A Travellerspoint blog

Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys

After just five days in the utter mayhem and stifling heat of modern Indian cities, I escaped to the cool and sparsely populated mountains and valleys of the Indian Himalayas. It was spine-tinglingly exciting to be travelling into the world’s greatest mountain range, far exceeding any altitude I had previously been to and entering the abode of the Tibetan Buddhist community. Geologically, the Himalayas are an infant mountain range formed by the Indian subcontinental tectonic plate colliding with the Asian tectonic plate. The resulting peaks are of astonishing and unprecedented heights and continue to grow each year (all 110 of the world’s peaks that are at least 7,000 metres above sea level are located in the Himalayas or mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau). The Himalayas and adjacent Tibetan Plateau, collectively referred to as “the roof of the world”, have historically formed a natural barrier between the two defining civilisations of Asia: China and India. The people that have traditionally inhabited this barrier zone spanning Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Indian states of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh share ethnic and cultural similarities, especially for their reverence of Tibetan Buddhism. The cynic within me stymied efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment in this auspicious region, though I certainly met several kooky Western chaps who believed they were more successful (more on that in subsequent entries). I travelled through Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys and Ladakh, which are some of the most desolate and least populated regions on Earth (yet are counterintuitively part of India).

I journeyed up to the foothills of the Himalayas on the Kalka – Shimla “toy-train”, a World Heritage-listed railway recognised as a marvellous feet of engineering. Construction of the railway was instigated because Shimla served as the capital of the British Raj when the colonialists found New Delhi a trifle too hot (so for half the year). The route is traversed in quaint matchbox-sized carriages, although the quaintness of the experience was lost on me due to my annoyance at the difficulties in finding my seat (Indians seem to have a knack of over-complicating the simplest of matters). The historic area of Shimla stretches for two kilometres along a ridge with two, thankfully pedestrianised, boulevards lined with colonial buildings. The ridge affords magnificent views of Shimla’s pine-clad suburbs that cascade down the mountainside. Ultimately though, Shimla is mostly a ho-hum destination and swarming with Indian vacationers. It mainly served as a transit point for me as I organised a five day jeep tour through the isolated Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys.

Shortly after departing Shimla, I was very grateful not to be relying upon buses to explore the region. The roads were extremely rough, with gradually increasing precipitous falls. Every few kilometres we were reminded of the treachery of the route by signs claiming, “You are driving on the world’s most dangerous road” (although I think there are a few claimants to that distinction). French Canadian Mathieu joined me on the tour and we were led by Ladakhi Hassan and driven by Kashmiri Kamal. I particularly marvelled at the skill and caution of our driver in navigating the ostensibly two lane road, which was barely wide enough for a single buggy. The scenery on the first day became more dramatic with every passing hour, as the mountain peaks continuously rose and the chaos of Indian civilisation dissipated. The residents of the Kinnaur Valley look more Chinese than Indian and wear cylindrical hats with green, gold and purple bands. In the late afternoon, we arrived at the tiny village of Kalpa; evocative of the quintessential Himalayan setting. From my balcony, I had a perfect view of the snow-capped 6,050 metre mountain of Kinner Kailesh rising above Kalpa on the opposite side of the valley. The village consists of stone and wood buildings, colourfully painted and connected by winding stone pathways. Two modest Tibetan Buddhist temples occupy the centre of the village and the ethereal sounds of chanting monks and horns emanate from them. The slopes surrounding Kalpa are thickly covered in pine trees and also feature terraced apple orchards, bean fields and grazing goats.

The landscape became substantially more desolate as we continued further north-east into the Himalayas. The trees eventually disappeared completely, save only for irrigated apple orchards, as we increased in altitude and travelled further from the coast. Stripped bare of vegetation, the mountains in this region appear to be enormous and unstable piles of scree which threaten to collapse from epic landslides at any moment. The mountains are incised by the raging, milky waters of the Sutlej River flowing through the bottom of the Kinnaur Valley. Unsurprisingly, we passed through villages with much less regularity than in previous days. Due to the proximity of the Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys to the Tibetan border, military installations are instead the most visible form of civilisation (we required permits to travel in this region, no doubt to ensure we’re not Chinese spies, although I think my face gives that away) and therefore the roads were intermittently quite good. We stayed in the stunningly located village of Nako at an altitude of 3,600 metres, the highest point on Earth I had been to (which I repeatedly surpassed over the following week). The Kinnaur Valley’s width at Nako is expansive, which almost creates the impression that Nako is within a vast caldera rimmed by snow-capped peaks rather than a river valley. The village is essentially an oasis within the mountainous desert, with potato plantations and thick groves of willows shading an aqua lake designated as “sacred” by the Dalai Lama. Nako is a Tibetan Buddhist community composed of mud-brick dwellings and replete with a modern monastery. The incredibly atmospheric five-coloured flags and banners (red, green, yellow, blue and white) synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism flutter in the wind throughout Nako. I think these flags are my favourite religious decorative motif; simple but astoundingly beautiful in the Himalayan context and effective in conveying a spiritual “vibe”. They festoon bridges, temples and isolated stupas throughout the region.

Shortly after departing Nako, we entered the Spiti Valley, a region of foreboding mountains, stark lunar landscapes and utter dryness save only for the Spiti River. The extreme isolation of the valley (during winter, Spiti is permanently inaccessible from the western approach and can be completely inaccessible if snowfall and landslides block the other end) has helped preserve its distinctly Tibetan-influenced culture. The few inhabitants of Spiti reside in clusters of large, white-painted mud-brick houses, intermittently and surreally appearing on the lifeless slopes. It defies belief that many of these settlements have existed for centuries; how did people possibly live in such remote, empty and frigid (winter) environs without road access and electricity? We visited the small but broadly spaced town of Tabo, situated at the bottom of the valley (so only 3,000 metres in altitude) and hemmed in by scree mountains. The austerity of the buildings and dull atmosphere hide some of the finest examples of Tibetan art in the world. The Tabo Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) was founded more than one thousand years ago and its dark interiors feature intricately detailed and colourful Buddhist murals, remarkably well preserved for its age. We also visited Dhankar Gompa, which is probably the most spectacularly located building I have ever seen. The 1,200 year old monastery is perched on an eroding pinnacle a thousand feet above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. Unsurprisingly, the building is listed as one of the “100 Most Threatened Monuments” on Earth, so I even took the extraordinary step of donating money to a religious institution. The monastery buildings are partly hewn into the rock and feature small temples, winding stairwells and passageways and rooftop terraces with staggering views. The monastery is painted white with black and red trimmings on the outside and yellow and red on the inside. From the monastery, we hiked up to the aqua Dhankar Lake at 4,200 metres in altitude, which appears like a mirage amid the monotonous brownish-orange of the landscape.

Kaza is the only proper town in the entire Spiti Valley and was the termination point of my jeep tour, as I wanted to explore the area independently. Near Kaza, the Spiti River is more a vast floodplain with meandering streams than a conventional river, creating a juxtaposing landscape of interminable flatness bordered by Himalayan mountains (Shilla rises to 7,026 metres). I hired a taxi with a German guy to visit the high altitude villages close to Kaza. We stopped at Ki Gompa, an almost circular compound picturesquely situated on a hillock overlooking the Spiti River floodplain. It reminded me somewhat of the capital of Rohan, as depicted in Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. We then ascended to Kibber at 4,200 metres, a village of large mud-brick houses on a plateau overlooking the valley. Just near the village is the skeleton of a bridge crossing a 300 metre gorge, which has remained unfinished for over a decade. Alternatively, the locals cross the gorge by an open, wire cable-car with no harnesses or safety equipment whatsoever. We next visited Langzha, a tiny village perched below a quintessentially pointy Himalayan peak (6,300 metres) with a massive modern Buddha scanning the valley. We continued to the village of Komic, which was noteworthy only for its claim at being the highest motorable village in the world at 4,513 metres. To complete the tour, we sent postcards from the highest post office in the world in Hikkim at 4,440 metres. The lack of replies from home suggest perhaps there were issues with the delivery.

The Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys hardly constitute a trip through culinary wonderland. The region’s extreme remoteness and minimal agricultural output have precluded it from developing a cuisine matching the glorious repertoire of kitchens in India’s central and southerly regions. Omelettes, stuffed paranthas (similar to roti, stuffed with spiced potatoes or onions) and uninspiring renditions of lassis were my conventional breakfasts. For lunch and dinner, I usually ate dhal or a lacklustre chicken curry, or one of the ubiquitous triumvirate of Tibetan dishes that have seeped across the border: momos (similar to Chinese dumplings, just blander), thukpa (noodle soup) and chow mein (essentially just Chinese fried noodles). The only thing of intrigue I tried was tea made from sea-buckthorn berries; vivid orange berries (touted as a super food) that grow natively in the mountainous deserts of the Spiti Valley.

My journey out of the Spiti Valley took a long and somewhat eventful full day. In order to catch the only west-bound bus from Kaza, I was instructed to arrive at the bus station half an hour before scheduled departure at 6:30am. I punctually adhered to this advice and found several groups of locals loitering around the bus in the pre-dawn dimness. I discovered the early formations of a queue awaiting an attendant at the ticket counter and placed myself fourth in line. When the attendant eventually came (late), he was mobbed by the locals and the queue immediately disappeared. While the locals displayed barbaric manners in their efforts to secure a seat, I determinedly maintained decorum - to my loss. The attendant unapologetically ignored me in the mayhem and shrugged his shoulders at my sudden plight in being unable to secure a ticket on the only bus heading outta town that day. I may have directed him a couple deserving F-bombs in my bemusement (there are certain advantages to being three times taller than most Indians). Fortunately though, there were a few other tourists stranded, so we hired a jeep at relatively considerable expense and were on our way. The route was predictably awe-inspiring, highlighted by crossing the 4,551 metre Kunzum La mountain pass. Greenery reappeared in the landscape and the scenery seemed somewhat more familiar and earthly. The other tourists were travelling south to Manali, so mid-afternoon I disembarked at a junction called Gramphu, hoping to catch a passing bus north towards Ladakh. With a surprising absence of, well, just about anything, I wasn’t terribly confident in my prospects. A “real hippy”(so very very rare) Puerto Rican guy already waiting at the junction did not share my cynicism though and began waving down any passing vehicle heading in my direction; military not exempted. Within ten minutes I was tucked into a tiny white car driven by a kindly, though seldom speaking, long haired local man. After three hours, broken conversation and hitching another ride for the last five kilometres, I arrived in Keylong just before dusk; ready for the famed road trip north to Ladakh the next day.

That’s all for now,


Posted by Liamps 19:29 Archived in India Comments (0)


India photos

I intended to forego the tiresome burden of writing this blog and simply enjoy the bliss of a stress-free, work-free trip in India. But when I revealed this proposition to Grandma, her distraught facial expression compelled me to reevaluate my plans. So begrudgingly, I will again sacrifice countless hours to deliver accounts of my travel exploits; hoping to write in a more succinct manner than previously, but knowing such efforts will be futile.

In total contrast to my characteristic and slightly abnormal custom of excessively researching travel destinations, I flew to India just one week after booking my flight with virtually no plans other than to visit Delhi. However, I rectified this somewhat unsettling situation after fifteen hours straight of intense Lonely Planet study, formulating a loose itinerary that restricted my travels to North India. This was despite the distractions of the requisite outrageous behaviour by nearby passengers onboard both of my flights en route to Delhi. For nine hours to Kuala Lumpur, I suffered through the maniacal cackling of a mother-daughter combination sitting behind me that successfully redefined my idea of what constitutes a total bogan. As they gasped for breath in hysterics over comments of an embarrassingly unhumorous nature, they blew $15 a pop on scotch and coke and subsequently spilled their beverages everywhere – including on my elbow. Needless to say, they failed to respect onboard etiquette by repeatedly grabbing and pushing my seat each time they needed to relieve themselves of their drinks. As a squished 6’3” passenger, I still manage to slither in-and-out of my seat without manhandling any others, so I therefore don’t accept the need for stumpier people to disrupt my comfort! On my flight to Delhi, the petite lady in front of me seemed shocked at the aggressive kneeing unleashed into her seat when she reclined it back – I’m rather territorial about precious leg space and always well prepared for such battles!

India is characterised as a “subcontinent” not only because of continental drift theory, but also because of the country’s extreme cultural and environmental diversity. Indeed, describing India as a singular country is somewhat misleading, because each of its 28 states are remarkably distinct with their own languages, ethnicities, traditional clothing, cuisines and customs. India is therefore comparable to the entire continent of Europe, although its population is more than double the size. As the federal capital and fifth largest megalopolis on the planet, Delhi serves as the melting pot of this vast nation, with its myriad of regional identities and religions present in the city. Delhi was the logical starting point for my trip in India – not least because of the astonishingly cheap airfare I was able to book!


Contrary to popular belief, New Delhi and Old Delhi are not independent cities, but rather staggeringly different neighbouring districts within one humungous megacity. Old Delhi is among the most densely crowded areas in the world, a labyrinth of bazaars stockpiled with every imaginable product (except bottled water!) and congested by flotillas of rickshaws, tuk-tuks and trucks. Conversely, New Delhi evokes space and order with wide boulevards, monumental government buildings, manicured lawns and sterile stores for Western brands. Delhi’s boundless suburbs sprawl in all directions surrounding these two central districts.


Backpackers typically stay in the derelict hotels in the neighbourhood of Paharganj, which is notorious for scams, crime and the occasional tourist murder. However, contemporary hostels have recently popped up in the suburbs of South Delhi; considered to be the “posh” area of the megalopolis (though still a far-cry from our leafy Eastern suburbs). I stayed in a hostel around 30 minutes by metro (outstanding system) from the centre of the city, but enjoyed the relative peace of the area free from the incessant hassling and chaos rampant in Old Delhi. I discovered an expansive forested park near my hostel where local Indians and expats exercised; some strenuously, some not so much. I went for a run each morning through the park and became utterly saturated within seconds due to the 30+ degrees heat and 85-90% humidity.

Exiting the metro into the utter mayhem of Old Delhi was my first proper experience of India – and what an overwhelming experience it provided! Never before have I witnessed such extraordinary traffic; it becomes so incredibly jammed that the wheels of rickshaws and bicycles literally touch that of neighbouring vehicles. Crossing the road is actually rather safe because of the seemingly perpetual standstill. Old Delhi consists of winding streets lined with decaying though architecturally unremarkable buildings. Many of the streets and alleys specialise in particular types of merchandise (such as gift cards) and are overly crammed with products. Old Delhi is ground zero for some of the worst hassling on the planet and I was woefully out of form with dealing with them on day one. Fortunately though, I quickly returned to my impenetrable best the next day, employing my usual tactics of either playful sarcasm or totally ignoring them (I have an excellent face for poker, just not the game).


