Travel meme #6: Clooneymania in Spain

 

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They must be mad for George Clooney in Spain. Either that, or they must be driven crazy by the sight of him seemingly everywhere, from amusingly exuberant Martini ads like this one, to his pleased looking face on Nespresso billboards. The hotel where we stayed in Barcelona was located nearest to the Clot metro station, which was perhaps fitting given the amount of ham, chorizo and cheese we ate while we were there. Every night in the evening, after a full day walking around and taking in the city (for my money the best in Spain), we came home to Clot, and hence, to George, whose absurd expression greeted us when we exited the metro station each night.

He is clearly a shameless man, but on the other hand, this ad brought a smile to even this Clooney shunner’s face every evening we enjoyed there.

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Travel meme #5: Unexpected fireworks

 

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Palermo for the uninitiated (we weren’t, at least initially) is the capital of Sicily, and an interesting clash of your average cosmopolitan city in Western Europe and somewhere just a bit more lively and exotic. One of the highlights of our trip there was stumbling on a restaurant for dinner just as a massive and unexpected religious procession unfolded in the main square before our eyes. Seemingly without any warning, soon after a barrage of fireworks were released literally fifteen or twenty metres from where we were standing, with people in the crowd even closer than that to the action. The locals, of course, seemed to be going about their daily business as usual, acting as if all this was normal. Apart from general appearances which are in any case a dead giveaway, you could certainly tell who the tourists were that night from the shocked, pleased and bewildered looks on their faces.

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Travel meme #4: Waiting for Nero

 

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Okay, well I lie slightly, but your correspondent at far right of shot is shooting a glance back at the Colosseum in Rome as he waits to purchase a painfully overpriced panini and bottle of water from a vendor. Upon arriving at the site and admiring its site and scale, we were rushed quickly through the crowds by a student offering us a tour. Although we were somewhat sceptical and there was some initial confusion (there must be about two dozen tours being operated at the same time at any one time at the Colosseum), it turned out to be well worth it to provide a deeper layer of context to what we were seeing. We also took a guided tour of Palatine Hill, run by a frankly quite excellent archaeological student from New Zealand who made us quite proud of us antipodeans and our kiwi mates.

Rome was one of those places where it is virtually impossible to take it all in and appreciate the full scope. There’s just too much important history there, literally around every corner and on every street that you walk.

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Travel meme #3: Reflections on a Belgian binge

 

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Of all the places in Europe I have visited so far, Belgium was probably one of the most enjoyable. What is in Belgium, I hear you ask? Well, the answer is really quite simple and can not be underestimated: beer and chocolate. Now I am not much of a beer drinker, but when confronted with the almost absurd array of beers on offer in Brussels, you can’t help but feel a little curious. While I’m not much of a beer drinker, I am much of a chocolate eater. There are chocolate shops all over the place in Brussels and Bruges (where this photo was taken, under an hour by train from Brussels), from Godiva, to Pierre Marcolini (recommended!), to Leonidas… and I could go on, and on…

The touristy alfresco restaurant culture of Bruges is reflected in the background.

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Travel meme #2: Machiavellian navigation skills

 

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We visited Florence, Venice and Pisa as part of the same trip. Florence was a pretty interesting city to say the least, forever marked as it is by the presence of Michaelangelo’s David and one of the world’s greatest art galleries, the Uffizi. In what has become something of a tradition on these trips, on one day we managed to get quite remarkably lost in Florence. Despite many desperate map consultations and the strong and persistent general expectation that we were in fact heading where we wanted to go, we eventually ended up quite a long way from where we thought we were. The irony of the fact that the name of the street where we “found ourselves” on the map again was named Machiavelli was inescapable.

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Travel meme #1: Peggy’s babies

One of the great things about travel is that you never really quite know what you are going experience along your way. Obviously one has expectations about certain sights or places that one is about to visit, but part of the real joy of travel is stumbling upon something unique and interesting that you didn’t quite anticipate.

I am going to be away over the Easter Weekend and actually until Wednesday next week, so for each of the next five days I have stage-published one of the photos from my travels, each with a bit of a story behind it. Each post will have a smaller version of the image on the main page, with a larger version of the image over the fold for those who want to see a bit more detail and have a decent net connection. The posts will go online at 7AM AEST daily.

In any case, I hope everyone has an enjoyable and safe Easter.

