Tuesday, November 30

Scottish envy

We were promised "up to five centimetres" of snow overnight. However, we've woken to barely one centimetre and largely snow-free roads and footpaths. It seems a little unfair that Scotland gets inundated this week with more than 20 centimetres of snow while we get little more than a light dusting. All is not lost as the Met Office is promising at least six hours of heavy snow starting from 8am this morning. The flurries have definitely started garthering pace outside in the last 15 minutes so we may yet receive a hearty winter covering.

I've also noticed that tomorrow's high will be -2°C, while the overnight temperature on Thursday will drop to -4°C. I've never seen so many minus signs in a London weather forecast! Given that the first official day of winter starts tomorrow I'd say the weather is clearly playing its part. I also love the idea of finishing our London adventure with snow on the ground.

A chilly reception

The cold weather continues unabated. For the last five days we’ve woken to new images of snow smothering Northern England and Scotland. Photos show ground cover at least knee-deep after five days of steady snowfall. It’s the heaviest November snow cover for more than 17 years. In Austria my brother says snow is now falling in Kitzbuhel's town centre, not just on the surrounding hills. Garry and I are thrilled. We’re guaranteed a spectacular winter wonderland for our eight-day train tour through the Alps next month.

Until now London has been spared the snow. Instead we’ve endured day after day of literally freezing temperatures. The Met Office helpfully declared last Saturday as the UK’s coldest November day for 25 years. However, our turn for snow has finally arrived. Tomorrow we’ll be waking to almost five centimeters of snow, with new falls continuing throughout day. Even better temperatures will drop late-afternoon to -2°C, accompanied by bitterly cold winds. More snow is forecast follow in days ahead.

Here at Swiss Cottage the cold snap’s impact is increasingly evident. Mid-afternoon yesterday we found our car still covered in frost as we ventured out to the Supermarket. This morning I discovered the entire boating lake in Regents Park had frozen over as I walked to work. We’ve also had the central heating cranked up every evening yet still feel a need to throw on the occasional sweater.

Today our winter woes were added to as the tube endured the fourth network-wide strike in as many months. As a result every local tube station was closed forcing me to walk 20 minutes to Baker Street to catch a working line (hence my icy discovery in Regents Park). At 8.00am the temperature was exactly zero, not what I consider ideal conditions for walking. My freezing walkabout was repeated this evening as strike action kept our local station closed. I was forced to travel an extra stop and back-track home by foot. Fortunately the temperature had climbed to a more comfortable 1°C.

Monday, November 29

Shop until your fingers hurts

We’ve less than two weeks remaining in London. As I reflect on over the last five years I can see several lifestyle changes that have evolved progressively over time. Perhaps the most revolutionary change has been the growing volume of shopping we’ve done online.

In Australia we rarely bought anything online beyond the occasional book, air ticket or hotel reservation. We generally visited showrooms and stores in person to view and purchase almost everything, even if we’d conducted some initial online research. This practice was made easier by the fact that most stores can be found in malls and showrooms, often concentrated in industrial parks.

London has few such malls; instead shops tend to cluster randomly along suburban high streets. Industrial parks in a city the size of London also tend to be highly distributed, rarely anywhere close in the inner city. This retail landscape generally makes visiting a store or showroom impractical. A store can easily be located more than 30 miles away on the opposite side of the city. Driving there typically involves running a gauntlet of heavy traffic through narrow, randomly routed streets. It’s a stressful experience consuming most of the day.

As a result, shopping online soon becomes a far easier proposition. Over the last five years we’ve begun buying more and more merchandise online; groceries, linen, computer supplies, digital cameras, saucepans and small furniture items. Shopping online has also exposed us to a richer variety of options for even the most common of purchases, often at a price that cannot be matched in-store. I suspect we may never shop the same way again once we’re back in Australia.

Online retailers claim last Monday was their busiest shopping day ever as consumers spent an unbelievable £537 million over a 24-hour period. The burst of online spending reflected the last guaranteed delivery date for most retailers before Christmas Day. According to the Centre for Retail Research, between now and Christmas, UK consumers will spend an estimated £11.6 billion on internet shopping – up 29% over last year.

However,while we may be shopping online more than ever, I suspect that retailers on London’s Oxford and Regent Streets aren’t too concerned. Yesterday traffic was banned from both streets turning the central city into a giant pedestrian zone for a day. New reports claim that at least one million Christmas shopper had spent more than £200 million by the time the tills closed.

