Monday, December 12, 2011

Surprise trip to Australia

In possibly the most expensive prank I pulled in 2011, I snuck back to Australia last week. Without telling my mother, sister, or grandparents I flew into Sydney the day of my sister's speech day (high school graduation). I found everyone drinking coffee nearby about 45 minutes before proceedings got underway, and relished the look of surprise on their faces.

The ceremony itself was, as usual, 99.9% other peoples' relatives walking across the stage, but in the end A nabbed four major prizes, so we were all very proud of her! Lunch under the Sydney harbour bridge followed.

That minor subterfuge aside, the rest of the week in the antipodes was spent catching up with friends, mainly at Sydney university, and mainly in pouring rain. Naming names in the usual initial fashion would be boring even by the standards of my blog, so I'll leave it to the photo album! Suffice to say it was terrific to catch up with gazillions of people - only a small handful had the excessive forethought to be out of the country or city at the time. Next time, peoples! You are warned.

I also took a moment to get my father shod in cutting edge vibram toe shoes, which I hope will help him walk under load more efficiently, in preparation for an impending Everest attempt about which he does not yet know... I also visited my ancestral stamping grounds on the coast, and more recently in Newtown - in both cases the situation was soggy with nostalgia, as well as the afore mentioned inclement weather.

All too soon it was time to throw my nerdy teeshirts back into my bag and head for (new) home, back in Pasadena. I was fortunate (my work less so) to have a functioning entertainment system on both legs of the flight - a first!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

M visits Pasadena

Early last Sunday morning I dragged myself out of bed to stand by the road in the chilly morning air. After a short wait, who should step out of a shiny blue van but M, my brother who I had not seen in more than a year. He was on his way to do a two month endocrinology surgery placement at Yale, and kindly agreed to stop on the way. 


After a short rest to unpack, relax, and begin the process of desecrating my room, T took us to the Huntington gardens and library for lunch. M seemed to appreciate the understated opulence of the place, which looked terrific on this crisp sunny day. We visited most of the gardens and headed for home, taking in the fall colours and neighbourhood. A quick siesta was followed by dinner and rehearsal.

Monday called for some serious cold weather clothes shopping, culminating in methodical raids of every department store between Lake St and Arcadia! I myself picked up a fine dark green skiing/mountaineering jacket. We sampled the caltech cafeteria for lunch, and that evening M cooked dinner and we duly conquered Echo Mountain. 26km was dispatched with barely a whimper; I also took the opportunity to test my new camera in dark conditions. I'm tempted to try a yellow filter to reduce light pollution, but it was otherwise excellent.

Tuesday brought mainly work, followed by an FD rehearsal that M attended, through frantic prep for a concert on Friday. On Wednesday we walked into old town Pasadena, saw the cheese cake factory and the museum of east asian art, as well as the rather impressive town hall visible in CBS' hit show The Big Bang Theory. That evening there was a huge windstorm that resulted in damage to nearly every tree in Pasadena.

An early morning walk revealed the extent of the carnage, with power out and roads blocked in every direction. I hired a car and we drove up highway 2, the Angeles Crest Highway. M remarked on the steepness of the geologically young mountain range, and before long we were in Palmdale, found the local track of the San Andreas fault, performed the usual rituals, and located a place for lunch. Lunch? In-n-Out burgers. While a far cry from my badly missed burgerfuel, it gave M a taste of American cuisine.

From there the Aerospace highway took us north through the Mojave desert, to California City. A city designed to rival Los Angeles had roads and land surveyed for at least 100,000 people, but noone ever moved there. Today 14,000 inhabitants are lightly scattered about an enormous and barely used central park, complete with a large, duck-inhabited artificial lake.

In the day's dying light we zoomed north to the Red Rock Canyon national park, at the beginning of the Owens Valley. The setting sun blended with the natural rock formations, and after a quick jaunt through the day's frigid winds we turned around for home.

On Friday we picked up some amazing sandwiches from Roma Deli, then headed to Eaton Canyon with T and S. Many trees had fallen victim to Wednesday's winds, making for some interesting balancing problems. At the waterfall we climbed on the rocks a bit, tested my new geology hammer, then headed for home. I got dressed up, picked up some friends from Fluid Dynamics, then drove to Cal State, where we performed a few songs (Look Around, Don't Know Why, Break Even), then drove home. I started packing, then crashed on the floor, M having already grabbed the bed.

On Saturday we dusted the car, went fail-shopping for a warm hat, ate some left over food, then caught a bus to the airport. Why would I go to the airport? Stay tuned.

Overall a crazy busy week to catch up with my brother I hadn't seen in 15 months. We saw most of what Pasadena had to offer, with the exception of the insides of one's eyelids.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Dispatches from the cultural front: Laszlo Fassang plays organ at Walt Disney Hall

Dispatches from the cultural front: Laszlo Fassang plays organ at Walt Disney Hall

Last Sunday noted Hungarian organist Laszlo Fassang gave a recital at Walt Disney Hall in downtown LA, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance. A former student of Olivier Latry at Notre-Dame de Paris (himself due to give a recital here on February the 19th) Fassang has distinguished himself over the last decade in both recital and improvisation. Organ improvisation is an art going back centuries, even millennia to the origins of the precursor instrument, the hydraulis, in Ancient Greece. In particular, several Parisien churches and organs have dynastic compositional and improvisational traditions stretching back to perhaps the greatest organ builder of all time, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who revolutionised the capabilities of the instrument contemporaneously with the French romantic period. At Église Saint-Sulpice, there were Widor and Dupré; at Notre-Dame de Paris, Vierne was followed by Cochereau, Lefebvre, and Latry; at Église_de_la_Madeleine tenured organists included Lefébure-Wély, Saint-Saëns, Dubois, and Fauré; at Basilique Ste-Clotilde there were Franck, Pierné, Tournemire, and Langlais. More familiar artists from this period include Chopin and Liszt, both of whom also wrote for the pipe organ.

As I had recently attended the recital of Cameron Carpenter, I was already familiar with the rather formidable capabilities of the instrument we have here in Los Angeles, and anticipated the program with excitement bordering on pathological. Fassang opted to play a series of pieces based on the B-A-C-H theme (B-flat, A, C, B in modern notation), used as a musical signature in hundreds of J.S. Bach's own compositions, and providing a narrative for a journal through a few hundred years of subsequent musical thought and invention. Serendipitously, Fassang began his recital with the same piece as Carpenter, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540. Unlike Carpenter, Fassang played it in its original key, and did a reasonable though not spectacular job of warming up both the instrument, the crowd and himself.

Following the requisite sacrifice to the unimpeachable master of organ repertoire and probably music in general, Fassang left Bach and wisely skipped the renaissance period entirely. Next up was Schumann; Four Fugues on B-A-C-H, from Op. 60. With a shift in texture from polyphonic to symphonic, Fassang's Hungarian- and French-trained musical sensibilities could come to the fore. He began by explaining that he was playing the pieces out of their numerical order for the sake of musical cohesion, a choice which also helped place them in the context of the entire recital. 

Rounding out the first half was Reger's Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46. Although he died young, Reger was a profilic composer and musical experimenter. Though music had moved more than two centuries since Bach, his musical signature continued to inspire musical geniuses everywhere, and in tandem with the extraordinary versatility of more modern pipe organs, this piece was a quarter-hour of grinding counterpoint, symphonic texture and musical flow plucked by Fassang from the roaring instrument with dexterity and taste.

Following an intermission in which to catch our breath, we were treated to a rather rare performance of Liszt's gargantuan work Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale "Ad nos, as salutarem undam", adapted from Meyerbeer's opera Le prophète. Composed as a private meditation by Liszt during his pilgrimage in Weimar in 1850, it was eventually published despite almost nil demand for such a challenging work, and received its premiere performance five years later. Composed of three sections and lasting almost half an hour, it abounds with musical contrasts and is epic in scope. While perhaps not as coherent or consistent as the archetype recording done at the Sydney Town Hall Grand Organ (Hill & Son 1886-89, 5m., 127 sp. st., tubular-pneumatic/Barker lever) by David Drury in 1993, Fassang nevertheless contended stoically with the herculean difficulties presented by the piece and in the end triumphed to rapturous and well-deserved applause.

While Fassang took a short break to mop his brows, he was approached by a member of the crew carrying a basket of papers. During intermission, audience members had written suggestions for themes on which to base the final item of the program, a hotly anticipated organ improvisation. Several members of the audience drew the raffle, Fassang read the results and placed the slips of paper on the console music stand. Organ improvisation is an anachronous art, surviving despite its death in the classical performance of nearly every other musical instrument. Creativity and coordination combine to mix musical ideas old and new, construct a coherent piece of music, and perform it in real time. For those who love to watch figure skaters crash, there is a certain nail-biting element here also, since one misplaced finger or toe can be all it takes to destroy a musical line developed over seconds or minutes. Fortunately Fassang combined a generous dose of natural talent and study with the best in the business to deliver a quarter hour every bit as interesting as a meticulously and laboriously constructed piece of music. It is no secret in organ circles either that many of the most famous pieces of music were initially improvised, then later recorded or transcribed.

Fassang gave one encore, on the theme of the Walt Disney Concert Organ, in which he got an opportunity to show off some of the more unique aspects of the instrument, including bells and other percussive stops, weaving the whole lot together into the musical equivalent of a braided sausage: consistently textured, meaty, rich, and topologically non-trivial.

