Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ljubljana's Street Art

Walking down a random city street in Ljubljana I saw this impressive bit of graffiti and I wanted to photograph it, but I didn’t have my camera with me at the time. I determined to go back and photograph it the next day. The mural was on the wall of a building that was inside a brick courtyard, with one doorway open to the street outside.

It was one of those ambiguous spaces, with no clear indication of whether you were welcome to enter the courtyard or not. I walked through the doorway and snapped this photograph.

A thin man with long hair and a scraggly beard walked up to me and stood next to me while I took another photograph, looking at me searchingly. He began to speak to me in Slovenian. His tone was even, no stress in his voice, and his gaze was relaxed and steady.

I made my ‘Sorry’ face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Slovenian. I only speak English,” I shrugged apologetically.

“Where are you from?” he said in English with little accent. “CIA? FBI?”

I was surprised by the sudden interrogation. His interest seemed genuine enough but perhaps his question was rhetorical.

“No,” I laughed. “I’m just taking photos of the artwork.”

He seemed irritated now. “This is a serious question. People will ask you this question, if you are here in Ljubljana, taking photos of buildings, and you are speaking only English.”

“I believe you,” I said, but I said it to his back. He was already walking away.

“I’m not crazy, you know!” he said over his shoulder. A departure comment. The last word on the matter.

I went back to my photographs, feeling like a CIA agent now. Documenting the walls for my report to the higher authorities.

I’ve always liked street art. It has an ambiguity to it, a hint of the macabre, a touch of hostility associated with its beauty. Like an intricate tattoo on a dangerous gangster, or a bunch of fresh roses observed in a dustbin.

Love it or hate it, Ljubljana has lots of it. Take a look if you’d like to. I’ve uploaded some images to Flickriver.

No one else asked me if I was CIA or FBI that day.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Everything will be all right when we get to Tir Asleen!"- Part II

The Crazy Kingdom

At the end of the Romantic Road are three incredible palaces built by ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II. We visited Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee, all built by Ludwig II, and a few other historical places in the fortnight we were in Bavaria.

I spent the whole visit trying to figure out from the information available whether King Ludwig II really was mad, or whether he was just a very rich, eccentric ponce. You see, at the end of the nineteenth century Germany wasn’t a proper nation yet, and King Ludwig II was the last true king of the House of Wittelsbach, rulers of the independent Kingdom of Bavaria. He was a pretty useless king, effectively siding with the Austrians in a war against Prussia, losing the war, and having his kingdom annexed in the process.

Around the same time that Karl Marx was writing about the power of the emerging working classes, Darwin was theorising about the Origin of Man and stuff like electricity and steam engines were being invented, Ludwig II was prancing about in swan-shaped boats and bemoaning the fact that absolute monarchy- when blokes like himself could do whatever they pleased and spend as much of other people’s money as they liked- was largely a thing of the past.

He did, however, build a cracking palace, and you can see them all at a very affordable price if you buy a Bayerische Verwaltung- which is a special fortnightly ticket that gets you entry to all three, as well a host of other baroque abodes throughout Bavaria. These places are really best seen in Spring or Summer, when the gardens are looking schmicko and it’s all romantic and whatnot. In winter it was f-f-freezing to visit, and some parts were closed, but it was still fun.

Possibly not the best day for photographs of Neuschwanstein. It's snowing kind of heavily.

On a good day the castle looks like this here model. It is the inspiration for the Disney castle they use on their logo, as well as maybe every jumping castle ever made.

Neuschwanstein courtyard

Hohenschwangau castle- where young Ludwig spent his summers

Linderhof palace and grounds


Cupid rides a weird looking dolphin in the fountain at Herrenchiemsee

Nope, that white thing in the middle of this photograph is not an alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, most palace gardens are like this in winter- the white dome is a protective cover for the I'm-almost-certain-it-looks-marvellous statue underneath it

Nymphenburg palace, now in a suburb of Munich, was the "country palace" of the House of Wittelsbach

It is impossible to illustrate the size of this building. A panorama photograph of the whole structure would be about 6 photographs in width.

Lots of swans in the palace lake

One of the huge number of rooms inside the Munich Residenz, the historical centre of the Kingdom of Bavaria

An incredible bejeweled statuette in the treasury of the Munich Residenz. It depicts St George, mounted, with his sword stabbing downwards toward the dragon beneath his horses hooves.

