Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Worlds First Comic Strip (Bayeux, France)

guest post by Vera Marie Badertscher, A Traveler's Library

Some wonders of the world consist of rock and water, spectacular plants or unusual animals. I visited a true wonder of the world that consists of a piece of linen material and a whole lot of wool thread.

At first I thought that the Bayeux Tapestry would be of interest simply because it is old. And it is an impressive 934 years old in 2011. Created in 1077, it tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

But telling history by recounting the dates of battles can put anybody to sleep. That's why, when I donned earphones and entered the dim hall of the Bayeux Tapestry Museum to shuffle slowly around the length of the glass-encased tapestry, I was surprised and delighted to learn that this old piece of cloth brings history vividly, and sometimes amusingly, to life.

First you notice that this is not a woven tapestry. It is, instead, an embroidery made by unknown fabric artists with just ten colors of wool yarn. Although the creators were once thought to be William's wife and the ladies of her court, current speculation says it was French nuns who did the work. The 75-yard (68.6 m.) long embroidery, only twenty inches (50 cm.) from top to bottom, shows scenes of plotting, betrayal, travel, battle, and triumph in what might be dubbed the world's oldest comic strip. Little vignettes on the border shows fantastic, mythical beasts and scenes from morality tales, including some pretty bawdy ones.

You can learn what soldiers wore, what their ships and horse tack looked like, how they ate and fought in the period when Normans (Norsemen--Vikings) were becoming the rulers of most of France, and led by William, conquering England as well. Somebody has counted 626 people in the tapestry, and of course William (about to gain the title “the Conqueror”) stands out as the most important. I was fascinated by the fact that William's brother Odon, the bishop of Bayeux, fought by his side. And when they returned victorious to Bayeux, Odon commissioned the story-telling embroidery for the consecration of his new cathedral, Notre Dame of Bayeux.

At the Tapestry Museum, you will also learn that the tapestry has led a life nearly as adventurous as William the Conqueror's. It was periodically hung around the edges of the cathedral's interior, and in between festivals, the finely woven cloth was folded into an unbelievably small wooden chest--about a yard long and not that high--that still sits in the Treasury of the cathedral. Two fires ravished the cathedral, but the tapestry survived. French revolutionaries threatened to cut it in pieces because they were against anything religious. Small pieces disappeared over the years as people helped themselves to souvenirs. Napoleon grabbed it at one point, and it was moved from place to place, including in the Louvre during WW II.

In 1983 it was moved to its present location in a former seminary
So when you are in Bayeux to visit this tough survivor-- the tapestry, which is really an embroidery-- cross the cobblestone courtyard with the model of a Viking boat and go across the street to the Cathedral. There you will be in the presence of Bishop Odon, and his brother, William the Conqueror, who attended the consecration of Notre Dame of Bayeux. History definitely becomes more interesting than a string of dates, with such visible remnants as the Bayeux tapestry and Cathedral to see.

Vera Marie Badertscher writes about books and movies that inspire travel at A Traveler's Library. She also blogs about 20th century Navajo artist, Quincy Tahoma. The biography of Tahoma that she co-authored with Charnell Havens will be published in April 2011.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Owen Cavanough: The First European Australian?

On January 26, 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip (now buried in Bath Abbey) was rowed ashore on a longboat to claim the continent of Australia for England. It became the first settlement by Europeans of Australia, the aborigines having a record of over 40,000 years of continuous settlement before this time.

Though it has caused arguments over the years, it is generally accepted that Able Seaman Owen Cavanough was the first permanent white settler to set foot in Australia. Cavanough stood at the bow of the rowboat that took Phillip and his crew ashore from HMS Sirius, jumping onto land to secure the boat to allow the officers easy passage.

Every year on January 26, Australians celebrate their national day (Australia Day), recalling the First Fleet, a group of eleven ships and around 1400 people (over half being convicts) who took a treacherous eight month journey from England to settle a new land. The day continues to have a tinge of controversy with Aboriginals not holding the commemorated day in the same positive light, sometimes calling it Invasion Day.

After his time in the navy and a journey to Norfolk Island, Cavanough was granted 100 acres a little north of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River to farm vegetables for the infant colony. He had married a convict First Fleeter (seven years and transportation for stealing a dozen knives and forks) a few years after settling in Australia. They had six children and a long peaceful life, Cavanough passing away from drowning at the ripe old age of 79.

