30 October 2010

Voyage sans frontières

29 October 2010: our longest travel day so far (apart from our initial air flight from Sydney to Dubai). Travelling through three countries - Innsbruck in Austria, change trains at Zurich, Switzerland, and depart in Paris, France.

And absolutely no border formalities once you are inside the EU. No holding transit pens in Zurich; time permitting, we could have gone wherever we wanted.

There are subtle signs that you've crossed the respective borders. The train announcements change from being the Austrian Railways to the Swiss Railways welcoming you and the language priority shifts from German being the first spoken language (Austria through to the French border) and then all of a sudden, French has priority.

And only needing one set of currency makes travel in Europe so much easier than it ever used to be. If all this sounds like a revelation, it isn't really. It's just my first experience of being in more than one country in continental Europe, where in the past, most of my Europe travel has been via the UK, or a single country (out and back).

The EU website has some very good background on the evolution of the dismantling of internal border controls - the so-called Schengen area - for anyone interested in where you can go without going through border formalities.

On the downside, you can only submit your taxfree shopping forms when you depart your last EU port, which is generally fine, but for me, my last EU location is going to be in a small town called Kiruna in the north of Sweden, before I catch a train to Norway (not yet part of the EU, surprisingly).

So that will truly be my test of travelling without borders - arrival in Vienna in mid-October, departure in Kiruna in late December.

28 October 2010

Snow in Salzburg

If we had to have snow on our European autumn travels, it really had to be in Salzburg, right?

Especially while on the Sound of Music tour, singing at the top of our lungs (trust me, this was a mandatory requirement in order to participate in this particular tour!) "raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, these are a few of my favourite things . ."

And every other song from the movie as well. It's hard to believe I first saw the movie when it was first released in Australia (from memory in 1965), and 45 years on, the movie - which is adapted from a musical, which was adapted from a stage show, which was adapted from a  . . . well you get the general drift - is still making money in ways that Hollywood couldn't possibly have imagined.

And the cuisine in Salzburg also lends itself to snowy, wintry weather - the delightful, citrusy punsch (preferably with rum), Salzburger nockerl (a light as air souffle-style dessert), together with other standard Austrian fare are far better savoured when the weather turns chilly!

But more surprises were in store for us. Because of the snow, we really didn't feel like going far for dinner, so when I spotted a place across the road from our cute as cute hotel - called Carpe Diem - well it just seemed sort of appropriate. I was even prepared for it to be "finest finger food" as announced. Even better, a first class restaurant upstairs from the somewhat smoky tapas-style bar on the ground floor. Perhaps we were dining early, perhaps it was because this is a new venture, but we were treated, almost literally, to the most amazing dinner. We ordered one main course each, and then provided with a "from the kitchen" tasting plate.

My venison and mum's veal were probably the best and most tender that either of us had ever had. Bravely, we pushed on with dessert. Mozartkugel and pomegranate for me, sherbet for Mum.

And despite our location in the quaintly antique old town, some beautiful modern interior design to set off the wonderful meal.

As our tour guide said, "the first snow of the season is the most beautiful". Despite the freezing cold, I can't think of a better introduction to this most beautiful of cities.

Lots more photos in my Picasa album.

25 October 2010

Playing Vienna

22 October 2010: Day three in Vienna. It's everything you read about in the guidebooks - fantastic gothic and baroque architecture, wiener schnitzel, chocolate, Mozart and music.

But I haven't immediately warmed and connected to Vienna as I have to other cities and places I've visited. And I think I've worked out why. Vienna is a huge concert stage. Everyone is playing a role and I've had to learn my part!

It was the Vienna Boys' Choir that did it for me. Seeing and hearing these fantastic young voices in the gloriously historic Musikverein reminded me that my role in Vienna is as a cultural tourist, and I should just simply play that part. Determinedly.

It should have been obvious from the dozens of beautiful young men dressed in period costume who hawk concert tickets outside the main tourist attractions. Mum and I spent a good 10 minutes or more talking to a lovely young man outside Stephansdom.

A real smooth operator, who was ready to give Mum her ticket for free and accompany her personally from our hotel to the show! I think the catch is I would have probably had to pay twice!

The next clue should have been the Vienna State Opera, where I saw Richard Strauss's Salome. If this isn't the most dramatic, eat-your-heart out stage performance, hard to know what would be! (Think dance of the seven veils and the head of John the Baptist on a platter!)

I just had to stop and look around. The traditional coffee houses with serving women (usually) in period or authentic costume, the horses and carriages (fiakers) - and I'm pretty sure most of the people we bumped into in the main city centre were "players" in the grand piece of theatre that is Vienna.

Having made this connection, I really began to enjoy Vienna.

