August 30, 2013

Return to England

In a way it was a little like coming home. The familiar sights and chaotic sounds of the roads around St Pancreas reminded me of the year spent abroad a good two years prior. Without the luxury of my phone, I relied on memory to find my way on to Caledonian road, familiar from my last couple of weeks in London after term where I stayed in the area. Soon, I banged into Journey's hostel, my bed for the next 3 days. Besides it probably being the most densely packed hostel I'd ever been in (3 storey bunk beds), the services were pretty great and even included little curtains over the entries to each bunk bed. After about 2 hours sleep the previous night, it was time for a bit of shut eye.

The first matter of the day was to find a phone and I was already pretty certain of what I was going to get. The Google/LG Nexus 4 was what I wanted and for a couple of reasons. Of course it was a good smart phone but would also be assured to be unlocked as it can only be purchased in that condition (it would be hell to change network provider in the next country and be unknowingly stuck with a locked phone). I needed to find one on a Sunday or Monday so took to the internet and Gumtree as I knew it had a massive following in London. After one prospective seller fell through, I would head to Cavendish town later that day to pick up the rare handset.

In the meantime, I thought I'd pop into the British Library which had an exhibit on propaganda at the time. The art of perception and influence over the masses is an interesting thing for the library to portray. The many historical examples where people could not realise that they were being misdirected just reminded me of the constant need for impartiality and a hint of critical inquiry.

After I'd acquired the phone in a friendly residential exchange, I dropped back into the hostel for some mingling. The card games started in the muggy basement/kitchen later that the night, eventually dribbling out into the few still open and nearby pubs. I really wanted to dance so despite the dropping off of some of the Journeys' people, Tamarra and I pressed on to Koko, my favourite place from exchange. For once my navigation skills were trumped, Tamarra proving to be the Queen of the roads North of Kings Cross. The old converted theatre was all that I remembered from before with the dress circle and stalls all pumping, being presided over by the VIP bar on the upper circle. Tonight was hardcore dance and we all moved accordingly. More entertainment took to the stage with the crowd getting higher and higher. Expectations met and exceeded!

Waking up in time for hostel breakfast was a little hard but today was when I would finally visit St Paul's Cathedral as a tourist. Having been there with the Kings College London chapel choir for evensong and with Madde for the Ceremony of Carols close to Christmas, I'd never been able to go to the crypt or the cupola. With a pre-booking, I breezed in and took in the amazing building one more time. On the top of the dome, I met Giulia from Italy as we exchanged photo help in front of what I think is the best view of London. We became museum buddies as we crossed the river after a supermarket sandwich lunch in one of the tiny parks around St Paul's. After getting moved off by the curious wasps, I filled her in on the history of the Millennium bridge while she was the font of knowledge when we entered Tate Modern. Giulia was a doctor and art buff in her spare time so it was a pretty cool to get a little more time to explore the permanent collections with her. Maybe we'll catch up later in Verona.

We parted later as I returned to Journey's for another evening adventure. Tonight, it was Popcorn, the slightly more hetro night on the calendar at Heaven in Charging Cross. This club is pretty much a collection of vaulted cellars, reminiscent of Tube stations. The CO2 cannons were cooling down the hot rooms as high healed, leather clad drag queens danced in sync on the stage to the yells of the packed crowd. Tamarra and I ripped up the dance floor again, occasionally fending men off me or men off her in funny shows of dimly lit masculinity. Night busses made it another easy night to get back home with door to door service. Late night transport to be envious of...

I didn't really go out to the clubs when I was studying at UCL. Something about the studies or my chosen friends or singing so I felt as if I had caught up a little on what so many people remark on regarding London, albeit a couple of years after my exchange.

Since I had changed my plans quite late in the day, my tickets were not the cheapest since they were first class fixed time tickets. They ended up much cheaper than the coach class off peak ticket which I would have got without the advice of the sales attendant. I left for Kings Cross to board the train, relaxing as I hit my first class seat amongst the older couples who didn't have their laptops and phones all charging while connected to the free wifi. I was loving life as we cruised through the countryside. I caught up on some writing and was pleasantly surprised by the inclusive drinks and tasty lunch. I was showered with chips, cakes and apples by generous attendants. I felt a little compelled to consume for the three other empty, unbooked seats around my table. The one hour delay due to diversion didn't faze me at all as I plodded on with my inbox clearing so when we arrived in Manchester, I was convinced that this sort of train was easily the best way to get around a country. There wasn't too much to do in Manchester that night so I was pretty happy to have some pizza and a quiet couple of pints over a game of pool with two Finns and an American at the nearby bar.

Having caught up with some sleep after the long previous day, I got right into it. Manchester is a pretty quiet city when it's out of student season so without any real walking tours going on, I followed my mobile with Tripadvisor, past all of the sights which aren't all that numerous. The soccer museum, Chet's music school and their really old library. Then the city's old really old library: The John Roland's Library. That library was an early architectural marvel, also with a collection full of curious volumes. I dropped into the town hall too and after asking nicely, got let into the top floors of the hall where I joined a little guided tour, getting some background to the magnificently decorated halls. After that, there really wasn't much else to see. Or at least that's what I thought before I stumbled into the Manchester Tate. The Tate had a really fun mix of art from all ages (back to renaissance) all the way up to some recent works which were more like little games that you could play. One example: "Tip a bicycle seat so that the front tip points upwards. Use it to squeeze lemons. Exhibit the seat and squeezed lemons". I just loved the humour of so many of those works, spending ages checking each one out. On the way out, an usher suggested that I visit a funny little private library called the Portico. They had a temporary exhibit of these cool little wood carvings that I checked out while I rested my feet and charged my phone. It was a nice little sanctuary where I could read a big public infrastructure architecture book in peace, away from people and cars.