Cavanough donated a small piece of his land to build a small sandstone church and school on a river bend in the tiny Hawkesbury village of Ebenezer that holds the distinguished title as Australia’s Oldest Church. He is buried here in an undistinguished grave, being the first white Australian in a nation that now boasts a population of over 21 million, built on the back of convict settlement. Up to six generations of the same family (and several First Fleeters) are buried in the historic cemetery of Ebenezer church.

Today, many Australians actively seek their heritage looking for links to early English arrivals, especially First Fleeters. For many this makes a link to a convict past, once kept as a dark and uncomfortable family secret but now paraded with pride as being the greatest number of generations Australians - some kind of "ultimate" Australian.

Happy Australia Day to all!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Glowworm Magic (Waitomo Caves, New Zealand)

It twinkles like the sky on the darkest moonless night – a veritable galaxy of tiny blue-green lights. Like most caves, Waitomo have formations that sprout from the ceiling and floor of the caves, formed over millions of years by the constant drip and flow of water. Waitomo Caves have very plain stalactites and stalagmites, but contain a celestial night sky of glow-worms that light the cave’s passage. Millions of glow-worms each emit their tiny bioluminescent light making for an extraordinary natural sight.

Glow-worms are a more attractive name for what are actually fly larvae. Unenchantingly, the glow is efficiently generated via their mucus and waste. Each glow-worm casts a number of sticky threads like fine fishing lines, using their lights to attract unwary insects into their paralysing curtain of threads. Glow-worms only appear around streams with overhanging ceilings making caves an ideal environment.

In an unusual lifecycle, the larvae progress when sufficiently fed through the pupa stage into adulthood. As an adult, they have no mouth and hence don’t feed, rapidly mating, laying eggs and dying, completing the cycle.

On entering the cave, the stream runs near to the top of the stairs before plunging underground. The steep stairs allows the eyes to slowly acclimatise to the minimal light, the cave barely lit by occasional candles allowing the wondrous glow-worms to weave their spell like the finest Christmas decorations. Bones litter the entrance to the cave, a combination of livestock that haven’t watched their step with some creatures from times further past.

As our group walks further into the cave following the natural course of the stream, any semblance of natural light is lost with the seemingly limitless glow-worms lighting patches of the ceiling like the densest parts of the cosmos. Staring skywards, the delicate lights and tiny threads create a peaceful and tranquil haven, the bubbling stream echoing tunefully through the passageway.

The peaceful verdant farming community of Waitomo hides a rabbit warren of tunnels and subterranean passageways, the limestone etched away by the freezing streams over the centuries. Various companies reach agreement with the farmers for access to their land and underground caves. As such, a smorgasbord of offerings from a variety of companies (with lots of competitive discounts and coupons around) are available to experience the caves including walking, genteel boat rides, abseiling, cave climbing and black water tubing (where you simply don a wetsuit, sit in a large inner tube and allow the chilly stream to take you along the cave, leaning back to enjoy the sparkling light show).

Photo Credit: Glow-worm lines

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Keeping Pace in Malta

by Kirk Shackleton of, your local travel guide to worldwide destinations.

My interest in Malta was first kindled when I heard someone refer to its people as Maltese. Is that, then, where Maltesers come from? (I dread to think how exhausted that joke is…). A quick look on Google maps taught me that Malta is a small UNESCO World Heritage dot between Tunisia and Sicily, not another haunt for Brits abroad on the Costa del Sol, as I had imagined. I then discovered it was used to film such visually striking movies as Gladiator, Troy and Casino Royale; my excuses for staying at home were running out. When I saw that Malta’s national team returned from the Table Football World Cup in Germany last September as world champions, and I could get there on a low-cost airline, the decision was made: I had to go.

I very much doubt that any pun was intended when the foundations of a few seaside residences were laid and Paceville was born on the edge of Spinola Bay in Malta, but those foundations have blossomed and now form part of the island’s beating heart. The name says it all: people in Paceville live for today and don’t worry about tomorrow. The streets are lined with bars, pubs and Malta clubs, a scene which has established itself as world class and attracts a myriad of fun-seeking punters throughout the year. By chance, it’s also where most Malta hotels exist, a particularly convenient synergy when planning your visit.

I very quickly learnt that Paceville is not a good place to go if you value your sleep. Fortunately, it takes mercy on the jetlagged traveller, who may find themself wide-eyed and alert on the stroke of midnight and dead to the world at noon, as I did. It is a place that comes alive at night, with countless watering holes to suit every need, from the Boogie Bar to the Buddha Lounge, and everything in between. But Malta should not be confused with Magaluf. Indeed, there is much to see besides strobe lighting and sticky floors.

