Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Drinks Around the World: Chimay Beer

Last month, Lifecruiser initiated an international cocktail party run at the start of each month where writers highlight a notable drink from their travels or experiences.

For Travel Wonders last month was Pisco Sour from Peru and Chile, while this month's comes from the hallowed walls of a Belgian monastery.

Chimay beer, served in a specially designed and appropriate chalice glass (top photo is Chimay Red) is one of the world's few Trappist beers. Brewed by Trappist monks (who conduct their lives in near silence) within their abbey walls, with all money raised going back to the monastery or selected charities, their creamy beers are all strong on alcohol and very refreshing. My favourite of their three offerings is Chimay Blue, a dark, bitter beer (with a potent 9% alcohol). Unlike most beers, claims are that it improves with age in its bottle.

Also produced within the monastery as a perfect accompaniment is Chimay cheese, one variety of which is soaked in beer as part of its production.

So here is santé to all those international drinkers at our mid-year cocktail party.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Exploring the European Alps (Grossglockner, Austria)

The travel wonders of the Austrian Alps including Austria’s highest mountain is undoubtedly one of Europe’s finest drives. The Grossglockner High Alpine Road (Hochalpenstrasse) was one of the first roads purpose built for tourism, constructed as a government employment project during the harsh economic years between the two world wars. This 48 kilometre road with its 36 hairpin bends traverses lush farmland and the Hohe Tauern National Park featuring stunning alpine views of snow-capped mountains.

At the start of the drive, roadside farming works made from hay greet the drivers and cyclists. The road is a sightseer's paradisewith bays every few hundred metres where the vehicle can be stopped to enjoy the panoramic views while information boards highlight the mountain names, the history of the road and the flora and fauna of the region.

Notwithstanding the breathtaking scenery at every turn, four locations stand beyond all others. Firstly, the spur road to Edleweiss-Spitze, packed with cars on the tiny peak (and highpoint of the drive at 2,571 metres), overlooks the zig-zagging road up the alpine valley, white patches of snow pockmarking the verdant landscape. Over thirty 3,000 metres peaks are visible from this scenic amphitheatre. Consider the extraordinary engineering effort in the 1930s that shaped this panoramic thoroughfare.

At Hochtor, an excellent half-hour walk over a mountain crest reveals further alpine views and highlights an ancient trade route used by Celts and Romans several thousand years ago.

The second spur road leads to the four-storey visitor’s centre at Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Hohe. Dramatically sited below the towering Grossglockner peak (3,798 metres) and near the foot of the sweeping Pasterze Glacier, the centre contains exhibits, a small cinema, a cafe and a room to absorb the staggering vista. Inquisitive marmots scout around the rocks and grassy fields, busying themselves with their lives and encouraging visitors to provide some free food with their fun-filled antics.

As the road descends off the mountain tops into the valley below, the road weaves in the picturesque village of Heiligenblut. This cute village features a needle-spired church that contains a vial of Christ’s blood and a small cemetery with manicured lawns, colourful blooms and a superb mountain backdrop.

The high alpine tollroad of Grossglockner offers mountain scenery at its most dramatic, every turn highlighting snow-capped peaks and emerald green valleys. Designed for tourists, it is a comfortable drive (or challenging cycle) with lots of places to stop, walk and simply enjoy the fresh alpine air and stunning panoramas.

Other Central European Posts
Personal Space (Halstatt, Austria)
Waterfall Hidden in a Mountain (Switzerland)
Smallest Town in the World (Croatia)
The Aquamarine Necklace (Plitvice Lakes, Croatia)
Bountiful Bled (Slovenia)
Underground Fantasy (Skocjan Caves, Slovenia)

Map: Grossglockner High Alpine Road

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The World’s Steepest Street (Dunedin, New Zealand)

Renown for having a sheep population which outnumbers humans by twenty to one, New Zealand is also home to the world's steepest street. In the delightfully English town of Dunedin on the South Island, Baldwin Street obtains a slope of 35 degrees 19 degrees or 35 percent (that is, travel less than three metres for a one metre vertical rise). It is proudly signposted with the superlative claim.

