Archive for the 'holiday' Category

26
Nov
12

Gran Canaria biking slideshow

It’s been stormy the past couple of days, so the rental mountain bike has been sitting safely underground.  It’s been given a thorough trail test in near-perfect weather over the first 8 days of my two weeks here, so any thoughts of it suddenly splitting in half and sending me tumbling over some of the cliffs I’ve been pedaling along have been cleared aside.  Thankfully, not every bike you get to ride is a piece of crap.  As a little update from home, the store is replacing the frame and wife K has a loaner in the meantime.

The best day was this past Friday, getting out on the road before 7am to arrive at the island’s peak just shy of the 2000-metre level at around 3pm.  Along the way I got a bit lost and so had to head downhill several hundred meters to get on the right road again, so the actual vertical climb was quite a bit more than the 2 kilometers.  I also misjudged the amount of time it would take to let gravity pull the bike back to sea level, returning at 7:30pm long after sundown.  A blinking light back and front was a good precaution along with some warm clothing, because even though it can be close to 30 degrees down on the beaches, up near the top the temperatures plunge and the winds are high.

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My favourite trail from last year is even better.  At least it was last week.  All along the way up I was expecting to be passed by the usual convoy of jeeps laden with the package-tourist daytripper set, tongues clucking and heads wagging as they breeze past imagining the difficulties some people put themselves through.  But two hours up the hill there wasn’t even a single car on the road going either up or down.  The reason became clear after rounding a corner to face a rock slide blocking the road as it runs along a cliff.  I suppose word had already spread and the tourists were on another route somewhere, leaving the whole trail and surrounding countryside all to myself.

I keep hearing the word “dangerous” whenever people find out I’ve been mountain biking alone in the volcanic wilds.  Maybe they’re right, but I don’t know if it’s any worse than lolling around on the beach in the pounding sun for hours at a time amid thousands of others all doing the same thing day after day.  Some of them look seriously in need of hospitalisation.

14
Nov
11

In love with Gran Canaria

It was my first time on Gran Canaria.   Although I knew it was going to be sunny and warm, ringed with sand and rocky cliffs and gouged with the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, I didn’t have any inkling how stunningly beautiful I was going to discover the island to be until I rode a mountain bike one morning from sea level to 1,100 metres.

Away from the coast you slowly climb impossibly narrow and twisting roads to stand facing stark outcroppings of lava weathered to craggy fingers topping massive layers of basalt dozens of metres high.  A turn of the handlebars and you’re following a rocky ledge atop cliffs plunging 500 metres to the valley floor.  Climb a little higher and you enter a pine forest.  You stop for lunch with a view to another island more than 50km away, and suddenly realise the air is so pure, so fresh, you could be miles from anywhere.

And you are, because having left behind the walrus colony of package tourists and leather-tanned pensioners lolling around in their thousands down on the beaches, you’re up in the mountains with nothing to hear beyond the wind sighing in the trees like a distant river.   Once in a while at the very top you’ll get caught in fog, a thick swirling blanket as the rising air chills, but it’s never there for long.   I went up there for six days of biking spread over two weeks, and every day it just got better.  I couldn’t get enough of the landscape.

Every morning I’d wake up expecting my body to tell me to just fall back into bed after the pounding I’d given it – and the bike – the day before, but I just had more energy.  I just had to get back up there to discover something new.

Is it possible to fall in love with a place?  To miss it so much after being away for only a week?  I guess this first time was a short fling and destined to remain a sweet memory, but I’ll be back one day with the family.  They should see this.

Here’s a sample of what I saw in two weeks on Gran Canaria.

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25
Mar
10

A look back at two weeks in Egypt

We’ve just come back from two weeks in Egypt.  Because it was so memorable, I can imagine that years from now we’ll be sitting around talking about the trip, and the conversation will go something like this:

I loved Egypt.

Me too.

Even though that was the trip where we almost got killed just a few minutes out of the airport, right?  The taxi driver leaned over to twiddle some knob on the dashboard just as we entered a tunnel, and he veered over so far he almost crashed into the wall.  I looked up and screamed, remember?

Good thing you did.  If you hadn’t, we’d have bounced off it, spun around, maybe hit by a truck from behind, who knows?

Wasn’t the traffic in Cairo awful?  Remember how we had to cross lanes and lanes of moving traffic at the big intersections?  One time a lady grabbed your hand and asked if you wanted to cross.  We just followed her, dodging the cars all the way.

That was really nice of her.  After that we just took taxis wherever we wanted to go.

Probably saved our lives, though we were stuck in traffic a lot.

We took the subway a few times, though.  Remember how we jumped on the train at Giza and everyone was staring at us?

You mean the one where there was only women?  And how finally one woman told us that the car was reserved for women only, and that I had to leave?

That was funny.  They were smiling and laughing all the time, though.

Pretty girls.  There were a lot of pretty faces there, the ones you could see, anyway.

I remember being surprised at all the veils.  When I was there 30 years before, there were hardly any wearing the veil.

In Cairo, we stayed right beside that mosque, right?  We sure didn’t have any trouble hearing the calls to prayer, that’s for sure.

