Friday 27 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Vilnius, Lithuania (Part 2)

The last post ended with me strolling along the streets of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Here's what happened next...

The material world awaits just down the street as it dramatically opens onto a broad, triangular square fronting the town hall.

To one side, the cafe Amatininku Uzeiga stands out like a movie set, its bright floral tablecloths on tiny external tables presenting a huge contrast with the grey-brown paving scheme.

It’s an irresistibly textbook piazza cafe, so I sit down and order an arbata (tea).

The view across the square may be attractive, but the waitresses here are competitively distracting, wearing an unlikely uniform of tiny tartan aprons over denim miniskirts.

It’s not something that a proprietor back home could possibly get away with issuing his staff; another reminder that I’m not in Kansas anymore (so to speak).

Walking further north I enter Pilies Street, ground zero of tourism in Vilnius. I check out the craft stalls outside another impressive church, browsing Russian dolls and amber jewellery.

Having spent time in the bustling markets of the Middle East, I automatically try haggling over some craftwork passport pouches. They’re marked as 15 Litas each, so I suggest “Two for 20”.

The smiling stallholder responds with “Many work!”, then shrewdly asks “American?”, her mind clearly on the sliding US dollar exchange rate. Not wanting to give Australia a bad name, I quietly withdraw.

Lunch brings more gastronomic surprises. I’ve heard that kepta duona is the perfect snack to go with beer, so I order some.

It turns out to be composed of sticks of fried rye bread with an accompanying garlic dip.

They’re very solid and chewy, like eating small pieces of wood. But they are admittedly excellent with beer. And then, thinking of my arteries at last, I order a light chicken salad.

But there’s a darker side to Vilnius’ history, beyond the improbable snacks and the beautiful churches.

West of the centre, I get a taste of it at the KGB’s former local headquarters - now turned into the grimly-named Museum of Genocide Victims.

This grand 19th century building on a prominent boulevard features the names of the Soviets’ victims carved into the stonework of its facade.

The exhibitions, well labelled in English, chart the Lithuanians’ misery under the Soviet regime, the text punctuated by displays of uniforms, equipment and original documents. For such a small nation, the number of exiles, prisoners and executions in its tragic history are staggering.

But the worst is yet to come. In the basement, the KGB Prison is less intellectual and more gut-wrenching.

Left as it was when the secret police departed, its cells present a terrifying insight into the methods the regime used to silence its critics. And the really disturbing thing is how recent this all is - the interrogators only moved out in 1991, after Lithuanian independence was achieved.

Outside again, blinking in the sunlight, I walk along Gedimino Prospect, now a shining renovated street that’s full of swanky shops and eateries.

I take a seat at Avilys, a chic restaurant that serves a dark beer with ginseng, brewed on the premises.

Around me are smartly dressed locals at other tables, grabbing some food before proceeding to shopping or work.

It could be any posh strip in any European city, and it’s hard to reconcile it with what I’ve just seen in the KGB’s former digs.

As someone who grew up with Cold war fears of nuclear war hanging over my head, it’s more than startling.

I shake my head, trying to wrap my mind around the contrasts, then head down the street to Vilnius Cathedral. This vast white building looks more like a Roman temple than a church, decorated with enormous pillars and giant statues resembling Olympian gods.

I turn to glance toward the separate belfry in front of the cathedral; and then I find the stebuklas, the “miracle tile” embedded in the pavement between the two.

In 1989, a human chain was formed all the way from Tallinn in Estonia to this very spot, uniting two million people over 600 kilometres in a protest against Soviet rule.

The final footfall of the chain was marked by this colourful tile, and its name is no overstatement.

It must have seemed a miracle to Vilnius’ citizens when Lithuania became free two years later; and it’s a fittingly low-key monument to a little city in a little country that’s a delight to the eye. 

And as Lithuanians do, I turn clockwise on the tile and make a wish.

Friday 20 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Vilnius, Lithuania (Part 1)

Through December and January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. Welcome to Lithuania...

There’s a dumpling on my plate the size of a miniature football.

In fact, it’s the shape of a football - which is why it’s called a cepelinas (zeppelin), after the famous airships of a century ago. The pale, doughy exterior is made of potato, and it’s wrapped around a meat filling. On top is a sauce involving sour cream and pork crackling.

It may not be the lightest meal I’ve ever ordered, but it is one of Lithuania’s most distinctive dishes, so it would clearly be an unforgivable international snub not to try it.

Actually, accompanied by a stein of local beer, it tastes quite good - though I suspect my doctor would advise me to eat them only in moderation.

On my way back from the restaurant to my hotel along the cobblestone streets of central Vilnius, I encounter a busker singing a capella near a beautiful baroque church in the twilight.

I stop, unexpectedly entranced by his voice. The music is haunting and indescribably beautiful, giving an impression of a language intriguing, deep and very old.

It’s a delightful introduction to Lithuania’s capital, especially since I know very little about the former Soviet republic.

