The Queen Victoria building. Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2009

Today I went into the city to meet up with fellow blogger Vanille who has come over from New Zealand with her husband, Paprika for a short trip.

Vanille is a French woman with a real sense of style, a fabulous food photographer and cook who has a deep interest in architecture. So when I offered to show her and Paprika around town I felt a little worried about where to take them. The weather as been pretty lousy here in Sydney lately so I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the easy way out with a trip on the harbour which always pleases. I asked what places they’d wanted to visit and the told me the Powerhouse museum and Darling Harbour. I’ve been to those two place several times and felt they weren’t that interesting but I thought that they might be of interest to others who had never seen them so I didn’t try to dissuade them.

Sydney is like any other tourist destination, in that it has heaps of over hyped opportunities to blow money and time on very little.

The first place we went to was the Powerhouse Museum which features technology and design. Although the Powerhouse museum was much vaunted in various design media when it was first opened, it is now a tired old triumph of style over substance. Dark displays hidden under noisy soundscapes and wretched projected video excess. I felt embarrassed that I was there with people of obvious taste and intelligence. Mercifully, Vanille and Paprika were self assured enough to let me know they’d rather see something else, so we bailed and headed for nearby Chinatown for lunch.

Despite the best efforts of whatever committee that has tried to turn Chinatown into a tourist experience, it is still a great place to go for excellent and cheap food. I particularly recommend the Sussex centre which is basically an Asian shopping mall that has a fantastic food hall of very authentic Chinese food from all over Asia. One of my favourite dishes that I like to turn visitors (who are unfamiliar with the food of South East Asia) onto, is the laksa (I prefer the Katong style).

After lunch we went to Darling Harbour which, despite being promoted as a tourist attraction, is nothing more than yet another retail mall with more tourist nick-knacks per square metre than just about anywhere else in Australia.

I think that what the people who design such places don’t understand, is that there should something that makes the place worthwhile to visit on an intrinsic level rather than just a place to shop. Darling harbour is just one of those lame-arse copies of the glasshouse Eaton centre in Toronto Canada with very little to offer to anyone other than pathological shoppaholic. At least it’s near the water and gives a good view of the city.

To my mind, Vanille and Paprika were starting to look a little dispirited with some of Sydney’s major tourist traps and when the pouring rain came I knew I had to think fast.

Vanille has studied architecture and we had been talking about the design of various things so I thought I should show her the beautiful Queen Victoria building as a way to show that not everything in Sydney is a clumsy and crass attempt to separate tourists from their money.

The Queen Victoria building (also known as the QVB) is a stunningly ornate sandstone shopping centre  built in the late 19th century that has been recently renovated.

It’s a building that has much old world charm and it offers so much more than a chance to merely shop. The QVB is an aesthetic tour de force that is so rare in these days of soulless shopping malls and tourist traps.

The venue was more interesting than the art. 17th Sydney Biennale, Cockatoo Island, NSW, Australia. 2010

I went to Cockatoo Island (one of my favourite places in Sydney) on Sunday with some friends to check out part of the Sydney Biennale. I was instantly reminded of something a set designer once said to me about a detail on a set I’d spotted (I used to be a set builder in the theatre) that needed to be sorted out. She said to me, “oh don’t worry about that, if the audience notices, it will be a sign that the play is a flop”.

I remember being stuck by what she (the set designer) had said, and how true it was.

Not long after, I was involved with the complicated construction of a set that was built on two revolves that when rotated would break the set in half and then produce another scene as the old scene rotated off stage. There were three amazing set changes that happened with the audience watching . It was all a very magical theatrical experience and an excellent piece of set design.

The trouble was, that the play was so bad that the only thing the audience applauded were the set changes!

I’m not kidding.

Cockatoo Island is an old dockyard from the early 19th century. It’s now decommissioned as a dockyard but a lot of the old decaying buildings are still there. The whole place is a sort of monument to a shabby kind utilitarian brutalism that has almost been malevolently designed to be as ugly as possible. The strange thing is that now that the paint is peeling and iron is rusting Cockatoo Island has to my mind become a wonderful place.

