Tuesday, 28 July 2009


We spent a full week in Paris in the southern edge of the central district. It was a mixed week full of mishaps and moments of bliss. Our camera stopped working. We were sitting in front of Notre Dame and it wouldn't come on. As this happened on a Saturday we spent the weekend trying to find some place to repair it but everything was closed. So in the end we decided to get a new one and get the G9 repaired in Sydney.

We saw all the big Parisian sights - Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower (by day and night), Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe etc. On our first full day there we stumbled upon a free walking tour and got a great introduction to the city and its history. Being an art museum buff I was looking forward to the Lourve quite a bit. We got there early so didn't have to line up much at all and we got to see the Mona Lisa without standing shoulder to shoulder with 200 other people. Unfortunately as its covered by glass and cordoned off its impossible to get a proper look at it at. While we saw the most famous of the Lourve's works I found it to be too big and spread out to really enjoy. Its size is quite overwhelming and you have to go trawling through rooms and rooms of mediocre stuff to get to see the good stuff.

Musee d'Orsay on the other hand was a more manageable size. It also had all the great Impressionists masters and their famous works to make the trip really worth while. I also realised that the picture that had been hanging in our Bayswater flat was in fact a copy of a painting by Camille Pissarro. It was incredible to stumble upon the original in the museum.

We discovered the Parisian china town a short tram ride from our hotel and had excellent Vietnamese night after night. Neither of us are big fans of French food so this suited us quite well. I was happy enough to enjoy the great croissants, baguettes and crepes during the day and sit down to a bowl of hearty Pho at the end of it. We spent a lot of time walking around the city and relaxing in its beautiful gardens. Jardin de Luxumburg was my favourite with its grand water features and beautiful flower beds. On our way to it we came across a Patisserie with all sorts of intricately beautiful desserts for sale. We bought a couple of desserts and I enjoyed an exquisite mini creme brulee. I was hoping to go back to it but never got the chance.

We did a day trip from Paris to Versailles but unfortunately Pramo wasn't feeling too well and had to go home as soon as we got to Versailles. I on the other hand carried on & proceeded to stand in the queue to get a ticket for over an hour in the hot sun. The French have such convoluted systems - you had to line up to get the tickets (which come with a free audio guide), then you have to line up again to enter the Palace and then once inside you have to line up again to get the audio guide. Its so inefficient when it doesn't need to be. I didn't bother getting the audio guide after standing in the ticket queue for over an hour. Anyway the palace and gardens were quite beautiful and grand but I think I never got over waiting so long to get it so it didn't seem really worth while.

I had high expectations for Paris. Maybe that was the problem to start with. After listening to everyone I know talk about how they like/love Paris I expected to feel the same way. I think I need more time/visits to feel that way about Paris. Its so huge with so many things to see and do that visitors can have a very varied experience of it. Its one place I want to go back to because of that very reason. Maybe next time it will help to have a bigger budget and know a bit more French as well.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


After leaving Munich we headed west to Freiburg to escape the normal hostel/hotel routine and take the chance to stay with our uni mates Sarah and Riah. Freiburg is a small city near the entrance to the Black Forest and close to the Swiss and French borders. The week we spent there we really liked the feel of the town. Freiburg is cosmopolitan city big enough to have everything you need but small enough that you can walk the cobbled streets of the old town in half an hour. The streets in the old town are lined with fresh water open canals called 'Bachle..' that provide endless play opportunity for kids and a gurgling soundtrack as you walk by. It is said that if you fall into one of these canals that you will fall in love with a Freiburger and stay there forever.

On our first day there we climbed the hill overlooking the town to see great views of the city all the way to the Black Forest. While there we spent the days visiting the daily fruit & veg markets on the grounds of the characteristic gothic cathedral 'Munster' and the nights making simple home cooked meals to enjoy with a bottle of wine with Sarah & Riah. We also got to try great thai in town and spend an evening in a beer garden with Sarah's friends enjoying the beer from the organic brewery across the road. I never drink beer but ended up really liking the local brew which was so easy to drink.

Freiburg is a town we both wish we could find the equivalent of in Sydney. Being Germany there are lots of engineering firms nearby so that you could easily ride to work as both Sarah and Riah do. They have great restaurants and bars and a lively night life yet being so close to the Black Forest there is ample opportunity to go for walks, hikes and rides to feel close to nature. I think we also liked it so much because we had locals to show us around the place. But undoubtedly the best thing about Freiburg was having the chance to catch up with Sarah & Riah. As they say there is nothing like old friends.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Grindelwald, Switzerland

While in Freiburg we got the opportunity to visit Switzerland for a bout 4 days as it was quite close to the Swiss border. We stayed at a place called Grindelwald, about half an hour by train from Interlaken. Grindelwald is a small town on the base of the Swiss Alps with the famous Eiger and Jungfrau mountains providing an imposing backdrop.