Its cuisine may not be set to sweep the world, but Vilnius’ beautiful UNESCO-listed Old Town is grabbing the attention of an increasing number of visitors from Western Europe and beyond.

Fortified by my zeppelin encounter, I decide to stroll off some of the calories through the Old Town, starting at the Gates of Dawn.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, though cool in the shade, and this remnant of the medieval city walls stands out attractively white against the blue sky.

Passing through, I spot a carved wooden dwarf set back from the street, and am drawn by curiosity into a beautiful compact courtyard dotted with shady trees.

In a corner sits a white-haired man in a bandana, oiling a violin. I step past him into an art gallery, whose doors are studded with curious wooden sculptures resembling hands and insects.

The interior reveals more of these rough-hewn carved pieces, mostly resembling folkloric figures: animals, mythical creatures, stars, and villagers.

There’s something very appealing about their simple, primitive look. I’d read that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to give up pagan worship, and these figures seem to be a link to an era of belief in spirits and nature.

It’s something to ponder as I enter St Teresa’s, an extravagantly decorated church a little further on. Vilnius is famous for its numerous baroque churches, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Outside it’s impressive, inside it’s spectacular. Gilt paint is lavished everywhere, especially on the elaborate frames highlighting statues and paintings of saints.

As I sit and take it in, visitors come and go, each footstep echoing through the cavernous space.

To my left, a small group of women, some wearing colourful headscarves, are making a procession from one statue to the next around the walls, chanting as they go.

The combination of the chanting, the natural light and the gilt splendour is surprisingly moving, and I’m surprised how calm I feel. I’m not at all religious, but I can see how this atmosphere aids a meditative state of mind.

But the material world awaits just down the street...

[Next post: Passport pouches, a miracle tile, and the den of the KGB...]

Friday 13 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Tatra Mountains, Slovakia (Part 2)

The last post ended with me entering a tiny single-cabin cable car for the ascent to Lomnický Štít, a high peak in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. Here's what happened next...

Then a miracle happens.

The dense cloud cover starts to dissipate under the sunlight's warmth, splitting apart to reveal a stark rocky peak way above us.

Set within it is the cable car station, an improbable construction wedged into the rock, like the lair of a James Bond villain.

As we reach it, I suddenly remember that there’s nothing beneath our feet for a very long way; and then we gently ease into place, 2634 metres above sea level.

Ascending stairs, we find ourselves in an unexpectedly classy cafe, though most of us continue through onto a viewing platform in front of the building, partly built into the rock and jutting out into thin air.

We can see far down into the valley; this time the towns are minute. Neighbouring rocky peaks are visible, and it’s stimulating to just stand and look, while breathing the crisp air.

Eventually I go inside, wondering what drink is most suitable to celebrate such an experience (Whisky? Beer?), and end up with a frosted glass of demanovka, a traditional Slovak liqueur.

Back outside, there’s an odd mood of exhilaration in the air.

I think, like me, everyone is thinking how improbable this all is, that human beings shouldn’t be this high up from the earth, and certainly not sipping alcoholic beverages while doing so.

We’re all delighted at somehow being part of this impossible thing, and braced by the strange mix of material comforts and an underlying sense of danger.

I want at the same time to shout out “Aren’t we clever?” and “Aren’t we crazy?”

But such atypical periods of one’s life - removed from the concerns of the mortals below us - have to come to an end.

After 50 minutes our return car arrives and we make our descent.

I have lunch at the restaurant at Skalnaté Pleso, enjoying a decent Hungarian goulash.

Then it’s out onto the rocks for a hike along the mountainside west to Hrebienok, from where a funicular railway leads back down to Starý Smokovec, terminating just above the hotel.

After all this physical effort, the sight of the Grand is a relief, and its wellness centre a godsend.

Wrapped in a sheet, I take a well-earned dose of relaxation, moving between the sauna, the steam room, the infrared sauna with its weird colour-changing globe, the ice-cold pool and the heated ceramic beds in the tepidarium.

There’s nothing like some physical effort to make you really feel you’ve earned this sort of pampering, and I appreciate every moment.

Then, on my way back to my room, I bump into Joan and Joan, the two women I’d noticed in the cafe earlier, and join them for tea.

It turns out they’re British widows who travel together once a year, usually to Western Europe, but a trip to Austria fell through so they ended up here.

They’ve been going off every day on tours around the countryside; tomorrow they’re rafting down the Dunajec River on the border with Poland.

Since we’re getting along like a house on fire, I mention the hotel’s resemblance to a Christie plot item, and they agree.

Daringly, I suggest they’d fit right in to the story, and they laugh. “Like Miss Marple?” says one.

Still on a high from my ascent of the mountain, I can only smile. The only mystery surrounding the attractions of the Tatra Mountains, is why they aren’t better known outside Slovakia.

Friday 6 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Tatra Mountains, Slovakia (Part 1)

Over December and January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. First up, Slovakia...

