Saturday, September 29, 2012

London (UK)

Built in the 11th century, the Tower of London is a massive palace and fortress smack in the middle of the city. A lot of the big names in British history have been associated with it. Richard III was rumored to have killed two princes in the White Tower; Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the Tower Green; and various luminaries - William Wallace, St. Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, and Elizabeth I, to name a few - were imprisoned within the walls when their causes fell out of favor. You can learn a lot from the colorful commentary of the Beefeaters, as the yeoman warders are popularly known. Although their costumes may make them look silly, these tour guides are actually all officers with over 20 years of honorable military service. They also guard the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London so prepare to be dazzled by the serious bling on show.

Tower Bridge, otherwise known as the pretty one that everyone thinks is London Bridge, was still gussied up from its prominent place in aerial shots of the Olympic Games. For a spectacular, non-helicopter view of the city, there are some beautiful panoramas from the slowly rotating wheel of the London Eye. Just across the River Thames (pronounced "temz") lies the Houses of Parliament. The iconic Big Ben is technically a bell within the clock tower, not the the tower itself. We took a walk around to Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace... or as my folks know them, "where Will & Kate got married" and "where they kissed on the balcony," respectively. Picadilly Circus, which my sister calls the Times Square of London, was abuzz with lights and crowds. In such a tourist trap, we despaired of finding anything decent to eat, but struck gold in a special at the Criterion Restaurant. Amid opulent neo-Byzantine decor, we indulged in an upscale version of that great British tradition - Sunday roast dinner. The beef was aged and tender, the roast potatoes were golden outside and fluffy inside, and the crisp Yorkshire pudding (a batter thing similar to a popover) was excellent in the rich gravy.

For a taste of that other English tradition - gardening, we visited the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Boasting the world's largest collection of living plants and one of the largest herbariums, the place is enormous. It must take an army to keep the hedges trimmed, the beds consistently in flower, and the lawns so pristine. Even if the weather isn't cooperating, big and elegant greenhouses ("glasshouses" in British English) dedicated to the different regions or zones ensure there are still plenty of things to see. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Windsor, Upwaltham, Chichester, and Brighton (UK)

Although they have crisscrossed the continent on coach tours and pilgrimages, my folks have never actually been to Paris or the UK. Hoping to not end up like some National Lampoon outtake, we organized a family vacation to remedy this.

A quick vocabulary lesson for the uninformed: U.K. is short for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the island on which the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales lie (whereas Northern Ireland is on the same island as the Republic of Ireland). This is why you normally see sports teams from those individual countries compete in international events... and why it was also a kerfuffle when they had to join up and enter as Team GB for football in the Olympics. Make sense?

Arriving into Gatwick Airport, we promptly departed the city so that these Americans could see, at least a little, that there is more to the UK than just London. About 25 miles west, Windsor seems like a charming town out of a storybook England with its Union Jacks flying merrily. The castle is where the Queen spends most weekends, and we were there in time to see the Changing the Guard ceremony in the Lower Ward. The band that accompanies them tried to steal the show with such an ebullient rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz" that we half-expected them to break out with jazz hands. Inside, the Royal Apartments are sumptuous and with enough weaponry and suits of armor to fulfill any role-playing game fantasy. You can also see Queen Mary's dollhouse - complete with functional plumbing - and visit the stunning Saint George's Chapel, where Henry VIII, among other queens and kings, is buried.

We headed south to Rich's roots in West Sussex. The sun was shining on the South Downs, and we stopped in to see family before popping by the church at Upwaltham. Rich's family has been coming for generations to this tiny 12th century construction... just check out the spooky upright tombstones in the graveyard outside. Chichester is an old place, too, dating back to the Romans and home to a medieval market cross and cathedral. But the high street has all your newfangled favorites - HMV, Marks & Spencer, et al. - and we enjoyed a traditional afternoon tea (scones, jam, clotted cream, cakes, finger sandwiches, and tea) in a decidedly more modern setting next to a contemporary art gallery. 

