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
After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. Observatories are always great places, isolated and remote, and normally high on a mountain so you get awesome views. I’d been to the Canaries’ other main observatory on La Palma several times but I’d never been here before. It was a calm and warm day. A few clouds interrupted the blue skies but it looked like they’d probably have no trouble observing that night. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface. Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today. Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going [...]
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 11, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
We went white-water rafting while we were in Galicia. I’d never done it before so I was really looking forward to it. We got a train to Padrón, a quiet dusty town near Santiago, from where companies run rafting trips down the Río Ulla. The seven of us took a boat and a guide, and headed downstream. Four other boats were on the river, and pretty much the first thing all the guides did was to try and get us to fall out. I was very reluctant, but I guess it’s better to fall out first in the calm water before the inevitable spills in the rapids. So we all got soaking wet in the chilly waters, and then went paddling downstream for some rapid action. The Ulla is not such a wild river, but the scenery was awesome and we had great fun. After the first couple of rapids, our guide got us to try them out with variations like going backwards, standing up, trying to paddle up one we’d just come down, and things like that. At the final rapids, he said “You don’t really need the boat for this one. Just jump out and swim.” I thought [...]
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.
Sep 03, 2010 in France 2010
The journey back was long. We drove from Durban-Corbières back to the UK, stopping off in Orléans on the way. Driving in France is always quite nice, the expense of the tolls being offset by the general quietness of the roads, and in the parts we were passing through, the sometimes spectacular scenery. I was happy that our route would take us over the Millau viaduct, one of the great civil engineering achievements. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the giant bridge but it was still incredible to cross it. Only when we saw the tops of the pylons poking above the horizon from some distance away could we really appreciate how huge it is. We soared over the Tarn valley, and then stopped on the other side to have a look. We were there at the wrong time of day for good photographs, with the sun shining more or less directly at us from over the bridge. But it was still an impressive sight.
Aug 24, 2010 in France 2010
I got a train to Narbonne, and then headed to Durban-Corbières, a tiny town in the hot grape fields of Languedoc-Rousillon. I spent a heavenly fortnight there with my family, relaxing in the hot sun, swimming in the pool, eating good food and enjoying a good life. I went for one moderately long cycle around the hills but otherwise did more or less nothing. My travel style is not normally like that; a holiday without uncertainty, hardship and fear is not really a holiday by my reckoning. But just every now and again it’s nice to actually relax. The view from our villa to the crumbling castle was more or less my only view of the outside world for two weeks. Two weeks of slothful living passed very quickly, and all too soon it was time to pack up and go.
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 21, 2010 in Microstates 2010
I wanted to have a bit of a lie down before exploring the country, but the hostel wouldn’t let me check in until 2pm. It was 7.30am and the sun was shining, so I decided to head out. I walked down the road from Schaan to Vaduz, the tiny capital of the tiny country. All was quiet. I sat down on a bench, and promptly fell asleep. I woke myself up by snoring, embarrassed then to find that the streets were now quite busy. Feeling the disapproval of the respectable citizens of Liechtenstein, I got up and staggered through the town. I found a small park full of trees, and fell asleep again in the delicious cool shade. I slept for a long time, occasionally wondering if I might get arrested for vagrancy, but enjoying my doze far too much to worry about it. Eventually I woke up and decided it was time to actually look around instead of just sleeping rough in various parts of town. It was a hot, hot, sunny day, and the little town was pretty much exactly as I’d imagined it, a street lined with expensive cafes, with a castle on the hills overlooking the [...]
Aug 21, 2010 in Microstates 2010
After the conference in Vienna, I was heading straight to the south of France to meet my family for a relaxing holiday in a villa. I could have flown, but I decided to travel at ground level. There were some countries more or less en route that I hadn’t been to, and spending a few summer days of travelling by train through Europe visiting new places seemed like a nice way to go. So I headed to Wien Westbahnhof, found the night train for Feldkirch and got on board. At first I had a compartment all to myself, and thought I might have a nice ride, but in the minutes before departure it filled to capacity. It would be an uncomfortable night. We rumbled across Austria. I woke up in Salzburg, and cast my mind back to my short visit there in 2002. I woke again in Innsbruck, and cast my mind forward, thinking I’d like to visit there some day. And when I woke up at Bludenz, the sky was tinged with the light of dawn and we were not far from our final destination. By now there was only one person left in the compartment, and he also [...]
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
Hiking trails led away from the cable car station up into the hills, so I decided to walk for a while. Quite soon I was away in the quiet mountains, enjoying the immensity of the Norwegian landscape. I headed up a steep path to a ridge, which looked like the highest point around, but once I got there I could see there was another higher peak further on. The path flattened and dropped, and then rose up to Mount Fløya, 671m above sea level. The day had started out overcast but some sun had broken through the clouds. I was alone on top of the mountain, and I sat for a while, taking in the views over the wild countryside. My peace was only shattered once or twice when other hikers passed by. The only reason to come down was that I had to find my way to the airport for a flight back to Oslo. This was a very annoying business, first of all because I was extremely content up there and didn’t feel like starting my journey back to London, and secondly because it was the World Cup final, and in a moment of appalling planning, I’d booked [...]
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
Every day of the year, eleven boats are somewhere out at sea along the coast of Norway, on an epic voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. The Hurtigruten has run since 1893 and although it has become a popular tourist voyage, it’s still used for regular passenger journeys and freight. For a long time I’d thought I would like to make a journey along the coast of Norway, and today I could sample a small part of the route. The boat that pulled into Skjervøy’s small harbour was the MS Nordstjernen, the oldest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. I was lucky to have a trip on a boat like this. Most of the Hurtigruten ships are massive and new, and the Nordstjernen normally does summer runs to Svalbard rather than plying the normal route. But here it was, and I boarded. We chugged out of Skjervøy into a heavenly summer evening. The deck was full of people enjoying the warm sun. I watched the coast slip by slowly. Gradually it started to cloud over, and as it cooled, the deck emptied. It was just a four hour run back to Tromsø and some of the people on board were [...]
Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010
After Olderdalen the bus continued to Skjervøy. Somewhere along the way, it crossed the 70th line of latitude, an arbitrary, meaningless, imaginary line on the Earth’s surface, but one I still somehow thought it was cool to be north of. All was quiet in Skjervøy. The skies were blue and the sun shone. I wandered through the empty streets for a bit, stopped in a Narvesen and bought a coffee and an ice cream, and then sat outside in the sun, enjoying being way up here, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The peace was disrupted only when the Hurtigruten appeared. With a blast of its horn, it alerted the town that now was the time to head for the harbour if anyone wanted to catch it. I headed down and boarded. The way forward for me now was south.
Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010
My day in Tromsø started badly. Somehow I’d imagined there would be breakfast at the hostel, and with breakfast one normally gets coffee. But there wasn’t, and I had no supplies. I was a long way from town, and for a moment the day looked bleak. But then I found out that they sold coffee in the reception, at outrageous prices. I happily handed over a wodge of kroner, drank the mediocre brew, and then headed out into a bright warm day. I had no plans, except a vague thought that I’d like to get a boat somewhere. I walked into the city, and down to the quay, but I couldn’t find any useful-looking information about what was going where. I parted with another wodge of kroner in a Narvesen, a wonderful chain of Norwegian shops where the frugal foreign visitor can stave off malnutrition with sliced of pizza for only 15 NOK, which is half the price of a bottle of coke. And then by chance I wandered into the tourist information office, and by chance I picked up a leaflet about Skjervøy, a village to the north of Tromsø. It turned out I could travel there by bus, [...]
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 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010
The day after our hike we headed back to the mainland, sailing back across the Firth of Clyde in beautiful weather. I had a night train to catch back to London, a prospect which made me slightly nervous after my last experience. I ended up getting to the station a bit ridiculously early, which is definitely not my normal habit but I was too paranoid to take any risks. Last time I’d got a night train back to London it had been so quiet that I was the only person in the carriage I was on. This time it was very different. The volcano I’d seen erupting just a few days earlier had now gone crazy, spewing out such a vast ash cloud that huge swathes of European airspace were closed. The night train was full of volcano refugees. It was not a particularly relaxing journey, but at least I was on it this time. I got back to London at 6.45am, tired from an intense week of travel. I was supposed to be flying to Frankfurt later the same day for work, and I was pretty relieved when the epic eruption meant my flight was cancelled. I went home [...]
Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010
We followed the river back towards Brodick. The walk in the valley was not as interesting as the hiking in the fells had been, but the scenery was still impressive. The interior of the island was impressively wild, with no significant signs of human habitation to be seen. It always surprises me, a world traveller but an insular London resident, that there are places like this in the UK. I should go to them more often.
Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010
After the meeting I went to the Isle of Arran to do a bit of hiking with another astronomer friend. We got the train to Ardrossan, and the ferry from there to Brodick. I didn’t know much about the island – we’d just picked it as somewhere easy to get to where we could do some hiking and climbing. As we pulled into the harbour at Brodick I knew we’d made a good choice – the hills looked rugged and inviting. We’d also made an excellent choice by deciding to stay at the Fell View guest house, one of the most hospitable places I’ve stayed anywhere on my travels. Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. It was good walking weather. We hiked up to the 874m summit in a couple of hours, and got some fantastic views over the island. In the far distance, the ferry was pulling out of Brodick on its way to Ardrossan. On the other side of the peak we took a circuitous route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope [...]
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 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010
The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless. Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that. Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view. It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
We climbed the road. Before too long there was snow on the ground around us. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before very long we were 700m above sea level. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up. It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
We passed Seljalandsfoss, and after a couple of hours we reached Hvolsvöllur. Seven vehicles were attempting the trip, and tiny Hvolsvöllur was briefly overrun by volcano tourists. I bought a coffee and weirdly spotted someone who I’d met in Greenland last year. I didn’t have time to say hello before we were back in the jeep and heading onwards. We reached a turning where a rough dirt track disappeared into the mist. Somewhere up in the clouds were the Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers, and in between the two, a split in the Earth’s crust from which molten rock was spurting. It hardly seemed possible. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressures and coordinate the convoy, and then we headed uphill. Our route would take us high up onto the Myrdalsjökull, and then down into the pass.
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
Sunday morning dawned wild and rainy. It was beginning to look like my frivolous blowing of several hundred pounds was going to be in vain. My distant glimpse of the volcano from the plane might be my only sighting of it. Still, I hadn’t told anyone I was coming to Iceland as I felt that it might jinx the trip, so I could just not mention it. I had time to kill. I was waiting for the phone call that would tell me if I could go to the volcano or not, and I stomped anxiously around town. The day seemed to drag on ridiculously, but eventually my phone rang. There was a chance, they told me, that there would be a break in the weather. Just a chance, and no guarantee of anything, but would I like to take the risk? I certainly would, I told them. I headed back to the hostel, and a vehicle appeared at 4.30pm. I met the driver, Árni, and my fellow travellers Diana from Portugal and two Swedes who lived in Algeria. We headed out of Reykjavík. We stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts, and Árni said that this was our [...]
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 03, 2010 in Barcelona 2010
After a couple of days of living well in Barcelona, eating good food and drinking lots of coffee, we took a trip out to Tarragona. It was a warm spring day and a nice journey down the coast of Catalunya. The old town reminded me a little bit of Mdina in Malta. Narrow streets wound between brown stone buildings and every corner led to an interesting view. Newer parts of town were quite different. I liked the Rambla Nova, particularly when I found a food stand selling churros filled with dulce de leche – a neat combination of two of my favourite food items. We spent the day in Tarragona much as we had spent the days in Barcelona, relaxing and enjoying good food and drink. It was a shame the day had to end but I had a flight to catch. We got a train back to Barcelona, and I headed home. It had been a great few days of post-Herschel relaxation.
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 [...]
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 [...]
