Thursday, September 27

Rapa Nui - the navel of the world

It's proving to be a quiet week in Swiss Cottage. To keep myself ambused i've written a post about a travel adventure from 1999. Eight years later the entire experience remains as vivid as the day it happened. I'm talking about Easter Island.

Sitting along in the Pacific Ocean it remains one of the most intriguing places I've ever visited. The nearest populated landmass is the equally remote Pitcairn Island more than 1,900km west. South America lies a further 3,700km east. To get there I caught a flight to Tahiti, stopped for a couple of days in Pape'ete, and then boarded a midnight flight with Lan Chile. The island has been part of Chile since 1888.

Five hours later our Boeing 767 slowly descended across the Pacific as a small triangular island flew into view. The airport runway runs almost the full width of the southern corner of the island. I later learnt that it had been extended by NASA in 1985 to serve as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle program. This extension made the island accessible by large passenger jets for the first time, thus paving the way for mass tourism.

Despite being such a small island (we're talking 117 sq km) there was a surprising amount to see and explore. I spent 2.5 days on the island, barely enough time to enjoy its highlights. The first afternoon was spent visiting two significant sights; Orongo ceremonial village and Ahu Vinapu. Surprisingly, neither is reknown for the presence of moai, the island's famous carved stone heads.

Orongo sits on the southernmost cliff tops of Easter Island overlooking the flooded volcanic crater of Rano Kau. Here, in the 18th and 19th Century, the island's birdman culture flourished. Youths would compete in a ritual each spring to secure the season's first Sooty Tern egg. These birds nested annually on a small pinnacle of rock several hundred metres from shore.

Securing the egg required scambling down a near vertical cliff, swimming through heavy ocean swells and finally returning to the top of the cliff. Whoever returned first with their egg intact was crowned ceremonial chief for another year. As I stood on the edge of this wind-swept outcrop I couldn't help but marvel at the courage of these men.

Today, all that remains of this strange cult are a series of low stone houses. Nearby are several birdman rock drawings. Perhaps the most spectacular vista in the area is a few metres further on. Here we stood on the edge of the crater itself, marveling at the weed-covered lake sitting more than a hundred metres below.

Our second sight on Day One was the anu, or rock platform, of Ahu Vinapu. This forlorn platform sits at the end of the airport runway in the midst of sheep paddock. It was here we sighted our first toppled moai. Access to the site is unrestricted enabling us to wander among the fallen icons as leisure. You could see that each statue was craved from a dull grey stone. I also discovered that each moai had once been capped with a separate red stone 'topknot' stone.

Ahu Vinapu is known for its seamless fitting stonework. The only such craftmanship on the island. Archeologists marvel as its precision. The world's only other locations with such stonework can be found among the Inca ruins of South America. This resemblance raises conjecture that Easter Island was once visited by the Incas. Garry and I visited Peru in 2005. The stonework there does indeed look identical to that of Ahu Vinapu.

Accomodation on the island is a relatively simple affair. I stayed at a small, local residenciale lodge. These are generally private homes with an clean, tidy guest accomodation extension. Each night I booked a simple dinner, while breakfast was included in the tarrif.

My first full day on the island was probably the most memorable. On this second day we visited several of the island's most photographed locations. First up was Ahu Akahanga. Here a long row of moai lie toppled along the length of their raised stone platform. Again, access was unrestricted enabling close examination of these amazing statues. Archeologists speculate that these stone man represented ancestors. Each stood with its back to the ocean, silencing watching over a neighbouring village.

Nobody know why the islanders began carving moai. Likewise, nobody knows why they stopped and why every statue was later toppled from its platform. Their presence remains one of the most enduring mysteries of Easter Island.

Our second stop on Day Two was Ahu Tongariki. This is the largest ahu on the island. A Japanese team restored it's 15 moai making for one of the island's most popular postcard locations. One of our tour group included a freelance Canadian journalist. A photo of the group that he took here later appeared in print. My first and only moment of celebrity in the Toronto media.

Our final stop for the day was the highlight of my entire time on the island. Rano Raraku is the volcanic quarry from which every moai was carved. It sits on the side of an imposing cliff face, affording views of Ahu Tongariki nestled on a distant shore. Remarkably, an enormous 21-metre moai remained partially carved in the quarry. We climbed its length marveling at its size.

