Saturday, September 24, 2005
The evening began with a sponsors' meet and greet session in the festival club, which this year is situated in the main ballroom of the North Melbourne Town Hall. Schmoozing is something I can only do when I'm in the right mindset: jetlag and exhaustion made it a little more tricky than I could have wished for last night...
Thanks to the addition of a new Fringe venue this year just down Errol Street from the Town Hall, the Lithuanian Club, we've freed up the NMTH's main ballroom, which in previous years has been Fringe's largest capacity theatre. Consequently the festival club looked fantastic: kudos to all the Fringe staff for a great team effort in pulling this off. Cabaret style seating, subdued lighting, a huuuuuge mirror ball, and some fantastic entertainment: it all came together last night, and consequently was crowded with people who drank and danced til late, creating a fantastic vibe and atmosphere which will hopefully carry over into most other nights at the festival.
My date for the evening was the lovely Ms Lisa Greenaway, my sometime spoken word partner and collaborator, who had also filled in as the presenter of 'Smartarts' for me for the past month while I was away. Lisa's only recently returned to Melbourne after a long stint in NSW, and it was fantasic to have her back and at my side last night.
The show we saw was the superb Basic Training, written and performed by visiting American artist Kahlil Ashanti, which sees him play 23 characters over 75 minutes in a story which explores his search for his biological father and his time in the US Air Force. Ashanti effortlessly switched personalities, and from broad physical humour to genuine pathos, in the blink of an eye, using voice, gesture and posture to differentiate his various characters as the show progressed. It was engaging, clever and moving, and highly recommended: the booking details and performance dates can be found here.
Thereafter Lisa and I strolled back downstairs to the festival club, where we enjoyed a range of artists showcasing some of the festival's other artists (although sadly headlining act Eddie Perfect had to withdraw at the last minute due to illness), and a few drinks. Eventually, about midnight, my brain began to shut down and I called it a night - not bad going considering by that stage I'd been awake for almost 48 hours!
It's now Saturday afternoon, and I'm listening to the alt-country show Twang on 3RRR as I write this.
In just a moment I'm off to see Fringe Furniture at the Melbourne Museum, and then at 5.30 I'll be taking in a performance by physical troupe Dislocate at another Fringe-produced event, the collaborative Human Momentum at Federation Square. I'll have to battle footy crowds at that time of day I suspect, as the AFL Grand Final is on this afternoon. I'm barracking for Sydney. Carn the Swans!
Friday, September 23, 2005
My phone's been cut off and I suspect the mail has piled up down at the post office while I was away, but give me a couple of hours to get things sorted, and my life will be back to as close as it ever gets to normal. I'm buzzing nicely at the moment from the excitement of getting home, but suspect I'll crash in a few hours.
Sleep will be good - after all, I have the opening night of the Melbourne Fringe Festival to attend tonight!
Thursday, September 22, 2005
I'll get in to Tullamarine at 5.30am or thereabouts on Friday, and given that I haven't slept a wink yet, hope to get straight home and sleep for several hours. Then I have a chiropractor's appointment at 4.30pm to get me back into shape after lugging an increasingly book-stuffed backpack around with me for the last month; after which I head off to the opening night of the Melbourne Fringe Festival at North Melbourne Town Hall.
I'll be a wreck, no doubt, but am very much looking forward to the Fringe, as much as I am to getting home. More details soon, in my next post, from the comfort of my own flat in Fitzroy...
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Mon 19th September: Day 25
So anyway, I decided to stay in Paris - I'm sure there's more to this city than meets the eye and dammit, I'm determined to find it. Besides which, if I left today I'd only get a day and a half in Berlin, which isn't really enough time to do any city justice, let alone that one!
The big problem so far with Paris, I think, has been a combination of several factors:
- The language barrier (makes me wish I'd paid attention in French classes back in high school!).
- Travelling alone.
- Hitting that four week slightly-homesick patch which I'm sure other travellers will be familiar with.
- And the fact that in most of the other cities I've explored on this trip I've been able to dig beneath the tourist surface and find a more authentic aspect of the city to enjoy. I haven't really been able to do that here, and I couldn't really do it in Barcelona either, in retrospect. See point one.
Anyway, on with the blog.
Because all the places I wanted to go today were closed, I went to the Louvre. Amazingly beautiful buildings, and fantastic collection of art. Frankly though, I found it all a little dull.
Don't get me wrong: I loved the Greek and Roman sculptures, the amazing buildings which house the collection, and the frustratingly only-labelled-in-French medieval Louvre section (I especially got a kick out of exploring the foundations of the old moat and donjon which once stood on the site), but the bulk of the Louvre's collection spans a period that historically and artistically doesn't resonate with me.
My interest in art and history drops off after about 1500, and doesn't pick up again until the advent of Modernism in the late 1800's - which is why I loved the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
So quite frankly, as much as I could admire various 16th-19th century Louvre masterpieces from a technical perspective, I only stayed at the gallery for a couple of hours. Yeah, yeah, blasphemy, sacreligious, an insult to great art etc. Yawn. Over it.
On top of which I think the Mona Lisa is over-rated. If anyone but Leonardo had painted it I'm sure there wouldn't be half the fuss made over it...
So, after walking out on/of the Louvre, I grabbed a quick lunch at a Japanese cafe and went back to the hostel for a few hours sleep (lousy night's sleep last night - kept waking up every half hour - a familiar symptom of my first night in a new bed). Woke up at 5pm and headed back onto the Metro.
Have just spent a lovely afternoon simply wandering around: first along the bank of the Seine, then around the Marais district (very gay, but also very charming). Having discovered a netcafe that has - shock horror - English keyboards! - I am taking the opportunity to update my blog before I go look for dinner.
It's 8pm on Monday night. I haven't cracked Paris yet but I can feel its shell moving in my hands...
I still miss Amsterdam though - there was a certain calm tranquility to that city which I loved, although admittedly the joints I was smoking while I was there helped conjure that particular atmosphere. There was also a Russian boy whose name I never learned, who I'd hoped to catch up with again. Ah well....
Tuesday 20th September
My last full day in Paris was extremely pleasent. I began with a trip to the superb Musee d'Orsay, a gallery specialising in 19th Century art situated on the banks of the Seine, in a building that was once a grand hotel and train station built in 1900 for the World Fair. Like the building housing the Tate Modern in London, it's been superbly transformed into a gallery, but retains many of its original key architectural features (such as the great clockface through which visitors can look out over the river).
There are far too many amazing works in the Musee D'Orsay to list, and I spent hours here (luckily making an early start) soaking in the colours, the techniques, the gradual breakdown of form which heralded the advent of modernism... There are beautiful works by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists: Manet, Monet, Sisley, Cezanne. There are painting by Van Gogh, Whistler, Degas, Redon; delicate pastel drawings, Pointilist works of miraculous intricacy; so much marvellous and magnificent art...
Among the works that I adored were:
- Claude Monet's Carrieres-Saint-Denis
- Toulouse-Latrec's La femme au boa noir
- Van Gogh's La Salle de danse a Arles
- Cezanne's Baigneurs
There was an exhibition of beautiful Art Nouveau furniture and designs by the likes of William Morris and Co, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright on display, and one particular painting that I was delighed to see, and to which I returned again before I left: Henri Fantin-Latour's 1872 work Un coin de table.
While not entirely remarkable in its own right, this was a work I'd seen reproduced many times, so it was wonderful to actually behold it. Why do I like it so? Click on the above link, and you'll see two figures seated to the left of the painting: the poet Paul Verlaine and the prodigious, monstrous enfant terrible Arthur Rimbaud.Sated on great art, next I ventured underground: first onto the metro, and then down into what was probably my Parisian highlight: the catacombs!
Over 300 km of tunnels, originally excavated as limstone quarries (some dating as far back as Roman times) lie beneath Paris. In 1786 these tunnels were converted into ossuaries for the hastily buried bodies that lay rotting in cemetaries such as Cimetiere des Innocents. Today only a small section of the catacombs are open to visitors, but it's a spectacularly sepuchural visit, and one I highly recommend. You can take a virtual tour here, should you feel so inclined...
Carefully stacked piles of skulls and bones line the cool subterranean hallways: revolutionaries, aristocrats and peasents united in death. An estimated five to six million skeletons lie reinterred in this vast ossuary, but even they take up only a portion of the vaults and tunnels beneath Paris, the existence of which must be carefully considered today whenever construction works begin...
