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Back to the Old World.  

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

It was a long flight from New York City to Europe, via Reykjavik, with Icelandic Air. This was the last few weeks of our adventure and it was a packed itinerary, with Switzerland, Malta and Germany on the agenda.

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Switzerland.

Jet-lagged from the Trans Atlantic flight we stretched our legs with a walking tour around the old part of Zurich. We wandered along the Limmat River and down to the Zurich Lake, through the narrow streets lined with cafes, restaurants and trendy boutiques.

The next morning we had another stroll around the old city centre. Our first stop was the train station to sort out our tickets for the next few days.

We then caught an afternoon train to Schaffhausen, where we were met by Heinz and taken down to the Rhine Falls, or Rheinfall. These are the largest plain water falls in Europe and were formed in the last ice age, somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 years ago.

In the late afternoon we were joined by Mieke and she guided us around beautiful old Schaffhausen. The city has a long history, being first named as Villa Scafhusen in 1045. We visited the Allerheiligen Convent which was constructed between 1049 and 1064. Mieke insisted that we then make a brief stop at the local gaol, the venue of Thea’s famous indiscretion some 43 years earlier.

That evening we had a very pleasant meal of raclette, wine and conversation with Heinz and Mieke.

The next day we caught the train to Bern where we met up with Denis and Martine. The intention had been for the six of us to spend the weekend walking in the Bernese Oberland. Unfortunately the weather forecast was for storms, so we opted to spend a day in Bern and then drive back to Arnex and stay at Châteaux Barclay.

After a stroll around the main areas of Bern we caught the bus to the Paul Klee Centre. Klee is one of Bern’s favourite sons and the museum houses about 40% of his oeuvre. Completed in 2005 it was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano and features a wave formation roof line.

The current show was a joint exhibition, featuring the works Paul Klee (1897-1940) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).  Both these men are considered to be the ‘fathers’ of Classical Modernism. As the curators notes said: “ …their friendship was one of the most fascinating of the twentieth century. Their relationship was shaped by mutual inspiration and support, but also by rivalry and competition.”

After an educational and entertaining few hours we then drove to Arnex, where we spent a very pleasant few days in this delightful Swiss/French village.

We had lunch at a restaurant on Le Chasseron, a peak in the Jura Mountains. It overlooked the Swiss Alps on one side and Sainte-Croix on the other.

Heinz and Mieke returned to Schaffhausen and we spent our last day with Martine’s extended family, at a Morel family picnic.

Denis then drove us to Yverdon, where we caught the train to Zurich.

Our next destination was Malta.

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Malta.

Just 38 years after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the Knights of Saint John were putting down their roots in Malta.

The Knights of Saint John or Knights Hospitaller or Knights of Malta as they are variously known, are so important that the call sign for Air Malta is KM or Knights of Malta.

Currently Malta is a country under renovation. Everywhere you travel there are construction cranes and works in progress.

Huge scale building projects are being carried out on the Island of Malta and to a lesser degree on the smaller island of Gozo. It most cases this work is being 85% funded by the European Union.

On our first night in Malta we went to the nearest restaurant, Kalkara Regatta, it was right on the marina and only 100 meters from our guest house.

We sat outside and enjoyed the fireworks display that went on for nearly two hours.

It was part of a celebration to commemorate the end of the Great Siege of Malta. In 1565 the Ottoman Empire tried to invade Malta but were held off by the Knights Hospitaller, 2,000 soldiers and 400 Maltese citizens.

There are a number of peninsulas that go to make up the greater city area and each one has a self contained township.

We were staying on Kalkara which means ‘lime’ in Latin. In fact the motto for Kalkara is ‘A Calce Nomen’ or Lime is my name. Kalkara is only two peninsulas away from Valetta, and offers relatively easy access to the capital.

Malta has been inhabited since 5,200 BC and in prehistoric times was once part of a land bridge that joined Africa and Europe.

Malta is bi-lingual.

English is very common, with the local language, Malti, being a real mixture of Italian, Arabic and English. This is understandable considering Malta’s close proximity to Sicily and North Africa.

It’s a weird accent and hard to place exactly what it’s origins are. The locals gesticulate and shout like Italians. Yet there is a seriousness that is more Slavic than Arabic.

The English influence manifests itself in the Zebra Crossings, red telephone and letter boxes and the fact that they drive on the left.

However the Maltese drive like Italians, not Brits.

There is a very old joke that goes something like, “How do you make a Maltese cross? Answer: “You poke him in the eye.” The Maltese Cross is so rooted in history that it’s found everywhere. Apart from the national flag, which uses a George Cross.

Due to its strategic position in the Southern Mediterranean, Malta has been subjected to more than one siege. From 1940 to 1942 the Axis forces, of Italy and Germany, blockaded Malta’s supply lines. They were determined to either bomb or starve the population into submission.

The WWII Siege Memorial commemorates the award of the George Cross to Malta, hence its proud position on the flag.

I had to work most of the day, so it was a late start to go sight seeing. At about 4pm we took the bus into Valletta. If took half an hour to wind our way around the three peninsulas. I am sure the water taxi would be faster as it’s only about 1 kilometre, as the crow flies.

In the evening the fire works were exploding again, and for a second night running we got a glimpse from our table. This was much to Thea’s annoyance, as she is a pyromaniac and anything that has flashes of fire, smoke and goes bang is a must see.

She would have rather been in the thick of it.

There must be at least 365 Saint’s Days or days of commemorations celebrated in Malta, as there was festivities, with flags, fireworks and festivals every day we were in the country.

The 16th Century city wall of Valletta was built, in the local honey-coloured limestone, by the Knights of St John. Recently the entrance and the square, that’s just inside the wall, have been dramatically redeveloped by Renzo Piano, using the same materials. This innovative Italian architect is also responsible for the London Shard, a new city landmark and the Paul Klee Centre that we had visited just a few days earlier in Bern.

Renzo is certainly getting some work.

