Saturday, 27 August 2011

London Revisited

With a good sleep behind us we got a lift to the train to Cambridge (thanks Michael) to do a spot of punting on the river Cam. Boy those poles are long! Around 5 metres long, and quite heavy if made of wood as ours was. All very well until you hit mud on the bottom and come to a grinding halt as you try to pull it out. We got on as well as you can on the narrow river, in the rain, with a 30 second lesson and dozens of other punters of widely varying skill. We did cover a good bit of river through the backwaters of the university.

By the time we were finished, Kings College had closed for visits, and we went looking for the market. Were met with a brilliant trio playing spanish music, and “Fernando’s Kitchen” CD is now gracing our music collection. They plan to be busking round Australia in our summer, though they had never heard of Adelaide till we put in a plug.

Back to London by train and we found a hostel in Paddington, close to the Tube. Pity the station was closed for three of the four lines, but we managed a roundabout route. A beautiful walk to St James Park with a view to Kensington Palace and our first Lebanese meal of the trip.

We spent the next day enjoying the sunshine and seeing the Tower of London. A bit more there than I expected. The Yeoman's tour was every bit as entertaining as the Youtube video. The amazing thing for me was that wild animals were kept at the castle for 600 years until London Zoo was established in the 19th century.

Lions, tigers, elephants, even kangaroos. By the time we had finished with the crown jewels and the white tower full of arms and armour, and a walk around the top of the wall, the rest of London was closed for the day.

We took a tube to Trafalgar Square to enjoy the ambience of the fountains and the countdown clock to the Olympics, (the few remaining pigeons looked very discouraged by the do not feed the birds signs) then worked our way down Whitehall, past the 10 Downing Street "fortress". The whole street is closed off at both ends with permanent high iron fences and carbomb proof barricades and armed security forces -very different to 30 years ago when there were a couple of bobbies standing at the front door. At the end of the block we went through St James Park to Buckingham Palace which looked lovely in the sunset. Walked back to the tube through Green park and found The Ritz.... but went to nice Pub off Oxford Street for dinner. 

London gave us a good send-off with a thoroughly rainy day on Tuesday to visit the British Museum. Anna’s dream of buying more copies of the Royal Game of Ur, a board game which she bought on her previous visit to the museum 30 years ago, was dashed when we were eventually told the game stopped being made 6 months ago. The game was found in a tomb in Mesopotamia from 2500BC, with the rules invented by the museum staff, and is a much loved game in the Pulsford-Mycko household. It is not quite the same playing the online version with shockwave.

The highlight of the visit was seeing the other half of the Parthenon which the British are steadfastly refusing to return to Greece. The panel explaining their reasons is looking a bit self-serving, and the excuses are wearing thin given that Athens has already built the museum to house the statues and reliefs in anticipation of their return.

After losing each other for an hour or so, we got out of there in time to get to Westminster Abbey. What a clutter of dead bodies and memorials that place is! It will not be long before you won’t be able to move, it is getting so crowded. I did love Poet’s corner though, including Chaucer, Keats, Browning, Dickens and Shakespeare – even Norman Lindsay gets a gurnsey. Apparently not all are actually buried there, but it is a bit of fun having their stones there.

Another corner has the inventor of the jet engine placed somewhere near Oliver Cromwell. Winston Churchill and FD Roosevelt are memorialised there. The kings and queens take up the bulk of the room as they have to have their sarcophagi above the floor, rather than below it. The cathederal is so big they have split it in two, with a wall halfway down. Makes it damn inconvenient to see the service if you have a big do there like a royal wedding. There are so many chapels and naves and cloisters around it, you can get lost. Luckily we didn’t as we had a plane to catch. We ended our European adventure where it began as Big Ben struck 5pm - perfect symetry as the first thing that happened when we got to London was Big Ben striking 12noon 93 days ago.

That’s all folks! See you in Oz.
And now the details of our coming home party. We are shifting it to Saturday 3rd September at 4pm and hoping that does not inconvenience anyone - sorry. Lots of food, music, trinkets and pics from around Europe. Love to see you!!
please RSVP for catering purposes - seriously nice food being prepared.

Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall

Left for a driving tour of SW England with our friends Sandie and Michael from Norfolk at the ungodly hour of 4.40am. This was a brave attempt to get past London before the morning peak starting at around 7am. More or less successful. The 8-lane motorway only stopped half a dozen times, and not for long, which is apparently very good for a Monday morning.

Our first stop was the stone circle at Avebury, a circle of standing stones around 1km across, and surrounded by a 10-15m ditch with a higher outer mound. There is a second circle inside the first, and a third layout of stones near the middle. The village is located within the outer circle. The circle is thousands of years old, but many of the stones were broken up or buried in the 17th century, for a combination of religious and utilitarian reasons. The buried stones were not rediscovered until excavations and some re-instatement in the 1920s. It is located near Salisbury Hill, a 75m high artificial mound constructed in a number of stages over many hundreds of years.

Anna’s long desire to see a crop circle was realised soon after when we found not one, but four crop circles in the space of 3 or 4 kilometres. All had appeared in the last three days. They were very impressive. The first one we walked in was too hard to pick the pattern at ground level. We could only understand it’s structure from the aerial picture on the internet.

The second was easier. It was maybe 150 metres across with large circles either end, and in the centre. Small circles are around 1.5m across and have a tuft in the centre.

The third we could view by climbing the adjacent hill with a chalk horse. It was a series of 4 circles of increasing diameter arranged in a series of 7 lines radiating from the central design. The fourth we could only see from a distance, and again, we could only see the intricacy of the design from an aerial photo. I think we were lucky that the cool summer in England had delayed the harvest until we arrived back in England.

Laycock is a little18th century timewarp town, a fully functioning film set of 4 main streets and maybe 150 houses where the residents may be invaded by film crews making historical dramas at any time of the day or night. All frontages are controlled to prevent anachronisms, like the antenna cable I saw snaking its way across the roof. What a life. We called in there for a very nice Devonshire Tea, called a Cream Tea in England, even if you are in Devonshire apparently.

We visited Stonehenge in the late afternoon as the rain started. An awesome structure with stones up to 60 tonnes brought from hundreds of miles away. Around 4-5 thousand years old and the most advanced of a succession of henges built on the site. Unfortunately compared to Anna’s last visit, where you could walk amongst the stones, now we can get no nearer than 100m or so. The structure is more impressive as a third of each stone is set into the ground and the horizontal beams are locked in place by ball and socket, and mortise and tenon joints in the stone.

Next day we continued our magical mystery tour by visiting Old Sarum, the ruin of a hilltop fortress with two massive defensive ditches, near Salisbury and dating from the 11th century. Demolished in the 14th century after a dispute between church and state around 1220 led to the cathedral being moved to nearby Salisbury. The cathedral at Salisbury is huge, and was hosting an exhibition of sculptures like the one shown here.

We spent the afternoon in Bath, on the open top bus, and visiting the Roman Baths. The baths are fed from the only natural hot spring in Britain and supported saunas, steam rooms and a number of different pools. It was associated with a large temple complex. The archaeological dig extends under the city and there is apparently still lots left to excavate. The main bath is in reasonable condition, and full of water using the original lead lining. Unfortunately the water is murky green due to algae from the sunlight. Originally the baths were covered by a massive high-domed and richly decorated building which would have prevented algae growth.

We stayed the night at a really comfortable B&B in a renovated dairy. We got to climb the Glastonbury Tor, famous amongst other things for its role in “The Mists of Avalon”, before exploring the alternative culture of Glastonbury. Every second shop is a crystal healing centre or a temple to the godess or selling Celtic jewelery. Quite an amazing place.

We detoured to cross Dartmoor National Park, a wilderness of granite outcrops and heathland, with remnants of neolithic and bronze-age settlements. These include stone circles, round-houses and stone bridges, like this one using three 5m long stones.

We made our way along narrow winding single lane roads, bordered with 2-3m high stone wall and hedges to find our B&B for the night at Veryan on the south Cornwall coast. Our friends graciously let us have the beautifully renovated Roundhouse, with its mezzanine bedroom and downstairs lounge room, while they took the garage, lovingly redecorated as a beach hut.