Thereafter, my head full of thoughts of mortality, I made my way back to the Marais district, with the intention of grabbing a late lunch and then spending an hour at the Pompidou Centre, which I'd discovered quite by accident yesterday, and where a Dada exhibition was showing.
I didn't make it in the end, because I dropped into an Irish-themed pub for one pint, and ended up staying for several hours thanks to the very friendly company of Rory Ryan, a very tall young Irish carpenter from Ballinasloe in County Gallway who like myself was on holidays in Paris. We got very drunk together, at which point his older brother (a Paris resident) turned up, and the three of us went out to dinner. I dodn't really remember the rest of the night I'm afraid but judging by my hangover on Wednesday morning, it must have been a good one!
So that was Paris, and indeed, that was basically Europe. On the Wednesday morning I tottered out of bed feeling extremely ordinary, checked out of my backpackers and made my way to Gard l'Est station, from which I caught a train to Frankurt in Germany: beautiful scenery along the way mind you, which made me regret missing out on Berlin even more. Then I caught a 10.30pm flight out of Frankfurt bound for Dubai, then home.
I'm already thinking my next European trip for 2006. This being my first overseas trip, I deliberately jumped from city to city and country to country, squeezing as much as I could into one month. My aim was always to spend enough time in each city that I could get a bit of a feel for it and gain an impression of the culture, so that I could work out where I wanted to come back to on my next trip, when I could explore places in greater depth.
At the moment I'm thinking that my next trip is going to be to Ireland for a few weeks, as I really want to see more of that country, especially its wilder west coast, and probably another week or so in the UK countryside. After that, regional France is looking good for 2007, and perhaps some more of Spain...and then there's always South America, which has always looked attractive.
Dammit, I think I've caught the travel bug!
Sunday, September 18, 2005
Sat 17th December
Checked out of my Amsterdam hotel and walked over to Centraal, the main Amsterdam train station. After cashing some more travellers cheques with a very friendly woman, I joined the queue to buy a ticket, only discovering after a 10 minute wait that I was in the wrong line.
Ok, no big worry. Where's the International ticket office? Ah, there. Right. Enter office. 'Please take a ticket from this machine and wait til your number is called.' Easy, I think. Press button, take ticket. Wait. When my number is called I got to the window, only to be told by the woman behind the desk that my number 'does not exist, get a new number.' She serves someone else.
Ok, this is strange. Back to machine. Press button. Wait. Same deal. My number does not exist.
I have a brief moment in which I feel like the protagonist in some strange, Kafkaesque version of Terry Gilliam's Brazil: if my number doesn't exist does that mean I don't exist? I fret, angst-ridden, then seize the initiative and ask another woman behind the counter to please explain what I'm doing wrong. She kindly takes pity on my flummoxed state and explains that I'm pressing the wrong button on the machine. I should be pressing one of the three red buttons and not the white button. Feeling increasingly surreal, I return to the ticket machine and press a red button. Success at last: my number starts with the right prefix! I take a seat and wait. Again.
Finally I get to the right window, with the right piece of paper, and organise my ticket to Paris - Paris! Cliches await! - via Brussels.
It was a pleasent trip but not especially noteworthy.
At Gare du Nord, one of Paris' two main stations (to which I was delivered by train from the airport) I caught the metro to Republic, a station around which I'd been told several youth hostels congregated. Unfortunately the several hostels I tried were fully booked, and I was getting sick of lugging my increasing heavy backpacks around. In a state approaching desperation I booked myself into the Holiday Inn (!) for the night, paying only 198 Euro for what would have normally been a 488 Euro room; presumably because I checked in late in the day and it would otherwise go empty. Even so, this was hideously expensive, even by my sometimes extravagent standards.
Once I'd dropped off my bags in my room I headed straight out: I was eager to see something of the city. In retrospect I should have eaten something first...and perhaps made better plans as to where I wanted to go!
I emerged at Chatelet Station, and walked down to the Seine and the Ile de la Cite just in time to hear the bells of Notre Dame tolling, and to see the cathedral itself bathed in the evening sunlight: a beautiful sight. Although I'd arrived too late to climb up to the towers or descend into the crypt, I was still able to stroll around inside Notre Dame, awed by the vast vaulted ceilings and the stained glass, and witnessing the incense-waving introduction of the 6pm service, because as well as being a tourist attraction of course, the cathedral is still a fully-functioning church.
Leaving, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk along the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower, and somehow got completely lost, heading east instead of west.
I should have realised at this stage that if my usually strong sense of direction was letting me down, I was extremely tired and hungry. Heading back to my hotel or at least sitting down for dinner would have been a good idea. Instead, I valiantly if stupidly pushed on, trying to catch a train to the Eiffel Tower and getting lost for a second time, this time on the Metro.
By this stage I was getting pretty cranky. I decided to forget about the Eiffel Tower and head over to Montmartre for dinner isntead. Bad move. By the time I came up above ground again my mood was such that I simply stomped around for 15 minutes muttering to myself and unsatisfied by the menus of the many cafes I passed. I wanted something bohemian: after all was Montmartre, home of artists, poets, Parisian decadence incarnate! To my jaundiced eyes it looked more like Brunswick Street, Fitzroy on a busy night, swarming with tourists and yuppies and berefit of any soul.
I scurried back onto the Metro. Back in the vicinity of my hotel I found a netcafe where I wrote the following:
"Am now in Paris. Arrived Saturday arvo. Paid four times as much as I'd like for a bed in a hotel, just near Republic metro station, as none of the hostels I tried had beds available.
Am now tired, hungry, footsore and broke - and in a bit of a cranky mood as the tone of this blog update probably suggests. This keyboard isnt helping matters - none of the letters are where I expect them to be so I keep typing q insteqd of a then have to go back and retype everything. Damn the French!
Currently looking at having to get up at 8am to try and get a bed in a local hostel. Failing that I'll look for a cheaper hotel and waste half the day in the process when I should be visiting Wilde's grave. What fun Paris is. Hopefully it will look better in the morning, after a solid night's sleep..."
Sunday 18th December: A good night's sleep did the trick.
Spent last night in my room hiding from the world, drinking champagne, eating steak and reading - not the best way to spend my first and only Saturday night in Paris but I was feeling antisocial, exhausted and overwhelmed.
Woke refreshed and much happier at 8am. Raced round the corner and reserved myself a bed at a backpackers for a few nights. Back to bed for another few hours. Checked out at 11am, dumped bag with the hotel staff, and caught the train out to Pere Lachaise cemetery, which was enchanting.
One of my main reasons in coming to Paris was to come to Pere Lachaise and visit Oscar Wilde's grave. I had planned to take a bottle of champagne with me (one glass for Oscar, one for me; one glass for Oscar...) but unfortunately the supermarket I visited didn't have chilled champagne, and I simply couldn't offer Wilde a glass of warm champage, now could I? Instead, I simply sat by his grave and paid my respects by reading some of his decadent novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The tomb itself depicts a sphinx, and is covered in lipstick kisses left by Oscar's admirers, some fresh, some faded, as the above photo shows. Other pilgrims had left flowers, someone else had presented Oscar with a book of poems: Desnuda, by Arcelli Tellez (perhaps left by the author?), and yet another devotee had left a sealed letter addressed to 'Mr Oscar Wilde Esq, C/- Pere Lachaise'. It was all rather lovely.
Carved into the back of the memorial are the following words from Oscar's The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which bought tears to my eyes as I read the four brief lines:
'And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long broken urn
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.'
Thereafter I wandered about the cemetary for an hour or so, visiting the graves of Sarah Bernhardt, Gertrude Stein and Edith Piaf; was reduced again to tears by monuments commemorating the dead of Auschwitz, Belsen and other concentration camps; and generally enjoying the tiers of tombs, the stained glass, the mossy tombstones, and the avenues of ornate crypts. Despite the sunshine a chill breeze sometimes nipped, rustling the leaves above me as I leant upon a rusted iron railing and absorbed the atmosphere of this tranquil resting place. It is peaceful, despite the countless personal tragedies its graves and walls contain.
The afternoon saw me spontaneously take in a river cruise along the Seine ogling architecture (mmmmmmm, architecture), departing from and returning to the Place du Pont Neuf; followed by a leisurely café lunch - quiche, salad and wine. Feeling sustained and relaxed, I then caught the train down to the Eiffel Tower, which is where, once again, my time in Paris started going wrong...