“Everywhere there is evil under the sun.”

I have Hercule Poirot’s words on my mind as I stroll through the foyer of the Grand Hotel.

It’s a building that appears to have sprung straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel; built in 1904, it’s a high-ceilinged structure decorated with sweeping, elegant art nouveau curves.

It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the hotel being packed with foreign spies, American shipping magnates and exiled Russian countesses with secret sorrows.

But as I step into the cafe lounge, there is little evil to be seen - only two silver-haired ladies, sipping tea next to a bay window that offers a spectacular view over the slopes below.

The only thing that doesn't quite fit with my glamorous detective fantasy is the name of the lounge: the Castro Cafe.

And that’s because I’m in central Slovakia, and the hotel’s most famous guest ever was Fidel Castro, who visited in the 1970s when this was part of communist Czechoslovakia.

It’s a reminder that not all is as you expect when you venture east of the long-vanished Iron Curtain.

To be fair, other rooms in the hotel have had the same star guest treatment: the Sinatra Bar (Nancy), the Wilson Bar (after the British prime minister) and the Lefevre Restaurant (after the interwar French actor).

There’s even the Sailer Wellness Centre (after Austrian skier Toni Sailer), an impressive modern take on of Central Europe’s long obsession with spa treatments and health-related holidays.

When the Grand Hotel was built, Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A few wars and revolutions have passed by since then, and it’s now at the hub of a thriving tourist zone centred on the Tatra Mountains, the northernmost end of the mighty Carpathians.

The town it’s in, Starý Smokovec, is neatly placed in the foothills, with towering peaks above and a view down the slopes to the regional city of Poprad and the surrounding plain.

As glamorous as the hotel is, I have to get out among those amazing, lofty mountains. So I catch an electric train to the nearby town of Tatranská Lomnica, the starting point of a cable car that heads up to Skalnaté Pleso, 1751m above sea level. From there I can catch a second cable car right up to the peak of Lomnický Štít, one of the highest points of the range.

This first stage of the journey is undertaken in a small four-person cabin, which sways in the breeze as it’s hauled up the cable. Until this point I’ve conveniently forgotten my mild fear of heights, which is reawakened now as we lurch upward out of the base station.

It’s both a terrifying and exhilarating feeling to be dangling high in the air, held only by a moving cable. The scenery is brilliant: beneath us I can see rocky outcrops covered by a strange grey-green moss, interspersed with hardy trees and the odd surviving winter snowdrift sheltered from the sunshine by rocks.

When we reach Skalnaté Pleso I have to wait an hour for my assigned car up to Lomnický Štít, so I wander out of the station onto the rocky slope outside. It’s fairly level at this point, with a fenced-off viewing area that allows visitors to stand beneath the incoming cars.

Around me people are milling, and taking photos of each other and the town far below. Also smoking – which seems an odd affront to the beautifully clear cold mountain air, but each to their own.

As I'm taking in the view, someone points up, and I see a cable car ascending the second stage to Lomnický Štít, another 900m higher.

This car is different, basically a large red box which ascends solo. There are no supports to its cable; it arcs up until it disappears into the cloud cover just above our heads, seemingly on its way to heaven.

So at 10.10am a dozen of us cram into a small red metal box, the operator starts it up, and we swing out into nothingness.

Strangely, it’s less scary than the previous ride. Although the ground is soon far beneath us, and the landscape becoming progressively more craggy and forbidding, the ascent has a surprisingly smooth motion, like riding in a lift.

Then a miracle happens...

[Next: The miracle!]

Friday 29 November 2013

The Unpublished 17: More Rooftop Melbourne

In October, Royal Auto magazine published my article about various rooftop attractions of Melbourne, Australia - you can read it here

However, due to space reasons, a number of items were left out of the final published piece. For your entertainment and education, here they are now...

“Look! Up in the sky!”

With a new Superman movie recently in the cinemas, it might well be time to revive that famous cry from the old George Reeves TV series… at least in Melbourne. Here are some rooftop highlights of the city.

CH2 Rooftop Terrace

A lesser-known city structure is Council House 2 (nicknamed CH2), next to the Melbourne Town Hall and containing the city council’s office workers.

The building is fitted out with a number of impressive environmentally-friendly features, such as moving shutters which lower the need for air-conditioning, and big yellow turbines which produce electricity as they’re propelled by the wind.

Next to those turbines is a rooftop terrace (see image top right), with a garden which aims to release oxygen back into the concrete jungle. It’s usually out of bounds, but once a year the public can visit the rooftop as part of the Open House Melbourne project.

240 Little Collins St,

Pop Up Patch

Federation Square is the last place you’d expect to find a place to grow vegies, but you’d be wrong. The broad roof over the square’s car park was recently converted into the Pop Up Patch, a series of allotments within recycled apple crates.

Most are rented to members of the public who want to grow their own produce in a garden with a view, with each restaurant in Fed Square also having its own patch. There are regular introductory workshops for both adults and kids, along with food truck sessions and other events to be found on the Patch’s website.

