Friday 31 January 2014

Planets of St Kilda

Welcome to my 300th blog post!

It was a hot summer day in the mid-30s last Sunday, so Narrelle and I decided to escape the sun by walking 5.9 billion kilometres across the solar system.

Wait - let me clarify. We actually walked 5.9 kilometres, from Melbourne's St Kilda past Middle Park and Port Melbourne to Beacon Cove. And we started at this Sun:

I'd gone years without noticing this sculpture. In 2008 a Solar System Trail was established along the Port Phillip Bay foreshore, including models of the Sun, all eight planets, and the demoted dwarf planet Pluto. Also one other interesting item I'll mention later.

What's remarkable about the work, a joint project between artists and scientists, is its attention to detail. Constructed to a 1:1 billion scale, the stars and planets are both in correct proportion to each other, and correctly spaced apart. Hence the 5.9 (billion) kilometres between the Sun and Pluto.

The foreshore walk is great fun anyway, as you pass beaches, rollerbladers and cyclists, always with the bay in view. Visiting each planet would be a bonus on a hot sunny day.

Though I was surprised at the variation in their spacing.

The inner planets were only a couple of hundred metres apart; in fact I could see most of them from my vantage point next to the Sun, opposite the corner of Marine Parade and Blessington Street, St Kilda.

Only 58 metres away was tiny Mercury:

Then 50 metres further on, comely Venus:

And then at the 150 metre mark, our dear old home Earth - complete with Moon (38.4cm from its parent world):

Finally on our tour on the inner planets, at the 228 metre mark - warlike Mars:

Well, that was easy. Now, as we approached the gas giants, the planets became further spread out.

We had to walk another 550 metres to reach mighty Jupiter, which we found next to the lawn near the St Kilda Sea Baths. As the largest planet, on a 1:1 billion scale it was about the size of a softball:

We'd covered 778 metres so far, an easy stroll. We found Saturn at almost twice the distance we'd already covered, next to Catani Gardens at 1.4 kilometres from the Sun. Sadly its marvellous rings were a little the worse for wear, probably due to vandalism:

We'd done six planets! We only had three to go! Hooray! But we'd only covered 1.4km of the 5.9km trail. Hmm. This was clearly an inconveniently designed solar system.

We then had a long stroll for another 1.5km along the Middle Park foreshore, finally locating lopsided-orbit Uranus near the corner of Beaconsfield Parade and Wright Street, at the 2.9km mark:

We were now halfway across the system, with only two planets left. Another 1.6km walking brought us to Neptune, at the 4.5km mark within sight of Port Melbourne's Station Pier and the docked cruise ship Diamond Princess:

It had been a great walk but we were very hot and tired by this point, and I was tempted to call a halt by invoking Pluto's demoted planetary status as an excuse.

However, on reflection we felt we'd come too far to give up. So we trudged on past Station Pier along the boardwalk in front of ritzy apartment buildings, a final 1.5km, to find... this:

A colossal 5.9 billion kilometres from the Sun (at least it felt like it), and that's all we got? Well, at least we'd made it all the way to everyone's favourite dwarf planet. Then we had to walk a kilometre or so back to Port Melbourne for the tram.

And the bonus astronomical object I alluded to earlier?

Back near the Sun, just a few metres away, was this model of the star Proxima Centauri:

The nearest star beyond our solar system, it's located a breathtaking 40 trillion kilometres away.

So why was it so close to the model of the Sun, if everything was in proportion? Because at the 1:1 billion scale, you'd have to place it 40,000 kilometres away - and that, coincidentally, is the circumference of the Earth.

Yep. If you started here and travelled in the entirely opposite direction around our entire planet to reach the Sun model the long way, you'd have covered the appropriate distance. And that was the closest star beyond our immediate stellar neighbourhood.

As Douglas Adams once wrote, "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that’s just peanuts to space."

He was right.

Friday 24 January 2014

The Bed Report 6: Adelphi Hotel Melbourne Accommodation Review

The Adelphi Hotel is only three blocks from my apartment, but I've always wanted to stay there so I could swim in its pool.