Go look at the tower if you must, but don't bother buying a ticket to visit the top level unless you really, really like queues. I waited for 45 minutes just to get into the first lift; then there are more queues for each successive lift to the next level, and more queues as you wait to get down. Admittedly the topmost viewing platform provides an amazing panorama of Paris, but all up I spent an hour and a half in queues in order to get a 10 minute city view.
Grumpy again now as I write this in the late afternoon and with a tension headache to boot. Don't think I really like Paris, and don't want to end my holiday like this, grimly determined to make the most of a city I'm not having fun in. Really wish I had stayed in Ireland longer now, and skipped Paris altogether, to be honest.
Will seriously consider leaving tomorrow seeing as all the things I want to do - catacombs, Musee d'Orsay - aren't fucking open on bloody Mondays! So, at this stage its 50% likely I'll go back to Amsterdam, a 25% chance I'll head on to Berlin, and 25% possible I'll stay in Paris after all. Or maybe I'll go out to the country for the day...
Friday, September 16, 2005
Rose early and walked across the river to the central Dublin bus depot, from where my guided coach tour to Newgrange was due to depart at 9.40am. I had a sinking feeling as I started walking there, and decided about halfway through the walk that I should abandon the tour and make my own way to Newgrange. This would involve a 50-minute train trip to Drogheda, perhaps a wander around the town, and then a bus to the Brugh na Boinne. Sadly, once I got to the railway station I realised that I'd forgotten to include Ireland as one of the five countries on my Eurorail pass, so instead of paying extra for the train I resigned myself to the coach tour instead.
We left just after 10, with a fairly small contingent of 20 people, the majority of them aged 50+. The coach driver was informed and chatty, but by the end of the trip I just wanted him to shut up for five minutes so that I could soak in some of the landscape undisturbed.
Our first stop was Monasterboice, a monastery founded by St Buite (who died in 521 AD). Its main claim to fame are the three tall crosses, weathered and lichen spotted, which were carved and erected around the 10th century, that stand in the cemetery that dominates the site today; the tallest of the three crosses stands an impressive 6.5 metres high. Little remains of the monastery itself, save a few weathered walls, and an impressive round tower, standing some 35 high and built as a refuge for the monks and their holy treasures to keep them safe from maurauding Viking raiders.
Yew trees sprouted in the graveyard, their roots digging down into the fertile soil; rooks cawed and croaked above; and cows watched impassively from the surrounding fields. Many of the graves dated from the tragic times of the 19th Century Potato Famine, while the most recent burial was that of a local farmer killed in a car accident in the USA only a few weeks previously. It was an attractive and atmospheric site, but I felt a bit frustrated being there when I really wanted to go straight to Newgrange.
Back onto the bus and on to Mellifont Abbey, the picaresque ruins of the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland (founded in 1142 AD). Again, interesting and attractive in a gothic sort of way, but still not really my thing; on another day, had I wanted to embark on a tour of 10th century Ireland, I'm sure I would have found the place fascinating, but goddammit I wanted megaliths and Neolithic chamber-tombs!
Back onto the bus, and at last, off to the Boyne Valley: past the site of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, a grassy field by a river intermittently lined with fisherman; in the distance the Hill of Slane, where St Patrick lit his beacon to announce the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in 433 AD; and finally, following the narrow road beside the River Boyne, to Newgrange. As we approached I felt a similar excitement to that I'd experienced at Stonehenge welling in my breast, especially once I caught my first glimpse of a burial mound atop a neighbouring hill...
Sadly, I found Newgrange itself disappointing: mainly, I think, because the site has been 'restored' to an informed interpretation of the way archeologists think it would have looked in its heyday in 3,200 BC instead of being left to nature. Even though the site is older than the Pyramids, indeed even older than Stonehenge, I found it difficult to feel any sense of atmosphere and mystery; it felt all too pristine and manufactured. It didn't help that we were herded into the passage tomb itself in groups of 25, meaning that you can't really see anything of the ancient carvings that adorn the stones, or hear the whisper of the past due to the inane babble of your fellow tourists...
That said, the nearby tourist centre, from which you have to catch a shuttle-bus to the tomb itself (one of over 30 Neolithic sites in the Brugh na Boinne area, including standing stones, barrows and enclosures) was informative, well-structured, and distinctly non-tacky. A definite relief!
Thereafter we were bussed back into Dublin (I napped part of the way, if only to avoid the driver's constant commentary) just in time to catch the peak hour traffic snarl.
I went and grabbed a quick bite, bought a copy of Jamie O'Neill's novel At Swim, Two Boys, and then went to see my final Dublin Fringe show for this trip: the passionate and dynamic hip-hop interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, Rumble. Fuck this was good! Simple staging, inspired use of multimedia (especially in the scene where Juliet was dreaming of her Romeo), and totally superb displays of physical prowess from its multinational cast. Great to see so many kids in the audience too. Definitely a winner.
Thereafter I checked out a local gay bar (underwhelming, but aren't all gay bars - especially when drag shows are placed centre stage as the ultimate in so-called entertainment?), and eventually staggered bedwards to pack and prepare for my flight to Amsterdam the following day.
Thurs 15th September
Wearing my Melbourne Fringe board member's hat, I started the day with a meeting with Wolfgang Hoffman, the director of Dublin Fringe, to talk about potential opportunities for cultural exchange programs and forging stronger links between our festivals. Hopefully it will lead on to some productive outcomes.
Then it was on through the rain to the airport, and a cheap flight to Amsterdam. I found myself giving assistance to a fellow tourist at Amsterdam Airport, who didn't know which train to catch to get into the city or how to work the ticket machine. The latter I could master because I read English and the ticket machine was bi-lingual; the former I knew about thanks to my Lonely Planet guide (my backpacking bible!).
Here's what I wrote at about 5pm on this day, within my first hour of arriving in Amsterdam:
Just arrived in Amsterdam Centraal (and no, that's not a spelling mistake) after getting a cheap flight over from Dublin this afternoon. I've checked into a small, cheap hotel - a very basic one, one step above a hostel - and have quickly dropped into a internet cafe that doubles as a 'coffee shop' to check the address of The Paradiso, a converted church turned live music venue and indie club where I'm hopefully going to go and see Mum tonight - Mum being an electronic band from Iceland whose music I love. It's delicate, sweeping, cinematic music, all rippling glacial tones and chimes, grandeur and drama. I don't have a ticket but as they still have tickets on sale at the door, I should hopefully get in.
Edit: I did get in, and fuck Mum were good. Plus they played their entire first album from start to finish as part of the show. Who-hoo!
And The Paradiso was amazing - great atmosphere, great DJ and superb acoustics - definitely somewhere to check out if you're in Amsterdam and want to catch a band or dance to some damn fine indie/alternative music. Check the above link for venue details if you need to know more.
After the gig finished I caught a tram back to my hotel (yes, a tram: I had a wave of homesickness and nostalgia when I boarded!), finished off the very mild joint I'd specifically requested from said earlier coffee shop (I hardly ever smoke choof these days so I wanted something very weak and very gentle, which was exactly what I got) and then crashed: I was knackered.
Friday 16th Sept: Day 22
I decided to stay in Amsterdam another night (which meant I basically resigned myself at this point to missing out on either Paris or Berlin; oh, would that it had been Paris, in retrospect...) so that I could soak up some of the atmosphere and sights of this tranquil, friendly and beautiful city.
I spent half the day avoiding being hit by bicycles: most major streets have four lanes: bike, car, car, bike - and of course people drive on the opposite side of the road from what we're used to in Australia, so half the time I was looking in the wrong direction when I stepped out onto the road, and consequently almost got clipped by pushbikes whizzing past on a number of occasions. By the end of the day I was almost paranoid, and was looking in every direction possible before attempting to cross the street.
I started the day with a couple of tokes on a fresh joint, and then a one-hour, rather impersonal guided tour of the canals, with a pre-recorded commentary delivered in bursts of Dutch, English, German, French and Japanese. Yes, another guided tour that I didn't like: by this stage of the trip I was starting to realise that guided tours just aint my thing! That said, I probably would have enjoyed a smaller tour more...
Travel Tip No. 2574: If you're in Amsterdam, shop around with the canal tours until you find a company that sends you out on a small boat, not a bloody great barge absolutely jampacked with tourists.
For the rest of the day I walked absolutely everywhere, which meant that even when I got lost I was still enjoying myself, because I was meandering and drifting and discovering new sights around every corner or across every canal...