Close by are a series of completed moai sitting upright, half buried in the earth. Apparently, as each statue was completed it was moved to a custom dug pit for temporary storage. The Islander moved the moai to its final location at a later date. A group of these 'stored' moai remain in place today.

Wandering between these silent stone faces is an incredibly moving experience. You can't help but be overwhelmed by their presence and the mystery of their creation. Here I stood, thousands of kilometres from anyway, surrounding by the world's most iconic statues. I felt truly alone. lost in the isolation of this remote dot in the ocean. I'll never forget the experience as long as I live.

Our trip to the quarry was completed by a short walk over the lip of the crater wall into the mouth of Rano Raraku itself. Here we watched horses watering along the shores of a small lake. They are the largest animals on the island.

Our last day on the island was spent visiting three locations. The Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert was our first stop. This small museum displays photos and items from every day Rapa Nui life. We then drove north to the beach of Anakena. This is one of the only white sand beaches on the island.

Two things set it apart from the rest of the island. First is a plantation of palm trees. These are some of the only mature trees on the island. Most of Easter island is covered in brown, wind-blasted grassland. The island wan't always denuded of vegetation. Overpopulation saw its trees and bushes progressively removed for food, fuel and shelter.

The second highlight is Ahu Nau Nau and its solo moai. This statue is famous for its method of restoration. Famous adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl spent nine days erectind the fallen moai using traditional methods. Nearby, another ahu was the location for the discovery that the island's moai weren't 'blind'. Each face had been decorated with white coral and rock inlaid eyes.

Our final stop for the day was at Te Pito o te Henua, the navel of the world. Here, just above the high tide mark sits a stone sphere surrounding by small stone pillars. Archeologists believe it is a symbolic navel, denoting the island's location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It's a sure sign that the locals knew that their home was sitting in the centre of nowhere.

Later the afternoon I boarded my flight back to Tahiti and modern civilisation. I'd enjoyed a remarkable three days on Rapa Nui, the home of the world's most remarkable statues. Thank you NASA. I couldn't have done it without you. Who would have imagined that the American space program would have an impact in a place like this.

Sunday, September 23

Blenheim Palace

King Charles II of Spain died in 1700 without an heir. He left behind an empire at its zenith, covering the nation of Spain, dominions in Italy, the Low Countries and the Americas. Two European dynasties claimed the throne; the Bourbons of France and the Habsburgs of Austria. However, before he died King Charles bequeathed his empire to Philip, duc d'Anjou, a grandson of King Louis XIV in France. Philip’s father was Louis, le Grand Dauphin, heir apparent to the French throne. Louis was also the most direct legitimate successor to the Spanish throne.

The Austrian and English monarchy opposed secession falling to the French royal family. Both were concerned that the royal families of Spain and France would eventually be ruled by a single heir, destabilising the delicate balance of power in Europe. As a result, they went to war in conflict that became known as the War of Spanish Succession.

For more than 13 years conflict raged across Europe and the Americas. The greatest of these was the Battle of Blenheim fought outside the small Bavarian village of Blindheim. Here, on August 13, 1704, the French army was soundly defeated by an allied army under the command of John Churchill (who later became the Duke of Marlborough). The battle proved to be a turning point as it denied the French swift victory over the Hapsburg dynasty. In time Philip V of Spain renounced any future claim to the French throne and peace was restored.

As a mark of gratitude, Queen Anne of England, granted the Duke of Marlborough a large tract of land just north of Oxford and £240,000 to build a suitable house. The building that was eventually constructed became known as Blenheim Palace. Today Garry and I decided to explore this grand Baroque mansion. We were prompted in action by stunning images we’d seen on television earlier in the week. The BBC is currently screening a reality show in which couples compete to open and retain their own restaurant. The format is modeled closely on the Australian show, “My Restaurant Rules,” which ran for two sessions in 2004-5.

Garry and I joined a tour that took us through Blenheim Palace’s majestic state rooms, culminating in the Grand Library. Here you can admire an enormous pipe organ, the largest such instrument in private hands anywhere in Europe. We also learnt that the palace is the ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister.