I joined a couple of gap year guys for a hearty pub dinner pie before we joined the hostel for a little pub crawl to a local favorite. It was really fun to get another little insight into the thoughts of those just leaving highschool, still finding 17 too early to decide on future studies. After some drinking games at the hostel, made slightly awkward by the frequent Spanish translations of the rules, we headed out. The Manchester dance scene was pretty subdued with only the Spaniards really taking to the floor. The Mancunians seemed to prefer to talk at this place. I got the impression that it would be very different during the university term.
With a relatively early flight in the afternoon, I tried to make the most of the day and got up early to check out the Manchester museum of science and industry. As I realised when I got there, it was a little more aimed at kids but still had some good stuff with a whole workshop full of evolutionary editions of steam and hydraulic powered engines through the years. It was cool to see some of the mechanisms that were used to automate steam flow and generally do things that we'd just use PID feedback for today. The exhibition highlighted Manchester's role as a powerhouse in the industrial revolution and the amazing growth in productivity that came with it. There really wasn't much time so I checked out the sanitation section then legged it back to the hostel, getting in to the station with just enough time to catch a fast train to the airport. Boarding my flight to Rome, I readied myself for the next leg of my trip.

With a little change in travel plans, I went to London and Manchester rather than Wales. It gave me a chance to see a backpacker's perspective of London, my home in 2010-11, and to spend a little more time in the North. Manchester (outside the 2011 Parklife experience) was a place with a more industrial history than I've been used to while I've been travelling. It's nice to be reminded that every place can be historically significant in so many different ways. Next stop: Rome and the start of my time travelling around central Europe with Busabout.

August 26, 2013

Paris with Leona

It was my first time flying in to Charles de Gaulle airport and it seemed to tippify some of the things I remembered from Paris the last time I came. The design was utilitarian and brutal and they had this funny circular design with satellite terminals all joined to the core by these little underground passages. The baggage and passengers all got jostled through this centre atrium of the massive don't core. It just reminded me that the French do it differently and like to own that difference with pride. Something I mostly associate with their language and fierce patriotism.

I hopped on the terminal train and while chatting to an American girl going in to Paris to be an aupair, the train stopped and wouldn't move on to our terminal, quoting a mysterious piece of baggage left at terminal 3, our destination. After much confusion and a couple of useless emergency replacement bus rides to the wrong terminal, we ended up on the same train, this time taking us all the way to the city transfer busses. Taking note of the signs we figured out the line closures for just today would get us to Paris in a bit of a different way but either way, I managed my way into Gare du Nord, a short walk from the hotel.

I just love Paris. It's a place which ticks all of my boxes with it's layout, public spaces, transport, food, style and even the people which are more of an intrigue to me than a bunch of stereotypically rude people. A city becomes vibrant when you shove millions of people into it with only space enough for far less. It brings people out of their small apartments and into the parks, the cafes and the theatres. Vibrancy is born.

I would be travelling for the week with my friend from Wales, Leona who I met a year earlier while performing Beethoven's 9th Symphony with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in the Proms at Royal Albert Hall. We were both staying at the same hostel and met with her friend over some drinks after a rehearsal and the performance. After keeping in touch for the last year we decided to catch up in Paris.

I explored the area while waiting for Leona to arrive from London, checking out the locality of Marais and then walking around the Musee des arts et Metiers. This place was pretty fascinating and held Foucault's pendulum as well as a whole host of seminal scientific instruments and inventions that underpinned the enlightenment. I walked past beautiful clocks for navigation and the first calculating machines by Pascal, precious binoculars from Aluminum when it was harder to refine than gold, exhibits on major French civil infrastructure projects and models of the first pumps, generators and blast furnaces that we take for granted today. While pretty specific, it was a fantastic museum for a scientist and engineer. There was just enough time to walk northbound to Montematre for a peek at Sacre Coeur before heading to the station to greet Leona.

It was really cool to catch up after a good couple of months out of contact but it's always a little difficult when you've missed out on so much of the context of recent events and life of another person. Character that you exude online in text and broken video is always incomplete and I continuously become amazed at how much communication is enhanced when being there in person. I guess it's not surprising then why companies will just fly people around the globe rather than dabble in the most modern video solutions available today.

We headed up to the top of Notre dame, across Pont design Artes, Sainte Chapelle and the armoury where they had lists of all those decapitated in the Revolution square, now Place de la Concorde. Leona studies law so we thought it'd be fun to walk around the Courts which surround Sainte Chapelle (the 'Palace of Justice', a pretty awesome name for your work place). We found an open room where it seemed 3 guys were getting charged together for some sort of theft or assault. We were metal detected and searched before going in to this small little chamber where the police guards outnumbered the accused two to one. It was rather fun to try and figure out what was going on without language and to figure out how the systems varied. After a couple of little attempts to sing in one of the cavernous and empty halls we were off. That afternoon, it was blissful to settle in the Luxembourg gardens where the number of people and the shear joy of the surroundings make it so very pleasant to just sit and enjoy life.

We met Francois at a metro station in the evening for a drink. We talked about his new internship and some of the perks about consulting in the oil and gas arena. Some local opinions of Paris are always welcome too so after a little recommendation on restaurants, Leona and I settled at a little Indian place called Old Kashmir.

Leaving the resting Leona, I checked out the Pantheon and then the Pompidou centre, the modern art museum. It's amazing how high the French hold up their physicists, engineers, composers and artists. They put their physicists in the Pantheon crypt with political revolutionaries and then put their composers names on the Eiffel tower. This is a sort of place that really values culture and enlightenment in all forms, a pretty stark contrast to the occasional cultural chasm back home.

I thought I'd go and ride around a bit more, checking out the quiet and serene Montparnasse cemetery and then going to the Catacombes, finding that a solid 3 hour line had formed to get in. After being told that I wouldn't even make it to the door before closing time, it was back to the hotel to catch  Leona for the afternoon.

One big thing I just missed out on last time I was in Paris was Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides. The whole complex was stupendous in scale and grandeur, constantly reminding you of the power that the Emperor Napoleon commanded at that time, forging so many parts of what France is now, even after so much cleansing during the revolution. The exhibits in the war museum were so helpful to get a grasp of the tumultuous history of France and now I think I have finally figured out the difference between Napoleon the 1st and 3rd.

