A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Liamps

Hamburg

Germany photos

After the stifling sterility and expensiveness of Switzerland’s cities, travelling to Hamburg came as an enormous relief. Upon arrival at the central station from my overnight train, I immediately knew I would enjoy my time in Germany’s second largest city. The station was bursting with activity in the morning rush hour, with buskers on the outdoor terraces and commuters queuing at the innumerable food outlets selling cheap but tantalising pretzels, rolls, sausages and cakes. Sure, the station entrance areas and the metro system were more dilapidated than the perfection of Swiss infrastructure, but that’s simply the consequences of humanity. I found the station immensely appealing because it evoked life and vitality, indicating that Hamburg did also. It was inevitable though that I would like Hamburg; I’ve travelled to Germany on 7 separate occasions (albeit once in transit – though I did enjoy a memorable first European meal at Frankfurt Airport!) and always felt a special connection with the country. I think its because of the respect I have for the German people and culture. They work hard and successfully, but they’re unpretentious and value time to socialise, travel and explore the great outdoors. They expect services to operate efficiently and products to be of high quality, but also demand affordability. Basically, they just want to live productive, happy lives and have no time for bullshit. Lets hope the country maintains this enviably mainstream ethos.

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Often described as “Germany’s Gateway to the World”, Hamburg’s very existence and identity has forever been defined by its enormous port, still the second largest in Europe. The Port of Hamburg is actually located more than 100km from the North Sea, but its favourably positioned on the Elbe River where it branches into tributaries. The port’s establishment in the 12th century and the city’s designation as a “free imperial city” within the Holy Roman Empire enabled Hamburg to develop into one of the richest cities on the continent and one of the leading members of the medieval trading organisation, the Hanseatic League. Although technically within the Holy Roman Empire, Hamburg was essentially a independent city-state throughout most of its history and was ruled by a senate composed of its richest citizens. It maintained its status as a city-state within the German Empire, Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany and the contemporary Federal Republic of Germany, one of just 3 in the modern country. The pride Hamburgers have for their continuing independence is reflected in the official title, the Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

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The maritime heritage of Hamburg is enshrined physically in the urban layout, with its innumerable waterways defining the contemporary city. The Alstadt (old town) is concentrated around the Alster River and its two associated lakes, with canals slicing through the area and forming interesting focal points. The old town isn’t particularly old, as most of Hamburg was destroyed by the RAAF during Operation Gomorrah in World War II. Operation Gomorrah was one of the most devastating sustained bombing attacks of the war, gutting the city’s capacity for industrial production, killing 40,000 people and creating an apocalyptic wasteland. Consequently, most of the buildings in the Aldstadt are imitations of historic architecture or modernist buildings. The 147m spire of St. Nicholas’ Church survived the bombing and is now a forlorn reminder of the city’s past, with the nave of the church obliterated. The neo-Gothic Rathaus, Hamburg’s city hall, was also a survivor of the war and is the Aldstadt’s most impressive structure with its oxidised copper roof. The Aldstadt is now mostly an atmospheric shopping and dining precinct with most of its streets pedestrianised.

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Unlike most metropolitan areas, the fundamental spirit of Hamburg derives not from its city centre, but rather its waterfront and port. Although Hamburg is a riverside city, the width of the Elbe is so vast and teeming with container ships that the urban interface with the river feels distinctly coastal. Hamburg uniquely embraces the aesthetics of its port and associated industry, with a bustling waterfront of restaurants, bars and public spaces that are intentionally positioned and designed to view the area. The port boasts the world’s largest contiguous warehouse district, the Speicherstadt, which was completed in the early twentieth century and is now a World Heritage site. The rows of neo-gothic red brick warehouses immediately front canals, creating the iconic scenery of Hamburg. Canals are ubiquitous in Hamburg, especially in the port area. Hamburg has more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined and more bridges than any other city on earth. Hafen City is currently being developed adjacent the Speicherstadt and consists of post-modernist steel-and-glass structures overlooking the Elbe. The recently completed Elbphilharmonie is both geographically and architecturally a juncture point between the districts. The building consists of a glass structure mimicking waves or sails on top of a red brick warehouse. Controversially at a cost of over $1.2 billion, the Elbphilharmonie is one of the most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world, the tallest building in Hamburg (fantastic views from the free balcony) and is intended to become the key landmark of the city.

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Immediately west of the city centre are Hamburg’s hipster neighbourhoods, an area very similar to the inner north of Melbourne. I stayed in a suburb called Schanviertel, which again was just like Fitzroy (although still busy late on weeknights), with thriving nightlife, backstreet pubs and boutique shops. St Pauli is famous throughout Europe as one of the best nightlife areas on the continent, especially in the Reperbaum. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to properly experience St Pauli, leaving me with a compelling reason to return to Hamburg.

German cuisine is essentially analogous with your favourite local pub. You’ll never experience the glorious heights of gastronomy, but you will reliably be served a substantial, wholesome, tasty and inexpensive meal. Germany was thus the perfect antidote to my constrained diet in Switzerland. I dined on German classics like schnitzel with creamy mushroom sauce and fried potatoes (big portion, delicious and just 6 euros!! I’m always amazed by how cheap food in Germany is), brotchën sandwiches (small German bread roll sandwiches, available at bakeries (the best in the world) everywhere) and pretzels. But what I love about Germany is that every city and region proudly boasts distinct culinary specialties. Naturally in Hamburg, the bounty of the sea differentiates the local food from elsewhere in the country. At a restaurant overlooking the harbour, I enjoyed finkenwerder scholle, the city’s sophisticated equivalent to fish and chips. Plaice, a depleting white fish from the North Sea, is panfried with bacon and served with creamy potato salad and pickled cucumber. I sampled perhaps Hamburg’s most iconic dish, labskaus, which is a slightly bizarre combination of mashed corned beef, potato and onions served hot with pickled herring, fried egg and gherkin pickles. Yes I agree, it sounds absolutely repulsive, but it was actually rather nice due to the saltiness. Nevertheless, I refreshed my palate with rote grütze, a Northern German and Danish dessert consisting of berries cooked in sugar and a starch to form a pudding and served with vanilla custard. Obviously, every meal I ate in Hamburg was accompanied by a lager or wheat beer – I had to make the most of my presence in Germany.

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I wouldn’t describe Hamburg as a particularly beautiful city, at least not in the same league as Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona or Prague. But Hamburg oozes character and culture and would clearly be a pleasant city to live in aside from the unreliable weather – so in many ways its like Melbourne! I’ve now visited all of the de facto cultural centres of Germany’s north, east, south and west: Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Cologne respectively, which each boast very different identities. Hamburg is defined by its maritime heritage, which is particularly distinctive in a country with an inland focused culture like Germany. Berlin is characterised by its Soviet past and modern-day internationalism. Munich is evocative of quintessentially Bavarian traditions; while Cologne is a stylish city with numerous major events and is influenced by its proximity to France and the Low Countries. While Berlin is the definitely the most interesting from a purely touristic perspective, I’ve really enjoyed each city and its difficult for me to pinpoint which is my favourite overall.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Germany photos

Posted by Liamps 22:05 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Lucerne, Vaduz and Zürich

Switzerland photos

While I loved exploring the Jungfrau region in the Swiss Alps, the same cannot be said for the subsequent cities I visited. Lucerne, Vaduz and Zürich were undoubtedly the most boring succession of destinations I have ever travelled to. The magnificent landscapes of the alpine mountains had offset my internalised pain of the cost of travelling in Switzerland, but in the Swiss cities it was difficult not to be preoccupied with thinking, “what a total waste of money”. Cramped dormitory accommodation for $75 a night, basic meat-and-stodge meals for $30-$40, bread for $6-$10 (in neighbouring France, its enshrined in law that traditional baguettes must be sold for no more than 1 euro)... utilisation of a public lavatory for $2.50! The exorbitant expenses required to survive as a tourist in these cities was definitely not worth it, as they were uniformly sterile, grey, soulless and not particularly beautiful. My mood was further soured by 5 days of overcast and rainy weather, ruining my adherence to a European summer wardrobe and obscuring the views of nearby mountains. For those after an amiable read, best wait for the next entry… but for the integrity of Globo Trip, I must report both the good and the bad!

Lucerne is often described as “Switzerland’s most beautiful city”, no doubt because the competition is rather lacking (and actually I think Berne is nicer). Misguided by Lucerne’s reputation, I allocated 2 days to visit a city where 2 hours would have been more than sufficient. I’m probably being unjustifiably negative, because ideally Lucerne should be used as a base to explore the villages and mountains surrounding its namesake lake. But unfortunately I was not blessed with the privilege of clear weather, and besides, I’m never enthralled by the scenery of a lake anyway. Once you’ve seen one tepid body of water, you’ve seen them all. The colours may vary, but my emotional response is always the same: underwhelmed and desiring movement (I’m writing this from the edge of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake and also rainbow coloured (oil extraction)). My experience at Lake Lucerne was no exception. I ambled through Lucerne’s lush, lakeside parkland which was obviously pleasant, but more from a residential perspective than a tourist that has just travelled from the awesome heights of the Jungfrau region.

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Lucerne is located at the northwestern corner of the lake, with the Ruess River bisecting the city. The old town consists of buildings preserved from the Middle Ages and onwards, with impressive murals on many of the facades. But the area is incredibly small, commercialised and not uniquely enamouring on a continent littered with historic cores. The only genuinely interesting site is the Kapellbrücke, a wooden footbridge that spans the Ruess. Originally constructed in the 14th century, the Kapellbrücke is the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world and consists of panels of 17th century paintings depicting the city’s history within the roof structure. The bridge, spanning the Ruess from the old town to the central station area, and its octagonal water tower form the only truly majestic scene in Lucerne.

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For readers who are totally oblivious to the identity of Liechtenstein, a country that would absolutely never make the evening news, a brief synopsis as followed. Liechtenstein is essentially a valley of the Alps sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria. As I learnt from the two-room national history museum (discounting the perennially mundane ancient pottery and Christian iconography exhibitions), the formation of the Principality of Liechtenstein in 1718 was the conclusion of a rather complicated, centuries-long scheme of acquisitions of neighbouring estates by the House of Liechtenstein to improve their social status within the Holy Roman Empire. The country’s existence is thus derived from the political expediency of 18th century aristocracy, exemplified by the Princes failing to even visit Liechtenstein for the first 100 years. Liechtenstein became completely independent with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and has strangely remained a sovereign nation ever since, a quirk of historical geopolitics. Contemporary Liechtenstein, formerly an infamous tax haven, is the second richest country in the world (narrowly behind Monaco) and home to just 38,000 people. Liechtenstein is a constitutional monarchy, yet the Prince still wields considerable power in the governance of the country.

I opportunistically travelled to Liechtenstein for the solitary purpose of “bagging” a new country. With such an inept, vain and ultimately baseless purpose, my visit to the world’s sixth smallest sovereign nation was destined to disappoint. The height of my excitement was when I crossed the Switzerland – Liechtenstein border by bus and thought to myself, “63!” If only that number reflected the seconds I spent there. My impressions were obviously blighted by the worst weather of my trip during the 24 hours I stayed within the country’s borders: interminable drizzle and clouds. Hiking through the country’s Oberland (alpine slopes) was therefore not appropriate for my visit – I was restricted to the Unterland (flat lands between the Rhine (Swiss border) and the slopes). I stayed in a characterless youth hostel roughly equidistance between Vaduz, the nation’s capital, and Schaan, the largest municipality. Unfortunately, this resulted in cold, 45 minute walks in the rain, which was most unwelcome as I had limited cleans clothes available at that point (I was holding out for departing Switzerland to avoid the obscene prices for laundry). Vaduz is more of a village, than a sovereign capital, with a population of just 5,000 and vineyards within the urban boundary. I spent an afternoon attempting to entertain myself in the centre of Vaduz, which makes Puckle Street seem comparatively riveting. The area is composed of one pedestrian thoroughfare with modernist buildings, an uninspiring 19th century church and innumerable Chinese tourists noticeably more excited than I was. The Prince’s rather petite fortress castle is located in a commanding position on the steep slope above Vaduz, providing the solitary trace of intrigue in Liechtenstein’s capital.

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Zürich is often cited as one of the capitals of global commerce, an extraordinary reputation for a city of less than 400,000. Yet while the city might be a deserved magnet for bankers and purveyors of luxury brands, Zürich holds minimal interest for a traveller and ranks at rock bottom of my “favourite cities in Europe” list. With geographic similarities to Lucerne, Zürich has formed along the Limmat River where it connects to the northwestern corner of Lake Zürich. The utterly uncultured old town straddles both sides of the river, a drab collection of grey stone churches and pale buildings filled with expensive chocolate and watch shops. The only enjoyable aspect of my time in Zürich was the city’s free walking tour, where I learnt that the Swiss have the third highest rate of gun ownership in the world (after the US and Yemen) and every Swiss citizen is assigned a place in a bunker in case of a nuclear attack or natural catastrophe (the country has developed a complex network of underground shelters for such scenarios).