Churchill was born here in 1874. Today, you can walk through the bedroom he was born in. It's furnished with a simple brass bedstead and simple Victorian water jugs. Less than a mile away lies Sir Winston's grave. He is buried in the family plot on the grounds of a nearby church at Blandon. You can glimpse the church's spire from the palace windows.

Other highlights of our day included a refreshing stroll through the palace grounds, admiring the picture-perfect boating lake, rose garden and water garden. The palace also affords stunning views of the ground’s other attraction; the towering column of victory that crowns a neighbouring hill. Access is made possible via a grand arch bridge that crosses a narrow reach on the boating lake.

We finished our day trip with three more excursions. The first was a wander through the Yew hedge maze on edge the palace grounds. The second was a brief visit to Blandon to see the grave of Sir Winston Churchill. Bladon's local church sits on a hill surrounded by old stone-walled houses. Reaching it requires some deft manoeuvring through narrow, sloping village lanes lined by towering stone walls.

The final excursion was an early evening stroll through the nearby streets of Oxford. This was a magic experience. As the sun began to set, its dying rays lit up the town’s dusty sandstone buildings. This was our first visit to the historic university town. We’ll definitely be back to enjoy more of its stunning architecture.

Saturday, September 22

WAGs, chavs and the Home Counties

Every culture has its own lexicon, capturing the character of its people and their communities. Like any newcomer, Garry and I have struggled to learn the lingo. Names and places still confound me in conversation. People talk to me about the home countries, Essex or Sussex and I struggle to picture their location in my mind. The names of celebrities and old television programs are a particularly common source of blank stares from both of us. Equally we hear terms in every day conversation that mean absolutely nothing.

ASBO was one such phrase that confounded me for months until I finally googled it in desperation. Two other phrases also took some time to comprehend. The first was WAGs and the second, chavs.

WAGs is a term that came into common use last Summer. For once, Garry and I were at the forefront of modern language. The term was created by the nation’s tabloids to describe the Wives And Girlfriends of the English national football team. These significant others went on tour with the team during last year's World Cup. They became notorious for spending their days shopping, partying and lounging by the pool with a cocktail in hand. Today the term references any glamorous female partner living the high life by socialising and shopping. It also tends to have a rather vacuous, ‘bimbo’ connotion.

Chav is a far less complimentary term. It’s the British equivalent of “white trash” or “trailer trash”. Kath and Kim would probably drift perilously close to the category of chav from time to time. In the UK, a stereotypical chav is most likely a working class person who enjoys wearing a tracksuit, hooded sweatshirt, or a baseball cap to the mall. They’re also likely to be a fan of chunky, imitation gold jewelry and hip-hop music.

As for the home counties? These are the counties that border the city of London. Essex is one, sitting directly north-east of London; while Sussex sits due south along the Channel coastline. Between Sussex and the city lies another county called Surry. The term home county draws its origins from 900 year old tradition. Judges from the King’s court use to travel through London’s neighbouring area dispensing justice on behalf of the monarchy. This roving team ensures that disputes and cases were heard more frequently, as well as eliminating the need to travel to London to have such matters resolved.

Friday, September 21

Farewell to highway robbery

Long time readers of The Swiss Cottage may recall last year’s post about the 100% profit vending machines located at Baker Street tube station. In recent weeks, all of the vending machines at Baker Street suddenly vanished. A mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. While the chocolate vending machine never won my heart, I am mourning the machine on Platform 6 that’s faithfully dispensed icy cold bottles of Coke Zeros for more than a year.

After extensive research I finally uncovered the story behind their removal. London Underground is simply trying to increase the available platform area as passenger numbers continue to grow. Some station platforms are barely two metres wide so every extra inch makes a real difference. I also learnt that the vending machines were designed with sloping roofs for security reasons and not for aesthetics as I’d previously imagined. The slope prevents people leaving items on top of the machine.

Security considerations are behind other design features I've noticed on the Underground. For example, platform benches are bolted directly to the wall so that it's easier to check underneath for foreign devices. Likewise, litter bins are nowhere to be found. They were removed from the Underground in the 1980s in response to IRA bombing campaigns, only to return in the 1990s. They were subsequently removed again as new security concerns arose at the end of the Millennium.