As an aside: A couple of people had warned me about pickpockets in Amsterdam and indeed Europe generally. Be alert, they said, pickpockets might lift your wallet from your back pocket (not mine, I have a chain wallet) so wear a money belt or a bumbag (which to me sems like a great way of advertising where you're carrying your money, passport etc, although thinking about it I guess a chain-wallet is no different). Even Lonely Planet's Europe On A Shoestring guide mentioned occasional instances of people's backpacks being sliced open while they waited at traffic lights to cross the street, resulting in their valuables and travel documents being stolen in a matter of seconds.
Nothing like that happened to me, but as an example of how seriously people take this kind of thing, at one stage today I stopped on a bridge in order to open my backpack so I could pull out the camera and take a photo. Task accomplished, I slung my backpack back over on my shoulder, the camera in my hand. I'd only taken a few stops when a polite young man - a local I think, from the accent - stopped me and warned me that my bag was still open. It was indeed still partially unzipped; only a couple of inches, but presumably enough for an accomplished pickpocket to reach in and grab whatever they could find - which would only have been my journal, a novel and my Lonely Planet, as it happens, but still it aptly illustrates how seriously people take pickpocketing on the continent...
Anyway, rather than blather on endless, it's time for a quick summary. My Amsterdam highlights included:
- The cobbled expanse of 13th century Dam Square, and the grandeur of the Royal Palace, originally built as this proud merchantile city's Town Hall in the 17th century, which I literally stumbled upon by accident the previous night while taking my first tentative steps about the city, and which I had to see again by daylight.
- The Amsterdam Historical Museum, housed in what was once the city's orphanage, built in the 15th century and then extended in the 17th. While the museum concentrates on Amsterdam's golden age, the 17th Century when the city was the rich capital of a vast merchantile empire, I was most intrigued by the exhibitions which explored Amsterdam in the 12th - 15th centuries, as it slowly grew into the city of canals and bridges that it is today. I scribbled down several notes about this period, which I'm sure will be useful one day... In addition to this, there was a great exhibition focussing on the art and history of modern tattooing, whose centerpiece was a recreation of a tattoo parlour from the late 50's/early 60's. Cool stuff indeed.
- The awe-inspiring Rijskmuseum, which I hadn't actually intended to visit, but which I found myself in front of as I was trying to find the Van Gogh Museum. What the hell, I thought, I may as well go inside. Because it's being renovated, the bulk of the museum, a vast and beautiful building in its own right, is closed until 2008. While parts of the collection tour the world (including, recently, Melbourne) the "crème de la crème of its permanent collection" was on display in one wing of the museum. Sadly I forgot to take my journal and a pen out of my bag when I handed it over to the cloakroom staff, so my smoke-clouded recollections of what I saw are a trifle hazy, but this 400-piece survey of the Rijskmuseum's collection of 17th Century masterpieces was definitely a marvellous aesthetic experience, even it the bulk of the works were from an historical period I'm not especially smitten by...
- The marvellous Van Gogh Museum (where I had a momentary frisson of impending doom as I gazed into the painter's eyes, in a series of four of his self-portraits hanging side by side, and recognised certain similarities in our expressions...or maybe that was just the effect of the joint I'd smoked in the park before I went inside...). Here I saw some truly magnificent art, including a temporary exhibition of cabaret posters, theatre programs, handbills and other ephemera by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec; the Fauve-influenced masterpiece Portrait of Guus Preitinger, the Artist’s Wife, by Kees van Dongen; and of course countless works by poor tortured Vincent himself. As it was a Friday the museum was open until 9.30pm so I had plenty of time to stroll around and gaze in awe at the artworks, despite having already had a busy day.
Next I'd planned to go check out a couple of other bars before finishing my evening sightseeing in the infamous Red Light District, but as I was a touch tired and footsore, I decided to skip the bars (after all, I figured I was pretty unlikely to find a gay bar that played the kind of music I like without doing at least a half-hour's research beforehand) and head straight to the Red Light district.
Colourful, is one word that springs to mind. There were plenty of other sightseers like myself, but there were also a lot of serious customers perusing the charms of various women in the windows, haggling over services and prices, or queuing up to enter one of the several clubs touting live sex shows on stage. While the latter had a vague, perverse appeal (if only to say that I'd experienced unbridled heterosexuality live before my eyes) the fifty euro cover charge, about AU $100, was enough to ensure that I stayed a sightseer - especially as it only included one drink!
Having squeezed a lot of Amsterdam into one day, and yet still only having scratched the surface, I called it a night. A good night's sleep was in order, seeing as tomorrow the final leg of my trip would begin.
Onwards, to Paris!
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Monday 12th September
It's not really surprising that I slept in until almost 11am today as I was exhausted, which meant that I missed out on the hostel's free breakfast and lost part of the day, but woke deeply refreshed and ready for a big day.
It began with a quick breakfast (a smoothie and a cheese & ham bagel for those who like to know the minutae of my life) and then a visit to the Dublin Fringe ticket office to grab tickets to my first three shows (of which the promo artwork for one is pictured above). Then I headed off for a guided tour of Dublin's Trinity College, whose alumni include the likes of writer and wit Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Our student guide was casutic, witty and extremely entertaining as he pointed out various buildings, commented on college traditions, and showed us such landmarks as the two great trees growing on the college lawns, their roots buried deep in the graveyard of the old monastery which once stood here...
The tour ended outside the Old Library, which is the home of the remarkable illuminated bible known today as The Book of Kells. After viewing the book and related manuscripts of a similar age (I think there must be a series of old manuscripts tourists have to view, like swapcards, while they travel through Ireland and the UK - such as one of the four remaining copies of Magna Carta which I saw in Salisbury Cathedral - collect the set!) I wandered upstairs to the Long Hall - and my god what a library! Spiral stairs, busts, rare manuscripts, ladders leading to the topmost shelves, and a whole second tier of books towering above you on the second floor. And yes, it is indeed a lonoooooong hall, as the above link will show you.
Thereafter I cruised about the campus for a little while - cruised being the appropriate word. Let's just draw a discrete curtain over what happened after I made repeated eye-contact with a rather cute young red-headed student who turned out to have a room on campus, shall we?
Next I strolled, smiling and feeling delightfully relaxed, down to a nearby park where a suitably languid statue of Oscar Wilde has been erected, opposite Wilde's birthplace and family home. I bowed in homage to the great man, who is one of my personal saints, and raised a glass (well a can) of cider in his honour that I'd put in my bag especially for the occasion. This despite the fact that drinking was forbidden in the park. Oh, I'm such the rebel. ;-)
Thereafter I meandered back to Trinity and purchased a ticket to The Dublin Experience, allegedly the ultimate multimedia exploration of Dublin's history. Cobblers. It was a naff collection of slides using almost no original source material or footage, with a series of voiceovers linking it all together. While some of the early history about the Viking settlement of the city was informative, as was the brief summary of the events of the Easter Uprising in 1916, by the time we got to the modern era the show degenerated into a jingoistic compilation of images that reminded me of bad US propogandha films from the 1950's. Avoid The Dublin Experience folks, if you're coming to Dublin, unless you really need a crash course on Irish history in a 40 minute package.
After that I went to see a couple of Fringe shows in the evening:
A Season in Hell (After Arthur Rimbaud): Presented by The Stomach Box
"It has been found again!
It is the sea mingled with the sun."
- 'Alchemy of the Word', A Season In Hell (trans. Oliver Bernard)
A contemporary, site-specific operetta based on the poetry of 19th Century wunderkind Arthur Rimbaud. The production was performed in a warehouse, in a cavernous, dusty and gloomy room, to which we were led by a guide after meeting on the street a couple of blocks away. Music was performed live, and there were some excellent directorial flourishes, including some inventive use of video and the original appearance of the main performer, swathed in a black robe and carrying a lantern through the darkened room accompanied by a recording of an Arabic singer.
Sadly A Season In Hell was let down by its director-composer's insistence on singing. Had he stuck to the piano and the occasional spoken word performance it would have been a much stronger show. He had such a weak voice and narrow vocal range that it drained the work of any real power, save for when he was declaiming the poetry, at which point it came to spectacular life. Given that I'm quite an admirer of Rimbaud and his poetry, I found this show rather disappointing.
Urban Ghosts - Pale Angel (Presented by Bedrock)
"Once upon a time there was a little girl who made friends with shadows..."
- From the opening monologue of Pale Angel
(a line delivered by a menacing, suit-wearing, rabbit-headed man.)
An evocative, complex and sometimes cryptic fusion of physical theatre and drama, this performance by Irish company Bedrock was devised and directed by Jimmy Fay, with text by Alex Johnston. Its drama was informed by the suicide of American photographer Francesca Woodman in 1981. Woodman, who often used herself as her own model, was little known during her own life but has increasing come to be recognised as one of the major artists of her generation.
