27 January 2010

Arrivederci Roma; happy Australia Day

Tonight is our last night in Rome, tomorrow we say goodbye to the Eternal City, to Italy and to Europe.

While here, I have bee struck by a few things.

First, everything is big. Oversized. Like the bills for morning coffee at Babbington's Tea Rooms and like the giant pine cone they have sitting in one of the courtyards of the Vatican Museums. (The pine cone is ancient, from an Imperial Roman racecourse or something of the sort and very imposing - it's at least three people high.)

Second, and a limitation of the above, one thing is very small. The Pope. We went along for a blessing on Sunday from His Holiness and I was struck by how tiny he looked in comparison to the oversized windows of the Apostolic Palace and the oversized LED screens that helpfully showed the words for the crowd to chant like a Sabbath sing-along.

Third, I've been struck by a case of Appian Bum. You won't find Appian Bum mentioned in the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Medicine, but it is real. It's an ailment that one suffers after going for a three-hour bicycle ride along the Via Appia (the ancient Roman road, Queen of the Roads in its time, along which such illustrious personages as Augustus and St Paul travelled), which still features some of its original state-of-the-first-century-BC-art paving. As you can see, the Romans went in for the large, bumpy boulder style of road paver; either time has worn them down or the Romans had rock-hard rears. Here's hoping the 24 hour flight tomorrow doesn't require much sitting!

So, all in all, Rome's been fun, if a little disorganised. Will be glad to wash again in a shower that is larger than five cubic feet of water and will be excited about having a lock that works on the front door. But I guess feeling a little dirty and running the gauntlet of having your flat broken into is what a stay in Rome is all about, isn't it. That and seeing churches everywhere. And domes, lots of domes.

23 January 2010

Guests say the darndest things

We've been in Rome now for a few days and all's going along well (if you don't count the little hiccup at the beginning when we thought for a few hours that our accommodation rental had been a scam and that we had been swindled out of a deposit and left homeless for a week - but that's another story). We've been doing the rounds of the museums and the churches, which are practically empty of tourists and so very enjoyable. We've even seen not too many bus loads of Chinese travellers, although we did yesterday come across one such tour party in the Colosseum; the members of the party were each carrying a selection of gift shop bags from the various places they had visited that day - the Vatican Museums, the Villa Borghese, the Capitoline Museums and the Forum. How on earth they managed to do all of the before lunch amazes me.

Speaking of the Capitoline Museums, we also visited them yesterday afternoon. At the end of our visit we cam across the museum's guest book and had a bit of fun reading through the comments left by previous guests. One unfortunate sod, clearly tired and emotional and a little bit confused had written:

Capitoline Museum - it is NOT ALLOWED for you to charge so much entry fee and not have a prospect available in English!! You have not prospects in my language in any case but I speak English and you should have prospect in that language!!!! I have been lost in the museum trying to find DAVID!!!

Aside from the dubious claim that this chap 'speaks English', I'm worried that he spend an afternoon wandering around the museum trying to find a sculpture that's in Florence.

Equally amusing was another comment that described the Capitoline Museum's collection of classical Roman statuary and busts with particularly Australian eloquence:

The Raes of Ballina, Australia - Great museum - Bust city!
Stacey, Kev and Tracey 21.1.2010

Too right. Bust city.

20 January 2010

Florence fever

This is our last night in Florence and I should start by apologising for the lack of blog postings from Italy; you see, as the title of this post suggests, I've come down with Florence fever. Or, rather, a fever in Florence. (Actually, it was a bad sore throat, but 'sore throat' doesn't provide the same sort of aliterative pun opportunities as 'fever'.) And, accordingly, I've been going to bed too early to post anything most nights. Our stay in Florence has been excellent and not at all diminished by our run-in with The Law (more of which later).

