Nov 25, 2011 in Chile
ALMA is the cutting edge of astronomy. Currently being built on the breathless heights of the Llano de Chajnantor, 5100m above sea level in the Atacama, it will consist of 66 12-metre radio telescopes all operating together to perceive detail smaller and fainter than has ever been possible before. I was hoping that at some point during my time in Chile, I’d get a chance to visit the observatory. The chance came much sooner than expected – a trip was arranged as part of a meeting in Chile of all the fellows from ESO’s headquarters in both Germany and here. We all travelled up to the north, spending a night in San Pedro de Atacama before heading up to Chajnantor the next day. It was my third visit to San Pedro. It was strange to be back again, six years after I first arrived there half way through my epic journey around South America. The small dusty town has changed quite a lot since then, with power 24 hours, and cash machines that work. In 2005 I’d had to borrow money to get a bus to Calama to get money out. On the day of the visit, we drove from [...]
Nov 01, 2011 in Chile
Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal. What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.
Oct 02, 2011 in Chile
Cerro San Cristóbal is the highest point inside Santiago and it’s always nice to go up there and see the views of the city surround by the mountains. I went up again, late on a Sunday evening, taking the lazy route to the top on the funicular railway. The place is always crawling with cyclists, and as soon as my bike arrives from Europe I can’t wait to tackle this hill. It’s about 300m from street level to the peak, a bit more of a challenge than my cycle up Highgate Hill used to be. I like the atmosphere at the top of San Cristóbal. You can hear the noise of the sprawling city but it feels very calm and tranquil. I sat and watched the sun set and the lights of the city come on, then headed back down to the streets.
Sep 25, 2011 in Chile
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time. It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains. But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light. [...]
Apr 26, 2011 in Canada 2011
It rained almost continuously the next day. I’d planned to explore some outdoor places, but in the end the rain battered down relentlessly and I spent most of the day in cafes looking for breaks in the weather. I wandered towards the Distillery District, which my guide book said was awesome without really explaining why. But it was quite a way from the centre, and the intermittent deluge drove me into so many places en route that I never made it. I found a food market, in which there was a spectacular choice of maple syrup. I realised here that what is sold as maple syrup in the UK must almost always be mostly flavouring, or else I was getting severely ripped off here, because the tiniest plastic bottle of the stuff here was as much as a decent sized jar in the UK. I bought some anyway, having been advised by a friend to get hold of the dark stuff that you don’t get anywhere else. I bought some food and coffee in the market, relieved to have broken my severe Tim Hortons addiction that had blown up over the past few days. And then I walked back towards [...]
Apr 25, 2011 in Canada 2011
The next morning I managed to get to Union station in time for the train to Niagara Falls. I still almost got into trouble with a streetcar that stopped short of its normal destination and left me a few minutes away, but I got on the train with a couple of minutes to spare. The train was going to New York. As it hauled itself slowly out of Toronto I felt that I wanted to be going on a much longer journey than the two hour run to the border. Ontario sped past outside the window, as the bright blue sunshine that had started the day ebbed away and left behind high grey cloud. We passed through towns called Aldershot and Grimsby, and eventually we pulled into Niagara Falls station. The grey clouds were descending. I walked out of the station, into an empty town. I was coming to one of the most touristy places in the world, but it looked like not many people arrive by train and walk two and a half miles down to the falls. I reached the cliffs above the wide green Niagara River and walked south. Small icebergs in the river floated north. I [...]
Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011
I went to Luxembourg on a whim. I’d kind of been there before, passing through at the age of six on the way from the UK to Switzerland. But it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what the place was like, would not recognise a picture of the place if I saw one, and yet it was only 300 miles away and very easy to get to. So I bought some Eurostar tickets, and a couple of days later I headed off. A high speed journey took me to grey rainy Brussels in less than two hours. I got a coffee and pastry for breakfast in Midi station, then got on the much slower train to Luxembourg. The clouds cleared and the sun was shining as we passed through the snowy forests of the Ardennes. It was cloudy again when I got to Luxemboug. I can’t imagine ever getting bored of arriving in a place I’ve never been to before, especially one so close to home but so completely obscure to me. I was in a good mood as I walked out of the station and into the city. I walked randomly towards the centre, crossed a [...]
Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day. I was interested to see a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.