It was a great trip.  I loved the food, even though each one of us got bad guts at one point.

In Dahab, you were so sick we had to leave you in bed and go fetch a doctor!  He made a house call in our hotel room.  Remember how he gave you two jabs, one in the butt, the other in the arm?  You felt a lot better the next day with all that medicine though, eh?

Sure.

I loved Dahab.  I’ll never forget the feeling of finally getting there after that long bus ride, flopping our stuff in that simple hotel room, then crossing the way to the cushions on the first floor of the restaurant right on the water.  The soft breezes, the palms, the setting sun behind the mountains… it was so idyllic.

But then after a few days the wind whipped up, though, and it was cooler.  We couldn’t go snorkelling anymore.

The snorkelling! All those fish…

And we ate so often at that restaurant.  What was it?  Aladdin.  They were so friendly.  You know that place was only about 100 metres away from where 23 people were killed in a terror attack about 4 years before we were there?

I’m glad it didn’t scare us away.  I felt completely safe the whole time.

What I liked about Dahab was how quiet the place was.  It was before the peak of the tourist season, so the place was mostly empty.

It was quiet in the desert, too.  Remember how we slept under the stars in the White Desert surrounded by all those mountains?

I remember the limestone formations.

That was the second night, wasn’t it?

Yes, but the first night there were limestone cliffs, and don’t you remember the incredibly white limestone spread out on the desert floor?  It was like walking on cake icing.  We picked up a fossil or two, and also some black rocks that turned out to be iron pyrites.  They were heavy as hell.

The oasis coming back – what was it called, Bahariyya?  Funny how it rhymes with what we all had at one sooner or later…

Ha-ha.

Remember the lentil soup?  It was the same…

Stop it!

At Bahariyya, remember how we had to sit around at a gas station there for so long because they’d run out of gas, and there was nearly a riot as everyone started arguing about who was going to be first to get the gas when the truck finally filled the station’s tanks?

That was wild.  I’m glad the little red-haired girl got to see all that, even though I thought they really going to start swinging at one point.

I’m not sure what I’d call my favourite part of that trip.  What was the best part for you?

Dahab.  The snorkelling was just as I remember it 30 years before.  I could have stayed in the water the whole day just watching those fish and looking at all that coral.

I liked the desert.  The White Desert was like being in another world.  Sort of like Cappadocia without all the tourists milling about.

Remember how that guy tried to scam us on the way to the Pyramids?  He said he had an Australian wife and three kids?

Oh yeah.  We nearly believed him for a while.  You can’t call that a highlight, though.

Sure you can.  It’s the real Egypt.  I bet if you went there today, the scammers would still be feeding you the same lines.  It’s part of the country.  It’ll never die out.

Part One of Five.  Or maybe more.

04
Jan
09

La Gomera public webcam birthday greeting

I’m sure a public webcam birthday greeting has been done before, but we thought it was a lot of fun anyway:

webcam-gomera-canary-islands-birthday-greeting

That tiny couple you see waving at lower-right are old friends of K. Over the Christmas break they ditched our winter cold on the barren flatlands for two weeks of golden afternoons on La Gomera in the Canary Islands.

At a get-together a few weeks back, they took me aside and told me their plan: starting at 1700 German time on K’s birthday, they’d be frantically waving in front of this webcam.

So as nonchalantly as I could on the big day – already full of best wishes of the normal kind from friends and family – I called K over to the laptop, clicked on the link and… voilà!

There they were.

Nice touch, T&T! You really made her day. :-)

28
Nov
08

Summer 2008 seems like such a long, long time ago

After the series on Turkey, it would seem strange to post about a previous holiday, but that’s the way it’s worked out.   This past summer we spent nearly a month in the south of Germany tucked away in a corner near the French and Swiss border.   It was a beautiful holiday.

Warning: this post is nearly 4,000 words long and is in diary form, which in Internet terms automatically renders it as boring as bat shit.  You may be excused for not wanting to hack through it.  I was going to cut it up in bite-sized pieces, but since it was written this way as we went along, maybe it should be posted as is.

Carry on…

Thursday, July 24: This ain’t no forest walk to Grandma’s house. Train is very hot, crowded, full of muffin-topped teenage girls with smeared make-up and an SMS addiction. Though it’s locked, I keep a watch on my bike anyway. Cold pizza inside, need it for later.

Friday, July 25: Drive to Bad Honnef, start of reunion of Hong Kong teachers and employees. The cute little five-year-old flower girl at our wedding in Hong Kong is now a beautiful young woman of 19 about to fly to New York City to start her first year of media studies.   I get her address and will send her a copy of the wedding DVD when I get around to copying it. So many people there – 115 teachers and staff, 55 spouses and friends. A huge success.  I’m bowled over at how much people have changed, and yet not changed.

Friday evening a bit of a disaster despite the buffet. The beamer doesn’t show the slides very well. Then the current principal gets up to speak and somehow manages to insult the much-loved former principal sitting at the head table, the staff, Australians, the Hong Kong Chinese, the poor….