Sep 08, 2009 in Pub quizzes
This is the 18th time we’ve set a Prince of Wales quiz, but tonight we’ve made a drastic change to the arrangements. Instead of the usual mix of questions from all of us, It’s just me and Oli setting it, and Stu and Ivan are here to compete. Next time out, they’ll set it, and Oli and I will compete. I’m kind of hoping Stu and Ivan don’t win because if they do it will surely reek of a fix. I set the first and last rounds; Oli does the middle two and the beer round. Oli’s questions are definitely harder than mine; one team who had felt pretty confident after the first round say that they “feel raped” after the second. Even with 15 teams in the house and only two of us to mark the answers, we manage not to over-run as horrifically as we normally do, and it’s on to the Snowball. As always these days, there is more than £1000 in the pot. As Chris starts cranking up the tension, I’m suddenly accosted by someone nerdy-looking. Apparently he didn’t even take part in the quiz but has some bizarre objection to one of my questions. I [...]
Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I got the bus back to the airport at 5am. I watched the Icelandic scenery in the morning sunshine, not really wanting to leave. At the airport, I checked in, and then walked outside the airport for one last look at the country. The airport car park did not seem likely to provide me with a nostalgic memory, but to my amazement, in the far distance, there again was Snæfell. My totem for this trip had shown itself once again. It was a sign, a clear and unmistakable sign that this would not be my last trip to Iceland. I was looking forward to the next one already.
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 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I got a bus to Þingvellir. I’d wanted to go here last time but we hadn’t had time. I’d always thought it sounded like a pretty awesome place so I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It was a hot sunny day again, and Iceland was in a fantastic summery mood. We stopped in Laugarvatn and I bought an ice cream. At Þingvellir the bus normally stops at the Hotel Valhöll, but startlingly the Hotel Valhöll had burned down the previous night. Emergency service cordons blocked the road. We took a detour and stopped at the national park service centre. I went for a walk. The summery weather had changed a bit, and it was overcast. This was good. I’d always imagined that Þingvellir would be forbidding and atmospheric, and the hot sun didn’t really work for me. Under grey skies I liked the place a lot. I walked down huge chasms, finally reaching the site of the Alþingi. There was a sense of history. Here was where Iceland defined its nationality. Here was where the first settlers met each year to pass laws. And here was where two continents drifting apart were slowly tearing the country into two. [...]
Jul 11, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I stopped a night at Geysir. We’d stayed here ten years ago, and for some reason we’d copped out and stayed in the hotel. Not in proper rooms or anything, a cheapo dorm in the loft where we were allowed to lay our sleeping bags onto wooden boards, but still I’d have preferred to be outside. So this time I camped, and it was good to be here again. It’s touristy here, very very touristy. Hundreds of people mill around during the day, and I found the sight of name-tagged travellers following guides with little flags very depressing. I amused myself by watching people fail to understand what geysers do. It was a breezy day, and every time Strokkur erupted, masses of hot steaming water would fall back onto the ground nearby, marking out a large wet streak stretching away from the geyser. To me it seemed obvious that standing there would make you get wet. It wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. I watched one guy standing right in the target zone. Strokkur erupted; he took lots of pictures; he realised he was about to get very wet; he turned and ran; he tripped and fell; he lay [...]
Jul 09, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
As we drove back to Reykjavík I saw the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. Red Eldfell and green Helgafell looked familiar and I remembered the great times I’d had on Heimaey. I was tempted to go back but I had new places to go. I spent a night in Reykjavík, limping about with a foot injury that had suddenly flared up, and then I headed out into the interior again. I got a bus across the Kjölur route to Hveravellir. It was an Icelandic nostalgia trip at first as we passed through Hveragerði and Selfoss, and then stopped at Geysir and Gulfoss. After that, we were into new territory for me. The tarmac stopped and we were in parts of Iceland that are only accessible for three months each year. We rumbled on. It was a sunny day and it was really hot inside the bus. The landscape was desert-like. We stopped a few times on the way at points of vague interest, and every time we did I was slightly shocked to get off the bus and feel cool air. We got to Hveravellir in the early afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky. I spoke [...]
Jul 07, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I didn’t go back for it. On the other side of the river was something strange and astonishing, an Icelandic forest. I’d never seen one of these before and I felt like I was in a different country as I walked through the woods. An hour or so later I reached a sign saying Þórsmörk and I was nearly done. I walked to Langidalur. My guide book said there was a shop here. There was but it was closed, and the place was more or less deserted. A vehicle had got stuck in one of the massive glacial rivers here and was being pulled out by a tractor, but otherwise nothing much was happening. I walked to Húsadalur, home valley, and it turned out this was where everything happens at Þórsmörk. I pitched my tent and rested my weary feet. I was done. Landmannalaugar’s hot pool is one of my favourite places on the planet, and my guide book said there was a geothermal hot pool here as well. I’d been looking forward to it. In the end, it was massively disappointing – it was hardly warm at all and far from spending hours in there recovering, I spent about [...]
Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I left Emstrur early. I had just a few hours to go to finish the job I’d started ten years before, and I was in a good mood. The trail started with a steep descent, so steep that it required a little bit of abseiling, using a handily-placed rope. A bridge crossed the Ytri-Emstruá river, and then the trail reached the point where that and the Markarfljót joined. One was dark grey and the other was light grey, and the different shades flowed side by side. I followed the course of the Markarfljót. The trail was flat, it was warm and sunny, and I made fast progress. Then the trail turned steeply upwards for a while, and the views got more and more amazing the higher I got. I reached a ridge, and far below I could see what looked like a modest river. The path dropped down towards it, and the closer I got, the more I could see how much I’d underestimated it. By the time I got to its banks I could see it was not going to be easy. I was glad to meet a couple of Dutch hikers who had just crossed. If I fell [...]
Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
When I got up the next morning it was raining hard. I spoke to the warden at the hut, and he reckoned it would start to clear in a couple of hours. So I waited before setting off. I tried to write my journal but my hands were too cold, so I wandered along the lake as the drizzle eased off. The warden was right. After a couple of hours it was no longer raining, so I set off. The going was much easier than yesterday, and I set a furious pace again. Having started late, I found there were quite a few people on the trail in front of me. After a steep climb down to a bridge over a wild river, I found a huge dusty expanse in front of me, with five or six groups of hikers strung out across it. I like targets when I’m doing things like this, and I chased them down during the day. The trail crossed a few more rivers. They were all brutally cold but not too difficult to cross. They were quite welcome, amid the desert-like scenery. Grey dust blew about, and there was hardly any vegetation or colour to [...]
Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out. Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk. Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and [...]
Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
Early the next morning I got up and left. The word yesterday had been the the wardens would try to stop anyone setting off who didn’t have a GPS system, the weather was that bad. I didn’t have a GPS; I just had a map, a compass, three days of supplies and a wild desire to trek. So I looked shiftily about, saw no wardens, and hurried onto the trail. I set a blazing pace. The early part of the trail was extremely familiar and I felt like I remembered every footstep as I crossed an old lava flow, to a heavenly meadow on the other side where I remembered thinking it would be awesome to camp. In 40 minutes, I was at the ignominious spot. I passed the spirits of three defeated youths, reluctantly picking up their too-heavy packs to trudge back to the hut. I gave a thought to my younger self and pushed on into unknown parts. The trail climbed. Soon I had incredible views over ancient lava fields and hills coloured red and green and all sorts of colours that rocks normally aren’t. I passed Stórihver, a hole in the rocks which belched out jets of [...]
Jul 04, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I’d been here before. Ten years ago, we planned to hike the legendary Laugavegur, a three day crossing of some of Iceland’s wildest scenery. We’d given up after a matter of a couple of hours, not through any desire of mine but because my two travelling companions didn’t fancy it. In retrospect I could see we would have had a miserable time if we’d carried on but still I left with a powerful sense of unfinished business. If there was one thing I wanted to do on this trip, it was to finish the job. So I got an early morning bus to Landmannalaugar. Even if the hike had been a failure, Landmannalaugar had been one of my favourite places in Iceland. The weather was unremittingly foul and bleak and that only made me like it more. The sombre mountains just seemed so atmospheric and wild to me then. Wallowing in nostalgia, I listened to 7:30 by the Frank and Walters as we rumbled along the Fjallabak road to the back of beyond. It was almost like I’d just rewound ten years. Rain was battering down on Landmannalaugar, which looked as familiar as if I’d been there yesterday. I really, [...]
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. [...]
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 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. All across the caldera, the scenery was desert-like, and here, a small church amongst the yellow sands made it look like the set of a Western. The walk across had been quite quiet, but here there was a steady succession of cars and buses arriving, disgorging their contents of tourists who swarmed over the trails around the giant rock pillars, then got back into their transport and disappeared. I had seen pictures of these rocks before, but didn’t appreciate until now just how huge they were. Few pictures of them show that they are many times taller than a person. I took some photos that also failed to show their height well. Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Only a few hours separated my standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa with my being back in London, getting a night bus home. Every time I go back to the Canary Islands I like them more, and already I was wondering when I’d next get the chance to visit.
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
I headed back down. I had some time before the bus down was coming, so I decided to walk from the cable car station to the Roques de Garcia, a lava formation a couple of miles away. It was January, I was a couple of thousand metres above sea level, but still it was hot walking weather in the midday sun. The walk wasn’t too exciting but the views back up to the peak of the volcano were impressive. The cone had an obvious bulge on one side, and I could see why geologists think it might collapse next time there’s an eruption here.
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
But the next day, the storm had passed, and the day dawned clear and fresh. My target was Teide: the highest point in the Atlantic, a mountain I’d flown over a few times, and many times seen from the top of La Palma 90 miles away. It’s claimed that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, but I found that hard to believe as I got on the one bus a day that goes over the island to the mountain. In the warm January sunshine we chugged up the road. Once we were up at high altitude the scenery was impressive, and we drove across a desert-like plain to get to the cable car station. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain; at 3,718m above sea level it was higher than anywhere I’d been since coming down from El Misti three years earlier. But I wasn’t planning to climb it. Time was limited and I took the easy route, getting the phenomenally expensive cable car to the summit area. I would have liked to go to the very top, but the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary permit defeated me, and it turned [...]
Jan 24, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
By coincidence, a friend of mine was on holiday nearby, and we met up in Puerto de la Cruz, on the coast below La Orotava. It’s a short distance but the bus journey was slow as it wound its way down the twisty roads. Puerto de la Cruz was much more touristy than La Laguna or La Orotava. The weather was nicer, too, at first, and we got a meal on the main square. Here I had troubles, as I often do in Spain, as a result of being a vegetarian. As we looked at the menu, the waiter began to recommend dishes, all meaty. Wondering if they had anything good without flesh in it, I said “Soy vegetariano”. “Ah, Italiano!”, said the waiter, and brought me an Italian language menu. As we ate, clouds were coming in. We walked down to the sea, watching legions of large dark crabs scuttling across the rocks on the foreshore. The waves rolled in off the Atlantic, and there was a mood of foreboding over Puerto de la Cruz. My friend had to drive back to the south coast of the island, so I said goodbye to her and caught a bus back [...]
Jan 24, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
On another grey misty morning in La Laguna, I walked to the bus station to ship out to warmer parts. I headed for La Orotava, on the west side of the island. The bus didn’t take long, and as we headed down the motorway the weather got a bit better. La Orotava is a hilly town, and the place I was staying was at the top of a very steep road. Once I’d recovered, I headed back down to have a look around. The views over the town’s colonial architecture to the sea were nicer than the views of La Laguna in the drizzle had been.
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 07, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
The ossuary was much smaller than I’d thought it would be. I imagined caverns and tunnels all filled with bones, but it was just the one room. So, the possibilities there were quickly exhausted. We headed into the centre of town to see what there was there. It was a long walk through grim suburbs, but Kutna Hora turned out to be really picturesque. For one thing, there was hardly anyone here. The town was dead, most things were closed, and it was a relief to be out of the Prague crowds. In the peace and quiet of the Sunday afternoon, we had a look around. Wanting to find out when the trains to Prague left, we went to a tourist information office. They gave us train information, which was good, and they gave us coffee, which was very good. It was getting pretty cold out, and so this was a life saver.
