Sunday, 13 April 2014

Day 383: Falling Rocks in Meteora

I had a bit of a strange, mildly spooky, experience in Meteora.

Meteora, in northern Greece, is an area of freakish rock formations onto which a series of late-medieval monasteries were built. It's a spectacular vision of sheer rock, plunging ravines, and improbable buildings. There's a lot of history, much of it lost. Six monasteries exist today out of a one-time total of twenty-four. Eighteen, therefore, lie in ruins. Spotting these eighteen are difficult; reaching them even moreso - they are built upon such teetering peaks that defy logic as to how they got there. There are also strange wooden constructions built within the pockmarks of the cliff faces.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Days 376 to 381: Battered Athens

Athens is a little like the hotel we stayed in while there. Not without faded charm, a ton of potential, and very friendly; but run-down, frequently broken, grim, looking better on paper than in reality, and with people hanging around listlessly. And there was nowhere to fix the shower head, but I'm not sure where that fits in with this analogy.

Of course, Athens is ancient: just hang about by the Acropolis for this to be very apparent. Even aside from the Parthenon and its fellow 2500-year-old temples, there are loads of other truly ancient, mostly ruined, structures scattered about the centre. Delightfully cute Orthodox churches, themselves over a thousand years old but seeming young in comparison, punctuate city streets, a flower among weeds. There's tons of ancient history, but that's not what makes Athens old and battered. Modern life has battered Athens.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Days 361 to 373: The north of France

The last 13 days have seen us arrive in France, and visit Versailles, Chartres, Mont Saint-Michel, and Amiens, staying three days in each (technically four for Amiens, but we only got there in the evening). In all, this has taken in five different candidate Wonders: the Palace of Versailles, Chartres Cathedral, the entirety of Mont Saint-Michel, Amiens Cathedral, and the Thiepval Memorial.

As you might imagine, the Wonders in each town kind of dominated our visits. Suits me just fine, although Danielle suggested a couple of times that she might prefer pottering round shops and having a coffee rather than hang around a gigantic stone edifice again. Women, eh? I'll be getting to the reviews of each Wonders as soon as I can, but in the meantime let's see what else each of these towns had to offer.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Days 358 to 360: Shanghai

It is, of course, ridiculous - but I love this building.

Days 357 to 371: Tigerair Are Dicks

Melbourne seems to be a harbinger of misfortune for me and those around me. Two-and-a-half years ago, an ill-fated road trip from Sydney to Melbourne with Matt saw Matt's car break down, causing Matt huge inconvenience and expense. The following day, I entirely failed to realise that Avalon airport is not actually the same as Tullamarine airport, and missed my flight. This time, flying from the Gold Coast to Melbourne - a seemingly simple two hour flight - Danielle's bag was mislaid. It could barely have happened at a worse time.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Getting Behind...

Since I last wrote, Danielle and I have visited Shanghai, Versailles, Chartres, Mont Saint-Michel, and Amiens. We've seen five Wonders. I've driven on the right-hand side of the road for the first time in my life. Danielle's bag was lost for two weeks courtesy of a Tigerair and DHL tag-team effort. I've acquired a delightful collection of tacky models. And we're about to go to Greece in a few days.

Yes, I'm very, very behind with the blog. And so for you, dear reader, I will sacrifice Paris. For the next three days, while Danielle looks at pretty shops and gazes at macaroons, I intend to bury myself in our hostel and write. I will try and catch up as best as possible. I won't fully succeed, but I will hopefully get close.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Day 356: Matt Gets Married (To Emma)

On the 14th March, on the beach of Byron Bay, my good friend Matt got married, to the enchanting Emma.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Days 348 to 352: Sydney

Walking about in Sydney is a little what I imagine a utopian future to be like. The sun is golden, the sky is blue, the people are healthy and impeccably gorgeous, and the streets and landscape are as sculpted as the people. This is taken to the next level in Bondi, the suburb famous for Bondi Beach in the east of the city. Bondi Beach is merely the most famous of the many beaches in the area, all strung along the coast like a series of unevenly-shaped sausages thrown down with abandon. A path runs along the coast, connecting the beaches and creating the most scenic of walks, combining lots of sand, sea, rocks, cafes, and people that look as though they've been genetically manufactured in a laboratory attempting to breed the perfect human.

This was my third visit to Australia and Sydney, and my third visit to Bondi. Each time I've stayed there with my good friend, Handsome Matt, an expat Kiwi who I know from my two years in South Korea, and who has been in Australia for around eight years. In the decade we've now known each other, many things have changed. This visit was centred around one such change: Matt was getting married.

