Oct 15, 2011 in Chile
I moved into a new flat yesterday. I was perhaps a bit rash, as it was only the second place I looked at, but it was more or less the kind of thing I was looking for and I didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary in my temporary accommodation. What really persuaded me was the views from the balcony. London is not a high-rise city, and I’d almost always lived in houses while I was there. The one time I lived in a block of flats I was on the first floor. So this flat, up high on the 15th floor, was something new. And it faces east towards the mountains, so the height is worth having.
Oct 02, 2011 in Chile
Cerro San Cristóbal is the highest point inside Santiago and it’s always nice to go up there and see the views of the city surround by the mountains. I went up again, late on a Sunday evening, taking the lazy route to the top on the funicular railway. The place is always crawling with cyclists, and as soon as my bike arrives from Europe I can’t wait to tackle this hill. It’s about 300m from street level to the peak, a bit more of a challenge than my cycle up Highgate Hill used to be. I like the atmosphere at the top of San Cristóbal. You can hear the noise of the sprawling city but it feels very calm and tranquil. I sat and watched the sun set and the lights of the city come on, then headed back down to the streets.
Apr 26, 2011 in Canada 2011
It rained almost continuously the next day. I’d planned to explore some outdoor places, but in the end the rain battered down relentlessly and I spent most of the day in cafes looking for breaks in the weather. I wandered towards the Distillery District, which my guide book said was awesome without really explaining why. But it was quite a way from the centre, and the intermittent deluge drove me into so many places en route that I never made it. I found a food market, in which there was a spectacular choice of maple syrup. I realised here that what is sold as maple syrup in the UK must almost always be mostly flavouring, or else I was getting severely ripped off here, because the tiniest plastic bottle of the stuff here was as much as a decent sized jar in the UK. I bought some anyway, having been advised by a friend to get hold of the dark stuff that you don’t get anywhere else. I bought some food and coffee in the market, relieved to have broken my severe Tim Hortons addiction that had blown up over the past few days. And then I walked back towards [...]
Apr 24, 2011 in Canada 2011
I got up early again the next day, planning to go to Niagara. But I got lost on the way to the subway station, ended up walking all the way to Union Station, and missing the train by five minutes. It was Easter Sunday, and few trains or buses were running. It was raining anyway, so I decided to leave Niagara for the next day. I walked out through the empty streets of Toronto, quiet in the drizzle, and the only people around were homeless, unhinged, or both. I ended up in a Tim Hortons, a place I had never heard of before arriving here but which was on every street corner. Their business is in providing disgustingly sugary snacks. I bought a coffee and a doughnut, and felt slightly nauseous after I’d finished. 20 minutes later I had bizarre cravings for another one. I decided Tim Hortons was a dangerous place and left. By 11am the streets were getting a little bit busier. I wanted to check out some contemporary art, so I walked a long walk from the centre of the city out to the western districts, where I found the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. A gallery [...]
Apr 23, 2011 in Canada 2011
I walked down Bay Street and found my way to the ferry terminal. The boat shuttled across to the islands in a few minutes, and in hot sunshine I went walking. I didn’t get very far before I reached a small cafe, so I bought a coffee and sat on a nearby rocky beach, watching high clouds drift over Toronto. I wanted to walk out onto a small headland for a better view, but as I did, a giant Canada Goose suddenly reared up in front of me, flapped his wings and hissed. I backed off, a bit surprised. I waited until he’d calmed down and then tried again, skirting the edge of what I thought might be his territory. But he jumped up again. I thought about braving it and pushing on, but had visions of “Traveller killed in freak goose incident” headlines and decided the views from the beach were OK. I walked over to the far shore of the islands, and it felt like a very peaceful place compared to the city. It was still early season and most things were closed, so all I could do was relax and watch the green waters of Lake Ontario [...]
Apr 23, 2011 in Canada 2011
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 to me like a 1960s launchpad. The sun was now hot, and I sat in the shade nearby, pondering my next move. Temperatures now seemed to be soaring, almost to the high standards that I’d left behind in London, so I decided to head out to the Toronto Islands.
Apr 22, 2011 in Canada 2011
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 and far higher than anything else even in this city full of skyscrapers. I went up and watched night fall over the city.
Jan 10, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011
Sunday evening in Luxembourg was far from thrilling. I passed the evening in a cafe, which was not serving much food. I could only get soup, so I had three bowls for my evening meal. I hadn’t done everything there was to do in Luxembourg and I’d have quite liked to see a bit of the countryside, but I felt like my two days here had been more than enough. In the morning I had to get up at 5am to catch a train back to London. I walked out into the darkness and found the country swathed in thick fog. As I walked back along the Corniche, the lights of the houses on the valley floor shone through and made a nice looking scene. The train left Luxembourg in darkness, and I fell asleep in a more or less empty carriage. When I woke a couple of hours later, the carriage was full and I was surrounded by commuters heading into Brussels. A grey day was dawning, and rain was falling as I changed trains at Brussels. I got a coffee and pastry from the same cafe I’d been to on the way, and then got the Eurostar back [...]
Jan 09, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011
I spent my Sunday afternoon at MUDAM, a new contemporary art gallery on a hill near the European Court of Justice. I walked there via a forest path which climbed steeply from the river bank up to the heights, through the restored Fort Thüngen to the gallery. The building itself is the work of IM Pei with trademark glass pyramids making an odd contrast with the old fortifications nearby. The museum was quite small but had some quality works of art in it. My favourite was the exhibition of the works of Attila Csörgő. Wild clockwork devices which constructed and deconstructed geometric shapes by pulling strings attached to bits of wood were possibly the most impressive, not least because it was absolutely beyond my comprehension that someone could ever build something like them. By the time I left the gallery it was dark. I set off back to town via the route I’d come, only to realise after a few hundred metres that it was, of course, completely unlit. I didn’t feel like turning back, so I pushed on using the weedy light from my mobile phone to light the way. The damp corridors of Fort Thüngen were quite spooky [...]
Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011
Picturesque as it was, Luxembourg was not a great place for a solo traveller. The demographic here was pretty different to the one I inhabit, and I wandered the streets for a while seeing few signs of fun nightlife but plenty of expensive restaurants. Not wanting to spend large quantities of Euros on my evening meal, I ended up getting a crêpe from a cafe, and then spending the evening walking around the high parts of town and watching night fall.
Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011
I went to Luxembourg on a whim. I’d kind of been there before, passing through at the age of six on the way from the UK to Switzerland. But it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what the place was like, would not recognise a picture of the place if I saw one, and yet it was only 300 miles away and very easy to get to. So I bought some Eurostar tickets, and a couple of days later I headed off. A high speed journey took me to grey rainy Brussels in less than two hours. I got a coffee and pastry for breakfast in Midi station, then got on the much slower train to Luxembourg. The clouds cleared and the sun was shining as we passed through the snowy forests of the Ardennes. It was cloudy again when I got to Luxemboug. I can’t imagine ever getting bored of arriving in a place I’ve never been to before, especially one so close to home but so completely obscure to me. I was in a good mood as I walked out of the station and into the city. I walked randomly towards the centre, crossed a [...]
Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day. I was interested to see a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.
Oct 23, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
As an astronomer I have travelled to the Canary Islands many times. Right from the first trip I liked them a lot. Some of the touristy bits are pretty horrible but a lot of the islands are wild and remote. A meeting about a subject I was very interested in gave me the opportunity to visit the islands once more. My flight was very early. Somehow it often seems to me that it’s a better idea to stay up all night than to get just a few hours of sleep, so I went out, got back late, packed up and then headed for Heathrow. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I was unbelievably tired by the time I got to the airport. I got to terminal 3 long before sunrise, and in my exhausted state I decided that the purple lighting and sixties architecture looked quite cool.
Sep 13, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
Everyone except me was flying back home from Santiago’s airport. I am prepared to go to great lengths to avoid flying with Ryanair, and so I’d booked a slightly more expensive flight from A Coruña. It at least gave me a chance to see another place, so I headed out after I’d said goodbye to everyone. A Coruña is much bigger than Santiago. It felt far less touristy and far more like a big city. I walked through the hot streets from the station into the city centre. One very cool thing about the city is that it’s surrounded by the sea and has beaches right in the city centre. I went and sat one one for a while, making the most of the September sunshine. I walked on to the main square, which was grand and impressive. But I’d spent too long on the beach and I didn’t have time to make use of one of the cafes here. I thought I should probably come back some time. I got the bus to the airport, and even though my flight was then delayed by several hours, I did not regret continuing my Ryanair boycott.
Sep 10, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
I have had many good times in Santiago de Compostela, so it was good to be going back again. This time I was going with a group of friends to celebrate an imminent wedding. We spent three days there, making full use of Santiago’s myriad tiny bars in the historic city centre, and spent a lot of time in cafes in the beautiful Praza da Quintana recovering from our various exertions.
Aug 23, 2010 in Microstates 2010
My lap over, I relaxed by the harbour for a while. There were lots of cafes near the water’s edge, overlooking the decadent scene where playboy’s yachts bobbed in the hot sun. I picked one and sat down. There was no menu and no priced, but I decided I was going to have a coffee by the harbour in Monaco regardless of expense. I was actually quite disappointed when it was only €1.70. I bought some lunch and sat by the sea eating it. Monaco was all action, with traffic pounding around the narrow streets. It seemed like a very strange place, a small rogue chunk of France with a few hundred years of slight separateness to make it feel different. I liked it, though, and I was glad I’d made the trip here finally. Having seen more or less every corner of the principality, I went into a Casino supermarket and bought some Monegasque chocolate and wine, and then headed back to Nice to catch the train to Narbonne. My microstates tour was over, and now the only countries in Europe that I still needed to visit were Andorra and San Marino.
Aug 23, 2010 in Microstates 2010
Crossing Switzerland by train in a day was easy. My journey to Geneva required me to change at Buchs, Sargans and Zürich. At each stop, the gap between the trains was exactly enough for me to find the platform and go to it – neither more nor less. I watched the beautiful countryside sweeping past from the comfort of air-conditioned trains. From Geneva I caught a TGV to Nice, and spent a night there, in a hot airless hostel. I walked down to the beach in the humid night and sat on the shores of the Mediterranean. I’d already come a long way from Vienna, and I was only half way to my destination. In the morning, I got a train along the coast to Monaco. I didn’t really have any plans at all to fill the few hours I had before I needed to catch a train to Narbonne. I emerged from the cavernous station to find myself in the extraordinarily familiar surroundings of Saint-Devote, the first corner of the grand prix circuit. It was really strange to be somewhere where I recognised everything, and had seen everything from many different angles, many times over the years, without ever [...]
Aug 18, 2010 in Vienna 2010
Aug 16, 2010 in Vienna 2010
I went to Vienna for a conference. I was happy to have a chance to visit Austria again. I’d been to Salzburg before, spending a weekend watched over by statues of Mozart as I narrowly escaped screenings of The Sound of Music and other such stereotypical Tyrolean things. But I’d never been to the capital. I got an early flight to Vienna. After almost no sleep, I was exhausted when I got to Austria, and I headed for a hostel and slept for a while. In the evening I got up and explored the city, randomly wandering the streets. It was hot and humid, and I stopped frequently for drinks and snacks from the Imbiss stands that stood on every street corner. That evening, as I walked back to the hostel, I felt a sudden thud on my shoulder. I looked around, and found myself face to face with a grasshopper of terrifying size. Where he had come from, I don’t know, but I recoiled in horror, the confusion of the situation only getting worse as I realised you can’t recoil very far from your own shoulder. I slapped frantically and twitched across the pavement, getting rid of the beast [...]
Jul 11, 2010 in Norway 2010
I walked back to the hostel in the midnight daylight. The next day, it rained heavily all day, and I sat in a cafe watching the rain batter on the window and drinking coffee until I got tunnel vision. The next day it was nicer. I walked across the bridge from Tromsøya to the mainland, and got the cable car up the hill to Storsteinen. It was a short ride up, and it wasn’t cheap. Nothing is in Norway. But it was worth it. There weren’t too many people around, and the views over the city and the mountains were pretty incredible.
Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010
I got to Tromsø at 10pm. It was raining heavily and yet daylight. I got a bus into the city, and I wasn’t quite sure when we’d arrived in the centre. The driver said to me “This is it, you’re here – you’re in the middle of nowhere!”. Fantastic, I said, that’s exactly where I want to be. I got off and walked around. It had stopped raining, and it was surreal that it was daylight and yet almost 11pm. I found the bus stop I needed to go to the hostel I was staying at, a couple of miles outside town. I checked in, and then went for a walk. The rain clouds were spent now, and were disappearing rapidly. As it approached midnight, only their last dregs remained as wisps of white in a clear blue sky. The sun was low in the sky, but at the stroke of midnight it was still sitting clear of the horizon over the mountains of Kvaløya to the north. There was not even a hint of sunset red in the sky. It hung steady for a while, moving neither up nor down. By 1am it was on its way up again. [...]
Jul 08, 2010 in Norway 2010
My trip to Norway in 2002 had been one of the great weekend trips. It was so awesome that for years I’d been reluctant to think about going back to Norway. The chances were it wouldn’t be as good as the last time and maybe it would even be disappointing. But when I found myself wanting to get away for a weekend, and saw that flights to Tromsø were affordable, I decided it was time to reconsider. A weekend in the Arctic Circle in the middle of summer had to be worth a trip. So I flew to Oslo, and got a train into the city. I walked up Karl Johans Gate feeling nostalgic, passing familiar places and remembering good times. I walked down to the harbour and looked out to sea in the light drizzle. I would have liked to go to Holmenkollen, or Vigeland Park, but I felt that I shouldn’t go back. And anyway, I didn’t have the time. I had to get a train to Rygge, to catch my flight to the Arctic.
May 31, 2010 in Paris 2010
While we were in Paris, the Villette Sonique music festival was on, and the last night’s star attraction was Joanna Newsom. I’d heard her music before, recommended to me with great enthusiasm by two of my friends, but I was not a fan. I categorised it as “awful waily nonsense” and refused to listen to more than a couple of minutes. But my friends in Paris wanted to go, and it’s always nice to see live music, so I bought a ticket. And as it happened, the gig entirely changed my opinion. She was supported by Roy Harper, who looked like a great example of what happens to you if you take a shitload of drugs your entire life. His inter-song banter was extremely vague and rambling, but he was pretty good musically, with just his voice, a guitar and a delay pedal. And then Joanna Newsom came on stage. The audience were in raptures right from the start, which put me off a bit, but slowly I came round to a certain appreciation. Her voice is nothing if not distinctive, but it didn’t sound as weird as it had done on the songs I’d heard before. It was one [...]
May 31, 2010 in Paris 2010
We went to the Pompidou centre and saw some impressive 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.
May 31, 2010 in Paris 2010
It had been a long time since I’d been to Paris properly. I’d passed through on my way to Barcelona a couple of months ago, but now, as two friends of mine were living here, I thought a decent visit would be timely. So I got a eurostar early one Saturday morning and met up with my friends. We visited Notre Dame. I’d been there before but only to the inside. We decided to go up to the roof. It was a May bank holiday weekend so this involved spending a long time in a queue, creeping slowly across the square in front of the cathedral. It looked like it was going to rain heavily, and I was hoping it would so that some less enthusiastic queuers might go away and do something else, but it didn’t. Eventually we made it up to the heights. It was an impressive view of the atmospheric city. By coincidence it was ten years to the day since my first visit to Paris, when I’d arrived utterly broke after a trip across Europe to celebrate the end of my degree. I thought then that I had just left UCL forever. I wondered what I [...]
Apr 16, 2010 in Scotland 2010
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 [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
Eight months ago, I’d stood outside Keflavík airport and seen the snow-capped cone of Snæfell, 70 miles away across Faxaflói. It was a clear sign, telling me that I would certainly return to Iceland. I felt that very strongly but I never expected to come back so soon. While I was in Belgrade I’d heard that a volcano had started erupting in the Fimmvörðuháls pass, close to where I’d been hiking. It was an impressive and easily accessible eruption. I couldn’t believe it had happened so soon after I was there and I felt annoyed that I wouldn’t see it. But then, the thought occurred to me that there was no reason why I shouldn’t go and see it. One Monday morning, with the eruption still going on, I decided to go back. I booked a flight for the Friday, and then spent an agonising four days hoping that the eruption wouldn’t stop, that the weather would be OK, and that I’d be able to see the eruption. And so for the third time I got a late flight from Heathrow to Keflavík. I saw the northern lights from the plane window, the first time I’d seen them since my [...]
Apr 02, 2010 in Barcelona 2010
I’d heard about the Font Màgica last time I was here. It sounded a bit cheesy and I wasn’t too keen on visiting, but on the other hand it was up on Montjuïc and I thought there might be some good views over the city. So we all went up there, arriving just as the show started. To my surprise I was quite impressed. The timing was good, with the sun having set and the sky darkening as the water shone in rainbows of colour. The number of people there made it difficult to see the show that well, but it was much better than I’d expected. And after it was over we walked up to the front of the Palau Nacional and looked out over the city as the crowds dispersed.
Apr 01, 2010 in Barcelona 2010
A week and a half after I got back from Belgrade, I was on the road again. My paper on Herschel results was submitted, my long month of hell was over, and I walked along to St. Pancras to get a train to Barcelona. I was going there with some friends to celebrate a 30th birthday, and it turned out to be cheaper to travel overland. So I got the Eurostar to Paris, pausing briefly at Gare du Nord as it was the first time I’d been there for eight years. Last time, I was on my way back from Beijing, and after thousands of miles of travel across Asia with no problem, disaster had struck just 200 miles from home in a farce of missed trains and lost tickets. I held tightly on to my Barcelona ticket, crossed town to Gare d’Austerlitz and got a train to Portbou. We rumbled across France during the night. When I woke in the morning we were in the far south, and I saw a full moon setting over the Pyrenees at Perpignan. Not long after that the train arrived at Portbou, where I had about 20 seconds to find the Barcelona train, [...]
Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010
Gig time came. We headed across the river, back through the wide streets of Novi Beograd, at first just us and then later joining ever increasing crowds of people on their way to the massive arena. It was going to be awesome. We had two spare tickets. Someone at the hostel had put us in touch with someone they knew who was looking for a ticket. We’d spoken to this person, Nikola, on the phone, and he’d offered us 1000 dinar each for the tickets. Face value was 3000 so we decided we’d try to sell them at the venue and see if we got some more. When we were outside, with huge throngs of Balkan metallers swirling around, I slightly wondered if I should have taken Nikola’s offer. I’ve never managed to tout tickets successfully even in London, so trying to cut deals in Serbia was not going to be easy. In the end we sorted things out pretty quickly. There were plenty of people asking for tickets, and my only mistake was picking someone who was pretty wired and didn’t speak English. We had a haphazard negotiation, a brief tussle when he tried to take the tickets from [...]
Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010
We had a good look around Belgrade, and I saw parts I’d missed before. I’d seen the enormous Sveti Sava cathedral last time, and this time we walked up to it. On another beautiful spring day, the parks in front of the cathedral had a pleasant vibe. The building itself was quite impressive, being one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, and one of the most prominent buildings in the city. Later as it got dark we headed towards the centre of the city. Belgrade is no beauty, really, but it does have a kind of forbidding charm. We passed the parliament buildings and the presidential residence, and I stopped to take a photo. As I took a long exposure, a smartly dressed guy who was walking by approached. He didn’t look happy. He demanded to see our passports. My first thought was that it was some kind of scam and I was going to walk away, but then he showed me a police badge. I showed him my passport, holding onto it carefully in case he was just trying to steal it. He asked us things in very broken English, the gist of which was that he [...]
Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010
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 borderline insane, quite disturbingly 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. I always find it slightly weird coming back to a place like this – I like knowing the lie of the land already but it also makes me feel like I’m in a terrifyingly intense déjà vu experience. We headed over to the Belgrade Arena to pick [...]
Mar 18, 2010 in Balkans 2010
After seeing Rammstein in Berlin, I’d waited five years before getting a chance to see them again in Lisbon. The Lisbon gig was so awesome that as soon as I got back to London I started looking into what other places I might be able to catch them. Having seen the first night of the tour, it only seemed right, in the end, to see the last night as well, and so I bought tickets to see them in Belgrade. I’d loved the city when I’d been there before, so I thought it would be great to go back and see a gig there. Later, it turned out this hadn’t been such a good idea. The gig turned out to be in the middle of the busiest and most stressful month of my professional career, as I tried to understand and interpret data from the Herschel Space Observatory, in time for a deadline for publishing the results of the end of March. Taking a Thursday and Friday off in the middle of this was not the wisest move. I considered not going, but in the end I decided I’d just have to live with working some even longer hours either [...]
Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
Back in Chile it was a beautiful summery day. I had only an afternoon and a morning before heading back to Europe. News from home was that it was the coldest winter for years, and London was in chaos as a few inches of snow caused a kind of mass panic. All that was thousands of miles away and I found it hard not to feel a little bit of schadenfreude as I relaxed in the warm sun. I sat in the Plaza de Armas, enjoying the relaxed vibe. An eccentric old man sat down next to me and started chatting. It was good to practice my Spanish, and at first the conversation was quite sensible, but later it became more surreal and confusing. When I could no longer understand what he was saying, I got up and left. My trip ended badly. I got ill on my last night, and felt horrific the next morning. I felt so bad that I thought I might not make it to the airport, but after a morning doing nothing but sipping water I decided to give it a go. I threw on my pack and staggered out into the heat of the [...]
Jan 04, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
Just a few miles north of Arica was the border with Peru. Colectivo taxis plied the route, leaving from near where I was staying. I’d planned to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca, but was thwarted by arriving on a weekend and could only spend one day there, so I had time to spare and decided to spend an afternoon in Tacna. The journey was short, with half the time being taken up by border formalities. I got to Tacna in the early afternoon and with nothing particular to do, I just wandered into town. I passed through the long distance bus station, saw buses going to Cuzco, Arequipa, Lima and other places, and felt outrageously tempted to abandon my flight home and disappear into Peru for a while instead. Touts shouted destinations at me, assuming I was on my way to somewhere. But I decided to be sensible, and carried on into town, via some money changers who swapped some pesos for soles at an acceptable rate. Tacna was astonishingly different from Arica. The difference of 20 miles made an appalling difference to the lives and chances of people on one side of the border compared to the [...]
Jan 03, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I was sad to leave Iquique, but I took a lot of good memories with me. I didn’t have much time left now before my flight home, and I still wanted to make it up to the very top of Chile. I got a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in the country. Arica wasn’t as cool as Iquique, but I still liked it a lot. It was a lot more run-down looking, with low houses sprawling over a huge area. The hostel I stayed in was quite a way out of the centre, so I walked for many miles during my few days here. The first day I was there was a Sunday, which was a shame because it meant all the travel agents were closed, and my plan to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca was impossible. So instead I wandered around the city, eventually finding my way up El Morro, a huge headland which towers over the centre. I got there as the sun was setting, and climbed up it for some amazing views of the Pacific sunset. In the other direction, looking east I could see two giant snow-capped Andean peaks, so far away they [...]
Dec 31, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I got a bus to Iquique. It was a great journey through the desert to Antofagasta, and then up the coast. A stunning moonrise over the Andes felt like a sign that this was a good direction to be heading in. And Iquique was fantastic. The weather was awesome, the setting of the city between the desert mountains and the Pacific was incredible, the place I stayed was great, the people I met were fun, and I was in a great mood. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had a few things to sort out. I needed to buy a flight from Arica to Santiago, if I was going to make it up there and still get back in time for my flight home; I needed a new bag because mine was falling apart; and I needed an FC Iquique football top. I had a great Spanish day and accomplished all my tasks with a minimum of misunderstanding. My errands run, I went for a walk on the beach. I kept on getting into random conversations with friendly locals – someone from Santiago visiting the north for the first time, and enjoying the weather, a local who told me [...]