Delhi was originally founded by Hindu rulers, but a succession of Muslim dynasties stretching for 600 years bestowed upon the city its most impressive architectural wonders. The Qutb Minar Complex, located in the far south of Delhi, is the archaeological ruins of the first Muslim settlement. The site is dominated by a slender 73 metre high Afghan-style tower, which was constructed to proclaim Islam’s victory in North India. The structure and its intricately carved sandstone bands are remarkably well preserved after more than eight centuries. The ruins of mosques, tombs and a madrasa (Islamic university) also dot the site, but the other astonishing feature of the Qutb Minar Complex is a humble iron pillar. The pillar is a metallurgical mystery, because it has not rusted after 1600 years. It has yet to be discovered how the pillar was cast with such purity using the contemporary technology (such technology was not developed in Europe until the nineteenth century).


The Mughals established India’s greatest Islamic empire, conquering most of the Subcontinent and constructing some of its finest edifices. Humayun’s Tomb is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, a perfectly proportioned and symmetrical imperial mausoleum. The structure is both monumental and serenely beautiful; a red sandstone prototype for the Taj Mahal. Clustered behind the vast ornamental gardens of Humayun’s Tomb are a tangle of crowded Muslim bazaars selling flowers, religious offerings and… kebabs. Hidden within the bazaar tunnels is a marble shrine dedicated to a Muslim Sufi saint. When I visited the compact shrine precinct at sunset, it was heaving with devotees garbed in pristine white Islamic clothing. My entrance was met with warm welcomes and questioning scolds; I certainly noticed I was the only non-believer there! Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor famed for commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal, was also responsible for the foundations of Old Delhi. He ordered the construction of the Red Fort to serve as the new capital of the empire, with the bazaars and religious buildings of Old Delhi subsequently growing organically to the west of the Fort’s walls. While the imperious red sandstone walls were impressive, I found the interior buildings and gardens somewhat underwhelming.


British presence in India commenced from 1600 with the East India Company establishing trading posts at ports along the Subcontinent’s coastline. Using private armies, the company grew to dominate almost the entire Subcontinent, before the British Parliament transferred the rule of India directly to the Crown in 1857. The British Raj’s capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 because of increasing rebelliousness in the Bengali metropolis. The British constructed their administrative centre south of the rambling and derelict Old Delhi, an overwhelmingly spacious area demonstrative of imperial might somewhat comparable to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Neoclassical government buildings crown a hill overlooking a monumental two kilometre avenue (the Rajpath) leading to India Gate, which commemorates the deceased Indian soldiers who fought in World War One. Fanning out from the Rajpath are well planned districts of wide tree-lined boulevards, colonial buildings, ornate gardens and expensive shops.


I can proudly boast of departing Delhi after four days without acquiring its eponymous “belly”. It was certainly not for lack of eating. As the capital and multicultural melting pot of arguably the world’s most diverse country, Delhi is predictably a foodie’s paradise. Old Delhi is studded with famed centuries-old snack stalls and Mughlai kebab dens, which I hopped between on multiple delicious food safaris. Lassis from a hole-in-the-wall shop were easily my highlight – to think we’re only exposed to mango lassis (the world’s best drink) and salted lassis in Australia! I sampled almond and saffron lassi that was so mindbogglingly luxurious I was compelled to return an hour later for the rosewater lassi – equally extraordinary! While rice is often considered to be synonymous with Indian cuisine, bread is actually the dominate staple of the North Indian diet. The typical breakfast meal is parantha, which is essentially roti bread stuffed with potatoes, vegetables or paneer cheese. I visited a tiny alley in Old Delhi famed for deep-fried paranthas and sampled pea parantha, potato parantha and lemon parantha served with pumpkin curry, potato curry and banana chutney – superb. Dahi vada is a delicious snack food, consisting of fried chickpea-flour balls soaked in yoghurt and topped with sweet chutney. The culinary legacy of the Mughals in Delhi is the obsession with kebabs in the Muslim areas of the city. I feasted on seekh kebabs (spiced mutton kebabs similar to kofta), Mughlai chicken (a rich, fatty chicken curry) and naan bread at legendary Karim’s. Unlike the rest of Asia, India boasts a phenomenal repertoire of desserts and sweets. Probably the most indulgent of their sickly sweet treats are jalebis, which are deep fried flour batter shaped into pretzels and soaked in sugar syrup. Rabri faluda is a traditional ice-cream dish consisting of cold vermicelli noodles covered in a sweet milk mixture spiced with cardamon – a superb flavour addition to desserts.


Delhi has a rather poor reputation on the traveller circuit, as most people attempt to leave the city quickly or avoid it altogether. But I buck the trend because I actually quite like Delhi. Staying in a relatively wealthy residential district probably contributed to my enjoyment of the city, because it allowed me to escape the hassling and crowds of Old Delhi. Or perhaps it was simply because I felt like a celebrity in Delhi, with legions of Indian tourists desiring a coveted photograph beside The Emperor with his much admired hat.

That’s all for now,


India photos

Posted by Liamps 19:39 Archived in India Comments (1)


Dubai photos

The shiny, sterile and culturally depleted cities inexplicably rising from the interminable nothingness of the Arabian Peninsula characterise a region I have minimal enthusiasm about travelling through. The cities are touted as ultra-modern centres of globalisation, yet draconian misogynistic attitudes and racially-defined class systems continue to flourish. The ruling elite seemingly float through the masses of South Asian workers like demigods in their pristine white garments and bling. Their obscene wealth fails to inspire admiration from this Western observer, since it is entirely and lazily derived from oil and natural gas reserves. The United Arab Emirates is reorienting its economy toward tourism (to offset the depletion of its fossil fuel resources), but what do cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer to visitors other than gimmicks? I reluctantly decided to sacrifice two days to investigate this question with a visit to Dubai, while transiting between Stockholm and Colombo. To offset my hesitation, I focused on the likelihood I would have regular access to extraordinary renditions of the world’s most delicious food: hummus.

Dubai is a horrid mixture of outer suburban sprawl, Gold Coast-esque monstrosities, incessant commercialisation, rampaging highways and isolated neighbourhoods. Dubai is therefore the {insert antonym of prototype, whatever that may be} for twenty-first century urban planning; a car dependent metropolis lacking integration, communities and green spaces. However, the negatively connoted label of Dubai as “artificial” is slightly misleading, because essentially all human settlements are artificial creations. What differentiates Dubai from other cities worldwide is that the construction of multi-billion dollar mega-infrastructure projects are initiated to generate new demand, instead of catering for existing or projected demand. The Emir is attempting to mould Dubai into an utopian centre for international finance, trade and tourism and obtain the coveted status as a “global city”. But to me, Dubai is simply a manifestation of the innate failure of rampant, unregulated capitalism. Dubai is defined by gross inequality, evidenced by opulent five star hotels and corporate headquarters towering over dusty and wretched residences of low-wage workers. I refuse to believe the ubiquitously overweight Emirati men, driving flashy Mercedes-Benz vehicles, work a tenth as hard as the South Asian workers in Dubai. The city depends upon a modern-day form of slavery because labour unions, collective bargaining and strikes are illegal, human rights abuses pervasive and the pathway to citizenship nonexistent for migrant workers. The West regularly lectures potential foes such as China, Russia and Iran about human rights abuses, but exemptions are seemingly granted to key military and economic partners rich in black gold.


While most of Dubai characterises the dystopian reality I have thus far described, there were two small enclaves I admittedly rather liked: Deira and Old Dubai on opposite sides of the Dubai Creek. The area is promoted as the historic centre of Dubai, but most of the buildings are actually modernist structures or replicas of traditional, mud-brick dwellings. The area resembles other cities in the Arab World, with maze-like street plans, atmospheric souqs, tiny shops jammed with exotic merchandise and the requisite hawkers. The domes and minarets of numerous mosques rise above the relatively low-level streetscapes, creating impressive vistas beside the aqua-coloured Dubai Creek. The only mode of transportation across Dubai Creek is by small, colourful wooden boats that depart the docks on either side every few minutes. Its pleasantly surprising that such a traditional and simplistic system has managed to survive in Dubai. Old Dubai features several pedestrianised precincts of mud-brick buildings with traditional vernacular architecture. While the precincts were entirely constructed for touristic purposes (boutique hotels, shops and dozens of small free-entrance museums – each specialising in different aspects of Dubai’s history and culture)), I actually rather liked the atmosphere as they felt reasonably authentic or at least refined and not gaudy. Old Dubai and Deira are absent of the ostentatiousness pervasive throughout the rest of the city and stimulated fond memories of other places in the Arab World; the area is essentially a very tame taste of the Middle East.


While Deira and Old Dubai are relatively compact, newer areas of Dubai sprawl for several dozen kilometres south of the Creek and form neighbourhoods thoroughly unsuitable for pedestrianism. No wonder why the Emiratis are so unfit. Nevertheless, I attempted to walk between major attractions to avoid my pet hate (waiting for buses), but this only made me irritable as I severely underestimated distances, was scorched in the desert heat, listened to vehicles blaring past at 100km/hr and repeatedly encountered “no pedestrian access” signs to prolong my journeys. The road network of Dubai is basically just a crisscross of ugly highways; the concept of “Main Street” or “High Street” seems to have been ignored during Dubai’s sudden rise. The endless strip of skyscrapers are mostly distasteful aesthetically, except for the iconic Burj Khalifa. Okay, I suppose the Burj Khalifa is merely another one of Dubai’s collection of gimmicks, but as a civil engineering student I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the world’s tallest building. Fortunately, the remarkable height of the building is tangible because it appears to be twice the height of neighbouring towers. However, I decided to renege on paying $50 to have a panoramic view of Dubai’s ugliness from the observation deck, since its not even located on the top level. I did at least enjoy a phenomenal sound, light and water display in the evening from the world’s largest fountain below the world’s tallest building and adjacent the world’s largest shopping mall. I’m sure that sentence pleased the Emir’s tourism board.

Burj Khalifa and fountain display

By far my biggest priority while visiting Dubai was to indulge in heavenly mountains of smooth, delectable hummus. Immediately after dumping my luggage at a hotel, I ambled rather briskly to a target eatery, an inexpensive Syrian restaurant. For breakfast, I enjoyed an intoxicatingly delicious serve of hummus with marinated lamb: oh how I missed hummus with an equal ratio of chickpeas to tahini, typical in the Middle East. I also had a bowl of fuul (stewed fava beans with copious amounts of olive oil and citrus juice), freshly-baked flat bread and fresh mango juice (particularly savoured after six months in cold, tropical fruit-depleted Europe). For lunch, I was ushered into a packed Pakistani dining hall and ate green lentil dhal, mutton and naan bread. I ventured to another Syrian restaurant for dinner and feasted on superb hummus with plates of flat bread, pickles, vegetables, mint and salad leaves: so simple and healthy yet so delicious and fulfilling. I also ate a dish of lamb kofta with tahini sauce baked in a clay-pot and covered with crispy bread: also a stupendous dish. I bought a massive container of hummus (despite requesting a small) and smashed it down just prior to passing through immigration at the airport. While Emirati cuisine does exist, the cuisines of South Asia and the Levant are much more accessible and popular in the city (so hummus convinced me not to bother with the local fare).

Hummus with lamb, fuul and fresh mango juice

Been there, done that. I feel that way about very few countries I have travelled to, but I really have no aspirations of returning to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates or any country on the Arabian side of the Gulf. Far more interesting countries in the Middle East command exploration!

That’s all for now,


Dubai photos

Posted by Liamps 13:32 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

Swedish Lapland

Sweden photos

The wild, desolate expanse of Sweden’s remote north beyond the Arctic Circle was my final destination in Scandinavia. After the completion of exams in Stockholm, I caught a seventeen hour train journey to Abisko in the northernmost corner of the country to commence a five day exploration of Swedish Lapland. Although I travelled during the darkness of night (which lasted virtually the entire seventeen hours), it was noticeable at each station that the snow gradually became thicker and the temperature lower; a foreboding sign of what was to be expected in Lapland. When I arrived in Abisko, I encountered a temperature twelve degrees lower than anything I had experienced previously and a landscape totally covered in snow; a proper WOW factor moment. I spent three days in Abisko enjoying the sublime natural beauty of its unblemished environment and two days in Kiruna, one of Europe’s northernmost and coldest towns.


Abisko is located within the World Heritage listed Laponian Wilderness, a vast collection of protected areas considered one of Europe’s last great natural environments. Abisko is a tiny community situated on the outskirts of its namesake national park. The dramatic approach into Abisko circumvents a vast, partially frozen lake and enters a valley of snow covered mountains (not particularly high). Abisko is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights and the starting point of the famed King’s Trail, an epic 440 kilometre trail through the central spine of Sweden. Consequently, the community’s existence is almost entirely dependent on tourism. The village is composed of spacious timber red-and-white houses encircling a train station that looks somewhat like a gigantic barn. The constituent forms of transport during the long winters are snowmobiling and skiing, which compact the snow on the paths and make them easy to walk on. However, stepping off the paths results in submerging your knees below snow; which came as quite a shock the first time!


I stayed at an excellent hostel in Abisko that was managed by a mixture of quirky locals and seasonal workers. The hostel consisted of several timber buildings scattered around a large property. The dormitories were located in a building that essentially functioned like a house, creating a communal and homely vibe. I shared a dormitory with English Mark, Danish Christian, German Sylvia and a bunch of unrelated Chinese tourists, who were all coincidentally studying in France. Abisko seemed to be a particularly popular (and slightly random) destination for Chinese tourists, who dominated the foreign presence in town. Snowsuits were provided by the hostel, which made exploring the Lapland wilderness comfortable and warm. By wearing the snowsuit over my existing layers, I was able wander outside easily for hours. In addition to the snowsuit, I also wore snow boots, thermal socks, thick woollen socks, long johns, skins, jeans (supposedly an unsuitable garment for the Arctic, but I had no issues!), a thermal top, a T-shirt, a skivvy, a woollen jumper, a light jacket, a thick jacket, a scarf, a beanie, cotton gloves and leather mittens simultaneously, depending on how cold it was..


Dogsledding was not an activity I expected to excel at, but I proved to be an utter natural. I joined a group of fifteen for a two hour (became three hour) dogsledding tour of the landscape surrounding Abisko Hostel. Each person commanded their own sleigh, with four huskies assigned to the most talented (or just heaviest) members of the contingent. Before our departure from the mounting yard (?), our Czech leader bombarded us with a slew of instructions that I was certain I would either forget or fail to master. She explained how to break (by stepping on a metal bar that would grate the snow) and that when ascending slopes, we would need to aid the huskies by pushing off from the ground with one leg (with the other firmly rooted to the sleigh). We assisted the guides in assembling the sleighs, which was a rather intimidating ordeal as the huskies barked manically, attempted to bolt off and even attacked each other. We were to sleigh in single-file but were supposed to stay together as a group. Unfortunately I was positioned at number thirteen in order, which condemned me to long waits behind slow-pokes and duds. Indeed, there was an elderly American couple who both annoyingly and amusingly served that role.


