Monday 26 August 2013

Built in Vancouver

I'm in Vancouver, Canada, in the first few days of an epic trek across the vast country.

Actually, it's more of a three-week working vacation in the company of my other half, fantasy author Narrelle M Harris, who's visiting Canada for the very first time (and you can read her first take on Vancouver here).

I've been to Vancouver before, and something that has struck me about the place is its dramatic short history and the wealth of interesting architecture dotted about the older parts of town.

The fledging city was almost entirely burned down in 1886, so little here is older than a century; but there's an interesting variety remaining, for all that. Here are some intriguing structures which have caught my eye this time round:

1. This excellent and harmonious landmark is the Dominion Building. Completed in 1910, it was apparently the tallest commercial building in the British Empire at the time. More interesting is its screen history - it and the adjacent Victory Square have appeared in productions as diverse as The Neverending Story and Battlestar Galactica.

2. This student housing on Dunsmuir Street is near our hotel, the St Regis. Built in 1908, it was once the Dunsmuir Hotel but is now located at the other end of the spectrum from the St Regis in terms of poshness.

The three blocks were connected together at street level but separated above, presumably to provide light wells for inward-facing rooms.

Sensing the spirit of gentrification at work all around this part of Vancouver, I can't help envisaging this place as a set of luxury apartments in, say, a decade from now:

3. Here's the grand 1939 Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, one of many such edifices built by the company early last century to serve well-heeled railway passengers. It was the third building to bear the Hotel Vancouver title.

According to Will Woods of Forbidden Vancouver tours, the company's chief condition for completing its construction during the Depression was that the legendarily palatial second Hotel Vancouver across the road be demolished, thus removing competition.

4. This is the Marine Building from a somewhat steep angle. Opened in 1930, this office tower, another "tallest in the British Empire" title holder, is famous for its Art Deco detail inside and out. Constructed for 2.3 million dollars, it was knocked down for $900,000 to the Guinness family of Ireland during the Great Depression:

5. In the dodgy Downtown Eastside district, once the centre of Vancouver but since fallen on hard times, is the Vancouver Police Museum. Housed in the 1932 Coroner's Court, its most fascinating element is the former morgue and autopsy room at the rear, which has been retained with some of its macabre fixtures.

On one wall is a portrait of Hollywood movie legend and Australian emigre Errol Flynn, who passed away after a lively Vancouver party in 1959 and then passed through this facility for a post mortem:

6. And speaking of Hollywood, on the day we passed Vancouver's HR MacMillan Space Centre, they were shooting a George Clooney movie onsite and had moved this giant statue of a Dungeness Crab away from its entrance to a temporary position on the edge of the street.

So we can safely assume George wasn't starring in a sequel to Roger Corman's 1957 masterpiece, Attack of the Crab Monsters. More's the pity.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Vancouver.

Friday 16 August 2013

The Bed Report 2: Vibe Hotel Sydney Accommodation Review

Last week I attended the Storyology media conference in Sydney.

The venue was in Surry Hills, an easy walk from Sydney's Central Station.

This meant I was able to fly up from Melbourne at 6am, take the ten-minute train journey from SYD to Central, and walk to Reservoir Street in time to grab a coffee from Single Origin and be at the conference centre's doors at 8am.

Then, conference over, I walked five minutes north to my accommodation, the Vibe Hotel Sydney.

I'm fond of Vibe. It's a niche brand of the Toga Group, which also operates Travelodge hotels in Australia, and Adina apartment hotels worldwide.

Vibe is designed to be the opposite of the stuffy conservative business hotel, incorporating decor with a cool retro feel. There's a sense of fun about the design which I appreciate, especially when coming from a mind-bending conference about the future of journalism.

The Vibe Sydney lobby didn't disappoint. Near the colourful chairs and curvy urn-shaped lamps was a Happy Buddha statue, arms upraised in the sheer joy of being alive. Or perhaps, the sheer joy of being ceramic.

Upstairs, my room was a large space with plentiful windows looking down upon the gritty streetscape around Central Station. Chinatown and Darling Harbour are easy walking distance from here, as is Hyde Park.

