Sunday, 30 December 2012

Christmas at ‘The Bay’

Christmas in Australia is very different than in most parts of the world and while it carries with it much of the same snowy imagery, the hot weather ensures that it is generally celebrated outdoors. Each year the Christmas Day news service broadcasts the usual stock standard story about tourists from the northern hemisphere spending their festive day at the beach. This is usually accompanied by footage of bikini clad ‘Brits’ wearing Santa hats and holding a glass of champagne in one hand and turkey drumstick in the other. The truth is that I can never actually remember having Christmas lunch at the beach (far too much sand for us), but like many other Aussies, we would eventually be drawn to the ocean in the days following Christmas to enjoy the relaxed seaside atmosphere or more likely to seek the cool ocean breeze as respite from the heat of the day.

The most popular of the coastal spots in South Australia is Glenelg, which is simply referred to by locals as the ‘The Bay’. The name harks back its original title of ‘Holdfast Bay’, which was given by the pioneer settlers in 1836 and although it was re-named shortly afterwards, the tag has stuck and the area itself has continued to develop into the premier beachside suburb of Adelaide. As Christmas coincides with the proclamation of the colony, Glenelg has become the place where thousands converge each year to enjoy the celebrations and in particular to witness an event called ‘The Bay Sheffield’. This two-day gathering remains the state’s most prestigious running meet, which has been held annually in the basin shaped park of Colley Reserve since 1887. While Jules and I have lived in Adelaide for most of our lives, I am embarrassed to say that we have never actually attended, however this year during our visit back home, we thought that it was about time we rectified that situation.

Still slightly bloated from consecutive days of eating ham and turkey sandwiches, we were keen to enjoy a casual stroll along Jetty Road, the main shopping strip of Glenelg. This is where the expansion of the popular suburb began many years ago, with some lovely Victorian and Art Deco buildings still remaining and of course the familiar sight of the tram rolling back and forth from the centre of downtown Adelaide. As we walked, we reminisced about memories of the area; the old cinemas that lined the street, the many restaurants that have come and gone and the old trams fondly referred to as ‘red rattlers’. These days the area has expanded in all directions, but particularly along the coast and toward the picturesque marina that now boasts some of the most expensive houses in the state. Seaside pines and palm trees provided much sought after shade as the sun shined brightly and the temperature continued to rise. It was time to get a tub of frozen yogurt (the trendy alternative to ice cream) and head down to Colley Reserve.

Being the final day of the event, the carnival was now in full swing with most of the events being run and won, however it would be past 6.00pm by the time the male athletes would take to the track for the main 120 metre race that the carnival was named after …‘The Bay Sheffield’. By this stage the mounds that surrounded the track were full, held back by only a small, dainty white picket fence. It has always been a free event, so as the major race drew closer, people arrive from all directions. The lovely thing about this race is that you can still get relatively close to the runners, much like a good old-fashioned country carnival. While there is some prize money involved these days, the event harks back to the old days of amateurism, allowing virtually anyone to enter as it provides a handicap system in order to make each race competitive. Yet in the end the cream always rises to the top and the finalists are inevitably the best runners from throughout Australia.

After much fanfare, it is not too long before the runners have each donned their coloured vest and are poised on the starters blocks ready for the gun. Ahead of them are roped laneways, similar to those seen in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ that depicts the events of 1924 Olympics. This is not by any stretch the Olympics, but for local prestige it is just as important. As I looked around the ground, I realized that there are not too many places in the world were this type of carnival would ever happen, let alone just a few days after Christmas … it was truly unique! I’m was however quickly startled from my daydream by the bang of the starters gun and look to see the athletes rocketing off down the track. In a blink it is all over, with the runner wearing red lying on the ground totally exhausted, but with his arms clearly raised in victory. Former Olympic runner Josh Ross was the only runner to begin the race from ‘scratch’ (the full 120 metres) and while other runners had several metres head start, he had managed to lunge over the line to create local history, as the only non-handicapped runner to win the race in 126 years.

It may have been our first Bay Sheffield, but we had chosen a good one with glorious weather, a festive crowd and an historic victory. I guess these are the sorts of events that we have tended to take for granted over the years, while tourists continue to travel half way around the world for such experiences. However, this year we appreciated it just that little bit more, having left the wintery conditions of Japan just a few days before Christmas. So as the sun continued to blaze on this glorious December day at 'The Bay', there was nothing left to do than to head home for a quiet beer and yet another turkey sandwich!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

On the Slow Train to Nikko

If you ever look at tourist brochures or coffee table books about Japan, chances are that you have seen images of Nikko. Second to Mt.Fuji, it must be one of the most photographed areas of Japan, as it provides the setting for one of the country’s most significant shrines and some of its most scenic mountain ranges, forming the Nikko National Park. Not surprisingly it has developed into a very popular attraction for both local and overseas visitors, who flock there throughout the year and in particular during the all important seasonal changes. Such was the case at the peak of Autumn; with the leaves in full colour, we decided to take the 140km journey north of Tokyo to visit this popular attraction. Although we knew it would be packed with tourists, we were determined to see it.

For such a trip, most foreigners tend to book a coach tour, but we decided that we would travel the way that most Japanese tend to get there … by rail. Since we have been in Japan, Jules has become so proficient in her mastery of what must be the world’s complicated rail system that these days I just sit back and relax in the knowledge that she will always get us there. So early on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, I blindly followed her to Asukusa station to board what we knew would be a long slow trip to Nikko … around two and a half hours. Not that we particularly minded as we much prefer traveling by rail than road, plus there was the added bonus of being able to see the tallest tower in the world, the ‘Tokyo Skytree’, which looms close by. We had been reliably told that this marvel of engineering stands twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower and while providing a great view of the city, also acts as a giant aerial for broadcasters, whose signals have been increasingly blocked by the plethora of high-rise buildings.

As we headed out of Tokyo and its suburbs, we looked back to see Mt. Fuji majestically rising from the distant horizon. This was the cloudless, sky blue day we had hoped for when we had visited the day before and we were grateful to have such good weather to see Nikko in all its glory. By mid-way through the trip we were also thankful we actually had a seat, as the train was becoming increasingly crowded, which was exacerbated even further when several carriages were removed from our convoy making the last leg of the journey quite a squeeze. Yet with the usual Japanese efficiency we eventually rolled into Nikko right on time and by that stage were more than happy to stretch our legs over the two kilometre walk that would take us to its most famous shrine.

Toshogu Shrine (dedicated to the Tokugawa shogunate) is possibly the most lavishly decorated mausoleum in all of Japan. It is set at the foot of the mountains amongst a forest of giant Cedar and Cyprus trees with each structure adorned with wonderfully opulent carvings that date back to the 15th century. However it’s most famous carving surrounds the eaves of one it’s smaller and less grand 17th century buildings and depicts ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’ whose moral ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ has become universally recognised. This whimsical carving also has personal significance to Jules who recounts that as a child, the saying was regularly bandied around the dinner table as the ultimate ode to live by. Years later the saying still rings in her ears! Of course she had to join the many other tourists to have her photograph taken below the famous carving for old times sake, although she sensibly resisted recreating one of the famous gestures as many just had to do … groups of three were particularly popular!

We continued to wander around the grounds to study the detail of the architecture, admire colourful leaves and to generally soak up the atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage site. However, tourism and the commercial aspects of Nikko has to a certain extent taken its toll over the years. The highly photographed sacred Shinkyo Bridge was not quite what we expected. Images of the elegant red lacquered arched bridge that spans the Daiya River can be seen on a myriad of postcards, but what they conveniently fail to show is the traffic filled road complete with traffic lights that infringes right along side … an unfortunate sign of the times! Likewise, the ticket booth where you can pay 300 yen to walk to the end of the 28 metre long dead-end bridge is, not surprisingly, also out of shot.

While there were many more temples and natural attractions to be seen further a field, we had seen what we had come to see within the precinct of the town and by three o’clock were quite happy to board the slow train for the trip back to Tokyo. Following Jules’ impeccable knowledge of train timetables we managed to get on board at just the right time to secure seats once again. It seemed that many of the same crowd we had previously arrived with were also heading back, so it wasn’t too long before the carriage was again full to capacity. As we slowly pulled away from the platform, the excitement of the passengers who had frantically made the last minute sprint in order to squeeze on board began to subside and everyone settled in for the long ride ahead. It would be well after dark when we arrived back to the bright lights of bustling Tokyo and at that point, Nikko seemed like a million miles away … not exactly, but it was quite a journey!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji

There is something about standing in the shadows of a great mountain that reminds you just how small we humans are in nature’s grand scheme. This is certainly the case when you visit Mt. Fuji, Japans most revered natural attraction and certainly one of world’s most beautiful mountain images. Rising majestically from the relatively flat surrounding landscape, it forms an almost perfect symmetrical shape that looks much the same as the way a child might simplistically draw a mountain on a distant horizon. Its even, conical appearance can be explained by the fact that Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano (last erupting in the early 1700’s) resulting in its flattened peak that indicates the crater below. Being Japans highest mountain (12,388 ft.), it remains largely snowcapped for most of the year and set against a clear blue sky, it provides the iconic image that tourists from far and wide come to see.