After another day working we headed to Birgu. This is one of the other peninsula towns that’s adjacent to Kalkara. It had rained most of the day, so the time spent in front of the computer had kept us from getting soaked.

Day three and still working. This time we walked to Birgu and got the water Taxi to Valletta. It was a much faster and more pleasant trip.

It was late in the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky. All of Valletta and the surrounding towns are built from the same limestone as the walls, so come sunset they glow.

Valletta gets its name from Fra’ Jean Parisot de la Vallette (1495-1568) who was famous for his gallant role in the Great Siege of 1565 and the building of Valletta.

The peninsulas are serviced by a good bus service, which we had previously used, unfortunately it runs infrequently after 8pm.

We had to wait for an hour to get the last bus back to Kalkara.

As usual the taxis were being parasites and wanted €30 for the twenty minute ride.

We waited for the bus.

After four days the work was finished so we hired a car. The tiny black Peugeot 107, looked very smart but couldn’t pull the skin of a rice pudding.

Our first stop was Mdina, a beautiful walled medieval city. From antiquity until 1530 it was the original capital of Malta, it was then moved to Birgu and finally to Valletta.

One of our first stops was St. Paul’s Cathedral, built between 1697 and 1702. Here, under the intricate marble inlayed floor, we found the tombs of many Maltese luminaries, including some Mifsuds. We have some good friends in Australia with the same name, we later discovered that they have a connection to the Mifsuds of Malta.

Just over the road from the church is the Mdina Cathedral Museum. This compact museum contains Christian and Pre-Christian artifacts, including paintings, ceramics, pottery, coins and silverware.

The coin collection started with the Carthaginians, Phoenicians and Greeks. It then went through the rise an fall of the Roman Empire to the Byzantium, Arab, Norman, Spanish and French periods of Maltese history. The collection highlighted the churches power during the Maltese Middle Ages, culminating with the British period. It ended with a contemporary Maltese commemorative collection.

It was a who’s who of Maltese conquerors.

There was also an excellent collection of woodcuts and copper plates by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) the German engraver. Dürer is one of my favourite artists of the German Renaissance, so this was a real find.

We then went for a drive down to the coastline south west of Mdina around Dingli. This is the highest point in Malta and still only 13km from Valletta – Malta isn’t very big.

Dominating the Dingli Cliffs is the MATS Area Radar Station. Constructed in 1939 it was the first radar facility to be build outside of the UK. It was part of an early warning system designed to defend Malta during the Second World War.

Not far up the coast is the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. The chapel was originally built in the 13th, century, restored in 1646 and restored yet again in 2007. This area is on the tourist route, so there were busloads of travellers trying to get a snap of the famous chapel.

Dingli is less than 400km from the coast of Libya, yet there appears to be very few refugees coming from North Africa. In fact only 105 of the estimated 1 million that have arrived Europe in 2015, passed through the islands of Malta.

Having started with fireworks on Monday night, we ended the week with a live music performance, titled, Music Under the Stars.

The show was put on by the local Kalkara Council and staged in front of Saint Joseph’s Church, which was just 100 meters from our hotel.

We ate at the Supernova Heights Restaurant, which is next to the church, and had front row seats.

It was dinner and a show, for the price of a dinner.

The first band was the Copenhagen Brass Ensemble.

They played a collection of popular tunes which included the theme song to the Bond movie, Skyfall.

Then the local folk dancers took over. They were all in traditional costumes which looked surprisingly Swiss. Strange considering we were in the middle of the Mediterranean and very close to North Africa. But not surprising when you see how the Italians have influenced Malta and the fact that Italy does go as far north as the Alps.

Then there was a marching band from Estonia, again playing many popular melodies. The band master was a real character and produced a range of of miniature instruments to accompany each song.

My favourite was his use of a train whistle in ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’

The final band of the evening were Maltese. They were young and very serious – as was their music.

They did play a medley of American Western themes followed by another one of ABBA songs, including Dancing Queen, Mama Mia and Fernando. This brightened up their performance considerably.

All-in-all it was a very cosmopolitan night.

We had heard about the Sunday market at Marsaxlokk and decided to drive there to see what it was all about.

The market consisted of fresh fish, fruit, veg and an over abundance of souvenirs.

Marsaxlokk is a fishing village and port in the south eastern part of the Island of Malta. It was here during the 9th Century BC that the Phoenicians first landed and set up a trading post. It was also the main anchorage point for the Ottomans during the Great Siege of Malta.

Within the Marsaxlokk Harbour are many brightly coloured traditional fishing boats or Luzzi.  Each one has a pair of eyes painted on the bow. The eyes are believed to date back to Phoenician times and are said to protect the fishermen at sea.

From Marsaxlokk we drove to Saint Thomas Tower, via IL Kalanka Beach. There was no beach just a rocky outcrop, very reminiscent of the ‘beaches’ we saw in Croatia.

Not far from Saint Thomas was an abandoned hotel, with some rather stunning graffiti painted on the crumbling walls. The Jerma Palace Hotel closed in March 2007 and the area is now derelict. The hotel owners have walked away from the site and there is now an ongoing argument about who is responsible for cleaning it up.

In much better condition that the hotel, is Saint Thomas Tower. Built in 1614, this is the largest watchtower in Malta. The tower was built in response to the Raid of Žejtun, when the Ottomans landed in Saint Thomas Bay.

This was the last attempt by the Ottomans to conquer Malta.

We then drove back to Valletta, this time entering from the western side through Silema. It was here, looking across Marsamxett Harbour, that we got some great views of Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

We enjoyed the view over a cooling lemonade, at the Hotel Fortina, before heading back to our hotel in Kalkara.

Transport costs in Malta are erratic, to say the least.

The bus from Kalkara to Valletta is €2.00pp, while the water taxi from Birgu, which is closer to Valletta, is €2.50pp. A taxi wants the extortionate price of €30.00 and the most reliable trip, by ferry, only asks 50 cents.