The Adelphi swimming pool is something of a legend in Melbourne, a curiosity of the the city which never fails to raise a gasp when pointed out.

It projects from the top floor of the hotel over the street for a metre or so, allowing passers-by the odd vision of people swimming high in the air above them.

So here I was, finally staying overnight to review the place, and my chance had come. No matter that one of Melbourne's bizarre weather changes had just blown in, rattling the windows and lowering the outdoor temperature to 16C. I was getting in that pool.

It was freezing, but I'm glad I did it.

The swim had been preceded by this - the Adelphi's new take on High Tea. With the hotel's refurbishment and reopening in late 2013, it's rebranded itself as a "dessert hotel".

The in-house Om Nom restaurant specialises in sweet dishes and cocktails, with a smattering of savoury choices for people like me who don't have much of a sweet tooth.

The centrepiece of the Sunday afternoon menu is the tower of small sweet and savoury items, as seen above. Accompanied with a glass of Veuve Cliquot, and a coffee or tea served with macarons, it costs $65 per person.

Narrelle and I enjoyed this. The savoury elements such as a small vegetable tempura and noodle dish were tasty, but the sweet items stood out above them. Highlights were the pineapple verrine (the reddish-yellow one at the top of the stand) and the excellent peanut butter, chocolate and raspberry gateau.

There was an inventiveness about the items and their presentation which we liked, taking it away from the stuffiness usually associated with afternoon tea. In the below pic, you can see Narrelle handling the bulb of sweet and sour sauce which arrives inserted into the poached bug tail:

As for the room, we were placed in a suite on the seventh floor, looking out onto taller buildings but with enough of a gap provided by street and alleyway to provide natural light.

The living room decor was very much the model of a cutting-edge upmarket small hotel - interesting angled furniture, eccentrically furry armchairs, a giant angle-poise lamp and a footstool resembling a licorice allsort. (The entry-level King Rooms have similar decor but in a smaller space.)

Not everyone's cup of tea, no doubt, but I like this sort of contemporary eccentricity:

Behind Narrelle in the picture above you can see shelving stacked with jars. These were full of various types of sweets, provided free with the room rate. A nice touch.

The bedroom and bathroom were similarly unconventional, as you can see below:

Overall, we enjoyed our stay in the new Adelphi. Our room did possess a couple of the Problems of Posh Hotels I've talked about before - dim lighting that made reading tricky, and overly firm pillows.

However, it compensated for this with positive attributes such as free wifi, free local phone calls, accessible power points, a bar fridge whose contents were included in the room rate, and complimentary sweet snacks dotted around the room. And the windows could be opened. Hallelujah!

Just the Facts:
Adelphi Hotel
187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
Phone: 03 8080 8888 (International +61 3 8080 8888)
Rates: Rooms from $260 per night; suite from $690 per night.

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

Thursday 16 January 2014

London Theatre Review: Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

This guest post is by Julia Hilton, freshly returned from the British capital...

Enter the world of PG Wodehouse, via the ramblings of Bertie Wooster, in this perfect farce.

Perfect Nonsense is mostly drawn from Wodehouse's 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters, but includes bits and pieces from many other short stories and novels.

It's a three-handed show with Mathew Macfadyen as Jeeves, Stephen Mangan as Bertie Wooster and Mark Hadfield as Seppings, the elderly butler of Bertie's Aunt Dahlia.

Addressing the audience directly, as he does in the first-person novels, Bertie tries to narrate the story of how he once had to steal a silver cow creamer.

In addition to this ordeal, he and Jeeves are required to patch up the engagement of the appallingly soupy Madeline Bassett and Gussie Fink-Nottle, and help "Stiffy" Byng to gain the permission of her uncle (the villain of the piece) to marry the Reverend "Stinker" Pinker.

All this while avoiding being beaten up by the awful Roderick Spode, the would-be dictator who's a wonderful parody of the humourless fascist strongmen of interwar Europe.

