Wednesday 29 May 2019

Curios of Zürich

On this trip was hosted by Switzerland Tourism, and travelled via the excellent Swiss Travel Pass.

The final few days of my Switzerland visit were spent in Zürich, the country’s biggest city. It’s famous for its sober dedication to finance, but it also has a quirky side which was fun to discover. 

Here a few curios I encountered...

1. Hotel in a brewery. The B2 Boutique Hotel sits within a massive industrial complex once occupied by a brewery above the Sihl River in the city’s west. As a result, it has large amounts of space to play with - hence this soaring restaurant area decorated with a donated collection of thousands of books, and enormous chandeliers made from beer bottles. Oddly, it works:

2. It has grungy bits. I went on a walk around the neighbourhood of Zürich West, a former industrial area which nowadays is becoming a hip entertainment zone. In between those eras it was a shady, off-the-grid nightlife ‘hood, with illegal nightclubs that operated as late as (gasp) after midnight in the days when Zürich was tucked up in bed at an early hour. There’s still a dash of this early grunge along Geroldstrasse, with its bars and clubs.

3. There’s English everywhere. As you can see from these photos taken at the annual Street Food Festival, there’s a lot of English language used in commercial signage. This doesn’t seem to bother the Swiss as much as it does the French. Presumably if you already live in a nation of four official languages, letting a fifth one slide in is not a problem:

4. The Guilds are alive. In medieval times, every resident of Zürich had to belong to a guild. These specialised societies are still a big visual presence in the Old Town, via their individual headquarters decorated with distinctive emblems. This one, believe it our not, denoted wine and food merchants:

5. There’s a freeway that goes nowhere. Right behind my hotel was this view of a freeway over the Sihl River... which just stops. I was curious about it until I noticed this poster on a nearby fence one day:

6. Stories for free! On my last few hours in Zürich, I noticed this curious machine inside a waiting room at the main train station. Press a button, and it dispenses a short story for free, in a choice of languages. Any city that provides fiction to those in need of diversion is my kind of town.

Saturday 25 May 2019

Zermatt & Interlaken: A Tale of Two Peaks

On this trip I’m being hosted by Switzerland Tourism, and travelling via the excellent Swiss Travel Pass.

On any brief trip to a destination you’re rolling dice with the weather gods. There’s always a chance you’ll be there on a day when it’s raining, or snowed in, or in some other way not ideal.

I was playing that game earlier this week in Switzerland. Having arrived in Zermatt via the excellent Glacier Express train from St Moritz, I was due to take the local cog railway up to the Gornergrat, a peak above the town which would give me a view of the fabled Matterhorn.

But it was, as you can see, snowing.

I didn’t mind. I hadn’t seen snow in any quantity since 2006, when I did a research job for Lonely Planet in the depths of winter in Poland. 

It was charming to see it again under controlled circumstances, and in any case I was quite interested in the cog railway - in the photo above you can see the central cogs, by which the train is able to haul itself up over steeper inclines than would normally be possible.

Climbing up from Zermatt, we passed green slopes tinged with the remnant snow of winter, then hauled up further to properly snowy slopes and finally the Gornergrat station itself:

At 3089 metres above sea level, that’s the highest I’ve even been, so I was impressed. As I also was with the hotel and cafe complex at the summit. A few hours earlier I’d got up at 5am to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones, so to my bleary eyes this building somewhat resembled Winterfell after Winter had arrived:

And I did get to see the Matterhorn, sort of, in the form of a chocolate sculpture which had as many grams as the mountain has metres of altitude. Make of that what you will:

A few days later I was in Interlaken, another busy tourist town. The weather had cleared somewhat by now, so I took the funicular railway to Harder Kulm, a peak above the town at 1322 metres altitude.

It was still fairly cloudy but much warmer, and there were hints of mountain peaks here and there around us. Also the cafe above Harder Kulm is a lovely old timber building, with a striking observation platform that projects out from the mountainside:

At the end of the day I took to a cruise along the waters of the Thunersee, one of the lakes which flank the town, thus proving that you don’t have to go high to enjoy Switzerland’s consistently beautiful scenery:

And everywhere you go in Switzerland there is excellent chocolate (this lot was snapped at the Funky Chocolate Club in Interlaken):

Never underestimate the power of Swiss chocolate to make up for unwanted changes in the weather.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Wunderbar Wiesbaden

On this trip I’m being hosted by the German National Tourist Office.

I’ve just spent three days attending the travel trade conference GTM in Wiesbaden, the capital of Gemany’s Hessen state (from where we get the word hessian - its soldiers had uniforms made from that cloth).

To be honest, I’d never heard of Wiesbaden before. Which seemed surprising once I saw the place, as in the 19th and early 20th centuries it had been a famous playground for the rich, attracting visitors from all over Europe to its casino and thermal springs.

In World War II the north end of the city was struck by bombs, resulting in an unsympathetic postwar redevelopment in the area that was once the poshest zone near the hot springs and the lavish Kaiser Friedrich thermal baths. At the same time, a big American army base was established outside town. Wiesbaden never recovered that “playground of royalty” vibe, but it retains a wealth of beautiful buildings from that era and a certain genteel, relaxed air.

One of the highlights is the Kurhaus - literally “Cure House”, though its treatments came in the form of entertainment and gambling. As well as hosting events, it’s still home to the city’s casino - with some colleagues I had a peek inside in the morning, before the tables started operating:

Another highlight near the Kurhaus is the State Theatre, with an impressive neo-baroque facade and a statue of Schiller out the front. Not sure who the grumpy woman below him is meant to be. Perhaps a disgruntled fan who was hoping to meet his mate Goethe instead (whose statue is down the road at the city museum). 