The explanation has it that town planners laid the city out with neat grid streets from the comfort of their desks in England with no regard for the terrain or natural obstacles or without having ever been to New Zealand. The steep portion of the road itself is concreted as asphalt could potentially run in the warmer summer months.

Every year in summer, there is a race to run up and down Baldwin Street and some even venture up on unicycles.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Breakfast at the Floating Markets (Bangkok, Thailand)

Actually 100 kilometres south of the Thai capital and very touristy, a morning trip to the travel wonder of Damnoen Saduak is still worthwhile. Similar to the highway chaos in central Bangkok but on water, small canals (klongs) are packed with long narrow boats piled high with fresh produce or simple stoves and a surprisingly varied menu. Expertly piloted by determined straw-hatted women, boats jockey for prime position ready to stop at a moment’s notice to barter their goods or sell their breakfasts.

Undoubtedly, the favoured method to arrive at these colourful, noisy, congested markets is long-tail boat through backstreet klongs past tranquil fruit orchards and local people going about their daily lives – kids jumping excitedly into the dirty water or parents cleaning or cooking from their small traditional teak houses or tiny ramshackle huts.

All styles of breakfasts are possible from luscious fresh tropical fruit, through small round pastry dumplings, deliciously strong spicy noodle dishes, satay sticks and tasty seafood to unidentified sweets rich in colour.

Having changed from my first visit many years ago, today the market boats also happily flog various souvenirs, ranging from elegant silks and handicrafts to tourist trash, to willing travellers, losing a little of the market’s older appeal.

The market is humid and hectic with visitors so it warrants being particularly early. After breakfast as traffic peaks, it is worth hiring one of the boats for a while and enjoy the market chaos from the water and marvel at the manoeuvring skills of the paddlers.

Consider spending the afternoon having a Thai massage to recover from the rigours of a market morning. However the day is completed, Bangkok’s floating market makes for an entertaining and fun early morning provided your expectations aren't for too authentic an experience and offers a small insight into life on the Thai canals.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Intrigue of Thai Massage (Bangkok, Thailand)

Her hands explored my back with the assurance of a surgeon. An elbow eased into a knot in my shoulders brings a sharp shot of pain followed by a strange sense of relief. My arm is stretched backwards into an unnatural position, seemingly loosening tension from my stiffened frame.

I am in a corner of a plain room full of dozen thin mattresses, surrounded by the tuneful singsong conversation of masseuses, punctuated by occasional yelps of pain or relief. It was a relief simply to escape the suffocating humidity that wilted the most hardy of people and lay down in an air-conditioned room in loose-fitting cotton clothes which resembled hospital fare. A simple sign offered one, two or three hour sessions for the equivalent of a few US dollars per hour.

The masseuse started on my legs, working from the feet, stretching, prodding and probing every joint. Each toe is stretched and pressure is expertly applied to points of the calves and hamstrings often with a gentle rocking motion. Her hands, elbows, knees and feet are all utilised as she methodically works up and down my back and neck as if exploring for the solution to a complex puzzle. No square inch of my body is untended as the therapy continues down the arms before I am gently rolled over and the massage starts again from the legs.

The extraordinary feature of the massage is that the masseuse is blind. There is a belief that Thai massage is better performed by the blind, their sense of touch being attuned to locating the slightest irregularity in the body. I was impressed that the masseuse commented in broken English about the state of my lower back, long a source of mild pain and discomfort, working this region with a greater intensity and focus.

Many train at a Thai massage school several blocks away on the grounds of the stunning travel wonder of Wat Pho. Among the whirring of fans, masseurs and masseuses, both sighted and blind are trained in this ancient art.

In the neighbouring building, people admire a gleaming golden reclining Buddha. The gilded statue of almost fifty metres shows Buddha, laying on one elbow and with drooping eyelids, relaxed as if he could be chatting to a friend on a beach or viewing television. His feet (at three metres high and five metres long) are intricately carved with mother-of-pearl detailing multiple pictures with huge flattened toes patterned in spirals. Among the gentle aromas of incense, it has a serene and peaceful ambiance. Visitors worship silently while travellers try to discretely snap the awkwardly angled statue.

