Tuesday, October 31

Sintra


I really needed to escape. After four days inside a Lisbon hotel I needed some open space and fresh, unfiltered air. By chance, I found the perfect antedote to conference room hell - the town of Sintra. 40 minutes by train from downtown, it's home to some of the most memorable Portuguese Romantic architecture you'll never see. I'm inclined to call it Disneyland Among the Cork Trees.

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After discovering images of Sintra on the net, I arrived shortly before lunch with high expectations. I wasn't disappointed, eventually spending four wonderful hours exploring the town's ruined Moorish Castle, its cork forests and the meandering side-streets filled with quirky buildings.

The town has an endless array of unusual, sometimes colourful, buildings built in the 1880s. Many sit atop hills, commanding stunning views of the Atlantic coast and the hills surrounding the fringes of a distant Lisbon.

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My first stop was Palácio Nacional de Pena, a drawbridged palace that's simply is a glorious conglomeration of turrets and domes awash in red and yellow pastels. The final kings of Portugal lived in the Pena Palace, the last of whom -- Dom Manuel II -- went into exile in England in 1910 after a republican revolt. The pseudo-medieval structure, with its ramparts, towers, and great halls, has a rich, sometimes vulgar, and often bizarre collection of Victorian and Edwardian furniture, ornaments, and paintings.


To reach this hilltop castle I caught a sardine-packed local bus that wound its way through narrow, walled lined laneways before filling reaching the palace entrance. I had hoped to explore the building and its grounds, but the lengthy queue at its gate detered me. With so little time to spend in Sintra, I wanted to remember anything other than a queue.


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As a result, I walked a few hundred metres back down the hill to Castelo dos Mouros. This ruined of the 9th-century Moorish Castle still stand today, but the extent of these gives a fine impression of the solid fortress that finally fell from Moorish hands when it was conquered by Dom Afonso Henriques in 1147.

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It's visible from various points in Sintra itself. Panoramic views from the castle's serrated walls help explain why Moorish architects chose the site. The battelments also afforded postcard views back towards Pena Palace. After an hour of clambering over stone ruins I wandered back down the hillside to the town itself. This walk, off the beaten track, was truly magic.


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Easily mistaken for a glaringly misplaced energy plant of some sort, the conical twin white chimneys of the Palácio Nacional de Sintra (Sintra Palace) are the town's most recognizable landmarks. Under those chimneys, meat turned on spits for the feasts of João I.

There has probably been a palace here since Moorish times, although the current structure, also known as the Paço Real, dates from the late 14th century. The property was the summer residence of the House of Avis, Portugal's royal line, and it displays a fetching combination of Moorish, Gothic, and Manueline architectural styles.


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Perhaps the most unexpected highlight was a small fountain, surrounded by bright blue walls. The Sabuga Fountain, where the water spouts from two breasts, is still used by the local to collect water each day in large plastic jugs and bottles. Rumour is that the water has medicinal properties. I tried some but can't claim any miracle cure.

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Lisbon and loving it

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Portuguese sailors discovered an eastern route to India via the Cape of Good Hope during a period that became known as the Age of Discoveries (1415-1499). Portugal, then a nation of less than two million people, eventually held sway over a staggering collection of colonies in Brazil, Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

Enduring symbols of the wealth that subsequently flooded the nation are visible today, as is the eventual decay that followed. This juxtaposition is my most poignant memory of Lisbon, having just returned from five days work. This was my first trip to Portugal. I think I'm up to 47 countries now, excluding those nations I've only visited for minutes.

Most of the time we were holed up in our hotel, but did get to explore the city on a few occasions. The first was a walking tour of the city one evening. We explored some of Lisbon's oldest areas. Much of what we saw was built after devastating earthquakes in 1531 and 1755.


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The heart of the city is the Baxia or city centre. The Baixa is organised in a grid system and a network of squares built after 1755. The Castle of Sao Jorge and the Lisbon Cathedral are located on one of surrounding hills. Both venues were flood lit making for a stunning city back drop.