On our third day with the Peugeot we drove to the top of Malta Island and took the car ferry to Gozo.

Gozo is the second largest island in the Maltese Archipelago, next to the island of Malta. It is far more rural and less developed. Gone were the ever present construction cranes, high density housing and traffic.

One of the main historical attractions on Gozo are the Ggantija Temples. This Neolithic site is believed to be over 5,000 years old and amongst the world’s oldest free-standing religious structures. They are in fact older than the pyramids of Egypt. Ggantija means giant in Malti, as the temples were believed to have been built by giants. They were made a UNESCO site in 1980.

In 1928 Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) visited the site. Which is ironic, as here was a pioneer of modern architecture visiting one of the world’s most ancient structures.

After three days with the car we only drove 204km, over two islands and got into fourth gear once, – the Peugeot had five.

As I have mentioned earlier, Malta is very small.

On our last day we went walking in Valletta.

The first stop was Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. Built by the Knights of Malta between 1573 and 1578 it is regarded as one of the world’s finest examples of Baroque architecture.

The facade was being restored so their was little to see except scaffolding.

The interior is very ornate, with crypts containing elaborate frescos as well as the remains of many of the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta.

Much of the artwork was done by the Calabrian artist and Knight, Mattia Preti (1613-1699). Preti was a follower of Caravaggio, which is evident in the late Baroque style of his work.

This cathedral is as much about the Knights of Saint John as it is about Catholicism in Malta.

The cathedral’s architect, Geralomo Cassar (1520-1592) would be horrified to see that these days most visitors enter the cathedral from the side. The front door offers a grand view and shows off the architecture to its best advantage. Now with many churches charging for entry, the side door is the easiest place to put the ticket office.

Another very interesting church was the Basilica of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The architect of the original church was also Geralomo Cassar. It was rebuilt, adding the oval dome, after it was bombed during WWII.

There is a very Italian feel to most of the architecture in Valletta, such as Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral and the Grandmaster’s Palace. Yet there is also a touch of England, like the statue of Queen Victoria that’s sits outside the Valletta Library.

There is so much history in Valletta, it’s little wonder that the entire city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

On our last morning we wandered over to Birgu again, to kill a few hours before catching our flight to Berlin. Most of our time was spent in the the Inquisitor’s Palace, which was originally built in 1530 as a law court for the Order of St John.

In 1574, following the establishment of the Roman Inquisition, the palace became the residence of the inquisitor.

Today it houses the National Museum of Ethnography, focussing on the inquisition and its impact on Maltese history.

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Berlin.

Hayden and Andrea have now moved from Barcelona to Berlin and their new apartment was going to be our base for our final days in Europe. They are living in the old eastern sector and very close to Alexanderplatz. This is a newly developed part of the city with many restaurants, bars and apartments popping up to cater for the expanding population.

This area of Berlin is home to many of the tech companies that have moved to Northern Germany.

English seems to be the default language.

Hayden had taken a couple of days off to show us around the city and our first stop was Bernauer Straße. This street was originally in the French sector of West Berlin and all the buildings on the eastern side of the street, in the eastern sector, were emptied and their windows and doors bricked up. When the wall was constructed in 1961 they were pulled down.*

There is now a memorial and a walk with displays, describing the wall and its history. This is the only remaining section of the wall and a big tourist attraction for visitors and locals.

We then did a walk around some more of the Berlin sites like the Cathedral, DDR Museum, Neue Wache or new Guardhouse, Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

On Saturday we all went down to Kurfüstendamm which was in West Berlin, when the wall was up.

We had been there in 2005 and noticed a big change. The area had returned to its previous upmarket style and was again full of designer boutiques and luxury car showrooms.

Even the hotel we had stayed in ten years ago was now boasting four stars – it was only three when we were there.

On Sunday we all went to Wedding for lunch in a traditional German beer garden. The weather had turned cold so the coats were pulled out of the bags.

Our long northern summer was finally over.

While Hayden and Andrea were at work on Monday we walked down to Checkpoint Charlie at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße. We were last there in 1972, when the wall still divided the city and the eastern sector was a barren wasteland of bombed out buildings and vast open spaces.

In 72’ the streets were empty and so were the supermarkets shelves.

Now it’s an outdoor museum complete with actors, dressed in WWII uniforms, posing for the tourists. There are also many restaurants, apartment buildings and well-to-do shops in the area.

There’s no shortage of wealth there.

On our last day we took the train to Potsdam, which is about 24km from Berlin. Until 1918 Potsdam was the home of the Prussian kings and the German Kaiser.

Much of the city is designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has only been accessible since the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1990.

We caught the bus from Potsdam Station to Sanssouci Palace.

This was built between 1745 and 1747 as the Summer residence of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. The literal translation of Sanssouci is ‘No Worries’. Frederick II wanted a place that was an escape from life in the Berlin Court.

Frederick the Great was a lover, not a fighter like his father, and the Sanssouci Palace reflects this. He was interested in art, music, poetry and a good time.

The building’s Rococo style certainly suited the King’s romantic tendencies.

A popular and regular visitor to the palace was the French philosopher Voltaire. Surprisingly Frederick was such a Francophile that he spoke better French than German.

While we were waiting to tour Sanssouci Palace we did a quick trip around the Renaissance inspired Orangery Palace. Built by Friedrich Wilhelm IV between 1851 and 1864, it was designed to be part of a much larger complex, but politics and lack of funds got in the way.

One of the grandest yet strangest rooms was Raphael Hall, containing over fifty copies of famous Renaissance works. According to our guide this was a way of bringing these masterpieces to the public. Albeit a very exclusive public that were guests of the King.

In this room the art had a religious theme, in keeping with the king’s conservative Christian beliefs.

For the rest of the afternoon we wandered around the Sanssouci Gardens.

We did stumble across the Chinese House, which was built between 1755 and 1764. It was built in the Chinoiserie Style, a mixture of ornamental Rococo elements and Chinese architecture.

From what little we saw, Potsdam was an interesting place, further exploration is certainly warranted.