Superb lighting, strong performances, and a plot that explored grief and guilt, and which occasionally veered into the surreal and haunting, ensured that I was utterly captivated by this production from beginning to end. In fact I liked Pale Angel so much that I went to see the second show presented by Bedrock during the Fringe on Tuesday. More of that shortly...
After seeing two shows in one night I retired to the downstairs bar at my hotel, where I had a couple of pints, was slightly disturbed by the vast number of Amercian accents dominating the room, and went to bed relatively sober and relatively early - by my standards, at any rate!
Tues 13th September
Rose early, about 8.30am and had a free breakfast - fruit and cereal - in the backpackers' dining room, then strolled down through the Temple Bar and over to the main Dublin Tourist Office, where I booked myself a guided tour to the Neolithic chamber tomb of Newgrange (this would later turn out to be a mistake - see tomorrow's post for more details).
At this stage of the trip I was also seriously considering blowing off the rest of my plans for the Continent and staying in Ireland for the rest of my holiday, seeing as I was enjoying the atmosphere and energy of Dublin so much, but to do that I would have to get my visa extended, as I'd told customs at the airport I was only staying for a few days. This turned out to be a bit more complicated that I wanted it to be, so in the end, I decided to keep to my already distorted schedule and head on to Amsterdam in a few days time.
This sorted, I headed off to the National Museum of Ireland which has a superb collection of Stone Age - Iron Age antiquities, and where I marvelled at how small the hilts of Bronze Age (circa 1400-1000 BC) rapiers were: what tiny hands the warriors who wielded them must have had!
I was just admiring the natural mummification of a bog body when the power went off, and all of us were herded outside onto the street by nervous security guards, who presumably sought to ensure that none of us smashed a glass case and nicked a gold torque while the generator was down... Missed my chance, there!
Out on the street, I walked back past the modern Irish Parliament to the Temple Bar district, and went to the National Photographic Archive, which is dedicated to preserving and presenting old photos of a vanished Ireland. The exhibition showing while I was there was called Regeneration, presenting photographs taken by the Congested Districts Board, a government organisation who helped families from poor, over-populated and under-developed areas re-settle or re-build.
Given the activities of similiar well-meaning but destructive government boards in Australia's colonial history I was a touch suspicious, but the exhibition gave the Congested Districts Board nothing but good press: great photos too, of bare-footed children, turn-roofed cottages, tiny fishing villages and much more, most of them taken circa 1910.
Just across Meeting House Square was the Gallery of Photography, who display contemporary photographic work (rather like Melbourne's CCP). The current exhibition was the marvellous The Architect's Brother, a series of works by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison (USA). Their work was a spectactularly strange and beautiful series of photogravures, presenting surreal and haunting sepia-toned images: a man crawling across a series of planks which he is nailing together over the surface of a lake to create a bridge...a rent in the earth reveals the gears and mechanisms of a strange machine...a man waters a tree that sprouts from his head, its roots like dreadlocks...dangling from ropes tethering a cloud, an everyman hooks himself to the peak of a mountain.
Thereafter, having enjoyed yesterday's performance by Bedrock so much, I went to see Urban Ghosts: Self Accusation at the Fringe, a lunchtime performance. This was a local production of Peter Handke's 1966 two-hander, a deliberately contrived piece more spoken word than theatre, featuring two performers (a man and a woman), alternating confessional declarations of guilt: "I lay on the floor during months with the letter R ... I failed to look away ..." Through its deliberately repetitive & confessional litany, this piece 'examines the path we all follow from youth to adulthood, from nature to culture, an inevitable progression towards conformity and integration in society'. It was fantastic, and I'd love to perform it here in Melbourne one day.
Thereafter I strolled through the streets of Dublin, through a crowded mall to St Stephens Green Park, where young boys threw sticks into the leafy boughs of a chestnut tree, where countless couples were entwined in the afternoon sun and mallards quacked on the lake. I admired memorials to Joyce and Yeats - god but Ireland loves its writers, would that Australia was the same - and then dropped into The Stag's Head for dinner (Irish Stew) and a pleasant yarn with a young barman who'd spent a year in Australia (several months of it in Melbourne), and who told me he despaired of the trait of his countrymen to seek out the first Irish pub they could find every time they visited a new country.
That night, I returned to Trinity College, to the Beckett Theatre to see what was to be the highlight of my Dublin Fringe experience: the Welsh company Earthfall's adaptation of Jamie O'Neill's award-winning novel At Swim, Two Boys.
My god but this was a beautiful piece of work; one of those performances so sublime, so moving, so poignant and romantic that it made me weep while watching it. Watching? No, participating: this was a performance of physical theatre that made you feel the emotions and experiences the two dancers were presenting, that made you feel like you were actively involved rather than just a passive observer seated in the audience.
The story explores the growing love between two teenaged boys, Jim and Doyler, and is set against the backdrop of 1916, when World War One raged in Europe and when the Easter Rising launched the fledgling Irish Republic and the rebellion against English rule. Performed by Terry Michael and the beautiful Cai Tomos, the production of At Swim, Two Boys is set in a low-walled pool which gradually fills with water as the dance continues. The performers leap, spin and splash with exuberence and tenderness as the production plays out, to a sublime, cacophanous and delightful live score by expat Sydneysider Roger Mills (and another musician, whose name I don't know, unfortunately).
Now, I'm not a huge fan of physical theatre at all, but this piece really won me over, and I'm going to try my hardest to see if there's not some way of ensuring that it can tour Australia, because god I want all of my friends to be able to see it.
The following day I went out and bought the novel it was based on: that made me cry too, but more of that later...
After a restless night's sleep (I was paranoid about oversleeping and missing my Aer Lingus flight to Dublin, the capital city of the Republic of Ireland, because I don't own a watch or a travelling clock) I eventually climbed out of bed at 8am. I probably only had about two hours sleep all night, despite getting to bed at the relatively civilised (for Barcelona!) hour of 2am, and so consequently was a bit of a grouch for the rest of the day. Ordinarily this wouldn't have been a problem, except for the circumstances of my flight.
Richard's travel tip #18: Don't catch a Sunday midday flight from Barcelona - the airport will be full of still-drunk, loudly boasting British lads who are returning home from a weekend of shagging and partying and conspiring about what lies to tell their girlfriends. Worse, flights from Barcelona to Dublin at this time are, according to an Aer Lingus stewardess, traditionally full of Spanish high school kids on their way to Ireland for a week to help them improve their English skills. The horror, the horror!
Not only was the plane echoing with the uncontrolled shouts, shrieks and bellowed conversations of about 35 such teenagers, but their teachers did absolutely nothing to control them. Worse still, for some reason I was seated right in their midst!
Now, bearing in mind that I was sleep deprived and grumpy, you can imagine how little I enjoyed this flight. At one point, despite having my headphones on at my iPod at maximum volume, I could still hear them shouting and carring on, to the point where I was compelled to turn to the kid next to me, saying 'Habla ingles per favor?' ("Do you speak English please?") When he replied in the affirmative, I said sweetly, "Then will you please shut the fuck up and stop yelling in my ear?" He looked suitably surprised and abashed, and to his credit kept the volume down for the next hour. Didn't stop the rest of them though!
So, not the most enjoyable plane flight I've ever had. Far from it in fact. It was an enourmous relief to disembark, grab my luggage, and catch a bus into central Dublin. It was even more of a delight to run into Rob Nairn at the airport - a Melbourne lad who used to work at The Builder's Arms Hotel! Ah it's a small world to be sure, to be sure.
Rob and his girlfriend Hannah have been living in the UK for about a year, and were over here in Ireland for a visit; in fact he was returning their hire car to the airport when I bumped into him. He advised me where to get off the bus in town, and also advised me that I might have problems finding a room, as the all-Ireland Cork vs Galway hurley grand final was happening!
There were, indeed people everywhere, swarms of them flooding every street and spilling out of every pub. I still found a bed though, for €15 a night at the Oliver St. John Gogarty, in the heart of the Temple Bar district, the entertainment/culture centre of Dublin. It's a bit noisy (the downstairs bar hosts live traditional Irish music til 2am but what the fuck, I can always join em if I can't sleep) but large, clean and comfortable - plus there's only me and one other person in my eight-bed dorm room.