This part of Sydney is never going to win awards for its lyrical beauty, but there's a energetic hum about its streets which is appealing. Standing at the glass, I could see the traffic below snaking away in the dark at the end of working day, with the brightly lit railway station in the background.

The living room's decor followed Vibe's trademark vaguely '60s retro look. The comfortable sofas were long and lime green with reddish-brown cushions, standing on a dark brown chocolate brown carpet. There were bright prints on the wall, with orange and brown tones.

The benchtop above the mini bar had plenty of space. I was particularly impressed to see the kettle standing right next to a handy power point. This shouldn't really have been so impressive, but it's amazing how many hotels make it awkward to plug in the kettle anywhere convenient and/or safe.

The bedroom was relatively plain but comfortably furnished, its green walls matching the colour of the sofa out in the living room. The shiny black-tiled bathroom had a bath in addition to the shower.

A negative in the bedroom: the pillows were too firm for my liking, a common hotel issue. But a big positive: the bedroom windows blessedly opened to allow in some fresh air.

Because of my conference commitments, I didn't have much time to explore the rest of the hotel. The breakfast room was open and pleasant, and I was informed of the existence of a pool and fitness room somewhere within the premises.

There was also a rooftop terrace, apparently. Next time I stay, I'm checking it out [work commitments permitting].

Just the Facts:
Vibe Hotel Sydney
111 Goulburn St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Phone: 02 8272 3300 (International +61 2 8272 3300)
Rates: From $135 per night

Disclosure time... I received complimentary accommodation at this property. To read previous accommodation reviews, click on The Bed Report label below.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Sated in Hungary (Part 2: Wine)

Last week I wrote fondly of the tasty food of Hungary. This week I'm moving on to its equally impressive wine...

Wine Museums, Keszthely

The attractive town of Keszthely sits at the western end of Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake and the landlocked nation’s seaside.

It’s a pleasant holiday town, if somewhat sleepy when I visit out of season in mid-spring.

Despite its modest size, the town is home to two wine museums. The most imposing is situated in the brick-lined cellar of the Festetics Palace, a graceful 18th century structure in its own landscaped grounds.

The House of Balaton Wines exhibits some 1500 Hungarian vintages, with 30 or so available on rotation for tasting sessions.

Down the road in the basement of a more humble building, the three-star Hotel Bacchus, is the Bacchus Wine Museum. It’s a slow day so a waiter from the adjacent restaurant has to unlock the museum for me.

It turns out to unexpectedly interesting; in addition to covering the history and regions of Hungarian wine, it’s packed with old casks, winemaking implements such as curious doughnut-shaped ceramic bottles, and romantically dusty old wine.

[Believe it or not, as of December 2012 the following attraction has been transformed into a spy museum! I've retained the text as a historical record, and to give a sense of the cellar complex beneath Buda Castle.]

Royal Wine Museum, Budapest

Standing on the Szabadság Bridge at sunset, the first thing that strikes me about Budapest is its grandeur.

As the joint capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century, the Hungarian capital shared in the imperial trappings of Vienna, and it shows. The Danube is wide here, with soaring iron suspension bridges linking flat commercial Pest with hilly Buda.

The centrepiece of Buda is Buda Castle, a vast walled complex stretching for some 1.5 kilometres on a hilltop above the river. Buildings have come and gone within its walls over the centuries, and a set of rediscovered medieval wine cellars below demolished houses have recently been linked up to form the Royal Wine Museum [now closed, see explanatory note above].

The twisting and turning underground route is an atmospheric trek through cool sloping passageways, with folk music playing over speakers.

Along the way I learn about Hungarian champagne (who knew?) and encounter ancient wine apparatus including wooden goblets, then descend into much deeper cellars going back to the 13th century. There’s even the remains of a Jewish mikveh (bath) hidden down here.

At the end I sit outside in a pleasant shaded courtyard while a uniformed man pours a glass of apricot-flavoured palinka, the Hungarian spirit literally translated as "burning water". It packs a punch, but is not unpleasant.

The Valley of the Beautiful Women, Eger

To the east of Budapest in hilly wine-growing country most well known for the dessert wine tokay, Eger is a picturesque collection of old buildings including a prominent castle and a remnant minaret from the Turkish occupation.

