Thursday, May 31

The moons of Jupiter

National Geographic has published a spectacular photo of Comet McNaught taken by my cousin-in-law, Euan Mason. Grab your June issue today as my blog just doesn't do his image justice. Its far more spectacular as a double-page spread. Euan recently shared another of his astronomical images, this time, the moons of Jupiter. You saw it first on my blog!

Tuesday, May 29

22,708 performances - how surreal

I took Mum and Dad to the Victoria & Albert Museum today to see the Surrealism and Design exhibition. The current exhibition tracks the influence of Surrealism artists like Dali on fashion, design and the arts. Three halls at the V&A are filled with all manner of surrealist-influenced objects. Dad was particularly keen on seeing his first genuine Salvador Dali painting.

I was thrilled to see several famous items I've heard about for some time. Highlights for me included Dali's 'Lobster Telephone', the Mae West inspired pink lip sofa and Meret Oppenheim's 'Table with Bird's Legs'. Dad also got to see several Dali works including 'A Couple With Their Heads Full of Clouds' and one enormous series of wall panels - sadly their title escapes me.

Mum and I particularly enjoyed the enormous Joan Miró tapestry, originally commissioned to revitalize the ailing Gobelins factory in France. It hung next to the original canvas Miro painted as a template. It took me several minutes to realise one was canvas and the other fabric. Amazing.

Following our surreal experience, the three of us ventured into Covent Garden for a late lunch. We then stopped off at St Martins Theatre to collect Mum and Dad's tickets for this evening's performance of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. Now, into its 55th year, tonight's performance was number 22, 708. Now that's surreal!

Dining in Joburg

The plane that took me to Africa - only four months old.

I've made a number of business trips to South Africa in the last 18 months. Generally they consist of uninspiring meals in my hotel, interspersed with cab rides to and from the Johannesburg office. Last week I made an effort to break the mould. Our local managing consultant offered to show me some of the city's more popular culinary sights.

Our first night was spent at Saigon. This was a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant in Rivonia has tables centred around a raised, rectangular water feature stocked with tiny fish. The food here was exquisite. I enjoyed the Tom Rang Muoi Tieu - lightly battered stir-fried peppered prawns. This was definitely some of the best Asian cuisine I've sampled outside of Asia. If only London had a few local restaurant with cheap, simple food of this quality.

My last night in town was spent at Moyo. The restaurant can be found in the Market Theatre, a grand old Victorian building that once contained the city's fresh-produce market. Until recently the area was little more than an industrial slum. It's now undergone something of a revival. Market Theatre is one of many venues leading the way. Moyo sits in the heart of the building surrounded by an artist's precinct which includes galleries and live performance theatres.

It offers what can only be described as modern African fusion food, presented in surroundings that fuse the rough, metallic surfaces of a gold mine with the open atrium of an old woolshed. The food was divine and the service sublime. I'll definitely be visiting Moyo again.

Sunday, May 27

Capsule controversy

A naked woman with a watering can was the talk of last year’s Chelsea Flower Show. She formed part of an award-winning show garden created by Cancer Research UK. Her presence was designed to draw attention to the risk of skin cancer. The garden also featured a striking capsule-shaped pavilion. As you'd expect, this exhibit caused quite a controversy. However, it was the capsule and not the woman that created the most headlines.

Andy Sturgeon, the landscape designer responsible for the show garden, was sued by Diarmuid Gavin, a popular television gardener. Diarmuid claimed Andy had implemented a pavilion design he’d created four year earlier. Andy naturally counter-sued for libel and a lengthly court battle began unfolding. Both cases were finally settled outside Dublin’s High Court earlier this month.

Recent news story claim that the feud has been revived at this year’s show. Diarmuid’s latest show garden, the Westland garden, contains a red cedar clad pavilion built with a curving roof line reminiscent of last year’s controversial capsule. Today, Garry and I took my parents to see the pavilion for ourselves. The pavilion is spectacular, as is the garden surrounding it.