First, the weather has been excellent. Cear, sunny (though cool) days with only one day marred by overcast skies and a light rain. The weather has been so good, in fact, that I can't tell the differnece between my photographs and those taken by people who visit in summer when the crowds are horrendous, the prices inflated and the heat intolerable. Added to that, despite the guide books reccommending that tickets to see David and enter the Uffuzi be booked days in advance to avoid the queues, we just ambled up to the Uffuzi one afternoon and wandered in and we almost walked past the Academy housing David because the street was deserted.

I am not the only one to have discovered the cleverness of visiting Tuscany in the winter: it seems, too, that many Chinese tourists are on the same wavelength, because of those tourists we have seen so far in Italy, the majority have been tourbus loads of Chinese visitors. They make for amusing company, what with their 'let's see the entire Uffuzi Gallery in half an hour' tour or their photo-ops at Pisa. I hope their family and friends appreciate the snapshots of them holding up the Leaning Tower with their bare hands, a pose which, when viewed from afar, looks more like a tai chi move: Graceful Marble Butress in Morning Sunlight.

Speaking of Pisa, the train ride there was the setting for our encounter with Guiseppe Law, in the form of a very polite train ticket inspector. Here's the run down: we'd bought our tickets for Pisa (return, first class, 17 Euros each) and made our way to the alotted platform. As this is Italy, there were only half a dozen first class seats in the ten-carriage train; we did the gentlemanly thing and let the little old ladies sit in first class and took our chances with the plebs in the second class compartment. Just outside Florence the conductor came along and we (most impressed at our ability to use the Italian automatic ticket machine) proudly handed him our freshly-issued tickets. Our pride was quickly diminished when his blank bureaucratic stare turned into a quizzical glare at our tickets, then at us, and then transformed into one of those looks you might give a child who's just drawn a wonderful picture of you in crayon on the diningroom wall - a look that mixes disappointment, shock and weary condescention in equal measures. 'Non più turisti!' you could imagine him thinking to himself as he leaned into to us and asked, 'Tell me, why is it that you had not this tickets validated in Florence?'. Oh dear. You see, it isn't enough to buy the tickets on the platform or to get them checked by the conductor (or even to give up your first class seats to the blue rinse set); you must also hunt down the little yellow Ticket Validating Machine which sits somewhere on the platform to get your tickets 'validated'. The conductor took pity on us (possibly this was a karmic return on our renunciation of the pleasures of first class Italian train travel) and declared 'Because you do not know about this validating, I will fine you only once!' His broad smile indiacted that this was a great indulgence, an act of immence munificence, so we copped our 5 Euro fine on the chin and took special care to find the magic yellow Ticket Validation Box on the journey from Pisa.

There are more excellent stories to be told from our Florentine adventure, but for now, some pictures from our six days in Florence.

Day 1 - Evening on the day we arrived, wandering around central Florence.

Day 2 - Climbed Giotto's bell tower next to the Duomo. Dizzying.

Day 3 - Stephen's 21st Birthday, so some indulgence required; 30 Euro (!) hot chocolate and cake at Cafe Gilly (serving overpriced food since 1773 to cashed up Florentines and tourists alike).

Day 4 - Pisa and an expert display of tai chi from a superannuated Chinese tourist.

Day 5 - Siena.

15 January 2010

Genève - it's French for 'closed'

Francophone Switzerland, I have to report, trails its Germanic neighbour in a number of important areas, the most striking of which is the apparent inability of the Genevois authorities to clear snow from streets and footpaths; a near second would have to be the overwhelming lack of open museums. Our few days in Geneva left us with little impression of the city as almost all the things I'd planned on visiting were closed: there was the Patek Phillipe watch museum, which is closed for a month at the moment; the UN complex, which is almost always closed, so that's less surprising; the International Committee of the Red Cross museum ('one of the best museums in Europe' according to the guidebook), which, according to the plaque on the front door, is 'open every day' ... except, as it turns out, Tuesdays (clearly the concept of 'every day' has a somewhat different meaning in Geneva). So, there is actually very little to report from a Geneca sojourn, other than we were just a little bit relieved to be heading back to Zurich and the heart of Germaic Switzerland.

