Sunday 30 November 2014

Back in Budapest

The last time I was in Budapest, I arrived by train and left by coach; this time, I've come by plane and will leave on a boat, which is kind of satisfying. There were a lot of snowy mountains (including Ararat, above) on the 6-hour flight from Dubai but here it's just damp and grey and gloomy. And cold, one degree C, which is chillier than my fridge back home. It's not the sort of weather that does any city any favours, and I'm glad to have seen Budapest in summertime, as a balance to its rather forbidding face right now.

My home for the next four nights will be Uniworld's River Beatrice, which is a fairly new river cruiser catering for 130 passengers, most of them it seems American Baby Boomers. My cabin is neat, plush, comfortable and a touch on the cramped side, but since there's only me in it, and I expect to be out most of the time, it hardly matters. There are much bigger suites just along the corridor, I couldn't help but notice...
Arriving at midday jet-lagged after an early start, though, I didn't do a great deal beyond settling in and getting my bearings. We're moored near the green Liberty Bridge, across the river from the Gellert thermal baths and the castle on the hilltop of Buda. Here on the Pest side, the yellow trams trundle past, there are other river cruisers, sight-seeing boats and floating restaurants and bars lining the bank and, despite the weather, quite a lot of other tourists shuffling along, hands in pockets.

I was one of them, regretting leaving my scarf on the boat, tripping over the cobbles as I followed the bank towards the Houses of Parliament. My goal was a memorial I'd read about only after my last visit: Shoes on the bank of the Danube. It's an installation of 60 cast-iron pairs of assorted 1940s shoes, a memorial to all the Jews lined up beside the river in 1944-45, and shot by the Arrow Cross - a Hungarian fascist group with Nazi-style beliefs. Their victims had to remove their shoes first, because they were a commodity during the war, but the people of course were expendable, and the Danube was a handy way of disposing of the bodies.

It's a grim bit of history, and the worn, battered shoes - men's, women's, children's - speak volumes, arranged untidily along a section of the bank. Flowers and flickering candles gave the rusty brown shoes some colour, but it was a literally chilling sight that was perfectly suited by the greyness of the day.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Oh! Natural.

The last time I was in Dubai, I stood on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and marvelled at both man and nature: at the extraordinary collection of buildings at the foot of the Burj, the tower itself, and the artificial islands built along the coast; and also at the flat, brown expanse of the desert that not only reaches to the horizon, and beyond, but is still in evidence within the city, in areas not yet claimed.

People here in transit, like me, generally head for the malls with their thousands of shops and novelties like ice rink, aquarium, snow slope, to make the most of the man-made attractions. Some also go on a desert safari with Arabian Adventures and other companies, as I have a couple of times, getting closer to nature though most of it is through a car window - or, you can do what I did.

It was still a tourist activity, but I really enjoyed my camel and horse rides today at Al Sahra Desert Resort, and felt my experience was more authentic than anything else I’ve tried so far. I certainly got dirtier.
First I went for the camel ride aboard Jumeelah, an obliging dromedary camel who, unlike her colleague, didn’t complain at all when she was saddled. They can live to 50, did you know? And are smarter than horses, apparently. Strung in a line, the six of us riding four camels had a wonderfully relaxing, surprisingly comfortable and gloriously peaceful hour swaying through the sand dunes as the wind reshaped the ripples and obscured the city skyscrapers on the horizon. No-one wanted to get off at the end, but we were offered a shot of camel milk as an inducement. It was interesting – rich and slightly salty. (The Americans, natch, turned it down.)
Then I went for a horse ride on another Jumeelah – not an Arab, as I’d hoped, but an untaxing chestnut quarter-horse. The guide was riding one, though, the glamorous Roxy, all high head and tail and fine features, so I was able to admire her as we walked and trotted through the dunes. With novices along, it was a fairly subdued ride (if you discount the moment of drama when a couple of gazelles sprang out from behind a bush and bounded away, taking us all by surprise). At the end, though, we were allowed to go ahead and Jumelia, so close to home, indulged in a bit of bucking and galloping that was briefly exciting.

What with that and the sunset, it was just lovely, and such a treat to escape concrete and air-conditioning for a while.

