santiago, which included a fun tour of the roof of the cathedral.
Saturday night was a proper night out. We kicked off with an awesome meal at a seafood restaurant, then went to bars. At one end of Rua do Franco there is a bar called Paris, and at the other end is Dakar. Of course you have work your way along from Paris to Dakar. We made it to Dakar at 4am and then went to a club, where Dan was definitely having fun because a girl asked me where she could get hold of whatever he was on. He was barely even drinking.
We came out of the club at 8am. It was daylight, but it was grey and rainy. We headed for a cafe, and got some churros con chocolate – greasy fried doughnut things with thick, thick hot chocolate. No night out in Spain is complete without churros for breakfast afterwards.
My flight home was at 11am, so when we got back to Dave’s flat I just packed up and headed for the airport. As I walked along to the bus station I thought I was going to fall asleep and walk into a lamppost, and once I was on the bus I thought I was going to fall asleep and wake up in Barcelona, but I managed to hold it together and get on to a plane back to London.
We went to West Berlin on our last morning in the city. Most of the cool things seemed to be in the east, and we walked down the Kurfürstendamm from Zoo station without finding much to detain us. But we did pass the Gedächtniskirche. I’d seen it in 2002 but only from a distance when I’d got off the train from Warsaw at Zoo station. This time we walked right up to the bottom of it. It’s a pretty shocking sight – the ruined shell of a church, left unrepaired since it was bombed in 1943.
We headed back east and went to an awesome club in the evening. This was the dual personality of Berlin – on the one hand you can’t get away from the fact that it was the epicentre of the most destructive war in human history. And on the other hand it’s hard to find a city more dynamic, progressive and exciting.
Another weekend, another trip to Italy. This time, we spent the day in Pisa. I had to borrow a euro off a fellow passenger to get the bus into Pisa from the airport, because none of the cashpoints were working, so I started the day feeling very cheap. We walked up to the Campo dei Miracoli and saw the tower that everyone has heard about since they were tiny. And it really does lean at an astonishing angle – a ridiculous, crazy angle that seems physically impossible.
This was my twelfth holiday of 2003. After three cheap weekends away early in the year, I’d had the crazy idea of just carrying on booking cheap holidays as often as possible, and to go on one trip a month. I hadn’t been abroad in June or September, but I’d made up for that with two trips in March and two in November. And I’d even missed out on one trip, a weekend in Sardinia, when my flight was delayed so much that it ended up not being worth going. I’d been to new and awesome parts of Europe and none of the flights had cost me more than 30 pounds.
I headed for the Vatican. As I walked into St. Peter’s Square, there was nothing to indicate that I was leaving Italy and entering the smallest country in the world.
Seeing the sights in this country would not take long. I wandered into the vast Basilica de San Pietro. The size of the place was stunning, and as full of tourists as it was, it still didn’t feel crowded. Sunlight shone in from the top of the dome.
The last thing I did in Berlin was go up the Alexanderplatz TV Tower. It is almost identical to the CCTV tower in Beijing, but 35 metres shorter. I had a snack in the rotating restaurant, watched Berlin go by far below, and felt like I was almost home. I had a ticket for the night train to Paris, and so in the morning I would be just two hundred miles from London, and five thousand miles from Beijing.
The Reichstag, burned down in 1933 and used as a pretext for Nazi repression, had been restored in the 1990s, and three years before I arrived it had become the parliament of Germany at the same time as Berlin had become the capital again.
In many cities throughout the world, if you want something glassy and modern to be built, you call in Norman Foster, and Berlin had done just that when they needed a new cupola for the Reichstag. The dome he designed was spectacular, and soon became a major attraction for tourists in Berlin. It was a blazing hot summer day when I decided to go and have a look at it, and I queued for about an hour to get in.
I hadn’t used Euros before this trip, and I was still getting used to their value. Under the glass of the dome it was incredibly hot, and there was a stand selling ice creams and cold drinks. I bought an ice cream and an orange juice for six euros, and I actually thought for a few minutes that this was a reasonable price.