He's assisted in his storytelling task by Jeeves and Seppings. In addition to taking the parts of all the other characters, they also build sets ("It's called scenery, sir"), strike props and generally look after Bertie.

Macfadyen is splendid switching from Jeeves to such unlikely roles as Madeline Bassett in the blink of an eye. He has the gravitas seen in his TV roles (in such programs as Spooks and Ripper Street), and yet is also a consummate comedian and cross-dresser.

Mark Hadfield, a new actor to me, has the difficult job of portraying a butler, Aunt Dahlia and Spode.

He does this to perfection, often letting the audience view the changeovers from one to another while maintaining a farcical deadpan.

As Bertie, Stephen Mangan is perfection; a totally inept, well-meaning fool, all arms and legs and "I say!"

He narrates this tale of misadventure so well, that we're totally on his side and yet as exasperated with him as is Jeeves.

The use of a cartoonish cardboard car for the drive to Totleigh Towers, along with a slow-motion scene in which Bertie tries to steal the cow creamer, elevates the play beyond pure farce and into the realms of expert modern theatre.

This is Jeeves and Wooster at its best and stands on its own; owing nothing to the famous 1990s TV series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, but equalling it in pleasure.

Perfect Nonsense continues its run at Duke of York’s Theatre, 104 St Martin’s Lane, London to September 2014; more details at Julia Hilton recommends the Doc Rat comic strip by Jenner for your daily dose of humour:

Friday 10 January 2014

Europe Summer Series: Pécs, Hungary (Part 2)

Welcome to the final instalment of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. In the previous post about Pécs, Hungary, I discussed the city's long connection with Zsolnay porcelain. Now to enter the museum...

The Zsolnay Museum is an eye-opener. It details porcelain’s use as decoration, but also its history as a practical architectural element, being part of drainpipes, fireplaces, and even picture frames.

There are some intriguing early 20th century porcelain artworks hanging on the museum’s walls, and some novelty pieces such as marvellous Japanese-made works that were modelled on items found within the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Elsewhere in the exhibits there’s a spinning table set with porcelain tableware, floral designs for garden use, and an elaborate golden bust of the founder of Hungary, St Stephen.

Out in the garden, sitting near a pair of ceramic elephants and soaking up the afternoon sun, I’m pleased to have discovered that porcelain is more interesting than I had expected, and also why it forms a visible part of the identity of Pécs.

Lunch below stairs

Sated with ceramics, we decide to have a late lunch at Cellarium. As the name suggests, it’s located within a cellar eight metres below ground, which we reach via deep stairs down a stone-lined tunnel.

The restaurant tables are spread throughout a series of nooks and crannies, which we discover were ancient catacombs; legend has it that 17th century locals held secret meetings here away from the eyes and ears of their Turkish rulers.

It’s a marvellous place, full of atmosphere, and we’re able to find ourselves a quiet candlelit table in a small side chamber, away from larger lunching groups. It has a low arched brick ceiling and is lined with cushioned banquettes, the tables set with linen cloths.

From the interesting menu I order “prison officer rolls”, basically segments of a pork schnitzel which has been stuffed with smoked spare rib meat and horseradish, and served on a bed of oven-baked potatoes. It’s excellent, with baked vegetables as an accompaniment.

Our excellent wine is a dry red from the nearby Villány region, whose warm sub-Mediterranean microclimate provides ideal conditions for grape growing. It’s tasty, like a fuller-bodied chianti, and perfect with our food.

What’s equally appealing is the price tag, just 1,950 forint (about $10). That’s the other great lure of Hungary - it offers similar attractions to Western Europe, but at much lower prices.

Roman tombs with a view

Our final expedition is to the Cella Septichora Centre, beneath the grand cathedral in the northwest of the Old Town.

Located underground, it’s the remains of a Christian tomb complex from the 4th century, when the city was part of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, it was never completed - perhaps the empire wasted away before the final tombs were excavated.

It’s an impressive set-up - an underground labyrinth pierced by walkways through low-ceiling tunnels leading to remnant tombs. Particularly interesting is the tomb distinguished by the painting of a jug within an alcove behind it.

