Monday, April 26, 2004

Prague

So we finally made it to Prague. A lot of people I met on the way here said that I'd really like it, and they were right. I LOVE Prague. Definately my favourite city in Europe so far.

We're here during the Ice Hokey World Championships, so there are quitea few people about, but it's not anywhere as bad as Italy. Besides, the cityis really amazing. Prague Castle and the Cathedral are amazing, and dominatethe city, but everywhere you look there are goegeous buildings from 13th century(and older) to modern day buildings. There are lots of cool spaces (Piazzas) to hang out and have a coffee or beer.

Plus the history of the place. We're really close to Wencelas Square, the siteof many revolutions including the most recent Velvet Revolution to oust the communist Government.

We went to visit the Museum of Communism too. Ironically placed between a McDonaldsand a Casino. No joke. The musem was a pretty sombre affair, covering the Communist theoryfrom Marx to Lennin, Stalin and the Czech (and Czechoslovakian) role in it. Lots of stuff to read and some nice exhibits. There was a film about the various invasions and the VelvetRevolution, which was quite powerful. Definately a must-see if you go to Prague.

Did a walking tour around the town yesterday, and we had a really nice guide. He tookus around Wencelas Square, the Old Town, the Jewish Quarter and Prague Castle and providedheaps of useful info.

The Czech Republic is joining the EU this Friday, but there doesn't seem to be much attention paid to it. They seem to be more concerned about the Ice Hockey.

Soon as I finish typing this up I'm going to head up to Prague Castle to meet the othersand go to the Cathedral. We saw it from the outside yesterday, and it's an amazing,imposing structure.

Hopefully the sun will stay out long enough for me to get some non-dreary pictures of Prague.The ones I've taken so far just don't do the city justice.

Lots More Pictures

Finally found a decent net cafe in Prague to upload more pics. It's just my luck that it's actually a decent day outside.. The last few days in Prague have been very dreary and COLD. Anyways...

Another pic of us sitting at the steps in front of the Pantheon

The Trevi Fountain. Really hard to get a decent picture coz of the thousands (well, hundreds) of people around it..

Big domed buildings in Rome. Can't remember which Piazza they were at.

The Spanish Steps. Rome's equivalent of the Town Hall Steps in Sydney. Just bigger.

It was a bit rainy when we went to Pompeii, and couldn't see the top of the volcano.. but it looked suitably angry.

The big Church in Sienna. The town is split over a valley, with a football ground in the middle. This was one of the last pictures I could take before the town was overrun with Sienna and AC Milan supporters.

Some person doing a silly pose at Pisa. There were LOTS of these.

Ditto.

Some tower in Pisa. Pisa was a very nice town too.

The view out our Hostel window on our first day in Prague.. the pic looks a bit distorted..

The copy of the Eiffel tower from Charles Bridge. The clouds and sun rays didn't come out too well.

Prague was a bit dreary for most of the time. And did I mention COLD?

We had some pretty nice dinners in Prague. Two of the places were underground, in the cellers of old buildings. This place was particularly nice.

Ditto.

One of the entrances to Prague Castle, near the President's offices.

View of Prague from the castle. Note, it's dreary again.

Prague Castle entrance with the courtyard in front.

Yup, still a bit grey in old Prague.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Tuscany and Venice

So, no updates for a while.. will have to squeeze a lot into this one.

First, Florence. Florence was heaps of fun. We didn't do too many of the touristy places like the galleries and museums.. not enough time to see things properly. So we basically walked around the city at random.. spent a lot of time at the markets (the girls got a whole bunch of leather jackets) and went out and ate a lot of great food.

Of course, in Florence was the now infamous "Marco Incident" - where Jem got the number of this local dude Marco, and decided to go to dinner with him.. but only after convincing the rest of us to do covert surveillence and even eat at the same resteraunt. I'll leave the details to Mach.. bug him if he doesn't send an email with the story soon.

One of the days in Florence we did a day trip to Sienna. Sienna is a very cool city. Very pretty, quiet and with very few tourists. Unfortunately for us, later that day the local football team (Siena F.C.) was playing this other team, you might have heard of them, called "A.C. Milan". Yes, THAT A. C. Milan. The town got packed with football fans and wasn't much fun afterwards.. I'll definately be going back to Siena and Tuscany later on though. It's very picturesque, and has few tourists.

After Florence we had a day in Bologna - only because we didn't find accom in Venice. Blogna was a disaster in many ways - but with one definate highlight. Our "hostel" turned out to be a camping ground / motel in the outskirts of the city, and we had to walk for almost an hour with out packs to get there. Later we discovered the bus that would have taken us right there. Then, during our exploration of the city we managed to find ourselves in the University area - which quickly turned into the Newtown / Redfern of Bologna. Not very nice. After finally getting out of that place we managed to get to a big square, Piazza Saint Petriono. We walked into the Basillica not expecting much, but boy were we wrong. The place was HUUGE. Easily 50m roof, with multiple parabolic arches. Built in 1490 something, and used to crown Charles V in 1500 something. Awesome.