Quote from Voltaire: Love isn’t blind, but self-love certainly is.

Saturday, July 26. Full day of visiting and touring after buffet breakfast. Bus to the Federal German State history museum in Bonn, which outlines German history from 1945 to the present. Great little tour given by a humourous woman with Frau Dr. on her name tag. Keeps our little group interested with jokes, anecdotes and quiz questions. A gorgeous set of legs doesn’t hurt. We each wear an earpiece which wraps around the ear and connects to a wireless receiver. Although several tours are going on at once, she can speak into her microphone but only we can hear, because each group is on a different frequency.

Germans are smart.

After the museum tour we walk to the bank of the Rhine and board a boat for what turns out to be an overly long tour of the river. The wind is moving in our direction at exactly the same speed so there’s no breeze, making it hot and stuffy inside and out. Still, there’s lots of time to talk to people, catch up on news and wander down memory lane. Got silly with the little red-haired girl inventing stories on the fly, had each other in stitches.

Food looks inedible so I starve myself.

Boat docks at Linz where we stroll through the streets before cutting out the crap and stopping for a very enjoyable three beers to cut through the heat and humidity.  Atmosphere appropriately reminiscent of the sub-tropical city we all have in common.

Dinner at a Rittersaal at Burg Linz. Entry fee is one shot of … I’m not sure, but it comes in a horn.  I seem to be the only one who loves the food when it finally arrives – potato soup in a bowl made out of bread, then a couple of slabs of ham and some onion/ sauerkraut mixture all washed down with copious steins of draft beer.

For some reason I don’t recall the ride home.

Sunday, July 27: Buffet breakfast, last-minute good-byes, set out on drive to Heitersheim. Waste nearly an hour around Cologne getting lost trying to bypass a traffic jam. I note that I’ve never been near Cologne in a car without having sat for hours wasting gas at one point.

Mental note: I now have another reason to avoid Cologne.

Four hours or so later arrive in Heitersheim and are astounded at how huge the house we’re renting turns out to be. Tons of space, many kitchen extras we’re not used to like a blender, a juicer, professional utensils of the highest quality, a digital bathroom scale for which I perhaps a little too obsessively track the slow descent of my weight.

Wife asks me: Say, did you forget to pack those love handles?

Monday, July 28: Shopping for necessities, then get on the bikes to look for the horse-riding place where the little red-haired girl might take lessons. Takes ages to find, keep getting lost and having to ask for directions which aren’t much help. Don’t the locals venture outside? Finally find the place and arrange for an hour lesson the next day, then go swimming in the local open-air pool. Blazing hot, the air stuffy. The pool has generous green space and good clean water, refreshing.

Starting to feel relaxed and looking forward to lots of cycling.

Tuesday, July 29: Still very hot. Wake up at 0600, breakfast on the terrace then out on the road via Staufen up Münstertal to Neuhoff – about 6 – 7 km up the steep hill after Münstertal. Ran out of water or would have gone further, though the legs were starting to feel it. Still hot, so went swimming again at the pool. Took girl up the road through the fields to the horse-riding, read my book (Sarah’s Key) in a nearby village while she rode.

Wednesday, July 30: Got up at 0500, make coffee and have breakfast, then ride via Staufen and Bad Krotzigen to Freiburg. It’s hard to keep on the bike path and I go too far out of my way going via Staufen, but make it in 80 minutes. Freiburg looking a bit grimy in the early-morning light. Take money out of the bank then ride home. Fast ride, takes only an hour to get back because I go a shorter way. Lots of energy in the cool of the morning.

Thursday, July 31: Drive to Weil am Rhein to see a friend for a bike ride. Ride through across the Rhein and along the canal in the noonday sun, little shade but the riding wind help cool us a bit. Nice view from the bridge over the Rhein at start of tour. Eaten by bugs at picnic. Home by six in time for a little swim.

Friday, August 1: Wake up early and ride 7km to the bridge over the Rhine to France. Closest town is Fessenheim, a hairy armpit of a place with not much to speak of except a supermarket which might be good for bakery goods some day next week. Lots of energy riding, full of strength and feeling very fit.

Fessenheim I learn later is home to the oldest nuclear plant in France, a ticking time bomb of which the locals might one day glow with pride.

We’re really pleased with the little red-haired girl’s riding teacher who points out what she’s doing well and gives her lots of encouragement. Paid 25 euro for two lessons, next week every day four hours per day 100 euros from 9 to 13.

germany-deutschland-staufen-weinfest-wine-festivalEvening: ride to Staufen, find spot to watch Wine festival opening parade. Very colourful like last time – 10 years ago now – many happy faces, beautiful costumes, magnificent horses. Filmed six minutes.

Film quality is rather poor – should I get a new camera?

Met the ladies downtown a little after the opening speeches, walk along the main festival area with all the wine-tasting tents, restaurants, fast-food stalls. Bumper cars and mirror house with little red-haired girl, then all together to a nice restaurant right next to Town Hall where we had Maultashchen with red and white wine. Very pleasant evening.