The Chelsea Flower Show has been staged in the ground of Royal Hospital Chelsea since 1913. Every year it attracts a sell-out crowd, limited to 157,000 people over five days. The crowd was certainly out in force today, despite a rather chilly, overcast day. The show was impressive, featuring more than 600 exhibitors, 50 temporary gardens and more than 100 floral exhibitors.

The centre piece of the showground is The Great Pavilion, an enormous marquee covering 12,000 sq m. It sits in the middle of the site, housing some of the most incredible floral displays you’ll ever see. Inside we wandered through gardens of fragrant climbing roses, past stunning life-size wire models of African wildlife and displays of flowers featuring every colour of the rainbow. The most memorable exhibit for me was one featuring dozens and dozens of flowering cacti. I've never see so many flowering succulents in my life.

However, it was a £6000 BBQ island that captured Garry’s attention. The price seemed outrageous for an outdoor cooking unit. I’m sure we’ll spend less renovating the kitchen in our Sydney apartment.

For me, the day held a more simple highlight. I finally got to see several Chelsea Pensioners in person. I still recall a childhood picture book about London describing these men and their bright red uniforms. For a fleeting moment my childhood came to life.

Saturday, May 26

Kiwis on the loose

I'm finally back from my mad dash to South Africa for three days of business. I arrived home on Thursday morning about 7.40am. My parents arrived a little more than two hours later. On the spur of moment I decided to settle down with my laptop in the arrivals hall and wait for Air New Zealand to deliver them into Heathrow.

Mum was thrilled to see. In fact, I'm glad she did. I'd missed her exiting the customs hall which in itself would have created a comic scene. I'd have been left standing forlornly in the terminal while my parents rode the tube into Swiss Cottage. Secretly I think they were glad to have an extra porter with them. Collectively we managed to get three lumbering suitcases and cascading armfulls of carry-on luggage safely home without injury.

We worked up quite a sweat getting home as the warm weather has returned with vengence. Last night we had little more than a summer sheet across us as we slept. The Met Office is promising rain by Monday - just in time for the public holiday weekend.

Having been to London so many times before, it's going to be a challenge to keep Mum and Dad entertained. Sadly, I can't just send them off to watch the Changing of the Guard. However, we seem to be off to a good start. After refreshing showers, we wandered down to the local Tesco Metro on Thursday afternoon and then up to Primrose Hill to catch a glimpse of the London skyline. That's at least one new London adventure ticked off the list. Phew!

Today, Mum and Dad took themselves off to Borough Market and then on to Oxford Street to witness the sale crowd at Primark. More ticks off the list. Tomorrow we're off to the Chelsea Flower Show, followed by live theatre on Monday evening. Dad has also expressed an interest in touring Lords Cricket Ground, a mere 15 minute walk from our house.

Tuesday, May 22

New York stopover

What do you call a baby swan? This question vexed us on Sunday while touring in the Cotswold. Garry and I had taken his Aunt and Uncle, Barbara and John, for a brief day trip through some of the region’s quaint villages. The answer? A signet. Why ask the question?

We were mesmerized by a swan shepherding her young in the stream along side the picture postcard shearer’s cottages of Arlington Row. Nearby, ducks were doing the same with their brood.

We had a wonderful day in the Cotswold, almost a year to the day since our last visit. The lambs were out in force across the rural landscape and our favourite villages remain as quaint as ever. We even had a lively pheasant stroll out into a quiet country lane we'd ventured down. We briefly stopped the car and watched this bold bird wander toward us. The experience was magic.

For me, the entire day was a refreshing interlude between a flight from New York and subsequent onward flight to Johannesburg for business. I’d literally landed at Heathrow on Saturday evening, driven Garry’s relatives to the Cotswold the following morning, before being dropped back at the airport for an evening flight.