Denizens of LA are fortunate to have both such a spectacular instrument and a well organised celebrity recital schedule to make use of it. I look forward to future recitals with the sort of interest I ordinarily reserve for free food and pass/fail grading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ge 136 field trip to Baja California, Mexico

Last term Caltech ran a geology enrichment field trip to the grand canyon in Arizona, which was a pretty extraordinary experience, and a wonderful opportunity to learn stuff beyond your usual specialty. For that trip I gave a talk on the mechanics of river incision, an important erosive mechanism. The previous trip was to have been to Baja California in Mexico, but at the last minute had changed due to concerns over the situation in Mexico. Statistically speaking, of course, you're much more likely to be shot in Arizona than in Baja, but at least then you'd be supporting American made weaponry. Headlines aside, Baja is actually much safer (even including Tijuana) than Los Angeles, but that's not very difficult! Headlines not aside, dozens upon dozens of executed, beheaded, and kidnapping/ransom victims hit the papers every week. Deaths in the 'war on drugs' are well in the five figures, not that far behind civilian casualties in Iraq, and over a shorter period. So it was with some trepidation that I, as usual, set aside my emotional concerns and fear and approached the issue statistically. Never-the-less, I packed light in case of robbery or misadventure!

At 6pm we met at the Arms geology loading dock. To get there, one walks through the elevated front door of the Arms building on the Rose walk at Caltech. In the entrance foyer are several large rock samples, including a large volcanic bomb. Turning to the left the curve of the staircase mimics the spirals of the diagram of the geological ages on the wall (something like: and then you are in grad student land. Several frantic-seeming icons of originality and free thought decorate the closed doors of various offices and labs. More wall poster prints of pictures from field trips in previous decades, photos of the moon, etc line the corridor as the noise of activity steadily increases. Emerging at ground level four huge white Ford Excursion (and similar) 4WDs lined the dock as last minute packing and seating allocations took place. By choice I wound up with seven undergrads in the largest of the trucks. Unlike other more technologically bold groups, roughly divided into grad students, Europeans, and S's team, we did not bring portable music players or laptops, so spent most of the trips engaged in conversation and bizarre word games, the rules of which I shall sprinkle intermittently throughout this report.

Dodging bad traffic we eventually crawled from the LA basin by the 210 East towards the 10 South and 111. By 9pm we had reached the northern shore of the Salton Sea. I put up my new bivy bag/tent combo, since I anticipated this trip would be low on trees from which to hang my hammock. Snacks and fireside chat ensued, split with a quick trip down to the seashore to shoot lasers at clouds, skim rocks, and disturb the birds which lived there. In due course it was time to retire to sleep on my luxurious customary camp mattress, made from a single car windshield reflector. I figure that a 2cm inflatable mattress is no different to a 1mm shiny thing, with similar heat properties. I took advantage of a clear view towards Jupiter to look at a few moons 

Next morning we were up early, packed, munched on some breakfast, and drove around the eastern shore of the sea. With only a brief detour to be told off for trespassing on private owned railway tracks, and admiration of the bright green haze over the rather polluted sea we arrived in the Schrimpf-Davis seismic field, corresponding to the southern terminus of the San Andreas fault. Here compression gives way to rifting and several other faults. Incredibly, the Salton Sea as it exists today is anthropogenic, resulting from the flooding of the Colorado river in 1905 and filling the rift valley to a depth of 15m. 12m more and it would have overtopped to flow to the pacific ocean. Apparently it was a 'disaster' on par with the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and came very close to being a permanent problem. Now waters of the Colorado are used for extensive irrigation in the region and the sea is fed entirely by runoff. The field is also known for hot gas effusions giving rise to mud pots and gryphons, which are small mud volcanoes. I gave my talk on mud volcanoes (naturally). There are tens of thousands of such features around the world. The largest are found in Azerbaijan, though the man-made one in Sidoarjo, Java, Indonesia is giving it a run for its money. Down at the sea shore we found lots of dead barnacles and dried fish resulting from one of the frequent die-offs. As the salinity rises, more species of fish have found it impossible to live in. Now only the Tilapia survives, meaning that the next die-off will probably be the last. In between this quasi apocalyptic landscape of depressed and dusty towns between hyper-phosphate green fields, fumaroles, glassy obsidian beaches, and dozens of geothermal power plants I managed to cut my toe on a sharp rock. A quick application of alcohol and ethyl-cyanoacrylate (superglue) staunched the flow and permitted the persistence of sandals for the remainder of the trip. Which is lucky as I didn't bring any other shoes!

We pushed south to the border town of Calexico-Mexicali. Like most border towns, there was absolutely no reason to hang around so, navigating alternate two- and one-way streets, we drove towards Tijuana and the fault from the 2010 El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake. Modern seismological techniques have taught us that this earthquake began as a magnitude ~6.4 normal thrust earthquake, whose rupture propagated a few hundred km along the fault, in the process triggering a stronger strike-slip movement lasting for about a minute and with a total magnitude of 7.2. With surprisingly few fatalities for such a large quake, there was none-the-less impressive surface ruptures visible, one of which we were soon to discover. At the time of the quake, the road looked like this: The road has, of course, been repaired, however on either side it's still possible to stand in cracks taller than one's head and wider than one can reach.

Turning south we drove towards the Californian gulf (part of the same rift), stopping at some rather lovely sand dunes on the way. The sun was by this stage low in the sky and sharp black hills poked through the deposited sediment in a landscape reminiscent of Mongolia. We had dinner at "Rice and Beans" in San Filipe, then drove up the coast to a marginal beach resort. I unrolled my sleeping bag on a rickety picnic table and slept under the stars. When we arrived the tidal mudflat stretched further than the eye could see. By the time we slept it had vanished beneath the incoming tide, replaced by fisherman. Another campfire raised spirits, smoked for the lasers scanning pattern, and provided a nucleus for the consumption of cheap Mexican booze.

Next morning we woke once again at 6am, packed, ate, and after a few talks on tidal flats, beach morphology, and so on, were on our way. This time we drove north, passed a routine military checkpoint and headed inland. Before long the black-top vanished and after a few turns past bewildered cows our trusty vehicles began climbing the central Baja range. At the summit we stopped to discuss the juxtaposition of differing deposits; recent volcanic tuffs and granite plutons with associated metamorphic structures overlay and interleave an ancient crustal fragment criss-crossed with eroded dykes. The road wound downwards towards Santo Tomas and Punta Cabras. By now it had begun to rain very heavily. After S stopped to help pull some stranded Mexican dudes van from the mud we shifted into 4WD and to my surprise the truck stopped sliding into the ditch. Driving through puddles that sprayed the entire car with dark orange mud comprehensively tested the sealing ability of the doors (95% solid) as well as the windscreen wipers. In due course we forded the last raging torrent and reached our campsite on an old marine terrace above a forming one. Separated by a steadily eroding cliff we managed to park the cars off the track despite being unable to see anything in the rain. Most of the evening was spent inside the car waiting for the rain to ease, though at one point a few people and I donned our raincoats and set off through ankle-deep flooding (pitch a tent? HA!) towards a distant light house and access to the beach where we hoped to find some interesting rocks. By the time we made it to the beach, everyone was pretty wet. We split the distance between the raging surf and the muddy cliff dissolving and collapsing beneath torrents of water and wandered half lost in the rainy twilight for a few minutes before turning around and walking back. By virtue of the rapidly evolving landscape, the view on the way back was quite different to the way out, and we witnessed about five landslides, each with a heart-racing 'whomp' sound. Back at the cars there was a futile effort to secure a tarp against the blustery gale before we each retired to the car. A space-blanket made an impromptu screen as the more soaked members of the party changed in the back seat. Meanwhile I shivered under a towel and came to terms with the fact that my old camera was unlikely to survive its third thorough soaking in my aged raincoat's allegedly waterproof breast pocket. At the moment there was not much to see, however. We passed around my supply of trail mix and played 'contact'. In contact, a person thinks of a word and names the first letter. Someone gives a clue for a candidate answer and if someone else realises what word that is, they say contact. The person who knows the word has a few seconds to say "it's not (whatever word is being referred to)" and if they can't, then the other two say their word simultaneously. If it's the same, the work-knower has to give out the next letter. So the game proceeds. In my day, "I spy" was pretty sophisticated!

At about 8pm the rain eased enough for S to emerge, shirtless, from his car and run around setting up the barbecue and with the help of his colleague S, excavate enough mud to start a fire. Combined with our fervent hopes for continuing rain lest crops dry out and fail, the weather cleared at about 9pm and people began to emerge from their cars, dry and smoke themselves by the fire, eat dinner and pitch tents. For a while it looked like we'd be sleeping in economy class, but in the end only four people slept in the undergrad van, including me. Dinner was infinite pasta, mushrooms and tomato sauce, prefaced with corn chips and followed with toothbrushing, an alcohol wipe bath, and a visit to the rather comfortable outhouse. It had a particularly spectacular view over the night-time ocean through the open doorway, and only leaked a little in the rain. Eventually it was time for bed, so I put on my socks to keep my muddy feet safe from my sleeping bag, unrolled said sleeping bag, and slept behind the wheel. I dreamed of driving while wearing not much more than my sleeping bag, and reflected on the awesome properties of the steering column as a clothes hook.