Once we commenced sleighing, I quickly found it very easy. The huskies simply followed the pack, so the only responsibility I had was to control their speed and stopping/starting. I also needed to ensure I moved correctly with the sleigh to avoid stacking, though this was quite natural. Controlling the huskies was hardest when the group stopped as they were eager to charge off. When we could move, the huskies would bolt away suddenly, which were the most difficult moments to stay on the sleigh. However, throughout most of the tour my four dogs were very lazy, preferring to dawdle and smell other dogs’ shit. Consequently, I was required to aid the huskies for roughly a third of the trip, which was incredibly exhausting with a snow suit and a dozen other garments on. Meanwhile, other participants claimed they didn’t need to aid their dogs whatsoever. At least half the members of the group crashed at some point from momentary lapses in control. One lady however was completely unable to handle her huskies, resulting in numerous crashes and long delays. Eventually, the guides ceded to her overtures of giving up and allowed her to ride in the back of a snow-mobile trailer. After the tour, we had the opportunity to enter the husky pens to pat these wonderful, semi-wild creatures. The dogsledding tour was definitely the highlight of my trip to a Lapland, an exhilarating and somewhat authentic way to see the landscape.


The wilderness surrounding Abisko was one of the most enthralling areas for hiking that I have ever visited. Perhaps not so much for mesmerising vistas (although they were quite impressive) but for the sheer exoticism of trampling through an environment completely smothered in remarkably thick snow. Trails lead in all directions from Abisko, discernible from the boot marks and ski tracks in the snow. Following the trails into the desolate, inhospitable winter landscape was both exceptionally eerie and exhilarating, because of the interminable silence, stillness and lack of people. I went hiking for five hours on each of my final two days at Abisko and found it surprisingly exhausting, due to the clothing and occasional off-path wandering through knee-high snow. I vigilantly kept note of the time, to ensure I wasn’t caught out in pitch black darkness. I hiked through birch forests of grey skeletal trees spiking through the snow. I hiked across flat, open spaces that were probably frozen waterways, but I was often not sure. On one occasion, I encountered what was definitely a frozen lake and eventually mustered the courage to cross it (with a couple cracking sounds underfoot on the way!). I also encountered a frozen river that the trail evidently crossed and debated whether to also. Fortunately I decided not to, because I later noticed a couple hundreds metres upstream gaping holes in the ice sheet covering the river! I hiked mostly within shallow valleys surrounded by placid mountains of black rock and snow and enjoyed panoramic views of the perpetually white scenery.


The opportunity to see the Northern lights is the constituent reason why people travel to Abisko; supposedly the best place in the world to view them. Witnessing an Aurora Borealis spectacle though is inherently unpredictable and not guaranteed. Consequently, there was an unofficial understanding among everyone staying at the hostel that if the lights were spotted, the alert was to be raised; regardless of the time. During the first (20 hour) night at Abisko, everyone in my dormitory was over-excited about the prospects of seeing the lights, after glowing reports from the previous days. In turns, we wandered outside hunting for the lights, until giving up completely by 2am: no lights. At around 6pm the next evening with everyone defrosting in bed, we suddenly heard a random hunter cry, “Lights! Lights!”. Within a nanosecond, we all jumped out of our comfortable perches and in a desperate hurry began the excruciatingly long and tedious process of gearing up for the external elements. Our fears of missing the lights were abated when we dashed outside and saw… grey cloud-like formations. I won’t lie, it was probably the single greatest anticlimax of my entire life, narrowly eclipsing my homemade roast chicken gravy for Christmas 2014. I was rather shocked by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses I was hearing from other light-gazers and wondered what I was missing. While I only just detected a tinge of colour, I was surprised to discover that photographs taken with very specific settings depicted the lights as vividly green. The phenomenon only lasted for twenty minutes, prompting our quick return to the warmth of bed. At around 9:30pm, lights were again spotted. On this occasion, the lights were substantially more impressive; though my fantasy of brilliant green light dancing across the night’s sky still hadn’t materialised. It was nevertheless a dynamic spectacle of formations that were obviously not clouds, with strands of feint green light gracefully folding through the sky. Mark and I braved the numbingly cold conditions for about one hour until we were satisfied the lights were not going to become any more enthralling; and returned to the warm refuge of the hostel.


While I experienced bitterly cold temperatures in Abisko, it was even colder in nearby Kiruna. Abisko’s weather is relatively “temperate”, due to its location within a protective valley. Kiruna, however, is more exposed and can therefore experience much lower temperatures. When I visited Kiruna, the temperature hovered between -17 and -25 degrees. Since I was without a snow suit in Kiruna and depending purely on clothes bought from Primark, this temperature difference was certainly palpable. I had no issue walking outside in -17 degrees for hours, but exposure to -25 degrees for more than forty minutes was completely intolerable. My body’s reaction to conditions of -25 degrees was quite intriguing, because I found that for thirty minutes I would just be “aware” of the temperature, but then suddenly and rapidly I would feel very cold and need to find heated shelter. If you ever thought there’s nothing quite like an air-conditioned room on a hot summer day, wait until you travel to the Arctic!


Kiruna is the largest Swedish settlement north of the Arctic Circle and Lapland’s transportation hub. The town exists in this incredibly inhospitable environment because of a gargantuan iron ore mine, the largest in Europe. The mine’s continual expansion will literally swallow Kiruna, which has resulted in the construction of a new town five kilometres away. However, the scheduled relocation to the new town has been delayed because of China’s economic slow down and therefore the lower demand for iron ore. The inevitable destruction of Kiruna will be rather saddening, because aside from the sterile concrete centre, its actually quite a pleasant town. Kiruna’s most attractive structure is the town’s main Lutheran church; a hulking, triangular wooden building that is often voted Sweden’s most beautiful. Kiruna’s neighbourhoods are composed of quaint timbers houses sporting a variety of colours (though mostly the maroon-red typical in Sweden); the vividness of which are accentuated by the unblemished white snow carpeting roofs, gardens, roads, cars and trees. Although the snow coverage was probably just slightly higher than in Abisko (nearly waist height, off the pavement), it seemed significantly deeper because of the surreal context of being inside a town rather than wilderness. I stayed at a lovely “hostel” in Kiruna, which was basically just an elderly woman’s very cozy house with guests sharing the bottom level.

Kiruna Church

The internationally famous Ice Hotel is situated in the unassuming village of Jukkasjarvi near Kiruna (where it gets even lower). Unwilling to fork out $500 to freeze to death in my sleep, I opted to merely peruse through the hotel during the day (though for a still rather hefty $45) when all the rooms are accessible for public visitation. The Ice Hotel is constructed every November and melts away completely in May. Artists from throughout the world are invited to sculpt the hotel’s furniture and ornamentation from ice. The one-storey hotel only partially looks like an artificial structure; it certainly doesn’t feature a typical façade. But that’s because the focus is on the internal space, where jutting from a grand foyer are six corridors that lead to dozens of dazzling ice bedrooms. All of the rooms consist of an ice double bed covered in animal hides, with guests sleeping inside advanced sleeping bags to survive the night. The larger and more expensive rooms boast elaborate and distinctive designs, while the cheaper rooms are bare and generic. Some of the most impressive spectacles included a huge peacock in a wall replete with neon lights, elephant sculptures, a room full of quirky sheep and a creepy room full of human heads. While I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this remarkable building, I was also pleased to drive back to Kiruna for a warm night at the hostel!


My typically high culinary standards changed completely in Swedish Lapland. Rather than attempting to sample traditional cuisine, my constituent objective was to counteract the extreme cold by achieving maximal calorie intake for minimal expenditure. I suspect the local population share this motive, because surprisingly affordable carb-and-meat-heavy food was readily available. The “dagens lunch” special offered by the only restaurant in Abisko was a buffet of two main dishes, potatoes, bread, pasta and salad bar. I chose strategically to attend the buffet at 2:30pm each day to avoid wasting precious daylight and to cover my lunch and dinner. My voracious appetite, which was exacerbated by the temperatures, was on full display. I also attended a brunch buffet in Kiruna that featured all the traditional Swedish favourites, including smoked salmon, gravlax (salmon cured in sugar and salt), pickled herring, potato salad, egg salad and roasted moose (quite delicious, richer than beef). Also in Kiruna, I sampled the Lapland version of (apparently) Sweden’s most traditional style of pizza, which features thin crust pastry, tomato, onion, cheese, slices of doner kebab (not exactly Swedish) and spicy garlic sauce. Perhaps for the novelty factor rather than improving the taste, the doner kebab was replaced by smoked reindeer.

Swedish Lapland was definitely one of the highlights of my nine month journey, a fitting (and cold) way to conclude my time in Europe. The five day trip was loaded with surreal experiences, including dogsledding, hiking through knee-high snow, walking across frozen lakes, observing the northern lights and enduring extremely low temperatures. The incredibly short days were also rather exotic and the only time I sighted the sun was when I was awaiting my flight at Kiruna Airport...


That’s all for now,


Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 14:48 Archived in Sweden Comments (1)

Northern England

UK photos.

Travelling to Northern England was merely an afterthought, as I realised the Scottish Highlands was probably not an ideal destination to visit in the early January dreariness. Consequently, I decided to travel south from Edinburgh and spend the final four days of my Christmas break in English cities. I also thought that since I had visited London thrice, it was pastime I explored another corner of the country. I chose York and Manchester as my target destinations, two cities that epitomise the old and new Northern England. York is often referred to as the “capital of the North”, due to the city’s regional preeminence from its Roman foundation through to the industrial revolution. York is now a relatively small city with an excellently preserved medieval core, offering the visitor a glimpse of a bygone era in English history. Meanwhile, Manchester’s significance was entirely fostered by industrialisation, which stimulated rapid population growth and transformed the city into Northern England’s largest metropolis and commercial hub. Northerners proved to be very friendly people, with a relaxed rural-like attitude in comparison to Londoners.

York no longer enjoys its former status as a major political and economic centre, yet its history and architectural legacy have ensured it remains one of England’s most venerated cities. York was established by the Romans as a major fortress on the Empire’s frontier in 71AD. Vestiges of the ancient Roman wall survive as foundations for York’s remarkable medieval wall, which almost completely encircle the Old Town. I circumambulated York by walking on the walls, which provided magnificent views of the Old Town and rich people’s gardens. York was conquered by Danish Vikings in the ninth century and became the capital of a Viking kingdom. York was eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of England and was designated a archbishopric (the Archbishop of York is the second highest office in the Church of England). The archbishop’s seat is York Minster, the city’s most iconic structure; a colossal Gothic cathedral with ornate exterior decorations. However, I was compelled to protest the outrageous entrance fee of $20 and not enter the cathedral. Instead, I went to a pub and spent $20 on a ploughman’s lunch: far better value for money. Close to the Minster are the picturesque ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, which was once the richest monastery in Northern England and occupied a huge precinct. The monastery’s wealth was seized by Henry VIII during the Reformation and closure of the monasteries.


The Old Town of York is a compact, relatively small but still atmospheric centre of winding, narrow streets and quirky crooked buildings. The Old Town is bisected by the River Ouse, which served as an important conduit for trade during medieval times. When I visited York, Northern England had experienced terrible flooding in recent weeks, causing the River Ouse to burst its banks and flood many of the low-lying buildings. York features an assemblage of architectural styles, though its tiny Gothic churches and Tudor buildings particularly stand out. Traditional English pubs abound throughout the city and they all proudly offer at least half a dozen “real ales” on tap. Several ghost tours are conducted in the evening, reflecting the belief that many of the buildings in York are haunted. One apparent sighting was of a legion of Roman soldiers marching through a cellar near the Minster; it was later discovered that a Roman road passed through the site.


When the constituent purpose of travelling to a city is to exploit a cheap airfare, you cannot have high-expectations about what the city has to offer. I therefore travelled to Manchester without expecting to encounter one of Europe’s most enthralling cities, which was certainly wise preparation. Manchester lacks a historic “old town”, which is somewhat inexplicable for a large European city. The centre is therefore comparable to Melbourne, a mixture of nineteenth century and modernist buildings sprawled across a large area. The legacy of the industrial revolution has particularly shaped Manchester, with converted warehouses, canals and iron bridges abounding throughout the city. Most of the major structures in Manchester are composed of red brickwork, which gives the city a distinctive appearance. Manchester is obviously famous for its sporting culture, though I opted not to visit the city’s iconic stadiums (expensive) and instead visited the National Football Museum (free). The museum was a moderately interesting introduction to football with impressive displays (including the FA Cup and the EPL trophy), though it was excessively kidified. I also attended a museum about democracy and the labour movement in Britain, which had the potential to be an excellent museum but most exhibits were closed for renovations. Otherwise, Manchester’s primary highlight seemed to be an enormous shopping complex in the centre, which I actually spent considerable time at stocking up for my trip to the Arctic.


Both York and Manchester are filled with excellent pubs, but unfortunately the pubs are not filled with excellent food. On consecutive evenings at different establishments, I ordered pies with short-crust pastry and on both occasions my meals were clearly microwaved: an absolute outrage in Melbourne! York is internationally famous for Yorkshire pudding, which is a scone-shaped side dish made from batter and dripping and traditionally eaten with roast beef and gravy. At the haunted Golden Fleece, I ordered a giant Yorkshire pudding with beef and gravy smothered inside it. The pudding was nice but unfortunately it was pre-prepared, giving it a cardboard like texture. My highlight dish of Northern England came at the Art Nouveau pub Mr. Thomas’s Chophouse in Manchester. I ate corned beef hash, which is basically pieces of corned beef, sautéed potatoes, onion and spices cooked together and served with a poached egg and HP sauce: salty and delicious. British cities are dotted with mini-supermarkets seemingly on every corner and they all sell a bewildering range of surprisingly delicious sandwiches (perhaps to compensate for a lack of bakeries).


My four days in York and Manchester was merely just a sample of what Northern England has to offer. I was forced to skip the region’s famed national parks, due to time constraints and inclement weather. I was slightly underwhelmed by York, which is considered one of England’s top touristic destinations outside of London. It’s a pleasant small city, but certainly less beautiful and interesting than comparable small cities in southern Europe. Meanwhile, Manchester failed to exceed my very low-expectations; I’m glad I visited but I see no compelling reason to return.

That’s all for now,


UK photos.

Posted by Liamps 19:24 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)


UK photos

I travelled to Edinburgh at the end of 2015 to witness the city’s internationally famous New Years Eve celebrations, the two-day Hogmanay festival. It was also the first time I visited Edinburgh, which was one of the few capitals in Western Europe that had yet to host an imperial tour. I was accompanied by recent Globo Trip protagonist Irish Claire, Globo Trip regular Danish Nadia and Globo Trip novice Irish Suz. A series of unfortunate events seemed to befall Suz on her trip to Edinburgh, but on each occasion she responded with remarkable resilience and positivity; a lesser person (such as myself) would have failed to exemplify such an impressive attitude. Despite its diminutive size of just 500,000, I thought Edinburgh was just as intriguing as many of the great capitals in Europe and boasted far more to see and do than expected. Consequently, I stayed for two additional nights (for a total of five) after the departures of Claire, Nadia and Suz to further explore Great Britain’s most beautiful city.