Another classic building I was happy to visit was the Kaiser Friedrich Therme, the bathhouse in which people have been soaking since 1913. I’ve written before about the marvellous German bathhouse tradition - all naked, all together, and often within impressive old architecture. The Kaiser Friedrich baths fit the pattern, being centred on a central pool with a high ceiling and intricate decoration.

It’s not possible to show you photos of the interior, for obvious reasons, but here’s a shot of the entrance hall which gives you some idea of the decor:

At the northern end of the city centre, which was laid out in a pentagonal shape, is the Kochbrunnen spring, once a point of pilgrimage for Wiesbaden’s visitors. Such mineral-laden hot springs were once thought to provide cures to a range of ailments, so people were keen to “take the waters”.

In the square is this rather bizarre object, an openly gushing outlet of the spring which deposits minerals over time into this enormous formation. Every so often it’s cleared away. In Roman times the resulting dried residue was prized as a hair dye.

A few metres away is a small structure housing a more conventional outlet, a series of spigots flowing into a bowl. To mark my final evening in Wiesbaden, I had a taste.

Did I like it? Watch the video and see:

Friday 10 May 2019

Art of Düsseldorf

On this trip I’m being hosted by the German National Tourist Office and Düsseldorf Tourism.

I had a few days to explore western Germany before attending this year’s Germany Travel Mart, a big travel trade event being held in Wiesbaden. So I looked over the map, picked out towns and cities scattered around Frankfurt, and decided on a visit to Düsseldorf.

One of the things that attracted me to the big D is its contemporary art scene. Heavily bombed in World War II, the city has its historic treasures but it’s also a very modern place architecturally and artistically. Checking out its art scene seemed a good fit.

I started on my first partly-jetlagged day with K21, a big contemporary art gallery within a grand 19th century building which was once the parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state Düsseldorf sits within. Its main exhibit is this installation by Tomás Saraceno, called In Orbit:


Inspired by the tensile strength of spider’s webs, it’s a network of steel cables and spheres which visitors can enter and clamber around.

In the floors below are a number of other exhibits, all contemporary and often challenging. Here are a few works that caught my eye:

In the afternoon I visited a second gallery of a smaller and more unusual nature. Called Kunst Im Tunnel (KIT), it’s a big spare exhibition space within what was once a maintenance tunnel used in the construction of an underground freeway. Cleaned up, it’s become a boutique institution which shows several exhibitions a year.

The large empty concrete walls provide a good place to hang art, and the simple bare-bones chamber lends concentration to those viewing it. Here are a few works that stood out for me:

The one with the scaffold, See You Around, is by local artist Arisa Purkpong, and I found it fascinating to look at, with its seemingly incomplete collection of memories from travel and a life.

There’s more art to see around Düsseldorf over the next few days. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this curious bollard that stands across the street from my hotel, the funky Me And All:

Friday 3 May 2019

The Parliamentary Cats of Ottawa, Canada

For many years a cat sanctuary was located within the grounds of Canada's national Parliament in Ottawa, until being closed in 2013. I was lucky enough to visit in in 2010 courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission. 

To mark a marvellous lost institution, here's my story, which ran in an Australian newspaper but never made it online...

A cat may look at a king, as the old proverb goes. Presumably that also applies to queens, even a statue of a queen of the most far-flung empire the world has ever known.

I’m standing in the grounds of Canada’s Parliament in the capital Ottawa, watching a cat who’s looking at a statue of Queen Victoria which is located to the west of the main Parliament building.

It’s an impressive statue, with the Queen Empress on a plinth, being handed a victory garland while a lion lurks below her.

The cat, however, is unimpressed with this display of imperial grandeur, and wanders off. I follow it to one of Ottawa’s great curios, the Cat Sanctuary tucked among the nearby trees and bushes.

There are now a number of felines coming and going around me, passing between the bars of a fence which surrounds their home.

Leaning across the railings, I can see a long, low wooden structure shaped like a miniature house, with a pitched roof and a timber deck.

Mind you, cats aren’t the only visitors here; as I watch, a cheeky black squirrel darts up onto the deck and starts eating from one of the bowls of dry food, heedless of claw-related peril.

It’s all charmingly amateur in appearance, a pleasing contrast to the austere and ornate parliamentary buildings. I discover later that it’s no coincidence that the cats set up home here; until the 1950s the Parliament kept a group of cats in residence to combat rodents within the buildings.

Later, groundskeepers fed felines within the sprawling grounds, and one keeper, René Chartrand, constructed shelters for them.

The cats are still cared for by volunteers, and to its credit the Parliament has adopted the sanctuary, citing it on its website as “a symbol of compassion, one of the important elements of Canadian society.”

Well, good for them. And so I turn from my moggie companions to explore the Parliament itself.

My first impression is that the long central building with a clock tower bears a passing resemblance to the Houses of Parliament in London; though this Parliament dates only to 1916, replacing a predecessor which was gutted by fire.

I pass through a door which is a riot of carved stone depicting a rampant lion and unicorn, then through security to join a free tour along with assorted tourists and a group of Ukrainian interns.

As we pass through its halls, I’m reminded of the baronial castle style which seems such a feature of Ottawa’s older buildings.

Solid but lavishly decorated stone walls and corridors lead to a room with an intricately decorated glass ceiling bearing symbols of Canada’s founding cultures and, less excitingly, its first government departments.

Then we reach the impressively decorated chambers of Parliament’s two houses. Behind these is the only survivor of the 1916 fire, the 1876 library annexe. It’s magnificent, a timber-panelled gem which is as much a historical keepsake as a place of research.

As I exit and make my way east to the Rideau Canal, an attractive waterway which was originally conceived as a military supply route should the United States invade Canada, I ponder on the parallels between Canada and Australia’s imperial past. And on cats, who recognise no empires.