Monday, September 17

Watching the world glide by

On August 1st 1820 the Regent’s Canal opened for business at a cost of £772,000 - twice the original estimate. It linked the Grand Junction Canal with the Thames River at Limehouse, next to Canary Wharf. The opening of this 14 km canal created an uninterrupted waterway between London and Birmingham, more than 220 kms to the north.

Regent's Canal starts in a picturesque basin called Little Venice, a short walk from Paddington Station. It then passes through a 251 metre brick-lined tunnel, the Maida Hill Tunnel, before looping around Regent Park to Camden. This initial section opened in 1816. The remaining route across London’s northern suburbs opened two years later.

I learnt today that rubble from the Maida Hill Tunnel was used to build sections of Lords Cricket Ground. It’s one of three tunnels on the canal. The longest is Islington Tunnel (886 metres) situated east of Camden. The canal also contains 13 locks, the first of which can be found at Camden itself, a brisk 20-minute walk from Swiss Cottage.

Earlier today I caught Jason’s Canal Boat from Camden for a leisurely 45-minute cruise to Little Venice. Having walked sections of the canal, watching barges glide by, I thought it was time to experience the ride for myself. As our boat pulled away from an aging red brick warehouse we stepped back in time. With a little imagination one could almost see the horses lining the towpath, rather than today’s weekend pedestrians. Incredibly, the last horse-drawn cargo made its way along the canal as late as 1956.

It’s hard to imagine the heavy traffic that once plied these waters. In its first year of operation the canal carried more than 120,000 tons of cargo. In time the railways overtook the nation’s canal network as its primary cargo mover. In fact, during the 19th Century, several attempts were made to drain Regent's Canal and convert it into a railway line. Fortunately, these plans never became reality. Today the canal wanders through some of the greenest scenery in central London, passing beautiful mansions and colourful moored canal boats long since converted into floating homes.

I disembarked at Little Venice, making the most of the warm sunny weather by quietly ambling back along the towpath towards Primrose Hill and home. It’s afternoon’s like this that remind me how wonderful life is in North London.

Sunday, September 16

A dingo's got my baby

I overheard a conversation today regarding the disappearance of Madeline McCann. This happy three-year old toddler from the UK went missing on May 3 at a holiday resort in Praia da Luz, Portugal. Maddie’s parents claim she was abducted from her hotel room while they dined at a nearby resort cafe. However, ten days ago headlines took a dramatic turn. The media began reporting that the Portuguese police now believe Kate McCann accidentally killed her daughter with an overdose of sleeping pills.

As I listened this afternoon one punter was adamant Kate was guilty. “Every time I see her she has the stoic look of someone that thinks she’ll get away with it,” he said. It would seem Maddie’s mother has already been convicted in at least one court of popular opinion. Meanwhile the nation's tabloids accuse the Portuguese authorities of incompetence, claiming they're framing the McCann in order to bring this high profile case to a close.

Since Maddie’s disappearance, her parents have conducted an extensive public relations campaign to keep their daughter’s image in the public eye. Her face was displayed on screens at the UEFA Football Cup final, on Spanish television ads filmed with David Beckham and in news stories of a pilgrimage to meet the pope at the Vatican. It’s been hard not to see Maddie's image on weekly basis.

As the investigation changes tone I cannot help wondering if another tragic Lindy Chamberlain story is unfolding. Lindy claimed her baby, Azaria, was taken by a dingo from a camping ground in the shadow of Ayers Rock in Central Australia. News stories were initially sympathetic until the police investigation concluded Lindy had killed her child. In a controversial decision, she was eventually convicted and imprisoned for 18 months.

Shortly after her release in 1986 a judicial inquiry found the evidence against the Chamberlains to be insubstantial. Lindy later received $1.3 million compensation from the government for wrongful imprisonment. Switch to the UK, 21 year later. With so much speculation and contradictory information now flooding the airwaves its hard not to wonder if history is repeating.