While the Scottish people voted to stay in the United Kingdom in the 2014 referendum, this decision was clearly spurred by economic convenience than a passionate embrace of their British identity. The Union Jack, British coat of arms and royal paraphernalia, which are pervasive in London, are almost entirely absent from Edinburgh. The cityscape is instead dominated by the blue-and-white Flag of St. Andrews, the Scottish purple thistle and the Scottish red lion. Quintessentially Scottish stereotypes abound throughout Edinburgh, with bagpipes being played on every corner, old men ambling past in kilts, tartan patterns decorating storefronts and haggis plaguing every menu. This overt nationalistic pride in Scottish identity and rejection of Britishness leads one to question whether economic considerations were sufficient justification to remain apart of the United Kingdom; or was it simply a case of the Scots lacking courage to claim their own sovereignty?


Scotland and Ireland are both small Gaelic countries that have experienced centuries of political and cultural domination by England, but their histories are markedly different. Throughout the Middle Ages, Scotland was a united and relatively powerful kingdom that even possessed the capacity to threaten the northern regions of England. When Scotland was eventually incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, it was through political acceptance by the Scottish Parliament rather than by military conquest. Conversely, medieval Ireland was never united under a single, native-born monarch and was instead divided into several petty kingdoms. The English invasion and subjugation of the country occurred more than five hundred years before Scotland relinquished its independence. Yet the country that fought relentlessly and eventually achieved liberty from English rule was Ireland; while Scotland, with its proud military heritage, still passively complies to the will of Westminster. The long-term outcome of Irish independence has probably stimulated, rather than hindered, the Irish economy, which is now one of the richest in the world.


Claire, Nadia, Suz and I joined an excellent free walking tour of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Our enigmatic guide introduced us to the city’s incredible architectural composition, colourful history and unusual layout. Located directly in the centre of Edinburgh is the remnants of an extinct volcano, an imposing basalt crag known as Castle Rock. Numerous settlements and fortresses have occupied Castle Rock since prehistoric times, and today the immaculately preserved medieval Edinburgh Castle is perched on its top. The royal fortress is reckoned to be one of the world’s most heavily besieged structures, though its dramatic location and colossal walls give it an aura of impregnability.


The Royal Mile runs from the apex of Castle Rock to Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh) at ground level and the Old Town clings to the steep slopes on either side of it. Despite the aesthetics and World Heritage status of the Old Town, Edinburgh is a relatively young city in comparison to most other capitals in Europe. A royal “burgh” connected to Edinburgh Castle was not established until the twelfth century, when Edinburgh began to function as the capital of the Scottish nation. The city’s development was restricted to the medieval fortified walls until the eighteenth century, which resulted in ten storey high buildings; the forerunners to modern skyscrapers. Unfortunately, most of these structures were replaced by Victorian buildings in the nineteenth century. However, the dark tones of the stone used in construction, the prevalence of slate roofs and the impact of weathering in the Scottish climate have created the impression that the buildings are much older. Edinburgh’s Gothic churches, centrally located cemetery (the names of many of the entombed were adopted by JK Rowlings for the Harry Potter books) and preserved medieval layout of narrow and hidden courtyards have fostered a somewhat dark and sinister atmosphere in the Old Town.


Edinburgh’s New Town was designed in the eighteenth century to accommodate the city’s upper class, who sought to leave the cramped and derelict conditions of the Old Town. The New Town and Old Town are separated by a gulley of parkland and rail-yards, which features magnificent panoramic views of both districts and Castle Rock (from a low-point, counterintuitively). The rigid, orderly plan of the New Town is a manifestation of Enlightenment ideals, which Edinburgh was a centre for during the eighteenth century. The area features wide boulevards, beautiful Georgian architecture and symmetrical gardens. Institutional buildings exhibit Greek Revival architecture, which has earned Edinburgh the moniker, “Athens of the North”. Calton Hill was to be transformed into the city’s equivalent of the Acropolis, though structures such as the National Monument (modelled after the Pantheon) were not completed because funding dried up. I suppose Calton Hill is still so somewhat similar to the modern-day Acropolis: a picturesque collection of Classical ruins with excellent views of Edinburgh.


Hogmanay in Edinburgh is one of the world’s most iconic New Years Eve celebrations and supersedes Christmas as Scotland’s biggest celebration of the year. The tradition of Hogmanay is likely rooted in ancient Celtic or Norse custom to commemorate the winter solstice. In the evening of the 30th December each year, Hogmanay commences with a torchlight procession through central Edinburgh. Claire, Nadia and I braved the cold to participate in the procession, along with tens of thousands of other tourists. We were given proper wax torches, which were lit progressively through the crowd like a series of Olympic torch relays. The procession route took us from the Royal Mile to New Town and concluded at the summit of Calton Hill. It was quite a surreal experience to walk through the atmospheric streets of Edinburgh alongside thousands of flickering flames. The event was concluded with a spectacular firework display above the National Monument. On New Years Eve, we attended the Hogmanay Street Party, which occurs in a cordoned off area of central Edinburgh. The tens of thousands in attendance congregated around different stages, although DJs played the music rather than live bands. As the clock approached midnight, surprisingly John Farnham was honoured with the penultimate song of 2015 as “The Voice” galvanised the crowd into a frenzy of excitement. The firework display at midnight above Edinburgh Castle particularly enthralled Danish Nadia, since such performances are a total novelty for her (slightly backward) country. However, I wasn’t so easily impressed as the display was really a meagre offering compared to the extravaganzas in Melbourne and Sydney. Claire and I were unable to enjoy the fireworks anyway, as we urgently needed to attend the lavatories. So the moment the last mediocre firework burst in the sky, we stormed towards the nearest pub.


When fried mars bars and minced sheep innards are the iconic dishes of a country, you know the local population have spent little time pursuing the art of culinary endeavour. Our tour guide passionately defended the virtues of Scottish cuisine by promoting the abundance of fresh seafood and high-quality dairy products and lamb. But I don’t care how outstanding the bounty is, producing superb ingredients is not tantamount to a rich culinary tradition! Haggis is literally the only dish of noterietay (or notoriety) unique to the Scottish kitchen. Invented by shepherds to improve the edibility of sheep innards (supposedly), haggis consists of intestines and other disgusted bodily parts that are minced, very heavily spiced, wrapped in stomach liner and boiled. The resulting mixture is traditionally eaten with “neeps and tatties” (mashed turnips and mashed potatoes). Claire was game enough to order haggis and saved everyone else the ordeal by offering tasters. Astonishingly, I actually rather liked haggis! While the gristly bits are quite off-putting, the mixture is otherwise tasty because the excessive spicing is obviously intended to mask the not so pleasant flavours! Virtually all other dishes served at Scottish pubs are standard British fare… with haggis added to them. I brunched on a full “Scottish” breakfast, which was essentially just a traditional fry-up with fried haggis. I also dined on Balmoral chicken, which consisted of chicken stuffed with haggis, wrapped in bacon and served with a cream sauce.

Haggis and mash

Experiencing one of the world’s most iconic New Years Eve celebrations has always featured on my bucket list, and has now been satisfied. The torchlight procession was particularly surreal, forever seared in my memory. Thanks to Claire, Nadia and Suz for providing amiable company… another city next time?. Even without Hogmanay, Edinburgh would easily rank among my favourite European cities – perhaps even top 15!

That’s all for now,


UK photos

Posted by Liamps 16:34 Comments (0)

Ireland III

Ireland photos

Travelling to Ireland during the Christmas period was certainly an optimal time to visit, as the country exuded a jovial spirit stimulated by the return of loved ones from abroad. Ireland has the highest percentage of its native-born population living overseas of any OECD country, so virtually everybody knows relatives and friends living elsewhere. The Christmas period is particularly special because it’s the one time of year that many emigrants return home. Consequently, the Irish were in a celebratory mood and the pubs were tremendously atmospheric and crowded at all hours. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the news and radio commentary were dominated by the returning sons and daughters of Ireland. In pubs and cafes, you could barely pass a table and not overhear a discussion about someone returning home from Canada, Australia or New Zealand. The mass emigration of Irish youth was instigated by the crippling debt crisis of 2008, that infamously busted the booming “Celtic Tiger” economy. But the subsequent era of gloom and austerity has seemingly ended, with the economy rebounding and emigrants permanently returning home for new employment opportunities. Not yet at least for Irish Claire, who returned to Ireland purely for a Christmas visit (to the sadness of her family). Rather than spending a cold, bleak and lonely Christmas in Stockholm, I was welcomed to County Cork to spend Christmas with the very hospitable Hayes family.


While the Hayes were engaged in preparations for Christmas Day, I decided to head into Cork City and gallivant around town. Cork is Ireland’s second largest city and promotes itself as the “real” capital of Ireland. The city is reminiscent somewhat of Gothenburg, Sweden; an unpretentious understudy to the actual sovereign capital, with a rich maritime tradition and nineteenth century architectural composition. The centre of Cork is actually a large island within the River Lee, which regularly floods and causes immense damage to low-lying property (it was flooded during my visit, with the “biblical” December rainfall). The centre is relatively pleasant with bustling streets and nice, though unremarkable, buildings. The ceaseless traffic in the area is best to be avoided, though Claire failed to exhibit such common sense at the end of our road trip. En route home to Ballincolig, we unintentionally drove through the centre; resulting in Claire expressing an encyclopaedic knowledge of expletives that was really quite staggering. The centre of Cork is bereft of major tourist attractions, aside from the unusually named English Market. The market is lauded by Rick Stein as the best covered market in the UK or Ireland, although competition is certainly lacking in this part of Europe. The market stalls are densely compacted inside a stylish arcade and sell fresh produce, seafood, meats and dairy sourced from the rich farmland and waters of County Cork. An upstairs café overlooks the main market hall and offers traditional dishes prepared only with ingredients from the market (hint, hint, Queen Victoria Market). I enjoyed a delicious lamb and root vegetable stew with mash and fruit crumble with custard: proper comfort food at Christmas time.


The festivities commenced on Christmas Eve with drinks and finger-food at Claire’s uncle’s house. While I was initially overwhelmed by the enormous size of her family, in retrospect I think the Hayes Christmas gathering was somewhat similar to a typical Stevens gathering. The generous (and probably reluctant) host suddenly inundated by the simultaneous arrival of an entire clan; food, dessert and hot drinks served efficiently and rapidly with no time to pause; and the even more abrupt mass exodus, resulting in inevitable quips about people’s parking abilities: sound familiar? Perhaps not so much to the (significantly smaller) Gregory family. Nevertheless, the Hayes family were all very welcoming of the random Australian; if slightly confused by my presence! Similar to Australia, Christmas dinner is traditionally eaten at lunchtime in Ireland, though unlike Australia there is minimal variation in what the meal entails. Claire claimed the high-pressure responsibility of preparing the turkey, ham, potatoes three ways (that’s not a joke) and vegetables. Although I can vouch for Claire’s cooking skills, I was slightly concerned about the prospects of our food as she danced around the kitchen like a maimed turkey all morning. Nevertheless, my worries were soon allayed by the delicious dinner, with Claire’s radical (for Ireland) new entrée of roasted mushroom stuffed with black pudding, goat’s cheese and onion a particular highlight. I was quite surprised by how quickly we progressed through the dinner. As soon as the entrees were finished, we immediately tucked into mains; and while I was starting my second plate (I think they were quite shocked by the Stevens appetite), the rest were hoeing into sherry trifle! All eaten within sixty minutes, a far cry from the staggered five hour epics on Christmas night at home! We then retired to the lounge room to watch the Christmas soap opera specials. With Claire having corrected my lackadaisical attitude to manners, I was sure not to use my iPad or iPhone in the lounge room again: considered the height of rudeness in Ireland! As the evening progressed, we devoured an amazing blue cheese (actually it was just me… Cashel blue, excellent quality) and awaited the arrival of Claire’s sister’s excitable young children. One of the twins eventually overcame her fear of the tall foreigner in the room and began babbling away incessantly to me… though as usual I had major difficulties understanding the Corkish accent, especially high-pitched!

Christmas with the Hayes

While Claire attended more family and friends events post Christmas, I departed County Cork and ventured to Dublin for three days. Dublin is often derided as inherently skippable and not representing the “true” Ireland, but in Europe I think its best to visit the capital to gain a proper appreciation for a country. And I actually rather liked Dublin; I thought it was a pleasant medium-sized city with nice (though not spectacular) architecture and buzzing atmosphere (certainly more so than Stockholm).

River Liffey

Dublin was initially founded by the Vikings in the ninth century as they expanded their trade network throughout the North Atlantic. Dublin was conquered by the Normans in the twelfth-century, ushering in seven hundred years of English rule over Ireland. The Normans constructed Dublin Castle as their fortified base in 1204, thoug its now an underwhelming melange of architectural styles. Ireland was not directly ruled by the English Crown, until the Tudor conquest in the sixteenth century. The Tudors aimed to Anglicise the country by repressing Catholicism (which ultimately failed) and the Gaelic language (which largely succeeded). Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both constructed nearly a millennium ago, were forcibly converted to Protestantism. This has resulted in the modern-day anomaly of Dublin’s two most prominent churches being Protestant, despite an overwhelming Catholic population. Dublin’s most iconic attraction, the prestigious Trinity College, was founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1592 to strength Protestantism and English language, culture and law in the city. The main campus is located in the centre of the modern city and is composed of beautiful old buildings and ornate lawns. Dublin’s population and status boomed as the English centralised the administration of Ireland. This is reflected in the eighteenth century Georgian architecture, coherent urban layout and relatively wide boulevards that predominate throughout central Dublin. Only small pockets of the original medieval core remain. When the Act of Union occurred in 1800 and the Irish Parliament was dissolved, Dublin lost its political importance and the city went into decline as it failed to become a centre of industrialisation. ublin’s significance reemerged with Irish nationalism and when Ireland finally gained independence in 1922, Dublin was re-established as the capital of a sovereign Irish nation.

Trinity College

Dublin is bisected by the narrow River Liffey, which is the defining feature of the central area’s layout. The river is crossed by numerous quaint bridges, plus the only bridge in Europe that has a greater width than its length (I was impressed by that fact, even if you weren’t)! The winding, cobblestone streets and medieval buildings of the tourist precinct Temple Bar are the exception rather than the norm in central Dublin. Instead, the inner city’s layout is functional and modern and the architecture quite generic. Consequently, Dublin does not really boast an idiosyncratic appearance, aside from its Georgian architectural heritage and the iconic Guinness Storehouse, which I was compelled to visit. I actually rather enjoyed ambling through this hyper-touristic attraction learning about Guinness; apparently there’s a correct way of smelling the Guinness and swooshing it around in your mouth. Dublin’s identity is rooted in the countless and timeless pubs that are scattered throughout the inner city… and perhaps also the tacky souvenir stores.