Around the temple among other colourful stupas are small statues and stones with carved details of a number of human figures. In the late 1700s , the Siamese king of the time consulted teachers, spiritualists and doctors who with their knowledge pooled with collective know-how on the human body. Lines indicating certain points of the body along with instructions capture the art of healing various ailments. This provides the blueprint for today’s Thai massage.

My head tingles as the face is cautiously massaged, rubbing around the eyes, stretching the ears and stimulating the scalp. Finally I’m asked to sit up, stretching my arms back and chopping away at the shoulder blades.

Changing back into my street clothes, I feel incredibly revived and relaxed. Shop carefully or ask advice, but having a Thai massage is a superb experience. Beforehand, wander the brightly coloured buildings of Wat Pho and the experience the staggering reclining Buddha and the detailed history of this wonderful art.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Photo of the Week - Fall in Vermont (Newfane, USA)

While out of season, I recently tripped across this photo from around ten years ago of the small town of Newfane in southern Vermont at the peak of the kaleidoscopic fall colours. The contrast of the white-washed county court house and church with the rich red, bronze and golden leaves makes for a visual feast. More photos from a trip through New England show Vermont in fall.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Lake of Dancing Icebergs (Jokulsarlon, Iceland)

In a country packed with natural travel wonders including thundering waterfalls, freaky rock formations, snaking glaciers and thermal pools, one of the most unusual experiences in Iceland is the glacial lake, Jökulsárlón, full of powder-blue icebergs. From nature’s perspective, this is a recent phenomenon related to the receding glacier with the lake only present for the last seventy-five years.

The smallish icebergs, having split from the front of an arm of Europe’s largest glacier (and one-twelfth of Iceland’s landmass), slowly waltz around the chilly glacial lagoon with the slow deliberate grace of tai chi. The icebergs are too large to enter the river outlet to the ocean. They slowly meander around the lake until the wind and water erodes them to a size where they can finally escape their lagoon prison.

Apart from the peaceful stroll around the lagoon’s shore, a half-hour journey on an amphibian craft weaves up close to the ice show, revealing the unusual formations carved by nature, the varying shades of blue cast in the chunks of ice and the attractive reflections in the brooding waters.

The film-makers love it with the setting being used for a number of features including two James Bond movies – A View to a Kill and Die Another Day.

Enjoy Jökulsárlón, a surreal travel wonder in a sombre atmosphere of gently lapping water, brooding grey clouds and blue-tinged ice giants silently circulating the cold lagoon waters.

Other Iceland Posts
Astride the Continents
Nature's Wonderland
Remote Sign

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Opera House Light Art (Sydney, Australia)

Sydney is currently in the middle of a three week festival based on lighting. Centrepiece of the festival is an ever-changing light display on the sails of the Sydney Opera House, based on the work of Brian Eno, whose work includes producing several U2 albums and composing the familiar short startup music for Windows.

A "Smart Light" walk through Sydney's historic Rocks area towards Circular Quay and the Opera House showcases around twenty light art sculptures. A festival focus is for the lights to be energy efficient and recyclable. As with all sculpture, the displays include the absorbing, bizarre and confusing.

Along with the Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art is lit in a changing stellar array of patterned lights, lighting the sandstone bricks but not the windows.

Words do little to capture the enchanting lighting display on the Opera House so hopefully a sequence of photos give some idea.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Travel Website with a Difference - Hitchhiking Around the World

In 2003, Frenchman Ludovic Hubler commenced a five year journey hitchhiking around the world spending nothing on transport between towns, countries or continents over the entire journey. Hubler refused all rides involving payment. In that time, Hubler travelled through 59 different countries covering around 170,000 kilometres in 10 ships (working on the ship) and 1,300 different cars and trucks.

His daily budget (described in detail in French) was US$10, including around 180 presentations to schools, clubs and universities. Hubler's somewhat chaotic site celebrates an extraordinary modern travel journey complete with superb cartoons of his adventures and numerous photos.

Hubler claims to have spent 20,000 hours (or 833 full days or 2.25 years) waiting for his next trip with a maximum wait of 28 hours. One single car drove him for five and a half days across the Sahara while another took him 1,700 kilometres down the east coast of South America. In India, Hubler got to meet the Dalai Lama who he deeply admires.

