Friday, October 10, 2008

The Romantic Road

So how would you like to travel the romantic road with me?
Sounds good, Baby! When do we start?
I've always regarded myself as the romantic type. She soon put me right, for she had something quite different in mind.

There is a well-known (and much-travelled) route in Germany which is called “Die romantische Straße” - the romantic road. In bare essentials it takes one from Fussen near the Alps in Southern Germany to the old town of Würzburg on the Main river in the centre of the country. This is just one of the designated tourist routes of Germany. My road atlas of Germany lists over one hundred, which are designed to suite all tastes. There is a variety of wine routes - actually a GREAT variety. Maybe a beer and castle route is more to your taste. Alternatively, you could have a castle route without the beer, but who would want that one! The fairytale route takes you through the Pied Piper's town of Hameln as well as other Grimm Brothers' favourites. And a clock route (Cuckoo, that is) and a shoe route (Shoe? Yes!) and a Nieblung/Siegfried route for those interested in German legends and/or Wagner (Is this a ring-road? You may well ask). And so the routes continue, crisscrossing the country.

But to get back on track. The romantic road takes in those aspects which remind of times medieval and of legends old – fairytale castles, fortresses, walled medieval towns, churches with tall steeples and all this set in picturesque landscape. It is the very quintessence of ...well, romantic Germany. So why not drive it from woe to go, high to low, south to north, from Mad Ludwig's Fairytale Castle, Neuschwanstein, (this was Walt Disney's inspiration for his Cinderella Castle and has
become the most recognisable castle in the world) to the Residence of a former Bishop in Würzburg, which someone called “the best parsonage in Europe”. Thanks to the extravagance of these two our “romantic” trip through Germany will be anchored by two outstanding bookends.

It not really a long way – some 350 kilometres. The sign-posts are in both German and Japanese, so you can't get lost unless you are neither German nor Japanese. And not even then, for then you can follow the pictorial symbols on the sign posts. This suits me just fine for I still look at the illustrations when I first open a book and am somewhat disappointed if the book contains no pictures.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Packed and ready to go

It's off again. Now comes the seemingly impossible: how to condense the pile of 'absolutely necessary' essentials into 20kg, and that into a suitcase of legal proportions. I know for a fact that packing for a trip uses up a lot of nervous energy and has the potential to disrupt proceedings more than any other aspect. We come from two completely different traditions, my wife and I. “Dad did all the packing in our house,” says my wife. “It was probably a carryover from his earlier job as a storeman and packer. He wouldn't allow Mum to lift a finger; which suited her just fine.” In my family, packing belonged to the area of procurement and care of clothing, which was in Mum's portfolio. Now in our united situation, it was obvious from the very beginning that some sort of compromise was called for. Only then could we be assured that a much-looked-forward-to trip would not get off on the wrong foot.

It seemed that with my wife's self-confessed lack of a spatial concept and my rather overstated (her word) possession of the same, the actual packing would fall to me. It did. Estimation of what might be needed (by her, forgetting that I too needed a change of underwear) and the selection of same would be her responsibility. This seemed fair in theory but in practice all sorts of ugly scenarios raised their petty heads.
“One never knows with Melbourne. They can experience four seasons in one day there. Everyone knows that.”
“True, but does that mean that you need to take your entire wardrobe for the weekend? What about all those shoes? When on earth will you find time to wear them all? And we're going to Launceston, not Melbourne.”
Imagine the vigorous pruning needed for a month's tour of Europe! In spring, when everyone does NOT know what the weather will be like. Add to this the effects of global warming and the unpredictability of weather patterns...... but that's another matter.

I recently visited a friend who was two weeks out from a fourteen-day tour of China. On the bed in her spare room were these neat little piles of various apparel. “I like to have everything organized well beforehand,” she told me. “That avoids all that desperate last minute running around and then leaving something important at home.” All this might be good in theory but not so easy in practice. This is made even more difficult when one's wardrobe consists of the bare necessities. Set aside six pair of socks from my stockpile and I am left with seven individuals of varying colours and a pair of footwarmers I saved from a previous overseas flight. Which airline was it that provided that extra touch some years ago? No, packing the day before seems to be my preferred option.

Another question which could denote some deep psychological significance is this: should there be a his case and a her case or rather a mixture of gear in both cases? In spite of our many trips together this has not been completely finalized. To me it seems to have resolved into a her case and a mixed case. The mathematician can quickly spot the flaw in this arrangement! The fashion consultant would see it as the result of a sort of natural selection. So I remain the chief suit-case packer, at times working under extreme weight and volume constrictions, but always managing to avoid excess weight penalties. Sure, I had to resort to questionable tactics at times to keep my record intact. One occasion comes to mind. We had arrived at our time-share resort in Laugharne (Sth. Wales) and Jill was planning to wear her good green frock to a welcoming dinner. “Have you seen my green suede shoes (shades of Elvis)? I swear I had them out to take.” Two weeks after arriving home the same green suede shoes were found under our bed where I must have inadvertently kicked them while packing.