After Les Invalides, I said goodbye to Leona at the metro and rode to Place de la Concorde for the sunset. I ran into Le Madelaine and saw that there was a concert on the way home. It was Vivaldi's four seasons combined with some songs for Soprano soloist. I had to go an after a while milling around trying to get some wifi to let Leona know, I popped in and saw this magnificent church by night. The concert was great overall with a fantastic but certainly buoyed by the Soprano. The orchestra weren't really that professional and the concert master seemed a little oblivious to the group sometimes in terms of ensemble and timing. His solos as part of the Vivaldi were proficient but pretty conservative re cadenzas and generally mediocre to watch. I left after chatting with a couple of older French women who didn't know a word in English. It was fun to share some views on the concert and they were happy to give me the time to check my Google translator on occasion. I was very happy and lucky to have bumped in to the concert in the way I did and left pretty ecstatic. I took a scenic ride past Le Louvre to see the pyramid by night. An awesome end to another day.

The following morning was for a little market and then the Eiffel tower. We took all of the obligatory photos on Champs de Mars and then joined the ques for what we would soon find to be a good 2 hours. I'd been to the tower before but not to the top so when we were half way through the que and it said the top was closed due to overcapacity, I was pretty crushed. I drudgingly took my took my ticket but was then told that we'd be able to buy on the middle floor if we waited there for another hour. So we did but it was worth it to get that extra height and to get a true idea of how much this thing towered over the whole city.

With most of the day gone, we cycled over to the Champs Ellise for some window shopping and then to Montematre to catch Sacre Couer before it closed. That whole area was fantastic and completely filled by portraiture pilgrims, filling what was something of a portaiter's square near the La Boheme restaurant where we ended with dinner after beholding the spectacle of Sacre Couer. The interior was spectacular with a massive amount of light streaming through the high dome in the centre. The mosaics were adorned with gold over the high alter and the space really met a nice mix of simplicity and complexity in the decoration.

Dinner was topped off by a visit to Le petit musee du chocolate which was an awesome loose weight chocolate shop with fantastic slithers of all the dark chocolate varieties around. Back home and we were tossing up whether to go on a pub crawl or not since we were a good hour late for the start but instead went straight to the final destination. O'Sullivans filled up pretty early that evening with a bunch of Contiki groups which all seemed to converge on this ex-pat heavy bar come club. Leona ended up leaving pretty early as she was still pretty tired. In high-insight I should have probably joined her as she only just missed the last metro home and got a little lost. I stayed on and had a fantastic time with a number of the Contiki girls from Australia, Spain and Korea who all had names starting with M for some reason. I got back pretty early in the morning after sobering up a little and getting a bike back. I continue to love cities with hire bike schemes for this reason too as taxis are never that much fun when going home alone.

I checked out the Pompidou centre (modern art) by myself the following morning and found heaps of intriguing and sometimes hilarious art works which push the boarder of what art is. For example, one of the works which had only three directions for the curator along the lines of: 1. Select an average sized gallery room. 2. Hang four or five canvases of typical dimensions (the curator had obviously gone out on a limb by selecting one oval canvas - rebel!..). 3. Paint the walls and canvases in the same colour. Viola, art! Of courses there were all the usuals like Picasso and Duparc and Mutt's famed urinal. Not that all was Dada and abstract, the fauvists and more current painters balanced with bursts of colour and also a bunch of fun little moving installations.

On the way to the Tuilleries I joined a mob for an attempted glimpse of Eminem at his hotel on Rue du Rivolli beside the Tuileries and strolled through the adjacent amusement park, toying with the thought of how often they had to clean the full body vomit guards on one of the more daring rides. I thought I had better not be a contributor to the statistic in the state I was. The L'Orangerie was one of the big items for the day and it didn't disappoint. This was a fine collection of works from the impressionist masters of course culminating in the presentation of the panoramic water lillies of Monet in their purpose built, oval rooms. Leona and I indulged in a 3 course meal with wine that night, the French restaurant continuing to make me love the food of Paris.

Despite it being my second time to Versailles, it was so much more vibrant in the sun this time around. Last time Madde and I had so little time and the rain made it impossible to check out the gardens. It seemed that the whole place had been freshly gilded since my last time as the gold gleamed brightly during the whole approach to the palace. After 40 minutes queuing for security in the blaring sun, we were in! It was pretty different to the last time with new audio guides and really good 3D introductions to the place. At last I could see the gardens but made the mistake of waiting in line for the little guided train trip around the gardens. In the sun again for a whole hour to find that it was effectively a shuttle bus which I could have done without. Down the far side of the gardens, the Petit Trianon got me with a full priced instead of free ticket because I'd left my Swedish ID as collateral for the audio guide just a little earlier. Although a little embittered, I checked out the place and could imagine that it would be a nice sanctuary for the queen who it had been gifted to.

Time just got away and soon I found myself running back to the train station to make it to Le Marais to meet with Francois' boss to find out a little more about energy business consulting. I got the idea that while I would love to work in Paris and live in Perth, the work life balance would be in question. The type of work sounded really interesting making the hours enjoyable, but as a whole, it didn't seem like a healthy sort of lifestyle for me to lead. Moderation in everything. I left with a much better idea of consulting as an expatriate. Maybe I'll try something similar one day but with more intriguing options available, maybe later.

That night was the big pub crawl night. I tagged along from the second bar and met a bunch of nice guys including crazy Sebastian who lived with his family in China and was about to start a language course in Paris. He was having his first big night out so needless to say, he became a pretty funny bloke as the night went on. Together with the Spanish and Italian guy, we eventually got to good old O'Sullivans where things devolved quite nicely, with one girl in particular.

We sobered up on the avenue near Blanche metro, got pickpocketted then had to figure out how to get back home without knowing the name of the hotel. Both of us were all safe and sound by 6am after some ingenious navigation (trying to find the hotel we didn't know the name of) and after a couple of hours sleep it was back on the road for another action packed day, now short one mobile phone. Thankfully I had a pretty good picture of Paris at that point so after checking out of the hotel and waiting in a police station for 3 hours to get a stolen report (catching up on some sleep at the same time), there was just enough time to check out Galleries Lafayette. It was the first rainy day for a week in Paris so it was a pretty good time to go. This was a clothes shoppers paradise and architecturally, a pretty cool place to put a department store (it had an incredible stain glass dome atrium in the centre. Like an art gallery for clothes in certain areas.