Oct 23, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
As an astronomer I have travelled to the Canary Islands many times. Right from the first trip I liked them a lot. Some of the touristy bits are pretty horrible but a lot of the islands are wild and remote. A meeting about a subject I was very interested in gave me the opportunity to visit the islands once more. My flight was very early. Somehow it often seems to me that it’s a better idea to stay up all night than to get just a few hours of sleep, so I went out, got back late, packed up and then headed for Heathrow. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I was unbelievably tired by the time I got to the airport. I got to terminal 3 long before sunrise, and in my exhausted state I decided that the purple lighting and sixties architecture looked quite cool.
Sep 13, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
Everyone except me was flying back home from Santiago’s airport. I am prepared to go to great lengths to avoid flying with Ryanair, and so I’d booked a slightly more expensive flight from A Coruña. It at least gave me a chance to see another place, so I headed out after I’d said goodbye to everyone. A Coruña is much bigger than Santiago. It felt far less touristy and far more like a big city. I walked through the hot streets from the station into the city centre. One very cool thing about the city is that it’s surrounded by the sea and has beaches right in the city centre. I went and sat one one for a while, making the most of the September sunshine. I walked on to the main square, which was grand and impressive. But I’d spent too long on the beach and I didn’t have time to make use of one of the cafes here. I thought I should probably come back some time. I got the bus to the airport, and even though my flight was then delayed by several hours, I did not regret continuing my Ryanair boycott.
Sep 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 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
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 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 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
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 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
We had a good look around Belgrade, and I saw parts I’d missed before. I’d seen the enormous Sveti Sava cathedral last time, and this time we walked up to it. On another beautiful spring day, the parks in front of the cathedral had a pleasant vibe. The building itself was quite impressive, being one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, and one of the most prominent buildings in the city. Later as it got dark we headed towards the centre of the city. Belgrade is no beauty, really, but it does have a kind of forbidding charm. We passed the parliament buildings and the presidential residence, and I stopped to take a photo. As I took a long exposure, a smartly dressed guy who was walking by approached. He didn’t look happy. He demanded to see our passports. My first thought was that it was some kind of scam and I was going to walk away, but then he showed me a police badge. I showed him my passport, holding onto it carefully in case he was just trying to steal it. He asked us things in very broken English, the gist of which was that he [...]
Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010
Early the next morning we headed down to the station to catch the train to Belgrade. I slept most of the way, waking only to see endless flat green fields occasionally. Last time I’d crossed a border into Serbia, the guard had been remarkably jovial considering it had been 2am. This time, it was the middle of a beautiful spring day but the man who stamped our passports was definitely not happy. He looked at my battered document with some disgust, but stamped us in eventually. We got to Belgrade in the early afternoon and checked into a hostel. At first it seemed incredibly welcoming and cool. Over the next few days, though, we’d find that the Swedish owner was borderline insane, quite disturbingly racist and generally a bit unpleasant to be around. Still, they made me a coffee and that made me happy, and it was good to be back in Serbia. I always find it slightly weird coming back to a place like this – I like knowing the lie of the land already but it also makes me feel like I’m in a terrifyingly intense déjà vu experience. We headed over to the Belgrade Arena to pick [...]
Mar 18, 2010 in Balkans 2010
After seeing Rammstein in Berlin, I’d waited five years before getting a chance to see them again in Lisbon. The Lisbon gig was so awesome that as soon as I got back to London I started looking into what other places I might be able to catch them. Having seen the first night of the tour, it only seemed right, in the end, to see the last night as well, and so I bought tickets to see them in Belgrade. I’d loved the city when I’d been there before, so I thought it would be great to go back and see a gig there. Later, it turned out this hadn’t been such a good idea. The gig turned out to be in the middle of the busiest and most stressful month of my professional career, as I tried to understand and interpret data from the Herschel Space Observatory, in time for a deadline for publishing the results of the end of March. Taking a Thursday and Friday off in the middle of this was not the wisest move. I considered not going, but in the end I decided I’d just have to live with working some even longer hours either [...]
Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
We took the road towards Bolivia, which rose steeply into the Andes. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. But despite this I could appreciate the spectacular scenery, with Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towering over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores. We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It’s been tethered ever since to prevent anything [...]
Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I went on a day trip to Parque Nacional Lauca. The journey would take me from sea level to 4,500m in just a few hours, which was certainly going to be a major mistake, more or less guaranteed to give me altitude sickness. But I wanted to see the Altiplano wilderness and this was my only way of getting to the park. So at 7am I got on the bus and we headed inland. We stopped at some places en route. The first was Poconchile, a small town not far from Arica. The cemetery there is famous for its decorated grave markings, and we stopped for a look. It reminded me a lot of the Arctic cemeteries I’d seen in Greenland a few months earlier. In both places, the graves surrounded by savage lands made the place feel like it was on the very limits of where human beings could thrive.