The bike ride home a gentle push from soft wind. Lovely skies, beautiful light. I know I couldn’t capture it on film.

germany-deutschland-heitersheim-evening-sky

Saturday, August 2: Plans to ride at least 50km per day are dashed by weather and a creeping sense that I am pushing 50 and should just slow down a little.

Sunday, August 3: Get up later than planned to go riding but end up heading to Münstertal. At the Rathaus I turn right up the road beyond the mining museum and up into the forest. It was not as challenging as the Belchen at first but then it got quite steep for about three km before leveling off somewhat. I took the wrong turn thinking I could hook up with the Belchen route and end up going back up a 5km hill – in the end that was OK because the view was great and the traffic not too bad for a Sunday. The road surface is uneven and wet in a lot of places, so I have to be very careful on the way down.

germany-deutschland-heitersheim-malteser-schloss

That afternoon we head to the Johanniter / Malteser Schloss for what is supposed to be a tour starting at three. Instead a lady at the museum gathers a half-dozen of us around a very well-made model of the place and proceeds to lecture us for a half an hour about various things they were sorry they didn’t know or were unsure of the facts due to this being lost or that being misplaced, her prattle peppered with references either too local or devoid of context to have any meaning to a general audience. The ladies listen politely for about 10 minutes before wandering off, I tough it out another 10 before joining them. I have never gotten so little out of a tour as I do at that place. In the end I gather what little information I can about the Maltesers and what they do, then after a slow walk around the grounds where we catch up with the lady and her one tour guest to be told more information they unfortunately didn’t have or were unsure of, marvel at the stately old Linden tree in the courtyard and the tranquility of the place, then wander off back home.

After dinner we drive up the Belchen to get a view of the valley in the late evening. That’s our plan, anyway. When we were last here we did that every time, but now it’s impossible to get there by car. You have to park the car and either take the chairlift, walk or cycle up the last kilometer or so to the top. Too bad for us – we were looking forward to the view after driving up all that way.

Monday, August 4: Drop the little red-haired girl off at her riding stable for the start of a five-day program of riding, fencing, stick fighting….we’re not sure exactly, but it’s going to be on display on Friday, so we’re all looking forward to that.

germany-deutschland-sulzburg-jewish-cemetery-judische-friedhofWe slowly make our way to Sulzburg where we walk through the quiet back streets past the old Synagogue – heavily damaged but not burned to the ground like so many others in November, 1938 madness due to its proximity to surrounding buildings. After a visit to the church of St Cyriak – Romanesque style and one of the oldest in Germany – we continue up the valley and come upon the Jewish cemetery at the side of the road right next to an active camping site. Despite its location it is a hauntingly beautiful place, full of old, indecipherable headstones all covered with at least a stone or two. The site goes back up into the forest in a series of five or six terraces, in some places the growth of trees having pushed the gravestones to one side. I think that you don’t need to build a huge monument in the centre of Berlin if you want to have a memorial to the Jews in Germany – just come to this cemetery and look at the depth and breadth of the community that used to live tucked into this one narrow valley until they were all carted away, the last ones in 1942. A monument erected near the entrance in 1970 commemorates them.

We keep going up the valley to the Waldhotel, an old hotel hemmed in on three sides by dark forest at the end of the road. A four-star hotel with no guests, like many places in the area makes you wonder what they all do to keep going. The place is devoid of tourists, which suits us just fine.

Tuesday, August 5: Drop little red-haired girl off at her riding stable and ride bikes south to Badenweiler. Somewhere along the way we got lost going through the vineyards and end up pushing our bikes most of the way through the forest and then inching down a steep path to finally get back to paved road. K was pretty tired and almost gave up as we ascended the road to the thermal baths to the town of Badenweiler on the other side. We had planned on swimming but instead grab a coffee and a bite to eat to replenish our energy at a Stehcafé.

I take the little red-haired girl swimming in the afternoon after the day turns searing hot. In the evening K and I watch a German film: Schultzie.

Wednesday, August 6: The two of us drive to Badenweiler where we soak in the hot pools the rest of the morning. Badenweiler is quiet like the rest of the area, with stately old homes and hotels mixed in with ugly-looking 70s low-rise apartment blocks. The pool complex is quite beautiful, though we don’t explore all of it. I want to go through the museum next door, which is an open, glass-covered excavation of Roman baths.  Isn’t this all getting a bit tedious for you?   If you’re still reading – Bravo!  Most would have started skimming long ago and entirely missed the following:  If you look in my sidebar for the address, send me an email with “I can’t believe I read the whole thing” in the subject line and I will donate €10 to charity for every person who does so.  I’m dead serious.  I bet I won’t have to pay a dime.

Thursday, August 7: An absolutely exhausting day. K drops little red-haired girl off at the riding place and then comes back home. We decide to go to France by bike – a little skip across the Rhein. The wind’s at our backs and we make good speed through flatlands and over the narrow bridge across the river, sailing along until we come to the walled city of Neuf-Brisach, an old fortress with impressively thick walls and a very wide moat. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, an endowment without which the both of us are quite convinced it wouldn’t attract half the visitors.  Sure the walled exterior is interesting, but when I think of the place now all I remember is it being hot, dusty and a bit depressing.