Dec 26, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d probably not have minded leaving La Serena on Boxing Day, but buses weren’t running so we had another relaxing day. At nightfall I went out onto the beach, deserted now after a busy day, and watched the sea rolling in for a while. The lights of Coquimbo shone down the coast, but I didn’t feel a great urge to go there. I wanted to head up to the far north, to places I didn’t go to on my last trip. Not feeling the La Serena vibe, I took experimental photos on the dark beach and then packed up ready to leave early the next morning.
Dec 24, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Too soon, it was time to leave La Silla. Our observing run had been very successful, and we had enjoyed the place a lot. Now it was time to relax for a few days. It was Christmas, and we spent a couple of days in a small cottage by the beach in La Serena. I wasn’t sure if I liked La Serena that much. The town was pleasant enough but very quiet, and the beach was a long walk away from the centre. And although I enjoyed relaxing for a couple of days, I felt very impatient to get travelling to more interesting parts. Christmas day was hot and sunny. We had gone to a supermarket the day before but not found very much that we could make a traditional British Christmas dinner out of, especially with the limitations imposed by our cottage, which had hobs but no oven. So we had pancakes for breakfast and a strange potato-egg-vegetable fry up for lunch. Then we walked on the beach, which seemed very weird. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to Christmas Day not being dark and cold.
Dec 14, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
South America, to me, was hallowed ground of a kind. It was the last inhabited continent that I visited, and my first trip there was a long, epic voyage, which I’d planned for years and that will probably always be my greatest travel experience. So in a way I was wary about going back a second time. It could never match up to the times I’d had before. I was going back for work. We had some time on the telescopes of La Silla, and my presence was required as a relatively experienced observer to make sure nothing went terribly wrong. Our run was just before Christmas, so I left behind a chilly London, sat on a plane for 15 hours, and then emerged into a hot, sunny Santiago. It was fantastic to be back. I’d liked Santiago from the moment I first arrived here, on a night train from Temuco in December 2005. This time we stayed in the fantastic ESO guesthouse, in the wealthy suburb of Las Condes, and the day we arrived was the day of the 2009 presidential election. The election meant that everything was closed, and we had a look round the quiet streets of [...]
Nov 09, 2009 in Belgium 2009/2
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 felt a strange but intense antipathy towards Belgium. 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 pleasant 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.
Nov 08, 2009 in Portugal 2009
I got a train back into the centre of Lisbon, and then headed out to the Pavilhão Atlântico. I was incredibly excited about the gig, and only one problem stood in my way. I didn’t have a ticket. I’d bought and paid for one, but it had never turned up in London. A friendly guy from the ticket office had phoned me up and had told me it would be no problem. I’d just have to go to the box office on the night and pick up another. So I headed to the first box office I found and showed them an e-mail I’d been sent. They directed me to another box office, which directed me back to the first one. All the while, huge crowds of Iberian metallers were pouring into the venue. The ticket offices couldn’t decide between them what I should do. Eventually they told me to just join a queue and explain the situation to the people on the door. So I queued, explaining my situation in Spanish to a succession of bouncers, each less receptive and more bemused than the last. The final one was extremely intransigent and had to talk to several people on [...]
Nov 08, 2009 in Portugal 2009
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 like me for a weekend break. We explored Lisbon together. I spoke to her in Spanish and she spoke to me in English, and in this way we communicated very effectively. She also had no qualms about speaking to locals in Spanish. I wondered if they thought us 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 sampled some now, and quite liked it. As we passed the gourd, another Argentine happened to be passing by, and instantly recognised a fellow countrywoman. He was a long-time expat but like Alexia, he made sure he had some maté available wherever in the world he happened to be. We got a train to Belém, a riverside suburb of the city. It’s famous for its [...]
Nov 08, 2009 in Portugal 2009
I’d been waiting a long time for this trip. I’d seen Rammstein in Berlin at the end of 2004, and apart from a few gigs in early 2005 they hadn’t played live since. At first I checked their website daily to see if new live dates were being announced; later I checked weekly. Later still I checked once in a while, my hopes dashed every time. I hadn’t checked for months when I decided on a whim to have a look in May 2009. The news was awesome. A new album was forthcoming, and a tour would start in November. All I needed to do was work out where to see them. Berlin again would have been cool, but the tickets were savagely expensive. Paris was easy to get to, but the tickets sold out there within hours. Poland? Couldn’t find cheap flights. Norway? The tickets there were twice the price of even the Berlin ones. Spain or Portugal? Somehow the concept of Rammstein in sunny southern Europe seemed strange to me, but in fact, the cheapest tickets on the tour were those for the opening night in Lisbon. I bought my tickets and began to anticipate. I hadn’t been [...]
Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
As my bus rumbled in through the suburbs of the capital I spotted a sign that said the temperature was 28°C. I spent my last day in the city enjoying the incredible heat wave. I walked out to Seltjarnarnes, the tip of the peninsula that Reykjavík sits on. I wanted to go right to the end, but it’s a nesting place for thousands of very aggressive birds. I suddenly found myself in a Hitchcockian nightmare and had to beat a hasty retreat as terns and gulls started swooping at me. I could see Snæfell across the bay again. The snowy peak rose from the waters and stood out sharply against the deep blue sky. Once I was out of range of the bird attacks I looked across the bay and wondered when I was going to go there. There was not much left to do. I went to the Hallgrímskirkja and went up its tower, but it was covered in hoardings and the views were poor. I sat by the Tjörn for a while and looked back on another incredible trip. I watched the sun dip below the horizon at 11.30pm. And in the morning I packed up and left.
Jul 03, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I got up the next morning to find thick fog enshrouding Kulusuk. As I packed up my tent, I heard the plane from Reykjavík approaching, but I couldn’t see it. Then suddenly it passed breathtakingly low over my campsite. I saw the dark shape and heard a huge roar, but not long afterwards, I heard it again much higher. I packed up and walked across the tundra to the airport. The fog was still thick, the plane had still not landed, and there was an air of slight tension. It had been circling for more than an hour by the time it landed, and there was relief in the airport as it finally pulled up at the terminal. The most relieved people were a huge group of Greenlandic children, who were clearly going on a big trip to Iceland. We all boarded, the Greenlanders were waved off by their families and I looked back at the snowy landscape and bade farewell to this incredible place. Barely two hours later, we were back in Reykjavík. Coming from London, Iceland feels pretty remote. Coming from Greenland, I had the sense that I’d crossed an enormous but invisible boundary, leaving behind a place [...]
Mar 29, 2009 in Madrid 2009
After four days at ESAC, I spent the weekend in the centre, staying with a friend who had just started a post-doc here. Normally one of the things I like doing best in Spain is going to clubs and coming out after the sun has risen, but I was still recovering from my double jetlag and went for some quieter pursuits. We went to the Reina Sofia and saw Guernica, handily avoiding a heavy downpour. And we went to a cinema, where we discovered that in Spain they skip the trailers and start the films when they say they are going to start. Then we made an early start on a Sunday to see what was going on at El Rastro, the famous flea market. We spent a while wandering through the busy streets. There were a lot of stands of DVDs and CDs of dubious provenance, and also some more unusual things like furniture and antique stands. It was sunny but a chilly wind was blowing, so after we’d bought a few things we took refuge in a cafe for some churros con chocolate. I almost got caught out by the hour changing. It’s happened to me before: coming [...]
Mar 26, 2009 in Madrid 2009
ESAC was a good place to work. It was way out in the countryside, peaceful and sunny, and they supplied enough coffee to keep me happy. I got into a nice routine of walking from where I was staying on Santo Domingo up via San Bernardo and a few cafes to the bus stop on Alberto Aguilera. Mornings were healthily punctuated by coffee breaks. Afternoons were a bit trickier, with large and very cheap lunches being followed by a long session of hard core data reduction. By the end of the day I was normally flagging severely, falling unconscious on the bus back to Madrid and having to revive myself with more strong coffees on the way back down to Santo Domingo.
Mar 25, 2009 in Madrid 2009
After two days of workshop there was an early finish, and I was back in Madrid by 4.30pm. I’d last been here almost eight years ago, staying here accidentally on the way to La Palma. That time, I’d only just got back from adventures in Africa and so being in Madrid having only just got back from somewhere felt like a familiar state of affairs. In 2001 I had only had time for a quick wander around the city centre before shipping out to the Canary Islands. I’d been to the Plaza de España, and I went back there now with a copy of El País. In the years between my two visits to Madrid I’d spent four months in South America, made four more visits to the Canary Islands, and five to the mainland. My Spanish was definitely better than it had been the first time around. I practised by reading the paper.
Mar 24, 2009 in Madrid 2009
I arrived back at Heathrow from the US at 9am, looping around London and flying over Wembley, UCL, the Thames Barrier, a block of flats in Rotherhithe that I used to live in, the Wheel and Parliament. But this was no homecoming. I hung around at Terminal 3 for a couple of hours and then it was time to head off again, this time to Madrid. During my three days on the other side of the Atlantic, I’d been waking up at 3 or 4 am, and definitely hadn’t got over the jetlag. Coming back so soon, I thought perhaps it would all cancel out and I’d feel fine. But I think actually it just doubled everything. I sleepily found my way out of Barajas airport and into town. I had no time to recover. I was here to learn how to process data from the Herschel satellite, and the workshop started at 9am. Not only that but it was 30 miles outside Madrid, and the bus left at 8am. Not only that but I was staying about 20 minutes walk from where the bus went. So at 7.15am I headed out into a sunny morning to find my way. [...]
Mar 18, 2009 in United States 2009
I headed for the Sears Tower, no longer the tallest building in the world but still the tallest in North America. There were almost no queues, but still it took me a long time to get to the top. For some reason they insist on everyone watching some promotional video before they’re allowed to get to the lift. And then they tried to take a photo of me to superimpose on some cheesy view. This happens in all sorts of places, and I can never really believe that anyone would actually buy the photos. I waved the photographer aside and strode through to the lift. It was an overcast, dull day. Chicago looked very yellow, and stretched away out of sight in all directions, except to the east where Lake Michigan stretched out of sight. There were not many people on the viewing platform. I got into a conversation with someone, who asked me whether I knew what a particular building was. I didn’t, and presumed he was not from around here. He turned out to be a DJ from Texas and we talked about music for a while. He asked me if I was from around here, which surprised [...]
Mar 18, 2009 in United States 2009
Arriving in a North American city with a few hours to kill between flights is quite a familiar experience for me. I’ve done it in Houston, New York and Miami, and now it would be Chicago. I got into trouble at immigration. I thought I might do – my passport has been through some rough times and is battered and fraying. But that was fine. The problem came when the immigration officer asked me what the purpose of my visit was. I wasn’t exactly sure what to say – I’d come for a conference but that was only one day, and then I would have two days free. On the green form I put ‘tourism’. “What is the purpose of your visit?” asked the officer. I began to explain my situation. I was tired and I rambled. He cut me short. “What. Is the purpose. Of your visit. Sir?”, he said, angrily. “Work”, I said, and he looked at me with disgust, crossed out what I’d written on the card, stamped my passport and waved me through. I got a train into the centre of Chicago, and wandered around aimlessly. I’d seen ice in Lake Huron as we flew in, [...]
Feb 28, 2009 in Grenoble 2009
Feb 17, 2009 in Belgium 2009
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 probably has a good chance of lasting for more than a decade and a half. Arriving at the station at night is definitely impressive.
Feb 17, 2009 in Belgium 2009
I stopped in Brussels on my way back home from Leuven. I got off in the centre and went for a quick look at the Grand Place, and I was going to walk down to Midi station but decided against it when it started raining heavily. I walked back to Brussels Central and got a train down to the grim part of town that contains Midi station.
Feb 16, 2009 in Belgium 2009
I went to Belgium for work. I don’t think there are many other reasons to go. I’d been to Brussels a few years ago, and not really found a whole lot to divert me. This time I went to Leuven, which was more interesting. But it was February, and it rained more or less constantly during my stay.
Jan 22, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
I’d passed through Tenerife a couple of times on my way to and from La Palma, and I’d often seen the peak of Teide from 90 miles away at the Roque. I finally got to stay on the island when there was a scientific meeting there that I needed to attend. For my first trip to La Palma in 2001, the flights had cost a staggering £600, and that was via Madrid and Tenerife. Since then, the budget flight revolution had taken place, and this time I got a direct flight to Tenerife for a sixth of that. I made my way to La Laguna, in the north of the island, and spent three days there. Most of the time it was misty and cool. It had been 23°C in the south but La Laguna was uphill and inland, and this was typical January weather.
Dec 07, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
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 not outdoors but 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. If it looked ugly from far away, it was much more of a work of art when seen up close. I took photos as the clouds raced overhead.
Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
In 1989, as revolutions swept Europe and the continent changed forever, I was too young to know what was going on. But I did remember hearing certain places mentioned on the news, and Wenceslas Square was one of them. It had been the focus of the so-called Velvet Revolution, with hundreds of thousands of people gathering there as the communist regime fell. I wouldn’t really call it a square. It’s more just two roads running either side of a central reservation that you can walk in. When I was there, the square was lined with markets and filled with tourists. I had walked past the top end of the square on my epic trek from the centre to my hostel, and now I walked back up to the top, knowing now which way lay endless suburbs and which way my hostel was.
Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
I walked up to the castle. I was liking Prague in every respect except for how everyone else was liking it at the same time as I was. The streets heaved with tour buses and camera-laden tourists, and I wished I’d come here first in my European travels, instead of last. My dad travelled here in the 1960s, and it must have felt like a different universe back then. I walked through the castle grounds, barging through hundreds of tourist photographs. Still lacking any consistent sense of what was where in this city, I headed haphazardly back towards the old town. My sense of direction failure meant I ended up crossing a busy road to get back to the river, and so finally I reached a spot where there weren’t many tourists around.
Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
Who really counts Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino as proper countries? Their only purpose is to take up the bottom spots in world cup qualification groups so that no-one else ever has to finish bottom. As such, when I visited the Czech Republic, I considered that I had then been to every country in Europe. Normally when I turn up in an unfamiliar city, I can find my way about pretty quickly. For some reason in Prague I never really got my orientation sorted, and had a ridiculous time when I arrived trying to find my hostel. I got a bus into town easily enough, and walked to the station, but then it all went wrong. I went into the station so that I could follow directions from the relevant exit, only to get lost in its empty cavernous halls, and then to find that the relevant exit was locked up. I found my way back out, through a window in a deserted corridor, and set off in search again. I ended up walking for about an hour, exploring many parts of Žižkov and Karlin, before I finally managed to get to the hostel at 2am. I got up [...]
Oct 20, 2008 in Estonia 2008
It was sunny again the next day. I got up early and got a colossal espresso in a coffee shop on Raekoja Plats. I’d enjoyed my walk into town from the airport so much that I walked back out again. Surely by getting to and from the airport under my own steam I had offset the CO2 emissions from the flight…
Oct 19, 2008 in Estonia 2008
It was just about dark when I got back into town. I headed back up Toompea again, hoping that the CD-selling giant would not be there this time so that I could enjoy the views at my leisure. Luckily he wasn’t. With clouds breaking up to reveal a deep blue sky, it was perfect photography weather.
Oct 19, 2008 in Estonia 2008
I met up with an Estonian friend in the evening. We went to a restaurant in the old town with a mediaeval theme, and one of the things on the menu was bear. I’ve been a vegetarian since I came back from South America, but I like to make the odd exception for cultural experiences. I hadn’t had any culinary cultural experiences since I’d eaten shark’s stomach in China in April 2007, so I decided it was about time. I really enjoyed it, the only problem being that not having eaten meat for so long, I didn’t have any reference point to compare the taste to. The next day it was warmer, cloudier and calmer than it had been. I decided to go to the KUMU art gallery, and followed signs from the city centre. It took me about an hour, and was quite a nice walk at first, with views through the woods to the Baltic, but later the route went through a muddy car park onto a back road. I worked out later that I’d walked four times as far as I needed to – there was a pedestrian short cut I could have taken that would have [...]
Oct 18, 2008 in Estonia 2008
Continuing my quest to mop up by the end of 2008 the last few countries in Europe that I hadn’t been to, I went to Estonia. As so often, I’d got a ridiculously early flight, and had got up at 4am. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that I’d gone to bed at 2am. I arrived in Estonia feeling exhausted. And then I waited ages for an airport bus to come, but none did. My guide book said it was only 3km from the airport into the city, which I wasn’t sure I quite believed, but I decided to set off anyway. I could always get a bus from another stop. In fact the guidebook was right. It was a beautiful autumn day and I enjoyed the walk through the industrial suburbs. In town, I headed for Toompea. In the sunshine, the city looked pretty amazing, with its red roofs and picturesque spires, one of which used to be the tallest structure in the world. I was enjoying the views when a giant Estonian accosted me. He must have been 6’8″, and was wide with it. He looked extremely eccentric, with wild hair blowing in the wind from the [...]
Sep 21, 2008 in Slovakia 2008
When I’d walked out of my hostel on my first morning in Bratislava, I’d seen a monument on a hill a little way from the city centre. It had the look of a Soviet war memorial about it, and I decided to head up there to have a look. The more I travel in Europe, the more I realise how devastating the Second World War was. The scale of it is just unbelievable. Rovaniemi at the edge of the Arctic was razed by retreating Germans at the end of the war; outside Riga, 100,000 people died; at Babin Yar, the Jews of Kiev were murdered in one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust. Warsaw, Belgrade and Berlin were reduced to rubble. And here was another memorial to some of the millions of people who died. And yet not even a human lifetime later, one-time enemies are united in the European Union. Slovakia was shortly to adopt the Euro. As I walked around the memorial in the drizzle, I thought that if there is one thing that shows how even the greatest horrors can be overcome, it’s the state of Europe today.
Sep 20, 2008 in Slovakia 2008
In the morning it was raining. I walked into town and sat in a cafe for a while, enjoying a spectacularly large espresso. When it began to ease off, I went up to the castle to see what the views were like. Bratislava is not much of a beauty. The old town is nice, but it’s small, and the rest of the city is an ugly sprawl. Nowhere is it uglier and more sprawling than Petržalka, across the river from the main part of town. From the castle, I could see a terrifying expanse of concrete blocks, stretching away into the distance. Built in the communist era, the blocks looked the very epitome of housing in an authoritarian state.
Sep 19, 2008 in Slovakia 2008
After my travels in the Balkans, there were only a few countries left in Europe that I hadn’t been to. Slovakia was one of them, although I’d tried to come here before. In January 2007, I had a trip booked, but then there were catastrophic delays in the Stansted Express and I missed the flight. So I felt like this was unfinished business, and I was in a good mood as we landed at Bratislava airport. I got into town late. I went for a walk, and the city was quiet. I found my way down to the banks of the Danube, the great river that I’d seen for the first time only a few months earlier in Budapest. It flows right through the centre of Budapest, and feels like the artery of the city. Here it was on the outskirts of town, and felt like a backwater. A freight boat glided silently by in the darkness.
Jul 22, 2008 in Balkans 2008
We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Ioannina itself, but we had a look around the Mediaeval fortress, and got a boat to the island in the lake and explored that. The town was the last stronghold of local legend Ali Pasha, who went rogue and declared his own personal fiefdom, ending up holed up in a small house on the island, where a crack squad of Ottomans eventually turned up to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
Jul 21, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I felt pretty sure I was the only traveller in Gjirokastra. I didn’t see anyone else foreign-looking, and I seemed to be the only person in the place that I stayed. I headed for the castle, and on the way got into a strange conversation with an old man. He spoke Italian, and the best I could do was reply in Spanish. But we chatted for a little while. He said he was 70 years old, and lived in one of the very highest houses in the city. He sparked up a cigarette and set off up the hill. I went on to the castle. It was supposed to be closed, but the two ticket sellers were just relaxing outside enjoying the views, and waved me in. And it was awesome. The castle was huge and crumbling and a lot of it was totally unrestored. I picked my way down corridors with walls that had fallen in, and at one point a bat flew past. It was very atmospheric. Eventually I found my way to the roof, and watched the sun set over the mountains. A warm wind was blowing down the valley, and the city looked amazing. On the [...]
Jul 21, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I got a bus to Gjirokastra. This first involved finding my way to the right bus station, no easy task in Tirana. My first guess was wrong, and I had to take a taxi to the right one. The driver was very friendly and told me long rambling anecdotes in Albanian. I didn’t understand a word but laughed with him as he seemed to be enjoying the stories. On his radio, incredible atmospheric Albanian electro-folk music was playing. Just as his story ended, with him saying “(something in Albanian)…Deutschland….(something else in Albanian)… Holland!!” and roaring with laughter, we pulled up at the bus station. It was a hot morning and nothing much was happening. The bus was supposed to leave at 10, and at 9.30am I was the only person on it. I had visions of Zambia, and wondered if the bus would leave before noon, but it left at five past. We rolled out of Tirana, and before very long we were in hilly bunker-strewn countryside. At a rest stop somewhere in rural Albania, one of the other passengers said to me “You’re not from around here, are you?” He spoke excellent English, having lived in London for many [...]
Jul 20, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I tried to get a bus to Struga but it was too full, so I grabbed a taxi. It was a good move – the driver was very friendly and spoke some German, so we had some broken conversation. He was an Albanian Macedonian, and had spent some time working in Munich. He was happy that people were visiting Macedonia but quite shocked when I told him I’d only been in the country a few days and I was leaving already. He told me all the places I should go if I came back. At Struga I got a bus to Tirana. On board were an Australian family, the children born in Australia but the parents born in Albania, and returning for a family wedding. I chatted to them on the way. They were very good company, combining Australian outgoingness with extreme Balkan hospitality. They’d brought a mountain of home-made food with them for the journey, and insisted that I share it. I was very well fed. We crossed the border. It turned out there was a one euro fee for any non-local to enter Albania. I didn’t have any Euros with me, but the Australians helped me out. As [...]
Jul 17, 2008 in Balkans 2008
Early the next morning I walked down from Velania to Priština’s train station. I’d checked it out the day before, and found that one train a day left from here to Skopje, at 6.24am. The station was tiny and grotty, and I did not have any particular faith in the timetable. But I got there at 6.15am, after a nice walk in the dawn light through the deserted city. And the train left exactly on time. I was the only person on board. The train wound its way through southern Kosovo, through impressive forested valleys and alongside rivers. Only an hour and a half later, we were at the Macedonian border. I got no Kosovo exit stamp, but luckily I got a Macedonian entry stamp. I also made the acquaintance of an elderly Albanian man, who appeared at the door to my compartment carrying immigration forms and passports for himself, his wife and his daughter. For a moment I thought this might be because he was illiterate; in fact it was because all the forms were in Macedonian and English only, despite the large Albanian minority who live in the country. I filled in all the forms, and we all [...]
Jul 16, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I didn’t have too long to spend in Prizren. The last bus back to Priština left at 6pm, and I didn’t want to get stranded. So I hurried into town, not knowing where I was going because the map in the guidebook didn’t say where the bus station was. But I found my way, and before too long I was in the historic centre of this Turkish-influenced town. It was the usual Kosovan mixture of upbeat and depressing. The town centre was busy and lively, and cafes overflowed with people. Impressive Ottoman buildings lined the streets. But right in the centre there were burned-out buildings, and up on the hillside an ugly scar of abandoned houses showed the ethnic conflict that still existed. Kosovo had been overtaken by violence in 2004, and Prizren had suffered. The remaining Serbs had more or less all abandoned the place, and their empty houses remained. I sat by the almost-dry riverbank for a while in the warm sun, but soon my time was up. I got a bus back to Priština as the sun was setting over the hills of southern Kosovo. As usual, free sweets were handed out, and I decided that this [...]
