Thursday, October 30, 2008

Traveling With The Global Positioning System

We have been traveling for a fair number of weeks so far, and at all stages of the journey I've had my trusty GPS receiver turned on. Before I left, I loaded it with some free maps.

So has this been useful? You bet it has!
  • The OpenStreetMap maps contain useful points of interest, such as tourist attractions, railway stations and of course street names. The usefulness of this should be pretty obvious.
  • In a continent that relies so heavily on rail travel, it's absolutely critical that one knows when to get off a train. In fact if you have big heavy backpacks, you need to start getting ready to disembark several minutes before the train stops, otherwise you're in big trouble! Having the GPSr tell you that your railway station is only 2000 metres away is amazingly useful. Completely solves the 'Is This Our Stop?' question. In fact, this aspect alone has been worth carrying the GPSr around with us.
  • The 'estimated time to arrival' based on average velocity has proven to be a reasonably useful way to check the progress of a trip on trains and buses. It's not foolproof but it works well enough.
  • The ability to easily mark your current location is a great way to locate your hotel later that evening, especially as it wasn't dark when you left...
  • Barometric altimeter readings were useful today in deducing which track we were actually on in the Black Forest. It's also interesting to know you're eating a sandwich at 2,200 metres above sea level.
  • The GPSr remembers where you've been. It's like a really long ball of string - you can easily retrace your steps when necessary. This has been useful in big cities like Budapest and Rome.

The downsides? Well, you still need to carry real maps (GPS enhances but does not replace conventional map use) and batteries can be a pain at times. Also, the OpenStreetMap maps are, to put it nicely, "under development". However in the main towns and cities they tend to be pretty good.

For the record, we have a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx - the high-sensitivity version. It can pick up a satellite lock indoors, on trains, under wet tree cover and even inside aircraft cabins. Don't bother with the older models as I doubt they'll work inside trains.

Other travelers we've met have been rather ambivalent towards the technology unfortunately. However those that took an active interest in our unit quickly realised the power of such a device. The rest of them will probably survive in happy ignorance, at least until they miss their next critical train stop :)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

German Time Distortion Technology

In the famous movie "The Third Man", Orson Welles' character Harry Lime said:

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"

According to the Lonely Planet Germany 2007 edition, cuckoo clocks actually originated from the German Black Forest region. Not really very far from Switzerland actually. Anyway, Germany is well known for producing highly accurate instruments and time pieces.

In fact they are so good that they are able to distort time itself, creating some really odd temporal effects for observers from other time zones.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dominion Hype

For anyone reading this that cares...

I have heard that there is a lot of hype for Dominion. I played this at Spiel. I think the hype is unjustified. The game is not boring but it is uninspiring and repetitive. It also becomes less interesting as the game goes on.

This pretty much sums it up, and although I have only played it once, I agree on most points.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Köln & Trier

Yesterday we left Essen for Trier. On the way we thought we might stop in Köln (Cologne) for a few hours to buy a German Rail Pass and check out the Dom (cathedral).

Inside the Köln railway station there are these things - luggage teleporters. You put your luggage inside and it's beamed up to one of 17 orbiting storage stations. Later, you simply initiate a retrieval program and your luggage is beamed back down to you in 40 seconds or less. These Germans have everything sorted.

Then it's literally outside to look at the cathedral. They started building this in 1248 and didn't finish it until 1880. Perhaps the latest building project in European history? The locals call it Dauerbaustelle which translates "the eternal construction site".

It's very gothic.

Inside it has a very welcoming atmosphere and some lovely stained glass windows.

Oops - we appear to have a decoding error...

P and I firmly believe that one ought to climb things. Although we were only in Köln for a few hours, we knew we wouldn't feel complete until we'd climbed the tower. On the way we met St. Peter's Bell, the largest free-swinging bell in the known Universe. It weighs over 24 tons!

More construction? Once again, I have yet to see a major European monument without scaffolding on it somewhere.

Looking down on the Rhein.