Next morning it was Sunday, the weather had cleared and a beautiful dawn over the ocean and nearby military radar post rubbed in just how non-functional my camera had become. The ground had dried a bit, breakfast was served (I had some of my own supplies again to avoid certain additives and milk products), I packed my sleeping bag and backpack, and prepared for our last day on the road. We walked as a group to the lighthouse and ramp, heard several talks on dinosaurs, paleomagnetism, and mechanics of wave action in marine terrace formation. We had an excellent view as part of the cliff collapsed during S's talk, somewhat distracting us! I perched on the lighthouse wall, reveling in the balance afforded to squishy sandals, and conceded the keys to P for part of the drive back. Returning along the road we came on, we were surprised to find part of it had washed out in particularly spectacular fashion. A culvert had ruptured, washing away a trench 2m wide and 4m deep. At the bottom a boat sat in the mud, possibly it had previously been used as reinforcement. While I and a few others managed to jump the chasm, the cars were not so lucky and a diversion was found around the canyons to the north. The road had dried a lot, though preserved most of the very splashy puddles that continued to leak through the doors! After a quick chat to the land owner we were on our way, pausing beneath atmospheric eucalypts in Santo Tomas for lunch. Here, like so many other places in Baja, the tourist economy is geared towards contestants in the Baja 500, an endurance 4WD race featuring cars with extraordinary power and suspensions! This sort of thing:

After lunch I took over driving again and we drove north to Punta Banda near Ensenada to check out some pretty awesome rudists deposits. These extinct bivalve molluscs were the dominant reef builders before the KT mass-extinction. From here it was a straight run to the border at Tecate. We arrived at dusk and joined the queue of cars waiting to enter the US. Here we began to play another game in which a given word must be described with four or less letter words. After an hour we made it through, though the European car was delayed for a further half hour! On the other side of the border we zoomed down a narrow windy country road in the dark. The high quality of the US roads offset the inherent instability of enormous 4WDs, but somehow I managed to not kill everyone in a fiery conflagration. With one more checkpoint inside the border we shot onto the freeway and cruised as far as our stomachs would take us. Stopping at Temecula In'n'Out for dinner I made a beeline for the bathroom. Just at the moment of relief the ground swayed back and forth a few times, unnoticed but for my splayed stance before the urinal. A follow up visit to the USGS website confirmed my initial suspicion., magnitude 3.0 is the first earthquake I've felt since moving to California more than a year ago! 

I ordered the least offensive thing on the menu, swapped driving with P, and promptly fell into a food coma. Arriving back at Caltech, we fueled up our gas guzzlers for the fourth and last time, unpacked, swept, washed, signed off on the log, and left for sleep as quickly as possible. 

I was in many ways surprised that there was so little drama in Mexico, given the reputation it has recently acquired for extreme violence at the hands of various drug and crime syndicates. In fact, much of the place really charmed me. There is always a soft spot in my heart for underdeveloped and economically questionable places on earth, but unlike parts of the Russian Far East, Mexico isn't frozen for eight months of the year!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lang Lang at the LA Phil

Lang Lang at Walt Disney Hall

Last Sunday night I had the pleasure of seeing the internationally renowned concert pianist Lang Lang give a recital in Los Angeles. Lang Lang has shot to fame since his 2001 Carnegie Hall debut, with reviews praising his showmanship and technical mastery of the keyboard. As his career progresses, it is interesting to see what and how he plays to live up to the hype and the expectations of his audience, many of whom are, it could be said, eager for a display of acrobatics. Lang Lang is certainly not the first virtuoso musician to be type-cast in this way, and I was interested to see whether he might try to subtly subvert or lampoon his own unique style. Unfortunately, subtlety is not generally considered one of Lang Lang's selling points.

He served up a balanced program consisting of Bach Partita No. 1 in B-flat (BWV 825) followed by a late Schubert Sonata, also in B-flat (D 960). Both are pieces renowned more for musical than technical difficulty, and Lang Lang approached both according to his by now familiar formula of "no rubato left unplayed". While I'd be the last person to criticise a performer for reinterpreting older music with more modern innovations, Lang Lang did not express the polyphonic texture of the Bach particularly well, leaving us with a notationally accurate but sometimes bland and often confounding performance. Indeed, were it not for the applause from the more alert ends of the auditorium, I would have had difficulty telling the end of the Bach from the beginning of the Schubert, despite the intervening centuries of musical development, thought, and stylistic difference between them. Displaying a level of proficiency performing music at a level he must have mastered nearly two decades ago, Lang Lang nevertheless delivered a piece whose cohesion, unity and flow was broken by occasional but seemingly arbitrary pauses in tempo, intrusive fortissimo chords, or other "pops".

Thus far most of the audience, where still awake, seemed confused. Where were the technical fireworks? This was, after all, the performer sometimes dubbed the "greatest living pianist" who can "play anything". Someone with his reputation could certainly afford to dish up some tasty and technically terrifying tidbit from the edges of the repertoire. Thus far, with Bach and Schubert we had travelled down the dead center of the road of western musical thought. When one sees a virtuoso perform there is an expectation that they will play easy stuff well, and that they will also select some repertoire they find challenging. Georges Cziffra, a Hungarian pianist well known in Europe in the 60s and 70s, was famed for driving audiences into a frenzy with edge-of-your-seat fear and excitement over his interpretations and arrangements of, in particular, Liszt. A pianist must perform at least some music with which they physically and viscerally contend. Without the possibility of a spectacular melt-down there can be no suspense and no excitement, at least since Steinway worked out how to prevent pianos from exploding beneath the demands of the Romantic repertoire.

The second part of the recital promised the desired technical showmanship in the form of the Chopin Etudes Op. 25. Billed as Chopin's "ultra-demanding pianistic studies", they were, at the time of their composition, possibly the fourth most challenging etudes in existence. They are certainly nowhere near Liszt's contemporaneous Transcendental Etudes in musical, technical, and pianistic complexity. Indeed, Liszt went on to republish easier and more accessible versions of his etudes not once but twice, and even then they are by no means the most challenging works in his ouvre. Additionally, there has been considerable development in the nearly two centuries since. In my opinion, the etudes composed by Godowsky, Sorabji, Finnissy, Busoni, and Marc-Andre Hamelin are, while often directly referencing Chopin's earlier work, much more interesting and certainly far more challenging.

This is not to take away from Chopin's Op. 25, whose technical challenges alternately bemuse and infuriate aspiring professional pianists in nearly every music school on earth. Again presenting a work that he must have mastered at half his present age, Lang Lang delivered solid performances of the 12 studies, though we got a few fistfulls of bonus notes in the seventh. Towards the end he anticipated premature applause and played one almost right after another, often ending with a flourish or musical joke obvious enough for most of the audience to get.

In between half a dozen curtain calls, he performed two encores: Liszt's Romanza and La Campanella. The former was most likely for the people sitting to the right of the podium who have a strong appreciation for his legendary emotional state while playing, while the latter is an old encore favourite amongst pianists. La Campanella was originally written as a musical joke, but due to its technical difficulty is almost always played "with a straight face". Lang Lang took the opportunity to play his own cadenza drawn largely from other Liszt works (including an extended melodic inversion from Liszt's transcription of Danse Macabre) which included at least one laugh at the serious faction of the audience's expense. At last! Thus it seems that Lang Lang is very aware that certain repertoire and tricks sell tickets, records and sponsorship deals, and is, perhaps, musically trapped. The question, then, is at what point will he decide he is rich enough, throw off the shackles of living up to his possibly undeserved reputation and turn his unique style and voice to more unexpected repertoire? Perhaps he could emulate Stephen Hough, who occasionally sneaks Godowsky billed as Chopin upon an unsuspecting audience. Who knows, perhaps one day he will bring a new audience to the most recent century of piano composition.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Camping for one night only

Not so long ago I went on a brief overnight camping trip into the mountains to the north east of LA. I was joined on this trip by my friends T and S, one of whom was in charge of driving! The point of the exercise was to hike to a natural hot spring that occurs in the area. Geological map of the region which makes the location obvious:
In the end we found the springs and they were glorious. On the way back we were rewarded with a terrific SoCal sunset over some spikey mountains. These, and a few other nice views along the way I managed to capture in my soon-to-be-replaced camera gloria, and can be found here:
Might be worth a trip back there some day. One of the nicer hot springs I've ever visited; a distinct lack of boreholes and concrete!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Photos and wrap

All the photos from my recent trip to Europe are now uploaded. They can be found here.
Individual posts are now all hyper-linked for extra efficient reading/photoing. All panoramas were stitched together with the freeware tool "Hugin". 
In addition, there's a composite album of photos I took of a small stuffed cassowary in some interesting place nearly every day.
For no particular reason, I did not take substantial quantities of video during this trip, so there are no videos in particular awaiting upload. :(
This probably marks the last major trip I do with my trusty Canon Powershot A530 - bought in November 2006 and carried with me ever since. I'll probably eulogise it more thoroughly when its eventual replacement is obtained.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Spain, land of mañana...

At Vienna airport I was delayed as my ticket had been 'bought' by another airline, whose system then refused to cooperate. Fortunately I was eventually issued a boarding pass, and flew out of a cloudy Vienna into sleepland. A rainy and bumpy splash landing in Barcelona was followed by an extremely overpriced dinner and a weather-delayed second flight.

In the end, I arrived in Malaga only an hour late, with 50c of phone credit and a 20% charge. At this point I realized my friend T couldn't reply to international numbers, so I sniffed unsuccessfully for wifi and waited.

In the nick of time T turned up and we set about finding a suitably dumpy pension for me to crash. We found it in the form of Hotel Olympia. From a distance the sign even resembled 'DUMPIA'. The stairs were broken, the electrics sparked and smoked, the plumbing was questionable, and my door's bolt hole was secured by a single loose screw. It did, however, have a sink at which I washed my clothes, and a bed flat enough to sleep on. It's worth mentioning that since neither the shower nor bathroom door could close all the way, I could keep an eye on my room door down the corridor while showering; an added security feature. And thanks to early morning garbage trucks, cat fights, and two-stroke vespa booty calls, my morning sleep was punctuated by a series of extraordinary lucid dreams featuring volcanoes, alien invasions, mountain climbing, engineering projects, and so on.

But perhaps I am too hard on Malaga. T and I spent most afternoons chilling indoors, then wandering the narrow flagstone streets of the old city from tapas bar to tapas bar. I visited the magnificent cathedral, the hilltop palace and castle, which were pretty cool. In particular, the surviving Moorish architecture and landscaping/gardens were spectacular. The (free) museum of modern art was well priced and had a few works that really impressed me.

Breakfast was bread, lunch was something yummy T drew from cooking classes, and dinner was tapas, full of flavour and variety. Continuing my Croatian effort to cover the animal kingdom, I had rabbit, squid fried in ink, bull's tail, and many other bizarre but awesome dishes.

