Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sydney Opera House Designer Passes Away

Joern Utzon (Jørn Utzon), the architect who designed the UNESCO heritage-listed Sydney Opera House (see photos in lights) with its unique sail-design died last night. One of the most iconic and identifiable travel wonders of the twentieth century, and along with many superb buildings crafted in his own country of Denmark, the Sydney Opera House will remain as a legacy to Utzon's creative genius for many centuries to come. Sadly, in dispute with the local government (since settled), he never returned to Australia to see the final result of his prize-winning design. Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize (the "Nobel Prize of architecture") and the keys to the city of Sydney in his distinguished career.

The lights will be dimmed this evening to honour the memory of this visionary man.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Old Man R.I.P. (New Hampshire, USA)

For many millions of years, the Old Man of the Mountain stared unflinchingly across Franconia Notch (a few miles north of the superb Flume Gorge) perched precariously on an upper granite wall, almost 400 metres from the base of the gorge. The Old Man had the enigmatic look of a craggy Mona Lisa, neither smiling nor frowning. His fixed gaze oversaw a park full of great walking trails, fine forests, narrow niches and crevices and thunderous cascades from the heavy winter snows. His sturdy reliable form was appropriately adopted as the state symbol for New Hampshire, colloquially described as the Granite State.

His image was popularised on stamps, licence plates, highway markers, souvenirs and a US quarter coin. Indeed, it seemed difficult to move more than a few metres anywhere in the state without sighting his familiar fatherly image.

Daniel Webster, a New Hampshire statesman ensured the Old Man's fame when he grandly said "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but in the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men."

Sadly despite every effort to stabilise and support the aged figure with cables and concrete, he sadly toppled from his stately perch some five years ago, in May, 2003.

It seems appropriate to remember this fine New England gentleman on Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Caverns, Crooks and Castles (Predjama, Slovenia)

In a small hamlet only twenty kilometres south from the capital, Ljubljana and twenty kilometres north of the remarkable Škocjan Caves, lays the dramatically sited medieval travel wonder of Predjama Castle. Seemingly growing from a yawning cavern, it was cleverly built in the twelfth century to take advantage of the natural high walls of the rock face.

In the late 1400s, renown thief and baron, Erasmus owned the castle. Murdering one of the close relatives of the ruling Austrian emperor of the day, he was ordered to be captured. For over a year, the emperor’s men lay siege at the castle and its one drawbridge-managed entrance, effectively starving Erasmus out of his castle.

Little did the captors know that the castle was built on a natural limestone cave which Erasmus used to secrete food and water into his fortress. So brazen was Erasmus that he used to throw food at his besiegers to tease and frustrate them. He was finally betrayed by a double-crossing servant who marked the baron’s restroom with a flag. Answering nature’s call, the baron was splattered by a cannonball while perched on the “royal throne” – a truly ignominious way to die.

Today the castle continues to peer out across the delightful small village of the same name. The rooms are lightly furnished with reproductions of what the castle would have been at the time including wax models. You can almost imagine a riotous feast in the Knight’s Hall and feel the pain wrought in the torture chamber. Most intriguing is the ingenious adaption of the castle with the natural rock. A tour of the lightly decorated cave under the castle is conducted by helmeted torchlight (no electric lighting in this cave) and includes graffiti from the 1700s in the form of the owner’s inscribing their names in blood.

To add to the medieval feel, a jousting tournament takes place in the middle of every summer but the highlight is undoubtedly the majestically but improbably sited castle over the inky depths of the surrounding cave.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Humble @

“What do you call the curly symbol in the middle of an email address?” asked a slightly dishevelled Italian girl over breakfast in surprisingly crisp English.

It was a strange, almost nerdish opening query in the breakfast room of a cheap hotel and caught me a bit by surprise. Most breakfast conversation in these places tend to be about where you are from, where you have been or are travelling and questions to compare notes about what is worth visiting in the current town.