We would have liked to have spent more than a couple of hours in Köln but one can only see and do a limited amount - so maybe next time.

We continued to Trier on a very slow train and arrived in the dark. We went out to eat at a local restaurant. We ordered something called Pizzasalat. It's a pizza with a huge salad dumped on top. Another tick for "Things To Do In Europe" I guess. I won't be surprised to see Pizzacereal at some stage.

This morning we headed out to explore. Trier is supposedly Germany's oldest town - it's an old Roman town on the banks of the Mosel (Moselle) River.

This is the Porta Nigra (Black Gate) - the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps (thanks Wikipedia).

It's autumn in Germany. The trees are displaying a magnificent range of colours and fallen leaves litter the ground almost everywhere. It's cool but not unpleasant unless you're outdoors and naked.

This afternoon we took a boat trip on the Mosel River. It's a very relaxing cruise (i.e. a bit dull) but it's also very picturesque and pleasant.

This is where tumbleweeds come from.

This photo is especially for Matt who requested it. I think this is a really good photo of P in her beanie, so it might be worth salvaging with Photoshop.

Why build a wharf when you can simply take it with you?

A lot of international shipping traffic uses the Mosel. Here's a boatload of licorice pieces destined for France.

They bring their cars with them for the drive home.

There are even vineyards right alongside the river. The grapes ripen on the vine and naturally fall onto the slopes, where they roll down into the river. The floating grapes are collected by specially designed hovercraft that suck rather than blow. They've been doing this since Roman times.

I don't know if you can tell but this is Eric Clapton with his guitar and a bongo drum.

Tomorrow we're going to hire a couple of bicycles and ride along the Saar river. After that we haven't really worked out where we want to go yet. We are thinking about taking a day cruise between Koblenz and Mainz (although P has just this minute discovered today was the last day of the season) and then spending a few days in the Black Forest region before heading to München and then finally Berlin.

We've been on the road now for six weeks - hard to imagine coming back to work to be honest! Thanks to everyone who takes the time to read this blog. A special thank you to those that leave a comment or send us an email. It's really encouraging to know that people are following our adventures back home. We hope that you are all well and looking after yourselves! :)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Essen Spiel!

Guten Tag!

We have just completed our two days at the world-famous boardgame exhibition "Spiel 2008" in Essen, Germany. We had a fantastic time. Those of you that know me and my wife will know that we enjoy playing certain types of boardgames with our friends. These games are sometimes known as "Euro" or "German Style" games. In fact, many are still designed in Germany although more and more they may be designed elsewhere in the world. The games often have little or no luck and require strategy and planning to succeed. Some are rather intellectual, some are just plain fun.

Anyway, "Spiel" is a massive 4-day boardgame trade and demonstration exhibition that is held every year in Essen. It's held at the Essen Messe which is a massive convention centre. I don't know the actual dimensions but imagine multiple football fields of space filled with stalls and exhibitions. It's really incredible. I read somewhere that over 140,000 people visit the exhibition over the four days! You can talk to the designers, artists and publishers, play many new and famous games, meet new people with similar interests, and of course buy some brand new or second-hand games!

We were really looking forward to being here...

We arrived a bit early but we already had tickets so we went into the waiting area... it was crowded so we waited over by the side. Suddenly, a security screen rose up and we found ourselves almost directly in front of the main doors! This is how it looked to me as the doorman held people back and the press inside looked on...

And this is how it looked to P ;)

At 10am the doors were opened and we were propelled by the happy and expectant crowd into the exhibition halls. We were actually amongst the first people inside, which was actually really exciting. Everything was bright and shiny!

Some larger publishers have areas for playing their games with anyone else around who is interested. I took this photo within minutes of entering and I´ve just noticed that we ended up meeting those people you see seated and playing some games with them over the two days. Quite a coincidence.

Here's a view of hall '4' - this is a smaller hall of which there were about six or seven in total.

P enjoying a game of Strozzi, a new game by Dr. Reiner Knizia. Interestingly, we visited all four cities shown on that game board in the last two weeks...