Jan 03, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I was sad to leave Iquique, but I took a lot of good memories with me. I didn’t have much time left now before my flight home, and I still wanted to make it up to the very top of Chile. I got a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in the country. Arica wasn’t as cool as Iquique, but I still liked it a lot. It was a lot more run-down looking, with low houses sprawling over a huge area. The hostel I stayed in was quite a way out of the centre, so I walked for many miles during my few days here. The first day I was there was a Sunday, which was a shame because it meant all the travel agents were closed, and my plan to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca was impossible. So instead I wandered around the city, eventually finding my way up El Morro, a huge headland which towers over the centre. I got there as the sun was setting, and climbed up it for some amazing views of the Pacific sunset. In the other direction, looking east I could see two giant snow-capped Andean peaks, so far away they [...]
Dec 31, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I got a bus to Iquique. It was a great journey through the desert to Antofagasta, and then up the coast. A stunning moonrise over the Andes felt like a sign that this was a good direction to be heading in. And Iquique was fantastic. The weather was awesome, the setting of the city between the desert mountains and the Pacific was incredible, the place I stayed was great, the people I met were fun, and I was in a great mood. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had a few things to sort out. I needed to buy a flight from Arica to Santiago, if I was going to make it up there and still get back in time for my flight home; I needed a new bag because mine was falling apart; and I needed an FC Iquique football top. I had a great Spanish day and accomplished all my tasks with a minimum of misunderstanding. My errands run, I went for a walk on the beach. I kept on getting into random conversations with friendly locals – someone from Santiago visiting the north for the first time, and enjoying the weather, a local who told me [...]
Dec 29, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d liked El Tatio the last time I was here, four years earlier. The geothermal activity was impressive and the Altiplano scenery around it was staggering. This time I didn’t like it so much. The weather was pretty bad, with thick clouds drifting over the place when we arrived. On my first trip it had been savagely cold; it wasn’t so bad this time, but the clouds really made it look much less impressive. So I walked around the geysers, thinking I should probably have gone somewhere else instead of returning here. The 4,300m altitude and a slight lack of caffeine worsened my mood. But suddenly, startlingly, just as we were leaving, the clouds dispersed. Within a couple of minutes, the Altiplano had emerged from the gloom, and the sun shone on the wisps of steam from the declining geysers, which only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. We drove back to San Pedro, via Machuca, where a white adobe church shines brightly under the Atacama sun, and where locals sell handicrafts and food. Last time I’d been here, we’d had a puncture and a long wait to change the tyre. I’d been suffering with the altitude and [...]
Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I headed back to San Pedro. The scenery here was really mind-blowing, with the horizon fringed by giant volcanoes and in the foreground, the wild rock formations of the Valle de la Luna. Sometimes these volcanoes erupt; Lascar had erupted only a few years earlier, and Putana was smoking. I hoped that one day I’d be able to come here and see an eruption. In the evening I cycled out to the Valle de la Muerte, much closer to San Pedro than the Valle de la Luna. I stood on a hilltop looking out over the surroundings, as a strong evening wind blew down the valley. Night fell, and I cycled back into town. It had been a tiring day, and in normal circumstances I might have slept late the next morning. But I had to be up at 3.30am, because I would be returning to El Tatio.
Dec 26, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I was heading for San Pedro de Atacama. I had a few hours to kill before the bus left, and I didn’t feel too keen to spend them in La Serena. I wanted to go to Vicuña, a village nearby, but the buses there didn’t seem to follow any timetable. I decided that if one came in the next 15 minutes, I’d go. 10 minutes later, one came into the station, so I got on and headed out. An hour later I was in peaceful Vicuña, where the pace of life seemed very slow. It was a hot, hot day. I sat in the main square for a little while, watching things happen. A small child drove by in a powerful-looking kart – it must have been a great Christmas for him. It was heading towards midday, and the sun was beating down fiercely. I foolishly decided I fancied a walk up into the hills, bought myself an ice cream and some water, and headed out of town on a path leading to a viewpoint. It was thirsty work, but it didn’t take me very long to get up to a nice viewpoint. I could see here that Vicuña was [...]