After checking in and dumping my backpack, I went for a stroll about town to orient myself. It's not an imediately beautiful city, but I really like it here and am considering skipping Amsterdam so that I can stay in Ireland for a few more days instead of leaving on Thursday.
One of the first places I found was a great independent bookshop called Books Upstairs, where not only did I pick up a gay and lesbian newspaper and a Dublin Fringe mini-program, but also a couple of local literary journals and a collection of new and emerging writers. I also visited The Body Shop to get some peppermint foot balm (I've been doing so much walking in the last week that I've got blisters. Owww.) and then dropped into an Irish pub for a pint, and discovered an impromptu jam session in progress, with a guitarist, a whistle-player, and an appreciative crowd - how very Irish!
That evening I met up with Rob and Hannah for dinner at a very good but slightly expensive Japanese restaurant called Wagamomas - sort of like a busier version of Melbourne's Chocolate Buddha, and equally pricey. In fact Dublin is a very expensive city all round, especially compared to Barcelona; the good thing about Wagamomas though was the quality of the food - good fresh ingredients - and the attentive service.
After we parted ways I dropped in to another pub, the International, for a nightcap and got talking to a couple of lads in the basement bar, which hosts live music later in the week. One of the lads was Bob, a burly, shaven-headed 25 year old-ish lift repairman (and quite cute I might add - indeed, so are many of the Irish boys, and their accents make me go weak at the knees...). After hearing that it was my first night in Ireland, and being quite drunk after celebrating the day's big game in style, Bob was generous enough to give me a gift: a small block of hashish which I promptly lost later that night, dammit!
Then it was back to Temple Bar and off to bed for a much-needed rest.
Tomorrow: Trinity College, the Book of Kells, Oscar Wilde and so much more!
Monday, September 12, 2005
Awful, ghastly hangover this morning - that will teach me to hang out with a group of 20-something backpackers and match them drink for drink....
Left the hostel at 12pm with Carrie from Washington State USA, and our dorm mate Lourdes from Brazil, in search of sustenance. Unlike the constant rain of my first day, today was hot and sunny - the sort of weather I expected in Spain. Applied sunblock liberally in between taking painkillers and feeling sorry for myself. Brunch was at a tapas bar around the corner from our hostel, where I had several cokes to try and kickstart by struggling brain.
After successfully navigating the Barcelona Metro, we emerged to behold Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Oh, oh, oh what an amazing, miraculous building! Every detail bursts with creativity and inspiration. Stone that seems to have been encouraged to grow like a flower into strange curliqued organic shapes. Breath-taking attention to details. Cute workmen in hard hats and shorts. Leering stone grotesqueries. Saints. Monsters. Soaring columns supported on the backs of turtles. And a 45 queue to start the slow ascent of the spiral stairs which climb up, up, up and round and round the towers of this amazing construction site...
Word of advice: Don't try and climb a 350 step spiral stair in a narrow tower with people pressing in on either side and a vertiginous drop to your left when you have the kind of hangover that makes your legs shake and your hand (grimly clutching the iron railing) tremble. Baaaad idea.
But the waves of nausea and sudden vertigo were all worth it for the view at the top, and the close-up view of the fine details of the Temple of the Sacred Family's spires, which are still works in process. The climb was a penance for last night's debauch, this sun-drenched panorama my reward.
I'd planned to spend the afternoon exploring another Gaudi site, the Park Guell, but instead, on a whim I took the train out to Montjuic and spent hours walking through the parks which flank this great rocky headland overlooking Barcelona. Atop the great rock I found a solid castle, now a military museum, whose moat is now a beautiful garden, and on my way back down the mountain I discovered the Botanic Gardens and started chatting to a cute Belgian boy.
Returning to the city via the waterfront I chanced upon the 14th century Portal de Santa Madrona, one of the old gates of the city, where junkies were sleeping beneath its old stone walls. Dinner followed, and then an early night that was interupted by the drunken return of Matta, Matt and Simon at 2am and then again at 4am. Grrrr.
Sat 10th September
Up at 10am as the rest of the dorm slept and out to Gaudi's magnificent Park Guell. I took a direct route from the station rather than the long way, and consequently hiked up a hill so steep that its footpath became stairs, and eventually a series of escalators - which were, of course, broken today. Breakfast was a fresh juicy peach and a bottle of water.
Initially, having entered the park via its topmost gate, I was underwhelmed - it seemed to be little more than a rocky path winding through semi-arid scrub. Then I turned a corner and saw the most beautiful plaza, ringed about by undulating walls and mosaic-tiled benches, surrounded by scalloped butresses and palm trees full of squarking parrots, all overlooking two of the most surreally beautiful buildings. I'd seen this place in films and photos but still, what an enchanting place it was.
The afternoon was spent at MACBA, the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, which I adored. Its great white, wide-windowed three-storey high foyer sent light streaming into the building, while the balconies on the first and second floors had semi-opaque glass-brick floors, allowing more light to flood through the building.
The artworks which struck, moved or delighted me included:
- Joseph Ponsati's Sculpture for a pictograma, a recreation of an older work: "I always considered the important thing to be the work's contents, which should be able to be projected with full force beyond any temporal limitations..."
- Antoni Tapies' Four Grey Squares on a Brown Background, a beautiful exploration of abstract space, texture and the creative process.
- A.D. Reinhardt's Abstract Painting (1956), which appears at first as a solid black canvas before you start to see the details emerge in blocks of deep blue, dark indigo...
- A series of photos by Robert Frank, including his 1959 work Pull My Daisy, also the name of a Beat Generation poem-turned-film, and who was in the photo but Ginsberg's lover Orlovsky...
- Dan Graham's video work Rock My Religion which linked estactic dance, Patti Smith, punk rock, the Shakers and speaking in tounges.
- Beautiful photographic work by Suzanna Lafont and Fina Mirables
- And a beautiful photographic sequence of 100 different models each a year older than the former, called simply 100 Years.
The evening, my last night in Barcelona before flying to Dublin, was spent with Carrie, Lourdes and a new dorm-mate, a rather handsomely bedraggled Canadian lad. We went in search of rock music, and ended up in a bar called Tequila, where headphones dangled above every bar stool so that you could listen to your request in private. It was in a definitely seedy part of town, where I was several times offered cocaine and hashish on the street, and I'm glad we were there en masse - it might have been a trifle scary on my own.
Tequila was a bit pricy, so we wandered off, at which point I left the group for a meeting with my Belgian boy from yesterday: alas, he stood me up, so no last night of passion in Barcelona. Such is life.
As I lay down to sleep that night I wondered if I had seen as much of Barcelona as I could have, and decided that the language barrier was a trifle intimidating: this would be less of a problem was I with friends, but as it was, travelling alone, I found the city just a little daunting. Nor did I get out to the country, or see enough of the gay scene, or go to the Picasso Museum, or Dali's deranged surrealist castle. Next time...
Saturday, September 10, 2005
Wed 7th Sept
After a quiet night and an equally quiet morning at Rick´s place, I headed out to the airport by train to catch my 3.30 flight to Barcelona. I´m almost certain that the Australian actor Joel Edgerton was on the same flight, if not him then perhaps it was his brother Nash, who is an emerging film-maker, as well as a stuntman and actor, he sure as hell look familiar, and was definitely an Aussie, but I couldn´t get the chance to sneak a look at his passport even though I was standing behind him in the customs queue...not that it really matters.
Flying over the chequered fields of England was rather pretty, as was leaving the coast behind and heading out across the English Chanel for France. Soon after we reached the coast the cloud cover thickened, but the flight eas smooth until we began our descent. Barcelona was gripped by thunderstorms and we had to fly straight through them to land. The plane lurched, rocked, and a couple of times seemed to drop straight down, leaving my stomach and my nerves several hundred feet above us.
The drunk English bloke next to me said loudly at one point "We´re all doomed," and then proceeded to belittle the pilot´s skills. Wanker.
We landed safely, and the plane´s crew all applauded. Luggage. Check. Customs. Check. Welcome to Spain.
After getting directions, I walked out to the train station through the wind and the rain, waited 15 minutes, and then squeezed into a very crowded carriage full of tourists (such as a young couple from Urugay who I was sitting next to) and travellers who were returning home.
Into the city through a rain-soaked industrial quarter, disembarking at Placa Catalunya, the central plaza in the city. My first step was to go to the tourist information office, to cash some travellers´cheques and book myself into a hotel where my mate Mike and his boyfriend Roger were staying. Then I walked 40-odd minutes, getting increasing hot and sweaty, lugging my backpack. The hotel staff sneered at me when I arrived because I imagine in their eyes I was nothing but a grimy, sweaty backpacker.