A few kilometres down the coast, squeezed neatly within a thin peninsula, sits Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the capital city of Malta. A childhood spent being dragged around obscure European hill towns and more cathedrals than I care to remember, means I usually approach historically significant places with a slight feeling of anxiety, expecting to spend hours with my nose in a guidebook trying to work out exactly what it is that makes the pile of bricks in front of me exceptional. Indeed, the history often means more than the constructions themselves, but not so in Valletta.

Without the remotest appreciation of its 16th century foundations, I happily wondered the narrow streets of the city, an intimate place which exudes charm. The numerous churches and palaces are undeniably beautiful, but I personally felt a greater appreciation for Valletta’s Fort Saint Elmo, whose solid walls dominate the city’s façade onto the sea. The view afforded from this vantage point is staggering: to the left and right, settlements bunching and burgeoning onto the water’s edge, while straight ahead the silky blanket of the Mediterranean Sea lollops and lulls. I trawl the globe looking for idyllic spots to read a book, and was delighted to make this find.

It is impossible to dislike Malta, an island which has something for every holidaymaker. Paceville will not appeal to everyone’s preferences, but is, nevertheless, a vibrant place which overflows with energy and activity. Valletta, in complete contrast, is a historical hub with more architectural splendour than many of mainland Europe’s cities can boast, along with a superbly quirky old British telephone box lurking on one of its street corners! It turns out that Maltesers don’t actually come from Malta, but this disappointment did little to dent my impressions of a marvellous island.

Photo Credits: Paceville, Blue Grotto, Valletta, St Elmo

Monday, January 17, 2011

Photo of the Week: Ghardaia (Algeria)

Ghardaia in central Algeria is an ancient city that has preserved much of its beautiful mediaeval 100-year old architecture. Very much a product of the harsh Sahara Desert, it has excellent access to water (almost sweet tasting) through an ingenious collection of underground channels and produces superb dates.

As part of the heritage-listed M'Zab valley, the ancient mosque and large market square are glorious sights. Sadly, with much tension between the few western visitors and the Algerians when I was there, photos were a no-no (even walking around was a little uncomfortable) and so this is my sole photo of this remarkable ancient desert city.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Heartbreak of Queensland Floods (Australia)

Over the last three weeks, a combined area the size of France, Spain and Britain combined (or Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma for US readers) has been flooded in Australia’s north-eastern state of Queensland. Over 80 towns and cities, including the capital Brisbane has been seriously affected, many isolated with roads cut, changing the lives of 100,000s of people and flooding over 30,000 homes. Numerous people have been moved including the full evacuation of a number of towns.

Last week I returned to Sydney from a Christmas trip to Brisbane, where I grew up seeing the initial aspects of floods in rural Queensland but before waters in Brisbane started to rise. As with many Brisbanites, I can recall vividly the floods of 1974 as a ten year old, water lapping into the street that I lived, the community systematically evacuating people as the waters rose. Our house contained the furniture of three other houses, the local shops only having their rooftops sit above the flood waters.

News stories and photos start to purvey some of the hardship and cruelty of these floods including  Ipswich’s Queensland Times and Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin. The photo to the right shows Rockhampton from the air taken by a commercial pilot with the city centre in the top right.

It is ironic that this same state (as has much of Australia) has suffered from one of the country’s worst droughts for the last decade, dams that were near empty are now brimming at well over 100 percent capacity, water lapping at the top of dam walls. Brisbane’s main water supply is held in Wivenhoe Dam holds over one billion litres when full (two Sydney Harbours worth) but now holds two billion litres (four Sydney harbours). A delicate balancing act of releasing water to maintain the effect of the dam but causing further flooding downstream is only one of numerous wretched decisions.

With water washing down the main streets of many towns, drinking water remains in short supply, water treatment works having suffered inundations. Power is cut to numerous areas, supermarket shelves are empty and fixed line telephones have often been down.

As the waters start to subside, people return to homes covered in mud and debris, a monumental cleaning effort confronting them.

Over $55 Million dollars has been donated by individuals and businesses of Australia and the volunteer effort has been extraordinary, people helping complete strangers evacuate, sandbag properties, clean debris or provide accommodation and meals. As always, the various emergency services groups, army and charities (especially Red Cross) have been unstinting in their work. Major summer sporting events have stepped in – cyclist Lance Armstrong leads a 10,000 ride through Adelaide on Saturday, tennis player Andy Roddick donated $100 per ace in a recent Brisbane tournament (the court ironically underwater now) and then doubled it and England and Australia playing a seven one-day match cricket series around the country with money raised going to the flood appeal. Along with the obvious effect, the money will greatly assist to rebuild communities and towns, local businesses benefiting from the employment and retail spend.