Sunday, May 20

Another hole in the Ozone

I've not had a moment to scratch myself this week. I've just flown in this evening from an unscheduled two day business trip to New York. Tomorrow Garry and I are taking his Aunt and Uncle for a day-trip in the Cotswolds before dropping me back at Heathrow for an overnight flight to South Africa. I'll be back in London on Thursday - just in time greet my parents as they fly into Heathrow.

Hopefully I'll find some time over the next week to update everyone on our incredible week in Turkey. It already feels like a life time ago!

Thursday, May 17

Cruising the Bosphorous

At some point in the distant pass the Marmara Sea spilled across a narrow isthmus separating it from the Black Sea. While geologists dispute the exact cause and date of this event, the outcome remains evident today. Known simply as the Bosphorus Strait, this bustling sea lane, marks the modern border between Asia and Europe.

The strait is narrow, as little at 700 metres at one point, widening to 3.7 kilometres as it enters the Black Sea. The seabed varies from 35 to 124 metres below mean tide. Merchant ships and ferries ply its waters in vast numbers daily. The constant traffic and proximity of the opposing shore makes for an endless, mesmerizing scene no matter where you are in Istanbul.

On our last day in Turkey Garry and I decided to head for the water and spend our morning cruising the Bosphorus Strait. The weather was perfect. Hot, sunny and clear. We sailed from the ferry docks at Eminonu, watching the Gatala Bridge slowly recede behind us. Our rattling, rusting cruise boat took us past Dolmabahce Palace, home to the last Ottoman Sultan, and on towards the Bosphorus Bridge.

At 1074 metres, this suspension bridge is the 13th longest single span in world. When it opened in 1973, it was the fourth longest bridge and the first to join two continents. We drove over the bridge earlier in the week when our tour bus transferred us from Haydarpasa rail station on Istanbul’s Asian shore. I was naturally thrilled by the experience, given my love of large-scale infrastructure. Garry wasn’t so captivated.

Just south of the bridge is a delightful suburban village called Ortakoy. Men could be seen fishing from shore (one managed to cast his rod far enough to leave his line and sinker clattering on the top deck of our boat) while a thriving café and bar culture hugged a natural inlet. Nearby is Mecidiye Mosque. This small, yet stylish, structure was built by Nikogos Balyan, the same man behind the spectacular Dolmabahce Palace.

Our cruise continued up past Kandilli and the strait’s narrowest point. Here is located the imposing Fortress of Europe (naturally sited on the European shore). This impressive structure was built in 1452 by Mehmet II as he prepared to invade Constantinople. The subsequent invasion destroyed the Christian Byzantine Empire, establishing the Islamic Ottoman Empire in its place. On the Asia shore of the strait sits a less imposing Fortress of Asia. Fifty years older that its European counterpart, this fortress was built by Sultan Beyazut I during the successful siege of Constantinople in 1396-7.

As we neared the shadow of Faith Sultan Mehmet Bridge our cruise boat slowly turned and began its journey back. This bridge, while less spectacular that its southern partner, is in fact a longer single span. Opened in 1988 the bridge spans 1090 metres between its piers.

Our homeward journey took us past Beylerbeyi Palace, built by Sultan Abdul Aziz to entertain visiting dignitaries, and on towards Leander’s Tower. I’d been fascinated by this tower since I’d first spotted from the balcony of Topkapi Palace a week earlier. The tower sits on a small islet less than 100 metres from the Asian shore. This bold white 18th Century building once housed a quarantine centre, served as a lighthouse and a maritime toll house. Today it’s home to a restaurant and nightclub.

As our boat neared its final destination Garry and I were granted one final vista of Istanbul, its skyline of Sultan Mosques and palaces. Without a doubt, Istanbul is a marvelous city. It’s colourful, full of character and stuffed to the brim with countless layers of history. In a few short days this city had captured my imagination and a piece of soul. I’ll definitely be back.