We met up with more family in Brighton in East Sussex. Having long been a fashionable place by the seaside, I was sorely disappointed the first time I visited to find the famous beach was not sand, but stones... stones about the exact size and shape to encourage ankle-twisting. Strolling by the sea (or rather, the English Channel) in this case is relegated to the long boardwalk, or "prom" as the Brits say. Brighton today is known for its arts and culture and home to arguably one of the best club scenes in Europe. The box we were ticking, though, was fish and chips. The iconic British meal is best served from a greasy chip shop (or "chippie"), wrapped in newspaper, dashed with salt and malt vinegar, and eaten with an ineffectual wooden fork in the sea air. With the wind a tad too chilly, we had it in a restaurant. The "fish" can be cod, plaice, or haddock, and I opted for that curious accompaniment popular in the north of England - mushy peas... pretty mushy and very, very bland.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Girona (Spain)

Girona, northeast about an hour and 15 minutes on the train, makes for a popular day trip outside of Barcelona. An ancient city, it seems like lot of history's heavy hitters - Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Charlemagne, and Napolean - conquered and ruled Girona at one point or another. Today, it means there's some beautiful architecture. There are cobblestoned, narrow streets and grand churches. Brightly-colored facades of houses overhang the Onya river as it lazily winds its way through the center. The Passeig Arqueologic takes you through some beautiful gardens, and you can actually walk along the battlements of the ancient fortress walls, some of which date back to the 9th century. The Banys Arabs look older, but the baths are actually a 12th century Romanesque construction.

We also popped into the local CaixaForum for some impressionist works. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me in Europe is the abundance of masterpieces very casually available to the public. Entry is free, there are only a few rooms, and yet any one of the Gaughins or Monets in this one collection would be the centerpiece of an American gallery.

As visitors to Girona, we happily played into the role of tourists and ate in one of the many restaurants lining the sunlit Plaça de la Independència (even though we studiously avoid doing such things in Barcelona's similarly picturesque Plaça Reial). Luckily, we managed to find the one place with a reasonably priced menu del día (lunch with multiple courses at a set price), and the gazpacho was wonderfully cooling in the heat. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Catalan National Day in Barcelona (Spain)

September 11th is an important day in Catalunya but for very different reasons. It is the National Day of Catalunya. On this day nearly 300 years ago, Catalans suffered a defeat when backing the losing side in the War of Spanish Succession. Nowadays, the holiday is a lot like Independence Day in the States (day off work, flags flying, parades, etc.)... except imagine if the U.S. hadn't actually gotten independence yet and was still under the thumb of the British Empire. Because that's how a lot of Catalans feel. Although it is an autonomous community in Spain, Catalunya too was once its own empire. It has its own language and culture distinct from Castillian, aka what most people outside of Spain think of as Spanish language and culture. You don't have to drive far to see graffiti with "Catalunya is not Spain" in giant letters. Within Spain and even within Europe, Catalunya has been very strong economically with big industries and tourism, but with what many locals see as paying too many taxes back to the capital in Madrid and without getting much back. The Catalan independence movement has always been at least simmering in the background, but with the Spanish economy and government tanking, calls for secession have grown even louder.

There is always a big parade/protest for the National Day of Catalunya in Barcelona so we decided to take a look. Near Arc de Triomf, dozens of stalls were selling everything you need to show your national pride or support: t-shirts, bandanas, placards... even Catalan cola! The red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag are a pretty common sight any day in Barcelona, but man, were the independence flags, sporting the extra white star on a blue triangle, really flying off the shelves! A very popular fashion choice is what I am calling The Superhero, tying the full-size flag with strings around your neck like a cape... a sort of Captain Catalunya? The Parliament of Catalunya building was open to the public so we had a wander around inside. Interestingly, the building and the park it is in (Ciutadella) was originally part of a fortress built, not to protect the city, but to maintain control of the rebellious Catalan population after the aforementioned War of Spanish Succession. We passed a troop of soldiers in re-enactment-style costumes with drums and muskets, but the real show was the parade. Whole families - from babies in strollers to grandparents with walking sticks - were chanting protests and singing nationalistic songs. Every road or alley we passed was packed with people streaming to or from the march. Final numbers vary, but an estimated 1.5 million people marched in Barcelona. When you consider the entirety of Catalunya is only 7.5 million, this meant that 20% of the population was there. Absolutely staggering! 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Final Thoughts on Australia