Such was the case when Jules and I boarded one of three buses leaving Tokyo in the early hours of the morning bound for the area referred to as ‘The Three Holy Mountains’ (Mount Fuji, Mount Tate and Mount Haku). It was believed that the top of Mt Fuji is where Buddha once resided and the climb to the summit (known as ‘Zenjo’) still remains a long-standing tradition of followers during the summer months. The closest that Jules and I had come to the sacred mountain previously was seeing it as a distant blur from the porthole windows of the high speed Shinkansen bullet train. This time we were making our own pilgrimage from Osaka to view it at close range. Like most of the other tourists on the bus, we had been magnetically drawn to it, much like the Richard Dreyfuss character in the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ … not knowing quite the reason why or what we might experience when we got there … it was just something that had to be done!

Our day-trip around the mountain involved several hours of travel broken up with various stops where we could view the iconic peak from different vantage points. There could only be one factor that would spoil the whole experience and that was the unpredictable nature of the weather! It had rained all of the previous day and the skies were again very gloomy (not totally surprising for late November in Japan). Fine weather would be critical to our viewing pleasure, although all pre-booked tours continue to run despite impending weather. On a particularly bad day, visitors have been known to miss seeing Mt. Fuji altogether, even though it may only be a few hundred metres in front of them.

Our guide for the trip was a softly spoken young lady called Yoko, who seemed quite proud of sharing the same name as the other more famous Yoko who was married to John Lennon. As we left Tokyo, Yoko began providing us with a wealth of useful information about Japanese culture in between making regular phone calls to check the all important weather forecast and its effect on what level of the mountain we might be able to reach. She explained that level 10 was the summit, which could only be reached by foot at certain times of the year (certainly not this time of the year), while level 5 was the highest level able to be reached by road. Although Yoko was initially hopeful that we might actually make it mid-way up the mountain, she soon informed us that the previous days rain had turned the roads into sheets of ice and the highest point we could possibly reach would be level one … pretty much the base of the mountain! While a small collective sigh of disappointment was heard throughout the bus, it was tempered by the sight of distant sunlight beginning to break through the clouds for the first time in days revealing a lovely blue sky, ensuring a that we would be able to see Mt. Fuji clearly.

As we headed down the highway, we were relieved to see the great mountain emerging through the wispy clouds, looking much as depicted in many traditional Japanese artworks. It is claimed that on a clear day Mt. Fuji can be seen from up to 100 kilometers away; today we were just happy to see it at all! As we headed toward the tourist centre to take our first photos, we were slightly distracted by the inexplicable sight of an amusement park (complete with giant rollercoaster) that appeared totally out of place for the location. This was yet another example of the type of contradictions that Jules and I often see in Japan, which we have now managed to train ourselves to ignore by selectively framing its more beautiful sights. Such was the case as we glanced toward Mt Fuji only a few kilometers away.The sun had almost totally broken through, reflecting light off the snow on its gentle slopes. With a lone cloud lingering over the peak of the summit, the mountain took on an ancient and almost mystical quality.

Not wasting the opportune break in the weather, we quickly boarded the bus for the short ride to the base of the mountain only to find, as Yoko had predicted, the road barriers were indeed in place and we could travel no further. Surrounded by other tourists also stopped in their tracks, we could do nothing else but collectively stare upward; the small crowd dwarfed by its overwhelming scale. The sun was still shining, but alas not for too much longer and we could see clouds quickly beginning to engulf the giant mountain once again.

As we headed away, we had the interesting experience of passing over a series of man made corrugations carved into the road that, when combined with the friction of rubber tyres, remarkably caused a musical tune to vibrate throughout the cabin of the bus ... quite strange! Yoko explained that the tune was a popular children’s song that celebrated Mt. Fuji as ‘the number one mountain in Japan’. There was certainly no doubting that and despite the fickle nature of the weather, we had both been glad to have made the pilgrimage to witness its grandeur first hand. We were reminded that with all good pilgrimages, it’s always as much about the journey as the arrival!

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Curious Statues of Arashiyama

With the autumn leaf season upon us again (October/November), Jules and I decided to head to the nearby town of Arashiyama to enjoy the colour and festivities that usually surround major seasonal changes in Japan. In fact it’s a very popular little town all year round in any case, as the scenic mountains and fast flowing river attracts regular visitors keen to enjoy the combination of scenic beauty, temples, quaint shops and eating establishments. While traditional flat bottomed boats regularly transport tourists from the up stream town of Kameoka  to Arashiyama itself, a fleet of energetic rickshaw drivers run couples to the various attractions in and around the town. Being just a short train ride from Osaka and even closer for the residents of Kyoto, it remains one of the most visited areas in the Kansai region. There was certainly plenty of evidence of that on the day we were there, with thousands descending on the little town for a pleasant family day.

 In the centre of Arashiyama is the world heritage listed Tenryuji Temple that dates back to 1300 AD and is regarded as one of the great examples of Zen architecture in the Kyoto area. It is also surrounded by a magnificent bamboo grove where you can follow a winding path and be dwarfed by beautiful towering lengths of bamboo plants that stretch high into the sky as to almost block it out. This walk alone attracts thousands of visitors to the temple grounds, yet for us it was only a slight diversion from the real reason we were visiting Arashiyama.

On one of her many internet searches into the Kansai region, Jules had read about a lesser known temple with a particularly unique feature that had sparked her curiosity. The Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple is very small and sits at the northern outskirts of town, at the edge of the nearby mountain range. It is a little further to walk to than most of Arashiyama’s temples, which makes it far less visited and often quieter than the towns larger and better known Buddhist attractions. However, what makes this temple unique is the garden that surrounds it, which is filled with over 1200 stone statues of disciples of Buddha. This might sound all very solemn and serious, but these are possibly the most whimsical statues that you are ever likely to see in a Buddhist temple anywhere. While the original temple dates back to the thirteenth century, the carved figures where added relatively recently, in the 1980’s. Not that you would be aware of that from their immediate appearance. They look much older, weathered from seasonal rains as well as the moss and lichen giving them an increased sense of age and in some cases, an almost unrecognizable quality. Closer inspection however, began to reveal some of the more interesting and endearing features of these figures, which were lovingly carved by local amateurs. There are some wonderful facial expressions that reveal the distinctly individual nature of each piece. Each has its own unique pose; some in peaceful contemplation, some in small joyous groups and some even involved with contemporary pursuits like photography, tennis, boxing and playing guitar. We even spotted one listening to a walkman! We found that the charming nature of these carvings were far less ‘stony-faced’ than western styled religious iconography and they seemed to say much about the warmth and optimistic nature of Buddhist faith.

As you can imagine, we ended up spending quite some time wandering around the various levels of the gardens trying to determine the story behind each little character. Like the other visitors there on the day, Jules’ just couldn’t resist photographing as may of them as possible as they stood nestled in their natural setting as colourful autumn leaves fell all around.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Mystique of the Geisha

One of the iconic images that can be seen on tourist brochures about Japan is that of the Geisha. These young girls dressed in elaborate kimono, with heavy traditional make-up and sculptured black hair adorned with hanging decorations, appear to represent everything that is traditional in this country. While the image is very familiar, their role in modern Japanese society still remains somewhat of a mystery and to a certain degree an intriguing curiosity to visitors.

While the Geisha community is quite small in Osaka, a quick train ride to Kyoto has often led us to several districts in which they can be seen at various times. Certainly Kyoto is quite unique in this regard and is the place where many of the apprentice Geisha (referred to as ‘Maiko’) learn the art of becoming a traditional hostess. This may involve learning Japanese arts such as dance and music as well as important communication and hospitality skills for their generally male guests. In fact the word Geisha actually means ‘person of the arts’, which suggests something very different to the misguided western notion of their role and the salubrious comforts they may provide. Indeed it is the exclusivity of their establishments and the long-standing trust between their clients that has over time enhanced the mystery that surrounds this small and unique cultural society.

