Friday 30 March 2018

The Historic Tree of Albury, Australia

Between Christmas and New Year's Eve last year, Narrelle and I stayed in Albury for a few days.

To anyone fascinated by borders (as I am), Albury is an interesting place. It lies on the north bank of the Murray River, which is the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria.

On the south bank, Wodonga is its Victorian twin; together they form a busy regional centre of about 100,000 people.

We arrived at Albury's impressive railway station (see photo, top right) via the XPT train which runs twice daily between Melbourne and Sydney.

It's a grand edifice partly because of its lofty station building, which marked its importance in the 19th century as the crossing point between colonies.

Another impressive aspect is its very long platform, a product of the insanity by which each colony had different rail gauges. Until 1962, passengers on the Melbourne-Sydney journey had to change trains here, crossing from one side of the platform to the other.

We walked to our accommodation at the Best Western Hovell Tree Inn, on the western edge of the city centre near the banks of the Murray. The river here is fringed by a beautiful section of parkland, the Noreuil Park Foreshore, a lovely place to walk and a credit to the city.

Nearby is Hovell Tree Park. One day Narrelle and I were sitting at a barbecue area there, eating something we'd bought from a bakery across the road, when I found myself wondering what and where exactly was this Hovell Tree?

So I walked across the grass toward the river and found the tree!


It was marked by the explorers Hume and Hovell on 17 November 1824, on their epic expedition from Appin, south of Sydney, all the way to Corio Bay near where Geelong now stands.

This journey took place over a decade before Melbourne was founded, so much of this terrain was unknown to the white newcomers to Australia, though had been inhabited for millennia by Aboriginal peoples.

They were apparently surprised to encounter such an impressive river as the Murray, and had to jerry-rig a boat using a tarpaulin, in order to cross it.

The rest of the trip was equally eventful, with many difficulties involving the crossing of rivers and mountains, with occasional backtracking; you can read about it here.

Anyway, it was interesting to discover a fragment of colonial history across from our hotel, almost by accident. I felt a bit like an explorer myself.

Friday 23 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 3: Curious Statuary

Here's the final instalment from my recently unearthed diary entries about a visit some years ago to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia...

I encounter some odd recently-placed statues on my way through the Old Town today.

This seems to be a Central Europe trademark, whimsical bits of statuary interacting with the cityscape.

First there’s a moustachioed guy dipping his top hat, then a delightful paparazzo statue leaning around a corner with a long lens, eternally snapping the outdoor sippers at a street cafe.

Then finally, and most famously, the guy who looks like he’s down a manhole, though he’s leaning on its rim and having a rest. There’s even a sort of ‘man at work’ sign next to him.

Like a lot of Central European decor, these statues fit within their context, rather than seeming as cute as they might elsewhere.

It’s sad to realise that communism would never have put up anything like these – that in even in this cheeky, lightweight, irreverent humour there would have been a threat to its existence. Tragic that even humour couldn’t be tolerated. Or, more precisely, the individuality behind the humour and individual reactions.

I duck down an arcade full of fashionable clothing boutiques, to emerge next to U Jakuba.

I’d been looking out for this – an old-fashioned cafeteria of the type that once fed the proletariat in the communist days. And in fact, feeds all kinds of workers now.

It’s about time for lunch, so I go in, grab a tray and cutlery and join the queue. Reaching the counter, I pull the “I’ll have what she’s having” trick, and end up with what must be the lunch special – a schnitzel, mashed potato and pickles.

It’s excellent, simple food – and only costs me about $6.

Just down the road I hit a square, Námestie SNP. In the centre is a set of statues: a man in a robe with a rifle, and two women standing behind him.

Erected (I guess) in the communist era, it commemorates the Slovaks’ national revolt against Nazi rule in 1944. For such an emotional event, the blocky statuary seems strangely lifeless, lacking dynamism.

Though communism lacked a sense of humour, it is itself an enormous font of material for comedic treatment. Anything that took itself so very seriously is naturally asking for it.

And so it is that mock communist nostalgia bars have blossomed across the former Eastern Bloc. Bratislava’s version is a bar named KGB.

Descending to a basement off a busy pedestrian strip, I admire a portrait of Stalin flanked by US and Soviet flags and an electronic darts machine, then enjoy a good Slovak beer just across from a bust of a lecturing Lenin.

And so to the Slovak Radio building, my final communist-era highlight of the day.

It’s amazing, a huge rust-coloured inverted pyramid containing multiple floors of radio workers, each level wider than the next.

Perhaps this was a communist comment about overturning hierarchies? Whatever, it’s so absurd that I'm grinning as I take a photo of it. The structure is absurdly typical of what I expect from that era's architecture.

The communists mostly did bland, but every so often they’d go crazy and do absolutely, absurdly, ridiculously, impractically, over-the-top stuff like this.

No-one’s going to miss them, but at least they’ve left behind some relics from which we can get a good laugh.

Friday 16 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 2: Boarding the UFO

Here's the next instalment from my recently unearthed diary entries about a visit some years ago to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia...

Across a bridge above a busy highway, a quick right... and suddenly I’m transported back centuries to the Old Town.

The narrow laneway leading to Michael’s Gate is an effective filter between the two worlds, funnelling me through an archway onto a gently sloping cobblestoned street.

Not far from here I find Čokoládovňa pod Michalom.

Up to now I’ve been noticing the similarities between Poland and Slovakia... but now I’m reminded again of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna just 60km away with its tradition of coffee houses and cakes.

It’s too hot to sit inside, so I sit under the canopy that’s been erected in the middle of the street, one of a series of mini ‘beer gardens’.

The first page of the menu has dozens of varieties of hot chocolate, more fanciful as you get down the page. They range from Grand Cru (70% cocoa with a touch of vanilla) to the fanciful Sudanese (coconut, orange, honey, whipped cream).

