I’ve been in Europe for research for the last three weeks, and last weekend I made a trip down to Zürich to meet some colleagues at ETH Zurich on Friday and spend the weekend exploring Zürich and the surrounding area of Switzerland with friends. Though I’ve been to Switzerland previously, I’d never been to Zürich.
On Saturday, my former Waterloo roommates Heather and Chris, who know live in Lausanne, came to Zürich for the weekend. Heather and spent Saturday wandering around the city. We made a particularly special discovery in the evening at a chocolate shop near the train station. Of course we had to try a few chocolates. We didn’t try them all, but one of the truffles we had, the caramel fleur de sel, was sooooo good that it must have been the best. While waiting at the airport for my flight the next day, I may or may not have used all my remaining Swiss francs purchasing more of these.
Heather and I headed out for a drive in the country on Sunday. Switzerland has an excellent car sharing scheme of which Heather is a member, so we were able to take a train out of the city and then pick up a car at the train station. Heather kept apologizing that the weather was so bad, as you can plainly see.
More photos are available in my photo gallery.
I was out of the country in 2011 when Brisbane flooded, but I’m here now. Thankfully the flooding is not nearly as bad as it was then. We had two solid days of rain on the weekend, then near-gale-force winds. Flooding peaked yesterday and today in the city with the river about 2m above normal. My university was closed as a precaution, but will re-open tomorrow without problems. I went down to Brisbane’s Eagle St Pier / Riverside area and the water level of the river was just a hair below the walkways. My home, being in a suburb whose name ends in the word “Hill”, was unaffected.
On my recent trip to Maldives, it felt like we experienced three different versions of the country. The first world of Maldives that we visited was, in some sense, the real Maldives: the inhabited islands, the cities and villages and homes of Maldivians.
Our first stop was the capital city, Malé, a 6 square kilometre island stuffed full of some 100,000 people. We visited my friend Iko’s family, who showed us around the island and started us off on what would become a trend on this part of our trip: non-stop eating. Iko’s family runs a large fishing company, appropriately called “Big Fish”. It was at Big Fish house that we were first introduced to some of the various joys of Maldives, including the various spice snacks, net chairs (made out of nets of rope, they allow air to circulate), and the very generous hospitality of all the Maldivians we met on our trip.
In Malé, we met up with Iko’s brother Ozale and his friends who had arranged to take us up to some of the northern islands of Maldives for a few days. We visited Haa Alif Atoll, the northern most atoll of Maldives. We were based out of Hoarafushi Island. Our next few days were spent speedboating around Haa Alif atoll, visiting a variety of islands and eating lots of food. Our hosts had obtained permission for us to visit the various inhabited islands ? tourists are generally only allowed to visit the capital islands and resorts ? so we got to see a world that few tourists see.
We visited many different types of islands. Some were entirely uninhabited, just an untouched tropical island. Some, like Hathifushi pictured at left, were formerly inhabited but now abandoned. Hathifushi was abandoned not too long ago, and there are a variety of old buildings and ruins on the island. There’s an old mosque on the island which had in it the remains of an old Koran. Hathifushi was next to the island that Agnes and I decided would be our new island mansion, which when complete will come fully equipped with helipad, tennis court, and of course air conditioning (it’s hot and humid in Maldives!).
Our guides had arranged for us to have meals in the homes of friends and colleagues of the Big Fish family, and we had a meal (or three) on each and every island we visited. Meals typically consisted of various fish and vegetable curries, all locally caught fish of course. Maldivians eat with their hands ? no utensils ? and so did we. Watermelon juice was a special drink I particularly enjoyed. On several islands we also drank directly out of fresh coconuts for an afternoon refreshment, to tide us over from lunch (1-2pm) until afternoon tea (4-5pm) before dinner later that evening (7-8pm).
Another inhabited island we visited was Utheemu. The wooden palace of Utheemu dates from at least the mid-1500s, and was the birthplace of one of the great heroes of Maldives who drove out Portuguese invaders. A dynasty headquartered on the island followed and lasted for over 100 years. It’s amazing that a wooden building has survived for nearly 500 years on a low-lying tropical island.