When Jules and I have been walking through the historical Gion district of Kyoto, we have often seen pairs of Geisha (more likely Maiko) walking the laneways between buildings. Well, ‘teetering’ might be a better term, as they are often wearing very tall, steeply angled wooden shoes (called okobo), which combined with the heavily layered kimono, ensure that only tiny steps are possible. They are always immaculately dressed in their brightly coloured kimono’s with ghostly white make-up that covers the entire face except for a perfectly chiseled W shaped area at the back of the neck (regarded as one of the most sensual areas of Japanese beauty). In stepping out into the streets, they inevitably attract a crowd and quickly the cameras are out for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. They are of course well aware of the attention they attract and are generally very obliging in stopping to pose for the occasional photo before shuffling off to their destination.

The random nature of their appearance ensures that at most times they are able to go about their business relatively easily, however this is not always the case as Jules found out during a recent visit to Kyoto. It had been announced locally that a small number of Geisha would make an appearance to commemorate the local poet and playwright Isamu Yoshii, so Jules thought that she would investigate. What she found was the sort of paparazzi mayhem that might otherwise be reserved for the arrival of celebrities and movie stars. Such was the appeal of the Geishas that amateur and professional photographers alike could be seen clambering for position, some even bringing step-ladders to see over the anticipated crowds. The ceremony quickly dissolved into camera flashing chaos and the Geishas hastily retreated back to their establishment. With attention like this, it is not surprising that young girls are still attracted to the life of a Geisha. For the Japanese, they are still regarded as national treasures who provide a tangible link to the simple and elegant traditions of their past. For visitors like ourselves, they remain an exotic enigma that symbolizes much of the charm, beauty and mystery of this ancient culture.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Gentle Art of Tea

While in Japan, Jules and I have made it our goal to explore as many of their fascinating cultural traditions as possible. One of which is the Japanese tea ceremony that had remained somewhat of a mystery to us both, although we were keen to learn more about what seemed to be the most humble of tasks. So while planning a visit to Kyoto, Jules had managed to organize a visit to a traditional teahouse where it was promised that many of the ancient rituals would be explained.

Upon entering the tiny traditional wooden house, we were warmly greeted by a very softly spoken lady dressed in traditional kimono. We removed our shoes, as is the norm and stepped up into the tatami room to take up our sitting positions side by side as we were asked to do. The lady sat opposite and began by initially explaining the importance of the correct seating position in relation to the host and the room in general. Clearly there were going to be many ‘rules’ that would need to be observed and we would need to listen carefully in order to respectfully observe each gesture and movement. She explained that the tea ceremony was not something the Japanese would have done in their own home, but rather an event that would occur in a designated room (chashitsu) of a small wooden building within a tranquil setting. Here, a small group of ‘guests’ would sit silently to observe the disciplined ritual of making a simple bowl of green tea called ‘matcha’. It seemed that the act was not so much about making tea but about achieving a total aesthetic, while searching for spiritual and emotional purification. This is certainly quite a complex concept for us westerners to grasp, particularly as our notion of tea drinking has always been more about the drinking, rather than the making.

Our gentle host began to point out the various implements involved in the ceremony, each significant in its own right. It appears that functionality was only a small part of their story; as they are imbued with much symbolic meaning that originate from their initial creation through to their actual use. Several of the pieces are created by hand from a single piece of bamboo, including the long ladle used for transporting the hot water from the pot to the bowl (Hishaku), the whisk used for mixing the tea and water (Chasen) and the tea scoop that deposits a small pinch of tea into the bowl (Chashaku). We were told that this particular implement is often provided with its own unique name, given to coincide with the seasons. Likewise, the much prized tea bowls are also often named by their owners and become much cherished items that are passed on from generation to generation. Another significant item is a small piece of linen or hemp cloth that is used to wipe the tea bowl and tea container. Through the ritual of folding and unfolding this cloth, our host delicately demonstrated its highly disciplined use as she prepared to begin the ceremony.

We began to discover that there was much more to the ceremony than purely drinking tea and the host might prepare for a 'tea party' by producing some sweet or savory delicacies for the guests, while at other times Saki (Japanese rice wine) may also be served. On this occasion we were offered a sample of a sugar coated jelly that was not dislike a western-style jelly confectionary. We then all sampled the tea to be served from a communal bowl that was passed along the line. We were told that the tea used in a tea ceremony is a much better grade than normally sold as green tea and as a result it had a stronger taste than usual and that was certainly the case. Therefore, only a small pinch of ‘Matcha’ would need to be scooped up with the ‘Chashaku’ in order to achieve a full flavor. In our bowls we each used our ‘Chasen’ to whisk the much desired froth of the tea, which our host claimed was an art in itself often taking many years to perfect. When finished, we were shown the correct way to drink our tea, which involving raising the bowl and turning it a quarter of a turn clockwise twice, in order to position the patterning on the bowl correctly. Having drunk from the bowl, it again had to be turned, but this time anti-clockwise before being returned to its original position some 16 centimeters in front of us on the matt…such details!

The ceremony had taken an hour, but we realized that we were only just beginning to scratch the surface of this precise and ancient art form. Our host told us that she had been continually studying the art of ‘the tea ceremony’ for over 10 ten years and that there was indeed still much to learn. Apparently ‘Tea Masters’ are held in particular high regard in Japan, as they hold strong traditional connections within the Buddhist faith. Despite the briefness of our encounter, we had been most impressed by the tranquility of the whole experience. What we had initially considered to be a very simple act, we were quick to recognise was a highly disciplined and multi faceted art form. Sitting in a silent room, listening to the gentle sound of hot water pouring into the ceramic bowl, the whisking of the tea and gentle sips from the bowl … at that moment, it all made sense! I’m not sure whether I can look at tea making in quite the same way ever again!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Great Japanese Rooftop Barbeque

With the hot summer nights there is nothing better to an Aussie than a good old-fashioned barbeque. There is something quite primeval about sitting around an open flame with a drink in hand, enjoying a balmy evening while cooking fresh raw meat! At this point I must apologise to my vegetarian friends who will be cringing with contempt as they look forward to their carrot stick lunch. However, whether they like it or not, the barbeque remains one of the most satisfying of culinary experiences that is happily enjoyed by us carnivores. To our surprise, here in Japan the home-style barbeque is generally a pretty rare experience. Not because the Japanese dislike cooked meat, quite the contrary, but simply because most live in apartments that understandably prevent any kind of open air cooking. However, not to be deterred they have invented numerous ways in which the humble barbeque can be enjoyed, one of which is what Jules and I simply refer to as the ‘rooftop barbie’!

In Osaka this event is referred to as a ‘beer garden’ and is so popular that you need to book weeks, if not months, in advance to reserve a spot on top of one of the city’s many high-rise buildings. Once making it to the rooftop, the elevator doors open to what can only be described as an over-scaled ‘simulated backyard’ complete with rows of tables each with mini ‘hibachi style’ barbeques. There is fake grass and the usual temporary seats that you might find at your local backyard function, such as the classic ‘white plastic stackable’ and the ‘strappy fold-out’ variety. Like many of Japans large group eating establishments, it is an all you can eat and drink affair. You are given a set time limit, so patrons are encouraged to get there early in their best barbeque attire to fire up their cooker and enjoy the endless amount of food and drink on offer. With plates in hand, you head around to various ‘stations’ to collect the freshly cut seafood and raw meat. This tends to be quite thinly cut, as is the Japanese preference, so it takes only a couple of minutes before it is cooked. Of course there are many accompaniments available too, including the odd bit of salad if that is your choice, but it is the ritual of cooking meat and seafood in the open air that the locals primarily come to experience, not to mention the many large jugs of beer that inevitably wash it all down.

The atmosphere high above the city rooftops is quite unique, with thousands of fairy lights draped all around, accompanying the more impressive lights of the big city beyond. High on a wall is a projector, beaming out drive-in sized images of the latest local sporting events, however nobody really seems to be watching it as they are more intent upon keeping an eye on their sizzling meat. Once all the barbeques are in full swing, there is a steady cloud of smoke drifting high into the night sky, while there is a ground swell of boisterous conversation that continues to increase with the arrival of yet more jugs of the amber fluid.