Leaving Bologna, we headed to Venice. The fabled Venice. Of course out accom was on the mainland in Metre - coz we left it too late to book. Finding the place was another adventure, but we finally did, after a hour of walking around. We even managed to take a bus going the wrong way and discover the Metre equivalent of Bankstown Square - where everything was priced NORMALLY, which is about 1/3 of what it costs in tourist places. We had dinner at a very cool pizza place where you can order your own custom pizza and they make it in front of you.

So, anyway, to Venice. What's my impressions of Venice? Not very good, unfortunately. Maybe it's just been hyped up too much, but all I saw was a fake city built around tourists. Every shop was just selling the same (impressive) tourist trinkets. The place is crowded beyond belief, and everywhere you turn you hear Amerian or Brish accents, or German or French or Spanish. I don't think I'll be coming back to Venice. It's like a zoo or a poor imitation of a once grand, LIVING city. The others seem to like it quite a lot, and are walking around as I type this up at this extremely expensive Venitian internet cafe.

Oh, also, Lucky and Thu are MIA. We haven't heard of them since we left Rome, and they haven't been answering SMSes. So hopefull they are ok.

We are headed to Prague soon (hopefully that will live up to least SOME of it's hype), after a day trip to Purda to check out it's Gothic architecture..

Hopefully the next update will be soon. With more pictures.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Florence Day One, and Pisa

So, on our first day in Florence we had a late breakfast (at Gino's - on Via Nazionale, good food there), and headed to the markets. Anne and Jem spent the next hour or so harassing a poor salesman from a leather shop trying out jacket after jacket. I think the poor man had to go and lie down after a while after that. After the girls piked out a jacket each we had to run (AGAIN) for our train to Pisa.

Pisa is a very cool town. Still full of tourists, but not so bad as Rome. There are HEAPS of designer shops and places to eat. Everyone looks very rich there.. lots of expensive cars.

Of course the only thing to do in Pisa is to go to the tower. So we did. I was feeling all touristed out, so I decided to take pictures of tourists making fools of themselves trying to lean on and hold up the tower. The whole place was VERY full of people. This is when I started daydreaming about a trip to Sibeira sometime, just to get away from all these people.

After messing about the Tower, and eating some very nice pastries in a shop on the main street we did our usual "running for the train" thing again. On the way back, we managed to get off at the wrong station not once, but twice! We had to sit in a different carrage the second time coz we were too embarassed by the looks the other travellers gave us when we did it the first time!

Back in Florence we had dinner at a very cool resteraunt (can't remember the name, I'll put in in later) - but it's on Via Nazionale, about 300m down from the main Piazza. Mach had already tried the 500G Florentine Steak, so the girls decided to have one 700g steak between em. The food was really fantastic, we're going there agian.. but we'll have to cut down on the fancy places if we want to stay on budget.. :(

Day threee finds me sitting in a net cafe (fighting these stupid Italian keyboards) typing stuff up.. it's raining outside.. :(

Rome and Pompeii

For our second day in Rome we decided to take things a bit easy (mainly because most places were closed). We went for a trip around the Spanish Steps (Spagna) and the buildings around there. It seemed like half the town as out and about that day.

The next day was our trip to Pompeii (and Naples, but didn't stop there). We got on a bus at about 0730 in the morning to be greeted by possibly the most cheerful person I've ever met. Alexandra, our tour giude was so chirpy it had to be chemically induced, IMHO. So anyways, after a couple of hours on the bus we hit Pompeii. The outskirts of Pompeii and Naples had the strangest mixture of industry and cottage farms I'd ever seen. Probably coz the volcanic soil was so rich.

The actual city of Pompeii was very cool. It's amazing how well preserved some of the buildings are, but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) all the really cool stuff has been moved to the Museum of Naples. Our guide took great pleasure in showing us the phallic arrows pointing to the brothels and the brothel itself. Maybe some post-discovery "restoration" was done to the pictures in the brothel, coz there is no way they would have survived in such good condition.

On our way back to Rome we got stuck in a 5 hour traffic jam, during which our guide somehow managed to be even more chirpy (if that was possible) - though she did spend some time bitching about Berlesconi (there are billboards of him stuck up everywhere - very wierd).

For our final day in Rome we visited the Vatican Museum, and made a beeline to the Cistine Chapel. This still took a few good hours, during which we passed more amazing pieces of art and history than you could possibly imagine. The Cistine Chapel was very cool. The picture of the Last Judgement is HUUGE and takes up an entire wall. The other pieces by Michaelangelo (specially the Creation of Adam) looks tiny beacause it's on the ceiling some 30 metres above!

After the Museum we began what was going to be a regular ritual, running for our train. We just managed to get on to the train to Florence, which is our base for the next few days.

We got a little look at the Tuscan countryside as we made our way to Florence, but it was rather overcast and the area near the train line seems to be very industrial. We will be making a trip to Siena and some other little towns in Tuscany in the next few days, so hopefully will be able to see more then.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Rome, Day One

So we're in Rome on Easter Sunday. What do you do? Go to the Easter Mass at St. Peter's of course. So we went along, with about 100,000 others to the square. It was very cool. Sorry, no pictures yet coz this net cafe thing does't have a USB port to plug my camera into.