The publisher of "Leader 1" built this demo gameboard for Spiel - impressive stuff!

Here P pretends to have won a game of Wasabi... actually, she lost to me convincingly.

Here are the games we picked up... note carefully the cover of "Battle Line" in the bottom left... yes, some will know we already own Battle Line but it never hurts to have another copy, especially when it's personally signed by the Good Doctor himself, right? :)

Oh, here he is in person :)

If you don't know, that's Dr. Reiner Knizia, designer of over 200 eurogames, including the masterpiece Tigris & Euphrates. He quit his job in high finance to spend his time designing eurogames full time. He's almost a saint in these parts...

And some of you will recognise this guy (or his hair at least). Friedemann Friese is the designer of our favourite boardgame "Power Grid". He graciously agreed to a photograph with P. She was really chuffed!

And that's all from us in Essen. Tomorrow we head to Trier, via Cologne, for some wine tasting, maybe a boat trip, and perhaps a bit of mountain biking.

Ravenna, Italy to Essen, Germany

The following all sounds a bit dramatic but it was actually quite fun and we made it so no worries eh? :)

Two days ago we made the journey from Ravenna, Italy, to Essen, Germany. A distance of about 870 km. This turned out to be rather exciting...

We had planned it several weeks ago using the Trenitalia and Ryanair (more about them later) websites. We managed to break it down into a train ride to Bologna, then a train to Milano, then a bus to Bergamo airport, then a flight to Weeze near Düsseldorf, then a bus to Essen HBF (rail station) then an underground to Porscheplatz and then a short walk to our hotel. Easy huh?

We rose at 6am and walked to the Ravenna railway station for our 7:49 train. No problems. This train was on time, and got us to Bologna as expected. Unfortunately in Bologna there was utter chaos - one train delayed over 2 hours! Our connecting train (on which we had specific seats booked) was delayed 40 minutes. An earlier one hadn't even left yet. We watched rather nervously as the delay increased over time. We really had to make the bus connection at Milano otherwise we would arrive late at the airport. Anyway I made an executive decision and downgraded our ticket to a slower train that (provided it wasn't also delayed) would actually arrive 10 minutes earlier than our late train, if it didn't get any later.

If you followed that so far, stay with me.

Because we had no seat reserved on this new train, we had to sit in the aisle for a couple of hours. There are little fold-down seats so that wasn't too bad, but we had to get up every minute or two when people wanted to pass on their way to the bathroom. In the end I spent most of the time just standing. But we watched the scenery whizz by and had a good chat with each other.

Our bus from Milano was due to leave at midday. I've never known a train to move so slowly when only 200 metres from the final platform. The time was about 12:03 and when the doors opened we made a sprint for the bus terminal (carrying 20 kilos each, so not all that fast really).

Anyway, we missed the bus.

But we got another one at 12:30. This was scheduled to get us to the airport at 13:30. Ryanair have a notorious policy of closing check-in 40 minutes before departure (14:20, so 13:40 closure), so we figured we had 10 minutes to spare.

We arrived at the airport at 13:25. Yay. We got to check in. P's bag was 1 kg too heavy. Doh! The check-in girl gave me two options - go away and repack, or repack right there. There was a big queue behind us. I asked her when check-in closes. She said 5 minutes... so we repacked right there. Too bad for anyone else behind us I'm afraid but I'm sure they're over it now.

Turns out the plane was delayed by about an hour... this was putting our bus transfer at Weeze in jeopardy. While waiting to board someone leaned against one of the security doors and set off the alarm. Now we were waiting with a deafening siren. It turned off after about 10 minutes but nobody came running... amusing really. Everyone laughed at the poor guy.

Finally, we boarded. This brings me to the worst part of our entire day - the Ryanair "theme music" that they play incessantly as people board the plane. I really can't describe it other than a cross between a repetitive nursery rhyme tune and a polka. They played it over and over and over... arggg....