Thus concluded my all too brief visit to Ireland, a country I like to take pride in as an ancestral homeland (certainly more so than England). I would like to return in pleasant weather, though ially I’m not sure if that’s possible in Ireland. There will be a next time though, as I only travelled to five of the thirty-two Irish counties! Thank you again to Claire for the road-trip and to the Hayes family for inviting me to your Christmas celebrations!

That’s all for now,


Posted by Liamps 10:11 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Ireland II

Ireland photos

The Irish have successfully forged an identity of quaintness and quirkiness beloved throughout the world, although their behaviour, customs and mentality would be described as inherently daggy. This is a country where locals shamelessly fashion omni-coloured and gaudily decorated Christmas jumpers in public in the lead-up to the big day (although I am now a very proud owner of such a jumper). A country where FM radio programs are broadcasted from airports during the festive season and devote half their coverage to interviewing emotional wrecks awaiting the return of their sons and daughters from abroad. A country where returning citizens are showered in the arrival halls with free, quintessentially Irish products such as Taytos. A country where hourly discussions about the correct method of roasting a turkey and the virtues of black pudding occur on the wireless. A country where children burst into pubs and destroy the genial atmospheres with horrific renditions of Christmas carols. And a country where “thanks a million” makes sense. But these oddities are what make Ireland so special and serve as reminders that perhaps we’ve all become far too pretentious elsewhere in the world. They also helped explain the origin of Irish Claire’s rather eccentric (to put it politely) characteristics.

Claire and I continued our road trip to the Dingle Peninsula, which was my personal highlight of Ireland. Until the discovery of the Americas, the Dingle Peninsula was literally the edge of the known world as the most westerly point of Europe. The extreme isolation of the region attracted Christian monks to establish monasteries on the peninsula and the surrounding Blasket Islands during the Middle Ages. The stone ruins of these medieval Christian communities, as well as prehistoric structures (which date to more than 2,000 years ago), are now littered throughout and haunt the peninsula. The landscape is rather difficult to characterise, because although it is defined by the calm, vivid green rolling hills that are synonymous with Ireland, it evokes a sense of desolation and inhospitality. Placid sand beaches straddle both sides of the peninsula, but give way to dramatic sheer cliffs, gnarly black rock formations and raging waters near the peninsula’s head. The remoteness and utter loneliness of the Dingle Peninsula is most palpable here, though inexplicably a small village clings to the steep slopes facing nothing but the seemingly endless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.


Dingle is the archetypal rural Irish community, a compact town of cute, colourful box-shaped buildings, very casual locals and a slightly excessive number of pubs. We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast with magnificent views of Dingle and the bay it borders. The owner informed us that breakfast would not be served until at least 8:30am because they enjoyed a sleep-in; kiboshing our plans for a hectic morning itinerary. But what an extraordinary breakfast worth waiting for! Our full Irish breakfast was accompanied by an enormous buffet spread (for eight people) of yoghurt, scones, bread and butter pudding, fine cheeses, poached fruits and sponge cake.


Dingle was entirely absent of foreign tourists in the mid-December low season gloom and seemed like a ghost town. That was until we left the desolate streets and entered the crowded pubs. We started our evening at one of the few pubs in town serving food and enjoyed hearty fish pies. After finishing our meals, an elderly, blind-drunk farmer sat down at our table and began rambling away (needless to say, I found it rather difficult to understand his drunken, rural Kerry accent). Claire later remarked that such incidents occur regularly in Ireland, though her deplorable response to the situation suggested she lacked experience. While I attempted to maintain decorum in conversing with the poor, lonely man within eyeshot of the landlord, Claire blatantly burst into uncontrollable hysterics right in his face. After that embarrassing ordeal, we ventured to the oldest of old school pubs and a favourite haunt of A-list Hollywood stars (the walk of fame at the front is testament to that), Dick Macks. Unfortunately the lack of music or people created a rather mediocre atmosphere, but the rustic, nineteenth century interior was quite cool. Dick Macks was also the site of two of the funniest incidents of the trip. While I was teaching Claire the card game gin (with great difficulty), I suddenly noticed a hilarious banner posted beside us (see below). Not what I expected to see in rural Dingle. I think the “limited space” referred to on the poster could only refer to the aerial contraption Ilonka occupies, rather than places in the class. After ten minutes of laughter, I began (failing) to teach Claire another card game. Cue the three primary school children bursting into the pub screeching random lines of Christmas carols at the patrons. The children sang different carols completely out of tune simultaneously and shoved money boxes into peoples faces. Claire, with her back to the door, looked utterly confused by the mayhem that was transpiring. Meanwhile the mother stood back watching the chaos nonchalantly, as if this was a perfectly normal activity for the children to partake in. I thought the performance was quite shitty so didn’t give them anything, but others contributed probably so they would leave. We moved onto another pub and finally found where the crowd was at: the local hardware store! As mentioned in the previous entry, rural pubs in Ireland often have duel purposes, which is especially true in Dingle. It was certainly the first time I have drank at a counter with hammers, screw-drivers and nails on sale! We eventually found a pub with a live band, although unfortunately it wasn’t “trad” Irish music. I believe Claire was intentionally stymying all endeavours to see/hear such music.


Who knows what the fake hippies will think of next...

With very limited time (partly due to the aforementioned late breakfast), Claire and I made a rapid visit to County Clare to see one of Ireland’s most iconic attractions: the Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs savagely cut off County Claire’s landscape of (surprise, surprise) rolling green hills, descending over two hundred metres vertically down into the raging Atlantic. The winds are ferocious at the Cliffs of Moher, so ambling near the edge is incredibly treacherous. Since only a small section of the path following the edge features a barrier, numerous deaths are recorded here each year. Consequently, Claire convinced me against an epic hike… although I was tempted :P . Claire often derides the Great Ocean Road as inferior to the Irish coastline, bit I’m not sure if the Cliffs of Moher… no, actually I won’t partake in that childish activity of comparison and simply admire all of nature’s unspoilt splendour!


Galway, a small and vibrant city of pubs, trad music and craic, is often cited as the cultural capital of Ireland. Indeed, the city was buzzing with frivolity in the days leading up to Christmas when we visited (they even had a Christmas market). Galway is actually a similar size to Bendigo, but in Ireland that constitutes a major city. It certainly felt like a major city, with the excessive traffic encircling inner Galway. The pedestrianised centre of Galway is like a typical Irish village, with colourful two-storey buildings, winding streets and an endless choice of drinking establishments. The fast flowing water of the River Corrib flows through Galway into Galway Bay and are controlled by weirs and canals. The whitewater is popular with slalom kayaking, an unsual sight in the centre of a city.


Connemara is a vast, starkly beautiful region to the west of Galway and one of the few places in Ireland where Irish is spoken as a first language. We completed a one day loop through Connemara and witnessed several magnificent rainbows adorning the landscape. Soon after questioning Claire about finding leprechauns near rainbows, Claire suddenly stopped the car in the middle of the road. She hopped out and began flapping her arms about like a lunatic. Perplexed, I thought perhaps she was moving a sheep on. She returned to the car and gravely announced that she had shoed away a bunch of cheeky, invisible leprechauns… I have to pay that one to her, I was totally confused. Connemara features brown-golden fields of grass, the ruins of medieval churches, pockets of forest and rocky, pristine beaches. The excellent movie “The Guard” was filmed here.


Irish fare is often scorned for its lack of culinary pedigree, but I was consistently satisfied with the quality (and portion size) of food in Ireland, certainly more so than in Great Britain. In Ireland, even remotely exotic ingredients are entirely shunned and the cuisine is instead characterised by simple and honest comfort food prepared well. My highlight dish in Ireland was bacon and cabbage (the name is not exactly suggestive of a particularly sophisticated cuisine) in Galway, which consisted of thick slices of meat (kind of similar to Christmas ham), boiled cabbage and mash potato smothered in creamy parsley sauce. Seafood chowder is another excellent Irish dish that I regularly ordered as an entrée. Seafood chowder is an extremely rich, cream-based soup with generous servings of seafood (usually smoked salmon and white fish of some description) and vegetables. While the concept of “Irish stew” is internationally famous, in Ireland typically two variations predominate. Beef and Guinness stew is prepared by slow-cooking beef in Guinness beer (and other, less prominent, ingredients), which creates a heavenly concoction of tenderised beef in a rich gravy. Lamb stew is notably lighter and fresher, as the lamb is stewed with vegetables and herbs in a clear broth rather than beer. Unsurprisingly, potatoes are prepared a multitude of ways and one of my favourites was in a dish called champs. Champs consist of mashed potato with spring onion and cream and is often served with pork sausages and brown onion gravy.


Bacon and cabbage... and Claire

Claire and I returned to Ballincolig from Galway, concluding our five day road trip in south-west Ireland. Fortunately, Claire channelled her inner Christmas spirit for the long journey back, creating a jovial and highly conversational atmosphere. While south-west Ireland is relatively small, I thought that five days was grossly inadequate to properly experience the region. Every town or village in this remote, pristine and constantly beautiful region invite exploration, while there are countless cosy, rural pubs to frequent also.

That’s all for now,


Ireland photos

Posted by Liamps 09:41 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Ireland I

Ireland photos

Ireland, isn’t it just lovely? Oh yes, its grand. Its fecking gorgeous! The Irish people, a predominantly rural bunch, prefer to keep things rather simple and use just three adjectives to describe literally everything (lovely, grand and gorgeous). This philosophy results in clear, direct (though somewhat repetitive) responses, which essentially stymie intellectually stimulating conversations. Characterising an experience, scenic view or culinary dish beyond the boundaries of these three words comes across as ostentatious in Ireland. So for my Ireland entries, I’ll need to avoid writing obscure superlatives to keep it bland and simple for the Irish folks’ approval. Despite its fertile soils, tall poppies cannot grow in Ireland!

My tour guide in Ireland was Australianised Irish Claire, another veteran of the Africa tour, who introduced me to the country’s lovely scenery, grand nightlife and gorgeous culinary traditions (seems like the Irish vernacular is rubbing off on me already). Not prepared to experience another hot, sunny Christmas in Australia, Claire returned to Ireland to enjoy the festive season the proper way – in bleak, cold and excessively moist conditions. Usually I bemoan perpetual dreariness and rain, but nothing else would feel authentic in the Emerald Isle. The locals insisted the weather was unseasonably rainy, though I suspect they were just embarrassed by their country’s routine climatic conditions in the presence of a sun-drenched Aussie. Claire was also obviously returning home to visit family and friends… so I was somewhat intruding on their reunions! Nevertheless, the Hayes clan were incredibly hospitable and seemed very enthusiastic about my Irish adventure (unless they were just acting to be polite; I’m certainly not averse to adopting such a strategy).


Claire’s two years in Australia have reportedly weakened her Corkish accent (ok, I know the word is “Corkonian” but I’m not a fan; so I’m adopting the “sounds better rule” on this one), which is probably why I can understand her. I regularly needed Claire’s translating services when conversing with Corkishmen, as they speak too fast and strangely and are too witty for this slow and thick Australian. Claire’s vocabulary has also apparently expanded while in Australia. “Can I order an English breakfast tea please?” was a question Claire would often pose to bemused waiters, wondering what the feck “English breakfast tea” was. “Ooooh, look at her, comes back to Ireland and thinks she’s all fancied up!” Remember, no descriptive terms are permitted in Ireland, with the exception of the aforementioned Holy Trinity of adjectives.

Claire hails from the sleepy town of Ballincolig on the outskirts of Cork City in County Cork. She picked me up from Cork City Airport bursting with exuberance as always, partially compensating for my drained and lethargic state (I was suffering my fourth cold in six months!). After departing the airport, I was immediately exposed to stereotypical Irish scenery: rolling paddocks of intense green hues, thick hedge fences… and a sky of monotonous grey. After dumping my luggage at the House of Hayes, we ventured to County Cork’s most iconic attraction, Blarney Castle. The ruins of this moderate-to-smallish sized fortress rise above a gorgeous landscape of interminable greenery, fern gardens, meandering streams and a quaint village. I doubt the fortress was ever a particularly opulent abode for its occupants; nor did it strike me as impenetrable for invaders. So what was Blarney Castle’s purpose then? To become a beloved tourist attraction where patrons have the opportunity to kiss a random stone on the rooftop. After partaking in the ritual, we visited purportedly “the largest Irish shop in the world.” Cue the loud American. Attempting to be funny (but failing dismally, as Americans often do) with the disinterested shop-assistant, he launched into how much he hates shopping, but proceeded to spend three hundred euros on souvenir junk. Perhaps his philosophy was the more things he buys, the more likely he’ll acquire something useful. I think I prefer the Stevens penchant for buying nothing and being happy with the savings. In the late afternoon, we drove to the small fishing village of Kinsale on a very convoluted route as Claire’s directional skills are rather pathetic even in her own neighbourhood (I needn’t fear Claire’s wrath at that comment because she doesn’t even read the blog (true friend hey?)). The village centre borders a small bay and is composed of lovely, colourful buildings and winding, narrow roads. As darkness descended, we sought refuge in a cozy, hilltop pub to enjoy fish and chips and real Irish cider!


The next day, Claire and I commenced a six day road trip through Ireland’s lauded south-west coast. I was rather concerned about Claire’s driving ability, but fortunately it improved to a moderately safe standard by journey’s end. Prior to departing, Claire’s mum prepared a traditional Irish breakfast, consisting of egg, bacon, sausage, tomato and (most harrowingly) black pudding and white pudding. Surprisingly, I found the black pudding palatable and really enjoyed the white pudding. Our first destination was the coastal town of Glengariff, where we stayed at Claire’s sister Helena’s holiday house. The house is surrounded by lush, muddy paddocks and perched on a steep slope overlooking Glengariff’s island-studded bay. However, I was unable to enjoy a panoramic or brilliantly clear view due to thick fog. They assured me the view is truly magnificent in pleasant weather, though I’m not sure how frequently each decade that occurs. Although Glengariff is a relatively large settlement, the area feels quite naturalistic as the buildings are embedded within heavily vegetated surroundings (which conjured fond memories of Airey’s Inlet) and many of the structures are composed of locally sourced charcoal-coloured rock (please don’t ask for a more sophisticated geological description – I tend to tune out when that topic is covered in my civil engineering degree!). The town is separated from the waterfront by glistening temperate forest. We ambled through the forest, got totally saturated and spotted one seal and numerous inquisitive robins.