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Perhaps the most interesting sight is Elevador de Santa Justa, is a lift that connects downtown streets with Carmo Square, located uphill. It's nicknamed the Eiffel tower as its iron construction is reminiscent of the Parisian tower. Many people wrongly think that it was built by Gustave Eiffel. It's designer does pay tribute to the influence of Gustave having been born of French parents.

The tower is 45 meters high and has two elevator booths, with wooden interiors. The highest level is reached by spiralling cast iron staircases. These lead to a terrace with a wonderful view of Lisbon. Our group stopped to sample a local beer, effectively taking over this scenic spot for half an hour. We also stopped to sample the famous "moscatel" wine from nearby Setúbal. It's similar to a sweet sherry.

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After our walking tour we stopped for dinner at a local Fado restaurant. Fado (translated as destiny or fate) is a music tradition that dates back to the early 1800s. As the translation suggests, Fado is ideal mood music for slashing your wrists. It conveys a complex mixture of nostalgia, tinged with sadness, pain, happiness and tragic love. Our restaurant kindly switched to dim red lighting as each singer ventured on to the stage, making us quietly chuckle every time.

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Our final night in Lisbon was also spent in town, dining outdoors at a small cafe. We sat on a cobblestone street with views down a narrow lane and across the city towards its floodlit castle. All in all a most memorable meal.

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I finally got to spend several hours wandering the city in daylight on Sunday afternoon before heading off to the airport. I wandered down to the harbour's edge where the Praça do Comércio is located. This magnificent plaza marks the beginning of Lisboa's downtown, framing the city with a grand arch.


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From here I walked the cobbled streets, dodging old, classic trams eventually reaching the city's twin towered cathedral. I then climbed the hill to the Castle of Sao Jorge. The view was stunning. Lisbon is a sea of red tiled roofs and white-walled buildings.

I then wandered back to the metro station via the steep lanes and stairways of the old neighborhood of Alfama. Here the building are decorated by fading, chipped ceramic tiles in a variety of colours and designs. Without a doubt, Lisbon has plenty of character!

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Read on to learn more about my day in the neighbouring village of Sintra.

Sunday, October 22

Living history

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Borough Market celebrated its 250th anniversary today. As a result this London institution was busier than usual when Garry and I dropped by this afternoon. People were everywhere including dozens of actors in period costume from the 18th Century.

You'll recall that we last visited the markets in early Summer. At the time we were fascinated by the assortment of unusual market produce. Today's visit was no different. Highlights this time included a wall of freshly killed pheasants and fresh pig's heads presented in all manner of displays.


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During our last visit Garry and I noticed a popular seafood restaurant, fish!. We made plans to visit, but never did. This time we decided to escape the thronging crowd and grab a late lunch. I had the Halibut, Garry, the Sea Bream. The fish was fresh and well prepared. Sadly, the service was as close to appalling as one can get without having any service at all. The comedy of errors continued unabated throughout our meal.

Tables next to our were served before us despite being seated much later. Drinks were ordered but never appeared. Empty tables were cleared and relaid around us while our first course dishes sat forlornly for 20 minutes. In final insult, a 12.5% service charge was automatically added to our bill, along with charges for the drinks that never appeared. All this for £60, excluding any tip.

I boldly decided to confront the restaurant manager. I was absolutely stunned when he looked me in the eye, apologised and immediately ordered that our meal be refunded in full. This single act transformed an appalling experience in one that's made me willing to give fish! another try. If only other restaurant managers were as savvy as this one!

The markets were beginning to wind down as we left the restaurant. 250 years of history was finishing as if it were any other day. However, this wasn't to be our last piece of history for the day. We wandered across London Bridge to Monument. For more than 15 years I've been promising myself I'd climb this 17th Century memorial.


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311 spiral steps later and my ambition was finally realised. The view across the Thames towards London Tower Bridge was wonderful, as were the views of the Gherkin and Lloyds in the City. At 202 feet (62 metres) this is the tallest free standing Doric column in the world.