But that will have to wait for another trip.

That evening we had dinner Pasternak, a Russian-Jewish fusion restaurant, just near Hayden and Andrea’s apartment. It was our 42nd wedding anniversary and great to be able to share it with some of the family, especially now that they are spread across the northern hemisphere.

It was a fitting end to our stay in Berlin. We had seen so much of the former Eastern Sector, that the Russian influenced cuisine seemed rather appropriate.

The next day we were on the flight back to Australia – our thirteen month adventure was at an end.

* I have just started to read Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. It will be interesting to explore more of this dark period of Berlin’s past.

Back to Melbourne for ‘The Event’

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

The Sunday wedding cake with Sylvania koalas

While we were in Belize our son Evan informed us that he and Stephanie were going to get married.

While this was a surprise it wasn’t altogether a shock.

They wondered if we could come home for ‘The Event’, as it became known.

We immediately booked a flight from LA to Melbourne.

This was a whirlwind visit, in more ways than one.

It turned out to be not just one event but two. The actual wedding ceremony on Tuesday night, followed by a party the following Saturday night.

There were only twelve of us for the ceremony, plus the civil celebrant, Jenny Bahramis, a long time family friend.

The party on Saturday was at the Hares and Hyenas in Brunswick.

This gay and lesbian bookstore also doubles as a venue and was an ideal location for the second event.

Both of these events were fun, creative and unique, a lot like Ev and Steph.

The main events were dispersed with a number of smaller events.

All in all it was a very hectic time and we fell back onto the plane, ten days later, completely exhausted but very happy – especially for Evan and Stephanie.

Costa Rica – pura vida.

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

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It’s only 250km from David, in Panama, to San José, in Costa Rica.

Our aircraft was a twin engined prop that seemed to feel the bumps every centimeter of the way.

The name of our hotel is about the worst play on words that I have ever encountered.

The ‘Sleep Inn’, apart from its atrocious name, isn’t such a bad pub. It’s situated in the heart of San José and very close to the walking street of Avenida Central.

Costa Rica is in the tropics and the rainy season is due to start, so every afternoon it rains.

Stupidly we forgot to take our umbrellas when we first went out walking.

We should have known better.

Europeans, in the form of Christopher Columbus, reached Costa Rica in 1502. In 1524, after, the indigenous people were conquered, Costa Rica was incorporated into the province of New Spain.

It remained under Spanish influence for the next 300 years.

With a total population of about 4.5 million, there are about 60,000 indigenous people in Costa Rica today. Antonio Saldaña, the last indigenous leader with any political authority, was assassinated in 1910.

It’s a prosperous country, by Central American standards, and consistently performs well in the United Nations Human Development Index.

This isn’t evident as you walk around San José as there seemed to be a lot of street people in the area near to our hotel. As over 25% of the population live in the capital, it’s probably to be expected.

The next day we went out walking around San José, this time with our umbrellas.

There is an abundance of street sculpture in the city and we encountered some of it on our walk.

The first, and most famous, is the Fat Lady sculpture ‘La Chola’ by Costa Rican artist Manuel Vargas, closely followed by Fernando Calvo’s ‘Farmers’

The Main Post office was an impressive building from the outside, with a very utilitarian interior.

The Catedral Metropolitana was originally built in 1802 but was replaced in 1871, after an earthquake, with a design by Eusebio Rodríguez. The design of the new church combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical and Baroque styles.

Inside the National Theatre or Teatro Nacional is the Alma du Café where we tried typical Costa Rican filtered coffee. You choose which blend you would like, from seven varieties, then it is served at the table with an individual filter for each cup.

There was a free tour of the Teatro Nacional which gave us a good insight into this slice of Europe in the heart of San José.

Architecturally it’s Neoclassical, part French, part Italian with touches of Masonic symbolism in the details.

Construction started in 1891, and it was opened in 1897. The first performance was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

The building is used as a venue for state events. The sloping floor can be leveled, using winches, so important dinners and balls can be held.

Receptions for US presidents JFK and Barak Obama have been held in the Teatro Nacional.

While we were waiting for the tour of the theatre we did some people and pigeon watching in Plaza de la Cultura.

This social centre of San José is where people meet, children play and others just ‘hang out’

The Museos del Banco Central is a bunker style building under the Plaza de la Cultura. Built in the 1970s, it’s shaped like an inverted triangle, with three underground levels.

There in an excellent Anthropological exhibition, tracing the history and culture of the pre-Hispanic indigenous peoples of Costa Rica, from 500 BC to 1,500 AD. This is largely done through their highly developed craft of gold smithing.

There was also a small exhibition of local contemporary art.

Costa Rica’s main source of income isn’t coffee or bananas but Eco Tourism. They pride themselves on their sustainability in many areas, but it’s their nature sanctuaries and reserves that are their bread and butter.

The expression “pura vida” or pure life is widely used by the Ticos, or Costa Ricans, as they are very proud of their political freedom, economy and environmental credentials.

They have the largest number of foreign tourists of any Central American country.

They also have gambling.

Side by side with the eco sites are the casinos. This is the seedier side of San José and there were a number around our hotel. In fact the Sleep Inn had its own casino right next door.

We booked what was called a Combo Tour. This was a day tour to three locations, the Doka Coffee Plantation, Poás Volcano and the Lapaz Waterfall Gardens.

Max was our guide and he kept us on a very short leash.

The 112 year old Doka Coffee Plantation is 10,000 acres in size and had a turnover of $40,000,00. A far cry from the tiny Finca Dos Jefes Finca, in Boquete, Panama, that had 7 acres and needed the coffee tours to make money.

Doka, surprisingly, wasn’t organic, they were about making money and everything was on a grand scale.

The coffee at Dos Jefes Finca was much better.

The drive to the Poás Volcano was through a very fertile region with strawberry farms lining the roadside.

We walked to the volcano and were very lucky, as the clouds cleared and we could easily see the caldera and the lake inside the crater. There were clouds of steam erupting from the centre.

