Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Books and Bones of San Francisco Monastery (Lima, Peru)

Relaxing in the monastery courtyard gardens looking over the San Francisco Monastery, the complex immediately strikes as architecturally as beautiful as most European churches. There is little surprise that it is recorded on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and is one of Lima’s finest travel wonders. The complex has two main areas - the church with its squat towers and superb carved central portal; and a fascinating area where the monks once lived with two very significant highlights.

So elegantly and tastefully lit at night, the church has a peaceful feel, despite the crowds of worshippers and travellers, with its domes and square patterned paintwork. While the main altar is carved from oak, the solid silver altar in one of the chapels highlights the mineral wealth in the area at the time that drove the Spanish to conquer most of South America. The walls around the accompanying monastery are covered with glossy glazed hand-painted tiles in blues, greens and yellows so reminiscent of the Moorish style.

However the real treasures are hidden within the monastery walls (and only available via a guided tour). Art treasures of famous masters and wondrous wood carvings litter the labyrinthine walls alongside locally produced paintings. A Last Supper shows a meal of the local delicacy of guinea pig (cuy) and the angels with wings of tropical parrots.

A magnificent library (sadly, visitors can only peer from the doorway to protect its valuable holdings) is lined with ancient leather-bound dusty tomes and manuscripts stored in old wooden bookcases, a couple dating back to the days of hand-written texts. A number of books document the times of the early Spanish conquest (from the Spanish viewpoint of course). Though too delicate and valuable to touch, it would have been great to be able to flick through the centuries of antique texts and absorbing the history held on the monastery’s shelves.

Built in the late 1600s, but only discovered in 1951, the building’s low-ceilinged and claustrophobic crypt harbours the skulls and bones of over 70,000 people. Peering through the inky blackness of the alleys, a strange surprise awaited. Somewhat ghoulishly, the archaeologists catalogued their findings by sorting the bones into separate bins, the arm and leg bones in one area, pelvises in a second zone and skulls in yet another. To complete their efforts, and with a European flair, the scientists turned their hand to art, building patterns with radiating fans of femurs broken by rings of skulls.

The catacombs and tunnels are said to run for some distance under the city linked to other churches. It was difficult to tell whether this was a nice medieval tale or a practical way to move cross town.

Lima is often little more than a gateway for travellers exploring the Peruvian highlights, whether it be flying over the mysterious Nazca Lines, boating around the wildlife of Ballestas Islands or trekking the Inca Trail, but Lima warrants a little time to explore its treasures, especially the San Francisco Monastery.

Photo Credit: church interior

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A View from Afar: The Middle East Revolution

Over the years I have travelled to several countries on different occasions in North Africa and the Middle East including Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Like many, I now look on with interest as the populations participate in a wave of uprisings across the region. Tunisia and Egypt have overturned multi-decade unpopular regimes. Libya is on the brink as I write this article and unrest has been reported in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and others.

These countries are somewhat testing places to travel – tiring from the incessant heat and caution with drinking clean water, frustrating at times to travel around, nervy from cultures very alien to my own western upbringing, occasionally discomforting from feeling numerous unwanted glares, and battling with petty, slow and sometimes suspect officials in visa offices, banks and border crossing.

Indeed, I was in Algeria during the first gulf war (1991), one of the few countries in the world to openly support Iraq in their invasion of Kuwait and strongly condemn the military action led by the United States. Taking six hours to cross the border and avoiding the hotspot of Algiers, the initial welcome felt anything but overwhelming. Additionally, it was during the Islamic month of Ramadan. Except for private drinks of water during the day (yes, it was hot), I also abstained from eating in the daylight hours (not that cafes were open, but it was the correct thing to do). With the exception of two stones thrown at me in one town, only the utmost courtesy, friendship and interest was shown to me through the weeks in the Algerian towns and crossing the Sahara.

While I often tried to start fairly general conversations about conditions in the various countries, it was clear that venturing too close to political commentary was a no-go zone. There may be some quiet and generic complaints about the rate of pay or the health system and even an occasional veiled reference to corruption, but people quickly would start to look uncomfortable and change the topic.