Saturday, September 15

The hell that is Heathrow

Heathrow is never far from the news in London. As the city’s largest and busiest airport it struggles to cope with a growing volume of air travelers. Headlines abound on cancelled flights, stranded passengers and lost luggage. Rarely is the news positive for Europe’s busiest airport. In fact, good news these days, still sounds rather bad. Last week, BAA, the airport’s operator said that Heathrow had come through the hectic summer travel season with its lowest level of disruption in five years.

This was probably little comfort to the one in 35 British Airways passengers who luggage was lost between April and June. At one point the backlog of lost luggage became so bad the airline began shipping lost luggage to a processing facility in Milan. It claimed this facility would reunite passengers and luggage faster than facilities at Heathrow. At the time I recall seeing literally thousands of bags piled on the tarmac . Not a sight you really want to see as you wait to board your flight.

It's hardly surprisingly to learn that, in July, the Association of European Airlines (AEA) called British Airways the worst performing of all Europe’s major airlines. The association said that the airline's passengers are likely to be delayed more than any other. It also forecast that British Airways will lose a record 1.3 million bags this year. I believe them. I rarely arrive at Heathrow on schedule and have lost my luggage at least once in the last 18 months. Check-in is an equal nightmare. I am forever fighting my way through crowds surging in the opposite direction, or being jostled by some errant trolley.

The problem is obvious. Over the years four separate terminals have been built at Heathrow, collectively designed to process 45 million passengers a year. However, as of August, the airport had handled 67.2 million passengers in the previous 12 months. In August a staggering 6.4 million passengers used Heathrow, a record for the month. By comparison, in July, Hong Kong airport handled 4.39 million passengers and Frankfurt, a mere 5.2 million.

Given this situation British Airways admits that there’s little it can do to improve service until the new Terminal 5 opens next March. This new building will handle an additional 30 million passengers a year, increasing Heathrow’s peak capacity to 90 million passengers. Approval has also been granted for construction to begin in 2008 on a building that replaces the airport’s two oldest terminal buildings. The new building, Heathrow East, will process 30 million passengers a year. This is the same volume as the structures it replaces, but will offer far greater comfort. It's scheduled to open in time for the London Olympics in 2012.

I cannot wait for these two buildings to open. Heathrow is by far the most inadequate airport complex I regularly negotiate. I was reminded how horrible the experience was last week when I returned from a trip to Madrid. Rather than arriving at Heathrow, I caught a flight into London City Airport, a small commuter airport on the edge of the London Docklands. The transfer from airport to tube was seamless and easy, without a single crowd to jostle me. It took less than an hour from disembarking to arrival on the doorstep of home. I’ll definitely be using London City airport again!

Thursday, September 13

Retail therapy UK style

Every so often I am reminded that London really isn’t Sydney, and England really isn’t Australia. It’s small things that refresh your memory. Public holidays are always called Bank Holidays. The main street of any town or suburb is called the High Street, regardless of its actual name. Fiery Indian curries are the nation’s most popular Asian dish, rather than the light, fresh ingredients of Thai dishes I enjoyed in Sydney. Mail is still delivered on a Saturday. Shopping malls aren’t the primary mode of retail therapy.

There is one retail concept I still can’t get my head around. I’m talking of Argos . This is simply a department store that sells its wares using nothing more than rows and rows of catalogs dumped on simple wooden reading stands. This has to be one of the most quintessentially English retail traditions that I ever encountered.

Incredibly, Argos is the largest general goods retailer in the country. It operates 680 stores, each of which consists of an open hall populated by catalogues. Rather than wander through departments stocked with furniture, clothing and homewares; customers simply thumb through a giant book that lists 18,000 products.

Once you find your desired item, you take the stock number to a cashier who then arranges collection at an instore desk, or via home delivery. At first I thought Argos’ entire range was only available on home delivery. However, when Garry went to buy a new microwave in June he discovered that most stores hold at least 10,500 lines onsite in a hidden warehouse.

In effect, Argos is a traditional department store that’s simply done away with the floor space required to display traditional showroom samples. I find it staggering that UK consumers prefer to thumb through a dog-eared catalogue in an austere, slightly worn hall rather than visit a more conventional department store.