I must admit that on our trips we have always found something to wear lying about our room after we have unpacked our cases. It is also a fact that some of the items taken with us around the world have not been required to contribute to our (especially her) sartorial splendour. (But very seldom. Normally I wear everything I take.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


There's often a specific reason why you remember a place – be it a town, city or even a whole region. Manorbier is one such place for me.

“Indeed,” you might well reply hoping for some more information which would help you place Manorbier somewhere on some map. It is the site of some interesting castle ruins (photo), but we didn't even visit them. When in Wales one can't possibly visit all their old castles without over-running one's allotted time. We had already selected those we wished to visit.

Across the narow valley from the castle was the Church of St James, a beautiful old stone structure dating from Norman times. It would have been in use back in the twelfth century when the castle was under construction. Beside it was this interesting old cemetery.

Manorbier is somewhat off the beaten track in Southern Wales and does not suffer from a continuous train of tourists. It is on 'highway' A4585. Now that is off the beaten track! We had tacked it onto our visit to Tenby, a better-known resort in this part of Wales. We agreed that it was well worth while. After this impromptu extension to our itinerary, it was straight back to our accommodation in Laugharne, some fifty twisting kilometres away.

We were tiredly unpacking the car – maps and brochures, lunch hamper, wet weather gear, mementoes from Tenby when: “Have you seen my camera?” A quick search and then further frantic searching yielded no result. My simple question: “Well, where did you leave it?” evoked a rather threatening glare from my wife. Then began the memory game until a possibility finally emerged.
“I must have left it on a pew in that Norman church in What's the Name of that Place? Oh yes! Manorbier.”
“Are you sure?”
Would it still be there? Merely entering a church for an idle look might not enforce on everyone the commandment,Thou shalt not nick a camera someone left lying on a pew. Maybe a phone call to the local vicar? Bless his soul, he suggested he would drive out to the church (it was situated a few kilometres outside the town), have a look and get back to us.
“Yes,” he later phoned, he had rescued it.

And so the 100 twisting, tired kilometres to retrieve the camera firmly cemented the name “Manorbier” in my memory.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


“Never smile at a crocodile.
No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile.
Don't be taken in by his welcome grin,
He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin.”

The words of this old song (popular in the middle of last century after the appearance of the Walt Disney film, Peter Pan) came to mind when I saw the - dare I say – smirks on the faces of the crocodiles at the Cairns Tropical Zoo in North Queensland. “Welcome grin”? Hardly! Supercilious smirk would be my estimation. And ugly. Yes, “ugly” would be a fair description of the faces lolling around inside the enclosure. No beauty contest winners here. Not even the odd second prize.

Can it climb trees?
How fast can it run?
Is it a greedy feeder?
These were some of the question asked at the crocodile show. Sort of safety first questions but purely academic to me for I would prefer to keep well away from their natural habitat (the keeper suggested that this was the best safety measure of all). Seeing them from a distance in a safe enclosure in a zoo is quite enough to satisfy my adventurous spirit.

It was a little tense and worrying to see the handler in the pen with these dangerous creatures. Well he didn't really “handle” them in the same way as the snake handler allowed the snakes to slither all over him but he did appear to treat them rather off-handedly. Oh, how languidly the old tick-tock appeared to rest in the water. But be not deceived. As the keeper moved backwards and forwards in front of his snout the suspicious, half-open eyes followed him from side to side. His primeval brain may not be very large, but what he has was surely “imagining how well you'd fit within his skin”.

The keeper showed little concern. Crocks are not greedy feeders, he assured us (and himself, probably) and a well-fed croc is unlikely to attack. Which is all very well in a zoo where they can be kept well fed, but what about in the wild where one doesn't know when Charlie Croc (or Crissy Croc) had the last bite to eat. Make no mistake, the emphasis is on the BITE. The speed at which the mouth opened and the resounding “snap” to devour the proffered chicken carcass was frightening. As was the force with which that upper jaw slammed shut! Ever been bitten by a rottweiler? Ever looked at his snarling, salivery mouth and shuddered? Those who know, tell us that Mr Croc has fifteen times more power in his snap than that puppy (the crocodile's word, not mine). Ouch! Luckily for us their jaws cannot open so easily; so grab that snout!

And another thing. The water in his enclosure is too shallow for him to get the same propulsion that is possible in deeper water. An unexpected onslaught would be quite unlikely. I don't know about you, but I am never completely convinced by the term “unlikely”.