I responded that we call it “at”.

“I know that, everyone says that, but what is it really called”, she fired back disappointed at my meagre suggestion. She proudly stated “We call it chiocciola which is a snail in English."

I was simply lost for words. Chiocciola did seem a much more appealing choice. In a language as rich in words as English, which seems to have a word for every possible circumstance, why is there no real word for the “@” symbol, or am I simply to ignorant to be aware of it. At a nearby table, a Frenchman indicated that they sometimes use escargot in the same manner (though they also have a duller more typical term).

It started me into an embarrassing sequence of shameless nerdish breakfast queries over the following days to discover that most languages have far more flamboyant words for the innocent “@” symbol, which has become so prevalent in our life. After all, I wasn’t likely to meet any of these people again so the odd nerdy inquiry seemed pretty safe.

The answers provide a rich variety of visual descriptors. The Danes and Swedes favour snabela which translates as elephant trunk, while the Finns call it kissanhäntä or cat’s tail. Some Finns utilise the melodic miukumauku which is their description for the sound a cat makes. The neighbouring Russians use man’s best friend (sobaka) in their email addresses.

In the Netherlands, people use apestaartje or little monkey’s tail while the Germans (klammeraffe), the Serbs (majmun), the Bulgarians (majmunsko) and the Slovenes (afna) prefer the entire monkey.

In Hungary, the slightly less pleasant kukac (maggot) is favoured. Similarly, the Thais use their word for wiggling worm. In the Czech Republic (zavináč or rollmop herring) and Israel (shtrudel or strudel) food is the target of their description. Finally, the Filipinos go for utong or nipple.

I certainly don’t lose sleep over it but I do wonder why English didn’t manage a more elegant word for this modest but ubiquitous symbol of the electronic age.

Other Recent Musings
Lest We Forget!
Belgian Pride?
Generosity and Gemütlichkeit

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Photo of the Week - Two Lane Highway?

Roads in central Africa are amongst the worst in the world. With a total lack of maintenance and the pressure of heavy summer rains every year, the road conditions greatly restrict the passage of trucks between the major cities and countries of this mesmerising continent. Giant potholes litter the road adding to the bone-jarring journeys. Saying that, the natural jungle roadside scenery is simply stunning.

The worst element on these narrow roads is meeting a truck coming in the opposite direction. Even with precision driving, at times there appears no way that two trucks will be able to proceed on their way, but somehow they always seem to manage. This is the way in this challenging continent.

Other Africa Posts
Top Ten Wildlife Travel Wonders
Gorillas in the Mist (DR Congo)
Photo of the Week - Mountain Gorillas
The Great Congo River Journey (DR Congo)
The Pink Pageant (Kenya)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rifling Through the Mystery House (San Jose, USA)

In the heart of the virtual capital city of the technology-rich Silicon Valley, San Jose, with its miles and miles of functional characterless modern IT buildings sits a bizarre anachronistic house built over 100 years ago. Belonging to Sarah Winchester, wife of the famous rifle maker William Winchester, this haunting (and haunted) mansion, set in superb gardens, took over 38 years to construct (working 24 hours per day on every day of the year) and features around four stories, 160 rooms, over 1200 windows and three elevators. It has never been completed, work stopping the day she died.

Apparently Mrs. Winchester was a deeply spiritual woman and remained deeply aggrieved at the loss of her husband. She sought out and was told by a medium that the rifle created by her husband had caused much death and misery and that the spirits were extremely upset. To gain peace and appease the spirits, she would need to build a new home for herself and never stop building (maybe the spirits were carpenters!).

Though apparently lucid, Mrs Winchester must have been seriously disturbed as her mansion proceeded haphazardly and she directed the builders to construct a number of strange oddities designed to confuse the spirits. Some doorways are hidden in cupboards while one opens onto a steep drop to the lawns below. Most chimneys are false including one which doesn’t even extend to the roof. One doorway is blocked by a brick wall and one staircase leads nowhere at all. An unusual staircase simply travels in a circle.