Off Russell St,

Adelphi Pool

The next time you’re walking along Flinders Lane between Russell and Swanston Streets, look up. From the ninth floor rooftop of the Adelphi Hotel, you’ll see a swimming pool projecting out over the street, its transparent base allowing swimmers to glimpse pedestrians down below (and vice versa).

God knows how they ever got planning permission to build such a thing, but it’s one of the city’s most unusual places to have a dip.

The pool area is currently awaiting a major renovation, but while you're waiting you can pop in to the hotel restaurant to enjoy its recently released "dessert hotel" menu which features spectacular sweet dishes.

187 Flinders Ln,

And for more quirky Melbourne attractions high and low, download the Melbourne Historical, Melbourne Literary or Melbourne Peculiar mobile apps.

Saturday 23 November 2013

"When I Say Run, Run!": Travel & Doctor Who

The author, looking absurdly young in 1990
If you ask me, there's nothing more fulfilling than travelling with a theme.

Whether your special interest is reggae music or World War II sites or bagpipe playing, lacing your itinerary with relevant stops brings a trip alive.

Rather than consisting of dutiful trudges around worthy museums and cathedrals, your journey becomes one that's deeply meaningful to yourself.

In April 1990, Narrelle Harris and I had been together for a mere four years.

We were on our first overseas trip together, a rail journey around Britain aided by a thick paperback containing the entire UK train timetable.

The World Wide Web was yet to be invented, email was still largely unknown to the public, and the Berlin Wall had only just fallen.

A mock-up of the TARDIS console room at Longleat's Doctor Who Exhibition, 1990

Another thing that had ended in 1989 was Doctor Who. After running for 26 seasons since 1963, it had finally exhausted itself. However, we were keen to engage with aspects of the series on its home soil, if we could.

So on Tuesday 24 April 1990 (according to my beautifully handwritten travel diary - those were the days!), we enjoyed a full English breakfast at our B&B in Salisbury, had a look around the local market then caught a train to Warminster, the closest station to Longleat House.

Longleat House in 1990

A stately home with various attractions on its grounds, Longleat had long hosted a Doctor Who exhibition. Striking a deal with a local taxi company to take us to the house and mind our luggage for the day, we reached the Doctor Who Exhibition, in those days the only place you could see props and sets from the show.

The photos from that visit have been scanned and dotted through this blog post (though sorry about the date stamps - people in 1990 didn't know any better).

A Yeti, as seen in the 1968 Doctor Who story The Web of Fear

You might be asking yourself: Why make such a big deal about a cancelled TV program?

Doctor Who had always meant a lot to me. Born seven months before its first screening in Australia, I watched it from the very beginning (according to my mother).

One of my earliest memories of any sort is of a thrilling episode of the Patrick Troughton story The Evil of the Daleks, in which a civil war erupts among the Doctor's deadliest foes.

A Dalek from the 1988 Doctor Who story, Remembrance of the Daleks

It was screened in Britain in 1967, so I suppose I must have seen it a year or so later, when I was four years old.

It's impossible to say how much Doctor Who influenced me as a bookish kid growing up outside a small country town in 1960s and '70s Western Australia.

However I've always loved science fiction and am an avowed cultural Anglophile, and I admire the Doctor's combination of individuality, curiosity, courage and reason. So the show must have left its mark.

The bizarre Kandy Man, from the 1988 Doctor Who story The Happiness Patrol

More than anything, I travel. It's a fact often overlooked, but beyond its adventure and science fiction roots, Doctor Who is a program about travel.

Travel without boundaries of time and place, travel that challenges, travel that you hopefully come away from a little wiser.

So today, on the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who's first transmission on 23 November 1963, I want to say "Thank you, Doctor." For opening my eyes to the vast, varied, exciting world outside my door.

For my thoughts on the cultural references and connections of Doctor Who, read this article for Issimo Magazine.

Friday 15 November 2013

The Unpublished 16: Phillip Island for Adults

In 2009 I stayed for a few days on Phillip Island, a popular family holiday destination southeast of Melbourne, Australia. I wrote an article about what the island offered adults travelling without kids, but due to a travel magazine's change of editors it was never published. Here it is; and all the places mentioned remain great places to visit:

Massage centres are usually placed in idyllic locations - in rainforests, perhaps, or overlooking the sea - so I’m a little surprised to find one above a shoe shop and cafe on the main street of Cowes, the principal settlement of Phillip Island.

But it seems that, as in many spiritual philosophies, shoe shopping and wellness treatments form a kind of cosmic balance.

“Groups of four female friends will often come in together,” explains Patricia Hanrahan, owner and chief masseur at Aromatherapy in Action. “Two of them will get a massage while the other two go shoe shopping, and then swap places.” And have a coffee afterward, no doubt.