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Unfortunately the cost of dining in Switzerland was a serious barrier in developing a thorough appreciation of Swiss cuisine. Consequently, I never sampled the country’s most famous dish, cheese fondue, which needs to be shared by at least 2 persons. I was at least able to try raclette, finally discovering an affordable and single-serve option just before departing Zürich. The dish consists of a block of cheese (raclette) melted in a specific contraption, which is then scrapped over boiled potatoes and pickles. Indulgently delicious, gloriously and calorifically rich… but somewhat simple and unsophisticated for a nationally venerated dish. Aside from a good value but rather bizarre and slightly sickly buffet I had at the (not so) youth hostel in Vaduz, the only other dish I ate of note was panfried pork fillet with creamy mushroom sauce and rösti at a beerhall where no one spoke English.

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Been there, done that! My advice for developing an itinerary through Western Europe is that while the nature in Switzerland is definitely worth exploring, the country’s cities should be avoided; they’re not architecturally or culturally intriguing and grossly expensive. The only exception from the destinations I visited is Berne, a little gem of a city – as its World Heritage listing indicates. Meanwhile Liechtenstein is literally the only country on Earth I have absolutely no interest of returning to. Obviously if you were to visit friends it would be a totally different experience, but for the solo traveller, Lucerne, Vaduz and Zürich are absolute no-go zones.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Switzerland photos

Posted by Liamps 22:38 Archived in Switzerland Comments (1)

Berner Oberland

Switzerland photos

Switzerland was the only major country in Western Europe I had failed to visit on previous Euro travels, for the obvious reason of its preposterous expense. With my financial capacity somewhat increasing since full-time employment, and the unique experience of receiving an income while abroad, I concluded that it was an appropriate time to rectify this gap on my travel map. I was accompanied by Australian Paul, otherwise known as Princess Paul, who decided that after months of lazily lounging around on a couch in the Netherlands, he needed to endure some hardcore alpine training under the command of the infamously ruthless but effective instructor, The Hummus Emperor. Furthermore, Paul’s girlfriend Dutch Karin requested that he return from the Switzerland with abdominal muscles, so I knew I had to implement a truly rigorous program if the impossible were to be achieved. Paul’s transformation throughout the week was truly remarkable, perhaps even inspiring, as his athletic prowess, strikingly similar to a sloth, evolved into something more akin to a barbery sheep (personally I’m more of a gazelle). Unfortunately, I was less successful in my attempts to improve his sophistication in manners, language and general decorum. Paul and I rendezvoused in Berne, before spending 5 days in Switzerland’s most famous and accessible mountainous region, the Berner Oberland.

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Contrary to popular assumption, the capital of Switzerland is not Geneva or Zürich, but the quaint town of Berne, smaller even than Geelong. When the Swiss Confederation was formed, it was determined that the capital should be located roughly equidistance between Geneva and Zürich to placate concerns of French speaking or German speaking dominance. Hence Berne obtained its coveted status in a similar manner to Canberra (between Melbourne and Sydney) and Ottawa (Toronto and Montréal). The World Heritage listed old town occupies a peninsula surrounded by the aqua blue River Aare and features large, Germanic buildings with terracotta roofs and a surprisingly logical grid of cobblestone streets. Numerous church spires and clocktowers break through the mostly uniform architecture, including the 13th century Zytglogge. The Zytglogge with its astronomical clock is the city’s landmark attraction and occupies a commanding position blocking part of a major thoroughfare. Intriguing water fountains are interspersed throughout the old town, providing pedestrians with free crisp alpine water. The relatively flat peninsula is juxtaposed by the steep terrain of the districts on the opposite sides of the Aare, which provide magnificent views of both the old town’s compactness and paddocks located surprisingly close to the city centre (an unusual view in a sovereign capital). Berne is an incredibly green city with botanical gardens, parkland and clusters of huge trees encircling the old town. The city’s famed bear pits, which house the unofficial mascots of the canton (a growling brown bear features on the Bernese flag) has evolved into a proper exhibit freely accessible to the public.

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While Paul and I only spent one afternoon in Berne, I really enjoyed the city’s beauty and summer atmosphere. In the humid weather, my favourite activity was joining hundreds of locals swimming in the River Aare just near the old town. We walked approximately 2km upstream of the main bathing area and jumped into the fast-flowing water, which carried us back to our starting point. As we ambled upstream, we were caught on camera by a local film-crew who naturally burst into hysterics at my witty observation about our brush with fame. We again entertained the film-crew when we floated past them, as I demonstrated perfect butterfly technique while Paul demonstrated anything but. For those unfamiliar with Paul’s professional history, he briefly worked as a swimming instructor – a curious place of employment for someone with a rather dubious ability to swim (fortunately, “teaching” early primary school students in the shallow end of the pool meant that he was always able to stand up during classes).

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The Jungfrau region in the Berner Oberland is one of the world’s great alpine wildernesses. Although highly developed and touristic, the associated infrastructure is actually part of the appeal of travelling through the region. The public transport network is truly phenomenal, a combination of trains, cable-cars and furnicular trams connecting tourists with every village and key viewpoint in the mountainous landscape. Consequently, despite its immense popularity, the Jungfrau region is delightfully absent of cars between Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald. While the region is relatively small and can be easily traversed in a day, the innumerable hiking possibilities demand a longer stay. Paul and I looped through the region by catching trains from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg, Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and Grindelwald to Interlaken; all ridiculously scenic and relatively short journeys that naturally departed and arrived at stations to the published minute (everything works in Switzerland). We used Lauterbrunnen, Kleine Scheidegg and Grindelwald as bases for exploring the region and stayed at hostels that would have been acceptable had our beds been made (I really hate paying for a dormitory bed at check-in and then being handed a pile of sheets to labour over – just build an extra 5% into the cost!).

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The village of Lauterbrunnen is located at the bottom of its namesake valley amid unfathomably beautiful scenery. Very steep slopes, even sheer rock faces, rise dramatically on either side of the village just 500m apart. The valley floor is a rich emerald green of lush grazing pastures, with waterfalls cascading to clear streams. The village consists of large, wooden buildings scattered haphazardly on either side of the railway and major thoroughfare, which is festooned with the canton’s flag. On the edge of the village is an incredibly pretty cemetery decorated with roses and with unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape. We were based at the youth hostel in Lauterbrunnen for 3 nights, which featured an outdoor terrace to watch trains chug up the mountain to Wengen.

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Paul’s fat-busting training officially commenced the following day as we hiked to the village of Mürren, which is approximately 800m above Lauterbrunnen and inaccessible by road transport. I intended to ease Paul into the program with a relatively simple trail, and lulled him into a false sense of security by hiking beside him for the duration. It would prove to be a learning experience for me also, as I discovered the immense difficulty in hiking (or should I say dawdling?) at a glacial pace. Nevertheless, our endeavours were certainly more adventurous than most tourists, who opted to invest their life savings in catching a cable-car and tram combination to access Mürren without raising a sweat. After some difficulty in locating the starting point to the trail (such is its infrequent use), we ascended the mountain on an access road through thick coniferous forest and eventually lush pastures, discussing myriad topics including extraterrestrial life and genealogy (Paul’s is far more interesting – no offence Gregory and Stevens families). We were completely alone for the first section of the hike, aside from a farmer who kept driving past and neglecting to offer us a lift. However, we encountered hordes of tourists at the cable-car station that would choose to complete the final section (flattish terrain) on foot, as if they were making an impressive physical output. Unsurprisingly, they were even slower than Paul, so we strode past them effortlessly into Mürren. The village sprawls on the side of the slope and consists of huge wooden alpine dwellings with lovely gardens. We lunched on a bench overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley and were fortuitous the overcast weather briefly cleared, allowing us to enjoy astonishing views of the region’s famed 3 peaks (Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau) and the dramatic sheer cliffs of the valley. We hiked at roughly the same level to Gimmelwald,, another car-less village, and then descended a steep trail. Shamefully, we were overtaken on the descent by a school group (Paul’s fault). It started to rain when we return to the valley floor in Stechelberg, so Paul suggested we switch to his preferred form of hiking, hitchhiking, and quickly secured us a ride back to Lauterbrunnen from a generous Swiss man (not a descriptor I typically associate with Switzerland).

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We tackled the other side of the valley the next day by hiking to Männlichen, renowned for its panoramic views of the contrasting Lauterbrunnen (steep and narrow) and Grindelwald (gradual and expansive) valleys. Even though Paul was commendably ready at a respectable hour, we were still time restricted and decided to catch the train to the car-less village of Wengen first before proceeding. Needless to say, we failed to spot any of the hundred-odd passengers that disembarked with us at Wengen on the trail to Männlichen. For the second instalment of Paul’s training program, I instigated a relentless pace on the steep and unforgiving trail upwards to shock his body into some tough work. Since the weather was overcast and dreary, there was essentially no purpose in breaking. While Paul persevered, he eventually had to conclude that he was unable to handle the intensity and stopped mid-way (for a slightly excessive time period). We hiked through the cloud for the final stretch of the trail, as Paul valiantly conquered the trail without the need for more rest (although he straggled behind considerably). The reward for our arduous climb? Rain, coldness and absolutely no view. We weren’t even afforded kindness, as a grumpy Swiss woman kicked us out of the cavernous and completely empty cafeteria on the mountaintop for “making a picnic”. The Swiss, with all their filthy wealth, won’t even provide tourists with a free shelter to hide from the elements to eat their lunch at. An utter disgrace. On the descent, since we realised there would be absolutely no possibility of enjoying a view, we broke the natural serenity by listening to the last quarter of Hawthorn’s brilliant end-of-season victory over Sydney in Sydney (tantamount to a premiership). Paul then imposed us to listen to outdated heavy metal tunes, which he was thankfully too self-conscious to play when we returned to Wengen.

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The train from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg was probably the most spectacular stretch of rail I have ever had the privilege of enjoying. Strangely, Paul’s mood was inexplicably sour that morning, although I suppose 3 full days of exposure to The Hummus Emperor will have that effect! As the train travelled higher into the Berner Oberland, the mountainous scenery became ever more breathtaking. We were extremely lucky to enjoy sunny weather, allowing us to view the snow covered profiles of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau as we eventually skirted their bases. Kleine Scheidegg is not actually a town, but rather a railway junction at a mountain pass with a connection to Jungfraujoch. Nevertheless, you can stay at a handful of hotels at Kleine Scheidegg and explore the numerous trails sprouting from the station. The area is characteristically Swiss, with herds of cows with their (somewhat irritating) bells grazing on the slopes below sublime icy peaks. We didn’t hike on any specific trail, but rather scrambled over the bare terrain to find the best views of the triple peaks and the Eiger Glacier. This was an intentional ploy for the third stage of Paul’s training, in order to encourage him to take the lead by establishing our direction and pace (I only stepped in on occasion to avert potentially critical issues). We even dabbled in a spot of rock-climbing and abseiling, though abandoned that endeavour when the ropes began to ascend waterfalls.

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The Jungfrau Railway operates from Kleine Scheidegg (2,061m) to the highest railway station in Europe at Jungfraujoch (3,454m), traversing through a 9km tunnel within the Eiger and Monch mountains. This touristic railway, an incredible testament to Swiss engineering, was completed nearly a century ago after decades of planning, construction and many deaths. At $150-$300 for a return journey, it is surely one of the most expensive forms of transport per kilometre in the world. I decided to consider a trip to the “Top of Europe” as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and paid for a ticket, while Paul engaged in the final lesson of his alpine training program before the examination – hiking alone. Jungfraujoch is connected to a series of tunnels leading to a tourist complex and an outdoor observatory station. Unfortunately, the weather in the morning was rather overcast, so when I arrived at the observatory station, the views were almost completely obscured by cloud. But as I shivered in the 1 degree temperature, the cloud conditions gradually parted to reveal a full perspective of the Aletsch Glacier sprawling below us, the largest glacier in the Alps with a length of 23km. On the opposite side of the station, I could view the green mountains of the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys and the mountain pass of Kleine Scheidegg. A 30 minute hiking trail through the snow to another viewing area is also provided to allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in the setting. Needless to say, the views were absolutely stupefying.