Dec 07, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
In the hostel that evening, I was in the kitchen cooking some food, and some other people were talking about various travels they’d done. One of them seemed to have been to an awful lot of places. It had been a while since I’d met anyone who had travelled more than I have, so I joined in the conversation. He turned out to have been to more than 100 countries, annoyingly. The next day I decided to go to Kutna Hora. I met my travelling rival over breakfast, and he was also going that way. We walked to the station, talking about various places we’d been. There were some countries I’d been to that he hadn’t, but not many. We were going to Kutna Hora mainly because it contains the Sedlec Ossuary. 600 years ago, a church was built, and the site they chose to build it on was a mass grave for victims of plagues and wars. For reasons unknown, they decided to dig up thousands of skeletons, and then arrange the bones artistically in the new church. Seeing piles of skulls reminded me of photos I’d seen of memorials in Cambodia and Rwanda. Seeing strings of skulls strung [...]
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 23, 2008 in Balkans 2008
On the last day of my trip, we went for a drive in the mountains. We headed out towards Metsovo, to the Pindus National Park. We had wanted to go hiking, but it turned out the national park office was closed this week and we couldn’t get any information about the trails. So we decided to just drive up interesting trails, and found ourselves going through some seriously remote forest. Eventually we reached a clearing where a lone shepherd was tending his flock. The track after here became impassable, so we turned around and headed back. We took another road into a different part of the forest. We wound up in another clearing near a river, where we stopped and hiked downstream a bit. There was no-one else around and the woods were calm and peaceful, except for the distant bark of sheepdogs. It was getting late and we had to head off. Back where the car was parked, some shepherds were working and their dogs were pretty aggressive. They chased the car, barking furiously as we drove, and followed us for quite a while. Eventually we shook them off. Then, we rounded a corner and saw a large animal [...]
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 22, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I got a shared taxi to the Greek border. I asked how much it would be in hacky Albanian, and understood that it would be either 500 or 5000 lekë. 5000 would have been about 30 pounds so I assumed it was 500. I did slightly fear an ugly situation at the border when I handed over my 500 lek note, but luckily I’d assumed correctly. I walked across the border. Waiting for me on the other side was my friend Iraklis, who was from these parts and was here over the summer. It was strange to see a familiar face from London at the border with Albania, but very welcome. My trip would finish with three days in north-western Greece, staying with Iraklis in Ioannina. We drove from the border straight up to the village of Monodendri, where legend had it we could obtain the best pie in Greece. But when we got there, the famous pie restaurant was closed and we had to make do with the second best. From there we hiked a bit of a way down the Vikos Gorge, supposedly the deepest in the world relative to its width. It was impressive. We hiked until [...]
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 18, 2008 in Balkans 2008
Macedonian buses were very organised compared to the others I’d been travelling on. My ticket had a seat number, which I didn’t notice until a girl evicted me. She was very helpful, pointed me to the right place, and helped me to evict the guy who was in my place. After that it was plain sailing across the rugged Balkan scenery to Lake Ohrid. Ohrid town was roasting. I walked into town and found myself a place to stay. Some people I’d met in Bosnia were there, and it was fun to see them again. We relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lake until the air cooled enough to move, and then we went out for fun times in the town. The next day I did some sightseeing. Ohrid town is overflowing with churches and monasteries. I wandered the narrow streets, winding up to the castle where there were amazing views over the lake to the misty hills of Albania on the opposite shore. Ohrid could have been addictive. If I’d had a lot more time I’d have happily spent a week here, relaxing in cafes and by the lake. But Albania was calling me, and all too soon I [...]
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 13, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I had a choice when I got to Podgorica – head into the mountains of Montenegro, or move on to Kosovo. I had a brief look outside the bus station, and immediately decided to wait one hour here for the bus to Žabljak, rather than wait six hours for the bus to Priština. It was a good decision. The journey into the hinterlands of Montenegro was amazing. Before very long we were in rugged and remote scenery, wild mountains with waterfalls and streams, all covered in lush green forests. Between tiny settlements where people got on and off, there was little sign of human habitation. We arrived in Žabljak just after sunset. I wondered if it would turn out to have been a bad idea to arrive in a popular mountain town late on a weekend evening in the summer, but I found a room easily enough, in a house owned by a woman called Dragana. In the morning I went for a walk to Crno Jezero, Black Lake. It was not far out of town and it was a nice walk through the forest. The lake was quiet, and impressive, with towering rocky peaks and dense forest around it. [...]
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.
Mar 31, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
The annual National Astronomy Meeting was being held in Belfast. Having never been to Northern Ireland, I thought I would go, and feeling environmentally conscientious I decided to travel overland. My train/boat ticket from London to Belfast and back was the same price as a flight, and I’d see all the nations in the British Isles on the way. My journey started with a train from Euston to Holyhead. It was raining when I left London, but sunny in Wales, as I got on the ferry for the three hour journey across the Irish Sea to Dublin.
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
Our journey up the coast gave us some fantastic views of the sun setting over Denmark across the water. We arrived in Halmstad after dark, with our main aim being to check out the night life. But before we could do that, we needed somewhere to stay. My guide book said there was a place 4km out of town, towards the E6 motorway, so we headed out in that direction. We walked, and walked, and walked, and I began to regret wearing shoes that I’d only bought a couple of days previously, as my feet began to hurt. We walked on, and I started cursing Eldrik for travelling with a ridiculous wheely suitcase thing instead of an obviously more practical backpack. The constant rumbling got a bit tiring after a few kilometres, and eventually he started wheeling on the grass. After about an hour, we began to think that we weren’t in the right place. The hostel was supposedly on Växjögatan, and Eldrik grabbed a passer-by to practise his Swedish on. I could just about follow the gist of the conversation, and it went something like “Excuse me. Do you know if Växjögatan is near here?” “Växjögatan? I’ve never heard [...]
Jan 19, 2008 in Sweden and Denmark 2008
When we got to the station, we found that the next train to Halmstad wasn’t for another hour and a half. We decided that as it was only a couple of miles away, we might as well pop over to Denmark while we were here, and so we jumped on a ferry heading across the sound. We stood on the deck in the howling gales, and watched Kronborg Castle approaching. Once we’d docked, we had about twenty minutes to spare for a quick walk around town, before we had to get on the ferry back over to Sweden.
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 02, 2007 in Malta 2007
The next day I breakfasted again on espresso and kinnie, and then headed out for a look at the south of the island. My first target was the Dingli Cliffs, and I got a ferry to Valletta and then a bus to Dingli. I walked in hot sun down to the south coast of Malta, where I found a fairly dramatic drop into the sea, but not the 300m sheer drop that my guide book spoke about. Still, I walked east, enjoying being in the middle of the Mediterranean. And as I went east, the cliffs grew higher. Eventually they were almost as impressive as my guide book had said they would be. From where I was, it was a long way down to the water.
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 17, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
Braşov had an addictively laid-back vibe, and I spent another couple of days there doing nothing much at all but enjoying the fresh mountain air and sunshine. Eventually it was time to move on – I wanted to see a bit of Bucharest before flying back home – so I got a train to Sinaia, another mountain town on the line to Bucharest. I wanted to go up its famous cable car, which takes you up to an altitude of some 2200m, high in the Bucegi Mountains, but I’d picked the wrong day – it’s closed on Mondays. I had to content myself with a short walk into the hills and a look at Peleş Castle, which was massively more impressive than Bran Castle. Then I walked back to the station and got the train to Bucharest. The sun was setting and I had a great journey under blazing red skies. I got to Bucharest late in the evening, jumped on the metro and headed for a hostel.
Sep 15, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
I wanted to cycle to Bran while I was in Braşov. It’s about 20km away and is the site of castle, claimed on scant but tourist-attracting grounds to be Dracula’s castle. But it was the weekend, and all the bike shops in Braşov were closed, so I reluctantly headed out to the autogara and got a bus. I watched sadly as the nice flat tarmac round wound through the mountains to Bran, and then managed to miss Bran completely because it was far smaller than I’d expected. Seeing a sign saying ‘you are now leaving Bran’, I got off the bus and walked back towards the castle. I saw it now, on top of a hill. Its location was pretty impressive, but it hardly looked mediaeval or terrifying, and when I got back into Bran itself I was confronted with a horrendous tourist nightmare of Dracula souvenirs, sold by people wearing fangs and capes, and decided to head back to Braşov as quickly as possible. The only thing I liked about the town was the view of distant snowy mountains behind it. When I got back to Braşov the sun had just set. Earlier, I’d got a bus from the [...]
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 [...]
Jun 25, 2007 in La Palma 2007
Fearsomely early the next morning we headed to the port of Santa Cruz to get a boat back to Los Cristianos. The dawn views as we sped through the archipelago were pretty amazing, and sunbeams lit Los Cristianos as we approached. At the airport we found that Thomas Cook could also be added to the Canary Islands transport blacklist, as they were running an extortionate excess luggage scam. Somehow their scales suggested that we’d acquired more than ten kilos of luggage since we had left London, and we had to pay some ridiculous fee. Next time I come to La Palma I’m getting the boat from Cádiz.
Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007
I don’t think any visit to La Palma would be complete without a visit to the Roque de los Muchachos. I particularly like going there early in the morning after a long night at the telescope, when it’s always empty. We drove up there, via the steep and twisting back road. It seemed strange to come up here and not check in at the Residencia, but we drove on past and headed to the top. Then we walked out onto the rocky ridge which juts out into the caldera. I took the same photos I take every time I’m up there. I think I’ve photographed every possible view, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave without some new versions of them. We headed back down the road to Santa Cruz. We’d both been victims of the legendary Lionel, who always drives astronomers to the top, but who knows the roads far too well and sweeps around the hairpins like a Canarian Fangio. Trips to the top with him are all about trying not to throw up. Because of this, I drove down in at a sedate and non-chunder-inducing pace, but still just fast enough to get us back to our [...]
Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007
We drove north. Our plans were vague but involved following the coast road around the north end of the island, so we were quite surprised when the road swung far inland. We presumed we were still on the main road so we carried on, but it got narrower and narrower, and higher and higher. When we started to pass through tunnels which were just hewn from the bare rock, we decided we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere. We guessed that if we carried on, we’d get back to the main road. After an hour or so we began descending again, and eventually we did reach the right road. As we rounded a turn to look south, we could suddenly see the Isaac Newton Telescope perched on the mountain top high above us. We decided to head up there.
Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007
As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, a lush forest often described in guidebooks as a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike. The views at the top over the forest were worth the effort though.
Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007
We kicked off the second day of our island tour with a drive up the east coast to San Andrés. Heavy skies threatened, but it stayed dry. San Andrés is famous for its well preserved colonial architecture, but what I found much more striking was the phenomenal quantity of lizards around town. They were everywhere, and whenever I stopped to look around I could see ten or fifteen of them.
Jun 23, 2007 in La Palma 2007
From Tazacorte we headed inland, planning just to head back to Santa Cruz. But we passed a sign to ‘La Cumbrecita’ and thought we’d investigate. The road led us through the forests in the centre of the island, and eventually became a single-track dirt road. We were not sure if we would be coming to anything worth seeing, but La Cumbrecita turned out to be pretty awesome. When we reached a small car park at the end of the road, we found ourselves on the south side of the caldera, with a spectacular view across to the northern side. Mist was pooling in the caldera, and clouds were flowing over its walls, evaporating as they tumbled down.
