Oktoberfest!

Many years ago, I was in the South of France in early October and I had the good idea of traveling to Munich for Oktoberfest. Sadly, the Germans were not as rational as I had assumed: and Oktoberfest is in September.

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This time I knew better and planned to travel to Munich just in time for the festival’s opening, and to meet my friend Katja, who lives there. You might remember seeing her in Malawi, in the role of Angelina Jolie. I am obviously posting this with weeks of delay, but as they say, better late than never.

On opening day, the brewers who own the various tents of Oktoberfest parade down the streets with barrels on horse-drawn carriages. The weather was fine, but it started pouring hard just before the parade and the weather cleared-up right after. I took almost no pictures.

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Luckily, the next day there was an even bigger parade, the Costume and Riflemen’s Parade, where more than 7,000 people march over 7 km dressed in costumes representing the history and traditions of Bavaria and neighbouring areas and countries.

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It is a massive affair with dozens of bands.

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People on horses.

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People in carriages. Continue reading

Innsbruck: Palaces, winter sports and beer vending machines.

After Venice, I needed a place to spend a day before reaching Munich in time for Oktoberfest. Innsbruck was on the way, and although I knew nothing about it other than the fact people ski there, I just went.

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Located in the Inn Valley, the capital of Tyrol has a population of about 125,000 people and is surrounded by the Karwendel Alps on both sides, which gives it rather spectacular urban landscapes.

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For example, the evening view from my hotel room.

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To me there is nothing special about this architecture, but does nature ever add to the picture.

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If you want to explore the mountains, you can save yourself from a big climb and take this funicular railway, the Hungerburgbahn, which takes you up almost 300 m in about 8 minutes, straight from the centre of town. It arrives in the district of Hungerburg, from where countless hiking trails head off in all directions. Alternatively, you can then take a series of cable cars all the way to Hafelekar, at 2256 m. But I was only there for an overnight transit, so I only had the time to walk around a little. Continue reading

In Venice there are no streets. We all know it, but it’s still pretty cool to see.

Needless to say, Venice is a very unique city; all islands and canals. I had been as a kid, but I decided to go again. I was very happy I made the decision and I couldn’t help being amazed when standing on the Constitution Bridge.

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On one side, busy roads and a bus station, with a giant multi-story parking building next to it. A hub of ground transportation.

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Turn around, and all manners of ground transportation disappear. No buses, no cars, no bicycles, nothing. Quite striking. At this point, those very familiar with the area will realize I am lying, because the building on the left is a train station. But right after the train station everything I wrote becomes true, so you get the idea.

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There are a lot of tourists in Venice. I read very different numbers, ranging from 15 to 29 million a year. With a population of under 60,000, this means that on most days – and certainly in high season – tourists outnumber residents. In this area, they probably outnumber them 25 to 1.

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And this brings all the disadvantages of mass tourism, from bad, overpriced restaurants to petty crime. But what worried me the most was that I would only find a dead city, like Kotor or Dubrovnik, which I visited recently. Places where cruise ship tourism has completely displaced normal life and transformed the old towns into amusement park attractions. This is something many Venice residents fear and the process is certainly under way. But, much to my satisfaction, I found there is still Venice in Venice.

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While the resident population has declined over the decades, you still see the lively mix of tourists and residents, with the deck of the vaporetto filled with standing tourists excited by the idea of cruising on the canal, and the interior seating filled with bored people using public transportation to get home after work. Continue reading

Ljubljana: the European capital with the hardest name to spell, and the Slovenian coast.