One aspect of Geneva that does deserve a special mention in dispatches was the hotel. 'Hotel Kipling' is, as the name suggests, a hotel built on a 'Rudyard Kipling' concept. The means that all the halls and rooms are decked out with photographs from the Kipling family album (including some lovely snaps of Kipling as sahib with a retinue of native servants) and a breakfast served based on a 'glory days of the Raj' theme - kedgeree and chutney as far as the eye can see. The reception even featured a little pot burning Indian incense, so stepping into the lobby was a little like stepping into British India circa 1930. Quite fantastic, really.

And now, some photographs of the many things that were closed in Geneva during our stay.

1. A frozen plant behind the closed Patek Phillipe Museum.

2. The United Nations complex featuring, in the foreground, some of the muddy slush which found such an accepting home in the streets of Geneva.

3. A frozen Ghandi near the closed Red Cross Museum. If you squint, the snow almost looks like salt, a fitting tribute to the man whose Great Salt March revolutionised non-violent protest.

4. Over in their very own Quartier Américaine, 'Restaurant' McDonalds and Starbucks (in the background) were beacons of open trading in the city. God bless America.

10 January 2010

A tale of two securities

Barcelona is behind us and we're back in Switzerland, in the very heart of the federation - Bern. We left Barcelona in the rain (which gave the city a dirty, drab feel, which fit perfectly with the dour faces of the passengers and petty criminals on the Barcelona metro) and arrived in Bern with the Swiss version of rain: snow. Everything in the city is covered in a layer of white. Some pictures to illustrate: me with the Universal Postal Union monument, the Swiss Parliament, a Bern bear in the new (and much larger) bear park and, just for mum, a photo from the top of a wood-panelled stairwell leading up to the cathedral.

More tales from Bern at another time; right now, some more tales from the journey from Barcelona.

You will remember that some years ago, terrorists exploded a bomb on a train in Madrid. Since then, it seems, 'security' procedures have been implemented at all major Spanish international train stations. The station from which we departed in Barcelona had a typical airport-style security check point set up: luggage x-ray machines, security personnel and lots of posters about what is and what is not allowed on the trains. The list of contraband items included (understandably) all knives. Now, in my suitcase, I had packed my Swiss Army knife (because it's got useful things like scissors and a bottle-opener and also a little knife that I'd picked up in Zurich to sut up fruit and bread and things). So it came as a real suprise to me when the guards just waved me through after I'd put my bags through the scanner. More suprising was how the guards didn't bother asking to scan or search any of the passengers or the bags that passengers decided not to put on the scanner. I suppose Manuel and Jose at the checkpoint operate on more of a 'trust' system. Spanish security at its best. Anyway, I showed my items to the train guard and he said they were fine.

Things were not so laid back when we crossed the frontier back into Switzerland. At 6:00 am we heard a loud knock on our cabin door and were greeted by two armed Swiss Frontier guards holding our passports. They spoke no English. More worringly, when I asked, they said they didn't really speak any German. We were crossing near Geneva, and, according to the guidebooks, most people in Francophone Switzerland don't bother continuing to learn German after primary school - despite it being the majority language in Switzerland - which does not compare favrouably with their German-speaking compatriots who, almost universally, are fluent in French (and speak impeccable English too); so, the guards' quizzical expressions when I was trying to explain the nature of our visit in German did not come as a complete surprise. They demanded we open up all our bags and they searched through all of our possessions - even going so far as to open up a little tin box of chocolates that had been gift wrapped in Zurich to check that they were actually chocolates. Things were getting a little concerning as the langauge divide was making the guards more shouty and us more worried. Luckily, I was able to pull out my superbly-presented (and tasetfully-formatted) full-colour itinerary clearly showing that, in fact, we were neither illegal immigrants planning on settling in Switzerland nor drug mules importing kilos of charlie from Barcelona to Zurich. After being given a little 'thumbs-up' gesture from the guards, we were soon left in relative peace, until about half an hour later, when Swiss immigration officials knocked on our door to check our faces against our passports. At least the immigration chaps apologised for waking us and, unlike the frontier guards, were cheking the whole carriage. The frontier guards chose to seach only us, presumably because they could tell from our passports and ticket that we had spent only a couple of days in Barcelona and deemed this behaviour 'suspicious'. Swiss security at its most dilligent.