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Paul and I caught another train down from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald, easily the most accessible village in the Jungfrau region and therefore the busiest and my least favourite. Its location is still tremendously captivating, as the village is spread out on the slopes of a bowl-like valley with the icy peak of Eiger on one side and green peaks on the other. On our fifth day in the region, we caught a cable-car to the minor summit of First and commenced hiking to Faulhorn under the blazing sun. It would prove to be Paul’s day, as he hiked at an impressive clip and I beamed proudly at the strides my protégé had come. The relatively flat trail, high above the treeline and affording constantly magnificent views, was littered with slow-pokes and targets for us to overtake. The final 45 minutes to Faulhorn however was up a gruellingly steep slope, which was the ultimate test for Paul’s progress. Similar to our hike to Männlichen, I refused us the luxury of breaking and set an aggressive pace. Miraculously, Paul not only handled the pace with aplomb, he even pushed further. He was so bursting with energy and determined to beat his mentor that he sprinted the final section to the top. It was undoubtedly Paul’s greatest athletic achievement, as I have been overtaken only 3 times while hiking uphill in the past 6 years, and a true testament to my inspirational coaching abilities. At Faulhorn, we had fantastic views of the mountains surrounding the Grindelwald Valley on one side of the ridge and Lake Brienz on the other. We then spent a leisurely 4 hours descending through pastures and forest to Grindelwald, encountering far less foot traffic on the way.

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Alpine cuisine in Switzerland is probably delicious and entirely appropriate for the environs, but it was grossly unaffordable for me to conduct a thorough diagnostic. The only dish with a remotely acceptable price is the carb rich Swiss specialty of rösti. Rösti consists of shredded potato clumped together in a paddy like formation and deep fried (similar to an oversized hash brown). I sampled rösti in Lauterbrunnen as a main dish, covered in ham and mushroom on one side and cheese on the other, and in Kleine Schidegg as a side dish to sausage. Nice, but nothing special. We otherwise depended on cheese, salami and bread for lunch and pasta and lentils for dinner, which had a most unfortunate impact on Paul’s digestive system. It was quickly apparent on the first evening that I would need to be on cooking duties, as Paul spent 10 minutes dicing an onion (unfinished) on a steel hot plate he had mistaken for a chopping board.

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Despite our extensive and often simultaneous overseas jaunts, Paul and I had never properly travelled together – just met up briefly in the Netherlands and Belgium. So our trip through the Berner Oberland was a new and very successful chapter in a two decade friendship. Hiking in the Alps on my own would have been a spectacular experience (and generally more efficient), but so much less fun than laughing hysterically with Paul at our nutty jokes. Thanks to Paul for joining me in Switzerland and providing an easy target for this entry – it was all too short!

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Switzerland photos

Posted by Liamps 00:08 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Savoy

France photos

Despite my extensive travels through Europe and passion for mountainous hiking, I had never previously explored the Alps, the proverbial “top” of the continent. So I decided to prioritise visiting the region and spent nearly two weeks in the French and Swiss Alps. The highest mountains in France are located in Savoy, a historical region in the southeast of the country bordering Switzerland and Italy. The region was formerly incorporated into the French state in only 1860, having previously been ruled by the Counts, Dukes and eventually Kings of the House of Savoy for nearly 900 years (Europe’s longest reigning dynasty became the royal household of the Kingdom of Italy, but were dethroned after World War II). While the local population speaks French, Savoyard culture and identity remains strong, reflected in the alpine architecture and cuisine. I stayed for two nights each in the lakeside town of Annecy and the skiing resort village of Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc - the European Union’s highest peak.

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Annecy is quite possibly the most beautiful small town in Europe. Colloquially referred to as the “Venice of the Alps”, Annecy’s pedestrianised old town is interspersed with several aqua blue canals connecting to the northwestern corner of Lake Annecy. The canals are traversed by pretty stone bridges and aligned with innumerable flower pots. Like in Venice, many of the buildings directly front the canals and display picturesque signs of decay. The architecture appears to be somewhat of a hybrid of influences, with the bulbous volume and structural form of alpine buildings and the pastel colours, terracotta roofs and stonework symptomatic of the Mediterranean. The old town’s commercialism is entirely devoted to the tourism industry, yet the successful preservation of its aesthetic character has ensured it remains a pleasant area to amble through. Thrice weekly a produce market takes over the cobblestone streets of the old town, cramming them with patrons eager to purchase Savoyard fruit, vegetables, cheese, charcuterie and sweets.

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Annecy boasts a sublime location adjacent a pristine lake and surrounded by alpine mountains and forests, establishing the town as a prime centre for physical endeavour. In the winter months, Annecy is used as a base for snow and ice sports and previously submitted a bid for the 2018 Olympic Games. In the summer months, canoeing on the lake or cycling in the nearby countryside are exceedingly popular. I chose to dabble in a day of hiking in my first non-urban activity in nearly a month of travel. I walked east through the beautiful parkland on the northern side of the lake to access a slightly inconspicuous entrance point for the trail leading to Mont Veyreir. The relatively easy climb passed through pristine deciduous forest and eventually coniferous forest at higher altitude. At the summit, I was treated to outstanding views of Lake Annecy and its environs under the blazing sun. I found the descent somewhat more difficult, as I struggled to rediscover the correct path back to Annecy due to insufficient signage on the maze of trails crisscrossing the slopes. At the base, I concluded the day with a brief swim in cool water of the lake.

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Upon arriving in Chamonix, I immediately suffered through a deluge for the first time this trip, signifying an abrupt conclusion to shorts and T-shirt weather. I travelled to Chamonix specifically to see Mont Blanc, but the chances of this occurring seemed grim in the thick, cloudy conditions of the afternoon. I had originally considered partaking in Tour du Mont Blanc, a famous 10 day trek around the base of the mountain through France, Italy and Switzerland. But I didn’t particularly like the idea of spending half that time trudging through the rain, so I instead delayed my arrival in the region to further my exploration of cuisine française in the sunny cities of the South. Unlike Annecy, Chamonix is an archetypal alpine village, with stone and timber dwellings situated on spacious grassy blocks spread throughout a valley. The town centre consists wide streets and large stone buildings with prominent sloping rooftops (for the snow), and is decorated with innumerable flags and colourful flowerpots.

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I was fortuitous to wake up in the morning to moderately clear weather, allowing me to view snow-capped peaks and glaciers on one side of the valley. I’m not entirely sure if I actually viewed Mont Blanc, or if the surrounding massifs blocked the view from the bottom of the valley, but nevertheless the scenery was quite epic. A cable car operates from the town centre to the top of one of the massifs for panoramic views of the Alps. Since the ticket was exceedingly expensive, I decide to pay half price – and disembark at a station half way up. This allowed me to hike along a very popular route for approximately 4 hours to Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France. I hiked well above the treeline, which allowed for continuously spectacular views of the valley and surrounding peaks. I lunched on a rocky outcrop dramatically located above the glacier and below spiky, shard-like peaks. When I descended to the train station servicing the viewpoint of the glacier, I was surprised to discover my ticket included access to a man-made ice cave carved from the glacier. The cave features numerous ice sculptures and has to be carved out annually as the glacier moves 70m every year. I caught the famed Montveners train back to Chamonix, which descends nearly 900m in just 5km.

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Travelling from Provence to Savoy was a demonstration of the extraordinary culinary variety between France’s regions. While Provençal cuisine is defined by its Mediterranean influences, with the abundant use of tomatoes, fresh vegetables and olive oil and its relative lightness, Savoyard cuisine is more closely related to the rich, dairy-dominated comfort food of neighbouring alpine countries. Cheese is king in the Alps and features as the prominent ingredient in most dishes – even throughout three course meals! The carb and dairy excess of Savoy is epitomised in the delectable calorie bonanza of tartiflette. Despite its ubiquitous presence in traditional Savoyard restaurants, the recipe was actually invented in the 1980s to promote the sales of reblochon cheese. The dish consists of sliced potatoes, onions, bacon and reblochon cheese baked in a ceramic dish, with the richness typically offset (slightly) by a garden salad. While in Savoy, other cheesy concoctions I sampled included ravioli smothered in reblochon cheese sauce, pork smothered in reblochon cheese sauce and served with potatoes au gratin, and onion soup with gruyère. In Annecy, I picnicked on a huge range of products purchased at the market: pepper saucisson (French equivalent of salami with countless varieties), rotisserie chicken and lard-soaked potatoes, a semi-soft cheese with a blue vein through the middle, ever so sweet cherry tomatoes, magnificent figs, baguette and a decadent chocolate slice.

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My time in Savoy concluded an absolutely brilliant 3 week stay in France, which I’ve definitely elevated to one of my favourite countries in the world. And I’ve only scratched the surface with France, with so many other regions yet to be explored...

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That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 22:53 Archived in France Comments (1)

Provence

France photos

Since researching my inaugural trip to Europe, I have always wanted to visit Provence in the South of France. Unfortunately, Provence was a victim of itinerary adjustments on 2013’s excessively planned Globo Trip as I reduced the time allocated to France (Zambia and Malawi were the alternative destinations!). I finally rectified that outcome by prioritising a visitation to Provence after the Games in Paris and spent 5 days exploring the region. I based myself in the medieval papal city of Avignon and visited nearby towns and attractions on day-trips, which was easily managed with efficient train and bus connections. Provence successfully lived up to pre-conceived expectations I had of the region, with beautiful sandstone old towns, Mediterranean gardens, rolling hills of vineyards, magnificent produce, delicious regional cuisine and near constant sunlight.

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Avignon is a small city of approximately 100,000, yet its historical significance is monumental. The city was founded in the 6th century BC by Greek settlers and quickly became a strategically important regional centre due to its fortifiable location on a rock and adjacent the Rhône. Avignon was absorbed into the Roman Empire and become part of the first transalpine province. After dozens of changes to rulership in the early middle ages, Avignon became the Pontifical seat and capital of Western Christianity in 1309. Five successive popes resided in the city, with each adding to the gargantuan Palais de Popes (as opposed to, say, helping the poor. You have to admire the blatant hypocrisy of the Catholic hierarchy). The building, considered to be one of the best examples of Gothic palatial architecture in the world, utterly dominates the skyline of the modern-day city. The popes also constructed the medieval walls that encircle the old town of Avignon, an evocative reminder and unique vestige of the city’s past. The Papacy returned to Rome in 1377, although Avignon remained an enclave of the Holy See until 1791 when it was formerly incorporated into France. The vast old town now consists predominately of 19th century buildings, a smattering of Romanesque churches, narrow winding streets and charming hidden squares with fountains and trees.

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The Rhône briefly splits into two branches near Avignon, the Petit Rhône and Grand Rhône, with the largest inland island in France located in between. Extending from Avignon’s old town is the remaining 4 arches of Pont Saint-Bénézet, a medieval bridge that once spanned the Rhône and consisted of 22 arches. On the opposite side of the river is Villenevue-les-Avignon, an even prettier sandstone town than Avignon. A monumental fortress occupies the hilltop above the town, which formerly housed a large French garrison when Avignon was still a papal enclave. The area inside the walls now consists of a beautiful Mediterranean garden with tremendous views over Avignon and the surrounding countryside.

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The South of France is scattered with Roman ruins, as the region was one of the earliest conquests of the Roman Republic. The most glorious vestige of Roman rule is Pont du Gard, a remarkable aqueduct bridge spanning a scenic valley. Aqueducts were constructed in Roman provinces for both functional and symbolic purposes, as they were an explicit demonstration to local populations of the technology, wealth and power the Roman state possessed. Pont du Gard was constructed in the first century AD as part of an aqueduct system carrying water 50km to the Roman colony of Nîmes. Pont du Gard is the tallest Roman aqueduct at nearly 50m in height and has a gradient of just 1 in 18,241, a phenomenal testament to the precision of Roman engineering! The three-tier aqueduct bridge, traversing a beautiful river used for swimming and canoeing, is idyllically located amid Mediterranean scrub and is definitely one of the most impressive ancient monuments I have visited.

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I caught a train about 45 minutes south of Avignon to the historic city of Arles; an important centre during Roman times and the subject of innumerable Van Gogh paintings. The narrow, winding and mostly pedestrianised streets of the World Heritage listed old town are stupefyingly beautiful, with pastel buildings framed by brilliantly coloured doors and windows and verdant vinery. Seemingly around every corner in Arles is another streetscape begging to be photographed. The compact urban fabric opens up in patches to reveal a Baroque square, the ruins of a Roman theatre and, brilliantly, a massive Roman colosseum. Unfortunately I did not enter the extraordinary edifice because it was being used to host bull racing, a sport from the Camargue region of Provence with an ethically questionable reputation.