We have to get back to pick up the little red-haired girl, but with the huge tailwinds to get us there it would have been necessary for K to ride just as fast the way home, a nearly impossible task for her. So I leave her there and ride back all the way to Heitersheim against the wind, taking 75 minutes to do the 24 kilometres. I drive the car to Breisach on the German side where I met K, who left Neuf-Brisach soon after I did for the short trip across the river.

Friday, August 8: Did not watch anything to do with the Olympics. Dropped little red-haired girl off and then went back home, enjoyed time with K and then we went to watch the girl’s horseriding play of knights and armour and fighting sticks.  In between riding lessons they’ve been working on it all week – designing and making the costumes, practising stick fighting and archery.  They pull it off beautifully.  K remarks how much better the girl can ride now.

In the afternoon we drive off in search of a private distillery to buy some schnapps. We end up having our ears talked off by a very nice lady about 15 years our senior who tells us all about the schnapps, the taxes on the schnapps and how they’re calculated according to which kind and how long it’s been stored, her family and what they do, her family’s time in Namibia, her voyages to South Africa… in the end we buy three bottles of schnapps – cherry, pear and “wheat yeast” Hefebrand anyway – plus two beautiful bottles of a cognac-like drink from 1997 – one we will drink right away, another we’ll save for our 1997 girl.

After the distillery we head for a town in the hills but but get lost and end up at a forest guest house where we have a quick coffee. A two-man band is playing for a private party in the main room – an anniversary celebration, we think. We ask if we could get to Wittnau, which is on our way, and the waitress – who probably does this sort of thing for kicks – says no problem, just take the left fork at the end of the road up the hill. We do that but somehow get sidetracked yet again, this time on tracks through the forest which became narrower and narrower. We eventually come across a barrier so have to turn back – as it turns out we made an entire circuit of the mountaintop through the forest and were forced to back- track the entire way. We’ve wasted too much time to bother making the detour back to the place to find the waitress and tell her where she can stick her little left fork at the end of the road.

In the evening we watch the highlights of the Olympic opening ceremonies – an unbelievably grandiose spectacle, gigantic display of choreography. EuroSport highlight show fails to show the entry of the Canadian team. Idiots.

I realise that’s the first TV I’ve watched in two weeks.  Haven’t missed it at all.

germany-badenweiler-roman-ruinsSaturday, August 9: Get up early for a ride to Bad Krozingen to get some money out of the bank, early ride, no traffic, not that strenuous. Raining a bit. The three of us drive to Badenweiler to the Casseopia Therme, a lovely thermal bath complex built right beside the ruins of a Roman bathhouse which we visit later. Very well-preserved, interesting displays and information of Roman life and times in the area.

On the way home through Bad Kitzingen we stop for a few minutes right in the centre of town to listen to a 30-piece brass band play music at a wedding party, the guests all dressed up and holding glasses of sekt outside on a terrace. After three Abba hits we’re on our way again – an unexpected musical interlude.

Sunday, August 10: Drive to Freiburg to meet some friends, who lead the way east through Freiburg and the Black Forest to our first meeting point for a one-way walk through the Wutachschlucht, a lush gorge. The kids have a huge amount of energy at the beginning and skip off into the forest to hide and play games, but as the hike wears on that drops off to zero. None of them complain about how tired they are or whine about when it will be over. Not bad for 16 km.

germany-freiburg-wutachschlucht-hiking-bridge1

Many hikers on the trail, but for a Sunday it’s not overly crowded. Our lunch picnic spot at river’s edge was beautiful. The gorge has many waterfalls, side streams, glades, meadows, colourful cliffs, mossy banks soaking in braided streams, through varied terrain that is never too difficult. At one point the river partly disappears to travel through an underground passage to rejoin the main river about an hour’s walk further down.

The drive back takes us through an isolated valley, a detour around a traffic jam as it turns out. Our friends leading the way stop by a pullout near the end of another jam just at the start of another gorge and tell us that it’s already too late to go for a drink and bite to eat, and we agree. Take another hour to get to Freiburg. I run a red light – STUPID – in Freiburg, and get flashed with the camera, so we’ll have a hefty fine to look forward to on the way home.

france-chateau-castle-haut-konigsbourg-alsace-alsatiaMonday, August 11: Over to France and a visit to Haut-Königsbourg, a castle from the middle ages completely rebuilt from old plans over nearly a decade and completed in 1908. Beautifully restored, wonderful details in the walls, doorways, inner courtyard, hunting room, fireplaces, ceramic ovens, artillery room full of implements of death and destruction, wild boar on the walls, view into valley superb despite ran and light fog. Unfortunately they let way too many people in at one time. You sometimes have to stand around in the rooms before you can get an unblocked view of certain areas, waiting for the Italian tourists and their screaming bambini or the lesbian British couple with an SLR fetish as they get another shot of an obscure detail or the French tour group being told they were in yet another room where many many years ago food got eaten, drink got drunk and pipes got smoked. To pass the time at one point I remind the little red-haired girl of her primary school sex education class with a little ditty from times past:france-castle-chateau-haut-konigsbourg-alsace-alsatia-wild-boar-wildschwein