After a few hours at St Peter's we went for a walk around Vatican City (unfortunately a lot of the museums and stuff were closed). We went to (something) castle, and took pictures of the bridges across the river.

After wondering around for a while, we made it to the Pantheon - very big, very old stone building originating some 2000 years ago - and later modified by the Romans. We had lunch on the steps of the fountain in front of the Pantheon.

Next stop was the Trevi Fountain, which is less a fountain and more a waterfall. Blood huge as well. It was full of people chucking coins in. The Trevi is one of the newer attrations in Rome, since it was built "only" in 1732.

We did a quick run to the Colleseum, but the line to get in was waay too long. We wondered around the Roman Forum (where the rich people lived) for the rest of the afternoon. After heading to the hostel to relax for a bit, we decided to go out for dinner.

And then it rained. Not heavy rain, just constant light rain. Made dodging the frequent piles of dog shit on the pavement quite hard. We were thouroughly miserable by the time we got to a resteraunt somewhere near the Spanish Steps. Had a quick (decent) dinner and decided to head back home. We just missed out bus, so had to wait in the freezing rain + cold for the next one. Lots of fun.

Now it's morning on Day 2, and it's still raining. And it's a public holiday, so not sure what's open. We're still deciding on where to go.

Pictures

Easter Sunday Mass at Vatican City

Easter Sunday Mass at Vatican City - From the middle of the square

A few hundred thousand people leaving after mass

Jem and me at the castle in Vatican City (can't remember it's neame)

Sitting at the steps in front of the Pantheon, planning the next move. Lu is very bored.

One of the prettier streets in Rome

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Getting There

So, we finally made it here, but not without some interesting experiences on the way.

Things got interesting at Sydney, as "Pick on Lu Day" commenced. The security people thought that they needed to go through his bags even before getting to the checkin desk. The rest of us were allowed to go through ok. On the flight to LA, he even got seperated from Mach and I. My personal theory is that he was seated betweeen the Sky Marshalls coz they were these two big burly blokes. Poor Lu.

So we get to LAX, and out connecting flight was at an entirely different terminal (Tom Bradley International), so after getting "instructions" from some entirely unhelpful airport staff, we finally managed to get to the Lufthansa checkin. The very helpful German dude there got us checked on to our next two flights, and got us all sitting together. Lu was amazed by "German efficiency". After a quick meal at LAX we were on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.

Frankfurt airport is bloody huge! We spent a good few hours walking around the place (and looking for an elusive supermarket that was located in the apparently mythical "Terminal A, Floor 0") and finally got our connecting flight to Rome.

Rome airport is without a doubt the most relaxed airport I've been to. There were two dudes in plain clothes outside the exit from the plane, where they checked random people's passports. After that there was nothing. No customs, to immigration.. I didn't even get a stamp on my passport.

We took the airport train to to Rome's equivalent of Central Station - Stazione Termini. It looks like the outskirts of Rome is just apartment block apon apartment block - all relatively low rise. What was very noticeable was that everyone had a window box or plants growing in their balcony, and that everyone looked like they had their own antenna on top of the apartment block. The buildings look like giant porcupines. Othwer thing we noticed, the graffiti looks exactly the same no matter where you are, no matter if it's done in Italian or English.

We got to Termini and found our Hostel pretty quickly, it's about a 10 minute walk from the station. The hostel looks to be pretty cool, with lots of people from various places. We met up with the girls that evening and hit the town for dinner.

Rome, Day One coming up next.

Sunday, April 4, 2004

Perdido Street Station

I finished reading China Mieville's book Perdido Street Station a few days ago. It is certianly one of the most interesting, original and captivating books I have read in a long time.

The first thing that grabs you (well, me) is the language. It's pertty rare to find such rich language in a genre book. The chapter introductions written from the perspective of one of the characters is so full of nuanuce and beatiful imagery that I've already re-read these sections a number of times.

Once past the language, you can explore the city of New Crobuzon. The imagery and atmosphere of this city is made alive by Mieville. I was reminded of The City of Lost Children, but more corrupt, cruel and mysterious. The sheer amount of wonder and cruelty he fits into this book is a marvel in itself. The casual glossing over of the city's horrors - specially the horrific "Remade", and the frequently mentioned but never explored "Torture Factories" make them even more evocative and powerful.

Apart from the setting, the inhabitants of the city are another wonder. From sentient Cactii and frog-like amphibians to politicians who make literal deals with the devil (or the devil's ambassador, to be precise) to mad scientists and human-insect hybrids.

To call this book steampunk would be to call Stephenson's Snow Crash cyberpunk. They are both so much more than the limitations of such a classification.

The only negative reaction I have to this book is the main villain of the piece. No matter how exotic and unusual the creation, a mindless beast is no replacement for a thinking, scheming villain. But perhaps that was part of Mieville's plan - to create a "villain" that is simply acting out it's evolutionary habbits, with the real villains, scheming in the background

No matter what way I look at it, Perdido Street Station is one of the best books I have read in a long, long time. I can't wait to get my hands on the next book The Scar.