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The column is topped by a drum and copper urn from which gilded flames emerge, symbolising the Great Fire that it immortalises. While Monument dominated the city at the time of its completion, today you can see that it pales almost into insignificance when surrounded by so many taller, modern buildings.


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As another rain shower began to threaten us, we made our way back down the column's stone stairway and off to the tube station for a train home. It's days like this that make London such a remarkable place. In a single afternoon we'd experienced more three centuries of living history.


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Saturday, October 21

The amazing disappearing man

You'll recall that Garry and I started the CSIRO Wellbeing Diet in August. I'm aiming to eventually lose 10kgs (22lbs). I'm pleased to announce that I reached my first weight milestone today (15lb loss), two months into the program. I've lost 5cm from my waist and 6.8kg in weight. Garry has also lost a lot of weight. I'm not permitted to say how much in a public forum like this, but I can say that he's looking better for it.

The improvement is starting to take its toll. I have two suits that I'm now simply swimming in. Both were brought in January. Many of my shirts are also looking like fabric tents rather than fashionable outfits. At this rate I'll need a new wardrobe for Christmas. Thank goodness the sales will start soon after!

Remembering Stuart McGregor

Some sad news this morning. Dad's brother, my Uncle Stuart, passed away shortly after 9pm NZST today. He was 76. Stuart has been in poor health for many years so his death is not unexpected. However, the news was still a shock. Stuart is the first member of my parent's generation to die. It's difficult to fathom that this generation is finally approaching full term.

My uncle was fond of horse racing. As a young teenager I recall staying at his house in Mount Manganui, New Zealand, for weekends. He'd hand me the racing form sheet and offer to cover a bet for me. We'd later listen intently to a feverish race call broadcast on the radio. I never won despite reviewing and comparing the form of each horse with great care. I wonder what memories people will have of me?

I heard today's news from my cousin Hilary. She called to get my parent's phone number as Mum had left a message on my Auntie Shirley's answering machine with an incorrect number. After talking with Hilary I called Hamish and Karin who were traveling in Slovenia, celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. It was lovely to have family so near when the news broke. Moments like this remind me how far away from home we really are.

Thursday, October 19

Big Brother really is watching

Photo by: Tadeusz Szewczyk

The London Underground has a total of 275 stations on its network. Each is monitored by a series of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras. I noticed today that one station I pass through regularly has a camera labeled "Camera 34". A quick calculation stunned me. Assuming that the typical number of cameras in a typical station is 34 then there must be more than 9300 cameras in use on the Tube.

As staggering as this number sounds, it's merely a drop in the ocean in terms of the UK's CCTV surveillance. At last count the UK had more than 4,285,000 CCTV cameras installed. The Independent newspaper says that this represents about 20% of the world's total CCTV population.

This year the UK became the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A network of cameras across the nation now automatically reads every passing number plate. The London Congestion Charging Zone alone has at least 700 CCTV cameras. This road pricing scheme covers a 21 sq/km area in central London. Each lane of traffic either entering or leaving the zone is captured and recorded by cameras linked to a number plate recognition system.

In short, every person in London is monitored by dozens of CCTV cameras any time they leave home. The average Londoner can expect to be caught on camera 300 times every day or an average of every 12 minutes, compared with every 30 minutes in Manchester and Edinburgh.

London's original camera network was installed in response to the IRA's bombing campaign in the 1980s. The presence of the cameras and their ability secure criminal convictions dramatically reduced the terror threat. The UK Government subsequently left the cameras in place after research suggested that crime in general declined in areas under surveillance.

It surprising how many cameras you can spot in London once you start to look for them. It's also a little unnerving to think that your every movement is monitored, no matter how innocent your intentions. Perhaps more alarming is the total ambivalence that people have here when it comes to being watched day and night. It certainly makes me uncomfortable. It's as if some of life's innocence has been stolen without permission. Big Brother really is watching.

Wednesday, October 18

More highlights from Brazil

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Yesterday I wrote about the city of Curitiba in Brazil. Today I thought I'd write a little about a couple of unique experiences we had at Iguazu Falls. While everyone's familar with the falls, few appreciate that the surrounding border area is also home to the world's largest hydroelectric dam. We visited the dam, as well as briefly visiting another South American nation, albeit for only ten minutes.