Jul 16, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I got a bus to Peja. It was not a long run through the Kosovan countryside. We passed a lot of memorials to fallen KLA fighters on the way, all with the Albanian flag flying over them. Half-built houses seemed to be everywhere. It was hard to tell if they were ruins being rebuilt, or just haphazard new construction. As we headed towards Peja, someone came around the bus to collect tickets, and also to hand out sweets, which I thought was very cool. In Peja I had thought I might go to see the Patriarchate of Peć, an orthodox monastery outside town which is supposed to be very impressive. I walked through the city, along Tony Blair Street, and out towards the monastery. Ahead of me, the fantastically named Accursed Mountains looked gloomy and forbidding, their peaks wreathed in cloud. But my plans were soon thwarted when I reached the Italian KFOR post which protects the monastery from Albanian harassment. They asked to see my passport, then searched my bag. They said they’d have to take my camera, and apologetically removed it. Then they decided that actually they’d have to take my whole bag. Even if I just wanted [...]
Jul 15, 2008 in Balkans 2008
The journey to Kosovo was exhausting. The bus had come from Ulcinje, and it was full of rowdy young Kosovar holidaymakers. One of the two bus drivers was the spitting image of Lloyd Bridges. I had met a Dutch traveller as we were waiting at the bus stop, and after we’d boarded Lloyd Bridges spoke to a couple of people who gave us their seat. I didn’t want any kind of special favour like that, but no-one spoke English and I didn’t quite understand what was going on. Then, about an hour later we stopped at a service station, two young Kosovars came up and angrily shouted at us. Lloyd Bridges was nowhere to be seen and neither of us knew what was going on, but it was clear that the two guys wanted our seats. We could hardly argue, in the circumstances. I ended up sat in the stairwell. The lights were on all night, music played, and I thought about the various crazy bus journeys I’ve done in various crazy parts of the world. In the middle of the night we sailed across the Montenegrin border without stopping. We paused briefly at the Kosovan border, but to my [...]
Jul 12, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I got a bus to Herceg Novi. As we drove out of Mostar I watched ruined buildings passing by, and thought that this town was one of the most shocking places I’d been. The rebuilt bridge and amazing Turkish quarter bustling with tourists seemed to symbolise reconciliation and progress, but when every tenth building was a still a shelled wreck how could there be progress? Southern Bosnia was stunning and mountainous. The bus route went into Croatia, and the coast road was spectacular. For much of the way the road was high up in the hills, and it was like we were flying, with breathtaking views over the Adriatic. We passed through Bosnia’s tiny coastal strip, and stopped at a shop where they seemed much keener to accept Croatian kuna than Bosnian marks. Then we went back into Croatia again, requiring more passport checks. The battered and frayed state of my passport hadn’t caused problems until now but the Croatian guard looked very unhappy. He looked at it, and me, with slight disgust. “Did you vosh it?”, he demanded. But he let me through and the journey continued. We flew over Dubrovnik; the bus there from Mostar was considerably more [...]
Jul 10, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I got a tram from near Haris’s place to Sarajevo train station. It was in the newer, less fantastic part of town, with a large quiet square in front of it called “Srebrenica Massacre Square”. So often in Bosnia it was easy to begin to forget what had gone on during the 1990s, but there were always reminders. The train to Mostar was a few hours late. It arrived in Sarajevo at the same time as a train heading for Zagreb, and neither station nor train seemed to indicate which one was which. I got on the one that had come into the platform I was on, stood by the door in case I felt the need to jump out suddenly, watched the station recede and then uncertainly decided to take a seat. If I’d accidentally got the Zagreb train, then I would just go to Zagreb. Why not? There was only me and one other person in my compartment and I asked him, in a patronising traveller-style gesturing sort of way, if this was the Mostar train. He replied in normal English that it was. We started talking. He was called Sasha, and he was a Bosnian Serb, about [...]
Jul 08, 2008 in Balkans 2008
The next day, Haris took a few of us from the hostel on a tour around the city. It was another blazing hot day. I went to a shop to grab a bottle of water, and as I walked back to Haris’s van I got something in my eye. I thought nothing of it, and jumped into the van. Haris put a sign saying ‘pimp’ in the window, put Right Said Fred loudly on the stereo, and we drove off into the Sarajevo traffic. We went to the tunnel museum. The city had been besieged for almost four years in the 1990s, and the only way in or out was via a tunnel under the airport runway. Only a small section of it still remains. Walking down ten metres of it on a quiet summer day was fairly claustrophobic; it was hard to imagine how nerve-shredding it must have been to walk the entire 800m during wartime. We drove through the city centre, and stopped near the parliament buildings. The bright yellow Holiday Inn stood nearby. During the war, journalists based themselves here and the façade was covered in bullet holes. Buildings nearby were still pockmarked with war damage, but [...]
Jul 07, 2008 in Balkans 2008
The very word Sarajevo evoked sadness, to me, before I went there. It called back memories of seeing war, death and destruction on the TV in the mid-1990s. My recollections of the news from back then seemed to be mostly of bleak snowy scenes. To arrive on a blazing hot July day was to instantly dispel the preconceptions. We stayed at Haris Youth Hostel. There were many reasons that I liked Sarajevo a lot, and this hostel was one of them. Haris himself was a young eccentric. At the age of 15, when talking to his neighbour about what careers he might follow, the neighbour had suggested working in the tourist industry. Haris thought this was a good idea, and without telling his parents, he found hostelword.com, and listed the family home as Sarajevo’s first hostel. You’d have thought it would have been unbearably awkward when the first travellers turned up. Haris had a lot of explaining to do, but in fact his parents took it in their stride and joined in the fun. When we arrived, his mother ushered us in, brought us a cup of strong Turkish coffee, and we knew that we were welcome in this city. [...]
Jul 07, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I wanted to get to Sarajevo at a reasonable time. This meant leaving Belgrade at the very unreasonable time of 7am. It was already hot when I got up, so it was very nice to be staying right across the road from the bus station. Four of my room mates from the hostel were getting an early train to Novi Sad for the EXIT festival, and we all headed across to the station. As we crossed the road, one of them, Will, spontaneously decided that with the festival not starting for a couple of days, he might as well visit Bosnia, so I had unexpected company for the journey. We sat at the back of the bus, and soon we were stifled by the extraordinary heat. After a couple of hours we reached the border and we were through quickly. The scenery in Bosnia was impressive straight away, with vivid green rolling hills and forests. We stopped at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and it was a relief to get off the roasting bus for a bit. As we got back on, we realised that in fact we only had to sit a few rows forward; it was [...]
Jul 06, 2008 in Balkans 2008
It was 7am and fearsomely hot. I found a hostel across the road from the train station. It didn’t look too nice from the outside, but as soon as I walked inside and found that it was air conditioned, I decided to stay. I slept for a few hours. When I woke up I had a pounding caffeine withdrawal headache, and I set off urgently to have a look around Belgrade. In the blazing sun I walked up to the Kalemegdan, the ancient fortress that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. In the park inside the fortress, I found someone selling coffee, and bought three. Nicely caffeinated, I was able to think clearly again, and I walked through central Belgrade taking in the atmosphere. I passed a bakery and grabbed a couple of bureks, a fantastic Balkan snack that I’d discovered in Zagreb five years earlier. The guy serving me jokingly said “15 dollars” when he realised I was foreign, and then short-changed me by 3 dinars anyway. In the evening there were more travellers at the hostel, most of them checking out Belgrade before they went to the EXIT festival. At the Kalemegdan earlier someone had [...]
Jul 05, 2008 in Balkans 2008
The train was about an hour late leaving Budapest. I’d been getting paranoid that I’d missed it. On board, it was busy, and when I bought my ticket there had been no mention of seat reservations, let alone sleeper compartments. I found my way to a six seat cabin, in which I met two Serbs going to Subotica, two English girls going to Novi Sad, and a Hungarian who got off somewhere near the border. I chatted to the English girls for a while, then slept very badly. When we got woken up for the borders I felt so tired I hardly knew what was going on, but the Serb official who stamped me in was as jovial as any border guard I’ve ever met. At dawn we reached Novi Sad. The English girls got off, and I had the compartment to myself. Dawn was breaking as we crossed the Danube, rumbling over a bridge that replaced one destroyed by NATO bombs in 1999. I slept until we got to Belgrade at eight.
Jul 04, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I’d wanted to go to Budapest for years, and had finally got there in February. Now, only a few months later I decided to go there again. I was planning to travel through the Balkans, and Budapest was a nice cheap place to get to, only a night train away from Belgrade. I booked to stay at the same hostel I’d been to before, and arrived two hours late with Wizz Air just as I had before. What was different, though, was that it was fearsomely hot. Last time I had slept terribly because I had a broken rib; this time it was because it was about 40°C in the room. I only had one day in Budapest. Last time, I’d failed to find the soundtrack to Kontroll, an amazing film described boldly as the best Hungarian film of 2004. This time I made it my first priority, and with some recommendations of record shops from Olga the hostel owner, I headed out into town. The second shop I tried had it, and for weeks after I listened to almost nothing else. I’d got what I came for, and so I went out to Keleti station to buy a ticket [...]
May 26, 2008 in Berlin 2008
The East Side Gallery is one of my favourite places in Berlin. The longest surviving section of the wall, it is covered in some pretty historic murals, originally painted in the heady days of November 1989, and it’s amazing to be able to see what a pathetically thin slab of concrete separated two different worlds within the same city. Sadly the murals are decaying. They were freshened up by the original artists in 2000, and so when I first saw them in 2002 they looked pretty good. By 2004 they were a bit rough-looking, and now in 2008 it was really depressing to see how awful they looked. In a city with no shortage of places to spray a bit of graffiti, I couldn’t understand why so many people would choose to spray it here.
May 26, 2008 in Berlin 2008
The next morning I walked via the Hackescher Markt to Alexanderplatz, then along Unter Den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. Beyond the gate, I walked along the giant Straße des 17 Juni to a Soviet war memorial. This was what used to be West Berlin, but throughout the cold war Soviet soldiers stood guard at the memorial. Two tanks either side of the entrance were supposedly the first two Russian tanks to enter the city in April 1945. It had been bright and sunny but today was grey and sombre. I walked on from the memorial up to the Spree, and then along by the river banks as far as Bellevue station. From there I decided to head back east, to Treptow and another war memorial. This one was far, far bigger than the one in the Tiergarten. The huge site was almost deserted, and the heavy skies gave it an atmosphere of sadness. The battle for this city was one of the bloodiest in history, and put an end after six grim years of war to one of the most horrific regimes in history. Berlin today is so exciting and dynamic that it seems impossible to believe what happened [...]
May 25, 2008 in Berlin 2008
I’d gone to the Hamburger Bahnhof last time I was in Berlin. To get there we had to go via the Haupbahnhof, which at the time was just an empty shell – a vast glass roof over bare platforms, cold and empty and dusted by winter snow. The station had been finished in 2006, and today in the hot May sun it was unbelievably different, now that it was full of shops, fast food stands, people, trains, and activity.
May 25, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Any great city has to have a great contemporary art gallery. Berlin has the awesome Hamburger Bahnhof, housed in a former railway station in the north of the city. I’d been there before in 2004, and found most things except the main exhibition of the moment to be impressive. It was the same this time, with huge amounts of space devoted to stuff by Wolfgang Tillmans, which I was mostly indifferent to. Once I found the parts that Wolfgang hadn’t filled with meaningless rubbish, there were some excellent things. One installation that I particularly liked was an almost entirely dark room, with just an incredibly faint image projected onto the far wall. You had to spent at least ten minutes in there before the point of it became clear, and I liked that. Re-emerging into the bright gallery, I needed another ten minutes to be able to see properly again afterwards.
May 24, 2008 in Berlin 2008
We’d come into Berlin during the week, hoping to have a bite to eat up the Alexanderplatz TV Tower, but it had been much too busy. We tried again this evening and managed to get in. It’s retro heaven up there, rotating slowly over this amazing city, in a very seventies-looking restaurant. We ate as well as we could afford to, which was not terribly well, and spun around for a couple of hours.
May 24, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Another new thing since 2004 was the Holocaust memorial near Potsdamer Platz. It had opened in 2005 after years of planning and disputes. On what used to be no-mans-land between east and west during the Cold War, 2,711 sombre stone pillars stand, some small, some large, none identical. We walked among them, and I felt that as a piece of art it was interesting, but it was not much of a memorial, with no signs, names, explanations or anything. It took us a while to find the museum below, and that put things right on the memorial front, with detailed and shocking exhibits about the horrors of Nazi Germany. The more I travel in Europe the more I appreciate what devastation this continent suffered, and how fortunate we are to have peace today.
May 24, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Berlin is probably my favourite city in Europe. I love the atmosphere of the place, heavy with history but so modern and forward-looking at the same time. This was my third trip, and the number of things that had changed since the last time were breathtaking. New buildings had gone up, old ones had come down, most dramatically the old GDR parliament building. The East Side Gallery was much more covered in graffiti than it had been, and the Dom seemed to have lost the very top of its dome. But towering above it all was the familiar sight of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower.
May 19, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Five months into 2008 and I was onto my fifth trip of the year. I went to Potsdam for a week to learn how to analyse a certain type of astronomical data. Unfortunately the weekend before was the Miglia Quadrato, London’s fantastic all-night treasure hunt. I spent a Saturday night driving around the City of London hunting for clues until 5am, grabbed a couple of hours sleep and then headed to Stansted for a flight to Schönefeld. I got an S-bahn into Berlin, then another S-bahn out to Potsdam, finally arriving at my hostel at 1am. Each day’s work for the next week started at 9am, and it took me until about Thursday to recover from the weekend. Working in Potsdam was pretty awesome. Each morning I would get up at 7am, wander up through Babelsberg via a bakery to buy breakfast and lunch, meet a friend from work who was also here for the week, and then walk up through fields and narrow lanes to the Astrophysikalisches Intstitut. The peacefulness was amazing, and I thought it was great for the week that I was there, but by Friday I was missing noise and bustle. We headed for Berlin.
Apr 21, 2008 in Sevilla 2008
We were keen to make Sunday night as large as we could, and we headed out to Calle Betis to see what was going on there. Not much, was the answer. Most bars were closed, and the only one we found that was open was extremely quiet. There were just some dodgy women from Gran Canaria who were about twenty years older than us and terrifyingly flirtatious. We decided to call it a night at about 1am. Outside, the clouds had cleared, and the moon was shining.
Apr 20, 2008 in Sevilla 2008
We had a fairly huge Saturday night out. In the classic Spanish style we didn’t go out until after 1am, and finally went to a club at about 4. By 5.30, though, the club was emptying a bit. The last time I’d been clubbing in Spain, in Santiago de Compostela, things didn’t get going until 5.30am. I asked the girl I was with if people were going on somewhere else. She looked at me oddly and said “yeah, home”. So Sevilla nightlife was not quite as ridiculously late-running as Santiago nightlife. But we were still tired the next day. We went to look at the Alcázar, but somehow got distracted and ended up in the cathedral. While we were there, another heavy rainstorm battered Sevilla. We stayed indoors until it had passed. It got a little bit sunny, briefly. We were just ambling around, with nothing particular in mind, and ended up sitting by the river enjoying the nice weather while it lasted. Soon, though, the palm trees were swaying in the wind, the skies were darkening and spots of rain started falling. It was time to head for bars again.
Apr 19, 2008 in Sevilla 2008
I went to Sevilla for a stag weekend. Most of the details will remain known only to those who were there, but when we were not getting up to the required stag do shenanigans, we did some sensible things. We went to see Sevilla play Almeria in La Liga, which was a fantastic game. We’d managed to get seats in the very front row of the stadium, for only 30 Euros each. When we arrived, it was a warm-ish evening, and as the teams warmed up, we thought we’d done pretty well. But then it started to rain, and it quickly turned into a monumental downpour. We soon abandoned our front row spots and headed for the covered part of the stands at the back. We ended up staying there for the whole match. I don’t know a huge amount about Spanish football but I was under the impression that Sevilla were a better side than Almeria. It was no surprise, then, that Sevilla dominated the first twenty minutes. It was a surprise when they scored an own goal at that point, and totally fell to pieces. Almeria went on to rip them apart, winning 4-1 in the end. Sevilla [...]
Apr 06, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
I’d really wanted to go and see the Giant’s Causeway while I was in Northern Ireland, but it was impossible to get there and back in less than about 12 hours by public transport. I had a ferry to take at 5pm, so I had to miss the causeway. I headed back across the Irish Sea. The ferry journey went quickly at first, and we had great views of the islands up the Scottish Coast. After about an hour we turned into Loch Ryan, and I presumed that we’d dock at Stranraer within a few minutes. But instead we began an unexplained tour around the loch, rotating around and around in the evening sun, within sight of the port. Eventually an announcement was made that due to tidal conditions we couldn’t dock yet, and we’d be hanging around for about half an hour. An hour later we had still not docked, and Stena had not seen fit to make any more announcements. Finally, an hour and a half late, we docked. The train to Glasgow had long since left, but Stena had organised a bus to Ayr. I had no idea where Ayr was but presumed this would be useful. [...]
Apr 04, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
I spent an uneventful week around the university, meeting other astronomers, giving a talk, watching friends’ talks, and checking out local drinking and eating venues. All my friends from UCL went back to London on the Thursday or Friday, but I wasn’t heading back until Sunday. I went out to explore the city properly on the Saturday, and headed out to the hub of Republicanism in Belfast, the Falls Road. Throughout my life, news had often been dominated by the Troubles. I’d heard so much about the terrible things that had happened in Northern Ireland. In the centre of the city, there was nothing to show what struggles the city had seen, but the Falls Road was a different matter. As I walked out of the city centre, past the Divis Tower where British army snipers once watched over the surroundings, the past became more and more visible. Soon enough, I was among the murals. Here, and on the protestant Shankill Road, there are a lot of murals. The murals began to appear when the Troubles started in the late 1960s, and thousands have been painted over the years. An old friend of mine is an authority on the murals, [...]
Apr 02, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
The train to Belfast looked very retro. It was busy but I got a window seat, and watched the Irish countryside pass by as night fell. It was raining heavily when I arrived in Belfast, and I set out grim-faced towards the university from the station. Luckily the rain soon stopped, and I found my way to the city centre, which was empty and quiet, and then to the hostel I was staying at, just across the road from Queens University.
Mar 31, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
By the time we docked in Dublin it was cold and raining. There was snow on the hills along the Irish coast. I got a bus to the centre of town, where I had a couple of hours to kill before the Belfast train. I walked along by the Liffey, took a few photos and felt like I’d seen pretty much all there is to see in Dublin on my previous two trips here. I walked up to Connolly station and got on the train heading north.
Feb 24, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I walked back down Andrássy út, taking a right to head towards Nyugati station. I didn’t have much time left in Budapest, and I wanted to try and get hold of the soundtrack to Kontroll. But I was out of luck – none of the shops in the huge shopping centre by Nyugati station had it. I would have to come back. My flight was not until the morning, but it was leaving at 6.30am, so rather than pay for another night in the hostel and get up at 3am, I decided to go and sleep at the airport and get up at 4.30am. I got a late train out to Ferihegy, but when it got to the station I almost didn’t notice. We stopped for only a few seconds, and by the time I’d spotted the sign and got to the door, the train was already accelerating rapidly. I had to make a split-second decision – jump or not? I jumped, landed with a jolt but intact, and didn’t even have to do the combat roll I’d been planning mid-air. It was an uncomfortable night at the airport. Sleeping on a hard bench would have been tiring even if [...]
Feb 24, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I crossed back over to Pest. It was a warm sunny afternoon, and I walked the long, long walk along Budapest’s grandest street, Andrássy út, out to Városliget, Budapest’s largest park. I bought some bread and cheese on the way, and had a picnic lunch in the middle of the park. It was so nice and relaxing out here that after lunch I fell asleep, only woken when a spider ran across my hand.
Feb 24, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I went out to a club with some people from the hostel. It was fun but I had to leave after an hour: I’d broken a rib playing football a few days earlier, and the music was loud enough that every beat was giving me chest pains. I went home and slept badly, not realising at the time that my rib would be painful for weeks. The next morning I went to Gellért Hill, which towered over the south end of the city just across the river from my hostel. At the top, in the warm morning sun, I looked out over Hungary and thought I would never get bored of going to new places.
Feb 23, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I walked back along the Pest embankment to the hostel I was staying at. I stopped at a cash point, where I made a major miscalculation of the exchange rate. Pressing the number 0 one too many times, I found myself carrying over three hundred pounds worth of forints. Unaccustomed to carrying this much cash, I hurried nervously back to the hostel, where I eyed my fellow travellers with suspicion and paranoia. As night fell I headed out to take night photos. As I got to the river bank, the sky was deep blue, Castle Hill was lighting up, and the city looked good.
Feb 23, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I walked north, to Margaret Island. There in the winter sun I watched the heavy river traffic churning past on either side, as hundreds of joggers pounded the trails through the woods. I walked back to Pest, via a graffiti-covered underpass.
Feb 23, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I crossed over from Pest to Buda, and walked up Castle Hill. It was windy, but only on the Buda side. Looking back over to Pest I was sheltered by the castle. A contender for my favourite film of all time is Kontroll, which is set on the Budapest Metro, and before now much of my notion of what the city would be like was based on the film. But Kontroll is filmed entirely underground, so from up here on the hill I was developing an entirely new perspective.
Feb 23, 2008 in Budapest 2008
At the start of 2008, there were only a few European countries I hadn’t been to. My aim for the year was to go to them all, and I started off by visiting Hungary. I’d wanted to go to Budapest ever since I was very young, because I grew up in a town on the Thames with an identical bridge to the Széchenyi Bridge over the Danube, but somehow after years of travelling in Europe I didn’t make it to here until almost the end. On my first morning in Budapest, I headed for the river. Soon I caught sight of the bridge I’d known about for years, and it was strange to be in Eastern Europe with such a familiar sight. As I walked across it, I kept on expecting to see people I’d known when I was young.
Jan 21, 2008 in Sweden and Denmark 2008
We’d been hoping for a good night out in Gothenburg, but it was a Sunday and the only place that looked lively was charging 100SEK to get in. So we had a quiet evening, a bite to eat in a fantastic cafe on Haga Nygata, then some drinks in town. We spent a lot of time in Gothenburg in funky little cafes – it’s that kind of town really. Compared to the first time I’d visited, it was far warmer, and it was nice to walk around without feeling exhausted by cold. Canals that had been frozen solid last time were flowing now, and parks that had been buried by snow were grassy. We ambled around town, moving from cafe to cafe, enjoying the vibe. We decided we’d have to come back here in the summer.
Jan 20, 2008 in Sweden and Denmark 2008
Early the next morning we headed north again, to Gothenburg. We’d both been here before, five years earlier, and really liked it. That time, the city had been covered in thick snow. Now, it was just cold, so not as picturesque, but still it was great to be back. I love the atmosphere of Gothenburg – to me it feels small enough to be really friendly, but large enough to have a lot of interesting things going on. We walked through the centre, just about remembering where we were going, and eventually found our way via Haga Nygata to the Slottskogen hostel we’d stayed in last time. We headed up to Skansen Kronan for some views over this great little city.
Jan 19, 2008 in Sweden and Denmark 2008
We’d originally planned to head straight for Halmstad, but we randomly decided we might as well stop off in Helsingborg to see what it was like. Sitting on an exposed bit of the Öresund coast, Helsingborg was being battered by violent winds when we arrived, and after a quick walk up to a park overlooking the town, we retreated inside a cafe to avoid dying of exposure. After a few restorative espressos, we decided to head on to Halmstad.
Jan 19, 2008 in Sweden and Denmark 2008
It’s only 20 minutes on the train from Malmö to Lund but even in this short time we managed to get told off. We hadn’t realised we were sitting in the quiet carriage until we were ticked off by a stern-sounding Swede sitting behind us. “Förlåt”, we said, and sat in silence until Lund. We stayed in the very excellent train hostel in Lund. I’ve travelled on so many night trains that I was conditioned into expecting it to rock about constantly, so I swerved erratically around to compensate for the non-existent motion as I walked down the corridors. Once we’d settled in there, we went out to explore the town. Eldrik didn’t really need to explore anything, he knew the town perfectly well having gone out with a girl who lived here, but I hadn’t seen it. In the evening we went out to a club called Sargasso. It was a Friday night but it never really got going. Every club I’d been to before in Sweden had been fantastic, so it was a bit of a shame that we picked a bad one here, but then in a university town, nothing much goes on when the students aren’t [...]