One of the fruits that grows easily in Maldives is the banana. I love bananas, and I was very excited to see banana trees in peoples’ yards. At right is the flower of a banana tree, something I’d never seen before.
After three days in Haa Alif atoll, we flew back to Malé and bid farewell to our Ozale and our other friends from Big Fish, grateful for the gift of experiencing the true culture of Maldives ? its people and its food!
Next stop: 20,000 leagues under the sea!
For many years now, my friend Matt’s wife Iko has been encouraging me and friends from my PhD — Lana, Bill, and Paul — to visit her home country of Maldives. With all of us in the eastern hemisphere (Australia, Singapore, and London, which is partially in the eastern hemisphere), we finally got things sorted and went to Maldives for 10 days over the Easter break last month.
We experienced three different versions of Maldives: the inhabited islands where Maldivians live and work, the water (on and under), and the resorts where rich(er than us) foreigners come to play. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll share with you the different worlds of the Maldives I visited. For now, a quick preview of the three worlds:
We’ve had colleagues from Germany visiting, and last weekend we took them on a hike to the Glass House Mountains, on the Sunshine Coast about an hour north of Brisbane. Australians call them mountains, but they’re more like hills, since you can easily climb to the top of them in less than an hour. There’s half a dozen or so isolated peaks. We climbed to the top of Mount Ngungun, which has a lovely view of the other mountains. More pictures in my galleries.
Mediterranean cruise on the Queen Victoria: Part 3, Greece, Croatia, and Italy
After a day in port in Alexandria and another day at sea crossing the Mediterranean, we arrived in Corfu, Greece. We skipped the organized tour and spent the day wandering around town ourselves, visiting the new and old fortresses and enjoying a typically Mediterranean lunch in an outdoor cafe. Corfu, along with our previous Greek stop in Meteora, was featured in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, my favourite of the Roger Moore Bond movies.
One more stop before the end of the cruise: Dubrovnik, Croatia. Situated on the Adriatic, at its height Dubrovnik was a naval power rivalling Venice. The historic old town is protected by magnificent city walls, and a common excursion is to walk along the top of the walls all the way around the city. It’s quite a hike, and mom was sore by the end of it, but the memorable views make it well worth the effort. Dubrovnik was heavily bombed during the civil wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s but is now fully restored. You can see which buildings were bombed by comparing the old, pale red tiles with the new, brighter red tiles.
Our cruise was to terminate in Venice. But bad weather struck again and derailed our plans: this time, fog. We sailed to within 10km of the port of Venice, but heavy fog prevented us from safely navigating through the lagoon and down the narrow inlets between the islands of Venice. We sat at anchor for half a day waiting for the fog to lift, but to no avail, and after dinner the captain set sail for the nearby port of Trieste. While I’d been to Venice a few times before, my parents never had, and I was worried that they would not get a chance to see it before taking the train down to Rome. We managed to squeeze in a few hours wandering around Venice, including the essentials: a ride on the canals, St. Mark’s Square, getting lost in the back streets and canals of Venice, and of course eating gelato.
My parents set off for a few days in Rome and I got on board the first of many planes to take me back to Australia, with barely enough time in Brisbane to unpack do laundry before going to Korea for a couple of conferences.
Check out all the pictures from the cruise in this gallery.
Read the first part of this travelogue here.
After sailing through Greece and Turkey, we spent a day at sea and crossed the Mediterranean to the port of Alexandria. For me, Egypt was the highlight of the cruise. I’d been to all of the other countries (and continents) on the cruise, but never to Egypt (or Africa). What traveler doesn’t imagine visiting Egypt and seeing the only remaining wonders of the ancient world, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx?
A few weeks before our cruise, we received word from the cruise line that the tour we had originally booked was no longer available due to security concerns. Our original tour included a visit to Giza for the pyramids and sphinx, as well as the archaeological museum in Cairo. That museum is located right on Tahrir Square, the site of Egyptian pro-democracy protests for the past year. Not a great place for tourists. As a result, we had to change tours and substituted a visit to the museum for a cruise on the Nile.