So of course, on the way back, I stopped to investigate an outlet mall, and was fascinated to discover Comicave, stuffed with comics and all-sized models including Darth Vader, Wolverine, a Dark Rider next to the Godfather, and a 2.8 metre Incredible Hulk. Yours for just the $13,000, since you ask.

The same, but different

Wafted here overnight on the A380's spacious upper deck, the 14 hours from Melbourne were no bother at all; though, plus the 3 hours from Auckland, the 9 hour time difference and the fact that we arrived in Dubai at around 5.30am, it still means that it's going to be a very, very long day. Never mind. The Pullman Hotel is very comfortable and accommodating, and it's also right next to the Deira City Centre Mall - adjoining, in fact, so there's not even any need to go out into what is already 27 degrees on a sunny, cloudless day.

There are very few local people who live in Dubai. They're hugely outnumbered by the ex-pats who work here and that fact, plus that the city is the hub of Emirates' huge network, means that it's a really cosmopolitan place, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the malls. This one has M&S, Debenhams, TGIF Friday, Zara, Starbucks, Carrefour, even Tim Horton's, amongst many many more. It's modern and bright and shiny, and full of all sorts of people in all sorts of dress - even the black head-to-toe robes are quite varied if you look closely and, underneath them, pretty much anything goes.
I always enjoy a good mooch around a foreign supermarket, noting the cultural differences, and the Carrefour had a big Christmas display right alongside the women's clothing with scanty tops and sexy underwear as well as cover-alls. There was also a big carpet/rug department, a section with maids'  uniforms, and a jewellery counter with lots of real gold bling. The fresh food was beautifully displayed, with heaped spices, lots and lots of nuts and dates, and very neat fruit and veg, all labelled with the country of origin. Australia is doing pretty well in this respect - for New Zealand, just the Jazz apples, which was disappointing. Could do better. I usually check out the wines in this respect, too, but obviously not here.

It was interesting too to note the courtesy policy outlined in the mall directory brochure - just in case you get carried away browsing the racks in Victoria's Secret and forget where you are.

Thursday 27 November 2014

High and low

Yes, yes, it's the essence of a First World Problem - but that doesn't change the fact that it's very hard to pack for a trip where the destinations are currently registering 30 degrees Celsius, and a scant 3. That's Dubai, and Budapest - Auckland, FYI, is right now a balmy 19 degrees, which feels just right, so that's no help. Really, as far as this sort of thing goes, the best time, packing-wise, to travel to the opposite hemisphere is either spring or autumn, when you're already wearing the clothes you want to take. (That's not allowing for that broad band around the middle of the planet, mind, where things just get silly.) Otherwise, you have to use imagination, which is not my forte.

So, tomorrow I'm heading for Dubai in the sybaritic luxury of Business class on Emirates' A380 (for free, which will maybe mitigate somewhat the pain of having recently had to PAY for flights with them to Turkey next year, an eye-watering sum that was undercut three days later by $600 on a special offer from Singapore Airlines. Still hurting). On my last couple of trips to the UAE I had to go on a desert safari which included dune-busting in a 4WD, the last time leaving all us passengers sick as dogs from all the lurching and cornering, and totally unable to enjoy our "Arab-style buffet feast" - which, as it turned out, was no tragedy. So I've got out of it this time round and instead have paid (sigh) to do something much pleasanter and more peaceful: a ride over the dunes on an Arab horse, and then a sunset trek on a camel which will last 45 minutes and be much more fun than the scant three minutes you get as part of Arabian Adventures' desert safari.
Then it's on to Budapest, which I visited a couple of years ago on an Insight coach tour - beautiful city, no penance to return there. This time though I will be leaving along the river, on Uniworld's River Beatrice which will be my home for four nights as I sample the first part of their Danube cruise. I'm so happy to be returning to river cruising - quite my favourite mode of travel - though it is going to be cruel, making me leave after Vienna when everyone else will be continuing on to Passau in Germany. So I shall just have to make the most of my lovely cabin, the friendly staff, the great food, and all that continuous, 360-degree scenery. And you know what's going to make it even better? Christmas markets! I can taste the Glühwein already...