Glengariff serves as the gateway to the Ring of Beara, one of several scenic coastal loops in south-west Ireland. The peaceful, vividly green paddocks characteristic of Ireland gave way to a landscape of stark beauty perhaps reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. The Healy Pass is a steep, winding road that cuts through the Beara Peninsula and affords sublime views of the rugged, mountainous terrain (the weather partially cleared for us!). The barren landscape of clumpy, yellowish-brown grass is conducive only for sheep grazing, and we passed many such creatures roadside (or on the road) while driving in south-west Ireland. The land is defined by crumbling stone walls, while mysterious stone ruins (some thousands of years old) are randomly scattered throughout. After driving through the Healy Pass, we followed equally windy and treacherous roads that hugged the peninsula’s dramatic coastline. The sense of utter remoteness is almost chilling in the tiny hamlets of the peninsula. We stopped in one to acquire a six-pack of Taytos (a beloved but massively overrated brand of Irish chips) and Claire promptly scoffed five, leaving just one for me! We spent the late afternoon and evening in the town of Castletownbere, where a slew of A-list celebrities have stayed to shoot films. We drank at a fifth generation family-owned pub that epitomised the intriguing quirks of rural Irish establishments: duel-purposed (pub and convenience store), no meals served (quite a modern development for Irish pubs) and the intimate, community vibe. Astonishingly, Claire noticed an advertisement for a performance by a musical artist she had seen in Melbourne just a few months previously (no doubt this occurred due to my presence; strange coincidences are always happening around me because of the energy drawn from my psychic skills). So we attended the performance that evening in a small gallery with the local town’s folk. I can’t actually remember his name (something Flannery I suspect) nor any of the music, though I do remember thinking this isn’t really my style. I suspect it was probably depressing and exhaustively philosophical. The real star was an affable, rotund man with a monstrous grey beard who was running the show and proposed we all return to the pub for a pint – after the requisite encores.


The following day, we crossed into County Kerry, where I noticed the accent suddenly became even more indecipherable. We stopped for lunch in Kenmare, another lovely Irish town of colourful, unpretentious buildings and quirky street signs. In the afternoon, we arrived at a scenic lookout over Killarney National Park and enjoyed grand views of its forests, scrub and lakes ringed by mountains. As we descended through the national park, we stopped intermittently for short walks, with Claire occasionally joining me. Claire seldom exhibited enthusiasm for walks, save only for walking from the car to a café for tea and cake, a convenience store for chips or a pub for food and ample beverages. Sometimes we would need to visit all such establishments before Claire’s mood lifted after anything more than a ten minute stroll! Having apparently failed to exercise in four months (she touted this with such regularity that I’m assuming its publishable (though not necessarily true – she’s prone to gross exaggeration)), Claire clearly had no intentions of resuming activity in Ireland! We spent the evening in Killarney, yet another lovely Irish town of colourful, densely-packed buildings and winding streets. Since we visited on the weekend before Christmas, Killarney was especially atmospheric and its multitude of pubs were brimming with patrons.


In the morning, we drove through the Gap of Dunloe on a minor detour. Ireland’s highest pass is sandwiched between dramatic mountain peaks, with the road squeezing around black-coloured lakes. Unfortunately, we then missed the correct turnoff to our next destination and completed a major detour. Navigating Ireland’s network of roads is rural rather difficult in the almost total absence of signs… and lack of concentration. But it wasn’t a complete disaster, because we enjoyed magnificent scenery on the back roads of the Ring of Kerry. When we were completely lost, we asked a local farmer for directions. The farmer apparently cracked a hilarious comment, though it was completely lost on me due to his Kerry accent. Eventually, we unintentionally reached Claire’s childhood holiday destination, Glenbeigh. Gleenbeigh is a pleasant village with a clear stream connecting to a wild Atlantic beach. We then returned to the correct route towards world's end...


I suppose my portrayal of Ireland, the Irish and especially Irish Claire have thus far been rather brazen, but don’t let that mislead you! Ireland’s countryside is truly gorgeous; its one of the only countries I have travelled to where the scenery is constantly impressive off the major expressways. The Irish people and the atmosphere in the village pubs were just grand during Christmas time, evoking a homely, welcoming spirit for their returning brethren. And Claire was a lovely host, excessively generous and provided competent guiding services (though I usually needed to consult the internet for my endless stream of questions).

That’s all for now,


Ireland photos

Posted by Liamps 11:39 Archived in Ireland Comments (1)

London IV

United Kingdom photos

An incredibly short entry for an incredibly short visit to London (for the third time). As the title denotes, I have already written extensively about this remarkable city, so there is little more discussion for me to cover anyhow. Within six hours of my final class at KTH in mid-December, I was on a plane bound for London, eager to escape the dullness of Stockholm as soon as possible! My constituent destinations for the four week Christmas break were actually Ireland and Edinburgh. But since I needed to transit through England, I thought why not stop in my favourite city for a couple days and visit British Dave (especially with the incentive of free accommodation in this notoriously expensive city… though I may have come bearing an appreciative gift). So en route to County Cork I made a brief three night stop in London, bookended by stressful navigating of the city’s stupendous but incredibly complex public transport system. Despite the criticism London cops for its weather, the temperature of ten degrees seemed comparatively paradisiacal after Stockholm in minus five.


I finally checked off an item that has persisted inexplicably on my London bucket list: a guided tour of the home of cricket, Lord’s Cricket Ground. I visited Lord’s when my interest in cricket was probably at an all-time low; indeed, as I write this entry high above Iran (which I had intended to travel to right at this time! So close yet so far. But that’s another story…) without access to internet, I really could not say what happened in Test cricket over the summer. I assume we defeated the West Indies and… New Zealand I think the other opponent was? I suppose my thoughts regarding sport have invariably gravitated back towards the extraordinary and ongoing glory of the Hawthorn Football Club, and who can blame me?!


But back on topic. Despite my recent disinterest in cricket, the brilliant tour conjured many memories of famous incidents and statistics that are apparently still ingrained in my head. It helped of course that the guide was exceedingly passionate, a member of the MCC and old enough to have met dozens of cricketing icons. He introduced the group (composed of Australians and Indians) to the Ashes, which is as small, insignificant and yet eminently powerful as you might expect. I didn’t know that the vessel containing the Ashes is simply an empty perfume jar. We entered the Pavilion, ground zero of the cricket world and empty of the modern trappings that characterise stadia globally. The Pavilion is the only venue in the world where Test players still pass through a crowd of people to enter the field, in what I think is the equivalent of the MCG’s long room. The guide said the most atmospheric the room had ever been was when Tendulkar strode out to bat for the last occasion at Lord’s; chasing a hundredth international century and first at Lord’s. We entered the player’s dressing rooms, which are astonishingly cramp and spartan. Yet the guide claimed that no cricketer would trade playing on the hallowed turf of Lord’s for more luxurious facilities. Indeed, he relayed a story of an Indian player Sreesanth in tears just for having the privilege of being there. It was all tremendously emotional for everyone. Security of the dressing rooms is very strict, as even Steve Waugh was denied entry to catch-up with former teammates. We toured around the other grandstands of Lord’s (very small compared to Australia, with a capacity of just 27,000) and were within one metre of the field. The renowned slope at Lord’s is certainly discernible. Interestingly, the laws of cricket were not the only rules to be enshrined at Lord’s; the laws of lawn tennis were also officially established there. Previously, different rules had existed at clubs throughout Britain. To create a standardised game and noticing the success of the MCC’s laws of cricket, the tennis clubs requested the MCC to write the laws of lawn tennis also.


While Dave was occupied with a rather unpleasant sounding activity called “work”, I spent my time ticking off other less interesting things from my London bucket list. I ventured to King’s Cross Station and was so underwhelmed by the architecture that I didn’t bother staying to find platform nine and three-quarters. I stumbled across the National Library, which was surprisingly worth the visit as it featured the Magna Carta and several very early Christian bibles on display. I walked around the shopping precinct of Regent St and Oxford St. Dave had encouraged me to visit a famous toy store, so expecting antique toys, I reluctantly complied. However, it was simply a Toys ‘R’ Us equivalent, so I felt like a creep walking around the store with a camera hanging prominently around my neck (I departed very quickly!). I walked past the US Embassy, a militaristic compound that is probably the ugliest building in London and completely out-of-place in Mayfair. After the obligatory sightseeing pilgrimage to Buckingham Palace and Westminster, I visited London’s neo Byzantine Catholic cathedral. Never before have I seen so many appeals for donations inside a place of worship (they failed to persuade me). I spent ten minutes inside Harrod’s, half of which was spent finding the disappointingly average lavatories, before departing through boredom. I made a brief visit to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and was outraged by the insipidness of the British reproduction of a German Christmas market (after visiting Cologne the previous week). As usual, I severely underestimated the distances in London and was required to run to meet up with Dave at the correct times on both evenings.


Dave and I ventured to a handful of pubs in central London, which were particularly atmospheric in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Many revellers were fashioning Christmas jumpers that would be considered unbelievably daggy at any other time of year. I was quite saddened actually that we don’t have such a tradition in Australia. When Dave’s parents hosted me for dinner, I was able to view the bombastic Christmas lights display that Dave had repeatedly and so passionately described. The Bridges household blazes in the otherwise pitch-black borderline countryside village, aside from the neighbouring abode (with a resident electrician). Dave warned me gravely about my upcoming trip to Ireland, with an attitude clearly motivated by stereotypes and British superiority. He was convinced that the Irish would ceaselessly laugh at me, as an Australian, and that little more would be achieved (or permitted) in Ireland than drinking obscene quantities of alcohol at the pubs. Only half true.


There was only one culinary objective for my trip to London (since I knew I would have plenty of stogy pub fare in Ireland): hummus. Obviously excellent renditions of this magical, golden substance was not gong to be difficult to obtain in London, with its large Middle Eastern population. On my return visit to Camden Market, I had a delicious feast of hummus, falafel, feta, pickles, fried eggplant and Arabic salad. The next day, I dined at “Hummus Brothers”, which is one of those “healthy”, modern fast-food franchises similar to Grill’d or Schnitz. “Hummus Brothers” specialises in serving hummus as a simple but filling meal complemented by condiments, which is exactly how it is supposed to be eaten (hummus is NOT merely a snack or appetiser in the Middle East!). I ate a delicious batch of hummus with stewed eggplant and lamb.


Another very enjoyable trip to London further convinced me that I could happily live there. Thanks again to Dave for hosting me.

That’s all for now,


United Kingdom photos

Posted by Liamps 16:51 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Stockholm in Winter

Sweden photos

The final component of my exchange experience in Stockholm was characterised by a longing for snow, its eventual arrival and my eagerness to depart! The colourful leaves of autumn utterly disappeared by the beginning of November and the weather quickly progressed to freezing conditions. Walking through the forest next to KTH campus was rather intriguing, because the ground had literally frozen despite the lack of snow (I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon but it makes sense that the soil moisture content near the surface should freeze). Naturally I expected that snow would arrive imminently, but it was only on my penultimate day in Stockholm before leaving for the Christmas break that it finally started to snow. When I returned to Stockholm in mid-January, Stockholm had transformed into a winter wonderland and one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.


My final fortnight in Stockholm was rather stressful, as I needed to complete assessments, lay the study groundwork for exams in mid-January, visit tourist sites in Stockholm I had neglected to see, move out of my apartment and, most importantly, research my upcoming travel adventures. I also needed to revel in the Christmas spirit sweeping the city, which suddenly enlivened the relatively drab Swedish capital. Glistening spectacles of Christmas lights abounded throughout the central areas of Stockholm, compensating somewhat for the depressively early sunsets at 3:15pm. Minuscule Christmas markets occupied the main squares, though I found them rather pathetic in comparison to Cologne’s. To commemorate a semester living at Drottning Kristinas Vag 43B, a dozen residents gathered in one apartment for Christmas beverages and celebration.


Perhaps one of the most obscure tourist attractions I have visited is Skogskyrkogarden, a World Heritage-listed cemetery in the suburbs of Stockholm. The cemetery is distinguished for its unique landscape architecture, designed by a famous Swedish modernist architect in the 1910s. Most of the tombstones are laid out within tranquil but slightly eerie forests of tall, slender pine trees. Structures with Neoclassical motifs but provocatively asymmetrical and abstract forms (the Modernist twist on conventional historical design… usually resulting in ugly aesthetics) are dotted throughout the site and function as chapels or crematoriums. The main area of the cemetery is a vast, monotonous plain of grass, broken only by a small meditation hill with a grove of trees. Skogskyrkogarden is an intriguing site, but absolutely not worthy of World Heritage status.


Another World Heritage site I visited in Stockholm, slightly more deserving of the recognition, was the Swedish royal family’s summer residence of Drottningholm. The palace is located in the suburbs of Stockholm, on the foreshore of an island overlooking pristine forests and waterways. The palace was constructed during the Golden Age of Sweden and was intended to project the newfound "great power" of the kingdom, mimicking the Palace The seventeenth century palace features Baroque architecture, requisite opulent interiors and expansive landscaped gardens. The most intriguing aspect of the palatial grounds is the Chinese Pavilion, which represents the European curiosity and interpretation of the Orient during the advent of globalisation.

Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm

On my penultimate day in Stockholm before Christmas break, I finally attended the city’s famed ethnographic museum Skansen (incessantly promoted as the world’s first). Hundreds of traditional rural buildings from throughout Sweden are displayed at Skansen, with their historic purposes recreated in many of them. Skansen also features expansive exhibits for endemic creatures, including wolverine (first time I had seen such a creature), moose, lynx and grey wolves. The open-air museum is somewhat like a cross-between Sovereign Hill and Healselville Sanctuary, occupying parkland just near the central area of the city. Skansen hosts Stockholm’s best Christmas market in December, which was the constituent reason for my visit. The market evokes Old World charm with rustic wooden stalls and simple signs (a fish to indicate smoked goods, mittens to indicate woollen garments etc). I ate traditional Scandinavian peasant fare, which was basically a pancakes prepared in an iron pan with an obscene quantity of pork lard and served with lingonberry jam. My day at Skansen also coincided with the first snow of the season in Stockholm, which condemned me to a rather cold outing. Nevertheless, it was very pretty to actually see it snowing and taste a “white Christmas”.


I returned to Stockholm in mid-January for exams and was stupefied by the city’s dramatic changes aesthetically since my departure. When I arrived in central Stockholm, I was amazed to discover that roads and parked cars were completely blanked with powdery white snow. I was also shocked by the snow’s depth outside the pavement – nearly up to my knees! This extraordinary transformation of course compelled me to forego studying the next morning and to explore the city. I walked along a major waterway that had almost entirely frozen over, aside from a few precarious cracks. I surveyed the rail-yards connected to Stockholm Central from a bridge and found that tracks only just peeped above the snow. I ambled up to one of Stockholm’s best viewpoints and was astonished by the vista of frozen waterways, white roads and paths and snow-covered rooftops. I ventured through parks and watched people engaging in winter activities, such as skating and tobogganing. Although I experienced the lowest temperature that I had ever felt at minus nine degrees, the weather was surprisingly quite bearable; its all about the layers!


While I am grateful for the exchange experience at KTH, after four months I can definitely conclude that Stockholm, and Scandinavia in general, is not really suited for me to live in. Despite its status as the capital city of a major country with a population of over two million, Stockholm is actually rather dull and boring. On each of my weekend trips to other European countries, I was reminded of the atmosphere and energy that is completely lacking in Stockholm. The city is of course inherently beautiful with its waterways, islands, refined architecture, pristine forests and cleanliness, but it just seems to lack cultural depth. The excessive costs and early closing times were other significant irritations. Oh well, I suppose I can’t love everywhere!