As my wife Narrelle and I wait for our scheduled treatments, I’m reflecting on the stereotype I had of Phillip Island as merely an old-fashioned fish ‘n’ chip-driven holiday town for families.

Although that’s still true to a degree, over the next three days I discover that the island has been quietly updating itself to match the tastes of couples on a weekend away, becoming a place to keep it slow, natural, romantic and playful.

Keeping it slow

It’s a beautiful day on Churchill Island, cool and crisp with the promise of sun later. The island, attached to Phillip Island by a narrow bridge, seems even more detached from the outside world than its big sister, its profile resembling a whale breaking the surface of Western Port Bay.

It’s the perfect place for the monthly Churchill Island Farmers’ Market that’s set out on its grassy flanks, with a view down over the water and the mainland beyond. As we saunter past its stalls, we spot emu oil, homemade biscuits, chutneys, chilli sauces, Dutch pancakes, and fruit and vegetables for sale.

We buy a coffee from the cafe of the adjacent heritage farm, sit on a grassy rise next to the market, and watch slowly moving shoppers. It's a delight to be here, enjoying the view and the pleasures of slow food at the same time.

Keeping it natural

Once the Wildlife Coast Cruises boat passes Nobby’s Point, we’re into Bass Strait and the water is considerably more active than along Cowes' northern shores.

Reaching Seal Rocks, we’re suddenly joined by dozens of seals, mostly young pups, who throw themselves into the sea to swim playfully between us and their rocky base. There’s only some ten metres between boat and land, and I’m struck by the dramatic colours of the scene - dark blue sea, light blue sky, and pure white foam as waves break against the black rocks.

As the boat moves slowly along, it seems an interesting question as to who is viewing who: you can imagine the seals welcoming their daily human diversion between the morning feed and the late afternoon nap.

Keeping it romantic

Our couples massages turns out to very pleasant. Lying on benches a metre apart, we each have a masseur working away at soothing our aching muscles, applying aromatherapy oils of Patricia’s own invention. I drift off into the happy near-trance massage state in which I cease thinking about anything but the present, but am just conscious enough to shift limbs when prompted.

Both refreshed and relaxed, we’re in the right frame of mind for a romantic dinner at The Foreshore restaurant in Rhyll, a tiny settlement on the island’s east coast. For mains, Narrelle chooses the whole snapper while I have the bangers and mash.

While my choice is a tastily upgraded version of the old favourite, featuring locally-made sausages with beef, thyme and mustard seeds, the real winner is my entree: Atlantic salmon cured in fresh dill, flaked salt, lemon juice and vodka.

We sit enjoying the food and the water view in the big, timbered interior and life seems pretty relaxed. And romantic.

Keeping it playful

Humans also have a playful side, and Phillip Island doesn’t fail us in indulging it. One afternoon we pitch up at Amaze’N Things, a family-friendly attraction which features a large outdoor maze. But what really works for us are the fascinating halls of illusions and puzzles within the building.

It’s amazing how engaging an old-fashioned hall of mirrors can be when supplemented with a little technology. The Gravity Room is fascinating, with its perspective-bending properties which totally confuse the brain (“Is that table leaning, or am I?”). And the confusing expander disc makes us see each other in an entirely new and distorted light.

We walk out of the place amused and laughing. The place is family-friendly, but you don’t need to have kids in tow to enjoy it. And the same can be said for the whole of Phillip Island.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Destination Phillip Island.

Friday 8 November 2013

Vampires of Literary Dublin

I've never really understood the appeal of unboxing videos, in which people film themselves unpacking a newly arrived smartphone or tablet and commenting on the experience.

However, I couldn't resist posting this pic to Twitter on the day my copy of Lonely Planet: Great Escapes arrived in the mail:

Where I was expecting a compact paperback, Great Escapes turned out to be a hefty hardback coffee table book with beautiful images on glossy paper.

It's full of travel "escapes" of various kinds, from cultural to adventurous.

My contribution is Dive into Literary Dublin, highlighting the Irish capital's literary history and associated attractions, from the ancient Book of Kells to literary pub tours.

Each article also contains a number of breakout boxes, looking at specific aspects of the escape. One I was particularly pleased with contained my potted history of Bram Stoker's inspiration for his hugely influential horror novel Dracula.

With kind permission of Lonely Planet, here it is:

Bram Stoker, Vampire Writer
When it was published in 1897, no-one could have guessed that Dracula would make Bram Stoker the most influential horror fiction novelist ever. Born in Dublin in 1847, Stoker had been a sickly child with plenty of time for reading. As an adult he became friends with Oscar Wilde and the actor Henry Irving. But it was possibly from his chance meeting with Hungarian historian and traveller Arminius Vambéry that Stoker learned of the legend of Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. Vambéry’s reward? As rumour has it, he was immortalised in the novel as Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula’s implacable foe.
(The above text is an extract from Lonely Planet’s Great Escapes, © Lonely Planet 2013. In stores now, A$49.99. Buy online here.)

