Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Little Yellow Train (Languedoc-Roussillon, France)

A small bright yellow train with cherry red trim has meandered its way through the French Catalan Pyrenees in the Languedoc Roussillon region near the Spanish border, connecting remote and isolated mountain villages for over 100 years. Popular with travellers, le train jaune tracks through dramatic alpine scenery over towering bridges, tunnels gouged through the mountains and a number of viaducts.

The train departs from the travel wonder medieval village of Villefrance-de-Confluent. Before boarding the train, a short walk to Fort Liberia that stands guard over the town helps stretch the legs. Offering a stunning view of parenthesis-shaped Villefrance, the view shows the tightly packed stone houses, narrow streets and intact (and UNESCO heritage-listed) medieval defensive walls that protected the small town for centuries from Spanish sieges. The village has lots of witches and broomstick models dangling from doorways and shop windows, protecting the population from the evil mountain spirits.

While chilly at first, the train includes two open carriages (they were referred to as les bains or the bathtubs) that gives the full effect of the fresh mountain air and the engineering marvel (built before World War 1) of getting a line through this mountainous countryside. The track bends and curls between mountains, ploughing into the inky darkness of a tunnel when no other paths are available. At several points on the journey, the train travels high via bridges and viaducts over the forested valley floor including the vertigo-inducing Séjourné Viaduct with its dramatic double-decker arching.

Tiny stations whisk past, the train only stopping at more major stops unless signalled by a passenger to stop. The lion’s share of travellers stay on the train for the entire return journey. The village of Olette features tall narrow houses that cling to the cliff edges with the confidence of mountain goats. Several of the villages appear frozen in time, their grey stony houses having weathered centuries of harsh winters.

The train is powered by an electric current along a third rail, produced by a hydro plant from a nearby dam (so it is a green train too!). And the train needs all its power too as it climbs to Bolquère-Eyne, France’s highest rail station at almost 1600 metres, with all the spirit of the “I think I can” children’s story.

More reassuredly, as the little yellow train crosses a plateau and tumbles down into the final stop at Latour-de-Carol, is the news that the train boasts three separate braking systems each capable of stopping the train alone. The train travels through lush farmlands, dotted with caramel-coloured cows and large rolls of hay readying for the harsh mountain winters.

It was strongly recommended to get off at Bourg-Madam (a hotel owner reassures me “Latour-de-Carol is boring”), three stops from the end, walk through scenic surrounds for around half an hour (up hill) across the Spanish border to the quaint town of Puigcerdà with its historic belltower and return in time to pick up the train on its return leg.

Operated by French rail (and so available on rail passes), the Yellow Train offers a refreshing and relaxing day among stunning mountain scenery and tiny medieval villages of yesteryear.

Photos: Séjourné Viaduct, Gisclard Suspension Bridge.
Map courtesy of SNCF (French National Railways).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mothers’ Boundless Love (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

The Irish super-group, U2 sang about them in Mothers of the Disappeared. These are every day Argentine mothers and grandmothers who lost their sons and daughters in the so-called Dirty War when they were seized by representatives of the military government of the time in the late 1970s. Most of the missing are assumed to have been tortured and murdered.

Every Thursday afternoon for over thirty years, this women’s group, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have gathered in the main square of Buenos Aires to seek reunification with their children and grandchildren. They walk, slowly and purposefully, in a large circle adorned by stylised white shawls painted on the ground. The painted symbols appear a little like white doves, the universal symbol of peace. The women wear simple matching head scarves in white, embroidered with the name or names of their missing children. They chat among themselves catching up on the weekly happenings.

Adorned with the city’s main cathedral, the presidential palace and several major government buildings, the Plaza de Mayo celebrates the May uprisings which earned Argentine independence from the Spanish in the early nineteenth century. The Mothers today who gather also seek their own freedom and closure in this main square which represents freedom protests from another eta.