Her unsettled mind demanded that she slept in a different bedroom each night – mind you, she had 40 from which to select. Standing less than five foot tall, the scant furnishings suit her diminutive stature.

With an inexhaustible supply of money from her husband’s estate, the house also includes magnificent gilded lights, wooden-inlaid floors, Tiffany glass windows and many modern conveniences for the time. These include push-button gas lights, state-of-the-art indoor toilets and plumbing, cooling and steam heating systems, hot showers, and special elevators to help the aged owner up stairs.

To add to the mansion’s obsession with luck, many decorations are centred around the number “thirteen”. Most windows have thirteen panes of glass, most staircases contain thirteen steps and the walls are constructed with thirteen panels. A kitchen sink contains thirteen drainage holes. One story tells of an expensive European chandelier being altered to add a thirteenth candle and many common fittings have thirteen elements.

This strange travel wonder sits incongruously in this ultra-modern area of the United States, yet provides a novel afternoon touring the chaotic, rambling mansion of an eccentric, obsessive woman with more money than sense.


Aerial and staircase photo are courtesy of Winchester Mystery House, San Jose.

San Jose Things To Do on raveable

Monday, November 17, 2008

Photo of the Week - Prayer Wheels

Prayer wheels are a popular and colourful sight in the monasteries and gompas of Buddhist Nepal, Tibet and India. Engraved in Sanskrit, people spin the wheels (always clockwise) to send out their prayers or mantras and are apparently the equivalent of speaking the mantras. Watching monks slowly walk and spin the wheels seems to bring a very serene and peaceful state.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Soaking Up Culture (Bath, England)

Graced with timeless Georgian architecture with its focus on perfect symmetry and simple elegance and coupled with a world famous Roman spa, Bath is surely one of England’s greatest travel wonders. On discovering natural hot springs, the ancient Romans built baths and associated therapeutic qualities to the mineral-rich waters. They dedicated the site to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.

As the Roman Empire failed, the springs were forgotten until the spa town was reinvigorated with the royal patronage of Queen Anne. Refined buildings were erected to house the stately and prosperous folks of the day.

The Royal Crescent is a superb semi-circular honeycomb-coloured limestone building of thirty houses with a lush lawn as frontage.

Equally superb is The Circus, a masterpiece which forms a complete circle cut into three equal segments by roads which lead into the complex. All roads face straight onto one of the segments. Inspired by the Roman colosseum, the three storeys showcase three classical columns – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Many famous people have called The Circus their home including William Pitt (ex-Prime Minister), the painter Thomas Gainsborough and African explorer, David Livingstone.

The Pulteney Bridge remains as one of only four bridges in the world with shops across the entire bridge. Spanning the Avon River, near a small cascade, it is built in the style of Ponte Vecchio in Florence. To build an element of relaxed and refined living, the city forefathers planned parklands to run alongside much of the Avon River in Bath, encouraging people to stroll the river banks or sit and enjoy the city’s charm.

Nearby Bath Abbey with its huge vaulted ceilings has a point of significance for Australians. It is the memorial to Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the colony of New South Wales on European settlement in Australia in 1788. Similarly, a memorial to Isaac Pitman who invented shorthand is in the abbey.

However, the Roman Baths are undoubtedly the highlight of Bath. Built below today’s city level, the view from the terrace offers the first view over the baths. The most inspiring element of the baths is the advanced engineering used by the Romans to manage the water flow and control the heating.

Hot, warm and cold baths were all built within the public bathing complex. The sacred spring can be seen through the steam within the complex along with the orange-coloured deposits from the rich mineral content.

If you wish to test the medicinal qualities of the water, a sample can be drunk from the running fountain in the elegant glass-domed Grand Pump Room next door to the Roman Baths.

