27 December 2010

Home at last

There's something really comforting about being in your own home after such a long time! Lola and Charlie (my two dogs) looked out of the door in disbelief and wasted no time in checking out what I had in my luggage. Nothing of any great interest, but my clothes had some interesting "foreign" odours that occupied them for a few moments.

So, unpacked, a week of holiday left to recover before starting back at work. Probably time to start thinking about my next adventure!

More in the new year.

22 December 2010

Merry Christmas - wherever in the world!

Christmas has special meaning for people in many corners of the world. While the heart of the season is the same wherever you might be, the way in which you celebrate depends on just where you happen to be. Here's just a flavour of some of the variations in the countries I’ve visited:

God Jul or Gledelig Jul (Norway)

In Norway almost everyone has either a spruce or a pine tree in their living room - decorated with white lights, tinsel, Norwegian flags and other ornaments. Children make paper baskets of shiny, colored paper, which are filled with candy or nuts. Chains made of colored paper are also very popular. 

The Norwegian "nisse" differs from both Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. The name  "nisse" probably derives from St. Nicholas. But "nisser" - which are elves (or gnomes) are old figures that existed before the birth of Christ. There are several types of "nisser" in Norway. The most known is the "fjøsnisse" who takes care of the animals on the farms. The fjøsnisse is very short and often bearded and lives in a barn or a stable. He wears clothes of wool and has a red knitted hat. The fjøsnisse often plays tricks on people. Sometimes he will scare people by blowing out the lights in the barn or he will scare the farm dog at night. He can become very friendly with the people who live on the farm, but one should never forget to give him a large portion of porridge on Christmas Eve.

There is also a Christmas nisse (julenissen) who is similar to Santa Claus. The julenisse brings presents to all the nice children on Christmas Eve. He is not as shy as Santa, since the julenisse delivers the presents in person, rather than coming down the chimney in the middle of the night.

God Jul and (Och) Ett Gott Nytt År (Sweden)

In Sweden, Christmas begins with a Saint Lucia ceremony on 13th of December (I saw one of these at my hotel in Kiruna – very lovely!). Lucia was a Christian virgin who sacrificed herself for her devout faith in Christianity in the 4th century at Syracuse. The ceremony held in her honor is quite recent and is often associated with the traditional thanksgiving for the return of the sun.

On this day, the youngest daughter from each family puts on a white robe with a red sash before dawn and wears a crown of evergreens with tall-lighted candles attached to it. Then she wakes her parents accompanied by other children and followed by star boys in long white shirts, pointed hats and carrying star wands, and serves them with coffee and Lucia buns. 

Christmas trees are set up in Sweden two days before Christmas and are decorated with candles, apples, straw ornaments Swedish flags and small gnomes wearing red tasseled caps. Christmas home decorations include red tulips and pepparkakor (gingerbread biscuits).

Christmas Eve is known as Julafton in Swedish. Traditional Christmas Eve dinner includes smorgasbord or a buffet may also be arranged featuring Julskinka or Christmas ham, pickled pigs feet, lutfisk or dried codfish and variety of sweets.
 A popular Christmas tradition is to serve risgryngrot, a rice porridge with a hidden almond. Whoever finds the almond is believed to marry in the coming year. After the festive Christmas Eve dinner, a friend or family member dresses up as Tomte or Christmas gnome who is believed to live under the floorboards of the house or barn and rides a straw goat known as julbok. Tomte has a white beard and red robes and carries a sack with gifts in it. He gives out the gifts and presents, often accompanied by funny rhymes hinting at the contents of the package. Previously, it was Julbok who gave out presents and then Tomte or Santa Claus came in. Today, Tomte and Julbok are no longer associated together, although a little brownie known as Jultomten, helps Santa Claus to give gifts to good children in Sweden.

Hyvaa joulua (Finland)

Finnish people clean their homes well before Christmas and prepare special treats for the festive holiday season. Fir trees are cut and taken to homes by sleds on Christmas Eve and are decorated. A sheaf of grain, nuts and seeds are tied on a pole, which is placed in the garden for the birds to feed on. Only after the birds eat their dinner do the farmers partake of their Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner traditionally begins with the appearance of the first star in the sky (which at this time of the year isn’t so late in the day!). Candles are lit on the Christmas tree, which is decorated using apples and other fruits, candies, paper flags, cotton and tinsel.

Just before the Christmas festivities begin, people visit the famous steam baths and dress up in clean clothes for the dinner. Christmas gifts may be exchanged before or after the dinner. Children do not hang up stockings in Finland but Santa visits the household with about half a dozen Christmas elves to help him distribute the presents.

The traditional main dish for Christmas dinner is boiled codfish (soaked for a week beforehand in a lye solution to soften it) served snowy white and fluffy, roast suckling pig or a roasted fresh ham and vegetables. It is accompanied by allspice, boiled potatoes, and cream sauce. Children go to bed right after dinner while adults chat and drink coffee until about midnight. Christmas Day services begin early at six in the morning and people visit families and reunions are arranged on this day. Star boys tour the countryside singing Christmas songs and everybody wishes each other “hyvaa joulua” or “merry yule”.

Joyeux Nöel (France)

In France, children leave their shoes by the fireplace on the Christmas Eve so that Père Nöel can fill them with gifts - and on Christmas morning, they usually find sweets, fruits, nuts and small toys for them hung on the tree. Puppets and plays conducted in cathedral squares re-enact the Nativity. Almost all French homes decorate their homes at Christmastime with a Nativity scene or crèche with little clay figures called 'santons' or 'little saints' which are made from moulds that have been passed down since the 17th century.

Figures of local dignitaries are often added to these Nativity scenes along with the Holy Family, shepherds and Magi. Christmas trees never became popular in France and the use of a Christmas “yule log” is also diminishing. However, there is a traditional yule log-shaped cake called the “buche de noel”. Trust the french to bring chocolate into the decorations!

The main Christmas feast is quite grand and is known as “le reveillon”, served as a very late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Different regions have different traditional menus. Goose is served as the main course in Alsace while turkey with chestnuts is served in Burgundy.

Parisians love oysters and pâte de foie gras. Other dishes include poultry, ham, salads, cakes, fruits and wine. In South France, people burn yule logs continuously from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day and once a part of this log was used to make the wedge for the plough as good luck omen and plenty of harvest in the coming year.
 After dinner, the family leaves the fire burning and food and drink on the table for Virgin Mary. In northern France, children get gifts on St. Nicholas' Day instead of Christmas Day while adults share presents on New Year's Day.

French families also bake a Three Kings Cake (galette de roi) with a bean hidden in it on the Twelfth Day. The lucky person to find the bean in their slice is crowned the king or queen for the day.