Several hours later and at the designated time, the tune ‘Old Lang Syne’ is played from overhead speakers, which is the not so subtle hint that the crowd should eat their last morsel, drink up and leave. Inevitably by this stage of the night the rooftop party is well and truly in full swing and despite being the only ‘gaijins’ (foreigners) at this mammoth communal barbeque, our group has by now struck up a conversation with one of the Japanese groups on the next table who are curious about our origins and have now drunk enough beer to ask. It is all very friendly and indicative of the happy atmosphere of the evening that continues to bring people of all ages back during the summer months. While such venues are temporary and only last for about four months each year, they have in recent years become a roaring success, enabling the locals to experience something that we in Australia tend to take for granted. While it may be a relatively new phenomenon over here, we found the whole experience to be actually very close to the traditional Aussie ‘beer garden’. Indeed through such annual events, barbeque cooking in Japan certainly remains alive and well, adding to Osaka’s reputation for their love of all forms of cooking and of course, good times!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In Search for the Best ‘Vanilla Slice’ Ever!

Over the last few years, friends and family have been under the misguided impression that we have spent our time away from Australia purely sightseeing. I must confess that this is not entirely true, as in fact we have been undertaking some quite serious research by scouring the world to find the perfect ‘Vanilla Slice’! Well, in all fairness to Jules, I have to state that it has been my quest really, as I have tended to eat most of these delicious custard filled slices of heaven in the various places we have visited.

The strange thing is that as I child, I wasn’t particularly fond of this particular cake, which is still colloquially referred to in Australia as a ‘snot block’. They would sell them in the school canteen and more often than not, they would sit in an open tray in a warm room for several hours, attracting the flies and ensuring that the over-yellowed custard filling would stiffen to become a coagulated block of jelly. However, my impression was to dramatically change several years later when what was referred to as ‘Bavarian Slice’ was served to me at a Christmas function in Adelaide. Apart from the name change, it was essentially the same cake, but this time the vanilla custard was smooth and creamy, the puff pastry was crisp yet not too dry and it was topped with a perfect coating of white icing…absolutely delicious! I asked where the cake had come from, but nobody knew anything other than the name, which was assumed had some sort of Germanic connection. I guess that is where the search began and over the next few years, when ever we passed a local bakery we would pop in, in the hope that I might re-discover that delicious custard slice, whatever it’s name might be.

I wouldn’t like to call it a fixation, but this ‘interest’ of mine has seen Jules and I exploring many bakeries from all over Australia and in more recent times worldwide. We have tasted all kinds of variations over the years including different types of custards, consistency of pastry or subtlties of icing and in some cases, the inclusion of jam. Recently we finally made it to the region of Bavaria, not that we came here especially to look for the elusive slice, but it was certainly on my ‘things to do’ list in both Germany and Austria. Here we discovered that what we knew as a ‘Vanilla Slice’ in Australia was referred to in these parts as a ‘Cream Slice’ or a ‘Creme Schnitte’. It turns out that the term ‘Bavarian Slice’ was actually a term given to the slice in England, where it remains as popular as in Australia and as a result of immigration, it may explain why it sometimes goes by that name.

No matter what name the slice goes by, it’s certainly not a pretty cake to eat, with custard oozing out the sides with every bite, eventually leaving you with cream all over your face and sticky hands from the icing. I must admit that I probably indulged in far too many ‘Cream Schnittes’ on our recent trip, but it’s a thankless task and in the name of research somebody has to do it! So at this stage I think I can reveal my current list of the top six standouts in my quest for the perfect ‘Vanilla Slice’…

 1. Dulwich Bakery Adelaide, Australia – This is our favorite local bakery and still delivers the best ‘Vanilla Slice’ in South Australia and possibly the world!

 2. Cafe Hanselmann St Moritz, Switzerland – Here they refer to it as a ‘Vanilla Cream’ and serve the slice with a layer of puff pastry in the centre and a thin layer of jam…very tasty!

 3. Greenhaigh’s Bakery Wigan, United Kingdom – I must admit that I ate a ‘Bavarian Slice’ here a few years ago, but I fondly remember the vanilla custard being deliciously creamy.

 4. Café Diglas Vienna, Austria – Again served with the puff pastry in the middle, allowing the slice to stand particularly tall, with just a hint of jam.

 5. Schatz-Konditorei Salzburg, Austria – They served a nice ‘Cremeschnitte’ that came with an additional layer of regular cream (although quite unnecessary in my opinion) and very creamy custard.

 6. Demel Pastry Shop, Vienna Austria – Once the purveyor of cakes to the Imperial and Royal court of Austria-Hungary, their ‘Crème Schnitte’ still remains fit for a king despite their preference for a dusting of icing sugar rather than sticky icing!

While I can’t say that I have found the best Vanilla slice in the world quite yet, there have been some pretty impressive contenders. Still the memory of that definitive slice tasted over twenty years ago lingers on and with the passing of time, it seems to get better and better. So the search will continue and by all means if you know of any challengers for the title, please let me know, I would love to put them to the test!

Look here for update.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

In the Footsteps of Vienna's Greats

Arriving in Vienna from Salzburg provided quite a contrast. While Salzburg was small and elegant, Vienna provided grandeur on a large scale. Fortunately we were staying in an apartment that was very close to the city centre so we could easily walk around to take it all in and we would certainly do plenty of that over the next few days! There seemed to be no limit to the ornately decorated palaces and public buildings throughout the city, not to mention the countless statues celebrating its many famous citizens. Vienna is a city that would have easily have rivaled Paris in the era of the ‘Belle-Epoch’ and while it doesn’t quite have a definitive landmark attraction such as the Eiffel Tower or Arche de Triomphe, it has an almost overwhelming array of fine buildings that enable it to rightfully lay claim to being of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

With the Baroque styled buildings supplying the backdrop, the stars of Vienna were the many famous people that lived here in the glory days the city. Like Paris it attracted a veritable who’s who of the arts and progressive thinking during he 19th and 20th century. Freud, Nietzsche and Einstein all chose to reside here, developing powerful ideas that would shape the twentieth century. It was also a centre of the new wave of modernist design with the buildings of Wagner and Hoffman shaping new directions in architecture. Musically, the sound track of the city was then and continues to be Mozart and Strauss, who are both honored with major statues in the city gardens. In fact it is difficult to walk anywhere in the city without bumping into a character wearing period costume and a Mozart style wig accosting you to buy a ticket to one of the nightly musical performances of their works. However, it was pleasing to note that currently Vienna’s most celebrated son is not a writer, designer or musician, but an artist… Gustav Klimt! Posters, souvenirs and images of Klimt seemed to be everywhere, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of his birthday. Jules and I visited a fabulous exhibition at the Leopold Museum that provided a wonderful insight into his life and times through not only his paintings, but also letters, documents and photographs. We followed it up with another exhibition at the Upper Belvedere Palace with its wonderful display of Klimt’s most iconic works, including his most highly commercialized piece ‘The Kiss’, which appears on everything from plates to tea towels. Another major Viennese artist, who now achieves far more recognition these days than he did during his short but eventful life, is Egon Schiele. Schiele’s boldly grotesque and often sexually provocative images were particularly popular with students during my art school days in the 70’s, so it was terrific to see many of his best works close up at the Leopold and Albertina Museums.

Spending much of our time in Vienna visiting its seemingly endless collection of galleries, we particularly took a liking to the ‘Artist Quarter’, with it’s unique combination of galleries (of varying scale and specialisation), combined with outdoor areas filled with cafes and restaurants. On a warm summer evening it is a terrific meeting place with its colourful sculptural lounges providing a place to sit back and relax or to listen to music or the occasional guest speaker. A short walk down the road is the iconic ‘Secessionist’ building, which was designed by Joseph Olbrich in the early 1900’s as a exhibition space for Viennese artists who had rejected the restraints of the traditional art academies. This building had so often been the focal point for many of my art history discussions over the years and it was high on my list of places to see. As anticipated we found the exterior very impressive, however the interior was a little less so, as it had lost most of its original features after rebuilding following extensive bombing during World War II. We also found the addition of a bright yellow platform in the basement gallery to view Klimts ‘Beethoven Frieze’ as simply an unnecessary intrusion. Non the less, Jules was more than compensated by the nearby historic market (The Naschmarkt) which offered an huge range of produce, while for me, there was the added bonus of a regular flea market that is held each each Saturday. During our travels Jules has made an ongoing study of produce markets and rated this one quite highly with its extensive range of culinary delicacies.