It is my favourite English city with its relaxed elegance and a treasure trove of travel wonders. Sip the waters, stroll the relaxed streets, enjoy the striking Georgian architecture and be astounded by the ingenuity of the ancient engineers in the remarkably intact Roman Baths.

Things To Do on raveable

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest We Forget

Today is the day that many Commonwealth countries (Great Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc), France, Belgium, and others remember and pay respect to mark the end of World War One. The armistice was signed to end hostilities at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

In cities, towns and villages across these countries, people observe two minutes silence to recall the supreme sacrifice paid by young people to defend the many freedoms we enjoy today. Walls of names on these monuments stretch into the distance and identify the hellishness of war. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the end of the war and extremely few very elderly men survive from this time, all well over 100. The last Australian WW1 soldier passed away recently while only three British WW1 soldiers remain.

The symbolic red corn poppy which grew wild across the muddy and harsh battle fields of the flatlands of Flanders in northern France and Belgium is worn near the heart - the red being symbolic of the bloodshed of the fallen soldiers.
Along with the sole bugler playing The Last Post, the words of the Ode of Remembrance are read out:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.

I recall visiting two of these cemeteries in France some years ago, both near Villers-Bretonneux in northern France - beautifully maintained and places of true serenity and peace. The vast majority of those headstones marked young men who were less than 25 years of age, many in their teens and many unidentified. Even the hardiest of souls couldn't help but be moved.

There is a resurgence in interest in understanding, remembering and paying respect to the fallen from these past wars. I find it reassuring that the memories are strengthening with time rather than fading.

Lest we forget!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Visiting the Smallest Town in the World (Hum, Croatia)

With a population variously quoted at 17, 18 and 23, the tiny medieval travel wonder of Hum on the Istrian peninsula in western Croatia is officially listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest town in the world. Such a moniker swells this village of little more than a dozen grey stone houses with hundreds of visitors in the summer months. The overcast spring day that I visited, there seemed to be no more than twenty people in the town (and let’s face it, you could see both streets standing in one place in the mini main square).

The size of the town belies its rich history of around a thousand years. Its town walls and fortifications remind people of the regular battles fought over the centuries.

The Church of St Jerolim is richly adorned with fragments of brightly coloured 800 year old religious frescoes and is overseen by an impressive bell tower.

Hum’s main claim is as the final point on the Glagolitic Trail, a walking path through a number of small villages over seven kilometres with eleven significant points of interest which commemorates this ancient Croatian script. The Glagolitic alphabet was introduced in the ninth century by Saint Cyril to translate the bible into the local Slavic language. While this script has faded into obscurity, this same saint was associated with and has named after him the Cyrillic alphabet (used by a number of languages including Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian).

In Hum, a large copper door guards the entrance to the main stone passage into the town. The door includes words of welcome on the large door knockers and twelve shields symbolising the calendar months. Through the passageway are a number of stone tablets with ancient Glagolitic engravings.

The small village pub offers a homebrewed aromatic brandy called humska biska made from an ancient secret recipe which incorporates a cocktail of herbs including white mistletoe. The locals claim is has strong medicinal qualities with curative powers for a whole host of internal issues including high blood pressure. It certainly provides a relaxing afternoon tipple overlooking the olive fields and vineyards dreaming of what life must have been in this little Croatian hamlet, now a modern travel wonder with the impressive billing of smallest town in the world.

Other Central European Posts
The Aquamarine Necklace (Plitvice Lakes, Croatia)
Bountiful Bled (Slovenia)
Underground Fantasy (Skocjan Caves, Slovenia)
Personal Space (Halstatt, Austria)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Photo of the Week - Hey, Good Looking!

This most majestic brown bear is caught in a reflective moment in the spectacular Misty Fjords National Monument of South-East Alaska.

Other Bear Posts
Bears, Crabs and Eagles on the African Queen
Feeding Frenzy (Alaska)
Top Ten Wildlife Travel Wonders

Other Recent Wildlife Photos
Mountain Gorillas

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Belgian Pride?