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The French adoration and respect for la terain, “the land”, is explicitly demonstrated at street markets, which occur in each Provençal town once per week. I visited the Friday market in Carpentras, which completely takes over the streets of the town centre with over 500 stalls displaying the incredible bounty of Provence. The market bursts with colour from the fresh produce of the fruit and vegetable stalls selling piles of peaches, apricots, grapes, pears, berries, cantaloupes, lettuces, aubergines, capsicums and superb tomatoes. Fromagerie stalls offer a myriad of Provence’s famed and mouthwatering goat’s cheeses, from fresh to aged and natural to marinated. Charcuterie stalls abound with local speciality hams, saucissons, terrines and pates. Other prized ingredients abundant at the market include lavender, honey, extra virgin olive oil, olives, garlic, nougat and rosé. Permeating throughout the streets are the intoxicating aromas of the rotisseries, which originate in Provence. Chickens basted in a tomato sauce slowly rotate on spits, with potatoes and stuffed vegetables cooked in the resultant dripping on a hot plate at the bottom. Visiting a street market is an unmissable aspect of Provence to observe how the French rightfully celebrate the food from their lands.

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Provençal cuisine is essentially a fusion of French and Italian influences, creating one of the greatest regional cuisines in the world. The diet is noticeably lighter than elsewhere in France, with the prolific use of olive oil (instead of butter) and vegetables. Nevertheless, my opening
Provençal meal was an artery clogging 3 cheese tartine (open faced grilled sandwich), offset at least my a walnut and butternut lettuce salad. In Avignon, I enjoyed 2 superb multi-course dinners. The first started with a goat’s cheese and herbs cheesecake with smoked salmon and tomato salad, followed by quail with a creamy barley side and a lemon curd to conclude. The second dinner consisted of Provençal stuffed vegetables (highlight dish- tomatoes and zucchinis stuffed with a spiced pork mixture and served with red wine sauce and salad), fried white fish with ratatouille and a citrusy cake. In Arles, I had the opportunity to enjoy one of my favourite French dishes: steak tartare. The ground raw beef topped with a raw egg yolk was flavoured with capers and finely chopped cornichons and red onion and served with fried potatoes and salad with a mustard vinaigrette. In Avignon, I feasted on a lunch tasting plate of Provençal specialties, which included zucchini gaspacho (very refreshing), salmon and rocket cream wrap (rich), carrot and turmeric pudding (strangely pleasant) and Serrano ham with cantaloupe (easily the best melons I have ever eaten were in Provence). This was followed by a decadent chocolate and pistachio fondant with strawberries and red currants. One of my favourite experiences in Provence was to picnic on local specialties on the balcony of my Airbnb, watching the sky colour gradually change At sunset above the terracotta roofs.

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Provence was yet another French destination I absolutely loved for the climate, history, architecture, food and lifestyle. I only scratched the surface in my fleeting visit of Provence; for example, I never even managed to explore the region’s picturesque villages and varying landscapes. Doubtless I will be returning to this wonderful pocket of the world in the future.

That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 23:16 Archived in France Comments (1)

Lyon II

France photos

En route from Paris to Provence, I returned to Lyon to visit French Arnaud, who I met in Amsterdam. Lyon exhibits an intriguing mixture of architectural and cultural influences due to its location at the crossroads between Paris, the Riviera, Italy and the Alps. It was my second visit to France’s second city, but as always, the experience was very different with a local guide. Arnaud is a former junior butterly champion of France, which made my recent swimming exploits in Paris seem rather lethargic and inconsequential, and the only person I have met under the age of 30 who religiously brushes their teeth after every meal. Originally from Alsace, Arnaud migrated to Lyon for its amiable weather and small city vibe. He informed me that most of his social network are also migrants from other areas of France. Apparently the Lyonnais, like people from the South of France in general, are rather exclusive in their social interactions. Additionally, people from Paris and the West of France, are typically quite arrogant; only people from the East of France are friendly and relaxed! Unfortunately, I have been unable to verify these portrayals with another Frenchmen.

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Upon arriving, I was immediately reminded of my impressions in 2013 that Lyon is an incredibly liveable city. Lyon boasts a comprehensive and user-friendly public transport system, with an efficient and modern metro integrated with an expansive tram network and two funicular railways (connecting the centre to adjacent hilly neighbourhoods); an impressive suite of infrastructure for a relatively small city. Aside from the windy streets of the medieval old town, the layout of Lyon is generally rectilinear, logical and navigable. Like most European cities, the central areas of Lyon are compact and easily traversed on foot or bicycle. Nevertheless, pedestrian boulevards, strategically located public squares, abundant parkland and two rivers cutting through the city (the Rhône and Saône) to form a confluence provide spaciousness lacking in cramped and overcrowded cities like Paris, Barcelona and Rome. Lyon is a visually appealing city of clean streets and historic Mediterranean-influenced architecture, and is illuminated beautifully in the night time (it is known in French as the “city of lights”). The city enjoys the distinction as France’s gastronomic capital and features an eclectic bar scene. Lyon’s location affords it with a climate of warm summers and mild winters and access within two hours by TGV to the Mediterranean coast, the alpine mountains and Paris. Lyon is a unique blend of Northern European orderliness and efficient urban planning with Southern Europe culture and vibe. Overall, its unfortunate that Lyon does not rank highly on the Anglo-centric “world’s most liveable city” indexes.

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I arrived in Lyon on a weekend, allowing Arnaud to act as my personal tour guide. Lyon is comprised of 9 arrondissements, which are municipal subdivisions used in France’s 3 largest cities. On the first day we visited the 5th Arrondissement to the west of the Saône, which consists of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. The old town is somewhat reminiscent of northern Italian cities, with its Renaissance architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and terracotta roofs all bathed in sunlight. We caught the funicular to the peak of the hill adjacent Vieux Lyon to admire the whimsical architecture of La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviére and magnificent views of Lyon and the Alps in the far distance. The view of Central Lyon is of a veritable sea of ochre red (from the roofing) and buildings of almost uniform height, interspersed only by 2 totally out of place modern skyscrapers. We also visited the nearby Roman ruins and excellently preserved amphitheatre, which are free to explore. Arnaud previously lived within the vicinity of the ruins, which served as a surreally beautiful location to read a book or eat lunch. In the late afternoon, we ambled through the city centre in the 1st Arrondissement, which occupies the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône. The 1st Arrondissement is the primary administrative, commercial and entertainment area in Lyon and features predominately 19th century structures. In the evenings, the banks of the Rhône are transformed into a hub of activity, with Lyonnais enjoying picnics and drinks while enjoying the city lights. Dozens of large boats are permanently moored to the eastern riverbanks and serve as bars or nightclubs in the evenings. We passed one of the most popular boats called “Ayers Rock”, which promoted Arnaud to attempt to mimic the Aussie accent while failing to drop quintessentially French sounds. Not that my efforts in the French language were any better, although everyone seemed to appreciate when I said “merci beaucoup!”

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On the following day, we caught another funicular to Croix Rousse in the 4th Arrondissement, immediately north of the city centre. Croix Rousse is vaguely similar to Montmartre in Paris, with its hilly topography and Bohemian reputation. The area features Lyon’s most famous mural, Le Mur des Canuts. The mural occupies a formally barren wall of a multi-storey building and is a remarkable 3-dimensional illusion of a typical streetscape, replete with shopfronts, cars and landscaping. The mural is updated every decade to reflect contemporary styles. We then ventured down the hills and crossed the Rhône to the 6th Arrondissement, which Arnaud vouched for as the finest in Lyon. The arrondissement consists of Europe’s largest urban park, Parc de la Tête d’Or. We ambled through the scenic park and even visited its free zoological gardens.

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Arnaud was insistent that to properly appreciate French cuisine, I needed to sample foie gras (duck or goose liver). The French are utterly obsessed by foie gras, which is a staple entrée of the traditional Christmas feast. Yet the method of production is extremely controversial, with the caged and immobile birds force-fed corn via a feeding tube multiple times a day to swell their livers to 8-10 times the natural size (if the birds are fed naturally, the liver is not considered foie gras by French law). The ethically destitute practice is thus banned from most Western countries, including Australia. Needless to say, I still feel morally compromised that I chose to eat foie gras, although it was admittedly very delicious. Foie gras is immensely richer in flavour and smoother than paté and is typically eaten with just baguette. The flavour is so overwhelming that its really not an ingredient I could consume regularly. Arnaud, like most of the French, acknowledges the cruelty associated with foie gras. But his love for the taste and its cultural significance eventually supersedes any moral imperative. I suppose every society has an intriguing ability to “turn a blind eye” from inhumane practices; Australians, for example, with our treatment of asylum seekers.

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Arnaud otherwise provided excellent commentary and guidance on the culinary traditions of Lyon, which the French consider to be the country’s foodie centre. The city is particularly famed for its veneration of offal, which on my first visit I regrettably dabbled with by trying calf’s head. On this occasion, my Lyonnais culinary experiences were far less traumatic. I feasted on an incredibly rich and delicious local speciality named quenelle de brodet. The dish consists of fish and a white sauce (roux) which are mixed together, sieved and poached. The resulting forcemeat is served with a creamy crayfish sauce and rice, creating a dish that is so filling I was unable to finish it (very rare). I sampled cervelle de canut, which is a fresh cheese spread flavoured with herbs and shallots, with boiled potatoes. As possibly the only Frenchman who does not like cheese, Arnaud was utterly repulsed by the sight of this dish. I tried saucisson de Lyon, which is a large sausage made from beef and bacon and typically served in slices due to the thickness. The meat topped a very rich green lentils and a red wine stew, creating a lovely comfort food dish for the summer heat. For sweets, I indulged in two of the local sugary treats: coussins de Lyon, which are delectable bite-size pieces of chocolate coated in marzipan, and the spectacular tarte aux pralines, a tart filled with a bright red-rose paste made from crushed Lyonnaise pralines (the idiosyncratic colour is derived purely from food dye, disappointingly) and cream.

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As I expressed my exasperation for the volume and richness of the food the French seemed to eat, Arnaud confirmed that a typical French household would often have 3-4 courses each evening, with obligatory sides of baguette. I have since learnt that Australians, ranked 33rd in the world for average daily calorie consumption per capita, eat approximately 10% less calories than the French, ranked 12th (Australians surprisingly consume less calories on average than every country in Western Europe except for Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands – incidentally the 3 countries with the worst cuisines in the region!). So the theory that the French “eat in moderation” to offset their diets heavy with bread, butter, pastries, cheese and charcuterie is an absolute myth. Yet the French, irritatingly, have a genetic propensity for leanness in comparison with Australia, as only 15% of the population is considered obese versus 27%. Somehow, the French can have their cake and eat it too.

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Lyon lacks the iconic attractions of major European cities and is thus excluded excluded from the mass-tourist route through the continent. Yet the city is evidently very liveable and an enjoyable destination to spend a couple days exploring its intriguing neighbourhoods.

That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 06:53 Archived in France Comments (1)

Paris II

France photos

With the Gay Games occurring in one of the greatest cities in the world, I couldn’t resist the opportunity of returning to Paris on an extended jaunt through Europe. Since I had already “ticked off” most of the major tourist attractions, my second visit was characterised essentially by blissfully “doing nothing” (excluding attendance at the competition swimming pool each morning of course). Its such a relief to have the mental freedom to simply enjoy a magnificent city such as Paris without the incessant stress of dealing with an itinerary and long queues. After swimming, I spent my free time wandering aimlessly through Le Marais, Montmartre and along the Seine, stopping for 3-course lunches, 3 course dinners, pastries, Provençal rose and Breton cider on the way. Needless to say, I revelled in travelling back to Paris unhampered by a backpacker mindset or budget.

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Paris was one of my favourite destinations I visited on my gap year in 2013 as I marvelled at the city’s illustrious list of iconic architecture and art collections (reflected upon exhaustively in Paris – it seems I was a better writer at 21!). While the nature of my second visit was completely different, I potentially enjoyed the city even more as I contemplated the positive virtues of life in the French capital, somewhat surprisingly. Undoubtedly, my thoughts were influenced deceptively by the minimal congestion experienced in the city due to the traditional exodus of Parisians to the Riviera in August. Nevertheless, I was thoroughly impressed by the lifestyle of Parisians. While London, Tokyo and New York City serve as the pillars of global finance, Paris is an emphatic demonstration of what living should actually be about. The gastronomic capital of the world; the fashion capital of the world. The city of lights; the city of love. A metropolis visually defined by an architectural ensemble totally incomparable with any other place on Earth. An unparalleled adoration for the arts, with museums that individually shame the collections of most sovereign nations. A vibrant outdoor lifestyle, with its idiosyncratic street-facing dining and strategically located (if limited) parks to picnic and savour French wine in. And with comparatively short working hours (35 hours per week), Parisians have ample time to enjoy their remarkable city’s indulgent provisions.