Some appear worn down - maybe by the passage of time, maybe by a heavy heart over the lost of their young ones, maybe by the stark duality of the significance yet apparent futility of this weekly gathering. Others walk with a strength drawn from pride, unwearied by the years of fighting for reconnection with their loved ones.

One grandmother I spoke with indicated in her broken English that she had missed attending this walk less than ten times in all the years of this weekly pilgrimage of protest. Her will and strength made it seem to me to be the most important thing in her life.

Surely a mother or grandmother can show no greater love.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Photo of the Week - Blossoming Spring

As the northern hemisphere cools for the winter months, Australia blossoms into spring. This year the flowers appear especially vivid with a combination of hot sunny weather and short periods of soaking rain.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Little Switzerland in Luxembourg

The tiny travel wonder of Luxembourg, precariously sandwiched between France and Germany at a European crossroads has a woven web of hiking paths that crisscross the country. While the city features excellent historic walks such as the Wenzel Walk, the northern part of Luxembourg offers a tremendous array of walking and hiking options. With maps available from tourist offices and clear signposts with blue triangles marking the paths, hiking is one of Luxembourg’s most popular leisurely pursuits (after all, one-third of the country is forested). And there is no better place to walk than the grandly named Little Switzerland. While there is nothing alpine about this lowland region, the dramatic landscape gives some credibility to its moniker.

Start from the country’s oldest town of Echternach with its sprawling abbey credited to St Willibrord (a wily Yorkshireman who the locals believed cured epilepsy in the seventh century). With little thought over a strong steaming coffee, I selected E1 (see map), a suitable sounding walk of twelve kilometres. After a short but strenuous climb, a nice viewpoint (Troosknäppchen) offers fine vistas of the abbey and town.

The path follows the Müllerthal Trail (the miller’s path named from the numerous watermills that once existed on the river) quickly leading to densely wooded forests, lush verdant valleys and spectacular rock formations. Left over from the Ice Age, roughly hewn rock steps and ladders weave a narrow, twisting path between towering 20 metre high rock walls at times only wide enough for a single file of walkers.

This ancient landscape generates its own steamy microclimate of high humidity producing vegetation unique to Europe with moss coating everything in a carpet of green and ferns sprouting from small rocky crevices.

The trail leads through the evocatively named Wolfsschlucht (the wolves’ lair - top photo) that apparently sheltered wolves in times past. Continuing along a tiny brook, through the Labyrinth and past the giant single rock of Perekop, the trail leads to Hohllay. This is an old cave where traces remain where millstones were cut. Regular performances still run at the nearby amphitheatre, a wonderful natural location for plays, theatre and music.

Sharing lunch with a couple of hikers, climbers clambered up the sheer rock walls, the occasional yelp of a slipping climber being caught by his ropes breaking the peaceful forest ambiance.

Turning back along a small creek with tiny waterfalls, the path toured via Zig-zag Gorge (photo below right) and an atmospheric cavern called Räuberhöhle (thief’s hideout - photo left) before tracking the Sûre River back to Echternach.

It seems an accident of history that this tiny country exists as an independent country with its history of battles and wars. Indeed, the castles that litter nearly every rocky outcrop, gorge and small hill is a strong reminder of how many battles have been fought over the years for this scenic centre of Europe. It is a gift as the feisty and proud population of the self-promoted “Europe’s smallest big country” offer superb trekking through well-preserved forests broken only by the occasional muffled greeting of moien in the strange sounding German-like dialect.

Other Benelux Posts
1000 Years in 100 Minutes (Luxembourg City)
A City of More than Sex and Drugs? (Amsterdam)
Belgian Pride
Drinks Around the World: Chimay Beer

More details available from the Müllerthal Trail website.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

1000 Years in 100 Minutes (Luxembourg)

Since 963 when Count Siegfried first built a castle on a rocky outcrop overlooking a sharp bend in the Alzette River, various European powers have battled for control of the tiny state of Luxembourg. At times, the Burgundians, Spanish, French, Austrians, Prussians and Germans have all held sway over this scenic nation wedged between France and Germany. Despite a tumultuous history of almost permanent siege, this pint-sized nation has survived to modern times and now is one of richest per capita countries in the world. Luxembourg boasts excellent walks including the city-based Wenzel Walk and a superb nature walk in an area called Little Switzerland.