Visual roughage for the eyes, if you will.

As part of the Sydney Biennale a free art exhibition is currently showing on Cockatoo Island in the various buildings. The only problem was, was that most of the art was so weak that the venue totally overwhelmed what was being shown.

I didn’t see anything that I thought was particularly interesting, never mind anything mind blowing. A few pieces were O.K. but there was nothing that I saw that I thought required more than a few seconds to look at.

Oh well, at least the buildings were interesting.

Smoke from early morning campfires. Kanangra, NSW, Australia. 2010

Although the temperatures went below freezing during the night, my wife and I had an excellent time camping with friends at Boyd’s crossing in the Kanangra Boyd National Park over the weekend.

The photo above was taken in the morning while there was still frost on the ground. People were starting up their fires to cook breakfast. It was such a beautiful setting to share with friends and to have our favourite breakfast, huevos ranchero.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

Epicurus once said, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf”

21st century travel in Europe. Part 3, Travel information.

When I look back on my life of travel, I can’t help but marvel how things have changed.

When I first started off travelling on my own in 1974, I was 17 and there wasn’t very much information for people who wanted to get off the beaten track. I left Australia all those years ago with Lonely Planet’s second book, Across Asia on the Cheap and an old early version of BIT Travel’s Overland to India and Australia, which was about 10 or so pages stapled together with very brief bits of information and an encouragement to visit travellers in prisons along the way.

Even though 1974 seems a long time ago and people often ask me what Asia was like before everyone else found out about it and spoilt it. Truth be told, I felt as though I’d come too late and “missed it”, because it seemed like it was overrun with people just like myself (just not quite so young).

Nowadays there are a plethora of guides and maps aiming at every part of the market.

Lonely Planet has become a monster that is producing so many travel guides that you’d need an extra suitcase to carry all their guides to Europe and a fair bit more money as the guides have become quite expensive. I still think that the Lonely planet guides are the best general purpose guides on the market but the trouble is, so does just about everyone else. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to fall into the trap of following the well worn rut made by other people who have bought the same guide by the thousands.

Now it’s the 21st century we don’t need guides made from dead trees anymore because most of us (especially you who are reading this) have computers.

Not only can you do your general research at home before you leave but I’d also recommend taking a laptop along with you on your trip for the following reasons:

1. Instead of trying completely organise your trip bookings  before you go, which will lead to tears because the real world doesn’t work like a well oiled piece of clockwork, you can book as you go, online. We used Booking.com to make our bookings as we went. The great thing about Booking.com is that you can refine your search terms to find hotels in the area you are interested in that have free Wi Fi, parking, cooking facilities (look for “apartments), laundry or whatever else you are desiring. Another very good website is Trip Advisor which is excellent for checking reviews (we thought their reveiws were more reliable) of where you’re thinking about going or staying. In our experience, Booking.com was consistently cheaper than if we walked in off the street and we often only made our bookings the night before.

2. Having a computer and an internet connection gives access to Google Maps which will help you plan driving routes and calculate E.T.As.

3. It is possible to download the whole of  the Wikipedia database (without pictures) and put in on your hard drive. We used this a lot in the car as I was driving. My wife would look up interesting  things that we passed out in the middle of nowhere.  It really is amazing how much stuff is in the Wikipedia database and we used it constantly.

4. You can keep abreast of what’s going on in the world if you’re in areas that don’t have T.V. in your language (in our case this came in handy in France, Italy and Spain). You can also find out what special events might be going on in the local area when you are there.

5. You can keep up with your E-mail and do your banking on-line without having to go into those grotty, and to my mind suspect, internet cafes.