Froehliche Weihnachten (Austria) 

In Austria, Christmas begins with the feast of St Nicholas or Heiliger Nikolaus on 6 December, when the saint and the devil ask the children about their good and bad deeds. Good children get sweets, toys, apples and nuts. Gifts under the tree are opened only after dinner on Christmas Eve. Brass musical instruments play chorale music while carol singers go from door to door carrying blazing torches and a manger.

The famous carol Silent Night was first sung in 1818 in the village church of Oberndorf and there is an interesting story attached to it: on Christmas Eve, the priest of the church found that organ was not working properly and its leather bellows were full of holes. So, the priest consulted the organist Franz Bauer and showed him a new Christmas hymn he had written. Franz was quick to compose a tune for the hymn that could be played on the guitar – and now is played all over the world!

Traditional Austrian Christmas dinner includes baked carp,  Christmas trees are put up on 24 December and are lit only when the Christ child comes and brings presents for the children. Tinkling bells announce his arrival and he is greeted by a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments, candies and just-lit candles while the family sings Christmas carols and exchange Christmas wishes.

For my new friends in Spain: feliz navidad; in Switzerland: take your pick of the German froehliche weihnachten or French joyeux nöel; and although Christmas is not widely celebrated in the middle east (other than commercially!), an Arabic greeting is idah saidan wa sanah jadidah! 

To all my English-speaking friends and family: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!

Post script (23 December): I forgot I was passing through Turkey - Noeliniz kutlu olsun!

The importance of a good "Plan B"

Shortly before I left on my travels, I was involved in organising a business continuity exercise at work. Little did I realise at the time just how useful the skills I need for that type of work would be during my trip!

On the first occasion, I was confronted with an immediate problem. My ship was not going to be calling into the port where I was (Svolvaer) because of weather problems. A couple of emails and phone calls later and "Plan B" was in place - an almost three hour taxi ride on dark, icy roads, through sleety weather, to reconnect with my ship in a harbour that wasn't facing the open seas.

The second problem hasn't actually happened yet. My plan B has been developed based on the likelihood of a problem arising. My original plan was to return to Australia from Oslo via Paris and Dubai. With the current weather problems in central and western Europe, and the ensuing transport chaos in the UK, France, Belgium and Germany - it simply wasn't possible to say whether my original flights would get through or not.

Yes, some flights are getting through Paris with some delays, while other flights are being cancelled. While weather problems can create havoc at any time of the year, the week before Christmas complicates  the issue, because there is simply no spare capacity on the following days. Some airlines have been reportedly picking up displaced passengers and bumping those holding tickets for a flight that actually takes off.

While again it's impossible to accurately forecast the weather, when I stacked up what we do know: snow and continuing sub-zero temperatures are forecast until Christmas at least; infrastructure to deal with snow and ice is not as good in Paris and London as it is in Scandinavia, Russia or other areas where flight operations routinely take place in this sort of weather. And in some airports, supply of critical de-icing fluids has been compromised by road transport delays. Knock-on effects from the initial delays last weekend are expected to take until after Christmas to clear up.

It doesn't take a crystal ball to realise that travelling through Paris this week is going to be high risk. And more importantly, I actually don't need to be in Paris for any reason other than to connect with my flight home. So in a way, I would be needlessly contributing to the congestion problems if I stuck with my original flights.

So, a few more phone calls, emails and web research, and I've uncovered a very good alternative routing to Dubai via Istanbul. I have to cancel one flight, book one new flight from Oslo to Istanbul, and reroute my original Paris-Dubai-Sydney Emirates flight to Istanbul-Dubai-Sydney. Well, not personally.  My travel agents have swung into action and made numerous phone calls and confirmed that my revised flight arrangements are now in place.

When I stopped to think about it, my willingness to get a Plan B (C, or D if necessary) in place bears some resemblance to working on a business continuity exercise: firstly, make sure you have the right people on your team and that they understand exactly what you want or need (importantly, know what you want as well). Be prepared to compromise. Don't blindly accept everything you're told, especially when it's an opinion rather than a hard fact. Get the facts or other backup for the advice you're given. Know what questions to ask, or failing that, just ask as many questions as you need to get the result you want.

Prevention is better than a cure. Read, forecast, estimate (and in business continuity terms, assess the risk). If things look bad and are getting worse, don't just pray for an upswing when you need it. Know what you can control or change and what you can't - and have the wisdom or judgment to know the difference! If you see trouble ahead, try and navigate around it rather than just keep on going because you don't know what else to do.

There's often more than one solution (in my case, Christmas in Oslo was a temporary Plan C, now abandoned). You may need to trade off something to get to the optimal solution - again in my case it was time, money and possibly some lost frequent flyer points. But in contrast to my goal of being home with family and friends for Christmas, this wasn't such a big compromise to make.

Interestingly, business commentators on BBC World (my primary TV source here) have been saying that the current weather situation is not new to Europe and that quite a few lessons have been learnt from previous serious weather events here and particularly in the US. However, the learnings have mostly been applied to fixing problems as they arrive (how familiar does that sound), rather than forward prevention and planning. Of course we can't predict or control the weather, but airports and airlines could have had better contingency plans around de-icing fluid supplies, manpower, ice and snow clearing - and even more importantly, dealing with the human welfare and communication aspects of these situations.

The media has been brilliant at filling the gaps, and most airport websites have some information about the status of flights and delays, but there is no concerted, partnership effort to communicate and care for those caught up in the middle of the problem through no fault of their own. This is the area where considerable improvements need to be made by airlines and airport operators alike.

And the best thing about having Plan B in place, is that I can now relax and enjoy the last few hours of my holiday! Now that's the biggest bonus of all!!

Hunting the light

When I arrived in Bergen after a week spent north of the arctic circle, I came back into true daylight, well at least for five hours or so a day - what luxury! As an Australian, I could only have imagined what almost continuous night-time would be like. I found the experience quite surreal. People not only get up and breakfast in the dark, but go about their work in the dark, kids are at school in the dark, and you start to think it must be dinner time at around three in the afternoon. Disconcerting to say the least.

So when I boarded one of the famed Hurtigruten ships - mine was called, somewhat inappropriately, Midnatsol (midnight sun) - I was intrigued to find that their winter cruising season had been branded "Hunting the light".

While this is a direct reference to the desire of guests to see the famed northern lights (or aurora borealis), I started to think more about the importance of light and its place in our sense of well-being. And in the middle of my first arctic winter, I really liked the notion of "hunting" for light and making the most of whatever light is available - or even creating a feeling of light.

In Scandinavia, there is no shortage of lighting in mid-winter! Every home is ablaze with Christmas lights in the windows (curtains are almost invariably left open, which of course makes you wonder about the cost of their energy bills).  The extensive snow cover then magnifies, refracts and reflects any available light, giving it a sparkling, crystalline, fairy-garden appearance.