Sunday, November 28

Somerset House

Christmas in London wouldn’t be complete without visit to the ice skating rink at Somerset House. It’s a spectacular winter venue located on the Stand. The floodlit rink sits in the courtyard of a dramatic 18th Century neo-classic building. Skaters book 30-minute sessions on the ice, often weeks in advance. I was happy to come along just to soak up the scene and enjoy the Christmas spirit. The tree alone was worth this evening’s bitter cold walk from the tube station.

The current building was completed in 1801, more than 25 years after the first foundation stone was laid. It was constructed on the site of an earlier Tudor Palace and was designed to house several Government offices and society institutions under one roof. The most prominent of these was the Navy Office in the South Wing. Its offices received the most elaborate interior of the entire complex, reflecting Britain’s preeminence as the world’s naval superpower.

This evening we dined at Tom’s Kitchen in the South Wing. The sense of history was everywhere as we ate Chateaubriand and Baked Alaska beneath a soaring high ceiling, framed by arched picture windows overlooking the Thames. Perhaps the most poignant moment came mid-evening as I stood in dramatic staircase in the southwest corner of the building. Known as Nelson’s Stairs, they lead to the Naval meeting rooms where Lord Nelson himself once met to debate British naval strategy. Awe inspiring!

Friday, November 26

Dry run for Antarctica

For several days the Met Office has warned of a cold snap descending on the country. In the last 24 hours its prediction has come to pass. Tomorrow we're looking forward to a high of 1°C, at least eight degrees below average. Overnight temperatures will fall to -3°C over the weekend and Monday's high won't make it above zero. We're told these Arctic temperatures will be with us for at least another ten days.

On a whim I googled the five-day forecast for Esperanza Research Base on the Antarctica Peninsula (see below). Emilio Palma, the first person ever born in Antarctica, began his life here. We'll be cruising in the general neighbourhood over Christmas. Its overnight temperature is forecast to fall as low as -1°C overnight. London is predicting the same low a few hours from now. Over the weekend Esperanza will enjoy afternoon highs of 4°C, at least a degree warmer than London. Clearly, next week's commute to work will be an ideal dry run for our forthcoming cruise. Who would have guessed?

UPDATE - Friday, November 26
It's 8.00pm and the temperature has plunged. Right now its 0°C outside. By midnight we're expecting the mercury to fall below -2°C. Earlier today the Met Office issued an early warning for blizzards to sweep into London on Tuesday and continue on into Wednesday. Further North snow has already been falling for 36 hours accumulating to a depth of more than 20cms in Scotland and Northern England.

Tuesday, November 23

Abu Dhabi photo highlights

I've finally downloaded photos from my recent Abu Dhabi stopover. You view some of the visual highlights by clicking here.

Monday, November 22

Twenty days and counting

Garry and I are cramming in a few final highlights before we depart London for good. We've debated the merits of various restaurants and West End shows, as well as a few seasonal sights such as the picturesque ice rink at Somerset House. The number of missing experiences we're able to list after five years here is rather surprising; and varied. This weekend's outings alone proved a rather eclectic mix.

Last night we caught the train down to Kew Gardens for dinner at the french-style The Glasshouse. I has a business dinner scheduled here on the night that Garry's appendix burst. Instead of enjoying a Michelin star meal I found myself frantically paging the resident on duty as Garry writhed in agony. My boss later took took pity on me and arrange a dining voucher that ultimately funded much of last night's bill. The meal was trully heavenly. We both ordered the venison main course and loved it.

Today we ventured into Oxford Street to make the most of an early sale at a popular hiking and outdoor emporium. We bought all of our last minute gear for Antarctica including warm socks, waterproof gloves and thermal underwear. We're now kitted out and ready to go penguin spotting. Afterwards we finished our outing with a look at the annual Christmas Lights along Oxford Street . This year's theme is quintessentially British thanks to a series of umbrella's hovering over the street.

Next weekend we've booked a table at Tom's Kitchen, a new Brasserie that recently in Somerset House. We thought that enjoying a hearty meal as ice skaters glide by would be a magical winter experience we're unlikely to replicate in Sydney.

UPDATE: November 22
The Met Office is warning of possible snow showers next weekend. Our forthcoming winter wonderland experience at Somerset House may end up being more authentic than originally anticipated.

Saturday, November 20

Three days in Bucharest

For more than 21 years communist president, Nicolae Ceausescu, ruled Romania with an iron fist. He ruthlessly suppressed all opposition with the help of a secret police service known as the Securitate, while simultaneously promoting a sycophantic personality cult among the general population. At its peak the Securitate operated the largest network of spies and informants in Eastern Europe.