It’s a long bus ride from Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea to Cairo and Giza, first along the chaotic roads of Alexandria and then through the mostly uninhabited desert. Giza is a suburb of Cairo and the city comes right up to the plains on which the pyramids are situated. Our first stop was a scenic outlook with a great view of the pyramids, one that countless tourists before me have visited. I really like the picture above that I took from that outlook. Though most would seek a photo with a blue sky, I love how the clouds darkening the sky above the pyramids contrast with the sun lighting the plains from off-camera. I thought about Photoshopping out the vehicles on the road, but decided that I actually liked them there; they provide a sense of scale, movement, and contrast the ancient pyramids with modern transportation.
I was the only passenger on our bus who wanted to go inside a pyramid, but the tour guide graciously let me go while everyone else on the bus had to wait (I was under strict instructions: 15 minutes, max!). I went inside the smallest of the three pyramids, the Pyramid of Menkaure. I descended, hunched over, down a long, narrow, low-ceilinged staircase and then made a few turns and further descents before reaching the burial chamber. It’s not decorated, and archaeologists say it was never decorated. But it’s still amazing to be underneath that much rock. I was chased by a mummy but made it out safely.
The Sphinx is located just a few hundred metres from the pyramids. It’s much smaller than the pyramids, and in a pit below ground level, so you’re practically at eye-level with it when you see it head-on. In case you’re wondering, the reason that the top of the pyramid in the picture at right looks different from the rest of the pyramid is that the top is the preserved original limestone covering. The whole pyramid was originally covered with a smooth limestone finish, but this valuable and portable stone was gradually stolen and only the most inaccessible bits remain.
We were scheduled to depart Alexandria that evening, but while at dinner the captain announced that the port was closed due to high winds, and as a result we would be unable to depart that evening. In fact, we spent almost the next whole day in port and departed about 24 hours after our scheduled departure. This meant missing one of our ports of call in Greece — Olympia — but my folks and I were not too upset as we had visited Olympia in 2005 and were not planning on taking an excursion this time around. On our extra day in port we couldn’t go ashore as the ship had already cleared customs and immigration for departure, but the Queen Victoria is such a lovely ship that an extra day on board was quite enjoyable. We went for afternoon tea, took in a lecture on British architecture, and I took a yoga class. Before I knew it, it was time again for dinner. Though I am not a particularly seasoned cruiser, Cunard seems to have far better food than most other ships, each evening’s dinner equal to a fine dining experience.
These blog entries seem to get longer and longer? our journey continues in another post?
Our cruise started in Athens and set out sailing around Greece until we reached the port of Volos, from which I took a tour to Meteora in central Greece. Wind and weather have eroded massive rock pillars from the hillside; near the end of the middle ages, monks begin building monasteries on the isolated peaks. More than 20 were built, though only 6 remain today. The tranquility sought by the few monks and nuns still living in the monasteries is regularly broken by pesky tourists.
Our next port of call was Kusadasi, Turkey, which is not to far from the old Roman town of Pergamum (Pergamon). Set atop a hill, Pergamum was famous for its altar to Zeus and for its theatre, one of the largest of the Roman empire.
We sailed through the Aegean Sea into the Bosphorus Sea and to Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul. I visited Istanbul in 2010, but my parents had never been before, so I was assigned the duty of being their tour guide through what-was-Constantinople. For me, the highlight of Istanbul is the extraordinary church/mosque/museum, the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Sophia”). Constructed by the Roman emperor Justinian in 537, it is a masterpiece of Roman architecture, a massive open space covered by an enormous dome. It astonishes me that such a large building could have been built so long ago.
When Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, though it has since been turned into a museum showcasing both its Christian and Muslim history. As you can see, many mosques are now patterned after it, including Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque, just down the street. It’s called the Blue Mosque because the tiles decorating its interior are atypically blue, as you can see in the picture at right.
Our story continues in Egypt in a future blog post?