Macabre relics in the Chapel of the Munich Residenz include this ornate boxed skull

The Zugspitze

At 2962m above sea level, the Zugspitze, cradled in the Alps, is Germany's highest mountain. Since we were going that way anyway, Alix and I decided we would pay it a visit. It is a surprisingly easy trip to get there, one bus, a train and a cable car ride and you are at the top in no time.

Surrounded by other awesome mountains, the Zugsptize itself is a semi-circular arrangement of crags, and in the bowl inside of the horseshoe shape is a gentle snowy slope that is like heaven for skiers and sonwboarders. I've never really been particularly interested in snow sports myself, I prefer warmer weather pursuits, but looking at these incredibly deep and wide snow fields made me truly realise for the first time what all the fuss is about- the skiers here were absolutely loving it. The view from the platform up top was pretty spectacular, too.

Adolf Hitler World!

Ok so there isn’t actually an Adolf Hitler World. But I was feeling kind of depressed by all the bad weather, so I thought I'd cheer myself up by going to the memorial site at Dachau concentration camp. It was a reasonably creepy place.

The front gate of Dachau concentration camp. "Arbeit Macht Frei"- "Work makes you free."

Sculpture in the excellent Dachau Memorial site museum

Towards the end of World War II Dachau was massively overcrowded and a Typhus epidemic swept through the camp. The disease was spread by lice, so the SS prison guards posted these signs with the message "One Louse, Your Death". Whether they meant "it only takes one louse to give you Typhus and you might die from it" or "If I find even one louse on you, I'll kill you myself" is rather unclear.

Shortly after that we stayed for several nights in the small alpine village of Berchtesgaden, a very pretty village that attained the dubious honour of being command central of the Third Reich when Hitler decided to build a Southern Headquarters high up in the hilltops overlooking the town. As a megalomaniacal crazy-as-batshit Nazi, he terrorised the locals and sent them to Dachau if they wouldn’t sell their property to him, declared the area off-limits and had the SS patrol the compound, built lots of sweet little places for Himmler and Göring and his other cronies to hang out and party, and built himself a massive bunker with machinegun nests and whatnot inside it.

The Yanks bombed the whole compound to smithereens and then, being Yanks, built an air-force facility and some sweet ski-runs on top of it, went skiing, and watched and waited to fight the Russians. When that never happened, they pulled out and gave the compound back to the Germans, who built an impressive and very creepy museum in its place. Downstairs in the bunker you can still see the brackets for the machinegun nests.

I didn’t take many photos at Dachau or at the museum at Berchtesgaden. Neither place was really that much to look at, and if you want to see photos of piled up corpses and the like there are thousands of history books documenting the Nazi regime that are easy to get your hands on. Alix and I did some other non-Nazi related sightseeing around the area which is far more pleasant visually than either the concentration camp or the museum were.

We rented a really nice studio for a week in Berchtesgaden. We had our own kitchen for the first time in 10 months!

Sunny bedroom with a view of the Alps. Awesome.

Berchtesgaden streetscape


The Königsee- Berchtesgaden's pretty lake

After a few fairly but not completely normal days in Berchtesgaden, I was wandering the road in the cold and the dark one night and it suddenly occurred to me that if ghosts are in fact real, this is the kind of place they would hang out. Evil Nazi ghosts of SS officers who jovially and remorselessly did torturous medical experiments on innocent, helplessly imprisoned humans for sick, sadistic reasons while they were alive and are now tormented by their own wrongdoings and have been driven further into insanity by their inability to rest peacefully in the afterlife. After this chilling and vivid feat of imagination I figured that it was time to get out of Germany and get back on the road to Tir Asleen.

By the way, in the movie Willow, right at the end, the inhabitants of Tir Asleen are all freed from their curse, Willow becomes the new High Aldwin, Burglekutt gets pigeon shit in his face, and Val Kilmer gets together with Joanne Whalley, who has decided to get decked out in a sexy-yet-medieval dress and get her hair coloured and curled.

So, I expect everything is going to be all right when we get to our Tir Asleen, too. Isn't that right, honey?

Friday, March 18, 2011

The trouble with Youth Hostels

"Travel is glamorous only in retrospect."
Paul Theroux

Grumpy Old Bastard Alert!
Before I get started on this blog post let me warn you that what is written below is an indignant rant about a negative experience I had in a youth hostel. If you are looking to read something nice and pleasant about humanity or the world, you are probably not reading the right blog post.