Visiting the Great Wall was one of the first things I’d done in China. At Simatai, the setting of the wall is spectacular, but although it’s not as touristy there as other restored parts of the wall, I fancied visiting a more remote part of the wall. I headed for Dongzhimen bus station, and got a bus to Huairou. At Huairou, there should have been a bus to Huanghua, an unrestored and little-visited part of the wall, but I had no map, no idea of where the bus stop might be, and a crowd of taxi drivers telling me there were no buses anyway. Rather than wander aimlessly I decided to go with the taxi plan, and soon afterwards arrived at a hamlet by a reservoir, from which the wall snaked away over the hills.
The weather wasn’t great. It was warm and extremely humid, and mist was draped over the hillsides. Huanghua clearly wasn’t so remote that no-one went there – a small restaurant in town had a sign saying “Mentioned in Lonely Planet! Only restaurant at Huanghua!” on it. But as I set off up the wall I was quickly out of sight of anyone, and enjoyed the solitude.
The wall was crumbling and overgrown here, and it was quite a strenuous hike up it. Soon I was sweating impressively, and after half an hour or so I looked like I’d jumped in a swimming pool. The mist made the scene quite atmospheric, and I was not unhappy that it wasn’t sunny like it had been at Simatai.
I plodded up the wall for three hours, and met two foreigners and five or six locals along the way. I walked up to Gaping Jaw, a valley into which the wall plunges down Sawtooth Slope. The slope was as steep as anything at Simatai, and I would have walked down it, but that would have committed me to probably another hour of walking before another path back to Huanghua unless I wanted to retrace my steps, and I was running out of water. So I headed away from the wall, taking a forest path which led me back to Huanghua village.
I wasn’t sure what I’d arranged with my taxi driver. Due to language difficulties, I had no idea if I’d hired him to take me back to Huairou or not, but when I got back to the village he was there waiting for me. He wasn’t much impressed with how I looked after three hours of hot, humid hiking, though, and he looked like he was going to tell me to bugger off and get the bus. But grudgingly he drove me back to Huairou, and I got a bus back to Beijing from there.
It had been unbelievably hot ever since the fog had lifted, a few days after I arrived in China. I’d never experienced anything like it before, but living in an air-conditioned apartment and working in an air-conditioned office made acclimatisation easier. Today it was even hotter still, breaking 40°C. I decided to seek higher altitudes, and thought maybe it would be cooler at the top of the CCTV Tower.
It’s an unfortunate acronym: it stands for China Central Television, but a tower overlooking the entire city being called the CCTV Tower certainly has a bit of a Big Brother air to it. I got a taxi down the road from the University to Gongzhufen metro station, near the tower, and walked the short distance there with the assistance of a couple of litres of cold water that I’d brought with me. The heat was more bearable than I thought it would be, but I drank stunning quantities of water without even trying.
At the tower, I had to leave my bag in the cloakroom at the bottom. This was unfortunate because I was carrying a lot of camera gear. I went into über-tourist mode, draping a camera and two lenses around my neck, and filling my pockets with film. I left my now-empty bag in the cloakroom, and headed up to the observation deck, 238m above the city.
What hit me first was the wind. There was plenty of it up there, and it was hot. It was like standing in a hairdryer, and I felt like all the moisture was being sucked out of me. I’d never felt anything like it before. The next thing that struck me was the view, which was incredible. The tower is in the western part of the city, and looking east I could see nothing but city. A forest of skyscrapers stretched away into the distance, with the flatness of the terrain only interrupted by Jingshan Park a few kilometres away. I was staggered at the number of highrise buildings – London has very few. Beijing probably has more in every central city block than London has in total. Looking west it was a different story. The buildings were getting lower and the Western Hills rose beyond the city limits.
I spent a few hours up the tower, waiting for sunset. When it came it was spectacular, with the lights of this vast, energetic, changing city shining from everywhere, while Venus set into the blazing twilight skies over the Western Hills. I didn’t really want to leave, but I’d run out of water and I couldn’t afford more than one coke in the rotating restaurant. Eventually I had to come down, and in the slightly cooler evening I walked back up to Chengfu Lu.
After a couple of days back at work it was the weekend again, and time for me to set out exploring once more. My first target was the Summer Palace, one of China’s most impressive imperial treasures. It’s only a couple of miles from the university, but I thought I would get a cab as the temperatures were nearing 40°C, and I thought I might die of dehydration if I walked. But in the end, there was only one cab by the East Gate of the university, and he wouldn’t take me. With my Mandarin still not even reaching appallingly basic, I couldn’t even begin to understand why. I decided to brave the heat and walk it.