The tiny apartment I stayed in was 20 minutes from the Seine on the northern periphery of Le Marais, the historic centre of Paris. It was a fantastic area to be based for 8 nights, because it was sufficiently far from the ultra-touristic heart of Le Marais while remaining accessible to transport connections and Le Marais’s nightlife. Le Marais’ medieval layout of narrow winding streets differentiates it from most areas of Paris, which typically have grid-like formations and grandiose boulevards. The area is thus idyllic for “getting lost” on a casual walk, while perusing boutique shops and admiring the old sandstone buildings that radiate a golden glow. Galleries, cafes, bistros and wine bars are nestled throughout the neighbourhood, ensuring a constant flow of activity. Le Marais is progressively more busy the closer you are to the Seine, culminating in a bustling area clustered with shopping malls, bars and clubs.

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I spent an afternoon in Montmartre, Paris’s famed hilly neighbourhood that has long been a favourite of artists for its Bohemian culture. Crowning the area on the highest point is Sacré Cœur, the iconic bone white basilica that provides spectacular views of the metropolis. The sloping lawn immediately in front of the structure was an excellent location for me to wile away an hour reading. I ambled through an intriguing square adjacent the basilica filled with over 50 artists offering to paint the portraits of the myriad tourists congregated in the area. It was really fascinating to watch how fast their creations came to life and to observe the stylistic differences between artists. I escaped the tourist hordes by exploring the shady cobblestone backstreets of Montmartre that wind up and down the hills. I visited a beautiful cemetery in Montmartre filled with lush deciduous trees, which somewhat created the vibe that the morbid precinct was actually a celebration of life rather than death. Numerous French celebrities are buried in the cemetery including Dalida, one France’s most beloved divas. Dalida, who recorded music in 7 languages, is synonymous with Montmartre, with a small square named after her and souvenir shops brimming with associated paraphernalia.

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No visit to Paris is complete without an obligatory visit to the Eiffel Tower. Both by day and by night. I ventured back on a very hot afternoon with Australian Katie, who was on her first pilgrimage to the world’s most famous post-industrial structure. Katie was nearing the end of her first Euro trip and our timing in Paris happened to coincide. We met at the Tuileries Gardens and gossiped about work as we ambled along the Seine. Despite its central location, the Eiffel Tower is actually very isolated from other points of interest, and the journey on foot is relatively unpleasant beside roads heavy with traffic. Accessing the Tower from the nearby metro station is also an ordeal, as it requires walking for 20 minutes through throngs of tourists and people selling masses of absolute junk on the footpaths. I don’t understand why the French fail to police the rubbish being illegally sold, especially since their goods (displayed on mats on the paths) block pedestrian movements. While this situation is also prevalent in tourist magnets in Italy and Spain, I’ve never seen it in London. It was even more unbearable at night, when the area heaved with countless people. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a very pleasant picnic in the evening with the swimming club, as we watched the sky colour transform and the Tower eventually dazzle with lights.

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On my first visit to Paris I was underwhelmed by the cuisine, incomprehensibly. Not this time. With a casual disregard for intended budgetary restraint, I consumed a cavalcade of magnifique dishes with reckless gluttony. Despite one harrowing incident of being dragged to an Italian restaurant by Welsh Dave from the swimming club with Australian Hayden, American Ross and American Cameron, I otherwise adhered to my deep religious conviction of eating only traditional food while travelling. I was perplexed by Dave’s penchant to eat greasy international fast-food while in Paris, which I considered to be a somewhat sacrilegious practice by a pastry chef. Dave fortuitously redeemed himself by recommending a restaurant that provided the culinary highlight of my time in France and one of the best 3 course meals I have ever eaten. I started with a heavenly asparagus soup enriched with crème fraïche, which appropriately respected the natural sweetness of the vegetable. For the main course, I had a delicious rare fillet of glazed duck breast in a red wine sauce with mash potato. And to conclude, I cleansed the palate with an intriguing and very refreshing “citrus soup” with segments of fruit floating in a cold, zingy broth. We dined again together on the penultimate night of competition for a pre-1,500m freestyle steak (for debatable benefits). However, it was my entrée of beef marrow served with buttered toast that was most memorable. It was the first time I had sampled the creamy gunk stored within bones – though I wouldn’t say I have become a convert. For the final team dinner, I had fried camembert (impossible not to enjoy), beef bourguignon (passable) and grapefruit curd (I think).

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As I write this entry, I’m beginning to appreciate why my bank account has depleted and my waist line expanded much faster than intended during this trip! I didn’t just reserve restaurant dining for the evenings, I also frequented bistros for multi-course lunches on most days. I justified this excessive indulgence by considering it as necessary for recovery from the swim racing (which was on some days no more than 4 laps). After paying way too much on my first day for a substandard beef bourguignon (there are few things in life I hate more than falling for a tourist trap), I ordered “lunch menus of the day” (most bistros offer changing 2-3 course set menus for a reasonable price) and simply hoped for the best as their descriptions were normally scrawled in French. My banquets included: fried calamari with fennel salad followed by pan fried white fish with ratatouille; pork terrine with cornichons followed by pan fried pork fillet with mushroom sauce and fried potatoes followed by a cheese tasting plate; blue cheese and fennel salad followed by roasted pork fillet with creamy mustard sauce and black lentils; and sashimi with pea puree and watercress, roast chicken and vegetables and poached peach with cream! Further exacerbating my bloated state after each meal, the French generously accompany every plate with a fresh bowl of baguette – which I was always compelled to finish! Amazingly, I also managed to fit in regular visits to the ubiquitous boulangeries throughout Paris for quiches and pastries (tarte aux abricots and tarte aux pommes – oh là là!), sample Breton buckwheat crepes with andouille sausage and salad, and snack on cheese and hummus (some labels of French packaged hummus are very good!) in the late afternoon. I definitely need to implement a strict pre-Christmas detox when back in Australia.

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Paris is definitely one of my highlights of this trip, both because of the unique experience of the Gay Games and general enjoyment of city life in the French capital. And perhaps also because I just really love French cuisine!

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That’s all for now,

Liam

France photos

Posted by Liamps 22:50 Archived in France Comments (1)

Paris Gay Games

No doubt many of you have enviously considered my 3 month trip to be yet another aimless adventure through Europe. While that might be an accurate reflection of my current situation, the primary impetus for my extended absenteeism was to compete as an “elite international athlete” at the 2018 Gay Games in Paris. Ok, ok, I didn’t actually need to satisfy any qualification standards to enter. Indeed, not even my sexuality was a prerequisite – anyone is welcome to participate in the Gay Games provided they support equal opportunities for LGBTI individuals in general society. But I did compete proudly for Queen and Country against people from all over the world and even claimed a medal (… albeit for participation)!

Countless people have asked me, “So, what exactly is the Gay Games?” I’m amazed that so few people are familiar with this major sporting and cultural event, which occurs quadrennially, is hosted by rotating cities, involves over 30 disciplines, 12,000 competitors, dozens of venues and a “Games Village”… and utterly dominates the media landscape! Perhaps the last point is a slight exaggeration, but otherwise the structure of the Gay Games essentially emulates the Olympics. Athletes generally compete for the LGBTI sports club they are members of (not mandatory) and the country they nominate. I competed for Australia with Melbourne’s Glamourhead Sharks, along with around 20 other team members. Some countries officially recognise and provide support for their delegations, with the Australian Government hosting a welcome event at the Paris Embassy for Australian athletes. The Gay Games were initiated in San Francisco in 1982 as a celebration of diversity and inclusion, and have since been hosted throughout North America, Western Europe and Australia (including Sydney 2002). Paris 2018 was the tenth edition of the Gay Games, with the next event scheduled to be held in Asia for the first time at Hong Kong 2022.

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I arrived in Paris two days before competition commenced to undertake some last-minute training and attend the Opening Ceremony. I stayed in an Airbnb on the periphery of Le Marais, which is the historic centre of Paris and the traditional LGBTI and Jewish neighbourhood. Naturally, the area served as the primary heart of the Games, with veritable street parties ensuing each evening. After rendezvousing with most of the Glams on the Friday night for preparatory beverages, we attempted a training session on the Saturday at a beautiful pool near Le Marais, which was overcrowded with slow swimmers who demonstrated minimal swimming etiquette. We regrouped in the evening at Stade Jean Bouin to march with Australia at the Opening Ceremony.

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While the Olympics is fundamentally a demonstration of economic power, the Parade of Nations at the Gay Games Opening Ceremony was instead symbolic of the stark political differences socially that exist throughout the world. While progressive and industrialised countries like France, UK, USA and Australia fielded enormous delegations (643 for Australia!), other advanced but more socially conservative countries like Italy, China and Japan were represented proportionally much less. Only a handful of extremely brave individuals chose to represent African and Middle Eastern countries where homosexual activity is still punishable by imprisonment or even the death penalty. When the Russian team entered the stadium, they received a standing ovation from the crowd in solidarity against the deteriorating LGBTI rights under the Putin regime. The Parade was an explicit reminder against complacency, because while rights and acceptance gradually improve in Western democracies, barbaric repression continues to endure for millions globally.

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Similar to the Olympics, the Gay Games are composed of mainstream sports, like soccer and athletics, and more eclectic events, like dancesport, petanque and speed roller skating. I opted to compete in swimming, which was held in the aquatics venue for the 1924 Paris Olympics. The semi-outdoor facility buzzed with atmosphere throughout the week, as the participating swimming clubs proudly displayed their banners and passionately cheered on their members. While there was a sense of seriousness and climax after months or years of training, there was also an overwhelming sense of camaraderie I haven’t experienced at other sporting events before. People genuinely wanted to know about their fellow competitors and encourage them to achieve their best. I competed in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 1,500m freestyle, 100m backstroke and two relay events. Although I had mixed results, I set a personal best time in the 1,500m freestyle, which I was satisfied with considering my preparation in the preceding two weeks in London, Amsterdam, Bruges and Luxembourg.

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The Games are an illustration that gay culture is far more complex than what prevailing stereotypes imply. The LGBTI community is a microcosm of our broader society, with sporting clubs and people passionate about sport, fitness and competition. This is important to understand, because for someone who does not relate to the more distinctive elements of gay culture, sporting clubs represent an opportunity to connect to the LGBTI community through a familiar forum.

The Games convey another important message: that interest in sport, both in a participatory and entertainment sense, is not the exclusive domain of a particular demographic of society or personality typology. Sport and competition are loved by people of all genders, sexualities and nationalities, so it is therefore paramount that all individuals feel adequately engaged with, encouraged and respected in discussions or participation. I think that being cognisant to this inclusion is especially important in a society where sport dominates the mainstream. And athletic prowess is certainly unnecessary for a fulfilling experience participating in sport - I am most definitely a testament to that (although watch out if you ever find me on a squash court :P)!

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Stay tuned for an entry on Paris itself!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 12:06 Archived in France Comments (0)

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg photos

Initially, I included Luxembourg City in my itinerary for the solitary and very shallow reason of “bagging” a new country. Fortunately, other motivations would later compel me to visit the city. Since I have travelled very close to Luxembourg twice before, I decided that on this trip I would not miss the opportunity to cross into the Grand Duchy while touring the Low Countries again. Not that there’s anything “low” about Luxembourg (other than its tax rates); the diminutive country is far more topographically variant than the monotonous flatness of neighbouring Belgium and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, my trip to Luxembourg was only fleeting as I restricted my stay to two nights in the capital, exploring its charming old town and green surroundings.

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Luxembourg has been continually occupied by foreign forces throughout most of its history due to its precarious location between France, Germany and the Low Countries. Although the independence of the present-day state was established in 1839, its borders were threatened or invaded during Franco-German conflicts for the next century. Consequently, Luxembourg after World War II became a staunch advocate for European integration, and Luxembourg City now serves as one of the de facto seats of the European Union. The city therefore has similar characteristics to Brussels: bureaucratic, international and multilingual. Yet the city’s architectural heritage, unique geography and lush vegetation give Luxembourg City a tranquility lacking in the Belgian capital. And the locals are noticeably very, very wealthy, reflecting the city’s status as an international banking hub.

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Luxembourg City is one of the smallest capitals in Europe, and yet its layout is very complex and confusing – I was never able to establish my bearings in the city. The old town is located within the Fortress of Luxembourg, which is perched on the edge of a plateau next to 70m cliffs that drop precipitously to the Alzette and Péitruss rivers. The rivers have cut gorges through the landscape and form a confluence adjacent the Fortress. The modern commercial centre of Luxembourg is located on the other side of the Péitruss, while political and cultural institutions are concentrated on the other side of the Alzette. Central Luxembourg is thus physically separated into distinct areas, which also spread across different levels vertically. The dramatic differences in elevation have even resulted in the implementation of free lift services to access the various levels.