Its local wine-related claim to fame is Bikavér, a full-bodied red which is said to have fortified the soldiers who resisted the first Turkish siege in 1552.

The best place to buy Bikavér is definitely the Valley of the Beautiful Women, just outside town. Both kitschy and rewarding, the valley is a collection of old wine cellars dug into a rocky horseshoe-shaped valley.

Visitors wander around, buying 100ml samples from random cellars and eating local dishes, before producing their own containers to buy larger take-away amounts of wine.

It’s an attractive way to spend an afternoon. In reasonably quick succession I try samples of Bikavér, then a nice dry rosé, then tokay.

The cellars vary greatly in appearance, from classy set-ups with uniformed staff to simple venues run by the vineyard owners. At my last cellar, I’m ushered in by an elderly lady to be met by a grizzled old man in track pants and a jumper, presenting a much-thumbed guestbook and welcoming us in German.

He’s a definite character, quickly filling glasses of tokay and slapping down a half-filled bottle of another wine, so we can pour our own samples. We can still see the original chisel marks on the bare walls of the cellar, and it’s cold within its depths.

Luckily, the tokay is warming our interiors quite nicely.

To read Part One (Food), click here.

Friday 2 August 2013

Sated in Hungary (Part 1: Food)

A year ago I wrote about my visit to the Salami Museum of Szeged, Hungary; but it wasn’t the only culinary adventure I had on that 2010 trip through Hungary.

I love Hungarian cuisine, with its spicy paprika and flavoursome sauces, accompanied by excellent wine.

Here are five more ways to eat and drink your way across a Central European country that’s still waiting to be discovered by many travellers.

This week, food experiences (and next week, wine!):

Viennese-style Coffee Houses, Budapest
Another throwback to Budapest’s imperial glory days is its exceptional selection of classy art nouveau cafes.

They include Gerbeaud, in the centre of the Old Town and serving renowned sacher torte in an interior of chandeliers, mirrors, wood panelling, vintage wallpaper and marble floors.

Here I order a csokoládé kávé, a tall glass of coffee to which is added hot chocolate, amaretto and whipped cream.

No further proof is needed that I’ve passed beyond the Italian espresso-based coffee world and into Viennese decadence.

Another marvel is the New York Cafe, which began life in 1894 as a high baroque coffee temple with an abundance of gilded fittings and marble, Renaissance-style paintings, and rows of devilish faun statues holding lanterns on the external walls.

In communist times it transformed into a sporting goods store before being reopened as the relatively drab Hungaria, but in 2006 it was renovated back into its high style and its original name - which it derived from the insurance company which once owned the building.

Other grand Budapest coffee houses include the Centrál Kávéház, with high ceilings and excellent cakes; and Lukács, a fancy joint which was once the hangout for the communist-era secret police, whose headquarters stood nearby.

Cellarium, Pécs

In Hungary’s southwest near Croatia, Pécs enjoys a warm sub-Mediterranean microclimate which prompts the excellent wine grown in the nearby Villány region.

The city itself also has a Mediterranean look, with lots of sand-coloured stone and bright sunlight. The Turks ruled here for a century and a half from the 16th century, so there are old mosques and remains of Turkish baths among its sights.

The Cellárium restaurant is also worth a visit. Located eight metres underground, its tables are spread out through a network of catacombs that the locals allegedly once used to hold secret meetings under the noses of their Turkish rulers.

It’s a place with tons of atmosphere, and it’s easy to avoid the tourist hordes by tucking yourself away in one of the smaller side chambers with only a table or two.

The menu has plenty of examples of Hungarian cuisine, from the familiar goulash stews and soups to “prison officer rolls”.

I order these, to receive what looks like pieces of a pork schnitzel stuffed with smoked spare rib meat and horseradish, served on a bed of oven-baked potatoes.

It’s excellent, and the accompanying bottle of Villány red is even more attractive at 1,950 forint (less than $10).

Next week: I focus on Hungarian wine experiences, involving a palace, a castle and the Valley of the Beautiful Women… [click here to read Part Two]