Back in time to walk up to the train, Leona and I walked up to Gare du Nord for the connection to London. Leona and I parted ways for the last time at St Pancreas after some more sleep catch up on the train. Paris mk. 2 had been a cultural and social adventure with more discoveries along the way than any of the travel legs so far. Never have I faced so many challenges to my own character and had to ask whether I'm being true to myself and travelling to make the most of this limited time abroad. Next stop: London and a little change of plans heading to Manchester after some realisations over the week just past.

August 16, 2013

Sweden and Copenhagen

There were three great reasons to go to Copenhagen. First and foremost: A wedding. The second being a tailsuit and the third being some time for some family company and relaxation.

It would be a couple of days before my parents would come to join for the wedding of my brother and his fiance so there was some good scope to recover from what had become a pretty aggressive cough. It was the best weather to do it in though with the sun giving me a little chance to acclimatize after being in sunny Greece. One thing that was very welcome after some shockers on tour was some good food which Copenhagen certainly has. While the concept of asian food is a little blurry, one thing they certainly have down pat is sushi! After a good couple of nights in, we were met by the storm of le parents and the father of the bride, all meeting to cram into the apartment for just one night.

Weddings seem to have a different sort of scale in Scandinavia and while there are of course lavish debt filled celebrations here and there, there's another side which seems somewhat more intimate and equally valuable. Call it an affirmation of the understood and a satisfying formality. The six of us all taxied to the Copenhagen town hall in the morning, a beautiful building with all of the solid features and heritage of an old people. Walking through the vaulted corridors and up to dark and beautiful holding room with frescoed roofs and Nordic scenes on the walls. Over time, the room filled with around four different parties who were to get married on that weekday morning. We were first up and were asked by one of the three presiding officials to come into the small room adjacent. The ceremony did not last more than 10 minutes and was largely composed of a welcome, a couple of simple questions like: "Do you want to get married?". At the time I produced the rings and with a signing of the register with witnesses, they were presented with a nice little commemorative book from the town hall and it was done. With much hand shaking and hugging, we left to take some photos in the beautiful square in the centre of the hall grounds and the nearby area.

What came after was perhaps as memorable as the ceremony and was a great chance to just come down from the event a bit. Following a slow celebratory lunch, we took a lovely private canal boat around the waters of Copenhagen with a couple of bottles of Champagne before settling in to a beautiful many course dinner. I cant help but love fine dining of that sort. The idea of eating to taste excellence rather than to be sated is something of a worthwhile pursuit in my point of view. To be surprised by what can be achieved with ingredients and to be know that innovation can be felt at the dinner table too is a fun thing.

Objective two: As I found back at home, soon before I left, something that is often expected of a concert singer is to agree on the dress code a couple of days before the concert. Be it dinner suit, blacks or tails, it pays to be ready and well equipped. Perth doesn't seem to have tails suits so it was time to go shopping in Copenhagen. Trolestrup is a beautiful store full of the tasteful sort of clothes that adorn the well dressed. We walked up and found a selection of three beautifully made tails so without much adew, the required alterations were noted and picked up a couple of days later, feeling  much more prepared for the Messiah concert later this year.

Over to Sweden after the wedding and within 30 minutes from the Copenhagen apartment, we were at home in Sweden. The time had come to recover from the dreaded Contiki cough that i'd caught the week before. It as so good to take in the place without any expectation to go out and see anything or do well, anything in particular. Being able to stop and sunbath under the shy Swedish sun was lovely despite the persistence of the cough that plagued me. I visited the doctor a couple of days later and knew I'd be in for a familiar virus for the next couple of weeks. I settled in and took pleasure in the simplicity of being able to walk around the side of the house to pick rasberries and plums in garden, to taste my new sister-in-law's famous plum conserves and eat copious amounts of the Swedish breads that I've come to love. I visited Mormor (grandma) for what may be the last time and played her some music samples that I had accrued from my concerts since the last visit. After sending some time helping Nik move massive sheets of steel out of the basement last time I was in  Sweden, it was cool to take the technical guided tour of his completed replacement home heating system. It reminded me of just how little we have to thing about energy consumption in Australia. The ideas it also brought to my home design tinkering also made it a really fun way to catch up with my brother.

I left the house early in the morning some days later and was dropped off at the Copenhagen airport ready for my next leg. With a good bit of relaxation and a truly memorable wedding celebration seen, it was time for my second taste of Paris.

August 9, 2013

Contiki Part 2: Greece

It was pretty evident on the bus that few of us had really considered what was meant by cruising the Greek islands but for some reason a bunch of us thought it’d be as a chartered little Contiki group boat but when we saw ship, it made a bit more sense. Small boat implies sailing, cruise means cruise liner. Our one was a 1600 bedder with a full pool deck and a couple of restaurants. We said goodbye to our Turkish guide and after what seemed like hours in the customs que, I was at the foot of this 9 floor boat where we were photoed and issued with our access cards and keys. It was then we were shown the optional unlimited drinks package. As I explained the offer to a friend who was given a Spanish copy of the page, I saw her eyes light up. Unlimited drinks and ice cream for the 3 day voyage for 60 euros. Judging by the money lost the previous night, we all thought we’d make pretty short work of that break-even point.

It was a bit strange and a real change in pace to be out of the same bus and by chance I no longer had a triple share but had a double cabin to myself. I found a couple of people to join for lunch getting lost in the buffet ques and feeling quite lost and unknowing of the standard practices of cruising. I soon picked up on how to order drinks. We all soon picked up on how to order drinks and as I picked up desert, the ship gave out a tremendous bellow and we left the port of Kusadasi.

We had a big team meeting and met up with another Contiki group who joined the cruise in Athens for the full round trip (just a day longer). We would be setting down anchor soon at the Greek island of Patmos and we were to decide on a bunch of possible tours and options for the following days after that. I went for one tour a day at each of the destinations which seemed to be a difficult but pretty rewarding choice in the end. Landing in Patmos via tender boat was our first taste of the sheer prettiness associated with a cruise as you got all of the costal views and got slotted right into the middle of this little village which was pretty obviously fueled by the steady stream of cruise line traffic. I joined up with Simon, we talked about sustainable architecture and when dropping back in to a fantastic ice cream parlor, we met up with a couple of the girls from the other tour. I spent most of the afternoon with Christina with a nice stroll along the beach in a hopeless attempt to find sun glasses under 100 euro. We settled by the smooth stoned beach for a welcome cool-down before hopping back on the tender to the ship. We enjoyed a nice 4 course dinner, delivered with great speed as she explained with her hospitality experience that they’d divided the floor in to one big rotating restaurant to cater for the hundreds of guaranteed guests for the night.

