Sunday 26 December 2010

Canberra: On Christmas Day (in the Morning)

If serenity and tranquillity are what you crave at Xmas, rather than the chaos of ringing cash registers and surging shopping crowds, you could do worse than hang around the Canberra city centre on the morning of Christmas Day itself.

We're in Australia's national capital to spend Xmas with my wife Narrelle's family, which includes a multitude of her nephews, nieces, brothers and her Mum, along with the various in-laws.

As we had time to kill before we met up with them on the 25th, we wandered the deserted streets of downtown Canberra City (formerly known as Civic) and took photos of architecture and street art.

Using images taken from Narrelle's iPhone, here's a quick tour:

1. The colonnade along the side of the Melbourne Building, whose facade has a vaguely Spanish Mission feel. This was one of the very first buildings erected in the new city in 1927, along with its mirror-image counterpart across the road, the Sydney Building.

On a wall inside the colonnade is interpretive signage which bears a pic of the building in 1927, then standing in open fields. Apparently people used to trap rabbits nearby at the time.

2. An old-fashioned mall called Petrie Plaza is nearby, and this is some of the art painted onto its concrete planters. Can you recognise any of these famous faces? (he said, feeling a bit clueless... though, er, I think that's Kylie Minogue on the lower right...)

3. Another fragment of the art. Note the clever juxtaposition of image and adjacent surface.

4. A merry-go-round (or carousel) in the middle of the Plaza; Narrelle tells me it's been there for ages, at least since she lived in Canberra in the 1980s.

5. This is a piece of street art entitled On the Staircase. According to the notation, the artist was reflecting on the notion: "The more I read, the smaller I feel". Interesting.

6. Fascinating pair of missile-like pieces of art further on. No signage to be seen, but it was fun trying to take photos of them without catching our own reflections.

7. Later in the day, we had Xmas dinner with the extended Harris family. The festivities concluded with the destruction of a piƱata in the shape of Santa Claus. A little weird, but fun.

I love this photo of our niece Keziah - it looks like a publicity shot for a challenging new arthouse movie by a talented but edgy young director. Could be big at Cannes!

And with that, we come to the end of my 50th blog posting for 2010. I’m taking a short break, but will post again in mid-January 2011. See you then... and happy travels in the meantime!

This post was sponsored by HotelClub. Check out its site for deals on Canberra hotels, including hotels in the Canberra city centre.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

The Unpublished 9: Dreaming of a Hot Xmas

A few years ago I had a go at selling a seasonal story on Australia's Christmas traditions to a bunch of US publications. 

No-one took up the offer, but in the spirit of the season I'd now like to share my Down Under festive musings with you. Merry Xmas!

Something’s wrong here. It’s the holiday season, and I can see Christmas trees, tinsel, and greeting cards with Santa and snow.

But outside, the thermometer is heading towards the 90s [the 30s in Celcius], the hot sun beats down and there’s not a reindeer to be seen.

Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? You won’t find it in Australia. As the land Down Under has opposite seasons to countries in the Northern Hemisphere, its holiday season falls right in the middle of its hot, dry summer.

Tinsel in the sunshine

But this meteorological fact opens the door to a Christmas with a difference. Many Australian families still celebrate the day with the traditional roast dinner, but an outdoor barbecue and salads are just as likely. Then it’s off to a swim at the local beach after lunch. The majority of people live near beaches of the white-sand variety, so they’re an essential component of summer.

The most famous beach is Bondi, located on Sydney’s Pacific coast. This is where the beach volleyball took place at the 2000 Olympics. Bondi is the classic Aussie beach, with surf lifesavers patrolling an area between two flags, ready to pluck weak swimmers from the waves at the first sign of trouble.

The holiday season contrasts don’t end there. The usual images of a fur-bedecked Santa and his reindeer are to be seen on greeting cards, but he also gets into the beach act, with a team of kangaroos pulling his sleigh, or surfing on a beach in his hat and a pair of bright red shorts. Likewise, snow-like tinsel hangs shimmering above shopping strips in the bright sunlight.

Sporting fixtures

But if you want to experience the full Aussie Christmas, there’s more to it than beaches. Aussies are sports-crazy, and some major events on the sporting calendar take place at the end of the year. Starting on the day after Christmas (known as Boxing Day), the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race pits sailors against dangerous seas, with festivities at either end of the 628 nautical mile route.

If you’ve ever wondered about the mysteries of the game of cricket, Melbourne is the place to find out. Each year, the Boxing Day Test takes place at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, a stadium located just outside the city centre. It’s an international match, with Australia playing an opponent in a game that takes several days to resolve.

It doesn’t matter too much if you find the rules incomprehensible - sitting in the sunshine with a drink and a traditional meat pie is a pleasant way to pass the day. Just cheer whenever the Aussies do.

Outdoor performance

Culture isn’t neglected in Australia’s cities, with Sydney’s annual festival of the arts taking place in January. Many of its events are free and held outdoors. Outdoor theater also takes place in parks in all major cities, including light-hearted productions of Shakespeare, and children’s classics like The Wind in the Willows.

