Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Travel Website with a Difference - Heinz Stucke

Over the last forty-five years, Heinz Stucke has been cycling the world. He has covered around 550,000 kilometres (340,000 miles) across almost 200 countries, circling the globe at least ten times. This has consumed 20 passports. For nearly the entire time, he has ridden on the same trusty old three-speed bicycle. His story is simple which makes it more remarkable.

Stucke supports himself by selling some of the 100,000 photos he has taken along with a booklet with his story. His various scrapes include being arrested, shot at, accidents, illnesses and having his bike stolen (and recovered). An interview given in 2000 reveals a little of his unassuming nature and his passion for the world. It is an adventure story like no other.

More photos of his ventures are available.

Photo source: Wikipedia

Other Websites with a Difference
Where the Hell is Matt?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Photo of the Week - Toucan (South America)

Our small group had walked for an hour in extreme humidity and climbed a rickety, wooden tower to be at the height of the tree-tops. We'd been standing around for a further hour with little activity when a toucan fluttered into a far branch. The photo is taken at maximum zoom, scanned in and then zoomed some more with Photoshop, which makes it a little bit hazy. But the excitement of seeing this most iconic South American bird with its oversized beak and colourful plumage was something I will always remember. A few minutes later it flew away but those few minutes are to be treasured.

We were told it was a red bill toucan but given that the bill is black, yellow and blue and that the only red is a small dash on its breast and tail, I've never been very convinced. Maybe someone who knows their toucans can confirm which species of toucan it actually is.

Other Wildlife Posts
Photo of the Week - Mountain Gorilla (Africa)
From Dead Duck to Bird Heaven (India)
The Pink Pageant (Flamingoes, Africa)
Flight of the Condor (South America)
Top Ten Wildlife Experiences

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Fall Kaleidoscope (New England, USA)

Through autumn or fall, the forests of America's New England and parts of Canada are cloaked in a blazing palette of reds, oranges, yellows, golds and mauves. Through Vermont, this kaleidoscope of colour is highlighted in the Green Mountain National Forest which runs like a rugged backbone through the centre of the state, while in New Hampshire, the White Mountains and the Kancamagus Highway are the highlights.

Called leaf-peeping locally, the annual fall foliage is almost an obsession with some people. The newspapers publish a daily map to help pinpoint the optimal locations for the vibrant colours. Travellers in cafes, maps sprawled across small tables, speak surreptitiously of strategies to weave down sneaky backroads to get a better view. Whatever your method, ensure you get out and walk or ride among the narrow lanes and streets of the small townships and rural areas of New England. The forest areas are threaded with a variety of relaxing walking paths and trails.

The vivid white paintwork and timeless beauty of the high-steepled churches, elegant government buildings and old homely inns in the small towns of Vermont and New Hampshire make a wonderful backdrop for the riotous rich colours of the maples, spruces, oaks and beech trees.

And if all this colour builds an appetite, Ben & Jerry's rich premium ice cream in northern Vermont is among the finest I have ever eaten. What could be finer than gazing over the majesty of the autumn colouring feasting on a waffle cone filled with pecan butter cup and karamel sutra ice cream.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Reindeer Paté, Cloudberry Pie and Sweat (Kuopio, Finland)

In the centre of the country, Kuopio could be an advertisement for the travel wonders of Finland. Set among spruce forests and surrounded by sparkling lakes, Kuopio comes complete with ski-jumps, an orthodox church and the world’s largest smoke sauna. Combine that with fascinating local cuisine options and Kuopio offers a wondrous, single day sample of Finland at its finest.

The best view of Kuopio is from Puijo Tower perched neatly on a hill of the same name. It offers a panoramic vista showing the sprawling town with its numerous lakes and thick forests. On this same hill are the ski-jumps. How people stand on top of these, ski down and launch themselves in the air for over 100 metres defies comprehension and one's mental state. I clung on tightly for fear of getting even close to the jumping zone.