T and I caught up on at least a year of news, and I even managed to describe my research whilst ensconced in a rather atmospheric teahouse. The physics was good, but not as good as the tea!

After only two days, it was time to say goodbye. I bought a bus ticket to Granada, T revised the Spanish subjunctive for an impending exam, and we toasted absent Australian friends with very pulpy orange juice.

The bus was luxurious, better even than the ones in Turkey. Only three seats across, inflight food, and clean windows. If you adjoined this bus in Hilbert space with the one from Kosovo to Montenegro, then you'd completely span the space.

The only downside was that at one point the man in front catapulted his chair backwards into my kneecaps, and then his snoring shiny noggin kept reflecting the sun into my eyes! :P

In Granada I spent an hour finding the train station, then walked up to Alhambra (the real one), while dodging spikey and knee-high traffic bollards seemingly intent on finishing what the bus had started. A steep climb through a forested hill took me to the 'gate of justice'. Sadly the ticketed parts had sold out, so I had to be content wandering the grounds and accessing available buildings. There was an exhibition of primarily religious art in one of the buildings. A painting of San Juan de Dios and another of the Nasrid family leaving Alhambra were, IMO, particularly excellent.

On the walk back down I saw a world photos exhibition on forests, which was pretty cool. I've never spent much time in rain forests, and I still want to visit the world's northernmost forests in Taymyr, near Khatanga.

Back in town I had a look around the cathedral, built in a renaissance style upon gothic foundations, decorated with baroque elements, massive in size, and surrounded by other buildings! Looking into the dozen or so chapels arrayed around the periphery, it struck me again just how disgusting and gruesome so much of the Christian, and in particular, Catholic religious imagery is. Life size hyper-real sculptures of Jesus in varying states of torture and decay, not to mention a glisteningly anatomically precise model (I hope) of the severed head of someone later beatified for their troubles. Is idolatry (not to mention polytheism) okay provided you leave your lunch behind?

I walked up through the old town, taking turns at random until I found a plaza with a great view over the town and castle. I sat in the shade munching bread, drinking juice, and watching an endless procession of tourists fill up their memory cards with the same photo. Worth mentioning is that at no point during the entire day was I out of earshot of an Australian accent, and that one slightly strange fellow spent the entire time I was there getting other people to take dozens of photos of him in front of Alhambra with his camera.

I walked back into town, and checked out an ex-caravanserai dating from 1400 or so, some traditional markets, and found a place worthy of dinner.

I ordered fried aubergine with molasses, and pasta alla Napolitano with black olives, both of which were terrific. I took a compass bearing to the station and wandered at random, this time finding it accidentally within minutes.

I had booked the overnight 'soft seat' to Barcelona. Only 12 hours, half of it going backwards, with the usual variety of peculiar co-travelers. By the time the lights went out only two babies were crying. Then a new passenger got on with a loud Bollywood ringtone, and proceeded to make calls. Someone snored. Then the father of the nearest baby decided to exploit the fresh silence by dropping his suitcase on my feet, then giving his baby some ear drops at 1am. This operation was complicated by baby's unwillingness to lie sideways, father's cross-eyed-ness, and about 60 freshly awoken people grumbling enough to suck all the oxygen from the car. Finally, silence. Someone tried to take photos of the moon out the window with the flash on, until their head imploded by the sheer weight of their stupidity. Lots of points for me, and peace at last.

In this way, sleep interruptions were compensated by at least 10 hours in which to try, and I arrived in Barcelona only mildly grumpy.

I walked from Barcelona-Sants station into town. After I found 6 hostels were fully booked, I worked out that I'd accidentally caught the Barcelona festival. Free music and shows, and pickpockets preoccupied with alcoholic backpackers! I did a preliminary 10km lap of the old city to narrow down my options, and followed up after siesta with a visit to the Palau Guell. On the way I visited most of the large churches in Barcelona, all of which lean to some extent. Palau Guell of Gaudi's earliest works, it prefigures a lot of his later stuff. His use of natural materials with interesting textures, ingenious approaches to light and space, and a decent quantity of sheer awesome. By the time I'd climbed from the stable through a series of halls, living spaces, servants' quarters and the roof, I felt I had earned a kebab. So I bought one next door.

Later that night another dude from the hostel joined me for a walk down to the beach and to the Fastnet Irish Bar, where we exchanged Spanish and English with a few other CSers. All too soon it was time to turn in for the night. The person on the bunk below me snored, so I was on 'earthquake duty', where I shook the bed in a vain but oddly satisfying attempt to stir them just enough to breathe better, but not enough to kill me.

Next morning, I realized it was my last day in Europe and I was still lugging around the 3 ounces of flab I'd gained in Austria. Casting a cursory glance over the map I set off!

First stop was the Picasso Museum, itself housed in a rather spectacular, though overlooked, building. Focusing mainly on his early works, the collection also included a number of things by his contemporaries, of which my favourites were a van Gogh painting of a glass of Absinthe (, and a Toulouse-Lautrec portrait entitled 'Red-haired girl in a white blouse' (

In contrast to these, Picasso's works seem to show us not what is, but what we see. His later works, including the series on pigeons, I saw as skeletal and technically unsophisticated. The whole point is (I think) that the human brain fills in the missing detail, in much the same way as XKCD. ( I found as I walked away that the impressionists were on my mind, but that people resembled the Picasso sketches I'd just been looking at.

I continued up from the port, taking in a few more of Gaudi's buildings and some Chinese noodles on the way. The monument to Casanova revealed the existence of more than one new cottage lying about, as this fellow was neither THE Casanova nor a descendant.

Next on the route was the Sagrada Familia. Everyone has heard of this building, but I'm prepared to admit that I knew nothing about it except that it was unfinished and it had four tall towers. It turns out that work is continuing, and the interior was finished only last year, about 130 years after the first stone was placed. Cathedral construction, old school style. The interior is quite extraordinary, with branching, treelike columns joining in hyperbolic domes, with all sorts of decoration. The exterior remains unfinished, though the (recent) sculptures on the resurrection portal reminded me of the 'mask of sorrow' in Magadan.

In the crypt was a fascinating exhibition on the ongoing efforts to finish the cathedral, complicated by the untimely death of Gaudi in 1926 and the burning/destruction of the workshop and models during the Spanish civil war. For me the highlight was an 'inverted model'. By hanging small weights proportional to structural mass from strings of the same (scaled) dimension as structural members, gravity automatically finds the optimal solution, which is a generalized catenary. Here's the kicker: the inverted string model has only tension. When righted, the corresponding bits will have only compression, permitting the construction of cheap masonry structures in weird shapes, rather than resorting to prestressed reinforced concrete or similar.

All too soon it was time to press on. I enjoyed my walk between octagonal city blocks joined by octagonal intersections, and shaded streets running NE-SW and vice versa, meanwhile hearing only dozens of foreign languages, not Australians!

After a while I came to the Park Guell, a never-completed neighbourhood that is now a public space. The landscape design was also done by Gaudi, and resonates with his ideas on a grand scale. From the summit there was a great view over Barcelona. At this point I realized how ambitious my plans for the day's walk were, since I was only a quarter of the way through.

Without further ado I continued, back toward Barcelona-Sants railway station (via a motor scooter crash) and then onward to the Catalonian National Art Museum (MNAC), an impressive domed structure set high on a hill, not unlike the Imperial Palace Museum in Taipei. I gained entry and managed to see everything before it closed at 7pm, with about a minute to spare.

MNAC is unique for the large quantity of Romanesque art. Created c.1200 and displaying a mix of Italian and national influences, the works were preemptively removed from old church walls in a documented fashion to prevent loss into private hands. As a result, this section of the museum is a whole bunch of church 'set interiors' filling a series of large halls. To my untrained eyes, it was reminiscent of the stone paintings M and I saw in Capadocia in 2008.

My favourite this time was hidden behind a corner in a hallway, and probably missed by most visitors. A
Antoni Caba work from 1882 titled 'Dia sobre la Nit precedit de l'Aurora'. (

Also, in the modernist section, Ramon Carga's 'Ramon Carga, pere Romeu en un automobil' ( was a lot of fun!

I walked through the port and Rambla de Mar to the beach and the Olympics Harbour, arriving just in time for a most serendipitous fireworks display. On the way back I had some excellent home-made Italian pasta, then returned to the hostel to pick up my bag after only 14 hours of walking.

I walked back through town one last time, during the quiet hours around 1am. Except that there were at least a million revellers filling the streets, multiple parades, drummers, street sellers, and happy people. Across the plaza del Catalunya to the N17 night bus to begin my 24 hour trip back to LA. The driver took advantage of empty parking lots at the airport to execute a few two-wheeled corners, efficiently dispelling any notions I may have had for sleep. Better to cope with jetlag by mixing in sleep deprivation anyway.

Two thirds of the early morning flights were to Russia: St Petersburg, Minsk, Miberalnye, etc. I haven't seen so many Russians in one place for quite some time! And none of them knew I understood everything they say... Muhahaha!

Eventually we boarded the plane, but not before chatting with an Argentinian dude until I realized I was interrupting his reading of a rather explicit magazine. Of course, boarding the plane was very slow, compounded by my falling asleep until the final call! Then we sat on the tarmac for 90 minutes as the plane had a broken windscreen wiper. Fortunately I had booked my flights with a long transit time, so was able to relax as we descended over Dusseldorf. I imagined I was Biggles, and squinted into the bright sun over medieval buildings with my comrade and best mate Algy, gingerly fingering my bomb toggle as my mustache whipped in the crisp 1917 air...

On the next plane I found myself seated to a rather broad-shouldered man with extremely bushy eyebrows who, it came out in conversation, was an increasingly devout catholic. When I expresses reservations about the current pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, due to his dubious/criminal actions whilst the leader of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, he explained the official position of the church on priests accused of paedophilia (or other criminal acts), which I found rather interesting.