That’s all for now,


Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 17:49 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)


Germany photos

Experiencing the myriad wonders and novelty of a wintertime festive season was one of the constituent objectives of my six months in Europe. This revelation will come as no surprise to my family, who somewhat embarrassingly refers to me as “Mr Christmas” (I suspect their day was rather shit last year, characterised by inherent laziness and nonchalance in my absence). I visited several quaint Christmas markets, iconic features of European cityscapes in winter, in Stockholm and Riga. But I wanted to travel to the heartland of Christmas markets, where they perhaps even supersede the big day in revelry: Germany. So I ventured to Cologne on yet another weekend escapade from Stockholm, which hosts arguably Europe’s biggest and best markets. I was joined by Australian Liam McGuinness, a resident of the southern German city of Ulm. Liam provided somewhat entertaining company, though his efforts in “what would you rather?” questions failed to inspire (“What would you rather be, an elevator or escalator?”).

Christmas market

Cologne is located on the Rhine River within Germany’s largest urban area, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region. The city’s proximity to the French border alludes to an identity symptomatic of Western and Central European influences. Indeed, the French name for the city has been adopted for international use, rather than the German name (Koln). The Roman origins of Cologne distinguishes it from other major German cities, as Roman conquests extended only to the far west of the Germanic lands. Ruins and impressive mosaics of this initial settlement are consequently scattered throughout the city. During the Middle Ages, Cologne became a bastion of Catholicism north of the Alps and Protestantism failed to establish a foothold in the city during the Reformation. Cologne was designated as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire and became one of Europe’s richest cities as a key trading centre on the Rhine. It was eventually absorbed into the German Empire, after repeated French occupations. Cologne was one of the few German centres that resisted the electoral dominance of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s, though this failed to prevent the Nazi takeover of the city. Since the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region has traditionally functioned as continental Europe’s most expansive industrial base, Cologne was particularly targeted by Allied bombing campaigns during World War Two, resulting in the destruction of 95% of the city’s buildings. Reconstruction of Cologne’s most prominent cultural treasures lasted through to the 1990s.

View from the Rhine

While Cologne is hardly one of Europe’s most enthralling destinations, I was certainly impressed by the obvious liveability of the city. The population of Cologne is approximately one million (avid readers would be aware of my ambivalence towards small cities), but its location within a polycentric megalopolis within three hours drive of five countries augers a sense of centrality, connection and busyness bereft in comparably sized cities (such as isolated Stockholm). The inner core is highly functional, atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing, despite the prevalence for modernist structures. The preservation of relatively narrow streets and an emphasis on refined, rather than bombastic and imposing, architecture during Cologne’s reconstruction has successfully created a bustling, integrated community. The city is enlivened by major festivals throughout the year and boasts unique cultural traditions, cuisine and beer.


Utterly dominating the cityscape and defining the urban landscape is the Koln Dom, one of the world’s largest Gothic cathedrals. Construction of the Dom commenced in the thirteenth century, but it was not finished until more than 600 years later in 1880. The completion of the Dom was celebrated throughout the German Empire as a monument to the newly formed nation and a direct connection between medieval and modern German societies. The Dom features two spires of epic proportions that belittle all other structures in the inner city. The bulk of the building is also remarkably high, cavernous and foreboding. The immensity of the Dom is totally awe-inspiring and surprises you with every glance. The size is grossly disproportionate to neighbouring buildings and constitutes the only distinguishable element of the city from afar. Cologne Station and the city’s two most prominent squares surround the Dom, while major thoroughfares radiate from all sides. The Dom is embellished with dense layers of Gothic ornamentation, which exhibit considerable decay from centuries of weathering. This effect amplifies the haunting sense the Dom exudes.

Kolner Dom

Another prized and iconic feature of Cologne is the collection of twelve Romanesque churches that dot the inner city. The Romanesque dominated architecture in Western Europe from the reign of Charlemagne to the rise of the Gothic. The Romanesque was intended project power through mimicking the Classical architecture of Ancient Rome, although the truly impressive feats of Roman structural engineering failed to be replicated through lack of knowledge. Cologne’s surviving Romanesque heritage is unique among European cities, because most Romanesque churches were converted to Gothic structures. The thousand year old churches form particularly prominent landmarks in the city, as they are mostly surrounded by modernist buildings. While all the churches are characteristically Romanesque with bulky, monolithic and platonic designs replete with arches and vaulted ceilings, they each feature distinctive appearances (some with soaring square-based bell-towers, others with fake domes above the altars (the ability to construct domes was lost from Christendom for a thousand years).

Basilicia of the Holy Apostles

On the last weekend of November each year, a dozen sprawling Christmas markets materialise throughout central Cologne to fill the city with unrivalled merriment for the duration of the festive season. Thousands of jubilant visitors and locals alike pour into the markets each day between 10am and 10pm. With characteristic German punctuality, all stalls suddenly close at precisely ten o’clock, even with excessive crowds still eager for food and beverages. The stalls sell a melange of handcrafted German products, Christmas decorations, traditional German food, gluwein and beer. At night, the markets are illuminated by dazzling Christmas lights hanging from stalls, overhead wires and festooned on enormous Christmas trees. Below the towering spires of Kolner Dom is the city’s most iconic market, Weihnachstmarkt am Dom. The market is embellished with kitsch decorations and bright Christmas colours, no doubt to satisfy the predominately touristic crowd. The nearby “house gnomes Christmas market” in the heart of the Old Town is far more spacious, relaxed and historical. The stalls that line the winding alleys of this market reflect the traditional occupations of residents in Cologne (i.e. butcher, tailor, baker). The nickname for the market is derived from the legend that house gnomes once assisted their masters with their daily jobs. The stalls in this market are constructed from heavy carved wood with refined and tasteful Christmas decorations. The market also boasts an ice-skating rink and an area for a game similar to lawn bowls on ice. We also visited a market by the river with a maritime theme, a market beside a medieval city gate and the Market of Angels where all the stalls were white chalets. The markets are busy throughout the day but are particularly atmospheric in the early evening when locals flood in for post-work drinks.


While Liam’s gauntness is perhaps suggestive of a diet similar to Sean’s, fortunately his enthusiasm for the meat-and-starch heavy cuisine of Germany almost matches mine. We sampled numerous specialties of the Rhine region at the Christmas markets, including crispy deep-fried potato pancakes with apple sauce and cranberry sauce (Liam repeatedly expressed his disapproval for mixing sweet and savoury components in a dish), button mushrooms in creamy garlic sauce and Alsatian pizza (thin crust with crème fraiche, onions and bacon). Liam identified that the markets were littered with stalls specialising in the the cuisines of other German-speaking regions (Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland). I gorged on a delicious Austrian dessert called kaiserschmarrn, which consists of chopped pancakes with apple sauce and cherry sauce. We enjoyed several mugs of gluwein at the markets, the heavenly Christmas concoction of warm spiced red wine. I kept a boot shaped mug from one of the stalls, but unfortunately it smashed in my luggage.

Liam McG with potato pancakes

Kolsch is a pale lager that is synonymous with Cologne. Kolsch is always served in thin 210 millilitre glasses, rather than the steins of Bavaria, to ensure the beer is drank cold. To compensate for the relatively small servings, waiters hover around tables with trays of Kolsch beer, ready to replace empty glasses. We dined at a traditional beerhall twice to indulge in hefty portions of German fare and try Kolsch (in my opinion, not a terribly exciting drop). We eagerly snacked on one of Cologne’s most unique dishes, mett on a bun. The meat in question was raw minced pork (I was not aware that this is safe to consume), served with sliced raw onion and caraway seeds on an open bread roll. I ordered arguably the Rhineland’s most famous dish, sauerbraten, a pot roast of beef or, more traditionally, horse. The meat is marinated for several days in red wine, vinegar and spices before cooking. To counter the sourness of the marinade, the roasted meat is served with a gravy that is sweetened by the addition of raisins and red beet syrup. I was surprised to discover that the sauerbraten presented before me was in fact horse, which I found notably less tender than beef. The complex sweet-and-sour flavour of the dish, served with potato dumplings and apple sauce, was rather delicious though. On our next evening in the beerhall, I ate roasted beef with brown sauce, onions and baked potato with an enormous dollop of sour cream and gherkins.


I enjoyed an excellent weekend trip to Cologne that certainly ignited my anticipation for the festive season. Cologne is a pleasant city to explore and indulge in a dose of artery-clogging German fare. Thank you to Liam McGuinness for joining me in Cologne and hopefully we’ll rendezvous in another Central European city in the future!

That’s all for now,


Posted by Liamps 02:15 Archived in Germany Comments (0)


Latvia photos.

I travelled to Riga on my penultimate weekend adventure from Stockholm, which was my first foray into the former Soviet Union. Riga is certainly not among Europe’s most beautiful capitals, partly because historic buildings in the Old Town have literally sunk into swampland. Riga does not serve as a bastion of a rich and distinctive national culture, as the concept of a “Latvian” nation has existed for just one hundred years. Nor is the city especially evocative of the communist epoch in Eastern Europe; Riga feels firmly entrenched in the West. Yet my initial assessment of Riga as “not terribly enthralling” proved to be a grossly inaccurate depiction of the largest city in the Baltic states.


Riga’s appeal is the architectural and social diversity in the central areas of the city. The Old Town is quite large relative to the size of Riga and boasts a multitude of architectural styles (though mainly post Renaissance). Surrounding the Old Town on the eastern side is the world’s largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings. South of the Old Town is an expansive market occupying former Zeppelin hangers. Piercing the skyline of Riga are the spires of Lutheran, Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches and communist and post-independence monuments. Districts of quaint wooden buildings abound on the opposite side of the vast Daugava River. These areas, formerly the abode of industrial workers, are now Bohemian neighbourhoods that have successfully preserved the sense of local community within a big city.


I travelled to Riga expecting to encounter the same grumpiness, bluntness and complete lack of friendliness that I found to be characteristic of the Poles (not necessarily a negative judgement by the way! It was all part of the fun of visiting Poland). However, I thought the Latvians were delightful; always greeting me with a genuine smile, very hospitable, surprisingly good at English and eager to chat when they spoke the language. Even people I really didn’t expect to be particularly warm, such as non-English speaking counter staff at communist-era canteens and market stalls, were always very pleasant. Sometimes quite frazzled to serve a strange-looking tourist at a non-touristic establishment, but committed to finding an amiable solution (where as in Poland I would have just been brushed aside). The Latvians are probably among the friendliest people I have met in Europe.


Riga was founded in the early thirteenth century by German colonisers, who supported Pope Innocent III’s northern crusade against the pagan Baltic tribes. The city was established on marshy land beside the Daugava River, which penetrates deep into Russia. Riga quickly became a key trading interchange between the East and West and joined the Hanseatic League in 1282. For seven hundred years, the city was politically and economically dominated by the minority German merchant class, marginalising the majority Latvian population. Riga was thus influenced significantly by German culture and artistic traditions, which has shaped an identity more synonymous with Central Europe than Eastern Europe. This is evident in the city’s constituent religion (Lutheranism) and the architectural composition of the Old Town. Unfortunately, most of Riga’s medieval structures were either demolished or lie below ground level, as new buildings and thoroughfares were constructed on old, sinking foundations. However, some medieval structures have been preserved and converted into underground restaurants and beer halls. Most of the Old Town’s existing buildings are of German Baroque and Neoclassical styles, flaunting a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours. The Old Town’s churches however are mostly Gothic structures with slender, towering brickwork spires reminiscent of Scandinavian cities.


Riga was incorporated into a succession of empires, culminating in the Russian Empire’s hegemonic rule from 1710. In the late nineteenth century, Riga rapidly developed into one of the largest, richest and most industrialised cities in the Russian Empire, primarily due to its strategic position. The economic boom transformed Riga, with the city’s medieval fortified walls demolished to facilitate urban expansion. The newfound wealth manifested in the construction of Art Nouveau buildings, which became the obsession of Riga’s elites. Consequently, the north-eastern district surrounding the Old Town is composed almost entirely of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings bordering expansive boulevards. Where as the Art Nouveau styles of Paris, Brussels and Vienna are characterised by floral motifs and sinuous geometric patterns, Art Nouveau architects in Riga attempted to create a distinctive Latvian style inspired by local history, construction materials and nature. This ideal was motivated by the Latvian National Awakening, a nationalistic response to the russification of Latvia. The Art Nouveau architecture was not only embraced for its contemporary popularity in Europe, but also for political purposes.


An equally beautiful component of Riga, though developed for the occupancy of an entirely different social class, are the districts of nineteenth century wooden buildings. The buildings were erected during Riga’s industrial boom to accommodate factory workers in overcrowded and decrepit conditions. However, these humble two-storey dwellings have aged and decayed gracefully and now form serene neighbourhoods on the west bank of the Daugava. In the Kalnciema district, I visited a wonderful Saturday market in a yard surrounded by wooden buildings. My visitation to Riga coincided with the beginning of the Christmas season (end of November), so the market was brimming with handcrafted Christmas gifts. I was in such a grand spirit that I spontaneously purchased some non-culinary acquisitions (though needless to say, I hardly left the market hungry), an almost unprecedented event in my travels!


Latvian independence was briefly achieved after the Russian Revolution, but the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union by Stalin during World War Two. To cement Latvia’s place in the union, hundreds of thousands of Russians relocated to Latvia, which reduced the ethnic Latvian composition of the country from 77% to 52% by 1989. Latvia was one of the first republics to declare independence from the Soviet Union and has since attempted to strengthen its sovereignty militarily, economically and culturally from Russia. Latvia is clearly an enthusiastic member of the European Union and NATO; Riga is in fact the only city I have travelled to where I repeatedly noticed the NATO flag flying prominently. I suppose it’s a clear indication that Russia still casts an ominous and unwanted shadow over the small states of Eastern Europe. The strategic acumen of expanding the EU and NATO so rapidly into Eastern Europe, to the wrath of Russia, has been debated ad nauseum. Perhaps the policy has jeopardised relations between the West and Russia; but is it moral to once more abandon these populations to Russian dominance as the West did after World War Two? I think any country with a Western cultural tradition that embraces liberal, secular democratic ideals and the Western alliance has an inviolable right to be protected by the Western alliance.


Symbolising the independence of Latvia is the iconic National Library, the modern pride of the country. A national library for Latvia has repeatedly been denied by ruling powers, so Riga had the unusual distinction for a capital of lacking a major facility to store the city’s literary collection. Consequently, the construction of a national library, replete with monumental and distinctive architecture to celebrate Latvian sovereignty, became a foremost priority for the government post-independence. The building, completed in 2014, resembles a metallic pyramid with a bent summit. The interior is as much about the unusual geometric layouts of the floor plans, atriums and staircases as the books (the library effectively functions as the custodians of the Latvian language.


Easily my favourite part of Riga was the huge Central Market (particularly relished considering the absence of one in Stockholm). The market resembles a series of Zeppelin hangars, as the facades of obsolete hangars were refitted to the front of the cavernous market halls in the 1920s. Each hall is devoted to a particular food group: meat (by far the largest, indicative of the national diet), dairy, fruit and vegetables (featuring a bewildering array of pickled vegetables) and seafood. However, throughout the market were numerous specialty stores selling (specifically) tomatoes, dill, parsley and spring onions.


