Thoughts of a geek

21 November 2011

Blog it more

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , — qwandor @ 11:28 am

I guess I should continue the no-doubt-fascinating story of my life, starting back at the beginning of September where I left off. I got back from Spain on Sunday 4th September, and straight back into work as usual. The following weekend was the Thames Festival, which happens each year along the Southbank, with four zones of music, dancing, stalls, performances and all sorts of things from noon until midnight or so on both Saturday and Sunday. I went for some of the Saturday, which was enjoyable. Swing Patrol was running various things on an outdoor dancefloor with various DJs and bands, including some performances which were interesting to watch, and free beginners’ lessons for the public. I also managed to get a little bit of dancing in which was nice. And there was plenty of other things going on, making it a particularly good afternoon to just wander along the Southbank. That Saturday evening my flatmate Donna had her 40th birthday party in a bar near our flat, with an open mic night. She has quite a few talented friends who sang or played various songs, plus poetry readings which were not so much my thing.

I had a pizza and pancake party on the 18th, which was fun despite not that many people coming. We made all sorts of interesting flavoured pizzas, including a dessert pizza with custard and many different sorts of fruit, and so in the end everyone was too full for pancakes. Well, maybe next time?

From Pizza & pancake party

My birthday was rather uneventful, as I could not find any friends to hang out with in the end. This was partly my fault due to not planning anything very far in advance, as people are always busy and booked up here. My flatmates made me breakfast and gave me a card and some gifts though, which was unexpected and pleasant. And I went out by myself in the evening rather than staying at home by myself, which I guess is an improvement.

I went to Paris for the first weekend of October, which was enjoyable. My friend Matthew was going over that weekend to stay with his parents, and had invited me to join him, so we took the Eurostar over after work on the Friday night. I stayed for two nights as I had to get back for work on Monday, while he stayed a bit longer. Unfortunately he had an overdue report for his PhD which he ended up having to work on all weekend so I was mostly on my own exploring the city, but it was still fun to see a bit more of Paris, and to meet his parents and various siblings, who were all cool. The weather was perfect too, clear and sunny the whole time. It happened that the Saturday night I was there was the annual ‘Nuit Blanche’ (White Night), an all-night arts festival with various installations and performances running from 7:00 pm until 7:00 am on Sunday. Neither of us had the energy to stay up that late, and there were massive queues for many things, but we saw a few things after dinner until around midnight.

Paris, take 2: The Petit Palais

The following weekend (well, Friday 7th October) I flew over to Sweden for a week travelling around. I spent the first few nights in Uppsala staying with a kiwi friend of mine (Charlotte) who is over there on exchange at Uppsala University, and meeting a bunch of other international students there. Although I saw lots of interesting things around the place during the week, I think the evenings in Uppsala hanging out with a bunch of cool people from all over the world were my favourite. And I got to bake for them, which I do not get to do nearly enough of! I made the ever-popular chocolate fudge pudding, a giant muffin-cake for lack of muffin trays, and pancakes another night. One night we made pizza together, which is always fun and tasty. I am getting the impression that pizza is the Polish national dish, at least several of my Polish friends like making it. Around the dinner table we had a couple of Germans, a couple of Americans, a couple of Polish people, the two of us Kiwis, and later a Chinese girl. All good fun sorts.

Uppsala: International pizza eaters

While in staying in Uppsala I spent a couple of days down in Stockholm looking around, and went again to the Vasa museum where about 20 years previously (so my parents tell me) I set off an alarm by opening a door I was not supposed to. Oops. I managed to avoid that this time, I guess I have learnt something in the past 20 years. There were plenty of other things to see too, but my photos tell that story better than writing it all down so check them out if you have not already. Though unfortunately the batteries in my camera were flat for my first day in Stockholm so I did not get many photos then.

Stockholm: The Vasa in its eponymous museum

We then flew to Oslo, Norway, where we stayed a night in a big flat with a bunch of Christian students at one of the universities there, whom Charlotte had a contact with from the IFES conference she went to earlier in the year. That was cool; it happened that the night we were there they were having a dinner and games night with a bunch of the students living there and the adjacent houses, so we got to join in for that, and even sing some hymns in Norwegian which was cool. We also managed to see some of the main sights of the city, including the opera house (the roof of which slopes up from ground level, so you can walk up to the top and admire the view, and the famous sculpture park).