Child rape is, no doubt, a terrible thing, BUT (there is always a but), given that Jesus Christ is the son of god, he explicitly vested the church run by man his power of forgiveness. Therefore the church has power and priority over national legal authorities with respect to its own, privately run, judicial system. Under this system, paedophile priests or other church members guilty of criminal acts can be forgiven and get another chance, or excommunicated if deemed beyond salvation. When I brought up Charles Manson he conceded that a deathbed repentance would mean that god would forgive him his criminal acts, so I find it hard to imagine what would warrant excommunication! I asked at what point does the church call the police, but apparently that never happens. Unless, of course, the church is a victim of criminal acts, such as vandalism.

Regular readers will be in no doubt as to my attitude to this idea. In my opinion, there is no god, no sin, and no eternal life, but there is an organization intent on covering its own arse whilst permitting the continuing violation of everyone else's. More seriously, however, if Cardinal Ratzinger covered up, and allowed to continue, the rape and torture of children, then he is effectively perpetrating that crime himself, and, at the very least, must be held accountable.

What could have been a very lively discussion petered out due to a lack of a fluent common language. But I'm always surprised when I meet otherwise normal, rational people who can, with a straight face, tell you they are absolutely certain that a special class of people are exempt from justice, or above the law. It is, in my opinion, delusion and mental illness.

Above the great lakes our aging A330 got caught in the braids of the jet stream, which made for lots of awesome bumps. Soon enough we were cruising high above the stark and beautiful deserts of the western USA, with mountains, faults, gorges, volcanoes, and many shades of red. The captain pointed Las Vegas out the right window, so I got an excellent look at Lake Powell on the left; impossibly austere, rugged terrain we visited on the Ge136 field trip earlier this year.

With a bounce and a bump we hit the tarmac in LA, and the hostess with the Portal voice wished us good day. From here it is only a few hours of sitting in traffic and I'm home.

Pointless statistics:
12 countries, 26 border posts (and not one strip search!), 38 days, 60 towns. One pair of sandals, one pair of pants, 3 shirts, one cooking pot, only 18L of luggage.

Overall it was a very interesting trip, filled with wonders and surprises. Travelling with J for 3 weeks was a lot of fun, plus all the other old and new friends along the way. Travelling with only a tiny bag and writing all my blog posts on my broken iPhone was also a new approach and one I liked a lot. Being able to walk around with your bag all day is a terrific asset!

Photos will go up in the next few days, with retrofitted hyperlinks and captions and LOTS of panoramas. UPDATE: Photos.

Here endeth the travels of Al Dente and Gazpacho.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The game

One way to minimize the chance of trouble when travelling is to be aware of your surroundings at all times, almost to the point of obsession. Combining this with the fun of prejudging people one has never met, J and I developed a terrific though slightly cynical game. One earns points by spotting a wide variety of egregiously touristic behaviour. As near as I can remember, spotting any of the following gets you FIVE POINTS.

- Incorrect use of a camera flash, such as in the sun, with a monument, too close, against a pane of glass.
- Taking a photo of something with the sun behind it, so everything is in silhouette, or of a scene with too much contrast.
- Taking a photo of beggar or other poor child close up with a wide angle lens and camera expensive enough to swap for said child.
- A backpack taller than the person when carried, OR a backpack getting jammed somewhere such as a narrow or low doorway, or knocking something over.
- Lots of luggage, to the point of no free hands. Bonus points if negotiating a staircase.
- A wheeley bag used on irregular surface or cobbles, making lots of noise, flipping, or having to be carried.
- A hybrid wheeley bag/backpack, for sheer crocoduck impracticality.
- A hipster of any size or shape. Extra points if on a shiny motor scooter or wearing sequins.
- A lonely planet guidebook.
- Reading a guidebook right in front of a famous monument instead of looking at it.
- Hiking shoes capable of climbing Annapurna. Bonus points if still shiny or obviously uncomfortable.
- Convertable pants/shorts.
- A terrible sunburn.
- Anyone shouting "Do you speak English?" at close range.
- Anyone asking if they can pay in USD.
- Anyone getting ripped off or scammed.
- Anyone using an audio guide.
- Either one of us tripping or stumbling or running into something.
- Anyone using a taxi when they could walk.
- A visible, outside, or obvious 'secret' money purse, wallet, or bum bag.
- An unusable or perilously dangerous wheelchair ramp. Eg. steep, a big drop at the bottom, or nowhere for a pusher to walk.
- A tourist map. Bonus points if it is being read upside down.
- Anyone asking directions to the 'mall'.
- Anyone so out of shape they can't see for sweat, or climb the stairs to the top of an expensive attraction with a view.
- Funny voices, accents, laughs, etc.
- The smallest and largest dog all day.
- Anyone making a comparison between, say, a wonder of the world and a place 'back home'.
- A McDonalds restaurant.
- Any person with 'only on holidays' facial hair. Bonus points if it's very silly.

To be fair, we both gleefully committed many of these 'crimes against travel' from time to time. Suggestions for more categories welcomed.

On the loading of A320s

During the last year I've done quite a bit of flying on single-aisle commuter jets, such as the A320. It continues to stun me just how slow loading these things is, especially in comparison to unloading them.

In particular, the usual modus operandi for the average traveller seems to be:
- walk as slowly as possible
- check every seat for yours
- when you find your seat, stop in the aisle, then start looking for space for your barely-legal carry on bag
- after the bag(s) is(are) stowed, stop to admire surroundings
- contemplate degree of butt-squeezing needed to fit into seat
- take 20 last deep breaths
- watch people further from the window act surprised when you tell them your options are them to unbuckle, stow baby etc or else crowd-surf
- take seat, bitch about it
- wash, rinse, repeat

However, I propose using MATHS to address this problem. There is but one narrow aisle, and around 180 seats to be filled. Also, seats are numbered sequentially (skipping 13) from front to back, and lettered alphabetically from port to starboard. Every plane is the same - this isn't rocket science.

Therefore, approach the vicinity of your seat as quickly as possible. Once there, place bag on ANY empty seat nearby and get out of the aisle. From there, throw bag in overhead locker, or wait for a break in the traffic. While waiting, take your breaths, and indicate to fellow sardines where your butt is to be squeezed, so that they can prepare themselves (mentally and otherwise).

Finally, with grace befitting of a ballerina, park in your allotted space having not blocked the aisle with pointless shenanigans. My favourite method is the 'arm rest two step', also useful for late night toilet breaks on long haul flights. The rules dictate that you may not touch any part of anyone else's seat. Only your own seat, the ceiling, arm rests, and cabin floor is permitted. Convention maintains that a successful execution's celebratory grunts and yelps be kept to a bare minimum.

Therefore, if you, dear reader, cause an aeroplane traffic jam henceforth, you shall incur my mighty (though virtual) wrath.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Austria, home of Almdudler!!

Schengen. The first hint J and I got that we had left Slovenia and entered Austria was a change of phone network. After a few hours of rolling through excruciatingly quaint Austrian countryside, interspersed with sips of Almdudler, the national soft drink, we arrived at Vienna Meidling Hauptbahnhoff. We were greeted warmly by one of my oldest friends R (I tend to sprinkle them around the world), and took the embarrassingly efficient u-bahn to their new flat in Leopoldstadt.

R has always lived in places much too nice for a university student, and this place was no exception. From artistic light fittings to high tech windows, and a shower that requires regular consultation of an instruction manual to use, J and I immediately came to terms with the prospect of a few days of comfort and compulsory gourmet indulgence.

In the afternoon we went to the old Danube channel for a swim. J, R, and I amused ourselves watching slackliners falling in, while C indulged in a 50 minute swim in the frigid green waters.

That evening J went for a wander through the Viennese streets while R, C, R's friend L and I went to the city hall to see what had been described as 'acrobatics and vivaldi'.

What it was slightly exceeded that description. In celebration of 40 years of diplomatic relations between Austria and China, a show was prepared. All the dignitaries were present, including the Chinese ambassador, a Chinese vice-premier, an Austrian minister of parliament and a city representative. The stage was decorated with lights and a giant projector screen. The show consisted of an Austrian ballerina dancing a movement of Vivaldi's four seasons, followed by Chinese acrobatics to slightly more varied music. While the ballet was excellent, the acro was astonishing.

I have previously seen a Chinese acro show in Beijing, roughly Nov 28, 2006, sections of which I filmed and put on YouTube. This show was just as mind-blowing.

The usual routine consisted of some props etc used in the most obvious way, and then more and more crazy until it was at least two orders of magnitude beyond the impossible. Highlights included a choreographed routine on giant unicycles with bowls being balanced in heads and thrown back and forth by foot, a human pretzel pyramid, hand stands on hand stands, balance poles on balance poles, people balancing en pointe on someone's head, and an inverted flipping drums routine that culminated in people being flipped from foot to foot.

Next day J and I hit the city and saw most of the famous buildings in a two hour jaunt across the city, including the interior of the Votivkirche, which I had never seen before. Next on the agenda was meeting C and R for lunch at the Vienna University. I learnt most of my physics in the Vienna University in 2005, so I made sure to check in on the old lab. Together with half a dozen colleagues we dined at a popular nearby Italian place. I had penne alla napolitano (I think), and it was one of the nerdiest lunches I've had in quite a while!

That evening we took a tram to the northern part of Vienna, another UNESCO listed village that specializes in wines. At this time of year, however, you can get sturm, which is newly fermenting grape juice. Translucent, bubbling, sweet, and mildly alcoholic, it is a seasonal treat only. I opted for most, which is unfermented grape juice, otherwise known as diabetes in a glass!

Next day J, R and I went present shopping. We found a cool shop near stefansplatz that sold bottles of everything. After the compulsory Viennese wurst, we visited an interesting market to buy more sturm, and rounded out the trip with a quick jaunt up the dome at Karlskirche.