In the drafting and redrafting of the escape, some content was jettisoned but is still of interest. So in the spirit of DVD extras, here's some additional Dublin-lit content from me:
North of the Liffey lies a museum devoted to the oldest type of Irish storytelling – folklore. Although the National Leprechaun Museum has an amusing name, this institution is devoted to all of Ireland’s ancient myths, covering creatures both famous and obscure. To thread its interior is entertaining in itself, passing through a giant’s living room and beneath upside-down umbrellas, and taking in a shifting map which outlines the creatures of this rich mythical world. But the best part is listening to a live storyteller, who weaves tales involving leprechauns, greedy men and the legendary outlandish warrior Finn McCool.
(Read about my visit to the National Leprechaun Museum in my Kindle ebook, I Am a Bond Villain: A Travel Writer's Strange Affair With Britain & Ireland)

The Cheeky Statues
For a laugh and an insight into Dubliners’ surprisingly acid sense of humour, spend a day weaving between the city’s most prominent pieces of street art. When you reach each one, ask a local what they call it. Every piece has a nickname, including a statue of Molly Malone (‘The Tart with the Cart’), a statue of two shoppers (‘The Hags with the Bags’) and the needle-like Spire of Dublin (‘The Stiletto in the Ghetto’). In a park next to the Liffey is a water-drenched statue of Anna Livia, who represents the river; she’s ‘The Floozy in the Jacuzzi’.
(For more on Dubliners' irreverent naming of statues, with photos, read my previous post on the subject.) 

And finally, some extra reading in these books by Irish writers, intimately involving Dublin:
The Portable Virgin (Anne Enright) Collection of short stories by a prize-winning author, exploring the city and its people. [Buy here]
Winterland (Alan Glynn) A fast-paced crime novel which highlights the seamier side of 21st-century Dublin. [Buy here]
(And you can read my interview with Catherine Duffy from Dublin's City of Literature office here.)
 Enjoy! And keep reading that Irish lit.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Contemplating the Spin Cycle

This week's guest post is by fantasy author Narrelle M Harris...

One of the pleasures about packing light is that the traveller must make time once a week to wash.

Yes, I said ‘pleasures’ rather than ‘problems’. I don’t refer simply to how nice it is to have a bag replete once more with clean socks ‘n’ jocks.  I mean that this simple little chore has attractions all of its own.

When I’m travelling, I like grand panoramas. I love seeing the great landscapes, the beautiful buildings, and the highlights featured in the guidebooks.

But I also love seeing the small details of life for locals.

I enjoy wandering through regular neighbourhoods, observing how suburban architecture and front yards reflect a different way of life, or puzzling the impact of light industry bumping up against ordinary shopping strips and residential streets.

Laundromats, bless their soap-scented air, are primarily located in the suburbs. A walk to a laundromat in a foreign city is also a stroll through the social life of a place.

It’s a glimpse into everyday lives and details that are odd to an outsider. As a writer, that kind of detail is invaluable; as a person curious about other people, it poses questions of how others experience the world. 

The way residential architecture can be so different from city to city; the types of plants in gardens; the toys and tools by doors; the stickers on letterboxes; the graffiti on walls; whether people in their yards smile hello – all these elements of a town add texture and depth to your understanding of it.

One of the other simple pleasures of wash day is the little bubble of quiet the chore creates. This can be especially valuable if two or more of you are travelling together.

You spend each day sharing your experiences, which is brilliant, but it’s also nice to split up for a bit and reunite with unshared observations. And no matter how well you get on, or how much you love each other, you occasionally need a little ‘me’ time.

Being on the road is tremendously stimulating and exciting, but it’s also exhausting.

It can be good to take a break from it, to let the dust settle. Perhaps to consolidate some of that experience by writing about it: in a journal or a blog, or in postcards to distant friends.

A week into our trip to Canada, some days of which were spent in the north-western wilderness looking for bears, it was time to freshen up. Time for time out from the rush of travel with its tiny/terrifying plane rides and bone-rattling buses, and this urban girl’s startling proximity to capital-N Nature.

As much as I loved the Great Bear Lodge, it was extraordinarily pleasant to find a laundromat in a pretty back street of Victoria, British Columbia beyond the populous tourist harbour; to be surrounded by houses and shops, to talk to a kindly local to work out how to use the coin machines, to chat about the weather and seek a recommendation for coffee.

The laundromat I visited in Edmonton offered similar simple pleasures, as I conversed with the owners about our trip, and used the washing time to write about it too.

Laundromats are, I find, little oases on journeys.

Surrounded by the hum and rattle of washing machines, kept warm by the heat generated by the mesmerising turn of a dryer, I write postcards and blog about my adventures, all the better to consolidate my observations and emotions.

I read a little, I contemplate the world, and at the end of my two hours of retreat – I have clean underwear.

That, people, is a little bit magical.