Almost without exception, the main reason people travel so far north in mid-winter is to see the elusive northern lights. In my case, they lived up to their "tricky lady" reputation - and remained out-of-sight from me, despite this being one of the best years for the lights. 

Auroras are seen more frequently when the sun is active - increased solar wind provides the energy needed to send particles hurtling towards the earth, where they are steered under the influence of the earth's magnetic field and interact with the atmosphere, giving off light in the process. While this process is not unique to the earth's poles, the weather conditions also need to be just right for the lights to be seen. So, as warned by all of the tourism operators, you can try all you like to hunt the lights, but you are totally at the mercy of mother nature! 

So, all of this got me to thinking about the influence of light on our everyday lives, apart from the obvious advantage of providing us with the sense of sight! Photographers and artists use light to convey emotion and meaning. We talk about lightness of spirit, feeling light-hearted. We are enlightened when we have knowledge and education. We light candles for loved ones. A light in the darkness can be uplifting, welcoming - and make you feel safe and secure.

Hunting the light. I like it. It captures the feel of my travels - and I particularly like the idea of actively seeking and chasing the light, not just waiting passively for the light to find me.

Kristallwelten, Innsbruck, Austria

15 December 2010

I still call Australia home . . .

There comes a moment in every journey where you start to feel - well let's admit it - a bit homesick. Mine came today. I expected today to be a bit of a challenge because of my travel arrangements: a two and a half hour train trip from Kiruna in far north Sweden to Narvik on the Norwegian coast. That was pretty straight forward and came with spectacular scenery, especially at the Norwegian end of the trip.

I then had to transfer to the bus station in Narvik for a four hour bus trip to a town called Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands - a string of islands in the north-west of the country - where I was booked into some gorgeous "character" accommodation fashioned out of old fishermen's cottages and similar historical buildings.

Here's what you don't get told in the glossy brochures and websites: firstly, people don't always give you good directions, especially when you take into account language differences. When told it was only "ten minutes to the bus station" in Narvik, I figured it would do me good to stretch my legs after a period of inactivity, and proceed to follow the tourism office's directions to "turn left" as I left the train station. After ten minutes, I check some landmarks against the map that I'd been given and realise that "turn left" actually means "turn right" - and head back in the correct direction. By this time, I've managed to confuse myself, and take another wrong turn (another 10-20 minutes gone), before I'm heading in the right direction. Eventually a kind young man asked me where I am going and guides me all the way to the bus stop - yep, hardly a station as we know them, but just an outdoor bus stop.

Secondly, the "cute, character" accommodation that looks fabulous on the website (and it may well be when I get to view it in daylight) is about as welcoming and sympathetic as the ice on the ground. Snow I can manage, ice is treacherous. Cute, character accommodation doesn't come with 24 hour reception. So checkin is done in the bar-restaurant area. Well, OK, that I can handle. But I realise that my room is in one of the cabins, scattered around the property and reached via said treacherous icy paths and roads. Not so good from my point of view, but having been told that it's straight out the door and two cabins over, I'm beginning to think I can cope.

I take my key and hoist my luggage - no offers of help are forthcoming - and head off to find my room. Well, I should have remembered point one: don't trust vague directions. I can't begin to find the room I've been allocated, I come close to slipping on the ice at least twice, and it's dark. So I head back to the bar/pub, walk in the door and promptly burst into tears.

The snotty (male) manager basically ignores me, but another guardian angel in the form of the young girl serving behind the bar comes to my help. She moves heaven and earth to get things under control: I'm settled on a sofa with a coffee and she offers to help me and my luggage to my room. When I explain why I'm nervous about the ice, she promptly finds a room much closer and then actually helps with my luggage.  Later she comes over with my breakfast supplies, then when I ask about the internet, goes back to the bar to retrieve a login code and password. What a sweetheart.

Unfortunately for the Anker Brygge, cute you may be, but you totally lost me with your careless attitude today. And made me remember just why I will always call Australia home!!

13 December 2010

How to make an ice hotel

Ice Hotel main hall
When you think about it, building a hotel out of ice and getting people to pay hundreds of euros a night to sleep on a bed of ice, in temperatures of around -5C, isn't something you would put at the top of your "great business ideas" list.

The Ice Hotel in the far north of Sweden has been operating now for 21 years - as a hotel actually made out of ice. How it came about  and its early development is one of those fascinating stories about luck and opportunity - and determination to follow through on that opportunity when it arose.

For starters, outside of Sweden, who had ever heard of the tiny village of Jukkasjärvi? The village was popular for a few months in summer and a local hotel owner started to think - as all good tourism operators do - about ways to extend his product through to the colder months. The first idea was to mount an art exhibition in an igloo built from ice on the Torne River, which runs alongside of Jukkasjärvi. Needless to say, the river freezes over during winter.

In 1990, a group of hardy tourists was unable to find a room in the hotel, and asked whether it would be possible to stay in the igloo overnight - they became the first guests of the "Ice Hotel". And from such inauspicious beginnings, a major tourism phenomenon has developed.

The igloo built on the river was unfortunately unable to cater for the growing crowds of visitors and in subsequent years was moved to the land between the river and Jukkasjärvi. From a small construction of approximately 60 sq m in the first year, the hotel now occupies some 6000 sq m with dozens of hotel rooms, a main hall, an Ice Bar, in partnership with Absolut Vodka and a church (the Ice Hotel is very popular for weddings, especially for Scottish couples for some reason).

"Snice" moulding on wall
The hotel is built anew every year, with ice harvested from the Torne River at the end of the previous winter and a composite material called "snice" - as the name suggests something that is in between snow and ice.

There's quite an art to the cultivation of ice with the clarity and purity that is needed for the ice hotel - and here's where Jukkasjärvi's position next to the Torne River becomes its competitive advantage. The water in the Torne is clear and well oxygenated, and it flows at the right speed needed for ice to form and grow in spectacular, crystal clear sheets.

Construction generally takes place between October and December each year, with full operations ramping up from mid-December onwards. Day-trippers are welcome during the construction phase, and depending on the weather (temperature), overnight guests can sleep in "cold" accommodation from mid-December onwards.

The basic "snow room"
There are three levels of accommodation: a basic snow room, an ice room and and an ice "art suite". The art suites are individually designed following the competitive selection process mentioned earlier.

Successful designers win the right to come and work 12 hour days for two to three weeks to personally construct their winning design.

The standard "ice room"
From its early history arising from an art exhibition on a river, the river is now used to create art that can be experienced in a most intense way!

According to my charming guide - who kindly turned his 4 pm Swedish language guided tour into an English language tour as I was the only one in the group - the construction of the ice hotel is a year-round operation.