Now on my fourth visit, the extraordinary architecture of Karlskirche is augmented by a scaffold that permits visitors to climb into the highest part of the dome, and to appreciate the ceiling art at close quarters. I also noticed access paths next to the windows, so presumably a more organic view is also possible. For me, the highlight of this church is the way skylights above the chapels mesh geometrically with windows on the second gallery level.

We put J on a train to the airport, and, despite a very rare service disruption, he made it! C and I headed to the Votivkirche (site of an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the emperor Franz Josef in the mid 19th century) for an organ concert, which sadly was cancelled. Instead we worked on the style of his thesis until R turned up, at which point I ditched him for a walk around the city to catch up on news! That evening I made some Gula Melaka, but the result was not as successful as the attempt in Philadelphia.

Next day C and I celebrated his posted draft thesis by going for a run. As C is a competitive triathlete, I rode his bike as we clocked 21km in 90 minutes along the charming though skinny Danube island. We saw a floating highschool, and to the end C talked easily while explaining the philosophy that sweat is just muscles crying.

That afternoon we drove with S and a different R to Kematen an der Krems, C's home town in the north of Austria, for a wedding. We made a side trip to C's cousin's nursery, which had a herb garden with hundreds of varieties! One of C's dozen or so cousins is a piano builder by trade, and he showed us his self-restored Bosendorfer, which was terrific! Back at C's house his mother fed us ad exploseum, after which poppy seed cake for dessert treated us all to extraordinary lucid dreams.

Next day after a similarly enormous breakfast, C and R dropped me at the Wels railway station, where I took a train to Salzburg to catch up with R's family.

I had previously spent a few days (20-22 Dec 2006) with them just before Christmas. It had been an oasis of order and calories between 3 weeks in Siberia and 2 penniless weeks in Italy on my first major trip overseas, so I had very fond memories. This time, only R's mother C and younger sister S (now all grown up) were present. I spent the day talking, playing music, including a terrific duet of Phantom of the Opera with S, and enjoying the wonders of Salzburg. S and I went to check on her horse C, who is now old but happy, and I also took 5 minutes to reacquaint myself with the Salzburgdom. It is one of my favourite cathedrals as it has four separate pipe organs on each of the four pillars of the central dome. Apparently they are sometimes played in concert, even with improvisation. S left for a party, so C and I walked into the town once more and talked about the intervening five years. At length it was time to board a train back to Vienna, but not before I was gifted with a packed though comprehensive dinner. The hospitality was so lovely I was confused whether they wanted me to come back, or to be so embarrassed I should never return!!

There is nothing quite like flying along rails at 200km/h in silence and eerily still comfort. I have no idea how the tracks are kept so level. Three hours of cruising beneath the rising yellow moon and I was back in Vienna. I packed, laundered, and before long, C and R arrived, having survived a north Austrian wedding!

Next day I woke, ate, chatted, and all too soon it was time to say goodbye. The train pulled out from Praterstern and I was already on my way to Spain.

UPDATE: Photos.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Slovenia, the outlier

A few more passport stamps and we were into our last former Yugoslav country. The train line ran along the bottom of a deep, densely wooded gorge. Spring colours gave way to overcast skies, while the river ran swiftly below. Trains in Slovenia drive on the left. L, J and I spent an hour or more with our heads out the window screaming into space. Only drops of rain slamming into our faces at 160km/h could drive us back inside. I was surprised to note all the roof panels were already open and accessible, possibly to simplify border customs searches.

After a few hours we stopped in Ljubljana. L was continuing to Munchen, so we said farewell before walking into town. We found lunch and our CSers M, E and baby A, and got a quick run down on why Slovenia, of all the former Yugoslav countries, was absurdly well organized. Osmosis from neighbouring Austria, perhaps?

We walked into town and saw the castle and the triple bridge. Ljubljana, while charming and organised, does not sport the attractions of many other cities. Nonetheless we had a satisfying drink at a cafe by the river. A, who at 10 months old is the youngest CS host I have ever had, got tired and grumpy so we returned home. Ljubljana has some terrific mountains on the north horizon, all lumpy and craggy.

That evening we watched Men in Black, ate a terrific dinner, then retired to rest on an absurdly comfortable couch.

Next morning we woke with the family at 6am, ate fresh brown bread with chestnut jam for breakfast, then walked to the station. With minimal drama we found our platform and train, and under an early morning fog completed our stay in Ljubljana. After a slightly rushed connection in Maribor we were on our way to Austria, and the end of J's and my three week trip together.

UPDATE: Photos.

Croatia, part 2.

We entered Croatia for the third and last time about five hours from Zagreb. Not yet knowing the intricacies of neo-stokavian emphasis shift, J, L, B and I had a conversation about how to pronounce Zagreb. We could at least agree that very few capitals began with Z, which was pretty cool!

We followed the girls (with their blessing!) to a hostel in the western part of the city, checked in, freshened up, and exploited wifi! The hostel owners agreed to do some laundry in return for a beer, which was a welcome prospect!

We walked back into town, perused a terrific flea market, and explored the Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb was once two warring towns. Following their formal unification in the 18th century forming the upper town they gave birth to the lower town, a sprawling delta of sequential superposed architectural styles. All Austro-Hungarian stucco in the middle and socialist concrete on the outskirts.

After lunch we met our Croatian colleague from Caltech B, with whom we explored the city and discussed linguistics, music, history, science, non-commutative topology, and of course the mysterious elephant trunk problem.

In the evening we retired to the hostel, said goodbye to B and L who were leaving early the next morning, and hit the sack ourselves.

Next morning after a late start we walked back to the train station. We were pleasantly surprised to run into L, the girl we met on the bus from Skopje to Prishtina. She was taking the same train, so we attempted to finish our earlier conversation.

UPDATE: Photos.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina have a small corridor of land linking to the ocean, and we crossed that on our way to Sarajevo, meaning we actually returned briefly to Croatia before making our third and final crossing for the day! Some minor drama with people hitching across, and we turned inland, winding up a valley surrounded by mountains.

During a brief stop at Mostar, the Belgian hiker W gave us a quick run down about landmines in the region. Apparently they were sown along the lines and thus mark the ethnic divisions pretty accurately.

Arriving in Sarajevo we sussed out the train station, then walked into town and met our CSer O, who owns the oldest bar in Sarajevo.

O told us that during the 1300 day siege of Sarajevo (nearly a year longer than in St Petersburg during WWII), the only way into the city was through a tunnel under the airport. Alcohol was extremely hard to come by, and he opened a bar overlooking the front with a single bottle of cognac. 3 years later the war ended, 4 years after that he no longer ran the only club in Sarajevo, and 7 years after that the front his club had faced was declared 98% mine free. O bought a block of land and started building a house. Since then he has found only 3 more mines during earthworks...

(We later found that in the coastal village of Zadar, locals have been removing warning signs as they frighten away tourists.)

Three years after that we left his bar at 2am and sped up the mountain to see the incredible house he was building there. Three floors, rough hewn timber members, heat insulation, unmortared brick floor, heaps of space, outdoor eating area, and the great view the Serbs had over the city for four years as they failed to capture it.

Next morning O made us an awesome breakfast before we walked to a nearby destroyed fort surrounded by uncleared mines and inhabited by a herd of goats. O told us the standard procedure if you find an unexploded mine; hide it on the enemies' position... He also told us the Bosnian technique for surviving winter with only a single bag of coal. Three times a day, pick up the bag and carry it around the yard.

Fortified by a lunch of cevapi, we explored the old town, a mix of Ottoman and Christian styled single story shops, interspersed with (drinkable) fountains, mosques, and "Sarajevo stars" caused by exploding shrapnel.

We also visited the Latin bridge, from which Franz Ferdinand (and his wife) was shot and the first world war started nearly 100 years ago.

We returned to O's club, outside which he parks his car unlocked, and said our farewells. A short (45 minute) walk across town via a bakery to the station. In the foyer we met B and L, two sisters from England with backpacks and seeping paranoia.

An experienced traveller at their hostel told them to expect pickpockets, cutthroats, corrupt police and harassment on any international overnight service. We teamed up to occupy a 6 person couchette compartment, and spent much of the evening swapping stories and Bosnian/Turkish sweets. I leveraged my enthusiasm for trains to optimize the functionality of the folding seats, and with no additional drama we crossed the border only two hours behind schedule at 3am.

UPDATE: Photos.

Croatia, part 1.

Crossed the umpteenth border, this time into Croatia. The road wound along the side of some absurdly steep coastal mountains before plunging beneath a modern cable-stayed bridge and spitting us out in Dubrovnik.

We negotiated a cheap room for the night, then headed into the city; red tiles beneath shining blue skies.

Once an independent naval city state to rival Venice, and despite bombardment in 1991-2, Dubrovnik is exceptionally well preserved. A number of fountains spurt drinkable water, stone buildings line narrow and often steep stone car-free streets, surrounded by a complete ring of well maintained walls. We visited the history museum in the rector's palace, the ethnographic museum in an old and cavernous granery, and the maritime museum in one of the old forts. Dubrovnik continues today as an active port with associated cargo ships, though the old harbour is now mostly marina.

Not for the first (or last) time, a group of tourists approached me and started speaking in Russian. I haven't shaved in a while, but I also haven't given directions in Russian for ages. Still, the language is related to the Slavic Balkan dialects, and my vocabulary concerning travel is the least incomplete.

After bread and ice cream we visited the beach. Lots of fish, a ruined jetty, a deep sea cave, and a gorgeous girl quotient approaching unity.

Past an active looking church to a restaurant for dinner. Spring rolls for entree, home made gnocchi with smoked salmon sauce for main (J had goat cheese ravioli Victoria (white sauce, truffle oil, shrimp and mushrooms)) and a chocolate soufflé for dessert came in at less than 15 euros, with an incredible sunset over the Adriatic as a bonus side dish.