There’s something haunting about this once important place that is now in ruins, having been concealed over the centuries beneath other sacred buildings.

There’s also contemporary input within the tombs. When the centre was being constructed, an artist was commissioned to create a series of works to be placed within the large open space at its entrance, provoking questions of spirituality and identity.

The most moving of these is a large angular metallic sculpture full of gaps and slots. As we walk around it, we realise that the gaps momentarily align when seen from three subsequent positions, revealing a Muslim crescent moon, a Christian cross and a Jewish Star of David.

In a place as ancient as the tombs, in a city that has been home to people of all these faiths, it seems a neat reminder of the complex roots - and diverse beauty - of Pécs.

Friday 3 January 2014

Europe Summer Series: Pécs, Hungary (Part 1)

Happy New Year! The final instalment of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe takes us to the city of Pécs in southwestern Hungary...

The bull’s head reminds me of the ornaments that used to stand on my grandmother’s mantelpiece.

It’s ceramic, with a green and gold glaze that looks almost unearthly in its gleaming smoothness.

But this is no miniature ornament - it’s life-sized and a prominent element of a fountain in the Hungarian city of Pécs (pronounced paych).

In fact there are four glazed bull’s heads on this elaborate piece of street furniture, surmounted with shields and other fine decorative elements.

Beyond the fountain, as the street opens out into a broad public space, is Széchenyi Square, the centre of this attractive city in Hungary’s southwest.

Although it’s part of Central Europe, Pécs looks somehow Mediterranean with its sand-coloured tiles and stone buildings, bright sunlight bringing them to life on this warm spring day.

And there’s even more porcelain on public display, I realise, as my wife Narrelle and I walk around the perimeter of the square, glancing up at the magnificent 1898 County Hall, a solid but elegant structure whose roof is an interlocking pattern of shiny red and orange tiles.

A mosque that’s also a church

Eclipsing that 19th century remnant, however, is the striking building set in the centre of the long sloping square, a squarish stone structure with arched windows, a large green dome, and... is that a cross or a crescent moon on top?

It turns out that it’s both; for Pécs is a city with a history of conquest. In the 16th century the city was snatched from the Kingdom of Hungary by the invading Turkish Empire, who held onto it for 160 years.

During that time they built a mosque in the middle of the square, which was duly transformed into the church after the Turks were ousted.

Nowadays the Mosque Church (originally the Mosque of Gazi Kasim Pasha) is a museum, but it’s also a symbol of the waves of cultures which have washed through this town.

But what about all the porcelain? More of that little mystery later. For now, we enter the Mosque Church, where we learn it’s been much reconfigured over the centuries.

Its decor has now been returned to how it looked in the Middle Ages, with many original Turkish elements revealed through restoration: including the prayer niche, Arabic calligraphy and coloured decorations on the walls.

It’s a beautiful interior in which Islamic elements join with Christian ones to create a fascinating whole.

Ceramics with a past

Of course, none of this has helped us solve the mystery of the shiny ceramics - but the answer is waiting for us just 200 metres north, in the Zsolnay Museum.

Established here in 1853 by businessman Miklós Zsolnay, the Zsolnay Porcelain Manufacture company became one of the world’s largest creators of porcelain in an age when it was novel, decorative and more practical than its alternatives.

After being popularised at World Fairs in Paris and Vienna, Zsolnay grew to become the biggest porcelain manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Pécs was then a part.

Having then survived two world wars and a communist regime, Zsolnay’s output was revived in the post-communist economy, and the company now supplies large amounts of goods to IKEA.

Business aside, its history is on display in the museum placed within a 13th century house, just within the city’s old medieval city walls. 

Given that my perception of porcelain still belongs to the dull old-fashioned objects that once adorned my grandmother’s living room (I seem to remember a large glazed golden snail that functioned as a flowerpot), the Zsolnay Museum is an eye-opener...

[Next post: Ceramic elephants, ancient catacombs dining, "prison officer rolls", and subterranean Roman tombs......]