Jun 23, 2007 in La Palma 2007
We drove up the west coast of the island. It feels pretty remote out that way – there are no tourist resorts, and it is thinly populated. We stopped for a fantastic coffee in an empty bar in the desolate hamlet of San Nicolás, then drove on to Tazacorte. The island is dominated by the vast Caldera de Taburiente, a giant crater whose walls rise two kilometres above its centre, and Tazacorte is perfectly situated for amazing views into the crater. Tazacorte’s main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for some of the conquistadores who were on their way to colonise Latin America. Today it betrays no hint that it would ever be worthwhile for any ship to call in. While observing on the mountain top on previous trips I’d seen the lights of Tazacorte shining far below, but from here I couldn’t spot the telescopes on the crater rim.
Jun 23, 2007 in La Palma 2007
A week of conference passed largely uneventfully, except that I was ambushed by an astronomer who didn’t like the results I’d presented in my talk. We had a chat in which he outlined his objections, which was very useful, because it meant that when I wrote the paper I could cover the points he raised, and avoid a referee complaining about the same things. Along with Nick, another UCL astronomer, I was staying on the island for the weekend after the conference. We hired a car early on the Saturday morning and headed south, with the plan of driving around the whole island over the two days. Our first stop was the volcanoes at the southern end of the island. On my last visit to the island eight months previously I’d driven from Santa Cruz to the volcanic end in thick mist and heavy rain. This time, the weather was much better. So much so, in fact, that I got horribly sunburnt within about twenty minutes of arriving at Volcán San Antonio. But I still enjoyed the great views over the ocean from San Antonio, and the barren red rocks of Teneguía.
Jun 17, 2007 in La Palma 2007
Astronomers often need to go to La Palma, because it’s the nearest world class observatory to the UK. This was my fourth trip, but for once it was not to use the telescope. There was a conference being held and I was going to give a talk. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get to La Palma. I now boycott Iberia, who provide the most convenient flights but who charge for food and drinks and apparently find it difficult to imagine that there’d be more than one vegetarian on board. For this trip I decided to fly to Tenerife with someone called Globespan Airlines, and get a boat from there to La Palma. My flight was delayed six hours and now Globespan Airlines are also on the list of airlines I’ll never fly with if I can possibly help it, but the boat was a fantastic journey. The sun was setting as we left the port of Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife, and Fred Olsen’s Benchijigua Express is an impressively fast trimaran. We sped across the waves, watching the sun set and the moon rise, with Tenerife receding behind us, La Palma approaching, and the smaller islands of La Gomera [...]
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, [...]
Dec 02, 2006 in Finland 2006
I found my way from the train station to the bus station. It was only a short walk but a thick layer of ice covered the streets and I slid wildly along, probably causing much amusement for the few Finns who were out and about. They seemed to have no trouble keeping their balance and leaving the streets icy seemed to me like a cruel way to spot outsiders. It took me a while to work out the bus timetables at the station – I thought I’d cracked it but a couple of buses that should have turned up didn’t. The mystery was solved when I found out the Finnish words for ‘arrivals’ and ‘departures’. I got the right timetable, found a bus going to Kemijärvi, bought a snack and headed north. It was 1.30pm, and the sun had just set. The small but comfortable bus rolled out of Rovaniemi and headed north. Snow was beginning to fall and before long we’d left the city behind and were in thick forest. The ‘official’ home of Santa Claus is a major tourist attraction here, and his home lies right on the Arctic Circle, so there was no mistaking the moment we [...]
Dec 01, 2006 in Finland 2006
On my first trip to Finland I hadn’t seen anything of Tampere beyond the train station. Arriving back there three years later was like a bizarre and intense déjà vu experience. As I had last time, I struggled for a while with ticket machines that unfortunately only display Swedish and Finnish text. I could work out how to buy a ticket in Swedish, but was not quite confident enough to actually put my card in the machine and so I decided to buy a ticket on the train instead. With a couple of hours to kill, I went for a walk around Tampere. It was late on a Friday night and things were pretty raucous. My guide book described Tampere as ‘the Manchester of Finland’, and just like northern girls back home, Finnish girls were wearing amazingly few clothes given the near-freezing temperatures. I walked up the main street beyond the centre, through a park, down to the river and then back into town, found a take-away pizza shop and took a giant vegetarian pizza back to the station. My train arrived just after 1am. I got on board and sought out a conductor, but none seemed to be around. [...]
Oct 29, 2006 in La Palma 2006
I had a weekend to spare after my observing run, and I had thought I might drive around the island. But I hadn’t got to Santa Cruz until late on the Saturday afternoon, so that just left Sunday. I set off south and thought I would see how far I got. It was sunny when I left Santa Cruz, and for the first twenty minutes the drive was great. The main road south climbed up inland, giving views over the sea and the cliffs. But then suddenly I was in thick cloud and more or less zero visibility. I had to drive at about 15 miles an hour for a lot of the way to Fuencaliente at the south end of the island. I parked up near Volcán San Antonio, one of the two recently active volcanoes at this end of the island. For half an hour I could do nothing but sit in the car as the rain lashed down. It stopped, eventually, and I rushed out to do a quick walk around the crater. Then I drove on to the other volcano, Teneguía, and climbed over scenery that emerged from the ground in 1971 to the summit. Through [...]
Oct 28, 2006 in La Palma 2006
Driving down the mountain was much less fun than driving up it had been. There was thick cloud most of the way down, and when I got to Santa Cruz it was raining. It kept on raining for the whole of the evening, and I decided that La Palma in October was not as nice as La Palma in August had been.
Oct 27, 2006 in La Palma 2006
During the fourth night, all was going smoothly. The air was dry, the skies were clear, and I was running as quickly through my observing programme as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of hours, the telescope control system started beeping – the humidity was higher than the telescope could take and I had to close everything down quickly. A few minutes later it had dropped right back down. I opened up again and carried on. It did this a couple more times during the night. At 5.45am I closed up and I couldn’t open again. By dawn, the mountain was in thick cloud. The visibility was about ten metres, and the NOT quickly disappeared from sight as I drove back to the Residencia.
Oct 26, 2006 in La Palma 2006
The next night was also lost. I spent a miserable twelve hours in the telescope control room, thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d travelled two thousands miles just to sit in a small room on top of a mountain in thick cloud and do nothing. But on the third night, as I drove up to the telescope, the cloud level was dropping and there was an incredible sunset. As I got to the lip of the caldera, I could see towns lighting up far below. It was wildly windy and the car was rocking but before long it was calm enough to open the dome, and I started actually observing.
Oct 24, 2006 in La Palma 2006
The next day when I rolled up the shutters in my room, I was taken aback to see that the perfect conditions had gone, and rain was whipping past my window. Conditions stayed appalling throughout the day. At 4pm I was supposed to meet my support astronomer at the Nordic Optical Telescope, so I could learn how to use it. I set off, but the rain was utterly torrential, and after a few minutes of driving at walking pace and not being able to see beyond the end of the bonnet, I turned back. The first night looked like being completely lost, but I decided to stay up until dawn anyway. A few people on other telescopes also optimistically stayed up; most went to bed. I kept an eye on the weather station data from within the comfort of the Residencia. At 5am there was drama. Conditions were suddenly dramatically improving, and observers were hurrying to their cars to get to the telescope. I stayed where I was: the NOT is the highest telescope on the island, and its weather sensors were still telling me it was too humid and too windy to open the dome. About twenty minutes later [...]
Oct 23, 2006 in La Palma 2006
After two and a half years out of astronomy, I returned to the field in September 2006. Shortly after that, I got an opportunity to go observing again, and my third trip to La Palma was wonderful. When I left astronomy, I didn’t know whether I would ever try to get back into it, and I thought that in all likelihood my two trips to La Palma would be my lot. On both of those two trips, the taxi to the mountain top had been a nightmare. This time, I was observing at a telescope which didn’t have cars on the mountain top for the observer’s use, so I needed to drive myself up. This was massively more fun than getting the taxi, and I was laughing like a fool as I swept around the hairpins. If I’d had a passenger, they would have been chundering within seconds. At the top, conditions were perfect. The humidity was so low that I got violent electric shocks off everything I touched, the skies were deep blue, and the stars shone brightly. Unfortunately I was not observing until the next night. I watched the sun set over a sea of clouds, then stayed [...]
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 09, 2006 in Denmark and Sweden 2006
I went to Humlebæk the next day. I wanted to see more of Denmark than just Copenhagen, and at Humlebæk there is the Louisiana contemporary art gallery, so I headed up there. It was a beautiful day. Louisiana is right by the Øresund, and it was easily clear enough to see Sweden across the water. I wandered through the gallery, breaking out a couple of times to sit in the sun by the sea. There was a lot of good art on show, and even apart from the art, the gallery itself was impressive. In the evening I went out to try to find somewhere to watch the world cup final. Four years earlier I’d watched the final in a bar in Sanlitun in Beijing, where some expat Germans almost got into a brawl after someone tried to take the seats they’d marked out earlier in the classic German style. This evening there were no such problem. I found a cafe in Norrebrø that was showing the game. Earlier in the competition, the Italians had utterly robbed Australia by diving to get a last-minute penalty, so I was very much supporting France. With extra time running out, there was suddenly [...]
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 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 31, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
It had been a long day, starting as it had at 5am in Aydin. I was tired as I boarded the train, and would have loved to go to sleep straight away. But just as we pulled out of Denizli, my carriage filled up with boisterous young Turks. The three in my carriage were very friendly, sharing food and practising their very basic English. This mainly consisted of the two boys pointing at the girl and saying “prostitute!”. which she responded to by pointing at one of the boys and saying “wanker!”. They probably thought I was pretty unsociable – I was too tired to make much of an effort to get over the language barrier. Night fell over central Turkey. In the morning, I woke up feeling very angry with my guide book for stating in no uncertain terms that buses were always better than trains in Turkey – I’d slept fantastically, and as I had a morning coffee in the restaurant car, we were rumbling along by the Sea of Marmara, with curls of mist slowly evaporating in the sun. This was far better than the night bus to Denizli. We got to Istanbul at 10.15am. We were [...]
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 24, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
As the sun was setting I walked north to the train station, to catch the train to Istanbul. At the station there seemed to be an organised scam operating, with people latching onto unsuspecting travellers, saying there were ‘tourist information’ and then demanding money for ‘help’ given. One of them spotted me looking at the departure board and ended up walking with me to the Istanbul platform. I gave him a couple of leva, worth about 60p, and he looked pretty offended. I saw another one further down the platform demanding five euros from a group of travellers. We left Sofia at 7.45pm, and for the first few hours I had a sleeping compartment to myself. At 11pm we reached Dimitrovgrad, and suddenly there was a lot of noise in the corridor. I could hear a lot of American accents, and from what I could gather there was a large group of them all trying to find spare beds. I had two, but I had liked having the compartment to myself and so I was considering quietly locking the door and ignoring them all, but then my conscience got the better of me. I opened the door and asked if [...]
Jul 13, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
The last place I visited before I left the Faroes was Nólsoy, a small island 20 minutes across the water from Tórshavn. Shortly after I arrived, a friendly local invited me in for a coffee – foolishly I spurned the offer as I wanted to walk to the south of the island before the next ferry left. I soon regretted that badly, as lashing rain left me utterly soaked within a few minutes, and I gave up on the walk and sheltered in the town instead.
Jul 13, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
From Suðuroy I headed back to Tórshavn, where I spent my last evening in the Faroes. It’s far from the most exciting of towns, but it’s nice enough, and its historical centre on the Tinganes peninsula is very picturesque.
Jul 12, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
Having seen a good bit of the northern islands, I headed down to the southernmost island of Suðuroy, where the weather is supposed to be nicer than up north. The weather was atrocious during my bus journey from Leirvík back to Tórshavn so I was hoping it would be true. In wild wind and rain I thought the ferry journey there might be a bit of a vomit run, but the M/F Smyril was a big ship and the run past Sandoy, Skúvoy and the wild islands of Lítla Dímun and Stóra Dímun was smooth and pleasant. I got off the ferry and onto a bus to Øravík. Øravík is a tiny settlement, but with great views over the wild north Atlantic, and a campsite and tiny hostel. I set up my tent in gale-force winds and driving rain, and then cooked dinner in the empty hostel building. I was the only tourist in Øravík by the look of things. From Øravík I got a bus to Famjín on the other side of the island, and walked back across the island over a high windy pass in the mountains. I asked the driver what time the bus was going back [...]