In days of old

When knights were bold

And condoms not invented,

They wrapped their socks around their cocks

And babies were prevented.

france-frankreich-chateau-castle-haut-konigsbourg-alsace-alsatia

Through rain-soaked vinyards we slowly wind our way home, stopping off in St-Hypollite, a little burg at the foot of the mountain. I buy a dried-out chocolate croissant then wander down the street to a courtyard where we order a café au lait and a café crème from a rather haggard-looking lady operating a small winery. She brings us the coffee – a little too quickly – in cups each of which have a dime-sized chunk chipped out of the rim. We look at each other and despite the fact I’m in holiday mode and tending to avoid confrontation, pick them up and bring them back to the lady, mustering the most accent-free French I can to say that I am very sorry, but the condition of the cups left us both in such a disgusted state that we are unable to remain in her esteemed establishment. “But I can make you fresh coffee in a new cup,” she says. No thanks.

Tuesday, August 12:

Rained all day, did nothing except read, hang out, watch a bit of the Olympics. Walked by myself in the rain to see the Roman villa onthe outskirts of Heitersheim – a modest excavation of a much larger site. Not as interesting as the Roman baths at Badenweiler.

Wednesday, August 13: Bathed in Bad Krotzingen Thermal baths. Not as nice as Badenweiler perhaps – less interesting scenery in the background, a bit more crowded but that could just have been the day we were there – not much room for lounging inside, needs a bit of sprucing up… one of the bathrooms reeked of piss, something you don’t usually expect when you’re paying 15 bucks entry fee.

zurich-free-bike-rentalThursday, August 14: Drove to Zurich, got lost twice in the city trying to find our friend’s place, arrived half-hour later than planned, wife and friend gabbing in the kitchen making tea, neither realises my wife has put the electric kettle under the gas flame and has started to melt the thing.   My wife picks it up and says, hey, it’s burning underneath – I stick it under the tap to stop the smoking, open a window … the thing is trashed so we buy her a new one.

Friday, August 15

Suspicion which dawned yesterday that Zurich is perhaps the most horrible city outside of Venice to try to drive a vehicle through is now confirmed. Good thing we always go there by train or fly.

13
Nov
08

Sleepwalking through Turkey: Was I even there? Part 3 of a series

Part three of a series of 10, a very long letter sent to my friend in California about my impressions of Turkey this time around.  Part one is here, Part two here.

Istanbul has grown tremendously. A whole slew of high-rise buildings has been thrown up in a new business district in the north of the city, thoroughly changing the skyline in that direction.

turkey-istanbul-bosphorus-bridge1The grand bridge over the Bosphorus – did you know it’s the 4th-longest suspension bridge in the world? – still looks austere and functional by day, but at night it’s now ablaze with colour, ever-changing hues of pink, purple, red and orange, switching colour in rhythmic timing like a huge neon sign swishing in a concave sweep literally from one continent to the other.turkey-istanbul-bosphorus-bridge-with-boat

Those with money definitely have it to burn. One Saturday night we were watching the bridge’s light show from the window of our friends’ place in Cihangar when there began a succession of fireworks displays, each lasting a good 10 minutes. Birthday parties, stuff to impress friends with.

There were times, though, where I thought I must have been sleepwalking the whole turkey-istanbul-sultanahmet-blue-mosque-minaretmonth so long ago, because I seemed to be experiencing for the very first time so much of daily life that hits you full in the face.

How could I have forgotten so much of it? Was that call to prayer really so loud? Was the first blast of the day really that early, and, in their cacophonous wailings, did they all seem to be trying to outdo one another?

I realise there are now 70 million in the country instead of 40, 16 million now crowding Istanbul, but do you remember seeing turkey-istanbul-blue-mosque-from-window-of-hagia-sophiagreat throngs of people around the mosques for Friday prayers? The mosques were overflowing on Friday, the faithful spilling out into the courtyards and onto sidewalks, each with his own rug and facing Mecca, the passersby walking respectfully around them.

turkey-istanbul-many-cats

Were there really that many cats walking around the city? There are cats EVERYWHERE in Istanbul, some gathered in groups of 30 or 40, and dogs too – usually lying around sleeping. You sometimes see little piles of fresh meat or kibbles-n-bits left out for them, though strangely, there’s very little in the way of scat on the sidewalks. Don’t recall dogs or cats at all back then, nor did I mention them in my journal.

I don’t recall seeing the aqueducts at all.

turkey-istanbul-people-on-tram

The trams in Istanbul are now as new and modern as anything you’re likely to find in Zurich or Amsterdam, and they’re pretty crammed in the downtown area at any time of the day. I don’t even remember seeing trams back then, though there must have been, because they’ve preserved two lines from the olden days. turkey-istanbul-tram

turkey-istanbul-tram-tunel-taksim-istiklal-caddesiOne sweet and charming old rattletrap that reminded me of San Francisco streetcars runs the entire length of Istiklal Avenue from Tünel to Taksim Square, squeezed full, often with kids hanging on the side. The other line has new equipment but runs – believe it or not – on the oldest underground stretch of rail in the world after that of London – an inclined railway built in the 1860s. It costs 40 cents and takes you from near the foot of the north end of the Galata bridge up to the south end of the old tram’s line.