Tonight was the dual Contiki group Toga party! We all met up to give each other varying degrees of help with toga tying and after reveling in all of the strange looks from other residents, we converged at the Oklahoma bar for our first night of mayhem. There were group photos, human pyramids and countless strolls through the ship’s casino to the nearest bathroom. We certainly paid off that unlimited drinks package that night as we all tested the quality of our toga tying methods and got to know the other Contiki group a bit better. A little group of 4 of us ended up in my room at 4am when the party broke up and we were all gone but with the aid of some after hours pizzas and water we all sobered up a bit till Akor simply passed out on my other bed. It was good night to the others and we called it a night, dreading the impending wake up in under two hours. Akor wasn't going to be making it to the tour in the morning...

I woke on a ship outside Rhodes with just enough time to sleepwalk in to breakfast at 6:50am for the tour rendezvous at the Cancan bar at 7. I was stunned at just how big Rhodes was since it took over an hour to drive across to Lindos, the main sight for the day. Before that we stopped to see the traditional art of the area. We saw pots being turned, etched and painted to create rather beautiful terracotta plates I would have loved to take home. At the base of the Lindos acropolis, I opted for by first donkey ride up the hill. Through the streets of the small town, up the stairs and beside the steep hills as the landscape opened up, the donkey jostled forward in its chain ganged pair. Poor little creature, the guide wasn’t very nice to the one mine was tied to as he’d been walking slow all day so far. The view from the top was simply amazing! surrounded on two sides by sheer cliffs, the foundations of the temple on the Lindos acropolis gave an uninterrupted exhibition of landscape to all of the horizon. On the descent, a cooling orange juice and a lucky find of 10EUR sunnies brought me to the group just in time for a trip to the ice bar. This funny little freezer box sat opposite one of the car parks and no joke. It was a bar, made out of ice so it was understandably quite a shock to walk out from the 37 degrees outside to the neg 10 inside where the ice sculptures and ice glasses and walls were smooth and immaculate. Another bus ride back home and it was lunchtime on the ship.

It was still scorching and I joined the group on a walk down the nearby beach and to the water sports shop on the far side of it. The beaches of Rhodes were full and covered with people right up the far end where we deliberated on whether to parasail or to do one of the other drag-behind-a-boat sort of activities. I was quenched and relieved by the waters while I waited as I met a little group of Aussies and Kiwis who were from the other conditions group. It was eventually my turn on the Stingray so I joined the two South Africans as this blow up platform for up to 4 was hurled around an imaginary racecourse. I think the idea was to just hold on for dear life and not be the one who looses grip before disappearing into the wavey wash behind. At one point one of the girls lost one hand hold day we got air going off a steeper bow wave but she got it back not a moment before the next big jump. With our arms a good 5cm longer and with two fewer layers of skin on our palms, we hit the beach once more.

Sculpted in concrete and laying on the stone sea floor a good 100m offshore, was a permanent diving platform. With 4 levels up to 8 meters high, everyone was testing their courage or trying the next best type of somersault. The best one I saw was a guy who managed to hook the tops of his feet on the 8m platform, hanging upside down on the strength of his toes before he uncoupled himself, dropping straight like a pin, head first into the water. I'd jumped from 10m and other cliffs before but the thing about this one was that the water was just so clear that you could see the intimate features of the rocks not that far under the water. I jumped from the top and it was just high enough to pause and think after having left the platform: "I'm still falling but.. I haven't hit the water yet". We used brute peer pressure till everyone had made the jump and had got their obligatory mid-air photo.

It when we had just finished showering before heading back to the ship that one for the girls asked me the time and I looked to see that my favourite Titanium Skagen, a 21st birthday present, was gone. I went into panic mode for a moment before remembering that I lost a watch once in the past while jumping the cliffs at Blackwall Reach at home. If the waters weren't so incredibly clear and the water not more than 4m deep near the platform, I wouldn't have bothered but instead I told them that I was going back out to go looking for it. I sprinted out and intercepted a passing swimmer as I approached the platform. In broken Spanish and English, I asked to borrow his goggles but he said he'd look for me. He made shallow dives and I treated water, trying to look through the water from above for the dull glint of brushed metal on the rock floor. It was almost 10 minutes after a couple of near misses with platform jumpers that I was going to ask him call of the search but just then he made a slightly deeper dive and where I thought I was about to hear the bad news, he held up the watch he'd pulled from the sea. It was such a remarkable thing! I swam back slower, clutching the watch and was met halfway by two of the girls who were about to join the hunt. Feeling like the luckiest person in the world, we all headed back to the boat before it left the sunny port of Rhodes.

Another night, another party and it didn't take long after getting on the boat that the 5 of us went up to the sky bar, looking over the pool decks from above, that we were back at it. While we ordered cocktails from the bar, Trinity, went down to the pool deck bar where they had ice cream to make us 5 chocolate milkshakes complete with a shot of Baileys.

It was time to scrub up tonight for our formal dinner and then cocktail reception followed by a meet with the captain. With the exception of the dinner, this whole affair was quite a lot of fuss about nothing. It seemed to me like this was the sort of novelty that I could have done without because it seemed like it just entailed a whole lot of queuing for a handshake and a group photo I wasn't going to get anyway. Either way, it wasn't long before we re-took the dance floor, not getting to bed till 3am once more.

I was getting used to those 7am starts and it was just as well because the Palace of Knossos on Crete was great! Sometimes dubbed 'the first European city', this 1700BC palace inhabited by the Minoans had all of the trimmings with running water, piped sewers, two storey buildings and design promoting natural ventilation. All this they accomplished without a standing military and they still had trade partners who were armed (unless they had a massive navy that they haven't found any evidence for yet). I guess no one really wanted to mess with the big local Economic power of the time. We didn't have long in Crete because Santorini was the second stop for the day.