What I am about to write here should have been my first story about Slovenia, but I had little time to write and I was really looking forward to sharing my photos from lovely Bled.
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As I mentioned a few days ago on my blog’s Facebook page, Slovenia was the 44th sovereign European country I visited, hence I have visited them all! The feat warranted this lame picture. I apologized to the guide, Tina, who lent me the flag, saying I wasn’t trying to avoid the country, it was simply a coincidence. One had to be last.
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Of course, like everywhere in the last weeks, it rained constantly. The city was quite dead, but I am sure the centre is very pleasant and busy in good weather, because it was made 100% car-free a few years ago. I didn’t know much about the place, and honestly, I still don’t. Walking tours of a city in the rain are not as conducive to learning. With an umbrella in one hand it is not the easiest thing to operate a DSLR camera or to take notes (except typing on the phone, but I hate to do it because it looks like I am not paying attention and texting someone instead). Of course, I did read a bit about Slovenia, so here’s a bit of its recent history, and incidentally, an explanation for why you probably have heard less about it than the other former parts of Yugoslavia.

[INSERT HISTORY LESSON]

In 1990 Slovenia held a referendum and 93% voted for independence. In short, it was the richest part of the country, had a border with Italy and Austria, was very western-looking and viewed the Government in Belgrade as authoritarian and communist-oriented. So why not? But the Slovenian Government didn’t expect Belgrade to accept this. So how was tiny Slovenia, with a population of under 2 million, going to resist the might of the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA)? It turned out to be the combination of a well crafted plan on the Slovenian side and a catastrophic miscalculation on the Yugoslav side. Continue reading

Rain, swans and waterfalls in picturesque Bled, Slovenia.

Bled is a charming little town in Slovenia’s Julian Alps, and popular vacation spot.

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I also found it to be one of the most picturesque places I have been too in a while. In the foreground, a small uninhabited island with a church. Bled in the background.

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I have been regretting hauling my telephoto lens around Europe. In cities, I find that I never use it, but here it came in handy.

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Of course, as has been the case for me most of september, it rained constantly, but I found the cloudy sky and the lake gave me a few good pictures. Continue reading

A short return to Croatia: popular Split and pleasant Zagreb.

Split is a major touristic destination in Croatia and the easiest transit spot for many idilic islands along the coast. Having escaped this super touristy Adriatic Coast summer feeling when I left Dubrovnic for Bosnia, it hit me like a ton of bricks when I came back. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place and that’s why tons of people go there. I just realized I wasn’t in the mood for it. But, unlike the time I decided I had had enough of Sri Lanka while having lunch in the middle of the country, and had breakfast the next day in Bangkok, this time I did stay the day in Split, plus another day in Zagreb on my way to Slovenia. Here’s a short post about what I saw there.

The main cultural attraction in Split is the former palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The man was born a nobody and through an immensely successful military career, ended up ruling the Empire for over twenty years. He is widely considered to have brought military security and administrative stability to an Empire on the brink of collapse. Not perfect, he also persecuted Christians like nobody before him and introduced a system of price control to bring down inflation, something which is obviously idiotic and never works. But I won’t be too critical, since unlike Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe, Diocletian had the excuse of having had the idea in the year 301. He was also unique in that he was the first Roman Emperor to make the decision to retire, at the age of 61.

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The Diocletian Palace was built as his retirement home. This central plaza is known as the peristyle.

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Everyday around noon, the former Emperor would appear at this balcony and wave to the crowds, who would salute him in return.

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Behind him, this large room with no ceiling. It had been designed so that the mid-day sun would come through and reflect violently on the white marble floor. As the balcony’s doors would be opened, this would blind the people and Diocletian would appear, walking out of light, God-like.

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This structure was build as his mausoleum, but at the time of his death, the new Emperor, Constantine the Great, was a Christian (the first one). Constantine forbade the use of Christians as feline nutritional supplements, and eventually the treatment of Christians went from persecution to favouritism. So eventually, this bell tower was built, the mausoleum was converted into a church and Diocletian’s body was replaced with that of some important Christian leader he had ordered executed. The Romans eventually abandoned the Palace, but after a few centuries people moved in again to take advantage of the security the walls offered. At some point, thousands lived within the walls.

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Today, most of the residences are nicely renovated hotels and guesthouses. Probably pretty quiet in january. Continue reading