Niagara

Apr 25, 2011 in Canada 2011

Niagara

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 didn’t expect much of the falls. I wasn’t even sure why I was going there. I’ve seen some of the biggest and widest falls the world has to offer, and these ones would surely pale in comparison. But then I walked round a corned, and in the distance saw a wall of water thundering over a cliff, and it was breathtaking. I walked on down the road. Spots of rain were starting to fall. I passed the international bridge and wondered if I should pop over to the US while I was here, but I thought that my battered and frayed passport might make it much more hassle than it was worth. I decided to stay in Canada.

The rain got heavier. By the time I reached the falls it was utterly grim, and at the lip of the falls it was even more grim as the spray competed with the rain and made everything twice as wet. I briefly retreated inside a ghastly tourist complex, had a nauseating Tim Hortons doughnut and a coffee, and then decided that whether it was raining or not, I had to get out of there. I walked up into Niagara Falls town. Giant hotels and casinos lined the streets. I was thinking of going up an observation tower, but the top of it was in the clouds. I walked randomly until I got to a place downstream of the falls where I could look over the rushing river with the massive horseshoe bite taken out of it.

The rain eased off and I walked back to the falls. In spite of the horrible commercialisation and the horrible numbers of tourists, they were impressive. I watched the water powering over the precipice for a while, wondering why humans like waterfalls enough to build grotesque tourist empires next to them.

Then the rain started falling again, and I headed back up to the station. Clouds clung to the sides of the river valley, and icebergs drifted by. The bus back to Toronto fought its way through the downpour and at one point the driver had to ask a passenger to wipe the condensation off his front window. Wet to the skin, I trudged back to where I was staying.

Belém

Nov 08, 2009 in Portugal 2009

Belém

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 tower and its pastries, and after we’d seen the tower we headed for the pastry shop. After some heavy rain, the sun shone on Belém as we sat outside eating and drinking coffee.

We went to the Centro Cultural de Belém. I didn’t even know it existed, but it contained a fantastic contemporary art gallery. Seeing a bit of contemporary art is one of my favourite things to do in any city so I was very happy to have ended up here. We looked around, enjoyed an exhibit of feminist art among other things, and then it was time for me to head off. Gig time was approaching.

Þingvellir

Jul 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Þingvellir

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. Great chasms flanked either side of the sunken plain, across which a river flowed calmly.

The next day it was blazing sunshine again. I hiked back down the chasms but it wasn’t quite the same. I scaled a large rock face to get up onto the North American plate, and I looked across to Europe on the other side of the plains. The Öxará river fell into the gap, diverted into the plains by the early Norse to provide water for their assemblies. I relaxed in the sun until it was time to head, for the last time, back to Reykjavík.

Wild parts

Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Wild parts

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 be seen. The skies matched the ground, a uniform slate grey as far as I could see.

Later on it got less forbidding. A vivid green mountain came into view, looking to me like it could be the crazy home of some Norse god. On this part of the trek I could easily see why Icelandic folk tales have it that every other rock in the highlands is home to a spirit or goblin of some sort.

Eventually I crested a rise and found the Emstrur hut beneath me. I was two thirds of the way to the end.

Escaping the crowds

Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

Escaping the crowds

I walked up to the castle. I was liking Prague in every respect except for how everyone else was liking it at the same time as I was. The streets heaved with tour buses and camera-laden tourists, and I wished I’d come here first in my European travels, instead of last. My dad travelled here in the 1960s, and it must have felt like a different universe back then. I walked through the castle grounds, barging through hundreds of tourist photographs.

Still lacking any consistent sense of what was where in this city, I headed haphazardly back towards the old town. My sense of direction failure meant I ended up crossing a busy road to get back to the river, and so finally I reached a spot where there weren’t many tourists around.

Prague

Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

Prague

Who really counts Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino as proper countries? Their only purpose is to take up the bottom spots in world cup qualification groups so that no-one else ever has to finish bottom. As such, when I visited the Czech Republic, I considered that I had then been to every country in Europe.

Normally when I turn up in an unfamiliar city, I can find my way about pretty quickly. For some reason in Prague I never really got my orientation sorted, and had a ridiculous time when I arrived trying to find my hostel. I got a bus into town easily enough, and walked to the station, but then it all went wrong. I went into the station so that I could follow directions from the relevant exit, only to get lost in its empty cavernous halls, and then to find that the relevant exit was locked up. I found my way back out, through a window in a deserted corridor, and set off in search again. I ended up walking for about an hour, exploring many parts of Žižkov and Karlin, before I finally managed to get to the hostel at 2am.