06 January 2010

Churches, cigarettes and chocolate

The last proper day of our Zürich adventure was spent wandering around town - visited the Grossmünster (which was refreshingly austerely Protestant after the rococo intensity of the St Gallen cathedral yesterday) and walked up to the top of the tower for some impressive views of the city then walked up and down the streets on either side of the Limmat River that bisects the city.

The Grossmünster was variously filled with tour groups of Italians (loud), Greeks (louder) and Chinese (clueless)
which all spent no less than five minutes in the building, which seems such a waste. In the hushed lulls between the tour groups we got to admire the stained glass of which the newest windows are most impressive: the most recent 'windows' were only installed in September 2009 and are by the artist Sigmar Polke who, rather than using glass in the windows, has used very finely sliced slivers of agate and other stones, which looks amazing.

Away from the Cathedral we went for lunch at the Cafe Odeon, which is a place I've wanted to visit for a while, and sat among the small tables that were once frequented by James Joyce, Lenin, Mussolini and Einstein (when he was a student at the local university). The ambiance of the place was nice but, like everywhere else it seems over here there were smokers filling up the place with full of cigarette smoke, which comes as a shock after smoke-free Sydney. It's quite odd: the Zürichers are so sensible in everything else yet suck away on cigarettes like there's no tomorrow.

The only other vice of the Zürichers I can identify is chocolate. There is so much here that you barely walk past one chocolatier before finding another. The local chocolate icon, Sprüngli (one half of the Lindt-Sprüngli company) has dozens of stores all around town - two in the railway station alone. We walked down Bahnhofstrasse and took photos of no less than ten chocolatiers - five Sprüngli shops alone. The main Sprüngli store, which has been going strong since the mid-nineteenth century, was amazing: one half of the ground floor sells chocolates and other confections, the other half has a cafe in it (which, when we visited, at around lunch-time was full of bankers and very well-dressed ladies) and the first floor up above has yet more chocolate. We bought a box of Luxemburgli (pictured) for the train trip to Barcelona.

In between all of that, we really milked our free transport passes in the city, catching half a dozen trams, the 'Polybahn' cable railway up to the university and 'Dodlerbahn' cog railway up to the Grand Dolder Hotel, which is where the really wealthy chose to stay in Zürich and it's not hard to see why, it's got a 180 degree view that takes in all of Lake Zürich, the Alps beyond and the whole of the city. And out bac
k, nestled in the Dolder's private wooded estate, there's a large ice-skating rink. Of course.

Some pictures of the days in Zürich ...

Day 1: View of St Peters with its over-sized clock-face, Zürich

Day 2: The red Rathaus of Basel

Day 3: Downtown Liechtenstein

Day 4: Snow in Arosa

Day 5: The 'Penguin Parade' at Zürich Zoo

Day 6: The Abbey church and library of St Gallen

Day 7: View from the top of the Grossmünster, Zürich

04 January 2010

'Princely moments'

The guidebooks are generally quite disparaging about Liechtenstein and level especially harsh judgement on the principality's capital 'city', Vaduz. The writers at Lonely Planet lament 'poor Vaduz' and the Rough Guide to Switzerland says 'you have to feel sorry for Vaduz'. Maybe I visited with low expectations. Maybe I'm more impressed by novelty passport stamps. Maybe I have an affinity for cityscapes dominated by small-scale, drab bank buildings. Whatever the reason, I found Vaduz a whole barrel of fun.