21 October 2010

The Louisiana Manifesto

Something that struck me as very powerful - and found at the Saadiyat Island exhibition in Abu Dhabi (see below) - from architect Jean Nouvel. 

We think with our senses, we feel with our thoughts.

Contradictions generate sparks.

Sensations generate emotions

Emotions generate love, love the desire to live, to share, to give, to extend our life into others.

And just when you were out of "wow" . . .

Our visit to Dubai rates a mention of two more highlights: the Dubai Mall, right next door to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (originally called Burj Dubai, but re-named Burj Khalifa during the opening ceremony on 4 January 2010 in recognition of the Abu Dhabi leader who bailed Dubai out of its debt crisis). Check out my story for Zoe and Alana for a few of the highlights of this spectacular building. 

Dubai Mall doesn't just have a great chocolate or candy shop - it has acres of them (I did also spot a sign for Cafe Laduree, a fine french institution, but will save that visit for the real thing in a week or so).

Five star candy fashion

As well as the dancing fountains and aquarium, the mall also boasts a rather incredible waterfall, that really demands Ennio Morricone's hauntingly beautiful music from The Mission by way of background. Unfortunately, I don't think my blog is that sophisticated, but do feel free to hum to yourself!

The final wow and our last in Dubai before going "home" to our hotel to pack was the incomparable Pierchic restaurant, part of the Madinat Jumeirah complex.

Phil, Dawne, George,
Dave and Mum at Pierchic.
To friends near and far.

From excess to success

19 October 2010: 0800 and our driver has arrived for a day trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the UAE, and probably the wealthiest city in the world. Also the setting for Sex and the City 2. However, emirati authorities did not allow filming to take place in the UAE, so the film's espoused setting of Abu Dhabi actually took place in Morocco.

But in all other senses, Abu Dhabi represents success, rather than the excess of Dubai. There are tall buildings, but only enough for reasonable business purposes. There are large and splendid hotels, such as the Emirates Palace Hotel. While this hotel doesn't have the same "feel" as the rather more extravagant establishments in Dubai, it does exist for very practical business purposes, such as large business conferences. And lunch there was quite exceptional.

The standout attraction in Abu Dhabi is the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, named after Sheikh Zayed bin SultanAl Nahyan, the founder and first president of the UAE, who is also buried there.

After driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, a trip of around 130 km from our hotel, we picked up my friend Dawne from her slightly more "humble" Hilton hotel and headed out to the mosque. Men can go as they are on the tour, women must be in abayas to go in - these are provided free of charge, so no problems there.

Immediately I regret having left my sunnies somewhere back in my hotel room. The building is vast, mostly white, there's lots of marble, and the sun shines most of every day in the UAE.

But once inside and out of the glare, this is truly an inspirational and stunningly beautiful building.

It's hard to keep the facts straight, but the sheer volume of materials used in the building - which is something like five football fields in size, and can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers - was truly staggering.

The carpet in the main prayer hall was constructed in one piece. No joins. One can only imagine the logistics of not only manufacturing the carpet (in Iran) and then transporting and laying it successfully. Apparently the carpet weighed around 45 tonnes when manufactured, but after being trimmed around the edges to fit into the mosque, it was a much "leaner" 37 tonnes, or thereabouts.

More photos of the mosque in my Picasa album.

Abu Dhabi has great development plans for the future, including museums backed by Guggenheim and the Louvre located on a newly reclaimed Saadiyat Island - the island of happiness. We visited an exhibition displaying models of the new buildings and their waterfront locations. Imagine taking your boat out for a spin, and pulling into the forecourt of the Louvre-backed museum. Or a maritime museum built over, under and around the water. Or a performing arts centre that looks something like a sting-ray (or some primitive amoeba life-form). And two ten-lane causeways, joining the island with the mainland. I'm beginning to understand something about the power of imagination (and of course, the importance of money to turn dreams into reality!)

So maybe, just maybe, Abu Dhabi is a little jealous of the limelight achieved by it's brasher neighbour. And when it spends its billions on showpiece architecture and planning - it will do it brilliantly. Put this city on your "must visit" list in the next 5-10 years.

A year is a long time . . .

18 October: it's a year to the day since Milty passed away in Dubai. So coming back here is always going to be with mixed emotions.

In the midst of the hussle bussle of Dubai, there are spaces that are peaceful and tranquil. Green Community, where John was staying last year, is one of those places. It is off the usual tourist path, so of course our driver decided the only word that mattered was "green" and that in turn meant "golf course", so he drove us to the community that was built around a golf course!

Lovely, but not the Green Community we were after. After a couple of false starts and energetic phone conversations (all while driving, naturally), we found the right place.