Sunday 16 November 2014


"More addictive than heroin - and more expensive, too" - that's what Peter the chopper pilot's first flying teacher told him about what he was launching himself into, and nothing about what he's experienced since has led him to disagree. Me neither. I was making my 6th flight today, 20 minutes that felt like 10 on a circuit over Auckland. That's how time works, in helicopters, in my experience: I did 90 minutes buzzing over the South African veldt looking for rhinos last year that I would have sworn was half an hour, tops.

I've hopped across Lake Wakatipu, I've done a sunset flight in Australia's Red Centre, a loop around Mt Taranaki, a swoop above Iguassu Falls in Argentina/Brazil, a dusk flit around Long Island and now this birthday buzz over Auckland. And apart from being trapped in the centre in the back on the Iguassu flight and able to catch only glimpses of the falls between the professional snapper's big camera on one side, and another writer's (spit) iPad on the other, they've all been brilliant ways to see the scenery.
Iguassu, in those snatched images, was truly spectacular; South Africa was amazing because for the guys in front this was their daily job and they were so matter-of-fact about the whole deal (also, you can never beat seeing a rhino in the wild however you come at them); Kings Canyon is a piece of work from any angle; so is Manhattan; and this country's not too shabby either, scenery-wise, and I wouldn't like to have to rank Mt Taranaki against the Remarkables - but despite all that, there's something very special about seeing your familiar surroundings from 300 metres up, everything recognisable but at the same time so strange. It all fits together so neatly - who knew?!

The whole experience was soured, however, by Peter's saying at the end that in a couple of days he's piloting a couple of Germans with tons more money than time on a 3-day chopper trip that will include a Tauranga winery, Huka Lodge, Rotorua, White Island, another fancy lodge somewhere further south, and Abel Tasman NP. Spit. I was just writing about that White Island helicopter trip this week for an inflight magazine, and I had to do it third-hand because, for once, I hadn't done it myself. Double spit.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Whingeing Poms

I don't know. You wake up to a view like this, the clear sky lasts all day, it's warm enough for a tshirt and sandals finally, and it's a Saturday with nothing to do but enjoy the delights of Waiheke Island. What could there possibly be to complain about? From my point of view, nothing at all: it was a day spent visiting gardens, marvelling at what other people can do with sites as steep as ours, at hard work and clever ideas, at stunning views, and nosing through the windows of cottages and multi-million dollar mansions alike. Plus a creamy mushroom crepe from Ostend Market. Excellent.
With half an hour to spare before the ferry left, we called in at Malone's Irish pub, simply because it was handy, and there in the garden were two English tourists, men around 70, sitting in the sun in their shirtsleeves on a padded bench with a couple of beers in front of them. Were they happy? No.

With only five (five!) days in New Zealand, they'd decided to spend one of them on Waiheke. Good move. But what was their sole mission? To go to the Irish pub and then have a pizza. True. No tour of the island, no lunch at a vineyard, no walk on a beach, not even a stroll around the little town of Oneroa. No, all they wanted was a proper Irish pub and a pizza. And even that modest desire hadn't been met as they'd wanted because, not knowing where to get off, they'd ended up at Onetangi, and had had to wait there until the bus came back again, because it was the driver's lunch break. "That would never happen in England," one said indignantly. "Two hours we were stuck there!"

This is Onetangi:
They did admit, the bus stop was at a beachside bar with a sunny veranda. Sigh. But it gets worse: their next complaint was about the cost of domestic airfares in NZ because they were flying from Auckland to Queenstown: "I could fly to Tenerife for less!" And how long are they spending in Queenstown? One night. ONE. NIGHT.

This is Queenstown:
But, you know, it's all right, because they're also spending five days in Cairns, and four in Darwin! Not that there's anything wrong with either of those places, I've written enthusiastically about them both and won't complain if I'm sent there again - but really, who advised them to divvy up their time like that? It's such a wasted opportunity. Though, as they were also spirited on the topic of the impossibility of finding a decent pub outside England, I think as travellers they're lost causes anyway. Pft.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Be sure your [their] sins will find you out

Please don't think that I'm a daytime TV person. Truly, it was only on because the cable guy was here - and that's how I happened to catch a bit of a programme on the Travel channel about Frank Lloyd Wright and his house Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin. I visited the house in April, taken there by the local tourism people on a busy day that also included the extraordinary House on the Rock, Madison, Middleton and Lake Monona.