Jul 10, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
The Norwegians were going to get a boat from Hvannasund on the island of Viðoy, out past the island of Svinoy to the eastern-most island of Fugloy (Bird Island). I’d thought about doing that, and so I joined them for the trip. We drove from Klaksvík to Hvannasund, with a little look around some of the north-eastern islands on the way. It was an amazingly warm sunny day. At Hvannasund we got on the boat. The passengers looked to be about half locals and half travellers just out for the ride. For a mere 30 kronur, we could all spend a few hours chugging along through the islands, amongst some amazing north Atlantic scenery. The sun shone, the weather was calm and warm, and puffins dotted the waters. I watched the islands drift by. We stopped at Hattarvík, and I considered getting off and walking over the island to Kirkja, where the boat was going to call on its way back. But I wasn’t sure how long the walk would take, and getting stranded on Fugloy would be pretty inconvenient. So I stayed on the boat for the return journey. We stopped at Kirkja, and then at Svínoy. The incredible [...]
Jul 09, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
After I’d explored a bit of Eysturoy, I headed over to Borðoy and the Faroes’ second-largest town, Klaksvík. The journey involves getting the ferry from Leirvík to Klaksvík, which has been described as ‘one of the loveliest half-hour ferry rides anywhere’, and it was quite impressive. Sadly a tunnel is currently under construction which will probably lead to the demise of the route. In Klaksvík I camped at the free municipal site about a mile out of town. After I’d set up camp I walked into town to get some fuel for my stove. After I’d walked back out, I realised I didn’t have a lighter, so I walked back in again. After I’d walked four miles and was ravenously hungry, I found that the fuel pump on my stove had stopped working. Luckily, Doug from Alaska had just arrived at the campground and lent me his stove. It was my 27th birthday. After a misty day, 11pm saw the sun come out. It was surreal for it to be so bright, so late at night. Throughout my time in the Faroes, it never got dark, and I hardly slept. While I was in Klaksvík I met two friendly Norwegians [...]
Jul 08, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
I thought about staying another day to see if the weather improved, but with only a week to spare I decided to head on to other places. The campsite owner was driving to Eiði on the other side of the island to pick someone up, and offered me a lift. We had a good drive over the bleak highlands, stopping briefly to help two teenagers who had driven their car off the road, and then again to catch some fine views of Risin og Kellingin, two sea stacks which according to Norse legend were broken from the mainland by a troll who was attempting to drag the Faroes towards Iceland. In Eiði I had a couple of hours to kill before the bus to Tórshavn came. The sun came out and my travel thermometer said the temperature was almost 15C. It was too much for the locals – there were not many people about at all but I had a brief chat with one old gent who was mopping his brow and saying “So hot… so hot…” The bus eventually came, and after a twenty minute stop in Oyrabakki during which I bought an ice cream and sat in the [...]
Jul 08, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
As it turned out, I didn’t even get to the Faroes that evening. We flew to Aberdeen, where we had a scheduled stop to pick up passengers, but the stop turned out to be longer than planned. Apparently the weather in the Faroes was too bad to land, and we were waiting to see if it would improve. After about three hours, the crew decided it was worth a shot, and we flew north. The Faroes are only an hour’s flight from Aberdeen, and we were soon circling over them, but all I could see below was an ocean of cloud. We circled for an hour, waiting for a window in the weather so we could land, but eventually it became clear it was not to be, and we headed back south. So in the end, after a day of drama and chaos, unbelievably, I found myself spending the night in Aberdeen. Fortunately, the next day saw better weather, and I finally arrived in the Faroe Islands just before midday. I got a bus from the airport on Vágar island to Tórshavn, amazed to have actually made it, and stunned by the dramatic scenery, made gloomy and ominous by dirty [...]
Jul 07, 2005 in Faroe Islands 2005
7 July 2005 turned out to be a bad day to go to the Faroe Islands. My plan had been to go into work for the morning before heading to Stansted for my 3.30pm flight, but at ten to nine, as I was approaching Kings Cross on the Victoria Line, three bombs exploded on various parts of the tube, and London was thrown into chaos. I was no more than a few hundred metres from the bomb which exploded on a Piccadilly Line train near Kings Cross, though I didn’t know it. The first hint that something was wrong was the announcement that we wouldn’t be stopping at Kings Cross, because of a power failure there, and we headed straight through the now-empty station. We stopped as normal at Euston, but at the next stop, Warren Street, we didn’t move for a long time, and then it was announced that there were serious power failures in north London, and that the Victoria Line was being suspended. Carrying a substantial rucksack, I joined the exodus of stoic commuters and headed up to street level. I thought I would walk to Goodge Street and pick up the tube again there on a [...]
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 07, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
After a long walk in the forest it was time to head back to Riga for my flight home. I got the cable car back across the valley, and enjoyed the fantastic winter scenery. The train back to Riga took almost two hours but only cost 70p. Latvian trains were cheap, but also battered, and an icy gale howled down the carriage, freezing one side of me while the other was roasted by the primitive heating system. Back in Riga, I began to feel just a tiny bit bored of feeling seriously cold all the time, and spent some time in warm cafes and record shops. Despite the cold I was still sad to leave, because back in London there would be rain and the horrible cold humidity that plagues us. I was sadder still when my flight, far from arriving at Stansted just in time for me to get the last train home, was diverted to Luton because of fog. The airport was chaos, and it took almost an hour for them to find steps to get us off the plane. I ended up getting home at 5am, shattered, but at least pleased that it was 25C warmer in [...]
Feb 07, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
On my last day in Latvia I got an early morning train to Sigulda, and walked to the Gauja River valley. I’d heard good things about this place, and I was not disappointed. I got a cable car from one side of the valley to the other, swooping over the frozen river, and arrived at the ruins of Krimuldas castle on the other side. On a bluff upstream stood Turaidas castle. I walked around the ruins and into the forest. I was the only person there, and whenever I stopped, the silence was total. I felt much more intrepid than I actually was being as I hiked through the knee-deep snow.
Feb 06, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
Not far from Riga is the site of the Salaspils concentration camp. Here, 100,000 people were killed during the Second World War. I can scarcely take in the fact that such a huge number of people died in one place, and it’s almost unbearable to think that was only a tiny part of what went on. I got the train to Dārziņi, the nearest station to the site. It cost me just a few pence for the short journey, and I almost got more value for money when I nearly missed Dārziņi station. The stations on the line out of Riga were just halts in the forest, and I didn’t realise we were even at a station when the train announcer said “Dārziņi”. I jumped up but didn’t make it to the door in time. At the next stop I got off, and was relieved to find that they had been announcing the stop we were going to and not the one we were at. I headed off into the silent forest, and found the path to Salaspils. At the site, there is a small museum from which you can look over the fields which are all that remain. Several [...]
Feb 06, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
On my journey to Vilnius, the skies had been grey, and when we stopped at a small roadside cafe just inside Lithuania, snow was falling. On the way back, the skies were blue, and the endless expanse of snow shone brightly under the wintry sun. We stopped at the same cafe, and this time I had Lithuanian currency and so I could eat, which was nice. As I walked back to the bus I slipped on some ice and skated along for a metre or two, arms flailing, but luckily I held it together and survived without falling and only feeling slightly ridiculous.
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 12, 2003 in Pisa 2003
The next day we were late leaving the house for various reasons. We hurried through Florence, getting faster and faster as we went, as we slowly realised how late we were. I really didn’t want to miss the train because if I did, I would surely miss my flight home. In the end, we made it to the station with what I thought was seconds to spare. We jumped onto the train, enjoyed about two seconds of feeling massively relieved, then realised that there was no-one else on the train, and the lights were off. I had a horrible sinking feeling. It looked like my journey home was not going to be straightforward. It turned out there was a train strike on, and there was no way I was getting to Pisa by rail. There was a bus leaving soon, but it was going via somewhere ridiculous and it would take three hours, which was definitely too long. Reluctantly we went to the taxi rank outside the station, and said “aeroporto” to the taxi man at the head of the queue. “Firenze?”, he asked. “Pisa”, we said sadly. His eyes lit up and off we drove. It was an incredibly [...]
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.
Aug 03, 2003 in La Palma 2003
After my second night at the telescope, I drove up to the top of the mountain in the early morning sun. Like last time, the views were incredible and there was no-one else up there but me. To the north was a sea of clouds; to the south, I could see the chain of volcanic cones which runs down the spine of La Palma. In the distance I could see Tenerife, almost a hundred miles away but quite clear. After that I headed home. I spent one night at sea level in La Palma, and I had a little bit of time to look around. I hadn’t seen the place on my first trip, but now I discovered what a picturesque place it is. I wandered the cobbled streets, feeling a bit like I was jetlagged after two nights at the telescope. During my first trip I was still recovering from my African travels, and what with missing the flight on the way to La Palma, and then feeling wrecked by five nights of observing, I hadn’t really noticed what a beautiful island La Palma is. Now I could see that it was rugged and wild, but I didn’t have [...]
Aug 01, 2003 in La Palma 2003
My two nights of observing went well. The skies stayed completely clear, there were no technical hitches, and I even had time to observe something I hadn’t even planned to, which turned out to be only the fourth known star of a certain type in our entire galaxy of 200 billion stars. I was doing some long exposures of my objects, so I had time to get out and appreciate the night sky. Mars was at the time closer to the Earth than it had been for tens of thousands of years, and it shone brightly and redly.
Jul 31, 2003 in La Palma 2003
The first time I’d been to La Palma, I didn’t know too much about it until I was on the plane to Madrid. My boss had done all the hard work while I was off getting lost on African mountains. Two years later, the situation was very different: I was now the Principal Investigator on a proposal, and so it was much more under my own steam that I returned to the Canary Islands. By coincidence, I was observing on exactly the same dates I’d observed on in 2001. Then, the moon had been full, and Saharan dust had clogged the air. This time, there was no Kalima, and it was new moon, so the skies were properly dark. But just like last time, the taxi to the mountain top made me horribly car sick. I spent my first night on the mountain top recovering from that, enjoying the fresh mountain air, and getting into the night routine.
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 11, 2003 in Italy 2003
I met up with my girlfriend in Florence. She was in Perugia for a month but was soon going to be moving to Florence for nine months, so we went househunting. It was phenomenally hot, and massively over-crowded, and I didn’t really like it that much. The best thing about the day was the views of the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside as we passed through on the train.
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.
Jul 09, 2003 in Italy 2003
I went to Italy because it was a time of year that I always like to be away from London, because my cousin was living near Milan, and because my girlfriend was in Perugia for a month. Apart from a couple of hours in Trieste on my way to Croatia earlier in the year, all I’d seen of Italy was Sicily, so I decided to do a little tour of the mainland. The tour started in Lombardia. I stayed with my cousin in Varese, and we visited Como. I’d flown over the lake on my way into Milan, and it had looked pretty amazing from the air. We got the funicular railway up to Brunate, and walked along a hilly path high over the lake for a while. Lago Atitlán has been described as being like Lake Como but with volcanoes and I thought that was quite a reasonable description.