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My first visit to Italy was to Venice, and despite my expectations about the city, I couldn’t help but be shell-shocked by just how otherworldly it was. All in all, perhaps the only negative aspect to the experience were the swarms of tourists about the place (we went in peak Summer) – to the point where the place really was somewhat overcrowded. One of the unexpected little delights of visiting Venice was a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Besides a pretty great collection of modern art, the museum boasted a beautiful, shady green courtyard filled with sculptures, and I couldn’t help but notice this somewhat unconventional headstone.

It lists the names of Peggy Guggenheim’s deceased babies – her dogs, all buried together in what one presumes was her favourite place in the world.

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The colours and patterns of Islam

I visited Marrakech recently and was taken by the vibrant scents, colours and patterns of the city. It was a unique experience, and my first to an Islamic country. Apart from a healthy over-enthusiasm for tourist dirhams, can I just say that contrary to all the global hysteria, everybody we came across was nothing but lovely and welcoming?

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More over the fold.

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Postcards from the birthplace of democracy

To be honest it was not much to look at. While throngs of tourists on the streets below rambled along the main drag on the winding route up to the more highly renowned Acropolis, this little patch of space, known as the Pnyx, sat all on its lonesome, with only a couple of people in sight or earshot. 

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But would you believe it if I told you that this was the meeting place of the world’s first known democratic assembly – and that it is believed that this happened over five hundred years before the birth of Christ?

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While in Athens recently, I found it hard to truly comprehend and come to terms with the relics of history that were often thrust into my immediate contact. Awe does not quite capture it; it’s something beyond awe. Bewilderment, perhaps. A small reminder that in case you had forgotten, you are just another insignificant piece of fungus along for the ride on this ball of rock of ours; a ball of rock that is constantly turning and moving the seasons ceaselessly onward. A hundred years ago objectively speaking is a long time for most, at least in terms of individual human experience. To just sit back and consider that over 2500 years ago, right here in this particular location in Athens where one can potter around today, the essential germ of what we know as democracy was arguably born, is a fairly humbling thought.

The view across to the Acropolis from the Pnyx is also somewhat humbling. 

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Architecture in Lisbon and Sintra

Lisbon, where I spent last weekend, proved to be a delight. Of particular interest was the architecture, given the many cultures who have occupied the territories where the modern city now lies.   

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The Manueline style of architecture is evident in Lisbon’s most important building, the Jeronimos Monastery.
      

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The cloister of the same monastery.
      

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The Tower of Belem – possibly the cutest tower ever constructed.
      

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Palacio de Pena – in the hills of nearby Sintra, a heritage-listed area. Probably the most fantastical “real” castle I have ever seen. The exterior is something out of Disneyland.
      

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The contrast with the Palacio de Pena and the historic Moorish Castle could not be more stark. This somewhat dilapidated structure has an enviable position draped around the hills of Sintra, looking down on the village times. It dates back to around 900AD when the Islamic Moors occupied these lands.
   

Needless to say, if you ever get the opportunity to wander aimlessly around these parts, I recommend you do so.

How one building can change a town

Probably a couple of decades ago, Bilbao was just another declining port town in the Basque-dominated North of Spain, with not a great deal going for it. Frank Gehry’s shimmering Guggenheim Museum has now changed all that forever, transforming the town into an arts hub, and fuelling its ongoing development with tourist euros. This quaint little town now boasts one of the world’s most modern and attractive mass transit systems, convenient buses, trams, and added to that, a very walkable city centre. Further dynamic and creative infrastructure projects are afoot. Meanwhile, to the south and east of the city, near Casco Viejo (the “old town”), life still seems to carry on as it always has for decades and decades. Locals flock to the flower markets on a Sunday, with every second person you see clutching an attractive bouquet of exotic flowers, young and old. Comparatively, in the northern half of the city, it is almost as if aliens have landed.   

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Yes, before you ask, that is a giant West Highland Terrier (courtesy Jeff Koons) made from sculpted foliage and flowers. It is amazing and inspiring to think that the construction of one building can lead to such an atmosphere of creativity and growth. Walking around Bilbao, change and rejuvenation was evident everywhere you looked. For example, one cannot imagine that a hotel looking like this one (the Hesperia Bilbao) would have appeared if the Guggenheim had not preceded it. The colourful ideas of the good and great have been unshackled and allowed to roam free, and the city is all the more richer for it.   

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And all this happened, let’s not forget, because someone out there in local government had faith that Gehry’s twisted, child-like doodle of a structure could be turned into a reality, and that somehow, it would work. Well work it did – probably beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Small-minded bureaucrats, the world over, please take careful note.

ELSEWHERE: JG Ballard’s thoughts in the Guardian are well worth a read.