Dec 24, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Too soon, it was time to leave La Silla. Our observing run had been very successful, and we had enjoyed the place a lot. Now it was time to relax for a few days. It was Christmas, and we spent a couple of days in a small cottage by the beach in La Serena. I wasn’t sure if I liked La Serena that much. The town was pleasant enough but very quiet, and the beach was a long walk away from the centre. And although I enjoyed relaxing for a couple of days, I felt very impatient to get travelling to more interesting parts. Christmas day was hot and sunny. We had gone to a supermarket the day before but not found very much that we could make a traditional British Christmas dinner out of, especially with the limitations imposed by our cottage, which had hobs but no oven. So we had pancakes for breakfast and a strange potato-egg-vegetable fry up for lunch. Then we walked on the beach, which seemed very weird. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to Christmas Day not being dark and cold.
Dec 21, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
In times past, the telescope control rooms were in the telescope domes, and observers would drive out each night and spent the hours of darkness ensconced in the dome. But in recent years they’ve moved all the major telescope controls into one room. It’s conveniently close to the kitchen so getting a midnight meal is easy, but it feels strange to be so far from the actual telescope. But we took a trip out there with our day technician, Paul, one evening when he was checking things over. We looked in on the 2.2m telescope and the 3.6m telescope while we were up there, and then walked back via the spectacular views from the 15m disused Swedish radio telescope. We spent our nights in the control room. In our temporary office in the same building, there was a spectacularly good coffee machine which dispensed awesome espressos at the touch of a button. The first night we were there I pressed that button 15 times, and by dawn I felt slightly unusual. In subsequent nights I kept my button presses to single figures. The only thing I seriously didn’t like about the control room was its bizarre cuckoo clock, which chimed [...]
Dec 19, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
We got a bus to La Serena, spent a night there and then headed up to the observatory at La Silla. This was the first major observatory built in the southern hemisphere, and the list of incredible discoveries made here is long and impressive. But ESO’s main observatory these days is at Paranal, a few hundred miles further north. The atmosphere at La Silla is one of faded glory and a place whose best years are behind it. Most of the telescope domes are now unused. But the telescopes that still run are still among the best in the world, and we had five nights on the largest of them, the 3.6m New Technology Telescope. But because of the transport schedule, we had to arrive at the observatory three nights before our run started. So we had plenty of time to appreciate the incredible scenery up here on the southern fringes of the Atacama desert. The food was awesome, we made extensive use of the ice cream machine, we watched condors hover over the desert, and I discovered the best coffee machine in the world. All was good.
Dec 14, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
South America, to me, was hallowed ground of a kind. It was the last inhabited continent that I visited, and my first trip there was a long, epic voyage, which I’d planned for years and that will probably always be my greatest travel experience. So in a way I was wary about going back a second time. It could never match up to the times I’d had before. I was going back for work. We had some time on the telescopes of La Silla, and my presence was required as a relatively experienced observer to make sure nothing went terribly wrong. Our run was just before Christmas, so I left behind a chilly London, sat on a plane for 15 hours, and then emerged into a hot, sunny Santiago. It was fantastic to be back. I’d liked Santiago from the moment I first arrived here, on a night train from Temuco in December 2005. This time we stayed in the fantastic ESO guesthouse, in the wealthy suburb of Las Condes, and the day we arrived was the day of the 2009 presidential election. The election meant that everything was closed, and we had a look round the quiet streets of [...]
Nov 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 [...]
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 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
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 [...]
Jul 01, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
My time on Ammassalik was over. Before I’d left London I’d booked a ticket for the ferry back to Kulusuk. The helicopter ride over had been fun but I really fancied a little sea voyage off East Greenland. It was the first scheduled ferry journey of the year – the sea ice had only recently melted enough to allow easy sailing. I packed up my things and wandered down to the port under gloomy skies. The boat was supposed to leave at 9am, but there was little sign of any activity. I hung around on the dock until 9.30 and then vaguely wandered on board. I showed someone my ticket, and then watched dark shoals of large fish speeding around in the water. At 11.15, we chugged away from the dock, and set off for Kulusuk. The only passengers were me and five Danes. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze, swaying with the boat and watching icebergs drift by. The seas were mostly clear. The boat didn’t even need to avoid most of the icebergs – it was quite happy to ride over them. After a couple of hours I imagined we were not too far from Kulusuk, [...]
Jun 29, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I’d bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb. Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea. What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up [...]