For a country as vast as Australia, it would be impossible to say we did anything more than form some impressions during our visit. But here they are anyway:

- Someone told me that they say that [American] students who choose to do their study abroad in Australia do so because they don't want to actually live in a foreign culture. I can see why. For all its history as a former British colony (and there are plenty of "Poms" i.e. British folk), Australia feels much more American - big cars, big roads, and a lot of strip malls. The Gold Coast itself with its good weather, built up beach towns, theme parks, and retirees could be Florida.

- It is expensive. You'd have thought that living in Europe would have insulated us a bit from it but not so. Food prices were probably the biggest shock where even a bag or two of basics like cereal, sandwich fixings, etc. at the supermarket would easily set us back 60 Australian dollars (39 pounds, or 49 €). This might explain why Australia has one of the highest minimum wages in the world (~ 16 AUD). You almost always have to pay for internet, even Wi-fi, and it's usually capped. Does anyone even know anymore how much 20 MB gets you? Even when it is unlimited, service providers don't hesitate to block high bandwidth sites like Google maps, which, you know, could be useful for the people actually staying in the hotel. Probably the most egregious charge, however, was during our layover in Sydney airport. We had a connecting flight, and it cost 5.50 AUD per person to take the bus from the international terminal to the domestic one!?! The alternative, which we did consider, was an hour long walk along hot, smoggy roads with multiple lanes of traffic.

- As Rich likes to say, Aussies like to put an "ee" sound on the end of words. Common abbreviations we heard in the accent included: Brissie, nervy, pokies, rellies, and rashies. That's Brisbane, nervous, poker machines (and possibly casinos in general), relatives, and rash shirts, respectively, in Aussie-speak. Bonus: For those Americans out there, "thongs" in Australia are not the Sisqo-approved underwear, they are flip flops.

- The wildlife was awesome! We had some high expectations, but we got to see quite a few of the weird and wonderful creatures unique to Australia. We still couldn't tell you the difference between a kangaroo and wallaby, but who knew that wombats (mammals that look like rodents of unusual size) or echnidas (spiny anteaters) could be so funny and cute? Our only disappointments were not seeing a duck-billed platypus or many of the strange insects that inhabit the continent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Brisbane, Part III (Australia)

We returned to Brisbane and met a racist on the train. In less than 15 minutes, a conversation Rich was having with a random old man turned from his recent holidays in Europe to the state of the Spanish economy to how the immigrants are all to blame. Uh, what?! The man merrily went on about the blacks [the indigenous Aborigines] and the boat people [Asian immigrants] being a drain on Australia (curiously enough, a couple of our Australian friends had recently posted some statistics refuting these on Facebook) and how Australia should be only for Australians. Whatever assumptions the man could have made about Rich, what I found even weirder was his expectation that I - clearly of Asian descent - would be in agreement! We had heard others talk about coming across racist Australians, but never did we expect one would be so openly vocal... and to complete strangers no less. It boggles the mind.

We had a couple of days to kill before the departure of our long flights home. Avoiding the masterpieces on loan from the Prado (well, we had devoted a whole day there when we were in Madrid), we wandered around the paintings from Australian artists in the Queensland Art Gallery. Next door the Gallery of Modern Art also had a fantastic exhibition on sculpture involving everyday objects, including Vespa scooters customized to look like stags, a mesmerizing set of whirling car wash brushes, and inner tubes suspended like clouds in the air. In the same neighborhood, the Southbank Parklands Lifestyle Market featured probably 100 open air stalls selling arts and crafts, clothes, and decor to peruse.