I wish back then we’d explored a little more beyond the realm of the Sultanahmet side, but unfortunately we didn’t get over to Beyoglu at all except – if my journal is anything to go by – one night when we went out with a couple of Istanbullus to a bar for some dancing and singing. The traditional stuff, not karaoke, and put on by and for locals, not tourists. I remember having a lot of fun that evening.

turkey-istanbul-ferries-galata-bridge-eminonu-sultanahmet

Third in a series.

25
Oct
08

Camel toe, erect rock penis and the valley of love

What, you were expecting something else? 

Sorry, but if you were trawling for porn like this twit who left a comment a few days back and didn’t like what he found on this blog, perhaps the following are more to your liking…

Genuine camel toe

Rock camel toe:

Erect rock penis:

And this I leave to your imagination:

All to be found in the Love Valley near Göreme in Cappadocia, Turkey –  just one of the many places we poked around, in, over, under and through for the past two weeks.

More later. 

Will be doing laundry for the next week and a half.

05
Oct
08

Backtracking to Istanbul and Cappadocia, Turkey

The first time I was in Turkey, I was barely 21 years old.

Spring, 1981. Leonid Brezhnev was leader of a powerful Soviet Union which had invaded Afghanistan less than two years before, neighbouring Iran and Iraq were at the outset of a hideously brutal war lasting eight years and costing upwards of 1.5 million lives, Saddam Hussein was America’s friend, Turkey had gone through a coup d’etat and was in the grip of martial law, some brain-addled second-rate actor from the forties was barely six months in the White House and some nutjob had already taken shots at him, Paris Hilton was four months old and soiling her diamond-studded diapers but at least back then her ass was covered with something, and I was nearing the end of a year-long journey which had started out only as a planned two months riding the rails in Europe via Eurailpass.

The winds kept blowing south and east, and I kept tumbling with them.

They say you shouldn’t backtrack in life, that if you’ve traveled to one place already you shouldn’t return lest the memories of the place be spoiled. No place stays the same, and neither do you.

That’s probably why I haven’t gone back to Israel, a place which has changed so much and that holds so many memories of unique experiences for me. I was there for a whole half year in the winter of 1980 – 81, working first as a ski patroller at Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights and then briefly as a kibbutz volunteer – until the day we got shelled by Katyusha rockets from over the border in Lebanon.

Hah! When my American girlfriend and I told everyone we were getting the hell out of there and heading to Turkey, they all said, whoa – dangerous place right now!

Of course it wasn’t, but it did turn out to be another journey that can never be repeated. We spent a month and reached as far east as the border regions with Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Iraq, travelling through areas which are now pretty well off-limits unless you willing to approach a simmering war zone or risk getting kidnapped for ransom. We were happy to be the only foreigners for hundreds of miles it seemed, and I wonder if going back to the safer areas of the country would be a colossal disappointment, an impossible comparison between a past burnished by selective memory and a present staring me straight in the face.

Selective memory – no kidding. I caught some bug and was sick for most of the the last two weeks in Turkey, surviving on boiled eggs and sesame-seed bread and returning home a sunken-chested straw-haired scarecrow.

So it was with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation that I pressed ‘”book now” last month to reserve flight tickets from Hamburg to Istanbul for a two-week trip later this month that will be one of discovery for my wife and the little red-haired girl, and of rediscovery for me.

We won’t be going anywhere near the turmoil in the far east, though. Our plans are to stay in Istanbul for five nights, then take an overnight train to Cappadocia for five nights, then back to Istanbul.  We have friends from our Hong Kong days now living in that city and we’re looking forward to seeing them, too.

About the photos: They were all taken in Cappadocia, a fairyland of cave dwellings, hobbit houses, fresco-covered walls of underground churches, whole cities carved out of soft volcanic stone.

My girlfriend and I travelled to Turkey before the country had its tourist boom. Most everywhere we went we were greeted or even followed by curious locals just wanting to get a better look at us. The lady in the blue blouse top-right in the photo above was an English teacher who glommed on to us one afternoon and gave us a tour of the town of Ürgüp with her friends, later inviting us all over to her place for tea and cakes. She was the only one of the bunch who spoke any English.

I have this flashback travel fantasy film that plays over and over in my head whenever I look at these shots of us with all those friendly women back then. I take a few prints back to the town, show them to shopkeepers, rail station clerks, taxi and bus drivers, hotel receptionists, and ask them if they recognise any of the people in the photos.

“Yes!” one of them says. “Her! I know who she is!” And I’m given the address of the woman whose youthful image they’ve recognised, and after much searching go knock on her door, eagerly introducing myself and thrusting the nearly 30-year-old photo into her view.

“That’s you!! I’ll say. “Do you remember me? Do you remember sitting for this picture?”