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 24, 2009 in Madrid 2009
I arrived back at Heathrow from the US at 9am, looping around London and flying over Wembley, UCL, the Thames Barrier, a block of flats in Rotherhithe that I used to live in, the Wheel and Parliament. But this was no homecoming. I hung around at Terminal 3 for a couple of hours and then it was time to head off again, this time to Madrid. During my three days on the other side of the Atlantic, I’d been waking up at 3 or 4 am, and definitely hadn’t got over the jetlag. Coming back so soon, I thought perhaps it would all cancel out and I’d feel fine. But I think actually it just doubled everything. I sleepily found my way out of Barajas airport and into town. I had no time to recover. I was here to learn how to process data from the Herschel satellite, and the workshop started at 9am. Not only that but it was 30 miles outside Madrid, and the bus left at 8am. Not only that but I was staying about 20 minutes walk from where the bus went. So at 7.15am I headed out into a sunny morning to find my way. [...]
Mar 21, 2009 in United States 2009
After the conference I had two days to spare in southern Arizona. It was hot, sunny and dry and London seemed like a very long way away. You can’t do much in Tucson without a car, but luckily a friend had been observing at the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory and had a motor. He’d just finished his observing run, and we headed out into the desert. Our destination was Chiricahua National Monument. 90 miles from Tucson, out of the yellow desert, a green range of hills rises, and in these hills are hundreds of stone pillars. We set off onto the trails. It was a little bit cooler in these hills than it had been back in Tucson, but still fairly punishing. Near to the car park there were quite a few people on the trails, many of whom did not look very much like hikers at all and occupied most of the width of the narrow paths. As we got further away, there were fewer and fewer people, and the wilderness was spectacular. After a few hours we reached a turnoff for ‘Inspiration Point’. I was initially not too fussed, as we’d already covered a lot of ground [...]
Mar 18, 2009 in United States 2009
I headed for the Sears Tower, no longer the tallest building in the world but still the tallest in North America. There were almost no queues, but still it took me a long time to get to the top. For some reason they insist on everyone watching some promotional video before they’re allowed to get to the lift. And then they tried to take a photo of me to superimpose on some cheesy view. This happens in all sorts of places, and I can never really believe that anyone would actually buy the photos. I waved the photographer aside and strode through to the lift. It was an overcast, dull day. Chicago looked very yellow, and stretched away out of sight in all directions, except to the east where Lake Michigan stretched out of sight. There were not many people on the viewing platform. I got into a conversation with someone, who asked me whether I knew what a particular building was. I didn’t, and presumed he was not from around here. He turned out to be a DJ from Texas and we talked about music for a while. He asked me if I was from around here, which surprised [...]
Mar 18, 2009 in United States 2009
I’d been to the US before, but only for a matter of hours between flights to and from Latin America. I got an opportunity to go back for slightly longer, to go to a conference in Tucson. This trip would be more than just hours, but not much more – three days was my limit thanks to commitments before and after. I flew with American Airlines. I didn’t particularly want to: I’d flown back from Quito with them and suffered a 12 hour delay leaving Ecuador, which meant an 18 hour layover in Miami. I didn’t like getting delayed, and I didn’t like Miami, but at least by flying to Arizona with them now, I’d accrue enough air miles to get a free flight out of them. We left London and flew west. As we passed over Ireland and out into the Atlantic, the mist-wreathed headlands of County Kerry slipped from view. With hours to go until Chicago and nothing but ocean to see, I settled down to sleep the kind of sleep you get in the constant noise and constant light of a trans-atlantic flight.
Feb 28, 2009 in Grenoble 2009
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
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 [...]
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 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.
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
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 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 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 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 [...]
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 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 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 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 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, [...]
Mar 31, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
By the time we docked in Dublin it was cold and raining. There was snow on the hills along the Irish coast. I got a bus to the centre of town, where I had a couple of hours to kill before the Belfast train. I walked along by the Liffey, took a few photos and felt like I’d seen pretty much all there is to see in Dublin on my previous two trips here. I walked up to Connolly station and got on the train heading north.
Feb 24, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I 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 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.
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
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 [...]
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 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 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. [...]
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 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 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 [...]