I request a slight alteration to the Grand Cru, adding orange. When it arrives, it’s a revelation. Not only is the chocolate so thick and rich you need to eat it with a spoon; but the orange is actually pieces of orange. Delicious. Some might say it’s too hot for hot chocolate, but not me.

I also notice a lot of whipped cream in the menu items, something I always think of as an Austro-Hungarian emblem. Then, because I’m curious about the non-chocolate items, I order a heated apple juice, with absinthe, cinnamon and lemon (see photo above). Wise?

Beyond the compact splendours of the Old Town, I’m dedicated to exploring the wonders of the communist era. The first stop is, naturally, the ‘UFO’ atop the New Bridge.

It’s extraordinary. I mean, it’s one thing to build an observation platform, but to decide to build it on top of a bridge, its saucer-shaped platform supported by two tall beams that lend it the name ‘UFO on a stick’?

As always with the communists’ more extreme flights of fancy, what were they thinking? It’s as if even anything frivolous, like a viewing platform, had to be attached to something functional, eg a bridge.

I approach from the Old Town, crossing the defiantly green Blue Danube along the pedestrian walkway slung beneath the traffic. Then it’s up up up via a lift inside the eastern support pillar.

From a rather swish modern foyer, one then climbs a few flights of stairs to the open area on the top. And it’s here that you get a good understanding of the different facets of Bratislava.

Stand facing north across the river, and the orange-brown tiles of the Old Town beckon, with hints of its winding alleys interrupted by the spires of churches. The castle, of course, is dramatically poised on the hill to the west.

Turn around and face south, however, and it’s a different story. Beyond modern offices and shopping malls stretches the Petržalka district, a vast collection of huge concrete boxes that look identical.

On the hazy horizon just beyond them are the unmistakeable pipes and vents of industry. It’s like heaven and hell, dramatically speaking; certainly I’ve never seen such immediate contrast in any city, even the Polish ones.

After I’ve had my fill of the view among the gaggle of German tourists, I descend to the bar off the foyer.

There’s nothing communist-era about this; it’s been renovated to cutting edge 21st century standards: stylish low chairs, a lot of white, a gleaming well-stocked bar. And as is inevitable with these places, a fairly steep drinks list.

The place also quivers slightly in the breeze, but not too alarmingly. I drink a $5 doppio, enjoy the view, watch the beautiful people drinking at the bar, then descend once more to the bridge.

It’s a hot day in Bratislava, well over 30 degrees with a dash of humidity, which means the covered beer gardens down here at human level are doing a good trade.

Next post:  The strange statues of Bratislava...

Friday 9 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 1: Castle to Clocks

Browsing old files on my laptop, I came across notes I'd written about my visit a few years ago to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. 

I'd intended them to be the backbone of an article, but sadly I never wrote about the city.

So here they are, with but a light edit to preserve their immediacy. Join me, just arrived by train from the Tatra Mountains on the Polish border...

So here I am in the Slovak capital. Hadn’t intended to come, but my schedule was a few days ahead in the end and it made sense.

Slid into the main station yesterday and immediately had a taste of the crumbling architecture of the communist years. The station is a bit shabby, as are the trains, but there’s a splendid mosaic in the main hall featuring folks in shirtsleeves watching Sputnik pass overhead – a sort of a modern Bayeux Tapestry.

Tram to apartment passed some fairly hideous concrete government buildings, then deposited me on crumbling pavement in residential district just outside city centre. Rented apartment has all the usual amenities: hard sofa bed to sleep on, dodgy hot water, not enough furniture. Handy for tram though.

It was a Sunday so I decided on an initial walk from heights of the castle down through the Old Town beneath it; a logical route followed by many in the old days, I’m sure.

But it was 30 degrees by mid-morning – no way was I walking up that hill if it could be avoided, so caught a bus.

This landed me on the quiet western side of the castle, and as I walked back toward it, my attention was caught by a modern white building on the right, its concourse promising lofty views.

I walked to the edge and was rewarded by a view down over the UFO, a strange circular observation deck built high above the structure of a 1970s bridge. But more of that later.

Turning back, I noticed a number of Slovak and EU flags fluttering above an artificial waterfall in front of the building, along with a statue of a woman handing out flowers as if she were Eliza Doolittle.

I realised this was the Slovak parliament, the seat of government for a Slovakia independent for the first time ever.

I felt warmly toward it, its fluttering flags and statue, as I’d felt warmly toward the compact presidential palace I’d spotted from the bus stop earlier, probably the haunt of some minor Austro-Hungarian noble in the old days.

I like these small Central European countries, they remind me of Tintin's Syldavia.

To the castle, less decorative than usual but still rather impressive – a big brown rigidly geometric number on the hilltop, with four towers holding together a square with absolutely straight walls.

Wandered around inside the attractive grounds before beginning my descent, met some Malaysian guys on the way, had a chat about the heat. Finally put on sunblock.

The way down was via impressive castle gates leading to narrow winding streets on the side of the hill.

I stopped at the Blue Star, a tavern on the way whose menu boasted centuries of intrigue: politicians and nobles of the imperial days, meeting here to chew things over. After a Zlatý Bažant beer I felt looser, relaxed, able to keep going.

Stopped at the Clocks Museum, within a tall, narrow house on an intersection, in what was the Jewish quarter in pre-WWII times.

Incredibly dangerous stairs, but led up to small rooms filled with intricate timepieces. There were some intriguing pieces from an age mixing gilt baroque angels with then-new technology

They included a clock with the four stages of life carved on its surf, ending with a skull indicating death. Something to cheer you up on those cold winter evenings.

Next post: I ascend to the UFO...