A previously deeply unpopular premier, Anna Bligh, has been exceptional in the state’s hour of need. Possibly in a parallel to Mayor Rudi Guiliani during the 9/11 tragedy, the state leader has been untiring in her efforts – two hourly press briefings including remarkable detail across aspects of numerous different towns and cities all unaided by notes. Bligh has struck a perfect chord between passion, leadership, pragmatism and care.

In one extraordinary heroic effort, a tug driver drove his boat up the raging Brisbane River in the middle of the night to safely steer a 150 metre, 300 tonnes floating walkway that detached from Brisbane's scenic River Walk through bridge pylons and into the bay, preventing a potential major catastrophe.

While 24-hour commercial TV coverage has been sensationalised and voyeuristic, the public ABC network on radio, television and the internet continues to provide stellar detailed coverage of evacuations, road conditions, safety advice and flood news across the state. The Twitter airwaves bubbles consistently (with hashtag #qldfloods) though sorting the truth from opinion and hearsay has caused some issues. Missing folks are being located via Facebook, though tragically around 50 people remain unaccounted for.

In many ways, the efforts have just started with years of work and billions of dollars to rebuild lives, homes, communities and businesses. January 2010 will be etched on the mind of many Australians for decades to come.

Editor's Note (19th January): The Queensland flood appeal has hit $85 Million and continues to grow. The estimated damages bill varies with $20 Billion regularly mentioned. The states of Victoria (mainly central and west) and Tasmania have also suffered horrifically from floods in the last week with further heartache for citizens of these states.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Luxury Holidays at Le Touessrok and The Residence (Mauritius)

guest post by Elegant Resorts

An everyday 'man-in-the-street' most likely wouldn't be able to point to the tiny sub-tropical island Republic of Mauritius on a map. Most likely, they've never even heard of this small former Dutch-French colony and 17th century naval outpost. So, with all that said, why are the reef-encircled, white sand beaches of Mauritius one of the best luxury holiday destinations on the planet?

There are thousands of heavily-traveled tropical tourist traps around the globe. Just imagine places like the Caribbean islands or the Philippines for instance. And anyone who has ever visited the isolated, over-priced American island state of Hawaii can attest to this as well. The real authentic, isolated tropical paradises are scattered about the globe in unique, 'hidden' geographic locations where most people would not expect to find one of the best kept secrets on the planet.

Despite being one of the most pleasurable hotspots on the planet, Mauritius is recognized most often as the home of the extinct, flightless Dodo bird. In fact, travelers can the full skeletal remains of the Dodo at the National History Museum in Port Louis, the island's gem of a capital city.

Mauritius rests off the eastern coast of Madagascar in the middle of the Indian Ocean, nowhere near the over-traveled tropics. More surprising than the island geography, Mauritius has developed a chic, posh, yet modern resort industry. There is no need to leave your Smartphone at home when you take a holiday in Mauritius. The island has all of the technological comforts you will need.

Tourism is a huge part of the culture of Mauritius. The local government, unlike other tropical destinations, has made a viable economy out of such a gorgeous local ecology. Just take a look through the brochures of the island's dozen different resorts and vacation villas.

Opulent to say the least, the five-star resort Le Touessrok stands out as Mauritius' most outstanding, romantic hamlets. The resort itself rests along the island's wild eastern coast, protected by natural coral reefs on all sides. Diving off the island's warm, azure shores is spectacular to say the least.

The luxury resort at The Residence Mauritius is yet another five-star hotspot on the island's east coast. This hotel offers its guests complimentary windsurfing, snorkeling, and water skiing. The facilities here are lavish to say the least, and wedding parties frequent the immaculate shoreline and custom spa. But no matter which luxury resort you choose, you can't go wrong. The hospitality of a diverse Creole local population is legendary among visitors.

But Mauritius isn't exclusively for the wealthy traveler alone. In Port Louis there are a number of historical and cultural sites to see. The Caudan Waterfront stands out as the city's best shopping hotspot. You can find the latest fine international fashions, or you can appreciate craft work by local and regional artists.

At night fall, Caudan transforms into a throbbing nightlife district. Once again, the island's local hospitality is legendary among visitors. If you have an itch to gamble, Port Louis is also home to the Caudan Waterfront Casino. It is always happy hour somewhere in Port Louis. World famous, international DJ's have been known to draw large crowds during local festivals like the Festival International Kreol, which takes place at several venues throughout Port Louis.