Hubler is penning a blog detailing his journey in reverse.

Hubler must have some fantastic stories to tell and surely goes down as the greatest hitchhiking traveller and a truly hardcore adventurer.

Other Travel Websites with a Difference

Heinz Stucke (cycling around the world)
Matt Harding (dancing around the world)

Photo and cartoon courtesy of Ludovic Hubler.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

All the World’s a Stage (Stratford-Upon-Avon, England)

If John and Mary Shakespeare had not borne a son, William, who proved to be the world’s finest English language writer and playwright of all time, then it is doubtful whether the travel wonder of Stratford would have progressed beyond a pleasant English market town. Rather, people gather in their hordes to make a literary pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon and “The Bard”. Stratford has captured and preserved aspects of the city centre around the early 1600s, especially anything remotely related to the writer and his family.

Doing a circular walk around town (the information centre has suggested walking tours marked on street maps), you can pass most of the major aspects of Shakespeare in time order starting at his half-timbered birthplace, containing an excellent museum detailing the shreds of understanding of Shakespeare’s life. Past Nash’s House, where the writer’s granddaughter lived, the grammar school (where Shakespeare likely schooled, though no-one seems to know for sure), another Shakespeare’s house and you’ll find the stately Hall’s Croft.

This elegant medieval mansion was the home of Shakespeare’s eldest daughter and her doctor husband. It hosts a creaky period feel with an intriguing display on the medicines of the time and a strong encouragement to stay healthy in those times.

Notably, High Street briefly escapes the Shakespeare-mania and is lined with well-preserved Elizabethan half-timbered houses from Shakespeare’s time with their low ceiling beams. Except for the cars, a bit of imagination could take you back to those times with the hubbub of people wandering to and from market for their daily needs.

Walking towards the Avon River, the Holy Trinity Church is the last resting place of William Shakespeare. Lit by fine stained glass windows and laying next to his wife in this stately honeycomb-coloured church, Shakespeare’s simple grave is marked by a curse in verse and a fear of being dug up:

      Good Frend For Iesus Sake Forbeare,
      To Digg The Dvst Encloased Heare.
      Bleste Be Ye Man Yt Spares Thes Stones,
      And Cvrst Be He Yt Moves My Bones.

Along the same river are the main theatres including the Royal Shakespeare and the Swan, the latter being modelled on Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre. Different plays were on different nights when I was there and are well worth experiencing to complete the Shakespeare experience (though tickets were difficult to get). In sunny weather, punting along the Avon is a popular pastime and shows the town at its best.

A kilometer west of the town along a marked footpath is the steeply-roofed thatched farmhouse of Anne Hathaway (top photo). With a resplendent flower garden, trimmed hedges and superb wood-carved four-poster bed, this is the most photogenic of the Shakespeare houses.

Stratford-upon-Avon has strained every thread of detail about William Shakespeare’s poorly documented life, preserving the half-timbered houses of the time. If The Bard isn’t your thing, there are any number other English town that have richer histories, better sights and are less crowded. But if your school studies sparked even an interest in our most famous playwright, then Stratford is for you and a chance to reacquaint yourself with a play that you studied some years ago. And while you are there, head another ten kilometres north and visit the travel wonder of Warwick with its immense castle and impressive church.

Other British and Irish Posts
Soaking Up Culture (Bath)
The Illuminated Manuscript (Dublin, Ireland)
A Bit of British (Gibraltar)
Jacob's Ladder (Cheddar)
Half-Timbered Houses (Lavenham)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Drinks Around the World: Pisco Sour

With a recent South American theme exploring the travel wonders of Nazca, Riobamba and colourful Caminito in Buenos Aires and a diet of Peruvian guinea pigs, this week's photo is the favourite South American cocktail of Pisco Sour. I have joined Lifecruiser and many others in celebrating an international cocktail party.

The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Chile and Peru. It is made with pisco, sugar syrup, lime juice, egg whites and bitters and is a refreshing afternoon drink.

So here is salut to all those international drinkers at our first cocktail party.

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