The house is elegant, bright, airy, long and low and vaguely oriental in feel. It's an example of Prairie School architecture, built of stone and glass and fitting in with the contours of its site. It's also slightly miniature. FLW, we were told, considered his height (5"8") ideal, and anyone over six feet to be a "waste of materials" and so he designed his rooms and - crucially - the height of his doorways to that scale. Anyone taller going round the house has to be prepared to do a bit of ducking. Even at the end of winter with the landscape outside still brown grass and bare trees, the house felt cosy and colourful, and it's full of interesting and beautiful detail that was pointed out to us by the docent showing us around.
Curiously, though, she didn't breathe a word about the subject of the TV documentary - that in 1914 a manservant had gone mad, set the house on fire and hacked to death Wright's mistress, the oddly-named Mamah Borthwick, before retreating to the basement and swigging hydrochloric acid, from which he later died. The house caught fire again some years later, and was rebuilt a third time. There may have been mention of the fires, but I'm sure I would have remembered about Mamah, especially since the affair was a huge scandal at the time.

I'm suspecting that our docent thought the whole business was too tawdry to mention, compared with the professional achievements of FLW and his intellectual and artistic contributions to world architecture. She rose above it, in the same way that Chicago tourism glosses over that whole tiresome Al Capone business, preferring to concentrate on the city's more positive aspects. Daft. Do they really think that if they don't refer to these things, it's as though they never happened?

Monday 3 November 2014

Falling for Chicago

I've been trying not to do a Janet Frame again this afternoon. Nik Wallenda has been tightrope walking across the Chicago River and between the two corn-cob towers of the Marina Center, uphill and then blindfolded, and honestly, I really only tuned in so that I could see those familiar buildings again, and not because I wanted any drama.

The buildings themselves are dramatic enough. So are New York's, but I like Chicago's better because there are fewer of them, and whereas the iconic NYC buildings that I recognise seem comparatively few amongst all the rest of that forest of glass and stone towers, in Chicago I feel that I have more of a handle on them, and can use them as signposts to find my way around. It gives me a connection with the city that I don't have in New York, exciting and spectacular as it is.
Doing the chopper ride over Long Island during our brief visit there recently really brought it home to me how densely built-up it is: all concrete canyons, the cliché as true as any other. It's pretty intimidating. But Chicago? It's user-friendly, approachable, its skyscrapers interspersed with people-sized buildings. Even Lincoln Park is more appealing to me than Central Park: smaller, more accessible, safer-seeming, but still with surprises to discover and room to relax in. It's just a shame its rhinos are so snooty.

Saturday 1 November 2014

A post about rugby. But really about Chicago.

I have an uneasy and somewhat resentful relationship with rugby - the result of too many cold and boring Saturdays spent feeling obliged to watch my teenage boyfriend play when I would rather have been messing about with horses all day with my friend Suzanne (I did, eventually, come to my senses), too many after-match functions spent being ignored, too many evenings focused on rugby mates (not mine) one of whom once asked me the question "Pinkies or brownies?" to which I, years later, thought of answering with "One of each" and have been kicking myself ever since. Also, so much coverage in the news, usually so boring... but right now the All Blacks are in Chicago, preparing to play the  USA Eagles tomorrow.
Chicago! Currently my FAVOURITE city, still vivid in my memory - I was there, for the second time this year, just over a week ago , and it's full of good stuff. Because of that, I'm - unprecedentedly - watching the sports news on TV and reading the sports section of the newspaper, just so I can catch glimpses of Trump Tower, or read references to Soldier Field, and remember being there SO RECENTLY. This is a first, people!
I won't, of course, watch the game tomorrow. No point. It'll be a massacre. That's actually what it passed through my mind to blurt out to the businessman innocuously standing inside the bus shelter on Michigan Ave on my last morning in the city as I whisked past, eyeing up the button on its wall. I was THIS CLOSE to nipping inside, pressing it to trigger the recorded haka, and then delivering my prediction: "It's going to be a massacre!"
But then I remembered who I am, and guessed who he was [innocuous salaryman, focused on, probably, some computery or personal problem and very far from realising he was standing next to a mid-haka photo of Richie McCaw and Dan - um, not Parker... Carter! (thanks, Google)] and the moment passed with no connection. That's ok by me. It's only rugby, after all.


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