The delightful and well-signposted Wenzel walk (either guided or self-guided with a pamphlet) in the main city of Luxembourg and named after a 14th century duke captures elements of this history and culture, leading past ramparts, fortresses, tunnels, towers, bridges and walls, intermixed with bustling streets and panoramic views. The narrow valley gorges plunge sharply and deep from the rocky plateaus of the city, connected and spanned by various bridges and viaducts, ingeniously protecting and guarding this challenging terrain.

The walk starts at Bock Promontory and the scant remains of Count Siegfried’s Luxembourg Castle that started this rich history. The view from this point includes the Alzette river slicing the ancient district of Grund into two. Jacob’s Tower includes an audio-visual display describing the history. Underneath the Bock are a warren of tens of kilometres of damp tunnels (Bock Casemates) that allowed soldiers access to different parts of the city without surfacing and held provisions in past times. The various invading forces extended and added to these fortifications throughout the years and were utilised as recently as World War 2 as bomb shelters. Accessible for less than two Euros, they make for an eerie passage with a combination of small natural openings, weak electric lights, twisting staircases and occasional dead ends. These remarkable fortifications earned Luxembourg the title of Gibraltar of the North and have earned UNESCO heritage listing.

Some defensive openings to allow for guns or cannons offer stunning vistas of the Luxembourg countryside, the picturesque Old Town or river valleys.

The walk leads via the Corniche lined with stately pastel-coloured historic houses, through old protective city gates, over a medieval footbridge to the impressive Wenzel Walls and its moat. These fortifications were part of a three-ringed system of walls guarding the prized higher parts of the city and major crossing of the river.

The walk finishes near the city’s oldest parish Church of St Ulric with a walk along the green waters of the Alzette and the remains of an old lock system that could be used to dam the rivers as an extra obstacle for invading forces.

Descriptively promoted as 1000 Years in 100 Minutes, the Wenzel Walk, in under two hours, unveils part of Luxembourg’s historic battles for domination and the ingenious defensive fortifications built to protect this strategic historic city.

The tourist office has an excellent self-guiding brochure.

Map (without red lines): © Service des Sites et Monuments Nationaux / Luxembourg City Tourist Office

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sculptures in Nature's Gallery (Sydney)

On a sunny spring day, little beats walking the coastline of Sydney with its azure seas, golden beaches, verdant green strips and rocky escarpments. For over a decade for a few weeks, the walk between Sydney’s Bondi Beach and Tamarama Beach is turned into a huge outdoor gallery in Sculptures by the Sea. Many hundreds of thousands of people walk the two kilometre coastal track enjoying the outdoor exhibition of over 100 outdoor sculptures that litter the wondrous cliffs, parks and beaches.

With only a limited grasp of art, the sculptures to me vary from the remarkable to the silly. Some appear little more than a misshapen rock or molten plastic accident while others are stunning in their creativity, artistry and workmanship. The sculptures evoke all sorts of emotions among the people, from confusion and doubt to amazement and humour. The most striking to me are those that take advantage of the unusual surroundings for a gallery effectively using the cliff faces, small rock pools or beach surrounds as natural mount points for their artworks. Some spin, swing and rock elegantly in the gentle coastal breezes like the most expert of seabirds. Others are set in the ocean truly at the mercy of the sea’s moods and currents.

Sydney's Sculpture by the Sea is a wonderful introduction to the warm weather opening up nature's fine gallery to the creative powers of the sculptors.