Poás is an active volcano that is 2,708 meters high and has erupted 39 times since 1828. It’s last major eruption was in 2009 when it was near the epicenter of a 6.1 magnitude earthquake that killed at least forty people.

We then walked for a further twenty minutes to Lake Botos which fills an inactive crater that last erupted in 7500 BC.

The entire area is surrounded by a cloud forest located within the Poás Volcano National Park.

Our last stop was the Lapaz Waterfall Gardens. This has over 28.327 Hectares of rain and cloud forests, waterfalls and wildlife. There are humming birds, butterflies, reptiles, monkeys and jungle cats.

It’s a bit Disney World but very well done and impeccably maintained.

Apparently all the birds in the park come from refuges, where they were rescued from poachers or donated by ‘collectors’

Manuel Antonio.

We took the shuttle bus from San José to Manuel Antonio.

Part way through our drive we stopped on a bridge overlooking the Rio Grande de Tácoles. There, sunning themselves on the muddy bank, were a group of rather large alligators.

This portion of our Costa Rican stay was as much about some R&R as it was about sightseeing.

So after finding an ATM, which involved a bus ride back to Quepos (there were none in Manuel Antonio) we had a walk on the local beach.

Then we had a drink at one of the beachside bars.

As we were sipping our beverage there was a large bang on the roof. Another dint in the corrugated iron, as a coconut plummeted from a nearby palm.

Australians, especially those who live near the beach, don’t really understand how lucky they are. This was a dark sand beach that in places almost turned to mud. The Pacific surf was pounding and the water was tepid but everyone, including us, had dirty feet. This beach is regarded as one of the gems of the Costa Rican Pacific coast.

Very few beaches that we have visited have fine, golden sand.

We were staying at the aptly named Jungle Beach Hotel, which was sitting in the jungle and overlooking the beach.

It’s claim to fame are the monkeys that apparently visit the hotel at breakfast time and in the evening.

In our first 24 hours the only fury animal we sited was the hotel’s pet rabbit.

There were huge swells during our stay, caused by storms off the New Zealand coast. The locals must have been tearing their hair out, as the beach was virtually closed, in fact it disappeared for a lot of the day.

Surf board, sun lounge and umbrella rentals were at a standstill.

This must have been doubly disappointing as we were there on a long weekend holiday and the place was packed.

Only the seasoned surfers were out on the breaks as the waves were three to four meters high.

I saw at least one broken board.

We booked a guided tour to the Manuel Antonio National Park.

Our hotel offered a tour that we thought was expensive – so we shopped around. We soon discovered that all the tours are the same price, there are just a lot of agents selling them.

It was suggested in Lonely Planet that seeing the park with a guide guarantees you will see things.

They were right.

Our guide, Marvin, would suddenly stop, set up his telescope and say: “There’s a Two Toed Sloth up there” And sure enough, there it was. As hard as I could try, I could not see it until it was pointed out to me.

He did the same thing with snakes, lizards, birds, monkeys and even spiders.

He was continually seeing things we couldn’t. I know it was his job but he was very good at it.

He was continually telling us stories about the wildlife. One we all liked related to the ‘pooping’ habits of sloths. Apparently they only come down from the trees once a week to poo. They can pass up to a third of their body weight and have to dislocate their coccyx in order to do it.

This obviously makes them very vulnerable to predators.

All the guides had high powered telescopes to view the birds, animals and insects in close-up.

They could be very cleverly used with a smart phone. All they did was push the lens of the phone up against the eye piece of the telescope and then zoom in on the image to get rid of the edges of the eye piece.

The telescope was equivalent to about a 500-600mm telephoto lens.

The results were remarkably good.

So much for all my expensive camera gear.

The Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest in Costa Rica, only 1983 hectares, but one of the most popular.

The popularity not only comes from the flora and fauna, but the beaches that are in and near the park. It’s also a marine reserve with 55,000 hectares under protection.

The nature walk with Marvin only covered about 1.5km but took three hours.

We were constantly stopping and Marvin would conjure up an animal, seemingly out of thin air.

The walk took us to the end of the promontory and from there we could wander around.

We did so for another hour or so, but could never see what Marvin saw.

It was hot and the humidity was high so we walked back to town for a cool drink.

The tide was coming in and the waves were still large – but not a big as the previous days.

One night we walked up the hill to the restaurant El Avion.

The main claim to fame of El Avion is that the bar has been built inside a 1954 Fairchild C-123.

The aircraft was reportedly purchased by the US government in the ’80s for the Nicaraguan Contras. It never made it out of its hangar and was eventually purchased by the owner of the restaurant.

As well as the unique environment, the food was rather good.

On our last night a group of Howler Monkeys passed by the hotel. We had now seen the monkey trifecta in Manuel Antonio. White Faced, Squirrel and now the Howler.

They are called Howler Monkeys because of the sound they make. It’s similar to the screech of a Formula One engine – at full revs.

Panama, more than just the canal.

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

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Our hotel in Panama City was pleasant enough but a little out of the way for our liking. It was neither in the new part nor the old part and we found that we had to do a lot of walking to get to the interesting places.

Reading the Lonely Planet we decided that the Casco Viejo, which is the old part of the city was just too dangerous – this was far from the truth.

We should have learnt from our experience staying in Raval, Barcelona. These older parts are where the best restaurants and the real soul of the city can be found.

On our first day we found ourselves gravitating to Casco Viejo, where we found a lively rooftop bar that overlooked both the old and new parts of Panama City.

A common theme in Panama was: “It’s broken”

The lift and printer in our hotel and the WiFi at a cafe at Multicentro Mall.

Even on the Hop-On-Hop-Off-Bus, sometimes the PA system worked and sometimes it didn’t.

There were two sections to the bus tour, the canal tour and then the original old city or Panamá Viejo tour. There is nothing in Panamá Viejo but ruins, as it was reduced to rubble by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.