In Australia, like most western countries, I can confidently communicate my views on the government, the laws and the various changes without censorship or any real feel of repression. Even public protest is unlikely to cause any issues unlike in Libya where armed mercenaries are gunning protesters down in cold blood or arbitrarily arresting them. While the army was superbly restrained in Egypt, there were several reports of arrests of the leaders in the uprising.

Most importantly, in Australia, I get a say in who should run the country every three years and have no fear that the defeated leader will try to institute themselves into office for life, arrest or ban all the opposition, call in the military or change the result through foul means. Change is orderly and while all parties make their ambitious claims before an election and make the opposition out to be worse than Hitler, Vlad the Impaler, Pol Pot and Caligula all rolled into one, they follow the basic electoral laws and accept the result.

In many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (and many other parts of the world), there has been decades of disempowerment of the people. Without the benefit of an independent media, people still complain quietly about the conditions but are cautious to keep their opinions very quiet. These leaders, drunk on absolute power, quite happy impose long prison terms or kill anyone who raises their head too high above the pack to complain (spooking others to not follow in their actions). Desperate leaders will unleash the military on their on citizens, the very group charged with protecting the population.

This makes the current uprisings extremely brave and worthy of the utmost respect. Some will lose their lives or livelihoods and all take a great risk if the revolution fails. Uncertainty must reign in their minds but there comes a point where the momentum of people’s beliefs and the efforts in the region can bring important change. Tunisia and Egypt have forced their leaders from office and Libya looks likely to follow. I can only hope that there are several others too.

To my mind, it has similar parallels to the dismantling of communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. I fortuitously travelled to Hungary and Czechoslovakia only months before the momentous events and students were speaking more confidently despite the personal risk. A Polish shipyard led the way but once one regime failed, there was a rapid progression as states claimed independence of the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain countries changed from unpopular and unrepresentative communist regimes. Some leadership rolled quickly (Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution) while other struggles resulted in greater bloodshed. The imagery of suppressed East Germans breaking down and clambering over the wall to re-unite the two halves of their country is fresh in most of our minds.

I am not sure that I’d have the courage to risk my life for such change. It is difficult to tell until you are in the situation. But my admiration goes out to these fine young men and women who have the courage of their convictions to make a better place for their future generations and for a change that is good for the world. Let us hope that their efforts aren’t in vain and result in better countries for the citizens of North Africa and the Middle East.

Photo Credits: Egypt, Egypt, Bahrain, Berlin Wall

Monday, February 21, 2011

Photo of the Week: The Winds of Change in Egypt

The people-driven winds of change blow through Egypt and its Middle Eastern and North African neighbours will hopefully lead to improved leadership across the region. It is difficult to imagine what the average person on the street must be thinking in a country that has been characterised by submission to a ruler since the times of the pharoahs (how else would these remarkable temples such as the pictured 2,000 year old Edfu Temple have been so effectively built) and that has undergone remarkably few dramatic political changes in its long history.

Is the population that has booted out the Mubarak regime ready to voice and express their opinions for a new inclusive leadership where the elected officials govern for the population and not simply themselves? What of the other countries in the region? Only time will tell...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Danish Culture Capital (Aarhus, Denmark)

Perched on a bay, the Danish travel wonder of Århus is a lively and colourful university city with a vibrant feel to it while a short stroll from the centre offers relaxation in parks, forests and beaches. This cultural treasure trove is a great walking city to absorb both Scandinavian history and modern life with fascinating displays from the Viking Age, the 19th century and even the Iron Age.

For over 1000 years, Danes have lived in the narrow medieval street around the cathedral area as shown in the Viking remains dug in the free-to-visit basement of a central bank building. Much of the dig is in-situ with a range of tools and a Viking skeleton. Maps highlight the deceptive wide extent of Viking exploration and rule from Iceland and Britain to Ukraine while models show the difficult, but relatively prosperous and communal life of the feared Vikings.

Nearby, shows Århus today with a stunning art gallery (I find the building far more striking than most of the art) with a truly Scandinavian feel to its architecture, while impromptu music launches out in the neighbouring concern hall.