The Eden Project at Bodelva the next morning. The Eden Project is designed to show the relationship between people and environment, and to look at sustainable living. It is set up in a disused clay quarry, with two massive biomes with tropical and Mediterranean climates. These show plant and human habitats from which much of our food and medicine are derived. We were very surprised to see a fully grown hemp crop, around 2m high, until we got to the other side and found they had a commercial hemp growers licence to grow the low THC variety for fibre. They do a nice line in hemp T-shirts!

We finished the day at the old fishing village of  Mevagissey with a double harbour and lots of pirate history.

Our final day was spent at St Ives on the northern Cornwall coast, one of the nicest places I have seen in England. An artists town, with a branch of the Tate Modern, and lots of studios and some brilliant beaches nearby with progressively less people the further around the bay you get. As with most of the other towns we visited, there is no room for cars or parking in the town, so it’s a park and ride arrangement. This time it was a local train to take us from the carpark about 10km out of town.

We paid for our casual disregard of UK distances by having an eight hour, 660km drive back to Norfolk starting mid-afternoon, with only a few holdups in the Friday afternoon traffic. Thanks so much for a fantastic trip guys, we loved it.

Friday, 26 August 2011


Beautiful Barcelona. Staying at the old Olympic site, we dropped our gear and headed by train and Metro into town to look for Tapas. Eventually found a little café called Eucalyptus where we had an excellent meal washed down with sangria before a long walk down Las Ramblas, the main tourist drag for an introductory look. Next morning we flew out to Bilbao on the northern coast facing the Atlantic.

There we found the incredible Guggenheim Museum, a wonderful massive sculpture in titanium sheets, guarded by a cute flower puppy 12 metres high out the front.

The most outstanding exhibition was constructed of 50mm sheet steel, in panels 4m high by 12m long curved into various 3D shapes. These varied from cones to sphere segments to toroidal segments to rotated ellipses. Walking through these giant structures and the spaces they create is quite amazing.

The Bilbao Museum of fine art is also excellent with some great sculpture and paintings, plus a exhibition of gold artifacts from before Columbus, and an exhibition of Matta, a surrealist and abstract painter.

Bilbao is such a pretty town, uncrowded and unhurried and very modern. Even the old town is pretty, with its narrow streets and multitude of tapas bars where we could even get a very acceptable breakfast, amongst the poker machines and the rows of spirits on the walls.

Afterwards a visit to the Archaeological Museum, showing the history and pre-history of the area for the last 9000 years, based on excavations in the town and surrounding region.

Then we took a trip on the Metro out to Portugalete to see the oldest Transporter Bridge in the world, a wild cross between a ferry, a bridge and a flying fox. Built around 1890, it carries cars and passengers across the river on a hanging gondola. It is very impressive structure 165 metres long and over 50m high. We took the 30cent trip across, but the walk back across the top cost us 5 Euros each. I guess it was worth it for the views.

Back in Barcelona we took ourselves off to see Guel Park designed by Gaudi in the early 20th century. A quite fantastical place full of wild shapes and colourful mosaics, designed to be the gardens for a model community.

Continuing the theme we went to Gaudi Museum in La Pedera, a building created by him, with a very organic facade, and a beautiful lightwell with balconies.

The rooftop sculpture was awesome, turning the various service vents and chimneys into art forms.

The first floor has been an exhibition space for decades and currently showed and exhibition of black and white photos by Francesc Català-Roca  a brilliant photographer recording life in Spain over the last 60 years.

We ended the evening looking for a reasonably priced meal, ending up at a tapas bar which turned out to be an Irish pub in disguise and gave us both a bout of food poisoning. The joys of the tourist drag. We cut our losses and we went somewhere else for a very tasty paella.

Our final day was at the beach. It was Saturday and everyone was there. The first beach not dominated by rented umbrellas and lounges. Great atmosphere, a bit of topless sunbathing, lots of swimming, but taking it in turns. Lots of offers of beer, soft drinks, sarongs and massages from the travelling sales men and women.

We eventually rinsed off and took a bicycle rickshaw along the beach to an intriguing woven copper fish sculpture about 10metres high we could see in the distance.

Back in town, the Sagrada Familia is a massive gothic cathedral designed by Gaudi, but still under construction 140 years after it was started, complete with 4 cranes in operation. Unfortunately closed due to a big christian youth event, but extraordinary nonetheless, with a planned 18 towers of inverted catenary shape.