Apr 27, 2007 in China 2007
I went to Stanley on my last day in Hong Kong. I didn’t have any particular aim in mind, I just wanted to see a part of the island outside the city. And I didn’t really do much in Stanley; I just wandered through the market a few times, bought some souvenirs, then walked along the sea shore and watched boats passing. I liked the place; you could sense that the vibrant city was just over the hill but the town was very tranquil and relaxed. The market was busy but it was nothing like as push-and-shove as the Peak had been the night before. After I’d seen enough of the market and the sea, I headed back to the city. I had an idea that I’d go to Lantau island and see what there was there, but it was already 4pm. Lantau is twice the size of Hong Kong island and I thought a couple of hours wouldn’t really do it justice. I’d liked Hong Kong so much more than I’d expected that I knew I’d be coming back. I decided to leave Lantau for the next time.
Apr 26, 2007 in China 2007
In the evening I took a tram up to the Peak. At the top was one of the most horrifically commercialised places in a horrifically commercialised city – a towering arcade of shops and cafes, which it took ages to climb through to get to the viewing area. And I was not the only one to make the trip up. Hundreds of eager photographers were jostling for position as the sun set and the city began to look spectacular. Politeness was not rewarded and so after a while of trying to take photos through the sea of heads and arms, I elbowed my way to the front and took in the view for a while. Eventually I was barged aside and shoved towards the back again. Despite the crowds, the view was pretty breathtaking. The scale and energy of the city was something to behold, and the forest of skyscrapers looked incredible as it lit up. I had never had a particular sense of urgency about visiting Hong Kong and had only come here as an aside to my China trip. But now I was here, I was loving it. It was like nowhere I’d ever been before. It was [...]
Apr 25, 2007 in China 2007
I got a ferry to Macau. As I boarded at the Kowloon ferry terminal, I noticed a sign saying “Dumb walkway swaying. Passengers up-and-down be careful”. Normally I think it’s a bit churlish for foreigners to mock the “Chinglish” which is quite common in these parts. After all, our languages are radically different, and it’s just nice for English-speakers to have signs approximately understandable, especially when most of them don’t speak a word of any Chinese language. But this one was a classic of the genre and I liked the implication that the walkway had its very own obstinate personality, swaying despite clear instructions not to. It was a wet squally day, but I was still disappointed that there was no deck to go out and stand on as we powered across the Pearl River Delta. We docked at Macau just after midday, and it began to rain as I walked towards the centre. Soon it was wildly torrential downpour, and as I took refuge in the doorway of a megacasino I chatted to two passing Bangladeshi students visiting from Shenzhen. Eventually the rain eased off, and I headed for the Fortaleza da Guia, a Portuguese fortress on the highest [...]
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 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.
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 02, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
I got a night train back to Bulgaria. There were no fun people to share my compartment with this time, just an angry Hungarian who hadn’t much enjoyed Turkey and thought that more or less everyone had been ripping him off. The border crossing was quicker than it had been on my way into Turkey, and we were more or less on time when we reached Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, at 9am the next day. I met a Swiss girl in the restaurant car who was also going to Plovdiv, and we both got confused when the train stopped at a station in the outskirts of Plovdiv. We thought we needed to get off, but there was a very large woman with some very large bags blocking the exit, and the train only stopped for a few seconds. We thought we might not be stopping again until Sofia, but luckily we soon stopped at a much bigger station that was clearly Plovdiv’s main one. The station was still quite a way from the centre. I walked up Ulitsa Ivan Vazov to the central square, and without any particular aim in mind I strolled up the pedestrianised main street, eventually reaching [...]
Apr 01, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
By the time we left the Aya Sofia it was sunny again. John wanted to go to a museum, but I fancied some fresh air. I wanted to go to the Prince’s Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, but it took me too long to find the right ferry terminal, and instead I randomly decided to go to Üsküdar, back in Asia and at one end of the mile-long suspension bridge which crosses the Bosphorus. There’s not a lot to see in residential Üsküdar, so I just walked along the shores of the Bosphorus for a while, stopping occasionally for an ice cream. The waterfront was busy, and the views over to Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet were good. After a couple of hours relaxing in this relatively laid-back part of the city, I headed back to the bustle of Sultanahmet.