On 22 December 1989, Ceausescu was overthrown in a violent revolution. This was the last of popular uprisings against communist rule that had swept across eastern Europe that year. He subsequently fled the capital, Bucharest, only to be captured a few hours later. Three days later he and his wife Elena were summarily tried and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day.

Ceausescu’s end came remarkably swiftly. It began ten days earlier in the western city of Timisoara with demonstrations against the harassment of a dissident ethnic-Hungarian priest, Laszlo Tokes. The protests grew rapidly in size. Within hours chanted slogans like "We want bread" turned into bolder cries such as "Down with Ceausescu".

Ceausescu was enraged; even more so when army and Securitate generals ignored orders to shoot protestors. He personally ordered troops to fire on the Timisoara demonstrators. More than a hundred were killed. News of the tragedy spread and soon mass protests were erupting in other Romanian cities. In an attmept to restore order, on 21 December, Ceausescu stage-managed a show of support for his government in Bucharest's main square. As he’d done many times before, he bused people into town to hear him speak and chant their adoration.

However, things went disastrously wrong. The crowd interrupted his speech soon after it began with increasingly bold jeers and chants. The incident was broadcast on national television before transmission was interupted by the censors. However the damage was done and the following morning Ceausescu fled by helicopter as fighting broke out between rival factions.

According to Wikipedia, 1,104 people died over a ten-day period. At least 162 were killed in protests that led to the overthrow of Ceauşescu (December 16–22, 1989) and 942 in the fighting that occurred after the seizure of power by the National Salvation Fornt (FSN). In May 1990, less than six months after the revolution, I was lucky enough to spend three weeks travelling in Romania. I saw for myself hastily erected memorials to the dead in Timosoara, building riddled with bullet holes in Bucharest and thousands of troops and tanks guarding the headquarters of the National Salvation Front. However, it’s the abject poverty I witnessed that’s stuck with me most in the years since.

This poverty was the result of a draconian austerity program Ceausescu had launched in 1980, designed pay off Romania’s national debt within ten years. Vast chunks of economic production destined for domestic consumption were diverted for export, plunging the population into painful shortages and increasing hardship. The Romanian TV channels were reduced to one channel which transmitted only 2 hours per day. Electricity was interrupted for hours, mostly at night. Repairs of basic infrastructure ground to a halt as spare parts disappeared. There were long lines at the grocery stores.

It’s somewhat ironic that Romania paid of the last of its external debts of US$11 billion in early 1989. However, the austerity measures didn’t come to end. Instead, funds were being diverted to pay for megalomanic projects, such as the construction of the grandiose House of the Republic (today the Palace of the Parliament), the biggest palace in the world, and the future Communism and Ceausescu's Museum, known today the Casa Radio.

Having witnessed these hardships for myself I was keen to return and see what impact two decades of progress had made on Bucharest. Sadly, the scars of Ceausescu’s brutal economic policies are still very evident. Much of the city remains in a state of decay and disrepair. It’s a sad sight as Bucharest contains many grand neo-classical buildings and hundreds of acres of parkland. However, economic revival is slowly reclaiming parts of the city. I’m sure it will be almost unrecognisable in another decade.

Garry and I spend almost three days exploring Bucharest from our base at the Marriott Hotel. From here we ventured out to see the Palace of the Parliament, the Lipscani district or old town and explore the city’s many parks. Without doubt the most enduring highlight of our weekend excursion was the Palace of the Parliament. This enormous building dominates the city. It sits on a low hill and is the largest building in Europe and the world’s second largest administrative building, second only to the Pentagon. Ceausescu conceived it to house all of the organs of his communist government under one roof, thus concentrating his power and improving coordination between departments.

In 1989, when Ceausescu fell, the building was only partially complete leaving the post-communist government in a quandary. With the nation improvised and seeking economic advancement, the incomplete building was a serious drain on the nation’s coffers. Officials explored the option of demolishing the hated complex. However, the cost of demolishing proved greater than the cost of simply completing the building and so its construction continued, albeit at a much slower pace. Parliament eventually relocated to the building in 2006, but more than half of the building still remains idle.

Garry and I joined a tour of the building on our second day in town. It’s an opulent venue. We saw room after room of gilded ceilings, carved marble and colonnaded hallways. When you see such decadence it’s not hard to understand why the Romanian people hate Ceausescu so passionately. This vain edifice was being built at a time when the average citizen couldn’t find fresh milk and eggs in their local store. Perhaps the only redeeming feature of the building is the stunning view across Bucharest from its rooftop.