Ice "art suite" - one of a kind
While the construction takes place at the start of winter, the raw material (the ice) is grown and harvested during the winter, then harvested and stored close to the hotel site, ready for use in the following season. The reason for this is that the ice hasn't grown thick enough to form the supporting pillars and other structural elements of the hotel at the start of winter - so the ice in this year's hotel was grown and harvested in March-April this year!

So just how do you sleep on a bed of ice, in sub-zero temperatures? The thing is to have exactly the right amount of clothing. Basically a couple of good thermal underlayers inside of a high quality down sleeping bag is what's required. If you try and get into the sleeping bag with too much clothing, you will paradoxically be colder than if you take off your cold outer clothing and get into the sleeping bag with your warm inner layers on.

Children are not encouraged at the Ice Hotel - not because they will damage the furnishings or make too much noise - but can you imagine having to get up in the middle of the night to take little ones to the toilet? None of the rooms has an ensuite!!

And for somewhere uber-cool to chill out in the evening, of course there's the Ice Bar.  Cheers!

The plus side of winter tourism

Travelling above the arctic circle in December? You have to be slightly mad to even consider doing so, but having now had a couple of weeks to acclimatise to the northern hemisphere winter (and one that has come earlier and colder than usual) I've also had time to consider some of the benefits of winter tourism.

Here's a short list:
Getting to know my dog team
  • you get to sleep in - or at least have a good excuse for doing so, when the sun rises at around 10.30 am and sets at around 1-1.30 pm - and in between it's sort of like a continuous twilight!
  • sightseeing can generally be done indoors (at least in the major cities) - museums, galleries, shops and cafes
  • in the snow, everything looks like the Christmas of my childhood fairy tales and Christmas cards. You can almost hear Bing Crosby crooning "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas . . ." as you travel around the snowy landscapes.
  • you don't get the huge crowds that you do in mid-summer (with the minor exception of Christmas shoppers)
  • the Christmas lights make up for the lack of daylight - and are, if anything, enhanced by the snow which serves as a great reflector!
  • you can eat more - after all, you burn up calories to stay warm, right?
  • the northern lights are only visible in winter - but the tricky lady has yet to appear (at least where I am - there are reports of faint lights only at the moment here in Kiruna - and only outside the town).
  • you get to do fun things like dog-sledding, snow-mobiling - and eating reindeer stew at every second meal!
Of course, there are a few challenges - it's hard to really say what's an average temperature here, because it really depends where you are and what you're doing. In the town, it's somewhere between -5 and -10C most of the day. In the wilderness areas, it's much colder, especially on the frozen lakes and rivers, which are around -25C or even colder at night. 

A typical day here starts with layers. First the underwear layer, then a thermal layer, then a light woollen top and trousers, at least two pairs of socks and a pullover or jacket. And that's just to go to breakfast!

For outdoor activities, I've been supplied by the local tour guide company with heavy duty overalls, boots, hat and gloves. And the operative word is "heavy" - my kit must weigh at least 7 or 8 kg, with around half of this being in the boots, which have the look of steel-capped boots, but made of some sort of synthetic rubber type of compound.

Needless to say, you don't move very fast in this sort of outfit, but you are very stable and protected. 

Snowmobile night - dinner in uninsulated hut!

10 December 2010

Breathing the music

8 December 2010: the Nobel Prize Concert, Stockholm Concert Hall.  The Nobel Prize Concert is held every year on 8 December, two days ahead of the actual prize-giving ceremony. The concert has a reputation for attracting some fabulous music talent - such as Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming - and this year was no exception.

The soloist was Joshua Bell, touted as "a young, brilliant and world famous violinist". According to his bio, he's 43, but when he comes on stage he looks more Gen Y than Gen X. The first thing you notice is that he's dressed more casually (shirt over his trousers) than the rest of the orchestra.

The next thing you notice is how he approaches his performance.
As he arrives on stage, he is quite a showman - acknowledging the applause, the conductor and the leader of the orchestra. But then, as the orchestra starts to play, Joshua appears to physically lean into the music and start to "breathe" it in, to become immersed in the music - before he starts his performance.

And what a performance! Of course the Stradivarius he plays is a fabulous instrument, but in the hands of Joshua Bell, this is a spellbinding, dramatic, totally compelling experience. And I think this is the mot juste - you don't just go to listen to Joshua Bell, you go to experience him. Here is a link to a short excerpt from Joshua Bell's performance  on Wednesday. Joshua is playing the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major - which appears to be a fiendishly difficult and challenging concerto.

Notice also the fabulous conductor and how he interacts with his orchestra and soloist. Sakari Oramo is Finnish by birth and started his musical career there. Like Joshua, he is still relatively young in the music world at 45 years of age. He has only recently returned to Scandinavia to take up the position of chief conductor and artistic advisor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (as well as maintaining a longer term role as chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) - following a 10-year stint at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which catapulted him onto the wider international scene.

Sakari's performance is also mesmerising. His energy is immense, without being overwhelming. He is, like Joshua, enmeshed in the music, without ever losing his sense of leadership and orchestral management. And he leads a performance with great artistic and creative flair, a sense that is manifested more commercially when you discover he has recently brought the RSPO to world respect with a new recording of the complete Schumann Symphonies - a recording that has brought acclaim such as "their live recording combines youthful and strong energy with elastic ease". That sums it up beautifully for me.

Back to Joshua briefly: of all the concerts he has given (and he performs a heroic number each year, around 200 or so!) the one that gained him greatest global renown took place one frosty morning in January 2007 at a subway station in Washington, where he played six pieces by JS Bach in 45 minutes. Six people stopped to listen; 20 people walked past and tossed him a coin or two without stopping, earning him a total of $32. When Joshua stopped playing, no one reacted, no one applauded. No one realised that the busker in front of them was one of the world's most virtuoso violinists, playing an instrument worth $3.5 million and who, just two days before, had played to a packed concert hall where tickets cost $100 a piece!

This unusual performance was a social experiment set up by the Washington Post: can we recognise talent in an unexpected milieu, and if not, how many other great experiences do we miss? A lesson for us all to ponder, I suspect.

06 December 2010

Winter wonderland

I can't help it - I love the idea of Christmas being in the depths of winter. Being an aussie, that's really, really unrealistic, but guess my generation was somewhat brainwashed by our very British heritage and upbringing.

So, when I flew out of Paris for Helsinki yesterday, it was quite an experience. The first piece of fun was being told that our flight would be at least (another) 20-30 minutes late while we underwent "anti-icing". This is not like the de-icing that takes place on planes parked overnight at Canberra. This is a full-on prevention operation just before the planes hit the runway for takeoff under the conditions that prevailed yesterday.