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 09, 2003 in Balkans 2003
In the morning I headed back to Trieste. I got a train to Opcina, and as we sped through the Slovenian countryside, the grey skies were gradually breaking up. The change in climate between the mountains and the coast was striking, and as we descended there was less and less snow on the ground, and the air was getting warmer and warmer. At the Italian border it was a bright sunny day. I got a bus from Opcina to Trieste, and then bought a ticket for the airport bus. I waited at the station for a long time, before someone came to tell us the bus had been cancelled. There were five other people waiting for the bus, and after we’d been refunded for our tickets, we headed for the station to get a train to Monfalcone. We were all on cheap Ryanair weekends, and we still had plenty of time before our flight. But at the station, confusion set in. We needed to get the train at 12.15pm, and by the time we’d all got our tickets it was 12.14pm. We rushed onto the platform, and there was a train there which half the group jumped on. But this [...]
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
In the afternoon I got a train to Ljubljana. I shared a compartment with a Croat called Srečko, who was a journalist on his way to do an interview in Ljubljana. He said his German was better than his English, but my German wasn’t up to a conversation so we spoke in English. About half an hour out of Zagreb we arrived at the Slovenian border, and Srečko said that even now, eleven years after independence, he was still surprised by how close the border was to the capital. For most of the journey to Ljubljana we were rumbling along in the valley of the Sava River. Out in the countryside there was thick snow, and the green river was hemmed in by steep forested mountains. It all looked pretty stunning, especially when new snow began to fall. Srečko said he often travelled this way, but never got bored of the scenery.
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 [...]
Jan 01, 2003 in Sweden 2002
We saw in 2003 in Sturecompagniet. It was a pretty awesome club, if a little bit more pretentious than my normal sort of place. But at some point in the small hours they played some ABBA, and everyone forgot just how cool they were trying to appear and went crazy for them. For some kind of licensing reason, many Swedish bars had casinos in them. Sturecompagniet was one, and when we finally decided to leave at about 4am, Dan was at the poker table. “You coming?” we asked. “I’m just going to win back what I’ve spent”, he said, and we left him to it. I wondered if we would ever see him again, but luckily he appeared back at the hostel the next morning. It was only -6°C on new year’s day, and it felt warm. With all the soon-to-be-destroyed hope and optimism that a new year brings, we headed back to Västerås to fly home. It was a very long journey to an airport that markets itself as serving Stockholm, but at least the two hour bus journey took us through some amazing winter scenery. People were complaining about the cold when we got back to London. The [...]
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 28, 2002 in Sweden 2002
My trip to Norway earlier in the year had been a fantastic one. Hoping to replicate the experience, I decided to go to Sweden for New Year. If the trip involved even a fraction of the nightlife, scenery, atmosphere and sleep deprivation that the Norway trip had, it would be a good one. John and Dan were feeling wealthy and flew with SAS to Stockholm. Eldrik and I were feeling not wealthy and we flew with Ryanair to Västerås. We were all converging on Gothenburg. We landed in darkness to find Västerås covered in snow, as we’d hoped it would be. We got a train to Gothenburg, and it was a fantastic journey through the wintry night.
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 17, 2002 in Salzburg 2002
Although I’d got up at 4am, I met some fun people in the hostel bar and felt compelled to check out Salzburg’s nightlife. In the end I fell into the classic tourist trap of an Irish bar, but it was quite a fun night. After I’d been up for 23 hours I decided to crash. Just four hours later I had to get up to head out for my flight home. It was a ridiculously short trip, really, but I didn’t feel like I had missed anything of Salzburg in my day there.
Nov 16, 2002 in Salzburg 2002
After a restorative sleep on the bench, I headed for the fortress. I’d only just escaped from The Sound Of Music, but I couldn’t escape from Mozart. He was everywhere. Half the buildings and streets seemed to be named after him, and statues of him watched me as I walked through the town. Up at the fortress, I decided not to part with any money to actually look around. The views over town were good enough for me, so I sat up on the fortress walls, looking out over Austria. South of town the Alps rose dramatically from the plains, their peaks shrouded in mist.
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 11, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
Today we crossed from Asia into Europe. The arbitrary line is marked by an obelisk which I imagine would be almost impossible to get a decent photograph, or even view of, from from the train, but everyone tries anyway. I tried, along with Martin from Sweden who I’d met in the waiting room at Beijing Station, and who’d been a regular in the evening games of Shithead. We walked down the train trying to find a window to try and spot the obelisk from, but people had been staking them out and every one was already occupied. Eventually we got to the restaurant car, and there was a door by the kitchen which was open, with just a small piece of rope to stop passers-by falling from the train. We thought this looked like a good place. But with two kilometres to go, the dragon who ran the restaurant car came and shouted at us, moving us on and looking like she wanted to kill us. By the time we found anywhere else with a view, we were already in Europe. The dividing line between the two continents is the Ural Mountains, and we spent the day winding through them. [...]
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 20, 2002 in Norway 2002
The journey from Myrdal took us back to Oslo across the spectacular icy wasteland of the Hardangervidda plateau. In the night, on the train to Bergen, I’d looked out and seen huge expanses of snow, and the daytime crossing was awesome. Occasionally in the middle of nowhere we’d spot a couple of cross-country skiers. I listened to “The Sun Always Shines On TV” by A-Ha for some good Norwegian accompaniment. One thing I particularly enjoyed about this bit of the journey was that as we sped along 1200m above sea level, we were passing through an area that starred in “The Empire Strikes Back” as the ice planet Hoth. Everyone knows that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of the Star Wars trilogy (and let’s not even speak of the ‘second’ trilogy…), so I enjoyed seeing where some of it had been filmed. We got back to Oslo at about 10pm, and made our way to Haraldsheim hostel. We found ourselves sharing a room with an American traveller called Brian, and our arrival woke him up. He’d clearly had a massive Friday night out; he asked us the time, and when we said it was 11, he thought it [...]
Apr 20, 2002 in Norway 2002
The amazing journey continued. We got the train from Flåm to Myrdal, a journey which takes you from sea level up to 860m above sea level in only 12 miles. We climbed through snow-covered scenery, curling around corners so tightly that often it seemed like we were looking right down on earlier sections of the line. About half way up, we stopped at Kjossfoss. In summertime it’s a thundering and spectacular waterfall, apparently, but when we were there it was barely a trickle. We climbed on to Myrdal. Here we realised that we’d made a huge error not buying lunch in Flåm – we’d thought that Myrdal would be bigger, being a stop on the main line from Bergen to Oslo after all. But Myrdal is not a town, it’s just a station, surround by high mountains, with no roads out and serving no purpose except as a place to change trains. We had a two hour wait on Myrdal station before the Oslo train arrived, but we enjoyed the fresh mountain air, blue skies, sunshine and total silence.
Apr 20, 2002 in Norway 2002
We had a fun night out in Bergen. The streets were full of students wearing red trousers, in some kind of post-exam celebratory wackiness. Everything was lively, there were lots of pretty girls around, and we didn’t get back to the hostel until after 4am. This was a slight tactical error because we’d booked ourselves tickets on a train to Voss, leaving at 7.50am. When we got up at 7, I was not filled with enthusiasm for the day’s sightseeing. I dozed on the train. The skies were dark and I thought we were finally going to have some famous Bergen rain, but it held off, and at Voss the sun began to break through. We then got a bus to Gudvangen, and by the time we got there the skies were clear. From here, we got a boat to Flåm. It was a stunning ride down the Nærøyfjord, which as the name suggests is narrow. We were hemmed in on either side by towering cliffs, with waterfalls plunging from the heights. All was still except for the hum of the boat, and the waters were glassy. I listened to ‘Northern Soul’ by Ricky Ross, which to me seemed like [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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.
Feb 24, 2001 in OHP 2001
On the wall in the 80cm telescope control room was a photo taken of the dome while it was being rotated. It looked really cool, and I wanted to have a go at reproducing it. I got my chance towards the end of our run when clouds started gathering as night fell, and it was clear we wouldn’t be observing. I climbed up onto the roof of the control room, and Didier set the dome rotating. I opened the shutter and let the dome spin right around a few times, and the shot worked out nicely. Later it cleared up a little bit. At the time we were in Provence, the space station Mir was approaching the end of its life, while the International Space Station had recently been put in orbit. During our visit, both space stations were visible in the early evening. On this particular evening, both would be crossing the sky within a minute of each other, passing through the constellation of Orion as seen from OHP. This would pretty much be a once in a lifetime photo opportunity if I could get it – the two space stations, one new and one decrepit, passing through a [...]
Feb 21, 2001 in OHP 2001
We finished observing each night as twilight began to light the sky. It always seemed like an incredibly long time from then until sunrise, and most mornings I didn’t stay up. After a long winter’s night at a telescope, only the most spectacular sunrise seems worth staying up for. But one morning, we got one. The sky was on fire, and a few of us went out to a small hill in the observatory grounds. In the silence of the alpine dawn we watched the coming of the day.
Feb 20, 2001 in OHP 2001
After a couple of nights, the students were well into the routine and there was not so much for me to do. I had time to go out and watch the sky once the observations were under way. A bitingly cold mistral was blowing, the cold wind bringing clear skies but bad seeing. Our stars were badly smeared out by the turbulent atmosphere, which made the observations a bit more difficult but not impossible. I went up to see what was happening at the 1.52m telescope. This one was much easier to use, being mostly automated. The telescope would slew pretty much to where you wanted it, and all that was required was a bit of fine-tuning with some plastic dials on a control panel that looked like something out of Blake’s 7. After I’d checked out their latest observations, I went up onto the roof, and saw three bright meteors blazing by. In 1999, I’d forgotten to bring a cable release, and I’d also forgotten to bring gloves. Keen to get a star trail photo, I’d held the camera shutter down myself for 40 minutes, which nearly gave me frostbite. This time I’d learned my lesson. Back at the [...]
Feb 19, 2001 in OHP 2001
The stars shone brightly on our first night. My task was to assist the group using the 80cm telescope, and I soon had terrifying flashbacks to my own experiences here two years ago. Most telescopes are totally automated these days, you just type in the coordinates of what you want to look at and off it goes. Not so the 80cm at OHP. Here you have to do it old-style, with setting circles. Taking pity on the students, as he’d taken pity on me when I was here before, was Didier. Didier was a legend, remembered fondly by everyone in my year, and all years since. He didn’t speak much English, and none of us spoke much French, but this was no barrier to understanding his many jokes or enjoying his company. He watched benignly as we all struggled to point the telescope at the target, assisting when necessary and offering comedy insults at all other times. Luckily it didn’t take too long to get on to the target and start taking data. We were looking at a star which was undergoing frequent small outbursts, and our target was brightening. My job done for now, I slipped out to take [...]
Feb 18, 2001 in OHP 2001
Two years ago as an astronomy undergraduate, I’d spent a fantastic ten days on a field trip to the Observatoire de Haute-Provence, learning what real astronomy was like. The finding of targets, the taking of observations, the drinking of coffee and the self-infliction of insomnia. I had loved it. And after my degree, I’d managed to get a toe in the door of this fun job with a PhD place. This year’s batch of undergraduates needed a postgraduate to assist them in their observations, and I was on hand to provide it. I was a bit nervous meeting the group as we got a train to Paris from Waterloo. In my year, our postgraduate assistant had not been popular, and was the butt of many jokes. I hoped I wouldn’t suffer the same fate. But in Paris we had time enough to socialise over a coffee in a cafe near the Gare du Nord, and I felt that it wouldn’t turn out that way. We got to the observatory after midnight, and it was great to be back. The next morning I got up early, and went for a walk around the observatory site. I’d felt hugely nostalgic for my [...]
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 [...]
May 25, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
My plan had been to go to Budapest after my exams had finished. It started out as nothing more than a nice idea, but gradually I began to think I would really do it, and finally, the night before I left, I packed my bags and told everyone I was going. In the morning, I headed for town. For probably the first time in my life, I arrived there before anything was open. I really wanted to get on the way, and so not letting the lack of either currency or insurance deter me, I headed for Victoria. Here, two major setbacks awaited me. First, Boots had no Sausage, Egg & Bacon sandwiches. Second, the international ticket office had been closed down. Apparently, there are other branches at Euston and King’s Cross, but given that the only place you can go from those stations which can remotely be called ‘abroad’ is Scotland, their use there is limited. So I bought a ticket to Dover instead, ready to make plans from there. I was quite surprised to find a bloke selling ‘Selected European Tickets’ at the station in Dover, but when I asked him if I could get a ticket from [...]