It was a pretty up-market establishment, with my room costing my €125 for the night, but hey after two weeks of couches and a backpackers, I felt like a little luxury. The staff´s attitude didn´t endear me to Barcelona, I confess, and I got even more pissed-off when they told me that Mike and Roger were´t even staying in the hotel!
This, I later found out, was a mistake - the boys were there all right, but the staff just couldn´t locate their booking for me. So much for catching up with friends in Barcelona!
After a wash and changing my shirt, I walked down into the city in something of a foul mood. I was seriously considering jumping on a train the very next day and heading south to Portugal, but once I found somewhere to eat I was much more cheerful. The meal of mixed paella and a couple of glasses of house red wine (not great wine mind you) vastly improved my mood, and I was prepared to forgive Barcelona for its initial bad first impression. I went for a walk after dinner, hoping for a pub or a bar, and ended up, to my shame, having a pint at Hogans, an Australian theme pub in La Ramblas. Not an Aussie to be seen inside of course, just noisy Brits and Irish getting plastered.
Then I took a taxi back to the hotel in the rain, and bed, quite early. Slept well, woke extremely refreshed.
Thurs 8th Sept
Booked in at the Gaudi Youth Hostel, Placa Urquinaona 5, a small, clean and extremely friendly hostel. Breakfasted with Matt, a young Aussie graffiti-artist and his two Austrian friends, Matt and Simon. My initial impression was that they were larrikans but decent sorts; I´ve since downgraded that impression to "young, stupid and inconsiderate" given that they stomp into the room most nights at 4am, drunk and rowdy, with no respect for anyone else at the hostel who might actually be sleeping at that early hour...
I spent today drifting about the city and fell in love with the Barri Gotic, the narrow streets of the old medievval city, where I lay my hand upon an ancient Roman wall, discovered a shine to Saint Christopher built in Anno MDIII, and walked down long narrow streets overhung by wrought iron balconies and hanging plants as thunder growled overhead.
The street opened up to reveal the harbour, where I wandered for ages, admiring ships, fishing boats, shirtless skater-boys, cruise liners, and eventually passing an impressive monument to Christopher Columbus before entering the Ramblas, a tourist precinct full of bars, cafes, buskers and more. Not really my style, so I took off down a side street back in the Barri Gotic and caught up on some e-mails in a cafe there.
Eventually, after realising I´d hardly eaten all day, I made my way to Els Quatre Gats - The Four Cats - a cafe where Picasso had his first ever solo exhibition. I don´t think he could afford to eat there any more. While the ambience of the cafe was wonderful it was matched only by the arrogance of the waiters, who seemed to sneet at everyone. My meal was mostly good, although the octopus with potatoes was way too oily for me, but the house wine by the glass was a great disappointment. After a few sips I called the waiter over and he suggested I try a small bottle instead. Much better idea, and a tip for any of you who are planning to visit Barcelona at any time. A small bottle holds about 2 glasses, and is perfect for dinner. House wines are invariably shithouse.
Lastly, before leavig, I ordered an absinthe - the waiter mishead me at first, or I mangled the local pronunciation, because he seemed to think I´d asked for acid. Not wanting to trip on my second night in the city, I repeated "absinthe" and made drinking motions. He smiled, returned, poured me a shot of the most delicious absinthe I´ve ever tried. A short time later I drifted out into the night a very relaxed and happy man.
Back at the hostel new guests had arrived, including a young American girl from Seattle who at present lives in Paris. She also speaks fluent Spanish and has great taste in music; we listened to each others iPods for a while before I proposed buying a bottle of absinthe, to which she cheerfully agreed.
Cut to: Group of backpackers, including a trio of Parisian boys, and a Spaniard who works at the hostel sitting around drinking absinthe and making plans to go out.
Cut to: Richard and the American girl drinking champagne and having tapas at 11.30pm.
Cut to: Meeting up with the same group of backpackers as earlier, and drinking pints in a tacky Australian-themed bar.
Jump cut: The same group in an Irish bar. More pints are consumed.
Cut away to: The same group plus a few more French folk dancing in a Spanish techno club.
Jump cut: Richard and Seattle-girl decide to go to a gay bar, which Richard is so drunk he basically doesn´t remember leaving, hell, even getting there is something of a blur...
FADE TO BLACK
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Mon 5th Sept
Major hangover today - on a scale of 1 to 10 this was about a 5.5. It meant that I didn´t get up early as planned and head down to Salisbury by train: I went shopping instead. Purchases included a DVD of the classic film noir Double Indemnity, and a Roman coin from the reign of the Emperor Claudius, circa the invasion of Britain, from a cool little antiques dealer located opposite the British Museum.
I also wandered around Bloomsbury a little more, discovering beautiful Bedford Square (built in 1775 - 80, and the only complete Georgian square in London) entirely by accident, and the house where the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. If I´m not very much mistaken, Wilde´s Dorian Grey lived on Bedford Square... which reminds me, I also picked up a very cheap copy of that very same novel today, to read by St Oscar´s grave in Paris as I drink champagne in his honour.
I also discovered Soho Square Garden, where a statue of Charles II carved in 1681 stands virtually ignored by the many Londoners lounging in the park, but not totally: someone had blackened his face with paint...
That night I arranged to meet up with Carl Pates at the Round Table pub, from which we later moved on to Leicester Square for dinner. Top bloke Carl, we´ve known each other for years but never actually met. We talked about role-playing games (one of my great loves), films, music (and discovered we both used to love the spagetti-western goth band The Fields of the Nephilim), and much more. A great night, and if it wasn´t for my beastly hangover in the morning it would never have happened. Thanks, hangover!
Tues 6th Sept
Up early, booked Easyjet ticket to Barcelona, then caught the train down to Salisbury, a pleasent and easy one and a half hour trip. Through a small forest of birch and larch trees, the ground carpeted in bracken, through Woking and Basingstoke; over peaceful fields disected by hedgerows, and so to Salisbury itself - a glimpse of the caethdral spire before entering a tunnel, and a pro-fox hunting sign the first thing I saw when we emerged on the other side.
Wandering the streets of the old medieval town at the heart of the city in wonderment, passing therough the market which has run every Tuesday since 1361, crossing a stone bridge beneath which ducks quack on a narrow stream...
Then on the bus to Stonehenge.
Stonehenge. Wow. This is a place I´ve wanted to see since I was 10 or 12, so you can understand the excitement and tension I was feeling as the bus rattled along the narrow country road, past a piggery outside Salisbury to Amesbury, the closest town to the site. Had I had the time I would have returned to Amesbury, and from here caught another bus to Avebury, another megalithic site an hour north.
As it happened, Stonehenge was the only megalithic site I got to see and god, it was fantastic. As we first saw the stones in the distance, my heart leapt. I´d been warned that some find Stonehenge underwhelming: by the time I´d paid my entrance fee and crossed under the road to emerge on the other side of the chainlink fence that keeps vandals out, I was almost in tears of joy and awe. With Hilmar Orn Hilmarson´s Angels of the Universe providing a highly appropriate soundtrack (Hilmarson is the head of Iceland´s pagan church, and the score itself is magestic, evocative and moving), I walked slowly and reverentually around the site, and soon I really was in tears. These ancient, lichen-encrusted stones... It´s hard to do justice to how they made me feel; a sense of palpable age, of awe... It´s the most ancient spiritual site I´ve explored, and it made me feel amazing. I also felt some anger and disdain to those tourists for whom this was just another quick stop, another landmark for them to cross of their list of places to see in Britain. I hadn´t expected such a strong emotional response at all, and was humbled and moved by the whole experience.
Then it was back on the bus to Salisbury, where I had to make the hard decision of touring Old Sarum (an iron-age hillfort which later became the site of the original Salisbury) and then walking into town to catch my train; or going back into town and instead spending an hour at Salisbury Cathedral. I did the later. A sweet symphony in stone raised to honour God. The cathedral was also beautiful, and while it didn´t move me as Stonehenge did, I still thought it was a marvellous building, that I sadly didn´t have time to explore properly before getting back on the London train. If you visit Salisbury, give yourself at least a couple of days to see the place and its surrounding landmarks properly.
Finally it was back to London on the train, where that night I caught up with Nat Clark, another old Express Media hand who´d also been a guest at Bec and Bob´s wedding. Not a huge night out, but a very comfortable one; Thai dinner and a short spot of bar-hopping, including a great little bar in a sidestreet in Soho... Then back to Rick´s for my last night in London!