The highlight of Århus is the superb Den Gamle By (Old Town) open-air museum – a remarkable collection of 75 buildings that have been gathered since the museum opened in 1914 (an impressively early focus on preserving Danish heritage). Nineteenth century life is captured in the numerous half-timbered buildings that form a Danish market town of the time. It is easy to feel the traders tramping the dusty streets selling their wares while craftsmen demonstrate their skills in pottery and woodwork and bakers create the wonderful aroma of fresh bread, cakes and pastries. Horse and carts wander the roughened streets while the Mint Master’s House shows the difference between wealth and workers in times past.

The greatest single treasure in Århus is located a few kilometres south of Århus. Among Viking collections, rune stones and a superb collection of pre-Christ military weapons in the Moesgård Prehistoric Museum is the exceptional well-preserved body of the Iron Age Grauballe Man. Thoroughly investigated with all kinds of modern scanners, probes and machines, he is thought to have been sacrificed with a savage single slit across his throat (the gaping wound is very apparent), his naked body dumped in a peat bog around 300BC (and found in 1952). Estimated to be 34 at his death and in good general health, his final meal was a burned porridge of barley and rye. It is difficult to imagine his life and his feelings as he met his nasty death, the subtle features of his face capture an apparent peace. The level of preservation is striking – the fingernails and toenails, the thick hair, the twisted torso amd the lean smooth-skinned body.

Århus is a surprising city, compact and lively, yet packed with cultural gems that highlight the rich Danish history through the various ages.

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.

- Extract from "The Grauballe Man" by Seamus Heaney

Note: Learn more about the Viking Museum, Den Gamle By and Moesgård Museum.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Marbella after Dark (Spain)

guest post by Roberta Summer of, your local travel guide to worldwide destinations.

Spain’s Costa del Sol is known for its sunshine, sandy beaches and carefree fly and flop getaways. Both Spaniards and foreigners alike flock here for sun kissed breaks where days can be spent chilling out by the sea or unwinding by one of the many hotel pools dotted around the area.

There is of course another reason that has helped to cement the Costa del Sol’s popularity - its buzzing nightlife. With the balmy Mediterranean temperatures extending from the daytime well into the evening, the regions bars, restaurants pubs and clubs have thrived. None more so than in the chic, coastal resort of Marbella

Marbella’s reputation as a playground for those who like to see and be seen is riding high. Rich celebrities and trendy young things who enjoy flashing the cash come here to unwind and party. However, if you don’t have the bank balance to rival Simon Cowell it is possible to come and get a slice of the action without incurring credit card melt-down.

The clubs of Marbella include some of the best in the world with international DJ’s, opulent venues and celeb sightings. If you do have money to spend there are plenty of venues to crack open the wallet. However, if you want a good night out without the price tag Dreamers in Puerto Banus is hard to beat. Get there before 11pm and entry’s free - although you will have to wait a bit for the party to really get started as clubs in Spain don’t tend to get going until 1am. But with a bar and sofas located on the top floor (with a dance floor on the level below) you can get some drinks in while you wait. DJ’s who have spun the discs here include Roger Sanchez, Bob Sinclair and Laurent Wolf - reason enough to get there early to reserve your spot on the dance floor…

Sonora Beach in Estepona is another budget-friendly option with a more laid-back vibe and beach front, bohemian ambience. Cocktails, food and music are first-class and if you like open-air venues you should definitely check it out.

If you’re not into clubbing but still want somewhere to hang out with a drink in hand, beach bars are good options - and offer up the opportunity to chill out with a drink during the day. Along this stretch of Spain’s coast lies a range of sea front watering holes with Mistral Beach Club right near the chic resort of Puerto Banus a popular choice. As well as offering up drinks and sunbeds the bar has also teamed up with Hollywood Water sports, so you can get involved with a banana ride or two if relaxing with a cool drink becomes too much…

Finally, if you want to get a more traditional flavour to your evening how about heading to a tapas bar? Here you can order a tipple and share a range of mouth-watering dishes like chorizo, patatas bravas, olives, jamón ibérico and calamares. Spaniards make a night of it by ordering a couple of tapas with their drink then moving onto the next venue - a fun way to see the resort, enjoy a drink, interact with the locals and of course try some of the local cuisine. Taking the traditional ‘pub-crawl’ to a whole new level…

Note: Read more on Marbella here.