Many years ago, travelling in Belgium, I heard a story in a pub about Camel cigarettes. This happy-go-lucky life-of-the-party soul pulled a packet from his pocket and proudly said that the designer of this packet was a Belgian and that he had left proof. I’m not a smoker but had a careful look at the packet and couldn’t see anything.

He asked me if I’d seen Manneken Pis near the main square in Brussels. Like all tourists, I had wandered pass and taken the obligatory snapshot. I didn’t have the heart to mention that I was a little underwhelmed as it was smaller than I thought it would be and looked a little worse for wear. Mind you, visitors thronged around it and flashlights shot like a movie star was walking down the red carpet.

There appear to be a number of stories surrounding the origin of the statue. The most popular holds that this small boy extinguished the fuses of explosives setup by an attacking army using the most natural of means, thereby saving Brussels.

Anyway, there is a claim that the creative artist behind the imagery on the packet of Camel cigarettes was a Belgian. He strongly disliked the head of marketing and to spite him, he hid an image of the famous Belgian symbol in the upper front leg of the camel to forever highlight Belgium in this cigarette's most enduring symbol. The folks at Camel have never confirmed this and consider it as nothing more than people’s imagination.

I couldn’t see the image until it was pointed out to me. Having stated that, there does appear to be a strong likeness - the right arm on the boys' hip and the left arm directing the flow.

What do you think? Can you see a likeness? Is it beyond a coincidence?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Climbing the Coathanger (Sydney, Australia)

Harry Potter and James Bond have done it. So have Prince Harry and tennis great, Martina Navratilova. Even Cameron Diaz managed it with her typical glamour and style. Not sure what you are thinking, but I am talking about climbing to the top of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Groups of around a dozen embark on this journey every ten minutes. From afar, they look like trails of ants eagerly beavering towards the sugary-sweet highlight of standing atop this metal meccano giant (at 134 metres above the water) and savouring the luscious view along Sydney’s majestic natural harbour. On clear days, the vista extends well past the heads of the harbour and inland to the hazy Blue Mountains. On top of the world, you can gaze over the ferries of Circular Quay, the patrons of the glistening Sydney Opera House and the stunning Sydney skyline. Below cars hasten across this thoroughfare while trains rattle across every few minutes, bringing a gentle shudder across the entire bridge.

Priced at an eye-watering A$180 (it only costs a car $3 to drive across and it is free to walk across at road level), it is an exhilarating experience to walk up ladders and around the girders and supports of this critical transport link, previously only accessible to the bridge painters and workmen. The price includes a group photo and a certificate to remind you of the adventure.

Initially security seems harsher than at airports, though it is performed with far greater humour and good will. No jewellery, loose clothing, cameras, coins or wallets are allowed and pockets must be empty. You clamber into a pair of less than flattering but comfortable grey and blue overalls and sign a disclosure saying if you fall off, then it is your own fault. Mind you, you quickly find out that it would be difficult to manage as you are permanently clipped onto the bridge. Caps, headphones (to hear the guide’s description and instructions) and sunglasses (and wet weather gear if needed) are fixed onto your overalls. The guides jauntily describe data about the bridge such as the bridge contains over six million rivets.

Stepping through a metal detector to ensure that you really don’t have any secreted metal objects and a breathalyser test is conducted to ensure that you are sufficiently sober to climb (you must meet the same standard as a driver of a car), a final briefing is offered before you embark on the climb.

The entire tour runs for around three hours and is a treasured way to experience this most elegant travel wonder and view the glistening blue waters of Sydney Harbour. After all Harry Potter and James Bond would only see Sydney in the best possible manner!

Other Australia Posts
An Obsession with Size
Invasion of the Termites (The Pinnacles)
And Then There Were Eight (Great Ocean Road)
Photo of the Week - Olympics and Opera House

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