There are guys sitting in cherry-pickers (enclosed and heated, judging by the fact that one of our operators was wearing thongs) on top of remote controlled trucks that swing into action as your plane pulls up. Then the entire plane (emphasis on the wings) is sprayed with in a two-step process - and having an inherited interest in all things airports, I had to check out the requirements! Followed by the specifics that are in place in Europe!!

So it's OK to fly in snowy weather, right? I mean it's just like flying in the rain, but the rain has set into snow crystals. Despite having a science background, I suffer from internal mental conflict between the rational part of my brain that understands Bernoulli's principle - and the emotional part that sees a plane as having more in common with an apartment block than a bird! And I know just how much my own luggage weighed, and multiplied by the 200 passengers on board, I can't begin to comprehend why the plane will even move, let alone become airborne.

But, airborne we became. And the child in me took over. I can't remember ever before having flown out of an airport covered in snow, but it was so beautiful. Grey and white, and limited visibility to be sure - but just like Santa's distribution hub.

Then 10 minutes later we were above the weather and flying for more than two hours in clear blue, sunny skies. And then back to earth, only an hour late, in Helsinki, where at 3.30 pm the daylight had almost disappeared. By the time I reached my hotel (the fabulous Hotel Kamp in old Helsinki) it was dark, but the snow and the Christmas lights made my heart beat just a little faster. It feels like you really are close to Santa in this part of the world (and of course you are. The Finns claim to own the home of Santa Claus - rather than it being at the north pole!)

Today I've walked and taken trams around the city, drunk fabulous mulled wine, and just revelled in being in a snow-covered city for the first time in my life. My only regret is that I will miss the start of the Christmas markets just over the road from my hotel.

Tomorrow is Helsinki's national day. It's an official flag-raising day and apparently much loved by the Finns, who light two candles in their homes to honour the day. Kippis!

27 November 2010

Ceci et cela - this and that!

Because it's been a little while since I've been inspired to write a full blog - here are some extracts from my Facebook posts over the last couple of weeks.

Friday (26.11):
  • “Il neigait quand je suis arrivee a Lyon! It was snowing when I arrived in Lyon!!”
(Lyon is my last big adventure in France for this trip. As well as checking out the traboules of the Croix Rousse - the old tunnels used by the silk workers hundreds of years ago - I hope to catch up with a friend from Montpellier who’s visiting her son here this weekend. Quelle chance!)

Wednesday (24.11)
  • Posted new photos of Montpellier at night and said "Not only snow forecast, but the Christmas lights are up, there's a festival of the vines this weekend - and to top off my night, found the cutest little restaurant that I'd be happy to take girlfriends too again!!"
  • Earlier that night "Susan est etonné par the prévu météo pour ce weekend – il fera neige!! Oui, ici a Montpellier!! (Susan is surprised to see that snow is forecast here in Montpellier this weekend. We are on the Mediterranean!!
(For the record, the forecast has changed since Wednesday - it's just going to be cold instead! And the restaurant is called L'acolyte.)

Sunday (21.11)
  • Posted photos of the Cite Mediaeval at Carcassonne, which is about halfway between Montpellier and Toulouse and noted “Dame Carcas was one hell of a PR practitioner - way back in the middle ages!! Legend has it she defeated a siege by tossing a pig stuffed with grain over the ramparts. The surrounding army took this as a sign that the inhabitants had enough food to withstand the seige and decamped!! Great thinking!!"

Saturday (20.11)
  • After arriving in Carcassonne, courtesy of friends living in Montouliers, near Bèziers (and if anyone is looking for a fabulous rural gite in the south of France, do check out 6 Place Aux Herbes in the charming town of Bize-Minervois - I can personally recommend this for value and location!!) “OMG - died and gone to heaven - dinner at La Barbacane in Carcassonne. Even the mint tea was made from fresh mint leaves. Don't want to know about my credit card any more :-)” and
  • “is cocooned inside the old city of Carcassonne in 5* luxury. Oh bliss!!!"
(For the record – the hotel was the Hotel de la Cite).

Friday (19.11)
  • “can't believe her holiday is officially halfway over (or to be more positive - I still have half my holiday to look forward to!!!!!!!)”
(And that goes double today, a week later, but less holiday remaining. Watched a timelapse video of the aurora borealis this evening – things are looking good for a spectacular season for the northern lights).

. . . and on a similar note . . .

Wednesday (17.11)
  • “The Ice Hotel in Sweden is already open for business this winter - I will visit (but not stay) here in three weeks' time! It's an amazing construction and design feat each year."

Looking back over the last 14 days, I can add the following:
  • I’ve attended french school for 44 lessons (45 minutes each lesson) and that includes four 1 on 1 lessons, where you just can't hide!
  • Had at least two long conversations in french with native french speakers and fellow students
  • I’m now good friends with the man and his wife who make my coffee each morning (of course!)
  • I’m no longer fearful of ordering taxis, meals, train tickets, and heaps of other day to day activities – but I will do anything to avoid a phone conversation in french with someone I don’t know!
  • I've started reading Le Petit Prince in french. And loving it!
All in all, a good couple of weeks. I love getting comments on my posts - so don't be shy, post away!!

17 November 2010

Finding my way - linguistically - in France

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Erin picked my mum and me up from our Paris hotel to spend the day with her in Versailles. It was a splendid coincidence that we were talking about how to make ourselves understood by native french speakers, when we were stopped by a minor traffic accident in front of us.

After some thought and with horns blaring behind us, the drivers immediately in front of us carefully edged their way onto the footpath, behind a removal van and back onto the road ahead of the accident. At about this time, Erin was telling us a story about how she needed to make herself understood - so that she could work out whether to move her car out of the way of another vehicle. After several attempts to say "is my car in the way?" in French, she sidetracked and said instead "would you like me to move my car?"

The symbolism of this story combined with our manouevres to get round the traffic accident has stayed with me these last couple of weeks as I try to come to grips with speaking French for most of the day. I start out to ask for something, or tell a story as I would in English. And then I have to stop - and find my way around the "traffic accident" that is about to occur with my current skill level!

So lesson 1 in learning French: if you have some vocabulary and some grammar, just keep working with what you've got and find a way to express yourself. Don't be afraid to have a go.  This works really well in Montpellier, where the locals are very patient with students such as myself. They don't rush you (as the Parisians do) and they don't try and second guess you (as the Parisians are also wont to do!)

I'm in a different class this week - there are students from England, Spain, Italy and Switzerland (Suisse-Allemande), whereas last week, most of the students in my class were English-speaking. The teachers here like having a mixed class, because it promotes the use of French between students during breaks and socially. Mondays are tough - especially if you've spent the weekend with English-speaking companions - it takes an hour or so for the brain to reset into "I'm speaking french" mode again.