Crowds also gather for outdoor carol-singing events by candlelight. In Melbourne, thousands sing along with local musicians, performing both modern and traditional Christmas carols in the Kings Domain park. The carol-singing tradition, begun in the 1930s, has spread throughout Australia, with even small towns staging their own event.

There are even Australian Christmas carols, including an Aussie version of The Twelve Days of Xmas in which “My true love sent to me, A kookaburra in a gum tree”. And The Three Drovers puts an Aussie spin on the more traditional shepherds (drovers are local versions of cowboys).

Chilled out, festive style

And New Year’s Eve is spectacular when viewed across Sydney Harbor on a balmy evening with a beer in hand, while watching fireworks explode over the famous Opera House.

The sort of relaxed, friendly mood you’d expect at holiday time is present, amplified by the benefits of Australia’s warm, dry summers: sandy beaches, barbecues, beer gardens outside local pubs, fresh seafood, good wine and life lived in the open.

But in the end, the holiday season is the same Down Under as in the rest of the world. People ease off from their office work, chill out, spend time with their families and celebrate the hope of a brand new year.

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

Thursday 16 December 2010

Eat, Write, Win 2: Peru

Earlier this month I ran a competition in which I asked my readers to relate their most memorable food/drink experiences while travelling. 

The prize, generously donated by Lonely Planet, is a copy of Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011.

While there were some fine entries which I ran last week, the winner is this week's evocative account of a day in Peru, walking through ruins and feasting on alpaca. 

Congratulations to winning writer Rosanne Bersten, and to all who entered! 

4. Alpaca for Afters, from Rosanne Bersten

It had been a long, long day. We were in Pisac, a lovely, tiny town of only 2000 souls in the sacred valley between Cusco and Macchu Piccu in Peru. The main square was entirely taken up by a colourful market selling everything from jewellery to backpacks and more.

It started to pour so we bought some rain gear from the nearby gear shop and I bought an alpaca wool backpack from a man wearing camposino traditional clothing.

In the afternoon, as the sun came out, we went to walk up the mountain to las ruinas, but a man we had bought a wall hanging from asked us where we were going and told us it was too far to walk.

He said we needed to get a taxi from near the bridge back through the town, but then a woman from the next stall said, “Taxi?” and he explained what we wanted and she said her husband drove a taxi.

They knocked on the door of the house we were in front of, and a guy came out. They asked him about the taxi, he named a price, we bartered down a bit because we only wanted a lift up not there and back and we walked 100 metres to his cab and were on our way.

As we wound our way around about 20 switchbacks we started to understand and appreciate the kindness of our stallholder. The ruins are at around 3200 metres above sea level and we were starting right at the river floor.

They are stunning feats of architecture: terracing down the mountainside for agriculture, enormous stones dragged into position for housing and a temple of the sun, tunnels in the mountainside.

After climbing one very steep staircase and coming over a hill, we encountered an incredible astronomical observatory, doorways carefully placed at 15 degree angles to withstand earthquakes and stones placed with amazing precision.

As we were marvelling at the Incan ingenuity, a schoolboy came up the hill from Pisac. “Hola,” he said. “Hola,” I responded. And still in Spanish, “Do you live up here?” “Yes, but higher.” “Is it good?” “Yes.”

He kept going. We soon encountered another. The same conversation, but then:
“How many people live up there?”
“In my village? 200.”
“And do you walk up this hill every day?”
“Yes, every day I go down and I return.” (This is a 4km walk he was talking about!)
“Do you like it here?”
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“Yes, but I’m from Australia and I live near the sea. This is very high for me.”
“Ah,” he said. “Do you know much about this place?”
“A little,” I said. “I know that this is the temple of the sun and I think it was built around the 15th century.”
“Could be,” he said.
“And I think that building there is older.”
“Yes,” he said. “I think it’s from around the 12th century.”
“Could be,” he said.
“Well, have a good day,” I said.
Ciao!” and he was off, climbing the way we had come.

We wended our way down the mountain, another hour or so down. The sun had set by the time we got to the bottom and we were happy and tired. This was bliss.

We definitely felt like we were on a honeymoon adventure now. We had learnt how to say we were newlyweds in Spanish and that this was our luna de miel and we were starting to get “Felicitations!” from the locals.

Back in Pisac, we wanted a drink for our tired muscles. I suggested we investigate Mullu, an alternative cafe recommended by our Lonely Planet bible. On the front of the building was a knotted snake eating its tail. We could hear the chill out music wafting down the stairs.

The room we were in was airy but cosy because of the dimmed lights and the rugs. It was hard to choose from the menu but I had a commitment to eating local meats, and I’d already had the guinea pig in Lima.

The food was amazing! For me, the most incredible alpaca ribs in sauco berry and red wine sauce, with mash and alpaca ravioli, with passionfruit dressing for my partner.

The alpaca was rich and soft, with every bite delectable. I never wanted the meal to end. As a cleanser, I had mandarin and lime juice with ginger and honey - mmm!

And then we went back to our gorgeous little hostel and snuggled in for the night, ready to wake early and catch the bus to Ollantaytambo. A wonderful, wonderful day.

Read Rosanne's blog.