Jan 18, 2008 in Sweden and Denmark 2008
January 2008. Cold, wet, grey in London. Some might head south. Eldrik and I decided to head north, to colder, greyer, wetter Sweden. Eldrik’s been to Sweden about a million times; this was only my fifth trip there. We met at Stansted on a Friday evening, and flew to Copenhagen. A quick trip across the Øresund took us to Malmö, Sweden’s third city. This was my third visit to Malmö, after two earlier trips on hot sunny summer weekends. It was certainly different in the winter, but not as cold as I’d thought it might be. 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. On summer weekends it’s great to sit by the sea, with views of the mighty Øresund bridge soaring over the sea to Denmark, and the redeveloped Västra Hamnen, but in the winter there was nothing to keep us here once we’d had a quick look at the Turning Torso, the city’s new landmark and the tallest building in Scandinavia. We walked out to Västra Hamnen [...]
Dec 02, 2007 in Malta 2007
I wanted to go to Ħaġar Qim, supposedly one of the great ancient ruins of the world. It is thousands of years old, and shrouded in mystery, as the culture that built it later disappeared from the historical record. No-one knows whether they were wiped out by later invaders, or assimilated into their culture. So as it was only 3.30pm, when I spotted a sign saying “Ħaġar Qim, 4km”, I decided to follow it. I walked for an hour, and then decided the sign had been lying because I was clearly nowhere near it. I walked on, but by now the sun was getting very low, so when I came to a sign saying Ħaġar Qim one way, and Siġġiewi the other, I had to choose between going down unlit roads to get to ruins that were probably already closed, or going to a nearby town and getting the bus back to Valletta. Sadly I decided on the latter, and thought at least it was a reason to come back here. So I walked to Siġġiewi, got a bus back to Valletta, and then had a couple of hours to kill before I needed to head for the airport. I [...]
Dec 01, 2007 in Malta 2007
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 carless 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. There seemed to be a lot of [...]
Dec 01, 2007 in Malta 2007
From the docks, I walked up the steep streets into the centre of Valletta. It was now sunny and warm, and I walked south to the end of the city, with no particular aim except to enjoy the atmosphere. These ancient stone streets looked like they had hardly changed since the Knights of Saint John founded the city five centuries ago. At the east end of the city I found myself overlooking the entrance to the Grand Harbour, with the fortified cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa, and Senglea on three peninsulas across the water. Near by were the Lower Barrakka Gardens, and I sat in the gardens watching the busy activity in the harbour for a while.
Dec 01, 2007 in Malta 2007
I walked down to the sea. It was grey and overcast, but out in the distance I could see blue skies, and they were gradually coming closer. I walked along the coast, around to the shores of Marsamxett Harbour. Across the water, I got my first sight of Valletta, with the skyline dominated by the vast dome of the Carmelite Church. Ferries were scurrying back and forth across the harbour, and given that this part of Sliema was incredibly ugly, while Valletta looked beautiful from here, I thought I’d better head over. I got on the next ferry, and a few minutes later I was in one of the most atmospheric cities in Europe.
Dec 01, 2007 in Malta 2007
I arrived in Malta very late one Friday evening in December. I was looking for better weather and longer days than you find in London at this time of year, and I found both. We flew in over the rooftops of Birżebbuġa, landing just too late for the bus to Valletta. So, with a couple of Australian travellers, I got a taxi to Sliema, where I was going to stay in a hostel. I got dropped off on the sea shore, and walked through quiet streets up the hill to the hostel. In the morning, it was warm but overcast. On the top floor of the hostel I found three great things: first, an espresso machine. Second, a machine dispensing Kinnie, Malta’s most popular indigenous soft drink. And third, a view over the white stone buildings of Sliema. I got as much as I needed of all three, and then set out to explore.
Sep 18, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
I walked from the palace all the way down Bulevardul Unirii, which was another of Ceauşescu’s grand projects and is a few metres longer than the Champs-Élysées. Apparently some historic parts of the city were bulldozed to make way for this, but despite this I quite liked it, probably because I was again reminded of Beijing, and of Chang’an Avenue which carves through the city and which also sits on top of a lot of history. Fountains lined the street, making the hot day seem a little bit cooler, and trees kept it shady. I ambled along, enjoying the stern but grand atmosphere of it. All too soon it was time to leave. I should really have sacrificed a lazy day in Braşov for a more active one in the capital, but it was too late to worry about that now. I bought a snack from a shop and then got on the airport bus to Otopeni airport. It took me past lots of things I’d have liked to see properly, and I thought I’d probably like to come back to Bucharest. But all there was left to do now was allow myself to be relieved of a shocking number [...]
Sep 18, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
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 well believe it – after a hot walk in blazing sun to Bulevardul Unirii I found myself in front of the huge squat white building and 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 punishing 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, when Europe changed so quickly and so spectacularly. 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 [...]
Sep 17, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
It was hot and humid in Bucharest, and I stayed in a hostel above a really sleazy nightclub. I went for a late night walk around the city when I arrived. I’d read about Bucharest’s amazing stray dog problem before I came, and when I’d arrived on the night train from Chişinău I’d seen a few running about on the tracks. Now, in the quiet city at midnight, I was a bit worried about walking down some dark streets. Often there would be a bark from the shadows, and occasionally a dog would run past. There are 300,000 stray dogs in Bucharate, apparently, and they bite about 50 people every day. They are supposedly the result of Ceauşescu-era redevelopments of housing, in which people were moved into higher quality housing but not allowed to take their pets with them. Ceauşescu was very fond of vast building projects which saw historic parts of Bucharest and other cities razed to the ground and replaced with communal housing or government buildings. But I managed to avoid getting bitten by the dogs of Bucharest, and I thought the city looked pretty impressive in places. It slightly reminded me of Beijing in a way, with [...]
Sep 14, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
At Bucureşti Nord station I said goodbye to Cristi, bought a strong coffee for breakfast, and then got on the first train to Braşov. The train was far nicer than the average British medium-distance train. I found a window seat on the top deck and sat back to enjoy the ride. A lot of the Romanians crossed themselves as we pulled out of the station for the three hour journey into the heart of Transylvania. We rolled through Bucharest’s northern suburbs under deep blue skies, and before long hills were rising from the plains. After an hour or so we were in the forested Bucegi mountains, where wild bears still roam. Rocky peaks towered over the train lines and although I was tired from the overnight train journey, I didn’t want to miss the scenery by sleeping. A couple of hours later we arrived in Braşov. I liked the town straight away. The air was cool and fresh, the sun was shining, and the atmosphere was friendly. I spent a day ambling around narrow streets lined with grand old buildings, and took a cable car to the top of Mount Tâmpa. The mountain towers over Braşov, and once you’re up [...]
Sep 13, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
After a couple of days I’d pretty much covered Chişinău, and so I walked down to Chişinău’s grand main station and bought a ticket for the night train to Bucharest. The train was quiet and I thought I might get a compartment to myself, but a few minutes before the train left someone joined me. When the train left at ten past five, I spent a while looking out of the windows at the beautiful Moldovan countryside rolling by in the evening sun, and then I got talking to my travelling companion. He was called Cristi, and luckily he spoke quite a lot of English. He was Romanian but married to a Moldovan, and he said he thought Moldovans were friendlier and more honest than Romanians. It turned out that he was on the first stage of a journey to Italy, where he was planning to work for at least a year. Romania had been a member of the EU for nine months and he was taking advantage of the free movement of labour that this brought. But I felt sad for him that he was leaving behind his wife, and didn’t know when he would see her again. As [...]
Sep 13, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
A slight problem in Moldova was that none of the cash machines seemed to accept foreign cards. Luckily I’d taken some cash with me, and I had enough to cover a few days in Moldova. When I tried to change my notes at a bureau de change near where I was staying, I ran into problems caused by not having crisp new banknotes. I’ve always heard that this can sometimes be a problem but had never experienced it until now. Luckily the owner of the bureau was very friendly and spoke excellent English. “I’m really sorry”, he said, “but the central bank charges us 15 per cent of the face value to change damaged notes”. The only note I had that would pass muster was a 50 dollar bill, so I was definitely going to have plenty of lei left by the end of my stay. I chatted to the currency man for a few minutes. He asked me what I was doing in Moldova, and seemed very surprised that I was just on holiday. I asked him if he could recommend any places I should go and he said he really couldn’t think of any. When I pushed him [...]
Sep 12, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
At the town of Bendery, just before the border with Moldova, two young Pridnestrovians had got on the bus and sat next to me and Carlos. We spoke to them in a strange mixture of English and French, not finding much common language in either but still having a friendly conversation. When we got into Chişinău they showed us to a currency exchange booth so we could get some Moldovan Lei, and called a taxi for us to get to a hostel. A short drive through the dark and potholed streets of the city took us to a place near the centre. That night a huge thunderstorm rocked the city. I lay awake listening to the rain lashing down, and got up late the next day as a result. Having gone for a short walk through the city centre in the dark when I arrived, I set out for a longer explore, through the city centre parks and past the plain-looking cathedral. Carlos had gone to find a different place to stay, not being much impressed with the hostel, but I soon bumped into him in town. We were both taking a photo of the presidential palace on the main [...]
Sep 11, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
So with our time extremely limited, we hurried off down Lenin Street into town. We passed Kirov Park, and soon reached Ulitsa 25 Oktober, the main street. Tiraspol is no beauty, that’s for sure, but it had quite a likeable atmosphere, and no-one seemed too bothered by the sight of two obvious tourists taking photos of everything they could see. We didn’t really have long enough to do very much at all, but we did manage to buy some postcards, which I hadn’t expected to be able to do. I posted four later from Chişinău; only one ever arrived. We popped into a shop to buy some water and snacks. The ladies behind the counter thought we were very entertaining and made sure we bought locally-produced mineral water and a couple of freshly-baked cheesy doughy snacks. All too soon it was time to go back to the bus station for the bus to Chişinău. We spoke to Yulia again to thank her for her help. She told me her sister was working in London, and gave me her telephone number and a message to pass on. I promised I would and then said goodbye, sad to be leaving so soon [...]
Sep 11, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
One of my main aims on this trip was to visit the breakaway Republic of Pridnestrovie. I can’t even remember how I first heard of this place but I think I chanced across it on the web pages of Tan Wee Cheng. It’s a place which I think most Europeans would be surprised to realised they share a continent with, and I was sure that going there would be interesting. In 1990, revolutions had swept Eastern Europe, and the breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable. The part of the Moldovan SSR east of the Dniestr river (known in Russian as Pridnestrovie and in Moldovan as Transnistria) had always been predominantly populated by Russians, and they did not wish to become part of post-Soviet Moldova, so in September 1990, they declared independence from the USSR. A few months later in August 1991, Moldova also declared independence. Internationally, only Moldova’s independence was recognised. A brief war in 1992 left the situation unresolved but Pridnestrovie was de facto independent, and has remained so ever since. Information for travellers to the region is scarce but rumour had it that the state was a Stalinist nightmare, with officials watching the every move of outsiders, [...]
Sep 11, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
The next day there was a colossal cruise ship docked at the ferry port, and the city was suddenly full of elderly tourists puffing up the steps, and Filipino-looking crew members enjoying a few hours off their ship. I decided to go to the beach for the day. I headed out to Lanzheron Beach, which looked like a straightforward walk on the map but ended up being more adventurous than I’d expected. The map led me to what appeared to be some kind of old people’s home or health spa, and once I’d walked through the grounds of this I reached a high fence. There seemed to be no gate, and I didn’t feel like backtracking all the way to the main road, so I scaled it and jumped over. Then I just had a ten minute walk through some quite thick woods until I found the beach. Lanzheron Beach looked like it had seen better days, and this year’s season was clearly over. Most of the bars and restaurants lining the promenade were closed, and only a few people were around. I paddled in the Black Sea briefly but thought that given the proximity of the port and the [...]
Sep 10, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
I felt like I was missing a lot of Ukraine by getting night trains, but then if Ukraine is known for anything it’s for being flat. I woke up to find the sky blue and the Sun blazing over green plains. Soon the suburbs of Odesa were appearing, and we arrived on time at 8.48am. I bought a coffee at the station and then walked into town. Odesa seemed very laid back after Kiev. The pace of life seemed relaxed and slow, and I wandered fairly aimlessly. I soon reached the famous steps, which were not nearly as dramatic as I expected. I thought I probably needed to have watched Battleship Potemkin to fully appreciate them, and wrote a note to myself in my journal that I should buy it when I got back. At the bottom of the steps was Odesa’s ferry port, jutting out into the vast Black Sea. I was vaguely thinking of getting a ferry to the Crimea, because everyone who’d been there said it was awesome, but my plan was quickly scuppered when I found that the ferries had stopped running at the end of August. It meant I had a good reason to come [...]
Sep 08, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
On my final day in Kiev the temperature had dropped more than 20°C. It was cool and a persistent 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. The cathedral was built in the 11th century, and is one of Ukraine’s outstanding monuments. It cost a couple of hryvnia to go up the bell tower, and I headed up to the heights for a great 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. [...]
Sep 07, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
The next day I visited this part of the city again, but the sunshine had gone and the city was swathed in mist. I got the metro to Arsenalna and walked through the park to Rodina Mat. It was a Saturday, and there were large numbers of newlywed couples near all the statues and war memorials, having their photos taken. I spent a long while looking around the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. All the text was in Ukrainian but by the end I was glad of this, having been spared a full understanding of the horrors of what happened in the USSR during the war. Back outside, the mist had cleared and it was another fearsomely hot day. I set off towards Druzhby Narodiv metro station but I took a wrong turn somewhere. Instead I ended up walking a very long way up and down hills and through random suburbs of Kiev, until I chanced upon Pecherska station instead. On the way, a couple of people had stopped me to ask something, and both had seemed very surprised that I wasn’t Ukrainian. I felt that probably in a few years time, Kiev would be well on the way [...]
Sep 06, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
The next day was hot again. My first target was to buy a train ticket to Odesa, a task made much easier through being accompanied by April, a traveller from Australia who I’d met in the hostel. At the train ticket office, we wrote out our ticket requirements in Cyrillic and joined a queue. As we chatted, a lady in front of us asked us if we would like her to help us buy our tickets, and she turned out to be a lifesaver. Both the trains we wanted (mine to Odesa and April’s to Lviv) were full and we’d have struggled without a Ukrainian-speaker to help us book alternative trains. Our trains sorted, we headed out to see more sights, and we took the metro to Dnipro station. The metro cost only 50 kopeks, or about five pence, for a ride, and it was almost as grand and impressive as Moscow’s. Dnipro station was near to the Pecherska Lavra, a monastery founded around some caves in 1051 and regarded as Ukraine’s most important sight. We bought candles and wandered through the caves, passing coffins containing the mummified remains of long-dead monks. Then we walked along to a more modern [...]
Sep 05, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
It was hot and sunny when we rolled into Kiev the next morning. As soon as I walked out of the station I liked the city. It was instantly reminiscent of Moscow but at the same time obviously less huge and intimidating. I walked out of the station on Komintern Street, found a hostel and then set out to explore. In Lviv, there had been no supermarkets – at least, none that I’d managed to find. There were only small grocery stores where it was quite difficult to buy things because most of the produce was kept behind the counter, and I didn’t know many Ukrainian words for food beyond kleb for bread. But outside my hostel here was a huge and well-stocked supermarket, and that made me like Kiev even more. I bought an ice cold drink and walked up Shevchenka, a sloping boulevard lined with grand buildings. This led me to Kreshchatyk, the main street, and on to Maydan Nezalezhnosti. This square, the heart of Kiev, had been the focus less than two years previously of the Orange Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people protested rigged election results, sweeping Viktor Yushchenko to power in place of the pro-Russian [...]
Sep 04, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
The next day it was raining heavily. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Ukraine had been in the grip of a fearsome heatwave with temperatures well over 40°C, but it had clearly broken now. Lviv in the rain was not quite as enchanting as Lviv in the sunshine, and I decided to book a train to Kiev for that evening. To do this, I went to the ticket booking office in town, and reused a method which had worked a treat when I was in Moscow – I wrote down my destination in Cyrillic, the time of train I wanted, and the word for ‘sleeper’, and handed it over. The woman behind the counter passed back a demand for a modest number of hryvnia, I handed it over, and I got a ticket for the night train to Kiev in return. The train was at 10pm so I had all day to kill. I met Johan and Brianna for lunch, which we had at a curious place that Johan had wanted to try out. It was called Kupol and the decor was pure 1930s. It was like having tea round a very old person’s house. But the food was cheap [...]
Sep 03, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
We arrived in Lviv in pitch darkness at 4.45am. I hardly remember arriving as I was tired beyond belief, but I know I found my way to a warm waiting room with my two travelling companions, Johan from Sweden and Brianna from the US. We slept in the waiting room for a couple of hours, before heading into the city at about 6.30am. As we walked out of the station the sky was just starting to get light. We didn’t really know which way town was, but we guessed that it would be in the direction of the impressive church spires we could see down the road, and we headed off. Our instincts were right, and after about twenty minutes we found ourselves in the centre of town. I found a hostel and straight away went to bed. I woke up much refreshed at 2pm, anxious to get out and see the sights. It was a warm afternoon and I headed out to Svoboda, the main street, to check out the atmosphere. Then I walked up to the historic centre, Ploshcha Rynok, and looked around there. In the evening I met up with Johan and Brianna for a meal. The [...]
Sep 02, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
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. After a brutally early start to my day at Heathrow, I arrived at Frédéric Chopin International Airport in the early afternoon, found my way into town and got off the bus at Warszawa Centralna to find the Palace of Culture and Science towering above me. It was good to be back in Eastern Europe. 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. Warsaw makes me feel slightly melancholy. It lacks soul, and the reason it lacks soul is that it was utterly destroyed in the Second World War, after its inhabitants were let down in their uprising by the Red Army, which stopped its advance a few miles short of the city as the [...]
Aug 05, 2007 in Barcelona 2007
We went to a club at Tibidabo in the evening, and stayed there until it started to get light. We watched the sun rise from the roof of Sam’s apartment block, then set off in search of the classic Spanish way to end a great night out – churros con chocolate. But maybe it’s just not a Catalan thing, because we couldn’t find any. Disappointed, I went back to my hostel and slept. I got brutally awoken after a couple of hours, having already missed the checkout time. We went to the beach in the afternoon. Having already had one attempted pickpocketing, and knowing the reputation of the beaches, I stayed paranoid and alert despite my tiredness. We managed to catch the sun for a few hours and not lose any of our possessions. In the evening I headed for home. I got the bus to Girona, arriving there just as the sun was setting. I could barely walk by now, I was so tired. Barcelona had been a fun trip.
Aug 04, 2007 in Barcelona 2007
From one Gaudí masterpiece to another, 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.
Aug 04, 2007 in Barcelona 2007
I went to Barcelona to visit my friend Sam who was working there. I got into the city late on a Friday night, and Sam and a bunch of other friends were at a bar in town. As I walked onto the platform of a metro station, someone tried to pickpocket me, and the Catalan capital was living up to its reputation. Luckily the would-be thief decided not to steal my printed-out boarding pass, which was all there was in the pocket he chose. I found my friends and went out for drinks until 3am. The next day we all met up late in the morning, and headed for Parc Güell. You can’t escape Gaudí in this city, and Parc Güell is one of his many masterpieces. The park itself is impressive, and because it’s on a hill overlooking the city, the views are also worth catching. The disadvantage was that it was a long steep walk to get there, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to the blistering heat. There was a shop on the way doing a roaring trade in bottles of water just slightly colder than the ambient temperature, and I gave him some business.
Jul 09, 2007 in Portugal 2007
I had a quiet time in Porto. It seemed quite empty most of the time, and I just wandered around enjoying the tranquil atmosphere. The main blight was the beggars, of whom there were many. The contrast between the wealthy and the less wealthy parts of the city was quite stark. Disaster almost struck on my way home. As I waited to board the flight, an announcement was made that the plane had hit a bird on its way in to Porto, and would need checking. Apparently someone needed to come from Lisbon to do the checking, which seemed crazy. The word was that we could expect to be here for at least five hours. I didn’t quite know what to think when after just 45 minutes, they said that in fact everything was fine and we’d be on our way. It was good not to be delayed, but was our plane really safe? Well, we didn’t crash, so I guess it was.
Jul 08, 2007 in Portugal 2007
I went to the beach. I was hugely disappointed to find that there was a street circuit in the suburb of Matosinhos which had hosted a round of the World Touring Car championship only the day before. I walked along the beach, watching the waves coming in off the north Atlantic. It was cooler now with a strong wind blowing, and sand whipped around as I walked along. Large ships were passing by off shore, on their way to and from a nearby container port.
Jul 07, 2007 in Portugal 2007
I was oddly reluctant to go to Portugal. In South America, I’d only spent three days in Brazil, confused by the way Portuguese looked quite similar to Spanish but sounded incredibly different. I felt like I should have been able to understand it, but I couldn’t. So although I’d been to Iberia many times, I’d never been to the Portuguese bit before. And my trip started with confusion. I had slept at Stansted, which is always a horrific experience, so I was probably too tired to work out the metro system properly. I managed to buy a ticket that wouldn’t take me all the way into the city, so I got off at Fonte de Cuco. The ticket machine there wouldn’t take my notes, and so I walked through the suburbs in the hot sun to Senhora da Hora. Once I’d made it into town I walked down to the river, where the red roofed bairro of Ribeira climbed up the hills on the Porto side. The buildings looked crumbling and poor here, and there were a lot of beggars around, and yet the streets were characterful. Underneath Eiffel’s massive Ponte Dom Luis, I walked up a street down which [...]
Apr 26, 2007 in China 2007
In the evening I took a tram up to the Peak. At the top was one of the most horrifically commercialised places in a horrifically commercialised city – a towering arcade of shops and cafes, which it took ages to climb through to get to the viewing area. And I was not the only one to make the trip up. Hundreds of eager photographers were jostling for position as the sun set and the city began to look spectacular. Politeness was not rewarded and so after a while of trying to take photos through the sea of heads and arms, I elbowed my way to the front and took in the view for a while. Eventually I was barged aside and shoved towards the back again. Despite the crowds, the view was pretty breathtaking. The scale and energy of the city was something to behold, and the forest of skyscrapers looked incredible as it lit up. I had never had a particular sense of urgency about visiting Hong Kong and had only come here as an aside to my China trip. But now I was here, I was loving it. It was like nowhere I’d ever been before. It was [...]
Apr 26, 2007 in China 2007
Back in Hong Kong, I went for a walk around Hong Kong Island. I took the awesome set of escalators from Central to the Mid-Levels, a good twenty minute ride. Then I wandered slowly back down towards the harbour. I passed the Man Mo temple and had a look in. It was a sunny day outside, but in the temple the atmosphere was choking. Hundreds of incense coils were burning, and the air was dusty. Only a few shafts of sunlight found their way into the darkness. A few people were making offerings to the effigies of Man the god of literature and Mo the god of war. It reminded me a bit of when I visited San Simón in Guatemala. I couldn’t stay inside for long. I took a few photos which came out blurred, came out gasping for fresh air, then went back in for another try. I got the picture I wanted, left a small offering to the local gods, and then headed on.