When not hanging around foreign laundromats, Narrelle M Harris writes awesome fiction such as her latest cross-media project, the rock and roll fantasy Kitty and Cadaver. Check out the Kitty and Cadaver website to read the first six chapters for free, or to download them for your mobile devices.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Paying the Piper: Is Australia's First Tune Hotel Worth the Price?

At the risk of sounding trite, I want to suggest there are two types of traveller - those who spend a lot of time in their hotel room and care about its comfort and decor, and others who don't give a damn as long as the room is cheap and there's a clean bed.

I'm the second type.

On my first trip to London with my wife in 1990, I chose a pokey, joyless tourist hotel near Russell Square, where the only tip you felt inclined to give the gloomy staff was "Cheer up, it might never happen."

And during the recent AGM of the Australian Society of Travel Writers, held at the Gold Coast's extravagant Palazzo Versace, I stayed at a YHA hostel 200 metres down the road and walked between the two in my suit for the formal evening events.

Tune Hotel, Melbourne
In tune

If you're on the same wavelength as me, Tony Fernandes thinks he has your number.

The Malaysian businessman founded budget airline AirAsia. Following the lead of Ireland's Ryanair and the American Southwest Airlines, it made a success of selling cheap seats topped up with a variety of nominally optional charges.

Fernandes later applied the budget airline formula to a hotel chain, Tune Hotels, which now has numerous properties across South-East Asia and the UK, as well as footholds in Japan and India.

The basic offer of a Tune Hotel is a simple room with a low tariff, the guest able to add extra options for a fee. Each (squeezy) room includes a bed and what the chain likes to call a "power shower".

In Tunes Hotels in Asia you generally pay extra for airconditioning, TV, wifi, towels and toiletries; in Western countries the aircon is standard but the other options are in play.

We're about to find out if this airline-sourced model will fly here, as Australia's first Tune Hotel opened earlier this week in Melbourne's inner-city suburb Carlton.

With access to a tram line and within walking distance of the city centre, it looks on the face of it similar to the London Tunes - close to public transport though not in the heart of the city.

Room interior, Tune Hotel Melbourne
Tune test

So far, so good. But will Australians see Tune's "tariff plus extras" approach as a reasonable way to score a cheap hotel room, or a sneaky means of quoting an unrealistically low price which which becomes unavoidably more expensive?

As a test, in mid-October I dummied up a booking on the Tune website for a Wednesday in late November, after the Melbourne Cup Carnival but before school holidays. I was offered a double room for $85.

Clicking through, I found these optional extras: $2.20 per person for towel rent and toiletries, $4.40 for 24 hours of Foxtel TV, and $6.60 for 24 hours of wifi access per person. There were also options for early check-in and late-check-out, each covering both guests for a single charge of $22.

I know what my other half and I would choose if we were visiting Melbourne as an interstate destination: two lots of towels and toiletries (when would you ever bother packing these?), and two serves of wifi. Television we could live without. I hardly ever switch the set on when travelling, and there's plenty of interesting stuff to watch on our iPads.

If we were paying for the room and two lots of towels, toiletries and wifi, that'd be a grand total of $102.60 for our November night in Carlton.

But wait! An alternative choice is a Comfort Package of $11 per person combining all three options. That'd add up to $107 with the room rate. Without TV, therefore, we'd still be better off going a la carte.

Reception area, Tune Hotel Melbourne
Tunes may vary

But would we be better off overall? I consulted the sites of three inexpensive central Melbourne hotels (City Garden, Ibis Budget and Causeway Inn) with compact rooms for the same November night, to try to match type if not precise location.

At first glance they seemed competitive, with an average rate of $97.70 including towels, toiletries and TV. The cheapest (Ibis Budget) was in fact $71.10, significantly less expensive than Tune and with more amenities.

Where they fell down, however, was by offering sky-high Internet access. For 24 hours, one hotel charged $20 and another $24.95. The Ibis Budget threw away its lead by offering Internet access at an astronomical $20 per three hours.

So it comes down to personal preference. If you see Internet access as an essential, Tune stands out. If you can do without wifi, there are competitive choices which don't involve paying a fee for a towel.

Time will tell if the Tune Hotels model works in Australia. Personally, I've never minded Ryanair's way of doing things; I once flew from London to Poland for a penny plus taxes.

If nothing else, Tune's reasonable Internet rate may finally force down the insanely high price of Australian hotel wifi. We can only hope.

Details of the Tune Hotel Melbourne can be found at the Tune website.

Friday 18 October 2013

The Bed Report 5: Vibe Hotel Gold Coast Accommodation Review

On my way from Gold Coast Airport to Surfers Paradise on a local bus last week, I passed under a monorail that linked a casino to shopping and dining attractions.

Though on a smaller scale, it reminded me immediately of the monorail linking several casinos in Las Vegas, which I'd seen in action earlier in the year.

It was a reminder - if I needed one - that the Gold Coast is Australia's answer to the attractions of Vegas.

It's not that similar of course - the Gold Coast is less overtly given to insane architecture and in-your-face vice. But there are some parallels between the big-ticket extravaganzas and plentiful partying options of the two places.