We spent the evening at a brilliant concert by a Spanish guitar duet, performed in an intimate chapel of a former monastery. Needless to say we bought their CD which will be combined with our other musical acquisitions to form the soundtrack to our welcome home party on Sept 4th.

Put it in your diary! - More details very soon!!

Sunday, 21 August 2011


Venice is a city which is hard not to fall in love with. We had a great little room which was thankfully near the railway station, and right near the Grand Canal. The ferry system is as extensive and almost as frequent as an underground train network. Pity about the very long queues for a ticket. The weather was beautiful.

The sight of buildings standing permanently in water, and salt water at that, is a bit alarming at first. Nearly all show signs of damp, and many show signs of having abandoned the lower floor. Structurally however they seem to be much better than the houses in Amsterdam, built well away from the canals. The front doors opening directly onto the water still make me look twice.

Our main aim was to get to the Venice Biennale, a premier world art event which few people in Venice seem to know about. Certainly we saw very little information around the city, and had fair trouble finding where the event was held, even from the festival website.

The major venue was the Arsenal, an old shipbuilding facility dating from the Venice heyday in the 12th-14th centuries. At one time they built 500 ships in 6 months for a war against Turkey for control of the Mediterranean Sea. They are reputed to have built one ship during the course of a banquet to impress a visiting leader.

We found plenty of artwork to satisfy us, even if mixed in with a lot of less interesting stuff. One of the most gripping was a film called Clock, made up of film scenes featuring clocks, watches and time strung together. It was so dramatic, drawn from such a wide range of films, so well researched, and so tightly and creatively edited, that we could not drag ourselves away for an entire hour. The film covers a full 24 hour period, so it is shown in real time.

Giardini, the second venue and the one we’d been unable to find is, we realised later located under the ads on our map, but was no easier to get to following signposts from Arsenal which disappeared in a maze of streets and canals – “just down there you can’t miss it” has become an “Oh Oh” moment for us on this trip. Giardini featured work displayed in permanent pavilions built by other countries, each country nominating one artist to exhibit.

The Australian pavilion was very disappointing with plastic replicas of common objects most likely found in the back of a school sports shed – old pin up boards and broken tables. The US was similarly underwhelming. The Greek exhibition on the other hand was the most dramatic and exquisite, with a timber walkway sitting above a still pool occupying the entire pavilion, lit only by the light of one window. Outside the whole pavilion was enclosed in wood like a packing crate. Christian Boltanski in the French pavilion was another highlight and Israel and Poland were also striking though not really apparent that the work related to the theme of illumination.

The Romanian pavilion had a major rant painted across the entire exterior walls presenting their reasons for and against exhibiting at the Biennale. The French pavilion consisted of a massive tubular frame structure set up like a news paper printing press with endless pictures of newborn babies passing around it. The room on either side had a large digital counter for the world births and the deaths.

The next day we took a ferry to the islands of Murano, the centre of art glass manufacturing in dozens or hundreds of workshops and displayed in just as many stores. Unfortunately the technical section of the glassmaking museum was closed, but we did find one factory doing glassblowing demonstrations. Some of the work was stunning in artistic quality and workmanship.

Our return ferry took us on a circumnavigation of the main islands and back to Piazza San Marco. Our search for a toilet in the vicinity of this packed main square and premier tourist site of Venice was in vain signs pointing to the facilities leading towards each other from both directions – would have been funny in other circumstances – and we eventually found a little café several blocks from the square where we could use the WC and buy a stiff drink.

The Cathedral was closed due to water flooding, and we saw water gradually rising from the grates in the main square. Major infrastructure work is underway to prevent water ingress to the area. Personally I would have thought that raising the ground level by 6” would have been cheaper and easier. In the evening we went to a live performance dramatising the history of Venice which we very much enjoyed and filled in a few gaps in our vast lack of knowledge of the city. This was one very rich city-state in its time. This was followed by a shot of melon vodka on the Piazza listening to three live bands competing for airtime and dozens of people launching flashing spinners into the night air.

With a parting look from the bridge over the very busy grand canal the next morning we said our goodbyes to Venice. Then we had another view from the plane, when we realized that all the islands of Venice look very small, sitting within a very much bigger lagoon at the top of the Adriatic sea. I now understand how they intend to stop floods and high tides from drowning the city, by temporarily closing off the three entrances to the lagoon when necessary – the biggest infrastructure project in Italy’s history.