Garry and I also ventured into town to see the site of Ceausescu’s final ill-fated broadcast. Piaţa Palatului, now known as Revolution Square, contains several memorials to the 1989 revolution. A white marble triangle, with the inscription Glorie martirilor nostri (Glory to our martyrs), sits in front of the former Central Committee building pointing to the low balcony from which Ceausescu spoke. Nearby a soaring obelisk immortalises the dead. It’s not a particularly large square and so it’s hard to image the area filled with angry protesters.

Our final morning in town was spent wandering through Parcul Carol, or Carol Park. During the communist era it was called Liberty Park and housed the tombs of Romania’s most prominent communist leaders. Today the mausoleum is empty, but its site is still marked by a dramatic 49-metre monument called the “Monument of the Heroes for the Freedom of the People and of the Motherland, for Socialism.”

In 1991 the mausoleum and the monument were transformed into a memorial for the Unknown Soldier. Remains from an unidentified World War I solider were subsequently entombed by an eternal flame that once burned in memory of workers killed fighting for socialism. The monument sits on a low hill, reached by an impressive series of broad stairs. From its summit the view is dominated by the nearby Palace of the Parliament. While Ceausescu may have been dead for twenty years, the legacy of his regime endures.

Friday, November 19

A royal wedding

As you can imagine local headlines have been filled for the last two days with news of a royal wedding next year. Prince William, second in line for the British throne, has finally popped the question to his long-time girlfriend, Kate Middleton. Preparations are now well underway for plenty of royal pageantry next Spring or Summer. They'll tie the knot almost thirty years to day after William's parents were married at St Pauls Cathedral. I cannot believe we're going to miss the entire spectacle.

Commentators are going crazy debating the venue they'll chose, the designer of Kate's dress and even the exact date they'll walk down the aisle. Debate is also raging over how spectacular the wedding should be during an era of austerity budgets and negative equity. I've already seen reports suggesting the event could cost up to 50 million once security arrangements are accounted for.

Thursday, November 18

Abu Dhabi for a day

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is a rather low-key, conservative city when compared with its larger, brasher neighbour. While Dubai has focused on lavish, fun-filled construction projects, Abu Dhabi has quietly invested in a series of more refined, cultural pursuits. For example, it’s built a spectacular Formula One circuit and will soon unveil a stylish Guggenheim Museum. The constrast between these two cities is evident the moment you step off an airplane. I certainly noticed it when I stopped in Abu Dhabi for day while enroute to Malaysia for work.

My flight arrived shortly after dawn at Abu Dhabi’s recently expanded international airport. It's a modest but modern affair, but nothing like the extravagant architectural icon Dubai has built. Likewise, the skyline was dotted with more modest structures, fewer glitzy malls and relatively plain public spaces.

Joining me for a day in Abu Dhabi was Angela, a colleague from London. Yas Island, ten minutes from the airport, was our first stop. We’d booked a room at the recently opened Yas Hotel to give ourselves a comfortable base. This is an incredible venue. Several months ago I watched a National Geographic documentary heaping praise on its innovative design and construction.

The hotel literally straddles Abu Dhabi’s Formula One circuit on the southern shores of Yas Island. On race day you sit at the hotel’s rooftop bar and watch the race pass underneath. The entire building is covered by a spectacular lattice frame which acts as a giant sunshade, protecting its interior from the searing desert heat. Our hotel room sat at the base of the lattice, overlooking the race track and the island’s luxury marine that flanks it.

After a brief nap we ventured downstairs for breakfast and soon found ourselves soaking up the morning sun at table that overlooked the Formula One circuit. The hotel really does offer the best view of the city’s Grand Prix. Sadly, we were early as the race was scheduled to start a week later. We then retired to the rooftop bar for a cold drink and another unrivaled view of the race track.

Shortly before midday we made our way to Abu Dhabi’s newest attraction; Ferrari World. It’s the world’s largest indoor amusement park and had opened only seven days earlier. Try to imagine, if you can, Sydney’s Luna Park inside a large, spacious building. Impressive stuff. The theme park’s interior measures 86,000 square metres (930,000 sq ft), covered by a soaring, 50 metres (160 ft) high roof.

Angela and her husband race second-hand Ferraris for a hobby so this was one venue we couldn’t pass up. Unfortunately, many of the attractions were rather lame and lacking imagination – with one exception. The theme park is home to Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller coaster. In 4.9 seconds this ride accelerates to 240 kilometres per hour (150 mph). Believe me – it’s fast!