We walked around the newest part of the city, an area full of high rise apartments, office blocks  and luxury hotels.

It was here that we discovered the Hard Rock Hotel. Now call me uneducated but I have never set foot inside a Hard Rock Cafe, let alone a Hard Rock Hotel.

The foyer was a cross between a rock venue, a casino and a pop culture museum. There were instruments, photos and wardrobe belonging to famous rock stars from the past and present.

We looked to see what the price of a room is at the Panama City Hard Rock Hotel and were shocked.

These rock aficionados must be rolling in it.

If the number of German luxury sedans are anything to go by, then Panama has more wealth than we have seen so far in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

We have also seen more people exercising and more sports stores. If another sign of wealth is self esteem, then Panama City is doing well.

On Avenue Balboa we even discovered a community art project, which was a Mural for autism awareness. When communities can spend time and money on the needs of others, then there is a quality of life beyond survival.

Panama is all about ‘The Canal’ and no visit would be complete without a canal tour.

Our trip, on the Pacific Queen, started with a traffic jam and we nearly didn’t make it.

We asked reception at the hotel how long it would take to get to Isla Flamenco, where our boat was departing from.

Fifteen minutes, was his confident reply.

It took nearly 45 minutes, with Thea texting the tour organiser telling them we were on our way.

Apparently it takes that long every day.

Coming out of Panama City we passed two bridges, the first being the Bridge of the Americas, completed in 1962 and then the Centennial Bridge which is much newer, being completed in 2004.

The canal celebrated it’s centenary in 2014. It was built by the US, starting in 1904 and completed in 1914. Before the US the French attempted to build a canal in 1881. This failed due to engineering difficulties and the high mortality rate through tropical diseases.

The canal is 48 miles in length (77.1 km) and raises the ships by 85 feet (25.9 Meters) at each side of Lake Gatun. This is an artificial lake that provides water for the locks. The sea level is the same on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides. The reason for the locks is to cope with the tidal variations.

All the locks are gravity fed, there are no pumps. It only takes a relatively short time for 26,000,000 gallons to move from one lock to another.

In the morning large vessels travel northward, from the Pacific towards the Atlantic. They cross at Lake Gatun, where vessels that are coming from the Atlantic, pass to the Pacific in the afternoon.

Currently the canal can only take Panamax Class vessels. These are just smaller than the size of the locks – 110ft (33.528 Meters) wide and 1050ft (320.04 Meters) long, and 41ft (12.4968 Meters) deep.

There is a Panama Canal extension underway that will allow Mega Ships to pass through. It is estimated that this will double the income generated by the canal. The canal charges each vessel according to their size, so these larger ships will be able to generate greater income.

We were accompanied through the locks by a number of smaller vessels. One was first owned by J P Morgan, the American financier and then later acquired by the gangster Alfonse Capone.

I wonder how many of Big Al’s ‘colleagues’ ended up overboard.

After six and a quarter hours on the Pacific Queen we docked at Gamboa, on Lake Gatum.

We were then bused back to Isla Flamenco which only took 45 minutes.

The Panama Canal is not the fastest way to cross the Continental Divide, however it’s a lot faster than sailing around Cape Horn.

And I guess that was the point.

On Saturday we took a final walk into the old city – now we couldn’t stay away.

The waterfront isn’t that attractive when the tide’s out, with tidal mud flats, partly sunken boats and garbage.

We attempted to do the walking tour around Casco Viejo, that was suggested in the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus brochure.

We did do it, but in reverse.

It was our last day and we had to get an early flight the following morning. Rather than do the walk and then eat, we did it the other way around.

We chose a restaurant that was near the end of the walk, so that’s where we started.

Casco Viejo is undergoing a major renovation. It was originally the top end of town then fell into a decline. It’s now starting to regain its former glory. Its here that the new city was established after Henry Morgan destroyed Panamá Viejo.

We met a friend from Australia who has just started a three months project in Panama. He is in the brewing industry and introduced us to La Rana Dorada. This is a Boutique Brewer who are making some rather nice beers.

Now the beauty of slow travel is that you have the time to re visit favourite spots.

La Rana Dorada definitely deserved a repeat visit.

Boquete.

We had another pleasant flight with Copa Airlines from Panama City to David, then hired a car and drove north to Boquete. This is a mountain area close to the Costa Rican border and known as the Valley of the Flowers.

The soil is rich and fertile with acres of flowers, fruit and coffee.

We had come for the coffee, as Boquete is regarded by many as the Nappa Valley of coffee and we planned to do a plantation tour.

It’s also home to a large expat community and the town has two distinctly different socioeconomic areas.

After we arrived we spent the afternoon driving around the surrounding hills. There are a number of loop roads that leave the town and then, inevitably, return.

As we were told It’s hard to get lost around Boquete.

The area has a decidedly non Panamanian feel about it. It’s more like the Swiss Alps in the tropics. The homes were large, many are timber with high pitched roofs and the pace was relaxed.

Admittedly it was Sunday when we arrived, but I had a feeling that Boquete never really built up a sweat.

Our experience at the Art Cafe on our first night was anything but inspiring.

We arrived in Boquete in late in the morning and this cafe seemed like a good place for a coffee.

The owner was a pleasant guy who showed us the menu and suggested that we return in the evening to have dinner.

Not knowing if the town, or the restaurants, were running on American or Panamanian time (Americans eat early, while Panamanians eat late) we turned up for dinner at 7pm.

Apart from one other diner, he was the only other customer than evening, the place was empty.

At 7:40 ‘mine host’ wished us good night and drove away. Immediately the staff started to pack up around us and finally, just before eight, the chef left.

We were still eating our main course, the restaurant was empty and the lights were out in the kitchen.

Then a strange thing happened, new customers started to turn up looking for a meal.

There were at least eight, many were locals and they all got turned away.

The owner, unfortunately I can’t remember his name, told us that he hoped to be able to sell the Art Cafe in a couple of years, for a good profit, and move on.

How sadly mistaken he is.