I got up late the next day, and headed back out into the city. I managed not to get lost, and found my way eventually to the Charles Bridge. I remembered that when my sister had been here, a few years earlier, she’d said it took her twenty minutes to walk across the bridge because of the crush of tourists. Today, one side of the bridge was behind hoardings and the crush was doubled. It took me a long time to get across.

Mostar

Jul 10, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Mostar

I got a tram from near Haris’s place to Sarajevo train station. It was in the newer, less fantastic part of town, with a large quiet square in front of it called “Srebrenica Massacre Square”. So often in Bosnia it was easy to begin to forget what had gone on during the 1990s, but there were always reminders.

The train to Mostar was a few hours late. It arrived in Sarajevo at the same time as a train heading for Zagreb, and neither station nor train seemed to indicate which one was which. I got on the one that had come into the platform I was on, stood by the door in case I felt the need to jump out suddenly, watched the station recede and then uncertainly decided to take a seat. If I’d accidentally got the Zagreb train, then I would just go to Zagreb. Why not? There was only me and one other person in my compartment and I asked him, in a patronising traveller-style gesturing sort of way, if this was the Mostar train. He replied in normal English that it was.

We started talking. He was called Sasha, and he was a Bosnian Serb, about the same age as Haris. He was a metaller, bearded, long-haired and dressed in black. He told me of the constant grief anyone who looks a bit alternative gets from the police in Bosnia. He said all the police were uneducated country boys and would stop and search him at pretty much every opportunity.

We spoke of many things. A native of Herzegovina, he said it bothered him a bit that everyone calls the country “Bosnia” when really it’s “Bosnia and Herzegovina”. But his Herzegovina nationalism was not particularly serious and he was generally more concerned with enjoying being a student in Mostar. We talked a bit about the war, and he said he thought Bosnia was healing, slowly. But I remembered Haris saying he just didn’t know if he could ever be friends with a Serb, after all the horrors he’d lived through. I wondered what would happen if these two good people ever met. Would they get on, or would the legacy of the brutality be too great?

Train to Belgrade

Jul 05, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Train to Belgrade

The train was about an hour late arriving in Budapest. I’d been getting paranoid that I’d missed it. On board, it was busy, and when I bought my ticket there had been no mention of seat reservations, let alone sleeper compartments. I found my way to a six seat cabin, in which I met two Serbs going to Subotica, two English girls going to Novi Sad, and a Hungarian who got off somewhere near the border. I chatted to the English girls for a while, then slept very badly. When we got woken up for the borders I felt so tired I hardly knew what was going on, but the Serb official who stamped me in was as jovial as any border guard I’ve ever met.

At dawn we reached Novi Sad. The English girls got off, and I had the compartment to myself. Dawn was breaking as we crossed the Danube, rumbling over a bridge that replaced one destroyed by NATO bombs in 1999. I slept until we got to Belgrade at eight.

Back to Budapest

Jul 04, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Back to Budapest

I’d wanted to go to Budapest for years, and had finally got there in February. Now, only a few months later I decided to go there again. I was planning to travel through the Balkans, and Budapest was a nice cheap place to get to, only a night train away from Belgrade. I booked to stay at the same hostel I’d been to before, and arrived two hours late with Wizz Air just as I had before. What was different, though, was that it was fearsomely hot. Last time I had slept terribly because I had a broken rib; this time it was because it was about 40°C in the room.

I only had one day in Budapest. Last time, I’d failed to find the soundtrack to Kontroll, an amazing film described boldly as the best Hungarian film of 2004. This time I made it my first priority, and with some recommendations of record shops from Olga the hostel owner, I headed out into town. The second shop I tried had it, and for weeks after I listened to almost nothing else.

I’d got what I came for, and so I went out to Keleti station to buy a ticket for the night train to Serbia. In breathtaking heat I queued for about half an hour, in a long line of travellers. Serbia was a very popular destination, because the EXIT festival in Novi Sad was imminent.

I had a few hours to kill before the train, and so I went up Gellért Hill, to watch the lights of the city come on as night fell. It was good to be back in Hungary, but I reckoned it would be even better to be in Serbia. I headed back out to Keleti and caught the midnight train to Belgrade.

Moon river

Apr 21, 2008 in Sevilla 2008

Moon river

We were keen to make Sunday night as large as we could, and we headed out to Calle Betis to see what was going on there. Not much, was the answer. Most bars were closed, and the only one we found that was open was extremely quiet. There were just some dodgy women from Gran Canaria who were about twenty years older than us and terrifyingly flirtatious. We decided to call it a night at about 1am. Outside, the clouds had cleared, and the moon was shining.