Would he jump out of the water and chase a person? Quite unlikely. Crocodiles are not in the business of chasing. They are ambush predators. They can run 15-17 kilometres per hour over twice their own length. Like running the 100 metres in about 20 seconds and so most of us could beat a crocodile in the 100 metres sprint. So you have only ever run it in 19 seconds. Don't worry! I'm sure you would find that extra second somewhere. A crocodile would not bother finishing the race. If he hasn't caught his prey in 3-4 metres he gives up and waits till next time. This is a strategy which seems to have worked very well, for they have been around for a very long time. They were there when dinosaurs walked the earth. They were around when Muttaburrasaurus was grazing the outback and Kronosaurus frolicked in our inland seas.

Yes, the crocodile has remained. For our pleasure? Pleasure perhaps not; but certainly to evoke our “Oohs” and “Aaahs” when it displays some of its pre-historic traits.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Hut with Memories

Days of my childhood: Pepperina tree with a dairy in the background.
To the casual observer this would appear to be an old hut, but others might recognize it for what it is – a typical old dairy. Dairy in a special sense. This was the building on a dairy farm which housed the separator (the machine which separated cream from the milk), the cream awaiting collection, and the milking tins and buckets – as well as other unrelated items which ended up there.

The cows here were milked by hand in the cow-bails which were situated off the photograph to the left. I remember clearly sitting on a block with a bucket clasped firmly between my legs, head resting on the cow's flanks (how comforting was the cow's warmth on a cold winter's morning!) and milking the cow dry. At times, as a break from the monotonous chush, chush of milk going into the bucket, I would send a squirt of milk hither and thither – into the cat's eye, for she would love to be around at milking time; or at the dog's nose. He was not allowed in the bails for fear of frightening the cows but would poke his nose around the corner, probably just waiting for a fat stream of fresh warm milk to come his way. Or at my sister walking past to empty her bucket into the four gallon (20litre) tins which would then be carried to the dairy to be separated. (She didn't appreciate being hit with a stream of milk.) When separated the cream would be sold to the local butter factory and the milk fed to the pigs.

The small herd of cows (c. 20 head) and the pigs were two aspects of this mixed farm operated by my father, with the help of his family. Other aspects involved growing cash crops (table vegetables such as potatoes, pumpkins, onions and cabbage) and fodder.

The cows have gone, but the dairy with its memories remains. The pepperina tree of my childhood also remains. It was an old tree then, even older now. This was a tree in which a young boy could learn the art of tree-climbing. This was a tree in which sparrows loved to nest; and there were many of them. This meant that it was easy to add to my birds' egg collection. Then there was usually a peewee with its mud nest, and as was usually the case, a willy-wagtail's nest would be found on a nearby branch. They seemed to like one another's company, the peewee and the willy-wagtail. There was also room for the turtle doves and topknot pigeons. Yes, this was a tree alive with experiences....and birds and bees and berries

The tree is still thriving, having helped to create childhood memories for two generations following mine. It has altered little in the last half century, but lost most of its inhabitants. The dairy is patiently awaiting a new lease of life. Once central to the farm's activities, it is now unused (a little like the tree). The lawns in front of it have gone. The water tank attached to it is no longer required. The tennis court once situated between it and the cow bails is now a horse paddock. But this old hut (dairy) still remembers me turning the separator handle morning and evening, and carting milk to and fro. It has vivid memories of me washing the tins, buckets and separator parts, of giving the dog its tin of milk, and the cat hers. It was the beginning and ending of each of my primary school days. It was part of an education which few in our land experience today. Which is probably a pity.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meals and Memories

Like my left cheek and my Box Brownie, my appetite is something which automatically accompanies me whenever I travel. It always needs the appropriate attention. I am not one to demand that my trip be an international culinary experience of the highest order. Neither would I be seen too often – if at all - under the golden arches. Why even at home I tend to avoid Macdonalds, and KFC and Hungry Jacks and....... But the inner man must be fed.

Now I could mention a few dining experiences like eating Hungarian Goulash in Sopron (Hungary), Wiener Schnitzel in Vienna, Sauerbraten and Bratkartoffeln in Bavaria or savouring coffee and cake on the footpath of an expensive cafe in St Moritz (Photo); but I won't. Instead I want to mention a few gimmicky things.

Let's go to where the hills are alive with the sound of music and the confectionery shops are full of Mozartkugeln. If you love chocolate and are in Salzburg you will certainly try a selection of Mozartkugeln (Mozart balls) – a round chocolate delicacy full of tantalizing tastes. They are definitively morish. The original Kugeln were first produced by a confectioner back in 1890. He called them Mozartkugeln after the famous musician who was born in the city. Perhaps one could imagine a sweet in the shape of a piano key (white and dark chocolate) more suitable to bear Wolfgang Amadeus' name. Perhaps we could call them Mozartfinger and sell them to the tune of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik! I suspect that Herr Fürst, who first made the Kugeln was a shrewd businessman. He realized that 1891 was the 100th anniversary of Mozart's death, and I am sure that would have boosted sales. The Fürst company is still operating in Salzburg making the Kugeln by hand according to the original recipe. But he did not copyright the name.