T-Shirt Wisdom

This is an oldie but a goodie spied on a T-shirt in Florence, we thought we would share with you.

A Short Guide to Comparative Religions

In Heaven:
The policemen are English
The cooks are French
The Bankers are Belgian
The dancers are Spanish
The lovers are Italian
And it’s all organized by the Germans

In Hell:
The policemen are French
The cooks are English
The bankers are Spanish
The dancers are Belgian
The lovers are German
And it’s all organized by the Italians

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Our first afternoon stroll around Florence found us climbing to the top of another bell tower, an impressive structure probably designed to show that the Florentines can build a bigger and straighter tower than their Pisan rivals. All for show however, as there is no sign of the bell-rope or any electric ringers. What a magic view from the top though. The whole town laid out before us, surrounded by very picturesque hills in all directions.

Found a great 3 hour walking tour of Florence for our first morning conducted by a pint-sized but enthusiastic young Florentine woman. The cathedral was surprisingly plain and austere inside. It did, however have a 24 hour clock showing Roman numerals and running anticlockwise, on the rear wall. The main square of the town was more or less as built by the Romans, and the leather and fabric industries for which Florence is famous were on display in abundance in shops and roadside stalls.

Here for the first time since Iceland was an absence of Africans on every corner selling spatter balls, gaudy souvenirs and ugly handbags. Many actually had legal stalls selling possibly genuine Florentine products, including an impressive array of leather goods.

David stands proudly outside the entrance to City Hall, apparently deemed too good to be placed in its planned location atop the cathedral. He is flanked by a second sculpture by Bandinelli, nicknamed by the locals the “melon pile’, perhaps due to the excess of muscles. The real David has been moved to the museum, so we were looking at a replica. We visited the original the next day, along with many unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo. He is very impressive. Interesting that it was Goliath who was meant to be the big one.

Evidence of the various Guilds can be seen on their symbols, coats of arms, and on some of the statues around town. One such was the statue of St George slaying the dragon, effectively showing off the Armourer’s Guild chain mail, swords and lances.

We heard the fascinating story of the grain market which turned into a dual-use grain market/church complete with hooks in the ceiling. A miracle was apparently involved.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


Little old Pisa. I only knew it for the leaning tower, but apparently it was a major force in its heyday, until they lost a couple of wars with the nearby Florentines. I had also never noticed inn the photos, the three other white marble buildings in the same square, all dating from around the 11th-13th centuries; the baptistery, the cathedral, the and the funerary. A sort of hatched, matched and despatched trifecta, with the leaning bell-tower ringing out the news.

The lean was perhaps more pronounced than I expected, though frustratingly, my camera seems to annul the lean due to perspective. Will just have to see how they turn out. It is all sparkly new, having just been through a 5 year long renovation and stabilisation. We were surprised to find them using these octopus straps to hold it together. The three bells have been fitted with electric ringers, which they tested while we were up the top. Anna thinks it sounds loverly, but Sandy thinks they have a bit of work still to do on the synchronisation.

The Baptistry is a massive domed building, over 55m high, and 30m across. Interesting considering it is mainly for babies. The size was however utilised during an impromptu performance by a contralto, demonstrating the most amazing acoustics of the building.

The square is surrounded by a series of museums containing all the bits which have fallen off the buildings over the years, or have been removed as too precious to leave out in the open. A couple of hundred metres of frescos which were picked up after WWII bombing are being painstakingly conserved and restored, based on photos and etchings.

This shot is the fateful one which lost me my iPhone. Lying down on the grass, I think it slipped out of my pocket. Not really worth it huh! Unfortunately the fancy tracking system has not assisted its recovery. There has been a lot of tears and grieving over this loss, even if I have not had a functioning SIM for most of the trip.

Anyway, we finished our visit with a great morning walk around the Botanic Gardens we discovered across the road from our hostel window. An ancient tree walk, plus some nice eucalypts, acacias and a couple of banyan trees to remind us of Aus.