Next day we climbed the walls which encircle the city for a series of incredible panoramic views, then had lunch at a street cafeteria in the old town; I had fish, J had mussels.

Back to the bus station, chatted with some girls from Germany and a guy from Belgium. We were off, winding on rollercoaster roads towards Bosnia and Herzegovina.

UPDATE: Photos.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Montenegro, or Crna Gora to the initiated.

Just as Albania is known as Shqiperi to Albanians, Montenegro is actually called Crna Gora, which means the same thing.

We crossed into Montenegro at about 11pm. Soon after crossing the border the bus pulled over for a third 45 minute break, thus ensuring we were 2 hours late to meet our CSer in Podgorica, as well as adequate business for the driver's cousins' pizzerias. On the upside, it was dark enough to get a great look at Jupiter and the pliades.

At about 2am we rolled into Podgorica, met our CSer A and his lovely wife, and promptly passed out. Next morning we got up, said goodbye, and wandered around the city. It has a nice river between parks and is spanned by the sort of bridge used for QC by the designers of Solidworks.

I traumatized yet another waitress by asking for a hot chocolate without milk, and got a glass of hot chocolate syrup - perfect!!

Back at the bus station we got a bus to Kotor with 5 minutes to spare, and enjoyed a spectacular ride through the mountains down to the sea through the southern-most fjord in the Northern Hemisphere. Kotor is built at the head of the fjord between bare rock walls scaled by quasi ruined fortifications reaching to the skies.

At the Kotor bus station I availed myself of the facilities. Like most such places in South Eastern Europe it was a pay-by-use affair. Unlike parallel examples in Turkey or Greece, which are in general spotless, the money paid here appeared to go toward neither maintenance nor cleaning. It's not every day one gets to sit in a stall with the object of one's high fiber diet smeared on every wall, so I appreciated the (hopefully) unique character of the place.

That aside, Kotor was well worth a walk around on the walls and poking around the marina and old town. Soon enough we had to take a bus onwards to Herceg Novi, a town in a similar style whose name means, literally, New Castle. =P

The road wound around the shore of a series of bays dotted with wooded and churched islands, yachts, and filled with shiny blue Mediterranean water.

At Herceg Novi we found a cheap place to stay (with bonus two year old), then headed for the beach. A rather large town of some tens of thousands, a corniche was formed of the former railway corridor. Most of the shore was concrete platforms rather than stone beaches in the communist fashion.

We found a place bathed in afternoon light, and jumped in. The water was nowhere near as clear as the Greek Islands, and somewhat shallower. A few dives cleared up some worrying sinuses, and then we had to climb back onto the platform with a minimum of cuts and scrapes.

We dined at a local place and had the usual healthfood option of fried meat and potatoes. We walked back via Internet and a good view over the old and new cities.

Next morning we woke early, headed to the bus station and got a ticket to Dubrovnik in Croatia. The bus was filled with Russians, and I had a ham sandwich for breakfast.

UPDATE: Photos.

Kosovo, Europe's youngest country

Cruising past a set of enormous and empty factories marked yet another relatively uneventful border crossing, this time into Kosovo. Kosovo is Europe's youngest country; internationally recognized in 2008.

Exceptionally regular readers will recall that I was, in fact, in Belgrade for most of Tuesday January 7th 2008, which is, coincidentally, Serbian Orthodox Christmas. On that day I noticed a lot of graffiti which said variations of 'Kosovo is Serbian forever'. I also ate lunch at a McDonalds restaurant in the center of town.

Kosovo is a region which is seen by Serbs as the cradle of Serbian culture, and is the site of monasteries, monuments, and graves. About a hundred years ago, Albanian migration rendered Serbs a minority in the region. During wars in the 1990s (featured in the movie "Behind Enemy Lines") Serbia attacked Albanians in the region (and vice versa), until Clinton authorized a NATO strike on Belgrade, forestalling an attempted genocide.

About four weeks after my visit to Belgrade, Kosovo seceded from Serbia, and the McDonalds was torched by an angry crowd.

Today, the political situation has stabilized to the point that travelers might only encounter entrance stamp shenanigans with certain border crossings.

Against this backdrop we drove on a reasonably smooth road to the capital, Prishtina. Upon arrival, bus schedules out forced us to choose; half an hour or 24 hours in the city?

We set off up Bill Clinton boulevard towards the city center. About half way there we saw his statue as well as a three story high picture of him. We walked up the rather nice center plaza and found a guesthouse in which to stay. That evening we availed ourselves of superior purchasing power through fine dining, and J continued his sojourn through the world of Balkans beer.

Next morning we ventured to the Route 66 Diner opposite the UNMIK headquarters in the New Born part of town. I ate a half-pound 'fatburger' in another (unsuccessful) attempt to stop getting skinnier as we watched an endless procession of UN 4WDs cruising past.

We spent the rest of the day wandering through various neighborhoods. Highlights include the university campus with an architecturally interesting library and a barbwired shell of a church, and a series of nice mosques and monuments in the northern end of town, between which hung photos of the more than 3000 people still missing since the war in 1999.

On our way out of town we saw a big concrete church adorned with banners of Agnes Bojaxhiu, also known as Mother Theresa. She was a Christian Albanian born in what is now Macedonia, but that didn't stop the international airport in (mostly Muslim) Tirana being named after her!

We made it to the bus station with minutes to spare, availed ourselves of a strong contender for 'world's worst bathroom', and took our seats.

We managed to find the bus equivalent of an 'exit row' with stupendous amounts of legroom. This extra space allowed room for swarms of mosquitos to descend in perfect formation through the stagnant, stifling atmosphere, while our remaining senses were assaulted by a loop tape of terrible, terrible local music videos.

As the bus ground up a picturesque mountain range towards the Montenegrin border, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset. An interesting day.

UDPATE: Photos.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Macedonia and the end of my 24th birthday

We crossed the border into Macedonia with the four backpackers, who quickly flagged down a passing car and hitched a ride to Ohrid. We turned left off the main road at the first opportunity and descended back towards the lake. We walked past a church, a barn, a combine harvester (!), and down a road to St Naum's monastery, built at the site of the afore-mentioned springs that bubble up in the region, forming a short but rapidly flowing river that feeds the lake. We met a few travelers on the shore; 2 girls from East Germany, an artist from Kosovo, and a couple from Poland with whom we exchanged our Albanian money, chatted, skimmed rocks (record: 17), and watched the sun set over the lake. J bought me a burger for a birthday dinner and we ate in the company of two girls from Vienna. Though one was a med student, both were chain smokers!

We took the last bus to Ohrid, and considered spending the night at that lakeside town. At the bus station, however, we made a 10 minute connection to an express to Skopje, and with minimal drama found ourselves in the large, well organized concrete bus/train terminal of the Macedonian capital a quarter of an hour before midnight.

We walked across town and, guided by the world's worst map, found the 'Hostel Hostel', in which we availed ourself of free tea, checked email, and I spent a while parrying birthday wishes on Facebook.

Next morning we tip toed from the dorm, showered, ate some pie for breakfast, then wandered into the city. In the main square is an enormous poster of Alexander the Great, and we crossed the stone bridge towards a series of enormous building sites. In the adjacent old town we saw some beautiful mosques, the kale fortress, and the old market, complete with drinking water fountains, baths, a caravanserai, a locked section for valuables called the bezestan, and many other wonders.

We found an eatery under a tree and feasted on the traditional dish of tavche gravche, which consists of beans cooked with spices in a terra-cotta pot, all wrapped in a great name.

Sated but not yet supinated we returned to the bus station, spent our last denars, and spent most of the next leg to Prishtina (Europe's youngest capital city) chatting with L, a veteran couch surfer from San Francisco, and the only other person we've met who has taken a similarly minimalist approach to packing.

Photos by October... I promise!

UPDATE: Photos.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Albania and the best birthday ever!!

After a reasonably ruthless 10 days in Greece, J and I were ready to kick back and relax a bit.

Fortunately our insane schedule prevented such slacking off, and before long we were waiting at the Greece side of the border while Albanians, evidently much keener than us to return home after shopping trips, continually cut the line. We walked 200m of no man's land, crossed the Albanian border without incident, and were immediately accosted by half a dozen minivan (fulgon) drivers, who had about 10 teeth between them. Thus we made it to Gjirokaster, a UNESCO listed town in the south of Albania, of which we saw very little.

Soon we found a connecting fulgon to Berat and left in a cloud of dust, garbage, and quivering steel reinforcing. Thus it was that we got our first view of Albania through a moving window. We had been warned to avoid the fulgons in favour of buses, as the vans are operated by Albania's allegedly-organized criminal networks...

While the drivers evidently knew each bump of the road personally, we were surprised to see carwashes (lavazho) every 10 meters or so along the road. Additional mirth was derived from the Albanian word for "for sale" (shitet) which appeared frequently on road side cars, trucks, buildings, and so on.

About half way the fulgon ground to a stop for a break. On the side of the road metal pipes emerged from the rock face, gushing with water that everyone enthusiastically gulped. Spring or cistern? I have no idea.

Soon we continued on. I should add that there was no real concept of 'sides of the road', particularly exciting while passing trucks and buses on winding mountain roads.

But we were too busy looking out. People rode cows and donkeys along the road which, to be fair, was partially rebuilt, and partially non-existent. Donkey drawn carts also shared the road, laden with hay, vegetables, strings of onions sold on the roadside, and family members. Fields were harvested with scythes and dotted with haystacks.

About halfway to Berat the haystacks were replaced with antiquated oil wells, and the air with something to which, I imagine, the fish in the Gulf of Mexico have become accustomed.

Also dotting the country side are hundreds of thousands of randomly placed mushroom-like prefabricated concrete gun emplacements. Their construction consumed the national budget during the communist years.

