Tuesday 27 January 2009

The Unicycle Diaries 1: All Roads Lead...

Nothing is more fascinating than rediscovering forgotten experiences via an old travel journal. This inaugural wander down memory lane (part of an irregular series) is written by fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris.

I face a particular challenge when travelling – for me, directions are something that happen to other people.

The main reason I am not still wandering around lost and dazed on the moors of England after my first overseas trip is that Tim was there to make sure I found the hotel again.

To be fair, I can mostly read a map. Provided it’s turned around so that it’s facing the same way as I am. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have other skills useful on the travelling trail.

For example, having only English at my disposal, I have mimed my way across Europe, South America and the Middle East.

I may have spread bemusement and hilarity wherever I go, but I’ve also managed to purchase the required candles, bubble wrap and other sundry items along the way. So that’s +2 points for International Relations and Non-Verbal Communication.

My capacity to be geography-challenged is not all bad, though. Occasionally I get to have unexpected adventures as a result of not knowing where I am or where I’m going.

Rome, for example.

On our 2001 trip to Italy, I took the map and bravely flung myself out on the streets of the Italian capital on a solo mission to find a clock shop I had spotted a few days earlier.

The clocks, you see, were brilliant. Simple flat ceramic faces, glazed using a Japanese method called raku and bearing inscriptions in Latin. They became my had-to-have memento and I was determined to never leave Rome until I had bought one.

Consulting my travel diary of the time, I find two pages of handwritten notes, all about how lost I got. Note how carefully I have retraced my steps afterwards, using my otherwise useless map:

“I came to the Piazza Cardelli… then the Piazza Nicosia… then the river. Quick look at the map. Head west-ish down to via di Monte Brianzo (maybe) and get confused and down a different street… wander past several butchers, an art gallery, scaffolding, local apartments. Not a tourist in sight and I’m clearly in a residential area.

“Map check and then to the via della Stelletta, but too far… there’s the river again, but a different bit this time. Down a different road and round the via dell’Orso… getting kind of dizzy by now… and out I pop at the top of the Piazza Navona!”

I like that exclamation mark. How surprised I was to arrive at a place that was both familiar, and nowhere near where I was meant to be. But it continues:

“…head off around the Ai Monestari, heading for the Largo G Toniolo….the Piazza Rondanini… Piazza della Meddelana… is this where I found the beautiful paper shop, or was that earlier at the Piazza di Firenze?

“Forge on. I think I got muddled somewhere around the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Aquino… up the via dei Pastini to emerge at the Tempio di Adriano – Hadrian’s Temple. Which I’ve never seen before.”

At this point, I gave up looking for the clock shop and poked around some souvenir shops in the vicinity, before:

“I began to head back via dei Pastini – AND THERE WAS THE CLOCK SHOP!!! I’d walked right past it. Twice.”

I dived in to buy my clock. Alas, they did not have one inscribed with ‘Tempus Fugit’ but I got ‘Carpe Diem’ right enough, and carried it at the bottom of my suitcase for the rest of the trip.

Proving I can read a map when I actually know where my destination is supposed to be, I met Tim for lunch. My diary records him as being ‘vastly amused by this story’ of my fevered wanderings through Rome.

Eight years later, I still have my clock, and I still have the wonderful memory of bumbling along Roman back streets which are rarely seen by travellers who actually know where they’re going.

Find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other books.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Getting Away From It All

Last year Narrelle and I pioneered a new travel concept (at least, for us): the 'technology detox' vacation.

The problem is, as a travel writer, that most travel I do becomes a busman's holiday.

Rather than relaxing, I research, contact tourism officials, set up a tightly-packed itinerary and run around seeing sites, interviewing people and writing notes.

I know, I shouldn't complain. It is great getting too see those places and meet those people, and good to be paid for writing about them. But at times of the year when I'm really burned out by work, it's anything but relaxing.

So in February 2008, we headed to Apollo Bay, a holiday town on Victoria's Great Ocean Road.

An unexpected bonus payment had come in, so we could afford to stay for ten days in a spacious modern apartment on the top floor of a three-level bock, with a view over the bay and the Southern Ocean beyond.

As for the techno detox, it was actually quite simple. I left behind my laptop and Palm, and had my mobile phone in my pocket for emergencies, but turned off. Once we arrived there, I also took my watch off and placed it in a drawer.

It was good being out of touch in a way we rarely are nowadays. I even made a point of ignoring the Internet access in the building's reception area. Being able to focus only on where we were, and the present rather than the future, was enormously refreshing.

To my surprise, however, it was the discarding of the watch that had the most impact. There was no real need to tell the time, as we had no appointments and nowhere in particular to be. There was always somewhere open to eat at, and groceries in the apartment, so there was no need to worry about opening hours. The beach, of course, was available 24/7.

It was remarkable the difference it made. We got up when we felt like it, ate when we were hungry, lay around reading or went out to the town or beach, slept when we felt tired. There was something extraordinarily liberating about being freed from the relentless drive of the freelancer to write more, achieve more, earn more, to the mental backdrop of the ticking clock.

In a world wherein the Blackberry is often referred to ruefully as the 'Crackberry', and in which it's still impossible to persuade everyone that they don't need to be connected to the world during a 90 minute cinema screening, shutting ourselves off from communication and the tyranny of the clock was immensely powerful.

Even if it was for just ten days.

Monday 19 January 2009

The Unpublished 3: Bar Adelaide

This month's example of a travel article that I've never been able to place takes us to the South Australian capital, Adelaide.

I was there for a week of travel writing which inexplicably involved alcohol at every step - a Barossa winery tour, a brewery tour, a day spent in Port Adelaide's pubs - so naturally I thought I should finish it off with a round-up of the city's best bars...

Fad Bar
30 Waymouth Street
(08) 8410 0987

There's nothing more depressing than postwar bank building architecture - cheap-looking institutional aluminium and glass frontage, with grid-like plaster squares on the ceiling. You can't do much with this, so Fad Bar doesn't even try.

Instead, it turns the decayed commercial tackiness to its advantage, with its scuffed walls repainted burnt orange, the floor littered with plush old '70s sofas, and the space decorated with gigantic, riotous pieces of pop art in enormous gilt frames.

There's little glitz here, but a lot of mellowness, as the laidback, dressed-down crowd sits around in the evening and recounts the day's battles over a beer.

At the back there's a tiny stage hosting live progressive rock most nights, and upstairs there's a funky art gallery. Across the street there's a real live bank, no doubt wondering if it could ever be as cool as its older brother when it retires.

The Apothecary 1878
118 Hindley Street
(08) 8212 9099

Alcoholic toasts invariably invoke the drinkers' health, so why not place a bar in a former pharmacy? Or apothecary, a grander word that suits the spectacular heritage surrounds of this classy drinking hole in the nightclub precinct.

The bar, a long dark timber counter, sits in front of shelving bathed in a subdued golden light, containing bottles of the barman’s modern medicine. It's faced on the other side of the room by vintage cabinets lined with old bottles and medical texts, and drawers labelled 'Sponge Bags', 'Elastic Stockings' and 'Trusses'.

A fanned mosaic floor lies beneath a magnificent chandelier, and there's a decent menu of tapas dishes stretching from chorizo to Persian feta. The drinks list includes a good range of cocktails, wines from Europe and Australia, and an array of beers from across the world. It's an elegant, grown-up space in which to sip a civilised drop.

Elysium Lounge
182 Hindley Street
(08) 8212 9888

What genius had the idea of combining 16 year old whisky, orange bitters, dark chocolate liqueur, tokay and orange zest in a single cocktail?

Whoever it was, I tip my hat to the Elysium Bar for its inspired (and lengthy) cocktail menu, backed up by the vast variety of alcoholic substances crowded along the shelves behind the compact bar of this west end cocktail joint.

Lined by blood-red banquettes and lit by wavy organic-looking lamps, this venue has plenty of space down the middle for dancing to the DJs playing old school and house on weekends. Earlier in the week, it's an ambient place to meet friends for a drink.

On Friday nights the happy hour runs from five to nine pm, and you’ll be rubbing shoulders with a happy post-work crowd of twenty to thirtysomethings. If you're not in the mood for an adventurous cocktail, there's a small but good range of local wines.

193 Victoria Square
(08) 8212 5661

How mellow is this? Moulded white and orange chairs straight out of a 1960s science fiction movie sit around circular tables with decorative tops, in a boxy white space decorated with swathes of the brightest red. Relaxed music flows out of the speakers while chilled-out patrons relax on the scarlet banquettes or put their feet up on a pouffe.

Dragonfly is also an art gallery with changing exhibitions of a quirky nature on its walls, so there's something to look at while you sip. The bar opens from lunchtime during the working week, and serves a range of sharing dishes, along with mains, desserts and a varied selection of wine and cocktails.

As the venue is about as central as you can get, overlooking Victoria Square, it attracts office workers during the days and a casual young crowd at nights. Oh, and the coffee is both organic and fairtrade.

95 Gouger Street
(08) 8231 6023

This flash bar on the Gouger Street restaurant strip is a super-glam cocktail temple, boasting a layout by the designer of Melbourne's classy Long Room.

It's dominated by geometric lines of glass and steel, which are softened by moody lighting and gauzy curtains which divide the edge of the venue into a series of sexy lounge spaces. The centre of Escobar is dominated by a long illuminated table, glowing golden from within, and surrounded by bright young things sipping cocktails.

Among the options in the diverse wine list, the standout is Pablo's Poison, a cognac-based cocktail with coffee syrup and a hint of absinthe. In its centre, a disc of ice containing frozen star anise slowly thaws, adding extra aroma.

Because Escobar is strategically located next to the popular Gaucho's Argentinian Restaurant and the other eateries of the strip, the bar buzzes in the evening with people either on their way to or from dinner. Escobar is a smooth CBD aperitif.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Great Southern Railway and the South Australian Tourism Commission. Note: As this article was researched in 2007, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current cocktail situation before travelling to Adelaide.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Friday 9 January 2009

Then We Take Berlin

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

There's often a presumption in travel guides - and the travel industry at large - that people only travel during summer, and to the most popular seaside destinations at that.

But there's a lot to be said about arriving out of season, when the weather's not ideal but has kept the hordes away.

This particular tale of two cities began in Kraków, Poland, where my wife Narrelle and I were living and teaching English some years ago. We had a week or so off over Xmas, so decided to head for Berlin.

This wasn't just another destination to me - I've always been fascinated by German history, studied German at school, and have some German ancestry on my mother's side. So we bought a ticket on the overnight Kraków-Berlin train, with the luxury of a couchette to sleep on.

When we arrived in the German capital, we had our first reminder that it hadn't been long since the collapse of European communism. The train arrived not in the western part of the city, but at Lichtenberg station in the east, the same terminus the train had served in the days of COMECON (the communist bloc's now-forgotten equivalent to the EU).

Our assumption that everyone would speak English were instantly dashed, and I spent a few hours of the first day sharpening my disused schoolboy German with a well-worn "Haben Sie eine Stadtplan?". I like German, it sounds just eerily close enough to English to feel familiar.

Berlin in below-zero December temperatures wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was picturesque. And winter weather was just fine for visiting museums, the star of which was the Egyptian Museum with its bust of Nefertiti. Having moved to Poland from Egypt, Narrelle and I were gradually taking in all of the great purloined Egyptian antiquities of the world, and here was a worthy selection to add to the list.

The gardens of the city also looked great under snow, as did the still-extant but non-functional Checkpoint Charlie, the former crossing point between east and west. The overcast weather seemed to suit the look of the former East German parts of the city, especially the futuristic concrete style of the Alexanderplatz.

And it was near here that we had one of those serendipitous discoveries that are so memorable when you're travelling. A few years before, we'd made a purchase at a shop in Edinburgh that specialised in playing cards. "There's only one other shop like this," the owner had told us. "And that's in East Berlin." And here we were, happening across that shop by accident. Snap!

So what did we take away from that out-of-season experience? That an interesting destination could be even more interesting - certainly more moody - during winter. And that Berlin wore it well.

Any of your own Berlin experiences you'd like to share, whether in cold or warm weather?

(Photo © www.visitBerlin.de)