Some photos of the exhibits from 2008 Sculpture by the Sea appear below. My camera failed me for this year's display. Which is your favourite sculpture?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Photo of the Week - Heidelberg Castle (Germany)

As a child, I recall reading Mark Twain's wry and witty account of travelling through Germany, Switzerland and Italy in A Tramp Abroad. It was one of the books that captured my interest in travelling the world. Twain spent three months in Heidelberg mystified by the world's largest wine barrel and including a wondrous description of the semi-ruinous castle and its stunning location overlooking the Neckar River and the city itself. It goes as follows:

A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude. Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes improved it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The World’s Largest Wine Barrel (Heidelberg, Germany)

Deep in the bowels of Heidelberg Castle is the world’s largest wine barrel. The Heidelberg Tun or Grosses Fass holds over 220,000 litres (58,000 US gallons) and stands an impressive six metres high. To encourage partying, a staircase leads to a dance floor installed on its top so people could drink and dance all evening!

With elegant deceit, the path through the castle leads past a smaller barrel at around a fifth of the volume (beautifully made with no hoops to hold it together) that could easily be taken for the famed Heidelberg Tun.

The sad news is that the barrel spent most of its long life empty. Originally used to hold taxes (paid in the form of wine) from the local winegrowers - the idea of such a mixture of wines brings a headache at the very thought! Savage axe marks remain in the barrel from where Napoleon’s soldiers attempted to access the golden liquid inside. They were unsuccessful but ironically, the barrel was empty anyway.

While the focus of this battered fortress is its wine barrel, the panoramic views over the red-roofed university city of Heidelberg, the old bridge and the meandering Neckar River are glorious and highlights the prestigious location of the castle.

Along with the ancient cooper’s tools and a strange clock, opposite the barrel is a statue of an Italian man, Perkeo. As a dwarf and an odd-looking character of amusement, he was appointed as the court jester and Keeper of the Tun. For a man of such short stature, Perkeo was legendary for his incredible consumption of wine. It is strongly rumoured that he only drank wine in his adult lifetime. On being ill nearing his eightieth birthday, the royal doctor advised him to drink water and refrain from wine. Despite his protestations, he drank the water and died that evening in his sleep.

In Mark Twain’s epic A Tramp Abroad, he eloquently ridicules the large empty Heidelberg Tun as follows: It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.

Perched on a grassy hillside overlooking Heidelberg, the castle dominates the city. Its war-torn history, splendid views, semi-ruinous state and adventurous stories make for an entertaining couple of hours exploring this grand castle. The focus on large barrels merely adds to the intrigue.

Other Germany Posts
The Fairytale Mining Town (Goslar)
A Timeless Promise (Oberammergau Passion Play)
Peering from the Eagle's Nest (Berchtesgaden)
Bacon Beer and Bishops (Bamberg)
The World's Largest Advent Calendar (Gengenbach)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Photo of the Week - Waratah (Australia)

In the midst of spring, Sydney is awash with colourful flowers and blooms. The state floral emblem of the waratah is spectacular with its large deep red flower. The hardy waratah scrub suits the sandy soils of the area and even regenerates if burned to a crisp after a savage bushfire.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Europe’s Finest Cave? (Frasassi Cave, Italy)

Only thirty years ago, two kilometres south of Venice (and a hundred kilometres south of the mosaic travel wonder of Ravenna), Italian cavers stumbled across an extraordinary wonder of the world. Considered by many to be Europe’s finest show cave (though Skocjan Cave in Slovenia is stunning), shining their torches into the first huge cavern must have taken their breath away.

The cavers named the massive cave hall the Ancona Abyss after their nearby home city and from the seemingly endless pitch black hole that they bravely abseiled a descent of two hundred metres. Today an artificial tunnel enters the huge cavern at ground level. Having grown over millennia from dripping water, the huge stalagmites that jut twenty metres into the air are dwarfed by the room able to hold most of the world’s cathedrals.

This room contains unusual formations called palm trunk stalagmites formed from the water dripping from such a height that the drip splashes vigorously creating a roughened exterior like that of a palm tree.

Through the five rooms on the tour, the cave regular uses soft blue lights to complement the standard lighting to highlight the incredible purity of the formations. While coloured lighting in caves is often gaudy and kitsch, the tasteful lighting in Frasassi highlight a number of delicate formations and doesn't detract from the experience.