With its harsh climate, the Finns are very practical with food. Both elk and reindeer feature along with a heavy emphasis on fish. If you can remove the thought of munching on Rudolf’s relatives, reindeer is offered in various forms from steaks through to sausages. Not feeling too guilty about the well-being of Rudolf’s relatives, I had reindeer paté on a heavy rye bread and it was decidedly tasty. The reindeer marketing department are effective as three different Finns in conversation told me that reindeer was extremely good for you as its meat is remarkably lean, carrying only two percent fat.

I also managed to taste a slice of kalakukko which is simply fish baked in a loaf of rye-bread. Despite my description, it tastes quite divine and is very filling.

However, the highlight was dessert. In the short summer months with their long meandering days of sunlight, berries and mushrooms grow everywhere. And of the number of different varieties that grow, cloudberries are the Rolls Royce of Finnish berries. Their creamy, slightly sharp, semi-sweet taste is so popular that it is celebrated on the Finnish two Euro coin. Anyway, it certainly tasted damn good as cloudberry pie.

Jätkänkämppä, which fortunately you don’t have to pronounce to enter, is the world’s largest smoke sauna. It is an experience not to miss. Only open on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, it takes all day to heat and prepare. The smoke collects inside and is released before being opened to the public. With your entrance fee, you get some quick instructions and two towels – one to wear around your waist and one to dry off with at the end.

Simply undress (completely), shower and wander into the wall of heat, which smacks you in the face as soon as you enter. Normally, Finnish saunas are separate and nude, but Jätkänkämppä is mixed with the towel used for modesty. Through the steam and dim light, there is a very eclectic group of people. Several travellers, all looking warily around trying not to commit any social faux pas sit along side local families, couples and men and women of all shapes and sizes. One man the size of a beached whale (which is an unusual sight in Finland) tosses a ladle of water on the coals. There is a shot of steam along with a sharp hissing and the gentle aroma of wood (but no smoke!).

When you feel well-cooked, quickly slip on your swimmers and dash for a quick plunge along a short wooden jetty and into the nearby lake. Don’t get me wrong – the lake is ridiculously cold even in the midst of summer – but the contrast of the water’s temperature gives you a sensational burst of tingling freshness right through your body. In winter, a hole is cut into the ice on the lake. The locals tend to sit outside on a bench for a few minutes relaxing and chatting. This was where I learned about the value of reindeer meat among other broad and varying topics. This exercise is repeated another couple of times until you simply feel great. It is time to settle on the benches outside for one last time and enjoy a therapeutic, cooling, but expensive beer.

Fortunately, English is widespread with quite a number of visitors in summer. Finnish is probably the most incomprehensible language I have heard anywhere in Europe. Sadly after a number of days, my Finnish only extended to sauna (pronounced SOW-na) and kiitos (thank you). As much as I like to learn a few words of the local language wherever I travel, when a local told me (and wrote down) that “hello” was said as hyvää päivää, I simply resigned myself to relying on the English skills of the locals.

Finland tends not to feature on many European itineraries as it is a little further away and a little more mysterious. It is an extraordinary place of friendly, spirited, proud people keen to share the natural beauty and rich culture of their country. Any nation with more saunas than cars must be worth a visit. And Kuopio is a small town that captures Finland so well and should be on a future travel plan.

Source: Cloudberry Photo

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Photo of the Week - Notre-Dame du Haut (Ronchamp, France)

Perched on a hill and built in the mid-1950s in Eastern France, this asymmetric chapel is one of the world's modern architectural travel wonders. Designed by a guy named Le Corbusier, it features a wall with many irregular, different sized windows which provides an extraordinary lighting effect especially with the stained glass in the interior. The roof appears inspired by a crab shell and seems to float above the building itself. Apparently when it rains, the water pours off this roof creating an impressive natural fountain.

"Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread" - Le Corbusier

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

An Obsession with Size (Australia)

Driving between any two Australian towns or cities, you are likely to encounter an oversized and artificial roadside attraction. Typically built of fibreglass, plastic or metal, over 150 of these objects litter the highways and by-ways. Some are true works of art and important symbols of the well-being of a town. Others are built as the centerpiece of a commercial attraction while others are simply ugly and tragic. Quite a number are there purely as advertising gimmicks encouraging tired motorists to pull over and take a much needed break (and spend some money) on long distance drives.

The first of the Big Things, the Big Banana in the beautiful beachside city of Coffs Harbour recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary and several have passed their thirtieth. They have become such an icon of Australia that Australia Post recently issued a set of five stamps illustrating some of the better known ones. Many homes have matching kitsch souvenirs in teaspoons, tea towels, fridge magnets or bottle-openers.

Certainly, there is plenty of fruit represented - The Big Apple, Big Orange, Big Pineapple, Big Banana and The Big Mango would make for a tasty and juicy fruit salad fit for a giant. Australia’s close tie with the land is also memorialised with several Big Cows, several Big Sheep and a Big Chicken. There is even a Big Blue Heeler presumably to round up and corral the big sheep.

Indigenous Australiana can be found in the forms of The Big Koala, Big Kangaroo, Big Galah, Big Crocodile, Big Cassowary (a large and endangered flightless bird) and Big Tasmanian Devil while our affinity with the sea is enforced with The Big Crab, Big Prawn, Big Trout, Big Lobster, Big Oyster and Big Barramundi (Australia’s best known fish).

The discoverer of Australia, Captain Cook has been suitably enlarged in a regal pose in northern Queensland while the most famous and notorious of our outlaws has been immortalised with The Big Ned Kelly in Glenrowan, where he was finally captured. The Big Gumboot highlights Tully as the Australian town which receives the most rainfall while Tamworth celebrates its position as Australia’s country music capital with an enlarged version of its prized golden guitar awards.

A Big Ayers Rock provides a fuel stop but is many times smaller than the real thing. Yet at over 300 metres in length The Giant Earthworm is simply bizarre, though it attracts over 200,000 visitors per year.

In my view, the saddest “big thing” is the Big Potato found in the spectacular rolling green hills of Robertson. Somewhat embarrassing to the locals and lying idly in a field, it is in desperate need of a coat of paint and a little love. Some locals have irreverently christened it “The Big Turd”.

Why are they all here? Maybe it is Australia’s renowned sense of irreverent humor. Maybe they are there to entertain and amuse both overseas visitors and long-distance road travellers. Whatever the reasons, most Australians and many overseas visitors will have a photo album containing at least one family shot in front of their “Big Thing” discovery as they ventured across this diverse island continent.

Wikipedia lists a fairly complete list of Big Things

Other Australia Posts
Invasion of the Termites (Pinnacles, Western Australia)
And Then There Were Eight (Victoria)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Photo of the Week - Opera House and Olympics (Sydney, Australia)

With the Paralympics drawing to a close in Beijing and with the stunning displays of the opening and closing ceremonies still fresh in our mind, I have dug out a few old photos of my home town Sydney during the Olympic Games in 2000. The Opera House was bathed in different colored lights each evening while the Olympic rings adorned the iconic Harbour Bridge. A few more photos with different Opera House lighting follow. The camera was balanced on a rubbish bin for most of the photos!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Top Ten Travel Wonders of Rome - Part 3 (Rank 1-3)

This is the final installment of Rome's top ten travel sights, revealing the top three wonders. Read about the other travel wonders of Rome firstly.

3. Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums

Possibly the world’s finest museum, centuries of accumulated art and treasures by the popes are shown in an overwhelming and staggeringly rich collection spread through a labyrinth of more than fifty Vatican rooms and palaces. The journey culminates in Michaelangelo’s extraordinary frescoed walls and ceiling in the pope’s private chapel (though it feels more like Grand Central station at peak-hour than a private chapel). As famous and familiar as the artwork of the Sistine Chapel is, nothing prepares you for the experience and privilege of viewing the luminous colours and artistic detail in the numerous ceiling panels. Even more remarkable is the vivid celestial blue colouring and graphic detail of The Last Judgement painted on the massive altar wall. Other superb elements of the museum, with many also featuring superb wall and ceiling frescoes, include the Raphael rooms, the Map Room (with its collection of 40 painted maps of the time along the walls) and the Tapestry Room. More unusual rooms include the Carriage Room which has a collection of the pope’s cars and horse carriages from the last century and a room showing the many gifts, both typical and bizarre, presented to the pope in receiving guests and in his official visits around the world.

2. St. Peters Basilica and Piazza

The centre of Catholicism, St Peter’s Basilica cavernous interior holds over 60,000 people. It is so large that even despite the teeming crowds, there are areas to escape for moments of quiet reflection. Climbing Michaelangelo’s architecturally majestic dome with its superb frescoes offers a stellar view of Rome. The basilica is packed with glorious sculptures and statues, the most famous being Michaelangelo’s Pietá which now cowers behind bullet-proof glass in the back corner of the basilica. Underneath the main basilica are the Sacred Grottoes, the final resting place of many of the popes with St Peter himself believed to have been buried under the main altar. Note that the attendants carefully enforce a modest dress standard which includes long pants for men. In front of the basilica is St Peter’s Square, enshrined by two semi-circular colonnades, four columns deep and marked with an Egyptian Column in the centre. A dark paving stone marks each of the focal points where the columns of the colonnades perfectly align and hence only appear to be one row deep.

1. Colosseum

The opportunity to being seated among 50,000 Roman baying for blood and thrilling at the ritualistic slaughter of wild animals must have been the prized ticket of the day. Although somewhat in disrepair and with almost permanent scaffolding enveloping parts of it, the Colosseum remains the iconic symbol of Rome to this very day. From inside, you get a great view of the complex two-level underground system of tunnels and cells to allow quick access and exit for the various lions, other animals and gladiators for the various events, battles and shows. Encircling the seats are the sophisticated and well-designed entrances and exits to the various layers and classes of seating. Getting a guided tour or having a detailed guidebook with you will add a lot to unravelling the mysterious details of this seminal amphitheatre.

Whatever your favorite Roman travel wonder, this is a city with something for everyone. Superb food and drink in the elegant piazzas, a rich cultural history, world famous monuments from many ages, the heart of Catholicism, spirited proud people, chaotic traffic and this eternal feeling that you are wandering in a living museum, Rome is a city you'll always want to return to. This top ten only touches on the many pleasures and travel wonders that Rome offers.

Other Top Ten Travel Wonder Posts
South America

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Top Ten Travel Wonders of Rome - Part 2 (Rank 4-7)

Part One of this posting discussed the first three travel wonders of Rome, this extraordinary city with over 3000 years of history. Here are the next four treasures in this eternal city.

7. Piazza Navona

One of Rome’s favourite gathering places (especially in the late afternoon), this town square teems with people enjoying overpriced coffee, watching gifted artists paint or simply sitting on the stone seats chatting animatedly with their friends. The jewel of Piazza Navona is Bernini’s stunning Fountains of the River symbolizing sculptures of the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio Plata, considered the four great rivers of the world at the time.

6. Catacombs

Along the world’s first autobahn, the gun-barrel straight Appian Way (Via Appia), are a number of catacombs – secretive, underground burial places for the persecuted Christians of the early centuries A.D. Mile after mile of narrow tunnels barely a metre wide are lined with niches carved out of the soft volcanic rock, where the linen-clad bodies were placed covered by a slab engraved with the details of the diseased. Guided tours give you an experience of these tunnels along with the frescoes along some of the walls.

