Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Road Trip Part 3: Wales & England

Our last couple of days on the road with Albie the Astra (our car) and DJ TT were spent hurtling through Wales (which is a shame really, since it's such a pretty country, with 13 billion sheep), a debaucherous night out in Cardiff (scary), a detour via Stonehenge, and back to London- all hopefully without a speeding ticket! (time will tell).

Upon arrival in Holyhead, Wales, we found Welsh even more unintelligible than Irish, so had to rely on DJ TT to get us safely to Cardiff, at the other end of the country. This is lucky, since although Wales is pretty small, there doesn't seem to be many roads larger than a goat track.

Cardiff, at first glance, seemed to lack the historical charm of Edinburgh or Dublin, although the Lonely Planet assured us it's a "Confident, energetic city welcoming the new Millennium". Whatever.

One thing Cardiff does NOT lack, however, is nightlife. Please remember that in this particular case, I'm defining nightlife as "hordes of people of all shapes and sizes looking to get indiscriminately drunk wherever and however possible", as opposed to a more rigorous definition that I might apply in a city like, say, Moscow.

Similar to the "popcorn theory" of Russia, for anthropological reasons I had been curious to determine how it is that such an aesthetically challenged race of people as the English could overcome this handicap to procreate as much as they have. My careful research has led me to the conclusion that it has something to do with obscene drunkenness, as well as a penchant to dress up as ladybugs or other insects and troll for bait down the high street.

Seriously, Cardiff must be the global capitol for Hens Parties (Bachelorette Parties). We witnessed hordes of deranged women roaming the streets looking for alcohol, men, and good times. Many were dressed with massively lettered "D&G- Drunk & Gorgeous" t-shirts, often stenciled (ironically (we hope), and misleadingly) with their names, such as "Raunchy Rhonda, Dirty Debbie, and Sexy Susan".

A few hours into the evening, we found ourselves cutting loose in an 80's nightclub, with 1GBP drinks and already a sea of carnage on the dancefloor. Several hours later, our photos show a river of people in all states pouring onto the streets and draining the Atlantic Ocean and OPEC to produce vast quantities of Fish & Chips, the national food of the UK.

Social experiment over, we staggered home, and as soon as our blood alcohol would let us, hightailed it out of there to seek higher cultural enlightenment.

Thankfully, on the expressway a few miles later, we found it. Ice Cream and Diet Coke. Cam was happy.

Our next mission was Stonehenge, conveniently located within five metres of the highway (what were they thinking?) Apart from this deficiency, we were very impressed (not least because it had stopped raining), and determined that this 5,000 year-old pile of rocks was really worth the trip.

Several hours later, tired and eager to get out of the car, we arrived back in London at the completion of our 4,000km odyssey around the British & Irish Isles. A wonderful trip, amazing sights, delicious food, and a deeper appreciation into these cultures which have been so instrumental to modern Australian and American history.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Road Trip Part 2: Emerald Ireland

Rolling off the ferry into Northern Ireland in the (once again) somewhat damp conditions, we were disappointed to leave haggis behind, but found ourselves surrounded by a friendly but bizarre local people speaking some strange language that we later realised was English.

DJ TT, momentarily disoriented by our arrival in a new land, quickly got himself together and was enthralled by the prospect of fewer speed cameras.

Belfast was a gripping experience. With my only previous exposure while growing up through news coverage of the violence, it was fascinating to visit the now (mostly) quiet Republican (Catholic) and Unionist (Protestant) neighbourhoods bearing the scars of decades of conflict.

The separation fences, bullet holes and strident murals recalled another intractable conflict in the Middle East, but it’s colder and wetter here, and the hummus is terrible.

Recent history aside, Belfast had its share of attractions, and KY & I both had the chance to meet some locals and receive some earnest (& frankly terrifying) propositions, however if anyone has contacts with the casting directors of either "Neighbours" or "Home & Away" (horrible Aussie soap operas beloved in the UK), we have some eager prospects for you.

The next day we planned to hit the road and see the countryside. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see sh$t. The weather was so bad, we at times couldn’t see the sea we were driving next to, but did get some quintessential Misty Ireland photos.

As the weather lifted, we began to see why they call this place the Emerald Isle. Literally every square centimetre of the country more than 2cm from the sea is covered in bright green grass. It’s like some deranged Leprechaun got the mega-discounted volume pack of Astroturf from Wal-Mart & couldn’t find anywhere else to use it. Those poor ba$tards must have been really disappointed when they were deported to Australia in the days before they invented surfing & bikinis.

We also found our first experience of what was to become a familiar issue of grade-inflation of tourist attractions. For the record, the rope bridge thing is not that exciting. What we did think was fun was the Giant’s Causeway, a natural phenomenon that really looks like a badly paved road leading into the water (Trust me, it does look more interesting than it sounds).