Apr 25, 2007 in China 2007
I got a ferry to Macau. As I boarded at the Kowloon ferry terminal, I noticed a sign saying “Dumb walkway swaying. Passengers up-and-down be careful”. Normally I think it’s a bit churlish for foreigners to mock the “Chinglish” which is quite common in these parts. After all, our languages are radically different, and it’s just nice for English-speakers to have signs approximately understandable, especially when most of them don’t speak a word of any Chinese language. But this one was a classic of the genre and I liked the implication that the walkway had its very own obstinate personality, swaying despite clear instructions not to. It was a wet squally day, but I was still disappointed that there was no deck to go out and stand on as we powered across the Pearl River Delta. We docked at Macau just after midday, and it began to rain as I walked towards the centre. Soon it was wildly torrential downpour, and as I took refuge in the doorway of a megacasino I chatted to two passing Bangladeshi students visiting from Shenzhen. Eventually the rain eased off, and I headed for the Fortaleza da Guia, a Portuguese fortress on the highest [...]
Apr 24, 2007 in China 2007
Hong Kong was nearly a disaster. I walked through the clean and airy Hung Hom station, found a cashpoint and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. I searched around for a lost property office, working out what kind of a plan I might have if the wallet was lost. I was imagining a frugal few days of walking around the former colony eating a slice of bread once a day, but luckily when I found the office, they radioed the train and someone found my wallet on the floor of my compartment. I would have like Hong Kong anyway, but having seen my trip come back from the brink of disaster I was in an excellent mood as I walked out into Kowloon. I headed for Nathan Road and the legendary Chungking Mansions, an incredible rabbit warren of restaurants, shops, currency exchanges and cheap accommodation. You can’t walk into the mansions carrying a rucksack and not get hassled by hotel owners, and I allowed myself to be persuaded into a place on the third floor. For a negligible cost I got myself a spot in a tiny airless room with two stainless steel traders from Bombay and a [...]
Apr 22, 2007 in China 2007
In the morning I was woken at 7am by a thunderstorm, and felt disorientated to find myself in a strange room. I couldn’t sleep, and no-one else was up, so I decided to just hit the road. I’d thought about heading out to the river to see if I could get a boat down to Shanghai, but with heavy rain falling I decided just to get a train. I got the metro to the train station, taking note of the signs instructing me to ‘wait in safe-line’ and ‘care the gap’. The station was a scene of chaos, and I felt that my lack of Chinese and shattered state was going to make things tricky. But the queues were fast moving, and the English-speaking girl behind the window sold me a ticket for a train leaving for Shanghai in ten minutes. I got on, found my way to a seat, and then slept all the way to Shangai, dreaming crazy dreams. It was 4pm when I arrived in China’s biggest city, and I hadn’t eaten all day. I got on the metro, assisted by a friendly local who I thought might be after a tip like the woman at Beijing [...]
Apr 20, 2007 in China 2007
Often when I revisit places I’ve been before, I somehow find it difficult to see anything new. It’s too easy just to visit the familiar. I avoided that possibility in Beijing by leaving immediately after the conference. I took a very cheap flight to Nanjing. Lauren, who I’d met on the train to Istanbul a year earlier, was spending a year in China teaching English, and so I decided to spend a couple of days in Nanjing on my way towards Hong Kong. Nanjing was incredibly different to Beijing. It’s a city of 7 million people but still seemed quite small and manageable compared to the capital. And it is vastly more cosmopolitan, with a huge expat scene. I liked it a lot as soon as I arrived, because I managed to work out firstly how to get a bus from the airport to the city, and then more importantly, where to get off. I left myself with just a short walk down a leafy avenue to get to the university. I spent a day exploring the city. I thought I would walk from the university to Purple Mountain, which didn’t look far on the map, but turned out to [...]
Apr 18, 2007 in China 2007
I spent the summer of 2002 working on my PhD in the astronomy department at PKU in Beijing. I had an amazing time in China and so I was very happy when an opportunity to return arose – a conference to be held in the outskirts of Beijing. So, on a Sunday evening in April I headed to Heathrow to start my journey back to China. Disaster struck early in the journey. Although it was a Sunday there were a few thesis-writing PhD students in the office, and I got a call from one of them saying I’d left my laptop behind. It was too late for me to go back. I tried to persuade them that they could catch the Heathrow Express and get to the airport before me (I was taking the tube) and save me the embarrassment of turning up for my first ever conference talk without said talk in my possession. But they didn’t feel like racing across London on account of my forgetfulness, so I went to China without the main reason for my going. I was tired and jetlagged when I arrived in China. I got a taxi from the airport to the conference [...]
Jan 14, 2007 in Granada 2007
I went to have a look at the Alhambra, but I didn’t go in. I’d left it a bit late in the day, and anyway I tend to find historic buildings more impressive from the outside than from within. Remembering how I’d preferred Gülhane Park to the Topkapı Palace, and Jingshan Park to the Forbidden City, I checked out the massive building from the parklands surrounding it, and then headed back down into town. I went back up to the mirador de San Nicolás at sunset. I didn’t have long before my flight home, but I did have long enough to see the Alhambra lit up at dusk.
Jan 13, 2007 in Granada 2007
On top of the hill opposite the Alhambra was the mirador de San Nicolás. It was full of crusties, juggling, selling handicraft, smoking and chilling. I went up there one evening to take photos of the city at night, and while I was there, two policemen appeared and started to walk slowly across the square. Instantly the atmosphere turned incredibly hostile. All the crusties started jeering and whistling at the policemen. They didn’t seem to mind too much, and carried on strolling past. Shouts and boos carried on until they got to the other side. The square had been packed with tourists as well as crusties, but after the police had left, the tourists quickly dispersed. I left as well after it got dark, wondering what the history was. There must have been some reason for the tension but I had no idea what it was.
Jan 13, 2007 in Granada 2007
Before Christmas I’d gone to the Arctic Circle for a weekend. I’d had a great time, but after only three days, the lack of daylight got to me and I felt that I would slip into a morbid depression if I didn’t see the sun soon. I rebalanced myself by heading south after Christmas, to Granada. The air was cool and fresh when I arrived. It may have been winter but it was just about warm enough to sit outside, and so I explored the cafes of the town, sitting in pleasant squares. In the Albaycín, it was pricy but there were often views of the Alhambra on the hilltop across the Durro river. In the new town, it was cheaper but lacked anything picturesque to look at. I found my way to Plaza San Miguel Bajo. From here I could see most of the city, and the blue haze that was hanging over it. Being above the haze made my viewpoint seem rarefied and peaceful.
Dec 03, 2006 in Finland 2006
I got back to Rovaniemi at about 10pm and picked my way slowly through the icy streets to the centre of town. The youth hostel was supposed to have a sauna so I got myself a room there. Weirdly, the hostel itself was unstaffed and I had to get keys and things from a hotel about 10 minutes walk away. That just made it an even greater disappointment when, after I’d pulled yet more muscles in avoiding falling over during the walk to the hostel, there turned out not to be a sauna. Not only that but there appeared to be no-one else in the hostel at all. So, short of things to do, I went for a walk around town. If I couldn’t have a sauna I was at least hoping I might see the northern lights, for the first time since I was in Iceland seven years ago. There were some breaks in the cloud and the moon was appearing occasionally so I thought I might have a chance. But it wasn’t to be and I couldn’t see anything that looked like even a hint of aurora. As I walked slowly back to the hostel, holding onto walls, [...]
Sep 24, 2006 in Santiago de Compostela 2006
We had a fairly huge Saturday night out. Spanish nightlife is all about late, and Santiago’s is later than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s still the only city in which I’ve been outside a club at five in the morning, with people saying it was still a bit early to be going in. They were right as well, it was really quiet. But by six it was heaving. We left at 8am, had a breakfast of churros con chocolate, then crashed for a few hours. We didn’t waste the whole of the next day though. We decided to go up a hill near town and then walk back down. Forest fires had torn across much of Galicia during the summer, and from on the hill we could see the scorched swathes across the green hills. Dave said the scene had been apocalyptic, as fires burned on the hillside and thick smoke drifted through the streets. It was hard to believe anything could burn here, the amount of rain we’d seen. Today it was dry, though, and we ambled back towards town.
Sep 22, 2006 in Santiago de Compostela 2006
Until Dave moved to Galicia, I can’t honestly say that I knew that the region had its own language, and a strong feeling of distinctness from the rest of Spain. 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 was as interesting as its contents. Apparently it used to be a nunnery, and the nun’s dormitories were reached via triple spiral staircases, allegedly to confuse impure Galicians trying to visit the nuns during the night.
Sep 21, 2006 in Santiago de Compostela 2006
I’d left Sweden in July with barely enough money for a bus fare into town. After that I’d got a horrific temp job which at least got the cash flow going again, before with amazing luck and fantastic timing, I got a job back in astronomy. I could afford to travel again, and with John and Dan I headed to Santiago de Compostela to visit Dave, who I hadn’t seen since we were in Ecuador eight months previously. The first time I’d been to Santiago, it was stunningly hot. This time it was emphatically not. Rain lashed down for most of the time we were there, which was apparently more typical for Galicia. We spent a lot of time in bars.
Jul 10, 2006 in Denmark and Sweden 2006
I was right at the bottom of my bank balance, and I could only just afford to re-cross the Øresund to catch my flight home from Sweden. I had an afternoon to kill in Malmö, and I wandered out to Västra Hamnen, where upmarket new flats overlook the straits. New since the last time I’d been here was the Turning Torso, the new tallest building in Scandinavia, which spiralled up over the city and looked pretty impressive. I sat by the sea in the warm sun. I looked back over the past ten months, during which I’d been to South America, Bulgaria, Turkey, France and now here. It had been awesome, but I knew that there could be no more holidays for now. I was in urgent need of a job. As stormy clouds gathered over the Øresund, I headed for home.
Jul 08, 2006 in Denmark and Sweden 2006
In the summer of 2006 I was utterly broke. Since October 2005, I’d been travelling or dossing, watching my bank balance dwindling and living more and more frugally. Finally in June I got some temp work, but it was only for two weeks to cover for someone who was on holiday, and after than I went on holiday again. By July I was well into the red, but I had to go on one more trip: it was my birthday, and the last time I was in London on my birthday I fractured my skull, so these days I make sure I’m out of the country. I found some cheap flights to Malmö. I’d been there three years previously, so this time I went straight from the airport over the Öresund to Denmark. It was drizzling when I arrived, but by the evening it was clearing up, and I walked down to Nyhavn. The Copenhagen Jazz Festival was on, and at Nyhaven there was a New Orleans jazz band playing. In late evening sunshine, I joined the crowd lining the water’s edge and listened to the band.
Apr 03, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
I walked back to the train station and tried out some rudimentary Bulgarian to buy a train ticket back to Plovdiv. Obviously for this to work it required that the woman selling the tickets would understand what I said and not need any further information, but she said a whole lot of things, and then the word ‘putnichki‘ a couple of times. She wouldn’t sell me a ticket for the train I wanted, only for the next train after that. At first I was a bit annoyed but later I realised that ‘putnichki’ is Bulgarian for “deathly slow”, and she’d sold me a ticket for an express. It was leaving an hour later but it would arrive in Sofia an hour earlier. So I headed back to Sofia. The train journey was amazing, winding through a dramatic river valley. The villages we passed looked very ramshackle, with crumbling houses and horses and carts being common sights. We got back to Sofia at 9pm, and I needed some food. I just wanted some quick dirty snack, and I was a vegetarian in a meat-eating land, so this wasn’t straightforward. I came terrifyingly close to going to a McDonalds on Vitosha, but [...]
Apr 02, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
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 Plovdiv 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.
Apr 02, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
I got a night train back to Bulgaria. There were no fun people to share my compartment with this time, just an angry Hungarian who hadn’t much enjoyed Turkey and thought that more or less everyone had been ripping him off. The border crossing was quicker than it had been on my way into Turkey, and we were more or less on time when we reached Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, at 9am the next day. I met a Swiss girl in the restaurant car who was also going to Plovdiv, and we both got confused when the train stopped at a station in the outskirts of Plovdiv. We thought we needed to get off, but there was a very large woman with some very large bags blocking the exit, and the train only stopped for a few seconds. We thought we might not be stopping again until Sofia, but luckily we soon stopped at a much bigger station that was clearly Plovdiv’s main one. The station was still quite a way from the centre. I walked up Ulitsa Ivan Vazov to the central square, and without any particular aim in mind I strolled up the pedestrianised main street, eventually reaching [...]
Apr 01, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
By the time we left the Aya Sofia it was sunny again. John wanted to go to a museum, but I fancied some fresh air. I wanted to go to the Prince’s Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, but it took me too long to find the right ferry terminal, and instead I randomly decided to go to Üsküdar, back in Asia and at one end of the mile-long suspension bridge which crosses the Bosphorus. There’s not a lot to see in residential Üsküdar, so I just walked along the shores of the Bosphorus for a while, stopping occasionally for an ice cream. The waterfront was busy, and the views over to Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet were good. After a couple of hours relaxing in this relatively laid-back part of the city, I headed back to the bustle of Sultanahmet.
Apr 01, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
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 feat of engineering 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.
Mar 31, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
It was warm and sunny. I took a ferry from Haydarpaşa to Eminönü, and walked back over the hill to Sultanahmet. My main aim for the day was to buy a nargileh in the Grand Bazaar. It was blazing hot by the time I got there, so it was nice to be under cover. The bazaar was crowded, but not as much as I’d thought it might be. I headed deep into it, quickly getting totally lost. There were plenty of shops selling nargilehs, of course, but I was surprised at how little hassling there was. Shopkeepers were quite happy to let me just look at what they had, without rushing over to give me a sales pitch. I wandered deep into the bazaar. Eventually I reached a place that seemed slightly calmer than its surroundings, and there I found a shop from which a wizened old man emerged, and we started talking pipe. I’ve never been very good at haggling, but here I tried hard to get into the spirit of it and tried all the tricks. I found a pipe with a little dent on it, and suggested that was worth a discount. I said I’d seen a [...]
Mar 26, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
It was cold and grey in Istanbul. I walked from the surprisingly quiet Sirkeci station to Sultanahmet, and spent the afternoon having a look at some of the city’s famous places like the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. In the evening I met John at the hostel we were staying at, and we went out for a drink at a nearby bar. Here I had the first of many evening puffing on the waterpipe known in these parts as a nargileh, and in other middle eastern countries as shisha or hookah. The next day was much nicer. We went to the Topkapi Palace, from which Ottoman sultans ruled for centuries over a fractious empire which stretched from the Danube to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It was quite impressive but crowded with noisy schoolchildren. Better than the palace itself was the view from the hill on which it sits, over the Bosphorous to Asia. We had a strong Turkish coffee and watched ships passing through the straits while ferries crossed back and forth between the two continents.
Mar 23, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
I had got back from South America on the first of February, and had spend a very excellent 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 again. 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 [...]
Jan 31, 2006 in South America 2005
Early the next morning I packed up, said goodbye to Dave who was travelling on for a few more weeks, and headed for the airport. The last surprise of the trip was waiting for me – my flight to Miami would be twelve hours late. I was so psyched up for going home that this was a huge disappointment. I re-arranged my connecting flight from Miami to London, checked in my backpack, and trudged out of the airport, wondering how to kill 12 hours. I ended up spending a couple of them stood at the end of the runway, outside the perimeter fence but still spectacularly, perilously close to the jets taking off and landing. Standing about twenty metres behind a large plane taking off is something I highly recommend – I don’t know what I expected but I didn’t expect to have to hold onto the fence to stop myself being blown into the road. After that entertainment, I walked a couple of miles from the airport to the nearest Trolé stop, and headed back into the city. I found an internet cafe, sent messages to my family telling them I’d be 24 hours later than planned, wasted time [...]
Jan 29, 2006 in South America 2005
Quito was a strange place. We found a hostel in what seemed like a slightly rough part of town, but then more or less all of Quito feels like a rough part of town. Most people in the hostel had been robbed here, or knew someone who had been robbed. I really didn’t want to end my trip by getting mugged and so I felt slightly edgy and paranoid whenever we were out and about. Three months previously I’d been at the very southern tip of the continent, four thousand miles to the south. Now we were just a few miles south of the Equator, and we decided to go north for a day, to the markets at Otovalo. The bus from Quito took us through spectacular Andean scenery, and somewhere along the way we crossed the legendary line. I felt like there should have been some kind of ceremony, or at least an announcement, but I suppose there is little novelty in crossing the equator for an Ecuadorian. We spent a few hours in the Northern Hemisphere, shopping for souvenirs. It was pleasant enough, but I didn’t think Otovalo really compared to Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where I’d spent an [...]
Jan 12, 2006 in South America 2005
After another day of recovery in Arequipa, sleeping and eating and doing nothing else at all, I got an overnight bus to Lima. In the capital I was going to meet my friend Dave, who had decided that being an artist in northern Spain was lucrative enough for him to afford a holiday. He was going to be travelling in Peru and Ecuador for six weeks, and we planned to travel north from Lima to Quito, from where I’d fly home and Dave would head off into the jungle. During the night ride to Lima, I saw some spectacular coastal scenery. It was the first time I’d been at sea level for 35 days, and the air seemed thick and soupy. There is twice as much oxygen at sea level as there is at 5800m, and I could really feel it. In the morning we were near Ica, in the desert, and it was hotter than anywhere I’d been since San Pedro in the Atacama. We got to Lima just after midday, and although I’d heard many horror stories about fake taxis robbing tired travellers on arrival, I found a legit taxi and managed to get to a hostel in [...]
Dec 22, 2005 in South America 2005
In the end, to get from Potosí to Sucre I had to get a taxi, because buses were on strike indefinitely. I was sharing it with a traveller from the US, two Bolivian women, two babies and a dog, which made for a cramped journey. After about an hour and a half of good running on smooth roads through the mountains, our driver stopped to talk to someone, and got word that there was a roadblock of striking bus drivers ahead. We took to a side road to avoid it, and before long the side road became an axle-crunching bone-jarring mess of rock and gravel. Our driver was careful but the road was appalling. We bumped violently along it, occasionally hearing horrific grinding noises and once almost getting grounded on a large boulder, but after half an hour we suddenly rejoined the main road again, and arrived in Sucre about an hour after that, slightly bruised but happy to have made it. Sucre was a great place – a striking colonial centre, a friendly vibe, nice bars and restaurants and lots to see. Having fallen in love with api in Potosí, I found another Bolivian treat here – buñuelos, a [...]
Dec 08, 2005 in South America 2005
I got a bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, 1100km north and sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean. During the evening, at a stop somewhere in Chile’s wine-growing country, a man got on the bus selling small cakes, and I tried to buy a couple, but I didn’t quite catch what the price was and tried to pay with a note that was ridiculously too large for the transaction. He didn’t even try to explain – he just snatched back his cakes, threw my note back at me and stormed off the bus. Luckily, a friendly girl sat across the aisle from me shared her cakes with me, and told me that trying to pay for 50 peso cakes with a 5,000 peso note was not a good thing to do. We stopped at La Serena at midnight, and then I slept until dawn. When I woke, it was like I was in a bus on the surface of the moon – we were in the Atacama. Not a single living thing could be seen in the harsh grey rocky desert, and we were surrounded by brown hills which looked like lumps of plasticine dropped from a great [...]
Dec 06, 2005 in South America 2005
Before I headed towards northern Chile I spent a day in Valparaíso, Chile’s premier port city. On a blazing hot morning I got the bus there from Santiago and spent a fantastic day wandering around its colourful streets. I’ve rarely been to a city so atmospheric as this one, and I felt that the air was somehow heavy with history. The city sprawls over cliffs which rise incredibly steeply from the wide blue Pacific Ocean, so steeply in fact that roads are often impossible and the only way to ascend is via clanking ascensores, miniature funicular railways a hundred years old that feel like they might crash back down to sea level at any moment as they laboriously climb to the heights. I wound my way from one end of the city to the other, alternately ascending and descending. Up high there was a rarefied, serene atmosphere; down low it was non-stop bustle and activity, with just a hint of hostility. At the top of Ascensor Espiritu Santo I found Cerro Bellavista, where the houses reached new heights of colourfulness, and bright murals covered many walls. I found a cafe with a terrace, and enjoyed a long slow coffee looking [...]
Dec 05, 2005 in South America 2005
The train to Santiago was incredibly uncomfortable. I’d been tight and bought the cheapest ticket, which was for a non-reclining seat. It seemed to be designed so there was no realistic way of lying down or doing anything but sitting bolt upright, so I didn’t manage to get a huge amount of sleep. I quite liked the restaurant car though, where my ongoing efforts to become a vegetarian were again spectacularly thwarted. There was an extensive menu, and I asked for various likely things which proved to be unavailable, before the server said to me “Look, in fact all we have is steak, and you can have a large one or a small one”. Knowing about how South Americans describe steak, I ordered the small one, which when it came was spilling off the sides of the plate. It turned out to be horribly tasty. Having failed to sleep, I was in a bit of a daze when we arrived at Santiago’s Estacion Central at 7am the next morning. There were not many people in the huge airy station building, and it didn’t feel anything like as dodgy as big city train stations often do. I liked Santiago straight away [...]
Nov 09, 2005 in South America 2005
I had an awesome day’s travelling. I was up at 4.30am, and after a quick bowl of porridge I set out into the cold morning to catch the bus to Río Grande. Various other backpacked figures were emerging into the semi-darkness from hostels along the road, and we all trooped in tired silence towards the bus stop. A blazing sunrise was starting by the time we left for Ushuaia at 5.30am, and no clouds troubled the clear blue skies until the sun was setting 16 hours later. We stopped for breakfast at Tolhuin, on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego, and I got a coffee and a couple of empanadas. I watched the empty plains drift by as we rolled on towards Río Grande, spotting just the occasional guanaco or two. We arrived at about 9am, and caught a bus to Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan in Chile. This bus was largely occupied by a depressing group of about 20 fussy women and henpecked husbands, and as I was in a travel-snobbish mood I avoided letting any of them know I was English lest they talk to me. As we boarded the boat to cross the straits, [...]
Nov 06, 2005 in South America 2005
The next day I hiked up into the mountains outside Ushuaia, to see the Martial Glacier. I had my first real experience of how quickly Patagonian weather can change – twenty minutes after I set out in bright sunshine, I was struggling through a blizzard. Twenty minutes later it was sunny again. A few miles up the switchback road I reached the bottom of the trail, and set out into the forest. Half an hour up, there was a small cafe at a ski-lift station, and I stopped for a coffee as the blizzard briefly returned. Then, I climbed up to a viewpoint, where there were stunning views of the Beagle Channel and Isla Navarino, under bright sun. Heavy cloud was soon approaching rapidly, and I left the viewpoint for a quick look at the ‘glacier’. I am actually not sure whether I saw it or not – there just seemed to be a lot of snow at the top of the trail, and nothing that looked particularly glacier-like. Everyone I spoke to later who had been there agreed it was pretty rubbish, but it was still worth the trek up there for the views back down to Ushuaia and [...]
Oct 21, 2005 in South America 2005
It was a long drive through northern Argentina. Throughout the night a man a few rows behind me coughed flamboyantly, and the woman across the aisle couldn’t work out how to turn her reading light off. I dozed uncomfortably. When it got light, we were somewhere in northern Missiones province, and rain was lashing down. At about 7am we got to the border at Encarnacion and under heavy skies we got off the bus and trooped through immigration. I was the only foreigner on this bus, and so there was no-one around to consult with when, to my surprise, the immigration official put my passport in a box behind him and motioned for me to go on through. I walked off, bemused, hoping fervently that I hadn’t just badly misunderstood what was going on, and boarded the bus again. I was very relieved when the bus driver appeared with all our passports. We drove on into Paraguay. I had really wanted to come here because it’s such an obscure place that has no reputation at all as a travel destination, famed instead for its corruption, dictatorships, and forgiving attitude towards Nazi war criminals. For the first few hours I was [...]
Oct 19, 2005 in South America 2005
When I woke up in the morning we were flying over the delta of the Río Paraná, as it opens out into the huge Río de la Plata. It was a beautiful sunny morning as we touched down at Ezeiza airport. I got the first of what would be many Argentinian passport stamps and headed out into a new country. I’d made a major tactical error by not checking in advance how many pesos there were to the dollar. My guidebook was published before the collapse of the economy in 2001, and as far as it was concerned the peso was still tied to the dollar. None of the currency places seemed to have a written rate up anywhere, so I just guessed a likely exchange rate based on the prices of food in the cafes, got out a reasonable quantity of pesos and grabbed a taxi for the city. I stayed at the fabulous Sandanzas hostel in San Telmo, south of the city centre, where a coffee had always just brewed and the staff were always keen to help a traveller find interesting things to do. After a quick breakfast there I set off into the centre of the [...]