5. Pantheon

Slightly dull from the outside, the Pantheon is over two thousand years old and in a remarkable state of preservation. Originally a temple to the gods and now a church, it is an architectural wonder, with both the height of the building and the diameter of its extraordinary dome being 43.2 metres (142 feet). It is staggering to note that this dome of such scale sits without reinforcement, supporting its own weight. The very top of the dome is open, like a giant eye working as an ancient skylight, inviting a spiritual light to radiate through this grand temple (and probably providing some cooling relief on those hot Roman summer days). Artist Raphael’s tomb is here. Spend some time inside to marvel at this ancient architectural wonder.

4. Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

The political, administrative, public and religious centre of the Roman Empire today appears as little more than a collection of columns, marble blocks, fascias and rubble. Obtain a map showing the structures of the time and the whole area starts to become alive. Walking around, you can start to make sense of the area and visualise temples, triumphal arches, churches, shrines, meeting places, royal residences and other public buildings. Looking over the forum is the Palatine Hill, where the remains of the residences of the regal and wealthy Romans lie. The ruins of a small athletics stadium lie among the palaces and houses in this area.

Part Three shows the top three travel wonders of Rome.

Other Top Ten Posts
South America

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Top Ten Travel Wonders of Rome - Part 1 (Rank 8-10)

Although a modern, busy and lively capital city, wandering the streets of Rome is akin to exploring a museum of travel wonders with 3,000 years of history. Around every corner, you’ll discover historic monuments, elegant architecture, art treasures, buzzing piazzas, superb food and timeless churches and palaces. Encapsulated within Rome, the Vatican is the home and soul of the Catholic Church. Walk the Eternal City and enjoy the chaos, the romance, the liveliness and the history which forms this alluring city.

While there are numerous treasures in this chaotic and warm city, I believe that the top ten wonders of Rome are as follows, presented in three separate postings.

10. Trevi Fountain

At one end of a small piazza drowning in people throwing coins with gay abandon over their shoulders is the famous Trevi Fountain and sculpture of Neptune riding in his chariot. While it only takes a few minutes to battle the crowds and enjoy this sight, custom dictates that the throwing of the coin will ensure that you return to Rome. Why take a chance of not returning to this majestic city? Several thousand Euros are gathered each night and donated to worthy Roman causes.

9. Tivoli Gardens and Villa D’Este

To escape the frantic pace of Rome, little could be more refreshing than spending a few hours in this garden wonderland. Containing over five hundred fountains, cascades and water pools, this beautifully designed garden lies several kilometres from the centre of Rome. While the villa isn’t very exciting, highlights such as the glorious garden boulevard of a Hundred Fountains earns its entry into Rome’s Top Ten. For a more central park without the fountains but including a superb sculpture and art museum, visit Villa Borghese.

8. Spanish Stairs (Scalinatta della Trinità del Monti)

One of Rome’s places to be seen, this majestic wide staircase rises from the Piazza di Spagna to the distinctive rose-pink twin-towered Trinità del Monti church. The top of the stairs offers a great vista of Rome. Often decorated with colourful flowers, people are actively discouraged from sitting on the stairs and eating there is strictly forbidden. In the area are some of the fanciest and most elegant shopping boutiques and fashionable cafes, though whatever your wishes, it is simply a lively and energetic area to visit.

Part Two reveals the next four travel wonders of Rome.

Other Top Ten Posts
South America

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Photo of the Week - Relaxed!

The hoary marmot, a species of ground squirrel, likes nothing more than to bask in the sun. You can't get more relaxed than the one pictured above! They are a photographer's dream as they don't seem to be afraid of humans, typically going about their business even when people are around. They live in the hills of Alaska, western Canada and the northern-west part of mainland USA. They make a trademark whistling sound to warn their colleagues of danger. A number of places in Canada and the USA have "Whistler" in their name for this reason.

Other Photos of the Week
Mountain Gorillas (Africa)
Ice Hoodoos (Bryce Canyon)
Johnston Canyon (Canada)
Bad Hair Day

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