Latvian cuisine features all the delicious, artery-clogging hallmarks of Eastern European food, with a few unique twists. Pickles are served ubiquitously with meals to cut through the grease, with gherkins and pickled pumpkin (now my favourite way to eat pumpkin) especially popular. Communist-era canteens serve ultra-cheap bite-sized Latvian dumplings, called pelmeni. These self-service lunchtime canteens usually offer meat-filled dumplings boiled in broth and deep-fried cheese dumplings, collectively eaten with sour cream, pickles and parsley. I sampled sauerkraut soup, a surprisingly delectable and rich soup consisting of little more than sauerkraut, stock and a dollop of sour cream. I also enjoyed one of my favourite Central-Eastern European dishes, cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, served with shreds of potato fried in a copious amount of oil. Twice I dined at a subterranean pub that occupies a sunken medieval hall. On my first night, I had potato dumplings with sour cream and cranberry jam, battered chicken topped with onion, pickled cucumber, mushrooms, goat’s cheese and cram sauce and rye bread pudding. On my second night there, I drank cranberry beer (quite delicious and not excessively sweet. Fruit beers seem to be popular in Latvia) and enjoyed a huge “beer tasting” plate of cured meats, smoked cheese, vegetables and garlic rye bread croutons, followed by beef “stroganoff” (more like a casserole, since it was absent of cream and mushrooms). Sklandrausis, probably Latvia’s moat traditional baked good, is a sweet pie made from rye dough, filled with carrot and potato mash and flavoured with caraway seeds (massively overrated). Reflecting Latvia’s former place in the Soviet Union, numerous Uzbek eateries dot the city.


While I was unable to visit the other Baltic capitals of Talinn and Vilnius, my weekend trip to Riga certainly provided a pleasant sample of this tiny region. Riga is hardly a WOW-factor destination, but it features several appealing characteristics: the city is off the mass-tourist trail, its history is defined by its status as an interface between two distinct cultural regions (Europe and Russia), it boasts immense architectural diversity) and scrumptious cheap food. Riga is definitely worth a three day break!

That’s all for now,


Posted by Liamps 21:44 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)


Sweden photos

Geographically dominating the southern third of Sweden is the historical province of Småland, which literally translates to “small lands”. While the province is not one of Sweden’s most iconic destinations, numerous American tourists visit Småland to discover their ancestral roots or to purchase handcrafted glassware. I travelled to Småland for an entirely different purpose though; to rendezvous with a Swedish couple I met while staying at Hotel Kangaroo in Guatemala. Jakob and Kristin hosted me in their apartment for three days and generously provided enthusiastic tours and insights into the region. I visited Jakob’s childhood village Ingolstad, met with his family, watched a game of floorball (or innebandy) and attended the 30th anniversary of the Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus, a musical group cherished by the local community. These experiences were atypical for the standard touristic routine, which usually constitutes ticking off “must-see” attractions and socialising solely with other foreign visitors. However, I always find that the rare and privileged opportunities to stay with local people are especially rewarding, because the exposes the reality of a destination and the day-to-day lifestyle of the populace.

Jakob and Kristin live in the small and almost unpronounceable city of Växjö, just near the university where they both studied. The city is defined by the plethora of lakes within its vicinity, several of which penetrate into the urban area. The Swedish countryside is dotted with a seemingly endless number of lakes and this is particularly evident in Småland. Predictably, the lakes are surrounded by quaint red-and-white wooden summer houses for the Swedes to indulge in their love of serenity and nature. We visited the medieval fortress of Kronoberg Castle on an island of the largest lake in the region. Kronoberg was the stronghold for a failed peasant-led revolt against King Gustav Vasa in the sixteenth century (called the Dacke War after the peasant leader). The peasants relied upon their knowledge of the thick forests of Småland, which the region is renowned for, to conduct guerrilla warfare against the royal forces. Although the revolt was crushed, the proximity of Kronoberg to the Danish border resulted in its further fortification. Kronoberg is today a robust stone ruin surrounded by thick reeds. Småland is still covered in dense forest, partly because of the poor agricultural potential of the landscape. However, a freak cyclone ten years ripped through the region and destroyed thousands of acres of forest.

Kronoberg Castle

Kronoberg Castle

Småland possesses Sweden’s third biggest tourist drawcard: Glasriket, or the “Kingdom of Crystal”. The glass industry has existed in this region for more than five hundred years and fifteen glassworks are now located throughout this heavily forested province. We visited the glassworks owned by Kosta Boda, one of the largest producers of handcrafted glassware in Sweden. The precinct features several showrooms and a museum displaying remarkable glass ornaments. However, I was considerably more interested in touring the neighbouring facility where the products are actually crafted. Amazingly, there were no entrance fees, checks, safety equipment or roped pathways for tourist visits. We were permitted to amble freely around the active workspace, despite the glassblowers handling materials of 1090 degrees Celsius plus! I doubt in Australia WorkSafe would condone such a situation and endeavour to soak all the fun out of the experience. We watched the glassblowers pour molten glass into moulds or literally blow glassware into shape. Also at the precinct was a small Christmas market (very early in the season), the first of many I would visit in the subsequent month. Since most of the stalls offered free tasting samples, I quickly realised I would become quite the fan of European Christmas markets.

Glass blowing

Glass blowing

I visited the family home where Jakob grew up, on a large property just outside the small village of Ingolstad. His mother prepared a delicious fish soup for lunch and waffles with cloudberry jam the next day. Jakob gave an impassioned tour of the property’s collection of buildings, which includes a greenhouse. I was rather surprised by its content, because I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter delicious Mediterranean produce such as tomatoes, figs and grapes in the chilly Swedish countryside. The property is surrounded by thick forest, which Jakob would often explore as a child. He recounted a story of when he came across a dead moose in the woods. Intrigued, Jakob cut off the head, packed it in his bag and returned home. With dinner being served upon his return, he proceeded to forget about the head and leave the bag in the hallway. His mother was rather surprised to subsequently discover a pool of blood forming in the hallway, seeping through a backpack from a moose head! Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any moose while I was in Småland, though we did at least glimpse a handful of deer. We attended a game of floorball (innebandy in Sweden), a sport I had never previously heard of, to watch Jakob’s nephew play. Floorball is quite similar to ice hockey but is played on a basketball court with a hollow ball rather than a puck, lighter sticks and no padding.

House in Ingolstad

House in Ingolstad

Jakob and Kristin continuously repeated there would be a “surprise” on the Saturday night of my trip to Småland. I remained ignorant until the curtains were drawn at the Växjö Teater, revealing the Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus. For those unfamiliar (like me), Barbershop Choruses resemble all-male or all-female choirs that usually sing (I think) music from the 1950s and 1960s (my lack of musical knowledge is probably rising to the fore now). However, Dacke Drangar performed a mixture of old and modern classics, no doubt to enhance the comedic effect of their acts. The first act was rather sophisticated, with the thirty-odd members wearing formal attire and performing in a synchronised manner. The second act though was entirely contrasting, as the Chorus haphazardly assembled onto the stage in caveman costumes. They eventually morphed into Vikings for the final crescendo. Coincidentally, Dacke Drangar was celebrating its 30th anniversary that evening and I was invited to the celebrations at a local restaurant. The group has performed internationally on several occasions, including an Australian tour in 1990. Jakob’s father is an integral member of the Chorus, while Jakob has also performed for the group. Throughout the evening, the Barbershop Chorus and all those in attendance spontaneously broke into Swedish drinking song, of which there seems to be many. I attempted in vain to follow, but found the pronunciation of the lyrics completely incomprehensible. I noticed a distinct difference between Swedish and Australian culture that evening: when the Swedes raise their glasses to toast, they never clink them together (when in a group). Several times I went in for the clink, only to be left hanging!

Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus

Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus

For breakfasts, we introduced each other to delicacies unique to our respective cultures: Vegemite and Kalles kaviar. After first tasting Vegemite in Australia, Kristin had no intention of resampling our delectable black spread. Jakob gave it a try, though his response was essentially a diplomatic rejection. As the name denotes, Kalles kaviar is a pink paste made from fish eggs that is extremely potent and very salty. The paste is packaged into toothpaste tubes (like mayonnaise and other sauces in Sweden) and is exclusively eaten with hard-boiled eggs. I could handle a small dab on my eggs, though I wouldn’t describe myself as a great fan of the substance. I was, however, a great fan of the knäckebröd prepared by Jakob’s Mum. Knäckebröd is crisp flatbread (more like crackers) made from rye flour that is insanely popular throughout Sweden. Whole supermarket aisles are devoted to knäckebröd and it is usually served as an appetizer at restaurants. I usually find knäckebröd quite flavourless and dull, but the rendition prepared by Jakob’s Mum was sensational; probably because it was homemade. I also sampled her homemade grape wine and apple wine; both produced using fruit from their garden. Småland is famed for its distinctive style of cheesecake… though the dessert is quite different to the standardised New York cheesecake. The cake is quite firm, crumbly, very moist and heavy – though not as dense New York cheesecake. It doesn’t actually use cheese but milk curd and is consequently less rich. Småland cheesecake is much sweeter though and has subtle tastes of almond.

Special thank you to Jakob and Kristin for hosting me for the weekend in Småland! I described the trip to several international students at KTH, who remarked that they don’t have the opportunity to stay with local people in Sweden, because they don’t know any outside of Stockholm. Its always rather difficult to meet and befriend people actually from the country you are travelling in, so I was very lucky to meet Jakob and Kristin beforehand in Guatemala.

That’s all for now,


Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 02:17 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)


Denmark photos

Every great city must have an eternal rival; and as Sydney is Melbourne, so is Copenhagen to Stockholm. For centuries, the two capitals were bitter enemies as their respective kingdoms warred for militaristic supremacy in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea. While animosities have since subdued, the unabashed pride and self-glorification of both Copenhageners and Stockholmers have not. Always intrigued by meaningless comparisons, I was thus stimulated to return to Copenhagen and conduct a proper evaluation of which city is genuinely Scandinavia’s finest. So I hopped on a fast train from Stockholm Central to Copenhagen for a weekend visit and was hosted for the second occasion by Globo Trip veteran, Danish Nadia.



Copenhagen is essentially a microcosm of Denmark, with its three distinguishing elements pervasive in the city: interminable flatness, the omnipresence of water and cycling. Copenhagen’s flatness is exacerbated by its architecture, which emphasises horizontality and lateral spaciousness. Copenhagen is therefore quite unique as a European city, because it doesn’t feel hampered by space limitations and congestion. Similar to Stockholm, waterways penetrate and divide the central area and give the city a distinct maritime character. Unlike its Swedish counterpart however, the waterways throughout Copenhagen are predominantly man-made or manipulated (aside of course from the Baltic Sea). Perhaps because of this, the central areas of Copenhagen are rather well connected and the city feels quite compact, which contrasts with Stockholm’s haphazard layout. Copenhagen is one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities and consequently the roads are plied by treacherous hordes of cyclists, seemingly more so than cars. The entrances to metro stations, which function as multi-modal interchanges, are surrounded by endless seas of bicycles.

Bicycles at the metro

Bicycles at the metro

Reflecting Denmark’s unique geographical position sandwiched between continental Europe and the Scandinavian Peninsula, Copenhagen’s architecture and culture are fusions of influences. The townhouses, old converted warehouses and public institutions are aesthetically reminiscent of Germany and particularly Amsterdam (aside from the aforementioned space factor), but its churches and landmark spires are definitively Nordic. The otherwise flat Copenhagen cityscape is punctuated by towering, slender spires replete with green copper roofing, which is a motif ubiquitous in all Scandinavian capitals. An entirely unique characteristic of Copenhagen’s architectural composition is the occasion use of vibrant orange in the colouration of buildings. While not commonly employed, the one in a hundred buildings painted orange complete command their locales aesthetically. Gentrification has occurred in numerous areas in Copenhagen that were formerly industrial zones. The continual use of warehouses, wharfs and working-class dormitory buildings through repurposing is more synonymous with New York, London and Melbourne than refined Stockholm. Copenhagen Street Food, a trendy food truck market occupying a former warehouse, is a quintessential example of this and mirrors Smorgasburg (New York), Camden Market (London) and the Night Market at Queen Victoria Market.


I suppose every country has a strange Christmas tradition. Denmark’s is that Tuborg Brewery’s “Christmas beer” can only be sold from the first Friday of November no earlier than 8:59pm. Consequently, the Danes accumulate in pubs to celebrate the occasion. The atmosphere does not quite match St. Patrick’s Day revelry, but its probably the best Scandis (renowned for their reservedness) can muster. Since my visitation happened to coincide with this event, Nadia and I ventured to a traditional pub with a collection of her friends for the evening. After the first Christmas beers were dispersed for free by the bar staff, I noticed that none of Nadia’s friends proceeded to purchase another bottle. No doubt that was because Christmas beer is hardly the finest drop. I suspect Tuborg recycles bad batches of other brews to create this rather unsatisfying concoction. They then bottle the beer, embellish the label with a Christmas theme and distribute the Christmas beer for free at 8:59pm to grateful (and, crucially, already intoxicated) consumers for company goodwill. The Danes then purchase the beer only for Christmas itself, for sentimental reasons.

Copenhagen easily defeats Stockholm in the culinary stakes, with the national cuisine more accessible and interesting. My previous visit to Denmark conspired to fill me with false hopes about the quality of bakeries in Stockholm, particularly in reference to rye bread and pastries. The Danes have certainly mastered the baking of rye bread and eat it with virtually every meal. The Danish take on cinnamon rolls, which are beloved in Stockholm, is much better than the Swedish version as it employs real pastry and occasionally chocolate rather than bread-like dough. The Danes elevate the creation of the humble sandwich into an art-form with smørrebrød. These little masterpieces, satisfying both to the palate and the eye, are open-sandwiches consisting of one slice of bread (usually rye) with a boundless combination of fine ingredients on top. Traditional combinations include pickled herring with curry salad, pickled herring with egg and chives, roast beef with horseradish, roast pork with red cabbage and pickled cucumber, shrimp with egg, smoked salmon with dill and sour cream, chicken salad and liver pate. Frikadeller are typical Danish meatballs consisting of any type of meat. I sampled giant fish frikadeller (or fish cakes) with remoulade and rye bread, which were moist and delicious.



The comparison between Copenhagen and Stockholm is somewhat similar to the dynamic between Melbourne and Sydney. From a macroscopic perspective, Stockholm and Sydney are incredibly beautiful cities, blessed with spectacular natural settings. But Copenhagen and Melbourne, both with compact and well integrated central areas, boast the vibrancy, culture and grunginess that distinguish them as their region’s best and most interesting cities.
View of Copenhagen

View of Copenhagen

That’s all for now,


Denmark photos

Posted by Liamps 04:09 Archived in Denmark Comments (0)

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