Friday 10 December 2010

Eat, Write, Win 1: USA, Italy & Croatia

Earlier this month I ran a competition in which I asked my readers to relate their most memorable food/drink experiences while travelling. 

The prize, generously donated by Lonely Planet, is a copy of Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011.

Here are a selection of the entries, with more (and the winner!) to be announced next week...

1. Instant Omelette, from Jude Dodd

Not me, but a friend touring USA... was appalled by the food. One morning in a good hotel they offered to freshly cook her anything she wanted.

Thinking an omelette would be hard to ruin, she sat and watched them make it.

First, yellow powder into a plastic bag, followed by UHT milk. Shake. Into microwave, in the bag. Onto plate with a "tadaah" flourish, then covered with orange squeezy-tube cheese.

She asked for one with real eggs, twice, both times with the same response: "Sorry ma'am?"

Follow Jude's Twitter feed.

2. Microwave Madness, from Lynne Kelly

I have always loved Italian food. Although I was looking forward to a convention in Padua, the stopover in Venice beforehand was planned as three days of gastronomical overindulgence.

On the first day, we walked into the glorious Piazza San Marco for my first genuine Italian meal. We choose a table in the sun, and sipped the red wine. At the little booth nearby, we ordered focaccia, thick with lettuce and cheese.

They heated it - lettuce and all - in the microwave. 

Read Lynne's spider blog. 

3. Go Eat It on the Mountain, from Karen Graham

In 2007, I travelled to Croatia to spend two weeks volunteering at a brown bear refuge in the tiny village of Kuterevo [pictured above right]. The work included upgrading a pathway from the village to the mountaintop (known as Kopija). But there was also plenty of time for enjoying food and drink.

Kopija is a traditional place for the villagers to celebrate and we had a couple of memorable occasions atop the mountain. The first was a picnic for St Rok Day, where we dined on a feast of lamb and chicken cooked on a spit in the fire. Our camp leader tried to tempt us with the sheep’s head and one brave volunteer actually ate the eye.

While I passed on this delicacy, I did eat a traditional dish made with sheep’s heart and lungs (but only because the ingredients weren’t revealed until after we’d eaten). I’m not that adventurous when it comes to food!

The second occasion on Kopija was the farewell celebration of a long-term volunteer from Germany and her family treated us to a concert. It wasn’t just the food that was memorable; it was one of those surreal moments you sometimes have while travelling.

There I was, sitting with a group of volunteers (from various parts of the world) on a mountaintop in Croatia - where bears and wolves roam - listening to a German brass band. Simply unforgettable!

Read Karen's travel writing blog

Next week: Alpaca ribs in the High Andes of Peru... and I announce the winner. Be here! 

[Photo credit: by Roberta F. (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Monday 6 December 2010

Melbourne Anthropomorphic

Melbourne, Australia is famous for its busy events calendar, a never-ending annual succession of events that range from the big (the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, for example) to the boutique (such as the Scarf Festival - no, really).

One of its least-known annual events, and one of its most intriguing, is Midfur. Taking place each December, it’s Australia’s premier “furry” convention.

And before you let your imagination run away with you, let me explain - “furries” are fans of anthropomorphic art.

Anthro-what? It’s art which mixes human personalities and animal forms - the most famous of which would be animated characters such as Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also fit the mould, as does the rabbit samurai comic book character Usagi Yojimbo.

It’s a popular form, but its fandom has a lower profile. At an event like Midfur, attendees meet other fans, buy comic books starring animal-based characters, attend panels that relate to their interests, and meet special guests. And some of them wear fursuits, amazing human-sized costumes that resemble an animal in humanoid form (more of these later).

Last Saturday I spent the day at Midfur. I’ve been to the odd science fiction convention in my time, and on the surface this event was similar, with panels taking place in various function rooms, and a dealers’ area selling a range of merchandise.

What made it different from SF events was also what made it most interesting. For a start, the crowd was younger than that at the average science fiction convention, and it was notably friendly and mellow.

The most interesting panel I attended was presented by a University of Melbourne lecturer. He took the ‘heroes and villains’ theme of the convention and applied it to the animal world, discussing parasites such as cuckoos, and the fascinating cooperation of the honey-guide bird and the badger-like ratel.

I was also fascinated by the fursuits. Some of these were extraordinary creations; one guy I spoke to was wearing a fox costume whose mouth moved when he spoke, and whose vulpine eyes hid minute indentations that allowed his human eyes to see through them. There was a photo call of costumes in the afternoon, and they were a remarkable collection when seen en masse.

It was interesting to note the variation in colours in these suits. Some were modelled on realistic hues, such as a fox fursuit I encountered with a convincing russet tone. Others drew on animated characters, choosing bright reds or blues. I even saw one who was a super-hero animal, neatly combining two great comic book traditions.

Kermit the frog famously said it wasn’t easy being green, and it probably isn’t easy being furry either, with all the potential for misunderstanding and ridicule by the wider world. But if you’re in Melbourne one December, and you’re a fan of anthropomorphic art, you could do worse than don a pair of rabbit ears and join the menagerie.

Midfur happens each December in Melbourne, Australia. For more details, visit