Click here to learn more about our border experiences in Brazil.

Tuesday, October 17

Teaching Canberra a thing or two


While traveling in Brazil last year we visited one of the most amazing urban centres I've ever seen. The city of Curitiba is not your typical tourist destination as it has little that the average tourist would venture out for. However, as an example of successful, human-scale urban planning it's a truly modern miracle. Curitiba's carefully crafted development has been managed on a scale that other planned cities like Canberra have yet to master or fully mature.

Those of you that followed our adventures by email won't have heard of this city. I failed to mention it in correspondence and have never created a post on this blog - until now. Perhaps it's time to introduce you to one of the most livable city's I've ever seen.

Welcome everyone to the modern miracle of Curitiba .

Sunday, October 15

Rugging up for winter


On a spur of the moment Garry and I took a detour while on our way to the Supermarket. We visited several shops looking for that elusive rug we've been seeking since March. Within an hour we'd located the last remaining item required to complete our transformation of Swiss Cottage. It's a dark cream shag pile affair that feels wonderful under foot. Winter should be very cozy.

Our purchase is well timed. It's clear that the season is changing. Temperatures have dropped into the high teens in recent weeks and the trees are rapidly shedding their leaves. We've turned on some of the central heating at home to take away the evening and morning chill. I've started wearing a jacket to work each day. Fog has settled across the city several nights in row.

People across Europe say that we're experiencing a surprisingly mild autumn. It seems that we've yet to experience a normal London season. Winter was drier than normal, summer was longer and hotter than normal and both spring and autumn were unusually mild.

The Met Office reports that this year's extended summer has been the warmest on record. Their records dates back to 1659! May to September 2006 has been warmer than any equivalent period since then. The mean temperature of 16.2 °C for the period was 2 °C warmer than the average for 1961-1990. The previous record of 15.9 °C was set in 1947.

The 2006 period included the warmest month ever, July, and a record temperature for September. Normal weather, once it returns, will be a real shock to the system for us poor Antipodeans.

The Internet is for porn


We've just returned from the Noel Coward Theatre at Leicester Square. Garry shouted tickets to Avenue Q for my birthday tonight. The production can best be described as an adult's version of Sesame Street. It's hilarious.

I can't name any other musical with songs quite like; It Sucks to be Me, If You Were Gay, The Internet is for Porn or Everyone's a Little Bit Racist. The show even contains some rather graphic fur-on-fur action with a puppet sex scene that leaves little to the imagination. My favourite line of the night came from Mrs. Thistletwat, a moralising, bespectacled spinster puppet who boldly retorted that,"Crabby old bitches are the bedrock of this nation."

Garry secured excellent centrally positioned seats in the stalls, three rows from the stage. The seats immediately in front of us were also vacant for the entire evening affording an uninterrupted view of the stage. A great night out.

Saturday, October 14

Meatball madness

The Swedish meatballs on offer in Finnair's Lounge at Stockholm airport are delicious. I'm sitting here enjoying the wonders of wireless internet access while waiting for my flight home. I've been in Sweden since Tuesday evening on business.

This is my second flight to Stockholm this year. I've eaten at the same restaurants and stayed at the same hotel on both trips. I've yet to see anything of the city. As always I promise myself that next time I'll make an effort to get out and see a few sights. This trip I even went as far as to make plans to escape the office early today. These instantly dissolved when my phone started ringing - another mini-crisis needed my attention.

Most of my business trips are like this - an endless array of airports, offices, taxis and hotels. In the last ten years I've flown to Singapore for 22 hours for a meeting that was eventually cancelled, as well as flying to New York for two days of back-to-back meetings. On both occasions I travelled and transited for longer than I worked at my destination. Business travel is rarely as glamorous as people think.

There's more travel on the way for me. I'll be in London next week. Then off to Portugal for a five day conference. Back for a week, then off to New York for five days. Back for Garry's birthday and then finally off to Milan for another two days. I many also need to visit South Africa soon. I think there's a small ozone hole up there with my name on it!