She’ll look up at me and smile and invite us in for tea and cakes.

And in the meantime she’ll have learned some English… or German, or French… and we’ll finally get to know each other a bit. I somehow feel like I know them anyway, I’ve showed their image to so many people over the years.

25
Aug
08

Be cool: take a vacation where it’s really uncool to take a vacation

Now that we’ve already established the fact this blogger is one of the uncoolest you’ll ever meet, it must also be let known the condition has spread to the rest of the family. For not only did the three of us thoroughly enjoy our holiday in southwestern Germany this summer, we’re thinking of looking for a place there to invest in for our later years. You know – retirement? That inevitable condition so far in the future you never really get around to thinking about it until it’s just around the corner?

You think Europe in the summer and you think hordes of tourists, right? I usually think of the travel agent sketch, actually:

… and there’s nowhere to sleep and the kids are crying and vomiting and breaking the plastic ash-trays and they keep telling you it’ll only be another hour although your plane is still in Iceland and has to take some Swedes to Yugoslavia before it can load you up at 3 a.m. in the bloody morning and you sit on the tarmac till six because of “unforeseen difficulties”, i.e. the permanent strike of Air Traffic Control in Paris – and nobody can go to the lavatory until you take off at 8, and when you get to Malaga airport everybody’s swallowing “enterovioform” tablets and queuing for the toilets and queuing for the armed customs officers, and queuing for the bloody bus that isn’t there to take you to the hotel that hasn’t yet been built. And when you finally get to the half-built Algerian ruin called the Hotel del Sol by paying half your holiday money to a licensed bandit in a taxi you find there’s no water in the pool, there’s no water in the taps, there’s no water in the bog and there’s only a bleeding lizard in the bidet.

Well thank God it wasn’t like that where we were. That’s because in contrast to many areas which are seeing a boom in the worst type of tourist traffic thanks to cheap flights, stag parties, horrendously gaudy theme parks and the usual beaches, the area south of Freiburg, Germany and north of Basel, Switzerland on the western edge of the Black Forest officially known as Markgräflerland has been doing a horrible job selling itself as the Tuscany of Germany.

The result is a refreshingly tourist-free area where you can hang out and enjoy the finer things in life without having to wait for a table, endure boorishly loud cellphone conversations, line up for tickets or listen to whatever happens to be playing on some twat’s boom box.

Drink wine? You’re surrounded by vineyards. Like to mountain bike? Trails everywhere. Road bike? Ditto. Swim, steam, sauna, spa? We had three places to choose from all within cycling distance. Dig archaeology? The Romans were all over the place and left it in ruins. If you have any energy left you can go hiking, canoeing, paragliding, horse-riding…

And friendly? Hell, even the teenage girls smiled and said hello to me on the street. That hasn’t happened since I was a teenage boy learning the horizontal pole vault.

And if you ever get sick of choosing what to do and just want to leave Germany for the day you can always pop over the border to France or Switzerland. Zurich, a city I could move to in a flash if only we had the jobs there to make it feasible, is only an hour away, and the under-rated Basel is even closer.

Over the next few days I hope to drop a post or two about what we got up to. It will forever cement our uncool reputation, but I don’t care. We loved it. Beaverboosh, take note.

21
Aug
08

Talking about dead sheep with an 11-year-old

On holiday in southern Germany last week the little red-haired girl and I are cycling a long, slow, straight line uphill through cornfields, plum and apple orchards, vineyards and pasture on the way to her horse-riding lesson. Brought up on the flatlands of northern Germany she wimps out on anything above a 2% grade, so we had a lot of time to get a good long look at the herd of sheep munching and bleating away on the left.

One of them wasn’t doing much munching or bleating. Actually, he was more or less sunning himself, flat on his back in the centre of the field.

Looks like that sheep’s out to get a tan instead of a meal, I tell her.

You mean the one in the middle there?

Sure, that one there lying on its back. You know what, it hasn’t moved a bit since we first saw it. Maybe it’s dead?

It could be. They say that if a sheep lies on its back, the weight of the internal organs pushes on to the heart so much, it stops beating.

Really? Aw come on, don’t gimme that! Where did you hear a thing like that?

I read it in Wendy.

Wendy? But that’s a horsie magazine for girls! (starting to get giggly together now) What on earth are they doing talking about sheep in a horse magazine?

I don’t know, you can look it up when you get home.

But you’ve got about 500 of them back home you picked up for two euros at that flea market. What, I’m supposed to find the one page in the whole stack of Wendies that talks about dead sheep? (Adopting squeaky professorial voice.) Wendy’s Fun farm fact! A sheep will die if it lies on its back.

Stop it! (She nearly falls of the bike.)

Maybe I could look it up in the Enyclopedia of Dead Sheep we packed along with our toothbrushes and combs?

STOP IT!

Stop what?

Stop being funny! I can’t ride!

OK. But seriously, can that be true? And anyway, why would a sheep roll over onto its back in the first place?

I don’t know. But I’m sure I read it somewhere.

Maybe it only happens to really fat ones.




The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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