Something old, something new

We booked a guided tour for our last full day in Istanbul. Much to our surprise we discovered that we had the tour to ourselves. Our guide, Serdar Ozkan, was brilliant – friendly, knowledgeable and low-key. Our time with him was definitely a highlight of our time in Turkey. Serdar took us on a fascinating tour of both the old and the new in Istanbul, uncovering a few surprises along the way. Look him up if you’re ever in Istanbul (

Our first stop of the day was Suleymaniye Mosque. It was built by Koca Mimar Sinan for Suleyman the Magnificant. The lessons learnt here were later used to great effect at the even grander Blue Mosque. The main dome is 26 metres diameter, while the height above the floor is exactly double its diameter. The walls and ceiling are covered in striking red patterned tiles. Serdar pointed out the Ostrich eggs hanging from the lighting rigs. “They discourage spiders,” he explained but couldn’t explain why.

Outside sits a domed tomb containing the ceremonial coffins of Suleyman and his two successors – each draped in imperial green cloth. As with the mosque, the tombs walled are decorated in stunning ceramic tiles. Next door a similar tomb houses the coffin of Roxelana, Suleyman’s Russian wife.

Our next stop was equally awe inspiring. The Church of St Saviour in Chora contains some of the finest Byzantine mosaics still intact. The present building dates from the 11th Century. A relatively small structure, its ceilings and upper walls are covered in spectacular images of Christ, his genealogy and his ministry. The inner narthex contains 19 mosaics depicting the life of the Virgin.

However, the most novel image was that of Theodore Metochites, the artist responsible for restoring the present mosaics (between 1315-21). Above the door into the nave he can be seen humbly presenting a model of the church to Christ himself. We’d seen a similar image at Haghia Sophia. In this mosaic two of Constantinople’s greatest emperors offer similar models to an infant Christ in the arms of the Virgin. Constantine can be seen offering the city of Constantinople on her right, while Justinian offers a model of Haghia Sophia on her left.

From the Church of St Saviour in Chora, we were off across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu, considered the modern district of Istanbul. However, modern is a relative term in this city. Our first stop was Dolmabahce Palace, the final home of the last Ottoman Sultans. Built in 1856, it was designed to give Sultan Abdul Mecit a show home equal to that of the royal dynasties of Europe. This bold white building sits on the European shore of the Bosphorous with commanding views of old Istanbul’s dramatically minareted skyline.

Guided tours take you through the palace, the opulence of each room, surpassing the last. Perhaps the most spectacular room was the last on our tour. The Ceremonial Hall was awe inspiring. This stunning domed hall has room for 2500 people, its ceiling supported by rows of majestic pillars and its centre dominated by a truly enormous chandelier.

Our final stop of the day was Istiklal Caddesi. This pedestrian street snakes through the heart of Beyoglu. Each side is lined by late-19th Century European style apartment buildings and offices. An old red tram traverses the length of the street adding to its turn of the century charm. Everywhere we looked the crowd was overwhelming. It was easy to believe that Istanbul is home to more than 10.2 million people.

Serdar guided us effortlessly through several side streets, showing us the local fish market and a delightful café street where we stopped for a couple of welcome cold beers. From here we ventured on to Galata Tower for a series of stunning views over Istanbul, the Bosphorous and Galata Bridge.

The tower stands 60 metres, and is the most recognizable building on the Golden Horn. Its origins date back to the 6th Century when it was used to monitor shipping on the waterway below. Today, a restaurant and nightclub keep watch over the city below. The restaurant looked great but we didn't stop to eat. We'd already experienced a meal with a view the previous evening after dining at Seven Hill Hotel. Nothing beats a meal at a rooftop table seven floors aboove stree level, midway between the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia.

After a delicious seafood dinner in town we wandered back past the tower, now floodlight as darkness set in, and across Galata Bridge to our hotel. Much to our delight we discovered that the underside of the bridge is home to a promenade of bars, cafes and restaurants. Here you can sip on a cocktail while floodlit mosque shimmer across the waters of the Golden Horn. It seemed the ideal setting to reflect on our week in Turkey. This is a truly unique nation where history, religion and modern life live in surprising harmony. We’ll be back!