Very tired by the time we got into Rome Central Station from the airport. It was late, and we had got up very early. Emerged from the station and were met by an enthusiastic taxi driver who showed us his taxi photo ID. Had our bags into the car before we could think about it and drove us to our hotel Only trouble was he was not a proper taxi driver, he was an overcharging conjuror, who proceeded to make any money we gave him turn into notes of a lesser value. Assuming we had made a mistake in the orange street light, we gave him the correct money again – twice! He made off with a tidy profit from the exchange, while quick-thinking Anna grabbed the numberplate and wrote it down. We reported them to the police the next day, and put it down to being so tired, and worked out a few strategies to protect ourselves better in future.

Next morning we took a rather round-about route to the Colosseum, finding many streets which were not marked on our map. Sandy insists we were not lost, it’s just that the GPS, the map and the street signs all showed different street names! Anyway, eventually the magnificent Colosseum peeped through one of the narrow alleyways and we made a beeline for it - to be met with a 10m drop down to the monument, and an 800m walk to find the way down. Anna was by now getting just a wee bit pissed off with Sandy’s navigation but was very pleased to find a WC on the way down as they are few and far between.

As a blood-sports arena, it apparently was well used, with around 2000 people killed in the inauguration ceremonies, plus maybe 5 times as many wild animals according to meticulous records kept by scribes. The combatants and victims were mainly slaves, prisoners of war and criminals. An estimated total of 500,000 deaths have been attributed to the various gladiatorial venues in the Roman Empire. The few Romans who became gladiators did it for short periods, mainly to clear up debts with the money thrown into the ring from the crowd.

We then got a guided tour of the adjacent roman site containing the original Senate building, unbelievably still in use, the temple of the Vestal Virgins, and a dozen or so other temples, monasteries, palaces and administrative centres in various states of repair, ruin or excavation. Apparently Rome is having a lot of difficulty putting in their third underground line because they keep bumping into significant archaeological finds. The largest of the palaces was around 60 hectares, the remains of which underlie a significant portion of downtown Rome.

Next day was an even slower start as we took time to catch up with ourselves,(clothes washing email booking ahead and fixing a suitcase handle mostly) before venturing to St Peters Basilica at the Vatican. Missed the climb to the top, but we were a bit overwhelmed by the violent crucifixion and martyrdom themes in Christianity as graphically portrayed in the catholic churches. However I was very taken with the marvelous marble design work on the floors and walls.

The 'Wedding Cake' or 'Typewriter', a very large monument to unification of Italy in the late Ninteenth Century, stands out from all over the city, so we had to pay a visit, if only to see how big it really is.

On the other hand Trevi Fountain is a real joy to see, and drew a large crowd during the evening.

We took a long walk back to the Pantheon, a 2nd century Roman construction which still survives in the form of a very impressive Christian church, which unfortunately had just closed. On the way we marvelled at a series of spray-can artists producing finely detailed and realistic paintings in the space of around 4 minutes in front of an appreciative audience, and sold seconds later for 10 Euros. Working with amazing speed, precision, a gas mask, 20 colours and an armoury of at least a dozen specific techniques, they produced paintings on several different themes. Did not think they would travel well.

We returned to the Pantheon next day to see the interior – well worth the visit –a massive dome with a hole to the sky for light, made of pumice stone so as not to be too heavy for the circular marble walls – a testament to the skill of roman architecture.

We also went to see an exhibition of recreations of Leonardo Da Vinci’s machines. It was significantly different to the one which travelled to Adelaide a few years ago, with one which was amazingly close to a current hang glider, except that the pilot was expected to flap the wings. His tank/armoured personnel carrier however, suffered the same limitations as the Daleks of Dr Who – works great if the ground is very flat.

It became a race against time in the narrow and confusing alleyways of the old city, as we had an early afternoon train to catch to Pisa. Rescued by a taxi we collected our bags and made it onto the train with a good 2 minutes to spare, having almost missed it courtesy of the obscure prepayment system at the station café getting some lunch, and having to get to the furthest carriage of the long train. We were assisted at the last minute by a young man who grabbed our bags and hauled them up the steps and into the train unasked and then expected to be paid for his help. As our tour guide had said - in Italy they have German prices and Greek wages so not surprising that there are many trying to make money any way they can and probably a helpful service to those who actually want it.

Love Sandy & Anna