It had become increasingly apparent that good food was a high priority for the Viennese and we certainly enjoyed some excellent meals during our visit. One of our favorite spots was at the site of the annual Vienna Town Hall Festival, which screens operas in the summer evening and most other times serves an extensive range of culinary dishes at a bargain prices. Despite being totally outdoors we were most impressed that everything was served on china plates or in glasses, making it a far more eloquent experience than most other festivals of this type. Another indulgence that we particularly enjoyed was visiting Vienna’s long established coffee shops to sample some of their most famous cakes…Apple Strudel, Chocolate Sacher Torte and my personal favorite, the Cream Schnitte. These were once the regular indulgences of the great writers, artists, musicians, designers and intellects of Vienna, who would often take a break from the serious business of changing the world to enjoy the simple pleasure of coffee and cake. Much like this grand city, its good to see that certain things have never really changed!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Enjoying the Sights and Sounds of Salzburg

It was a relatively short trip from Munich to Salzburg by train and within a couple of hours of leaving, Jules and I had slipped over the border into Austria and before not too long were walking around its beautiful cobblestone streets. It is quite a small city, surrounded by the sort of lush green hillsides that made it an ideal setting for the musical blockbuster, ‘The Sound of Music’. At this point I need to mention that ‘The Sound of Music’ was the very first movie I ever saw in a cinema and seeing those beautiful rolling green hills while living in tinder-dry Australia made quite an impact on a 10 year old kid all those years ago. So needless to say, I was already impressed with Austrian countryside even before we had arrived and with blue skies overhead, I wasn’t disappointed as it provided a wonderful backdrop to Salzburg.

Long before Julie Andrews was running around its hillsides, Salzburg was already a major tourist destination, attracting visitors from far and wide. Not just for the beauty of its old town, but in admiration of its most famous citizen … Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The great composer was born and lived here during his short, but eventful life and even today he still remains the town’s major tourist attraction. Both the house in which he was born and his residence are museums in which you can view the instruments he played, sheet music of his famous compositions, letters he wrote to his beloved wife and even locks of his hair. He was certainly the ‘rock star’ of his generation and like most superstars who die young, there remains an insatiable desire for the public to delve into every aspect of the life of this young prodigy. Mozart recordings continue to sell as well as ever and you can easily catch live performances of his concertos just about any night of the week. The commercialism of Mozart here is certainly something to behold, with what seems like every second restaurant, hotel and coffee shop laying claim to his name, not to mention the countless souvenirs. Here you can buy original Mozart chocolates, perfumes, jewelry and much more, not that I was aware that he had ever digressed into any of these enterprises during his lifetime.

While tourism remains the lifeblood of Salzburg, over the years it has been sensible enough to retain it’s essential character. The Baroque buildings have been strictly preserved (earning it recognition as a UNESCO world heritage site) with most subsequent construction remaining sympathetic with the traditional 17th century architecture. Even the style of street signage is strictly controlled, with businesses restricted to ornate traditional overhead signs that hang above each shop. So if you ever want to see the most elegant ‘McDonalds’ sign in the world, this is the place to view it.

Looming large over the old town is the picturesque Hohensalzburg Castle that dates back to 1077 and that sit high on a nearby ridge. Unlike the invaders from centuries ago, Jules and I were able to venture inside its fortified walls to find a little village preserved as if from a time long gone. From its highest point, the view was magnificent and we could look down upon the timeless streets of Salzburg as well as a majestic landscape that stretched endlessly into the distance. As one of the largest medieval castles in Europe, there was plenty to see as we wandered through the labyrinth of chambers before navigating the steep hike back down to the narrow streets below. That night we walked across the old bridge to have a look at the towns summer screening of popular opera performances (Mozart of course) that are held in the open air of the town square. With the sight of the castle on the hill under lights and the sound of the opera in the air, it all seemed quite surreal, but somehow right. Some places will never change and I guess Salzburg is one of them.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Perils of Castle Hunting in Bavaria

So captivated were we about the German countryside and the distant sight of the Bavarian Alps that we decided to join a tour heading out of Munich. We thought that there would be nothing better than capturing the scenic splendour of this part of the world while visiting what is often referred to as the most picturesque castle in the world. Neuschwanstein Castle sits high on a rugged mountain out crop in the Bavarian countryside and was built by the reckless spending, eccentric and some might say slightly insane King Ludwig II in the mid nineteenth century. It is now the most photographed castle in the world and provided the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, which eventually became the signature building for his popular theme park. It turns out that King Ludwig was probably not as ‘loopy’ as first thought, as his castle is now as popular as Disneyland, becoming a consistent money-spinner since his death in 1886. Today, it attracts millions of visitors and is now Germany’s most popular tourist attraction, contributing very nicely to the nations coffers each year.

In hunting down Neuschwanstein, we were playing our small part in boosting the German economy, along with a busload of other visitors, all hoping to get the most picturesque photograph of their European vacation. Alas, we would all be seriously disappointed, because as we approached the mountain range, with the famous castle perched high on the ridge, it looked distinctively different. As we moved closer we could see that the highly recognizable towers were disguised by the scourge of all camera-snapping tourists … scaffolding!! There was a collective sigh from the bus as it became obvious to all on board that the facade was clearly going through some rather extensive renovations. Amazingly, our tour guide had not mentioned this at any stage and as we approached she continued to rattle off a range of facts about the castle in the belief that if it wasn’t mentioned then we wouldn’t notice. In our travels over the years, we have been caught out by the ‘scaffolding phenomenon’ a few times (the Guggenheim Museum and the Sistine Chapel spring to mind) and we are philosophical when it happens; appreciating that these things need to be done at some stage and somebody has to be affected. So after the initial disappointment, we approached in the hope that the location and the view would more than compensate for the loss of the idealic castle scene we had sought.

Arriving at the base of the castle we weren’t quite prepared for the chaos that such a major tourist attraction (scaffolded or otherwise) can create in the Bavarian Alps in the height of summer. If you can imagine narrow roadways and peak hour traffic, combined with horse drawn carriages, double decker buses and pedestrians walking in between them all, you may come close to the scene that awaited us. It seemed that we had truly underestimated the attraction of this iconic landmark and the scale of its commercialism. It did in fact have all the popularity of Disneyland, but without the organization.

While surrounding restaurants were doing a roaring trade at the base of the mountain, waves of tourists were making the 30-minute trek up to pay homage to King Ludwigs ‘folly’. Not surprisingly, at the castle itself, there was just as much mayhem as down below, with countless tour groups waiting to storm the interior, while the rest were jockeying to find the best vantage point to get that elusive photograph. We found that with a little selective cropping of the scaffolding and the hordes of people, we could just about, but somewhat dishonestly, manufacture the type of idealic image so often seen on the tourist brochures that had led us here in the first place.

So Neuschwanstein Castle wasn’t quite as we had expected, but thankfully our bus made two other stops along the way that were far less chaotic and infinitely more enjoyable. The first was Linderhof Palace, which was another one of King Ludwig’s little projects. As palaces go, this one is quite livable, as it is on a modest scale yet provides all the opulence befitting an eccentric king. Ludwig was apparently obsessed with the works of Richard Wagner with much of the Rococo design looking as if it had come straight from one of his mythical operas. The grounds were quite magnificent, with multi-level gardens and a golden fountain that regularly shoots a stream of water several storeys high. The other interesting stop was at the picturesque town of Oberammergau, which is famous for the ‘Passion Play’, which has been performed here every 10 years since 1634. When the story of Christ is re-enacted, pilgrims from all over the world descend upon this quaint little village, but at most other times it is relatively quiet, generating its income mostly from the sale of woodcarving and cuckoo clocks. While Neuschwanstein brought in the big bucks for Germany, it would be places like these that would bring back the most pleasant memories of our trip to the Bavarian Alps, not to mention the most photogenic images.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Following the Shadows of the Third Reich

While Munich today is certainly a very beautiful and vibrant major city, it was far from being that way following the devastation of World War II. With around 70% of the city destroyed, it required many years of rebuilding in order to preserve the major historical buildings. Thankfully this has been done slowly and sensitively, but there are still plenty of reminders of what are referred to as the ‘dark years’ of the Nazi era. While studying Modern European History for my year 12 exams, I subjected myself to the complete BBC series of ‘The World at War’ several times over, until those grainy black and white images of the 1930 and 40’s became almost emblazoned on my brain. Yet for a 17 year old, this remained a very distant time and events that had happened were in a very distant place. So now thirty something years later, it would be interesting for me to visit the actual places that had been so significant in the rise of the infamous ‘Third Reich’.

