Waiting for photos
Russell Degnan

Sometimes a city or a place throws its full beauty at you the moment you stand before it; other times it never shows itself at all. But it is most satisfying when you see that moment coming but have to wait for it, sitting quietly while the sun slowly pokes its way from behind the clouds to light up a scene.

On my last trip, in Avignon, as I came back over the bridge from Villeneuve; an otherwise largely miserable day produced a rainbow perfectly behind the city from across the Rhone. It would have been the perfect shot, but the walls were a dull grey instead of brilliant yellow, so I sat and waited. And waited. The sun washed the rainbow out a little, but it is one of my favourite photos anyway.

In Venice this time it was as wet and cold as you could make it. Books ruined, maps stuck together, keys rusting. Late in the afternoon I stood in the Bieannale Gardens in the soft rain. A guy walked past, twice, staring and wondering what sort of madness could possess someone to stand in the rain merely watching.

But I had my reasons, three in fact. The first, because it wasn't raining so hard, and in its own strange way on a day when I was already so wet, it was quite pleasant. Second, because to the south the campanile on San Lazarro Degli Armeni was perfectly silhouetted against the breaking clouds and the perfect stillness of it all was inspiring. And third, because those breaking clouds were shortly going to light up the face of every building along the waterfront, and I wanted to see it.

It took a while, but the hour between the sun breaking out and sunset was as beautiful a display of rainbows, Michelangelo-esque clouds and silhouetted churches and campaniles as you could see. I have great sunset pictures of Venice from last time, but this time was slightly different. This time, except for a few fellow die-hards who scurried around each other getting that perfect photo, I had it all to myself.

Days Spent Away 5th December, 2004 02:34:48   [#] [3 comments] 

Navigating Venice
Russell Degnan

In a city that's tourists are as often as not English speaking, overheard snatches of conversation are a fascinating source of amusing anecdotes for travellers who speak more discreetly. Loud comments of wonder at the beauty or silence of the canals are common, though my favourite was this:

"If it is like this on a disgusting day, what is it like on a nice day?"

No doubt they are very gratifying for the locals, who take an enviable pride in their city - particularly in comparison to other Italian citizens.

But there is a common complaint as well. Everybody apparently gets hopelessly lost, and not all tourists have the time, energy or spirit for walking around lost until they stumble across something they might recognise.

And yet the city is organised in a particularly straight-forward manner. It just happens to be different to every other city in the world - as you'd expect for a place with its unique origins.

There are two important points that have to be remembered. First, like many Italian cities, they are organised around the churches. In particular, a church, a Piazza of sorts outside it, and a small, packed, residential area around it. Second, the canals are designed as the main navigation routes in Venice, which is the big difference with other cities.

The bridges are very important for this reason. Between any two adjacent piazzas, there are only one or two routes where you can get across a canal. And in the case of the Grand Canal, only three bridges in the whole city: the Rialto, the stazione at Ferrova and the Academia.

Getting between places is easy. Trace a route between piazzas taking into account the main bridges you need to cross on the way, and then head in a rough direction you need to, keeping in mind the three important signifiers for avoiding dead-ends. One, the quality of lighting and paving stones, the existence of shops that are on main routes, not (normally) residential alleys, and most important, the flow of people between places.

Once you are familiar with the main routes, you need only find a rough direction from the points - the three bridges, Piazza San Marco and Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo - and try not to get turned completely around; on a cloudy day there is no way to find north as such.

To summarise, Venice seems difficult to navigate because it is organised as a heirachical network with low permeability between adjacent points. Once you realise that though, it is not so bad. The first step is losing the map.

Days Spent Away 5th December, 2004 02:33:59   [#] [0 comments] 

I can go home now
Russell Degnan

The primary purpose of this trip was to visit places I didn't get to last time I was in Italy because of time constraints.
The most important of those two places are Mantua and the Dolomites.

Mantua, I know as a typical north Italian city state, strong in arts patronage (Opera was first given a hearing there). Whenever you see Mantua, it is a shot of the castle from across the lake. Hence, one of the most important things I did in Mantua was to find that photo...