Back into the Dubai traffic and our driver then managed to stay pretty much to our planned itinerary, ending up at the Souq Madinat for lunch and a spot of shopping. Of course this is not the "real" souq, but in Dubai, who's to say what's real and what's a mirage in any case?

For anyone who loves home decorating, this is certainly the place to find exactly the piece of furniture or objet to complete your desired "look". I don't think I can fit anything more into my suitcases however, so must leave that to another time, sadly.

Trader Vics, where we had lunch, is a pretty typical Friday brunch place in the middle east, one that John and I often used to frequent when in Bahrain. And the lamb chops they served were just perfect!!

"Here's to us, the nicest people we know."

Vale Milty, rest in peace.

17 October 2010

Landing like a feather

Dubai airport, 0455, and our flight touches down as "light as a feather" according to Mum. Which is all the more amazing when you think just how big these planes really are. It's like taking a small apartment block and pointing it half way around the world and hoping the china doesn't get damaged. But that's what happens, day in, day out with these amazing planes.

So from the lightest of touchdowns, to the fabulous Marhaba meet and greet service, we are through customs and immigration formalities in less than 30 minutes and being whisked off to our hotel, where despite the early hour, at least three attentive staff vie for our attention - and best of all, there is even a room available for us 8 hours ahead of schedule. Gotta love being a tourist in the wake of the GFC.

And after a quick trip on the metro to check out the general lie of the land, we are back to put our heads on the feather-soft pillows for a couple of hours before heading off to the Sunday service at Christ Church in Jebel Ali.

Whining about wine

So here we are, settled in 9E and 9F on EK413 to Dubai, as fancy as you please! All the mod cons of the fabulous Airbus A380, and despite leaving at 2145, we still have dinner to look forward to. And a small but very creative wine list.

How could I not try the Chateau St Georges 2002 (St Georges. St Emilion) when "the nose is immediate and forthright (my sort of girl really). At first, spicy oak tends to dominate the aroma profile. Within about 10 minutes, a much more balanced profile emerges (yep, gotta have balance in your wine, if not in your life) with violets, brambles, dark berry fruit and spicy vanilla oak all contributing their share. (Sounds like my overgrown garden.) The flavour then drives through and widens on the middle palate ('fore' she yelled!) delivering a clear, clean shot of complex dark berry fruit. On the finish, a blanket of tannins descends on the tongue, puckering and drying the mouth, while clear fruit rises to the back of the mouth singing with intensity (the hills are alive, people). Very good length."

As you might expect that was an awful lot to live up to - the wine was fine, but the night was won by the wine writing people (how does one get this sort of job I wonder).

Apart from the very late dinner (top nosh for an airline), an uneventful flight. Slept heaps, no-one accused us of snoring too much, but there is a tendency for one of us to talk very loudly when we have our headphones on!

16 October 2010

D is for departure

Well here we are in the Emirates lounge waiting for our flight to board. Surreal is starting to feel real at last. That's apart from having to go through passport control twice, because Mum left her boarding pass on the writing bench behind us! Then she put her papers in her handbag and couldn't find them to go through security screening. I've just given them back to her now!! As always, the Emirates lounge is just fab, food is gorgeous and - well that's it. Flight is called, next post will be from the sands of Dubai.

15 October 2010

Just one more day . . .

Well, it's now at that point where I know there is no way I can finish off everything that I had hoped to have finished. So I'm now into Plan B and Plan C for all sorts of things - work and home.

But as someone reminded me - you really just need your passport, and everything else you can pick up along the way. So with that in mind, let the final packing begin, and the journey commence in around 46 hours.

09 October 2010

Final countdown

Seven sleeps to go. Where did the last six weeks - more importantly the last three months - go?

I feel pretty organised, and I even feel a bit fitter, thanks to the help of my lovely PT, Torsten, who's been walking me all around the lake near work and the hills near home. I've conquered O'Connor Ridge a number of times now, and tackled the lower half of Mt Ainslie. Hopefully that will have me in reasonable shape to do a lot of walking around the cities of Austria!

My to do list is now shrinking, rather than expanding. And there's nothing like a deadline to get your mid focused on priorities. Like today, catching up with my daughter Jenny, and my friend Jenny, for lunch in Daylesford. For anything that doesn't get done this week, it wasn't a priority, there's either another time or another way.

Serious stuff now: getting finances sorted, getting my will updated, making sure that my trip is logged with DFAT/Smart Traveller. After the tragedy of Milty's death last year, there are a few things I won't compromise on.

I'll probably start posting regularly from next Saturday when Mum and I leave Sydney on the first leg of our trip. Until then - hope to catch up with as many people as possible before I go, if not, see you on line or in January!