At this stage I must mention that all this war history is not particularly Jules’ cup of tea. In fact anything war related is strictly banned from television viewing in our household if she is anywhere within earshot. So I was on my own when I joined one of the regular walking tours that focuses upon Hitler and the birth of the Nazi regime in Munich. So along with a small group of aficionados from a wide variety of English speaking countries (including one chap who was so impressed with the tour that this was his third time around), we set out for a few hours to re-live those ‘dark days’ of the 1920’s and 30’s. Our tour guide was Levi, a young American guy who came armed with a folio full of photos and a passion for the pre-war history of this city. As we walked to the various sites, he would relate many detailed stories of the emerging regime with its anti-semetic doctrines and strange but charismatic leader. We visited several locations where Hitler made many of his early speeches (such as the Old Marienplatz Town Hall and Hofbräuhaus), relived the events of the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ and walked around the public squares where large Nazi rallies were later held (Odeonsplatz and Königsplatz). The tour culminated at the Nazi Headquarters building, which remarkably still exists today as a music academy, minus the eagle swastika that used to hang prominently at its entrance. The marble interior remains much as it was when SS officers with knee high boots marched up and down the grand central staircase leading to Hilters office on the first floor.

For many years I taught an art history unit on ‘Art and Politics’ where a significant aspect of the course examined the role of art within the Nazi propaganda machine. One building that had a significant role was ‘The House of German Art’, which was the first architectural commission completed after Hitler obtained political power and became notorious for showcasing works that were in-keeping with Nazi ideology. This is yet another building that somehow remained unscathed following allied bombing and appears much as it was when Hitler opened it in the grand entrance in 1937 with a scathing speech that denounced ‘modernism’. Today it is still used as an art gallery, but its administration now works actively to promote the type of art that had been initially banned then eventually mocked in the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, which was held in a ramshackled gallery just around the corner. It is seventy-five years since these events and clearly enough time had passed for an exhibition to be held entitled ‘History in Conflict’. The display looked back at the buildings chequered past that saw it initially celebrated as a high temple of Germanic culture until by the end of the war it was reduced to being used by American forces as an officers mess where basketball was played in its galleries.

In visiting the historical sites of the Third Reich, it was inevitable and certainly necessary to take a trip to Dacchau concentration camp, about half an hour outside of Munich. For this trip Jules had agreed to join me, which I particularly appreciated as I knew it was going to be a very somber place. Yet we both felt that it had to be experienced and in some way it would allow us to pay homage to the thousands of poor souls who had ended their days there. Clearly many others felt the same way as we joined numerous nationalities that respectfully walked through the iron gates emblazoned with the hollow words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work brings freedom). As we walked around, we were encouraged to see so many German citizens seeking to learn more about events that have become so emblazoned upon the conscience of the whole country. This was certainly a place for much reflection and contemplation about the depths of human brutality.

Today it is at times difficult for a visitor to Munich to imagine the tumultuous events that happened here less than a century ago. It is such a vibrant and prosperous city, but events occurred here within living memory that not only shaped Munich but much of the western world. For me, the visit placed much of my historical knowledge in some sort of context. I began to recognise the places I had seen in old photographs and somehow those grainy black and white ‘World at War’ films I had watched as a kid back in Australia seemed just a little more real.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Summer Days in Munich

As we traveled across the border from Verona to Munich, the sun shined brightly through windows of our train. The landscape was lush and green and perched on the hillside alpine style homes became increasingly apparent. The steep roofs and large piles of chopped firewood suggested that it wasn’t always this way in these parts, with a snow-covered landscape probably being a much more familiar outlook. For now the skies were blue, it was summer and our first introduction to Germany looked particularly picturesque.

Walking out from the station, the streets were bustling and we instantly sensed the German economic prosperity that we had heard so much about despite the recent problems with the struggling European currency. It may have been the warm summer weather, but people seemed happy and relaxed, the outdoor cafes were full, the roads were full of late model Mercedes, Audis and BMW’s and the shops appeared to be doing a roaring trade. The devastation of Munich following World War II appeared to be a very distant memory and it was now the most economically buoyant city in the most economically buoyant country in the EU. It was not too long before Jules and I had joined the masses who were leisurely strolling through the picturesque boulevard of Marienplatz, which seems to be the central meeting place from which other major retails areas of Munich are linked. It is dominated by the gothic town hall, which is humorously translates into German as the ‘Rathaus’. This ornately decorated building is the focal point for many visitors; not only for the information centre it provides, but for the regular chiming of bells accompanied by dancing figures below the clock. To be honest this really isn’t our thing, but we were somewhat amused by the amount of people who flocked into the square each day to stand in the hot sun to witness the wooden marionettes doing their regular turn.

We were of course much more interested in visiting ‘Viktualienmarkt’, which is the place to find all things gastronomic. There was certainly a great atmosphere here with plenty of wonderful produce for sale, which could be sampled to the accompaniment of the various ‘umpa-pa’ bands that seemed to be scattered around the open-air market. In the centre was a leafy green canopy of trees where hundreds of people sat on packed tables enjoying cold meats and the obligatory German sausage. Naturally enough this was being washed down with bucket sized glasses of cold beer. This wasn’t totally surprising as we were well aware of Germany’s reputation for beer consumption to the point that it could almost be regarded as part of the staple diet, which is enjoyed daily and in enormous quantities. We were amazed to find that the amber liquid was generally the same price as bottled water and with two complimentary bottles placed in our hotel fridge daily, an afternoon pint quickly became an easy habit for us to slip into. Of course the crowning achievement of Munich’s beer drinking prowess remains the annual ‘Oktoberfest’, attracting millions of visitors and generating a fortune for the local economy. We caught a glimpse of the tents being set up for this year’s event and couldn’t quite believe the sheer scale of the festivities. Spanning over several acres, we were proudly told that over 7 million litres of beer would be drunk here, fueling raucous singing and dancing over the 18 days of the event.

As the days passed, there were many things that we liked about Munich and we could well understand why it had been voted one of the most livable cities in world. As legacy of its days as an Olympic host city, it has a fabulous underground rail network as well as numerous tramlines that weave their way around the busy streets. Despite the wartime bombing, there are still many wonderful buildings and palaces that were originally built by its big spending monarchy. There is a fabulous array of art galleries and an extensive range of parks and gardens that provide a cool and quiet haven from the noise and heat of the big city.

Probably the most impressive is the ‘English Garden’ that spans over 900 acres (one of the worlds largest urban parks) and features a number of impressive buildings and monuments. On a hot summers day, Jules and I took refuge in this lush green oasis only to find thousands of ‘Münchners’ (citizens of Munich) had exactly the same idea. The most popular spot with the younger crowd was the fast flowing river that made its way through the park. Jumping in here could see you traveling several kilometers down stream very quickly, but oddly enough that’s what seemed to be the main attraction. We watched plenty of kids bobbing happily along with the current, only to make the long trek back by foot to do it all over again. An equally popular pastime was river surfing! This was something we had never seen before, but it was extremely popular with wetsuit-donned surfers who queued patiently for their 30 second turn. It seems that at some stage it was realised that near one of the bridges, the rapidly flowing water became compressed resulting in the formation of a small but sustained wave. No sooner than this was discovered that a surfboard was thrown in and a popular pastime was born. Munich was full of such surprises and having the opportunity to spend a few glorious summer days in this impressive city was certainly the best way for us to see it.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Night at the Opera in Verona

The mention of the town of Verona conjures up a range of Shakespearian images based around one of ‘The Bards’ most famous productions, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Certainly it’s pretty hard not to miss the connection when you visit this pretty northern Italian town with its continued tourist geared references. Of course, there remains continued speculation as to whether William Shakespeare actually visited the town all those years ago, but he used it as the setting for his tragic play and that seems to be enough.

There is of course the famed Juliet balcony in the centre of town that, from what we can gather, has absolutely nothing to do with anything Shakespearian but rather it seems to be an idyllic stone balcony that roughly matches the public’s image of what might be the perfect setting for the lovers’ famed soliloquy. Much hype is placed around this particular location with the heavily graffitied walls at the entrance, suggesting that floods of couples have previously made their way here in order to pledge their enduring love. Even the lovelorn seem to have been catered for, with a post box provided in which they can post messages to ‘Juliet’, seeking advice of the heart. Much like a letter to Santa Claus, I’m not quite sure where these letters actually go or who answers them, but there appeared to be plenty of people regularly pinning their hopes on the consolatory words she provides.

Of course, Verona has much more to offer, not the least being it’s wonderful medieval architecture that in many cases has been cleaned and restored (very little graffiti here). During our stay we spent many hours simply walking around the backstreets, taking photographs and imagining what life must have been like when these buildings were originally built. In the end, Jules acclaimed it as one of the most picturesque Italian cities we had visited, which is particularly high praise indeed as she has quite an extensive list of favourites. With many ‘osterias’ and ‘trattorias’ to be found in the narrow streets, there was also plenty of opportunities for us to sample local food and wine, as well as the popular ‘Spritz’ (prosecco and Aperol with a slice of orange), which seemed to be the aperitif of choice amongst the locals.