The Dolomites are famous from many angles, and many distances. They are probably best in Spring, when the snow lingers on the mountains and the warm sun and longer days are available for walking. But, the impeccably clear skies I was treated to were very nice as well...

Halfway around the world and back for two photos.

Days Spent Away 29th November, 2004 04:37:29   [#] [2 comments] 

Food and the North
Russell Degnan

A Brief Guide to Dutch Cooking

Pulverise ingredients.
For a sweet dish, deep fry in batter and cover in sugar.
For others, fry, and cover in sufficient gravy to make it edible [1].

[1]: Note, this may be a LOT of gravy

Swedish Food Guide

- Julmust - Christmas Cola. Like Cherry Cola and Creamy Soda combined. Horrifically sweet.
- Ko:ttbullar and Lingonsylt - Meatballs with onion in them and a red berry sauce. Served in mushroom sauce sans mushrooms.
- risgrynsgro:t - Rice pudding and milk covered in cinnamon and sugar. The last two are very important to prevent you tasting the rice pudding.
- A:rtsoppa - Pea and Ham soup - Big chunks of ham, no pea pieces. Has mustard added to give a bit of tang.
- Chocolate - 30% cocoa. More body than Cadbury's but slightly sweeter. Not bad.
- Filmjo:lk and a:ppelmos - Sour Milk and Apple Sauce - Sour milk is pretty much what it sounds like. I can't say I'll be rushing to food stores to find it.
- Glo:gg - A christmas drink. Not very alcoholic, and tastes like a mince pie
- Polkagris - Bolied lollies. Apparently very Swedish.

Short Impressions of a Swedish Formal Dinner

- Singing
- Copious Toasts
- Snow, Guys, A Big Circle...
- Beer, Wine, and Spirits...

Days Spent Away 25th November, 2004 03:16:36   [#] [1 comment] 

Flights and waiting
Russell Degnan

You spend a lot of time waiting when you are flying. Before the flight because you have to get there so early, then more when it is delayed by weather five thousand kilometres away. Then more again while you wait for another long flight in the sterile, bizarre world of airport lounges.

The flights are worse though. At least for me. I never really sleep. My legs are too long, so I end up partly bent, and partly squashed against the back of the seat. I prefer to stand up and walk around, but that means getting an aisle seat - which I didn't on the Brisbane-Tokyo flight.

Every now and then though they, give something back. The birds-eye views from the front on the plane on take-off and landing is great - particularly at night with the lights of the runway mapped out, and the passing of clouds after take-off.

Better yet though, as the plane reached the coast of Japan. Nearer the ground the area around the airport is dull, grey, with off-green rivers meandering in steep but shallow valleys full of mist and low trees and spotted with smoke-stacks. From above the clouds though, the morning sun lit up sparkling craggy peaks in the distance. The low clouds obscuring the rest of the island, leaving you alone with the gold and pink peaks, and the white and purple clouds.

Update: The Tokyo-Amsterdam flight was full of little moments:
- Mt Fuji poking out of the clouds as we circled away.
- The stark contrast between the steep valleys and their dams and the heavy urban areas of the Japanese interior.
- Russian glaciers flowing into the sea of Japan.
- Thousands of kilometres of frozen, barren wasteland in the Siberian plains.
- The low crescent moon setting off the wing of the plane as we chased the sunset over the arctic circle.
- The Swedish and Danish islands and the cities of Stockholm, Malmo and Copenhagen sparkling away.

Days Spent Away 16th November, 2004 13:22:23   [#] [0 comments] 

A Trichotomy of Tourism: The Dumb
Russell Degnan

Guidebook bearing, fast paced, exuberant and fond of the word "quaint".

If I was being cruel - and I will be - I'd say that the dumb tourist is missing the point of travel. But that takes an unnecessarily narrow view of travelling. The dumb tourist isn't after experience and reflection - which travel provides in spades. They are after places to say they've been, art to say they've seen, and mountains to say they've stood before, and they want to get them as soon as they can.