The market economy

Our guide book simply said, “Nothing can prepare you for the Grand Bazaar.” On our penultimate day in Istanbul we were compelled to find out why. The bazaar is a maze of streets covered by brightly painted arched roofing. It’s the pre-modern mall. Inside all manner of goods are for sale and have been since 1453. Garry and I spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering its indoor laneways, coming across old marble water fountains, cafes and all manner of crafts.

Earlier in the days we’d wandered through Misir Carsisi, more popularly known as the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar. This L-shaped market was built in the 17th Century and specializes in spices, herbs, nuts and Turkish confectionery. Each stall owner displays his colourful spices in artfully heaped mounds and sacks. The market bustles with activity until the call for prayer begins at the neighbouring mosque. Within minutes we watched most stalls close and its menfolk dash for the exit as the final call to prayer ended.

Perhaps the most unusual item we saw on sale wasn't actually in either bazaar. A street vendor outside the Spice Bazaar was offering leeches for sale, promoting them as the ultimate health tonic. Unlike the nearby T-shirts vendors, this stallholder had the local market cornered.

While both bazaars were fascinating, perhaps the most colourful market we encountered was an informal affair along the waterfront. Every evening after dark hundreds of private vendors set up shop on a rug or box hawking all manner of goods between Gatala Bridge and Sirkeci railway station. The footpath bustles with local buying snacks, children’s shoes and simple electronics. The sounds and smells alone felt far more authentic than those of the Grand Bazaar. Our guide book was wrong. Nothing prepared us for the impromptu market of Eminonu.

King of the Cotton Castles

Pamukkale is one place in Turkey that I've always wanted to see. Earlier this month, Garry and I experienced this spectucular natural wonder for ourselves. Pamukkale was formed when warm, calcium saturated mineral water flowing down a cliff, progressively cooling and leaving brilliant white deposits in its wake. Over time a series of scalloped terraces and shallow pools, called travertines, formed along the cliff face, extending for more than a kilometre. The resulting effect is nothing short of breath-taking.

Known locally as the Cotton Castles, Pamukkale was every bit as memorable as I expected. It sits in the heart of Turkey looking out across a verdant plain of farms. The hillside dazzles in the sunlight, each travertine a blinding white and each pool of water a dusty blue, reflecting the sky above. The entire site appears as a pale white scar while still some distance away. Our tour guide pointed it out to us with more than half an hour before we reached the sight.

Surprisingly, tourists are still permitted to walk on sections of site. Garry and I naturally had to roll up our jeans and join the throng wading though milky pools. The surface under foot is gritty, at times the calcium is sharp and uncomfortable underfoot. As you descend the slowly forming travertines, the size and scale of this phenomeom progressively overwhelms you. It's easy to see why people have been venturing here since Roman times.

Along the hilltop sits the ruins of the a Roman spa town called Hierapolis. Founded around 190BC, the town became known for its curative mineral waters. A nearby hillside sports a spectacular Roman theatre, once capable of seating 12, 000 spectators. The town itself sports a stunning collonaded street, crowned by an almost unscathed triple processional archway.

Outside the town, quietly decaying tombs from a bygone Christian community, dot the countryside. Ailing folk once came from far and wide to seek a cure, only to pass away in their place of piligrimage. In places the calcium deposits have begun to reclaim the landscape leaving tombs part buried in sea of shimmering white shelves.

Perhaps the most novel sight at Pamukkale are the ancient baths. Garry and I gave them a go, along with hundreds of other visitors. Natural thermal pools have been converted into a wonderful bathing pools. However, unlike any other thermal venues, the floor of the pool is littered with fluted marble columns and submerged paving stones.

These are the last decaying remains of the original Roman baths. Sitting on one column, I truly felt a part of history. As I soaked up the warmth of water around me I could picture others doing exactly same thing 2000 years ago.