The tour is littered with the typically imaginative names for formations including Niagara (last photo), Fairy Castle (right) and Organ Pipes that highlight the finest and most unusual of a treasure trove of cave decorations.

A carpet of calcite crystals lies perfectly flat marking thousands of years of growth in an undisturbed lake, the surface marking the height of the lake. The lake level has since dropped leaving a crystalline floor, delicately thin and sparkling as only nature could create.

The third room includes numerous small stalagmites reflected perfectly into a crystalline lake and is appropriately name the Hall of Candles (top photo). The backdrop of this lake are narrow column, albino white in the colour of pure limestone and untainted and with no discolouring by any mineral element. Most traditional cave formations have hints of brown from iron, green from copper and various other shadings from other mineral impurities picked up as the water flows through the soils inside or surrounding the caves.

An hour later, the final cavern, the Neverending Hall, contains a circular path that loops back onto the main path. Visitors peer deep into the Earth trying to view more remarkable formations as the cave fades to an inky blackness, the last vestiges of lighting soaking into the walls.

The late discovery of Frasassi Cave has aided its beauty with early lanterns and candles not tarnishing the glistening limestone and early visitors not sampling the delicate formations. Over a million years with small deposits of limestone from every drip and trickle of water has created a treasured wonderland of formations, reflections and decorations on an unimagined scale.

Other Cave Posts
Caverns, Crooks and Castles (Slovenia)
Underground Fantasy (Skocjan Caves, Slovenia)
Crystal Wonderland (Western Australia)
Waterfall Hidden in a Mountain (Switzerland)

Source: Photos

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Castle with a Hidden Secret (Elmina, Ghana)

Encrusted with chipped paint, salt, sweat and misery, the walls lead to a tiny door – the door of no return. Stepping onto the beach, captives were led across the scorching sands onto ships sailing for the Americas and the Caribbean. Elmina Castle is a powerful reminder of the abhorrent history of slavery.

Approaching the tiny beachside town of Elmina, a grand white castle perches proudly over the Ghanaian coastline. Fringed by palms and with the echoes of fishermen selling their wares from handcrafted wooden boats, it appears as a resort that has seen its best days. From the outside, this castle hides its hellish past as a slave castle for 300 years where hundreds of thousands of natives were held before being shipped away.

Initially built as a Portuguese trading post for gold, ivory and tropical foods, human labour became a more valued commodity. Inside the reminders of this trade in human cargo abound. The main courtyard contains a cast-iron cannonball and chain. Slaves who disobeyed orders were chained up and left to die in the baking African sun.

The courtyard is surrounded by tiny darkened cells, stifling from the warm air, where shackled prisoners in their hundreds and thousands awaited their fate. Locked in one of these cells for only a few minutes is upsetting. Kept here for months and years, the privations and fear of the African captives are inconceivable. Larger bare storerooms stained with algae with only a couple tiny slits for air held the women prisoners in large numbers. They often remained here for two years awaiting shipment, barely surviving on the meagre rations, torture, cruel treatment and indignities.

The opulent governor’s quarters overlooked the women’s prison where his officers could select women they deemed suitable to sleep with. Those who refused were chained up in the courtyard while those who fell pregnant were moved to the town and freed.

To help maintain order, the most rebellious of prisoners were led through a door with an ominous skull and cross bones over the doorway to be killed.

Hauntingly, over half the captives who entered the slave castle never survived the imprisonment. A further half died on board the ships where conditions were equally harsh for the long journey across the oceans.

The most chilling aspect of the tour is left till last. Down a set of stairs and along a corridor to a small room with only a tiny doorway – the door of no return – only wide enough for one person to squeeze through. By this time, several on the guided tour are openly weeping. While the stories are difficult to emotionally handle, the images of this castle with its external palm-fringed beauty but cruel, inhuman interior, will stay with me forever.

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