Photo Credits: Sunset, cafe, Dreamers, Mistral Beach, calamares

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Photo of the Week: The Weird Life of Nemo (Clownfish and Anenome)

The striking clownfish became popular with the movie Finding Nemo. This curious tropical fish has one of nature's most remarkable symbiotic relationship with the poisonous sea anenome where it lives its life. Immune to the poison tentacles, it attracts other fish into the anenome's deadly lair, the clownfish able to feed off the remains of the prey. The clownfish additional cleans the anenome's tentacles.

The clownfish can alter its sex. Always born male, on the death of the dominant female, the primary male turns female.

How does such an elegant an attractive fish harbour such an intriguing lifestyle?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Prison Life on Alcatraz Island (San Francisco, USA)

'You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.'

Initially a lighthouse and now a national park, the famous isolated prison on a rock sits two and a half kilometres off the San Francisco coastline. Only as the boat smoothly approached its pier from its ten minute ride does a sense of foreboding come over me. The plain white-washed buildings and salty cool air add a sinister feel to this rocky outcrop – part of the government of the day’s plan to appear tough on crime.

Made famous by movies, some of America’s most infamous criminals were guests at this escape-proof prison. Machine-gun Kelly, the Birdman of Alcatraz (though Stroud never kept canaries at Alcatraz!!), Al Capone and Clint Eastwood (oops, not the last guy, that was the movie) all spent time during the thirty years it acted as a prison until its closure in 1963.

Walking down Broadway, the main prison passageway, shafts of life struggle through the narrow skylights to light an interminable string of tiny cells, each just five feet wide. My outstretched arms can touch both walls at once, a tiny wooden bed, chair and small shelf furnish the Spartan concrete cage. Yet the prison was shutdown as the cost per room exceeded that of San Francisco's finest luxury hotel.

I feel the strict regimented life as I meander my way from the exercise yard (the playground) with its sombre grey walls, past the barber’s shop, the showers and library to the dining hall. Stunning vistas of the San Francisco skyline are visible from many vantage points – surely an extra torture as the prisoner’s munch an unappetising breakfast or snuggle up in their bunks at night.

Cell Block D contain the chilling solitary confinement cells with their tiny dingy cells holding misbehaving prisoners

The audio tour is the highlight of the visit and brings the place to life. Crisply told with entertaining accounts and detailed stories of prison life, the sobering narration complete with sound effects is fully conducted by past prisoners and ex-guard.

Using a re-fashioned vacuum cleaner motor and stolen spoons, three prisoners chiselled away damp concrete near an air-vent to make a famous escape on a raft of raincoats. To gain time, paper-mache dummies slept in their bed to pass the torch check during the night. Of the fourteen escape attempts and 36 escapees, these three remain unaccounted for – either drowned or soaking up life in Mexico?

Despite guards being unarmed within the prison and without keys on the prison floors, another tale details the capture of guards by prisoners who obtain guns and keys. Guards trapped in two cells are shot at point blank range. Cracks in the concrete floor from grenades highlight the re-capture of the prison as marines regained control.

Around the island free from predators, various seabirds openly nest raising their chicks without threat.

While Alcatraz may sound touristy and clichéd, the boat journey across San Francisco Bay and the audio guide makes for a fascinating tour, realistically capturing the daily torturous life, unusual larger-than-life characters and occasional dramas of this famous island prison.

This article is kindly sponsored by HotelClub with hotel deals in over 69,000 hotels in 138 countries. San Francisco hotels include hotels near Pier 39 and hotels around the famous Lombard Street.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Exploring an Historic Botanical Gardens (Pamplemousses, Mauritius)

While I love walking among the greenery and fresh air of the parklands and gardens of the world, I am not overly interested by the names and biological characteristics of each plant. However tucked away in a small Mauritian town and named for the bitter tasting grapefruit, Pamplemousses hosts an exceptional botanical gardens sure to capture anybody’s attention. Sadly many visitors don’t escape their beach resort to visit this superb gardens. A couple of hours wandering the wondrous Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Gardens (or Jardins de Pamplemousses to its friends) in the north of Mauritius from the tongue-twisting name of the first Prime Minister, uncovers a fascinating array of tropical botanical treasures that should spark interest in anybody. The garden started in 1770 and is the oldest botanical gardens in the southern hemisphere.