Passengers in the front seats have to wear goggles to protect their eyes. I sat in the second row but still had to close my eyes at times as the wind pressure became too intense. We rode Formula Rossa twice and I’m still unsure which ride was more terrifying. This video gives you a good sense of what it’s like.

The remainder of our day was spent driving through Abu Dhabi’s commercial heart, stopping breifly at it traditional shipyards and then making our way to the Emirates Palace Hotel. This enormous five-star hotel sits boldly on the city’s beachfront. It was the backdrop for second Sex in the City movie and it every bit as spectacular as Hollywood suggests. I swear we saw more Rolls Royces driving up the entrance over half an hour than I'd seen in my entire life to date. This is where Abu Dhabi's oil money hangs out.

We dined outdoors at the hotel’s beach BBQ restaurant. The food was exceptional – as was the final bill. This isn’t a discount venue by any stretch of the imagination. We then finished off our brief stopover with another nap at the Yas Hotel and headed back to the airport to catch a 2.45am flight.

Tuesday, November 16

Back from Bucharest

We're back. Our time in Bucharest was the perfect weekend away. The weather was unseasonally warm which made for perfect walking conditions. We stayed at the Marriott Hotel located opposite Bucharest's most famous building, the Presidental Palace. Our room offered a stunning view of this former Communist monolith. Every morning we'd pull back our curtain and be greeted by its overwhelming bulk. Stay tuned for a proper post soon!

Saturday, November 13

Hello Heathrow

I arrived back from Malaysia shortly after 6.30am this morning. It's been an eventful week. However, a detailed update will have to wait until next week as Garry and I are be heading back to Heathrow again in ten minutes time. We're off to Buchurest, Romania this evening where we'll celebrate Garry's birthday while enjoying our final weekend excursion as European residents. Watch for posts on Abu Dhabi and Romania next week, as well as an update on final preparation for our relocation back to Australia.

Saturday, November 6

Tropical fever

Tonight I fly to Malaysia, via Abu Dhabi, for a week-long company offsite. It's been more than two years since I was last in Malaysia. Temperatures are forecast to be at least 28C, with daily sunshine. As I look out the window here in Swiss Cottage I know where I'd rather be next week. The view today is a rain-soaked one with the trees looking decidedly shabby as the last of their leave fall.

I'm stopping over in Abu Dhabi for a most of Saturday. It'll be my first time in the city - as well as my first experience flying Etihad Airlines. I'm hoping to visit the recently opened Ferrari World theme park while in town. It's sure to have plenty of special events happening as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix starts less than eight days from now.

The decision to fly with Etihad rather than my usual stable of OneWorld airlines has proven unnervingly fortuitous. Yesterday Qantas grounded its entire Airbus A380 fleet after one the superjumbos suffered a dramatic engine failure near Singapore. While the aircraft landed safely, passengers were shocked to see large holes in the wing directly above the damaged engine. The grounding of the A380 fleet has thrown Kangaroo Route travel into chaos as flights are delayed or cancelled.

Wednesday, November 3

Tourists at play

Garry and I had some special guests staying with us this weekend. My brother Hamish and his family were town enjoying a week's vacation. Their vist was made all the more special by the realiaation that catching up with my Austrian sibling will become far less frequent once Garry and I are back in Sydney. Australia is a jolly long way away from Austria.

Yesterday I took a half day off work to play tourist with Hamish, Karin and the children. First on our list of activities was a flight on the iconic London Eye. Garry and I last ventured onto this popular attraction more than four years ago. The girls loved the experience - almost as much as our subsequent attempts to recreate the perfect tourist photo. It's rather tricky capturing your image on Westminter Bridge with both Big Ben and a double-decker red bus perfectly framed in the background.

As we rose to the Eye's highest point, 135 metres above the Thames River, the incomplete London Shard tower near London Bridge came into view. Construction of this unique structure, destinated to be the tallest building in Europe, is well advanced. The central concrete service core has already risen an impressive 200 metres above the city, almost two-thirds of its final height. It dominates the skyline and is clearly destinated to become an iconic structure.

After work we finished the day with an impressive home-cooked roast meal, washed down by limited vintage Californian champagne. Our culinary efforts were in honour of Hamish's birthday. Thank you Garry for all of your kichen magic. Over the course of our meal Hamish and I decided that it had been at least 25 years since we'd last celebrated a birthday together. we are now making plans to get together again in 2035 for our next face-to-face birthday celebration.