Heading into the Republic of Ireland (we think, visibility was still difficult), we spent the next few days meandering southwards along the country's stunning West Coast. We had memorable meals in Sligo and Galway, hair-raising driving in Connemara, saw the hauntingly beautiful Doolough Valley, and then a couple of days later found ourselves in beautiful and quaint Dingle.

Dingle's quaint pubs, cute houses, and a studiously preserved traditional Irish atmosphere combined with the incredible natural beauty of the Dingle Peninsula (the "Ring of Dingle") was the highlight of our Ireland trip. For the record, the Ring of Dingle is way more interesting than the Ring of Kerry.

The following night found us in Cork, Ireland's second largest city. While Cork is no doubt a lovely place, we were a bit Irish'ed out at that point, and sought refuge in pizza and DVD's, which was a very satisfying evening in its own right.

The world-famous Blarney Stone is said to give you magical powers of conversation and persuasion (or at least the ability to avoid an issue), and while Kristen & I don't seem to be in great need of this, we figured that it was better safe than sorry! What's generally not well-explained, however, is that to kiss this damn rock, you have to climb to the top of a (really impressive) 15th Century castle, and then bend backwards over the parapets to plant your lips (or in KY's case- her nose) on the well-loved rock.

Once completed & appropriately disinfected, we headed to Dublin, home to a lot of pubs, music, and of course Guinness. To attempt to be properly Irish, Cam tried Guinness on several occasions, but it definitely hasn't grown on me. Next morning, we boarded a ferry and headed back to the UK- next stop Wales!

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Deadly Perfume Baths?

We interrupt our regularly scheduled travel programming to bring the attention of my loyal readers to another "Only in Russia" story.

Apparently one (or more) of some oligarch's wives or girlfriends was taken to hospital after she had purchased several dozen bottles of expensive perfume and taken a perfume bath.

For some unknown (but not difficult to imagine) reason, this is actually really bad for you and could kill you.

Does anyone have any more credible information on this phenomenon? I can just imagine the new cigarette-style labels on Chanel No. 5, "Not to be used for bathing".

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Road Trip Part 1: England & Scotland: Smile for the camera!

I'm absolutely certain that Britons are the most-watched people on the planet. Despite the well-reported teeth issue, questionable aesthetics, and camera-unfriendly weather, the passion in this country for reality TV has reached such heights that the police have CCTV cameras on every corner, and speed cameras on every street (no, I'm not kidding). I counted eight speed and red-light cameras within 2 kilometres on my way out of London.

My alternate theory is that the Metropolitan Police are so poorly funded that they've taken to filming ad-hoc reality TV segments and long-distance paparazzi shots to help finance their fight against crime (that may account for the increasingly grainy B&W images with boxes over their eyes in British tabloids).

Until I stepped behind the wheel of my mighty Astra for a two-week road trip around the UK & Ireland, I was unaware of this fetish for vehicular voyeurism. Thankfully, I was armed with my little Tom-Tom (satnav system), which helpfully (but occasionally inaccurately) beeped maniacally at me whenever I approached one of these infernal devices. The ludicrous frequency of cameras meant that my Tom-Tom's tone matched the rapid beat of the Russian Club Music CD's I'd put in the player, so it quickly won the label DJ TomTom.

Undeterred, I headed north from the London suburbs towards my rendezvous with Aussie friend and fellow adventurous traveller Kristen, who I was to meet in Edinburgh three days hence. This meant I had a lot of ground to cover in little time.

My first stop was the ancient and prestigious town of Oxford, home to one of the world's most famous universities. The first of many of the puzzles that were to bemuse me on this trip was listed on the roadsign as I entered the town: "Welcome to Oxford, sister city of Perm, Russia". Now, I've been to Perm, and while I'd be the first to defend it as a pleasant Western Siberian town, but even Wikipedia claims it to be an administrative, industrial and scientific centre, whose main industries include machinery, defense and oil production & refining. What on earth does it have in common with the ancient educational centre of Oxford?

Putting aside this most vexing of life's great mysteries, I continued north to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the legendary poet William Shakespeare. Refrains of "Midsummer Night's Dream" flitted through my mind as I flew north under not-so-sunny skies, before my thoughts turned to "Richard III" as I sat in yet another interminable traffic jam on the highway. Stratford itself was pleasant enough, and I mused upon the ability for so many fake (or real) Tudor cottages to be bolstered against each other and sell vast amounts of meaningless tourist junk.

Heading north once more, I arrived at my destination for the evening, the bustling city of Manchester. Lonely Planet describes Manchester as a "modern metropolis embracing change", "the UK's answer to Barcelona", with "literally something for every palate", and a "terrific club scene". For the record, this is complete bullsh*t. Arriving in town around 8pm, the "vast range" of restaurants were all closed (Barcelona? Are you kidding? People are still having breakfast in Barcelona at 8pm!).