Tuesday, October 10

Friends on the move

We celebrated our first year beyond Australia with a hectic weekend. Friday night saw us in town for drinks with friends. We took advantage of the UK's recently extended drinking hours and indulged in some serious bar hopping. Along the way we met two Australian who've been living in London for six years. They were quickly added to our circle for the evening.

About 4am Garry bundled us on to a night bus for the ride home. I soon realised we were heading in the wrong direction. "You know I don't know my way around London," was Garry's response. Fortunately, as we got off the wrong bus, another traveling in the correct direction drew to a halt beside us. Well, almost the right direction. We still had to walk a good 20 minutes from the drop-off point to get home (or in my case, stagger home).

Saturday saw four friends over for dinner. More wine! One of our guests recently worked on the new BBC production, Robin Hood. We watched the inaugural program before dinner. It's filmed in high-definition. Garry recently upgraded our pay TV service to receive HD which made the program a truly visual feast.

Several guests crashed in the spare room overnight, resulting in a leisurely brunch on Sunday morning. Plans were also made to help them move house this Friday. I'll be in Sweden but Garry's agreed to help if he's available.

Sunday, October 8

A year like none other..!

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My 4oth birthday in the Hunter Valley

It’s been exactly one year since Garry and I flew out of Sydney to start our grand European adventure. We'd packed up the house, celebrated my 40th and headed off to for a two month sabbatical. I can’t believe that a year has passed. It’s been a truly remarkable time.

Our travel diary has been filled to overflowing. (Did I mention that Qantas renewed my Platinum FF status this week? Garry also reached Platinum status last weekend) In a single year we’ve both visited every continent with the exception of Antarctica. The list of countries and cities we’ve seen is breath-taking. I think I've remembered them all:

USA: Washington DC (x3 for me), New York, Princeton, Boston
Canada: Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto
Peru:
Lima, Arequipa, Cusco, Puno, Puerto Maldonado (the Amazon)
Brazil:
Rio, San Paulo, Curitiba, Paraty
Argentina: Buenos Aires
Spain: Madrid
Egypt: Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Mount Sinai
Jordon: Aqaba, Petra, Amman
France: Paris (x2)
Switzerland:
Geneva
Germany:
Munich (x4)
Austria:
Kitzbuhel (x3)
Czech Republic:
Prague
Norway:
Oslo
Sweden: Stockholm
Italy:
Milan
South Africa: Johannesburg (x2), Capetown
Denmark: Copenhagen
Holland:
Amsterdam (x3)
Japan: Hiroshima, Osaka, Tokyo
Australia:
Sydney
New Zealand: Christchurch, Auckland
Hong Kong: Garry stopped here while I was in South Africa


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We’ve also started to explore the UK. To date we’ve visited the Cotswolds, Windsor, Bath, Stonehenge, Salisbury, Brighton and Arundel. In London we’ve taken time to explore Richmond, Kew Gardens, Greenwich, Hyde Park, Columbia Road Flower Market, Borough Market, Camden Market, Soho and many of the Thames River walks in Central London.

We’ve seen West End theatre productions, watched drag shows and a pantomine, ridden the London Eye, seen the new Airbus 380 close up, watched the Trooping of the Colours and visited the Hampton Court Flower Show.


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We’ve seen some of the world’s most prized documents including Magna Carta, a Guttenberg Bible, the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’ve also seen some of the world’s most famous artwork such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Picasso’s Guernica.

Of course, while doing all of this, we found time to move our entire lives halfway across the planet and establish a new home in London (Garry you’re a star. Our house here truly is a home).

While the last 12 months have had their challenging moments, there’s no denying that it’s been a very unique and special time. I doubt we’ll ever see another year quite like it again.

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Thursday, October 5

The joys of Calcium Carbonate

The first time our self-cleaning iron spat large, crusty chunks of lime scale I was stunned. Not just by the stains appearing on my chosen business shirt, but by the sheer volume of residue the iron was attempting to disgorge. Since then we've bought bottle after bottle of special ironing water from the supermarket.