We all took in the arrival over lunch where we entered the caldera of the old super volcano and approached the sheer cliffs of this highly elevated town. We bussed up the perilous cut zig-zag road past the immaculate white washed, blue topped houses of the towns on the way to the title piece being Ios [[[IS THIS THE RIGHT NAME??]]. Melly, Nadia and I were dropping into little paths to try and find the best niche for taking photos of the town, draped over the cliffs when I saw a group of Koreans. There, taking photos of them selves in their usual style were Stella and Sarah from one of my days in Istanbul. While I knew they'd be in Santorini at some point, I never thought we'd actually meet there especially since we only had a couple of hours to roam the place. The astonishment in their face when I called out to Sarah was amazing. So we took our photos and we parted ways again. Maybe we'll meet again in South Korea some day.

Melly, Nadia and I were a little peckish so we saw an awesome menu and plunged into a cafe. There was a little roof terrace and when we climbed the steps, we knew we had arrived at the right place. The height gave us the most spectacular view of the town. I got a freezing yogurt smoothie and nibbled on this amazing fried Greek cheese called [[[INSERT NAME FROM NADIA]]]. We were all just completely absorbed by bliss and as it always does, time caught up to us and I went for a run off to the lookout further down the road before dodging people traffic back to the last bus to the next spot. On the way I found out why the architecture was so uniform in Santorini: Firstly, they all have to be the blue and white you see on the Greek flag or sometimes cream or another light pastel is permitted. Naturally the white helps against the relentless sun too. Secondly, at least one room must have a vault which is safer and much more flexible against earthquakes that have destroyed so many houses in the past.

There were more tourist shops in [[[[INSERT NAME]] but it was pretty nice and after a good perusal, I joined a bunch of people at a bar with super views before we went down to the donkeys. These were much bigger animals than those at Lindos and soon we saw why that made a lot of sense because the cliff face we bussed up before, we were about to go down the donkey trail equivalent. We all agreed after that this ride was probably the best mix of terror and excitement that anyone had had for a long time. It wasn't like a rollercoaster where you know the restraints are made of good steel and have been running every day for the last 10 years without incident. That sort of security makes it easy to be thrown forward at 100kph without batting an eyelid. This was more about holding on to that harness and trying to stop your thongs from slipping out of the foot pieces as this work horse jerks forward down the cobble steps, having to steady yourself each time it slips a little on the smoother ones. As we got a little confidence, we got a bit bolder with photos and one handed rodeo rides. Sunset approached as we descended and you could get an idea of how magical it would be to stay up in the towns to watch it all from the cliffs. The donkeys would stall here and there, would take particular affection to one of the others in front of you or try to overtake on a corner, tackling the steeper gradient stairs on the inside. It got closer and closer to the last tender time so when dismounting, Cristina and I legged it through the narrow roads to the last waiting tender.

We had our bags ready before going out and left them for the porters and the next morning it was all over. We docked at Pireus in the night and after a long wait to clear customs, it was sobs and hugs and last minute exchanging of details as we all said goodbye to our Contiki mates for the last 10 days. It didn't take long to realize that Melly and a bunch of others were heading to the airport around mid-day too so we all caught the bus in after a little morning roam through a sleepy Athens. At the airport it was final goodbyes to the best people and for me it was off to Copenhagen.

August 5, 2013

Contiki Part 1: Turkey

My first Contiki experience began by walking into a little underground hotel restaurant filled with a mix of anxious and hyperactive faces ready to be let loose on Turkey. Following a little (read lengthy) introduction by our Turkey tour guide Ahmed, we tucked into our first group meal. It wasn't long before we were all getting to know each other, finding out about each others travel plans and finding out that most people lived in Australia (all east coasters bar myself though). Being a relatively late meet up, we all trotted off to a nearby bar and got to know each other just a little bit better.

We only had one day in Istanbul so the bus set out to the city nice and early and dropped us at the Spice Markets. It was a time for raw nuts and Turkish delight and there were plenty of offers by shop owners to taste and smell. You got an idea of who was trying to rip you off pretty quickly so the buy was always pretty satisfying after a little haggle.

To the Blue Mosque next and after dropping our shoes and covering up legs and shoulders, we could slide in and admire the tremendous space that is the mosque. We checked out the Hippodrome next door and got some really interesting background on the remnants from the Ottomans and those who came before. It was pretty free form from there with free time to hop on a boat doing a similar trip to the one I did the day before. I had been waiting for this moment for the last 3 days to check out Hagia Sophia. As we were reminded many times before, Hagia Sophia was the first of a new style of domed mosque which is exemplified in the design of all mosques from the date after it's conquest by the Ottomans in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II. At that time, it was a Byzantine church full of mosaics and frescoes depicting holy figments and since the invading Muslims did not like depictions of holy people in their mosques, they were all plastered over. While I was there, some of the frescoes and mosaics had been uncovered, really giving an idea of the history seen by this building since the year 537. What was more astounding was that by the power of faith and manpower, this colossus was built in just 5 years!

Blue mosque above and Hagia Sofia below.

A group of us went down to the Basilica Cisterns which formed one of the main water reservoirs storing water from the Byzantine aquaducts in the 6th century AD. It was amazing to see this underground hall over 100 meters long in dim lighting with a capability to hold 80,000 tonnes of water. This was certainly a highlight of Istanbul along with the Sophia.

Our first real evening out started at a funny little underground dinner hall with a stage and band. The music started as we sat down and we were barraged with both food and the sights of belly dancers and other traditional dances from around Turkey. They got the crowd in on the action, amazed with the occasional flaming knife trick and at the end they dropped the dance floor down and everyone got on the dance floor to some slightly more modern tracks.

Leaving the restaurant a bit more pumped up, a bunch of us got a lift from the tour bus to an exclusive lounge style, outdoor night club called Reina. The drinks were pretty steep but we were already bouncing around on the luminous dance floor. Bec and I took to the dance floor and got some grind on rather artfully standing on the top of a big seating arrangement, being greeted with some complimentary energy drinks by the lonely Italian guy who was watching pretty contently. The night kicked on till the early hours when we finally crammed 4 of us side by side into the back of a taxi up and down a suspicious, slightly too windy route back to the hotel.