The first day we spent in Grindelwald we got picture perfect weather with the sun shining through a clear blue sky. The next two days it rained quite a lot and then again on our last day the skies cleared and the sun shone triumphantly over the snow capped mountains. A lot of the region was covered by cog railways or cable cars that took you to various peaks and lookouts as well as cute small towns in the valleys. We got a rail pass and spent a lot of the time exploring the area by rail and cable cars. It was so serenely beautiful I really cant do justice to the views.

On the first day we took the train to Eigerglacier and did a small hike with the Eiger's famous north face on one side and the sun-kissed valley on the other. We didn't let the rain bother us too much in the next couple of days because it was fun to go in the trains and cable cars while the mist and rain did its best to overcome everything. On our last day we woke up to clearing skies to find all the mountains above 2000m had gotten snow overnight and thus looked pristinely beautiful. We took a cable car to 'First' and did a hike to lake 'Bachalpsee' hidden amongst the snowy peaks. It was ideal conditions for a hike as the sun was out but there was a cool breeze to keep you refreshed. We both thoroughly enjoyed the hike and were really blown away by beautiful Switzerland.

Sunday, 12 July 2009


We arrived in Munich by train from Venice in about 7 hours. While the train was pretty old and not that fast the journey was quite enjoyable as we travelled through beautiful landscapes from the north of Italy and across all of Austria. Munich was cold and rainy when we arrived but lucky for us the hostel was very close to the station. The hostel had great facilities including a bar and an indoor garden with hammocks and couches. They also had free tours of the city which lasted about 3.5 hours and covered all the main sights of the city. We got to know about what it means to be Bavarian and how separate from the rest of Germany it is as well as its significance in WWII.

Munich was very cosmopolitan with great markets, beer gardens and restaurants. We found a good Viet & Thai restaurant nearby which we found ourselves going back to often. They were also lots of good Japanese places all over the city. While we were in Munich the first Ashes test started in England so we spent an entire day in our hostel watching the match in the big screen tv in the bar with some Aussies. So we had a very relaxing time of it.

A visit to the Deutsch Museum is a must in Munich, especially for us engineers with great scientific and technological displays to keep you amused for hours on end. I particularly liked the massive room dedicated to bridges where we got to see models of almost every type of bridge ever built and how they worked. The place was so huge we were too tired to see it all.

A short train ride from the centre of Munich is a fantastic garden called the Englisher Garden. It covered an immense area and consisted of lush green fields in amongst tall majestic trees as well as two beer gardens and a great big lake as its centre piece. We hired bicycles and rode around the lake and throughout the park. By coincidence while riding around we stumbled upon a cricket match played between two regional teams in the area at the MCC (Munich cricket club). We stopped by and watched the match for a while and got to know a very nice German girl who was there supporting her fiancé. The local team had a Sri Lankan spinner (he got a couple of wickets while we watched) as well as an Indian fast bower. It was great fun to watch and Pramo was itching to play with them. We had to leave to return our bikes otherwise we would have been there right till the end.

After returning our bikes we had lunch at the beer garden by the lake - curry wurst & beer. Overall it was a very relaxing and enjoyable day at the Englisher garden.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Venice one of those places you have to see for yourself to marvel at its uniqueness. We spent 3 days there and didnt do much else except walk around and get lost in its 'streets'. With space at a premium the smallest gap between buildings are shown as big streets on the maps and with many of these unnamed its easy to understand why almost everyone who has been there gets lost.

Venice is Italy's most expensive city and many people who wish to save money stay in Mestra on the mainland and travel by train or bus to Venice daily. Since we were there for such a short time and factoring in the cost to come into Venice we chose to stay on the island itself.

Venice seems to exist purely for the tourists. Almost everyone who works there comes in on the ferry in the morning and leave by evening along with the day trippers. So the whole place is eerily quiet at night when the remaining tourists fill into restaurants and hotels. I found this to be the nicest time of the day when you can walk past shop windows and gaze at the gorgeous Murano glassware and Venician masks for as long as you like. Both of these Venician exports are hideously expensive, well the originals anyway, and the stuff that is affordable is almost always from China. The Murano glassware in particular was very beautiful with every conceivable colour in every design imaginable from animals and vases to chandeliers, jewellery and chess pieces.

The other main activity on the island is of course the famed gondola rides. It costs about 90 Euros for a minimum hour ride and neither Pramo nor I wanted it that much to justify the cost. It would have worked out better if there were other people to go with but it didnt feel quite right to go with strangers in such a small and intimate setting.

