From Spain, France, Canada and America… I’m back!

First, a thousand apologies; I have been meaning to write this for a couple of months now. However, as much as I enjoyed writing about my travels, it seems I’m not that motivated when it comes to writing about my non-travels. So I just kept putting it off to tomorrow, to next week, to next month, even though some people contacted me to ask if I had died at Oktoberfest or somehow earned myself an all-inclusive extended stay in a Bavarian jail.

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After all, how exciting is this picture of me stocking up at Costco? (European and Asian friends, think of the Hypermarket version of Carrefour)

So, what is the situation? I was in fact on break for an undetermined duration, and in some ways, I still am. I never wrote about financial matters, but the truth is that I built a small business on the side while I was living the office dream. It mostly sustains me even if I don’t work, but forces a modest lifestyle which limits my ability to visit places like Antarctica (I would add Space, but I’ll wait until Virgin Galactic sort out their technical difficulties). So my plan is to start another business, one which I eventually hope be able to detach myself from and travel, probably not full-time, but more or less at will.

So I did spend a lot of time in Ottawa developing my business concept, but when I say I stopped travelling after Oktoberfest, that is not quite accurate. In fact, I went to a few places I never wrote about. Try and guess which exotic destination I visited recently.

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Leaves have fallen off the trees. Lots of cars but no pedestrians in sight. Very little signage in English. Of course, there is only one possible answer, I was in suburban Toronto. More specifically, driving along Yonge Street, widely but  mistakenly known as “the longest street in the world”, extending nearly 1,900 km from downtown Toronto all the way to the Michigan border. In fact, while you can drive the whole length of that, at some point it becomes Highway 11 and to keep calling it “Yonge Street” makes no sense at all. But it still extends a good 56 km into vast expanses of row houses and McMansions, where not long ago vegetables grew around small towns and villages.

With a population of 5.6 million, the Greater Toronto Area is one of the largest urban centres in North America. It is also one – if not the – most diverse, with over half of the residents born outside Canada. While French is one of the two official languages of Canada, in Toronto it is the mother tongue of only 1.1% of the population, the same as Gujarati, but behind – in order – English, Cantonese, Italian, Chinese (not specified), Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, Tamil, Portuguese, Mandarin, Persian, Russian, Polish and Arabic (with Korean, Vietnamese and Greek probably catching-up to French soon). Since many ethnic groups concentrate in certain areas, don’t be surprised if you look at suburban storefronts and have no idea what kind of businesses they are (unless you read the neighbourhood’s dominant language, of course).

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Also in Toronto, I learned the usefulness of pay phones: you can lean on them when making a call.

But before heading to Toronto, I left Munich for Barcelona, to attend La Mercè Festival.

By Castellers de Barcelona [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

By Castellers de Barcelona [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

I wanted to witness this kind of crazy stuff.

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But unfortunately, I was there early in the week and the events I wanted to attend were taking place on the week-end, so all I got was the crazy crowds. It strangely reminded me of the Beijing subway. That is one of the biggest problems I experienced with full-time travel; it is so damned difficult to get the schedule right all the time. Nevertheless, I hoped I could take advantage of the fact that most people were here for the festival and visit one of the most unusual and spectacular churches in the world, the Sagrada Família. When I first visited Barcelona, the line to buy tickets went around 3 city blocks. Continue reading

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