Oslo: Sculptures in the park

After that we took the bus down to Ljungskile to stay a night with an old family friend, a woman named Lena who stayed with my parents in NZ when I was about 8 or so I guess. It was interesting to catch up a little, before we headed on to Göteborg in the morning to continue the touristing. The highlight of Göteborg for me was the Maritiman, a maritime museum consisting of a collection of various military and civilian boats, barges and a submarine moored together in the harbour (19 in all plus a crane), most of which you are able to wander all through. The submarine was very cool, though also very cramped. Living in a submarine for any length of time must be rather uncomfortable. There was also a destroyer, which was enormous and mazelike with 8 different levels in total.

Göteborg: Bunks and torpedoes in the submarine at the Maritiman

After a night in Göteborg it was on to Lund to stay with another friend of Charlotte’s for a couple of nights, during which we explored Lund, Malmö and very briefly a bit of Copenhagen. They were all interesting, but now it is late and I cannot be bothered saying any more than I already have with the photos, so ask me if you want to know more.

Planking in Malmö

I flew back to London on the evening of Sunday 16th, ready for work on Monday. Since then I have not left the city again, and am not looking likely to until Christmas at the earliest. Though I do not have any firm plans for Christmas yet. One of the American guys I met in Uppsala is coming to stay for a week just before Christmas, which should be cool.

I have been sick with what I assume is the flu, which has been a pain. I took a day off work last week because of it, would have taken longer but could not because there is too much to do and I had already been working late. I spent much of last weekend in bed but am mostly better now, just a bit of a cough and stuffy nose remaining. Unfortunately I missed the Lord Mayor’s Show last weekend on account of being sick, but this weekend was great, the best in a while. The London Jazz Festival was on this past week, finishing today (Sunday), and I got to a couple of the free concerts at the Southbank Centre yesterday afternoon, and another this afternoon. Then there was church this evening, dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, various chores, all in all a full and fun weekend. So life is good at the moment despite work being a bit crazy busy just now! And I get to cook for people on Tuesday night next week, which I have not done for ages, so that should be good.

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23 May 2011

Italy

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 12:09 am

Oh, time flies. I was going to write about my Italy trip just after my last post, and now it is 10 days later. Well, I have been busy since then. And lazy.

So! I went to Italy. I went for 9 nights in all, over the Easter / Royal Wedding week, as there were 4 bank holidays over 2 weekends and so by taking 3 days of leave it was possible to have a total of 11 contiguous days off work. We left early on Easter Saturday, 23rd April 2011, and got back on the evening of the Early May Bank Holiday, on Monday 2nd May 2011. I guess I should start by noting that I went with my friend Vivian, and her friend Cathy. Both are American and both accountants, though Vivian lives in London at the moment. They had actually planned the trip anyway, and I was fortunate to be able to join them. Travelling with other people is nice, though it does bring its own set of challenges.

Milan: The entrance to Castello Sforzesco

Anyway, we started off by flying to Milan, where we stayed for one night. We had a wander around the city on the Saturday, and saw most of the main sights that we could find, including (as was to become the pattern of our trip) lots of beautiful churches. The castle, Castello Sforzesco, was pretty cool, and the park around it is nice too. We also made it to an interesting interactive art exhibition in front of the Duomo, in large white bubbles. There were all sorts of interesting things to see, try and listen to. On Easter Sunday we went to a service at the Duomo, which was interesting and beautiful despite having little to no idea what was going on due to it all being in Italian. We also paid our money and climbed up to the top to get a view of the city, which was worthwhile. I also bought an Italian SIM card to use in my phone for cheap 3G data. For €20 I got a prepaid SIM with 50 MB free 3G data to use per day for a year, plus some number of free SMSes and the prepaid credit itself, which was rather more than I needed but still a good deal. After a little more looking around near the Duomo we caught the train to Venice.