Sep 17, 1999 in Iceland 1999
And that’s the end of the account. If you’ve read the lot, then very well done to you! We hope we have managed to convey some of the wonder, excitement and awe that we felt during our time in Iceland. The placid beauty of Mývatn, the power of Dettifoss, the magnificent desolation of Askja, the ethereal splendour of the Aurorae, and everything else that we saw and experienced will remain with us for a very long time. Once again, we would like to thank the University of London Convocation Trust, and University College London and the Friends of UCL, without whom this amazing trip would not have been possible. Since this expedition all three of us have travelled to various other exciting places, including another volcano expedition in Central America, an eclipse expedition to Southern Africa, and a railway journey from China to London. But whatever our subsequent travels, this was our first expedition, and for that it will always be one of the greats.
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 [...]
Sep 15, 1999 in Iceland 1999
After the beautiful day we had had for the Surtsey flight, the weather got rapidly worse, and the next day it was violently windy, and rain was moving horizontally across the island. There was nothing to do but pack up our things, and get ready to leave the next day. This we did, although we had to struggle with our packs against violent winds to get to the ferry on time. The journey home promised to live up to its reputation as a vomit run, and as we left the harbour, the boat was rolling and pitching in a big way. However, it calmed down after half an hour, and we all survived intact. Once back on the mainland, we headed back to Reykjavík.
Sep 13, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Day 23, Monday September 13th, was an amazing day. After recovering from the aurora-watching of the day before, we headed over to the airport to hire a plane over Surtsey. Surtsey is one of the better known bits of Iceland. It wasn’t there before 1963, but in October of that year, a fishing boat saw plumes of black smoke pouring from the sea. Thinking it was a boat on fire, the crew hurried to the source of the smoke, only to find that it was a new volcano, exploding from beneath the sea. Film crews soon arrived from all over the world, and the birth of the new island was captured on film. It grew rapidly, and soon reached 100m above sea level. During the early months of the eruption, the sea had easy access to the erupting lava, and violent explosion hurled large rock up to five miles from the craters. As the land grew, however, the sea was eventually blocked out, and the eruption became much calmer. Lava flows ran out over the loose piles of volcanic debris, putting a hard cap on the island, and making it a permanent fixture on world maps. The eruption gradually waned [...]
Sep 12, 1999 in Iceland 1999
The next day, we went to the airport, two miles out of town, to find out about flying over Surtsey, the famous volcanic island fifteen miles to the south-west of Heimaey. We followed what appeared to be the right road, a rough track leading over a hill, but when we got over to the other side, we found ourselves on the runway. This clearly not being desirable, we went into the terminal through the arrivals door, and found out what we needed to. This done, we went for a walk by the southern end of the 1973 fissure. The eruption from this part of the fissure stopped after a few days, so there are only some very low lava hills, which we climbed up. Once again, we had the disconcerting knowledge that what we were climbing on was not much older than we were. After a little while spent looking around here, we decided to climb Helgafell. This is an ancient volcano, about 5000 years old, which is very close to Eldfell, and is a virtual twin of it. Its slopes, though, are covered in grass, which makes it a lot easier to climb. We reached the top in about [...]
Sep 11, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We woke up the next day to the sound of torrential rain and high winds. This put something of a dampener on our plans, which we quickly rethought. We decided to go to the Volcano Show, which is indoors and dry. It showed spectacular footage of the recent eruptions, which made us very keen to explore the area. However, it was far too horrible outside to even think about going for a walk. Fortunately, the second day on Heimaey was a bit better (though not much). Intermittent drizzle was irritating, but didn’t stop us doing stuff, so we climbed Eldfell. A two-mile walk from the campground took us over much of the lava field to the base of the mountain. Here, the earth still steams with the heat of the lava, and gusts of warm air seem to come from nowhere. A cross stands as a memorial to the one person who died in the eruption. We set off past the cross up the hill. It was much harder going than we expected. The hill is made of loose fragments of rock, and so is much like a slagheap. Two steps up, one step down is the situation as you [...]
Sep 09, 1999 in Iceland 1999
And so, on day 18, we arrived back in Reykjavík, and our full circle was complete. It was quite a sad moment, and it really felt like the holiday was over. However, we still had the Vestmannaeyjar islands to go to, so after a night at the Reykjavík campground, we took a bus to þorlákshöfn, from where we got a ferry to Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands. It’s a notoriously queasy three hour run to Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited Westman Island, but on the day we went, it was calm, sunny and warm. After a pleasant crossing, we entered the spectacular harbour of Heimaey. Huge cliffs rise on one side of the harbour, while two volcanoes dominate the other side. We headed to the campground, situated impressively inside the crater of an ancient volcano. The Westman Islands have a fascinating and chequered history. The first people to arrive were some Irish slaves who had murdered their owner on the mainland, and escaped to here. They were soon tracked down, and killed. The islands were named after them (Ireland being west of mainland Scandinavia). The first permanent settlers arrived on Heimaey in the ninth century, and despite droughts, drownings, pirate [...]
Sep 08, 1999 in Iceland 1999
After this brief return to Gullfoss, we headed back to Selfoss, from where we went to Hella. This small town, apart from being the inspiration behind a million bad puns, is also the nearest town to Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most famous volcano. During the middle ages, it was, in popular legend, the entrance to hell. The skies were supposed to be filled with vultures and ravens, and the wailing souls of the fallen could apparently be heard all around. Presumably, less people go to hell these days, as the only sound we could hear from the campsite at Hella was that of the road, and large black birds were conspicuous by their absence. We set up camp in a beautiful location by a river, and thoroughly appreciated the excellent facilities that we had only paid three hundred kroner each for. After cooking dinner in real pots and pans for the first and only time on the trip, we enjoyed a truly magnificent sunset, and a fine night’s sleep. Early the next morning, we awoke to find a day of pleasant sunshine, and walked a mile or two out of the village to find a good view of mount Hekla. Clouds [...]
Sep 06, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We spent our second day at Geysir exploring the multitude of other mini-geysers and hot springs in the area. Several tiny geysers erupt constantly, throwing hot water about a foot into the air. A lot of springs just bubble impressively. All around, steam rises into the air. Most of the tourists just watch a Strokkur eruption or two before leaving, and so a short walk off the beaten path leaves the crowds far behind. Beyond Strokkur, a large hill rises over the valley, and we climbed this. From here, Strokkur looked very impressive, surrounded by acres of land from which steam was rising. On the hill, hidden from the path by some bushes, is Haihver, meaning High Spring, which is probably only seen by about 30 people a year. We sat down in the sun by the spring, in a large patch of clover, appreciating the scene. Further on up, a view disc points out all the impressive sights around, including the Langjökull icecap, Iceland’s second largest, and, on a very clear day, Mt. Hekla far off to the south-east. On our final morning at Geysir, we watched Strokkur again for a while, and then got the bus back up [...]
Sep 05, 1999 in Iceland 1999
At Selfoss, we were harassed into staying at a guest house. We went to ask about the price, ready to compare it with the other place in town, but the owner rather fiercely said that hers was the cheapest, and the best. She dragged us inside. We now discovered that it was, in fact, an incredibly nice place. She showed us to our rooms, made us coffee, did our washing for us, put on the TV, and let us use the cooker to do dinner. After two weeks of camping and isolation, this was almost more than we could take. We relaxed completely for the evening, and slept as well as anyone ever has. The next day, we went to Geysir. Unbeknown to us, the bus timetables had radically changed in early September, and we arrived at the bus station to find that we were three hours early. It was a Sunday, and so all there was to do was sit and play cards until the bus came. Just before we all went completely insane, the bus arrived, and we left for Geysir and Gullfoss. We were going to stop off at Geysir, and go to Gullfoss later, but the [...]
Sep 03, 1999 in Iceland 1999
The first thing to do is cross the lava flow behind the hut. This took about an hour, and led us to the foot of Brenninsteinsalda, an active volcano with many steaming craters on its slopes. One in particular, right next to the path, looked very dramatic, with brightly coloured minerals occasionally visible through the steam. We stopped to take stock of the situation, and it began to hail. We decided to walk on for half an hour, during which time sleety rain began to fall. We were feeling somewhat dubious now, because we were some 500m below the highest point on the first day. The snowline wasn’t too far above us, and the cloud layer was coming down rapidly. We sadly decided that it would be at best very unpleasant, and at worst dangerous to continue. We sat dejectedly by the crater for a few minutes, and then picked up our packs and went back to the hut. We were sat in the kitchen, feeling a bit disappointed, when the warden came in. “Oh, hi guys! What are you still doing here?”. We told him the story, and he nodded sympathetically. “So where are you going to stay tonight?” [...]
Sep 02, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We left the next morning for Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We hadn’t planned to go there originally, but we had heard great things about a place called Landmannalaugar from a Dutch guy at Mývatn, who said that he had been watching the Aurorae Borealis from geothermal hot pools. Also from Landmannalaugar, you can do a three day walk to þórsmörk through some of the most incredible scenery in Iceland. The whole area is volcanically active, and so we decided that we would give it a go. So from Skaftafell, we went to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, to provision ourselves. Landmannalaugar is, like Askja, well beyond the reach of civilization. A warden lives in the mountain hut there from May to September, but it is otherwise uninhabited. We spent a terrifying amount of money on 5 days’ food, and then spent the rest of the day at Kirkjubæjarklaustur relaxing, and preparing for the approaching ordeal. The next day, the weather was Miserable. The north Atlantic was blowing horizontally across Iceland, and, for once, the temperature had dropped below its usual 10° . We got the bus at 9am, and hoped for better in the interior. This was laughably optimistic. We stopped for an hour on the way [...]
Aug 31, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Early the next morning, we left for Laki, a 25km long fissure, which in 1783 unleashed the largest and most devastating lava flow known to man. Over 10 months, it covered 200 square miles of land, completely filling 2 river valleys. The huge amount of volcanic gas releases poisoned the land and the sea all over the south of Iceland. Three-quarters of the livestock perished, and in the ensuing famine, a quarter of the Icelanders died. There was talk of evacuating them all to Denmark, but they resisted. We were getting the last bus of the season, up another road shortly to be closed for the winter. Strangely, the bus driver laughed heartily when we asked for a discount with our Circle Passes, said no, and then charged us half of what we had been expecting anyway. Once on the way, we passed by the usual spectacular scenery, this time an amazing canyon, and a beautiful waterfall, Fagrifoss (which actually means Beautiful Falls). On arrival at the fissure, the first thing to do was climb Mt. Laki itself. At 818m high, it affords a magnificent view of the fissure stretching away into the distance front and back, and the mind-boggling [...]
Aug 30, 1999 in Iceland 1999
And then it was time to leave Mývatn. Unfortunately, a slight misreading of the timetable led to us arriving at the bus stop two hours early. However, this slight mishap aside, the onward journey was trouble-free. More spectacular scenery was seen, as we passed the huge lava fields east of Mývatn, and eventually came to the valley of the glacial river Jökulsá á Dal. Like most Icelandic place-names, it sounded mysterious and evocative to me, but actually means, rather prosaically, the Glacial River with the Valley. The usual twenty or thirty beautiful waterfalls were seen, before we stopped for lunch at Egilsstaðir, in the far east of the country. From here, the ring road follows the deeply indented coastline, so that you sometimes travel for 20 miles to make half a mile’s headway. We arrived in Höfn, in the south-east, at 8.30pm, and stayed the night there. The mighty Vatnajökull icecap oozes into the sea through several valleys here, and in the evening twilight, it looked magnificent. The cool but calm weather gave the place a very Arctic atmosphere. The next morning, day 10, we took the bus from Höfn to Skaftafell, from where we would explore the Laki fissure. [...]