Following the palm-lined path from the wrought iron entrance gates, unusual trees abound. The Bleeding Tree dribbles crimson sap while the nearby grove of unusual Talipot Palms tower twenty metres into the air, flaunting its huge fan-tailed fronds. They flower just once after forty or fifty years in a stellar display of tens of millions of blossoms and then die. Sadly (or fortunately) none are in their full floral glory. The Fish Poison Tree is so potent that some Indian Ocean islanders grind the seeds and add it to water to stun fish, making for easy capture.

The gentle aroma of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg fills the humid air from the Spice Corner (the origins of the gardens in an attempt to locally produce these valuable 18th century commodities).

A grand white marble obelisk commemorates those who generously donated their efforts to the gardens is coupled with a memorable quote: “The gift of a useful plant is more precious to me than the discovery of a gold mine, and a longer lasting monument than a pyramid”.

The highlight of the gardens is the central lily pond. Like giant green footprints well over a metre wide, the lily pads span the lake. Starting as shrivelled emerald balls, they literally unfurl before your eyes, fully expanding in a couple of hours. Supposedly they hold the weight of a small child but responsible parents aren’t willing to test the theory. Remarkably the lily flowers, bloom white, turn pink on day two and die while elegant lotus flowers float graciously across the pond.

Every corner of the gardens has surprises. A tiny animal area includes lumbering giant tortoises that thrive on the rich grasses. Small islands in the garden’s largest lake, dense in luxuriant vegetation are left to grow wild, palms and trees fighting for every square inch of this fertile area.

A garden memorial of author Bernardin de Saint-Pierre commemorates Mauritius’s greatest tale of love. An imaginary tomb recalls the tragic drowning of Virginie who modestly refused to remove her cumbersome dress as her ship sinks while Paul, her lover swims ashore. He dies a few years later of a broken heart for the loss of the love of his life.

Escape your resort and visit in the earlier morning to avoid the worst of the humidity, the well-maintained gardens make for an attractive and peaceful stroll experiencing an unusual variety and curious oddities of warm-weather plants. Take an inexpensive guide to get the most of this botanical wonderland hidden away on this mercurial African island.

Photo Credits: flowering Talipot

Friday, February 4, 2011

Photo of the Week: One Trillion Dollar Note (Zimbabwe)

This photo shows the colourful reverse side of Zimbabwe's short-lived one hundred trillion dollar note adorned with the iconic Victoria Falls. Worthless just a few weeks after being introduced in 2008 due to eye-watering hyperinflation, tyrannical government and the complete collapse of this once-bountiful African country, it is a strange feeling to receive such a high denomination note and speak in such gargantuan values. Sadly a shopping bag full of Zimbabwean banknotes were needed to buy the simplest of items and virtually all transactions were in US dollars.

Wikipedia notes that Zimbabwean inflation reached 65 million googol percent (65 followed by 107 zeroes) with prices doubling daily, before being abandoned completely.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Drinks Around the World: Horchata (Valencia, Spain)

Valencia and eastern Spain is famous for a traditional sweet milky drink called Horchata (or orxata de xufa in the local Catalan language). Originally introduced by the Moors around 1000 years ago, the drink is so popular that horchaterias, a kind of cafe, are in several of the Valencian towns.

Made from tigernuts (the tuberous roots of a kind of grass) mixed with water and sugar, and served icy cold, it looks like a milkshake and tastes of a very sweet non-dairy milk. Too sweet for my tastes, it is surprisingly refreshing. The highlight of the drink is that it is typically accompanied by tasty finger-shaped pastries called fartons that can optionally be coated in chocolate or filled with custard.
Travel Wonders highlights a characteristic drink experienced on his travels. Prior articles have featured drinks as widely varied as Vietnamese slow-drip coffee, Austrian Almdudler, African zobo, Green Mint Tea from Morocco and cherry beer (Belgium).

Photo Credit: horchata

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