Hard water is something you learn about quickly when living in London. Most of southern England is built on deep chalk and limestone deposits, the fossilised remains of ancient sea creatures. These calcium deposits disolve readily in rainwater making the water here particularly hard.

Drinking water is generally considered to be 'very hard' in England. Most areas, particularly the East, exhibiting above 200 mg/L as calcium carbonate equivalent. By comparison, Sydney has levels of only 39.4 - 60.1mg/L.

Earlier generations coined the phrase 'hard water' because it made cleaning difficult. I'd believe it. Calcium residue, or limescale as its called, builds up on everything. It speckles the glass stall after just one shower and lingers on every stainless steel surface. Aside from special ironing water we've learnt many other tricks for tackling CaCO3 residue. The dishwater needs special salt. Bleach doesn't remove scale, it merely discolours it. Hard water is also harsh on your skin, encouraging residual soap scum that clogs your pores and chaffs your skin.

With so much limescale around, I'm keen to visit the Dover Cliffs. I might as well enjoy the geology that's creating it.

Wednesday, October 4

Garry gets another interview

Things are finally looking promising for Garry's career. He's been approached for seven different job opportunities in recent weeks. Garry heard today that he's being called back for a second interview with a local company. This is a rolling contract opportunity that he interviewed for last week. His next meeting will be with the company's CEO.

He also has another interview lined up for a second opportunity on Friday. Fingers crossed we'll be a fully employed household before the end of the month.

Finally, this coming Sunday marks the first anniversary of our departure from Sydney. Where did the time go? It's hard to believe that it's already been a year! Amazing!

Monday, October 2

The long ride home

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Our return from Geneva was the stuff that movies are made from. We arrived at the airport early. The rain had closed in for the night and Geneva on Sunday evening had as much life as Canberra after dark. The lounge seemed a far better place to relax before our flight. How wrong we were!

Delay No.1
We'd barely entered the lounge when we were told that our flight was at least 30 minutes late. The delay soon stretched to two hours. As we finally boarded our plane the pilot explained that heavy thunderstorms around Heathrow had been causing havoc all afternoon. He said that many flights had been cancelled. It seems we'd been lucky to see a plane at all.

Delay No.2
Our flight home skirted continuing storms before finally reaching England. Predictably we were put into a holding pattern, circling London for more than 20 minutes before finally touching down. A long taxi finally brought us to the gate at Terminal Four. So far so good. It would be touch and go but we thought we'd just make the last Heathrow Express train home.

Delay No.3
About this point we began to learn just how badly Heathrow copes with anything out of the ordinary. First, our airbridge broke down. It took almost 20 minutes before we were able to disembark. At least our bags would beat us off the plane.

Delay No.4
Of course our gate was a long way from immigration and only two officers were on duty when we reached the hall. It was then that several planeloads of people entered as we did.

Delay No.5
We reached the baggage hall to find our luggage had yet to arrive. Not a single carousel in the hall appeared to be moving. People were waiting everywhere. Airline officials couldn't tell us where our bags were. No announcements were made the entire time we were in the hall.

Delay No.6
More than an hour after we'd dismarked our plane, almost two hours after we'd touched down, we exited the baggage hall. It was too late to catch a train so we made our way to the taxi rank. As we stepped outside the terminal a queue of several hundred people greeted us. A single cab appeared in the next ten minutes. It was obvious the queue wasn't going anywhere fast. It was also clear no taxi company consider this as an opportunity to make easy money.

In desperation I called the local mini-cab that operates a few blocks from home. Did they have a cab in area? No. However, if we ordered a cab, they'd have it at Heathrow within 40 minutes. The suggestion seemed odd but the operator made it sound as if such requests were common practice. We ordered a minicab.

The fastest part of our journey
35 minutes later our cab arrived. The queue at the rank had only grown a few metres shorter. Finally, more than four and half hours later, we stumbled in the door at home. It was just after 2:20am. All I could think was "Thank goodness my trip to India is cancelled." I had no desire to get up four hours later and make my way back to Heathrow.