Another thing that occurs to me as I eavesdrop conversations on the tram or train these days (and yes I'm getting better at it!) - is that it doesn't really matter if I know the words or sentence construction or not, if I'm missing the context, the history or the culture, then I'm really not going to be able to understand what is said.

Alors - lesson number 2: don't just learn the language, get out and about and try and work out what makes people tick in the particular city or region. For example, on a tram yesterday, I sat opposite a man wearing a baseball cap with the words "Diable Rouges" on it. That would have meant nothing to me a couple of weeks ago, but yesterday, I was able to place this man as a rugby (league) fan. Diable Rouges is the name of Montpellier's league team!! Of course, you can read Wikipedia or a travel guide, but the most useful things are to read the local papers, watch local TV, or just talk to the locals (as best one can).

And for today's post, the final tip is to stop people trying to practise their English with you!! As Erin said - and I paraphrase - "For goodness sake, we're in France, we're supposed to practise our French, not their English!" So even if people try to help me out, I generally respond "J'essaie en francais, ca va?"

Oh - and if you want to learn to speak french in France - the school I'm at (Institute Linguistique Adenet) is good - and there are options in many other cities as well.  Check out the website of the International Association of Language Schools and search for courses by the language and country of interest.

12 November 2010

Discovering Montpellier

11 November 2010: Today was a "jour férié" - a public holiday - in France. In Australia, we get a minute's silence for Remembrance Day, in France it's an entire day! And when the public holiday is mid-week, lots of workers take an extra day - a practice known as "faire le pont" or literally to "make a bridge" to create a long weekend. I'm starting to think I could live here.

Because of the public holiday, I didn't have classes this morning, so I decided to extend my tour of discovery a bit further, especially as we had beautiful sunny weather as well.

Montpellier is a fascinating city, in one of the oldest region in France - the Languedoc-Roussillon region. If you're interested in the history and geography of the city, Wikipedia does a pretty good job of outlining the main points of interest.

What Wikipedia won't tell you directly is that the greater urban area of Montpellier is known as an agglomeration, so you have the transport system - TaM - which stands for Transports de l'agglomeration de Montpellier. For someone who loves great brand and design - Montpellier has really pulled it all together. And I love the notion of being part of an agglomeration, rather than just an urban sprawl. 

The tram system is great, with two lines currently in operation. The lines intersect in a wavy, wobbly "X" shape that crosses at 2 or 3 key points around the city. "La comedie" as it is known, is the heart and symbol of the city, but it definitely pays to move on and out from the main plaza to discover some other hidden gems.

Today, rather than get off at Gare St Roch as usual, I went on for a few more stations and got off at Le Corum where the main congress/exhibition centre is situated. From here you can stroll through a long allée (or park) that would be fabulously leafy in summer, with heaps of open air cafes, and take in a photographic exhibition (free) or the beautiful Musée Fabre, which was unfortunately closed today.

Montpellier has many famous people connected with it, but its modern hero - or perhaps anti-hero would be a better term - is a young man called Remi Gaillard. Remi is a bit of a prankster, with a wicked sense of humour that is often directed at authority figures. His website links to heaps of short video clips, many providing great travelogues of Montpellier. I found out about Remi from the sons of some new friends at dinner last night. Not the sort of thing you see in guidebooks, but maybe they should be there.

Montpellier is also known as a centre for study. On any day there's something like 70,000 students in Montpellier, many of whom, like me, are here to study for a short period of time. This ensures a lively cultural life in the city throughout the year, not just in the peak summer travel season. Good restaurants, clubs, bars and shops are dotted throughout the narrow stone alley-ways of the old city. Most areas in the old city are free of traffic, apart from delivery vehicles, taxis, trams and buses.

I'm still checking out the best places to eat, shop, get coffee and so on - at the moment I've got some worth going back to and others to avoid! Hard to know what will be good - everything looks wonderfully quaint because of the fabulous setting.

09 November 2010

La peniche Anjodi

We were lucky. The weather was better than expected. Especially as this was the last week in the canal cruising season in the south of France.

The Canal du Midi - the normal route for our barge ("la peniche") Anjodi - closed the week before our cruise, so we headed off in the opposite direction towards Provence.

Forget the superliners that cruise around the world. Cruising the canals and waterways in the south of France on a hotel barge offers so many opportunities to just simply sit and reflect, and move at a pace that is very much in harmony with the local culture.

Please indulge me while I quickly catalogue what was fabulous about this cruise: the location in the ancient region of Languedoc-Rousillon - and our cruise covered the most historic ports in France, through the "sauvage" Camargue, to the edge of Provence; the barge and her crew - of which more later; wonderful excursions to historic towns; and a mad bicycle ride into St Gilles.

I think we had the best crew one could imagine - four crew for five passengers - we couldn't have had better service or attention had we been in a five star hotel. Our captain Julian had the challenging task of rounding us all up in Montpellier and helping me to leave one of my bags at a local hotel to save space on board - and then drive us to our first port Marseillan, a charming, historic fishing village, just south-west of Montpellier. Here's the pier where we moored overnight, taken very early Monday morning.

Throughout the week, our chef Ken and supergirl Lauren kept us well-nourished, but more than that, made us feel like we were the only people in the world (and we really do know that we aren't!)

I've put an album of Ken's cuisine online - I can't do it justice in words, so will let the pictures talk for themselves!

Lauren was and is one of the world's quiet achievers, who managed to anticipate our every need, before we even knew we needed something. Not only were our beds made in ship-shape fashion each day, and turned down each night, she somehow managed to clean the boat from top to bottom one day while we were touring the countryside. And we suspect she also managed to keep the rest of the crew very much in line and organised from day to day.

And last, but by no means least, was Jules - our matelot, our tour guide, and fixer of all things that needed fixing (including, finalement, my SFR internet connection). It was Jules who had to run between the boat and the van, trying to find the three of us who went cycling in the countryside while the Anjodi sailed quietly to her overnight mooring near St Gilles. It would have helped if my phone hadn't been on silent, and that I missed two calls from Jules, while my mother was quietly wondering whether we would return in one piece or not.

Our new friends from the US, Gregory and Brenda, and I decided that after all the rich food, we really needed some exercise, and we imagined ourselves quietly cycling the quiet villages en route to our overnight mooring. Instead, after a km or so of quiet village roads, we ended up on the main road between Aigue-Mortes and St Gilles and on to Arles. We really did hit peak hour traffic, on a two-lane road that generally had no shoulder and had deep ditches very close to the edge of the road. After quietly panicking for the first little while, we found that the french drivers are very careful and respectful of cyclists - perhaps because they feared the french bureaucracy they would face if they killed a foreigner more than they cared for us I suspect!