Perhaps the strangest thing I saw was the proliferation of scare crows, one of which was hung from the roof of a petrol station!

After only a few instances of our fare being 'bought' by another fulgon going in the relevant direction, we arrived in another UNESCO listed town called Berat. Preserved for its unique blend of Albanian, Ottoman and Greek architecture, it had many, many windows. The Muslim quarter was decorated with a selection of mosques, all connected by narrow cobbled streets and a few bridges crossing the river to the Christian quarter.

J and I bumped into a couple of Czech backpackers who recommended us a very nice guest house. J negotiated the deal in broken Italian, then we set off for a walk through the town. Gradually my usual travel feelings of paranoia seeped away. I am by no means rich, but it's surprising how little is needed to remind me just how wealthy I am. Even if, hypothetically, I was totally broke, my health and education are still priceless (though non-tradeable) commodities in some even European countries.

We found a net cafe which had wireless eeePCs for 5c/hour. I left J after finishing my Internet and went for a walk up the hill, discovering the third quarter; a well preserved medieval town within the hill-top fortress. At the citadel I had a great view of the town and spent about 30 minutes clambering over the ruined battlements in the dark. Fortunately there were not too many hidden precipitous drops!

Back at the town I chatted with the Czech couple over Albanian wine and olives, wrote my journal to the strains of the first organ symphony of Vierne, and went to sleep. But not before the clock struck midnight and I turned 24.

While lacking much of the transition and indulgent adventuring of my 22nd year, 23 was highly successful in its own way, marking the commencement of grad school in a new country and the writing of a new chapter in my life. Regular readers may agree that 23 was not entirely devoid of adventure either!

Next morning we woke to a complimentary breakfast from our wonderful host (details on request) and wandered to the bus station to find a lift to Elbasan. We worked out that the 9:30 bus had been delayed until 11 due to low patronage. Fortunately we ate a rapid breakfast, as the bus left at 10:45. After a slow, hot, dusty and extremely authentic journey we arrived in Elbasan and found a connecting fulgon to Pogradec. We fare-swapped at a roadside spring, then climbed a crazy road over a pass to see Ohrid lake below us. Not only is it at 750m above sea level, it is fed by spring waters that flow under a mountain from an adjacent lake in Macedonia. The surface was smooth, shiny, and blended with the horizon in a very Baikal way. We walked along the shore from Pogradec towards the Macedonian border about 5kms away. We were picked up by a couple of unlicensed French-Albanians in Pogradec on holidays who drove us a bit closer and, after dropping us off, backed into a signpost!

At the border we met four Aussie/Kiwi backpackers on their way from everywhere to everywhere. Before long we had left Albania behind. Although I was not entirely immune to its many charms, crossing that border was one of the best birthday presents I have ever received!

UPDATE: Photos.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


The ferry ploughed the Aegean towards Greece. Soon we were standing in a new country. J and I walked north from the town past a series of ruined windmills to a rock beach. J went for a swim with some local teenagers, I snoozed! A bus back into town and we met some fellow travelers for dinner. T and A were interns in Turkey from Germany and Serbia respectively. Soon, it was time to board the ferry. We met two more travelers trying to hitchhike back to Poland without money! J and I slept on the roof for a better view of stars and freezing wind.

Next morning we docked in the charmless Athenian outpost of Piraeus. We made our way into the city and rushed up the Acropolis before the hordes consolidated. Later that day we could barely see the mountain at all for the surfactant tourist coating! We also saw the new Parthenon museum, had a nice lunch, and disturbed a phalanx of waiters by charging and using my phone for Internet in the cafeteria.

That evening we saw students occupying a university building in the city, and the parliament guards doing funny stuff. We took a sleepy tram to the water front and met E, our CSer. After dropping our stuff we made up for not eating much since Chios by eating 3 amazing souvlakis each, followed by a walk along the beach in the sunset.

Next day we woke early and took public transport for about 5 hours to get to Delphi. Highlights of the trip included a 10 minute run to catch a bus! The trip out also showed us many new wind generators installed all over Greece. From modern Delphi, we had an incredible view over a valley of olive trees to the water, many miles away. The Delphi museum is filled with treasures from the site, mainly gifts from kings as distant as Pergamum seeking priority in receiving an oracle. The site is large and full of rocks. Occupying a shelf half way up the mountain, the main sanctuary is thought to be built at the intersection of two fault lines, which in ancient times permitted the evolution of a unique spring where chemical reactions liberated ethylene. The priestesses became intoxicated and mumbled; a nearby priest wrote some fairly non-committal prediction. Springs still exist in the region, but drinking from them produced no unusual effects.

Waiting for the bus we met three interesting people. A Greek man and his Mexican pen-friend/Spanish interlocutor/wife, and her friend. J had a good chat in Spanish!

Back in Athens we ate Kalamaki for dinner, packed, and prepared to leave.

Next day we were aiming for the Kifisou bus station, but got lost. In the process we found a Russian supermarket and bought some biscuits for breakfast. I chatted to the girl working there in my basic Russian, but evidently said the right thing because we were gifted with two ice creams!

Dodging aggro beggars at the bus station we headed for the Isthmus, and were rewarded with a view of the Corinth Canal cutting the land in half.

We visited Ancient Corinth, which was pretty cool, and saw the pottery in their museum, which was extraordinary. We took a bus to Nafplio and spent the night watching castles, street performers, distant lightning, and yachts.

Next day was a long haul to Pyrgos on the opposite side of the Peloponnese. We met our CSer G, walked around the town, then got our Greek on by spending the entire evening in a coffee shop by the square talking with people. G told us crazy CSing stories about sleeping overnight in a room full of magic mushrooms under lights, and fare evasion by speaking in imaginary languages. He also told us about an expected hitchhiker from England who was spending a month in Greece, but already took 2 weeks to get from Thessaloniki to Athens! Apparently he came back to his Athens CSer, took off only one shoe then passed out for 18 hours from sheer exhaustion. He woke at 8pm the next day and said "I'd better go while it is still morning." =P

Next day we took the train to Olympia, a large and well preserved site. The museum in particular had some extraordinary remnants. J and I raced twice the length of the stadium, then indulged in some wrestling to even the score. There were nearly as many tourists as at the acropolis of Athens! In the evening we took a bus, ferry, and hitchhike to Sami, on the island of Kefalonia.

Kefalonia has had a number of large earthquakes in the last century, leveling nearly everything. Geographically, however, it is green and mountainous, ringed in crystal clear beaches, riddled with caves and mystery. That evening we walked to Antisamos beach, and swum in the evening light. I had brought goggles, and could see the bottom to a depth of 20m or so. Looking at it past my feet induced mild vertigo. Soon we were surrounded by fish of all different kinds. That evening we chilled by the docks and sipped our drinks.

Next day J headed for the beach, and I took a cab across the island to the low-lying Paliki peninsula. On the way I was rewarded with dozens of incredible views, including a mirror smooth Lefkadi gulf and lots of folded limestone. At Atheras Beach I went for a swim, enjoying a sandy beach. On the eastern side of the bay a spring coated the warm sea water in a layer of cold about 10cm thick, with an amazing filigree mixing zone in the sun. I walked up to Atheras, a strong candidate for the true location of the Homeric Ithaca, and met a girl in a shop who seemed to have walked straight from the pages of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which is set on the island. All too soon it was time to bid Pelagia farewell and return to Sami. A walk along the beach was punctuated by the first storm of the season, and followed by a trip to the Melissani Cave, a flooded sinkhole cave with crystal clear brackish water flowing under the island. With rain falling through the roof hole it was pretty amazing. On the way back I met some Australians on a cruising regatta in ~50' yachts around the Adriatic sea. I turned a shade of green! That evening we compared notes, ate, drank, and prepared to leave.

Next day we took a ferry to Patras, about which it can be said that it has an amazing bridge. Otherwise, we found it cramped, busy, noisy and smelly. After a 2 hour wait, a bus left for Ioannina. The bus wound between ever-present wind turbines and mountains, while the radio proceeded to Rickroll us. We met our CSer Y (organized by J), walked through the Turkish fortress and around the lake before retiring for a pasta dinner (thus breaking the run of souvlaki) and watched a few episodes of 'Shameless', a rather questionable though hilarious TV show. Y had a frighteningly large computer monitor/TV, which was a stunning contrast to my broken iPhone screen on which I have been depending! J commented that only four days before we'd been at the beach in Nafplio!

Next day J and I left early to catch the bus to Kalambaka, chatting to two French backpackers we found on the way. At the town we were immediately confronted by enormous spires of rock that make the Meteora region famous. Between them we got a terrific echo effect, and watched a few brave slack-liners tackle the voids. J and I set off and in 4 hours managed to walk to all six publicly accessible monasteries, though we entered only St Barbara's. While small, it is an architectural gem, with many handmade fittings, access by rope basket, terrific iconography, and terrifyingly awesome views. J thought it would be a terrific place to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Back in Ioannina, Y took us up the mountain for a view of the lake, island, and sunset. We ate traditional food and drank traditional spirits as the sun set, and later heard some traditional (and rather strange) music.

Next morning we woke early then took off with Y towards the mountains; a series of stone-built villages strung out along the edge of an enormous canyon with the dawn breaking over the top. At the bottom, turquoise water spanned by ancient arched bridges. At the top, tiny houses and churches, interspersed with places selling coffee. Each house had a wooden door within a slate roofed gate, colourful windows, and a vegetable garden. Later we visited a monastery perching on the edge of a gorge about 1km wide and deep. Much deeper and narrower than the grand canyon, with echoes to match and impossible trees beginning to turn orange with autumn.

All too soon it was time to return, collect our bags, and buy a bus ticket to the Greek-Albanian border. As the bus wound through the mountains I demolished an enormous slice of chicken pie and prepared to leave Greece behind, for who knows how long?

UPDATE! Photos.