Another aspect of his business that I didn’t particularly like was that he only accepted ‘cash’ transactions. As we have seen in many places, this is a sure sign that he isn’t paying tax.

I am positive he would be the first to complain when the power went out or the roads needed repairing.

The next day we went looking to see the Cráter de Volcán Barú and then walk in the jungle.

We ended up having coffee.

The view of the volcano was constantly shrouded in heavy cloud. Then whenever we got near a walking track those clouds morphed into heavy tropical rain.

The drive was still spectacular with rich vegetation on all sides and steep, rocky escarpments rising out of the jungle.

The weather improved for our final day in Boquete.

We had booked a half day tour of a local coffee plantation. This was far less grand than the word ‘plantation’ indicates – it was more a hobby farm.

Finca Dos Jefes or The Farm With Two Bosses is only 7 acres and owned by an expat American, Rich Lipner. They are verified organic and very proud of the Arabica blend which has a tasting valuation of 91.

We were shown around the property by Gary Jackson, another American, and then given a rundown on how their coffee is grown, harvested, dried and blended. We were given an overview as to how it is tasted and what the tasters look for in a brew.

Cafés de la Luna is their brand and it has been described as having: “Undertones of dark chocolate, hints of walnuts and taints of vanilla”

It tasted like coffee to me.

If was explained to us that all coffee originally came from Ethiopia, a bit like the human race, and has spread around the world from there.

After roasting some coffee we then tasted two styles, one dark and the other a medium roast.

They were both very good.

These were served using a French Press, what we call a plunger.

Gary did also mention that espresso coffee has less caffeine than filtered or plunger coffee. This is plausible, considering the amount of coffee you have in an espresso is far smaller that in a regular coffee. Added to that is the fact that Robusta beans, used to make filtered coffee, have more caffeine than Arabica beans, which are used for an espresso.

The tour finished up with us all being offered a cold beer. Again this was good but I don’t understand why we were given a beer at a coffee tasting.

Like the Art Caffe, on our first night, Finca Dos Jefes only accepted cash and no receipt was given.

There seems to be a pattern here.

Boquete is also home to the world famous Geisha Coffee, which is the only coffee to have scored a perfect 100 from the international tasters. According to Gary, this coffee’s unique flavour comes from a combination of a perfect terroir and the jasmine bushes that were there before the Geisha Coffee trees were planted.

In the afternoon we went for a six kilometre walk to the Escondida Waterfall in the Volcano Baru National Park.

This is a beautiful rainforest area that has been unfortunately marred by the proliferation of water pipes, both steel and plastic, that remove mountain water from the waterfall and pipes it to the local farms and market gardens.

The actual waterfall was disappointing but the walk was very pleasant.

This area is also the home of the rare Quetzal, a strikingly coloured bird with red, green and gold plumage.

We thought we saw one, but we definitely did see the sign saying they were in the area.

Thus spake Zarathustra.

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

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Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, whether real or mythical, was the founder of the faith that preceded Islam in Central Asia and Iran.

He possibly lived sometime between 1000 BC and 1500 BC but no one really knows.

Zoroastrianism was the first faith to propose the concept of an invisible, omnipotent god.

It is also known as a fire worshipping faith, as the followers were asked to pray towards the direction of light.

Fire was a light that they could control, more than the sun or moon, so their temples always contained continually burning fires.

We have seen many examples of Zoroastrianism throughout our travels in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and we have heard many interesting ideas about its origins.

This faith is still practiced covertly in Iran and more openly in India.

Many Zoroastrian temples and buildings are adorned with a base-relief carving of a winged figure known as Fravashi or Guardian Spirit. He was regarded as the spirit who reached their deity Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrianism is also known as Mazdaism and as Magism from the name of their ancient priests, the Magi.

The Three Wise Men were thought to be Zoroastrian and to come from Kashan, south of Tehran.

Zoroastrianism is said to have influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

I find it amazing that all these religions appear to be at odds with each other, yet they have so much in common.

A good dose of comedy might cure the spread
of boring advertising.

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Last weekend we went to two different shows that were part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

I had forgotten just how well a comedian can hold a mirror up to society and reflect our silly side.

Good advertising can do the same thing, only with a commercial message attached.

If we laugh at a joke in an ad, and that joke is relevant to the product, then there is a far better chance that we will remember that ad and therefore the product.

One of the acts we saw was Ronny Chieng, a Malaysian comedian who was educated in Melbourne. Ronny had that wonderful ability to be both self deprecating and an astute observer of human nature.

He could poke fun at himself while making fun of his audience.

Many advertisers take themselves and their brands too seriously. This results in boring, predictable advertising that tries too hard.

More ad men and marketers should learn the art of comedy. Maybe they might produce better ads, that sell more products, without boring us senseless.

 

Ronny Chieng

Ronny Chieng

Korea, the yin and yang.
Seoul and Hwaseong Haenggung.

Monday, September 30th, 2013

The concept of yin-yang is used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world and yet interrelate to one another.

That perfectly describes Korea.

It’s therefore no wonder that the Korean flag uses yin-yang to symbolise balance within the country and its people.

Black and white, night and day, male and female, red and green, old and new.

Opposites is what South Korea is all about, especially when you consider the difference between the North and South.

Seoul is also a city of contrasts. You often see an old Korean palace, from the 17th Century, set against a backdrop of a towering steel and glass skyscraper.

It’s hard to find a rubbish bin yet the streets are free from litter.

We arrived as the Mid-Autumn Festival was in full swing in the streets around our hotel in the Insadong area. The Hotel Sunbee is well located and close to the palaces, restaurants, bars and the Metro.

On our first full day we took the ‘Hop-on-hop-off’ bus tour to get a good perspective of the city. It rained in the late afternoon so we didn’t do too much ‘hopping off’. On the two occasions that we did get off the bus we visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, first built in 1395 and then reconstructed in 1867, and Gwanghwamun Gate and stood beneath the impressive statue of King Sejong the Great, 1397-1450. At Gyeongbokgung Palace we bought a ‘Combination Ticket’ which gave us access to five sites.

