Monday 24 November 2014

Stars Above Hollywood: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, USA

If ever there was a case of a good thing arising from a bad deed, it's the Griffith Observatory in the hills above Los Angeles.

Both the observatory and Griffith Park, in which it sits, were donated to the city around the turn of the 20th century by the wealthy Griffith J Griffith. 

The Welsh immigrant to the USA had done well as a mining expert, and wanted to give some of his prosperity back to his adopted city.

The park came first, in 1896, but many years would elapse before the observatory could be built. And there was a sensational reason for the delay.

Before proposing the donation to build the observatory, Griffith had spent two years in jail for the attempted murder in 1903 of his wife. 

It was a particularly gruesome and sordid attack (you can read more here) which soiled his reputation and made the city unwilling to accept the gift. 

A stalemate was created, and only broken when Griffith died in 1919 and left the cash as a bequest.

So the Griffith Observatory was built, though Griffith would never see it. It was completed in 1935, at the height of the art deco era.

It's a marvellous building. Approaching it on Thursday afternoon, I was struck by its beautiful lines. Both inside and outside, it resembled something from the panels of a Flash Gordon comic book:

Beneath the decorative domed ceiling in the centre of the building, there was a large Foucault's pendulum swinging back and forth. 

Every seven minutes its arc would change sufficiently to knock over another metal rod standing in a series on the edge of the circle, thus proving the fact of the Earth's rotation:

Below the original building were exhibitions in more recently constructed levels - including an impressive area devoted to the planets:

There was plenty to see outside, the Observatory's terraces providing a great view over the city below:

Back inside though, the highlight of the visit for me was the demonstration of a Tesla Coil, a device which was developed to transmit electricity through the air. 

Nowadays it's a scientific amusement - and a spectacular one. When activated, great arcs of electric current curve through the air around the device, thus powering the neon letters in front:

I even caught one of the demonstrations on video. Here it is - click and stand back:

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of United Airlines and the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Bureau.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Sunset & the Unexpected Whale of Santa Barbara

Sunshine is the best ally in the fight against jet lag.

I arrived in Los Angeles at 7.30am yesterday morning with a group of journalists, having being hosted by United Airlines on its new Dreamliner service between Melbourne and LA. 

We'd had a decent amount of sleep in business class, a good start in the fight against lag.

As we rode aboard the LAX-Santa Barbara shuttle bus, we received our first dose of California sunlight. 

And after a day of sightseeing, we saw the sun set on a cruise into the Santa Barbara Channel, an arm of the Pacific between the coastal city and the Channel Islands.

This is the boat we sailed on:

This was the first mate, Baron:

These were some seals we met along the way:

And this was the sunset:

It was beautiful, but also another brick in the wall of prevention against jet lag. 

Having been through morning light, sunshine throughout the day, and now sunset, surely our addled brains would accept we were in a new timezone?

So far, so good. I had a normal night's sleep. With any luck, that cruise sealed the deal. 

It was also very relaxing - no music, no commentary, just the sea, sail, and views of the ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains behind the city.

Though, unexpectedly, the sunset cruise wasn't our most memorable experience along the coastline of Santa Barbara.

Today at exactly 1pm, we were leaving Stearns Wharf when someone spotted a big shape moving beneath the water between two arms of the pier.

It turned out to be a Grey Whale, distinguished by the white mottling along its grey skin.

It's unusual for one to come this close to the shore to feed, so there was much excitement among onlookers as we watched the huge creature swimming easily around, occasionally surfacing.

I even caught some video footage of the event. Enjoy:

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of United Airlines and Visit Santa Barbara.

Friday 14 November 2014

Bath Time in Cologne, Germany

After an exhausting morning viewing modern art in Cologne in September, what I really needed was a relaxing bath.

The bath I had in mind was at the Neptunbad (see photo above). This beautiful set of public baths in the Ehrenfeld district was opened in 1912, just as the grandeur of Germany's imperial Wilhelmine Period was about to be swept away by the Great War.