6. You can download your image files from your digital camera as you go and make data discs to send home by post as insurance you don’t loose your images. I made two D.V.Ds for each batch of photos I took. One disc was mailed home and the other I kept hold of.  The reason why I did this was so that if the computer played up or got stolen I’d have back up and if a disc was lost in the mail I’d still have back up. As it was, the computer worked fine and all the discs made it back home, but I know if I hadn’t have taken those precautions, the gods would’ve seen to it that I would’ve been punished for my hubris.

Smaller laptops are better for travelling, not just because they are easier to pack, but because a laptop that is about the size of a book will fit in a glove compartment of a car or in a hotel room safe. I’d also recommend taking one of those adapters that enables one to use the power from a cigarette lighter in a car. If you forget to take one with you, don’t worry because you can buy them over in Europe, and the same goes for the electrical plug adapters.

We usually ended our days in Europe sorting out where we wanted to go next, what route to take and where we were going to sleep by getting a rough idea from maps and various guides we had. Then Engogirl (my lovely wife)  checked it all out on the computer and made the necessary reservations (I did all the driving, Engogirl did all the planning and booking).

Without a doubt, I’d say taking the computer with us was one of the main reasons why we had such a great time so free of hassles and complications.

21st century travel in Europe. Part 2, bicycles.

My wife and I do a fair bit of travelling and over the years we’ve come to the realisation that most travelling involves sitting around passively in various forms of transportation for long periods of time.

Last year when we went to Europe we thought it would be a good idea to take some folding bicycles with us to extend our range out of the car and to get some exercise. We bought 2 very cheap Chinese folding bikes ($200 AUD each) from Aldi and we found them to be perfect on our trip.

The great thing about having folding bikes is that they are easily transported on aeroplanes and in cars. The bikes we bought were a bit on the heavy side, weighing in at about 18 kg (40 lbs) each, which used up our luggage allowance on the flight over, but we were able to take enough clothes on board as cabin baggage.

One can spend serious money on a folding bike but we bought cheap ones because we didn’t want to worry about them getting stolen or damaged. Another factor is that we both aren’t serious cyclists and we’re more interesting in just tooltling along at an easy pace, taking in the scenery and chatting.

Europe is a great place for cycling. There are a multitude of very easy long distance paths that follow old disused train tracks in Spain, paths along canals in France and of course there’s cycling along rivers. All the cycle paths I’ve just mentioned are so easy because they travel along fairly flat ground without steep hills.

As with most of the rest of the world, traffic congestion in Europe makes it a bit dangerous and unpleasant to cycle in the major cities. The exception to this general rule is Amsterdam which is a very bicycle friendly city.

Although it is possible to rent bicycles just about anywhere in Europe we were glad to have taken our own as we could just pull them out of the car and use them when and where we liked. It’s a fantastic feeling to park the car and just hop on your bike.

Because cycling is so effortless it greatly increases one’s range and it’s possible to see so much more while getting some exercise instead of getting on and off buses etc. Where bicycles really come into to their own is in medium sized cities where things are a little too far to walk to but too close to drive. Cities like Ljubljana in Slovenia (a really lovely place), Nimes in France, Verona in Italy, Valencia in Spain and Brugge in Belgium are perfect examples of the kind of cities that are great places to explore on a bicycle.

There are two accessories I’d recommend to take with a bike to Europe and they are a cable lock and a rack. The cable lock will stop anyone from just grabbing your bike and scooting off with it but it won’t stop someone who is more determined and better equipped and for that that reason I wouldn’t recommend leaving your chained up bike unattended for too long (this goes for anywhere in the world). The rack is great for strapping on things like shopping, water or raingear.

A nice way to travel, is with a few days clothes in a small bag strapped to your rack, down the paths that follow rivers (we went along the Mosel in Germany), eating the local food that is in season and stopping at little pensions over night.

Bliss! 

21st century travel in Europe. Part 1, the vehicle.

Although I’ve bummed around much of the world travelling the hard way, hitch-hiking and sleeping rough when I was younger, my trip to Europe last year with my wife was so different and went so well, I thought I should do a few posts about how we did it.