The following day we visited Jongmyo Shrine, built in 1394 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We arrived just in time for the English guided tour. From there we walked along Cheonggyecheon or ‘The Stream’, an artery of life set below the madness of the city streets.

Contemporary architecture is a feature of Seoul and there is no better example than the new City Hall. This is literarily ‘New Wave’ architecture and when you see it set against the Old City Hall you can see how well the old and new complement each other.

More yin-yang.

Later that afternoon we arrived at Deokstgung, one of the Five Grand Palaces built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. This time, we were just in time, for the changing of the guard, a colorful display of  command shouting, drum pounding and band marching. The palace was a little more subdued with beautifully crafted traditional Korean architecture and and a quaint, western inspired, pavilion designed by a Russian architect at the turn of the last century.

The following morning we had a guided tour arranged and visited the Korean Folk Village at Hwaseong Haenggung and then travelled a few minutes down the road to Suwon Hwaseong Fortress.

The Korean Folk Village is as much a film set as a museum as many of the famous Korean historical dramas are shot here.

It’s also a great place to bring bus loads of Korean school kids for an outing. There were hundreds of them, all in their brightly coloured uniforms, having a wonderful time. When it came to lunchtime they all sat in neat rows and quietly ate their meal.

The Fortress was built to protect the main city and originally ran for kilometers around it, now there is only a small section remaining.

The next day we visited the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage site and also built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Unfortunately it rained again and we had to shelter under the very wide eaves of the garden buildings as we moved around. It continued raining as we moved from the garden to the palace but at least there was a bit more shelter there.

We went to find a shopping mall but instead discovered Seoul Central Railway Station built in 1927 and with many similarities to Flinders Street Station, built 73 years earlier. Inside we discovered an avant-garde typographic exhibition, ‘Typojanchi 2013’, with three floors of exhibits covering 50 years of experimental typography.

On our final morning, after a stuff up with our hotel transfer we managed to get to Yongsan Station with just a minute to spare, for our high speed train ride to Jeonju in the south west.

But even that had its upside.

A walk in the park.

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

Park Güell was built in the years 1900 to 1914 as a real estate development by Count Eusebi Güell. It was established on Muntanya Pelada (Bare Mountain) and intended to be an escape, for the well-to-do, from the smoggy atmosphere of industrial Barcelona.

The development was a total failure with only two housed being built there.

Anton Gaudí designed the park and the accompanying architecture, with its network or pedestrian footpaths, roads and viaducts.

The organic nature of Gaudí’s design is everywhere.

Gaudí was coerced, by the Count, into buying one of the two houses and lived there for 20 years. It’s now Casa Museu Gaudí and houses some of his furniture design and personal items.

Like a lot of Barcelona in the off-season, Park Güell is in a state of repair with workers, jack-hammers and High-Vis jackets everywhere.

We have visited the park before but decided it would be a good place to try out my new Sony DSC-RX100, miniature camera.

I wanted to see how versatile the new camera was, test it out under different light conditions and then compare it with my Sony a55 SLR.

We walked around Park Güell for several hours, I took 79 shots with my original SLR and 119 with its new, younger sibling.

It was a great walk in the park and I was pleasantly surprised with the snaps from the new camera as well.

Our run in with the law.

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

This has nothing to do with advertising, marketing, photography or anything else I usually blog about.

So that’s a first.

On our ill-fated trip from Antalya to Göreme, where we nearly missed the bus, we met Dilaver at the bus station.

We met him again at our convenience stop during the middle of the night. He was on a different bus but traveling in the same direction.

We thought no more about this chance encounter until he turned up at our hotel in Göreme. He had tracked us down and wanted to have us back to his house, in the next village, for dinner on Wednesday.

Unfortunately we were due to leave on the Tuesday so we politely declined.

All this was communicated with his broken English and our non existent Turkish.

Not to be put off by this he decided to show us some of the sites that were off the tourist beat.

We went racing around the Cappadocian country side in his little Russian car, up and down dirt roads and reversing along major highways.

The communication between us was elementary and this was highlighted in a most unconventional way.

We told him we had visited Gallipoli and got into a discussion about how ferocious the fighting had been there.

He then produced a small service revolver and removed two bullets from the clip and touched them together.

We both immediately realised what he was demonstrating, recalling the story we had heard about bullets colliding mid air during the heat of the Gallipoli battle.

Now Dilaver is a Turkish policeman and one of the warmest, most welcoming people we have met.

We hope that any further brushes with the law will be equally rewarding.

When I’m sixty-four.

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967, I rushed out to get the album.

I still have it.

One of the songs that intrigued me most was When I’m Sixty-Four, by Paul McCartney. I was interested in it, not for the lyrics or the music, but the idea that anyone could be that old.

Even my father wasn’t 64.

Looking back on the words, it’s easy to see that they were written in a very different time to now.

A time before Email, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

A time before iPhones, iPads and MacBooks.

Hell, even a time before Apple.

When I get older losing my hair,

Many years from now,

Will you still be sending me a valentine

Birthday greetings bottle of wine?

If I’d been out till quarter to three

Would you lock the door,

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,

When I’m sixty-four?

oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oooo

You’ll be older too, (ah ah ah ah ah)

And if you say the word,

I could stay with you.

I could be handy mending a fuse

When your lights have gone.

You can knit a sweater by the fireside

Sunday mornings go for a ride.

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,

Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,

When I’m sixty-four?

Every summer we can rent a cottage

In the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear

We shall scrimp and save

Grandchildren on your knee

Vera, Chuck, and Dave

Send me a postcard, drop me a line,

Stating point of view.

Indicate precisely what you mean to say

Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.

Give me your answer, fill in a form

Mine for evermore

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,

When I’m sixty-four?

Whoo!

When I’m Sixty-Four was recorded in December 1966.

I Was Only Nineteen, but that’s another song.