It was a long drive that morning but soon we were passing the Dardanelles and were at ANZAC cove. Those harsh inclines and that inhospitable coast did so much to highlight the futility of that landing (however unintentional the landing location). It was possible to grasp while standing beside the graves just how well the Turks were able to defend that short, rolling stretch of land from the Galipolli coast to the Dardanelles. A little trip up to the Lone Pine memorial and we saw the majority of the ANZAC graves and the chapel used on ANZAC day every year. There were trenches scattered around that area and on the way to a massive statue of Ataturk, we saw opposing trenches less than 10 metres apart. The nature of this fighting just seemed raw and hopeless for the Australians. While it was supposed to be 'just' 10km from the beaches and over the hills to the Dardanelles guns, it was always going to be a death trap.

We caught a ferry over to the continental Asian side of Turkey and meandered towards a secluded beach side resort just out of Cannakale. We got to the beach and pool as soon as possible and after a good round of pool volleyball, it was time for dinner. While we wanted to head out to the pub, it seemed pretty quiet so after a couple of rounds of table tennis, the night closed with a little beach side party arranged by a friend recently dubbed Mama Contiki. It was great to have almost the whole group of 40 down by the water just chilling out together. Us stragglers finished with a dimly lit midnight swim as part of a soon to be established nightly dare club.

Today would be a solid day of driving, living on a lonesome diet of grapes i bought earlier, leftover from the beach party. There were no good lunch locations so most resorted to a place that did toasted sandwiches some time around the middle of the day. Eventually, we rolled into Troy, the site of new fewer than 9 cities rebuilt over each other and starting from 2920BC. Of course the Troy we think of was the 7th city associated with the Trojan war, some time in the 12-14th centuries BC. It was fun to see the little innovations in things like wall design, happening for the first times, making these places so admirable in their time.

[[more photos to come when I get some proper wifi]]

Next was the Asklepieon or mental hospital far below the Acropolis (high city) in Pergamum. Founded in the 4th century BC, it was one of the original and best known centres for healing in the ancient world. The role of water in old Greek towns also became apparent with heaps of fountains and channels for water still visible with the old Lithium rich spring water still trickling around the sophisticated network. We went down a dark enclosed passage which was part of what seemed like a very ceremonial and meditative healing process. It had a well preserved library and theatre for a good 2000 people too so of course I had to try a little musical interlude while I was there!

There was a little Onyx mill nearby which we went to after to see the crafting of this local stone. A man with a lave showed us how to turn and polish the stone and we were told about the different qualities of stone for monuments and the typical depths of the Onyx grades. It was a pretty impressive place with jewelry as well as the sculpted stone pieces. We eventually got into Izmir, got settled, had a pretty average dinner (they served a plate of grapes for desert which wasn't too welcome after grazing on my leftovers for the majority of the day...) then got ready to go out on the town. It was an interesting exercise in bar salesmanship as our tour guide tried to negotiate some good rates before we sat down. While he managed to shave off a couple of lira off the drinks, when people got to the bar they managed to pull a blinder and use imported spirits rather than local, avoiding the deal and charging more. After the first drink we got our act together and figured out we could get a 75cl glass of beer for less than the special 50cl beer price. We were set from there but another lesson learned. To the sole clubbing aisle in Izmir and we brought the party to the clubs on the early side of the night. It wasn't long before the rest of the street reacted to our choice and then the club got busy. I found myself being a body shot table and soon after we were all pretty lively on the dance floor, bouncing under the sound of a proper unregulated Turkish sound system. Another shonky taxi ride home, 4 in the back and we had some hours till the bus the next morning (I suggest finding out the likely fare and getting your driver to agree to if before you leave on your way home).

Who would have thought it but we all seemed to be pretty drawn in by the Turkish carpet house visit the next morning. They showed us all of the steps of grabbing the silk strand ends from the cocoons and pilling them into long, wet and very strong threads. We learned about thread counts, wool and cotton bases and the Turkish double knot. With a glass of cold apple tea in most of our hands, we sat down as our very charismatic host brought out carpet after carpet for us to see. There was wool on cotton, wool on wool, silk on silk with every different colour and geometry imaginable. Even though Turkish carpets weren't really on most of our shopping lists before, it seemed that most of us were making silent vows to work, buy a house and come back to Turkey to bring these treasures back to a place of your own. Back on the bus...

We made it to the Pamukkale mineral ponds after an awesome lunch in a Turkish wedding lunch celebration place and were immediately stunned by the sight. The whiteness of these ponds was just so pure and the water with this light tinge of blue that just made it so surreal. This was a whole hill-side that had been preserved (after some pretty terrible mis-management which almost destroyed the site 10 years prior) to allow for tourist consumption. We passed on swimming among some roman ruins in the spring water and moved off enjoy our beautiful resort for the evening.

We congregated around the pools and tried out thermal baths, sipped cocktails in the pools and baths then readied for the expansive dinner on offer. With white tables set for us, we swanned up to the buffet and just as well we showed up when we did because then the Russians descended! Swarms of tour bus hardened Russians streamed onto the scene, heads down and on a mission to get to the hot food as fast as inhumanly possible. Second course was chore as pushy tourists would edge right up against you in an attempt to shave off that half a second to get the potatoes from Bain-marie to their piled-high plates. One kid behind me went so far as to resort to the poaching the meat sauce sans spices from an industrial dish before it had been mixed under head with the penne not more than a metre ahead of me.

We closed the night with a session of truth by the hammocks with our slightly stronger home mixed drinks. We learned a little more about each other under the wonderful coercive power of the group and as more and more people disappeared to bed a few of us found our way through an unlocked door into one of the thermal ponds, holding silence as the few silhouettes passed under the lights outside.

Ephysus was a big and ancient city for 250,000 inhabitants complete with 25,000 person theatre and the 3rd biggest library of the ancient world. At its height in 100AD it was thought to house up to half a million people making it the largest city in Roman Asia at the time. In fact, the only popular Turkish beer ‘Efes’ was named after this place, so suitably, it was chock a block full of tourists to a much greater extent than we’d seen before. Motifs like the Medusa and the snake in medicine made more sense with some more mythology of the area and we eventually made it out. We got out of the heat and got taken to an authentic Turkish bath.