Oct 18, 2005 in South America 2005
It was a cool, foggy morning on 18 October 2005 as I left Ealing for the airport. I’d been packing until 4am, and then left the house at 4.30am, so I had a hard time at Heathrow stopping myself from falling asleep and missing my flight. I managed it though, and flew west. I was flying to Buenos Aires via New York, and I arrived at JFK airport in the early afternoon, refreshed after sleeping all the way across the Atlantic. My target, in the few hours I had, was the Empire State Building. I found my way to Howard Beach subway station and took the long ride to Manhattan. It was a beautiful sunny autumn day as I emerged at 34th St and Penn station to find the building right ahead, and I hurried to it. The queues were not bad, but made worse by the harassment from enthusiastic audio-guide sellers, falsely claiming that there were no information panels at the top to try and flog their gear. I brushed them aside, looked deliberately angry on the cheesy photo they take of every group going up to superimpose onto a fake view and sell at an exorbitant price, and [...]
Jun 18, 2005 in Santiago de Compostela 2005
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. We got to Santiago in the middle of the day, and seconds after leaving the plane, Dan had turned bright red. It was 38°C. Our main plan for the weekend was to go out lots. Our Friday night was quiet, by Spanish standards. 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. The done thing is to work your way along from Paris to Dakar, and we of course followed the local custom. At 5am we went to [...]
Feb 05, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
I wanted to go up the TV Tower in Vilnius. It looked like the views from it would be awesome, so I followed the instructions in my guidebook and got trolleybus number 7 from by the station. The windows of the aging machine were scratched and opaque, so it was a bit difficult to keep an eye on where we were as we rumbled out into the suburbs, but I kept on seeing the TV tower getting closer. After a while we seemed to be pretty close, and then the tower disappeared behind a hill. I thought the next stop must be where I needed to get off, but we drove on for what seemed like ages, and when I caught sight of the tower again and it was miles away. I got off, finding myself in Justiniškės. It was getting dark, and I was in a forest of Soviet-era tower blocks. There was no direct line from here to the tower, so all I could do was cross the road and get the number 7 trolleybus back into town. Later I found that my guidebook was wrong, and I needed bus number 7 as opposed to trolleybus number 7. [...]
Feb 04, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
I spent a day in Riga, keeping warm in cafes and visiting the moving Museum of the Occupation, which charted the horrors of life under the Nazis and then the USSR. Then I got a bus to Vilnius, which was a nice six hour journey through snowy countryside. Vilnius was incredibly picturesque but also incredibly cold. It reached -17°C while I was there, cold enough that when breathing in, I could feel the inside of my nose freezing up. The hostel I stayed in had a roaring fire which made it difficult to leave, but I managed to get out and explore. I headed up Gediminas Hill which overlooked the old town and was crowned by a tower built almost 700 years ago. On my first evening here, the sunset was spectacular, and I am sure I took some good photos, but sadly I sent them to Boots to develop, and they were never seen again. That is a lesson learned… I also went in search of the famous Frank Zappa statue. I had heard it was four metres high, so I thought it would be fairly obvious, but I managed to walk past it a couple of times before [...]
Feb 02, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
London winters tend to be nondescript. Snow is rare but rain is common. With Ryanair having just started flying to Riga, I headed to the Baltic states for a slice of real winter weather. I got to Riga late at night, and after I’d found a place to stay I headed out to explore. The city centre is ringed by parkland, and it was quiet and thickly covered with snow. In the dark winter night it was quite pleasant, and although the temperature was about -10°C it didn’t feel too cold.
Dec 20, 2004 in Berlin 2004
We went to West Berlin on our last morning in the city. The west got a bit of a raw deal when the city was divided, with most of the most historic and impressive parts of the city ending up in the East. We walked down the Kurfürstendamm from Zoo station and didn’t find too 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. On that sombre note we headed back east. We stopped at Hackescher Markt for a coffee and cake, and even in the middle of winter the square was busy and lively. 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. I hoped I would [...]
Dec 19, 2004 in Berlin 2004
We went to the Hamburger Bahnhof, a contemporary art gallery. To get there we had to go to via Lehrter Bahnhof, still under construction as Berlin’s new main station, and eerily large and empty. It was snowing heavily as we arrived. The gallery had some amazing things, and some stupid things, as is the normal way with contemporary art. Its main hall was filled with junk, literally and figuratively, but other parts had worthwhile installations. I liked the two large blocks covered in mirrors.
Dec 18, 2004 in Berlin 2004
The Rammstein gig was fantastic. Anticipation built up hugely before the start, and there was a massive roar from the crowd as five people with torches came on stage. Was this the band? No, it was just the roadies, hyping things up yet further. They wandered off stage as a bass note began to play. Then, a curtain dropped, fireworks exploded, and Rammstein appeared. It was a stunning start, and the rest of the gig was all flamethrowers, fireworks, and immense tunes. The next day we got up late. We had no particular plan in mind, and ended up going to the Dom. In the evening, it looked pretty impressive. Nearby was a Christmas market, where lots of hot food was cooking. We felt like a snack, and we found the mother of all snacks at a stand selling half-metre bratwursts. This had to be tried, and between the five of us we ordered a ridiculous two and a half metres of sausage. By about 20cm in I was feeling pretty full, and by the end I felt grotesquely stuffed. I didn’t eat again until the following evening.
Dec 16, 2004 in Berlin 2004
We went to the East Side Gallery. Two years ago, graffiti was beginning to cover the murals, and now it was a lot worse. But still it was an impressive place, and so strange to think that this thin piece of concrete divided a nation for so long.
Dec 15, 2004 in Berlin 2004
I’d passed through Berlin in the summer of 2002, on my way back from China. It had been hot, and amazing. Now I had to go back, because Rammstein were playing, and I had got hold of tickets. I knew what their live shows were like, and I was very excited. I had bought my flights months ago. It was freezing in Berlin when we arrived. Mist covered the city, and from the ground, the low sun was casting a shadow of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower onto the sky above. We went up the tower and saw the sunset shining through the haze. It was good to be back in Berlin.
Sep 26, 2004 in Stockholm 2004
Back at the hostel, there was an American in my room who fancied checking out a club, so we went to the Berns Hotel for a night out. Seeing new year in at Sturecompagniet the last time had been fantastic, but the Berns clientèle seemed a little bit less pretentious. The music was good, I met fun people, and all was good, until at 2am a fight kicked off near where I was sitting, and left someone unconscious on the floor. I decided to head home at that point. I went for a long walk the next day, from my hostel in Gamla Stan up Drottninggaten to a small park, then back down towards the harbour. I walked around Nybroviken, and across a bridge to Djurgården. It was starting to rain as I reached Skansen, and I got a boat back across the harbour to Gamla Stan. With rain now falling heavily, I spent the rest of my time in Stockholm in a cafe on Vesterlånggatan.
Sep 25, 2004 in Stockholm 2004
As evening arrived I got a bus from Sergels Torg to Kaknästornet. I’d been there last time as well, enduring a howling gale at the top which probably gave a wind chill temperature of about -30°C. This time it was a cool autumn evening, and I watched the dusk fade and the city lights come on.
Sep 25, 2004 in Stockholm 2004
In 2003 I’d been on 12 holidays. 2004 was going much more slowly: by September I had only been abroad three times, and they’d all been to Italy. A three month post-PhD period of voluntary unemployment from March until June had been fantastically relaxing, but having no income did have an impact on my travel plans. By September I’d been working for the Home Office for three months and I could afford to hit the road again. I flew to Nyköping early on a Saturday morning, and got to Stockholm at about midday. The thing that was amazing straight away was that I could walk around without risking frostbite. On my first visit here it had been -17°C but today it was 30 degrees warmer than that. It made for a very different atmosphere. All the waters of Mälaren were liquid, there was no snow, and I didn’t need gloves or even a hat. I went to a lot of places that I’d been to before, just to appreciate them in warm weather. I walked from the station across to Gamla Stan, and then south to Södermalm. I got the Katarinahissen lift up to the heights, and looked back over [...]
Dec 11, 2003 in Pisa 2003
Heavy winter skies were breaking up at dusk, as we walked from the tower back to the station. The town away from the Campo was much nicer, and we stopped at a great little pizza restaurant for some dinner. When we got to the Arno, the skies were velvety blue and the town looked nice.
Dec 11, 2003 in Pisa 2003
Another weekend, another trip to Italy. This time, we spent the day in Pisa, a pleasant town ruined by its tower. 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 place that Pisa is famous for – the Campo dei Miracoli. And there it was, the tower that everyone has heard about since they were tiny. And it leans at an astonishing angle – a ridiculous, crazy angle that seems physically impossible. But the number of tourists, even on a chilly December day, made it not particularly enjoyable for me. What was good, though, was that this was that this was my twelfth holiday of 2003. After a splurge on cheap weekends 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 holiday 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 [...]
Nov 30, 2003 in Helsinki 2003
We went to a club on the Saturday night, and got back to the hostel at about 3am. In the hostel there was a sauna, available from 6am until 8am, and me and Moh decided to get up early to take advantage. A few trips between the sauna and the cold showers were a great way to start the day. We got a ferry across the harbour to Suomenlinna, a fortress on one of the many islands. Before Finland was a part of Russia, it was a part of Sweden, and the fortress is still known to Swedes as Sveaborg (Swedish fortress) instead of Suomenlinna (Finnish fortress). Ignoring the politics of the situation, we wandered around the island. It was grey but not too cold, and we sat outside watching boats coming and going for a while. Looking back to the skyline of the city, it was surprising to see so many Russian-influenced buildings. I later found out that during the Cold War, Helsinki was often used in films that required a Russian-looking backdrop.
Nov 29, 2003 in Helsinki 2003
Kiasma was great. We went there after the Uspensky Cathedral, and on a cold wintry afternoon it was a warm place to be. Generally with contemporary art galleries I find that I think about a third of it is a complete waste of time, a third I am more or less indifferent to, and a third I really like. Kiasma pretty much followed the rule. The exhibit that impressed me most was one that I initially put into the first category. It was a darkened room, containing a chair, a table, a lamp and a mirror, and that was it. “This is rubbish”, I thought, and I was about to walk out in disgust. But then I thought that surely there had to be more to it. This couldn’t be as banal as I thought it was. At the entrance to the darkened room there had been a sign saying do not touch or move any part of the installation. And then I twigged – the mirror was not a mirror but an opening into a second room, which was an identical mirror image of the first room. I was impressed. The illusion was so convincing that even once I’d [...]
Nov 29, 2003 in Helsinki 2003
Trip number 10 of 2003 was to Finland. As my desire to go to parts of Europe further afield was increasing, so was Ryanair’s, and when I saw that they had started flying to Finland, I decided it was time for me to head that way as well. I went with John and Moh. For no clear reason, when we arrived in Tampere, the immigration formalities were desperately slow. For about an hour the queue inched forward, frustration boiling over among some of the passengers. When we finally got to the end, completely inexplicably John and Moh got Finland stamps and I didn’t. I felt robbed as we got the bus into Tampere, and then found our way onto a train to Helsinki. There was snow on the streets of the capital when we arrived. The morning was grim and cold, and we wandered from our hostel towards the city centre. The first thing we passed was the Uspensky Cathedral. I had been pretty ignorant before coming here of how closely linked Russia and Finland were. Finland had been a province of the Russian Empire until 1918. Inside the cathedral, it felt like I was back in Russia.
Nov 16, 2003 in Hamburg 2003
I had an early flight back from Lübeck so I spent a night there. Hamburg had had an atmosphere of things happening – Lübeck had an atmosphere of nothing having changed for decades or perhaps centuries. I wandered around the streets of grand old buildings, and on a nicer day I probably would have quite liked the town. But it had been grey all weekend, and rain was now beginning to fall heavily. There was not much to do on a winter Sunday evening in Lübeck in the rain.
Nov 15, 2003 in Hamburg 2003
My flight to Lübeck was so early that my best option was to sleep at Stansted. My plan was that this would be a little bit less tiring than getting up at 3am, but then I met a fun bunch of people on the last train to Stansted, we played cards all night on the airport floor, and I was destroyed by the time I got to Germany. I stayed in a hostel in St. Pauli, overlooking the docks. It was grey and cold, and an icy wind was blowing off the Elbe as I looked over the huge expanse of cranes. The bracing conditions at least woke me up a bit.
Oct 19, 2003 in Florence 2003
My eighth holiday of 2003 was to Florence. We didn’t actually do a whole lot – it was raining most of the weekend so we barely left the flat. But we did manage to go up the campanile, as night was falling and the rain clouds were finally breaking up. I hadn’t liked Florence very much at all when we’d been here in the blazing heat of July, but now there were not nearly so many tourists, and in the rain the town had a whole different atmosphere. I began to see that it had a certain charm.
Jul 13, 2003 in Italy 2003
We spent the weekend in Perugia. Temperatures were climbing towards 40°C, and the sun beat down on the hilly town. The Perugia Jazz Festival was on, and bands were playing around the town. In the heat, it was difficult to do much except walk slowly from cafe to cafe, buying cold drinks, and stopping in shady squares to listen to music.
Jul 10, 2003 in Italy 2003
Once I’d seen most of the obvious sights in Rome, 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. It felt very peaceful in there, an oasis of calm inside this hot, noisy, busy city.
Jul 10, 2003 in Italy 2003
Europe’s massive heatwave of 2003 was just beginning to kick off. I got a night train to Rome and slept badly in a stunningly hot and airless compartment. I started the day tired, but I covered a lot of ground. I walked from the Coliseum, through the Forum, up to the top of the Capitoline Hill, past the absurdly grand memorial to Vittorio Emmanuele II, then down to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. It was probably a mistake to come to a very touristy capital city in the middle of summer: everywhere was swarming with people. It really seemed a bit surreal at the Trevi Fountain. It’s a nice enough fountain but it seemed weird to me that people were piling off tour buses to see it.
May 26, 2003 in Denmark and Sweden 2003
I felt like I’d been abroad for ages. We’d only been in Copenhagen for two days, but not having slept very much made it feel like longer. But the trip was coming to an end, and our flight home was from Malmö, so we headed back across the Öresund. Malmö is not nearly as fun as Copenhagen, and we didn’t do much except find our way to a coffee shop and chill out there. In the evening, Andrew left to get a night train to Berlin. He was just at the start of a longer trip. For me and Eldrik, though, this one was over. We got the bus to the airport, and headed home, shattered after a great weekend away.
May 25, 2003 in Denmark and Sweden 2003
The next day was so beautiful and sunny that we were up by 9am even though we’d only got in from the club four hours before that. With Shelley and Monica who we’d met in the club last night, we headed out in the direction of Christiania, a self-declared independent state which has occupied a former military barracks since 1971. Always teetering on the edge of a viable existence, Christiania has so far just about survived despite repeated government attempts to crack down on its various subversive habits. One of the main things that people have objected to is the open trade in drugs in Christiania. We wandered in to the free state and onto its main street, Pusher Street, and found a staggering quantity of hash on sale. Christiania is generally about love and tolerance and being free from unnecessary restrictions, but they definitely don’t love or tolerate the taking of photos on Pusher Street. Huge signs make this very clear. I kept my camera in my bag. We spent a long time in Christiania. It was a hot summer day, and the anarchic community was a good place to be. What I didn’t appreciate for a while was [...]
May 24, 2003 in Denmark and Sweden 2003
In the evening the plan was to go out. Andrew had slept at the airport too but he hadn’t had the day to recover that Eldrik and I had had. He decided to have a pre-going out power nap which ended up lasting for 14 hours. Eldrik and I hung around in the hostel for a bit, accruing a crowd of people who fancied some clubbing action. We headed to the bars of Nørrebro first, and then towards Rust, which we’d heard was the best club in Copenhagen. We got in with no problem, and it was fantastic. When we finally decided to leave at 5am, we emerged from the club to find that it was already daylight – the perfect way to end any night out. We decided we needed some post-club food. We weren’t sure what would be open at this time of the morning, but only a few doors away from the club we found a 24 hour Danish pastry shop. It was the best thing that could have happened to us at that point, and if I had liked Copenhagen a lot already, now I loved it. At the hostel we were staying in a dorm [...]
May 24, 2003 in Denmark and Sweden 2003
We headed into Denmark the next day. The plan was to meet my brother there – he’d flown out a day after us instead of taking a cheeky Friday off work, and he’d flown straight to Copenhagen. We hadn’t made any firm or reliable plan to meet up, so it was incredibly good luck that when the train we were on stopped at Kastrup, Andrew got on. The three of us went to have a look around, and found our way to the Rundetårn. We went up to the top, and despite the grey day, the views over the city were pretty good.
May 23, 2003 in Denmark and Sweden 2003
I started this trip in a state of extreme tiredness. In a move of spectacular stupidity, the Stansted Express had decided that the May bank holiday weekend was a great time to cancel all the trains to do some maintenance work, and so to catch the early flight we’d booked, me and Eldrik had to sleep at Stansted airport. We didn’t think there would be that many people there, but by the time we rocked up at midnight, every bench and every seat had been taken. Sleeping on the floor was far from ideal. So, aching and exhausted, we flew to Sweden. It was raining heavily as we began to find our way to our hostel. I’d recently watched Lilya 4-ever, a masterpiece but probably the most depressing film I’ve ever seen. Part of the film was shot in Malmö, and as we neared our hostel we recognised some locations. The hostel itself turned out to be right next to the most depressing location in a depressing film. Luckily the sun broke through the rain. We headed into town, wandering randomly and stopping for coffees and hot dogs on the way. We ended up at Västra Hamnen, where grey skies [...]
Apr 13, 2003 in Dublin 2003
By the end of my time in Dublin, I was looking forward to going home. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the city, more that I was just indifferent to it. Even a nice sunset on my last evening didn’t win me over, and I flew home feeling done with Dublin.
Apr 12, 2003 in Dublin 2003
I spent the weekend in Dublin after the meeting was over, but before we even reached Friday I began to feel a little bit bored. I felt like I’d seen all the main things in the city, and I should have gone to see what there was to see in the surrounding area. But I was lazy, and I ended up just killing time in the city. I always thought that anywhere outside London, and especially outside the UK, would be cheap. I began to realise this wasn’t always true when I decided to spend an afternoon relaxing in the sun in St. Stephen’s Green. I went to a shop to buy some bread and cheese and basic food, and it cost 11 euros. I decided that a city that was both a little bit boring and overpriced was not one I was particularly enamoured with.
Apr 10, 2003 in Dublin 2003
Only a few months after my first trip to Dublin, I had cause to go back. It was the UK’s National Astronomy Meeting, inexplicably but very popularly being held outside the UK. I turned up half way through the week, and met a lot of people from my undergraduate days who I hadn’t seen for more than two years. On a sunny afternoon when none of us had anything else to do, a few of us revisited the Guinness factory. The views from the Gravity Bar were much better on this warm spring afternoon than they had been in the grim midwinter.
Mar 30, 2003 in Netherlands 2003
The day after the race I headed to Amsterdam. Arnold, who I’d met in Australia a year and a half earlier, was living in Amsterdam these days so I was meeting up with him. The hour had changed, so I had to get up at a savage time to make it to the capital by 10, and my post-half marathon fatigue was extreme. We moved slowly around Amsterdam and saw a few of the sights, stopping for many coffees as we went. We passed through the Vondelpark, and if I’d have been on my own I’d have probably slept there in the spring sunshine for a couple of days. We ambled around the streets lining the canals, and also passed through the red light district where rough-looking prostitutes still touted for business in the morning sunshine. I liked Amsterdam but with bruised and bleeding feet and aching muscles I thought I was probably not in a fit state to fully appreciate it. After only a few hours it was time for me to head back to Belgium for my flight home. We headed back to the station, took a quick free boat trip across the IJ, and then I headed [...]
Mar 29, 2003 in Endurance, Netherlands 2003
Just a week after my last visit to Charleroi, I was back in grim South Belgium. This time I was on my way to the Netherlands, to run my first half-marathon. I thought I might as well do one somewhere reasonably flat so I was doing the CPC Loop in Den Haag. I got a train to Brussels, had an hour before the train to Den Haag and went back to one of my favourite cafes from the previous weekend for a quick coffee. The next day in Den Haag I walked into town from where I was staying, and had a look around. The start of the race was at Malieveld, and hours before the start there were already plenty of people jogging around and warming up. It was overcast and quite chilly – not good waiting around weather, but pretty much ideal for running. The start time approached, and I headed for the line. The CPC Loop is a huge event, with thousands of runners, and I found myself about three quarters of the way back down the field. The hooter went, and off we would have gone if there wasn’t a huge bottleneck for us all to [...]
Mar 23, 2003 in Brussels 2003
I went to Brussels at the end of a very stressful couple of weeks, and really did nothing but relax. It was a cool and sunny spring weekend in Belgium, and I spent a lot of time in cafes and restaurants, enjoying the things that Belgium is famous for. I found Brussels very nondescript. If it wasn’t the closest capital city to London, I would have no reason at all to go there. The atmosphere is of a place that just gets on with things, that happens to be the de facto capital of Europe but doesn’t really make any kind of big deal of it. It couldn’t make a big deal of it if it tried anyway. I spent a sunny afternoon in the Parc de Bruxelles. The trees were still bare, but it was warm. I ate some ice cream, and as part of my plan to relax, I slept in the sun for a while. It was a nice way to spend a Sunday, but maybe not worth travelling 200 miles for.
Feb 08, 2003 in Balkans 2003
We got to Ljubljana at four. Srečko pointed me in the right direction to walk into town, and then headed off for the radio studios. The streets were virtually empty and the city felt like a ghost town. Apparently the citizens of Ljubljana tend to head en masse for the ski slopes each weekend in winter, leaving the city in the hands of the old, the infirm, and the travellers who don’t carry skis. I walked randomly, eventually finding my way to the foot of Castle Hill just as night was falling. A path spiralled up the hill, and I walked slowly up. It required an extreme sense of balance, and ideally more grippy shoes than I was wearing, to make any progress on the thick ice which covered the paving stones. I stopped half way up to look out over the snowy roofs, and could see the dark silhouette of distant mountains on the skyline. By the time I got to the top it was dark. I headed into the castle, and bought a ticket to visit the clock tower. A short climb up a narrow staircase led me out onto the roof, and I was the only person [...]
Feb 08, 2003 in Balkans 2003
I walked up to the upper town. The Lotrščak Tower sits on a hill overlooking the city, and I walked up to it, only to find that it was closed. But even from the bottom there were good views over the city. The skyline was a mix of grand old Austro-Hungarian and grim boxy Soviet. Under wintry grey skies it all looked not exactly picturesque, but somehow atmospheric.
Feb 08, 2003 in Balkans 2003
It was a tiring journey. I had a compartment all to myself, but sleep was limited as we crossed two international borders. We spent a few hours in Slovenia, and I looked out at Ljubljana to see it covered with snow. Then before daybreak we entered Croatia, and at 5.04am we pulled into Zagreb. It was cold and pitch black, so I found a corner of the station near a heater and slept for a couple of hours. Then at 7am I headed out into the city to explore. I walked through the quiet streets to the centre. There was snow on the ground, and a temperature display at Trg Jelačića said it was -3°C. Slowly the city began to get busier. By 9am there were people around, markets were trading, and things were livelier, but it still seemed very quiet. I took refuge from the cold in a cafe near Jelačića, where I got a burek for breakfast. Bureks are the favoured snack throughout the Balkans, and I quickly became a fan. Greasy, hot, cheesy and doughy, it was perfect winter food. With that and a coffee to fortify me, I carried on exploring.