Taking advantage of the availability of theater in the English language, we managed to score tickets to one of the last performances of "The Harbinger" at La Boite Theatre. It's an adult fairytale about an old man with his dreams and memories featuring live actors and... puppets! (Oh, how we miss the annual giant puppet shows in North Carolina!) The Australian company goes by the clever name of the Dead Puppets Society, and the themes were considerably darker. We enjoyed it thoroughly. The only downside was that our slight age difference meant that Rich got a substantial discount, and I had to come to terms with paying the much higher old people's price!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Final Thoughts on New Zealand

We had a lovely time in New Zealand. We saw such a beautiful and widely varying landscape that we only scraped the surface of outdoor activities we wanted to do. Most of the hostels we stayed in were very comfortable: well-equipped kitchens, cozy wood fireplaces, and even free warm chocolate cake! People were incredibly friendly and helpful, especially the rental car guys who quickly organized a car for us a day early when we got our North/South Island schedule mixed up. We liked it so much that we would probably consider moving there if it was closer... maybe even still will, Rich threatens. Without further ado, here are some - admittedly biased - final thoughts on New Zealand:

- The country is pretty empty. The stereotype that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand holds true - 10 per person. While a "city" may not be more than a town by our standards, this also means that huge swaths of national forests and long stretches of golden beaches are also very quiet. Time and again we marveled at how some idyllic spot would have been completely built up and invaded by tourists if it was in the U.S. or Europe.

- Since we don't own a car any more, it's been a long time since we've been on a road trip. Old habits die hard, and we did get some funny looks when we would park and walk 20 minutes into town. Parking lots would practically overwhelm us with choices. Rich enjoyed driving, particularly on the left side of the road. Roads were not as busy in the winter as we've heard they can be with summer tourists. This could make a big difference since what passes for a motorway in New Zealand usually only has 1 lane in either direction, and getting stuck behind a slow camper van or RV favored by holidaymakers could really add on to your travel time.

- New Zealand felt much more English. It helps that some parts of the countryside looked like they had been transplanted from the South Downs where Rich grew up. Food-wise also, meat pies and sausage rolls and curries abound. Funnily enough, many fish and chips shops also do Chinese food, and the scones are often made with dates instead of raisins. Since we happen to quite enjoy British cookery (despite its detractors), it was great to get these tastes of home.

- Although many would argue that more progress is still needed, it was interesting to see how integrated the indigenous Maori people and Maori culture was. The national anthem sung at the rugby match has both Maori and English lyrics, all New Zealand schoolchildren learn some Maori, and a solemn and moving haka was performed by infantrymen to salute the bodies of three New Zealand soldiers brought home from Afghanistan.

- Things often don't turn the way you think they should. We would normally expect to lock a door by turning the knob towards the side of the the door opens, e.g. clockwise, if the door is hinged on the left and opens on the right. This frequently is not so in New Zealand. To make things more confusing, it can be inconsistent. Rich came back from the shower in the men's room to tell me that hot water is towards the right, and when I go, its towards the left in the ladies'... in the same hostel! Sadly, we got nowhere on the myth that the toilet flushes in the opposite direction in the Southern hemisphere because, in eco-conscious New Zealand, they were all low volume toilets, which shoot in multiple directions!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Kaikoura, Part II, and Christchurch (New Zealand)

After our exhilarating experience swimming with dusky dolphins, we were already happy to give Kaikoura our seal of approval. But there's a bit more to see - actual seals! All the tourists know about the seal colony on the beach, but a short drive outside of town and a shorter walking trail brings you to a semi-secret waterfall and pool where the youngsters from the colony frolic and play. While their mothers are out hunting at sea, these pups are learning to socialize in the relative safety upstream. Their adorableness is almost overwhelming.