The entire experience has left me stunned. The lack of contingency planning and customer services was beyond belief. Nobody at Heathrow seemed to know what was happening. Those that did understand saw no reason to explain each delays. Our pilot was the only person who took time to explain any of the choas.

I really felt for the international passengers around us. They'd had the most appalling third-world introduction to London. I can't imagine how the British Airport Authority (BAA) will cope with the Olympics.

Geneva for the weekend

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I spent my 25th Birthday in Zurich. At the time I back-packed through most of eastern and southern Switzerland including Lucerne, Bern and Interlaken. Unfortunately I never got as far as Geneva. Garry has never seen this city either.

Therefore, when British Airways announced cheap fares to Europe, Geneva seemed the ideal destination for both of us. As a result, we found ourselves in Switzerland celebrating my birthday last weekend . We flew out late on Friday evening, reaching our hotel, Beau-Rivage, shortly before midnight.

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The hotel is the oldest family owned hotel in Geneva. Built in 1865, it still retains all of its classic interior including a water fountain in the main lobby. The lobby atrium rises through the entire core of the building, surrounded by classical wood-railed landings, creating a wonderful Victorian ambiance. The next morning we were greeted by the sight of Lake Geneva lying right outside our window, including direct views of the famous Jet d'Eau fountain.

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The view from our hotel window

After a welcome sleep in, we made our way into town, stopping at a local Italian cafe for brunch. From here we crossed one of the many bridges over the Rhone river and made our way towards the Old Town. Set on a hillside, the old town is as you'd expect; cobblestone streets, narrow laneways and unexpected plazas around every other corner.

Particularly memorable is the Espace St-Pierre, the starkly beautiful area surrounding Cathédrale St-Pierre, the church that dominates the city skyline. It was here that John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, used to live and teach. A wooden chair used by Calvin still sits inside the Cathedral.

I climbed the Cathedral's North Tower and was rewarded with stunning views of the city, the lake and the French alps in the distance. It was one of the most moments when yet another postcard came to life. We wandered through the old town, stopping to admire the Russian church, replenished with gilted onion domes and listening to buskers playing all manner of instruments.

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Later that afternoon we ambled down to the lake shore, making our way out along the breakwater to the Jet d'Eau. I was surprised to learn that this fountain is more than 100 years old. The original water jet was installed in 1886. It reached the height of 30 metres and acted largely as a safety valve for a hydroelectric generator. Today's water column rises to 140 metres as pumps jet more than five-hundred litres of water per second into the air at a speed of 200km/h. The water is aerated by a special nozzle, making it appear bright white.


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That evening, Garry and I dined in the hotel's five-star French restaurant, Chat Botte. Our dinner was part of the special weekend package I'd booked. The food was divine. We both started with the King Prawn tartar. Garry then had the lamb while I had the tenderest veal imaginable. We both chose the chocolate dessert. After all we were in the heartland of chocolate confection.


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Sunday was spent enjoying a lesuirely breakfast before venturing out to see the International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge (Red Cross Museum). Gevena is home to many of the world's global forum including the WTO, the UN's Human Right Commission (and many other UN institutions) and the former League of Nations.


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The Red Cross Museum was rather simple. However, one exhibit really brought home the impact of WWI. In one corner, the museum houses row after row of shelves containing boxed index cards. More than a million cards hold the names of prisioners of war monitored by the Red Cross between 1913 and 1918.


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We later walked back into the city centre to catch an afternoon cruise on the lake itself. It was clear that Geneva is the playground of the rich and famous. Its shores are littered with mansions and townhouses of enormous wealth. One owner, the wife of publisher Francois de Senger, had a bronze mermaid installed in 1966 on a rock out front of their lakeside home. Other homes of note included Colgate Masion, built last century by the creator of the popular toothpaste brand.

We finished our weekend in Geneva with a quick bite in the Old Town before heading off to the airport. What happened next deserves a posting of its own.

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