Then we flew to Weeze, quickly left the terminal (the Schengen Agreement is a wonderful thing - no passport check on arrival), made our bus connection, taken to Essen HBF. Phew.

Now to use the underground to get to our hotel.

The underground station was closed due to construction work! We tried several access areas but all were closed. Eventually we found another entrance though. Now to figure out how the tickets work. Not simple, but we finally got it with some help from a friendly ticket agent.

We made it to our hotel locale, we even found the hotel. But... where the heck was reception?! Not on any of the four floors I climbed twice that's for sure. Turned out we were in the second part of the hotel, Reception was across the street. We were pretty tired by now!

Anyway, checked in, went out for dinner. Everything closed at 8pm so we had Burger King. Drunken Germans on our hotel balcony right outside our window kept me awake until 3am but otherwise the end of a very exciting day :)

You might wonder why we left things so tight. Well, actually they weren't that bad. We had contingencies planned at every point, but what we didn't have were contingencies in case a contingency failed... oh well, that's the fun of traveling!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


After a reboot and some messing around, I managed to get access to my photos. So here are some new ones...

The Milano Duomo in 11,000 wooden pieces... I discovered this in an old abandoned school building outside of Asti. We weren't supposed to be there actually, but while trying to climb over the wall a friendly local walked past and directed us to the actual gate, which was open...

And here's the real thing:

This is the building that contains Leonardo Da Vinci's famous Last Supper fresco. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside, but I can assure you it was breathtaking.

Then on to Lago di Como (Lake Como), the second largest of the northern lakes of Italy. Here's a group of us on a ferry. From left to right: Chantelle (Auckland), Judy (Perth), P, random, Sarah (Canberra), Mike (Perth), Clinton (Melbourne). Lots of Aussies on our trips :)

Cool huh? This was my favourite day in Italy.

Looking down on Bellagio:

You can just make out a little church halfway up that mountainous rock. Unfortunately time did not permit a climb up there.

Many ferries service numerous towns around the lake.

This is the town of Varenna. There's a small castle on the nearest hill, which we walked up to.

The view from the castle grounds. That boat is right in my cannon sights...

A bit random to find a lawn with tethered birds of prey sitting around.

This one is called Linda.

And this one is called... uh oh... where'd she go?

I really liked this view.

Approaching the castle tower.

Surveying the lands from the castle tower.

Good lake views too.

Prepare to repel marauding invaders!

To arms!

The castle is in very good condition.

A view down the lakeside to another town.

And here we have a happy traveler on her way to Venezia.

Some typical Venice sights.

One of our traveling companions, Chantelle, just moments before she got into serious trouble from the angry shop owner behind her...

P, Clinton and Sarah on one of the 409 bridges around Venezia.

The main canal during rush hour.

Guess how much this coat costs... a clue - it's made from chinchilla fur.
No, sorry, you're wrong.

Look closely at the top item for the answer. These prices are in euros.

Yeah. That's right. Twenty eight thousand euros. Internet access around Venezia wasn't much cheaper.

We took a ferry to the island of Murano, famous for it's glass production. This guy on the left is playing a strange Venezian musical instrument made from molten glass.

Looking out to the south of Venezia.

San Marco - the heart of Venezia.

The local fire brigade on their way to the local pub, I suspect.

A friendly Venetian near the laundromat.

Then we left our tour group in Venezia and spent P's birthday in Ravenna.

Here's the ceiling of our hotel room! Best hotel room ever! :)

Not so many tourists in Ravenna...

One of the many piazzi (squares) around the town.

This is a mosaic. It's not a fresco. Each element is a tiny coloured piece of stone. Amazing eh?

Ravenna is full of mosaics. They date from the Byzatine era, about 5th Century AD.

More mosaics inside a mausoleum:

Outside that mausoleum:

Aaaaaaah!!! Extreme Closeup!!!

This garment is part of a priest's outfit. This particular item is over 600 years old. It's falling apart but the detail that remains is astonishing. In it's time, it would have been a beautiful cloak.

That's all for now. Hope you enjoyed the snaps.