This first part will be about travelling by car.

Although Europe has a pretty good public transport infrastructure, my wife and I wanted to get a bit more off the beaten track and go to places that were less crowded, so we leased a car for three months. France has an exceptionally good system for foreigners to lease brand new cars for short periods. Citroen, Peugeot and Renault all offer very competitive rates with no-fault insurance. Only Renault’s insurance gave us coverage in Bosnia so we chose a Renault Clio Estate diesel with a manual transmission.

For 86 days car lease including insurance with no other hidden costs we paid just under $2,800 AUD (about $2,500 US or 1,970 Euros) which worked out at approximately $32 AUD (about $28 US or 22 Euros) a day.

We went with the Clio Estate because it’s a small car with a fairly large cargo space. We were able to put two folding bicycles and our luggage in the back and still pull the cargo cover over, so our things couldn’t be seen through the windows. When we were in Germany, we met up with my parents and they travelled with us for about 10 days. Much to my parent’s credit, they are seasoned travellers and they know how to travel light so we had no trouble fitting them and their luggage in the car as well.

The Europeans really know how to get the most out of their cars through design.

Although I was a bit worried that the Clio only had a 1.4 ltr diesel engine, it had more than enough get up and go for all our needs. As a matter of fact I got the Clio up to 167 kph (about 103 mph) and most of the countries we went through had a maximum speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph).  I was very surprised at how well the Clio performed and it was so economical to run. In over 14,000 kms (about 8,700 miles) we only had to fill the tank about 11 times.

It’s no wonder the American automobile industry is in such big trouble when the Japanese and Europeans make such well designed and efficient cars.

Because of our long flight (27 hours), we arranged to pick up our car from the airport in Paris, two days after we arrived so we would be more mentally alert for what was for me, driving on the wrong side of the road.

I’d like to offer this advice to anyone who has to drive on the opposite side the road to what they are used to. Encourage your passenger to be an extra set of eyes and set the ground rules that they are to warn you with a calm, clear voice and not to over react by screaming incoherently and pointing. This is particularly important when making turns around corners so you go into the correct lane and not into oncoming traffic.

I feel I should stress to those who have never been to Europe, that a big car is a very bad idea. Many of the streets in the old towns are extremely narrow, parking is often very hard to find and when a spot is found, it’s usually a very tight fit, plus fuel is very expensive.

I had to laugh when I drove through streets like the one in the photo below (taken in the northern Italian town of Cimbergo), at the thought that if one was silly enough to be driving a large camper or something really stupid like a Hummer you’d end up having to do some quite long and complicated reverse driving with crossed fingers that no one was following behind you.

In our whole trip I didn’t have any mechanical problems or accidents. On the whole I’d say that most European drivers are quite good and I had no problems anywhere with dealing with the traffic. I guess driving here in Sydney had prepared me pretty well for whatever Europe had on the roads. The is one exception though, and that was Germany. The Germans are great drivers, courteous, safe and fast which made driving in Germany the best motoring experience I’ve ever had.

The whole leasing experience was so easy. The pick up involved a little paper work and the drop off couldn’t have been simpler. When I dropped off the car, I was asked if I had damaged it, so I told them that I hit a concrete block that was hidden in the grass in the Netherlands and I’d smashed up one of the hubcaps and put a ding in the wheel rim. The car lease guy asked to see it and when I showed him, he almost laughed and said it was nothing.

My father-in-law had a similar experience the year before except that he’d done a bit of damage to a body panel and it was just marked on his paperwork and there were no extra charges.

So, in short, I’d highly recommend leasing a car in France to drive around the rest of Europe. It’s reasonably priced and hassle free, unlike experiences I’ve had in the US where there always seemed to be some excuse to wring more money out of me.

I’d definitely lease car in France, without a worry, if I’m ever in that part of the world again.

Oh, and I thought I should mention, that I’m soooo totally over hitch-hiking nowadays.