The particular weekend we were in Verona, we were lucky enough to experience one of its most popular attractions, the summer opera season. This is held open air in the ancient Roman coliseum in the centre of town. The crumbling structure is impressive enough, but as a setting for some of the world’s greatest opera productions, it is enough to bring droves of opera buffs from far and wide to experience the event in its truly unique setting. Jules was organized as usual and managed to secure our tickets for the Egyptian spectacle of ‘Aida’, directed and conducted by the legendary Placido Domingo. This would be our first experience of live opera and it would be difficult to imagine a more fitting location for our baptism. As expected, the production was truly remarkable visual spectacular, although to be honest, we weren’t too sure what was actually happening most of the time. What we did begin to realise after a while that the production was very, very long (almost 4 hours) and our powers of endurance was certainly going to be tested. Sitting high in the arena, on the same tiered stone steps that toga wearing citizens had once watched gladiators in action centuries ago, it began to eventually take its toll and well after midnight we hobbled out of the arena like a couple of old cowboys, satisfied by what we had experienced, but somewhat worse for wear. While we headed straight back to our room for a well earned rest on our delightfully soft bed, seasoned opera buffs (clearly in the more expensive padded seats) were heading out for their evening (or very early morning) meal and to no doubt recount the wonderful performance they had witnessed well into the early hours of a new day.

Verona would be our final town on this trip to Italy and it had certainly delivered on all fronts. The sights, the language, the food, the vino, the people … all bellisimo! As a taxi driver once reminded us, it isn’t all perfect, but overall it’s pretty good! Our stay had again reminded us what a wonderfully diverse country Italy is and why it continues to have such appeal for those of us from different cultures. No doubt this trip has continued to fuel Jules’ desire to become an officially adopted Italian and we'll take away plenty of great memories, let alone countless photos to continually remind us of our extraordinary experiences of ‘la dolce vita in bella Italia’!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Walking the Porticos of Bologna

Following a short train trip from Milan (approx 1 hour), we arrived in Bologna. Jules had particularly chosen this town as she had read of its reputation as one of the major food centres of Italy and the chance to experience the best of local dining and produce was simply too hard to ignore. To be honest, in the end it didn’t really live up to all the hype, as tends to happen with most of these things. Sure, there were some terrific food and produce shops, with a wide array of cheese and meats, but no less impressive than the offerings of our very own Central Market back in Adelaide. Likewise on the restaurant front, the meals were enjoyable and certainly cheap, but really no better than we had experienced throughout other locations in Italy. However, Bologna did have one major asset in its favor that we hadn’t considered and that was its ‘authenticity’. Unlike most of the provincial cities we had visited, it appeared largely unaffected by tourism and therefore provided a very genuine Italian experience. There were far less foreign accents to be heard and the older parts of town generally lacked the polish and presentation of the more visited destinations. Sadly, there was far too much graffiti for our liking, which often defaced the towns beautiful and unique historical buildings. Yet looking through all that, we felt that there was certainly a uniqueness about Bologna that had strangely not been fully capitalized by its own citizens.

It quickly became apparent that the most unique feature of Bologna was its architecture and particularly its street level porticos that are said to stretch out some 38 kilometres in and around the city. These arched covered walkways were largely built in the middle ages to sensibly protect its citizens from the natural elements as they made their way around. Most of the porticos are beautifully constructed, often with marble flooring and elaborately painted ceilings. With the light streaming in, they would often appear like a scene from a De Chirico painting, while at other times they had an endless quality that perfectly demonstrated the converging lines of perspective drawing. Such was the case during the long walk we undertook to San Luca Basilica. We began by catching a bus to the site of one of the entrances of the ancient wall that had originally surrounded the city centuries ago. From here we wandered along an extensive stretch of porticos that slowly made their way upward into the foothills. With over 600 archways to pass through, strangely the walk had a remarkable similarity to our climb through the Tori Gates in Japan. While the designs were completely different, the scale and endless nature of the arches was in many ways similar. Eventually we took the final steps at the end to reveal a beautiful terracotta coloured church overlooking the city, which incidentally appeared to spread far wider than we had previously thought.

Throughout our stay, we found the Bolognians to be particularly friendly folk; they were happy to go out of their way with help and advise, as if surprised that we had chosen to visit there town rather than more popular destinations. Another surprising quality we discovered was their love of cinema, apparently buying the largest number of movie tickets per head of population in Italy. They hold a number of film festivals throughout the year, with the most popular being the Sotto le Stelle del Cinema, which is held in the summer months in the open-air of the Maggiore Piazza. After dinner one night, we thought we’d take a ‘passagiata’ (an evening stroll) to the piazza to see what was happening. Being a free event, it was absolutely packed, but there was a terrific atmosphere as people were settling in for the evening with a cold glass of vino or a melting gelato in hand. With the huge screen set against a backdrop of buildings from the middle age, I can’t think of a better setting for watching a movie on a warm summers night. Amazingly the movie (‘The Kings Speech’ that particular night) was in English with Italian subtitles, as apparently the film aficionados prefer their films to be presented in their original language.

The next day we woke to another sun drenched day and to find a huge open-air market had set up close to our hotel. Spreading out far and wide, it effectively doubled the already large collection of shops in the central business district and local residents were already up early searching out bargains. If you were looking for cheap shoes, clothing, leather goods or electronics, this was certainly the place to be. Indeed, Bologna generally seemed to be a very affordable city to live, which no doubt suits the large student population who live here. The city has the notoriety of being the location of the one of the oldest universities in the world (University of Bologna, founded in 1088), which further adds to its somewhat understated history. As we continued to discover, there was much about Bologna that could be further promoted to enhance the city and attract more visitors. However, the question is whether that is what is actually wanted or in the end, whether it will ultimately change the cities truly authentic character.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Logos and Leonardo

Back to Milan for the second time in two weeks, Jules and I were hoping to gain a bit more of an insight into what makes this city tick. We were interested in its sense of ‘style’ that appears to have become so ingrained into the culture and character of the city. Certainly Milan has a reputation as an art and design capital, with a myriad of festivals held each year (i.e. Milan Design Week, Milan Furniture Festival, Milan Fashion Week, Milan Biennale to name just a few) that continue to attract interest throughout the world. This is a city that encourages creativity and has more recently inspired the likes of Giorgio Armani, Guccio Gucci, Miuccia Prada, Nina Ricci, Gianni Versace … and the list goes on and on. On the streets we could gauge that here art is more than just aesthetics but a serious business with countless high end designer shops competing for the attention of the style conscious Milanese. For them it appeared that it was all about the ‘brand’ and having the right product connections was as important as breathing.

While Jules and I also undertook our own retail research, we did find time to visit the Triennale Design Museum, which is regarded as Milan’s most significant cultural institution showcasing aspects of its modern design history. While it was interesting, we felt that it didn’t totally capture the full dimension of this city’s creative achievement. For us, this could be seen better by simply looking through the logo branded shop windows of which there are plenty!

As we walked to the Triennale, we passed through the Sforza Castle, which is a 14th century reminder of Milan’s historical past. This magnificent structure is made even more famous due to some of the ceiling decorations by Italy’s greatest artist and designer, Leonardo da Vinci. The Milanese are particularly proud of the influence of the city upon the career of Leonardo, with the ‘great man’ establishing a strong connection with the city by basing himself here for 17 years (1482-1499) and then returning again several years later (1504-1508). He is honored in Piazza Della Scala with an impressive statue by Pietro Magni (1872) that overlooks the world-renowned opera theatre, La Scala. However, Leonardo’s most significant monument would have to be the fresco he painted in the refectory of the Santa Maria della Grazie …’The Last Supper’. Regarded as the most reproduced religious image ever, it is such a popular attraction that today you need to book well in advance in order to view it. Thankfully, Jules did just that as we turned up at our appointed time only to witness a number of disappointed tourists being turned away. Having a ticket however doesn’t mean that you are immediately free to walk in; there are a series of waiting areas that each group (around 25 people) must work their way through before finally proceeding to the 15 minute viewing. Following much anticipation, the glass doors finally slid open and we entered a relatively small room that was sparse and dimly lit. On the far wall under soft light was the iconic fresco, which on first sight stunned our small group into silence, as it must do for virtually every group when they see it for the first time. It is fortunate that the fresco actually still exists at all, after being bombed to near destruction during World War II; yet somehow it survived and it’s restoration has remained an ongoing project ever since. The latest was completed in 1999 and saw years of over-painting being taken back to reveal Leonardo’s original brushwork. The result is less colourful, but with its inconsistencies in condition, it somehow makes the piece far more authentic, revealing the experimentation of early fresco techniques. It is was certainly no less impressive and as we sat on the simple wooden benches, there was a quiet reverence for both the religious subject matter and for the skill of the artist who depicted it.