A beautiful structure, liberally graced with coloured tiles and mosaics, it seemed to have survived both devastating World Wars well.

To one side, where there was once a swimming pool, was a gym and lounge area. It was definitely the most impressively housed gym I'd ever seen:

But I'd come for the Neptunbad's baths. These were split into two zones: the historic sauna, and the newer Asian sauna and bath complex adjoining the original building.

The latter was a very pleasant set-up, accessed from an open-air garden. It had a number of saunas set at different temperatures, from the Japanese Light Sauna with Citrus Aroma (60°C) to the Infusion Sauna in the Zen Garden (80°C).

Photo courtesy Neptunbad GmbH & Co. KG

Here it's worth mentioning a key item of German public bath etiquette. Unlike in Korea, where I discovered nudity is mandatory but segregated by gender, in Germany nudity is mandatory and the genders are mixed. 

This took a few minutes to get used to, but I admired the Germans for their matter-of-fact attitude to the body. And I assumed the neighbours in the apartment buildings next to the Neptunbad had become used to seeing naked folk lounging in its Zen garden from their windows.

The highlight of my visit was the historic sauna section. Its Roman-style laconium (a heated air "sweat bath") and attached steam bath were attractively decorated with tiles and statuary, and a good place to start the relaxation.

But I loved the Kaiserbad. This dimly-lit large circular pool had its water set to body temperature at 37°C - it felt about the temperature you'd run for a comfortable bath at home.

Photo courtesy Neptunbad GmbH & Co. KG

I picked up a couple of those buoyant noodle things (do they have a proper name?), placing one behind my neck and one beneath my knees. Lying back to float, I discovered - surprise! - there was meditative music playing beneath the water.

How long I floated on my back, drifting slowly around the pool as I looked up at the wolf symbol set into the centre of its dome, I can't tell you.

What I can tell you is that it was highly addictive, and highly relaxing. As I floated, I could feel all the pain from the week's endless walking radiating from my feet, as if expelled by exorcism.

I had to eventually force myself to leave the pool by sheer mental force. Frankly, I'm amazed I'm not still there. If I lived in Cologne, that bath would be my second home.

Neptunbad can be found at Neptunplatz 1, Cologne, Germany. Its website is entirely in German, but on the day I visited the staff spoke good English (possibly to ward off my dodgy German).

Disclosure time: I travelled to Cologne by train, courtesy of Railbookers.

Friday 7 November 2014

Mauerfall: 25 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

I first encountered the Berlin Wall in 1994, five years after its fall.

Narrelle and I had travelled by train to Berlin from Kraków, Poland, where we'd been teaching English in a private school.

Over our week or so in Berlin we had a chance to see the Wall - or its remnants - in various parts of the German capital.

There were the obvious, iconic places to visit: the Brandenburg Gate, for example, which the Wall had skirted; and the East Side Gallery, adorned with paintings from international artists.

We also noted some quirks left behind by the fall of Die Mauer (the German name for the Wall). The U1 Metro line, for example, ended abruptly just short of the Spree River where it had been cut by the barrier's erection. A year later, it would be reconnected to the former East Berlin.

As a history student with a particular interest in 20th century European history, the Wall loomed large in my first visit to Berlin.

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I returned to Berlin in September this year and headed to a section of Die Mauer I'd never seen before.

The stretch of the Wall which ran along the south side of Bernauer Strasse has now been preserved as the official Berlin Wall Memorial.

It's a fascinating linear park comprising a stretch of the Wall, secondary fortifications and paths used by East German guards, remnants of a demolished church and apartment buildings, and the paths of tunnels dug beneath the barrier.

There's also a sad memorial to those killed trying to cross the Wall, and a circular chapel where the church once stood.

It's a fascinating memorial, and no doubt I'll write about it at length in the future.

For now though, to mark the 25th anniversary of Mauerfall on 9 November 1989, here's a selection of photos I took on a sunny Berlin day with history hanging heavy in the air...

Disclosure time: I travelled to Berlin by train courtesy of Railbookers.