We can't say much about Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island. Earthquakes and severe aftershocks in 2010, 2011, and 2012 destroyed large parts of the city, most significantly, the historic building downtown. All around are construction sites and looming cranes, and a huge chunk of the center is roped off as a no-go red zone. After 2 hours of driving around looking for a hotel room, we gave up and headed straight towards the airport. A motel in the outskirts would have to do, and Christchurch would have to wait until next time. We played a round of miniature golf for fun and did some last minute shopping before catching our flight out of New Zealand at 4 o'clock in the morning. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Kaikoura (New Zealand)

Zigzagging across New Zealand is not an ideal route, but we headed northeast anyway because we didn't want to miss Kaikoura. In a country chock-full of beautiful views, this stunner was worth the detour. Shimmering, turquoise waters surround the peninsula, and the waves crashing on the big, dark boulders make for a striking contrast with the snow-capped mountains in the distance. A deep underwater canyon and an upwelling of currents off the peninsula combine to attract a variety of marine life... and the tourists who flock to see it. There is an easily accessible seal colony, over a dozen species of albatross, and crayfish the size of lobsters! Whale-watching though is what really put Kaikoura on the map since since sperm whales can be seen year-round not far off shore and humpbacks reliably pass by in the winter. Rich and I, however, planned to get a little closer to our marine life of choice than just a boat ride and a pair of binoculars. We were going to swim with dolphins!  

Wild, dusky dolphins hang out in big pods off the coast near town. Dark on the top (hence the name "dusky") and lighter on the underside, these guys are about our size and famous for their acrobatics. You can go out on a dolphin-watching cruise, and if the conditions are right, swim with them, too. Donning the mountain of neoprene apparel (wetsuits, hoods, gloves, etc.) wasn't going to dampen our enthusiasm... even though it should have clued us in to how cold it would be. We boarded the vessel and went searching. Once located, the crew carefully monitors the wild dolphins' behavior to decide if they are up for a closer encounter. For example, are they curious about the boat, circling back toward it or playing in the wake? If so, the skipper gives the signal to jump in with them. Sadly, in 3 hours on the water, we only saw one small pod with about 6 dolphins. They quickly shied away so the crew aborted the swim just as our feet touched the icy water. Even though pulling out showed how much the company respects wildlife and is concerned about safety - for which we totally applaud them - we couldn't help but still feel a little heartbroken. Especially on the heels of our failed glacier heli-hike. The good news was that the company offered us a deal that meant we could try again the next morning without any additional cost!

Taking them up on the offer, we were well-rewarded for our persistence. Scarcely 15 minutes into our second cruise, the skipper told us to suit up because we were about to converge on a large pod of over 150 dolphins! Slipping right into the teeming waters, the temperature at 10 C (or 50 F) was a shock. You soon forget this in the excitement and chaos of realizing that dolphins - DOLPHINS! - are streaming all around you. No touching is allowed, but honestly, it's so crowded that most of the time you worry they will run into you. Singing or making sounds (slightly challenging with a snorkel shoved in your mouth), diving down, or swimming in circles attracts their curiosity. It's actually a little disorienting. The cold water, the adrenaline, and singing "here fishy fishy" while swimming in ever-tighter circles to try to keep pace with a marine creature is pretty hard on the human body. But how many people can say they looked a dolphin in the eye and played with it for a while? It was frickin' amazing!! Eventually, the pod outswam us. So we hauled ourselves onboard, the crew steered the boat back up to the front of the pod, and we were right back in the action again. And repeat. For a total of 5 times. What a truly awesome - and I say that in the truest meaning of the word - experience!      

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Arthur's Pass and Oxford (New Zealand)

Once you start heading down the west coast of the South Island, there aren't really too many options to cross over back to the east coast. Arthur's Pass seems to be the main highway through the Southern Alps. The transition from the wetter rainforests in the west to the drier sub-alpine east makes for dramatic landscapes. Kea, a species of mountain parrot, attack camper vans of unsuspecting tourists who appreciate the photo opportunity initially and then realize the birds are tearing at their door seals. The Devil's Punchbowl trail is a nice opportunity to stretch your legs along the way and check out another waterfall.

Not far out of the mountains, Oxford doesn't even exist in the guide books, but the nice little village is home to more family. Rich's cousins own a small farm, and we got to admire the gardens and meet their Clydesdale and Lipizzaner horses. The Shetland ponies followed us around, but it was the alpacas that really stole our hearts. With no regard of personal space, they stick their furry faces right up in yours, look deep into your soul with their big eyes, and give you a solemn sniff to greet you. Hilarious!