We now travel to the home of the Rothenburg snowballs. These are something you can nibble on while visiting the popular town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber on Germany's Romantic Road. This snowball is a round pastry delicacy the size of a large apple, dusted in sugar powder to give it the appearance of a snowball. Then there are others covered in chocolate or caramel and various other concoctions – certainly not your pristine snowballs. Nice to nibble on it's true, but I wouldn't go to Rothenburg just for the Schneebälle. They do, however, add to my Rothenburg memories.

More generally, there are foods which take you back to specific occasions which you cannot forget. Still in Europe, but years ago, I ordered a “butcher's plate” in Erbach in the Odenwald area of Germany. This was a selection of fresh sausages with accompanying vegetables; well, potatoes and sauerkraut. All was going well until I cut into the blood sausage and warm blood ran over my whole plate. Memorable also was being at boarding school and having flybog and peanut paste on bread. This was in the days before fly-screens and the school was adjacent to cattle sale yards. And golden syrup is very sticky! Or that Sunday lunch at my second boarding school when the cook must have put too much gelatine in the jelly. Which is hard to grasp for we had jelly and custard EVERY Sunday. The inedible jelly prompted certain undisciplined boys to bounce jelly cubes off the dining room walls. Such memories could be multiplied.

Meals and memories. Which reminds me of a drawing hanging in our dining room (Photo).It is our daughter's representation of the last supper when she was in grade two many years ago. OOPs! Some years ago. This Jewish festival of Passover and its Christian “equivalent” of Mass, Holy Communion, The Lord's Commerative Meal, epitomizes all those advantages (Dare I say blessings?) of eating together – memories, thanks, bonding, security and love. Babies first experience it at their mother's breast, or indeed in the arms of their father who is feeding them. Children feel it eating as a family at the dining table and this feeling of unity is heightened when the meal itself has been prepared in the family home by family members. The take-away fast food industry has a lot to answer for apart from its contribution to the present nutrition crisis in Western Societies.

The other two photos:
1.A medieval depiction of the Last Supper set in an outer wall of the Gothic church of St George in the small town of Dinkelsbühl in Southern Germany.
2.The main panel of The Holy Blood Altar carved by the fifteenth century artist Tilman Riemenschneider located in the Jacob's Church in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Much more interesting than a snowball!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Lake of Reeds

I saw it from the plane flying into Vienna. Down there to the south was this large expanse of water. That must be that lake.
It was.

My knowledge of the geography of Eastern Austria and Hungary had been practically non-existent, but since we had planned to visit the area I had carried out a quick check. I now had a basic knowledge of the lay of the land. Hence I had read about “that lake” - Neusiedler See – and was keen to see it at eye level.

Neusiedler See (Lake Neusiedl) is an endorheic lake. (So is the Caspian Sea and Australia's Lake Eyre. The Black Sea is almost one!) It is the centre of an inland drainage system and has no outlet to the sea. Unlike Lake Eyre (-15metres) and The Dead Sea (-420metres) it does not lie below sea level. (Did you know that the shores of the Dead Sea are the lowest dry land on earth? - a fact which has little relevance to Lake Neusiedl.) Lake Neusiedl is dependant on the inflowing streams for its existence. Wet years and the water level rises, but a few very dry years can cause it to disappear. It is a very shallow lake (1.8 metres) and so walks a very tight rope. Scientists tell us that it has dried up about 100 times in its existence. The last time was in 1866.

By world standards it is quite a small lake (36Km long and up to 12 Km wide) but for Austria, which is a landlocked country, it is important. It is their seaside. Well, lakeside!

Sometimes facts can be dry too and a book isn't always sufficient preparation for the reality. Such was the case here. The Reeds! Sure Lonely Planet had mentioned that reeds were a nuisance in gaining access to the water. Other sources had noted that the reeds provided a great habitat for bird-life – local as well as migratory. But the reeds!

We approached the lake through the town of Rust, where a kilometre-long causeway had been constructed through the reeds to the open water. Early summer and there was little activity at the end of the causeway. A hand in the water suggested why. That “warm” water of the lake which attracts thousands of visitors hadn't arrived yet either. The awaiting facilities gave notice as to what might be. Most intriguing for us was the holiday accommodation – lines of thatched huts disappearing off into the reeds. Intriguing indeed, but then one is reminded of the remains of lake settlements in Europe which date back to the Bronze Age. Are these “houses” simply carrying on a tradition which began millennia ago? Holidaying in one of them may not be a Bronze Age experience, but would certainly give you an insight into the life of a migratory bird.
But the reeds!