While I can’t imagine the concept working in Australia, it clearly works here. Argos processed more than 134 million transactions in its last financial year, generating profits of £325 million on sales of £4.16 billion. An astonishing 70% of UK households shopped at Argos over the same period. I guess our humble microware is in there somewhere.

Wednesday, September 12

A tribute to endurance

In four week time Garry and I celebrate the second anniversary of our departure from Australia. It’s hard to believe that two years have passed. It feels like only last week that we flew out over Sydney Harbour on our way to a new life in Europe. Memories of our arrival at Paddington Station three months later feel equally fresh. So much has happened since that things blend into a blur. Thank goodness for this blog!

Like any relocation our experience has had its many highs and lows. Garry’s first year was particularly challenging. It took him almost 12 months to find permanent employment. Only in more recent times was he finally able to return to his preferred mode of employment as truly independent contractor. This stability has been a long time coming for Garry – too long I’m sure he would say.

Prospects look increasingly positive for Garry to continue contracting for at least another year. His patience has been legendary through all of these trials. I’m sure I would have been far less patient and understanding. Hopefully the future now looks brighter for both of us as our second year draws to a close.

Monday, September 10

Cultural Madrid

Plaza de la Villa is home to Madrid’s splendid town hall, Casa de la Villa. On Tuesday evening I wandered through the plaza enroute to dinner at a local flamenco venue. I was thrilled to encounter a cobblestone space lit by subtle green and lavender floodlights. All in all, this proved to be a wonderfully uplifting moment during last week’s business trip.

Construction of this neoclassic, baroque structure began in 1644 and continued for more than 52 years. Its similarity to nearby Plaza Mayor, the traditional centre of Madrid, is no accident. Buildings in both plazas are largely the work of the same man, Juan Gómez de Mora. Surprisingly, the building once served as the local prison and town hall. The main left-hand door led to the prison, while the right-hand door to the assembly hall.

Five minutes walk from Casa de la Villa is Plaza Mayor. This majestic square was originally planned by Felipe II and his architect Juan de Herrera. However, its final shape was created by Juan Gómez de Mora and inaugurated in 1620 during Felipe III's reign. Today a bold statue of Felipe III sits in the centre of the square, a striking reminder that Spain was once a wealthy, global power.

Over the years, the square has had many different names. It was originally the site of the "Plaza del Arrabl" market, taking this name before becoming the Plaza Mayor. Over time it was known as Plaza de la Constitución, Plaza Real and Plaza de la República before reverting to its current name following the Spanish Civil War. As you’d expect, the enclosed space has seen its share of public spectacles including executions, coronations, bullfights, Inquisition trials and fiestas. On Tuesday, it simply echoed to the sound of locals enjoying outdoor cafes nestled in the shadows of its floodlit walls.

The classical buildings of Madrid certainly leave a lasting impression. However, its public artwork constantly captured my imagination. The first such work can be found at Plaza de Oriente. This ornate garden plaza frames the equally spectacular Royal Opera building. Along its edge run two rows of white marble statues. These are the 44 monarchs who have ruled the Iberian peninsula since Gothic times. Each was originally crafted as an ornamental rooftop sculpture for the neighbouring Palacio Real, or Royal Palace. However, concern over the combined weight of this artwork meant that none were never hoisted into place.

Beyond the Palace sits the city’s cathedral. I was captivated by a small Madonna and Child that sit a top the building's central portico, more than 70 metres above the street.

In a nearby laneway can be found one of the city’s quirkiest sculptures. On Cuesta de la Vega you stumble across the remains of the city’s old arab walls, dating from the 9th Century. Each crumbling foundation is protected from the elements by a low glass cover that resembles a skylight cut into the pavement. At the end of one enclosure a lone man stands silently viewing the glass. It took me several minutes to realize he was in fact a bronze statue.

To complete our cultural experience on Tuesday evening, we dined at Casa Patas, a popular flamenco dance venue. Here we watched an incredibly talented couple dance passionately on a dimly lit wooden stage. At times their feet were a blur as they tapped out the bold energetic steps of the famous Castillian dance. Dinner was equally memorable. The restaurant’s wall was decorated by rows of cured meats, some of which hung at the end of the bar, ready to be carved into delicious platters of Spanish tapas. It’s the small things that bring a city to life.