I didnt think there was any one thing is particular which stood out in Venice or any particular reason to want to go back but like I said at the start of this post its one of those places you have to see for yourself.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


I think I liked Florence even before I got there. How is that possible? Let me explain. When we were in Rome, we got to know this young Aussie couple who were staying in the same dorm as us. The girl offered me the book she was just finishing and I took it gleefully having had nothing to read since we left London. The book was a historical novel set in Florence during the Renaissance. Through it I got great insight into life in Florence, the significant places in the city and the role art and religion played in people's lives in that time. The city also had a great vibe. The historical centre was quite compact, the streets narrow but clean and there was art all around you from the statues in the main square to the architecture of the old buildings and bridges to the slow windy river running through the heart of the city. Its no wonder that I fell in love with the place and consider it my favourite Italian city.

We also stayed in a great hostel that had everything you could want from a hostel and more. The rooms were clean and spacey and they had free wifi all over the hostel. There was a cute terrace to sit and relax as well as a small garden full of fruit trees alive with chirping birds throughout the day. But the best part about the hostel was the fact that they provided free breakfast (eggs & bacon or muesli or french toast) as well as dinner (pasta or pizza).

We did the free walking tours of the city run by the hostel and visited the main square, Piazza della Signoria with its outdoor statue gallery, Neptune fountain and Palazzo Vecchio alongside Michaelangelo's 'David'. This piazza was the main gathering point for the citizens of Florence in the olden days where everything from meetings & rallies, hangings, bonfires and celebrations took place. Palazzo Vecchio with its magnificent great hall full of expansive paintings & statues has been the seat of government for hundreds of years and is still used by the governor of Florence for his offices.

The statues in the outdoor gallery are also worthy of note. The two originals include 'Persius' with the head of Madusa and the 360 degree twisting depiction the 'Rape of Sabine Women'. Then of course there is Michaelangelo's David, well a copy of it anyway, standing all white and tall at the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. We saw the original in the Academia Gallery as does everyone who comes to Florence. The 'David' is remarkable perhaps for its sheer size more than anything else. While Pramo could not get past the fact that the head and hands were too large for the rest of the body. My favourite sculpture was that of Persius in bronze by Benvenuto Cellini. Persius is in perfect proportion and the whole sculpture has a remarkable level detail. The more you looked at the more you appreciated it's beauty. I could sit and stare at it for hours (which I did on most days).

Florence also had the BEST gelato we had tasted anywhere. Our walking guide told us that the city had the highest concentration of gellaterias in Europe and pointed us to one that she thought was good. They made their gelato fresh everyday using the fruits found in the market and boy, did they taste good. I think we had gelato everyday and more than once on some days. The pistachio was fabulous, as was the ricotta, blackberry, strawberry, peach, fig and chocolate sorbet.

A few meters from the main square is the river Arno with several bridges connecting the 2 sides of Florence. Ponte Vecchio bridge is the only original left since the rein of the Medici as all the others were destroyed in WWII and rebuilt since.

No trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the Uffizi gallery where the big guns of Renaissance art are on show. Even after getting there before opening we had to wait in line for about 40 minutes. Then finally after a few unremarkable rooms we saw Botticelli's famed 'Primavera' and 'The Birth of Venus'. Unfortunately they were both quite hard to see behind a glass cover and appeared faded. There was a lot more to see beyond those 2 paintings but I cant remember any of them so I guess that says a lot. I think the Renaissance paintings are bit too hyped up to be honest. They displayed great technique and depicted the human body better than ever before but the subjects all seemed rather dull. A majority of the works tended to be religious in nature, and then almost all of those depicted the same few scenes over and over again, whether its 'Madonna and child', 'Annunciation', 'Adoration of Magi' etc etc. While one could appreciate the skill and talent from a pure academic point of view there was nothing for me that reality struck a chord through the subject. Whereas Renaissance sculpture in my belief is quite brilliant and praise worthy. Always so evocative and with such a superior level of craftsmanship even some of the incomplete works by Michaelangelo displayed in the Academia seemed to be coming alive through the marble.

In the time we spent in Florence we also did a couple of day trips. One to see the leaning tower of Pisa and the other to the medieval town of Siena. We went to Siena a day before the 'il palio' - the annual medieval horse race set in the town square with each neighbouring city region competing to win the 'palio', a painted flag of the Virgin Mary. The town was covered with the colourful flags of the different regions and people wore their team flags around their necks. The atmosphere was quite festive in preparation for the most important event in the town's calendar.

Overall Florence was relaxing and enjoyable. Many nights we walked to the main square after dinner and sat around listening to the basking flute player and watching the gallery of statues and people alike, or strolled down to the river Arno to watch the sunset over Ponte Vecchio.