I didn’t actually look around the Palace itself: I didn’t fancy being indoors on such a hot day. So I just spent a few hours walking around Kunming Lake, and over the famous 17-arch bridge to a small island. I frequently passed stalls selling ice cream, and I frequently gave them business. I spent quite a while sat on the island, enjoying being in the middle of a tranquil lake, surrounded by the Western Hills.
My Australian friends were right. A week in Canberra was not a vast amount of fun. The day I arrived it was cold and windy, and the town was deserted. I was wandering around looking for somewhere to get a coffee, but nothing seemed to be open. Eventually I came across a lonely figure at a bus stop, and asked him if there was a cafe nearby. “You might find one in that direction”, he said, gesturing vaguely down the road. Eventually I found somewhere, open but deserted, and had a coffee.
OK, so that was a Sunday. Maybe it would liven up during the week. I spent most of the week in conference sessions at the ANU’s Science Dome, but we had Wednesday afternoon free so I set out to explore. I went for a long walk along the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, which was nice enough, but still the town felt more or less deserted.
Each night I’d been out to restaurants and bars in town, and they had always been pretty quiet. But on the last day of the conference, finally the town came alive. It was a Friday evening, and the transformation was dramatic. Restaurants and bars were busy and lively, bands were playing, and all seemed good. Canberra began to redeem itself, and I decided that my Australian friends in London were just Sydneysiders with a superiority complex.
But in the morning, Canberra was a ghost town again. I walked through the silent streets to Cafe Essen for breakfast, then decided it was time to get the hell out of this alleged capital and go back to Sydney.
Three years after my first trip to Australia, I had an opportunity to return, for a conference in Canberra. It was a few months after the September 11 attacks, and my flights were unusually quiet. I flew to Osaka with a row of seats to myself, then got an even emptier flight to Sydney.
It was good to be back in this amazing city. I’d left London on a cold November day, but here it was 30°C. In a jetlagged haze I wandered around the harbour, and ambled into the Royal Botanical Gardens. I sat down in the sunshine and before I knew what was happening I was waking up and a couple of hours had passed. I got up and blearily wandered back down Pitt Street to where I was staying.
The next day it was raining heavily. I ran through the downpour to Central Station and got a bus to Canberra. All my Australian friends in London had told me that a week in Canberra was a week in hell. Soon I would find out if they were telling the truth or not.
The Maya were one of the three great ancient civilizations of the Americas, along with the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico. The civilization began to emerge at least 4,000 years ago, was advanced by 300AD, and reached its peak (the so-called Classic Period) from around 600 to 800AD. During this time, they built great cities at a prodigious rate, covering them with towering temples and pyramids, and in many cases spectacular stone carvings. They were advanced in agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, and quite independently of the Arabs (who generally get the credit), they invented a positional numbering system and the concept of zero. They also had a literary tradition, though much of the hieroglyphics have yet to be deciphered, and an accurate calendar, which was adopted by the Aztecs and is still used in more remote parts of Guatemala.
At the height of the Classic period, the Mayan empire spread across the southern Mexican states of the Yucatán peninsula, the whole of modern-day Guatemala and Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. Around 900AD, though, the whole of Mayan civilization went into dramatic decline, many cities being abandoned to the jungle. After something of a renaissance around the 1200’s, Mayan civilization was again in decline when the Spanish arrived, and they conquered the Mayan lands rapidly.
In their religious zeal the Spanish razed to the ground most of what they conquered, destroying the ‘pagan’ temples and pyramids and the idols inside. Fortunately, the decline of the Maya meant that there were many cities which were now abandoned and totally covered in jungle. Today, many have been uncovered, and every year more are discovered. Just before we left the UK, we heard that a huge new set of ruins had been found deep in the jungle in central Guatemala.
Copán is one of the most famed of the Mayan sites of Central America, and we were certainly impressed when after a short walk down a forest path we emerged into its Great Plaza. With a low pyramid in the centre, carved pillars (stelae) scattered around, and larger pyramids visible further off, it was quite a sight.