The most amazing part of this trip was that Gregory managed to video the entire trip, with his camera strapped to the front of his bike - I have a copy that I can bore everyone to tears with when I get home.

To everyone on the Anjodi - vous êtes sans pareil. Bon jour, bon app et bon fromage!!

07 November 2010

A very sad day

A couple of days ago, I was looking forward to catching up on some of backlog of blogs. I've been quiet for almost a week because it's taken me that long to get my internet connection sorted and fully functional.

My barge cruise on the delightful Anjodi was everything I hoped it would be - peaceful (mostly), great food, beautiful countryside, and we made some wonderful new friends from the US who were the only other passengers on board. An artistic couple and his mother - intelligent, curious, generous and unfailingly kind people.

My birthday coincided with the last day of the cruise. I can't think of a more splendid way to spend a birthday than wandering through the streets of Arles and then back on board for yet another five star meal, followed by a bonfire and fireworks - complete with traditional Guy Fawkes on the fire! I understand the captain's girlfriend would have been delighted to see that suit burnt at last!

It was a foggy evening, followed by a foggy morning. The older woman was called Marjorie. Although Marjorie was unable to move around much, and did most of her sightseeing from a wheelchair, she was always gracious, dignified and determined to make the most of her holiday in France.

On Saturday morning when she woke, she was not well and struggling to breathe - but nevertheless we all made it into the minivan to head back to Montpellier. My mum was flying out from the airport for Australia at around lunchtime, so that was our first stop.

Just before we arrived at the airport, Marjorie went to sleep - we thought. As we pulled up at the airport, it became clear that she had stopped breathing and had no pulse - and despite prompt CPR and attention from the paramedics at the airport, did not make it. Sadly, she died there in the chaos and traffic, just outside Montpellier airport. 

Her son, Gregory, and his wife Brenda are naturally distraught and caught up in all of the tough decision-making that goes along with any death, but is exacerbated by being in a foreign country.  I will be their "family" here in Montpellier. If I know anything, it's that you need people around you when this sort of tragedy strikes. 

I won't go into any more detail, but I wanted to say, that even though I only knew Marjorie for a week, she was truly a great lady, with as much style and class as could be imagined under the circumstances.

Rest in peace, Marjorie. You will be sadly missed by your "nouvelles amies". Yeah, yeah, yeah.

05 November 2010

Village people

30 October 2010: After a fashionably late breakfast at Cafe Ladurée on the Avenue Champs Elysées (where else!) we were picked up my friend Erin, who bravely agreed to tackle the Paris traffic - with the help of TomTom - and take us to the village of Versailles for lunch and a natter.

Of course Versailles is best known for the fabulous Chateau de Versailles, home of French kings since 1682, when Louis XIV decamped from Paris, which he apparently loathed.

But we gave the palace a miss this time, heading instead to the village and its quaint cobbled market square, surrounded by the various market halls.

First, lunch in Au Chien Qui Fume (the dog who smokes)! The Coquilles St Jacques were fabulous, washed down with a glass of something rouge and french (apparently hard to find a bad wine in this country).

Then on to browse the market food halls.  All I can say is that the Belconnen and Fyshwick markets have got a way to go to catch up. Where else can you get your snails already pre-prepared with garlic butter to just pop quickly under the grill!!

And rather than pre-prepared chicken roasts, well here it's duck, cheval (yep, they eat horse meat!) veal, pork, turkey - and on to seafood, including such delicacies as sea urchins, and as many types of oyster as you can imagine.  Here's just a small selection of what was on offer!

So if it comes to a choice, I'm going to skip the palaces, and head for the villages while in France!

30 October 2010

Voyage sans frontières

29 October 2010: our longest travel day so far (apart from our initial air flight from Sydney to Dubai). Travelling through three countries - Innsbruck in Austria, change trains at Zurich, Switzerland, and depart in Paris, France.

And absolutely no border formalities once you are inside the EU. No holding transit pens in Zurich; time permitting, we could have gone wherever we wanted.

There are subtle signs that you've crossed the respective borders. The train announcements change from being the Austrian Railways to the Swiss Railways welcoming you and the language priority shifts from German being the first spoken language (Austria through to the French border) and then all of a sudden, French has priority.

And only needing one set of currency makes travel in Europe so much easier than it ever used to be. If all this sounds like a revelation, it isn't really. It's just my first experience of being in more than one country in continental Europe, where in the past, most of my Europe travel has been via the UK, or a single country (out and back).

The EU website has some very good background on the evolution of the dismantling of internal border controls - the so-called Schengen area - for anyone interested in where you can go without going through border formalities.

On the downside, you can only submit your taxfree shopping forms when you depart your last EU port, which is generally fine, but for me, my last EU location is going to be in a small town called Kiruna in the north of Sweden, before I catch a train to Norway (not yet part of the EU, surprisingly).

So that will truly be my test of travelling without borders - arrival in Vienna in mid-October, departure in Kiruna in late December.

28 October 2010

Snow in Salzburg

If we had to have snow on our European autumn travels, it really had to be in Salzburg, right?

Especially while on the Sound of Music tour, singing at the top of our lungs (trust me, this was a mandatory requirement in order to participate in this particular tour!) "raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, these are a few of my favourite things . ."

And every other song from the movie as well. It's hard to believe I first saw the movie when it was first released in Australia (from memory in 1965), and 45 years on, the movie - which is adapted from a musical, which was adapted from a stage show, which was adapted from a  . . . well you get the general drift - is still making money in ways that Hollywood couldn't possibly have imagined.

And the cuisine in Salzburg also lends itself to snowy, wintry weather - the delightful, citrusy punsch (preferably with rum), Salzburger nockerl (a light as air souffle-style dessert), together with other standard Austrian fare are far better savoured when the weather turns chilly!

But more surprises were in store for us. Because of the snow, we really didn't feel like going far for dinner, so when I spotted a place across the road from our cute as cute hotel - called Carpe Diem - well it just seemed sort of appropriate. I was even prepared for it to be "finest finger food" as announced. Even better, a first class restaurant upstairs from the somewhat smoky tapas-style bar on the ground floor. Perhaps we were dining early, perhaps it was because this is a new venture, but we were treated, almost literally, to the most amazing dinner. We ordered one main course each, and then provided with a "from the kitchen" tasting plate.

My venison and mum's veal were probably the best and most tender that either of us had ever had. Bravely, we pushed on with dessert. Mozartkugel and pomegranate for me, sherbet for Mum.

And despite our location in the quaintly antique old town, some beautiful modern interior design to set off the wonderful meal.

As our tour guide said, "the first snow of the season is the most beautiful". Despite the freezing cold, I can't think of a better introduction to this most beautiful of cities.

Lots more photos in my Picasa album.