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Since Luxembourg City lacks major touristic attractions, I predominately spent my time walking aimlessly through the old town and around its fortifications along the two rivers. The mostly pedestrianised old town is amiable with its pastel coloured buildings, shady squares and cobblestone streets, but its not really evocative of the history the city has experienced. However, the area immediately adjacent the old town is much more intriguing. The preserved medieval sections of the Fortress of Luxembourg forms dramatic scenes with the spires of the old town in the background and the rivers below. They also provide superb vistas of the gorges and the numerous bridges that transcend them at different levels. Beautiful churches and sandstone buildings align the rivers, but the gorges are defined particularly by the abundant trees and shrubbery that establish Luxembourg City’s visual magnificence.

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I made an unexpected trip to Germany for a couple of hours, because why not, Trier is only 50km away! Trier is a relatively small city at 100,000 and on the far periphery of the German heartland. The city’s modern-day obscurity belies a momentous past. Trier is often cited as the oldest city in Germany and served as a provincial capital of the Roman Empire. Roman ruins are scattered around the area, although the only the site I visited was Porte Nigra, a monolithic city gate that still signifies the entrance to the old town. The Cathedral of Trier was reputedly commissioned by Emperor Constantine, and a portion of the 4th century structure forms part of the nave. Most of the cathedral and its four iconic towers date to the 12th century, and as such it is an archetypal example of Romanesque architecture; a huge and visually arresting structure. During the Middle Ages, it was the seat of the Archbishopric of Trier, one of the seven Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. Trier was also the birthplace of Karl Marx, although I didn’t venture to any monuments honouring him. I ambled through a shopping centre instead.

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While my limited time in Luxembourg City prevented me from appreciating all the nuisances of Luxembourgish cuisine, I did sample a couple of hearty dishes that indicated the local food is influenced more so by German, rather than French, traditions. I ate an enormous boiled pork knuckle with horseradish and potatoes, a comforting dish ideal for the 30 degrees weather. On my second night, I had another stodgy, though wholesome, meal of wheat dumplings fried in butter and bacon and served with apple sauce and smoked salmon salad with a mayonnaise dressing.

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Luxembourg City’s eminent beauty certainly justifies a visit for a couple of days. With more time I would have liked to travel in the Luxembourgish hinterland by hiking through its forests or hopping from one Moselle Valley winery to another. But Paris was calling…

That’s all for now,

Liam

Luxembourg photos

Posted by Liamps 22:43 Archived in Luxembourg Comments (0)

Bruges

Belgium photos

My solitary experience in Belgium previously was a brief visit to the dreary and bureaucratic capital of Brussels. Consequently, I decided I needed to visit a slightly more appealing destination to appreciate the country, so I ventured to the Flemish city of Bruges for 2 nights. I travelled to Bruges expecting to encounter a quaint city that is easily “coverable” with limited time. I was surprised to discover that the old town, one of the best preserved in Europe, is humungous; a reflection of the city’s medieval prestigious as a major international trading centre.

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Just after arriving in Bruges, I met up with Australian Paul and a group of his Australian friends who were on a day trip from Antwerp. A Globo Trip veteran, Paul (otherwise known by his Greekified name Pol Antriou Chenterson, according to his newly acquired Greek passport) is easily the most critical person of the existence of this blog and frequently campaigns for its permanent disbandment. Fortunately, my commitment is immune to the churlish commentary of a dour (and somewhat grotty) individual. I found Paul and his friends grazing on greasy roast chicken at a somewhat sterile takeaway establishment, an unusual choice for lunch in a city renowned for its culinary prowess. We then spent the afternoon wandering Bruges, critiquing the austere interiors of churches and exploring, with much more interest, gift shops laden with Belgian specialties. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a relic supposedly containing Jesus’ blood (apparently He was a blood donor). As an alumni of the Catholic education system, I was personally incensed that a fee was required to visit the museum where we thought the relic was located. I firmly believe that if you successfully endure 13 years of indoctrination, you should be entitled to free entry at all Catholic associated institutions globally. In protest, I exited the Basilica promptly, though we later discovered the relic is exhibited in a freely accessible chapel… not the museum.

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I joined a free walking tour of Bruges to appreciate the city’s history. The tour commenced from the iconic Belfry, an 83m tall clocktower at the centre of the old town and a powerful demonstration of Bruges’ medieval importance. The “Golden Age” of Bruges lasted from the 12th to 15th centuries as the city functioned as one of the most important commercial centres in the world and the population boomed to approximately 200,000. From 1500 however, the channel that gave Bruges direct access to the sea began silting up, resulting in the city gradually declining and losing prominence to nearby Antwerp as the leading port of the Low Countries. The stalled development preserved the city’s architecture and layout, allowing Bruges to recover economically at the end of the 19th century as one of the first mass tourism destinations. The architecture of the old town is uniquely and entirely “old”, with many buildings serving as traditional breweries.The old town is crisscrossed by canals, which allowed merchants to easily transport goods from warehouses to the port. The canals provide spectacular vantage points to admire the city’s beautiful skyline, punctuated by church spires and bell-towers.

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The expansive old town of Bruges is almost completely unnavigable in the absence of technology. After dinner on my first night, I found myself completely lost as my phone ran out of battery power and I had no recollection of how to return to my hostel. The streets of Bruges wind in a totally illogical manner, the architecture is very similar throughout and the layout lacks a defining geographical feature (like a river), creating a veritable labyrinth where its very difficult to establish your bearings in the twilight. In yesteryears, I would have loved the romanticism of “getting lost” in a beautiful old city, but I’m too old and cynical now to be frustrated by the inconvenience. I bitterly wasted an hour trying to locate my hostel, before finally stumbling upon a street map I could photograph and follow. I was subsequently vigilant with ensuring my phone was adequately charged.

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For such an infinitesimally small and mostly unnoticed country, Belgium’s succession of momentous contributions to global gastronomy is really quite extraordinary. The Belgians are (supposedly) the inventors of chips (or fries / frites) and the quality of Belgian waffles, chocolates and beers are internationally recognised as peerless. I sampled two traditional Flemish meals in Bruges; moules and frites and carbonnade. Moules and frites consist of a cauldron of mussels cooked in white wine and twice fried chips with garlic mayonnaise. Carbonnade is a rich beef stew similar to France’s beef bourguignon, but cooked with beer rather than red wine. Belgium is synonymous with quality beer and I was of course required to sample a few drops, despite my preparations for Paris. Pol’s friends suggested I try a “sour” beer, which is produced from a very unpredictable process of fermentation. The beer was unlike anything I had tasted before, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I much preferred drinking cherry beer, wheat beer and a Belgian tripel called Garre, which I found at a historic pub hidden down a side alley and upstairs. The beer has an alcohol content of 11%, so the pub’s policy is to limit 3 drinks served to patrons.

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I anticipated Bruges would be a pretty little town, where I would possibly become bored after 2 days. However, I found that I had grossly insufficient time to explore the entire old town, visit some of the museums and breweries and sample enough beers to feel like I had properly tasted Belgium.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Belgium photos

Posted by Liamps 02:08 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

Amsterdam II

I travelled to yet another city on this trip that I have previously visited with my venture to Amsterdam, yet the city seemed entirely foreign to my memories. When I was last in Amsterdam 5 years ago, the city was enduring one of the coldest winters in recent memory and was blanketed in snow. On this occasion, the city was experiencing the hottest weather on record (37 degrees on one day), with sunlight drenching the canals for 17 hours a day. I soaked up the Dutch summery vibes by catching up on the Euro adventures of Australian Paul, a Globo Trip veteran, and meeting his girlfriend, Dutch Karin. While Paul and I have travelled extensively, we have only met up twice overseas – and both occasions coincidentally were in the Netherlands! I also rendezvoused with Australian Anne, who is currently working in the Danish water industry, but far more impressively boasts an illustrious Globo Trip resume (with fleeting mentions in 6 entries from Iceland, Norway and Sweden). I had a fantastic extended weekend with Paul, Karin and Anne in one of Europe’s most congenial countries.

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Nowhere in the world have I travelled to a city as absent of cars and congestion than Amsterdam. The centre of the city is full of pedestrians and cyclists, and serviced by trams, ferries, metro trains and intercity trains, while cars are seldom encountered. Sure, some drivers foolishly attempt to navigate through the narrow streets within the Canal Ring, but in comparison to other cities, their presence is virtually unnoticeable. And why would people drive in central Amsterdam, unless they were religiously opposed to any alternative like Peter Stevens (fortunately, his zealotry has waned with age)? The use of private vehicles is completely unnecessary and tedious as the layout is totally incompatible for cars, while connections with alternatives modes have been comprehensively and meticulously provided for despite the intriguing geography. I stayed at a hostel on the opposite side of a large canal that bisects Holland from the Central Station; hesitantly as there is no bridge connection. Yet I found the free 24/7 ferry service between the Station and the northern area of central Amsterdam to be extremely efficient and convenient and rendered the physical separation irrelevant. Central Amsterdam defies the conventional, car obsessed thought process for city planning and implements atypical methods to connect. The streets of Amsterdam are ruled not by motorists but by cyclists, who commute on surprisingly cheap and rickety bikes with boundless confidence against the defenceless pedestrian (tourist). Of the few private vehicles that do ply Amsterdam’s streets, a large portion of them are compact, single occupant electrical vehicles; which are more environmentally and spatially friendly than normal cars. The outcome of Amsterdam’s unique transport composition? A vibrant and crowded inner city full of activity and without the constraints of air pollution, noise and stifling traffic that private motorised transport delivers to most cities – an inspiration for cities globally.

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I met Paul and Karin in Utrecht, a small city located to the east of Amsterdam. Travelling to Utrecht was a demonstration of the efficiency and comfortability of transport in the Netherlands, as I arrived in the centre of another city 60km from Amsterdam in just half an hour. Utrecht is like a miniature Amsterdam, with canals defining a compact old town of beautiful townhouses and historic institutional buildings. The city also consists of one of the most architecturally significant buildings of the twentieth century, the Schroeder House, which evokes the geometric and chromatic purity of the De Stijl movement – a forerunner to later modernist styles. Utrecht’s compactness means that the city centre is easily traversed on either foot or by bike; and the conspicuous absence of motorised vehicles enhances the city’s charm and peacefulness.

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Karin acted as our tour guide for the day and performed her role with aplomb, even if the information she relayed was invariably incorrect. But her enthusiasm and entertainment values were certainly on point, which is more important than the truth (as evidenced by this blog). She further endeared herself by commenting, without any provocation whatsoever, that my towering height and effortlessly attractive appearance meant that I could easily pass as “Dutch”. Appearance was also a subject of conversation regarding Paul, as Karin was fascinated by the descriptions of Paul’s cavalcade of (usually grotesque) hairstyles he has dabbled with throughout the decades. During our tour of Utrecht, we frequently stopped at bustling cafes between short ambles through the searing heat. While I had every intention of sampling Dutch beer, Karin suggested not to bother – just order Belgian lager in the Netherlands. Late in the afternoon we stopped in a tranquil park, where we observed two adolescent girls cutting their arms with a blade gleefully. Paul heroically advised them against the practice, but they scampered off giggling, probably with the intention of continuing the obscene practice in a less public forum.

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I returned to Amsterdam in the early evening to welcome Anne to our hostel on her first visit to the Dutch capital. After an indulgent seafood dinner exchanging stories from the past 9 months since she moved to Denmark, we ventured to one of the city’s constituent tourist attractions: the red light district. The area is unequivocally among the weirdest places on earth, with a bizarre dichotomy existing between the sexually explicit trappings of a red light district and the normality of the tourists crowds (i.e. young families, couples, “grey nomads”, Americans who think a 2 week vacation to Western Europe is the height of adventurism) who leisurely amble through the precinct as if it were a generic theme park. The area is of course incredibly beautiful, with the brothels and sex show theatres occupying stunning seventeenth century townhouses aligning a canal illuminated by the plethora of neon lights. Anne and I eventually escaped the curiosities of the district and enjoyed some midnight beers beside another canal, with the streets still packed due to the oppressive heat.

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Anne and I commenced what would become a marathon day with a picnic breakfast beside a canal, while debating the fate of drunks who fall into the murky waters – with no ladders in sight. We spent several hours exploring the posh neighbourhoods in the west of the Canal Ring, which is composed of elegant, slender townhouses and quaint cafes, and beautified by expansive green canopies and colourful flowerpots. Noticeably absent though were public lavatories, as we wasted ample time attempting to locate a luxury provision we take for granted in Australia. We walked past Anne Frank’s House, where (Australian) Anne provided the first of several humorous pearlers of the day: “Anne Frank was the first female pilot, wasn’t she?” My subsequent description of Anne Frank’s actual identity did not provide quite the same comic relief. We then joined a scenic boat cruise on the canals of Amsterdam. The 20-something hostess quickly warmed to us, as she realised we were the only cool kids onboard trying to make the most of the unlimited alcohol included in the price for the hour long journey. She even remarked (again, totally unprovoked) that we didn’t look like tourists at all and could easily pass as Dutch! In the late afternoon, we ventured to a large park on the southern periphery of the Canal Ring to attend the opening events of Pride Week in Amsterdam. The park was full of colour and atmosphere, so we positioned ourselves on the lawn (with requisite Heineken in-tow) to people watch and attempt to spot clogs (unsuccessful). On our return journey to the hostel, Anne explained how she loves London because of its palpable “hurricane of history” – has anyone ever devised a more inane phrase?! We hopped between bars into the early hours of the morning as Amsterdam continued to exude vitality throughout the hot summer night.

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As previously discovered, cuisine endemic to the Netherlands most certainly does not compete with the heights of the culinary world. With this in mind, I was less restrictive than my customary policy of maintaining a diet “traditional” to the local environ and ate falafels wraps (influenced by migrants of the Middle East) and Indonesian food (legacy of Dutch colonial rule). I did, however, sample a handful of Dutch dishes and copious amounts of Gouda cheese (mainly in the form of free samples). Karin advised Paul and I that the Dutch equivalent to the humble and overrated ‘smashed avo on toast’ is a brown bread roll filled with goats cheese, bacon, honey, pine-nuts and lettuce; a rather impressive sandwich concoction. Anne and I dined at a rare establishment specialising in Dutch cuisine. For entrée, I enjoyed the contrasting flavours and textures of boiled mackerel with blood pudding and sauerkraut, while for main I had a hotpot of a variety of fish in a creamy sauce.

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I was reluctant to populate the early stages of my trip so heavily with cities I have travelled to previously, yet I was so grateful to have returned Amsterdam in summer. The city’s inspiring compactness, efficient transport connections, tranquility, international vibe and fun atmosphere definitely establish it as one of my favourites in Europe.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 22:29 Archived in Netherlands Comments (1)

London V

Greetings Globo Trip aficionados! Indeed, I have again escaped the depressive isolation of the world’s most southerly city to gallivant through Europe for 3 months. The primary reasons for my exodus from the harrowing doldrums of Melbourne’s winter is to represent Australia at the prestigious Paris Gay Games in swimming and attend Irish Claire’s wedding in Malta. Additionally, I will be rendezvousing with European and expatriate friends, bagging a swag of new countries (predominately micro-states) and travelling to a new frontier for me – the Caucasus. The first stop though of my third trip to the continent was an obligatory visit to my favourite city in the world, London.

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My flight journey from Melbourne to London, which came to a total cost of $90 due to clever manipulation of credit card sign-up bonuses, was undoubtedly the most comfortable long-haul trip I have ever made. I don’t particularly like the idea of airline loyalty, but the leg space provided on Singapore Airlines has definitely secured my business into the future. I was truly stupefied that for the duration of the 8 hour flight to Singapore and subsequent 13 hour flight to London, the seat in front of me never encroached uncomfortably onto my being. Needless to say, there was a little shit constantly kicking my seat from behind, but that was the responsibility of her totally incompetent mother, not Singapore Airlines. I was also impressed that between the main meals, passengers could limitlessly request snacks and beverages to ensure we had sufficient calories to persevere through the physically arduous activity of sitting for 13 hours. The highlight of the trip though was the extraordinary views above Central Asia. We were blessed with incredibly clear skies, affording panoramic views of utterly barren mountainous landscapes in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan and interminably flat desert in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. While other passengers were drooling over B-grade Hollywood films or Friends reruns, I was mesmerised by the captivating spectacle below and was amazed by the almost total absence of human settlements (except for when we flew above the fabled ancient city of Merv – that was very exciting!). That was until we encountered the clouds above Russia, where I started watching Pitch Perfect 3.

Problems started in the final 0.2% of my journey’s overall distance when I arrived at Heathrow. One would think that the busiest airport in the world by international passengers would painstakingly ensure that accessibility to other points within Greater London was abundantly clear to foreigners. Yet despite being prepared in the knowledge of the obscure transport connection I required, I was still totally flummoxed about where to go and how to pay (not for the first time at Heathrow). There is a conspicuous absence of non-Travelex associated ATMs (i.e. ATMs without criminally high fees) at Heathrow. Apparently that shouldn’t be an issue, because there are signs everywhere saying that you can use credit cards to board Transport for London services. It wasn’t clear that the bus I required fell outside TfL’s jurisdiction and infuriatingly required cash payment, so I missed that bus and waited another hour for the next direct connection to Watford. Finally, 32 hours after departing Essendon and nearly 48 hours since I had properly slept, I arrived at the pub adjacent Watford Junction to meet my usual London host, British Dave.

With Northern Europe enduring a heat wave and the sun blazing for nearly 18 hours per day, we ventured to Brighton for a traditional English seaside experience. Every second Londoner appeared to have the same idea that Sunday as the motorways were horrendously busy and the town was clogged with coaches. For an Australian, the natural composition of the Brighton seaside was hardly appealing: pebble beach, opaque, greyish water and no vegetation separating the beach from township. The English compensate for the lack of natural serenity with a unique and somewhat whimsical seaside culture. Activity centres around Brighton’s iconic white pier, which supports an amusement park, restaurant and bars. Armadas of deck chairs occupy one side of the pier, while nudists frolic on the other. Victorian-era terraces provide splendid views over the beach and an intriguing interface with the town. Central Brighton is predominately composed of pastel coloured nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings. The quaint narrow streets brim with life on a hot summers day as the patrons from the pubs and cafés spill out onto the pavements. The popularity of Brighton stems back to the reign of Queen Victoria, who retreated to the seaside town during the summer months. She commissioned the expansive residential pavilion at the centre of Brighton, which is a bizarre architectural ensemble of neoclassical and Oriental (i.e. British interpretation of Mughal) influences. Brighton is a lovely destination for a day trip, though most certainly not for the beauty (or lack thereof) of the beach.

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A day and a half after arriving in Europe, I attended the Watford Leisure Centre to ostensibly complete a rigorous training session in preparation for Paris. While that aspiration didn’t exactly eventuate, it was the first of several culturally informative experiences at swimming pools in Europe. Evidently, I think Australians take our incredible aquatics facilities for granted. In Europe, pools are much less common, overcrowded, usually 25m in length, often lacking in backstroke flags and full of terrible swimmers. The most bizarre aspect of European pools is how they generally combine two lanes into one (i.e. swim up one and back down the other), which renders it impossible to time splits properly. Consequently, my swimming session was rather more lackadaisical than I had envisaged, though it did help stem the effects of jet lag.

Since I was on my fourth trip to London, I did not feel the imperative to “tick-off” a cavalcade of tourist destinations during my three full days in the city and instead returned to some of my favourite haunts. After the Monday morning swim, I ventured into Central London to first satisfy my hummus cravings and then aimlessly wander the day away. I ambled through the glitzy neighbourhood of Mayfair and its luxury shopping precinct, Bond Street. As with every visit to this area, I was gawking at the shameless and sickeningly obscene wealth on display; chauffeurs cruise the spotless streets in vehicles worth hundreds of thousands of pounds as their owners peruse the most exclusive shops on the planet. There is no where at all comparable to this area in Melbourne. Admittedly, I momentarily experienced a pang of, “Oh, I wish I could afford this one day!”, but of course, no one deserves such excessive disposable income… unless they use it for travelling! I ambled past Westminster Palace and was grateful I had seen the iconic clocktower before, as it is currently covered in scaffolding. I walked along the River Thames, north through Trafalgar Square and concluded my evening on Oxford Street, where regular Britons shop.

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After the disappointment of the Watford Leisure Centre, I decided to cross Greater London to swim at the Olympic aquatics venue. The constituent venues of the London 2012 Olympics occupy an expansive park in east of the city. The impressive external architecture of the Olympic stadium (currently being converted into the home ground of West Ham United FC) and the aquatics venue, as well as the bizarre red steel sculpture that defines the precinct, justify a visit to the area. Which was fortuitous for me, because the aquatics venue was closed to the general public when I attempted to enter in the middle of a hot summer’s day – the Europeans really are clueless when it comes to swimming pools. Food is the obvious remedy to placate irritation, so I quickly travelled to Borough Market just south of London Bridge for a delicious Ethiopian lunch. Borough Market epitomises gentrification. It occupies nineteenth century steel-and-glass halls and brick warehouses nestled below a rail overpass. It was once a regular, wholesale market, but is now the domain of specialty food stores and populated by tourists. In the afternoon, I perused the Army Museum (wholly underwhelming considering the material the British have to work with), before retreating to read in an amiable cemetery garden near Shoreditch. In the evening, I reunited with British Hermione, a Globo Trip who I travelled with in India for a couple of weeks. Hermione and I clicked immediately when we met on the Subcontinent, so it was wonderful to catch-up on life events and reminisce on “only in India” moments during our all-too-short rendezvous. To appreciate Shoreditch’s famously alternative culture, she suggested we dine at Boxpark. Boxpark is basically a multi-level complex composed of freight containers converted into stylish shops and hip bars and food outlets. The rooftop seating area provides a lively and notably youthful atmosphere to to enjoy the summer twilight.

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On my last full day in London, I had planned to visit the only World Heritage listed site in the metropolis I had yet to inspect, the Kew Gardens. But I decided that $32 was a tad excessive to view a bunch of static organisms, so I instead returned to my favourite area of London, Camden Market. Needless to say, its not the cheap, grungy merchandise I find alluring, but rather the enormous concentration of international food stalls. And the ensemble of food stalls has seemingly trebled since I was last there nearly 3 years ago, expanding into other wooden warehouses adjacent the algae-covered canal. I went for a post-lunch stroll along the canal and then cut through the peaceful Regent’s Garden to reach Central London. I met Dave in the early evening in Covent Garden and we subsequently hoped between traditional and contemporary pubs in London’s most vibrant neighbourhood. I love the pub culture culture in London; on weeknights, every pub in Central London is completely crammed with workers. In the warmer months, patrons collect their beverages from the bar and drink them on the street or in back alleys, creating a vibe akin to a massive street party since there are pubs on virtually ever corner. The pubs are distinguished from other commercial enterprises by their hanging flower markets at the front – a intriguing and universally adopted characteristic of British pubs. We returned to Watford at a relatively responsible hour for Dave, as I had to catch the Eurostar in the morning.

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British cuisine is of course lamentably bland and basic, and I have already sampled most of their stodgy contributions to global gastronomy. Nevertheless, in Brighton I enjoyed a feast of seafood morsels prepared by a charming couple in their seventies that I had never tasted before. I tried a fried kipper sandwich (salty and extremely delicious), a crab salad sandwich (essentially just pureed crab with spices) and a rollmop, which is pickled herring rolled around a gherkin and onion. At the Camden Market, I had a delicious Stilton cheese, bacon and pear chutney toasted sandwich that oozed fatty British goodness. My consumption was otherwise international in nature.

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As always, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to London and catching up with old travel companions. It served as the perfect launchpad into Europe…

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 12:59 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Siquijor and Bohol

Philippines photos

The final two islands I visited on my journey through the Philippines were Siquijor and Bohol in the Western Visayas. Despite their relative proximity and similar naturalistic compositions, Siquijor and Bohol are emblematic of how each Philippine island boasts a unique culture and identity. Siquijor has a population dispersed in several small towns around the island and a relaxed traveller scene. Meanwhile, Bohol is plagued by mass tourism and its tropical island vibes are interrupted by the fumes of the major urban centre of Tagbilaran City. I was somewhat disappointed by Bohol, which is overhyped as one of the premier destinations in the Philippines because of the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers. The “undiscovered” island of Siquijor however was among my favourite destinations in the
archipelago.

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Blindingly bright blue skies eminently helped with my impressions of Siquijor. After several days of solid rain and utter saturation in Dumaguete and Apo Island, I was desperate to bake in the sun and finally have my foul smelling shoes and socks dry. I was delighted on the ferry to Siquijor and in the subsequent days by the clear weather and its transformative impact on my enjoyment of this coastal destination. Siquijor is a small and sparsely populated island, with minimal public transport and yet a surprisingly well maintained road network. The island is therefore ideally explored by motorcycle, although I maintained my reluctance to engage in such a mode and instead opted to walk after the initial tuk-tuk ride. Most tourists stay at hostels and guesthouses strung along the island’s circulation road either side of San Juan in Siquijor’s south-west. I stayed in a quirky hostel up a hill from the road and nestled within thick vegetation, which was owned by a German guy and his Filipino partner. The couple operated a very relaxed, open-air hostel with a homely vibe and pack of obedient dogs protective of guests. I would soon discover that numerous expats live on Siquijor, attracted to the island’s sedentary pace and away from the tourist hordes.