Still, it is quite shocking that such a great holiday destination has been kept out of the international spotlight. Maybe it's due to the island's locale, tucked away on the far side of Madagascar. Regardless, if you have the opportunity to test out Mauritius for yourself, your holiday will speak for itself.

Photo Credits: Mauritius Island, beach, dodo, Le Touessrok pool, The Residence pool, caudan waterfront

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Christmas Lights (Sydney, Australia)

As Christmas fades from our memory for another year, this is a shot of Sydney's Town Hall annual Christmas illumination. Colourful lighting, carefully aligned with the shape of this classical sandstone building makes for a striking night image.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Discover the Most Beautiful Villages in France: Part 3

Escaping the rush of Paris and the insane summers of the French beaches, rural France is best experienced in its small villages that sprinkle the country. The best are associated under the banner of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Part One explored villages in the south and Alps regions of France while Part Two explored the French villages of Normandy and the Dordogne. A further four villages scattered across France completes this tour of an often ignored aspect of French travel.

St-Cirq Lapopie

Perched majestically above the the Lot River, St-Cirq Lapopie seems lost in time. Small half-timbered and stone houses guarded by town gates front onto narrow alleys named for their crafts practised centuries ago. Today the small village with a population of less than 100 is popular with artists offering pottery, paintings, metalwork and wooden carvings.


In the heart of the world famous wine district of Burgundy, Noyers has a surprisingly untouristy and quiet feel to it. While angled historic half-timbered houses litter the small town, the highlight is the peaceful verdant stroll along the gentle bend of the Surein River and 700 year old village walls.


Like a terraced Asian farm, the houses of the Provence village of Gordes sits upon a hill in layers, crested by a grey-stone chateau and imposing monastery. Some escape from the rampant summer visitors packed into the narrow lanes to visit the nearby Village des Bories, where around 20 ancient pyramid-shaped stone huts exist in an area continuously inhabited since the Bronze Age.


With a tiny population, the aptly named central French village exists entirely of houses, rounded towers, churches, castles and town walls constructed from blood red sandstone. Near the pilgrimage town of Rocamadour and contrasted with the verdant green shrubbery, the streets of the village can be explored in a handful of minutes but warrant the extra time to soak in the history of a small town overflowing with historic and listed buildings.

While France is the most visited country on Earth, too many people fail to escape Paris for part of their break missing the walking delights, rich history and gastronomic pleasures of some of the most beautiful villages of France. Make sure your vacation in France includes at least one small village and vive la difference.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Discover the Most Beautiful Villages in France: Part 2

France is sprinkled with beguiling villages, many frozen in time that encapsulate much of what people love about this European cultural giant. Associated under the banner of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, these villages share the historic, gastronomic and enchanting nature of rural France. Part One explored villages in the south and Alps regions of France while today we explore Normandy and the Dordogne.


It is difficult to imagine anything more relaxing than sitting by the peaceful Sarthe River near a rustic old stone bridge chewing on a pate-laden crusty baguette and sipping a refreshing glass of red. This quiet Norman village of ivy-covered stone houses and narrow lanes has developed a pilgrimage following the creation of a church-side miracle spring associated with the cure of eye diseases.

Le Bec-Hellouin

In rural Normandy, sits the photogenic half-timbered houses of the village of Le Bec Hellouin. Painted in vibrant colours surrounded by verdant green footpaths and parks and bedecked with blooming flower boxes, the village charm is complemented by the wondrous ceramics of the 1000 year old abbey and its resident monks.


Overlooked by its imposing castle standngn guard over the Dordogne River in central France, the cobbled laneways of the tiny village of Beynac (around 500 people) is one of several Perigord villages that sit at the gateway to the extraordinary caves (including the world famous Lascaux) with their 20,000 year old Paleolithic paintings. Their rich gastronomic culture is highlighted with the squawking geese and ducks or the stalls that sell and sample the fine patés of the region. Hiking (randonnées) is popular on well-marked paths that link the villages and take in the famous limestone caves.


Guarded by a remarkable three castles, the picturesque Perigord village is near the historic caves and rock shelters of La Roque St Christophe occupied by Paleolithic or Stone Age people around 55,000 years ago. While there is a rudimentary understanding of life back then, much still remains unexplained. It is a remarkable feeling to stroll along the rock ledges trying to imagine people huddled over fires eking out their lives so long ago.

Join us for a final roundup of most beautiful villages in France.

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