So was I going to get that wild party-town gambling-spree vibe at Vibe? Well no, as it turned out, and that was all to the good. On the western edge of the nightlife hub that is central Surfers, it was a peaceful haven to retreat to at the end of a day out.

The Vibe chain makes a virtue of necessity, in that it takes old accommodation buildings and refreshes them via its vaguely retro decor. This works quite well, as I remarked of the Vibe Hotel Sydney in a previous review.

In Vibe stays in Sydney and Melbourne, I'd noticed the chain's preference for lime green. Here in Surfers however, the dominant shade was aquamarine, perhaps a nod to the nearby Pacific Ocean:

There were also splashes of the colour here and there through the room, along with some burnt orange cushions and a spot of abstract art:

The other blue-green that could be seen was best viewed from here, my 20th floor balcony:

As far as comfort levels go, the room was spacious and full of natural light, though the bathroom was relatively small.

I did arch an eyebrow at the pricing for the mini-bar. Some items were priced perfectly reasonably, eg orange juice for $3; others were quite ambitious, ie a bag of jelly snakes for $7.50 (an item which, curiously, you could buy for half the price at the hotel's own vending machine on the ground floor).

Also, wifi access was only available on the ground floor, and was only free for 30 minutes before charges applied.

In the evening I headed poolside, where the bar served food. It was very reasonably priced (eg fish and chips $12), and I scored a chicken parma and beer for a happy hour special price of $15. The parma was made without ham, which seemed to me as odd as a capricciosa pizza missing anchovies, but otherwise it was good, straightforward bar food.

And the setting, as you can see, was very pleasant indeed:

Just the Facts:
Vibe Hotel Gold Coast
42 Ferny Ave, Surfers Paradise QLD 4217, Australia
Phone: 07 5539 0444 (International +61 7 5539 0444)
Rates: From $120 per night

Disclosure time... for this stay I was hosted by the Toga Group. To read previous accommodation reviews, click on The Bed Report label below.

Friday 11 October 2013

History on the Gold Coast

I suspect the title of this post is causing a few raised eyebrows in Australia.

The Gold Coast, stretching north-south along the Queensland coast south of Brisbane, is a relatively new entity, having grown out of several seaside towns which merged into one big conglomerate over decades.

So, it being fairly young, "history" isn't the first thing you think of when you hear the city's name mentioned.

On top of that, the place is known for something else - a hedonistic offering of beaches, dining, shopping and nightlife. So again, we're not thinking history.

Queensland in the postwar decades was also notorious for being pro-development, to the point of bulldozing attractive historic buildings in the middle of the night.

So I'm wasn't sure what there'd be left to see when I took a historical walk in Southport, one of the Gold Coast's key business-orientated suburbs and an early seaside destination for weary 19th century Brisbanites.

When I have some time to spare in an Australian regional destination, I like to see if there's a self-guided walking tour available online. This time I found the Southport Heritage Walk, outlined in a slick PDF produced by Gold Coast Heritage.

It directs the user around downtown Southport, pointing out both existing historic buildings and several which have disappeared.

I have to say, it was more challenging to follow than expected. For a start, there was this going on, the building of the Gold Coast's (much-needed) first tram line:

But with a bit of weaving and dodging, I managed to get around the trackworks and have a look at what history remained under the gaudy veneer of modern commerce.

One of the gems still in place was Cecil's Hotel - and note the clever subscript to Cecil's name added by the business currently in the premises:

Across Nerang Street on the other side of what will be a major tram stop were two extant gems.

The first was the former Southport Town Hall, a marvellous piece or Art Deco architecture which has survived all the Gold Coast changes since 1935:

Next door was the former Southport Ambulance Centre, home to an ambulance service serving the Gold Coast from 1919. The building itself was opened in 1922 - check out the Maltese Crosses on the facade:

And within the building I found brand-new cafe Percy's Corner, thanks to the Beanhunter app.

Not only did the decor have a vintage touch that fitted well with the building's history, but the cafe had been named after Percy Raby, the first superintendent of the centre:

You'll note that the barista was sporting a vintage moustache, always a good sign when looking for a decent cafe in urban Australia. In apparent deference to the Gold Coast, however, beneath that black T-shirt he had on a pair of colourful Hawaiian shorts.

There was plenty more to see on the PDF but it was a hot day and the trackworks were hindering navigation, so I looped around to Scarborough Street to find the attractive Southport Catholic Church:

... and finished up in a nondescript stretch of street next to where the Southport Railway Station had stood until the train service from Brisbane was cancelled in the 1960s.

As I stood pondering the abandonment of rail 50 years ago and its noisy reestablishment just around the corner today, I glanced at the shops and the towers beyond. Their facades represented a lively mix of eras. There couldn't be a better illustration of the ever-changing look of the Gold Coast:

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of TravMedia and the Vibe Hotel Gold Coast.