Milan: The Duomo is really quite spectacular

Venice was completely different, of course. We arrived at the main station on one of the islands, and decided to walk the 20 or 30 minutes or so to our hotel, which was an adventure in itself. The route we took, like most routes in Venice, was rather roundabound and involved crossing many bridges, sometimes back and forth over the same canal. We also found ourselves going from crowded streets, to wide empty streets and squares, to narrow back alleys and back frequently. 3G data, a GPS and Google Maps routing came in very handy, here and for the rest of our time in Venice. Well, it was handy for all our time in Italy, but especially so in Venice.

Venice: Gondolas, of course

After checking in to the hotel the girls got some dinner while I wandered around for a bit, then we met up again and headed to the Basilica di San Marco as it was not that far away. It was a bit late to do anything much, so we just spent the evening wandering through all sorts of different streets, along the waterfront, through empty back streets and crowded streets of shops and restaurants, and over the famous Ponte de Rialto and along the main canal a bit as it got dark. One thing I did notice about Venice is that it never seemed unsafe, even at night on back streets. Perhaps it is just too expensive for the usual criminal demographic to live there. The next day we went back to the Piazza San Marco, where there happened to be a celebration of the city’s anniversary day, or something along those lines, with various military types parading around and raising the flags of the EU, Italy and Venice. We then attended part of the Easter Monday service at the Basilica, which was again beautiful if incomprehensible. After that we climbed up the bell tower to take photos and enjoy the view, then went to the Palazzo Ducale and the various other museums on the piazza. All were interesting, especially the Palazzo, but we were not allowed to take any photos inside so I have no record. For the rest of Venice, though, check out my photos! After that we picked up our bags from the hotel and caught a very crowded river bus back to the train station to head on to Florence. Unfortunately it was rather late by this point, and the only train left was a slow regional one, so it took quite a while and we arrived in Florence quite late that night. Curiously, despite Venice in most respects being one of the most expensive places in Italy, the gelato there was probably the cheapest, ranging from €1.10 to €1.50 for a small cone or cup, compared to closer to €2.00 in most other cities. Strange. Though perhaps they were smaller? I am not sure.

Venice: Looking over St. Mark’s Square and Basilica

We got to Florence late on Monday night, and went to bed as soon as we got to our hostel. Tuesday was our only full day exploring the city, and we saw plenty of things. Lots of lovely churches, again, the Duomo, and again we went up a tower and took panoramas of the city. In Piazza della Republica we found a 3D map of the central city with labels in braille, for the blind. I again tried various different flavours of gelato, all of which were yummy. We went past the Uffizi, which was really near our hotel, but even the queue to buy a ticket for a time later on was enormous and we did not want to spend our limited time waiting in a queue, so we decided to miss it. We did however make it into the Galleria dell’Accademi to see the original David, by paying extra for a 1 hour tour after which we could stay and look around by ourselves. It cost a bit but saved time waiting in line. There were also replicas of the statue in the Piazza della Signoria near the Uffizi, and in the Piazzale Michelangiolo up on the hill across the river, where we went that evening to look down over the city lights.

Florence: The Duomo at night (click the photo, it looks much better bigger!)

On Wednesday we went straight to Pisa on the train, and booked our tickets to climb up the tower. While we were waiting for our assigned timeslot we had a bit of a look around the town, which apart from the touristy bits immediately by the tower and duomo and so on is actually a nice old university town, with lots of nice old buildings and lots of students. It is a walled city, so the walls are interesting to see too, and there are the remains of some old Roman baths. When it came time we headed back to the tower and climbed up in our group. It did have a nice view, and quite a noticeable lean as we climbed the spiral staircase around and around. We also went into the Duomo and the Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), which were both nice. The Baptistery in particular is definitely worth a visit on the half hour, when one of the guards comes in and sings a few notes. It is a circular building with a domed roof, and if you sing from the right position as he does it has a quite spectacular echo. By singing different notes each for a few seconds he was able to harmonise with himself, forming chords with the still-echoing notes. After that and the obligatory tourist photos we hired bikes and biked out to the coast. Unfortunately we did not have much time to look around Marina di Pisa, but is was still an enjoyable ride. After returning the bikes we got dinner, had a little more time looking around the city as it got dark, then headed back to Florence and back to bed.