Danielle and I married in November, and Matt made the long trip to Scotland for the wedding. Therefore you can imagine my curses when he announced he was getting married in March, in Australia of course... dammit Matt, of course I'll come. To soften the blow, he made me a groomsman, an honourary position with absolutely no responsibilities except wearing a suit. We adjusted our travel schedule, and as well as Australia, came out with bonus trips to Los Angeles and Fiji as well. Scotland to South America to LA to Fiji to Australia - it was quite a journey for a wedding.

The wedding was to take place in Byron Bay, an hour's flight north of Sydney, but before that we had a few days in Sydney with Matt - his bride-to-be, Emma, was in Melbourne for work. Not just Matt though, we were also to be accompanied by his and Emma's two-and-a-half year old son, Xavier. And Xavier was in a thoroughly uncompromising mood.

Poor Xavier, first of all. When I kickstarted these Wonder travels in 2011, Sydney was my first stop. I stayed with Matt and Emma. Xavier had just been born a month earlier, so was just a tiny baby, whose life revolved around eating, crapping, and crying. Well, Xavier two-and-a-half years later definitely hadn't forgotten these talents - he was in boisterous form for the first couple of days. Oh boy. Danielle and I arrived in Sydney from Fiji at the same time Matt and Xavier arrived in Sydney from Melbourne, we literally met at the airport. And after a couple of days of a disrupted schedule, Xavier was grumpy. Not just grumpy, but irritable and not afraid to show it. He was tired but didn't want to sleep, hungry but didn't want to eat, bored but didn't want to play. He didn't know what he wanted to do.

Poor Matt. Matt had to deal with his tempestuous toddler. Showing inexhaustable patience, by the second day of Xavier's non-stop tantrum, even Matt admitted it was somewhat tiring: the lifeforce appeared to be slowly draining from his face. I began wondering to myself: children, who really needs them? Even Danielle, normally so broody I've got to stop her stealing babies from the street, could see that a toddler can have its testing times.

Perhaps our first couple of days with Xavier are like the initial years of the Sydney Opera House's construction: clearly something special appearing but not always an easy ride. Years into the construction of Australia's most famous icon and a truly unique addition to the world's stage there were disputes and problems. It was not plain sailing. The genius but unproven foreign architect was unbending to the Luddite government that preferred he spend his days endlessly providing plans and cost estimates and couldn't trust him to just get on with the job. In one sense, it's not difficult to sympathise with them - cost and time estimates were spiralling out of control (although had always been unrealistic) and the architect, Jorn Utzon, was unproven after all. He was not a veteran of any other large-scale constructions. The Sydney Opera House was his proof of genius, but the government weren't yet to know that. Nonetheless, by the time they'd stuck their oar in, the famous are-they-sails-or-are-they-shells of the building were emerging, and the general sentiment of the city was to be excited at something special appearing. When eventually Utzon was forced to resign, the genius of the project - if perhaps not exactly the budget - was evident. There may have been tantrums and tears, but Sydney had something beautiful.

Not many people dwell upon that now, and even Utzon before his death in 2008 was philosophical. It was built, that's all most people need to know, and most people standing at the Botanic Gardens or The Rocks or Circular Quay or even on a boat approaching the quay are simply content to gaze and take photos and think, what a remarkable building.

I was sold a long time ago on the Opera House, back in 2011 when I reviewed it. But that was my second visit. Danielle, on her first, was less sure. Close up she thought it looked dated. The concrete look and browny topaz-tinted glass are indeed not exactly timeless - like a moustachioed gent with large Aviator sunglasses, we're looking straight into the eyes of the 1970s. But that's a harsh assessment, and on our second visit, on a much sunnier day and from some attractive side-on views (which are the Sydney Opera House's most scenic) Danielle upwardly revised her opinion: yes, it's pretty nice. Very nice, in fact.

There's no doubt the weather contributes to the appeal of the Opera House and of Sydney itself. The city centre isn't, in itself, anything too out of this world, but when lit up by sun and set against a bright blue sky, gosh it looks pretty. Gosh the Sydney Opera House looks pretty, gosh the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an equally important and much more massive contribution to the gorgeous harbour area, looks pretty. Remarkably, in my three visits to Sydney, I've barely ever seen it overcast. With grey clouds and drizzly rain, who knows how the city and its treats would seem. Everything seems better in the sun. I appear to be lucky to have seen Sydney at its best. I suspect Sydney is often at its best.

This time, we had just three whole days and four nights in Sydney, spent visiting the centre and the harbour area, spending time with Matt and Xavier in Bondi, and visiting a few beaches. We also, at Matt's behest, tried paddle-boarding, which is like standing on a large surfboard and paddling with an oar. At Rose Bay on a sunny day and with the Harbour Bridge in distant view, Danielle took to this like a duck to water, if she'll excuse the comparison to a duck. Ok, ok, a swan to water. She fell off a total of zero times. I, on the other hand, lost count at around the fifty mark. It got so bad that a total stranger paddled up to offer tips and advice. It didn't help. As soon as I thanked her for her help, I fell straight back into the water. Xavier, safely tucked in a kayak under Matt's control, seemed to find this consistently amusing.