25 October 2010

Playing Vienna

22 October 2010: Day three in Vienna. It's everything you read about in the guidebooks - fantastic gothic and baroque architecture, wiener schnitzel, chocolate, Mozart and music.

But I haven't immediately warmed and connected to Vienna as I have to other cities and places I've visited. And I think I've worked out why. Vienna is a huge concert stage. Everyone is playing a role and I've had to learn my part!

It was the Vienna Boys' Choir that did it for me. Seeing and hearing these fantastic young voices in the gloriously historic Musikverein reminded me that my role in Vienna is as a cultural tourist, and I should just simply play that part. Determinedly.

It should have been obvious from the dozens of beautiful young men dressed in period costume who hawk concert tickets outside the main tourist attractions. Mum and I spent a good 10 minutes or more talking to a lovely young man outside Stephansdom.

A real smooth operator, who was ready to give Mum her ticket for free and accompany her personally from our hotel to the show! I think the catch is I would have probably had to pay twice!

The next clue should have been the Vienna State Opera, where I saw Richard Strauss's Salome. If this isn't the most dramatic, eat-your-heart out stage performance, hard to know what would be! (Think dance of the seven veils and the head of John the Baptist on a platter!)

I just had to stop and look around. The traditional coffee houses with serving women (usually) in period or authentic costume, the horses and carriages (fiakers) - and I'm pretty sure most of the people we bumped into in the main city centre were "players" in the grand piece of theatre that is Vienna.

Having made this connection, I really began to enjoy Vienna.

21 October 2010

The Louisiana Manifesto

Something that struck me as very powerful - and found at the Saadiyat Island exhibition in Abu Dhabi (see below) - from architect Jean Nouvel. 

We think with our senses, we feel with our thoughts.

Contradictions generate sparks.

Sensations generate emotions

Emotions generate love, love the desire to live, to share, to give, to extend our life into others.

And just when you were out of "wow" . . .

Our visit to Dubai rates a mention of two more highlights: the Dubai Mall, right next door to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (originally called Burj Dubai, but re-named Burj Khalifa during the opening ceremony on 4 January 2010 in recognition of the Abu Dhabi leader who bailed Dubai out of its debt crisis). Check out my story for Zoe and Alana for a few of the highlights of this spectacular building. 

Dubai Mall doesn't just have a great chocolate or candy shop - it has acres of them (I did also spot a sign for Cafe Laduree, a fine french institution, but will save that visit for the real thing in a week or so).

Five star candy fashion

As well as the dancing fountains and aquarium, the mall also boasts a rather incredible waterfall, that really demands Ennio Morricone's hauntingly beautiful music from The Mission by way of background. Unfortunately, I don't think my blog is that sophisticated, but do feel free to hum to yourself!

The final wow and our last in Dubai before going "home" to our hotel to pack was the incomparable Pierchic restaurant, part of the Madinat Jumeirah complex.

Phil, Dawne, George,
Dave and Mum at Pierchic.
To friends near and far.

From excess to success

19 October 2010: 0800 and our driver has arrived for a day trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the UAE, and probably the wealthiest city in the world. Also the setting for Sex and the City 2. However, emirati authorities did not allow filming to take place in the UAE, so the film's espoused setting of Abu Dhabi actually took place in Morocco.

But in all other senses, Abu Dhabi represents success, rather than the excess of Dubai. There are tall buildings, but only enough for reasonable business purposes. There are large and splendid hotels, such as the Emirates Palace Hotel. While this hotel doesn't have the same "feel" as the rather more extravagant establishments in Dubai, it does exist for very practical business purposes, such as large business conferences. And lunch there was quite exceptional.

The standout attraction in Abu Dhabi is the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, named after Sheikh Zayed bin SultanAl Nahyan, the founder and first president of the UAE, who is also buried there.

After driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, a trip of around 130 km from our hotel, we picked up my friend Dawne from her slightly more "humble" Hilton hotel and headed out to the mosque. Men can go as they are on the tour, women must be in abayas to go in - these are provided free of charge, so no problems there.

Immediately I regret having left my sunnies somewhere back in my hotel room. The building is vast, mostly white, there's lots of marble, and the sun shines most of every day in the UAE.

But once inside and out of the glare, this is truly an inspirational and stunningly beautiful building.

It's hard to keep the facts straight, but the sheer volume of materials used in the building - which is something like five football fields in size, and can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers - was truly staggering.

The carpet in the main prayer hall was constructed in one piece. No joins. One can only imagine the logistics of not only manufacturing the carpet (in Iran) and then transporting and laying it successfully. Apparently the carpet weighed around 45 tonnes when manufactured, but after being trimmed around the edges to fit into the mosque, it was a much "leaner" 37 tonnes, or thereabouts.

More photos of the mosque in my Picasa album.

Abu Dhabi has great development plans for the future, including museums backed by Guggenheim and the Louvre located on a newly reclaimed Saadiyat Island - the island of happiness. We visited an exhibition displaying models of the new buildings and their waterfront locations. Imagine taking your boat out for a spin, and pulling into the forecourt of the Louvre-backed museum. Or a maritime museum built over, under and around the water. Or a performing arts centre that looks something like a sting-ray (or some primitive amoeba life-form). And two ten-lane causeways, joining the island with the mainland. I'm beginning to understand something about the power of imagination (and of course, the importance of money to turn dreams into reality!)

So maybe, just maybe, Abu Dhabi is a little jealous of the limelight achieved by it's brasher neighbour. And when it spends its billions on showpiece architecture and planning - it will do it brilliantly. Put this city on your "must visit" list in the next 5-10 years.

A year is a long time . . .

18 October: it's a year to the day since Milty passed away in Dubai. So coming back here is always going to be with mixed emotions.

In the midst of the hussle bussle of Dubai, there are spaces that are peaceful and tranquil. Green Community, where John was staying last year, is one of those places. It is off the usual tourist path, so of course our driver decided the only word that mattered was "green" and that in turn meant "golf course", so he drove us to the community that was built around a golf course!

Lovely, but not the Green Community we were after. After a couple of false starts and energetic phone conversations (all while driving, naturally), we found the right place.

Back into the Dubai traffic and our driver then managed to stay pretty much to our planned itinerary, ending up at the Souq Madinat for lunch and a spot of shopping. Of course this is not the "real" souq, but in Dubai, who's to say what's real and what's a mirage in any case?

For anyone who loves home decorating, this is certainly the place to find exactly the piece of furniture or objet to complete your desired "look". I don't think I can fit anything more into my suitcases however, so must leave that to another time, sadly.

Trader Vics, where we had lunch, is a pretty typical Friday brunch place in the middle east, one that John and I often used to frequent when in Bahrain. And the lamb chops they served were just perfect!!

"Here's to us, the nicest people we know."

Vale Milty, rest in peace.