The next day we caught the train to Naples, which took a while. Our hostel in Naples was my favourite of the trip, a proper lively backpackers’ hostel with plenty of people from all sorts of places and quite friendly. It was a pity that we only stayed there one night. We were not impressed with our first impressions of Naples, getting from the train station to the hostel in rain and busy traffic, but it did somewhat redeem itself later in the day as the sun came out and we wandered around some of the nicer and more interesting streets. The staff at the hostel recommended two famous pizza places for us to check out (pizza having been invented in Naples), which we did for lunch and dinner that day. Both were very busy, hectic and quite small, with crowds waiting outside trying to get a seat. We got our pizza to take away both times rather than wait for ages. Both were nice, different to the pizza we had had elsewhere, and also the cheapest we had on the trip. They seemed very popular with locals and visitors alike. We also went to see various churches as we walked by, of course, as well as some streets of interesting shops. We made it down to the waterfront in the evening and walked past a castle, though it was closed by that point.

On Thursday we took the advice of the hostel staff to catch a bus from near the hostel straight to Pompeii scavi, taking our bags with us to store there, which they do for free when you buy your ticket to see the ruins. We spent the whole day wandering around the ruins, which are really quite extensive. The main baths are particularly well preserved, as well as many homes large and small, shops, bakeries, fora and public spaces, theatres and a brothel. It was fascinating, especially because when I was learning Latin for 3 years back at Rongotai College the textbooks we used followed the life of a boy growing up in Pompeii. Sadly I have forgotten most of the Latin I learnt, so I was not actually able to make much sense of the signs and inscriptions around the place. At the end of the day we picked up our bags, took the local train straight back to the main station in Naples, then the next train on to Rome. Unfortunately it was delayed quite a while, but we made it in the end.

Rome was full of people, even more so than the rest of the cities we visited. No doubt it is always pretty crowded and busy, but the particular weekend we went happened to be the weekend of the beatification of John Paul II at the Vatican, so there were even more visitors than normal for that. Especially Polish people. We spent the Saturday looking around some of the main sights, including the Forum area and of course the Colosseum, along with Trajan’s Column, the Arco di Costantino, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona. We also happened to walk past the Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice, apparently something like a supreme court), which just happened to be open to the public for a free tour just then, as part of some anniversary celebration, so we went on that. There were a lot of guards and other staff going around with the tour group, and we were fortunate to have one of the staff give us an English translation of some of what was being said. We were not allowed to take photos though. We found a nice restaurant near the Pantheon for dinner, which was better and less touristy than many of the other places we had eaten.

The next day we attempted to get somewhere near the Vatican City to see what we could see, but could not get anywhere near due to the streets and streets packed full of people all around. We gave up and tried to see some other things in the area, but again got stuck in crowds which took quite some time to escape. We finally made our way to the park near the Monumento a Garibaldi for a nice rest in the sun, lying on the grass and snacking on fruit, which was a welcome respite from all the crowds and walking. There was a nice view of the city, too, as it was up a bit of a hill. We went back past the crowds, which were thinning a bit but with a lot of people still around (and there was so much rubbish all over the streets!), and went to see the Piazza del Popolo and a little bit of the park on the hill above it, then headed back to the Colosseum to take some photos of it in the evening sun. That night we went to the Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, a particularly famous gelato place near the railway station. It was indeed popular, and they had an enormous range of flavours including many unusual ones. It was also cheap, especially for Rome, and tasty. I had mandarin, liquorice and coconut, and tasted some of the other flavours including rice. On Monday morning we did not have time to do much as we had to get to the airport to catch our flight and it takes quite a while to get there, so we just paid a quick visit to another famous gelato shop, Giolitti. It was also nice, and I tried some new flavours, but I think Giovanni Fassi was still my favourite. Go there, if ever you are in Rome! We then made our way to the airport and flew back to London, which took the rest of the day.

All in all, it was an interesting trip. We saw lots of places, I ate lots of gelato and a fair bit of pizza, and it was nice to have company for a change rather than travelling by myself. I took many many photos, some of which are already online (and linked above). The rest will hopefully be making their way online shortly, so check my Picasa gallery.

Now, where to next? Scandinavia has been suggested to me as a good area to visit in summer. What advice and suggestions do you have, fair readers?

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