And Xavier, I'm happy to say, just like the most famous building in the city he was born in, came good in the end. After the teething problems of the Sydney Opera House, it was finally opened and the world came to realise that it was magnificent. Xavier too became magnificent, in the cutest possible manner. Back onto a routine and sleeping schedule, he became all sweetness and light, beaming his dinky smile and running around saying "Hi Danni" (his name for Danielle) and "More Danni!", melting Danielle's heart. Even my heart, which is mostly petrol driven and not prone to melting, was somewhat softened when he started running at me and into my arms.

Ever since the inception of my World Wonder project and the hope that I'll one day turn this into a very long book, I have decided to consciously avoid the twee conclusion that the true World Wonders aren't the bricks and mortar of buildings, they are the joy of new life brought into this world. And I'll stick by that. Buildings yes, children no! But there's no question that seeing Matt, and later Emma, with Xavier, and hearing Matt - whom I've known well for a decade - talk about fatherhood, and echoing exactly the sentiments of my brother, who has two young daughters, that to a parent the concept of a Wonder is a little different. Looking down upon your firstborn, can the Taj Mahal or Great Wall possibly compare? Leading me to this conclusion: I had better damn well finish my World Wonder project before I have any children!

Sydney, therefore, was a joy to visit, as was seeing Matt and meeting Xavier (when not shouting and screaming, which is my general feeling when meeting people). But Sydney was only ever a prelude to the main reason for visiting Australia, which of course Matt getting married. And that wasn't taking place in Sydney, it was taking place in a town about an hour's flight north called Byron Bay.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Days 344 to 348: Fiji

If, before going, you had asked me what I knew about Fiji, I would have said this: it's a collection of islands in the Pacific, has some lovely beaches, my brother was peculiarly fascinated with it when much younger (he thought the name sounded funny), and I had a friend who lives there. All these are correct, but top-of-the-list of correctness is the Pacific part. Fiji is in the Pacific Ocean, and therefore is really, really far away for someone from Scotland. Unless I was determined to go there, it never seemed like somewhere I might casually visit, not least because the main attraction appeared to be beaches. In case I haven't already mentioned it in this blog, many times, I'm not a beach person. The prospect of sitting on a stretch of what is surely just a powdery form of mud, getting far too hot, and waiting out time simply doesn't appeal to. If I want to sleep, I'd rather do it in a bed; if I want to read, I'd rather sit on a comfortable chair; if I want to burn, I'd rather squeeze myself into a cooker and turn the dial to 200.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Days 335 to 343: Lima to Los Angeles

I hadn't intended to visit Lima. In December and early January, we spent about five weeks travelling through Peru, but aside from eight hours in the airport, none of that time was spent in the capital. I anticipated only another airport visit to the city, passing through en route to Los Angeles. But Danielle persuaded me otherwise. She was keen to check it out, and had spotted in the Lonely Planet that there was a hostel designed by Gustave Eiffel (although he'd assumedly designed it as a grand house rather than a cheap hotel for backpackers). Sold. South America has been a mini Eiffel tour - we saw a staircase in Arequipa, a bus station in La Paz, a church in Arica, and a train station in Santiago. There's a lot more too. I liked the sound of staying in a building designed by the man that built the Eiffel Tower, and we opted for three nights in the city. It was probably two nights too much.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Day 344: The Day That Never Was

Los Angeles, US, to Nadi, Fiji. 12 hour flight. Departs Friday 10.30pm, arrives Sunday 5.30am. What happens to Saturday? The International Dateline baffles me.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Days 330 to 335: Rio de Janeiro

Rio is a mess. It is not efficient, not particularly safe; it could do with a thorough scrub behind the ears and then all over. Homeless people sleep in doorways, shout at themselves or others, dance on corners, or harangue people for money, depending on how desperate or mentally ill they are. On a quiet residential street, a man with spinning eyes pulls himself close to me and breathes over my face before walking on. The streets are criss-crossed and tangled as though drawn up by a samba dancing drunkard. Taxis zip by, the buses roar: all of them are trying to kill us. It's hot, it's sticky, sometimes all the water in the world rains down, sometimes the clouds all disappear. Every single weather forecast we consult during our five days there is wrong.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Five Continents, 25 Days

Tonight we leave South America, and begin an itinerary that altogether takes in five continents by the time we arrive in Paris on March 18th. Why the hell are we doing this? It's all because of Matt.