Copán was founded by 1200BC at the latest, and started to become a great city in 426, when a king called Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw came to power. He and his descendants began Copán’s great tradition of recording their achievements on stelae, slabs of rock about eight feet tall, great numbers of which can be seen today at Copán. Copán’s most productive king in this respect was Uaxaclahun Ubak K’awil, the thirteenth king, whose name sounded very fitting for a powerful king until its meaning was deciphered. Somehow a king called 18 Rabbit hardly seems destined for greatness, but under his rule Copán came to dominate many surrounding cities, including Quiriguá, which today lies across the border in Guatemala. 18 Rabbit’s rule lasted nearly 45 years, during which time many of Copán’s finest structures and stelae were built and carved, but unfortunately the people of Quiriguá had never accepted their subjugation to Copán, and in 738 they captured the unfortunate King Rabbit and beheaded him.
Copán’s fifteenth king, Smoke Shell, was another great builder, and started the Heiroglyphic Stairway, the longest inscription known in the Maya lands. But the following two kings oversaw Copán’s terminal decline, as its ever-growing population finally outstripped its food production. Skeletal remains from this late period show evidence of malnutrition and disease, and most of the people had left by the year 1000. A few stragglers remained for a long time, but by about 1200AD the site had been completely abandoned to the jungle. It was found by a Spanish explorer in 1576, but then not visited again until 1839. At this time it came to the attention of archaeologists, who have been working at Copán ever since, uncovering ever more structures (3450 are now known, covering an area of 24 square kilometres) and deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics.
We wandered around, admiring and appreciating the art and architecture, and trying hard to really believe that this was once the centre of a great city. We climbed the Temple of Inscriptions, at the top of which you find walls covered with intricate carvings, a fine view over the ruins and surrounding countryside, and (on this occasion at least) a Honduran television crew, asking visitors to give their impressions of the place. Always eager for 15 seconds of fame, I happily told them what I thought of the place. Moh was media-shy, and hid behind a wall until I was finished.
After we had spent a good long time exploring Copán, we walked further down the road to one of its suburbs, today known as Las Sepulturas. This was a residential part of the city, and though it is certainly less dramatic than the main site, provides a greater insight into how the Maya lived. It’s also much quieter than the main site: we didn’t see anyone else while we were there.
We were lucky with the weather – it didn’t start raining until after 4pm, when the ruins are closed for the night. This meant we only got soaked once we’d seen everything, which was good. We squelched back to the town of Copán Ruinas, and prepared to leave Honduras the next day.
After Notre Dame, I went back to the hostel, and slept like I’ve never slept before. I woke up completely refreshed at 8am the next day, and decided to go to the Louvre. I saw the classics: the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. And I saw lots of works of art that I’d never heard of that impressed me much more.
The Mona Lisa was OK, I suppose. Probably would have looked better if I’d got within 20 feet of it, but it was set back inside a protective case, which meant you could only see it from almost directly in front of it. So there was a column of people across the room, all squinting and straining to see it.
I was quite impressed with the Venus de Milo, but it was the rooms full of giant Greek statues that I’d never heard of which really impressed me. It made me think, though – why all the fuss about the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum when there are Greek artefacts all over the world? Why shouldn’t Greek works be seen outside Greece?
On our last night in Australia, it was cold and miserable, and drizzle drifted on the breeze. We walked down to the harbour for a last view of the bridge and the opera house. By the morning, a ferocious downpour was battering Sydney. Our bus to the airport almost crashed, and our take-off was delayed by a couple of hours. On the way to Australia, the journey had gone quickly. On the way home it dragged on and on. To stave off boredom, I accepted every offer of alcohol the cabin crew made, and soon discovered how much more effective drinking is at high altitude. By the time we landed in the sticky heat of Bangkok at midnight, I was already getting the hangover. It had passed by the time we got back to London the next morning.
On an overcast day, we went to the museum in the south west tower of the Harbour Bridge. The museum was quite interesting, but possibly better were the views over the city from the top of the tower.
We flew from Alice Springs to Sydney. After we’d got into the city and found a place to stay, we walked toward the harbour, through the forest of skyscrapers around the central business district. Sydney Harbour is so famous that it almost seems unbelievable that it’s real, and I’ll never forget my first sight of Circular Quay, with the Bridge to the left and the Opera House to the right.