Monday, September 05, 2005
One of coolest things about London is the way that major landmarks that you've seen a thousand times on TV shows or in movies suddenly appear beguilingly down a sidestreet or over a rooftop.
Anyway, here's what I did on Sunday:
Today was an action-packed day that began with a long walk along the south bank of the Thames...
I got off the train at London Bridge, and walked down to the river, then eastwards to Tower Bridge itself. I couldn't resist walking over it, gazing around me at London in all its shabby glory as I went. I stared up at the marvellous Victorian facade of the bridge's towers, then across at the Tower of London, although I didn't go to the Tower itself. The bridge was raised at one point, while I was sitting on the north bank eating a very expensive icecream, so a large ship could travel underneath: cue the happy snapping of 1000 tourists.
Digression: Once again I forgot to carry the camera that Hugh & Chiara loaned me - I think it's because I haven't owned one for so long, so I never remember to take it with me. Oh well, I have this blog to remind me of all the cool things I've seen so far - and maybe I'll be a bit more snap-happy in the coming weeks...
I re-crossed the bridge and headed west, discovering a life-size reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hinde; walking past The Clink Prison Museum, which stands on the sight of one of London's oldest prisons (it held prisoners from the early Tudor years until 1780. Shakespeare visited an old schoolfriend here.); and marvelling at the fact that so many Brits seem to relish the chance offered by a bit of sunshine to whip off their shirts and expose their pale flab to all and sundry.
My destination was the Tate Modern Gallery, a marvellous gallery focussing on international art post 1900. Rohini Sharma, the new Artistic Director at Express Media gave me a list of places to visit in London, and this was one of them. I'm so glad I went. Thanks Rohini!
Situated in a converted power station in the heart of London, the Tate Modern is a remarkable building indeed: industrial, cavernous, a bold piece of architectural adaption. As well as two special exhibition galleries, there are four main suites of several galleries. Each suite is devoted to four of the great traditional subject areas of art: history, the nude, landscape, and still life. Each of the suites explores the ways in which these themes, while continuing through the modern era, have been often radically transformed.
There was a remarkable installation by Michael Landry called Scrapheap Services, a commentary on the way in which consumerism and capitalism chew up and discard people. In the Degenerate Art exhibition (a collection of art and artists displayed in an exhibition of so-called 'degenerate art' by the Nazis in 1937) there was a startling evocation of grief and helplessness in Hans Feibusch's 1939; Munch's The Sick Child, in the same room, was equally potent. There were amazing works on display by Picasso, Braque, Dali, Pollock, Warhol, all the big names of 20th Century art, although strangely I don't recall seeing any works by Australian artists...
Rick and I spent several hours wandering through the collection; sadly we didn't have the time to look at the Frida Kahlo exhibition that is currently showing, and we both bauked a little at the £10 entry fee as well, although now I'm starting to wish that I'd just splurged. On the other hand I did only have £20 on me, which had to cover lunch and dinner. I'll just have to go back on my next trip to London, when hopefully I'll have more than three or four days to explore this vibrant city.
At about 4pm Rick went home, and I crossed the no-longer wobbling Millenium Bridge towards St Paul's Cathedral. I stuck my head in St Paul's, but decided I wasn't really all that interested in exploring the place; maybe on my next trip to London, when I have more time...
After an abortive hunt for a couple of DVD's I was trying to track down (Derek Jarman's beautiful Caravaggio and his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, and John Maybury's blistering, bleak Love Is The Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon) I wandered back to Old Compton Street, where I had a pint at the Admiral Duncan (scene of an infamous and horrific nail-bombing in 1999), where a naive Englishman casually asked me, when I mentioned that I presented a 3-hour arts program, if I had any problem finding enough new arts projects to fill the show each week. Once I politely explained that Melbourne is a city of 3.5 million people, and that I receive between 40-80 media releases and interview requests each week, he was suitably abashed; covering for his gaffe, he thanked Melbourne for producing the tv comedy series Kath & Kim (which incidentally I'm not a fan of, although my host Rick most definitely is!).
More pints followed, as I went on a mini pub-crawl. I soon found myself talking to Sara, an Australian lesbian who had fond memories of Q + A and who was returning home the very next day, and her actor-teacher-chef girlfriend Kate.
Then I turned down a sidestreet and found myself in seedy, sleazy Soho. There were sex shops, rent boys standing in doorways and down alleyways, people doing crack, backpackers everywhere, and guys offering me girls and drugs (not simultaneously).
Down another sidestreet and behold, Chinatown! Another turn and it's Picadilly Circus! Look, a drunk, shirtless English boy dripping wet and demanding that tourists take his photo and pay him 50p as he clambers out of a fountain, the Horses of Helios! Colour, light, movement, madness!
I find the best pub in London yet, the Intrepid Fox in Wardour Street, whose crowd is tattooed, pierced, dreadlocked, shaven-headed, fascinating. As I order a pint one guy asks me if I'm from Estonia - when I tell him Australia he looks disappointed; when I try and engage him in a drunken conversation he tries to explain that he speaks no English.
I sit in a corner and scribble down notes about the decor: posters for bands such as Ministry, The Sisters of Mercy, Metallica, Rancid, The Offspring, Pantera. Chains, ghouls, cobwebs, skulls and a small statue of a chainsaw-wielding Ash from Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn sit behind the bar.
A shaven-headed guy smiles at me a few times, and eventually asks me what I'm writing. His name is Gonzalo; he describes himself as 'a mutt from Slough, a 1/4 Spanish, 1/4 Italian, and half Chilean. His friend is named Anita and she's from Hungary. We talk about bands and travelling and London and Melbourne. I give then the details for RRR's website so that they can listen to the station on-line. Eventually I tell Gonzalo that he's cute and he looks a bit abashed but happy at the same time. Last orders are called. I give him my e-mail address and stagger out into the night, very drunk and very happy. I have a train to catch. I almost miss it.
I love this city.
After breakfast with Rick and Edvard I jumped on tyhe train, headed into town and had my first full day in London.
I started off at the British Museum (which was, delightfully, clearly signposted as soon as I stepped off the train at Tottenham Court Road station). I bowed before statues of Cupid and Sekhmet (lion-headed goddess of ancient Egypt) and held a paleolithic hand axe that was over 120,000 years old. I gazed in wonder at the Rosetta Stone, one of the most important archeological finds ever made; stared in awe at the Parthenon Marbles and the Sutton Hoo helmet; wilted in the lack of air conditioning; and was generally amazed by this storehouse of loot from across the faded British Empire. An amazing place: if you plan to visit, give yourself at least an entire afternoon.
Next I wandered the streets of Bloomsbury, and decided to be a flaneur for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I wandered into a random bookshop and discovered a queer literary mag called Chroma (and noted down their website so I can submit some of my stories to it). I walked in a random direction and found myself at Oxford Circus, where I admired architecture and was entertained by drunk chavs (which is what neds are called down here: see my initial Glasgow post for more about neds or go to www.chavscum.co.uk for additional albeit biased details) who were hanging topless out of a stretch limo's windows and shouting at passersby - don't ask me how a bunch of chavs managed to hire a limo though...
I jumped onto the Tube and emerged at Trafalgar Square, where Nelson's Column was surrounded by crowds enjoying a covers band playing at a disability access festival. I walked towards the Thames and saw Big Ben gilded by the sunset. I leaned against a lamp on Westminster Bridge and discovered a poem by William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850):
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge 3rd September 1802
EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; 10
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
I walked beneath and bowed to the statue of Boudicca, the Iceni queen who ensured that the name of her tribe will never be forgotten. I borded a train for Whitechapel, and emerged in Jack the Ripper territory to discover that night had falled and - how appropriate! - a light mist had fallen. I was discomforted at Whitechapel Station by a large notice from the Metropolitan Police warning that 'muggings occur regularly in this area' and so decided not to wander the streets looking for the likes of Buck's Row and Dorset Street (since renamed), vowing instead to enter the first pub I found and have a pint before leaving. The first pub I found was The Blind Beggar. I entered, ordered my pint, and sat down in a corner, thinking that the pub's name sounded familiar... I was right! (Interested in The Krays? This site will tell you more.)
Finally I grabbed a couple of take-aways from an off-license, jumped on a train (chatting to some cheerfully drunk young Kiwi backpackers on the way back into central London), and went back to Rick's to watch a little of the space-Western (as opposed to space opera) TV series Firefly. What a day!