We got corralled out of the bus, through the elaborate lobby and up the stairs to the change rooms where they attempted to get a couple of couples into private booths before shunting everyone else into the big room behind where we all wondered a bit what was happening. Eventually someone drew a curtain between the sexes and we were shown a couple of lockers for possessions so it became a bit more obvious what to do. There was a little confusion as to whether nude was ok but it became pretty clear that they offered the tourist version so we kept bathers on and headed to the bath room. It was a big marble octagon inside, some 8 metres wide and with a solid 4m wide, knee high table in the centre. The heat was pretty mild but over time we could splash down with water mixed in broad bowls. Of course some of us got a little creative with the cold water and some people got a little surprised when the icy splashes came over a shoulder. A few of us went next door into the sauna to try and heat up a bit more and we saw the big hairy Turkish men go back and forth with towels, soap and big buckets. One of the seedier guys flashed a couple of girls through the glass door on his way past much to their dismay. It wasn't till we went back into the bath room that we found that the same guy would be the chief cleaner. They weren't really sure about this guy with the massive beer gut giving them a fully body rub down. It wasn't till he filled his soapy bag with air and pushed out a glistening cloud of foam that the worries started to die down and we started to get a little more excited. It was a two station process with the first being the exfoliation. Everyone found the dead tan from the last week rubbing off and down through the shower drain between stations. The foamy rub down closed the process, feeling silky smooth and glowing. It was a good time!

The resort was beautiful with views all the way down the bay to the port where we would be embarking the following day. After a beautiful dinner, washing away some bad tastes from some of the previous days, we all got ready for our last night out on land. It was a pretty big one, with few photos and limited memories but it all started with the bus out to the bars at around 11pm, negotiating the drinks rate and then sticking to it. I almost got charged double at one point but stuck to it and there was no problem. Throughout the trip we had a corny Turkish song which got played at the start of each day in the bus and became associated with hangovers and the general haze of morning bus rides. It came on and before we knew it, just about all the girls were up on the bar dancing to it. It must have been a good quarter hour before they came down again and soon we were taking over the bar with Bec and another serving drinks with the tenders and with more cocktails rolling out, it was a pretty good night. Eventually a bunch of us tried out some of the other joints down the road. All pretty similar in format but slowly but surely we ground to a halt with Mama Contiki sensibly getting a Giros before we all crammed into a taxi once more, back to the hotel.

August 2, 2013

Dolmabache palace and Galeta tower

Dolmabache palace was first on the list for the second full day with Galeta tower on the secondary. Apparently is was a pretty common itinerary so once again, I met someone over breakfast. Sarah and Stella from South Korea had seen the palace in their tour books and wanted to go straight away so having seen it from the tour boat the day before, who better ot act as a guide to the relativly distant attraction. It was pretty easy, simply taking the 3 lira tram from outside the hostel down to the stop not more than 400m from the palace.

Sarah and Stella from South Korea. Dolmabache palace, lunch salad hunt, Galeta tower, grand bazar, shoe fail, Start of Contiki
In some of the rooms, it was absolutely comparable to Versailles. The plaster reliefs combined with the scale seen in Ottoman mosques fused into a pretty incredible place. The crystal chandeliers and candelabras were of particular note with the one in the picture weighing in at 4.5 tonnes! They were pretty hostile to photos but I couldn't go past the celebration room which just blew all of us away with it's size and grandure.

Next to Galeta tower, gazing over the whole city. We did a little bit of lunch hunting first and shattered our conception that it was quite difficult to eat cheaply in Istanbul. We ended up finding a generous self serve salad place for 6 lira! The tower gave an absolutely incredible view and we spent ages taking all out selfies and panoramas.

Walking back past the pushy restraunters under the Galeta bridge was a little difficult with one actually grabbing my arm for a while so he could make his pitch. We got through and soon found ourselves in the spice markets and grand bazaar. With not much time, we breezed through until disaster struck! My throngs died... With a bit of medical tape, a swiss army knife and some engineering know how we were back on the road and at Cheers again in no time.

I said my farewells to the Korean girls and Melissa who had been out on a package tour and made my way to the tram station ready to get to the meeting point for my Contiki tour.

August 1, 2013

Archaeology and the Bosporus

Melissa and I met over a simple yet fresh and delectable breakfast the following morning to plan our attack of another day of tourism. First on the list was the archeology museum, adjoining the Tokapi palace. In no more than 10 minutes from the door of our hostel, we were at the first building within the museum seeing artifacts from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Hittite, Assyrian and early Ottoman civilisations. The constant reminders of the high level of advancement of these civilisations before the rise of central Europe kept on amazing. The cuneiform tablets were pretty amazing too and to see words written millennia ago was quite humbling. Before we knew it, we had been browsing for a good two hours so we made a swift sweep of tiled pavilion with it's painted works.

Off to the docks for a ferry tour up the Bosporus, between the Asian and European coasts. While waiting for it to come, we shot across the road to behold our first Mosque. The 'New' mosque was one of the biggest mosques and it was my first opportunity to admire the floor to dome painting and glazing to adorn the interior. After some listening and happy snaps it was back to the ferry.

We picked up some cool little map based audio/visual guides for the ferry trip. We could simply tap which site we wanted to hear about while we sat on the covered bow of the two floor ferry. It took a good hour and a half to float to the mid tour termination. The number and quality of the Sultan's different palaces was quite incredible. It seemed that just about every sultan had to have his own. It also became obvious just how many mosques are smattered over the landscape. Even more obvious when the call to prayer blared across the landscape through the minaret speakers.

After doing a bit of bargaining, we found ourselves sat at a waterside fish restaurant where we had some grilled sea bass before some real Turkish gelato. With a bit more time we could have made the castle on the peak of the nearby hill but with a well paced meal to be had, we were content to have a little nap on the way back to the hostel. The sun continued to fill the air with moist heat, finally bringing us back to the hostel as the sun began to fall below the buildings.

I woke from a evening siesta amongst the other exhausted guys in the room at 10pm ready for dinner and met up with a Mexican guy. We roamed and after finding an alright place close to the hostel, it was to the roof bar. There were heaps of people I'd bumped into over the last 48 hours, pre-drinking for a night out to Takasim square. I stayed back and took a 2am night for another tourism workout the following morning.