Feb 07, 2003 in Balkans 2003
A week ago I’d missed out on a trip to Sardinia, when a couple of inches of snow had caused transport chaos and my flight had been so badly delayed that it just wasn’t worth going. So I was happy this week that the snow had long since melted, and when I bunked off the Friday afternoon at work it was not in vain. I was heading for the Balkans, and my route was via Trieste, because Ryanair was having another sale and the flights were very cheap. The last time I had been to Italy was five years earlier, when I went to Sicily, so I was looking forward to returning. My flight got to Trieste just after sunset, and as we descended over the Alps the snow was blazing red in the evening light. By the time I got to the centre of the city it was dark. Trieste seemed incredibly different to Sicily. It was part of Austria-Hungary for centuries, only becoming Italian in 1921. Then it was an independent state from 1947 to 1954. It definitely felt un-Italian to me. A wind was blowing in off the Adriatic but it was much warmer here than it [...]
Dec 31, 2002 in Sweden 2002
It was new year’s eve. During the day we headed through Gamla Stan to Södermalm, and went up Katarinahiss. This strange structure juts out from the hills of Södermalm and allows the lazy to avoid walking up from sea level to the moderate heights. The views of the city from the top were pretty awesome. I finished a film while we were there, and changing it required me to take off my gloves for a few seconds. The pain of the cold was stunning, and as I hurried to get the new film in I could feel my fingers becoming unresponsive. Luckily I did the job, closed up the camera and got my gloves back on before I got frostbite.
Dec 30, 2002 in Sweden 2002
We thought that Gothenburg had been pretty cold, but Stockholm was chillier still. The skies were clear, the ground was covered in snow, the lake was frozen solid and all looked beautiful, but -15°C was punishing. We went to Kaknästornet, the TV tower on the outskirts of the city which was the tallest building in Scandinavia at the time. At the top, a howling gale was blowing, and the wind chill must have been tremendous. We discovered that if you dropped some water it froze within a couple of seconds. By wearing two pairs of gloves, three coats and two scarves, I felt reasonably content despite the cold. Ground level was a bit tamer, but finally the inevitable happened and someone slipped over as we walked to the bus stop. Dan was the unlucky victim, and in the evening we found an excellent bar for him to pay his forfeit in.
Dec 29, 2002 in Sweden 2002
It was cold. Chunks of ice were floating down the river, and the canals around the city centre were frozen. Wandering through the icy streets was tiring. Helping us all to survive the conditions was the old Scandinavian standby of hot dog. Pylsur, pølse, pölse or whatever the local variant happened to be, they were always a cheap source of hot food.
Dec 29, 2002 in Sweden 2002
We tried to go out on our first night in Sweden, but we came up against the breathtakingly severe licensing laws. We were all 25 or over, but not all of us could prove it – Dan had left his passport at the hostel. All the decent-looking places were out of bounds to us, and we ended up in a fairly rubbish bar, that did at least play some ABBA which was quite amusing. I woke up at 8am the next day, and it was pitch black. When daylight finally arrived we went to look around the city, which was covered with snow. We walked up to Skansen Kronan, a fort on a hill, and endured the icy wind to take in views of the city. We had a bet running: whoever slipped over first would buy a round of drinks. This was no small penalty here in Scandinavia. On the way down from Skansen Kronan, Dan had a major moment, but after a few seconds of flailing he recovered his balance. We were all buying our own drinks, for now.
Dec 08, 2002 in Dublin 2002
A late night at a club and an early morning taxi to the airport left us pretty tired after our 24 hours in Dublin. Back in London we had the hellish bus replacement service instead of a Stansted Express, which took us to Liverpool Street without stopping anywhere convenient en route. In the deathly quiet of a Sunday in the City we went for a quick walk around, and randomly decided to go up the Monument. It seemed like a good idea at the time to shake the tiredness out of our legs with a run up the 318 steps.
Dec 07, 2002 in Dublin 2002
It’s a very short flight to Dublin. We left behind heavy skies in London, briefly enjoyed brilliant sunshine above the clouds, then descended into heavy skies in Ireland. It rained heavily as we walked down O’Connell Street to the centre of town. We spent the afternoon in pubs, and then we went to the Guinness factory. The main attraction for me here was not the Guinness, but the Gravity Bar, which sits on top of the factory and has glass walls so that all around you can see Dublin. We spent a while there.
Nov 16, 2002 in Salzburg 2002
After my trip to Norway earlier in the year, I’d got a bit of a taste for European city breaks. There was a Ryanair sale on, and I got flights to Salzburg for 20 pounds, so early one November morning I headed up to Stansted to fly out there. London had been grey and cold, hardly defying expectations for November. But in Salzburg the air was fresh and the sun was shining. I’d got up at 4am and so I was pretty tired by the time I got into the city. I checked into a hostel, and sat down in a room by the reception to have a look through my guide book and plan my day. Suddenly, before I knew what was happening, the door had shut, the curtains were closed, a TV was switched on and I was in a screening of The Sound Of Music. I shut my book, jumped up and got out as quickly as I could. After that lucky escape, I headed out to explore. I went for a walk along the banks of the Salzach River, down which a warm wind was blowing. I got to a bench with a view of the [...]
Aug 24, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I’d travelled from China to Paris without a hitch, and I imagined that Paris to London would be the easiest part of the journey. Sadly I was mistaken. I headed to Gare du Nord at about midday and found that there was a train to Calais leaving in a few minutes. So I bought a ticket and headed to the platform. But the train was a Eurostar train, and you have to check in twenty minutes before departure. They had sold me the ticket too late to make the cut, and so I missed my first train back home. I went back to the ticket desk and explained the situation. Luckily they could change my ticket without charge, but unluckily they said there was not another train to Calais until 5pm. I really didn’t want to spend another four hours in Paris and felt annoyed that I wasn’t already half way to Calais. As I walked away with my second ticket, I found a timetable which said there was a train at 3pm to Calais, so I queued again and asked. It turned out that all the standard class seats were full on the 3pm train, but as I was [...]
Aug 23, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I got to Paris at 9am. I got a metro to République, remembered from my trip two years earlier which exit to take, and walked along Boulevard Jules Ferry to the youth hostel I’d stayed in before. The atmosphere of cosy familiarity was abruptly shattered when they turned out to be full. There was an accommodation office next door, but it wasn’t open yet, so I bought some food from a nearby shop and sat by the Canal Saint-Martin having breakfast. When they opened, they found me a space in a hostel nearby. Sometimes when I go back to a place I’ve been before, I find myself going to exactly the same places, somehow unable to find new things to do. And so it was here. I walked to the Île de la Cité, saw Notre Dame, then walked to Montmartre. Two years ago when I was here it had been grey, rainy and empty. Now it was a hot day and very busy. In the narrow streets below the hill, some small children were ineptly busking. They had accordions, which they obviously had no idea how to play, and they squeezed and pressed buttons randomly. I was disgusted at [...]
Aug 22, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
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.
Aug 21, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
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 an an orange juice for six euros, and I actually thought for a few minutes that this was a reasonable price.
Aug 21, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I got a train to Berlin. The six hour journey went by in a flash, and I barely had time to notice the countryside. What I did see as we crossed into Germany was the Oder River looking scarily swollen and fast flowing. I had heard that there was severe flooding in countries to the south of me. I liked Berlin straight away. It had the same atmosphere of a place heavy with recent history that Moscow had had. I grew up hearing about the Berlin Wall all the time on the news, and remembered watching the fall on TV when I was 11 years old. The first place I went to in Berlin was the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the wall. After the fall, various international artists painted murals all along the stretch. What seemed most amazing was how thin the wall was. I always imagined it would be several feet thick, but a couple of inches of concrete was all that had physically separated East and West Germany. Some of the works of art on the wall were very famous, like the picture of a Trabant bursting through, and of Erich Honecker and Leonid [...]
Aug 19, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I didn’t really do much in Warsaw. I’d walked miles and miles every day in Moscow, but I couldn’t muster up the same enthusiasm here. The city was like a small village in comparison to Moscow, and once I’d walked around the old town, I felt like I’d seen it all. So I just relaxed, sitting in the Saski gardens reading, and having the odd ice cream on Nowy Swiat when I felt like walking there. One thing that was great about Poland was that I was totally literate again. The 20 or so characters I’d managed to learn in China hadn’t generally been of much use, and most of the time the written language left me completely baffled. In Russia, I could read cyrillic script, albeit slowly. But here I was back in the world of latin script. Not that this meant I understood a word of Polish, but at least I understood the letters. All the c’s, z’s and y’s were like old friends. My major sightseeing expedition was to the Palace of Culture and Science. This building, in the classic Stalinist style, is the tallest in Poland and dominates the skyline. I liked it because it was [...]
Aug 18, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I’d only meant to spend a couple of days in Moscow at first, but it had held on to me for six days and I really wanted to stay longer. But I was still almost two thousand miles from home and I had to be back at work in just over a week, so I bought a ticket for a train to Warsaw, via Belarus, and reluctantly left Russia. Compared to the epic crossing of the vastness of Siberia, I thought the journey might seem quite quick, and it did. We left Moscow at 3pm, and it seemed like about five minutes later that we reached Smolensk. The Russian border was somewhere soon after Smolensk, but we didn’t stop. It seemed that Belarus and Russia were only nominally separate countries. One thing this journey lacked was food. All throughout Siberia there had been home-made food being sold on station platforms, and it was delicious. In western Russia no-one was selling, except for a woman with a box of ice creams on Vyazma station, three hours out of Moscow. One ice cream is not an adequate dinner, and I would have eaten something more filling in the restaurant car, except this [...]
Aug 16, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
On my last day in Moscow, I invested 3 roubles and 50 kopeks – about seven pence – in a trip on the metro. It’s famously grand, and I’d already travelled on it a lot, but today my mission was to take photographs. I travelled around the brown line, which has the most lavishly decorated stations. Each one felt like a museum, with Socialist Realist murals covering the walls, chandeliers to light the corridors and a well-kept feel. In all the tearing down of statues that accompanied the fall of communism, it seemed like some kind of oversight that all these stations were left with all their communist regalia. Besides being impressively decorated, the metro was also much more frequent and seemed to be more reliable than the London underground. I never had to wait more than two minutes for a train, even late at night, and never had a breakdown. My favourite station was Kievskaya, which had the most impressive murals and grandest atmosphere.
Aug 15, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
If the VDNKh was a country, it would be as big as Monaco and the Vatican City put together. This huge area in the north of Moscow is the site of what used to be the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, and is now a massive marketplace, where everything you can get in Moscow is on sale. I went there with Andrew and Paul who had been on the train. At the entrance to the VDNKh is a monument to the Soviet exploration of space. By all sensible measures, the USSR dominated the early space race, being the first to put a satellite into orbit, a person into orbit, and probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. In later years their dominance was eroded, and the Russian space programme suffered a crushing blow in 1996 when a Mars-bound probe, on which scientists had worked unpaid for years since the fall of the USSR, exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere. Now they mainly do rent-a-space-station activities, taking obscene amounts of money from a select band of obscenely wealthy people to put them on the International Space Station for a week. They achieved so much but fell so far, and for [...]
Aug 15, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I changed hostels after a couple of days in Moscow, because some people I’d met on the train were staying in the Hostel Asia, and it sounded much nicer than the Sherstone. So I headed over there early one morning with all my colossal backpacks, only to find that the lifts weren’t working. The Hostel Asia is on the 15th floor. It was a very hot day. I did not feel happy when I reached the top. After recovering over breakfast, I headed to Red Square once again, and went to visit Lenin. My glimpse of Mao had been a very brief one, but Lenin turned out to be much more civilised. The queue was quite long and it didn’t move very fast, but once I made it inside, there was no great pressure to move on. He was more subtly lit than Mao, and looked much less orange. In fact, he looked remarkably good for someone who had died 76 years beforehand. Some might say he looked suspiciously good.
Aug 14, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I spent my first day in Moscow just wandering randomly. I bumped into a girl who had been on the train, and we had lunch together. She joined me on the random wander, and we walked down from Arbatskaya where we’d eaten to the Moskva River, along past the grotesque statue of Peter the Great, which is one of the tallest statues in the world, and then to Red Square. All roads led back to here in the end. Among the downsides of this iconic place were frequent police checks which clearly targeted foreigners, and large numbers of people trying to sell stamps and banknotes from Soviet times at vastly inflated prices. But the upsides were the spectacular sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, Lenin’s mausoleum, and the feeling of being at the very heart of Russia. On my second day I met some more people who had been on the train, and we went into St. Basil’s. Like the Tardis, it was far bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside, and its twisting corridors were full of pre-renaissance art. We also went to the Kremlin, which was very impressive, but I’d made a major tactical [...]
Aug 12, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I don’t think I’d been tipping when I ate in the restaurant car. In China, there was no tipping. The first time I tried leaving some change on the table, the waiter came after me with it, thinking I’d left it by mistake. Russia was completely the opposite, and tipping lavishly is vital, especially when there is only one place to eat and you have to go there every day. But I had got used to not tipping, and I kept forgetting. By the final morning they had clearly got fed up of me. I was going to have a final breakfast with a bunch of people I’d been hanging around with, but the woman in the restaurant car wouldn’t serve me. Everyone else got their food, but my order was met with a look of extreme disapproval and a sharp “nyet”. Then we tried to play cards as we watched western Russia slip by, but the woman came over and shouted at us until we left. Being hungry just added to the slightly melancholy air of my final morning. I actually didn’t really want to arrive in Moscow, and I would have been quite happy to sit on the [...]
Aug 08, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I woke up at 5.30am, and saw a fantastic sunrise over the Gobi Desert. I couldn’t believe that I was really in Mongolia – to me, no country has a name that sounds more remote and forbidding. And the wild expanses were frighteningly empty. Nothing but grass stretched away into the distance as far as I could see. No signs of human habitation interrupted the view. We sped across the country. Occasionally a single tent would appear in the midst of the howling wilderness, signifying that some solitary nomad was working the land. Then, in the early afternoon signs of people became more numerous, and we were approaching Ulaanbaatar. There were no buildings in the outer parts of the city – just tents. I’d never expected the capital to look like a giant campsite, but it seemed that even urban Mongolians did not wish to stray far from their nomadic roots, and were always ready to move on at a moment’s notice. The centre of the city was a different story. Unpaved muddy streets ran between concrete monstrosity buildings, and the whole thing seemed to me to be the ugliest place I’d ever seen. I had been talking to an [...]
Aug 07, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
My day started brutally early at 4am, and I finished packing with a hint of dawn in the sky. I left my flat for the last time at 5am, walked along the the East Gate and found a taxi. I was worn out by the time I got there, and regretted having bought so much stuff, which I would have to carry eight thousand miles home. I watched the blocks of sky scrapers go by. As we drove along Chang’an, the sun was just peeking over the horizon, and the flag was being raised in Tiananmen Square. I got to the station in plenty of time and found my way to the waiting room. I got on the train at 7am, and found my way to my compartment. It seemed unbelievable to think that it would be my home for the next six days. As we started to pull out of Beijing Station at 7.40am, I was feeling something like butterflies in my stomach with the anticipation of what this journey would be like. I watched as Beijing gradually melted away into the surrounding hills, and after a couple of hours we were in rural northern China. A few scattered [...]
Aug 06, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
My final day in China dawned amazingly cool and fresh. I had lots to finish so I was up and about early, and my first task was to take some photos of the campus. I headed out at 6am, and spent a couple of hours walking around, enjoying Chinese park life. A couple of times I’d been across here early enough to see all the communal activities that take place in Chinese parks early in the morning. What I liked best was the ranks of people practising their taiji moves. There were also people practising plays, speaking English to each other, jogging, and all sorts of other things. It seemed like a very friendly atmosphere, and I was sad to be leaving this. In the evening, I went out for a meal with Xiaowei, some other professors in the department, and a few of the students. We went to a place near the campus that did Peking Duck, and although I’d largely lost my sense of taste due to a head injury two years previously, I could taste enough to find it absolutely delicious. In the usual Chinese way, a constant stream of food was brought out, which twice as [...]
Aug 04, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
It was my last free day in Beijing. I got up at 5am because I wanted to go to Shidu, but again I was thwarted – the weather was horrible, with rain lashing down. I stayed at home until 10am or so, by which time the weather was nicer but it was too late to think about going to Shidu. I decided instead to go to Xiang Shan – the Fragrant Hills. This would be my greatest triumph on the buses – I went to a nearby bus stop, and after only half an hour of staring at the map in a deep trance of pure concentration, I worked out that I could get the 332 to Yiheyuan and then the 737 to Xiang Shan. As I got off the bus and walked towards the park entrance, a guy walking along beside me started talking to me. His name was Yanlong, and he turned out to be an engineer in the People’s LIberation Army, and he was doing one of his three-times-weekly climbs of Incense Burner Peak, the highest point in the park at 557m high. I had been thinking of getting the cable car up there, but felt now [...]
Aug 02, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
When I first arrived in China it had been viciously humid, but not too hot. Then the humidity dropped and the temperature rocketed, and after a few days I decided I quite liked 40°C temperatures. Over the last couple of days the temperatures had dropped a little bit, but the humidity shot up to 90%. Today was even worse than yesterday had been at Huanghua. I was exhausted by my five minute walk to work, and after twenty minutes outside at lunchtime I was starting to look like someone had thrown a drink over me. I stayed in my air-conditioned office until late. I spent a little while looking up equations for how to convert a temperature and a humidity into what it actually feels like, and for today’s conditions the answers were between 53 and 60°C. I was massively relieved at 9pm when it began to thunder.
Jul 29, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I went to Tiananmen Square again this evening. For a few days the weather had been grim but today was much sunnier and hotter. I left work at 3.45pm, and got a disastrously slow bus down the road. It took about two hours to reach the centre, and first of all I went to the Friendship Store to get more cheese. Since my first batch ran out I’d been getting serious cravings. I had no idea how much I’d missed it. Having done my shopping I headed for the square. As night fell, it was an incredibly pleasant place to be. It was full of families, people playing football and badminton, people flying kites, rollerblading, skateboarding, and generally socialising. The atmosphere was friendly and I stayed for a while, taking a few night photos and liking the vibe a lot.
Jul 27, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
Today I tried to go to Shidu, a scenic area about 100km from Beijing, but when I went to Lianhuachi, where the long distance bus station was supposed to be, I couldn’t find it. This was an unexpected obstacle, and it seemed ridiculous, but I wandered the area for a while and there didn’t seem to be a bus station here. Bemused, I rethought my plans, and headed back to Tiananmen to finally make my acquaintance with Mao. The skies were heavy and as I found my way to the back of the queue for the mausoleum, it began to rain. I queued for about half an hour, getting wetter and wetter, and so it was quite a disappointment to finally reach to mausoleum only to be rushed through with barely a couple of seconds allowed to glance at the orangey features of China’s ambiguous hero. There were people by the glass case whose job it was to rush us through, and before I knew it I was out the other side, in a tacky souvenir shop. I passed up the opportunity to buy Mao cards, Mao lighters, or a copy of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao. After Mao, I [...]
Jul 21, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
The first time I went to Tiananmen Square I was too late in the day to see Chairman Mao. Today I went back to try again, but I couldn’t find the left luggage office to drop off my bag until it was too late. Instead, I chilled in the square in the hot sunshine for a while, only encouraged to move on by the frequent attentions of ‘arts students’. Every time I went anywhere near Tiananmen Square, it would only be a matter of time before I was accosted by someone who would turn out to be a member of a group of arts students from some remote province of China, visiting the capital and with an exhibition near by. The first time, I thought this sounded quite cool and went along to where their exhibition was, saw some moderately interesting art, refused to part with wads of cash to buy any, and went on my way. I realised there was more to this than met the eye when another arts student started talking to me only half an hour later in a different part of town. Almost every time anyone started a conversation with me, they would turn out [...]
Jul 20, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
The Old Summer Palace was only a short walk from the university, but it was still hard to find. There was an extreme lack of English signage to it, and I hadn’t yet learned more than about 15 chinese characters, so it took me a while to find the entrance and work out where to buy a ticket. Once I was in, I found it quite a strange place. It was very quiet and tranquil, but with a slightly spooky atmosphere because all the lakes were completely choked with reeds and looked slightly threatening. Inside, there were more English signs than there had been outside, but unfortunately most of these were only to remind me that my forebears had been a bunch of cultural vandals of the highest order. Together with the French, in 1860, the British had destroyed this place, and frequently there were signs marking the spot of some former building which had been one of humanity’s most glorious achievements, only to be torn down by the British and the French. The palace grounds were vast and maze-like, and I got totally lost. I was still somewhere in the grounds when night began to fall. I was probably [...]
Jul 14, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
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 if anything 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 [...]
Jul 13, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
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.
Jul 10, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
In my second week in China, the department was organising a three day trip to Qinhuangdao, 200 miles from Beijing on the coast of the Yellow Sea. It was partly a mini-conference and partly just a holiday, and as well as most of the department from PKU there were also some people from Shanghai Astrophysical Observatory. We left Beijing at 7am on the Monday morning, and had a pleasant four hour journey through fields and mountains to the sea. We arrived at about midday, and the first priority was lunch. The emphasis was on sea food and I had all sorts of things I hadn’t tried before, like jelly fish. After lunch I went to the beach to play football with the other students, having an extraordinarily strenuous game in 40°C heat. After twenty minutes of getting burnt from all directions – sun above, sand cooking our feet below – we decided today wasn’t the day for football, and just relaxed on the beach instead. On the Tuesday we had three hours of talks in the morning. Most of them were given in Chinese, so I didn’t take a whole lot away from them. I gave a talk but spoke [...]
Jul 05, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
On Monday I started work at the university. In London I lived 45 minutes away from college, but here I was just five minutes away, which was awesome. The only problem was that Zhongguancun Beilu lay between my flat and the university. Only in the very small hours was this vast highway anything less than pounding with traffic, and so every morning and evening I had a real life game of Frogger to get across. Some mornings there was a policeman to coordinate the flow of people and cars, and I always breathed a sigh of relief if he was there. During my first week, the mist which rendered the city grey and threatening gradually lifted and the sun appeared. This instantly sent temperatures rocketing into the thirties. I spent my lunch breaks wandering the campus, slowly getting to know my way around. One evening I walked over to the West Gate of the university, outside which there were apparently a lot of bars. When I got over there, all I could see was a vast expanse of brownfield land. The area had been demolished, to make way for new buildings. The pace of change in Beijing was so frenetic [...]
Jun 30, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
My base in Beijing was a very comfortable apartment on Chengfu Lu, a few minutes walk from the university. Having sorted out various administrative things on Friday, I then had the weekend to started getting acquainted with this massive city. I spent Saturday walking around the vast and beautiful campus of the university, and a few of the nearby parts of the surrounding area of Zhongguancun. It is about five miles from the city centre, but as China’s technology hub it is far from being a distant suburb. by Sunday I was recovered enough from jetlag to head for the centre. I walked down Zhongguancun Beilu, found a taxi rank and tried out some Mandarin. “Tiananmen Guangchang”, I said, but my tones were clearly way off and in the end I had to point at my guide book. We set off through Beijing, and the scale of the city that I was seeing for the first time took my breath away. Eight lanes of traffic sliced through forest of giant buildings, and construction was everywhere. China’s economic boom was evident. After half an hour we arrived at Tiananmen Square. The air was thick with mist, and with the temperatures in [...]
Jun 27, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
It was a sunny June day. I left my house at 6am and walked to Bounds Green station, slightly unable to believe that I wouldn’t be back until almost September. I rumbled under London on my 33-stop journey to Heathrow Airport, and from there I flew to Zürich. I had four hours to kill in Zürich before my flight to Beijing, and I got a train from the airport into the city. I wandered randomly down what looked like a main street, until I found a coffee shop. With half-remembered German from years ago I bought myself an espresso, and then a caramel iced coffee. I didn’t have time to do much more than that, so after a quick wander down to the river I headed back to the airport for my next flight. For reasons that were never clear to me, I was upgraded to business class for the Beijing flight. I thought this would be awesome and imagined being fed fondue and chocolates by beautiful Swiss stewardesses all the way to China, but in the end it wasn’t so great. I didn’t have a lot of legroom, the stewardesses treated me as if they knew I hadn’t paid [...]