The worst of them, who are all too often the "American" [1] of them, have barely changed since being endlessly pilloried in Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad".

They sit under the Eiffel Tower and list the places they've been like badges on a Scout uniform. That for many of them this involved getting off a bus in Pisa, or Reims, being shuffled through the cathedral, past a souvenir stall, and back onto the bus, is irrelevant. They've been there, they sent you a postcard - did you get it? No matter, it should arrive soon.

For those who avoid the packaged tour and its attached horrors - bad sleep, bad food, bad backs, bad hygeine - the beaten path is sufficiently beaten to guide them on their way. Attach a Baedeker, a Let's Go, or a Lonely Planet like an umbilical cord and off you go. The maps may be simplistic - if not indescipherable - and the history may be more potted than an Italian highway, but if the only people you are talking to are seeing the same sights and reading the same histories it won't matter.

I assume the dumb tourist is not unaware that the places they are seeing bear little resemblance to anything except the other tourist infested places of the world. But if so, why do they bother with the phrases from the back of the guidebook - sometimes slowly, like they are talking to a five-year old. When the spruikers outside cafes in Brugge cycle through several different languages trying to entice you in, it should be obvious that their target market isn't the local populace.

Travel for the dumb tourist is holiday work, there are places to go, routes to be organised, timetables to keep, and only a few weeks to cram it all in. Thomas Cook's motto, "Enjoy every moment" sums it up. Discovery is not important. Getting hopelessly lost, finding yourself without a place to sleep, or wasting a day or two because the guy your travelling with wanted to chat up the cute girl in the computer store is not on the agenda. If it at the end it had all the intellectual stimulation of a television documentary, then at least you can say you went there.

I'll let them speak for themselves though. The statement I (and half the town square) overheard in Brugge that, "without proper directions we could end up walking around for hours" sums them up completely. Leaving aside the impossibility of walking around Brugge for hours without finding yourself on the same street again; implicit in the statement is the idea that walking around for hours would be bad. For other types of tourist that is the best - even only - way to see things.

For all that though, the dumb tourist is a vital cog in the tourism industry. The most important in fact, because they bring in the cash, read the guidebooks, and ensure adequate signage. Then, having provided these services they huddle in a great swarming mass for just a few months a year so they can be easily avoided. Bless 'em.

[1]: I wouldn't want to suggest for a moment that all Americans are bad tourists. They aren't. Their biggest problem is that no matter how bad the stereotype, a little travel will always unearth someone who matches it - and reinforces it - completely.

Days Spent Away 7th November, 2004 20:43:59   [#] [0 comments] 

Writing about travel
Russell Degnan

Quite recently I booked a ticket to go overseas again, more or less to the same place I went last time, more or less three years after. The timing is because of expendiency rather than any particular fondness for Europe in mid December. The places because I missed stuff last time - actually you always do, but that is perhaps another story.

Discussions of my last trip always seem to revolve around when and where I went. The diary I did for the first two months was similarly constrained, which is why I got terribly bored with it. Once you find a groove the days tend to be much the same. Woke up (probably late by most travellers standards), walked into the city through the modern residential suburbs of [insert famous city name here] saw a church or six, a museum, a lovely urban landscape, took copious numbers of pictures, walked back to the hostel.

But oddly, the places I really liked and remembered when I got back were rarely - though not always - great as places. Rather, it was the places where I met interesting people at assorted hostels and wandered around the cities with, or did something else that was particularly interesting.

To that end the "Days Spent Away" section was designed to put up assorted stories and observations. Since it would be unbecoming to travel again without talking about the last trip I'm going to mix the two together, and hopefully write at least oen thing a we^H^Hmonth.

Lest I be accused of haphazardly jumping through time and space, or of leaving the country without saying anything. No, I haven't, not till mid November.

Days Spent Away 25th September, 2004 23:31:00   [#] [0 comments] 

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