Over the last year Alix and I have stayed in every type of accommodation generally available. In family spare rooms, in big hotels, in small hotels, resort-style hotels, Fawlty Towers-esque hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, family run guesthouses, a wilderness lodge, campsites, passed out on the beach, on the floor of an airport, with the seats cranked back in a rental car and asleep in our seats on all types of transport. Like most backpackers, though, we mostly stay in Youth Hostels. There is one big problem with Youth Hostels, and this time around, at the Celica Hostel in Ljubljana, it prompted my email to the Hostel manager below. I'll let you know how it pans out. :)

Dear xxxxxx,

I am writing to request a partial refund for three nights of fees paid to stay at Celica Hostel.

My wife and I stayed in room 116 at Celica Hostel from 7 March to 14 March. When we booked the hostel we understood that there were quiet hours at the hostel from 12 pm to 7 am on weekends and from 11pm on other nights.

I stayed at your hostel understanding that there would be quiet at night and I could get to sleep. I did not receive the service I understood I was paying for, therefore I want my money back for the three nights of disturbed sleep. I am not a light sleeper. I wore earplugs to block the noise but it was still too loud. It is evident that although the quiet hours rule is clearly stated for all guests to see, it is not observed or enforced effectively.

I request a refund of 156 Euros (52 x 3) paid into my bank account:

St George Bank
Account name: Jace Cheal
BSB: xxxxxx
Account number: xxxxx

If you would like to read more detail about why I am asking for this refund please read the full story below. Thank you for your understanding in this matter.

Yours Sincerely, Jace Cheal. The full story:

On Friday 11th March a group of 8 young British men were making lots of noise that interrupted my sleep several times. The security man at reception requested that they be quiet and he was ignored, they continued to make noise throughout the night.

On Saturday 12th March the same group again kept up noise until 1am with loud talking, laughing and opening and closing of doors, then again at 3am. I complained to the receptionist at 3am, by which time he told me he had already asked them to be quiet several times. Again they ignored his request, they did not become quiet until after 4am.

On Sunday 13th March I spoke with the lady at reception who assured me that the procedure the receptionist is supposed to follow if there are repeated noise complaints is to call the police. She reassured me that if the group were noisy again that night, the police would be called.

In the afternoon on Sunday 13th one of the men who was making the noise confronted me in the hallway of the hostel asking if I was going to complain about the noise again that night. He told me "This is a hostel. If you want to sleep at night, go and stay somewhere else." Obviously he had not received the message that the hostel had quiet hours between 12pm and 7am, so I informed him of the rule and pointed it out on the back of his room door.

At 1am in the morning I complained again to the receptionist about the noise from (I think) rooms 103 and 104 which had been going on for hours. The receptionist offered to move me to room 203 so I could get some sleep, which I accepted. I was again confronted in the hostel hallway, this time by three men from room 104 who were angry that I had complained about them. I understand the police were not called. Again the request for quiet was ignored. I was woken again at 4am by the same group.

At 10.30am on Monday 14th March (today) I spoke to the receptionist who admitted that they knew about the persistent noise and agreed that they were basically powerless to do anything about the large group of loud idiots. She explained that she did not have the authority to give me a refund, gave me your email address and suggested I write to you about this matter.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Everything will be all right when we get to Tir Asleen!" - Part I

In the cult movie Willow, little person Willow Ufgood is accompanied by a vagabond swordsman named Madmartigan and together they embark on a journey of high adventure through a mystical land, pursued all the while by the army of the evil Queen Bavmorda. Why am I writing about this B -grade movie? Don't worry. It makes sense in three paragraphs time. Trust me, ok?

When Willow and Madmartigan are looking like being captured for the second time by General Kael, Bavmorda’s military commander, Willow encourages Madmartigan to continue running towards the destination he has in mind: the castle at Tir Asleen, where, according to Willow, there is a huge army that will crush General Kael and the forces if evil, if only they can get there in time.