Apr 21, 2002 in Norway 2002
We went to the National Gallery after Holmenkollen, and saw the legendary Scream. I didn’t know until then that there are four original versions, two painted and two pastels. This is probably a good thing because it’s a popular target for art thieves. The version in the National Gallery was stolen in 1994, with the thieves leaving a note saying “Thanks for the poor security” in its place. Another version in the Munch Gallery was stolen a few years later. We walked down to the harbour, stopping for a wildly expensive pub lunch on the way, and found our way to a hillside by Akershus Slott. We sat in the sunshine, whiling away the afternoon watching boats coming and going. Finally it was time to leave. We headed back to the station for the long bus journey back to Sandefjord. We had had an amazing time, but it was some time before I could even bring myself to check my bank balance. When I did, I vowed not to return to Norway until I’d stopped being a student and achieved some wealth.
Apr 21, 2002 in Norway 2002
In the morning, Oslo was swathed in thick fog. We sat in a cafe for a bit, compensating with coffee for another sleep-deprived night. When we came out, the fog had all but disappeared, so we headed out to the suburbs, to have a look at the ski jump at Holmenkollen. It is one of the oldest ski jumps in the world, and was one of the venues for the 1952 winter olympics. We got the lift to the top. A bit of mist remained from the earlier fog, making Oslo and the surrounding forests look blue and distant. Looking down the ski jump from the top almost gave me vertigo, and I got an appreciation for what a massive adrenaline rush ski jumping must be. But I definitely felt that ski jumpers must be quite crazy. The angle of the descent was terrifying and I felt sure that if you were actually speeding down it on skis, you would not be able to avoid feeling like you’d just made a very big mistake.
Apr 19, 2002 in Norway 2002
We made our way to a hostel at the foot of Mount Ulrik. Our guide book said the number 4 bus would take us there, but after a long wait we decided it wasn’t coming, and got another bus. This bus only took us part of the way, and we had a long uphill walk to the hostel. We asked the owner whether the number 4 was the best way to get into town or not. “The number 4?”, he said. “That stopped running years ago!” At least the map in the book was reasonably accurate, and we found our way to the cable car station for a trip up Mount Ulrik. The sun had disappeared behind cloud again, and the views from the top were atmospheric. Bergen sprawls around fjords and mountains, and we had great views of the countryside around the city. In a cafe at the top, we had my old favourite Nordic snack, pølse – cheap hot dog, available everywhere in Scandinavia. I liked it more than its taste or nutritional value could ever justify, but in Iceland, pylsur had been a great source of protein that was within my travelling budget, and I’d eaten them [...]
Apr 19, 2002 in Norway 2002
We arrived in Bergen at 7am. I’d already spent all the money I thought would last me the whole weekend, so our first point of call was a cash machine. I pressed some large numbers, tried not to think about what they meant in pounds, and we headed into town. Bergen is supposedly the rainiest city in Europe. In 1990, it rained continuously from January 3 to March 26. There was a machine on the station platform selling umbrellas, and the skies were grey, but even as we walked into town from the station, sunshine was breaking out. I almost felt cheated that we were not seeing the true Bergen.
Apr 18, 2002 in Norway 2002
We got a boat back to Oslo, and then got a tram to the Frognerparken. The park is a spectacular open-air museum for the works of Gustav Vigeland, Norway’s most famous sculptor. We wandered through the 80 acres and 212 statues in the late evening light, eventually reaching the legendary Monolith. The centrepiece of the park, the Monolith is 14 metres high, and took 14 years to carve. Vigeland himself died before it was completed. After Vigeland Park, we killed a few hours in bars on Karl Johans Gate, spending as little as possible. One pub was selling Caffreys for eight pounds. Coffees and soft drinks were more or less affordable, though. At 11pm we left the bars and got a night train to Bergen, on the other side of the country.
Apr 18, 2002 in Norway 2002
This trip was my first ever with Ryanair. For just fifty pounds each, me, Eldrik and John got flights from Stansted to Sandefjord. It seemed outrageously cheap at the time, but later I’d come to see fifty pounds as about the maximum I’d ever spend on flights within Europe. The journey started painfully slowly. We got a train from Tottenham Hale which stopped at every single station on the way to Stansted. It seemed to take hours, and when we got to Stansted Mountfichet I almost lost it. What the hell is Stansted Mountfichet? Why would anyone want to get off there? But we got to Stansted eventually, and flew north. I was looking forward to visiting my first Nordic country since Iceland three years previously. Our plane dropped below the clouds and a rainy Norway came up to meet us. The bus to Oslo turned out to be three spaces too small to carry everyone. We stood, and got the journey for free as a result. It was the only cheap thing we would get all weekend. During the journey, fine weather broke out, and it was sunny and almost warm when we reached Oslo. We stashed our bags [...]
Dec 06, 2001 in Australia 2001
My journey home was via Tokyo. It had been raining heavily when I left Sydney, but the temperatures were in the twenties. It was quite a shock to land in Japan eight hours later to find that it was the middle of winter. It was freezing and foggy. I found a hotel in Narita. It was much more expensive than the kind of place I normally stay, but much less expensive than I’d feared it might be. I went for a walk through Narita to some temples, which looked eerie in the green-lit fog. The next morning it was bright and clear and very cold. My flight was at midday so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore Narita. But I did see temples, and beautiful gardens with outdoor bonsai trees. The previous evening I’d walked past a karaoke bar, and some of the streets I walked along were lined with vending machine after vending machine. Even in my short time, I’d seen some quintessentially Japanese things. I flew home. Not long after we took off, the plane banked and I found myself looking right into the crater of Mount Fuji, covered in snow and looking very beautiful. [...]
Dec 05, 2001 in Australia 2001
I had one more day in Sydney. It rained heavily for most of it so I didn’t do very much. I got the ferry to Manly, and walked on the beach for a while. On the way back, the waters of the harbour were choppy, and me and another guy who were standing on the bow got completely soaked when we hit a large wave and spray crashed down over the decks. Back at Circular Quay, I walked along the shores of the harbour to Macquarie Point. It was getting dark, and the views of the bridge and the opera house were looking good. It was my last night in Australia, and I wondered when I would be back. Opportunities to visit the other side of the world don’t come around too often, and after two visits in three years, I feared it might be a while before I could return.
Dec 02, 2001 in Australia 2001
On the final morning, we all felt like the best was behind us. We made a couple of stops, but they were nothing like as spectacular as yesterday’s, and the weather wasn’t so good either. We were all glad we’d done the trip starting in Adelaide – starting in Melbourne you’d have the best scenery on the first day and then two anticlimactic days to follow. I felt sad the tour was over, but most of us stayed in the same hostel in Melbourne so it was not goodbye just yet. I liked Melbourne a lot more than I thought I would, even though the weather here was similar to what you’d expect in London in November. There were lots of things happening – we saw a great photography exhibition at the Arts Centre, and took shelter from the rain at a cafe where there was live music. It seemed that you didn’t have to look to hard to find interesting things to do here. We went to the Rialto Towers one evening. In the daytime, under grey skies and in constant drizzle, Melbourne was no beauty, but at night from above, it looked pretty impressive.
Nov 27, 2001 in Australia 2001
I got to Adelaide not longer after the World Solar Challenge competitors got there. They had raced across the deserts from Darwin to here in solar-powered vehicles, and in the hostel I met a guy called Sven, who had been a competitor. He’d finished last, but didn’t seem too unhappy about it. I went to look around Adelaide. My dad’s cousins live in Adelaide, and I got a train to Marino to visit them. Three years ago in their house I had a terrifying encounter with a huntsman spider, but this time there were none in sight. I was constantly keeping half an eye out though. Back in the city centre I explored the planned city. Unlike Canberra where things like street signs and soul are lacking, Adelaide has got all the essentials. The central grid is surrounded by a ring of parks, with the Torrens River winding through. As night fell I walked along the river and watched the lights of the city come on. I walked up to Light’s Vision, a statue of the city founder overlooking his creation. I thought he must have been pretty pleased with it.
Nov 25, 2001 in Australia 2001
I was relieved to get back to Sydney. I booked into a hostel near Hyde Park. The sun was shining, and I thought I would spend a relaxed couple of days here before moving on. I wanted to go to Adelaide next, so I went to the train station to book a ticket for the Indian Pacific. Three years ago I’d travelled from Perth to Adelaide by train, and now I wanted to do the other side. But the next Indian Pacific was sold out, and for a moment I was extremely disappointed. But don’t worry, said the ticket seller, there’s a Ghan leaving this afternoon, you can get a ticket on that. I thought the Ghan started in Adelaide, but I wasn’t going to question him. I bought a ticket, and went back to the hostel to pack. I had a few hours to spare, and as I was doing a lot of training at the time, I decided to fit in a run. I’d done a couple in Canberra, and not seen anyone else out, but here I could barely move for runners. I went through Hyde Park towards the Botanical Gardens and it seemed that half of [...]
Nov 21, 2001 in Australia 2001
My Australian friends proved to be 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 [...]
Nov 17, 2001 in Australia 2001
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 quiet. I travelled via Japan, spending six hours in Osaka airport’s vast terminal building before getting on an almost empty 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.
Jul 30, 2001 in La Palma 2001
When I got back from Africa I had the biggest sense of culture shock I’ve ever experienced. I walked around London, bewildered by the buildings, the noise, the lack of friendly conversation, and the pace of life. But I’d barely even unpacked my bags when I found out I’d be hitting the road again within days. My PhD supervisor had applied for time on the Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands, and he’d been successful, so a week after I’d stepped off the plane from Lilongwe, I stepped onto a plane to Madrid. My last journey had finished very eventfully, and this one carried on in a similar vein. The flight to Madrid was delayed, and I missed my connection to La Palma as a result. I saw this as an opportunity. I’d never been to Spain before, so I jumped at the chance to see a bit of the capital before heading out to the islands. I got myself booked onto a flight out the next day, and then set out to explore. I bought a Spanish-language guide book to Madrid. I’d learnt some Spanish in Central America so I was looking forward to practising. I headed for [...]
Jun 15, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
The story of this trip really begins on August 11th 1999. There was a total solar eclipse of the sun happening, and the track was to cross the United Kingdom. I’d been looking forward to this for years, and on the morning of the eclipse I was in position to see it. The weather was clear and sunny, and anticipation was high. Sadly, though, as the morning progressed, the cloud thickened, and the sun slowly disappeared from view. When totality began the much-hyped wonders of the Bailie’s Beads, diamond ring and corona came and went unseen. Later that evening, as the world began to wobble a bit through the bottom of my whiskey glass, I said to those around me ‘Well, I’m just going to have to go to Africa for the next one’. At least, I tried to say that. I may not have succeeded. But the fact remained that the next chance I would have to see a total solar eclipse would be in southern Africa on June 21st, 2001. Some research revealed that west was best, with a longer eclipse and better weather, but west meant war as well, as the eclipse touched Africa first in conflict-ridden [...]
Feb 26, 2001 in OHP 2001
At the end of our seven nights of telescope time, we’d had five and half clear nights – not bad going for February. Satisfied, we packed up and headed for Avignon to catch the train back to London. I wondered if I would ever be back here again. We got to Avignon with some time to kill, and a few of us visited the Palais des Papes. From the windows of the lavish former residence of the popes, there were good views over the river, the bridge and the city. It was a warm day, much warmer here than at the observatory, 600m above sea level. We knew that back in London it would be cold again, and so we reluctantly boarded the TGV to Lille, and headed home. It had been a very successful trip.
Oct 25, 2000 in Central America 2000
The day I got back we had nothing in particular planned. Mike and Aasta, with whom we had climbed Volcán San Pedro, were in town, and me, Moh, Mike and Mark, a Canadian who we’d met, decided to go for a bike ride. Having hired bikes, we set off down dusty roads, through small villages, past fields and towards the volcanoes. It was mostly downhill, and we cycled for miles before stopping for a drink in a spot with a fabulous view. The clouds had lifted, and we could see the tops of all three volcanoes, with Fuego steaming copiously. Just as we began the uphill run from here back to Antigua, though, my chain snapped. I had no option but to get the bus back to town with my bike going on the roof. The others got back sweating and exhausted some hours later. We had met a local called Gustavo while we were in Antigua. He was an anthropologist, and knew many remote Mayan sites well. He had offered to take us to Mixco Viejo, some ruins a couple of hours drive from Antigua, to which he said we would most likely be the first British visitors. That [...]
Oct 11, 2000 in Central America 2000
When the Spanish conquered Guatemala, they founded their first capital in 1527 at a site known today as Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Situated on the fertile flanks of the huge but extinct Volcán Agua, it seemed like an ideal place for a city. It lasted for just 14 years, though, before disaster struck. After weeks of heavy rains, the lake at the summit of the mountain breached the crater walls. A huge torrent of water and rock swept down the mountainside and ploughed through the city, completely obliterating it. A new capital was founded two years later, further from the volcano, and (so it was hoped) out of danger. This city, known in full as La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, thrived as the capital for 230 years, before disaster again struck. A huge earthquake struck the region, and the city was all but flattened. The present capital was established at Guatemala City, and the old capital, now known as La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala), no longer an important place, was very slowly repopulated. Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes. Volcán Agua towers above the city to the south, while Volcán Acatenango [...]
Oct 06, 2000 in Central America 2000
The next day it was time to brave our second border crossing. While we were in Granada, the news had been that a bridge on the road to the border at Guasaule had been washed away. This was indeed the case, and the bridge was still down, but by now the flood waters had subsided, and the bus was able to ford the river. It was a very slow journey, road conditions being pretty bad after the rains, but we made it to the border in reasonable time. Here we did not have a fun time. We were only going to be in Honduras for a short time, and we knew what border banks were like, so we decided to brave the money-changers. Unfortunately, they had a habit of quoting a good rate, then counting out money at a bad rate. You can then argue all you like, but they’ll deny ever having said ’14 Lempiras per dollar’, and we had to settle for 13, which was at least still better than the bank rate. Then we got a lift across the border in some bicycle/rickshaw type of things. As we got in, I asked how much it would be, [...]
Oct 04, 2000 in Central America 2000
We decided then to abandon all hope of climbing up Volcán Masaya and move on instead. Our next destination was Nicaragua’s other old city, León, and to get there we needed to get a bus to Managua, make our way across Managua, and get another bus across the outside. We had heard horror stories about Managua from many different people, and were not too keen to see what it had to offer. I was guarding my pack with extreme paranoia as we got off the bus at Managua’s central market. As we expected, there were plenty of taxis about, so we got a taxi across the city. It was a sunny and hot day, and the city didn’t actually look that horrible. It seemed a bit concrete and soulless, but then vast swathes of it were levelled by a huge earthquake in 1972. We made it to the Mercado Bóer bus stop without being robbed or assaulted, and, still guarding our belongings fiercely, we boarded the bus to León. We had a great run up there as the sun set behind the chain of volcanoes which form a spine along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, arriving just after the sun set. In [...]
Oct 02, 2000 in Central America 2000
It wasn’t raining but the streets were wet when we arrived in the historic town of Granada. Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba, the Spanish conquistador of Nicaragua, it is the oldest city in Nicaragua. The city of León, in the north of the country, was founded in the same year. Granada was wealthy and conservative; León, the capital, was poor and liberal. There was intense rivalry between them, which erupted into civil war many times. This eventually led to the founding of Managua, half way between the two, as a compromise capital in 1857. The city didn’t look like it had changed much in the last hundred years. The buildings were all colonial (though after the economic hardships of the last twenty years, many looked somewhat the worse for wear), and horses and carts formed the majority of the traffic. We spent a lot of time while we were there walking around the streets of this characterful town. But the main thing we wanted to do while we were here was visit Volcán Masaya. This active volcano is just up the road from Granada, and it is an easy climb (apparently) to the top from the town [...]
May 30, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
The next day dawned grim and rainy. I decided it would be a good day to check out the Pompidou centre, but when I arrived at 10.30am, I found out it wouldn’t open until 11am. So I wandered around in the drizzle for half an hour, returning to read the sign more carefully and realise it wasn’t actually going to open at all (it being a Tuesday). So I had another extended left bank wander instead, also looking round the wealthy enclave of Ile St. Louis, and popping into Notre Dame again. It was much quieter this time, and seemed all the more impressive for it. I had lunch of French bread and cheese near Boulevard Jules Ferry, then went to Gare du Nord to buy a ticket back to Calais. The rain built up to monsoon proportions while I was at the station, but by the time I was done it had eased back to a heavy drizzle, so I thought I’d go up Montmartre. The rubbish Rough Guide said that the walk up was only for the fit, and recommended the funicular, but I thought it was an easy stroll up to the top. The view, although nothing [...]
May 29, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
Who could go to Paris without checking out the Eiffel Tower? It was only supposed to be a temporary thing and was almost pulled down in 1909, but was saved by its capacity to be used as a radio mast. This was quite lucky, because Paris without the Eiffel Tower today seems unthinkable. I arrived at about 7pm on a beautiful May day. The crowds were still quite large, so before I went up, I wandered around for a while, searching for the photograph that would make the tower look as huge as it is. I strolled down through the Champ de Mars, which stretches out before the tower. I passed people in berets playing boules (honestly), people playing cards on a table improvised out of a box in a bin, and other such odd scenes of Paris parklife. At the bottom of the Champ de Mars is a peace monument, right in front of the military academy. It’s a strange juxtaposition. From here, it was a fine view up to the tower, and I walked back towards it. Having now seen it from everywhere except up it, I bought my ticket and went to the lift. It’s a little [...]
May 29, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
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. It really is a fabulous place The 18th century buildings which house the exhibits contrast marvellously with I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid, under which you enter the museum. In fact, I found the building more impressive than most of the exhibits. Still, I couldn’t just come here to look at the exterior, and so in I went. It’s eminently wanderable in there, with what seems like miles of corridors, absolutely crammed with pictures, statues, and objets d’art. Of course I saw the classics: the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. But of course the real gems are rarely what you expect them to be, and my favourite painting was a Veronese hanging in the same room as the Mona Lisa. It’s just a bunch of people falling, and I thought it was great. But really, most of the paintings didn’t do much for me, and I was much more impressed by the sculptures. The Mona Lisa was OK, I suppose. Probably [...]
May 28, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
The first thing to do was work out the Paris metro. Of course I’m biased, but I thought it was really rubbish compared to the tube in London, mainly because the map is awful. It’s a horrible spider’s web, especially in comparison with London’s, which is a modern design classic. But eventually I’d worked out how to get from République to the centre of town, and later still I’d work out that it would have been quicker to walk it anyway. I started off by checking out Notre Dame. If I’m honest, I didn’t think it was that great at first. I’d expected it to be bigger, and darker. But after looking all around the outside, I decided it was quite impressive. Round the back there is a garden which is much quieter than the tourist nightmare round the front, which always helps when you want to appreciate something. It was incredibly busy when I first arrived, so I thought I’d wait until a bit later on to go inside. I filled up my time wandering the streets of the Left Bank, eating crepes and enjoying the sunny weather. It’s a hugely explorable area, around there, and very pleasant just [...]
May 27, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
After a dreadful night’s sleep at the noisy youth hostel, I went back to the station to buy a train ticket back to Paris. Having booked myself onto the overnight train again, I had the whole day to explore Munich again. The day had dawned bright and very warm, and seeing as it had been so pleasant the day before, I went back to the Englischer Garten. Sadly, by the time I’d got out of the U-bahn, there were clouds in the sky, and it was getting cooler. Soon it had started raining. I thought I’d walk on through the park, in the hope that it would soon stop, but in fact just as I got to the point furthest from any shelter, the rain started really lashing down.By the time I got out of the park, I was absolutely sodden, and considerably less cheerful than I had been. However, the rain had stopped, and so I carried on wandering. I wandered back to the Marienplatz, which is where all the tourists seem to congregate. It’s dominated by the wildly overblown gothic monstrosity which is the town hall. Nearby, the Viktualienmarket is a good place to pick up a bratwurst, [...]
May 26, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
I managed to get a reclining chair on the overnight train to Munich, and so slept tolerably badly. When I went to sleep I was the only person in my carriage, but when I woke up I was surrounded by commuters, who looked as if they felt far too respectable to be sharing a carriage with a shabby backpacker. After a 10 hour journey, we rolled up exactly on time München Hauptbahnhof. I had absolutely no idea what Munich was going to be like at all until I walked out of the station. For all I knew, I could have been arriving in a German Birmingham, but thankfully Munich is actually a really nice, clean, pleasant city. I wandered around town until I could check into the youth hostel at 1pm. Once I’d checked in and slept for a couple of hours, I went back into town, via the super-efficient U-bahn. I headed for the Englischer Garten, a huge park stretching along the east side of the city. It proved surprisingly difficult to find, and after some while wandering up and down Leopoldstrasse, I ended up in the Hofgarten instead. There was a sudden heavy rainshower, and I took refuge [...]
Sep 16, 1999 in Iceland 1999
And that, to all intents and purposes, was the end of our journey. We didn’t do much else of interest, spending our final day in Iceland wandering around Reykjavík. We got the cheapest souvenirs we could find (a pack of cards), bought a newspaper at horrific expense, took a trip up the spire of the Hallgrímskirkja, and went to see the Volcano Show. This is a two-hour film containing footage of all the eruptions in Iceland since 1947, and it was very impressive. We had seen all the volcanoes in the film, so we felt that we had done well in our four weeks here. The final morning was a sad occasion. I didn’t want to leave and I was consumed by premature nostalgia as we left the youth hostel on an overcast, grey morning, and took a bus to the BSÍ terminal. From there we went to the Blue Lagoon, a pool of effluent from a geothermal power station which you can swim in, and relaxed for three hours. This was a fine way to end our time in Iceland, and we certainly felt that we deserved a rest. It had been a long, at times arduous, but extremely [...]
Aug 12, 1998 in Australia 1998
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. The crazy shells of the opera house were spectacular to see, and it seemed impossible to imagine that it hadn’t always been there. It was also impossible to imagine that in its early years the opera house had been beset with difficulties, running vastly over budget and schedule, and with its architect Jørn Utzon hounded out of Australia by political interference. He never saw his completed masterpiece. 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 [...]
Aug 10, 1998 in Australia 1998
One of the iconic parts of Sydney is the Harbour Bridge. On an overcast day, we went to the museum in its south west tower. The museum was quite interesting, but possibly better were the views over the city from the top of the tower.
Aug 08, 1998 in Australia 1998
One evening we went up the Sydney Tower. I thought it would be impressive, but it turned out to be spectacular. We went up late in the afternoon, and not long after we got to the top night began to fall, and the lights of the city came on. The sight was truly amazing.
Aug 07, 1998 in Australia 1998
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.
Jul 23, 1998 in Australia 1998
My dad used to work for BOAC, as it was then, and when he’d left had been given some free standby flights. It was a bit risky trying to go to Australia with them because there was a very good chance we’d be waiting several days before we could get on a flight, and when we went to Heathrow we weren’t sure whether we’d be going to Australia, just as far as Singapore, or back home again that evening. Just 20 minutes before the flight was due to go, someone came up and said “You’re booked on all the way to Perth – go go go!”. We sprinted through the terminal and boarded the plane pretty much at the last possible moment, unable to believe our luck. London to Singapore is a huge long flight but it went very very quickly for me. Thunderstorms lit up the skies over eastern Europe, and as we flew over central Asia we saw Tashkent glowing far below. We got to Singapore at 6am, and it was already 26°C. Soon we were off again, and into the southern hemisphere. Our first stop was beautiful, sunny, laid back Perth. For the first day or so [...]