We visited on New Year's Eve, which, as with much of Europe, is called 'Silvester' in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. There are no trains directly to Liechtenstein from Switzerland (possibly because the two countries weren't on neighbourly terms until the twentieth century) and so the first part of our Liechtensteiner adventure was to work out how to catch a local bus from the small regional Swiss railway station of Buchs into Liechtenstein. Luckily, a lime-green bus marked 'Vaduz' soon appeared and we were off driving through the alleyways of rural Liechtenstein (if a country of that size can be said to have an urban-rural divide). The scenery as we made our way towards the capital was strange: think of driving between Tempe and Sydenham, with that mix of residential and industrial buildings, then imagine that scene flanked by pastureland with the Alps rising quickly in the background.

Vaduz is, really, too small I think to be called a city. The town centre has only two streets (one of which is closed to traffic and used as a pedestrian mall) and on arrival we headed for the tourist office to get our passports stamped. En route we counted no less than a dozen little banks, each brimming with secret gold deposits of the wealthy Germans over the border. Banking is only one of Liechtenstein's major industries; the other is denture manufacturing, and I can confirm that all the septa- and octogenarians I saw wandering through the town had marvelous dentures.

At the tourist office the kind lady who stamped out passports regretfully informed us that because it was Silvester, all the museums were closed. This was a little disappointing as the postage stamp museum and the prince's personal art collection housed in the local art museum are, apparently, both very good. But there was plenty out in the open to occupy our time. The souvenir shop just down from the tourism office was a mine of tacky treasures with tasteless tourists to match. It was at this shop that I realised the Liechtenstein Tourism Bureau's slogan is princely moments - the line is imprinted all over the postcards and other official souvenirs, including a lovely set of Tupperware containers featuring decal photographs of the princely family. Incidental, the family enjoys their princely moments while living in the Schloss Vaduz, an old castle perched high up on the hill that towers above Vaduz.

Liechtenstein casts itself as a 'democratic monarchy' and while the monarch resides up above the city, the parliament (pictured and which, to be honest, does not seem to have much authority in the little nation) is housed in a modern complex below, between a bank or two and the local cathedral. The complex itself from afar looks like it's made out of paddlepop sticks because of all the thin light tan bricks used in its construction and pretty much is emblematic of the novelty that is the Principality of Liechtenstein.

02 January 2010

One of the locals

Prior to this holiday some had questioned whether a visit to the Swiss Paper Museum at Basel would be a 'fun' thing to do; some even went so far as to suggest that a museum dedicated to paper might be 'uncool' or even 'boring'. Well eat your words, nay-sayers: the Swiss Paper Museum is fantastic. There isn't room here for me to wax lyrical enough about all the paper pulping, paper pressing and paper drying we saw, so instead I'll concentrate on the second-most exciting thing we did on our whirlwind tour of Basel: lunch.

The residents of Basel seem to have hidden away their best eating spots so as to confound tourists in an attempt to force us to eat at McDonalds rather than sample the gastronomic delights of the local cuisine. But we, intrepid explorers in the labyrinthine by-ways of the Basel dining scene, immediately saw through that rouse and had no problem in spending a hour wandering around in the rain trying to find a place to sample the local specialities. At last we happened on a little beer hall cum brasserie in the heart of the Old Town.

What a place this was. Every inch one hundred percent genuine Swiss, from the dozens of people smoking while munching on bretzels picked from little breztel stands to the old man in the back twirling his handlebar moustache. Every customer was chattering away in German and there was a noticeable pause in conversation when we entered and everyone watched us try to work out what to do. At this time of year, Swiss places offer set menus for most meals and we had wanted to order 'Menu 1', only because it had the only item on we understood: 'Bratwurst'. The waitress gestured that this was unavailable and so we got the 'mystery menu' that was option number 2. Mercifully, this option was a corn soup followed by a meat dish in which everything was flavoured with bacon. Delish. In time, the locals stopped staring at us and appeared to accept us into the fold, the old ladies on our table resumed their conversation about 'an importer-exporter' who was going to marry one of their nieces, I feel like such a Swiss villager.