Jan 21, 2006 in South America 2005
Loja seemed quite nice when we first arrived, a pleasant enough town surrounded by some fine Andean scenery. We were tired after an overnight bus ride and so spent our first day not doing very much. In hindsight this was a mistake, but we didn’t know that then. On our second day we went to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, not far outside Loja to the south. When I planned my South American travels this was not even close to being one of my most anticipated destinations but it turned out to be one of the most memorable places I visited. Our day started with a bus heading for Vilcabamba, which we got off at a road junction more or less in the middle of nowhere. We set off walking to the national park, a five mile uphill walk, hoping we might be able to hitchhike up. A couple of cars passed us leaving the park but nothing seemed to be going up. After three quarters of an hour we were beginning to resign ourselves to walking all the way when suddenly a truck appeared, carrying three park rangers. They told us to jump on the back, and we drove up to [...]
Jan 10, 2006 in South America 2005
I didn’t sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I’d had this traditional Andean drink a few times already, but despite its reputed stimulant qualities I hadn’t found myself running up mountains after drinking it. But remarkably, this time I did. I don’t know what Roy put in the brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate. Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but [...]
Dec 15, 2005 in South America 2005
We headed on to Laguna Colorada. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and the lake was bright red, with flamingoes dotted all across the waters. What looked like steam rising from the lake in the distance was apparently salt water whirlwinds, a common site here. We were staying here for the night, at Campamento Ende, a meteorological station on the south-western shore of the lake, and we were all now feeling the altitude. My trip to El Tatio had definitely done me some good, acclimatisation-wise, as had the trip up to Sol de Mañana and back down to here, and I went for a walk while the others rested, but I was still totally exhausted if I walked even a few metres uphill. I took a lot of photos of the lake, which was getting redder and redder due to mineral reactions in the sunlight, and the thousands of flamingoes strutting about in the shallow waters. Night fell not long after 6pm, and the temperature plummeted. I stood on the shores of the lake, breathing the thin cold air and watching a thunderstorm in the distance, until 9pm when the generator at Campamento Ende was shut off, and the only light [...]
Nov 12, 2005 in South America 2005
My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés, one of the park’s most scenic sections. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possibly flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep. In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep [...]
Sep 17, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had intended to depart for San Jose early the next day, but Jose said there was a great fruit market in Alajuela, so we went to that. It was a vibrant, colourful affair, with a beer tent and live music, and we had a great time buying lots of weird tropical fruits. I got horrifically sunburnt for the first time on the trip, but it had been a fun day so I didn’t mind. Eventually at about 4pm we left for San José. This meant we arrived just after dark, and it was raining. This is not really a sensible time to arrive in a big bustling Latin American capital, and it wasn’t long before we attracted unwanted attention. ‘Where you going?’ said a shifty looking character. ‘We’re looking for the Tica Linda hostel’ we said. He strode off purposefully, beckoning to us to follow him. Having no better plan, we did just that. He introduced himself as Patrick Fernandez, and said he hoped we’d enjoy Costa Rica. Friendly enough, but when he began walking down very dodgy looking streets, we began to worry. Then he walked into a dark unlit park, and we began to really worry. We [...]
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 [...]
Aug 04, 1998 in Australia 1998
Alice Springs is a curious little town in the middle of absolutely nowhere. On a map of Australia it looks as if it’s right next to Ayer’s Rock, but in fact it’s about 300 miles away. If you drew a circle 600 miles across centred on Alice Springs, about 10,000 people would live within it. If you did the same thing in London, you’d encompass about 60 million people. We spent a couple of days in this outpost, and I enjoyed the frontier feeling. We wandered up Anzac Hill and looked over the town to the Heavitree Gap. Beyond the Gap you could travel through empty desert all the way to Ceduna on the South Australian coast. At the other end of town from Anzac Hill was Billy Goat Hill. This was off-limits to all except aborigines, being a sacred place to them. The sad state of urban aborigines was clear to see near Billy Goat Hill, as there were always a number of miserable-looking people there clutching bottles. It rained while we were in Alice Springs. This only happens once or twice a month, and after the shower had passed, the concrete paths near our hotel became covered in [...]
Aug 03, 1998 in Australia 1998
Kata Tjuta is a collection of giant red rocks about 20 miles from Uluru. The tallest rocks are taller than Uluru but Kata Tjuta is far less well know. I hadn’t heard of it before we arrived in Yulara. We headed out there to have a look around, and did an excellent walk through the rocks. We passed through the Valley of the Winds, and the six of us were the only people in sight in the vastness of the landscape. I felt like we were walking on the surface of Mars. Although it was winter, and bitterly cold at night, temperatures were high enough in the day for us to feel pretty exhausted by the end of our circuit. We’d only taken two small bottles of water, and signs at the start of the trail made it clear that in summer, that would have been a lethal error.