While our stay in Milan was short, we managed to gain just a small glimpse of its impressive art and design history, both from the past and present. Similar to Paris, there is a certain confidence in this city and it’s citizens based upon a well-established foundation of creative achievement. It is certainly dirty, loud and gritty, which is in stark contrast to the polished and refined items that are produced here. Like the bright red Ferrari’s that are built just outside the city, it continues to provide the world with many of the unmistakable tokens of success and provides the setting from which great designs are launched.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

On Board the Bernina Express to St.Moritz

Part of the fun of sitting out on our balcony overlooking Lake Como is watching the various activities of the lake … ferries of different shapes and sizes, small motorboats, seaplanes and occasionally traditional Italian rowing boats (in which two oarsmen stand as they row). While the lake is a watery stage for a myriad of activities, the backdrop to all this is the magnificent mountain range of the Alps which straddle the border between Italy and Switzerland. In anticipation of even more spectacular scenery, Jules and I were keen to explore them further by heading toward the border and hopping on the Bernina Express that heads towards St. Moritz.

We boarded the weekly tour bus that leaves from Menaggio to find that many other tourists (mostly Brits) had a similar idea, particularly as the weather forecast promised a clear and sunny day in the Alps. These sort of group tours are not normally our type of thing, but for economy of time and the opportunity to travel on one of the highest (over 2000 metres above sea level) and most picturesque railway journeys of the world, we were prepared to be herded along.

Travelling by coach toward to the northern end of Lake Como, we pass through the little lakeside town of Dongo and are reminded by our tour guide that this was the location for the dramatic capture of Benito Mussolini and his mistress toward the end of World War II. Heading for the neutral Swiss border and with the Alps in sight, ‘il Duce’ must have thought that he was just about safe, until partisans stumbled upon him and swiftly delivered their vengeful justice. In thankfully more peaceful times, this area is now one of Italy’s major wine regions with vineyards stretching high into the slopes of the nearby hills. Arriving at the border town of Tirano, there was time to view the elaborate Basilica of the Madonna, which is said to have been the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the 16th century and continues to attract pilgrims each year in search of divine miracles. However, what is more significant to us is that it is here that we get our first glimpse of the Bernina Express, which literally cuts through the centre of the town.

We cross the Swiss border and in order to save some time, board the train in Poschiavo to begin a slow winding accent toward Bernina Diavolezza. This is a spectacular run that sees us traveling over viaducts toward the extraordinary Bernina Pass with its snow capped peaks, milky blue lakes and ancient glacier. Not surprisingly, the pass and the railway line that threads its way through it are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites and even in summer it is a remarkable landscape that had both ourselves and the Brits continually snapping our cameras. The time passed quickly and we were soon back on the bus for the final run into St.Moritz, a place that has long been regarded as a winter playground of the rich and famous. While the town provided some nice scenic outlooks, a pretty alpine lake and of course the end point for the legendary Cresta Run (a three quarter of a mile toboggan racing track), we felt that as a town it was somewhat of an anti-climax. Similar to cities like Monaco, there is artificiality and a manicured nature to such places that make them somewhat cold and impersonal. As we were warned, the shopping was outrageously expensive and the best we could manage was a vanilla custard slice (quite delicious, I must say) and an ice-cream (not a patch on Italian gelato). No doubt St.Moritz is a winter wonderland when the snow falls and you’re cashed up for the season, but for now, we were just happy to head back to Italy.

On our return however, we had an unexpected surprise when we crossed over the Italian border and made a brief stop in Chiavenna. Nestled in a mountainous valley, this beautiful medieval village exuded all the charm that we have come to expect when venturing outside the major tourists spots. Narrow laneways, picturesque buildings and piazzas complete with water fountains, which can all be summed up in one simple word ... ‘character’! Running through the heart of the town was a rocky stream that flowed with icy clear water of melted snow from the mountains above, which was spanned by an ancient arched bridge. As we looked down, a local man who clearly sensed that we were visitors, came alongside and began to throw bread into the stream, encouraging excitable trout to the surface. Not to be out done, Jules reached into her bag to bring out a bag of dried bread sticks and did the same. At that point we both wished that we had more time to spend in Chiavenna rather than in St. Moritz. While we had thoroughly enjoyed the trip, in particular the wonderful scenery of the Bernina Pass, it had again reminded us about which side of the border we preferred and for us this time there was no simply comparison.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Living the Life on Lake Como

Heading north out of Milan by rail was much like leaving (or entering for that matter) any other big European city, plenty of grime and plenty of graffiti. There was certainly no indication of the breathtaking beauty that we were about to experience just one hour away at Lake Como. However, upon reaching the end of the line in the town of Como, we knew that we were in for something special when we walked out of the station to see the great lake stretched out before us like an endless blue runway.

Jules had been planning our visit here for months in advance, scouring the internet for the perfect holiday rental that would provide the unique combination of a truly authentic Italian experience combined with all of the necessary holiday comforts and conveniences. She thought that she had found such a place in Argegno, a slightly lesser known tourist town than Bellagio, Menaggio or Varenna, but with the important common feature of being right on the waters edge. It also had one other added attraction for Jules and that was being the neighboring town of Laglio, which any celebrity watcher knows is where George Clooney chooses to spend his summer vacations (Jules would continue to live in hope of a chance meeting throughout our stay). While George was nowhere in sight as we passed through on the bus, what did become apparent as we weaved around the coastline was the increasingly stunning lakeside views. As we headed closer to our destination, an American girl lent over to ask whether the next stop was in fact Argegno. She went on to explain that her and her two friends had traveled up from Milan for the day just for a swim in the pristine waters and with much of the lake having limited public access, they had read that this was one of the few spots they might be able to wade in. We all hopped off the bus heading in different directions; for them it was the water and for us, the hills. We actually saw the girls later in the afternoon and it seemed that they had indeed fulfilled their mission and with dripping hair they were about to begin their long trip back to Milan. We on the other hand, would be spending a much longer time here (two weeks in fact) in a house only a stones throw from the waters edge and with majestic views of the alpine peaks beyond. It would be from our balcony overlooking the lake that we would recite our regular mantra… ‘how good is this?’… several times a day!

It wasn’t too long before we were exploring the numerous lakeside towns using the regular ferries that ply these waters. For those in a hurry, there was the ‘servizio rapido’ (hydrofoil) service, but for the rest of us, with time on our hands, the regular ‘slow ferry’ would move at a pace that allowed us to do some sunbathing between taking regular photographs of the ever-changing scenery. This surely was the best way to take in the scale and beauty of Lake Como and its surrounding towns; each with it’s classic window-shuttered buildings, painted in umpteen shades of terracotta. Clinging onto the steep mountain slopes, these closely stacked buildings were generally simple and rustic, separated by narrow laneways, providing a romanticism that is unique to Italy. Jules and I would spend many an hour analyzing and dissecting the qualities of each town while sitting in the local cafes and restaurants. I must admit that gazing at unbelievable views and eating Italian dishes with a glass of vino or cold beer was a pretty nice way to spend an afternoon. Not surprisingly, it soon became our regular pastime as we tried to determine the most picturesque town. After much deliberation we eventually awarded that honor to Varenna, as much for its serenity (due to the lack of cars) as the quintessential charm of its old town.

Despite our regular journeys around the lake, at the end of the day we were always happy to return to Argegno. We had not seen a better view of Lake Como than from our very own balcony, unless of course you discounted the outlook from Pigra. This is a small town that sits on top of the mountains above Argegno and by boarding a tiny cable car, you can stand on a summit almost 1000 metres high. The aerial view from here was pretty special indeed and provided us with yet another reminder of the sheer scale of the lake and overlapping mountain ranges that continued endlessly through to Switzerland. Back in the village, Jules was increasingly making herself known to the locals. Most mornings she would head off to visit the lady in the grocery store, the baker and her friendly fruit and veg man, who were all very welcoming. They would encourage her to use Italian language, while providing just enough English to act as a safety net if she couldn’t quite find the words. She would return with bags of delicious goodies and fuelled with inspiration to cook. As she loaded her ingredients into the fridge, she would look at me and say with a smile … ‘I could get used to this!’

The view from our balcony!