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Siquijor was one of the few destinations I travelled to in the Philippines where beautiful beaches and coral gardens could be accessed without needing to hire a boat or join a tour. The southern part of the island is completely fringed by powdery sand beaches that are absent of pollution or crowds and idyllic for loitering. I spent ample time snorkelling through pristine water and above clusters of colourful corals and beds of seagrass while stalking schools of fish. I decided not to burden myself with the obligations of an itinerary to see all of Siquijor, and instead spent three blissful days enjoying the beaches exclusively in the south. I even attempted a few morning runs, though the searing humidity quickly hindered those ambitions.

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I caught the ferry to Bohol’s main port in Tagbilaran City and immediately continued into the island’s hinterland. I stayed at a lovely rural hostel on a property perched beside the slow-moving Loboc River. The showers and toilets were among the most impressive bathing facilities I have ever seen: private, outdoor “rooms” with bamboo piping and tropical landscaping. The quaint riverside town of Loboc features the shell of an historic Spanish-era church and a road bridge that leads to nowhere. I went hiking in the forested hills surrounding the town to reach a sequence of monumental crucifixes on the ridge lines. On some of the trails, it seemed as though I was the first person to hike them in months as the vegetation occasionally obscured the trails and cobwebs were regularly walked into head first. The views from the top were surprisingly comprehensive as I could see most of the southern part of Bohol including Tagbilaran City.

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From Loboc, I used the local bus network to visit Bohol’s two iconic attractions. The bus rides were rather pleasant, as the road bisected a “man-made”rainforest and we passed paddy fields, small villages and the river. We eventually reached the bizarre landscape of the Chocolate Hills at the centre of the island. As far as the eye can see, the otherwise flat and forested landscape is interspersed by perfectly shaped conical hills with brownish hues. While the scenery is intriguing, its not really an interactive attraction and 20 minutes at the view point therefore suffices. I then visited the Tarsier Sanctuary to view the world’s smallest primates, which are only found on Bohol. Tarsiers are nocturnal creatures the size of a clenched fist and with disproportionately large eyes. The wrap their elongated fingers and toes around slender branches and sleep in this position. When I went to the sanctuary I saw about half a dozen tarsiers, along with thousands of obnoxious Chinese tourists.

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With minimal culinary options beyond the expensive and opportunistic hostel, I left the serenity of Loboc early and spend 1 night in the polluted capital, Tagbilaran City. Although Tagbilaran was just as underwhelming as expected, I did enjoy my best hostel experience in the Philippines. The hostel occupies arguably the city’s most beautiful and historic building; a 1950s mansion set within a tropical garden in the centre of Tagbilaran City. The Filipino owner grew up in the house and inherited it from her father. After living in the US for decades, she and her American husband decided to return to Bohol for their son to be surrounded by family, as he has a disability. Last year, they decided to repurpose the house and have since created an incredible (and very affordable) “home-away-from-home” vibe for weary travellers. The idea occurred to them after joyfully hosting a random American backpacker in their regular house and realised there was an intriguing opportunity. The hostel owners are eminently suited to their roles; they love indulging in long and passionate conversations and embrace all of their guests like family. I only stayed for one night but the farewell was emotional and full of overtures for assistance to reach my next destination. My impressions are that the hostel is essentially operated as a not-for-profit organisation (they own other businesses for their income), allowing them to be surrounded by young, international people and breath new life into the old house.

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Panglao is a small island located just off Tagbilaran City. The island is the constituent hub of tourist activity in Bohol, with visitors staying at tropical beaches around the island. I stayed at a mellow hostel on an organic farm in the hinterland of the island and away from the main tourist drag. While the hostel’s peacefulness and spaciousness were appealing, the 60 minute walk / 25 minute run in the blazing sun / 15 minute helmet-less motorcycle taxi ride (I tried all of the above!) was rather irritating. Nevertheless, the nearby beach was spectacular with its pristine water and white, powdery sands. I went swimming there on my last day on Bohol but quickly spotted what I thought could be a box jellyfish and escaped immediately.

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While staying on Panglao, I went on my second diving excursion of the Philippines. Just like in Coron, I surprised myself with how adept I seemed to be at the basics of diving, particularly with respect to maintaining my buoyancy. However, I still need to focus on slower breathing, as my tank depleted of oxygen faster than my dive partners’. We dived at 3 sites around the reef walls of Balicasag and observed a brilliant array of corals. On the first two dives, we saw 5 huge turtles gliding through the water – one of the great sights of the natural world. On the third dive, we were surrounded by a profusion of fish, including a vast school of trevally moving as a 15m column. Just like my experience shipwreck diving in Coron, the dive tour left me with a thrilling buzz and keenness to dive on every overseas adventure.

The Philippines is a vast and geographically complex country, so 1 month was grossly inadequate to experience everything the archipelago of 7,000 islands has to offer. The Philippines rivals Indonesia as the most naturally spectacular country in East Asia, the country’s culture, architecture and cuisine pales in comparison to its neighbours. Consequently, I’ve had mixed impressions reflecting on the Philippines, although diving, snorkelling, lazying on pristine beaches and canyoning certainly made visiting worthwhile.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 13:52 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Cebu and Dumaguete

Draft

Posted by Liamps 00:51 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Palawan

Philippines photos

When travellers think of the Philippines, they conjure images of paradisiacal islands of white beaches, enigmatic karst formations, verdant interiors and turquoise waters. The archipelago is certainly peppered with such places, although Palawan is cited as the archetypal example. Consequently, while backpacking itineraries are unusually varied in the Philippines due to its unique geography, an absolute staple destination is the spear shaped island located in the far west of the primary island groups. The tourist hordes flock to Palawan to experience the perceived exquisite majesty of its nature, flying or ferrying into the diminutive and physically constrained township of El Nido. Yet with inadequate infrastructure provisions and environmental mismanagement, the island’s former serenity has been compromised by the crowds. Personally, I would argue Palawan needn’t be considered an “unmissable” Philippine destination, especially considering the inconvenience of travelling there.

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El Nido certainly occupies a sublime location, as the town is sandwiched between sheer karst mountains and the coastline. Unfortunately though, the settlement is bereft of cultural authenticity as it is purely defined by the tourism industry it exists to serve. Furthermore, excessive and rapid development in recent years has polluted the beaches and rendered the immediate off-shore waters to be unsafe for swimming. Despite the intensity of touristic activity, infrastructure and services in El Nido are astonishingly poor. Electrical blackouts are common, Wifi is either non-existent or extremely slow, and the only ATM in town is unreliable. I find the last point particularly mind-boggling considering El Nido’s extreme isolation and its utter dependence on tourism financially – surely it would be logical to prioritise the facilitation of cash withdrawal by foreigners in order for them to spend!

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El Nido’s incessant growth in popularity is due to the surrounding archipelago, which constitutes perhaps the most impressive scenery in the country. A melange of small karst islands are scattered off the northern Palawan coast and are easily accessible by boat from El Nido. I went on two boat tours to explore the area and was definitely impressed by the beautiful scenery. The photos were somewhat compromised though by my camera malfunctioning and the cavalcade of tourists following identical itineraries. While most tourists were visually defined by their capitulation to wearing bright orange lifesaver vests, I was fairly confident of my swimming abilities in the still and crystalline waters and instead developed a vivid red back. The stops on each day included pristine, powdery sand beaches, views of dramatic, spiky karst formations and swimming into lagoons almost fully enclosed by karst rock walls. The highlights though were snorkelling above magnificent coral gardens and along reef walls with incredible water clarity. I saw a potpourri of tropical fish, including swarms of (harmless) jellyfish around unsuspecting tourists and numerous lionfish.

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People often ask me why I like to travel on my own. Surely it would be a lonesome ordeal, bereft of conversation and companionship? Invariably I’ve found the opposite is true. By backpacking independently and staying in dormitories, you’re presented to other travellers as approachable and in need of company. Consequently, you meet new people from around the world every day. This is usually a brilliant outcome and a constituent reason as to why I travel – although sometimes it can be irritating. I actually quite enjoy a degree of solitude, if for no other reason than to write this burdensome blog. No doubt readers will be shocked to discover these entries do not magically materialise themselves, but rather take an inexorable amount of time to produce. So there’s nothing worse than checking-in after a long day, desiring only to eat dinner, write and crash, and meeting a chatty clinger in the dormitory.

A perfect example of this painful situation occurred when I arrived at my hostel in El Nido. Lurking on the bunk bed below mine in search of social prey was a Swedish guy I would soon find terribly annoying. While I desperately needed to attend the lavatory and take a shower, he began rambling incessantly about his trip and plans for the evening, which I was suddenly a part of. An hour later I managed to sneak out of the hostel, only to bump into him around the corner. My heart sank in that moment as I foresaw the loss of my evening. He asked if he could join me for dinner, which I begrudgingly accepted. We ate at a street-side falafel stand and met a lovely British couple. He invited them for a drink at a bar him and I were apparently bound for, although I had no recollection of agreeing to this. He attempted to purchase the first round and thereby rope us into a lengthy evening, although the British couple deftly avoided this predicament by claiming they had insufficient funds to partake in rounds. When the British couple departed at 9:30pm, the Swede exalted that he avoids “investing” in couples as they always depart hours earlier than he would deem satisfactory. He emphasised, with a somewhat manic expression, how social “investments” are incredibly important to him while backpacking. Chillingly, I realised I was the “investment” that evening. Purely out of sympathy, I decided to have one more round with him and then disappear. After suffering through a story about how he had apparently confronted an angry bear in the wild and his claim that bears don’t actually kill people, he connected us to a large French group and immediately initiated drinking games. My participation was only fleeting as I used the proceedings to extricate myself from his company.

Port Barton was easily my preferred destination in Palawan. To think I nearly listened to the Swede who moaned there was nothing to do. Indeed, Port Barton is a sleepy hollow absent of the WOW-factor scenery, snorkelling and nightlife of El Nido. But it boasts a beautiful sand beach, jungly backdrop, cheap accommodation, excellent eateries and a very friendly village. Port Barton is therefore ideal for reading, writing and playing cards, the simple pleasures in life, which is exactly what I wanted after 6 consecutive days of 6 hours or more on boats. Port Barton is one of those rare destinations that possesses tourist facilities and an international vibe, without being stifled by commercialisation and the masses. The village consists of a spacious, grid-like layout with dirt (muddy) roads and colourful, airy buildings nestled within thick vegetation. The palm fringed beaches harbours a fleet of bright wooden longboats locals use for fishing. In Port Barton, I rendezvoused with German Eric and Canadian Emily whom I had met in El Nido. After recounting weird Swedish man stories, we explored Port Barton’s nightlife. A night market manifested near the village centre, which notably consisted of half a dozen gambling tables. Along with crowds of other tourists, we watched the locals engage intensely in the games. There was also a table for children (smaller buy-in), where we watched one kid amass a small fortune of notes. Many villagers also congregated at the basketball stadium to watch the local teams play. Basketball courts in Philippine villagers are often concrete and undercover (though open-air) and serve as key community spaces, as basketball is one of the national sports. The other national sport is cock fighting, which was evident in Port Barton by the plethora of roosters leashed in front yards.

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Aside from impressive feasts concocted at the back of the tiny tour boats, the food I ate in El Nido was routinely lacklustre. Not so in Port Barton, where the restaurants were cheaper and substantially better. At my guesthouse, I sampled a rare Filipino vegetarian dish I had yet to encounter that combined two of my favourite ingredients: egg and eggplant! The delectable eggplant omelette consisted of a long, slender eggplant butterflied and cooked in eggs. At a nearby guesthouse, I had fish served in a superb curry sauce (heavy on the turmeric, light on the chilli), which was definitely the best fish I ate in the Philippines. Port Barton though was especially distinguished for its international food scene. Sean would be pleased to read I ate at a vegetarian establishment not once but twice (!). I enjoyed a smashing veggie burger made from chickpeas and ubay (purple sweet potato) with real bread, real cheese and salty roasted potatoes; homemade green tea ice-cream latte (I have finally discovered a palatable coffee drink); and a generous portion of shakshuka (not quite as moorish as my rendition though) with ciabatta and a big salad (great Seinfeld episode – although aren’t they all?). Eric, Emily and I went to an atmospheric pizza restaurant (also vegetarian) that featured an open-aired kitchen, wood-fired oven, stockpiles of quality ingredients, outdoor dining and gargantuan thin-crust pizzas. The restaurant could easily have been located in the Italian countryside. The only two hours I spent in Puerta Princesa, the island’s largest city and transportation hub, I devoted exhaustingly to discover a noodle soup variant supposedly unique to the city – which proved to be disappointing endeavour.

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Palawan is relatively difficult and expensive to travel to and inadequately equipped to cater for its number of visitors. While the beaches and attractions near El Nido are spectacular, more accessible destinations in the Philippines offer similar allures. Devoting as much time as possible to exploring the myriad islands of the Visayas would be a more rewarding use of limited time in the Philippines.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Philippines photos

Posted by Liamps 00:16 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

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