(image from Lucasfilm)

Later, when they arrive at Tir Asleen and it is empty, cursed, and crawling with trolls, Madmartigan mocks Willow with the sarcastic mimicking phrase: “Everything will be all right when we get to Tir Asleen!”. For some reason the phrase has stuck with us and we now use it to mark our travel milestones. Any time anything seems to go not-exactly-perfectly on our adventure, Alix and I to say to each other, “Don’t worry honey, everything will be all right when we get to Tir Asleen!”

At one point in time our Tir Asleen was actually Tanzania. Even before the Egyptian Revolution put a serious spanner in the works of our travel plans, Egypt basically sucked as far as travel destinations are concerned. The monuments and ancient history sites were great, but overall it was a drag, and for most of the time we were there we were telling each other that when we got to Tanzania everything would come up roses: we would be scuba diving in Zanzibar, climbing Kilimanjaro, going on safari, and generally living the African tourism dream.

So, when we never made it to Tanzania and ended up in F-f-freezing F-F-Frankfurt, Germany, we were rather shocked by the misadventure. To be perfectly honest, we have not yet entirely come to grips with it, even a month later. When any minor daily challenges present themselves- you know, stuff like the train being late, or the palace we were supposed to visit undergoing restoration over winter, or our internet connection getting stolen by the undead spirit of Adolf Hitler, we frequently moan out loud, “I’m not even supposed to be here!” or “I’m supposed to be diving in Zanzibar right now!”

Despite the misadventure, our new Tir Asleen has become Istanbul, Turkey. So far we have made it roughly halfway there, having crossed through the German states of Franconia and Bavaria, into Austria and through the Alps into Slovenia.

Here is a brief overview of what we have been up to over the last month while we have been in Germany.

Walking the dogs in Heidelberg

We got the most awesome stroke of good fortune when we were invited to stay for as long as we liked at Alix’ Aunt Andrea’s house in the hamlet of Neckargemund, outside of Heidelberg. We discovered that Heidelberg is only about 100km from Frankfurt, so we got there easily by train. We slept late, ate heartily, and I drank loads of excellent German beer and pinched Andrea’s cigarettes and smoked them in clandestine late night reverie. We raided Andrea’s bookshelves, an amazing collection of what seems to be almost every significant work of fiction in the last two centuries or so.

Most memorable of all, we walked the dogs. Dog walking is like food for the soul for the long term traveller- it is the kind of activity only local people do, and to walk the dogs in the beautiful woods around Neckargemund was a surprisingly sublime experience that made us feel terrifically at home. Generally we had a wonderfully relaxing time in this picturesque part of the world.

From left to right: Akito, Alix, Nanna, Andrea, Luna

Alix and Felix

"Someone stole into Alix room and made off with her undies? And you're accusing me? How dare you!"

Lunch with the family for Cossima's birthday

Alix and Akito walking in the woods, Neckargemund in the background

View from the old bridge over the Neckar river up to Heidelberg castle

Heidelberg castle

View of Heidelberg from the castle

Lunch, German style

The Residence of the mighty Griffonclaw, Würzburg

Germany is filled with castles and palaces, and churches and Rathauses, palaces and more castles and palaces. Honestly, after your third or fourth castle and/or palace they all start to look pretty same-same, but the first palace we went to was the Würzburg Residenz, built by a string of Franconian prince-bishops, the most memorable of whom had a very cool name- Carl Philipp von Greifenklau. The name is so Sword and Sorcery that I have decided to create a Dungeons and Dragons character concept, complete with personal bardsong, using the name… Griffonclaw!

The court garden behind the Residenz. Big Residenz. Big Gardens.

Garden Statue

Alix being a Garden Statue

Residenz Centre front. The whole building is about three times as wide.

The Romantic Road

Travelling south from Würzburg, we stopped at several destinations along the touristy titled ‘Romantic Road’. We were travelling by train, rather than by road, but nevertheless the idea is that you pack the car with your favourite girlfriend or significant other and drive down this road at a leisurely pace, visiting some of the many palaces and castles and cutesy walled towns and you buy her chocolate coated balls of pastry and she has lots and lots of enthusiastic sex with you for being such a romantic guy. The highlight is the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

At the western gate, Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The town of Rothenburg ob de Tauber is surrounded by an authentic medieval town wall, complete with towers and arrow slits

Chocolatey Schneeballen. Feed them to your women.

The rathaus at Rothenburg

Have at ye!

To the stocks with ye!

Possibly the best beer in Germany

Alix and Dom at the top of the clock tower.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber