Thursday 30 September 2010

The Unpublished 7: Melaka Melange

Occasionally I'll write a sidebar, a short article that sheds light on the main feature article it accompanies. And occasionally these sidebars get junked by the editor if space is short. 

Such was the fate of this short item accompanying a feature on Melaka, the famous historic spice port of Malaysia.

The sidebar added a bit of history regarding the Peranakan, the distinctive Chinese-Malay ethnic group of Melaka, well known for its distinctive Nyonya cuisine. Now the back story can be told...

It was a match made in heaven. In the mid-15th century, a wedding was arranged between the Sultan of Malacca, Mansur Shah, and Princess Hang Li Po, the great-granddaughter of the Emperor of China.

The marriage was intended to cement friendly ties between the two rulers, but it also had the effect of expanding the diversity of Melaka’s population.

For the princess brought with her some 500 loyal followers, who settled down in the port city and became the forebears of the Peranakan culture which fused Chinese and Malay traditions and exists to this day.

The new Chinese population of Melaka settled on a hill which became known to Malays as Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill). Nowadays it’s the location of the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, containing 12,000 graves set along its slopes, each contained within an elegantly curved low wall.

The hill’s slopes were a favoured place to be buried, as it was thought they maximised the positive effects of feng shui.

The hilly cemetery is open to visitors, who can admire the attractive greenery and the plentiful tombs, some of which date back to the Ming Dynasty.

At the foot of the hill, there are also two other interesting sights: an 18th century Taoist temple, and a 16th century well which supplied the population of Melaka even in times of war.

Legend has it that the well has never dried up, even in droughts. Cast a coin into its depths for similar good fortune. 

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Malaysia Airlines and Tourism Malaysia.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Montréal en Anglais

I'm back from Canada - and I have to say, I ♥ Montreal. What fascinated me most about it was how its French heritage meshes with its British history, creating a Francophone city with dashes of Anglophone place names and culture. For example, my hotel (the excellent Hotel St Paul) was on Rue McGill, named after a successful Scottish fur trader, and my nearest Metro station was named after a British monarch.

Here are some examples of the British elements I found scattered through the otherwise French-speaking landscape...

1. This grand building in what was once the commercial hub of Old Montreal was built by the Grand Trunk company in 1900. Grand Trunk was a British-owned railway company which built and operated lines in both Canada and the USA, and this was its North American headquarters. A historical curiosity is the death of the company's president Charles Hays on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912.

2. Here's a sign on a famous bagel shop on the distinctly Anglo-sounding Avenue Fairmount, in the attractive district of Mile End:

3. The nearest Metro stop to my hotel was Square-Victoria, named after the first Queen of Canada. Here she is in the middle of the square:

4. I went on a walk through Montreal's extensive underground pedestrian route one day, and crossed through the Gare Centrale (Central Station) on the way. Above one end of the station concourse I encountered a vast post-art deco bas-relief frieze created in 1943 by Charles Comfort. It was scattered with English words, including those of the Canadian national anthem...

5. ... which made me think there must be a French-language version somewhere, for balance. And sure enough, here it was at the other end of the concourse (with a McDonald's sign placed for ironic impact):

6. Most unexpected of all was this statue I discovered towering above Place Jacques Cartier, on my way from the Champ-de-Mars Metro Station. Right in the heart of Old Montreal, in a prominent public position opposite the former Palais de Justice, is a statue of Napoleonic war hero Lord Horatio Nelson. A war hero, that is, to the British, and famous for defeating the French fleet at Trafalgar. How cheeky is that?

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Saturday 18 September 2010

The Canadian 2: Melville to Toronto

Here are some images from the second part of my 4,466 km train journey from Vancouver to Toronto on VIA Rail's flagship service, The Canadian...

1. Heading east from Alberta, we crossed into the next province, Saskatchewan. Usually each day we stopped somewhere for half an hour or so for train maintenance purposes, often just a small town. 

It was a brief opportunity to walk in another direction other than simply forward and backward, so most passengers got out for some fresh air and a photo opportunity. Here's me at the front of our mighty engine during our stop on day three in Melville, Saskatchewan:

2. It's amazing the things you see from the vantage point of a railway line rather than a main road. This car junkyard next to Melville Station was filled with ancient but photogenic wrecks.

3. It was rare to catch the dining car in such a pristine empty state, so I had to take a snapshot of this scene. The food was very good considering the tight space the catering staff had to work with.

Communal dining isn't for everyone, but I enjoyed the changing company each meal. At one sitting a young rail maintenance worker going on leave joined our table, so we were able to hear some interesting stories of life on the railroad.

4. The impressively grand Union Station in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The city had the common sense to keep its train station located in the middle of town, unlike other cities we had passed through on the way (I'm looking at you, Edmonton and Saskatoon). This grand edifice was created by the same architects who built Grand Central in New York:

5. I'd tapped into my Canadian tourism contacts to ask the pressing question, "What the hell do I do in Winnipeg for three hours on a Thursday night?". Emails flew back and forth between my iPhone, Sydney and Winnipeg.

As a result I found myself in the Times Changed High and Lonesome Club, a friendly local blues bar just two blocks from the station (if you knew where to look for it). It was 'Campfire Night' at the bar, so a bunch of musicians formed a circle of chairs and played some good music while I sipped a bourbon on the rocks. When it hit 10.30pm, I pulled a Cinderella routine and vanished back to the train.

6. Each day on the train was characterised by a distinctly different landscape. We spent the entirety of day four passing through an attractive but apparently deserted section of northwest Ontario, full of greenery and scattered lakes. And there was no mobile phone signal for THE ENTIRE DAY (quelle horreur!).

7. We made our only and very welcome stop for the day around 5pm. By this stage I think most of us were getting a little stir-crazy and were looking forward to reaching Toronto, as enjoyable as the journey had been.

The tiny town, Hornepayne, was a no-nonsense hamlet full of timber and railway workers. I strolled to the general store, then had a look around the few public buildings near the train station. This fire brigade sign rather caught my eye:

8. Finally on the Saturday morning, journey's end - Union Station, Toronto. The main hall seemed a suitably grand place in which to finish the epic trip from the Pacific; and from which to commence the next stage of my mission, an exploration of the urban delights of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal...

[read the first instalment (Vancouver to Jasper) here]

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of VIA Rail.

Sunday 12 September 2010

The Canadian 1: Vancouver to Jasper

To paraphrase the late Douglas Adams, Canada is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

At least, you won't if you cross it by plane. Taking the train from Vancouver to Toronto, however, is another matter. I've just completed a rail journey between those two cities. On the way east was 4,466 km of Rocky Mountains, plains and lake country, and it took over three days for VIA Rail's flagship service The Canadian to make the journey.

In a cabin in Sleeper Class, with all meals included and access to raised viewing areas, it was a comfortable journey, and the simpler berths (like couchettes) looked reasonably comfortable too. Even the sit-up Economy Class seemed to have decent width to the seats and lots of legroom.

However, I must admit that after three days of travel I was looking forward to journey's end. 

Don't get me wrong - it was an enjoyable period of life in a long narrow steel-encased town that was in constant forward motion, as we passengers ate and socialised and made the odd stop in towns and cities along the way. 

But all good things must come to an end, and by day three I had seen my fill of the Canadian countryside and was looking forward to Toronto's urban action.

Here are some pictorial highlights of the journey...

1. Vancouver's Pacific Central Station, a grand place at which to begin this epic journey on a Tuesday evening. Curiously, the statue in the foreground is a copy of one I'd seen in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2008. 

2. The interior of my cabin. There was a stainless steel sink and a mirror inset in the wall on the left, and at night the car attendant made the armchairs magically disappear (I still have no idea how) and lowered the bunk beds which were otherwise locked away into the nearest wall and the ceiling.

3. This was our first stop on day two, Wednesday morning. The town is Blue River, and the building is British Columbia's oldest general store.

4. As we approached the province of Alberta, we were starting to get glimpses of the Rocky Mountains.

5. We passed this beautiful lake en route to Jasper.

6. With the train at rest at Jasper Railway Station, we had a spectacular view of the Rockies as a backdrop.

7. Jasper was definitely the most picturesque of the small towns we stopped at along the way, with a harmonious architecture that suited its mountainous location. Here's the local firehall.

8. And here's a new friend I made, outside a gift shop opposite the train station. I think we make a beautiful couple, n'est-ce pas?

Next week: My marathon rail journey continues, with fine dining, a rust bucket graveyard, a bourbon 'n' blues bar, lots of lakes, and a fire-fighting dog...

[read the second instalment (Melville to Toronto) here]

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of VIA Rail.

Friday 3 September 2010

The Streets of Newtown

In Sydney for a media conference three weeks ago, I spent an afternoon walking along King Street in the inner suburb of Newtown. Although this once industrial suburb has been gentrified in recent years, there's still a dash of grunge that keeps it interesting. Fancy joining me for a pictorial stroll?

1. This is the interior of Luxe Bakery (just off King Street at 195 Missenden Road), which was recommended to me as a good new Newtown cafe. It was indeed a great place, with a cool industrial look, good food and a lively crowd. 

2. There are some great facades along King Street. I particularly liked this duo, with its contrasts of eras and colours:

3. A bit further along, these businesses' names (especially Dirty Girl Hair and Moo Gourmet Burgers) presented an amusing contrast with the old-fashioned facades above:

4. Speaking of business names, this one also caught my eye. No idea whether it's based on two exotic ethnic surnames, or is just owned by a guy called Noonan...

5. Here's the Old Fish Shop Cafe (at 239a King Street), a hold-out from King Street's edgier days...

6. I liked the retro look of this sign outside the Newtown Mission Chapel:

7. This building on a triangular plot of land resembles the prow of a ship. I love odd accidental buildings like this, they remind us that roads are artificial lines drawn by humans in the first place...

8. An intriguing statue near the Newtown Town Hall:

9. Finally, in the more upmarket southern end of King Street, I passed this boutique selling arty gifts from Latin America. Personally I think this layout would make a great set-up for an Agatha Christie novel, or maybe an international version of Cluedo: "Mr Panama was killed in the chess room with a strange ceramic animal"...