Aug 29, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We returned to Mývatn for a day, filling our time with a walk around the east side of the lake. We passed the eerie fissure Grjotagjá, which is filled with very hot water. It’s in an underground cavern, and thin shafts of sunlight from above show the steam rising from the surface of the pool. It used to be a good temperature for swimming, but soon after the most recent eruptions at Krafla began, it heated up to over 60° C. From Grjotagjá, we walked to Hverfjall, another big crater, this one made entirely of loose gravely rock. It takes a good amount of exertion to climb up the slope as it gives way beneath you. It certainly brings home the meaning of ‘one step up, two steps down’. The crater has no lake inside, instead exhibiting a large central mound. Although you are prohibited from walking down into the crater, the mound in the middle is covered in ridiculous graffiti, of the “Colchester boys woz ere, 5/4/95″ variety. After the exertion of climbing this slagheap of a crater, and facing fearsome winds at the top, this was something of a letdown. But not to be deterred, we walked round [...]
Aug 28, 1999 in Iceland 1999
On day 5 we went to Askja. It must be said here and now that Askja is fearsomely remote. Deep in the interior of Iceland, temperatures average below freezing for 8 months of the year, and what is laughably called the road (it’s a track scraped into the dust) is passable for only 3 months a year. We caught the penultimate tour of the year down there, and made sure that we had packed all our warm clothes. In fact, though, the weather was quite nice. The sun shone brightly, and when we stopped for lunch near Mt. Herðubreið, we had lunch in the sun on a picnic table outside the mountain hut there. After another stop at the side of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (the same river which plunges over Dettifoss), we got to Askja at about 2pm. The first thing to do was explore the caldera. A caldera is formed when a volcano has a huge eruption, and the magma chamber underneath is emptied. The mountain above then crashes into the ground, leaving a huge crater. Askja did this in 1875, expelling enough volcanic material with enough force for some of it to land in Scotland. The [...]
Aug 24, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Day four, mission two. Krafla volcano is not really a volcano at all, although there is a hill with that name in the area. What in fact happens at Krafla is that the ground is pulled from both sides by continental drift. Every 200 years or so, it suddenly gives way about 10 times over a decade or two. Each time it does, vast fissures open up, sometimes over 20 miles long, and lava spurts out along the entire length of them. The last lot of eruptions at Krafla occurred between 1975 and 1984, but geologists believe that the eruptive series is not over. The ground has swollen upwards by about half a metre since the last eruption, indicating a very full magma chamber, two miles beneath the surface. Fearlessly, we set off into the heart of it all. We first walked around the 320m wide explosion crater known as ‘Viti’, meaning Hell. A lake of very blue water fills the bottom, and it would be very tempting to go swimming, if the sides of the crater weren’t so steep and loose. We had fun starting several mini-landslides by kicking a small stone over the edge. By the side of [...]
Aug 23, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Mývatn means ‘Midge Lake’, and it’s not wrong. We arrived on a calm day, not too long after sunset, and as soon as we got off the bus, we were engulfed. During the half-mile walk between the bus stop and our campsite, we were nearly driven insane by the things. We dived into a petrol station half way there, and were horrified to see dead midges inch-thick on the window ledges. Flapping wildly, we rushed for the campsite. We soon made the happy discovery that they don’t stay out at night. With some relief, we set up camp in the cool fresh air of northern Iceland. The sky never got completely dark at Mývatn, with a sort of late twilight glow hanging over the northern horizon throughout the night. At around midnight, as I looked at the stars overhead, I saw what I thought was a high cloud still lit by the Sun. But as I watched it changed shape rapidly, and I realised that it was the northern lights. As we watched, the lights drifted around overhead, shapeless and eerie. We were very happy to have seen the aurorae on our first clear night, and we hoped that we’d [...]
Aug 22, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We arrived in Iceland at about 1.30am. It’s not a very convenient time to arrive in a country, really, but our flight had been late taking off because of storms in Reykjavík. There were no signs of any storms when we arrived, though, and we were off the plane, out of the airport and on our way into the city centre within half an hour. And so we found ourselves in Iceland’s famously hedonistic capital at 2.30am on a Friday night. We appeared to be the only sober people in the whole city, and as we wandered around with our backpacks trying to find a place to stay, a car load of fabulously beautiful Icelandic women kerb-crawled us, screamed unintelligibly and then drove off. Eventually we found our way to a campsite, set up our tents with daylight beginning to appear, and grabbed a few hours of sleep. We got up early the next day, and paid BSÍ, the Icelandic bus service, a call to buy our ‘hringmiði’ bus tickets with which we could travel around the outside of the country. The bus ticket seemed like good value, but then we went to a supermarket, to encounter for the first [...]
Aug 20, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Icelandic weather is definitely a contender for the Most Miserable Climate Known To Man. It rains on about 250 days a year in Reykjavík; you can expect one cloud-free day for every 10 of the rainy ones. Although it doesn’t get nearly as cold as the name implies near the coast, much of the interior is only accessible for two or three months every year, and almost one-fifth of the land is covered by permanent ice caps. It’s certainly true to say that most people don’t go to Iceland for the weather. The scenery, though, is another matter entirely. Iceland, geologically speaking, has only just peeked out from beneath the waves. Formed entirely by volcanoes, it continues to grow as the east and west move apart, attached to the European and American plates respectively. And several times in its brief existence, it has seen the polar icecap wander south, and then retreat back inside the Arctic Circle. The combined effect of volcanism and glaciation is one of jagged cliffs, mighty chasms, vast lava fields, untold thousands of waterfalls, and some very odd-shaped mountains. Volcanoes are pretty impressive things: beautiful when dormant, awesome when erupting. Our mission in Iceland was to [...]
Mar 03, 1999 in OHP 1999
We were all sad when the field trip came to an end. We’d had good fun, done some good work, and become so addicted to the fabulous OHP coffee that some of us would not sleep properly for weeks. On the way down we’d had a brilliant journey from Lille to Avignon, getting enjoyably merry on cheap cans of beer in the restaurant car of the TGV and watching the French countryside race by. We tried the same thing on the way back but somehow it wasn’t as much fun.
Mar 02, 1999 in OHP 1999
We didn’t spend the entire time on the observatory site – the group hired a car, and on one of our days off, three of us went to see the Gorges du Verdon, allegedly the second biggest canyon in the world. It was a long drive to get there but the scenery was increasingly impressive. We entered the canyon at its lower end, and drove slowly along, appreciating some stunning views and also occasionally experiencing some stunningly strong winds blowing down the valley. Further up the canyon we walked a little way up to a couple of view points. It started to snow briefly but luckily not for long, and we enjoyed standing right on the edge of heart-stopping precipices to look down on the tiny Verdon river far below. After that we drove back downstream, stopping again at the windiest point because it had the best views of the turqoise river. At the end of the valley, the river broadened, the wind dropped completely, and the Verdon carried on placidly towards the Durance, then the Rhône, then the Mediterranean Sea.
Feb 28, 1999 in OHP 1999
At the end of our 12-hour endurance sessions at the telescope, the pre-dawn skies usually looked stunning. A couple of times I actually managed to stay awake to see the sun come up. One morning, all the surrounding valleys were filled with fog, which looked like a giant reservoir of milk flowing over the countryside.
Feb 28, 1999 in OHP 1999
For the first couple of nights of observing, we were pretty busy learning how to use the telescopes. We struggled bit on the 80cm telescope, to the amused disgust of Didier the technician. “What do you call ze school for ze little people?” he asked, as we struggled with the setting circles. We did a lot better on the largely automated 1.52m telescope. Once we’d got the hang of things and could set long exposures going, I had time to get out under the awesome skies and take some photos.
Feb 23, 1999 in OHP 1999
The 12 of us travelling to Provence met early one February morning at Waterloo station to get the Eurostar to Lille. I’d never been through the Channel Tunnel before, and was somehow surprised that it only took twenty minutes to go through. On the other side, it was a short journey to Lille, where we then got a TGV to Avignon. This was a magnificent journey through the wintry snow-covered countryside of central France. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the consumption of numerous cheap cans of beer in the fantastically retro buffet carriage. At Avignon we were met by observatory staff and driven up to the observatory. We had a day to kill before our observing run started, and we spent it exploring the observatory, which is up on a hillside with some great views of the surrounding countryside. The air was fresh, the skies were clear, and things looked good.
Feb 01, 1998 in Sicily 1998
On our final day we went for another lengthy hike, and we got some great views along the way. We were heading for a scenic viewpoint but sadly by the time we got there, the clouds had as well. We were just facing up to the long walk home in the clouds when some friendly locals arrived in a tiny mini. They offered us a lift back down, and the three of us squeezed into the back. It felt like the bottom of the car was going to scrape along the road, but we made it back down without damage. In the evening, the clouds cleared and once again we could see the bright red glow of lava fountains at the summit. We had to leave at 4.30am to get our flight home, so we stayed up all night, watching the distant explosions. We saw the mountain from the plane window as we took off from Catania. We hadn’t made it to the top, but we’d seen it erupting, and we thought that was a pretty good result.
Jan 31, 1998 in Sicily 1998
Early on the third day we took a taxi to the Rifugio Sapienza. It was a great ride, up beyond the snowline, with our taxi driver playing Enya tapes at high volume. On the way we saw steam billowing from the summit and had high hopes of getting close to the action. From the Rifugio we got a cable car up to Montagnola, 2,500m above sea level. Four years after we were there, both the Rifugio Sapienza and the Montagnola cable car station were destroyed by lava flows. As we rolled up towards Montagnola, clouds were rolling in. They arrived about the same time as we did, obscuring the summit completely. We spoke to some guides about going up to the craters, and they said we should wait until the clouds cleared. Wait we did, but sadly in vain. We had a few strong espressos and hung around up there until about 3pm. It was still cloudy, so we headed back down and got the evening bus to Catania. In an epic downpour we descended back to sea level, and got a taxi back to Zafferana. A misunderstanding over the fare saw us arguing furiously with the taxi driver as [...]
Jan 30, 1998 in Sicily 1998
From Zafferana a road winds up through vineyards and past houses towards the Rifugio Sapienza. The next day we set out for a good long walk along the road, refusing to be deterred by the thick clouds which descended as we hiked. If we’d have been sensible, we probably would have realised that January up a mountain is likely to mean unstable weather. We hiked up past old lava flows. In 1792 and 1992, flows had almost reached Zafferana, stopping just short both times. In 1992 the army had dropped concrete blocks from helicopters to try and divert the flows. The 1792 lava was covered in moss and almost looked like just another part of the mountain. The 1992 lava was still bare. We walked to a place with a view over eastern Sicily. The weather cleared up briefly, but only towards the coast. The mountain was still totally hidden. We walked on, but the clouds came in again and it was getting dark. By torchlight, we headed back down to Zafferana.
Jan 29, 1998 in Sicily 1998
A photo of Mt. Etna erupting on the front page of the paper was the cue for this trip. I saw the photo in the morning, and by the afternoon I’d booked my flight to Catania, at the foot of the mountain and persuaded two friends to come with me. We were young and naive and it’s amazing we even got to the airport given the extreme lack of planning. We didn’t even have a guidebook, but somehow this didn’t deter us at all. Our flight was at 7am. Having slept at Heathrow to make our early check-in we were not exactly fizzing with energy on our first day. We we hardly conscious as we flew over the Alps, but I was awake and slightly nervous as we descended over Sicily. We banked heavily and looked right down onto Etna’s summit, which was steaming gently in the bright morning sun. We walked out of tiny Catania airport to see Mt. Etna itself soaring into the sky, and took a bus that was going towards it. We found our way to a village called Zafferana, at 800m above sea level on the eastern flank of the mountain, and booked into a [...]