I was reduced to eating at the Hard Rock Cafe, which thankfully served until after 10pm. As for the "terrific" club scene, I managed to uncover a bunch of shirtless university students doing 1GBP shots at a bar playing 2003 club mixes stolen from a third-rate DJ from Ohio. While in Russia, this may still become a good scene, these (male) students were constantly on the verge of brawling while being egged on by girls who in some cases were twice their size! I limped home, keen to see what the next day held in store.

I arose early, although unfortunately not early enough to beat the "change-embracing" traffic police, who had already seen fit to issue me with a ticket. As I headed for the city limits as fast as the speed cameras would let me, I couldn't get Manchester in my rear vision window fast enough. More exciting destinations awaited- Liverpool!

Liverpool, the home of the Beatles, was also principally uninspiring, and I didn't figure out until I got there that the legendary Abbey Road is actually in London (yes, it has a speed camera on it too).

I made a beeline for York, home to a beautiful cathedral, and then headed Northwest, to the Lakes District and Hadrian's Wall, the massive Roman fortifications which marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. This massive 2,000yo undertaking is still impressive, with segments of the wall, various wiers, and several of the protective berms and watchtowers surviving to this day (much to the amusement of local livestock). The area was beautiful, with rolling hills, ancient farmhouses, lakes, and so much of the green landscape that was to follow me north, and especially through Ireland. That evening I crossed the border and crawled into the ancient capital of Scotland- Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is a beautiful and lively Scottish town, with all the great food and nightlife that Manchester was missing. My first evening there I befriended some Polish travellers and we were persuaded by our bartender that my historical aversion to Scotch whiskey may merely be a result of drinking the wrong Scotch! She produced a Scotch tasting map (my consultant readers will be salivating), as well as a Scotch tasting menu. My favourite was a Macallan which apparently had "an attractive honeyed thread that weaves through the oak and grape, some beautiful marmalade off-cuts toy with a ghostly peatiness, with touches of creamy butter and vanilla". Hats off to the dude who came up with that cr*p, but no matter how many marmalade off-cuts there were, I still don't like Scotch (neither did my head the next morning).

Not to be outdone by the Scotch, the next morning I headed yet further north to unravel the mysteries of Loch Ness. 300km later, the most exciting part of the day was that I witnessed rays of sunshine breaking through heavy cloud cover for the first time since arriving in the UK! Oh yes, there was also a large, dark lake reputed to be infested with dinosaurs, but since they didn't see fit to expose themselves to me, I can only say it was a delightful lake with a pretty castle.

I hightailed it back to Edinburgh to meet up with my long-suffering friend and travel companion Kristen, and we threw ourselves into Edinburgh nightlife with gusto!

15 minutes later, we downed a couple of shots and headed back to the hotel...

The next morning, it was time to head (indirectly) to Northern Ireland. We confirmed there is in fact, nothing to see in Glasgow, and then risked life & limb (not to mention those bloody speed cameras) to make it to the ferry to Belfast.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

UK & Ireland Odyssey

4,000kms later, I can say Kristen & I have comprehensively explored the British Isles and Ireland. The next few entries will deal with my last few weeks of travel, driving around the UK from South to North, then through Northern Ireland, down the West Coast of Ireland, another ferry to Wales, and back to London via Cardiff and Stonehenge (see map).

Many people have asked me "Why Britain & Ireland? Your usual travels are in far-flung areas the rest of the world hasn't seen!". In response, all I can say is that having insufficiently visited these lovely locations previously, there was plenty to see and do, and it was a fascinating journey through times and places that have had such an impact on the modern world.

I would also add that some parts of the UK & Ireland have a little more in common than you might think with some of my earlier adventures. Incomprehensible local languages and dialects, occasionally inedible food, hostile weather, and long road journeys made a lasting impression on both of us.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Rustic Vermont Wedding

A bolt of fear shot through me as I read Will's email regarding his (& Jenn's) upcoming wedding: "Please ensure you bring mosquito repellent, a sleeping bag, and an umbrella, the camp is a little rustic. Please also note there is no cellphone reception or internet."

Up until this point, I had been enjoying my return to civilisation and creature comforts after the Caucasus & Bhutan, but apparently this was about to be abruptly terminated! How could Vermont have less internet coverage than Kyrgyzstan? After the luxuries of Bernd's wedding, how could I face a weekend wedding at a summer camp? And if I was worried, then what would James be thinking? On the plane to NY Nic & I pondered (while enjoying our business class upgrade- thanks KLM!) whether he still planned to attend- especially after the continued abuse I had been receiving over email about his slow recovery from our Central Asian adventures.

After a quick blitz through NYC (Ahhh, those restaurants!), we were in an SUV en route to Northern Vermont. Upon arrival at the summer camp, I could see our fears were unfounded. The summer camp, while rustic, was beautifully situated on a lake, with a kind of "Meatballs meets Dirty Dancing" look, but with a rolling lawn looking down the hillside to the shore, perfect for an outdoor wedding. True to form, Will had already jumped (or been thrown?) in the lake by the time we arrived, and it was fantastic to catch up with more b-school classmates as we gathered for drinks by the lake.

Following delightful sunset drinks by the lake (for better or worse, nobody else ended up in the lake), we crawled up the hill to face an enormous barbeque of barbeque (it's an American thing). We roasted S'Mores (another American thing) over an outdoor campfire. Motes (another American thing- well, actually, a person, but he gets extra credit because he's an avid reader of this blog. Ed. Note: Not this Motes) played the guitar and we all sang songs under a sparkling blanket of stars. Before too long, it was just Nic, Will & I sitting around the campfire, debating the finer points of our sailing trips, and Nic & I trying to figure out how to make the vodka last until the afterparty the following night.

Unfortunately, later that night the rain came down, and didn't stop again until Sunday. DK (or maybe it was Fei) had the epic idea, that since we were in Vermont anyhow, it would be criminal not to visit the home of Ben & Jerry's, just up the road (OK, an hour or so). Indeed, the factory tour was very interesting (e.g. Did you know that Unilever purchased Slim-Fast the same day it purchased Ben & Jerry's?), however after demolishing a litre of Ben & Jerry's on the way back to the summer camp, I was wishing I'd stuck to Slim-Fast.

Despite the rain, the wedding was beautifully done, officiated by Will's Dad in the lodge. The night continued with plenty of drinking, dancing, & speeches, followed by a kick-ass after-party (if I do say so myself) hosted by Nic & I. As the photos to the left indicate, maybe we had one or two drinks, I can't remember too clearly, but I am certain that Russkie Pop has never been sung quite so vociferously in the woods of Vermont before or since (can someone please explain how I ended up with the large burn on my arm)?

The following morning, we crawled to delightful brunch at Will's parents place on another lake (now I understand why Will turned out like he is), and then headed back to Manhattan. I collected my newly-purchased LP guides and and on the plane (no upgrade- damn Delta) studied England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales so I could figure out where to go next week!

Upon reflection, it was hard to imagine two more different weddings than Will's & Bernd's, but both were spectacularly done in their own way, and each was so true to the couples they were celebrating. I felt truly fortunate to have been able to attend them both in such a short space of time and be able to appreciate each for such different reasons.

Photos are here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Germany, Benelux, and Paris in a Week!

After the blissful relaxation of Santorini, Katya & I flew to Amsterdam, where we hired a car and drove to Vechta & Langforden, Germany, a collection of beautiful small traditional German towns which are about as far from anywhere as you can get in Germany.

The reason for our splendid isolationist seclusion in northern Germany was that a dear b-school friend of mine Bernd was to be married to his delightful fiancee Isabel. The marriage of two old German families of the region was a source of great excitement to this small community (as it was for the horde of our b-school friends who flew in from around the world to be part of it), and they had spared no expense for an extraordinarily beautiful wedding at Isabel's family chateau.

A Friday party was followed by a beautiful church wedding Saturday morning, then a glorious lunchtime spread in marquees set up on the beautifully manicured lawns. That evening, we returned in black tie to marquees at the other end of the garden where we ate and danced the evening away. It was a truly splendid wedding that we were honoured to be a part of.

Sunday morning we all staggered back again to partake of a vast Bavarian feast that Bernd had organised to celebrate his adopted Bavarian homeland of Munich, complete with Oktoberfest band! After consuming more wurst, pretzels, gingerbread and kraut than I had previously considered possible, Nic, Katya and I headed South, for an evening at Nic's parents' estate in southeastern Belgium.

Nic's family made us most welcome and we settled into my first home-cooked meal in many months, as the last sunset of summer slipped behind the wooded hills. After the big weekend and long drive, the silence of the estate was a welcome change and put us into a deep sleep (the 4 bottles of wine may have helped), to be ready for a long drive the following day.

Bright and early (by our standards anyhow), we arose the next morning to drive to Paris, via Luxembourg. For some strange reason, Katya & I decided that Luxembourg wouldn't be far out of our way en route to Paris, and would be a lovely place to do lunch. For the record, this may not have been my best idea. Thankfully the lax speed limits of the region and our mighty Astra delivered us to Paris for a couple of days with Nic.

Although we spent only a brief time in Paris, it was wonderful to return to this city that I have so many great memories, and it was fantastic to visit for the first time since Nic has been living there. We stayed at his super-cute (although super high-altitude) loft apartment, and hit some great restaurants and bars. We wandered the streets for a day and did the tourist stuff (and stuffed ourselves with patisserie), but had to leave far too soon.

One of the best things about Paris, however, is that it will always be there, just waiting for you to return.

Photos are here.